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Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 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. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Paul
Paul said in Philippians 4:11-12 that he learned how to be content if he had all things or had nothing at all. It did not matter where Paul found himself on the spectrum. He learned the secret to life, which was to be content always. In this passage, we see the word “learn” twice to describe how he figured out the secret. Afterward, he wrapped up his thoughts by saying he could do all things through Christ who strengthened him.
Paul did not mean “all things” the way some people use that verse today. Paul said that the circumstances did not matter. He was a contented man, whether empty, impoverished and without anything or full of abundance and blessing; he was content. How about you? No matter how empty you become, are you content? Have you learned the secret of stable contentment whether you have all your needs met or you’re feeling empty on the other end of the spectrum?
In Philippians 4:10-13, you get a sneak peek into the Lord’s curriculum for teaching contentment. Paul’s double use of the word “learned” in this passage punctuates the implication that he was a student in the Lord’s schoolhouse. Paul was the learner, and God was his tutor. Perhaps you remember when your teacher used a ruler on the back of your hand to remove brain clutter. I suppose not if your elementary days began after the 1980s. I do remember. Her name was Mrs. Verla Griffin.
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited (2 Corinthians 12:7).
God’s ruler was a thorn in Paul’s flesh. The hope was to remove the temptation of pride that had ensnared Paul, a side effect of the abundant goodness of God’s favor in his life, specifically the revelations the Lord had opened up to him. Paul failed the prosperity test. Rather than finding contentment in the blessings, conceit scored a victory by entrapping the great apostle. Paul’s pride called the Lord into action because God loved him too much to let pride overcome His student.
Paul went from the abundance of prosperity to the poverty of pain, and he did not like it. He had not yet learned the lesson. So the Lord began to empty him of his conceit. Out of the inexhaustible kindness of God, He sent a messenger of Satan to buffet him with a thorn in the flesh. Isn’t this an excellent time for reflection? When your life is not going well, do the problems amplify contentment? When someone or something is “harassing” you, does contentment settle your soul?
For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).
After spending time with the Lord, Paul learned that true contentment did not come from who he was or what he had. True contentment is measured by how he relates to God. (Stop: think about that last sentence.) After wrestling with the Lord in the crucible of disappointment, Paul came out the other end with a fantastic life mission statement: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” This response to not getting what he wanted is impressive. Paul learned how to guard his heart against the temptations of abundance, and he learned how to protect his heart against the temptations of nothingness. What he learned reminded me of Job.
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
Paul did not wrap his identity or his longings in what he had or did not possess. His standing in society mattered not. You could place Paul anywhere on the spectrum, and contentment would be his theme. God’s acceptance of him and rulership over him was more important than the identity statements of plenty or poverty. People may be impressed by what you have or who you are but God is not—unless it’s your identification with Him. Paul wanted what God wanted and trusted Him enough to know that wherever he found himself in the Lord’s world, it was the right spot because God is good.
The Abundant Striver: A person will strive to have more because he wraps his identity in what he has or how his community perceives him. Perhaps he enjoys the power of reputation, and by maintaining a carefully crafted representative of himself, he procures manmade contentment. Of course, his self-reliant efforts are hard; he has to have the right car, the right house, and a certain amount of money. Others must esteem him in a way he esteems himself.
The Impoverished Striver: This person is just like the abundant striver, except he has not reached his highest aims; he can’t find contentment in his life because of what he does not possess—stuff, desires, dreams, hopes, and other wishes from his list. The discontentment of unfulfilled quests has trapped him. He believes he will be happy if (fill in the blank). The problem is that the Lord is not in the “blank.”
Paul was zealous for the things of God, content in whatever means the Lord chose. If God gave him a thorn so the power of Christ would shine through him, Paul was content. If God gave him great revelations, Paul was content. He was a God-impassioned striver who learned how to have all things or nothing at all. He said it this way:
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. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:12-13).
In 2 Corinthians 12:10, he said it this way, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
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