Contentment comes from learning how to live with all things or live with nothing at all. Being content on this kind of extreme spectrum–abundance and emptiness–is the secret to living well in God’s world.
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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 he found himself, he learned the secret to life, which was to be content always. If he was full of nothing or full of all things, it did not matter.
Twice in this passage, he used the word “learn” to describe how he figured out the secret to life. Then he wrapped up his thoughts by saying he could do all things through Christ who strengthened him.
The “all things” in Paul’s universe did not mean how some people use that verse today. What Paul was saying is that it did not matter what circumstance he found himself, he was a contented man. If he was empty, impoverished, and without nothing, he was content. If he was full of abundance and blessing, he was content. How about you?
- No matter how empty or depleted you become, are you content?
- On the other end of the spectrum, have you learned the secret to life when all your needs are met?
The Lesson of Nothing
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 mentor. In 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, you get a sneak peek into the curriculum the Lord used to teach His proud student.
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
Paul was tempted to be proud because of the abundant goodness of God’s favor in his life, specifically the revelations the Lord opened up to him. He failed the prosperity test. Rather than finding contentment in the blessings, he was tempted to be conceited.
Paul’s pride called the Lord into action because God loved him too much to let his student be overcome by pride. Thus, out of the inexhaustible kindness of God, He sent a messenger of Satan to buffet him with a thorn in the flesh.
Paul went from the abundance of prosperity to the poverty of pain, and he did not like it. He failed the test of prosperity and he was failing the test of poverty. He had not yet learned what he told the Philippians.
- When life is going well, are you content?
- When you are being harassed, are you content?
The Lesson Learned
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 related to the Lord. After wrestling with the Lord in the crucible of disappointment, Paul came out on the other end with an amazing life mission statement: “When I am weak, then I am strong.”
This is an amazing response to not getting what you want. He learned how to guard his heart against the temptations of abundance and he learned how to guard his heart against the temptations of nothingness. His identity was not wrapped up in what he had or his standing in society. Paul was an echo 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
No matter where Paul found himself on the spectrum of life, he was content because he learned that God’s acceptance of 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.
The Lesson of Striving
The Abundant Striver: A person will strive to have more because his identity is wrapped up in what he has or how he is perceived by his community. This kind of person has to have the right car, the right house, a certain amount of money, plus be esteemed by others. He is a striver who is not content.
The Impoverished Striver: A person who can’t find contentment in the life he has. He believes he will be happy if (fill in the blank), and the Lord is not in the “blank”. He is trapped in the discontentment of unfulfilled quests.
Paul learned the lessons of abundance and emptiness. He was zealous for the things of God but content in the means the Lord chose to fuel his zeal. If God gave him a thorn so the power of Christ would shine through him, Paul was content. If God gave him abundant revelations, Paul was content. He was a God-impassioned striver who learned how to have all things or nothing. 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.
Call to Action
- What does not getting what you desire reveal about you?
- Like Job, are you more fixated on the gifts of the Giver or the Giver Himself?
- Would you say your identity is tied to what you own or who owns you? How do you know?