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Friday, October 18, 2013

Through Him who Strengthens Me

Don't you just hate those cherished verses that are so often yanked completely out of context and then applied completely out of place to unwarranted places? One of those is the famous Philippians 4:13 -- "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." Great! So now I know if I am afraid when I go to rob the bank, I have Jesus by my side to strengthen me. Right? I mean, isn't that what it says? Sure, if you're not concerned about context.
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I 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. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Phil 4:11-13).
As it turns out, of course, that is not the intent of the verse. Instead, the context is about learning to be content in every situation and every level of need. "I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound." How? Because Christ enables me to handle plenty and hunger, abundance and need. All of that is possible through Him who strengthens me.

Oh, see? Now we're not so sure we want that, right? I mean, do we really want to learn to be content in times of hunger and need? No! We want ... more!

In truth, I think we have some admiration for people who endure hard times. Oh, no, we don't want it. We just admire those who do it.

I wonder sometimes if, indeed, our bigger problem (as Americans, at least) is the opposite. Paul says that he has learned contentment. Notice that, apparently, it requires learning to be content ... both in plenty and in hunger. Oh, we get that it is hard to be content in hunger, but Paul is telling us that it is also hard to be content with a lot. And, after all, when you think about it, isn't that the case? Aren't we like Rockefeller1 who, when asked, "How much is enough?" would answer, "Just a little bit more"? While our current mode of operation is, too often, covetousness -- demanding what the others have because we have the right to it as well -- Paul calls it idolatry (Col 3:5).

Paul says he has learned a great secret: contentment. I think we have as much problem with comfort as we do with hardship. I think we need the enabling of Christ to learn how to be content in either. I think we could afford to take some time to learn that lesson of how to be content in any and every circumstance.

Or, as Paul puts it, "Godliness with contentment is great gain" (1 Tim 6:6).
1 A few more fascinating quotes from John D. Rockefeller:
Charity is injurious unless it helps the recipient to become independent of it.
Or how about:
We can never learn too much of His will towards us, too much of His messages and His advice. The Bible is His word and its study gives at once the foundation for our faith and an inspiration to battle onward in the fight against the tempter.
I particularly like this one:
There is nothing in this world that can compare with the Christian fellowship; nothing that can satisfy but Christ.
Bet you didn't see that coming, eh?


Marshal Art said...

The obvious conundrum here is whether or not being content means no longer striving for more. Should we reject all ambition in our everyday lives? We both know of one who would use (if not already has used) this passage to support "simple living". I don't dismiss the temptations of "laying up wealth", but I don't have any intention of putting God second to the task. How do you resolve this?

Stan said...

Thinking about this question, it strikes me that the question should be to ask the intent of the ambition. Am I seeking to "get ahead" (by that I mean to move from where I am to something better by whatever standard) so I can be better off, or is it for some other reason? If we are to do everything for the glory of God, being ambitious for God's glory would seem obviously a good thing. Seeking personal advancement for my own sake, on the other hand, sounds like greed or covetousness or ... you know, things the Bible doesn't look kindly on. So the question I would ask is the motivation for the ambition.

Marshal Art said...

I don't know how one can have ambition without some element of self in the mix. That's my issue. When I look for a better paying job, it is usually to provide a more comfortable living first, and through that more comfortable living I can afford more for others. In the meantime, how I achieve the goal is of great importance as it must align with Christian teaching. And by never losing sight of that teaching, one brings glory to God by our actions. That's my thinking. So, the motivation would be two-fold---more for me, but acquiring in a Christian manner.

This might sound a bit dicey, but the intention is balancing the desire to live well, which I believe is not necessarily in conflict with God's desire, with doing so in a manner pleasing to Him.

Stan said...

Yes, a bit dicey, I think. Sounds like the aim is to be greedy in a godly manner.

While it is certainly a human thing to want more, to be more comfortable, to be "better off", to amass wealth, and so on, I'm wondering on what biblical principle you would base such an intent?

Stan said...

Sorry, Marshall. Since my mother (among others) reads this stuff, I have a policy of not allowing profanity of any kind going on my blog. And since this particular format doesn't allow me to modify comments, I can't simply modify the profanity and keep the rest. So I couldn't put your comment up.

What is the difference between "greed" and "ambition"? The biblical term means most literally "not enough" or "to desire more". It says, first and foremost, "What I currently have is insufficient and I want more." Greed is typically the desire for more stuff. Ambition is the desire for more achievement. They are not significantly different. Greed carries with it the intense and selfish desire for more, and ambition does not necessarily include that. So the question that remains is the motive. Am I desiring more for me (which is greed) or am I desiring more for other than me (which is not greed)?

None of this necessarily classifies wealth as evil. I can't imagine what I said that would suggest such nonsense. Again, it is a matter of motive. I recently read about R. G. LeTourneau. He was a Christian who built earthmoving equipment and was rich. But LeTourneau wasn't rich for his own sake. He lived on 10% of his income and gave God 90%. He founded schools and did work in third world countries and used his wealth for the benefit of others to the glory of God. This cannot be classified as "greed".

I have a hard time correlating "I just want to have more, be better off, be more comfortable, etc." with "Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry" (Col 3:5). The command is predicated on "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth" (Col 3:2), and that is based on "For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col 3:3). This kind of "other world" life -- this "I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil 3:8) kind of life -- doesn't work in my head with "I just want a little more money and a little more power and a little more comfort."

Does "content" require no efforts to better yourself? I think the question is in reverse. If you never were better off, would you be discontent? If all you have was all you'll ever have, would that mean you would be dissatisfied? In Paul's terms, if you had more and lost it and never got it back, would that leave you discontented? I think the attitude Paul is referencing is not "I never want more" because Paul constantly prays for people and their needs. It is, "I am content with whatever God chooses to give me" while asking God for all He will give you. It may include seeking more (always for the glory of God) and even working hard for more (again, always for the glory of God), but there must be a sense that if I never get there, that's okay, too. That's how I understand it. I cannot understand "I want more for my own personal sake" over against either Paul's Philippians statement or against all the others that tell us that the world is not our home.