Three Antidotes to Anxiety

Posted by on May 23, 2015 in Discipleship, Featured

Three Antidotes to Anxiety

Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what discipleship is and how to embrace the Cross of Christ in all of life.

Discipleship-greenAntidote #3: Gentleness in Hope

Paul’s next instruction, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” (Phil. 4:5), directs our attention from the Lord, the source of our joy, to other people, who are often the source of our stress. The key term, which the ESV conveys as “reasonableness,” appears only five times in the New Testament. “Reasonableness” is an acceptable translation, but the NIV’s “gentleness” is better—or “clemency, graciousness, forbearance,” or even “magnanimity,” The term refers to the calm and kind disposition that enables a person to offer a nonviolent, even generous, response to others’ aggression. Aristotle explained “gentleness” as a willingness to forgo one’s own rights, according to the letter of the law. So this word nicely captures the thrust of Paul’s earlier exhortation about the way that Christians should treat each other: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (2:4). Elsewhere Paul uses this word to teach that elders must not be quarrelsome, but gentle (1 Tim. 3:3). All believers should be gentle rather than quarreling (Titus 3:2). Paul associates gentleness with meekness as displayed by Christ (2 Cor. 10:1).

Here Paul expands the circle of those to be treated “gently” beyond the borders of the church. We are to display such forbearing kindness to “everyone,” including those who are making our lives miserable. As children of a Father who sends sunshine and rainfall on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45), as brothers and sisters of the beloved Son who died for us while we were his enemies (Rom. 5:10), believers should extend kindness rather than retaliation to those who harass and oppress them.

Paul cinches this summons to gentleness with a promise, or a reminder, or both: “The Lord is at hand.” This brief statement can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, most recent interpreters understand it to refer primarily if not exclusively, to the eschatological “nearness” of Jesus’ second coming. Although no one knows the timing of Christ’s second coming, the New Testament assures us that our Lord will not needlessly delay, but will come “soon” (Luke 18:7–8; Rev. 22:7, 12, 20). James urged suffering believers to wait patiently, “for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:7–8). Paul has just reminded the Philippians that we “await” the future appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ from heaven (Phil. 3:20–21). Because our coming Lord will give joy beyond our wildest imaginations, we can now be gentle in hope.

On the other hand, Paul may intend us to understand “the Lord is at hand” as an assurance of Christ’s nearness to us even now through his indwelling Holy Spirit, as the psalmists affirm: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18; see 145:18). Paul has mentioned the heart-transforming work that God is performing in and among believers (Phil. 1:6; 2:12). So “the Lord is at hand” may motivate our gentleness by assuring us that, even now as we undergo injustices, we are not alone. Or Paul may intend “the Lord is at hand” to convey both truths: the Lord is near now by his Spirit, bringing aid in our sufferings, and he is coming soon in his glory, bringing suffering to an end.

Antidote #4: Praying with Thanks

Paul’s “let everyone see your gentleness” shows a better way to respond to trouble than lashing out at other people. Now his “replace worry with prayer” (Phil. 4:6–7) turns our hearts back toward God, urging us to approach him not with grumbling or questioning (see 2:14) but with gratitude and expectant petition. Paul is echoing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Having invited us to address God as “Our Father” (Matt. 6:9), Jesus went on to show that God’s children do not need to worry over life’s necessities:

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matt. 6:31–33)

Here Paul compiles a rich inventory of prayer-vocabulary—prayer, supplication, requests—to emphasize the freedom of access that is ours to bring every sort of concern to our Father. We “make our requests known” to him, obviously, not because he would be ignorant of them unless we informed him, but rather because speaking them aloud expresses our dependence and trust that he cares for us personally and delights in his children’s speech.

Notice the ingredient of “thanksgiving” that is to be blended with our requests. Gratitude preserves our prayers from going sour with complaint or degenerating into a list of self-centered demands. Thanksgiving is the natural response to a generous gift, freely bestowed. In polite society, we sometimes say, “thank you” just because it is expected. But real thanksgiving bubbles up from the heart when we are delighted by a gift beyond anything we expected, unearned and undeserved. That is the thanksgiving that must permeate our prayers as we bring our requests to the Father.

