“If I Were a Rich Man” July 22 2016

A couple of weekends ago, we watched the movie “Fiddler on the Roof” with our 8 year-old granddaughter.  It had been many years since we had last seen it, and it was just as great as we remembered, with its history, humor, music, romance (“Do you love me?”), and tears.  Tevye, the “papa,” has five daughters.  As the story progresses the daughters get married one by one, with each marriage stretching the traditional definitions of how daughter and prospective husband are brought together (What?  No matchmaker?).  Each of the husbands seems progressively more different than what Tevye expects, and more poor.  At one point in the movie Tevye wistfully remarks of his oldest daughter Tzeitel and her new husband Motel (a poor tailor) “they are so happy that they don’t even know how miserable they are.”

The point is that people can be happy even though they may have very little.  It reminded me of the “secret” the Apostle Paul wrote about in Philippians 4:12: “… the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.”  Perhaps he calls it a secret because it is such a difficult lesson to learn, yet so central to lasting peace and joy.  

The context of this passage is that Paul is commending the Philippians for having such concern for him and thanks them for the gifts they have sent “more than once” (v. 16) for his needs.  He explains his “secret” in this way:

“But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity.  Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.  I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.” (v. 10-12)

And then the secret is revealed: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (v. 13).  Philippians 4:13 is one of the better known verses in the Bible, yet it is often pulled out of its contentment-oriented context.  While it is often applied to any number of challenges in life, what it is really saying, in context, is that we can live joyfully even in poverty.  

It is good to be reminded that Paul was writing these words from prison.  It was one of those “suffering need” moments in which he was content in the face of his difficult circumstances. He understood how to be content even in poverty, because he understood what was most important in life – his relationship with Christ.  In part, his contentment also came because his focus was on others, not his own problems:

“Not that I seek the gift itself, but I seek for the profit which increases to your account.” (v. 17)

This is the secret of contentment, to be focused on the Lord and others to the extent that we forget about the temptations all around us to be discontent.  

Many of us think along the lines of Tevye’s song “If I Were a Rich Man,” which ends with:

“Lord who made the lion and the lamb,
You decreed I should be what I am.
Would it spoil some vast eternal plan?
If I were a wealthy man.”

In other words, “Lord, it would be so much easier to be content in prosperity.”  In contrast, the Philippians 4”10-13 passage is a great reminder - and a great hope - for believers in Christ that we can be content in any and every circumstance.  

This is not to say that circumstances are easy to deal with, or that it feels good when we are in difficulties.  All of us are aware of friends, family, and others in the body of Christ who are struggling with the challenges of life, whether they be physical, financial, relational, or otherwise.  Or perhaps you are the one in that difficult situation.  Certainly we should act responsibly within our circumstances, and things may change, but our contentment should not be based on the change occurring. So often we want to be in control of results, but so many times, circumstances are completely out of our control.  This is what makes the learning to be content “in any and every circumstance” of Philippians 4:12 so significant, since it is so contrary to our natural inclinations.  In God’s eyes, our success in living is not merely a change in results, but in our contented response as we go through the challenge.

Despite how difficult this may be, as believers we have hope that the world cannot possibly offer, because our hope does not depend on our circumstances but on our relationship to “Him who strengthens me.”  May the Lord help us to learn this secret of contentment in any and every circumstance.

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Steve Smith