Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Philippians 4:11-13 (ESV)
For a while I have been thinking about this passage and the context of the oft quoted verse “I can do all things through him [God] who strengthens me.” A few months ago, I began to wrestle with Paul’s so-called “secret” to contentment. I wrestled with it because there was a disconnect on two fronts in my mind: 1) how the “I can do all things!” passage is normally used and 2) how the topic of contentment is normally addressed.
When I thought about the way I have heard and I myself have thought about verse 13, I think about athletes or other Christians referring to it in terms of God helping them excel in their work or about people in ministry accomplishing hard things for God. The context for Paul saying that he can do all things through Christ though isn’t about self-empowerment (or even God-empowerment) when trying to achieve your dreams or even to do great work for God- at least not in the way we think of it. Of course it is true that God is able to do impossible things through people (because he is God!) and is able to bring himself glory by accomplishing spectacular things through feeble people, but that isn’t the context here. Paul isn’t directly talking about feeling discouraged about ministry. he’s talking about contentment.
In the passage, Paul addresses the Philippians about their giving toward his ministry and in it shares to them how he has learned to be content. He refers to the having learned to be content in every situation and the “secret” of facing life whether he has little or much. He isn’t saying that God’s strength will help him change the situation (i.e. he will no longer be in need), but rather that he has learned to be content while being in need- and that secret is that he can do all things through Christ.
Is it just me or does the secret that Paul gives for contentment seem less than relevant or at the least not intuitive? If someone came and talked to me about being discontent in their financial situation or any other situation (singleness, marriage, church, etc.) and I wanted to encourage them to be content, I wouldn’t immediately think of this verse. I would think about encouraging them to be grateful and thankful for what they have or warn them against complaining or tell them to trust that God is good and sovereign. The Bible talks about these things in other parts of Scripture and it is so important to have a handle on these truths, so it’s not that I think these things wouldn’t be helpful towards contentment. It’s just that I wouldn’t think to say to this person, “you can do all things through Christ- so even if your circumstances don’t change, you can be content.”
Two things that I have been meditating on as if late in terms of the connection between contentment and doing all things through Christ: The first is that by his power and with the strength that he gives, I am able to be content. His supernatural power is what enables us to be content even when we are in need. Contentment is not a natural state of our sinful hearts- comparison, covetousness, greed, jealousy are. But in the new heart, born of God, contentment is possible through the power of God.
The second thing I have been seeing, and what has been helpful for me lately, is recognizing one of my common responses in circumstances when I feel I am in need. (This isn’t exactly the same as Paul though, who talking about facing real physical needs- like for food!) Still, in my own smaller sets of trials, I find in my thoughts and even in my prayers that I start saying “God, I CANNOT do this.” This “God, I can’t!” isn’t the humble-recognition-of-my-need-for-God kind of prayer, it’s more like the “God, why would you put me in this situation. I cannot stand it and I am not going to make it through this- so change things to be how I feel they should be!” type prayers. Sometimes even though I know all that Scripture says about God’s purposes accomplished through trial and suffering, it’s not that I doubt God’s final goal, but whether or not I’ll make it. I have been catching myself responding this way to various frustrating and trying circumstances, but by his grace I have felt God slowly changing my heart.
In light of Philippians 4, instead of going into this mode of discontentment, I am learning to trust in God who supplies strength to endure. This passage shows that God’s people are not exempt from trials, suffering, or even being in great need. God can choose to deliver healing and bring revival and completely change everything at once- he has in Scripture and in our lives, and he is good to do so. God can also choose to allow us to- though for a short time only, since the suffering of our whole lives are light and momentary compared to the eternal weight of glory- continue on in the path of trial and suffering. There are plenty of godly people in Scripture who walked this road, and most importantly, our forerunner the Son of God did too. In these trials, God is accomplishing his eternal purposes in the world and in us. And in these trials, he has promised that in Christ, we can persevere.
I can and do still pray for God to provide and for God to change circumstances, people, etc. But when he doesn’t choose (or hasn’t yet chosen) to deliver in the way I am longing for, I am learning to trust that he will provide strength enough for each day. I am hoping to, with his strength, rest content in his promise that in all the circumstances that he allows for my sanctification and his glory, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”