Having Nothing, Possessing All Things
"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." St. Paul’s famous words from his epistle to the Philippians have been turned by many into a motivational quote, the kind of thing you find on a poster (see above) or pasted on a coffee mug beneath the picture of a sunrise. "You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you! So dream your dreams! Go out there and chase down your goals!” Before we co-opt St Paul for a Daily Affirmation, however, we should hear his words in their context. Just prior to saying "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” he says:
Now, that is not the kind of thing you would hear in a motivational speech or see adorning a motivational poster: “I have learned to be content.” And yet St. Paul’s words about Christ giving him strength are spoken precisely in this context. And to wrench them from that context and turn them into a tool in a quest for personal growth is to do violence to the Apostle’s words and violence to the Gospel of Christ. The strength that St Paul received from Christ and in Christ was not the power to follow his own dreams or pursue his own goals. (He was, after all, writing from a Roman prison cell, not a spa on the Mediterranean.) It was the strength that enabled him to be content in whatever situation he found himself: hungry or full; abased or abounding.
We live, today, in a culture that has turned manufacturing discontentment into an art form as well as a very lucrative business. We call it advertising. Almost every commercial we see or hear is calculated to create discontentment within us. Millions of dollars are spent each year attempting to convince us that the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the furniture we sit on, and the clothes we wear are not good enough. We will never be happy with them. We need more. Or, if not more, different. We need different things, different places, even different people, if we are going to be happy. Contentment, after all, will not feed the economy.
The irony of all of this should not be lost on any of us. We pursue happiness - which by almost all definitions is some form of contentment - by creating discontentment. We are the dog chasing his own tail.
St Paul, on the other hand, writing from a Roman prison, is content. And he is content because there, in that prison cell, he has everything that he needs and wants. In fact, as he writes elsewhere in Philippians:
(For what it’s worth, the Greek word that is translated here as “rubbish” can also be translated as “dung”.)
The freedom that comes from “gaining Christ” becomes the freedom from the incessant need for more and different things. It is the true strength. The craving that we feel, the discontentment, is an absence - the absence of Christ - and it is the source of much of our spiritual weakness.
One last thing. If, as the Scriptures and our theology attest, Christ is the One in whom all things exist and have their being, then if we have Christ we truly possess all things. Or as St. Paul describes himself elsewhere:
With love in Christ, Fr John
“Give me a word!”
Even if you are not what you should be, you should not despair. It is bad enough that you have sinned; why in addition do you wrong God by regarding Him in your ignorance as powerless? Is He, who for your sake created the great universe that you behold, incapable of saving your soul? And if you say that this fact, as well as His incarnation, only makes your condemnation worse, then repent; and He will receive your repentance, as He accepted that of the prodigal son (cf. Luke 15:20) and the prostitute (cf. Luke 7:37-50). But if repentance is too much for you, and you sin out of habit even when you do not want to, show humility like the publican (cf. Luke 18:13): this is enough to ensure your salvation.
+St Peter of Damascus
When the heart is humbled, it’s overshadowed by Divine Grace, which brings contrition, tears, peace and love. When you yourself are humbled, everybody else will seem to you to be saints. But when you’re proud and puffed up, everybody seems bad to you. All of these times that you fall are lessons in humility.
~Blessed Joseph the Hesychast