The Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians while he was cold and hungry in Roman imprisonment—yet he was able to say with confidence,
I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I’ve learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. (Philippians 4:11-12)
The Stoics had it wrong.
The word that Paul uses for “content” here is a Stoic word that means “self-sufficient.” The attainment of completion, for a Stoic, was to be fully unified in the virtues by being self-sufficient.
That Stoic idea sounds like a lot of the ideologies and pop psychology of today. Self-discovery, self-fulfillment, and self-esteem are not Biblical categories.
Paul took this pagan term, and he transformed it:
I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13)
Be Christ-sufficient, not self-sufficient.
Christ, not Paul’s own self-sufficiency, was the source of his contentment.
Affirmation and wholeness are good, but they should always come through Christ. Don’t try to be self-sufficient; rather, rely on the sufficiency that comes from Christ. Paul did this, and as a result he was able to say that his material goods did not determine his perspective on the mission of God in life.
The Stoics’ efforts usually resulted in a kind of passivity. That’s why we use the word stoic to refer to someone who doesn’t react to things.
Paul was not a Stoic, and we can see that in two ways:
- Paul’s sufficiency came from Christ, not from himself.
- Unlike the Stoics, Paul believed that there are things for which we strive.
Don’t be stoic—be like Jesus and Paul.
Paul told his readers in Philippians 3:14,
I press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
When you read that verse, imagine a runner who’s stretching out and reaching for the prize and for the goal.
Paul spoke in terms of pushing and striving in other places, too. He wrote in Philippians 1 that he aspired to be released from prison so that he could go and serve. In Romans 12, he wrote that we should know what our gifts are, and we should seek to use them.
There was no passivity in Paul, except in one regard: he’d learned how to be Christ-sufficient, to be content with regard to his possessions and with regard to material goods.
Paul had wealthy friends. He did not object to wealth. He also had poor friends. There’s no virtue in wealth, and there’s no virtue in poverty. Paul understood that these things are part of the good gifts of God. Jesus said,
Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)
Similarly, Paul wrote,
My God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19)
The preceding was adapted by Rachel Motte from a sermon featured on Dr. Sloan’s radio program, A Higher Education, on August 5, 2013.