I Can Do All Things Through Him Who Strengthens Me | Philippians 4:10-13

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:10-13 ESV

 

Here in chapter four, Paul is giving his final comments to the Philippians and wrapping up the themes of the letter. He has urged the Philippians once again to fight for unity, to rejoice in the Lord always, and to practice what they have learned from him. The apostle now writes about the Philippians revived concern for him, while also emphasizing that even while in prison he has learned to be content in the Lord.

CHRISTIAN CONCERN // VERSE 10

As Paul’s letter nears its end, he now turns his mind toward the love that the Philippians have shown him. This is an interesting verse because at first it could appear that Paul was suggesting that the Philippians did not have concern for him at some point. In order for them to revive their concern, they must have lost some of that concern previously, correct? Certainly not. The apostle even explains that their concern never diminished but their ability did. We do not know why exactly the church of Philippi did not have an opportunity to support Paul, but he expresses his gratitude that they were now able to send him such a gift when they previously could not. Paul’s receiving of their gift likely meant that the situation was improving for the Philippians.

We will focus on a point to be made from this verse more next week, but it should also be noted here: local churches must have a vision for fulfilling the Great Commission beyond themselves. While it is true that the importance of the local congregations of believers is difficult to over-emphasize, we must never forget that the gospel can only be made known to every nation and ethnicity via the collective effort of all believers worldwide. Practically, if most of the unreached people groups live in the 10/40 Window, then most churches around the world are not in a position to interact on a daily basis with those people. In fact, many of those areas are hostile to the very idea of an established Christian church existing within their homelands. Thus, we send and support missionaries who take the gospel especially to unreached lands. It is crucial for churches that are not on the frontline of taking the gospel to unreached peoples to partner in the word of these missionaries. Paul’s mission, after all, was just that; he aimed to preach Jesus Christ where He had not yet been named (Romans 15:20). The majority of Christians will not find themselves doing this work for Christ, yet those who do the work of Paul must have the support of we who seek to imitate the Philippians. While there are many ways to express our support and partnership with them, the two primary means are through financial giving and prayer.

THE ART OF CONTENTMENT // VERSES 11-12

Just in case his brothers and sisters have mistaken Paul’s gratitude over their gift for him being in great need, he is quick to note that he is content. Notice his wording. He does not claim that he is not in need because he definitely did have needs. However, so that he would not place extra pressure upon a struggling church, Paul quickly emphasizes that despite his needs he found true contentment. In fact, Paul’s rejoicing in their gift was more because of the love that it showed for him, not primarily because of the needs that it met.

There is a supernatural beauty to the contentment that is found in Paul. Though he has not mentioned his contentment until now, its calm and confident effects are felt throughout the entire book and throughout his life. The apostle was sitting in prison, his fate uncertain at the time of writing this letter, yet his heart is not troubled or anxious. Paul’s life was a living expression of the peace of God that verse seven describes. The supreme joy that Paul found in Christ displayed itself in an overarching satisfaction that was not contingent upon his circumstances. He had learned to rely upon and need only Jesus in both times of abundance and times of need. Even in the presence of hunger, Paul was able to acknowledge Jesus as the Bread of Life and find his contentment in Christ.

This is the true peace that God offers. God does not promise to magically meet every need, as though He were a cosmic genie. God gives us Himself, which is the greatest gift, so that regardless of what befalls us we will be able to rejoice in Him because He is sufficient.

This biblical understanding of contentment emphasizes the crucial role of being satisfied in the Christian life. Our contentment is an outflow of God’s goodness toward us, while discontentment reveals a struggling faith in God’s providence. To be dissatisfied as a Christian is to proclaim God Himself and His provisions as insufficient.

Of course, most of us would immediately reject such a thought. We would reason that we may be discontent on occasion, but we are not distrusting God Himself through our discontentment. Unfortunately, even sporadic discontentment is just that. A lack of contentment with your spouse reflects a dissatisfaction with God as well as your spouse because God is the giver of every good gift. In fact, coveting can only form in the absence of contentment. Looking longingly at the lives of those around us, therefore, is an indicator of our soul’s present danger. Coveting, envy, and materialism are the fruit of discontentment. Because of this, we might possess a greater fear of being brought low and facing hunger and need, yet times of abundance and plenty are just as dangerous, if not more so, to our souls. Agur is wise to write the following prayer:

Proverbs 30:7-9 | Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal band profane the name of my God.

Yet Paul’s words are distinct from Agur’s words. Agur knew his own inability to process both riches and poverty; therefore, he prayed for the LORD to keep him from both. Likewise for us, this is still a very wise prayer to pray. Paul, however, speaks to the reality that we will almost always experience times of riches and times of need, yet he has learned to be satisfied even during those highs and lows. He was able to recognize his fulfillment during times of hunger, while also still recognizing his need in times of plenty.

What does this look like in your life?

Are you forgetting God in the midst of living in abundance?

Are you feeling the pain of need and feeling discontentment with your life?