If we were to ask Paul the reasons to thank God, no doubt he could go on for hours. But if we asked him to pick the very best gift, he would take us to his explosion of amazement in 2 Corinthians 9:15: “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” He would explain that the gift that goes beyond words is God’s Son, Jesus, as he wrote to the Romans: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). So this antidote to anxiety is to feast your heart on God’s gracious gift of Christ to the point that you burst forth in thanks, as you bring your worrisome problems—rejection, resistance, recession, or relationships—to your loving heavenly Father. Rather than fretting like orphans left to fend for themselves, you can bring your griefs with your gratitude to God, confident that, whatever his answer on the particulars, his peace will guard your heart in Christ Jesus.

Antidote #5: Pondering Christ’s Character

The promises in Philippians 4:7 and 9, with the wordplay connecting “the peace of God” and “the God of peace,” show that Paul’s directives in 4:8–9 are linked to his previous summons to joy in the Lord, gentleness in hope, and prayer with thanksgiving. Moreover, these last two prescriptions for our worrywart hearts are bound to each other by their parallel structure: first a list, then a command “ponder these things” (4:8), and then another list, followed by “practice these things” (4:9).

Paul knows that the thoughts that occupy our minds and the images that capture our imaginations shape our characters and find expression in our behavior. As Israel’s ancient sage observed, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). Jesus confirmed that the heart’s secret thoughts are the fountain from which our outward actions flow (Mark 7:14–23). So Paul speaks first of letting our minds dwell on qualities that reflect the perfections of our Creator (Phil. 4:8), and then he calls us to practice the pattern that we have heard in the gospel and seen in those who live Christ-focused lives (4:9).

Paul tells us to think about, or to ponder, “whatever is true, … honorable, … just, … pure, … lovely, … commendable, … any excellence, … anything worthy of praise.” Many of these words are rare in Paul’s letters and in the New Testament as a whole. Although Paul uses the adjective true rarely, he often insists that God’s truth—God’s utterly trustworthy and accurate portrayal of reality—must control believers’ minds and, consequently, our behavior. Because “the truth … in Jesus” means that we have shed the control of deceitful desires, our legacy from the original Adam, and have been clothed with “righteousness and holiness” characterized by truth (Eph. 4:20–24), our conduct must follow suit: “having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor” (4:25). Paul uses honorable or its related noun six other times (and he is the only New Testament author to do so), always with reference to men and women whose spiritual maturity, dignity, and authority make them worthy of others’ respect.

In this context, just refers not to the legal standing that belongs to believers through Christ’s imputed righteousness (as Paul used a related noun in Philippians 3:9; see Rom. 1:17). Rather, it describes that which conforms to God’s perfect norm of equity. For example, masters must treat their slaves “justly and fairly” (Col. 4:1). What is “pure” is free from defilement or pollution. It includes sexual purity and fidelity (Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:2; and, metaphorically, 2 Cor. 11:2–3), but it extends well beyond the realm of sexuality. In Philippians 1:17 Paul used a related term to describe the unworthy motives of some who preached Christ “out of rivalry, not sincerely.”

Lovely appears nowhere else in the New Testament. Its uses elsewhere in ancient Greek suggest that it refers to the quality that warrants and attracts admiration. Similarly, commendable makes its only New Testament appearance here, although Paul once uses a related noun to describe the varying responses to his ministry, “through slander and praise” (2 Cor. 6:8).  Finally, Paul commends to our reflection “anything worthy of praise”—a term that he uses eight times elsewhere to refer to praise directed toward God (Phil. 1:11; Eph. 1:6, 12, 14) or toward human beings who deserve commendation (Rom. 2:29; 13:3; 1 Cor. 4:5; 2 Cor. 8:18; see 1 Peter 1:7; 2:14). Paul urges us to fix our thoughts on themes that are not only intrinsically virtuous because God approves them but also visibly virtuous, attracting the approval of human beings who care about integrity, purity, and justice.

