Philippians 4: 10 – 14
During his incarceration possibly in a Roman prison, Paul wrote to the Philippian Church. After he spoke directly into their present circumstances in the main part of his letter, he turned his attention to more personal matters. Although he briefly mentioned the Philippians’ financial support of his ministry earlier (1:5; 2:25), he now discusses the issue at length. Paul’s specific emphasis was that his joy in the Lord lies not with their gift per se, despite the latter being a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God (v.18), but the greater reality of what it represented, as tangible evidence of their renewed expression of care over him and participation in the gospel (v.10). To Paul, people are more significant than the gifts they bare.
Coming off from his encouragement to the believers to be like him in not being anxious about anything, but to leave difficult situations in God’s care and experience His peace (v.6-9), Paul now confessed to the Philippians what it truly means to know contentment under any circumstances (v. 11-13). Putting things in perspective, he juxtaposed his hardships against the good life, listing a few generalities as he was no stranger to these settings (cf. 1 Cor 4:11-13; 2 Cor 6:4-5, 11:23-29), and claiming that he had been thoroughly initiated into the secret of accepting whatever came his way – knowing that his life is not conditioned by either, and that his relationship to Christ made one or the other irrelevant. He used the word “secret,” taken from pagan initiatory rites, which the Philippians would understand, to describe the difficult process of initiation – a picture of the hard experiences in life. Paul was extremely circumspect about handling money contributed by the churches, and especially when they were for himself or his ministry. He informed them that he was doing just fine, qualifying his gratefulness, with or without their contribution, before thanking them later (v.14, 18).
To sum up, Paul responded that he can do everything through Him who gives him strength (v.13); pointing inevitably to the fact that it is not his own self-sufficiency that brought on contentment, but a Christ-sufficiency; thereby reinforcing his earlier expression “for to me to live, is Christ” (1:21). This exceptionally popular verse has been interpreted as “I can do extraordinary things through Christ who strengthens me,” with its triumphalist application extending to sporting and examination goals and handling difficult decisions and people. Its invocation assumes that we can accomplish any task because Christ will strengthen us, no doubt derives great comfort and assurance for us, but that was not Paul’s intent. His un-stoic other-centered contentment, whether in want or plenty, is his reliance on his Lord, and taking whatever Christ gives him – a fitting attitude to discipleship.
It is clear that Philippians 4:13 does not promise that God will empower us in overcoming challenging tasks before us successfully. Like Paul, our journey of faith will bring us through thick and thin, trials and rewards, positive and negative encounter, but in and through it all, God has promised never to leave or forsake us (Heb 13:5-6). The key lies in our perception of what God is doing in our circumstances, however trying they may be, and finding our stability or contentment in Him despite the outcome. Notwithstanding Paul’s realization of his own impending martyrdom, he was content to serve his Lord to the end – unquestioningly, a dying to the self! It is critical to understand that the power of contentment comes from being in the will of God. That is the paradox of a life lived in faith (2 Cor 12:10).