Philippians: The Hardest Goal To Achieve
I have to confess to you that of all the words written by the great Apostle Paul, the words which are the most difficult for me to grasp are these words: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.”
You see, I have never yet met the person who is 100% satisfied and content with his or her lot in life. I have never yet encountered an individual who wouldn’t change a thing in life even if it could be changed. I would venture to say that all of us have at least one complaint, one cloud in our sky, one weed in our garden, one circumstance which would have to be changed before we could be completely happy and satisfied and content in life. So given the fact that all of us have at least one thing in life we would like to change, how in the world can we ever achieve the goal Paul sets before us here in Philippians: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have”?
Now if I were to read those words without any knowledge of who wrote them, I would be tempted to say: “Come on now, anyone who could write words like those must be living in a dream world.” But then I recall the circumstances under which those words were written. They bear no resemblance to a dream world—far from it. Paul was in prison at the time. He was chained to a soldier of the Praetorian Guard. He was under the sentence of death by execution. His life could be ended at any moment of any day. Now when I remember that, I want to cry out: “Paul, how could you be content in the midst of that kind of circumstance? What’s your secret? Whatever it is, share it with me please—I need to know it.”
Well, as I have immersed myself in Paul’s writing, trying to crawl inside his heart and mind, I have decided that there were several elements at work in Paul’s experience which gave him that sense of contentment. I’d like to share those insights with you.
Paul had the right view of life. He looked at life realistically.
Paul knew that life is no bed of roses. He knew the sting of setback. He knew what it was to have friends betray him, to be beaten with whips, to be ship-wrecked, to be treated as a traitor and a maverick. He knew what it was to fight wild beasts, to battle against ill health, to lose all his money in a lawsuit with the Roman authorities. He had been thoroughly initiated into life in the cold, cruel world. He knew all the ins and outs, all the ups and downs of the human experience. That gave him a realistic view of life.
So many of us today do not seem to share that realistic view of life. We seem to believe that wealth and success and prosperity and privilege are due us in life; that we have a right to those things. Consequently, when life brings us pain, sickness, hardship or failure, we are plunged into the black hole of despair and disillusionment. Were we at all realistic, we would know that in life, the rough spots are just as normal as the smooth ones. Therefore, if we are to learn Paul’s secret of contentment, then there are certain realities of life with which we must come to terms.
One reality is that we live in a mortal body. That body is weaker, more prone to disease and less fit for survival than the bodies of most animals. When we buy a car, for example, we know that sooner or later the battery will run down, the tires will wear thin, the chassis will begin to rattle, the fuel pump will fail, and finally, after a number of trips to the repair shop, we will exchange the worn out vehicle for a new one. Well our car is not immortal and neither is the body in which we travel through time to eternity. We need to face up to that reality.
Another reality is the hazardous world in which we live. All day long as we handle gadgets, travel the roads, cross the streets, we have to confront the possibility of an accident. We live in a hazardous world. We need to be constantly aware of that fact.
Still another reality is the fact that we live in a society with other people. Someone once said: “Hell is other people.” Well that may be a bit strong, but it is quite true that the actions of other people can bring hurt or anxiety or discontent into our lives. We could avoid that, of course, by living in isolation on some deserted island, but as long as we choose to live in society with other people, we must be prepared to suffer their mistakes and their troubles as well as our own.
These things are an inevitable part of life. Many of us have not yet learned that. We haven’t learned that disease and accident and sorrow and hardship and all of the other unhappy experiences are just as much a part of life as the things that bring us joy and satisfaction. Paul learned that lesson—learned it well. That’s why he was able, even from a prison cell, to write to his friends: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.”
Paul also had the right priorities. He loved people more than he loved things.
Paul knew that as long as his treasured relationships remained intact he had no reason to complain. Even physical separation from his beloved friends could not ultimately destroy his sense of contentment. He had learned long since that true friendship cannot be stopped by geographical separation. You can hear how important these relationships were to Paul when he writes in his passage in Philippians: “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me. Indeed you were concerned for me but had no opportunity to show it.” Even though he was locked away in a prison, he was still cherishing those wonderful friendships.
