"I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned 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 of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:11-13)
I've struggled to write something this morning because I contentment is something I really struggle with. I am so often restless, so often looking for the next thing, agitated by small things in life that go wrong, frustrated that my life is not exactly how I would have it be. But Paul's words strike hard at something deep within me: the longing to be content regardless of circumstances.
For many of us in this moment, life is far from how we want it to be. I am thankful for the sunshine of recent days, but I cannot help thinking that when the weather turns (which it looks like it will do next week), the reality of lockdown will hit home again for us all.
For many of us, this is perhaps the first time in our lives when some of the daily provisions that we take for granted (well-stocked supermarket shelves, using public transport, the freedom to move about when and where we wish) are being taken away. And it feels quite uncomfortable. It is a jolt to the system to go shopping for something that you have always been able to get without any bother at all, and find that the nation's supplies have evaporated.
Our situation pales in comparison to that of many countries around the world. I saw a meme on Facebook last week addressed to the world from various other nations highlighting our own complacency about our usual state of shelf-stocked-freedom:
Dear World, how is the separation from loves ones? - Syria
Dear World, how is the lockdown? - Palestine
Dear World, how is the fear? - Afghanistan
Dear World, how is your food stockpiling? - Yemen
Dear World, how are border closures? - Asylum Seekers (Source: Europemustact.org)
The reality is that we in the UK do not really know suffering. Very few of us have experienced anything like this before, and what we are experiencing is incredibly minor disruption when compared to the rest of the globe.
And so, we have a lesson to learn here from those who do know suffering. From those, like Paul, who have experienced circumstances so extreme and uncomfortable that it begs the question of how on earth is it even possible to claim to know "contentment" in the midst of it? In the midst of hunger and persecution and grief and desperate need?
In Hebrew there is a word called "shalom." It means something like "peace" and is often used as a greeting when saying hello or bidding goodbye. But it means much more than that. Shalom means wholeness, fullness, it is a kind of inward state of the soul that transcends situation, that is bigger than whatever happens to be going on at the time, that is not knocked or destabilised by the goings on of the world.
In his prison cell, Paul has shalom.
In the concentration camp with her sister Betsie, Corrie Ten Boom, learned shalom.
Many of our brothers and sisters in the persecuted church around the world know shalom.
I was reminded this morning of the hymn "It is well with my soul" and the story of when it was written. The hymn was written by Horatio G. Spafford after his four daughters died when the ship they were travelling on sank. The words of the song take on a whole new meaning when you think about who wrote them and in what state of mind Spafford must have been:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
I cannot imagine being able to pen these words when everything most dear to me had just been lost. And yet, somehow, Spafford writes them. Somehow he has shalom. He, like Paul, has learned the secret of contentment. His soul is well.
How are our souls today?
Spafford's soul is well within him because he has peace with God. That is the reality of life as a follower of Jesus: our wellness has nothing to do with our circumstance. Our wellness has nothing even to do with our physical health. Our wellness is because we know God; our souls are restored to relationship with him through the death of Jesus on the cross. Wellness is something independent of what is going on around us.
In this part of the letter, Paul says two really important things. The first is that this is a learning curve. Spafford too writes that God taught him this; he has not been able to do it automatically. And the second is that contentment, wellness, shalom, is imparted to us by God. We do not muster it up. We do not cover up our grief with plasters and pretend we are fine: "I can do all this through him with strengthens me" (4:13). Corrie Ten Boom did not thank God for the fleas out of her own strength. Horatio Spafford did not write that hymn purely out of his own resources. Shalom comes from the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit at work in us.
"I pray that out of his glorious riches he many strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, many have the power, together with all the Lord's holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep in the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge - that you many be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God." (Ephesians 2:12-19)
This is my prayer for this morning - to be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. To know the secret of being content in all circumstances. To have shalom.