Has your discontent ever spiraled into other sins, such as coveting, envy, or greed?

But how exactly do we fight for contentment, regardless of our circumstances?

Paul answers that very question in our final verse.

A MISUNDERSTOOD VERSE // VERSE 13

Yes, the high school football verse! There is nothing that is impossible for a Christian because at just the right moment, Jesus will give them all the strength that they need. If you fail to study for a test, don’t worry. Trust in Jesus, and through Him you will be able to do all things. That is what this verse means, right? Jesus gives us strength, so we can do anything that we set our minds to.

Nothing could be farther away from the depth behind this incredibly popular verse. Paul penned this verse in the face of death and imprisonment with his body already failing because of the hardships that he had received. Paul was not looking toward Jesus as an extra boost of strength or a fix-all in the midst of arbitrary circumstances; he was looking to Christ as the only necessary element for strength through imprisonment and even into death. Paul knew that he was able to face any circumstance with joy and contentment because Jesus was everything to him! Jesus was the treasure of Paul’s life. Thus, if he had already found the Source of supreme joy, how could any trial damper his satisfaction? No situation was too great for Paul because Christ gave life to his joints. Even in death, Christ would be all-sufficient. Jesus is the secret to contentment in all circumstances.

Unfortunately, this is an easy teaching to claim, but it is quite difficult to actually live. We are so prone to do things in our own strength. Trusting self is for us like water to a fish; we rarely even recognize just how thoroughly we are swimming in it. We move along through our daily lives without blinking at the how frequently take things into our own hands. For instance, since we live in culture of abundance, we rarely pause to give thanks to God for the vast supply of food within our reach, but it is even less common for us to actually pray for Him to continue providing it. Or how often do we approach God’s Word without first begging His Spirit to grant us both understanding and obedience? We do things ourselves. We are, after all, red-blooded Americans who can pull ourselves up by the bootstraps whenever the going gets tough, right? Such an attitude is the opposite of Paul’s confidence in Jesus Christ. The apostle knew that Jesus alone was his strength. His own efforts were hopelessly futile without the Lord’s powerful supply in his life.

Brothers and sisters, the greatness of Paul is found only in the apostle’s continuous acknowledging of his own weakness and Christ’s infinite strength. Likewise, the mightiest figures in the history of the church were those who depended upon Jesus the most. Spurgeon, when asked how he was able to do everything that he did, responded by reminding the person that he and the Holy Spirit counted as two people working. Augustine’s profound insights into the ways of God came from how the gospel triumphed over his deep longings for the lusts of the flesh. Martin Luther proclaimed the glories of grace so boldly because he first felt the brutal weight of not being able to obey God’s commands. In God’s kingdom, the least truly are the greatest and the last are first. The weakest often prove to be the strongest because in their weakness, Christ’s strength is upon greater display.

Similarly, we will never conquer our own discontented hearts without Christ’s supernatural aid. We cannot face both need and plenty in righteousness unless Jesus is giving us the strength to do so. In fact, we see this very thought in the very first line of Psalm 23: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” The great value of sheep can only be achieved through the meticulous and gentle care of a shepherd. He is their defended and provider, their strength and their support. In the hands of a good shepherd, sheep are content.

Likewise, because Jesus is our Good Shepherd, we have no reason to want, to be discontent. If we are hungry, He Himself will be our daily bread. When He commands us to obey, He provides His Spirit to enable us to do it. When we are faithless to Him, He remains faithful. When we are lonely, He is beside us, even if we made our bed in the grave (Psalm 139:7). When our own strength and even our heart fails, He is the strength of our heart and our portion forever (Psalm 73:26).

Is Jesus, therefore, your strength, or do you desire something or someone else?

Are you living according to our own abilities, or is Christ working through you in everything?

Are you satisfied and content in Christ, or is your heart searching vainly for something greater?

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Depressing Joy: a thousand year search for meaning

Back in 2012, I taught through the books of Ecclesiastes and Philippians together, attempting to show how they both present that true joy is only found in Christ. Since I am now preaching through them again (finishing Ecclesiastes this Sunday), I’m sharing the essay that I wrote in 2012 to explain the connection between these two books.


The nature of joy should not be mysterious to us, yet it often is. C. S. Lewis claims, in the book Surprised by Joy, that pleasure, happiness, and joy share a commonality. This common trait, Lewis remarks, is that after one has experienced them he or she will spend the rest of their life searching for them again. However, though they share this link, joy is significantly different from pleasure or happiness. For instance, the alluring aspect of happiness and pleasure is that they are both enjoyable, yet that very enjoyment of happiness and pleasure is meant to be found within the context of joy. The word “enjoy” means, after all, to find joy in something. Thus, joy is the means by which and the purpose to which we are meant enjoy pleasure and happiness. We often seek happiness and pleasure themselves as sources of joy, but if we sought joy first, then we would already have the context for accepting pleasure and happiness. Joy should be given primacy. Happiness and pleasure could best be described as momentary glimpses of joy, whereas joy is a state of being that transcends throughout the emotional spectrum. Thus, we can be joyful and happy, but we can also be sorrowful and full of joy.