Paul realizes that not everything that is considered “lovely” or “commendable” by society at large would meet with God’s approval, so he adjusts his grammar slightly at the end, calling us to exercise discernment: “if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” The term rendered “think about” is not the one that Paul has used so frequently in this epistle (phroneō), but instead one that expresses “taking into account” or assessing that which deserves approval. As we survey the virtues celebrated in society, we must blend our appreciation with discernment. Paul is applying complementary truths that Scripture teaches elsewhere: (1) though the human family is fallen and flawed by sin, God’s common grace still sustains even in unbelievers a sense of what is true, honorable, just, pure, and praiseworthy; yet (2) true virtue can be defined only by its supreme standard, the character of our infinitely holy Creator, revealed to us in his Scriptures and in his Son. Therefore, in the next verse, as Paul’s exhortation moves from thought to action, from pondering to practice, he places the common virtues just listed into the specific framework of the gospel of Christ.

Monday we’ll conclude this three-part series looking at the cure for anxiety.

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Living Without Worry How to replace Anxiety with Peace

Posted by on May 22, 2015 in Christian Living, Featured

Living Without Worry How to replace Anxiety with Peace
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downloadMany, many Christians struggle with anxiety and worry. Such struggles are not theoretical, they are very real. Worry and anxiety are struggles I know personally. Often times they can come on at the most inopportune time. Other times there are seasons where worry, anxiety, and depression come in like the tide and roll out with no fanfare. This is why when I read Living Without Worry How to replace Anxiety with peace by Dr. Timothy Lane I was greatly helped. Dr. Lane writes not only out of his considerable knowledge of this topic but also his many years as a biblical counselor, and professor.

The first six chapters look at worry—why not worry, what is worry, worry and your past, worry and your future, and worry and your present. Chapter seven looks at how to address worry in your own life while chapter eight helps readers to counter your worry with the gospel. Chapter nine helpful looks at how to cast all your cares on the Lord. Chapter ten looks at how Jesus viewed anxiety and worry. The book concludes with a gospel call to cast our cares on Jesus, the One who cares for us.

As I mentioned at the outset of this review, anxiety and worry are two issues I’m very familiar with. Life comes at us a million miles an hour. When these feelings come up in my own life rather than running away from them I run to Jesus with them. Part of being an emotional, and mentally healthy Christian is to take what we know in the Bible and apply it to our lives. When I feel feelings of worry and anxiety rather than dwelling on them I take seriously what Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-30 and what Paul teaches in Phillippians 4:6-8. The invitation of Jesus is to come to His throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). This means that rather than dwelling on all my problems which only breeds more anxiety and worry, I take them to Jesus the One who is our High Priest and Intercessor. After all, Jesus knows and cares. His invitation in Matthew 11:28-30 is for rest from our burdens. We can cast our burdens on Jesus because He serves as our High Priest and Intercessor. All of this is a biblical way of taking what we know from God’s Word and applying it to our lives.

Whether you are having intense of not so intense seasons of anxiety, worry, and depression you need godly friends around you to listen and care for you. This is one reason the New Testament teaches us to one another each other. Living in community, under qualified godly pastors and elders is also important. Being open and transparent with those you trust in your local church is also vital. After all, they can pray with you and encourage you. They can see, how you communicate your words and wrap an arm around you and care for you. They can remind you of the truth of the gospel. I’ve found all of this to be vital in fighting off anxiety, worry, and depression.

Yet, sometimes I’ve noticed in counseling other Christians is that we are so focused on earthly circumstances that we can’t listen. Our ears are stopped to hear what others are saying. Sometimes that is because of our pride. Most of the time though in my experience it is because we’re so focused on earthly things that we cannot fill our minds with heaven. In this case rather than filling our minds with God’s Word which is living and active and able to help lift us up out of our depression, anxiety, and worry—we instead choose to focus only on our problems. In this case, we’re choosing to be so focused on earthly things that we cannot be used for heaven. God wants us to fill our thoughts with heaven so that we’ll be of earthly good. This is what Living Without Worry does so well. It points us to God’s Word. It provides the means of the gospel as the only help for worry and anxiety. Sure, we may also need medication in some extreme cases for chemical imbalance. We are to look up to Jesus. He is what we need more than anything else. Jesus is our peace. He is our treasure. We are to trust Him who knows what is best for us and know that He will see us through. These aren’t just words. We are to truly believe these truths and to do battle as God’s soldiers since He’s given us His Spirit.

I highly recommend this book. Whether you are struggling with anxiety or worry this book will help you by pointing you to your greatest need in Jesus Christ. Jesus does care for you. He loves you. Read this book and be encouraged, and stirred up once again by way of reminder of the precious truth that Jesus will never leave you nor forsake you.

