“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 4:12-13)
The apostle Paul knew what it was to be in situations of plenty, and in situations of dire need. He experienced the extremes of life and wealth, and was constant through it all. Whatever end of the spectrum of wealth he was on, we are told that he learned the secret of being content.
That tells us something vital: Being content is a secret! It’s something that doesn’t come naturally or obviously to anyone. We don’t stumble upon contentment while we are doing something else. Naturally we are wired to want more and more of everything. Contentment needs to be revealed to us, and we need to learn it.
The Philippians would have understood this, because this kind of language was the stock-on trade of the Stoic philosophers of the time. They would have used the language that Paul uses, and they prided themselves on seeking contentment above all else. So when Paul tells the Philippian Christians, “I have learned the secret of being content…” they might naturally come to the conclusion that he went off and learnt this secret from the Stoics.
But that was not the case. Nor would Paul have wanted to learn the Stoic’s secret to contentment. For their approach was to seek after contentment in ourselves. Each person should have the capacity and resources that they need, went the Stoic mindset. To be content is to be able to look inside yourself and find everything you require for every circumstance. Independence from others and contentment in one’s own ability was the Stoic ideal.
Paul could not be further from this Stoic philosophy. The secret of contentment that he has learned is not independence, but dependance. Paul’s source of contentment in each and every situation is found in one place only: Jesus Christ. “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
God does not give the power to do anything, but to face every situation with contentment. The strength to be content comes from God, not from Paul. And see that contentment requires strength. I suspect we think of contentment as some kind of serene approach to life; a far off look in one’s eye that comes from hours of silent contemplation. But Paul describes contentment as something that needs strength. Being content requires muscle. When Paul talks about ‘learning contentment’ perhaps we shouldn’t picture a classroom but rather a dojo. Like learning a martial art, learning contentment makes us break into a sweat!