There’s a pastor I follow on Twitter named Derek Rishmawy. He writes for Christianity Today magazine. He’s Presbyterian, but he’s still okay. And I don’t know what exactly was happening in the news on February 7 at 10:25 a.m. when he posted this, but I suspect there was something that many people on Twitter were upset about, or complaining about, or worried about. There always is on Twitter. And so he tweeted this:
Wow, I just checked and it turns out it’s another excellent day to praise the Lord. The hits just keep coming!
I like that. Indeed, Paul himself writes, just a few sentences above today’s scripture, in verse 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” This means, according to Paul, we always have reason for joy no matter what’s happening in our lives or world.
In fact, the two scriptures I read a moment ago describe a kind of joy that is unshakeable… invincible… bullet-proof. There is no “kryptonite” out there that can destroy it, or defeat it, or cause it to fail. It doesn’t depend on circumstances. And if we have this kind of joy, it means that no matter what is going on in our lives or in the world at any moment—no matter what the Twitterverse is worked up about—we have access to joy, to contentment, to satisfaction.
Listen: As Paul writes these words, no one… literally no one… can accuse Paul of being some kind of naive, wide-eyed innocent when it comes to living in the “real world.” He had experienced evil up close and personal. He had suffered, physically, as few others have, at least on this side of the cross of Christ. For example, look at 2 Corinthians chapter 11: Imprisoned multiple times… Beaten and whipped countless times—often near death. Once he was stoned—as a means of execution—and left for dead. He had been shipwrecked three times… adrift at sea for a day and a night… On different occasions naked, hungry, thirsty… sleepless… and in constant danger.
And at the end of the Book of Acts we learn that Paul was under house arrest in Rome. We know from history that he would later be executed—beheaded—by the Romans on account of his faith. In fact, he wrote this letter to the Philippians while under house arrest. Which meant that he had a Roman guard chained to him 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No privacy… even to use the bathroom. It was humiliating, to say the least. Yet he could say, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
How is it possible to experience joy in the face of all that?
Let’s find out… In verse 10 Paul writes, “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me.” How exactly did the church at Philippi, to whom Paul was writing, “revive their concern” for Paul? They sent a man named Epaphroditus, a member of the Philippian church, to Paul in his Roman prison. Epaphroditus brought to Paul a large love offering from the church. And even though it was a poor church, the offering would have been substantial, otherwise it wouldn’t have been worth sending Epaphroditus such a long distance, from Greece to Rome. So why did Paul, in prison, need this money? As hard as it is to imagine in our day, when you were in prison back then, family and friends were responsible for providing for food and other provisions. The government didn’t pay for that. You were on your own. Paul
writes, “You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity”—by which Paul means, the Philippians had no opportunity until then to show that they were concerned.
Now we get to the heart of it, in verse 11: “Not that I am speaking of being in need”—in other words, he says, “Not that I’m complaining for a moment about these circumstances in which I find myself”—why? “[F]or I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”
In whatever situation, somehow Paul can be content? Wait… And not feel like complaining… and not feel like grumbling… and not feel resentful…?
After all, here Paul is, near the end of his life, languishing in prison—or so it seems. He’s a missionary, after all… the greatest missionary the world has ever seen! The resurrected Lord appeared to him, called him to bring the gospel to Gentiles scattered around the Roman empire—to start churches and get people saved. But he can no longer do the thing that he’s been called to do—or so it seems—because his freedom has been taken away from him. Forever! Through no fault of his own. It’s unfair. He did nothing wrong. In fact, he did everything right!
How easily—how easily—Paul could have fallen victim… to self-pity… to despair… to a sense of hopelessness… to anger. To say the least, he may not feel like “rejoicing in the Lord always.”
What about you, when it seems like circumstances are conspiring against you?
I shared this in my college Bible study last Thursday night… There’s a profoundly good book about suffering, called Man’s Search for Meaning, written by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a German psychiatrist in the 1930s, and a Jew, who spent years in Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau. His camp was liberated shortly before the end of the war, and he survived and had a long, influential career in the field of psychology. To say the least Frankl had seen some of the worst evil that humanity was capable of… up close. And he suffered greatly because of it, as did the people he loved. His own wife was killed in a different death camp. Yet even after experiencing and witnessing some of the worst evil this world has ever seen, the main argument in his book is this: No matter what circumstance you find yourself in, no matter what you’re facing in life, no matter what pain you’re enduring, you’re always given a choice. Each instance of suffering will do one of two things: it will either crush your spirits, making you bitter and mean, harming or destroying your soul. Or… it will provide you an opportunity to grow spiritually. The choice, he said, is yours.
I have a friend, who holds a Ph.D. from Emory, who’s a psychology professor at a university near Atlanta. He agrees with Frankl. He puts it like this: “Everyone experiences pain; it’s unavoidable. But suffering is a choice.” And by “suffering” he means experiencing the kind of pain that crushes our spirits and harms our souls.
When Paul writes, “I have learned in whatever situation to be content,” I believe he would agree with these thinkers. But because he also believes in God’s sovereignty—he has infinitely greater reasons for hope—and so do the rest of us Christians!
Let me show you just one small example—in Philippians—that demonstrates the way that God’s sovereignty gives us hope even in the midst of our suffering. If you have your Bibles—and you should—look with me at Philippians chapter 1, verses 12 and 13:
I want you to know, brothers [and sisters], that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.
