Learning the Secret of Contentment

Over 2000 years ago (in 35 B.C.), the Greek philosopher Horace stated, “We rarely find anyone who can say he has lived a happy life, and who, content with his life, can retire from the world like a satisfied guest.”  Centuries later, the Rolling Stones expressed that sentiment for an entire generation of Americans when they sang, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

But in Philippians 4:11-12, the apostle Paul asserted that he had learned the secret of contentment despite all obstacles: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”

If there is a secret to contentment, and if Paul has found it, what is this secret?

In Philippians 4:8-14, Paul describes three key components of this secret:

1: Exchange “if only’s” for gratitudes.  These verses make the point that we find no contentment in life when we complain that we would be happy “if only….”  Instead, contentment is found when we express what we are grateful for.

Paul was raised in affluence.  He came from a well-to-do Jewish family by which he enjoyed the honor of belonging to the Jewish inner-circle as well as the privileges of Roman citizenship. Paul was an up-and-rising star in the Jewish community.  But then he became a Christian, and some would say that it was all downhill for Paul from that point on.  He experienced intense rejection from those who had previously admired him.  He was chased out of city after city, beaten with rods three times, flogged at least five times, shipwrecked three times, stoned once, exposed to death again and again, and imprisoned repeatedly.  In similar circumstances, others might have complained, “I could have been happy in life if only I had stayed with the popular route of life” or “if only I had not encountered so many adversaries” or “if only God had done a better job of protecting me.”  But, instead of saying, “If only,” Paul expressed what he was grateful for.  Specifically, Paul was grateful for the care of the Philippians and the provisions of God.  He said, “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me…. It was kind of you to share my distress” (verses 10 & 14).  And he said, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” 

Paul found contentment not through completing an “if only” list, but by finding satisfaction in the life he had.  Steve Brown explains, “The most unhappy person in the world is not someone who didn’t get what he or she wanted.  The most unhappy person is the one who got what he or she wanted and then found out that it wasn’t as wonderful as expected.  The secret of a happy life is not to get what you want but to live with what you’ve got.  Most of us spend our lives concentrating on what we don’t have instead of thanking God for what we do have.  Then we wake up, our life is over, and we missed the beauty of the present.” 

2: Watch where you place your head. 

Parents of a baby who is beginning to crawl know that their child explores life through taste.  Babies put everything they touch into their mouths.  Caring parents, therefore, are careful not to put their child on the ground beside the city dump, where sanitation workers have just dumped today’s collection of garbage.  Parents understand that many items in the city dump would not be safe tor their child to put into her mouth, so they will not set their child down in such a dangerous location.

What about our hearts and minds?  Do we pay attention to the dangers around us?  Do we guard ourselves from setting our minds near spiritual dumps where our souls might be injured or poisoned?  Or are we careful to surround our minds with those things that are good and safe and healthy.  Verse 8 stresses, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable,  whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” 

3: Put into practice what you have learned. 

In verse 9, Paul instructs us, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” 

Over and over and over again in Scripture, God makes it clear to us that our faith is to be active, that we are to put our energy into living out what we believe.  That’s why Paul calls us to “keep on doing” what we learn and receive and hear and see.  Susanna Wesley says it powerfully, “There are two things to do about the gospel—believe it and behave it.” 

Verse 9 promises that as we do so “the God of peace will be with [us].”  The presence of the God of peace is closely tied to experiencing the secret of contentment.  As we put our faith into practice, we experience the closeness of the God of peace, and we find the secret of contentment. 

An anonymous saying reads, “If you are not getting much out of the Christian life, it may be because you have not very much invested in it.”  If we want to “get much out of the Christian life,” if we want to experience the peace of God from the God of peace, and if we want to experience the secret of contentment even in trying times, we need to be serious about putting into practice what we learn in the Scriptures.  

Stop Being Pummeled by Worry

Do worries ever keep you awake at night?

Do you ever find yourself feeling afraid about what the future might hold?

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by pressures weighing down on you?

