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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 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:

I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. (Phil 4.11b-12)

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:

I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ.... (Phil 3.8)

(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: sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things. (2 Cor. 6.10)

With Love In Christ,

Fr John

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