Monday, March 07, 2011

Cultivated Contentment

But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: (Philippians 4:10-11, NKJV).

The church in Philippi faithfully supported Paul's evangelical and missionary ministry. He counted on them in the "beginning of the gospel", and joyfully anticipated their continued present and future support. That is the significance of the first portion of this text. The Philippians were once again matching words with deeds; having repeatedly in the past professed their love and respect for the apostle, they demonstrated by giving again that their words were not empty. There is nothing quite as cheap, nor demeaning to both sayer and hearer, as empty words. It never fails to discourage the recipient, and always proves the hypocrisy of the speaker. Better to keep our mouths closed, than to waste breath on glib, insubstantial protestations of any kind, good or bad. In short, put up or shut up.

Beyond that sage advice, Paul begins to launch into perhaps the most soaring argument against wordily material acquisition found anywhere in Scripture. In one respect, he starts with the conclusion; the crescendo, if you will. He writes, I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content.

This is a fitting expansion to his previous exhortations regarding anxiety, thankfulness, and peace of mind, but although it may sound similar to certain Near Eastern philosophies that also happen to espouse a dismissal of material or physical desires, that is where any commonality ends. Taoism, and certain sects of Buddhism, for instance, strive for nirvana, which is a state of almost complete passive abdication of all things physical or emotional. The goal is to apparently melt into some nebulous form of universal consciousness that can neither be described, explained or transmitted. It appears to be synonymous with a self-conscious loss of self-consciousness, and in that way, obtaining a kind of immortality by ceasing to exist as a separate entity. If this were the only kind of not dying offered by the universe, I vote the universe keep it. 

What's the difference between ceasing to exist at all, and ceasing to exist as a person. Either way, the you that you've been all your life is gone, and something not remotely related to you is supposedly what's left. That does not strike me as anything worth pursuing in the slightest. And when I read about, or hear about, what such philosophies signify or entail, while I understand (more or less) the words, I cannot relate at all to what they might really mean. And when I dig deeper, I'm told that unless I become enlightened, I won't be able to understand. Oddly enough, enlightenment is the path to nirvana. So, at least for me, I won't know whether I would want to get to nirvana unless I embark on enlightenment, and I won't really be enlightened until I get to nirvana, after which it will apparently not matter whether I wanted to get there or not because all such wants will become illusory as I melt into the great All That Is. Call me simple-minded, but that sounds like a metaphysical Catch-22. I'd rather have Jesus and guaranteed eternal life as a sanctified, perfected and glorified me, than as an undifferentiated will-o-the wisp.

Which brings us to the crux of what Paul wrote about. A lack of desire for this world's goods, power, prestige or comfort, in the face of everlasting life in the heavenly places, is not a subjugation of fleshly desires for some amorphous, gelatinous, amoral end, but a trade-off of priorities. Why obsess on the world's paltry satisfactions, when by doing so you forfeit heaven's. By making do with what you have by God's grace, and recognizing the futility of attempting to gain satisfaction that this world cannot provide, you make yourself free to do those things that will lay up for yourself treasures in Heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal.
This is not so much a matter of impoverishing yourself (for the Lord Himself has given you what you have, and withheld from you what you don't have), as much as it is a matter of getting your head on straight about what temporal rewards are really worth, and more pointedly, what they are NOT worth. They are NOT worth, for instance, compromising your faith, or sacrificing godly relationships, or fretting over to the point of bitterness, resentment, or sickness. They are NOT worth holding onto in a miserly fashion convinced that there is not enough of whatever it is to go around. They are NOT worth selling your soul, or your family, or anything else of true value precisely because everything in this world will burn. And before it burns, you will likely die and have to leave it behind anyway. The ONLY thing that lasts is relationship and persons, and the ONLY relationship that will ensure that all other relationships remain and can be taken with you, is your relationship with Jesus.

This is the key to living freely in Christ; to abiding in the Law of Liberty; to having the peace that passes understanding. Later on, the apostle will remind us that this world is not our home. We are citizens of Heaven. In human parlance, it means that whatever we have here is like the twitchy, gossamer, easily shredded travel gear you buy at some local pharmacy. If you're lucky, the stuff lasts long enough, and remains useful enough to get you back home. And if you lose some of it on the way, it is sheer foolishness to muck up your itinerary to try to recover it.

Your goal is to get home in the most expedient way possible, taking care of business honorably along the way, fulfilling your God-given purpose, and NOT getting sidetracked by the baubles and disposable razors you may have been fortunate enough to obtain during the trip.

Be aware, though, of two things. First this is not natural behavior; it's learned and takes diligent practice. Paul will give us the curriculum in the next couple of verses, but the point is, you are not born living life this way. But you can be reborn to it. Secondly, some of those disposable items come in deceptively attractive packaging; shiny reputations; glittering achievements; sparkly brand new things that promise enduring satisfaction, but end up in the dung heap with the rest of the garbage.