Do you ever try to escape from the pressures in your life through alcohol, drugs, food, shopping, pornography or television?

Do you find yourself feeling cynical or depressed about life?

Do you find yourself acting irritably toward others?

Do you struggle with high blood pressure, ulcers or chronic illness? 

Unaddressed or mishandled anxiety causes severe damage to our soul and to our health.  In the book Anxiety, Disorders and Phobias, Dr. Aaron Beck points out, “Worrying is costly.  It can lead to health problems, impaired concentration, and much wasted time.”  Charles Swindoll puts it more harshly: “I have never seen a gravestone that reads, ‘He died of worry.’  But some of them ought to read that way.”  Corrie ten Boom adds, “Worry does not empty tomorrow of sorrows; it empties today of strength.” 

How might we best address our struggles with anxiousness?

Philippians 4:6-7 offers this prescription: “Do not worry 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.”

At first sight, this counsel does not appear to be very helpful.  How often has anyone’s anxiety ever been alleviated simply by someone telling them not to worry about it?

But when we dig more deeply into these verses we find wisdom and help.  To understand the counsel of these verses, it helps to understand a bit about ancient Greek grammar.  When Paul wrote these words, there were two ways he could have expressed a prohibition: he could have used the aorist subjunctive form of the verb or the present imperative form of the verb.

The aorist subjunctive form was used to prohibit a particular act from even beginning.  For example, I might say to you, “Don’t hit me!”  An aorist subjunctive form of “don’t hit” would imply, “Don’t lay a hand on me!  Don’t throw a single punch in my direction!” 

The present imperative, on the other hand, would be used to forbid the continuance of an action, especially an action that is already in progress.”  For example, a boxer in the ring who is losing the fight might throw up his hands and shout, “Don’t hit me!”  This time he would be implying, “I can’t take anymore.  I give up.  Please stop what you have been doing to me.”  

That’s the difference in what we find here.  This verse is not saying to us, “I forbid you from ever having a worrisome thought.”  The verse is calling us not to keep getting punched around by worry, not to keep on loitering in anxiety.

But how do we stop loitering in anxiety?

Philippians 4:6 offers us an alternative to the continual pummeling of worry.  It tells us, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  Rather than holding within us worries that keep punching away at us, we are invited to present our worries to God in prayer.  And verse 7 follows this invitation up with a promise: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” 

These verses paint a picture of anxiety banging at the door of our soul, screaming at us to let it in.  I can’t take the incessant knocking and screaming, so I give in.  I open the door.  I allow anxiety to invade my soul and to set up his home within me.  But Philippians 7 reminds me that with the indwelling Spirit of Christ in my soul, I have a Guard who can protect me from the attack of anxiety.  Presenting our requests (our prayers) to God is like going to the Guard and asking the Guard to handle the one who keeps pounding on the door.  After many years of habitually opening the door to anxiety, I am often inclined to squeeze past the Guard and to open the door to worry, but I am far better off when I step away from that habit and ask for help from the one who has come to guard my heart. 

Facing Church Conflict

In the many letters the apostle Paul wrote to churches in Europe and Asia and to three different individuals, Paul requested “help” just one time.  When Paul learned of a conflict in the church in Philippi between two women—each of whom Paul affirmed as individuals who had “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel”—Paul asked his “loyal companion” to “help these women.” 

What were Euodia and Syntyche fighting about? 

I wish I knew the juicy tidbits about their conflict.  I would have enjoyed hearing the gossip that was going around about these two women.  But Paul does not dangle any juicy tidbits in front of us.  He doesn’t tell us any of the gossip because it is none of our business. 

Here is the first lesson we can learn about how to deal with conflict in the church: Avoid gossip.  Speak the truth in love to the appropriate persons.  Dr. A.B. Simpson warns, “I would rather play with forked lightning, or take in my hands living wires with their fiery currents, than speak a reckless word against any servant of Christ, or idly repeat the slanderous darts which thousands of Christians are hurling on others, to the hurt of their own souls and bodies.”

