PHILIPPIANS 33: The Secret (4:10-19)

After pushing ‘pause’ for about 8 years, I finally concluded my reflections on the entire Book of Philippians recently. I’ll share the last few parts in the days ahead. See rest of the series here.

“How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. Even so, you have done well to share with me in my present difficulty…At the moment I have all I need—and more! ….And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:10-14, 18-19).

Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret argues that the universe is made up of energy, and all energy has a frequency, and thoughts do too. As like attracts like, you can attune your thoughts to attract other people/sources which are involved in the same sort of thoughts.

This can influence your future, so if you are only worried and thinking about debt, then you will attract other people into the same thing and will remain in that mindset and that reality, but if you psyche yourself into believing that you are rich and successful that is what you will be. This ability to bring positive things into your life by the power of positive thinking she calls “The Law of Attraction.”

Byrnes’ self-help book promises to let readers in on her “secret to a happier and more content life.” Over 19 million copies have been sold, and plenty of people have experienced positive results in their own lives. In a recent interview she speaks glowingly of the difference the “secret” has made in her life:

I would say the greatest difference is that there is hardly any lack in my life anymore, whether that be money, happiness, fulfillment, love, joy, wonder. Without the sense of lack, I am far more in awe of the beauty of this world, rather than seeing it as a world that needs fixing. This is the true foundation of happiness (Publisher’s Weekly, Oct. 10, 2016).

Now, thinking positively does certainly help us improve our moods, leading to more productive behavior, helping pull us out of an emotional rut caused by dwelling on our problems. But I can’t help but imagine the Apostle Paul reading her book while locked in chains in a Roman prison cell. Does he agree with her secret to happiness? Or would he poke holes in her fanciful dream that we can create a new reality merely by wishing it?

Paul’s letter is coming to a close and he wants to share his own secret of contentment with his beloved friends in Philippi. He comes right out and says it:

“I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little” (4:12-13). 

A couple initial thoughts:

  1. Contentment is learned; it doesn’t come naturally. Paul had opportunities to develop this trait through many difficulties. One gets the sense that he wasn’t always as relaxed and content as he appears here in his later years.
  2. Contentment is not dependent on what we have or don’t have. Surprisingly, we think we’ll be more content if we can just get more money, a better job, a different spouse, better health, etc. Paul notes that he also had to learn “how to live with everything.”  A paradoxical but proven fact of life is that the more we have, the less content we tend to be.

Now, back to an imaginary conversation between Rhonda Byrne and Paul on “the secret.” Paul is suffering. He’s imprisoned. His food is inadequate. His clothes are dirty. He’s probably sleeping on cold stone. He will eventually be executed by beheading.

Byrne’s Law of Attraction might suggest that Paul’s negative thoughts have brought upon himself his negative circumstances. Moreover, if he begins to imagine a happier future, will he thereby achieve it?

Interestingly, Paul has just emphasized the importance of positive thinking by fixing our  minds on things that are “true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable…excellent and worthy of praise.” But Paul is still in his cell and will still lose his head to a Roman soldier in the end no matter how many positive thoughts he fills it with.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the 19 million copies of Byrne’s The Secret were purchased and read by people who already have certain advantages and resources others lack. I’m guessing the countless testimonials coming on how the book changed their life were people facing largely “first world problems” — a dead end career, relational struggles, financial debt, etc.

I also suspect her so-called “secret” to happiness based on this Law of Attraction absolutely fails to help the vast majority of the people in other parts of the world find true contentment and happiness from what she’s peddling. Paul would be one such person.

Paul offers a different secret than Byrne. He doesn’t tell you to imagine a better life, and put a positive face to the struggles in your life. He doesn’t even tie contentment to managing to change one’s circumstances at all. He doesn’t need to get out of prison in order to have it. He doesn’t need to fill his empty stomach in order to taste it.

No, his secret to being content in every situation is not found in attracting more pleasant external blessings and experiencing more positive outcomes. His secret to contentment is not tapping into positive energy by way of happier thoughts. His secret isn’t a philosophy of life or a more optimistic outlook on a gloomy predicament.

What is Paul’s secret?  Paul’s secret is a person. 

“I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength” (4:13).  Paul lived with a constant awareness of the living Christ in his midst. Christ’s very presence brightened his mood. Christ’s promises of a bright future eclipsed Paul’s present circumstances and his ability to change them.

Paul could remember back to the night he and Silas were shared a different prison cell. Instead of thinking happy thoughts, they sang songs to the one with the power to shake the walls and set them free (Acts 16:25ff).  Paul didn’t direct his mind to positive things in order to attract better circumstances. Paul directed his speech to the Living God through prayer, hoping to attract not positive energy but divine blessing and rescue.

In the end, Paul discovered the very unfashionable secret that he was usually most ready to receive the blessings of God’s love and presence when his circumstances were the most humanly undesirable. Why? He speaks elsewhere of this other unpopular secret:

“‘[God’s] power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10). 

The not-so-secret truth Paul reveals is this: All around the world today Christ is sitting in jail cells, in prison camps, by hospital beds, and other places of pain and suffering—with his people. Sometimes he’s unlocking chains, healing the sick, setting people free from afflictions, and even helping people change improve their circumstances. But he’s equally present bringing inner strength, resolve and hope to those whose circumstances, like Paul, may never change until the veil is lifted and eternity beckons.

The author of Hebrews who also discovered the secret to contentment, or the “real treasure,” in the midst of trials:

“Remember those early days after you first saw the light? Those were the hard times! Kicked around in public, targets of every kind of abuse—some days it was you, other days your friends. If some friends went to prison, you stuck by them. If some enemies broke in and seized your goods, you let them go with a smile, knowing they couldn’t touch your real treasure. Nothing they did bothered you, nothing set you back. So don’t throw it all away now. You were sure of yourselves then. It’s still a sure thing! But you need to stick it out, staying with God’s plan so you’ll be there for the promised completion” (Hebrews 10:32ff The Message).

I imagine Paul turning to Rhonda Byrne, as she visits him in jail, as she urges him to “look on the bright side” and “envision a more positive future.” I see him smiling politely, and gently  inviting her to consider the ultimate secret to happiness: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27).

Finally, we see Paul’s overflowing contentment expressed further down as he thanks others for their generosity and support. More than just content, or muddling through one day at time, he sounds positively jubilant: “At the moment I have all I need—and more” (4:18)! (He’s still in prison. Nothing has changed.)

Then he makes a promise to all believers everywhere — a promise no less true today as 2,000 years ago: “And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus” (4:19). This is not an endorsement for the prosperity gospel where God provides for our material wants out of his heavenly splurge account if we’ll just name it and claim it.

Instead, the kind of currency Paul speaks of here is the same kind of riches he is currently receiving in his jail cell. Its the richest inheritance of all—“to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead…to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10)!

Now that’s a secret worth sharing!

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