Reflection: Philippians 4
Although Paul was writing from his incarceration, possibly in Rome, the Philippian Epistle reflects the joy and confidence of one whose imprisonment was farthest from mind and soul. This remarkable joy amidst suffering and contentment is worth exploring, especially in our fast-paced acquisitive society, where they are rare treasures. His civil rights suspended, normal human interaction strictly regulated, mobility and ministry drastically curtailed, enemies running him and his ministry down, a future fraught with uncertainties, and perhaps even thoughts of a death sentence over his head, yet he says, “but I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God” (2:17). In this instructional Letter he mentions the notion of ‘joy’ sixteen times, an inevitable sequel of being contented.
Contentment is the result of an initial positional attitude in Paul’s experiential singularity with his Lord – a conscious intentional dependence on Him that possibly began soon after the Damascus incident. Paul described it this way, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (v.6-7). Peace, therefore, is another consequence of a thankful and appreciative heart.
Paul has a strange way of acknowledging the Philippian congregation for their generosity when they sent money and other physical provisions for him, as prisoners in those days had to provide for their own creature comforts: “Not that I was ever in need, for I have learnt how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything” (v.11-12). How can anyone be content with one’s material possessions as a prisoner? He then reveals his secret in verse 12 (the Greek word ‘initiate’ used metaphorically here as ‘secret’, implies a lengthy learning process as an inductee in Hellenistic mystery religions), “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (v.13). * Paul exemplifies to the Philippians and to his ‘fellow prisoners’ that the enjoyment of material abundance is not the basis for contentment. What is is his relationship to Christ, which enabled him to live above his personal circumstances, as his self-reliance was entirely due to the sufficiency of Another.
This journey towards contentment can be trying, as it involves a deliberate turning away from conventional wisdom that guides our security to listen to His appraisals. That was our experience when we were moved to sell our home and distribute the sale proceeds prior to missionary service – an uncharacteristic approach, as the norm would be to rent it out for a dependable monthly income. A week before leaving Singapore, we parted with our remaining savings that we kept for a rainy day (most of which were wedding gifts), to meet a colleague’s emergency hospital expenses. Again quite atypical for us to be out of pocket, as accounting oriented individuals! However, once the decisions were made, the outcome was a deep sense of peace and freedom, en route to the Philippines. Mind you, it’s still not quite as spartan as Matthew 10:9 and10, but nevertheless lessons worth learning for us at the commencement of our service!
Contentment is a daily experiential process in Christ, where freedom from the demands of this physical-cum-emotion-focused world reverberates through our material-valued schema (1 Timothy 6:6). This Epistle further reminds us of a profound paradox: our dependence on God’s power does not preclude our effort, and our labouring does not contradict the reality of His abundant grace.
*This verse has often been quoted out of context; in the Greek, the ‘everything‘ refers strictly and is limited to what the apostle said in verse 12, “whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little,…..I can handle or cope with all these things through Christ who gives me strength.”