Paul urges Euodia and he urges Syntyche to “be of the same mind in the Lord.”  Paul does not try to persuade them to agree on the particulars of the issue they are in conflict over.  They might always disagree over those matters.  But Paul urges them to find their common ground in the Lord.  In essence, he calls upon both of them to remember that they are both sinners who are in need of Christ’s forgiveness, that Christ died upon the cross for both of them, that the Holy Spirit has come to indwell the soul of each of them, and that each of them is now a precious daughter of the heavenly Father.

Here is the second lesson we can learn about how to deal with conflict in the church: Focus more of our time, attention and energy on our common ground (what we share together in Christ) than on what divides us.  In any conflict we encounter with a fellow believer, remember this: We both owe our lives to the same Savior, and we are both loved by the same Savior.  We may disagree about other things but we can be united in this: our bond in Christ.  

After urging Euodia and Syntyche to “be of the same mind in the Lord,” Paul calls upon his “loyal companion” to “help these women.”  Biblical scholars make guesses as to who this “loyal companion” may have been, but Paul does not tell us.  What we do know is this: Wherever there is conflict, there are hurting people, and hurting people need persons who will care for their wounds.  Paul wants to make sure that these hurting women are cared for, so he recruits the right person to meet the need.  And I find it significant that Paul does not just ask this “loyal companion” to help straighten out the mess in Philippi.  Paul cares about the individuals, so Paul asks his companion to “help these women.” 

Here is the third lesson we can learn about how to deal with conflict in the church: Find help for those who are hurting.  In the midst of conflict, let’s remember that people get hurt, and let’s keep an eye out for those who need care.  If, for whatever reason, we cannot provide that care, let’s do what we can to recruit the right person to care for those who are hurting. 

Don’t Stop Growing

John Newton, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, once said, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.” 

This strikes me as a great statement for Christians to cling to, for it reminds us that God is in the business of continually growing us and changing us until our growth comes to completion “in another world,” while all along the way we are loved and accepted “by the grace of God.”

As I reflect upon Newton’s quote though, I am struck by the realization that the apostle Paul would never have said such a thing…prior to coming to Christ.

The earlier part of Paul’s life was lived in the conviction that he did not need to change because he had carefully ticked off the necessary religious requirements.  The issue for Paul was not the kind of person he was becoming and whether his life bore the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  The issue for Paul was the satisfaction of religious requirements, and he could proudly announce that he had done his duty.  

From the evidence of Scripture, when Paul began the Christian life, he did not exhibit much love, joy, peace, patience, or kindness.  Having lived as a Pharisee, his early Christian life still exhibited the fruits of judgmentalness, confrontation, and argumentativeness.  Right away, in Damascus, he got into such arguments that “the Jews plotted to kill him,” and the Christians had to sneak him out of town (Acts 9:23-25).  When he arrived in Jerusalem, the arguments started again, and the Hellenists “were attempting to kill him” (Acts 9:29).  It was only when the disciples shipped Paul off to Tarsus, we are told, “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up” (Acts 9:30-31).  Even after beginning his missionary career, Paul got into such a heated conflict with Barnabas (who was given the nickname “Son of Encouragement” and who had come to Paul’s rescue when the apostles had feared being associated with him—Acts 9:26-27) that they disbanded their missionary team and went different ways. 

But as Paul progressed in the Christian life, he came to understand that he was ‘not what he ought to be, and was not what he wanted to be, and was not what he hoped to be in another world, but was not what he used to be, and by the grace of God he was who he was.’ 

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote about his desire to keep growing: “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” 

The Christian life is never about stagnation, but it always about change, about the character of Christ growing in us.