Buy the book at Amazon.

I received this book for free from The Good Book Company for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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Two Antidotes to Anxiety

Posted by on May 20, 2015 in Discipleship, Featured

Two Antidotes to Anxiety

Discipleship-green

Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what discipleship is and how to embrace the Cross of Christ in all of life.

Philippians 4:6-7, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Paul’s Christian friends at Philippi had things to worry about. They faced both external and internal threats to their peace and progress as heaven’s citizens, trekking as pilgrims through earth’s unfriendly terrain. From the outside, they were confronted by opponents whose intimidating aggression was daunting, putting at risk their courage to stand together. Paul, their spiritual father, was chained in Rome, awaiting the emperor’s life-or-death verdict. Back in Philippi, they, too, were engaged in the conflict that they had witnessed in Paul and Silas’s experience when their congregation was first planted. Within the church, individuals’ preoccupation with their own agendas jeopardized their unity of mind and affection toward each other. Earlier in his epistle, Paul had addressed suffering and the threat it poses to our joy and peace (Phil. 1:27–30). He also spoke to the problem of self-centeredness and its insidious effect on the unity of the church (2:1–4). For both problems, the apostle’s prescription was for believers to

There are two ways to handle the stresses of life. One approach comes “preloaded” at birth on the “hard drive” of our hearts. The other can come only from a radical change of heart and perspective, produced by the gracious intervention of God. The first approach is rooted in the desire to control the variables of our own lives through diligence, ingenuity, and hard work. Jesus’ servant Paul, however, writing God’s truth, commends to us a radically different approach to the troubles that tempt us to worry. Paul presents a far stronger antidote to anxiety than politicians’ promises, cheery self-coaching, or calming meditation. He directs his Philippian friends and us to a life-anchor that goes deeper than the surface storms of circumstances, even deeper than whatever emotional equilibrium we could muster through happy talk or mellow mantras or any other stress-management technique. Paul offers us an anchor that secures our well-being eternally in the life and love of the ever-living God. He commends to us the joy that he has found through having his life defined by Christ, his cross, and his resurrection power. From that joy flow calm gentleness, thankful prayer, and the pondering and practice of the character of Christ. The result is protection from worry through the peace of God, conveyed to our troubled hearts through the living presence of the God of peace.

As we listen to “Dr. Paul’s” prescription to remedy the anxiety that threatens our joy and peace, we must remember that Paul is not offering an ivory-tower theory from the armchair comfort of a tranquil university campus. He is writing from imprisonment, with the possibility of brutal execution on the horizon, and he writes to people who face real-world threats.

Antidote to Anxiety #1: Refocus on Your Faithful Lord

Paul’s parting directives—his parental “to-do” list for his spiritual children, now far from his fatherly eye—touch on a variety of themes: joy and gentleness, prayer, pondering, and practicing. Yet through them all, underlying each instruction, runs a motif that binds them all together: refocus on your faithful Lord.

The motif that pervades each “movement” of Paul’s parting instructions and binds them all together is the presence of the true, triune God in the lives of those who trust in Jesus. Notice how persistently in these few verses Paul mentions the God who has loved and rescued us through Christ: “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). “The Lord is at hand” (4:5). “Let your requests be made known to God” (4:6). “The peace of God … will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7). Even “what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me” (4:9) is the gospel, which is “preaching Christ” (1:15–18). And finally, “The God of peace will be with you” (4:9).

Through different variations, Paul keeps playing one tune: the antidote to anxiety is to have the living God deeply involved in your life. Whether he is addressing how to find emotional equilibrium in trouble (joy, Phil. 4:4), how to respond to those who reject or resist us (gentleness, 4:5), how to petition the Father (pray, 4:6–7), or how to cultivate Christ-centered “habits of the heart” (ponder, 4:8) and patterns of behavior (practice, 4:9), at every turn Paul shows us another facet of the anxiety-banishing constancy and compassion of our Creator and Redeemer.

Paul meets us at every turn with a reminder of the God of grace because he knows that our anxiety is not merely the product of poor coping strategies. It is symptomatic of misplaced trust. Anxiety shows that our hearts are so set on something that we are terrified of losing it, desperate to hold onto it for dear life. That “something” that we cannot bear to lose is our heart’s foundation, its “center of gravity.” Even good things—love, family, knowledge, success—cannot last through thick and thin because they are creaturely and finite.

