Christians love Philippians 4:13. It looks great on a coffee mug or a greeting card. It’s an encouraging verse… and it’s meant to be! But we often forget the context in which Paul wrote it. Here are the two verses preceding this “power verse”:
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. (Philippians 4:11-13)
Paul talks about having learned the secret of facing plenty as if this is just as difficult as facing need. He had to learn how to be content with abundance as well as when he had been brought low. Christ’s strength is needed in every circumstance, not just when times are tough.
How easy it is to forget this! When I’m going through a rough spell, Philippians 4:13 is a much needed reminder that I can persevere when I rely on the strength that is mine in my union with Christ through the Holy Spirit. But I can’t think of a time when I’ve asked God to grant me contentment while things are going really well; which, to be honest, is most of the time. I am tremendously blessed, but not tremendously content.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week, after finishing Matt Chandler’s book The Explicit Gospel (my review). Chandler quotes heavily from the Bible’s wisdom literature (the books of Job through Song of Solomon), and at one point draws a contrast between the books of Job and Ecclesiastes: “Job was a guy who lost everything and learned that God is enough. Solomon was a guy who had everything and learned it was not enough.”
When I read that my mind was immediately drawn to Philippians 4:12, which I wrote in the margin. It occurred to me that this is my experience with contentment as well (minus the extremes, of course). The times when I am “brought low” bring me to my knees. I meet the Savior and am content. Like Job, I sometimes have questions, but the Lord never lets me forget that he is sovereign and trustworthy and good.
In the times when I abound, though, I grow proud. I begin to take God’s favor for granted, and value created things rather than the Creator. My appetite for the things of this world is never satisfied, and contentment is out of my grasp. This should also bring me to my knees, but it almost never does.
Thankfully, the Lord is gracious even in my vanity. Without fail, he humbles me. One way or another, he shows me who I am, and who He is. He draws me back to the cross, and suddenly all the vain things that charm me most lose their savor.
When I abound or when I am brought low, it is there at the cross where I find my contentment, and the strength in Christ to do all things.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 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. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)