In First Things First, A Roger Merrill tells of a business consultant who decided to landscape his yard.  He hired a woman with a doctorate in horticulture who was extremely knowledgeable.  Bill Norman summarizes what happened: “Because the business consultant was very busy and traveled a lot, he kept emphasizing to her the need to create his garden in a way that would require little or no maintenance on his part.  He insisted on automatic sprinklers and other labor-saving devices.  Finally she stopped and said, ‘There’s one thing you need to deal with before we go any further.  If there’s no gardener, there’s no garden!’”  Bill Norman then applies this story to the Christian life: “There are no labor-saving devices for growing a garden of spiritual virtue.  Becoming a person of spiritual fruitfulness requires time, attention, and care.”  This is why Paul speaks of pressing on toward the goal; this is why Paul calls us to keep growing.

 We may not be what we ought to be or what we want to be or what we hope to be in another world, but we are not what we used to be.  In the grace of God, may we continue to press on toward becoming what we can be in Christ Jesus. 

Stop Rolling Around in Poop

There is a kind of religiosity that is dangerous to us, that is destructive to our souls rather than constructive.  Someone who was caught in such dangerous religiosity once said to Tim Hansel, “What confuses me is that I thought Christianity was supposed to set us free, instead of tying us up in new knots all the time with impossible expectations.” 

In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul had harsh words to say about those who were purveyors of such destructive religiosity that ties us up in knots: “Beware of the dogs; beware of the evil workers; beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” (Philippians 2:3)

Dangerous and destructive religiosity comes from the message that we are responsible for making God happy with us.  It puts the burden on us to please God by jumping over certain hurdles or by attaining deep enough piety.  It might require circumcision or some other religious deeds, or it might demand that we reach some moral standard.  It puts and keeps the pressure on us to live up to what is demanded of us.  With the pressure on us to live up to such a standard, we end up feeling squashed under the weights of self-condemnation, worthlessness and despair, for we know that we are not actually good enough to earn God’s favor.  

When we believe that it is up to us to earn God’s approval, we live with a deep-down conviction that we are not good enough which then drives us to try harder and harder or to give up.  We think to ourselves that it is only a matter of time before we are discovered as useless.  We expect to be rejected when the truth about us is found out.  Therefore, we put on masks, pretending to be better than we are, only leaving us more and more disconnected from our true selves and from genuine connections with others. 

No wonder Paul describes the purveyors of such religiosity as “dogs” and as “evil workers.” 

Paul was once a purveyor of such dangerous and destructive religiosity.  He thought that he could earn God’s favor through the combinations of his lineage (“a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews”), his fulfillment of religious requirements (“circumcised on the eighth day”), his religious accomplishments (“as to the law, a Pharisee”), his zeal (“a persecutor of the church”), or his piety (“as to righteousness under the law, blameless”). 

But on his way to Damascus one day, Paul had an encounter with the God of grace, and with that encounter he was able to see destructive religiosity for what it truly is.  In Philippians 2:8, Paul uses the Greek word skubala to describe religiosity.  Many Bibles translate skubala politely as “rubbish,” but the most literal translation is “dung” or “excrement.”  Paul is saying that the religiosity he once strained and stressed over actually only amounts to a pile of poop.  Those who purvey such dangerous religiosity are trying to sell us a load of “crap.”  When they try to get us to embrace such religiosity, they are essentially trying to get us to roll around in feces. 

Paul makes a better choice than religious poop, and he offers us a better choice than destructive religiosity.  He offers us grace: the unmeritable love of God! 

Brennan Manning writes, “The same love yesterday on Calvary, today in our hearts, and forever in heaven.  Jesus crucified is not merely a heroic example to the church.  He is the power and wisdom of God, his love capable of transforming our cowardly, distrustful hearts into hearts strong in the trust that they are loved.  We do not have to do anything except let our unworthy, ungrateful selves be loved as we are.  Trust happens!  You will trust him to the degree that you know you are loved by him.”  (Ruthless Trust, p. 178)

Such grace is truly something worth rolling around in!

Look for the Helpers

When reading through Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, it becomes clear quickly that life is not going smoothly for Paul or for the believers in Philippi. 

