When I was a teenager, my dad started reading that old classic, The Power of Positive Thinking. I thought it was hogwash (and still do), so knowing my dad had heard me sing, I said to him, “Dad, I could positive-think all day and still not be an opera singer.”
He gave me a look, thought for a minute, then put the book in the trash.
Today’s Bible reading was likely quoted in that book as ‘proof’ of its author’s theories. Taken out of context, it says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” If I only read that verse and not its context, I might think that if I wanted it bad enough, God could help me become an opera singer.
But Paul, who wrote Philippians 4, is talking about contentment. He is describing that he learned to have, through Christ, an inner sufficiency that stayed with him no matter what was happening, good or bad.
James calls it patient endurance. It is that ability to know God is in control in every circumstance. It is a deep trust that means my emotions don’t run to panic or even anxiety during trials, nor do they fly off the chart when things go exceptionally well. Sometimes I call this being unflappable.
The context of the “I can do all things” verse is, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Paul isn’t saying he can climb tall mountains or leap buildings with a single bound. He is saying that no matter his situation in life, he is able to have strength in that situation. Although the verb he uses does mean to be strong, his statement is used to support his claim to have learned the secret of contentment. He didn’t get high when things went well and he didn’t fall in a hole when they didn’t.
Unflappable. It is not total detachment, absence of care about what is going on. Paul deeply cared and was passionate about everything in his life. It is not numbness either; Paul describes his feelings; he was emotionally involved in life too. His contentment was definitely not a Pollyanna attitude either, not that positive but shallow cheerfulness that ignores reality. He was not focusing on some sort of good in being hungry or celebrating some positive about suffering and being in need. Instead, from experience, he had learned that Christ could take him through anything and everything, regardless of how he felt about it.
This is a wonderful thing to learn. I remember the day I took my mother to the extended care where she needed to be after Dad died. She had Alzheimers but was still sharp in many ways. They put her in a temporary room, not much bigger than a postage stamp and crowded with two beds, a small metal locker, no night table, and no space for any of her things. She looked around in dismay and said, “You mean I have to stay here?”
I explained it was just for a couple of weeks until her new room was ready. When the nurse came in, Mom asked again about the room. The nurse explained as I had done. My mother was quiet for a moment, then smiled and said, “I’ve been through a lot. I can handle this too.”
I don’t know when I’d been more amazed at, or more proud of my mother, or had more desire to be like her. She’d learned the lesson of Philippians 4.
I know I’m not totally there, but after so many years of emotional roller coaster rides, I’ve now realized this verse is not the right one to recite before I have something challenging to do. Instead, it is the one to remember and grab hold of when life hands me both victories and challenges, both lemons and lemonade. Christ will see me through.