The lasting appeal of joy, I believe, derives from its interconnection with satisfaction. When we are joyful, we are satisfied. Or, it could better be said that when we are satisfied, we are joyful. As Moody notes, “if man is dying for want of bread, and you give him bread, is that going to make him gloomy?” Most, if not all, of our negative emotions can be traced to an outcome that deviated from our original desire. I will not enjoy a meal fully if it is Chinese food and my desire was for Mexican. When our desires are fulfilled, we find joy and satisfaction.

The implication of this thought is enormous because most people strongly desire to live a satisfied life. We often long, deep within our souls, for a joy that gives us true satisfaction and contentment, and we are best able to find that joy by seeing our desires fulfilled. However, if our greatest desire is to achieve joy and satisfaction, then such joy can only be found by finding… joy. And it is within this vague cycle of sought-out meaning that many throw away their search for joy. They become lost in the quest for satisfaction and, as a result, pursue one source of fleeting pleasure after another. Instead of finding lasting joy, they do their best to be satisfied with lesser things, with mere hints of the meaning and contentment that could be had.

This triviality is not lost on God nor on His chosen people throughout history. In fact, there two books within God’s Word that search out and answer how we might find a meaningful and satisfied life. The first of these is the book of Ecclesiastes. Written by Solomon, the king of Israel after succeeding his father David, Ecclesiastes is traditionally believed to be his dying thoughts. After living a life of unparalleled wealth, pleasure, and wisdom, Solomon wrote what many consider to be the most hopeless and depressing book of the Bible.

It is easily understood how one can arrive at such a conclusion. The bulk of Ecclesiastes is Solomon presenting various avenues of hope only to describe their shortcomings. However, the overarching vanity in life is not Solomon’s ultimate purpose for the book. Instead, Solomon hopes to reveal the Source of lasting joy and satisfaction, but he does this primarily by showing how other methods fail to offer such joy. In fact, the Israelite king repeatedly states that there is nothing better in life than to enjoy what you have been given by God.

Wait.

Surely the search for lasting joy cannot be that simple.

Are we meant to simply have joy?

Well, Solomon does give an answer for the Source of joy: God. The conclusion of Solomon’s life is that enjoyment, and thus joy, only comes from God. Nothing else gives such lasting satisfaction. Therefore, we must understand that Ecclesiastes is, at its core, about joy and the Giver of joy.

The second book is the widely hailed epistle of joy: Philippians. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians was written towards the end of his life as well. Over the course of his letter, Paul primarily urges the church in Philippi to rejoice (another word derived from joy), despite the church and Paul himself experiencing persecution. In fact, Philippians was written while Paul was imprisoned for declaring the gospel of Jesus. But even though Paul was sitting in prison awaiting his death, he wrote with supreme confidence that he had found the complete and total meaning of life: “to live is Christ.” Furthermore, Paul’s central focus upon Christ gives contentment and joy in any situation and grants him the ability to view death as gain. The joy of Christ delivers unparalleled joy and satisfaction, while stripping away the sting and fear of death.

Though Solomon and Paul were separated by roughly a thousand years, the central theme of both Ecclesiastes and Philippians remains eternally tied together. These two godly and wise men present to us a thousand year, Spirit-inspired look at humanity’s quest for meaning, satisfaction, and purpose in life. But even more importantly, they present the answer to that quest; therefore, over the next couple of posts, we will explore the connections and relations between these two beautiful, but challenging, books.

Two Roads

A belief that I hold is that there are two paths to hell. If eternal judgment is your desired destination, rest assured that you have at least two choices to take: the road of the “sinner” or the road of the “religious.”

You see, the only method of actually securing the eternal wrath of such a loving God is to follow your own prideful heart, to reject His grace and His Son. This is the only means of sealing one’s damnation because we know that anyone who turns from their sins and follows Christ shall be saved.

However,  though pride is the only means of earning a hellish afterlife, such a life plays out in two broad forms, both are methods of proclaiming your own glory instead of God’s. As one could probably guess, both of these views are discussed in Ecclesiastes and Philippians.

First, you can become a “sinner” and adamantly reject the inherent moral compass that God has placed within us. This way of life will almost always become some form of the philosophical thought known as hedonism. This is because, as stated above, pleasure gives us a sense of enjoyment, which we will often relentlessly pursue. When we are centered upon ourselves entirely and deny any real morality, we will seek our own happiness through various means.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon gives us the very epitome of this “sinner” approach to life. His hedonistic quest is listed in the second chapter and is basically a dream fulfilled to anyone. Is music enjoyable? Solomon hired his favorite singers and musicians to play personally for him, whenever he wanted. How about laughter? He had the best comedians around him at all times. Animals? He had the best farms and his own personal zoo. Money? Solomon made 666 talents of gold each year just for being king. That would be a salary of about $750,000,000 in today’s currency! With all of his possessions included, Solomon is widely considered to be the wealthiest person to ever live. How about sex? He had 700 wives and 300 concubines whose only job was to satisfy any fantasy that the king had. Most men today would have great difficulty building a virtual harem that large, let alone an actual harem! He ordered the building of one of the wonders of the ancient world, the temple in Jerusalem. His philanthropy was also unmatched. Surely all of those activities gave him pleasure!