In Philippians 1:13, we discover that Paul is being held as a prisoner in the imperial jail.  In Philippians 1:19-26, Paul discusses his uncertainty as to whether he will get out of jail alive.  In Philippians 1:28, we find out that the Philippians are facing opponents who are trying to intimidate them.  In Philippians 1:29, we learn that the Philippian Christian are suffering in similar ways to how Paul has been suffering.  In Philippians 2:17, Paul alludes to the fact that his life may be sacrificed.

In the face of such troubles and dangers, where should the Philippian believers focus their attention?

On his television show, Mr. Fred Rogers offered a recommendation to preschoolers who were frightened by a calamity: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.”  

Paul seems to follow Mr. Rogers’ tactic in Philippians 2:19-30; he draws the readers’ attention to two helpers: Timothy and Epaphroditus. 

Up to this point in his letter, Paul has been challenging the Philippians and us to be like-minded, to have the same love, to be one in spirit and purpose, to look out for one another’s interests, and to have the attitude of Jesus Christ who took the very nature of a servant for our sake.  When we get to verse 19 of the second chapter, it is as if Paul declares, “Instead of just writing about these qualities, I am going to send you an example, so that you will not just be reading about these things but seeing them in action.”  Paul sends Timothy to the Philippians with this description, “I hope in the lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you.  I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.  All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.  But Timothy’s worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel” (Philippians 2:19-22).

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is filled with many great spiritual gems, but the greatest spiritual truths are spelled out best not with ink on paper but in lived-out relationships.  God did not just send us a book; he came to us as Jesus Christ.  Paul did not just send a letter; he sent Timothy.  And God does not just send us sheets of instructions on how we should live out the Christian life; God gives to us a church—a community of brothers and sisters–with whom we can learn and struggle, fail and forgive, love and be loved. 

Edwin Hodder wrote about Sir George Burns, the founder of the Cunard Steamship Company, “If the Bible were blotted out of existence…and if there were no visible church at all, I could not fail to believe in the doctrines of Christianity while the living epistle of Sir George Burns’ life remained in my memory.”

We need people like that in our lives.  May God help us to be people like that to others.

The second helper Paul points our attention to is more complicated.  Paul was sending Timothy to Philippi to be a “living epistle” to the Philippians, but the reason Paul is sending Epaphroditus to Philippis is that Epaphroditus has been very sick and needs to go home. 

The Philippians had sent Epaphroditus to Rome to care for Paul’s needs, but Epaphroditus had become sick, and Paul ended up taking care of him.  Some in Philippi are upset with Epaphroditus for being a burden to Paul rather than a help to him, so Paul writes carefully to the Philippians, encouraging them to exercise mercy toward Epaphroditus: “Still, I think it necessary to send to you Ephaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need; for he has been longing for all of you, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill.  He was indeed so ill that he nearly died.  But God had mercy on him and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another.  I am the more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious.  Welcome him then in the Lord with all joy, and honor such people, because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me” (Philippians 2:25-30). 

Up to this point in his letter, Paul has been writing about grace, mercy, kindness and goodness.  But what good are great theological treatises on God’s grace and mercy, if we cannot live out God’s grace, mercy, kindness and goodness with one another?  Paul doesn’t just write good theology, Paul demonstrates it in practice.  Everything he says about Ephaphroditus flows out of Paul’s grace and mercy and compassion toward Epaphroditus.  How great it would be if we would practice such mercy and compassion toward each other. 

Work out our Salvation

Typically, people come to God out of a desire to get what God alone can give.  We need and we want God’s love or forgiveness or restoration or strength or peace or eternal life or all of those things.  God graciously gives these things to us because God is abounding in love.  But that is not the end-all of faith.  If faith is merely what we get from God, then God is no more than a vending machine, and faith is no more than a coin we insert.  Faith that is so one-side as to be only taking without giving back is a lifeless faith.

James writes about such an approach to God, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17).

The apostle Paul puts it this way, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).  