Those who trust in Christ can face every threat and wound that this twisted world can inflict—“tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword,” death and life, things present and things to come, or “anything else in all creation”—because we are assured that nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35–39). Refocusing on your faithful Lord, treasuring Jesus and his grace as your life’s foundation imparts joy and gentleness, enabling us to combat worry by praying with gratitude, by pondering Christ’s character, and by practicing the pattern of gospel-shaped conduct.

Antidote #2: Joy in the Lord

Joy is interwoven like a golden thread throughout this letter from prison. Paul prays with joy over his Philippian friends (Phil. 1:4). He is filled with joy when others preach about Jesus, even from unworthy motives (1:18). His friends’ unity of heart will fill up his joy (2:2). Even if death for Jesus’ sake is imminent, Paul rejoices and wants his friends to join his rejoicing (2:17–18). Though he was content when funds were few, he rejoiced when the Philippians’ contribution arrived (4:10). Paul has commanded his beloved brothers in Philippi to rejoice “in the Lord” (3:1), identifying the deep well from which joy springs, whatever the vicissitudes of life’s surface circumstances. Now in Philippians 4:4 he explicitly states that Christians can and must rejoice “in the Lord” and do so “always.” Because our joy is rooted “in the Lord” who will never leave us, we are to rejoice at all times and in all circumstances.

Paul may have in mind the song that closes Habakkuk’s prophecy. That prophet was upset that the wicked in Judah seemed to escape justice. God promised to punish unfaithful Judah through an even more evil empire, Babylon, but that only compounded Habakkuk’s distress. Yet Habakkuk also received good news, “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4); so his oracle closed with a song of joy, even in adverse circumstances:

Though the fig tree should not blossom,

nor fruit be on the vines,

the produce of the olive fail

and the fields yield no food,

the flock be cut off from the fold

and there be no herd in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord;

I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Hab. 3:17–18)

It is natural to link our happiness and hopes to juicy figs and ripe olives on trees, sweet grapes on vines, wheat in fields, sheep in folds, cattle in corrals, a robust stock portfolio, or a healthy retirement account. But a moment’s thought shows how fleeting all such resources are. Habakkuk knew that what lasts through boom and recession, success and bankruptcy, is the commitment of God to his people. So does Paul.

Rejoicing in the Lord does not mean that we never experience sadness or grief over loss. Paul himself felt sorrow over Epaphroditus’s almost-fatal illness (Phil. 2:27) and wept over those who behaved as enemies of the cross (3:18). Paul was no Stoic, coolly shielding his composure from the ebbs and flows of emotion, keeping people and their problems at arm’s length. The Stoics, a prominent school of Greek philosophy in Paul’s day, commended and embraced the virtue of apatheia, “lack of feeling.” Such a cool intellectual aloofness, the Stoics believed, insulates individuals from the wide range of emotions from pleasure to pain. What Paul is commanding, however, is completely different from the Stoics’ anesthetized emotional life. Biblical joy, as God commands it, is compatible with the whole spectrum of emotions that fit the range of situations that confront us in this sin-stained world. Pastor Keller is right:

“Rejoicing” in the Bible is much deeper than simply being happy about something. Paul directed that we should “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4), but this cannot mean “always feel happy,” since no one can command someone to always have a particular emotion. To rejoice is to treasure a thing, to assess its value to you, to reflect on its beauty and importance until your heart rests in it and tastes the sweetness of it. “Rejoicing” is a way of praising God until the heart is sweetened and rested, and until it relaxes its grip on anything else it thinks it needs.”

To “rejoice in the Lord” is to resist the instinct to focus on visible pleasures and problems. It is to concentrate our minds deliberately on treasuring the Lord Jesus Christ, to focus thought on his majesty and mercy, his purity and power, to “see and savor the glory of God in the face of Christ” until our hearts are profoundly persuaded that he really is all we need in every situation.

Next post: Three Antidotes to Anxiety.

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Self-Sufficiency, True Christian Contentment and the Sufficiency of Christ

Posted by on May 19, 2015 in Discipleship, Featured

Self-Sufficiency, True Christian Contentment and the Sufficiency of Christ

Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what discipleship is and how to embrace the Cross of Christ in all of life.

