11 Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. 12 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. 13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4: 11 – 13
Q: Discuss the practical value of developing a habit in line with 4:11-13 by citing an episode of your own life.
Background to Philippians
This epistle by Paul is addressed to the church at Philippi, founded in 50 A.D. during Paul’s second missionary journey, which has the distinction of being the first church established by Paul in Europe (Acts 16: 12 – 40). For Paul, Philippi was important because it would have meant working in a strategic center of a Roman province which had not previously heard the gospel.
The city of Philippi was founded by Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, in 356 B.C. The city was commercially important because of nearby gold mines and its location on the main east-west artery (the Via Egnatian), serving as the main highway from Asia to the west. During Roman times, Philippi became a military colony in 42 B.C. This meant that it was like a little piece of Rome abroad. The Latin language was used; Roman law controlled local administration and taxes; many aspects of public life went on as if Rome itself and most of the officials had the same titles as in Rome.
Occasion and Purpose
It is completely clear from 1: 12 – 26 that Paul was in prison, either in Caesarea or Rome, when he wrote this epistle.
The Philippian church sent Epaphroditus to Paul with a gift from their congregation (4:18) and with instructions to minister to his needs through personal service (2:25). He also must have brought news of the progress and problems of the church. But while he was carrying out these duties, Epaphroditus became seriously ill, and the Philippians heard about it. Paul was therefore sending him back and requests that the church receive him with joy and hold him in high regard (2:29). He assures them that Epaphroditus had been a real fellow soldier in doing the Lord’s work (2:25), that his illness had been extremely serious (2:27-30), and that he was worthy of a hero’s welcome (2:29). Paul hopes to come soon, but in the interim is sending them Timothy (2:19 – 23).
Most of the letter deals with practical issues of Christian living rather than with Christian beliefs as such.
Exegesis of Philippians 4: 11 – 13
In this section of the epistle’s broader context (4: 10-20), Paul feels the need to do two things: to express appreciation for the gifts sent from Philippi, and also to emphasize the spiritual principle of dependence on the Lord rather than on human help.
Paul wants it to be known that their gifts had been a joy and encouragement to him, but he was not relying on them, nor was he soliciting further gifts. Instead, he had “learned to be content” with what God provided, irrespective of the circumstances. What is significant here is that contentment is a virtue that is learned; contentment is a quality that does not come naturally to most of us. There is a theme of Stoic philosophy in this text. Here Paul uses one of the great words of Stoic ethics, autarkes, for being content, which means being entirely self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency, autarkeia, was the highest aim of Stoic ethics; by it the Stoics meant a state of mind in which a person was absolutely independent of all things and of all people. They proposed to reach that state by a certain discipline of the mind. Several of the methods they proposed was the elimination of all desires and emotions until a person had come to a stage when he or she did not care what happened either to himself or to anyone else. However, Paul here uses this word in the sense of his being independent of circumstances, and locating his sufficiency not in himself, but in Christ who provides strength for believers. (HeaChin is right when mentioning that Paul’s wording here is attuned to stoicism here, but instead of person’s relying on his or her own self-sufficiency, one is to rely upon his or her own sufficiency in Christ Jesus.) He did not trace his resources to some inner fortitude that would enable him to take with equanimity whatever life brought him. Instead, his strength for “everything” lay in the One who continually empowered him. He was not desperately seeking a gift from the Philippians, because he knew and trusted that Christ would give him the strength for whatever circumstances were in store for him.
In verse 12, when Paul states that he “had learned the secret of being content in every situation”, he is using a phrase commonly used in mystery cults for initiation into a secret. However, for Paul, this secret of living was an open secret that was available for all who followed Christ. The fact that Paul was using a pagan reference to get his point across should not disturb us. Remember that God communicates to us in ways that will be understandable to us, meaning that He’ll contextualize His message to fit the medium so that we can grasp and understand Him. It may be that his readers most likely understood this phrase as coming from mystery cults that were prevalent at that time, but is now hearing it used in a totally new and unique context in light of Jesus. It shows how the gospel message can transform (or even redeem) the cultural norms and practices of a given culture or society for kingdom purposes. Just as Paul used common Stoic words and phrases and gave it a new, fresh meaning in light of Christ, Paul is doing a similar practice here as well. The secret of contentment, whether full or hungry, in need or with plenty, or rich or poor, lies in knowing Christ and to be called to serve him was “unsearchable riches” (Ephesians 3: 8) to him. How far we know the secret of contentment and to what degree we are proving the sufficiency of Christ for all the demands of life are always challenging questions for us all.