And actually, it did.

But it was only a fleeting, momentary pleasure. Disillusioned by the inability to find lasting satisfaction in any of those avenues, Solomon gives himself over to despair in the very same chapter! Though he sought joy, the end result is nothing but depression.

Or we could choose to become “religious.”

This route is no less prideful than the “sinner’s” road, though it often appears to be so because of the false humility that likely follows. In many ways, this path is no less hedonistic than the “sinner.” While “sinner” ignores the moral laws and seeks pleasure outside of them, the “religious” accepts morality and hopes to find pleasure in being a good person. Following this route, our satisfaction becomes contingent upon our good works.

In Philippians, we find this other path toward damnation played out. In the third chapter, Paul gives us his religious credentials. Paul was born into one of the more prominent tribes among God’s chosen people. When it came to obeying the laws that God gave to the Israelites, Paul was a Pharisee. This group literally devoted their entire lives to obeying God’s Word, and Paul was quickly becoming one of the best. Another aspect of religiousness is passion, or zeal. Many today will argue that it does not matter what you believe so long as you believe with your whole heart and passion. Paul had unrivaled zeal, displayed in the fact that he killed those considered to be heretics. It is difficult to imagine a greater passion than the willingness to kill for your beliefs. And interestingly enough, Paul does not say that this failed to give him pleasure or satisfaction. In fact, this form of life can certainly lead to a fulfilled existence; however, the end result will not be even remotely pleasant. Jesus informs us that at the end of time many will stand before Him and confidently sight their resume as justification for their entrance into God’s presence. Shockingly, they will promptly be denied. Why? They will be sent away because all of their efforts were for their own pride and glory, not the glorification of Christ.

Nevertheless, Paul does not reiterate Jesus’ words. He does not even state that all of his best efforts were in vain. Instead, he is more concerned with what he has found to be the greatest source of pleasure and meaning, which consequently is the same conclusion that Solomon also arrives to at the end of the second chapter in Ecclesiastes. Solomon’s claim is that the ability to enjoy life is a gift from God, and Paul’s conclusion is that everything else pales in comparison to Jesus Christ. Solomon’s hedonism and Paul’s hedonistic legalism both spring from the sin called pride and its rebellion against God. Yet both also find their hope and true joy in God and the radiance of His glory Jesus Christ.

Finding Contentment

Yet even if hedonism and religious legalism are both truly dead ends, we are forced to ask once more why people pursue these ends.

Why do we relentlessly chase after the pleasures of hedonism to the degree of ignoring our God-given conscience?

Why practice the asceticism found within religious legalism so that precious little happiness and pleasure is left in life?

Both roads are meant to accomplish the same end: contentment. A satisfied, fulfilled, and purposeful life is the goal to which almost every philosophical outlook aims. Most of us seek to live a life that is full of meaning, a life that has not been wasted.

Solomon, with all of his divinely granted wisdom, was no exception. Ecclesiastes is the Israelite king’s reflection on all of the various quests that he explored to find this contentment, this meaning in life. Though he pursued many possible means toward that end, the thesis of Ecclesiastes is that he only found one path that leads to true meaning and satisfaction in life.

In the twelfth and thirteenth verses of chapter three, Solomon states simply that there is nothing better than for us to “take pleasure” in all of our toil. He would rephrase this idea later by saying that we would do well to accept our lot in life. Thus, we have to wonder if such is the extent of Solomon’s wisdom. The wisest man to ever live, at the end of his life, reaches one conclusion: to find contentment and satisfaction in life, be content and satisfied with life.

Is the answer to the question truly the content of the question itself? Fortunately, Solomon grants us more to guide us than the advice of simply being content. Instead, Solomon reveals to us the Source of contentment. He concludes the verses mentioned above with this tell-tale phrase: “this is God’s gift to man.” From whence can such contentment and purpose in life come? According to Solomon, it can only come from the hand of God, gift to humanity that He alone can give.

Paul’s letter to the Philippian church is not without its parallel in this matter.

Given the apostle’s circumstances, it would be difficult to imagine how he could find complete and total satisfaction with life. He was locked away in prison, knowing that he could be executed at any moment. And this is after most of his missionary journeys, which saw him shipwrecked, beaten, stoned, and flogged. Luke the physician likely stayed by Paul’s side primarily out of necessity. After such difficulties and sufferings, is it possible for Paul to write about having contentment and satisfaction? Amazingly, he does!