This verse is often misunderstood, so we need to be clear about what Paul writes here and what he does not write here.  Paul did not write, “Work for your salvation” as though salvation is something we do not yet have and must work hard to attain.  Instead, Paul writes, “Work out your own salvation.”  Here’s the difference: When you go to the gym, you do not go there to work for muscles (to attain muscles) that do not yet exist in your body; you go to the gym to work out muscles that are within you.  You go there to put your muscles to work to make them stronger.  The truth is that if you didn’t have any muscles, or if your muscles were not properly attached, you could not “work out.”  The reason you can “work out” is that you have muscles to work with. 

The same is true in the spiritual realm.  We cannot work out our salvation if we do not yet have it.  But if we do have it (if we have received it as a gift from God, received through faith), then we should not waste it but put it to use.

Indeed, Paul tells us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  “Fear” in the Bible has far more to do with reverence and respect than with fright.  The point of this verse is not to tell us that we ought to be afraid of losing our salvation.  The point of this verse is that we should treat with reverence and respect the incredible, priceless gift of salvation that we have been given.” 

When my wife and I traveled to Turkey a number of years ago, we needed some local currency, so Debbie went to the ATM machine at the airport to withdraw some money from our bank account.  The ATM instructions were in Turkish rather than English, but we believed Debbie could figure it out anyway.  When she came back to me, she had 50 million lira in her hand.  Immediately, I panicked!  I thought, Here we are in a foreign country, and my wife has sent us into financial ruin.  We don’t have anything close to 50 million lira in our bank account.  We are going to have huge overdraft charges!  

As it turned out, the lira was so depressed at the time that Debbie had actually withdrawn only $40 from our bank account.  But here’s the point: In my panic, I overestimated the value of 50 million lira.  When I held that money in my hands, I thought I was holding a fortune, so I clutched it with fear and trembling, afraid that I would have to protect it with my life.  People, however, tend to greatly underestimate the value of salvation.  Unlike 50 million lira, salvation is the real treasure.  It cost God coming into our world as one of us.  Wow!  That’s priceless.  It cost Jesus taking upon himself all of our sin and laying down his life for us.  Wow!  That’s priceless.  It provides us with forgiveness of all our sins.  Wow!  That’s priceless.  It involves the filling of our soul with the very Spirit of God.  Wow!  That’s priceless.  It includes a future home for us in heaven where we will live forever in the joy and goodness of God’s presence.  Wow!  That’s priceless. 

What are we to do with a treasure so incredibly valuable?  We should hold it dearly with deep respect and reverence.  We should work it out with fear and trembling. 

God’s Design: Christ in Us for One Another

To blossom in life, a person needs encouragement, support, love, forgiveness, and grace.  God designed us in such a way that we need these things to thrive.  Without them, we die.

Since God designed us with such needs, it is safe to assume that God also has a plan to fulfill this need.  God’s plan to accomplish this is the support and encouragement and forgiveness and love of one another.

In their book How People Grow, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend write, “It is a medical fact…that from infancy to old age, health depends on the amount of social connection people have.  Infants and older people die from a lack of relationship, and those in the middle suffer and fail to recover from illness…. Virtually every emotional and psychological problem, from addictions to depression, has alienation or emotional isolation at its core or close to it.  Recovery from these problems always involves helping people to get more connected to each other at deeper and healthier levels than they are.” (p. 122) 

For this reason, when Paul writes to believers in Philippi, he stresses the importance of the work God does through one another.  In Philippians 2:1-4, he writes, “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others.” 

But we are frail spirits who struggle often with issues of self-worth, depression, inadequacy, hurt feelings, resentments, prejudices, and bad attitudes.  How could we ever be the means God would use to bring encouragement, support, love, forgiveness and grace to others?

This is where Paul’s letter to the Philippians gets most exciting.  In Philippians 2:5 Paul tells us, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” or “that is yours in Christ Jesus.”  The way that you and I can be encouragement and support and love and forgiveness and grace to one another is through the presence of Christ in us. 

