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Being Unhappily Content

October 2, 2011
Do All Things

The Text

10I rejoiced in the Lord greatly
that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed
concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11Not that I am
speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.
12I 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. 13I can do all things through him who
strengthens me.
   (Philippians 4:10-13 ESV)

A Closer Look at the Text

Doing All Things. Verse 13 helps us to understand much of the rest of
the book of Philippians (including verses 10 to 12): I can do all things through
him who strengthens me.
But verse 13 has been one of the most misunderstood
passages in the entire Bible. I have heard the expression “I can do all
things through Christ who strengthens me” used as an incantation to ward
off poverty, sickness, violence and any number of other conditions and
calamities. It is a verse that has been used to foster heresy and hubris. If
there was ever a handy verse that might be used by false teachers to inject
paganism into Christianity, this has been the verse. Indeed, an entire movement
of pseudo-Christianity, sometimes referred to as the “name it and claim it
and hang it and frame it” crowd, has grown up around this verse. By
contrast, in 1883 Charles Simeon suggested that for a follower of Christ, the “all things”
Philippians 4:13 ought to be understood in terms of enduring all trials,
mortifying all flesh and fulfilling all duties … not in terms of living well
by doing well.

Do All Things

Verse 13, in turn, revolves around five
words: I can do all things. What are the all things? And how do we do
them? The best way to understand these five words is to consider their meeting
in the original Greek language. The English words “I can do” are
expressed in a single word in Greek, ischyō,
which does not mean “I can accomplish” or “I can succeed
at.” Instead, this Greek word means “I can prevail” or “I
am able.” It has more to do with being strong and being able to endure,
then it does with achieving a particular results. It speaks the strengths of
the person, not to his or her accomplishments. It is this sense of the word ischyō
that is reflected in the translations “I am able” (BBE) or “I
have strength for” (DBY, Weymouth, Young’s).

“All things,” in turn, translates a single Greek word, pas.
It is important to look at the context of that word, since in some cases pas
refers to each and every unit of the whole (as in Matthew
), and in other cases pas refers to all of a specific category —
or to specific circumstances — within the whole (as in Matthew
, since there were no sicknesses presented to Jesus that He could not
or did not heal, but He did not cure all sickness within the region). If verse
13 is read with the former understanding, the passage makes no sense, because
no one person can do all things without exception. If verse 13 is read with the
latter understanding, it makes perfect sense that the word “all”
refers to those categories that Paul refers to in the preceding verses.

A full and proper rendering of verse 13,
then, might be: “I have the strength to face and endure all of these types
of situations.” Or, as Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph Philip Martin
translated the Greek in their Philippians commentary, “I have the power to face all such situations in union
with the One who continually infuses me with strength.” This reliance upon
the strength and power Christ in the face of life’s circumstances, is entirely
different from any false pretense that somehow we are entitled to summon Christ
and require Him to empower us to overcome and control life’s circumstances.

Being Content.  Being content is, for Paul, learned behavior (verse
12). Autarkēs, the Greek word for “content” used here, connotes a confident
acceptance, not a reluctant or begrudging acceptance, of life’s circumstances. Paul’s
confidence is “through him” (v. 13), that is, through Christ, from
Christ, and for the sake of Christ.

Some Observations about the Text

Happiness and Contentment.  In an earlier post I pointed to some
definitions of elation, gladness and joy
. Here at Philippians 4:11, Paul
discusses another emotional state, contentment. Is contentment equal to
gladness or joy? Or happiness? Is contentment the same as happiness, or, is
contentment merely one requirement (among several) for happiness?

A few of these questions were considered in an interesting paper by Thomas Carson,
published in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly. Carson
differentiates between “being pleased” (which he associates more
directly with notions of happiness) and “being content” (which might
be necessary for happiness, but is not entirely sufficient for happiness).
Based on this understanding, a person could be content with something (or with
life in general) without necessarily claiming that they are “happy.”
Contentment is not the same as happiness. Carson
suggests that contentment involves the “relative absence of negative
assessments and feelings about the thing in question.”

Learning to be Content.  Carson
also suggests that contentment involves a willingness to accept things the way
they are, even if things are not perfect. Carson offers the proposition that a
person can be said to be “perfectly” contented with something if and
only if he is not disposed to make unfavorable assessments of it, he is not
disposed to feel dissatisfied with it, and he would not prefer it to be any
different than he believes it to be.

When we assess something, including the
circumstances of our life, we tend to measure it against something else. Often
that something else involves expectations. Expectations that are often
associated with what we have been taught since our earliest days: you can be
anything you want to be; you can get an education and have a career and a
successful life; you can find your true love and get married and live happily
ever after. Or, in the words of a typical early Disney song,

“When you wish upon a star / Makes no difference
who you are / Anything your heart desires / Will come to you.”

It’s amazing how relative our expectations are.
Some of the most obviously content people I have met in my life, live in the
most desolate and poor conditions, such as in squatter camps along Mexico’s
northern border, or in the La
Carpio barrio
alongside the municipal dump in San Jose Costa Rica. By
comparison, some of the most discontented folks I have known live in relative
luxury. As Robert Rector points out from time to time, even
the poor in the United States are rich by most world standards
… but
wealth has never been correlated with contentment.

And so a part of learning to be content,
involves a reassessment of life’s circumstances in light of standards that are
more realistic and more appropriate than those we might have learned in our
youth. This doesn’t mean that we give up on our dreams and goals; it does
however mean that we do a reassessment of some sort.

For followers of Christ, that reassessment involves allowing God to shape our
dreams and goals so that they are God-honoring rather than people-pleasing. For
example, Steve Cole defined contentment as “an inner sense of rest or peace that
comes from being right with God and knowing that He is in control of al that
happens to us. It means having our focus on the kingdom of God
and serving Him, not on the love of money and things. If God grants us material
comforts, we can thankfully enjoy them, knowing that it all comes from His
loving hand. But, also, we seek to use it for His purpose by being

Gospel Apologetics

In this passage Paul acknowledges two Christian duties: a duty to learn to be content, and a duty to
rely on Christ to enable us to walk through all of the circumstances that God
places before us. Our effective witness to the world requires this. If we do
not learn to be content (that is, if we continually grumble and question, Philippians
), we are denying the hope of the Gospel. And if we do not faithfully
rely on God as we face life’s circumstances, we are again denying our hope and
trust in our sovereign Lord. In both cases, we cloud our witness and reduce the
chances that we’ll be questioned about our faith by those seeking hope (1
Peter 3:13-17

Audio MP3 Discussion of this post is available here.

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