“I have learned how to be content no matter what the circumstance.” Philippians 4:11
Paul had received a monetary gift from the believers in Philippi and in expressing his appreciation he writes, “At last you renewed your concern for me.” That sounds a little harsh so he explains that he understands they they were concerned but didn’t have the opportunity do to anything about it (perhaps no one had gone to Rome where he was in prison.) Against this background Paul explains that he is never really in need because “he’s learned how to be content no matter what the circumstance.”
I believe we’ll all agree that contentment is a very satisfying condition. We work our hardest at a task and once completed it gives us a sense of satisfaction. But the desire to have more doesn’t diminish so contentment seems to vanish the more it is fulfilled. It is hard to remain in a state of contentment because it gives way so quickly to the next challenge. It is a goal that keeps moving ahead like the plastic bunny that stays ahead of the dogs in a race no matter how fast the run. Socrates wisely noted, “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”
Contentment is a state of composure in which the desire to have or be are for the moment fulfilled. It is important to realize that contentment is not a goal but a condition resulting from achieving the goal. It’s a “by-product of a life well lived” says Eleanor Roosevelt. For the believer that means a life lived out successfully in fulfilling God’s intention for each. For the gifted author, contentment may well be the satisfaction of having been the conduit through whom the wisdom of the ancients and his own personal insights were channeled. For the average person, contentment is experienced by watching ones children successfully grow, marry and give birth to the next generation. It is diminished only by the desire to have or do more than God intended. People indwelt by God’s Spirit rejoice in what is, not in what they thought ought to have been.
Paul’s expression, “learned to be content,” suggests that contentment is not a normal human quality. It requires full acceptance of God’s plan for one’s life. Contentment requires that we let go of personal visions of achievement that bring recognition to ourselves. It is what floods our inner being when without hesitation we say, “Lord, I’m delighted to be exactly where I am today – physically, emotionally, and spiritually, If perfection is our goal we will never be content because that is unreachable.
So, thank you Lord for this day in which, regardless of life’s difficulties or rewards our relationship is clear. Thank you for contentment, the glad recognition that leads me to sing, “Nothing between my soul and my Savior.”
“In conclusion, dear friends, let your minds dwell on those things that are wholesome and worthy of praise: things that are true, noble, upright, pure, lovely, and honorable.” Philippians 4:8-9
In this concluding remark Paul identifies a way of living that will permanently alter the future of all who take it seriously. It sounds just a bit like the school of positive thinking whose representatives say such things as, “You are the master of your destiny. You can make your life what you want it to be” (Napoleon Hill) or, “You are essentially who you create yourself to be” (Stephen Richards). The idea is that since you become what you decide to be, why not choose the positive.
So is there anything wrong with positive thinking that is at home in the secular world as well as the believer’s world? I believe the answer is No. In fact, some scholars think that in this verse Paul is quoting a list of virtues gathered by some Greek moralist. The difference in how they are heard is that the secular mind would hold that practicing these virtues would earn you the appropriate reward, while for the believer they would be the result of God at work in the human heart. A related point is that the people understand a word in terms of their own life context and this determines its specific meaning for them. For the believer, the word “true” is understood in a setting that includes God. For the secular mind, the word “true” would not be limited by any absolute but would represent the general understanding of the majority. However, the overlap is sufficient to allow both to be understood when someone says, for instance, that a statement is true.
The basic point underling Paul’s statement is that we are being molded by whatever dominates our thought life. This has significant importance for believers because they correctly understand that the old nature consistently does its best to influence how we think and what we do. It has its own detrimental leverage on life. The answer, of course, is to allow God’s Spirit to maintain complete control of our life. The Spirit always wins when he is allowed to. And that is why it is so important that we fill our minds with such virtues as listed by Paul. We will choose and do that which is honorable if in fact our minds are filled with honorable thoughts. We will reject impurity if we regularly fill our minds with that which is pure. But if angry thoughts fill our minds, then when the occasion arises there will be little opposition to an angry outburst.
We live in a day when culture exhibits its dark side without restriction. On the TV screen are episodes that 20 years ago would have been banned. Media and entertainment would have us think about what they have chosen to promote. And that is why, especially in today’s world, we need to take control of what we think about. Let us honor God by allowing what is noble, right and pure to determine the inner world in which we live.
Philippians 4.6-7 is one of the best known and “oft used” passages in the New Testament. It begins with a problem – anxiety, is followed by a fail-proof remedy – pray; and concludes with what the troubled heart requires – peace. In the previous column we identified the problem, anxiety, so now we will move to the cure, which is prayer with a glad heart.