In verse eleven of chapter four, Paul declares that he has learned “to be content” in any situation. Even so, this claim will inspire nothing but envy within us unless Paul is able to disclose the Source of his contentment. The thirteenth verse of the same chapter is one of the most famous and quoted verses of the entire Bible, and it is there that the answer is found. It is through “him who strengthens” that Paul finds the ability to be satisfied within difficult circumstances. We understand from the context of the letter and chapter that the “him” is Christ.

Therefore, Paul is making the same claim that Solomon made 1000 years prior. They have both found the same conclusion to one of life’s greatest questions, and the answer is that only God can give us contentment and satisfaction with life.

The Pursuit of Joy

We have now arrived at the Source of a content life. We have discovered that God alone, through Christ, is able granted us the satisfaction that our souls desire. However, if we stop merely at the Source of our satisfaction, then I believe that we will miss an opportunity to see the glory and goodness of God at work.

You see, part of the glorious nature of God’s gift of contentment is the means by which it is given. God, being God, could easily have granted us a form of contentment that offered no level of pleasure. He could have simply given us the ability to be completely satisfied with our lot in life, while also being quite unhappy. Yet, this is not how He chose to operate. God Himself is the Source of our contentment, but joy is the vehicle, the mode, through which His gift is given. This thought gives heart to what was discussed at the beginning: joy leads to satisfaction, which we know now to be because God ordained it as such.

In bringing the ideas of joy, contentment, meaning, satisfaction, pleasure, and happiness full circle, we may once again turn toward Ecclesiastes’ and Philippians’ persistent mentioning of joy and its derivative words.

Solomon continually reinforces that the only means of lasting value is enjoying life via the free gift of God.  Paul pleads throughout for the Philippians to rejoice in Christ, even in the persecution that they were experiencing. Thus, over the span of a thousand years, Paul and Solomon both urge, through radically different writings and lives, that finding enjoyment and rejoicing in God are the only means to achieving lasting contentment and satisfaction in life, and enjoyment and rejoicing can only come from God Himself.

Therefore, God is the Source, the Receiver of the means, and the Objective that we hope to arrive upon. In short, joy, contentment, and meaning are only in God the Father through Jesus Christ. The circular quest for purpose has but one answer: the One who is, in and of Himself, the Beginning and the End. He is the summation of the very purpose of our lives.

Thus, we enjoy and rejoice because He is good and sufficient, and in Him, we are completely satisfied. It is this biblical line of thinking that inspired John Piper to form this condensed description of his theology: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. Being satisfied in Him necessitates enjoying and rejoicing in Him.

All of this is to say that the chief end of both Ecclesiastes and Philippians is that immeasurable joy can only be found in God, which will lead to a content and satisfied life, and a life that is completely joyful in Him will be supremely glorifying to Him.  Let us, therefore, glorify Christ Jesus along with Solomon and Paul, for His glory will also become our greatest joy.

The Unity of Ecclesiastes & Philippians | part four

We have now arrived at the Source of a content life. We have discovered that God alone, through Christ, is able granted us the satisfaction that our souls desire. However, if we stop merely at the Source of our satisfaction, then I believe that we will miss an opportunity to see the glory and goodness of God at work.

You see, part of the glorious nature of God’s gift of contentment is the means by which it is given. God, being God, could easily have granted us a form of contentment that offered no level of pleasure. He could have simply given us the ability to be completely satisfied with our lot in life, while also being quite unhappy. Yet, this is not how He chose to operate. God Himself is the Source of our contentment, but joy is the vehicle, the mode, through which His gift is given. This thought gives heart to what was discussed at the beginning: joy leads to satisfaction, which we know now to be because God ordained it as such.

In bringing the ideas of joy, contentment, meaning, satisfaction, pleasure, and happiness full circle, we may once again turn toward Ecclesiastes’ and Philippians’ persistent mentioning of joy and its derivative words.

Solomon continually reinforces that the only means of lasting value is enjoying life via the free gift of God.  Paul pleads throughout for the Philippians to rejoice in Christ, even in the persecution that they were experiencing. Thus, over the span of a thousand years, Paul and Solomon both urge, through radically different writings and lives, that finding enjoyment and rejoicing in God are the only means to achieving lasting contentment and satisfaction in life, and enjoyment and rejoicing can only come from God Himself.

Therefore, God is the Source, the Receiver of the means, and the Objective that we hope to arrive upon. In short, joy, contentment, and meaning are only in God the Father through Jesus Christ. The circular quest for purpose has but one answer: the One who is, in and of Himself, the Beginning and the End. He is the summation of the very purpose of our lives.

Thus, we enjoy and rejoice because He is good and sufficient, and in Him, we are completely satisfied. It is this biblical line of thinking that inspired John Piper to form this condensed description of his theology: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. Being satisfied in Him necessitates enjoying and rejoicing in Him.

All of this is to say that the chief end of both Ecclesiastes and Philippians is that immeasurable joy can only be found in God, which will lead to a content and satisfied life, and a life that is completely joyful in Him will be supremely glorifying to Him.  Let us, therefore, glorify Christ Jesus along with Solomon and Paul, for His glory will also become our greatest joy.

