I have learned to be content with whatever I have. (Philippians 4.11)
“I don’t like Paul.” I’ve heard several people say this lately. My response is always the same—a sympathetic nod—because Paul isn’t easy to like. On one page, he takes our breath away with eloquent dissertations on God’s grace. On the next, he trips all over himself, snarling at his detractors, belittling women, and mistaking swagger for certainty. But while I too quarrel with Paul’s personality and more than a few of his ideas, I like him very much. I like him because he’s difficult to like. I like him because he’s never reluctant to admit to his messiness. Most of all, I like him because he’s our finest example of a sincere Christian trying to figure out how all of this is supposed to work and what it all means.
I see Paul as a sort of lead investigator in the faith lab. He’s constantly at work, observing new phenomena, combining ancestral beliefs with novel approaches, debunking outdated myths, replacing them with fresh paradigms, and always—always—struggling unlock the Gospel’s revolutionary truths. Paul insists on publishing his findings as he goes, a daring proposition for anyone carving out new territory, let alone someone tasked with establishing the principles and practices of a radical faith movement. As a result, we’re privy to his blunders as well as his breakthroughs. It’s why we see him barrel down a dead-end alley one place—for instance, in his condescension toward women’s roles in the home and church—and then reverse his direction elsewhere, as he does by declaring, “there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” in Galatians 3. These flaws attest to Paul’s obsession with figuring things out. Despite his irksome vanity, he’s not interested in proving how smart he is. He’s doing his best to put everything together for the sake of the Gospel. He may not be likeable. But he’s always sincere.
We can get closer to Paul by recalling that, like many of us, he’s the product of a highly prescriptive faith environment. Before Christ charges him to be an Apostle, he already knows the Hebrew Bible by heart and has gained respect as a model seminarian. On top of that, he’s a Roman citizen, a foreign-born Jew of the merchant class, a person of privilege. So he comes from an entirely different place than the other disciples. By the time he’s stopped by a vision of Jesus on the Damascus Road, he’s sure he’s got a handle on how things work. Now he has to start all over again. And one of the key shifts in Paul’s life occurs when he learns to differentiate between complacency and contentment.
In Philippians 4.11-13, we find Paul’s magnificent contentment confession: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have… In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” And what is his secret? “I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me.” We can assume Paul’s talking only about his physical and material needs. Yet I’m of the mind it runs deeper than that. I believe he would also add, “I know what it’s like to be religiously complacent and how to be content with unanswered questions. I can remain committed to trying to figure it all out, while conceding it’s more than I can ever comprehend.” Now his famous “I can do all things” statement becomes an epic declaration of faith in the making.
I’m thoroughly convinced that every Lenten desert contains a Damascus Road of some kind—a bracing encounter with Christ that calls us away from shallow lives of religious complacency and leads to the deeper mysteries of faith. We won’t figure it all out. We’ll make blunders and find ourselves backtracking from ideas we’ve embraced in the past. Not everyone will be happy with us. But in our pursuit of right relationship with God we can find contentment. Paul told Timothy, “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.” (1 Timothy 6.6) Pursuing God’s will and way inevitably requires us to start over, clearing away ready-made answers to make room for questions we can’t possibly resolve. But when we combine that with contentment, we will gain strength for our journey and discover lives of faith that are anything but complacent.