by Chris Ritter
It’s wonderful to receive thoughtful notes throughout the lock-down. When I opened the mail Monday I found one from a new friend in Iowa who says she has enjoyed being part of our church as we have worshipped together online. I think these new relationships will be some of the most positive things that have come out the COVID-19 crisis.
A pastor friend recently remarked that anonymous notes are almost always negative. But I received Monday an anonymous card with a Dairy Queen gift card enclosed. This provided the ice cream to go along with the beautiful rhubarb pie a dear friend baked for me. I love this church family, even if they are contributing to my “quarantine fifteen” weight gain.
I mention Thank You notes because we are studying one. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, among other things, is a note of thanks for gifts received to help him during his house arrest. We are, in essence, reading someone else’s mail. Even though these letters are not written to us, they are written for us. The passage we are studying today is the heart of Paul’s thank-you to the church and gives us one of the most quoted Bible passages of all time.
The Word of God from Philippians 4:10-20:
10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 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. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. 15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. 17 Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. 18 I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. 19 And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.
20 To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
We are so looking forward to Mother’s Day next week. My own mom has been able to worship with us throughout the entire lock-down and is watching this weekend, as well. She was a high school teacher before retirement and she was known for several things. One of them was a “Thought of the Day” that she wrote on the chalkboard each morning. She was a great collector of one-liners… little pithy sayings that made you think in a new way about life. She had two books published of that were compilations of her favorite one-liners. The other thing she was known for was posters. Her room was always full of funny or inspiring posters that she changed out often.
Philippians 4:13 is not only a pithy one-liner, but it may be the Bible verse that has appeared on the most posters. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” I have seen it on rock-climbing posters, baseball posters, basketball posters, and football posters. Evander Holyfield had Philippians 4:13 on his robe when he beat Mike Tyson (and when he was defeated by Reddick Bowe). Steph Curry has Philippians 4:13 on his shoes and Tim Tebow had it on his eye black.
It is such a positive statement. It starts with “I Can!” We often need to tell ourselves those words to meet a tough challenge. Like the Little Engine trying the climb the mountain, sometimes we just need to believe in ourselves.
But I don’t think Paul was trying to put emphasis on the “I can” part of the statement. We need to look at his words in context. It is often dangerous to pull a Bible verse out and slap it on a poster without understand the larger argument of which it is only a part. Paul was not jumping hurdles or making touchdowns. He was enduring House Arrest as he awaited his trial before Caesar.
Paul begins this section by commenting “at last” (v. 11) he had received gifts from the Church at Philippi. He was not disappointed in their timing, he was simply acknowledging that they wanted to send him help much earlier when they first heard of his House Arrest in Rome. They would have realized that he was confined to home and responsible for his own support even though he was in Roman custody.
Paul does not want his friends to feel bad about their timing. Although the gift was much appreciated, it was not essential that he receive it. Paul says he has learned a secret. “I have learned” means that there was a process of learning. There had been some trail and error. Many of the sweetest fruits in our lives grow over time. We aren’t usually born patient, for instance. It is a Fruit of the Spirit that grows through trials, setbacks, and tribulations.
Paul tells the Philippians that he has learned the secret of contentment.
He has had plenty and has been in want. He has slept on stone floors and feather beds. He has been hungry and well fed. He has lived in both the outhouse and the penthouse. Through it all, he has learned a tremendous secret to living. And Philippians 4:13 is that secret.
We put the emphasis on “I can.” Paul puts the emphasis on “through Christ who strengthens.” The apostle learned to not live on his own strength but the strength of Christ. I can do all things… tolerate all living conditions… because of the strength that Christ provides.
Maybe Philippians 4:13 should read, “I can tolerate all things through Christ who gives me strength.” My situation does not control me because my Savior sustains me. The strength of Christ will be mine as long my life belongs to him.
God loves to be trusted. Like a child might demonstrate trust by jumping into his father’s arms, Paul calls us to trust God for the strength to endure, even through circumstances that are less than ideal. My contentment flows from my relationship with God, not my outward circumstances.
We think about contentment as circumstantial: Do I have what I need to be happy? Paul wants the Philippians, and us, to begin to see it as relational. Paul’s secret is that he has a relationship that provides him with contentment even when his circumstances are not conducive to abundant living.
This peace and sustaining power is not just for apostles. Paul wanted them to know it is fully transferrable. He closes his Thank You note with these words:
“My God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.”
Do you see what Paul does there? MY God will meet YOUR needs. They can endure in the same way the Paul endures… through the power made available by the riches of Christ. We can have this relationship (and this contentment) too.
Instead of saying, “I can” maybe we should say “I will.” I will endure because he empowers and sustains me.
“My strength is always nearly gone, O Lord. But your strength has no limits. I thank you that I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. Like Paul, my contentment is not found in a set a circumstances, but in the relationship with you that your grace provides. And that relationship is enough today and forever. Amen.”