That prayer is the cure for anxiety sounds so simple. Just pray. But prayer is a mysterious thing. It takes so many forms all the way from a priestly incantation to a simple, Help me Lord. Sometimes it is answered immediately but usually not. My mother prayed a certain prayer all the way through the second half of her life, but it wasn’t answered until years after she left for heaven. At times we think that if we just prayed with more urgency, God would answer. That seems to be implied by the double emphasis in v. 6, “prayer and supplication.” Most believers have experienced on at least one occasion, an immediate and dramatic answer to prayer. Mine was a quick clearing of rainclouds for a special youth rally. You could actually see the clouds just go away (and they returned about 30 minutes after the rally). However at many other times we’ve prayed only to feel that heaven must be closed for the day.
My sense is that God uses prayer as much for the one praying as for the one being prayed for. How could it be possible that time spent with God would not deepen our fellowship with him? That’s what happens in our daily life. To share life’s experiences with another is to strengthen that relationship. Time with God can’t help but leave us a bit more like him. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of the Great Stone Face and how it transformed the young man who spent hours gazing at the rocky resemblance of their traditional dignitary until in time the townspeople realized that this young man had become the one they had expected for ages.
It is interesting that our prayers are to be made with thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for prayers answered? Yes. But also thanksgiving for the prayer we are now making. But what if God doesn’t answer? He always does, it’s just that the answer may be “Not quite yet” or “Not in the way you expected.” Every prayer is answered and aren’t we glad that a number of them were answered in a way that differed from what we expected! What the Father says is that the result of our prayer is an unimaginable peace that acts like a sentinel guarding the palace of our heart. No enemy can breach the defense. Note that the “answer” to prayer is not the answer we may have been expecting, but the “peace that comes from having asked.” My favorite singer is Johnny Ray Watson, and the song he sings that thrills my heart is, “He’s got it all in control.” He’s a six foot five African American with a deep voice rising from a caring heart – what a gift, what a rich experience. When I pray, God has Johnny remind me that “He’s got it all in control.”
So let’s pray with glad hearts so God can remind us once again with an awareness of his wonderful peace that the answer’s on its way.
Anxiety is a common problem. Few there are who seem free from its debilitating presence. Against that background Paul tells the believers in Philippi “not to be anxious about anything” (4:6). Not only did the Christians of that day have the normal reasons for anxiety but their unwillingness to follows the religious customs of the day brought additional pressure. To break with the god associated with one’s occupation and follow the teaching of an itinerant Galilean preacher supplied a number of reasons for anxiety. Nevertheless Paul encourages them saying, “Don’t worry about anything” (TEV).
For a moment let’s take a good look at anxiety in the life of a believer. It would be hard to argue that anxiety is not a form of disbelief. You might call it “Christian atheism” because it excludes God from the situation. To worry about such things as food and shelter is to deny Jesus’ teaching about God’s provision for the birds who neither sow nor reap (Matt. 6:26). Anxiety is so disabling because it removes from life the pleasure of relaxing in the goodness of a God who genuinely cares for each of us on an individual basis. It is interesting, is it not, that it is those things over which we have no control that we are anxious about. We become anxious about the plane landing on time, about the possibility of rain on Saturday when we have a golf match, about whether we made a good impression last evening at the social. We can’t make the plane go faster, make the weather change or redo something that has already happened. We don’t become anxious about whether we left the house unlocked when we went on vacation because in that case we can do something about it. Things we can fix may cause a little worry but never anxiety.
I ask you, “Is a loving God in charge of your life today? Does he know whatever the day may bring? Is he able to do whatever is necessary? Does He love you his child?” The answer is Yes, Yes, Yes, and Yes. To walk through the day aware of his loving presence is to rule out anxiety. The problem most face is that it is all too good to be true. Right! But with God nothing is too good to be true. You may know that the bible was first punctuated in the 13th century. The four words before Paul’s counsel on anxiety are, “The Lord is near.” In most bibles they are included in v. 5. I believe they should be read with the following verse (v. 6) and we should understand it this way: “The Lord is near so there is no reason for you to be anxious.” It is the presence of God that rules out all necessity for anxiety. Could you ever dream of a better reason?
“Rejoice in the Lord at all times. Let me say it again, Rejoice. May everyone understand that you are always ready to listen. The Lord is close at hand.”
Joy is a central motif in the Christian faith. Since faith is an active reality it needs to express itself clearly so people will understand what it involves. In this section of his letter (4:4-6) Paul describes a lifestyle that pleases and honors God. New converts to the faith need to grasp the fact that they have taken a major step out of darkness into the glorious light of God. The joyless rituals of yesterday are replaced with new and fresh experiences of a God of love. Paul wants his readers to understand that rejoicing, regardless of the situation in which they find themselves, is what God expects of them. In case they hadn’t fully grasped what he said, Paul tells his readers once again, “Rejoice in the Lord.”
