Because our lives constantly change, we cannot rely on our circumstances to define our attitude. Instead we need to be defined by who Christ is and who we are in Him. Paul presents an authentic picture of contentment in Phil. 4:10-14 and exhorts us to rejoice and rest in God no matter what’s going on in your life.
Part 19 of a whole book study series called “Joy in Christ: A Study Through Philippians.”
Paul begins a small section spanning verses 10 through 19 with a twofold purpose: 1) to rejoice in God for His material provision through the believers at Philippi, and 2) to confirm his contentment despite fluctuating and difficult circumstances. The concept of rejoicing in the Lord and contentment at all times is connected with his exhortations of not being anxious and of having a godly thought life.
10 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.
Paul said earlier, during his writing about Epaphroditus, that the Philippian believers had not had the chance to serve Paul through financial support. He renews the feeling of that here, affirming to these brothers and sisters in Christ that he is aware of their love for him. His confidence in that love was present with or without their support, but they did express it that way. He was particularly glad of it because he knew their motivation sprang from their relationship in Christ. It was not simply that they felt they had some obligation to “do good” or “give money” (related: 2 Cor. 9:5-7).
Today when we give our time or money, we do it not out of forced obligation (at least let’s hope not; if you do, examine your heart!), but out of gratitude for the privilege of being part of God’s means of provision to and effective working of the body of Christ — whether that is in support of the needy, missions, the local church, or otherwise.
When you consider all that you have received in and through Christ by his sacrificial death and resurrection — riches that go far beyond any material wealth — it puts the idea of giving something away in a different light. When you also realize that all that you have materially was given to you by God, it helps you hold loosely to things.
11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 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.
Being in need here conveys the idea of poverty or destitution, and Paul resoundingly rejects the idea. When it came to true needs being met, his were in every way fulfilled. But it is because Paul had a right perspective: he did not put an undue emphasis on physical needs, or have a sense of entitlement, of things he felt he “deserved.”
Two key phrases I have learned…to be content and I have learned the secret stand out here and point to the overall context and subject of this passage. In the face of difficult circumstances (his condition as a prisoner, the potential of his impending death, his separation from the Philippian believers, whatever physical ailment he refers to in 2 Cor. 12:7, and other things we are probably not aware of), Paul speaks with great fortitude of his contentment.
Learned is to realize, to have gained insight by experience or reflection. Paul didn’t just wake up one day with this insight. It took walking on the road of trouble and trials, and seeing God strengthen and deliver him every time. Paul had learned so much of His Savior and His goodness that he had come to the place where he utterly and absolutely trusted Him. A mystery and a secret indeed! (Related: Col. 1:11; 2 Cor. 12:9)
When we’re tempted to be discouraged or depressed by our circumstances, it’s good to look back at the pattern of how God has worked in our life. When we look at that and at who God is and the big picture of what He is doing, it turns our gaze from ourselves to Him, where it belongs.
A few questions I ask myself when I’m concerned about money, for example: when did God ever let you down in your life? When did He ever fail you according to what He saw was best for you? If you can answer that question with any kind of example, Jennifer, then you have the right to be anxious or discouraged. And I cannot. The answer is: never. He never has.
Content (autarkés) conveys a sufficiency possible only through, and entirely because of, the indwelling power and strength of Christ. “This inward sufficiency is as valid in “low times” (suffering) as in “high times” (temporal prosperity)” (HELPS Word-studies) (related: Matt. 6:31-33; 1 Tim. 6:6-10; Heb. 13:5).
To give this a broader application, does that mean that if someone we love has died, if we have lost our job, if we have been diagnosed with a terrible illness that we ignore how we feel? That we pretend like we’re fine? I don’t think even the apostle Paul would advise this. Recall what he said in 2 Corinthians 1:8 of the affliction in Asia, the excessive burden they bore that was beyond their own strength, so much so they despaired of life (“despair” here gives the sense of thinking that their life might have been at an end rather than actual despair in the sense of losing hope; note in 2 Cor. 4:7-12 he speaks of not despairing although he is under the same kind of affliction).
If we just left it there, it would be easy to walk around in utter misery with no hope. But Paul goes on in verse 9 to explain that the very suffering he was enduring had a purpose: so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God whose power is so vast that He raises the dead. Their only true recourse in those circumstances was to depend on God. Even if that fragment of hope is small, even if the contentment we have in Him is temporarily buried under pain or suffering, it is still there (related: 2 Cor. 11:23-29). We can lose everything of any value in this world and yet never lose God who is of eternal value.