Discipleship-greenPreviously I wrote an article on contentment. Today we’ll continue looking at contentment exploring it’s depths and what it means for us. In Philippians 4:13 Paul provides another dimension of what he means by contentment when he says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This verse is not God’s blank check signed and waiting for you and I to fill in the amount of strength I want, to achieve impossible deeds. The “all things” that Paul can handle in verse 13 are the range of situations that he has just described in verse 12. Where we read “in any and every circumstance,” the Greek says “in each thing and in all things”—in the whole range of situations, from being stuffed to being starved, from riding high to crawling low.

Although Paul’s “I can do all things” declaration is not God’s carte blanche for youthful delusions of grandeur, the apostle’s words cast a very distinctive light on the meaning of contentment for those who trust Christ. The fact is that Christ’s apostle has borrowed the word content from the ancient Stoic philosophers, and then twisted it inside out. The word’s origin and its contemporary usage gave it the meaning “self-sufficient.” It conveyed the ideal of self-contained independence that Stoicism advocated. The Stoics claimed that the wise person realizes that every experience, whether pleasurable or painful, is part of an interconnected matrix permeated by Reason. Thus, it is pointless to resent illness or injustice. The key to contentment said the Stoics, was to become emotionally self-sufficient by insulating oneself from the variables of pain and pleasure. One scholar sums up the Stoic conception of contentment this way: “By the exercise of reason over emotions, the Stoic learns to be content. For the Stoic, emotional detachment is essential in order to be content.” Whereas the Stoics believed that intellectual aloofness could provide protection from emotional distress, Paul refuses to insulate his heart from sorrow by keeping people and their hurts at arm’s length. He rejoices with people and weeps over them.

Moreover, here he twists the Stoics’ favorite term, self-sufficiency, inside out. His capacity to handle life’s ebbs and flows is not self-generated. It comes from outside Paul, from “him who strengthens me.” Paul’s contentment is found not in self-sufficiency, but in Christ’s sufficiency. Paul has learned the secret of real contentment, which was portrayed beautifully by the prophet Jeremiah:

Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,

whose trust is the Lord.

He is like a tree planted by water,

that sends out its roots by the stream,

and does not fear when heat comes,

for its leaves remain green,

and is not anxious in the year of drought,

for it does not cease to bear fruit. (Jer. 17:7–8)

How can a tree keep its green leaves in the summer heat and bear fruit in years without rainfall? Not because the tree itself contains an internal spring of water, but because it is planted by a flowing stream. If you are trusting in Jesus Christ, you are this stream-irrigated tree, just as Paul was.

Christ himself is Paul’s source of strength. Elsewhere the apostle speaks of “him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Tim. 1:12; see Col. 1:28–29). Paul is far from self-sufficient, but the all-sufficient Christ is Paul’s source of strength. Paul has just promised that “the Lord is at hand” and “the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:5, 9). Because Paul knows the nearness of Christ even in his captivity, Paul can receive whatever God’s providence brings his way, whether painful or pleasant, with a deep joy “in the Lord.” How can we learn the secret and skill of Christian contentment that sustained Paul?

Contentment Is a Learned Skill and a Shared Secret

In verses, 11 and 12 Paul uses four verbs to communicate how he has acquired the contentment that enables him to rejoice in the Lord in plenty or in want. He writes:

“I have learned …

I know …

I know …

I have learned the secret.”

The double occurrence of “I know” shows the result of the learning process indicated in the first and fourth verbs—“I have learned” and “I have learned the secret.” Paul can say, “I know how to be brought low” and again “I know how to abound” because he has gone through a learning process and been initiated into a secret that gives him a Christ-centered perspective on his fluctuating situation.

The fact that Paul has “learned” contentment shows that his calm response to life’s ups and downs is a skill honed through practice. The author to the Hebrews uses the same term, writing that Christ Himself, “although he was a son, learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). The eternal Son of God entered the world ready to fulfill the Father’s will (10:5–10), but His holy resolve was tested and proved through His obedient suffering. In this sense He “learned” in practice what obedience entailed, and what it cost. Christ-centered contentment is not preinstalled on our hearts, like a software program preloaded into a new computer. Nor is Christian contentment injected in a single dose, as though it were a vaccine that could make us immune to a complaining spirit. It takes practice. Contentment grows over time, as we face adverse situations—in finances, health, relationships, or other areas—and seek Christ’s strength to release our grip on his gifts, while we strengthen our grasp on his grace.

