I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Philippians 4:12-13 (NIV)
We are all suckers for a Pinterest-worthy phrase. The Bible is full of them. The stuff of inspirational bookmarks, posters, desktop backgrounds, and cheap commercial trinkets sold at your local Christian bookstore.
As I’ve journeyed through God’s Message for almost 40 years, I’ve observed that it’s quite common for that inspirational, scriptural quote to be taken completely out of context. Text that is actually profound, mysterious, and/or challenging with eternal, Level Four spiritual meaning is screen printed, replicated and dragged down to self-centric, ego-pleasing, Level One interpretations. I’m not pointing fingers, by the way. I’m as guilty as anyone.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
I’m sure there are many young followers of Jesus who are receiving graduation gifts from well-meaning grandparents with that phrase printed on a greeting card, key-chain, or bookmark. On the surface, it seems to flow right along with all the pomp and circumstance of your boiler-plate commencement address:
“Chase after your dreams.”
“You can be anything you want to be.”
“Make your mark on this world.”
“The world is yours for the taking.”
“All your dreams can come true if you work hard enough.”
I noticed as I read the chapter this morning that preceding Paul’s inspirational statement is a rather sobering message:
“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”
Paul, who was stoned and left for dead outside the city of Lystra. Paul, who was shipwrecked three times in the Mediterranean and once spent twenty-four hours floating on debris in the open ocean hoping to make it to shore. Paul, who was bitten by a viper. Paul, who five times was given 39 lashes (because 40 was considered lethal). Paul, who traveled some 10,000 miles largely by foot. Paul, who was beaten with rods three times, went hungry and found himself cold, naked, and alone. Paul, who was writing those words from prison.
“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
The secret of being content in any circumstance is the “all things” Paul was referencing with his inspirational phrase. He wasn’t talking about grabbing the world by the tail, achieving his personal dreams, and moving up in the world. He was talking about being perfectly content being cold, naked, hungry, bloody, bruised and shackled in a first-century dungeon. Ironically, that is not the stuff of inspirational commencement addresses.
Along my life journey, I’ve observed that it is discontent that often fuels personal dreams, aspirations, ambition, economics, and the American dream. Paul’s faith taught him contentment in the midst of unimaginable suffering. I struggle to be content with my iPhone 8 when the iPhone X hits the market.
And there’s the disconnect.
This morning I find myself challenged to restore the meaning of the words “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” to its profound, mysterious, spiritual meaning in my own heart and life. Being content no matter my current situation and circumstances. I confess that it’s easier said than done for me, and I’ve got a long way to go in learning the secret Paul discovered. Which is why this is a journey.
Time to press on. Have a good day, my friend.