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I have learned contentment

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

I watched a Baptist minister give a sermon on television this morning. His focus was on three verses from Philippians (4:11-13). His sermon drove home the point of verse 4:11, which says “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (NIV) The same verse can be translated to say, “Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.” (NRSV) The minister also read from the letter to the Hebrews, which he then went overboard saying how he knew some scholars contest who wrote that letter. He read Hebrews 13:5: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” The minister said he believed Paul wrote that letter, because “it sure sounds like Paul.” His quote was about the love of money, which Paul wrote of in his first letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 6:10), where the letter to the Hebrews mentioned “contentment.” An element of his sermon placed importance on Paul writing “I have learned.” He made personal references to his being led as a minister by other ministers he knew, who set examples for him to model. This means those examples taught him how to act and he learned from those teachings. While this is certainly a good and vital aspect of our lives, where role models become the examples for each person to emulate, this is severely limiting in practice. Having good role models today has become a luxury, with so many two earner families.  The minister repeated several times how Jesus Christ is like those ministers in his life, even comparing Jesus Christ to God. All of his references to those who influenced him were external to him: good ministers, Jesus Christ, and God.

That is limiting.  Many people today cannot name their role models for doing God’s work. As I listened to the minister preach, I heard his words being presented as what he had learned. He was spending an entire sermon explaining three verses of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which was what he had learned in his own time reading and pondering the meanings of the Holy Bible. Still, for all that work and effort (all good and headed in the right direction), he was [for obvious reasons] not having the same effect as had Paul. For all his study and learning experiences, he was not having the same success as Jesus Christ (assuming the disciples all learned from watching Jesus of Nazareth and listening to Jesus Christ after he was risen). What I thought as he flipped over a page in his Bible on the podium was, “Why isn’t he writing letters thanking the Hattiesburgians, like Paul wrote to the Philippians [and Hebrew-speaking Christians of Rome]?” The minister wasn’t leading his flock to be filled with the Holy Spirit. He was not influencing his disciples to be reborn as Jesus Christ. He would never write letters to anyone he preached to (like Paul and the other Apostles) because he misunderstood Paul writing “I have learned” as if Paul meant “I have studied real hard and figured some things out.” If that was all Paul did, we would not know the name of Paul today. Paul would have merely been on some tour circuit of intellectuals, and everyone attending one of his lectures would have listened to how eloquently Paul delivered his speech, with not one iota being affected by what he said. Paul would have had no letters of thanks to write, if that were the case; although, he surely would have written some letters asking people if they could set up another money-maker speech event. The externalization of Jesus Christ, presented as an equal to God, both of whom are the supreme teachers to those whose brains want to learn the meaning of Scripture is the problem Christianity faces. Paul was Saul before he encountered the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ, who asked Saul, “Why do you persecute me?” Think about that question. There was no physical Jesus in the world. While it was a light that flashed, which knocked Saul to the ground and identified (as a voice only) it was Jesus who was in the light, Saul was not persecuting Jesus of Nazareth (who had been executed some time before). Saul was persecuting Christians, all of whom had been reborn as Jesus Christ, becoming themselves Jesus resurrections in new bodies of flesh. Saul was persecuting Jesus in all the Christians he sought to send into prisons in Damascus and Jerusalem. Saul was not laying on the ground learning from the voice of Jesus, as if he was thinking, “I need to remember this and write it in a letter later and send it to people.” The voice of Jesus Christ was inside Saul. The companions of Saul heard a noise that knocked Saul down, but they heard no voice. Saul had to be led by the hand to Damascus. There, the Apostle Ananias (one in whom Jesus had been resurrected) heard the voice of God tell him to lay hands on Saul and heal his blindness. Ananias briefly argued that he knew who Saul was, but God told him, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.” “Saul” is a name meaning “Asked for (of God).” The name “Paul” means “Small.” Saul received the Holy Spirit and immediately knew (an event of learned experience) his knowledge was nothing without God. With God, his “Small” ego could speak the Word of the Lord, so it would lead others to also be reborn as Jesus Christ.  Paul became a name that says how little a role one’s self-ego plays, once a soul has merged with God’s Holy Spirit and another human being has been reborn as Jesus Christ.  It is that experience that is the meaning of Paul saying, “I have learned.”

Paul wrote the word “emathon,” which comes from the root verb “manthanó,” meaning “to learn.”  Still, relative to a disciple of Jesus [Paul became one postmortem] the word bears this meaning: “properly, learning key facts; gaining “fact-knowledge as someone learns from experience, often with the implication of reflection – ‘come to realize.'” (HELPS Word-studies)  Saul had no such “learning” about Christianity; but Paul learned because Jesus Christ was within his being, teaching as Paul listened to the words of Jesus Christ flow through his brain and out his mouth (or through his fingers on a quill).

