Summary: Paul counters the false expectation of ’prosperity theology’ by giving his readers A Strategy for Living and The Antidote to Self-pity to enable them to be Master of Every Situation.
MASTER OF EVERY SITUATION
I wonder if you’re like me always looking at the barometer - it doesn’t stay in one place very long. Life is very much like that. If I were to draw a graph of my life in terms of feelings and experiences it wouldn’t be a straight line and I suspect many of you would have to report the same. Sometimes Christians enjoy smooth passages or even a period of success; then suddenly a down- turn comes and the indicator on our life’s graph would plummet, very much like the sudden plunge of the barometer when a storm is coming. These reverses often bring a great deal of distress and anxiety to the people immediately involved. We’re all different and something that would be distressing to me would doubtless be shrugged off as a minor hiccup by many of you and perhaps vice versa.
Winston Churchill, the great World War II leader, lost the 1945 general election but his sense or irony and humour didn’t desert him. Mrs Churchill tried to comfort him by saying, ‘It may be a blessing in disguise’ to which he replied, ‘Well, at the moment it’s certainly well disguised.’ Life can throw up problems not readily understood.
In fact there are trials and troubles that are the common inheritance and portion of all mankind and can be traced back to the fallen state of the world. Disease and pain, natural disasters, grief and disappointment, economic hardship; some or all of them all the common lot of human beings, and come irrespective of whether we be in the faith or not. But on top of this the Christian can expect opposition or even outright persecution directly connected to his confession of Christ as Lord. Jesus warned his disciples to expect it, ’in the world you will have trouble’ (John 16:33), and the Apostle Paul told his new converts to expect hardship.
This talk of trials and hardships is quite unpalatable to Christians who believe in some kind of a ’prosperity theology’. I remember a sermon where the preacher said he was rather tired of hearing that Christianity was ’pie in the sky when you die’: he was looking to the promises of God for some ’steak on the plate while you wait!’ Well, what is the truth of the matter? Can the Christian expect blessing and prosperity in its various forms now or will he have to wait to when he gets to heaven? I don’t believe that these questions can receive a straightforward ’yes’ or ’no’ because they are the wrong questions.
Let’s turn to our text where we find the testimony of one of the world’s great Christians. Hear Paul’s words as he writes to the church at Philippi: ’1 have learned in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circum-stances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me’ (4:11-13).
What an amazing testimony this is! Here’s a man of learning and culture who says that in health or in sickness, in plenty or in poverty, in strength or in weakness, when abased or abounding, when full or when empty - at all times, he was perfectly contented! When Paul wrote these words, in all probability he was in chains in Nero’s prison in Rome, with no comforts, no luxuries and no guarantee of what might happen. Undoubtedly Paul, born as a Roman citizen and a prominent Pharisee had enjoyed a privileged up-bringing - in today’s terminology he would be ranked with the upper middle classes of society. But even as he wrote the words, he was deprived of many of the barest necessities of life, and yet he could say, ’I am content, satisfied and radiantly happy’. Paul is commending his readers:
A STRATEGY FOR LIVING
We can be sure that whichever of life’s experiences come our way, other of God’s people have been there before us. Paul brings his letter to the Philippians to a close with a section on the need for perseverance in the Christian faith, and he’s bold enough to offer himself as an example to follow. Paul spoke from experience, not a theoretical knowledge. He refers to things the believers at Philippi had actually observed and urges them that what ’they had learned, received, heard and seen’ in Paul, that is what they should do with the result that ’the God of peace shall be with you’ (9). It wasn’t a matter of Paul saying, ’Don’t do as I do; do what I tell you!’ The believers at Philippi had the evidence of Paul’s life.
I want to centre our thoughts on Christian expectations of blessing and adversity and our reactions to them, seen from the wrong and the right perspectives, the faulty and the true ways. The last century saw tremendous advances in technology, making possible the vast increase in goods and services. Standards of living have risen appreciably and consumption has increased dramatically. Each generation expects to begin where the people of the previous generation reached after working and saving for many years. The Christian community isn’t an exception to the acquisitive society in which we live. This has led to the development of a ’prosperity theology’ - that we have a right to expect God to smooth our pathway with health and wealth because we are Christians.