I had an interesting talk with a man at church recently.  He shared with me that the first church he attended after accepting Christ was a “health and wealth” type church.  If something “bad” happened in your life, there was an assumption that you had sinned and were being punished for it.  On the other hand, if you had good health and a decent salary, you must be doing pretty well spiritually.  I do not have much patience for this sort of theology since it is a bad application of a few texts from the blessing passages of the law mixed with some American optimism, and occasionally a greedy pastor or two.  In fact, I am not sure how anyone could believe that God will automatically bless you for proper behavior or curse you for your sins after reading Philippians 4:10-13.

I think that most people can agree that Paul the Apostle is a “model” Christian.  (If you can’t agree with this, go read 1 Thessalonians 2 where Paul himself tells his readers to follow his example as a “model” of Christ.)   Paul is in fact a man who was so led by the Spirit of God that he is virtually responsible for Christianity in the western world, 13 letters in the NT and a major influence on Luke and Acts.  One cannot discuss “Christian theology” without discussion Paul.

Yet in Philippians 4 he says that he knows what it means to be in want, he knows what it means to be “brought low.”  At the writing of this letter Paul is in prison and it is entirely possible he will die as a result of this imprisonment.  I am not sure that it can get any lower than that!  Yet Paul does not connect his present suffering with any behavior, with any “curse” of God for something he has done or not done.  His suffering is exactly what God has planned and he could not be happier about it.  Rejoice! Paul says, and again, I say, Rejoice!

What is remarkable is that Paul says he has learned the secret to being content in all circumstances, whether blessed with “health and wealth” or blessed with painful suffering physically.  That secret is that any success he has is not his at all.  He can only be successful through Christ, who strengthens him.  The way Paul expresses this is interesting.  The verb μυέω is only found here in the NT, but it has the sense of being let in on a secret which is a dark mystery.  It is used of the mystery religions which had elaborate rituals are deep secrets that only the really advanced people understood.

Perhaps this is a hint from Paul that one does not learn the secret to contentment without a lengthy initiation, and that initiation is a road filled with suffering and heartbreak.  You do not learn the secret of contentment by being blessed with wealth, you learn in by making due with very little indeed.  Here is a lesson American Christianity needs to learn quickly.  Perhaps it is not the church with money and power which has learned the secret of contentment after all, but the little country church will no money and only a few loyal believers.