The Baptist minister then tried to explain Paul’s meaning of being “content,” relative to how much money and wealth he had.  As soon as people hear one mention the words “money” and “wealth,” they begin to pay attention and everything they take home with them afterwards is some warmth of hearing, “It is okay to have money … just don’t let it control your life.”  The minister played to that crowd by saying that, adding, “Paul was saying to be content with what you have.”

In the translations of verse Philippians 4:11 I listed above, the Greek text can be presented differently.  The literal translation can state (following the punctuation mark signage): “not because down from poverty to say  ;  I indeed have experience on that I exist  ,  satisfied to be  .

From that translation there is nothing stated about “money” or “wealth,” although “poverty” (from “hysterēsin,” implying “destitution”) says the opposite existed for Paul.  Still, Paul did not feel impoverished, because his soul felt filled with the wealth of Jesus Christ, through God’s Holy Spirit.  His total existence was not based on having to take time to figure out how he was going to make money to feed himself, buy clothes, pay rent, yada, yada, yada.  The final segment of words says it all:  All my needs are met, as I am satisfied.

To read that as “contentment” gives the wrong impression; and the Baptist minister guarded his listeners not to think that word meant a lack of drive, as a “whatever” attitude that lacks enthusiasm, spoken as if forced to comply with someone else’s demands.  The Greek word written is “autarkēs,” which actually translates as “self-sufficient, sufficient.”   Here, HELPS Word-studies states: “properly, self-sufficient, content in the sense of being satisfied because living in God’s content (fulness). This inward sufficiency is as valid in “low times” (suffering) as in “high times” (temporal prosperity).”  Thus, Paul was saying that God met all the needs of Paul (and every Apostle that devoted their whole lives to serve the Lord).  “Contentment” is then the serenity that comes with that presence and lack of worry.

I remember when I was a new member of one Episcopalian church and people would ask me what I did for a living.  At that time I had no job or employment.  My wife fully supported me as I wrote about the meaning of Nostradamus, who I knew to be an Apostle of Jesus Christ.  When I responded that I wrote about Nostradamus, and them knowing that was not a well-paying job (if it paid at all), often I heard loudly muttered, “Well, I’d love to do something trivial too, but I have bills to pay.”

That, my friends, is not what Paul said.  A true Christian does not worry about paying bills.  A true Christian enters a life of poverty willingly; and I had told my wife (a woman I had just met then) I had taken a vow of poverty, because I knew writing about Nostradamus would never pay the bills.  When I explained that to my wife (as a woman interested in me), I was working part-time, trying to pay the bills I had and also save to publish my first book.  My wife wanted to be a part of my life so strongly she financed my first book (largely) and it was she that urged me to be closer to her.

God brought us together for the purpose of our satisfaction, so (through that contentment) we could serve the Lord absolutely, without worry.

The Baptist minister made the comment that maybe Christians should not be so much in debt.  He blamed it on the times and so much being offered, with it so easy to get credit and go deeply into debt.  It was a love of things, which was the root of evil, not contentment with whatever one has.

Then, after setting that expectation, he said, “I wouldn’t want to go back in time to the days when modern conveniences did not exist, because it is good to have things available.”  That statement announced, “Well, I have enough money to afford the things I am content with, so it is okay if I make a few Internet charges.  As long as I can pay off the charges, then God has given me the means.”

What the people hear makes them want to know, “What all do you have that I can’t afford?” 

Nobody wants to be associated with poverty.  Nobody wants to give anything up. 

Saul [whose name implied he could have everything he “Asked For”] was a wealthy Jew, of Roman citizenship.  He could go to authorities and get letters that allowed him to act as an authority that could legally imprison heretics that called themselves Christians.  Certainly, Saul was a reflection of Jews who are known for their wealth and influence.  Paul [whose new name implied he was lowly and insignificant] gave all that up.  He did it willingly because being in the name of Jesus Christ was such a great reward, he found everything the world offered paled in comparison to that spiritual wealth.  Paul was content having whatever physical needs his physical body required be supplied by angels of the Lord.  Paul did not worry, even though the persecution he had typically placed on Christians then became the suffering and hardships of his new being.

That means “be content with what you have,” when presented as meaning “enjoy what God gives you, based on monetary values available to you,” is the opposite of what Paul wrote to the Philippians.  The world is a huge mess because so many have what others do not have and so many want to have what they cannot afford.  I believe the missing ingredient in Christians today is an unwillingness to take a leap of faith; give it all up, trusting in God to meet their needs.

Still, one has to be called by God to serve Him, before one goes and jumps off a cliff.  Jumping off the cliff is what I did in my vow of poverty; but it was all the bounces off the rocks on the way down that became my reality, as pains, bumps and bruises (and verbal insults of persecution) of life without income or social value.  I was content with everything because every time I turned around God was there to meet my needs.  Still, I can imagine Paul had the same setbacks.  If it was easy to submit to God’s call, everyone would be there, happy in their abject poverty.  

When the Lord convinced Ananias to go heal Saul in Damascus, He added, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”  Knowing that, contentment means paying the price in this life for a promised reward in the thereafter.

R. T. Tippett

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