Here is the important dynamic: We are not naturally composed of the same love, humbleness, tenderness and compassion that flows freely from Jesus.  Therefore it does no good for us just to try harder to be loving, humble, tender and compassionate.  It is no good for us simply to try harder to be the kind of people we are not.

On the other hand, love, humility, tenderness and compassion are natural to Christ (as Paul describes beautifully in Philippians 2:6-11).  When Christ comes into our souls, he brings with him these qualities that flow freely within him and which are now ours “in Christ Jesus.” 

That’s why the message of Scripture is never “Try harder!”  Trying harder leaves us pushing vainly against our natural struggles with self-worth, depression, inadequacy, hurt feelings, resentments, prejudices, and bad attitudes, and we end up with increasing amounts of guilt and regret and stress over not doing better.  Instead, the call of Scripture is for us to abide in Christ, so that we can get more and more of his nature to become more and more of our nature.  The more that we admit to our own shortcomings and seek for Christ’s qualities to grow in us.  The more that Christ establishes his love in us, the more we can provide others with the encouragement, support, love, forgiveness, and grace which we all need to flourish. 

Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend share, “When I went to graduate school and studied theology, I discovered that this is the doctrine of the church.  This doctrine holds that the church, with its indwelling Spirit, is the real physical presence of Christ on earth today.   It is true that where two or more are gathered together, he is present (Matthew 18:20).  It is true that he is inside each believer.  It is true that the Body is the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16).  In the Old Testament, God lived in the temple and in the Holy of Holies.  Today he lives in temples of human flesh.  He lives in us, and wherever we are he is.  What an incredible reality!” (How People Grow, p. 121) 

Live as Citizens of Christ’s Kingdom

When the apostle Paul was on trial in Acts 23, accused of being unfaithful to his nation and to his faith, Paul declared to the Jewish high council, “Up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.”  The word which the New Revised Standard Version renders simply as “lived,” is actually a more technical term.   The Greek word pepoliteumai literally means “to conduct oneself as a citizen.”  Paul was swearing to them that he had not been a traitor in any way toward his nation or his faith but had conducted himself faithfully as a good citizen of Israel. 

In Philippians 1:27, Paul uses the same word in a challenge to the Christians in Philippi, but here his call to them (and to us) is not to conduct themselves as good citizens of Philippi or of Rome (or even of the United States), but to live as good citizens of Christ’s kingdom: “Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (or, most literally, “Only conduct yourselves as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ”). 

What does it mean for us to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of our citizenship in Christ’s kingdom?

Paul points to two specific matters in Philippians 1:27-30:

1: A citizen of Christ’s kingdom strives toward unity with fellow believers.  Paul tells the Philippian believers that he wants to know that they are “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.” 

Christian unity has proven to be quite elusive throughout the history of the Christian church.  Nevertheless, unity was at the heart of Jesus’ last prayer with and for his disciples before the crucifixion.  In John 17:11, Jesus prayed to the Father that his disciples “may be one, as we are one.”  In John 17:20-21, he expanded the breadth of his prayer: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” 

In her book Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Ruth Hailey Barton stresses, “For Christian people, unity is not just one good priority among many.  It seemed to be all Jesus wanted as everything else fell away and he faced his death.  For those of us who are leaders in Christ’s kingdom, there is nothing more important than seeking this unity with all our heart.  Even when we fall short of achieving it, we believe that all things have already been reconciled through Christ and we do whatever is ours to do to be a peace with all people” (p. 186).

While becoming the first person in history to reach the top of Mt. Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary was accompanied by his trusted Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay.  On their descent, Sir Edmund lost his footing and slipped down the mountain side, but Tenzing held the line taut and kept them both from falling to their deaths by digging his axe into the ice.  When questioned about it later, Tenzing refused any special credit for saving Sir Edmund’s life.  He considered it a routine part of the job.  He explained simply, “Mountain climbers always help each other.”

If looking out for each other and helping each other is natural in the realm of climbing, how much more should it be for citizens of Christ’s kingdom!

