Guest post by Justin Lyttle.
Philippians 4:10-13 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 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. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
While Philippians 4:13 is a coffee mug verse in this culture, I wonder how often we consider the context? Paul’s exhortation in these verses centers not so much around contentment with accomplishment, as many people would apply this verse, but with contentment in circumstances. This is a biblical psychology which states that Jesus, not my circumstances, dictates my contentment. This follows the context of the previous chapter of Philippians as Paul describes all things as rubbish compared with knowing Christ and pursuing him. When considered in this context, these words are countercultural and counterintuitive to our experience and feelings. Many times our circumstances become a point of contention for us moving forward in obedience to the Lord. Think of the last time a difficult circumstance entered your life. How did you handle it? Did you run to and lean into the Lord first, rejoicing that he was using it to make you more like Jesus? It would seem that stressful or difficult circumstances may reveal to a deeper extent how much we trust God.
Learning joy in suffering is not something that comes naturally to us as fallen men and women, even though we are commanded to do so (James 1:2-4). Rather than learning contentment through trust in God, we would have our pain and difficulty numbed so as not to feel anything at all. We would consider any assault on our sense of comfort as something unfair to be put aside immediately. However, God’s word would speak of trials and discipline as an act of love by our Father. Although God created us to bare his image, it has been marred by disobedience. God uses the difficulties we encounter to make us more like Christ, because he ultimately desires our holiness more than he does our comfort. In truth, the fact that God has chosen to make us more like Jesus rather than leave us in the sin we currently live in should be more comforting than how we feel in situations. God’s sovereign rule over our circumstances, us knowing without any doubt that he is in control of everything, and that he has our holiness in mind should trump any feelings of comfort derived by our circumstances. Circumstancial comfort will always be fleeting due to the ambiguity that life brings on a daily basis, but seeing God’s sovereign refining love as the purpose in trials is the greater comfort and hope to all who believe.
This idea fails to be understood by Christians because we associate discipline with punishment. Instead of focusing on the unpleasantness of a circumstance, it would be more biblical as a child of God to see discipline as an act of love by our Creator, who is restoring us into right relation with him. This is what the writer of Hebrews was trying to convey when he wrote these words:
Hebrews 12:3-11 3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
How great is God’s love that he wants to redeem every portion of our lives into obedience to him. We as humans could be no more fulfilled, no more at peace, have no more joy than experiencing Christ more deeply each day. The Scriptures tells us specifically that no discipline from the Lord seems pleasant at the time it is happening, but it yeilds righteousness to those who are trained by it. This is ultimately why Paul can say “I can do all things through Christ.” It is not because all circumstances are easy or painless, but that they all have a purpose to teach continual reliance on God through humility. It is not in our power to control every circumstance, but it is in our power to fall down and worship in obedience through the grace of God, knowing that he is merciful and loving in that he works all things for our good to make us more like Jesus (Romans 8:28-30). This truth does not mean that our pain is not real and difficult to bear, more than that it is through these times that our God refines us as his children, loving us through the hurt to a more holy life. May we all learn this truth in a deeper way at every opportunity we are blessed with.