The Unity of Ecclesiastes & Philippians | part three

Yet even if hedonism and religious legalism are both truly dead ends, we are forced to ask once more why people pursue these ends.

Why do we relentlessly chase after the pleasures of hedonism to the degree of ignoring our God-given conscience?

Why practice the asceticism found within religious legalism so that precious little happiness and pleasure is left in life?

Both roads are meant to accomplish the same end: contentment. A satisfied, fulfilled, and purposeful life is the goal to which almost every philosophical outlook aims. Most of us seek to live a life that is full of meaning, a life that has not been wasted.

Solomon, with all of his divinely granted wisdom, was no exception. Ecclesiastes is the Israelite king’s reflection on all of the various quests that he explored to find this contentment, this meaning in life. Though he pursued many possible means toward that end, the thesis of Ecclesiastes is that he only found one path that leads to true meaning and satisfaction in life.

In the twelfth and thirteenth verses of chapter three, Solomon states simply that there is nothing better than for us to “take pleasure” in all of our toil. He would rephrase this idea later by saying that we would do well to accept our lot in life. Thus, we have to wonder if such is the extent of Solomon’s wisdom. The wisest man to ever live, at the end of his life, reaches one conclusion: to find contentment and satisfaction in life, be content and satisfied with life.

Is the answer to the question truly the content of the question itself? Fortunately, Solomon grants us more to guide us than the advice of simply being content. Instead, Solomon reveals to us the Source of contentment. He concludes the verses mentioned above with this tell-tale phrase: “this is God’s gift to man.” From whence can such contentment and purpose in life come? According to Solomon, it can only come from the hand of God, gift to humanity that He alone can give.

Paul’s letter to the Philippian church is not without its parallel in this matter.

Given the apostle’s circumstances, it would be difficult to imagine how he could find complete and total satisfaction with life. He was locked away in prison, knowing that he could be executed at any moment. And this is after most of his missionary journeys, which saw him shipwrecked, beaten, stoned, and flogged. Luke the physician likely stayed by Paul’s side primarily out of necessity. After such difficulties and sufferings, is it possible for Paul to write about having contentment and satisfaction? Amazingly, he does!

In verse eleven of chapter four, Paul declares that he has learned “to be content” in any situation. Even so, this claim will inspire nothing but envy within us unless Paul is able to disclose the Source of his contentment. The thirteenth verse of the same chapter is one of the most famous and quoted verses of the entire Bible, and it is there that the answer is found. It is through “him who strengthens” that Paul finds the ability to be satisfied within difficult circumstances. We understand from the context of the letter and chapter that the “him” is Christ.

Therefore, Paul is making the same claim that Solomon made 1000 years prior. They have both found the same conclusion to one of life’s greatest questions, and the answer is that only God can give us contentment and satisfaction with life.

The Unity of Ecclesiastes & Philippians | part two

A belief that I hold is that there are two paths to hell. If eternal judgment is your desired destination, rest assured that you have at least two choices to take: the road of the “sinner” or the road of the “religious.”

You see, the only method of actually securing the eternal wrath of such a loving God is to follow your own prideful heart, to reject His grace and His Son. This is the only means of sealing one’s damnation because we know that anyone who turns from their sins and follows Christ shall be saved.

However,  though pride is the only means of earning a hellish afterlife, such a life plays out in two broad forms, both are methods of proclaiming your own glory instead of God’s. As one could probably guess, both of these views are discussed in Ecclesiastes and Philippians.

First, you can become a “sinner” and adamantly reject the inherent moral compass that God has placed within us. This way of life will almost always become some form of the philosophical thought known as hedonism. This is because, as stated above, pleasure gives us a sense of enjoyment, which we will often relentlessly pursue. When we are centered upon ourselves entirely and deny any real morality, we will seek our own happiness through various means.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon gives us the very epitome of this “sinner” approach to life. His hedonistic quest is listed in the second chapter and is basically a dream fulfilled to anyone. Is music enjoyable? Solomon hired his favorite singers and musicians to play personally for him, whenever he wanted. How about laughter? He had the best comedians around him at all times. Animals? He had the best farms and his own personal zoo. Money? Solomon made 666 talents of gold each year just for being king. That would be a salary of about $750,000,000 in today’s currency! With all of his possessions included, Solomon is widely considered to be the wealthiest person to ever live. How about sex? He had 700 wives and 300 concubines whose only job was to satisfy any fantasy that the king had. Most men today would have great difficulty building a virtual harem that large, let alone an actual harem! He ordered the building of one of the wonders of the ancient world, the temple in Jerusalem. His philanthropy was also unmatched. Surely all of those activities gave him pleasure!

And actually, it did.

But it was only a fleeting, momentary pleasure. Disillusioned by the inability to find lasting satisfaction in any of those avenues, Solomon gives himself over to despair in the very same chapter! Though he sought joy, the end result is nothing but depression.

Or we could choose to become “religious.”

