We see it marketed on magazine stands, internet ads, and self-help bookshelves. We hear it in radio commercials, TV talk shows, and TED talks. Whether it’s longer life, firmer skin, lower stress, or more money, everyone wants to tell (or rather “sell”) us the secret to something. It’s tantalizing, isn’t it? To have a secret is to have exclusive information, the inside take. Having a secret sets you apart from the crowd--those pitiful souls who haven’t attained your higher plane of knowledge or experience, at least not yet. The funny thing about secrets, though, is that we’re no good at keeping them to ourselves. Once we have discovered the secret to fill-in-the-blank, we are compelled by instinctive force to blab about it to everyone we meet.
Paul, the Apostle, was no different. The pages of his epistles are filled with life-changing and irrepressible knowledge about his encounter with the risen Christ. Among other secrets, he told his followers how to have hope (Eph. 1:18), how to be holy (Eph. 4:24), and how to be free (Ga. 4:7). The secret I have been mulling over longest is his instruction in Philippians 4 on how to be content. Paul claims to “have learned the secret to being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
Contentment is not a virtue I come by naturally. Sometimes my discontent is holy, in that it leads to positive changes in myself or the world around me. Most often, though, I must battle discontent like a cancer in my soul which worms its way into my perspective, my relationships, my work, and my joy. I am authentically baffled by Paul’s claim to be content while hungry and needy. Is it even possible to have peace and joy in the middle of scarcity and instability? Maybe he was exaggerating or misremembering.
The next line, oft misquoted or taken out of context, gives us the answer. “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” The “secret,” Paul says, lies in the giving up of my energy, the active reliance on the strength of Another. In times of want, when everything in me wants to blame, or complain, or throw myself into fixing the problem, contentment calls me to act in a different way. In order to walk through these moments with the confidence and centeredness of Paul, I must be plugged into the Eternal Source, minute-by-minute receiving downloads of love while facing down my outward fears. When I know--really know—that my family and I are loved beyond measure, our most pressing need has already been met.
One more thing about contentment, which is not the main point of Paul’s teaching, but bears noting: Paul could not understand contentment without having experienced both want and provision. Light is only light when contrasted with the dark. I will never be grateful for God’s provision unless I experience want. I will never be cured of my propensity for self-reliance if I am not forced to rely on the Almighty hand. I need the ground to shake beneath my feet from time to time to remind me that my surest footing is on Christ, the Solid Rock, and not on the sinking sand of my plans and desires.
Paul concludes this passage with this most concrete promise from personal experience, “My God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” No matter the tempest, you are held secure. You have not been neglected or abandoned. And that, Paul says, is the secret to being content.
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