I have always had a feeling that contentment was a critical component of having joy in life. As I have been learning this lesson on a deeper level, I have written about it (here and here). But lately I have been seeing a new angle on a few verses in Philippians 4.
11Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.
12I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.
Philippians 4:11-12 (NASB)
I added a little emphasis to the parts of verses above that I have been pondering. What exactly was Paul talking about when he said he knew how to get along with humble means and prosperity?
I am sure that for him it was a bit of a challenging process to be content living in humble means. He was basically on the fast-track to become a super-Pharisee - from what I understand they were a very materialistic bunch. Then Jesus steps in and his life is forever changed. And a few years later we see him in prison writing that we should “rejoice in the Lord always” and be content in every circumstance.
Breaking the attachment to things
The first way I look at the “know how” that Paul was referring to is more of an internal lesson that needs to be learned. It’s that things are just things. They come, they go. They don’t determine your value or worth and you can’t take them with you when you die. Paul had some of the most tremendous ups and downs. One minute he was shackled hand and foot in prison and the next he was staying in the King’s palace. He seemed to live the full spectrum of having a lot and having a little.
But, his outlook proves that he had broken his attachment to things. He didn’t consider his life a failure and quit when he frequently found himself in prison. And on the other hand, he didn’t allow more prosperous times to be his pinnacle achievement that he would hang his hat on. He had a goal to fulfill what God had called him to and the things were just peripheral, so as they came and went he learned not to care too much. He was successfully living Matthew 6:33.
Practically living with a little or a lot
In addition to the internal lesson, I am starting to suspect that there is a practical element to what he is saying as well. Could it be that Paul is also referring to the resourcefulness required when times are tight? On a practical level managing money is a lot different when you have a lot of it, than when you have a little. If Warren Buffett spent 2 hours of his work-day cutting grocery coupons to save $10 at the grocery store, it would be a pretty foolish use of his time. Those same 2 hours could probably be used to do what he does so well and make many thousands of dollars. On the other hand, if you are only making $100 a week, it might be worth spending 2 hours cutting coupons to save $10.
My wife and I both had the painful experience of living well (and spending more money than we had) and then having to be honest with ourselves by cutting our standard of living to what it really should be. It is not fun at all, but trying to live like you are “in prosperity” when you are in a season of “humble means” is a path for destruction.
What I have been getting out of Phil 4:12 is that if I continue to try to live like I am rich, when I am not, then I am only deceiving myself. For me, moving from having an abundance back down to humble means was a test from God. I think he wanted to see if I would still love Him if I didn’t have a lot of stuff. So I had to make many cuts to my lifestyle. I had to go without things I had previously taken for granted. And I had to start praying and trusting God for things that were previously commonplace.
Like I said, it was a painful process. But all along I knew that it was just a season and that God had more for me. And as a result of those lessons we have gone from debt-ridden over spenders to a couple who consistently spends less than they earn, has no consumer debt, and who was able to save a down payment for their new house.
One last thing
Just to clarify, I don’t believe that contentment means settling for mediocrity. But rather it is being satisfied at whatever place in life God has us at, while trusting that He does have our interest at heart and that he does want to bless us and see us succeed. So, I am trying to learn these lessons that Paul did and be content in my present circumstances, while trusting that God is taking me from Glory to Glory.