Francis Bourdillon, 1864
"I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen."
The Christians of Philippi had sent several times to supply the apostle's needs when he was in other places, and he thanks them for it. They had wished to do so earlier, but no opportunity had offered. He thanks them not only for what they had done, but also for what they had wished to do. But he was glad of their gifts, not so much because his own needs were thus supplied, as because their kindness to him showed that they loved God. What he desired was not to receive a gift for himself, but to see fruit in them; and this he did see when he found them so willing to help him in his need for Christ's sake. This proved their faith to be real.
As for himself, Paul could cheerfully bear poverty — if such were the will of God. He had learned to be content in every state. Whether he were made much of — or despised and persecuted; whether he had plenty — or suffered want; he knew how to conduct himself as a Christian. He does not mention sickness, but doubtless he could have said just the same about that. Whether he were well or ill, he would still take all as coming from the hand of God and resign himself contentedly to His gracious will.
How happy he must have been! Health and strength, plenty and prosperity, could not have made him so happy as a contented and thankful mind made him. And with all the trials which he had to suffer, how miserable he would have been if he had had besides, a discontented spirit! Some people would have been very unhappy with such a lot as Paul's; but in fact, a discontented mind must make one unhappy in any lot.
He says that he had learned to be content. Naturally he was like other men. But for the grace of God, he would doubtless have fretted under want and affliction — and been too much lifted up in prosperity. God had taught him to bear both aright. By His Word and Spirit, by His providential dealings, by long experience — God had taught him this lesson. And now he could say, not boastfully, but calmly and truly, "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want."
Yet, though he had thus been taught and trained in the school of Christ, it was not by any power of his own that he was able to be so contented. He adds, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." He was a branch of the true Vine, united to Christ by a living faith, and it was from Christ that he drew strength continually. He could have done nothing without Christ; he could do all things through Christ.
It is just the same with us. Apart from Christ, we can do nothing (John 15:5); for we have no strength, no spiritual life even, of our own. "Our sufficiency is of God" (2 Corinthians 3:5). Christ is our life (Colossians 3:4). But He enables us to bear what God is pleased to lay upon us, and to bear it with a contented mind. Every day He strengthens us afresh, and for every new trial — He gives us new grace. His grace is sufficient for us (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Perhaps there is nothing which it is harder to bear contentedly, and nothing therefore in which strength from Christ is more needed — than long continued ill-health. A severe illness, sharp but short, is not so great a trial as constant sickliness. Our Lord knows how hard this is to bear and is ready to help us. He will come to us in our trouble, in answer to our cry. Nay, He will do more than come — He will abide with us. Thus He will make us patient and enable us to say, "I have learned in whatever state I am, therewith to be content."
But, like other learning, this lesson is not learned in a moment. Impatience is not got the better of at once — and our will is slow to submit itself to the will of God in times of affliction. Yet he who is under God's teaching and seeks his Savior's presence and grace continually — does make progress. Gradually he loses that fretfulness which he had when first his sickness fell upon him. God deals very graciously with him, tenderly and kindly, like a loving Father — and under such dealing, the sufferer becomes more humble, more gentle, more calm, contented, and thankful.
The sick Christian has many happy moments on his bed of affliction; when he feels that God is near and that His love is over him and that His hand is dealing with him. At such times he is quite willing that all should be as God pleases — and is able to resign every wish to His will. Those are his happiest times.
He is not always so. Thoughts of another kind do come: the thought of others in health, the remembrance of the time when he was so himself, and a restless longing for health. Sometimes he yields to these feelings — he is not happy then. Sometimes he strives and prays against them — and then he is helped and strengthened, and peace returns.
Perhaps even Paul may still have been tried at times by feelings such as these — though when he wrote he had such perfect contentment. We do not know how that was. But certainly, with most, there is still a struggle, a difficulty, something to overcome, something to learn. We should seek most earnestly this spirit of contentment. It is for our good, and it is for our happiness. It is what God would have us possess; it is the object of many of His dealings with us; it is what He will work in us by His grace. Happy is he who from a bed of lingering sickness, can look up and say, "Even so, Father — for so it seemed good in Your sight" (Matthew 11:26).
But are not sickness and want, evils? Yes, in themselves; and we may seek relief from them and ought to do so. Paul did not refuse to receive what the Philippians sent him — nay, he thanked them for it. But while we use every means in our power, and even make the supply of our needs and the return of health the subject of our prayers — we may yet keep a contented mind while these blessings are withheld.
It is one thing to pray for a blessing — it is another to be discontented as long as it is not bestowed. Prayer is right — discontent can never be right. Prayer makes us happy — discontent makes us miserable. In fact, a discontented prayer can hardly be prayer at all; for all true prayer, for temporal blessings at least, must be in this spirit: "Nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will!" (Matthew 26:39). He who spoke as never man spoke, taught us that — He who is our teacher, our example, our strength. May it be our happiness to learn of Him and to follow Him; and may we be able to say with His servant Paul, under all difficulties and trials, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!"