|Seneca, a Stoic contemporary of Paul's|
There are two kinds of men in this world, and every one of us is a combination of these two types. First, there is the man who looks for contentment in his circumstances. Wherever he goes and whomever he is with, he is constantly sculpting his circumstances in search for contentment, perpetually dissatisfied, like a bird that spends all day sculpting its nest but never sits down to sing.
But there is another kind of man, the man who does not look for contentment in his circumstances, but carries contentment with him, spreading it like sunshine wherever he goes and to whomever he is with.
Don’t you want to be more like that second man? Don’t you want to be the man who carries contentment with him? But where do you find such contentment? Where do you find the magic in life, the spark, so that regardless of where you live, whether it be a downtown apartment or the French countryside, you will carry contentment with you? What is the secret?
I have learned, Paul writes in Philippians 4, to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret...
What was this secret that Paul had learned? If we were to ask the soldiers who stood watch over him, “What makes this man content?” what would they say?
Would they say perhaps, that Paul’s contentment came from his self-sufficiency?
Now the Stoic philosophers of Paul’s day had much to say about self-sufficiency. According to their philosophy, the wise man should seek to sever himself, through long training, from all dependence on human society or material goods, until he had risen to a level of independence comparable to the gods themselves. Was this the secret, then? Was the contentment that Paul had learned the same as this Stoic self-sufficiency?
It certainly looked the same, at least on the outside. The philosophers spoke of strengthening the mind by disciplining the body, and so did Paul. The philosophers spoke of living above one’s material circumstances, and so did Paul. So what was the difference? How was the secret that Paul had found any different from that of the philosophers? Paul himself reveals the answer.
I can do everything through him who strengthens me.
This is the heart of Paul’s secret, and this was the difference between Paul and his philosophical contemporaries. Whereas the Stoic philosophers looked for strength from within, Paul found strength from without, from the one he names in Philippians 4:13 as “him who strengthens me.”
You then, my son, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.