"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" (Phil. 4:10-13).
I don't know how to be content. It may not even be possible. St. Paul thought it was as we just read in the text above. But how? How do we arrive at St. Paul's description of being content in every situation? The immediate context of these words is about money – being thankful for what you have and being generous to those in need. We know the message. You've perhaps heard it from pulpits your whole life. You've certainly heard it from outside of the church from anybody with any sense of wisdom. They say things like, "You can't take it with you. These material things that we tend to love are here today and gone tomorrow. If you wrap up your identity and your value in these things that are so fleeting, you will be sorely disappointed." We can understand then what Paul says "I had to learn, but now I know how to be content. Whether I am in plenty or in need."
But I think there is more going on here. There always is. Christians are sinner-saints. A Christian is 100% sinner, and a 100% sinner always sins. There is no other possibility. A Christian is also 100% saint, that is, righteous, perfect, and sinless in the blood of Christ. The saint does saintly things. There is no other possibility. The sinner is discontent. He is discontent for selfish reasons. The sinner tends to think of the people around him as an annoyance, as things that get in the way. He tends to pity himself and is willing to point out all of the bad things that have affected him. Very rarely does he contemplate the awful things he has done to other people. He is very distraught when people get away with sin. He is very annoyed by the whole situation. He's discontent with this world because he thinks the world revolves around him. And he just doesn't understand why people don't just serve him or get out of his way. The sinner is discontent for selfish reasons. He should be killed.
The saint is different, but not because he is content. No, he is discontent for different reasons. How could you not be discontent? You who are created in the image of God, how could you be content with this world? You who are made for something so much better than this world of just survival, how could you be satisfied? How could you be content with a world of sin when you were made for perfection? How could you ever be content with death when you were meant for life? I'm not sure that you can look around with any sense of honesty and be content. I don't think you could look at a news story, an election, or our culture and be content with this world. I'm not sure. I don't know how to be content. I'm not sure it's possible. I'm not sure I should be.
So I don't think Paul was content either. Maybe he was with money, but he always wanted more in other ways. He wanted to go to Spain. He wasn't satisfied with his preaching. He wasn't satisfied with the people in the congregations he set up. He constantly wrote letters to them, trying to fix their problems and attempting to educate them more. It was never over for him. He was never content. He always wanted more.
I hear a lot about self-care from counselors, psychologists, and, increasingly, theologians. This idea that you should take care of yourself is good. We all hear the command to take care of our bodies. Eat right. Exercise more. Cultivate healthy relationships. Then there is our obsession with sleep: the right amount of sleep and the right kind of sleep. And I think it's all beautiful. I think it's wonderful. I think it finally realizes that mind, body, and soul are not so easily ripped apart.
Every time I think about self-care, I think about the spiritual disciplines of the history of the church. Maybe if this idea of self-care could be humbly united with the history of the church, these would be part and parcel of the spiritual disciplines of the 21st century. I don't know. Maybe.
And yet every time I think about self-care, I think about how precious and passionate life is. I think life should be lived at 100 miles per hour, sometimes without regard to self. I think that we are meant to work hard because there are not enough workers and the daylight is running out. I think you should play hard and visit the whole world and do everything that God is allowing you to do because this world is a gift, not a burden. I think you should work hard and you should play hard and you should love unconditionally and live passionately. I don't know how you could ever say "No" to anything. Life is so precious and so passionate. It's so beautiful!
I have to admit that many of my heroes burned bright and burned fast. They accomplished a lot in a little bit of time, and maybe they died a few years earlier than the rest of us will. And maybe they were a little unhealthy as they shared in the burdens of this life. I will admit that it wasn't always very good for them and those around them to live in this passionate discontent. I don't know how to be content. I am not sure I should be.
Paul gives us a very vague answer to the "how" question. How do we get there? How do we attain contentment? He says that he can do all things through him who gives him strength. Now, this is perhaps a passage today that has been misused more than any other passage. I can guarantee you that when Paul was overtaken by the Spirit and inspired to write these words, he did not have in mind your local school's boys' basketball tournament. As much as you want to put on a t-shirt, "We can do all things through him," if you can't get your free throws, you're not going to win, and it has nothing to do with your faith or if God loves you or not.
The goal of God's Word is not motivation, although that might happen. The goal is not some pious humility, although that tends to happen when God works on you. The goal of this passage and all of Scripture is comfort. The goal is Christ. The goal has always been Christ. The goal is a Christological life of being forgiven and loved. A Christological life of being used as Christ's ambassadors for forgiveness and love. It's passionate. It's real. Speaking about Christ, talk about somebody who was discontent! Talk about someone who did something in a short amount of time. Talk about passion. All this because of love. He did it all for you. He did it for you so that you don't have to. He did it so that you and I could get over ourselves. So whether you are in need or in plenty, either way, the blood of Christ still forgives. And whether you are hungry or fed, you are still baptized in Christ's life and death and resurrection. And whether you're having a good day or a bad day, Jesus still rose from the dead. That does not change. And whether you are scared, or you are confident, either way, Christ still rules at the right hand of the Father. Whether you are wounded or feeling whole, Christ still is alpha and omega. Whether you are content or discontent, Jesus will still get his work done on you and through you. And that is your strength. And that is your contentment, true contentment.
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