I said earlier that Paul’s imprisonment seemed to be preventing him from fulfilling his calling to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. It seemed to be a major setback in his life and vocation—indeed a fatal one. Because Paul couldn’t do what he was called to do! That’s likely what some of his brothers and sisters in Philippi feared. But Paul says no. In fact, Paul says, he’s able to preach the gospel to the very Roman soldiers who were chained to him 24 hours a day, seven days a week! Imagine being handcuffed to the greatest gospel preacher who’s ever lived! These elite, imperial guardsmen—soldiers who reported to Caesar himself—were getting saved as a result of Paul’s witness.
So… you get the picture. Now turn back to Philippians chapter 4, to the very end of the letter—verses 21 and 22:
Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.
Hold on… did you catch that? The “saints… of Caesar’s household” greet you. Somehow, there are influential people on the inside of the household of the most powerful man in the world who are Christians. How did this happen? Connecting the dots between chapter 1 and chapter 4, it happened because Paul was chained to Roman soldiers who got saved through his witness… and these same soldiers, who reported to Nero Caesar, went and witnessed to people in close proximity and contact with Caesar. And they got saved. Do you see how unbelievable this is? Nero Caesar, who is going to put Paul to death in order to prevent this dangerous, subversive message about a crucified and resurrected Savior named Jesus from spreading any further, now has followers of this same Jesus working alongside him—and this happened only because he tried to rid his empire of the gospel message! By arresting Paul, Nero thinks he can keep Christianity from spreading out there, around his empire, when in fact—because he arrested Paul—he can’t even keep it from spreading among the people who are closest to him!
Who’s in charge here? Caesar? What a joke! God is in charge!
That is some impressive work on God’s part! Good job, Lord! It’s funny, when you think about it!
This is why Paul can say that what looks to the world like an apparent defeat for him is actually a great victory in disguise.
And if it’s true for Paul, brothers and sisters, it’s no less true for us present-day Christians! God isn’t any less involved and active in transforming our setbacks, our failures, our sins, our disappointments, our defeats into victory. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” More than conquerors… More than conquerors! If you feel like you’re losing right now, if you feel like your defeated right now, if you feel like you’re helpless right now, if you feel like you’re a victim of circumstances beyond your control, you just wait… just hang in there! Someone who loves you, who’s on your side, who has all the power in the universe at his disposal, is in your corner. Who do you think is in charge here? There may be a thousand reasons God is allowing you to go through what you’re going through—maybe you only see one or two, or maybe you don’t see any reason—but hang in there and keep on believing! And keep on praying! Because God’s reasons are good!
And as with Paul, God is working on some “victories in disguise” right now for you!
So God’s sovereignty is one part of the “secret” that Paul describes in verse 12. in which Paul has “learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” And it’s objective: here’s what God is doing, whether we can see it or not. But there’s another part of this secret.
Paul writes, in verse 12, “I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.”
I confess that for 36 years of reading this verse I never paid attention to the words “plenty” and “abundance.” Because, I thought, why on earth do I need to know the “secret of contentment” when it comes to having facing “plenty” and “abundance.” Plenty and abundance are great. Just give me those things, and I won’t need to be let in on any secret. I’ll just be content!
Maybe you’re like me. If so, we feel that way because at least a small part of us secretly believes that having “plenty” and having “abundance” are actually better than having Jesus—or at least as good. I mean, Jesus is a fine consolation prize when you’re down on our luck and have literally nothing else, but for the rest of us… who live in an affluent culture of plenty and abundance… we like having both… by all means, I want Jesus to save me and give me eternal life after I die… but I also want other things as well.
We read these words of Paul and breathe a sigh of relief that we’ve never faced “hunger and need,” as if “contentment in Christ” and the “sufficiency of Christ” are what we have to settle for when we don’t get the things you really want.
But if Paul’s words are true, finding contentment in Christ is just as hard when we have plenty and abundance as it is when we have hunger and want. Otherwise, there’s no “secret” to learn!
To put it another way, if we wonder how contentment is possible under circumstances of hunger and need, we should also wonder how it’s possible under the circumstances in which we usually find ourselves: circumstances of plenty and abundance. Because Paul doesn’t imply that one should be easier than the other, does he?
It’s not easier… Haven’t we all learned that the more stuff we get, the more stuff we want? And the more worried and anxious about our stuff we become?
No… The secret to contentment in either case—whether our earthly treasury is full or empty—the secret is the same… It is this: finding our real treasure in one place only: in Jesus Christ and the things that belong to him. This is the meaning of those two short parables that he tells in Matthew 13. See, when Paul found Jesus, he was like that plowman who found the treasure buried in the field. What does Jesus say? “Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” First Paul found joy, and then in his joy he sold everything he had to buy the field. Notice in both parables there wasn’t even a sacrifice. Jesus is totally worth it. He’s a bargain at any price! That’s how Paul felt. Because what does he say in Philippians 3:8—we looked at this a couple of weeks ago: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
Have you found Christ to be your treasure? That’s what we’re going to be focusing on this year with our motto—which is even on our new website now: “Treasuring Christ above all and helping others do the same.” I like this so much because it reminds us that we learning to treasure Christ, too, even as we help others do the same…