This route is no less prideful than the “sinner’s” road, though it often appears to be so because of the false humility that likely follows. In many ways, this path is no less hedonistic than the “sinner.” While “sinner” ignores the moral laws and seeks pleasure outside of them, the “religious” accepts morality and hopes to find pleasure in being a good person. Following this route, our satisfaction becomes contingent upon our good works.

In Philippians, we find this other path toward damnation played out. In the third chapter, Paul gives us his religious credentials. Paul was born into one of the more prominent tribes among God’s chosen people. When it came to obeying the laws that God gave to the Israelites, Paul was a Pharisee. This group literally devoted their entire lives to obeying God’s Word, and Paul was quickly becoming one of the best. Another aspect of religiousness is passion, or zeal. Many today will argue that it does not matter what you believe so long as you believe with your whole heart and passion. Paul had unrivaled zeal, displayed in the fact that he killed those considered to be heretics. It is difficult to imagine a greater passion than the willingness to kill for your beliefs. And interestingly enough, Paul does not say that this failed to give him pleasure or satisfaction. In fact, this form of life can certainly lead to a fulfilled existence; however, the end result will not be even remotely pleasant. Jesus informs us that at the end of time many will stand before Him and confidently sight their resume as justification for their entrance into God’s presence. Shockingly, they will promptly be denied. Why? They will be sent away because all of their efforts were for their own pride and glory, not the glorification of Christ.

Nevertheless, Paul does not reiterate Jesus’ words. He does not even state that all of his best efforts were in vain. Instead, he is more concerned with what he has found to be the greatest source of pleasure and meaning, which consequently is the same conclusion that Solomon also arrives to at the end of the second chapter in Ecclesiastes. Solomon’s claim is that the ability to enjoy life is a gift from God, and Paul’s conclusion is that everything else pales in comparison to Jesus Christ. Solomon’s hedonism and Paul’s hedonistic legalism both spring from the sin called pride and its rebellion against God. Yet both also find their hope and true joy in God and the radiance of His glory Jesus Christ.

 

The Unity of Ecclesiastes & Philippians | part one

Back in 2012, I taught through the books of Ecclesiastes and Philippians together, attempting to show how they both present that true joy is only found in Christ. Below is part one of an essay I wrote to explain this connection. I pray that you will find it illuminating and helpful.


The nature of joy should not be mysterious to us, yet it often is. C. S. Lewis claims, in the book Surprised by Joy, that pleasure, happiness, and joy share a commonality. This common trait, Lewis remarks, is that after one has experienced them he or she will spend the rest of their life searching for them again. However, though they share this link, joy is significantly different from pleasure or happiness. For instance, the alluring aspect of happiness and pleasure is that they are both enjoyable, yet that very enjoyment of happiness and pleasure is meant to be found within the context of joy. The word “enjoy” means, after all, to find joy in something. Thus, joy is the means by which and the purpose to which we are meant enjoy pleasure and happiness. We often seek happiness and pleasure themselves as sources of joy, but if we sought joy first, then we would already have the context for accepting pleasure and happiness. Joy should be given primacy. Happiness and pleasure could best be described as momentary glimpses of joy, whereas joy is a state of being that transcends throughout the emotional spectrum. Thus, we can be joyful and happy, but we can also be sorrowful and full of joy.

The lasting appeal of joy, I believe, derives from its interconnection with satisfaction. When we are joyful, we are satisfied. Or, it could better be said that when we are satisfied, we are joyful. As Moody notes, “if man is dying for want of bread, and you give him bread, is that going to make him gloomy?” Most, if not all, of our negative emotions can be traced to an outcome that deviated from our original desire. I will not enjoy a meal fully if it is Chinese food and my desire was for Mexican. When our desires are fulfilled, we find joy and satisfaction.

The implication of this thought is enormous because most people strongly desire to live a satisfied life. We often long, deep within our souls, for a joy that gives us true satisfaction and contentment, and we are best able to find that joy by seeing our desires fulfilled. However, if our greatest desire is to achieve joy and satisfaction, then such joy can only be found by finding… joy. And it is within this vague cycle of sought-out meaning that many throw away their search for joy. They become lost in the quest for satisfaction and, as a result, pursue one source of fleeting pleasure after another. Instead of finding lasting joy, they do their best to be satisfied with lesser things, with mere hints of the meaning and contentment that could be had.

This triviality is not lost on God nor on His chosen people throughout history. In fact, there two books within God’s Word that search out and answer how we might find a meaningful and satisfied life. The first of these is the book of Ecclesiastes. Written by Solomon, the king of Israel after succeeding his father David, Ecclesiastes is traditionally believed to be his dying thoughts. After living a life of unparalleled wealth, pleasure, and wisdom, Solomon wrote what many consider to be the most hopeless and depressing book of the Bible.