In London, England, there was a remarkable institution where, for more than forty years, girls and boys, cursed by their own background and their social environment, found Christian love and Christian ideals which enabled them to become respected and useful members of society. One night during the Second World War, the buildings where these young people lived and worked and learned and played were demolished by Hitler’s bombs. The next morning, the superintendent stood with some of the boys among the smoldering ruins of that place. There was a trace of a tear in his eyes as he said: “This is the end. We’ve lost everything.” At that point, one of the boys called out: “No you ain’t. You’ve still got us.”
My guess is that one day Paul was in a dejected mood, feeling that he had lost everything when suddenly the door of his prison cell opened to admit a visitor who carried with him a letter and a gift of money from Paul’s friends in faraway Philippi. The letter would have said in effect, “Cheer up, Paul. You’ve still got us.” And I would like to think that this expression of love from his friends so warmed Paul’s heart that he sat down at once and wrote out the letter of reply which has been retained for us in the New Testament. It’s the letter to the Philippians. In that letter he clearly tells his readers that he finds their concern for him to be a source of great joy. That’s what mattered most to Paul. He could face any trouble, any hardship, any challenge, as long as there were loyal friends to share it with him. He always gave people priority over things. Instead of worrying about the things life had denied him or taken away from him, he counted himself blessed for the marvelous friendships life had given him along the way.
Reminds me of Helen Keller. All her life she was shut up in a prisonhouse of darkness and silence. She was blind and deaf, yet Miss Keller was an incredibly contented person. Why? Because to her people mattered more than things. Denied the physical blessings most of us take for granted, still she was able to write: “I feel that all is well in my life because of my friends.” She understood what Paul meant when he said: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.”
And then Paul had the right Lord. He had the power of Jesus Christ at work within him.
Just look at Paul in this Roman prison. Here was this world-shaking missionary, the number one headline-maker in the early Christian church, suddenly confined and completely cut off from his life’s work. Four walls were encasing him. Chains were binding him to a Roman guard. The executioner’s sword was waiting to snuff out his life. How in heaven’s name does one find a way to serve God in those circumstances? Well, we know that Paul managed to do it. Among the prison guards themselves, he found a new and surprising missionary opportunity. He shared with them the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He also used his imprisonment to write some of his tenderest, most appealing, most inspirational letters to the churches. Those letters, which live on in the New Testament, have changed and shaped countless thousands of Christian lives ever since. You see, even in a desperate circumstance in his life, he knew that he had the power of Jesus Christ at work within him. He took advantage of every opportunity he had to share the Good News of Christ with the people around him and the world beyond him.
There’s an ancient legend about Paul which seems to me to say it all. I don’t know if the story is true, but I should like to think that it is. See if you agree.
It seems that a wealthy merchant on his travels through the Mediterranean world heard a great deal about Paul. He became fascinated with the stories about this remarkable man. He wanted to meet Paul face-to-face. During a trip to Rome, he learned that Paul was in prison there. He knew that Timothy was a friend of Paul’s and so this merchant contacted Timothy to arrange a visit. The arrangements were made. Timothy accompanied the merchant to the prison. Inside the cell the merchant was surprised to find the great Apostle looking rather old and physically frail, but he immediately sensed the strength and magnetism of Paul’s personality. They visited for several hours and finally the merchant left with Paul’s blessing. Outside the cell the merchant turned to Timothy and asked: “Tell me, what is the secret of that man’s power? I’ve never seen anything like it before.” Timothy replied: “It’s quite simple really. You see, Paul’s in love.” The merchant looked puzzled. “In love?” he asked. “Yes”, Timothy answered, “Paul’s in love—in love with Jesus Christ.” The merchant looked even more bewildered. “Is that all?” he said. Timothy smiled and answered: “Yes, that is all. But then, my friend, that is everything.”
It is true. I have learned it in my own life. I want you to learn it in yours. Be in love with Jesus Christ. That is everything!