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Coping with the demands of life (Philippians 4:4-20)

In the Revised Version part of verse 12 of Philippians 4 reads: “In everything and in all things have I learned the secret”.

The Greek verb here used means “to initiate into the mysteries” and Paul here uses it both in the passive voice and in the perfect tense. He claims to have been initiated, and therefore to be “in the know”, to possess the secret. He claims to have in this knowledge something which makes a difference in every single circumstance, and in all the manifold circumstances of life. Nothing that can happen to him lies outside the benefit of its enrichment.

Also, as Paul makes plain elsewhere (see Colossians 1:25-29), this secret is not closely guarded. It is in Christ an open secret; anybody can learn it: all are meant to learn it. Yet the plain fact is that many professing Christians do not learn it. They are so near and yet so far. They are mixed up with things Christian. They may be engaged not only in church attendance, but also in church work. They may seem, so to speak, to know all about Christianity.

But they do not know it—the secret. They are like Martha, to whom our Lord said, “One thing is needful”; and (by implication) “you have not got it” (see Luke 10:38-42). Lest we, too, fail to possess the one essential let us heed the call to sit at the Lord’s feet and hear his word. 

What the secret is: Christ within

Paul indicates the character of the secret by what he says about it. He can, he says, face anything that comes (Phil 4:11-13). He can cope successfully with all the fluctuations of being up and being down, of having much and having little. He has no deficiency to complain of. He has learned, no matter what his state, to be content. The word means not that he is satisfied with his circumstances; but that in them, no matter how disappointing they are, he himself is ‘self-sufficient’ or ‘self-contained’. The answer to his needs and problems lies not outside himself in uncertain and changing circumstance, but inside himself in the indwelling and unfailing Christ. This mystery or secret Paul explicitly defines in Colossians 1:27 as “Christ in you”. 

In 2 Corinthians 9:8, he writes that God can so make his grace to overflow within us that always and in everything we can have complete self-sufficiency—that is in independence of our circumstances—and thus be able continually to abound in doing every kind of good work. Similarly, in Hebrews 13:5, we read, “Be content with what you have, for he said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’”.

The man, who thus has Christ’s unfailing presence, always has in himself more than enough to meet anything that comes. So says Paul, in Philippians 4:13, “I am able for everything by reason of him who strengthens me inside”. This, then, is the secret, the simple sufficiency for daily living—Christ within.

How the secret is used

First, it provides the ground of unfailing rejoicing. No matter what circumstances they may be in, those who have Christ always have overwhelming cause to be glad. So Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, rejoice” (v. 4). Second, this secret protects those who possess it from the pressure of anxiety. There is never any need for them to be weighed down and overwrought with a burden of care. For they know that the Lord himself is near. They are sure not only of his imminent advent but also of his immediate presence. So, to such, Paul writes, “In nothing be anxious” (vv. 5-6).

Nor is all this mere pious sentiment and wishful thinking. Paul goes on to indicate how to put this secret into practice, and to testify from experience that he himself has proved its worth.

1. Pray about everything (vv. 6-7)

Possess, that is, the immediate benefit of this intimate relation to God inChrist, and talk to God about everything. Do it both with specific request and with grateful recollection, and you will find that you have in him a present defence and an effective garrison.

Troubles will not disturb and distract you. Because the peace of God is big enough to go out beyond our capacity for thought and to protect us from being possessed and overwhelmed by unhealthy invading ideas (compare Isaiah 26:3).

2. Occupy the mind with good thoughts (v. 8) 

There is danger in leaving the mind empty. If we would have God keep out the bad thoughts we must use this God-given liberty to bring in the good ones.

3. Be active in Christian practice (v. 9)

There is no licence for inactivity, still less for unworthy conduct. Those who would enjoy the awareness and the blessing of the active presence of the God of peace cannot afford to be idle or indifferent; they must themselves be active in doing the revealed will of God.

Those who thus set themselves in faith and by grace to walk in God’s ways may be sure, and indeed will prove, that God in Christ will supply both spiritual strength (v. 13) and material supplies (v. 19), both the energy within and the wherewithal without. They know, as none others do or can know, the secret of “having all sufficiency in all things” (2 Cor 9:8), or, in other words, of coping with the demands of life.

This article was first published in the Australian Church Record on 8 August 1958. In this series we hear reflections on Scripture from the Rev. Alan M Stibbs.