Yet cultivating Christian contentment is not merely a matter of following an exercise regimen to reprogram our attitudes. Contentment is a secret that has been shared with Paul by Another. Our version’s “I have learned the secret” represents a single Greek word, which could also be translated “I have been initiated.” This is the only place in the whole New Testament that this word appears. In Paul’s day it was associated with the bizarre initiation rituals of the pagan “mystery religions.” (In fact, the verb is related to the Greek noun mystērion, from which we get mystery in English.)

The mystery of the gospel is an “open secret” concerning public events: Jesus, the Son of God, became man, lived a perfectly obedient life, then died a criminal’s death under God’s wrath (not for his own sins but for others’ offenses), rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, rules now, and will return in glory. There it is, God’s most wonderful secret, right out there on the open market … no passwords, no secret handshakes, no going down into a pit to be showered with the warm blood of a freshly slaughtered bull as in Mithraism.

Paul implies that there is a secret to contentment, a code to be cracked that will enable you to weather the best of times and the worst of times. Contentment in Christ is a kind of “insider knowledge.” Yet the great here is that it can be known can simply by believing the very public gospel that Paul preached—by entrusting your life to the crucified and risen God-man, Jesus the Messiah. Christ, Himself is the secret to contentment—not a mystical Christ hidden behind secret rituals or visionary experiences, but the historical Jesus who lived and died and rose again, who is now proclaimed openly among the nations. The better we get to know Christ, the more we discover that He is the One who satisfies our hearts.

Food and shelter are necessities for existence on this earth. Extra food and comfortable shelter, as well as cars and computers and the other extras that many of us enjoy—these are not necessary, but they are nice. Yet none of this can quench your heart’s thirst because, at the core of who you are, you were made for friendship with the living God. When you’re tempted to think that there is something else, anything else, that you “just have to have” to make life worth living, that is the time to remind yourself of the secret. By faith in the gospel of God’s Son, you have been initiated as an “insider.” You are in on the secret. You have Christ at the center of your life, and in the end he is all that you need!

Contentment Entails Exerting Strength

Does all of this sound like too facile and cheap a solution to the real-world shortages and crises that keep you awake at night? Is Paul simply offering an ancient form of “happy talk”? No, Paul is a sober realist, and his closing word on contentment, before he resumes his thanksgiving for the Philippians’ gift, shows that the contentment he commends requires that we flex the mental and spiritual muscle that Christ has given us by his indwelling Spirit: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).

Christ is the source of Paul’s strength and ours, but we must not ignore Paul’s “I can do”—or, as Paul’s Greek says, “I have power” or “prevail over” every circumstance. Paul uses a term that has “strength” built into it in order to remind us that Christian contentment is not a sedative. Christian contentment is something that we fight for. We must exert effort to wage war against the temptation to complain, to envy others, to fixate on what is uncomfortable and inconvenient and downright wrong in our circumstances. We strive to focus instead on the faithfulness and mercy and strength of our God. Paul flexes his mental muscle to remind himself often that in Christ he already has the supreme treasure, and that he is racing toward a goal that will mean an even greater experience of His Savior’s grace and glory. And again, Paul is not striving in his own strength or racing in his own energy. The key to his patience in the present and his hope for the future is the presence of the Christ who gives him strength.

Conclusion

How can you follow Paul’s lead, winning the war over both Anxiety and Discontent, even in financially tight times? Focus your mind on the truth that, if you are trusting in Jesus, the living God is with you and at work in you, through the unseen but very real and very powerful presence of the Holy Spirit (Phil. 1:19).

The more you direct your heart toward Christ’s presence and power, the less you will waste your mental and emotional energy on the stuff that doesn’t last. You will be able to keep a light grip on what you do have, and you won’t fret over what you don’t have. God will keep the amazing promise that Paul issued just before our text, “The God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9). And you will want to invest the resources that He does entrust to you in ways that enable others to see in you glimpses of the generosity of Jesus Himself and the contentment that He imparts to those who trust him wherever He leads, whether through plenty or through poverty.

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