The absolute centrality of joy in the Christian needs to be understood and put into practice throughout the believing world. While not denying the difficulties of living in a way at odds with the current culture, the believer is to rejoice wherever he is and whatever the situation might be. We could cite a score of reasons why rejoicing could be out of place at the moment, but Paul would tell us that such reluctance is unacceptable. Pantote, “always, at all times,” leaves no wiggle room. Even in a time of despair, rejoicing need not cease because God is involved in everything in our life. He will not allow his plans for a jubilant life-style to be thwarted by such trivialities as misery or discouragement?
In addition to rejoicing, believers are to let their “graciousness” (NIV) be widely known. My translation, “ready to listen,” attempts to express from context the idea that Paul wanted to convey. Other translations read, “show a gentle attitude” (TĚ̌V), “let your good sense be obvious” (NJB). The expression pictures a thoughtful and kind response to some concern within the church – a gentle openness that listens to all sides of a difficulty.
Problems, by definition, involve varying views. The answer does not lie in a noisy presentation by one whose mind is closed to a workable solution. A much better approach would be to discover common ground and work toward an acceptable conclusion. I would call it Christian bipartisanship.
One result of Paul’s preaching ministry was the large number of close friendships that came with the experience. This is reflected in the final chapter of his letter to Rome in which he mentions 24 people by name (and that was before he had ever been there!) The depth of that relationship with believers in Philippi is reflected in his reference to them as those he “loves and longs for . . . his joy . . . his crown . . . dearest friends.” Undoubtedly it was when Paul was presenting the message that many of them opened their hearts to the Lord. Such an experience binds heart to heart.
Paul counsels his friends to “stand firm in the Lord.” A steadfast commitment to a common goal is essential for growth in any movement. E Pluribus Unum was true in the early church as it is in current nation building. Believers were to stand firm “in this way,” that is, as Paul was related to them.
It is against this background that Paul urges two of the women in the church to get together and work out whatever it was that had sent them in two directions. The women were Euodia and Syntyche, or, as one wag put it, “You, Odious and Soon-Touchy.” They had both been prominent in the establishment and growth of the church (v. 3). Paul urges them “to be of the same mind in the Lord,” and that is more than simply reaching a workable solution. Since both were “in the Lord” they should consider the issue from his standpoint not their own. They should have, as Paul wrote in 2:5, “the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” To think like Jesus diminishes those things that separate. Two believers working together to learn what Christ would do or say in a given situation leads quickly to a solution that satisfies both. The problem is not the problem but the way we tend to solve the problem.
To help satisfy whatever wasn’t working, Paul urges his “loyal companion” (syzygos) to become involved. The Greek word is probably not a name but a designation of the relationship between Paul and a dear friend. Here we find a basic operating principle for the Christian church: When some issue has separated two believers, they are to get together and look at the issue from a Christ centered point of view. If necessary, they are to bring in a spiritual leader of the congregation to provide insight and guidance.
“So then, my dear friends, stand firm in the Lord. You are so dear to me and I miss you so; you’re my joy and my crown.”
Paul’s deep affection for the Christian converts in Philippi stands out so clearly as he moves from theology in chapter 3 to application in chapter 4. Note the “So then” that alerts the reader that Paul is is about to list the practical implications of what has just taught. Since the readers are citizens of heaven and look forward to being transformed into Christ’s glorious likeness, they are to live accordingly. Paul uses six words or phrases in the one verse to describe his remarkably close relationship. The two I would like to consider refer to them as Paul’s “joy” and “crown.”
One can picture the apostle, a converted Jew, going to Philippi to tell the people about a Galilean itinerant preacher by the name of Jesus who, after being crucified, came back to life, walked and talked with his friends for 40 days and then went back to heaven. Who would believe that? The Jewish priests are the experts in that field and they were the ones who had him crucified. But some of the men and women listened, believed and became devoted followers. Imagine the joy of these new converts as they gathering to learn more and more about this life-changing event. Paul speaks from his heart when he tells them, “You are my joy.”
But they are also his “crown.” The Greek stephanos was a wreath awarded to the winners in athletic contests and a number of civic affairs. A gold crown served to honor kings. For Paul, the Philippian converts themselves were his crown. He, as it were, worn them proudly in honor of their accepting the message and becoming one with him in the case of Christ. They were what he had accomplished in their midst. Paul wore the crown proudly but not ostentatiously. It was evidence of the power of the Spirit to change life.
A question for each of us, “What does my crown look like?"