2: A citizen of Christ’s kingdom seeks to stand firm without being spooked.  Paul tells the Philippians that he wants to know that they are “standing firm…and are in no way intimidated by your opponents.”    

The word translated here as “intimidated” (pturomenoi) was used in ancient Greek to describe such things as a horse being spooked by a snake.  Paul is reminding us that, as Christians, we belong to the One who conquered even death, so we do not need to be spooked by anything this world throws at us.

Ernest Hemmingway defined courage as “grace under pressure.”  Ambrose Redmoon suggested, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”  The call to us to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of our citizenship in Christ’s kingdom is a call to us to exhibit grace under pressure while making the decision that faithfulness to Christ is more important than our fears.

What if we are here for a higher purpose?

As the apostle Paul languished in a prison cell in Rome, not knowing if he would be set free or executed, he wrote to believers in Philippi, “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel.” 

That statement spurs a couple of questions:

1: What did happen to Paul so that he is in a prison cell writing a letter to the Philippians? 

About four years earlier, around the year 57, Paul traveled to Jerusalem with representatives from various churches from what we now consider Greece and Turkey.  They brought with them a monetary contribution to help the impoverished Christians in Jerusalem.  While in Jerusalem, people saw Paul spending much time in the temple, for he was participating in a seven-day Jewish purification custom.  They also saw him spending time with certain non-Jewish persons he had brought to Jerusalem.  People put those two items together—sightings of Paul in the temple and sightings of Paul with Gentiles—and they jumped to the conclusion that Paul brought non-Jewish persons into the temple.  On the basis of that assumption—or false accusation—a crowd became stirred up.  They seized Paul, dragged him from the temple, with his life in grave danger.  Roman soldiers broke up the riot and rescued Paul.  For his safekeeping, Paul was locked in the barracks as a prisoner for the night.  While he was in the barracks, information was leaked that a plot was being hatched to capture Paul and to kill him. To avert the plot, Paul was quickly sent away from Jerusalem.  Protected by Roman soldiers, under the cover of darkness, Paul was brought to the port of Caesarea.  In Caesarea, Paul was put on trial before the Roman governor Felix.  Though the false accusations against Paul could not be substantiated, Felix kept Paul imprisoned, hoping that Paul, or the Christian churches, would offer a bribe for his release.  Two years later, Felix was replaced by Festus who kept Paul in prison in an attempt to score political points with the Jewish leaders.  When Festus made plans to transfer Paul back to Jerusalem, where Paul faced both the threat of a corrupt trial and a new death plot, he appealed his case to Caesar instead.  Because of this appeal to Caesar, Paul was sent as a prisoner to Rome.  For two more years, Paul waited in prison for his opportunity to present his case to Caesar.  However, Caesar did not want to touch such a political hot potato, so Paul was left in prison without ever receiving his right as a Roman citizen to present his case to Caesar.    

What “has happened” to Paul is that he remained stuck in prison because of false assumptions, false accusations, political maneuverings, corruption, and injustice. 

Paul has strong grounds to lodge a nasty complaint in this letter, to give vent to bitterness over all that has befallen him.  But Paul does something different.  He writes, “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel.”  This prompts another question:

2: What if we are here for a higher purpose than to be happy for a few years on planet earth?  What if we are here to help others find the love of Christ for the sake of eternity?

If Paul’s focus is only upon himself—his satisfaction level in life—he has reason to fill this letter with complaints.  But if Paul’s focus is on the opportunity to help others find the love of Christ, he has reason to rejoice. 

As a person who has not had to endure many injustices in my life, I want to be careful with my words.  Jeremiah 22:3 declares, “Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed.”  Micah 6:8 states, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Believers need to confront injustices in society.  But in his personal circumstances, Paul keeps his heart focused on that which is more valuable to him than personal satisfaction: The highest purpose of his life (and of every life) is to help people to find the love of God in Jesus Christ.  That’s why Paul goes on to say later in this letter (in Philippians 1:21), “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (for with death we get even more of Christ).