Being content in whatever state I am in, and that’s not a geography question by the way, has been getting more challenging for me for the last 6 years. I have been a glass-half-full kind of guy for most of my life, but the natural aging process seemed to kick into high gear for me in the fall of 2009, just before my 63rd birthday. Since then I’ve had two major surgeries and a laundry list of old people medical issues that aren’t life-threatening and not worth itemizing. But they are a pain, literally and figuratively.
I know the uselessness of going into victim mode, and I cringe when I catch myself and my peers devoting the lion’s share of our conversations to medical reports. But self-pity is an occupational hazard for later life, and I do fall into the thrall of its siren song far too frequently.
All of that provided a helpful existential and personal backdrop for a Bible Study I just led for my church. We studied an excellent book by Adam Hamilton entitled The Call: The Life and Message of The Apostle Paul. My theological bias has led me to focus most of my attention on Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels for most of my career; so this study of Paul was an excellent refresher course for me that helped me take a serious look at Paul’s life and what shaped his theological perspective.
I have quoted Paul in sermons, at weddings and funerals, and frequently used his dramatic conversion as an example of the unlimited power of God to transform and redeem any life. But not since seminary 40 plus years ago have I done a systematic study of the context and circumstances that inspired Paul’s writing and teaching and his absolutely unstoppable devotion to his call to share the Christian Gospel with the world at any and all personal cost and sacrifice.
I have been as guilty as most preachers of cherry picking and proof texting verses of Scripture out of context, and two of those verses I refer to often from Paul have taken on a deeper level of meaning for me as a result of studying Paul’s life again. One is the aforementioned verse about being content in whatever state I am in (Phil. 4:11), and the other is from Romans 8 where Paul assures us that “nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
Those verses are powerful statements of faith even taken out of context, but when we realize that Paul wrote Philippians, a letter of joy and rejoicing, from one of the several prison cells where he spent 4-5 years of the last decade of his life they take on a deeper meaning. Earlier in Philippians 4 Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Those are strong words from a man who describes the trials of his life this way in II Corinthians: “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. 28 And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.” (11:24-28)
Paul was a man of passion and perseverance. Someone has defined “passion” as something one is willing to suffer for. Paul was willing and determined to share the Gospel, and he experienced great hardship and pain for his efforts. But did he suffer? If he learned to be content with whatever he had and therefore found the peace that passes all understanding, I would argue he did not suffer. There is a popular self-help statement that says, “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional” which is often attributed to Buddha. It is consistent with the Buddhist philosophy but no one knows for sure where it originated. Regardless of the source, that advice applies to Paul and to anyone who achieves the attitude of acceptance toward circumstances, tragedies, pain, and other problems that one cannot control.
Paul is able to rise above the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” when Hamlet cannot because of his faith and absolute trust in the goodness and mercy of eternal God. Given the hardship he endured and triumphed over to almost single-handedly spread the Gospel of Christ across the Roman Empire, the words of Romans 8 echo like a climactic crescendo to the symphony of his life.
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)
Paul has been there, done that. He’s not a bystander to the forces of opposition. He doesn’t just believe in the love of God, he’s felt it and been sustained by it in the most difficult and hopeless situations imaginable. If he’s content and at peace, who am I to be discouraged or undone by the minor difficulties and challenges life puts in my way?