It is easily understood how one can arrive at such a conclusion. The bulk of Ecclesiastes is Solomon presenting various avenues of hope only to describe their shortcomings. However, the overarching vanity in life is not Solomon’s ultimate purpose for the book. Instead, Solomon hopes to reveal the Source of lasting joy and satisfaction, but he does this primarily by showing how other methods fail to offer such joy. In fact, the Israelite king repeatedly states that there is nothing better in life than to enjoy what you have been given by God.

Wait.

Surely the search for lasting joy cannot be that simple.

Are we meant to simply have joy?

Well, Solomon does give an answer for the Source of joy: God. The conclusion of Solomon’s life is that enjoyment, and thus joy, only comes from God. Nothing else gives such lasting satisfaction. Therefore, we must understand that Ecclesiastes is, at its core, about joy and the Giver of joy.

The second book is the widely hailed epistle of joy: Philippians. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians was written towards the end of his life as well. Over the course of his letter, Paul primarily urges the church in Philippi to rejoice (another word derived from joy), despite the church and Paul himself experiencing persecution. In fact, Philippians was written while Paul was imprisoned for declaring the gospel of Jesus. But even though Paul was sitting in prison awaiting his death, he wrote with supreme confidence that he had found the complete and total meaning of life: “to live is Christ.” Furthermore, Paul’s central focus upon Christ gives contentment and joy in any situation and grants him the ability to view death as gain. The joy of Christ delivers unparalleled joy and satisfaction, while stripping away the sting and fear of death.

Though Solomon and Paul were separated by roughly a thousand years, the central theme of both Ecclesiastes and Philippians remains eternally tied together. These two godly and wise men present to us a thousand year, Spirit-inspired look at humanity’s quest for meaning, satisfaction, and purpose in life. But even more importantly, they present the answer to that quest; therefore, over the next couple of posts, we will explore the connections and relations between these two beautiful, but challenging, books.

Leah & Rachel | Genesis 29:31-30:24

Week 6 | Study Guide & Sermon

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION 

When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. (Genesis 29:31)

And she called his name Joseph, saying, “May the LORD add to me another son!” (Genesis 30:24)

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13)

OPENING THOUGHT 

Continuing the legacy of his father, Isaac raised two sons, Esau and Jacob, and even within their mother’s womb, the twins wrestled with one another. The conflict only escalated when Jacob tricked Esau out of the birthright and blessing of the firstborn. Knowing that Esau was in a murderous rage, Jacob then fled to the homeland of his mother to find a wife and let his brother’s wrath cool down. In Haran, Jacob did find a wife among his mother’s kinsmen, yet after working seven years to marry Rachel, Jacob was tricked into marrying Rachel’s older sister, Leah instead.

Our current text picks up where the previous left off. Jacob is now in a polygamous marriage to two sisters. He loves one and does not care for the other. The familial conflict that arises contains all the drama and craziness of a soap opera. Leah has four kids, hoping that they will cause Jacob to love her. Rachel is barren, so out of jealously, she has Jacob impregnate her servant girl in her place. Leah considers Rachel’s strategy to be good enough, so she gives her servant to Jacob as well. Leah then bears a couple more kids herself, and Rachel finally gives birth to one.

The narrative contains all the drama one would expect from a polygamous marriage. As with all things, the Bible is brutally honest about the damaging effects of sin, and there is much sin to learn from here. Jacob certainly does not behave like the leader of his household; instead, he silently follows Leah and Rachel into sin. Leah and Rachel are both discontented and covetous of each other. Leah wants the love Rachel has from Jacob, and Rachel wants Leah’s multitude of children. Discontentment and envy are able to destroy families and friendships faster than almost anything.

Read verses 31-35 and discuss the following.

  • God sees that Rachel is loved and Leah is hated, so He opens Leah’s womb and closes Rachel’s. This is an example of God showing mercy to the afflicted. What are some other examples (biblical or otherwise) of God defending the afflicted?

Read verses 1-13 and discuss the following.

  • After seeing her sister give birth to four sons, Rachel is extremely envious of Leah. In her desperation for children, Rachel orders Jacob to impregnate her servant Bilhah, that she might have children through her servant. She then believes that God was pleased with her actions. Similarly, what are some ways that we might misrepresent God?
  • Fearing her sister, Leah follows after Rachel’s sin, ordering Jacob to impregnate her servant Zilpah. She names Zilpah’s second son, Asher, which means happy. Leah was happy because women called her happy. Why is it both unbiblical and unwise to base our happiness upon how others think of us?

Read verses 14-24 and discuss the following.

  • God finally opens Rachel’s womb, allowing her to give birth to Joseph, but Rachel’s immediate prayer is for another son. Why is discontentment such a dangerous sin?

ACTIONS TO CONSIDER

  • Obey. Take a moment to consider the destructiveness of Rachel and Leah’s discontentment. Consider areas of life where you are similarly discontent. Bring them to the LORD in prayer, asking Him for contentment with the blessings that He has given.
  • Pray. The only true antidote for discontentment is a heart of thankfulness. Make time each day to pray a prayer of thanksgiving to the LORD for His many blessings.