When To Be Content
12 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.
Three word pairings demonstrate Paul’s point here and I’ll go over them very briefly. You’ll notice that these all refer to one subject: material well-being. Remember, he is thanking the Philippian believers for their gift to him, a gift that was intended to help meet his daily needs.
how to be brought low (tapeinousthai), how to abound (perisseuein). The first phrase conveys the idea of being humbled and accepting of having less. This attitude is the result of being in dependence upon God. In contrast, abounding is a surplus beyond measure, having all that you need and more. Here Paul is simply saying, my joy does not rest in my circumstances or in how much I have. Rather, it rests in Christ from whom all things come.
facing plenty (chortazesthai) and hunger (peinan). In speaking of these two extremes, Paul encourages us to praise God in those times of abundance and to seek Him in times of scarcity (related: 1 Cor. 4:11-13). No matter what we become accustomed to in terms of material prosperity, our gaze should not swerve from Him.
It’s interesting because Paul is both thankful and also quick to point out that in no way does he lack anything. I believe he’s speaking on a couple of levels:
- that whether he has a full closet of food or no food at all, he trusts God will bring him through and provide for him;
- that in whatever circumstances he finds himself, he knows not to look at the circumstances themselves and start to feel anxiety and stress over them, but to look to God instead; and
- that spiritually, he has riches in Christ (as he says in verse 19) that go beyond any material riches he could need — that even if all of his material needs went unmet, he would still have the riches in Christ that no one could take away.
The reason Paul can say these things is because of his confidence in who God is, what God has done, and what God has promised to do. As he has gone through so many difficult, overwhelming, and often terrible circumstances, his experience has been that his faith is not in vain, that God always enables him to persevere.
It’s Not About You
13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Here we come to one of the most widely misused verses in all of scripture and one that is frequently taken out of context. It’s helpful to look at the language, but even more helpful to see the wider context of what Paul is talking about here to clearly understand what this verse means. I can’t stress enough that when you read your bible, it is important to read the whole passage in which you find a verse and sometimes you need to go farther still — to the whole of scripture — to fully and correctly understand what is being said.
For further study: Why it is important to read your bible in context.
First, it is somewhat unfortunate that so many translations read I can do all things because that immediately prompts us to focus on our own ability and achievement. Surprisingly, I found the NIV translation utterly faithful to the context: I can do all this through him who gives me strength (my emphasis). In other words, all that Paul has just described in terms of having much or having little.
In verse 12, where it is translated in any and every circumstance, and here in verse 13 where it is translated all things, the Greek is the same root word (pás). He uses this to convey that in every condition or situation, in whatever position he finds himself with regard to his immediate well-being, he is able to endure.
This ability to endure doesn’t come from his own strength, but Christ in him — and means he can persevere in the face of difficult and currently unchanging circumstances. And it is not simply a stoic endurance that puts on a phony, happy face when you are filled with grief or pain or when you lack money. It is an endurance that looks away from the powerlessness of yourself and looks to the immense power of the true Overcomer.
This is the point of this verse. This verse does not stand alone as a slogan or motto or a way of giving yourself a pep talk. It is not an independent claim to personal empowerment for such things as getting through a job interview, dealing with a difficult person, winning a baseball game, and so on. What it conveys is the confidence to abide within the limitations of your current circumstances because you abide in Christ.
Please note that I am not saying that God does not strengthen us. Nor am I saying that He does not enable us by His grace to do things that are difficult or navigate through times when we are afraid and weak. I am simply saying that this verse is not a proof text for that.
14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble.
After all of that, Paul still expresses his appreciation. He is not an ungrateful receiver and he views the Philippians’ support of him as sharing in the gospel. The Greek reads “you did well to have fellowship with my affliction” and I love that it conveys the deep sense of connection Paul and the believers at Philippi share.
It also tells us that Paul is not some cold, sanctimonious, unfeeling person. He’s still human. He never assumes the stance of someone who has overcome his humanity. He always admits his weakness and frailty. He is always honest about his struggles (related: Rom. 7). He says, look, I am afflicted. I do have trouble. Yet in spite of his human nature, he has a deep, unwavering trust in Christ. We can be encouraged on both counts by his example.