I personally at times have a strong tendency to act stoically in my daily life, which includes my spiritual life as well, but it is getting better as I have matured in my walk with God. Before, just as the Stoics believed in, I believed that everything happened through the will of God. No matter how painful a circumstance might be, however disastrous it might seem, I had a resolved, cold sense that it all happened because it was God’s will. Therefore, it was useless to struggle against it and my usual reaction was to “man up” and accept “all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that were sent my way. As a psychological defense mechanism, at times I would act aloof and almost emotionless. Also, it doesn’t help that as an introvert, I would tend toward internalizing all my thoughts and emotions and bottling them all up and therefore, had a lot of trouble expressing them outwardly toward others. However, looking back, all this self-reliance and brute stoicism often led to a very cold and cynical outlook on life and on God as well.
However, in these verses, Paul is saying two important things about contentment (especially during difficult times/circumstances): 1) that it is learned and 2) that it is also a divine gift from God. Stoicism emphasizes self-sufficiency, so therefore it is limited and hampered by the personal limits of your strength and abilities. Once you realize your limitations and weaknesses, reality sets in and you realize just how human you really are. However, when you focus less on yourself and your circumstances in life and realize that you are a new creation in Christ Jesus and that you are not your own, but are now under the sole possession of Christ, your true king and master, this reality should change you. But it takes time (often a person’s lifetime) to truly know this and incorporate this shift in identity. It takes time to learn (as Paul did) that we are not defined by our wealth, our jobs, our status, our bank accounts, what car we drive, or our marital situation; instead we are defined by who we are in Christ. All that matters is what Christ thinks of us. We have to come and realize that contentment is a divine gift, a mysterious secret (v. 12), that comes from God’s grace that has to be learned and cultivated daily in our lives.
Contentment should be a habit that should be cultivated daily. And yes, it does take a lot of practice when “continuously pressing on for Christ” as Philippians 3:12 states. Contentment is to be a communal activity, especially within God’s “permanent community, the church.” Our contentment is never to be fostered alone but always in the presence of fellow believers. The gospel is never a one-man operation, but is instead an endeavor to be carried out by a society of believers. One of the great practices we can incorporate into our daily lives to focus less on our circumstances is and grow in contentment is to serve others. Feeding and serving others less fortunate than ourselves help to humble us and enable us to see from God’s eyes. Compassion and love are actions, not just feelings or emotions. The constant challenge the gospel presents to us is that our faith must be put into actions, not just mere preaching or teaching (James 2: 14 – 26)- all important lessons we can pass on to future generations. To heal a broken world we need to be broken also just as He was broken for us.
In our modern world, we are bombarded with ways to cultivate happiness with many people offering ways or “keys” to happiness. However, there is relatively very little said about cultivating joy. Usually joy and happiness are packaged together, but they are very different in some ways. Happiness depends upon our situations and emotions that can be fleeting and impermanent; joy, however, is dependent upon relationship and identity. The noun “joy” or the verb “rejoice” are used sixteen times in this epistle by Paul. Joy is a dominant theme throughout. It is made even more remarkable once you realize that this was all written while Paul was in a jail cell, not knowing whether he would come out alive or not. He writes about joy in prayer (1:4), joy in the fruit of his work (4:1), joy in suffering (2:17), joy in fellowship (2: 2), and he constantly encourages his readers to rejoice in their faith and relationship with the Lord (1:25; 3:1; 4:4). I believe that there is strong correlation between the divine gift of contentment and joy: it comes from realizing that one of the greatest joys for God is in having us.