“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 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 4:10-13 ESV)
Imagine yourself as a citizen of a developing country, well acquainted with the intensity of subsistence living, visiting the United States for the first time. What would impress itself upon you most? The liberty? Spaciousness? Opulence?
A pastor from India recently related to me his assessment of American Christians. On the one hand, he lovingly chided us for our relative indifference to the lost and to persecuted, impoverished brothers abroad. Conversely, he noted that, were his kinsmen equally wealthy and safe, they too might be overcome by such apathy. “But some of you are still faithful,” he noted, describing how blessed it is indeed when those with much still remain true to the Lord.
Paul follows a similar train of thought in the concluding movements of Philippians. Returning to the theme of their support for his ministry (1:5), he lauds the church for its missional spirit, saying he “rejoiced in the Lord greatly” because of their concern for his estate (v. 10). Though they had previously lacked an opportunity to minister to his needs, their interest in him, Paul says, had “revived”—a verbal image evoking the new growth on a dormant tree after the deadness of winter. In the realm of generosity, good intentions are insufficient if unaccompanied by action (2 Corinthians 8:10-12). Yet rather than rebuke them for any previous failure, Paul celebrates their present progress.
The apostle then clarifies: he rejoices in the Lord (note his in Christ refrain) not because he is to receive a gift but because of the spiritual reward that the Philippians will consequently reap for their generosity (4:17)—for, as the Lord Jesus had taught, it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).
It is in the midst of this discussion that we catch a glimpse of Paul’s “secret” (v. 12) enabling him to endure all conditions, whether he prospers or suffers lack. Paul’s contentment hearkens back to the prayer of Agur: “give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:8-9). Calvin rightly observed: “Prosperity is wont to puff up the mind beyond measure, and adversity, on the other hand, to depress.” Paul steers clear of both opposing pitfalls.
What is this secret of contentment? Though he doesn’t answer directly, Paul leaves a clue: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13)—or, more literally, “[For] all things I have strength in [the one] strengthening me.” In context, “doing all things” primarily means enduring all circumstances, although Scripture elsewhere bears witness to a general equipping for every good undertaking (Psalm 18:29, 2 Thessalonians 1:11). Paul’s secret has to do with his deep satisfaction with all that Christ is for him. Already we saw that Christ was his very life (1:20-21). And in the previous passage, he promised peace to believers who would but render prayer with gratitude (4:6-7). In contradistinction to the self-sufficiency advocated by the Stoics, Paul contends: the one who can endure the trials and temptations of plenty and poverty is not the self-assured sage but the one for whom Jesus is enough.
To the embattled believer, finding joy in Jesus may seem a distant abstraction. After all, we may reason, my circumstances remain the same. Yet let us consider what it would actually mean to be without Christ—having no hope of eternal life, no hope of bodily resurrection, and no hope of deliverance from the wrath of God. Praise God that this is not our lot, but in Christ, we have every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3).
Whether we, like my Indian friend, suffer marginalization and need, or whether we are called to glorify God by productively stewarding our physical abundance, we are called to mimic both the ready generosity of the Philippians and the Christian contentment of Paul. The strength for mission starts with such satisfaction in the Lord. Only in Christ can we say with Solomon: “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other” (Ecclesiastes 7:14).
I recognize your sovereignty over all the affairs of life. From your hand come both health and hardship. Help me to take action to help those in need and support the advance of the gospel. Most of all, satisfy me in your love so that I would remain faithful to you amid abundance and lack. Do this through the grace of the Lord Jesus, who is always enough.
In his name and for his sake,
- Pray for front-line gospel workers to gain supporters. Pray that among potential supporters there would not only be willingness but follow-through.
- Pray for the North American church to be faithful, even in a state of material affluence.
- Pray for those who are persecuted and impoverished in the global church. Ask the Lord to empower them with deep contentment, and intercede such that their missionary labors would be fruitful.