Independence through Dependence (on Christ)1
If asked to identify the most instructive passage in the NT on the subject of money and physical circumstances and their collective impact on my faith and confidence in Christ, I would be hard pressed to look beyond Philippians 4:10-13. Continue reading . . .
If asked to identify the most instructive passage in the NT on the subject of money and physical circumstances and their collective impact on my faith and confidence in Christ, I would be hard pressed to look beyond Philippians 4:10-13.
“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:10-13).
“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly” (v. 10a), says Paul, probably when Epaphroditus arrived from Philippi with the gift that they had sent to him. But the reason he gives for his joy is surprising: “that now at length you have revived your concern for me” (v. 10b).
Paul clearly did not intend for these words to be taken negatively or as a criticism of the Philippians, but he knew that there were some who would probably twist them in that way. So he explains both what he doesn’t mean and what he does.
The adverb translated “now at length” or “at last” in some versions implies that there was a considerable gap in time since they had last supported him financially. He doesn’t mean to say that he had been expecting something sooner and “it’s about time” you thought about me and my needs. This is simply Paul’s acknowledgment that communication between him and the Philippians had finally been revived after a lengthy period of no contact.
In giving thanks for their gift Paul is careful to point out that he knows the delay in receiving help is because of a lack of opportunity, not a lack of affection or love. They hadn’t ceased to care for Paul nor were they reconsidering whether to continue financial support of his work. His point, then, is that circumstances evidently beyond their control prevented their commitment from blossoming forth.
I’ve never been much of a gardener or given to horticulture. My philosophy has typically been that if something isn’t growing, cut it down and start over! In the late winter of 1983 we were living in Dallas when the city was struck with a long-lasting ice storm. It pretty much killed everything. We had a sweet gum tree in our front yard that took a hard hit from the storm. I can recall that as spring approached, most everything else in our yard started to recover and show signs of life. But not the sweet gum tree. I wanted to cut it down. It was ugly and useless. Ann wouldn’t have it. She insisted that I be patient. Sure enough, after several more months what once appeared dead came to life and blossomed.
That is precisely the imagery Paul uses here in v. 10. The verb “revived” is a botanical metaphor that means to blossom or bloom again. There is a sense, then, that this is Paul’s way of marveling at the Philippians’ generosity rather than complaining at the absence of it. Just as in spring time a tree puts forth fresh shoots, thereby proving that it is alive, so also the Philippians’ interest in Paul had at last found a way to express and demonstrate itself concretely and lovingly.
We don’t know what it was that hindered the Philippians from helping Paul. Perhaps there was no one able to make the long journey from Philippi to Rome until Epaphroditus stepped forward and volunteered to go. There may have been an economic downturn in Philippi and they simply didn’t have the money. Perhaps it was bad weather. Who knows! But clearly it was not for lack of desire, and Paul is careful to tell them he knows this to be the case.
He also wants to make certain that no one thinks his joy is over the gift itself, as if to suggest that he only loves the Philippians because of their generosity. He is aware that some might interpret his joy on receiving the gift as a sign of immaturity and weakness, as if he were like a child who had just received a new toy. Or possibly he had succumbed to materialism and was consumed by the size of the gift. Or maybe the expression of the joy would be taken by some as a veiled request for more.
Consider how some people articulate their gratitude. When they purportedly say “thanks” what they are actually doing is rebuking the giver for having given so little so late. Or they voice it in a way that makes you think they are expecting another gift, bigger and better the next time. Not Paul.
In any case, the apostle quickly proceeds in vv. 11-13 to declare that his joy over the reception of the gift was not because his happiness was dependent on material prosperity.
Some have suggested that when Paul says in v. 11, “not that I am speaking of being in need,” that he means when their gift arrived he actually didn’t need it because through some other means, perhaps inheritance, he had obtained sufficient funds to support himself.
No, I don’t think so. Paul says what he does not because he is in fact prosperous but because the issue of personal prosperity or poverty has absolutely no bearing on his joy in life. In fact, he will explain in Philippians 4:14-23 that his joy is primarily due to what he knows will be the spiritual fruit that the Philippians themselves will enjoy because of their generosity.
The key statement for us is found in v. 11b. It’s the word translated “content”. On hearing this, the Philippians would have immediately thought of the Stoic philosophers of their day who were committed to eliminating all external dependence; they would strive to detach themselves from any and all physical needs so that they could live without the help of anyone else. There is a story about the famous cynic Diogenes that illustrates the point. He noticed a child drinking out of his hands and immediately threw away his cup, declaring: “A child has vanquished me in economy!”
For the Stoics, then, the self-sufficient, self-contained man was the one who had rendered himself independent of external circumstances and sources of support. All resources necessary for coping in life were to be found within one’s own heart and mind. The Stoic was dependent on neither people nor possessions.
So what separates Paul from them? He tells us in 2 Corinthians 3:5 – “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God.” This is the grand paradox: the independence from the world and wealth that we as Christians strive to obtain comes through dependence on all that God is for us in Christ! The “sufficiency” or “contentment” pursued by the Stoical philosophers of Paul’s day comes from within oneself. Paul’s comes from without. Paul was not an independent man. He was wholly dependent on Christ and thus independent of the support and resources of anyone else.
Don’t misunderstand what he’s saying. This is not laziness or fatalism or yielding passively to whatever comes our way. Rather it is a detachment from anxious concern by having learned to live immune from the poison of circumstances. Paul doesn’t mean by this that we shouldn’t try to improve our lot in life, nor does he mean that we shouldn’t enjoy the material blessings God has given us. He simply means that whether he has a lot of stuff or nothing at all, his confidence in God and his joy in life are unchanged!
Paul then turns to expand on this and unpack it for us in v. 12.
To be continued . . .