"If people only bought the things they needed, world trade would come to a halt." Attributed to P.T. Barnum
"That which each of us calls our 'necessary expenses' will always grow to equal our income unless we protest to the contrary." George Clason, The Richest Man in Babylon
In an age where more is supposedly better, Christians need to rethink their philosophy concerning the material things of this world.
As our society rapidly progresses toward a greater emphasis on technology, convenience, and prosperity, we're in danger of losing a worldview that has sustained generations of believers and shines an incandescent light on culture at large.
For many a Christian who has faced difficult circumstances, Philippians 4:13 has always been a great refuge. Here, the apostle Paul confesses, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
As he endured beatings and scourgings in Jerusalem, shipwreck at Malta, and imprisonment in Rome, one can clearly see how this Scripture may have been his life verse.
I used to meditate upon this often as I lay relaxing in my son's bedroom, gazing at a poster on his wall. The picture was that of a modern-day gladiator taking a majestic swing for the fences. Etched below this imposing figure were the words of Philippians 4:13.
Is this the inspiration God was breathing through Paul when this verse was divinely declared? I'm sure it has some application, but a closer look at the text will reveal that in many ways, this verse speaks of our economic situ¬ation as it relates to our greater purpose in the kingdom. Let's read the verse in context:
Not that I speak in regard to need, for 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. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Phil.4:11-13)
The first thing that becomes apparent is that the strengthening Paul received – and that which we in our age need so desperately – is contentment.
His life was undergirded by a sense that whatever circumstance came his way in life, abounding or abasing, fullness or hunger, he would continue on for the sake of the kingdom, knowing his calling in Christ. His faithfulness to God was never determined by how much savings he had or by the fulfillment of all his personal needs and wants. He realized that in Christ he had all that was necessary both spiritually and materially to live a fulfilling and meaningful life.
The second thing we see is that this strong sense of purpose and reliance upon God didn't come naturally to Paul: in verse 11, it tells us that he learned to be content.
This is something we all must learn.
Looking back on the early years of our Christian experience, my wife, Monica, and I also learned the value of contentment that has carried us through until the present. I can't say honestly that I enjoyed the "season" that we sojourned in, but I've now come to realize it was part of our preparation.
Married, with our first child, and still finishing college on a full-time basis, we had almost no money. We declined several options to live with relatives, knowing the Lord would have us establish our own family as well as develop our new relationship with each other. This is one decision I've never regretted to this day.
What was so amazing about this period is how much time we spent boasting in what the Lord was doing. Both of us took great joy in showing friends and others through our small apartment, telling the "story" behind every piece of furniture the Lord had supplied. Food would arrive at our doorstep, a car was given to us, and God was meeting all our needs.
During this time, we were actively involved in ministry in our local church: youth ministry, street witnessing, children's church, and so forth. Not once did we ever consider not being involved in the Lord's work because of our financial situation.
Amazingly, hardly anyone in our congregation realized the pressure we were under. In many ways, I'm grateful for this because the "lean years" taught us to rely on the Lord and to see His guiding hand every day. All I knew was that, though times were hard, we were content and happy, enjoying life, and were a living testimony to God's faithfulness.
The words of the prophet Habakkuk sum up this time in our lives nicely:
Though the fig tree may not blossom,
Nor fruit be on the vines;
Though the labor of the olive may fail,
And the fields yield no food;
Though the flock may be cut off from the fold,
And there be no herd in the stalls-—
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will joy in the God of my salvation. (Hab. 3:17-18)
As the years passed, our situation changed dramatically. The test now has become to find contentment in a time of blessing, which in many ways can be more difficult.
In Ecclesiastes 1:8, we're told that "the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing." A most detestable part of our fallen nature is dissatisfaction.
Big business has profited from this malady, as it parades a plethora of goods and services before us that we not only don't need, but that will never make us happy. Worse, we often become mired in debt to get them. As financial advisor Dave Ramsey says, "We buy things we don't need with money we don't have to impress people we don't like."
If Christians are to ever break free of this insidious trap, we must learn the true source of our contentment. That means we must fully apprehend what the Bible has to say about wealth. The topic is far too expansive to discuss here, but suffice it to say this: Whether the Lord blesses tremendously or is just meeting basic needs, we are to rejoice, and realize we all have a responsibility to use our resources to fund the Lord's work. The widow casting in her two mites will forever be a testimony to this fact.
Giving allows us to invest in God's work and the lives of others, fulfilling Jesus' mandate, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). A side benefit is that it breaks the monster of more in our lives and loosens the grip of consumption and overexposure that is plaguing our generation.
A prominent pastor once remarked, "The greatest moments of faith are when you vacillate from the backdrop of poverty to prosperity without wavering in your opinion of God's ability."
He proclaimed in one sentence what I've tried to convey in an entire article! Oh well, let me leave you with one final exhortation: "Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content" (1 Tim. 6:6-8).
It's only by God's grace that we can navigate the maze of materialism in this world. Yet if we rest in the assurance that He is faithful, and are content in Him, we'll be able to say with Paul, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
Interested in reading more? Pastor Bob suggests the book Finding Contentment by Neil Clark Warren.