Learned Sufficiency, Sufficiency, or Contentment with Jonathan More

Dr. Jonathan More, Vice-Principal and Academic Dean at George Whitefield College, Cape Town, South Africa, focuses his research on the intersection between the intellectual world of the New Testament and its Graeco-Roman context. Today’s topic: Translation sometimes poses difficult decisions when there is no single word available to the translator in the receptor language. The NIV translates Phil 4:11 as, “. . . I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” The word “content” (αὐτάρκης) has a sense that is hard to represent with a single English word.

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Working through Philippians: Chapter 4

Here is my final installment on Philippians.  I started working through it a few weeks back and offering some interpretive suggestions.  If you want to go deeper take a look at one of the quality commentaries you can find on Philippians.Rediscovering Paul cover

Philippians ch. 4

Paul concluded the letter to the church at Philippi with a number of exhortations and a “thank you” for a financial gift.  Apparently, two prominent women, Euodia and Syntyche, had had a particularly nasty falling-out.  News of it traveled to Paul in prison.  He called upon them to lay aside their disagreements and to have the same mind (reiterating his earlier call in 2:2).  He asked the church to help them as well since it had a vested interest in their split.  Other exhortations include:

  • Stand firm in the Lord (4:1)
  • Rejoice in the Lord (4:4)
  • Become famous for your gentleness with each other (4:5)
  • Do not worry, instead pray and give thanks in everything (4:6-7)
  • Keep your mind on excellence, goodness and truth (4:8)
  • Do what you have seen and heard from me [Paul] (4:9)

Paul waited until the end of the letter to thank the Philippians for their recent gift.  It gave him an opportunity to write about the contentment he had learned through his many ups and downs.  In any and every situation, he wrote, he had learned to be content.  For one so used to hardship and prison contentment was an important virtue.  He knew that lack of contentment was the root of all sorts of evil.  Lack of contentment led to coveting, stealing, adultery, murder and a host of other personal and social failures.  Contentment, on the other hand, led to peace and joyful satisfaction.  We note two things he said about contentment.  First, Paul had to “learn” contentment in the rugged situations life.  As a learned skill it is not innate or natural.  We might even say that discontent is the normal condition of man.  Second, Paul found he could be content in any situation through the power of Christ.[1]  Clearly the secret of contentment was not in himself; it was in the Lord.

In his contentment Paul acknowledged the kindness of their gift without admitting his need.  In fact he turned the gift around to their credit.   The gift sent by Epaphroditus was “a sweet-smelling aroma, a welcome sacrifice, well pleasing to God” (4:18).  Because they have been willing to meet Paul’s needs, the apostle promised that “my God” would supply every need of theirs according to his own riches (4:19).  The letter ends as it began with a prayer-wish that the grace of the Lord Jesus would be with them.  For Paul grace is the beginning and end of the Christian walk.

[1] Unfortunately many translations miss the point in Phil 4:13.  Note particularly, the NASV: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”  The context is contentment not “doing.”  The passage is better rendered: “I have strength to be content in every situation through the one who empowers me.”

The Power of Contentment

I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade, but I’m afraid I’m about to.  I recall a professor of mine saying repeatedly, “I don’t want to piously believe something that is not true.”  I wonder how much of what we think or believe is just not true, regardless of how passionately we believe it.  Case in point: Philippians 4:13.  Like many of you I memorized it from the King James Version: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Superman 2

For many people Philippians 4:13 has been one of their favorite verses from the Bible.  They quote it consistently as they are facing some obstacle. Some take it almost as proof of nearly super-hero status.  I CAN DO ALL THINGS.

Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound.  Who disguised as mild-manner Joe Christian fights the unending battle for truth, social justice, and the Christian way.  .  . (with apologies to Superman)

The problem is this.  When I began to read the Scriptures in the original Greek I realized something: the word “do” is not there.  It has been supplied by the translators.  But is it the right word?  It’s a bit complicated but a good Greek lexicon, grammar, or commentary can help you begin to sort it out. The Greek verb which is there is “I am able.”  But the verb typically takes an infinitive complement, that is, an infinitive to complete the idea.  Like this: “I am able TO SING;” “I am able TO MAKE sloppy joes.”  So if there is no infinitive to complete the idea, what do you do?  Well you look to the context.  The context supplies the verbal idea.  Walk up to someone and say: “I can.” And they will say, “You can what?”  The “what”  is the contextual idea.  So read carefully the verses before 4:13.  What are they about?

I am not saying this because I am in need.  I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances.  I know how to survive in tight situations, and I know how to enjoy having plenty.  In fact, I have learned how to face any circumstances: fed or hungry, with or without.

Now here is another way to translate the text:

 I can be content in any and every situation through Christ who empowers me.

Paul was not talking about the power TO DO anything.  He was celebrating the fact that he had learned TO BE CONTENT regardless of the situation.

Now I realize that may not have the appeal of saying I CAN DO ALL THINGS.  But again: do you want to piously believe something that is not true?  Can you really do all things?  If you could, then wouldn’t you be God.

Think for a moment about the power of contentment.

 True contentment is the result of a heart committed to the risen Lord.  Think of all the sins, pain, and brokenness that come from coveting [the opposite of contentment].  Adultery, murder, stealing, and lying can all be traced directly to a prior condition where hearts and minds are frustrated and discontent.

Notice that Paul says contentment doesn’t come naturally; it is learned.  The normal, natural state of humanity is discontent and quiet desperation.  It takes a powerful, spiritual presence to transform anxiety into joyous satisfaction.  Ironically, it may be the shackles more than his freedom that schools Paul in the art of contentment. Despite the chains, Paul discovers this beautiful state of inner peace through the power of Jesus residing in him.

There is power in contentment. It is the power of shalom at work in your life.  It will not be long until the next round of worry, anxiety, discontent, and frustration hits you.