...I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. ¹²I 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. ¹³I can do all things through him who strengthens me. —Philippians 4:11-13
I remember the stories told in the faith tradition in which I grew up, of miraculous works of God’s power in the lives of desperate sinners. I heard tell of how a man, long addicted to alcohol and estranged from his family heard the gospel call, and in an instant, found deliverance from the insatiable yearnings that conquered his soul on a daily basis. I heard of hearts heavy with the burden of guilt and shame set free forever in the moment of faith never to falter along those lines again. I heard stories I am still inclined to believe today, for who am I to question the Master’s work in the lives of His servants?
But I know of other stories. I know my own story. I know of those whose greatest desire was to be instantaneously set free from some besetting sin. I know those who prayed and prayed and prayed, and though there were seasons of light and joy and freedom, the struggle never completely disappeared. There were still sins. There was still sinning. There was guilt, yes, and shame, but there was also heartrending repentance. Then temptation would rise from another quarter and they would face the need to learn the lessons of trust and surrender all over again.
For years I thought the only truly spiritual course of a genuine believer was immediate and total deliverance from even the desire to sin. You can imagine the frustration, perhaps, of finding that on the journey of faith, life happens. Repeatedly.
One day, quite by accident (in the sovereignty of God, you realize) a word in Philippians 4:11 caught my attention. It was not a new word, an unfamiliar word, a foreign word, but I saw it as if seeing it on the first list of spelling words in the fifth grade. I saw it and it was no longer a fourth grade word but a fifth grade word. Paul wrote, “I have learned . . .”
Paul learned. Learning is what you do in the face of something you don’t know. Learning is how you handle a fact or condition you’ve not encountered or mastered before. Learning is normal, and now, I saw for the first time, learning is a grace too.
Paul learned how to be brought low. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a textbook for that. I think one learns how to be brought low by being knocked down and mastering the art of falling and rising. He learned how to abound. Sounds like making the very most of the resources at hand. He learned the secret of facing (not fleeing, or avoiding, or lamenting, but facing) plenty and hunger, abundance and need. Paul learned.
Paul did not, apparently, experience immediate, instantaneous deliverance from the classroom of suffering in the school of hard knocks. Instead, by his own testimony, he learned the secret of facing personal, spiritual opposition and adversity, as well as dealing with the seasons of privilege and abundance that can bring their own spiritual risks.
And what was the secret Paul learned? He learned that he could do everything he needed to do to remain content in every situation and under any condition by trusting in and relying on Jesus Christ, the One who gave Paul His strength as Paul’s own.
Contentment did not come naturally, nor instantaneously. Situation after situation, condition after condition, Paul learned to appropriate the grace of God in Christ Jesus. Each test must have added another nuance to his insight, another brick in the foundation of faith. Paul learned patience. He learned petition. He learned surrender. He learned obedience. He learned faithfulness and determination and reliance on a strength not his own.
Paul learned, and the process of his learning was a gift of grace. God allowed him to learn. God provided the lessons and the opportunities to learn. Learning is a grace too.
How does the revelation that learning is part of the sanctifying process in our lives provide a context for how we handle life's situations?
How does the revelation that learning is part of the sanctifying process in our lives exclude some choices and behaviors from the palette of possibilities?
Paul says that he learned to be content in everything. Does such contentment infer that we should settle with some level of spiritual maturity or another, or does it suggest that learning and contentment work together to urge us onward in the faith? If so, how might this work out in your life?
Dale McIntire (D.Min, Bethel Theological Seminary) has pastored Cornerstone Community Church for 28 years and is the author of Catching the Wind: A Guide for Interpreting Ecclesiastes. He is married to the originator of the Fighter Verse concept, Linda Fregeau McIntire, who also authors and co-authors Truth78 curriculum. They share a like zeal for infusing the next generation with love for God’s word.