The headline says it all. The obvious answer is that I trust God. But do I really? How about you? Do we trust in God’s provision or God’s character? Do we really trust God or do we trust in our own abilities?
These questions can seem a bit abstract, but our answers to them really matter. On one hand, Job’s beliefs about God and his trust in his personal faithfulness contributed to a crisis of faith when his world fell apart. The people of Judah believed that God would protect them in spite of their sin because of His temple in their midst. On the other hand, Paul tells us that he had learned to be “content” no matter what his circumstances were:
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 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 4:11b–13 (NIV)
These verses probably aren’t new to you. They definitely aren’t new to me. How many times have we focused on being able to do anything based on the strength that God gives us? But perhaps more importantly, how many times has that been our experience instead of what seems to be just an exercise in wishful thinking?
These verses are often pulled out of context, so if that’s what we’re doing then “wishful thinking’ may be an apt description. Philippians 4:13 doesn’t mean that we can recreate Nik Walenda’s tightrope walk across Niagara Falls. Paul’s meaning is focused: he’s specifically addressing the ability to be content no matter what his economic circumstances are. That doesn’t mean that contentment isn’t possible in other areas though. In 2 Corinthians 12:9 Paul talks about the sufficiency of God’s grace in living with a “thorn in the flesh.” We don’t know what that thorn was, but the idea in 2 Corinthians 12 is similar to that in Philippians 4.
So, what exactly is this “contentment” that Paul describes in Philippians 4? In our world, contentment is often associated with a sense of well-being. It doesn’t necessarily imply happiness, but at some level we are satisfied. For me, it usually includes the feeling that things are under control.
There’s that word: “control.” I admit it. I can be a bit of a control freak. How about you? Can you think of a time when you were content but everything felt completely out of control? In desperation we may laughingly throw our hands up in the air and say, “Jesus take the wheel,” but do we really mean it? If we do, do we really trust that He will? Well, in different words, that seems to be part of what Paul is getting at.
Paul isn’t talking about a contentment that is related to life being manageable. I’m guessing that very few of us would describe lacking what we need for daily life as having everything under control. Instead, Paul chooses a word for contentment (autarkēs) that Greek philosophers often used to describe a self-sufficiency that was tied to an indifference to the world around us. While we may not think about contentment as detachment or indifference, I think many of us do—perhaps subconsciously—tie it to the idea of self-sufficiency. Didn’t I just describe it as being tied to my perception of having things under control?
You may not bring precisely the same ideas to your experience of contentment that I do, but in Paul’s letter we see a paradox. Yes, Paul uses a word that describes self-sufficiency or independence, but then he turns it upside down: Paul’s contentment (independence) is rooted in his dependence on Jesus. When he is weak, then he is strong. It is God’s grace that is sufficient (2 Cor 12:9–10), not Paul’s abilities—or ours.
Paul had to learn this—he mentions that twice in just two verses (Phil 4:11–12). I’m guessing that we all do. Paul learned it through his experiences of weakness and insufficiency. So do we. Sometimes, like Jesus, we pray for the cup to be taken from us. And sometimes, just like Jesus, we hear our Father say “no.” But may we also hear Him say: “You are not alone. My grace is sufficient. My power is made perfect in your weakness. Your contentment is found in me, not in your circumstances. Trust me.”
Next week we’ll dig into the implications for our everyday lives, but today I’m praying that each of us will trust Him, seeking His presence and sufficiency.
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The image of Niagara Falls is by Jeff Leonhardt, courtesy of Pixabay.