“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.”
The Greek word that is translated “content” in the Philippians passage above is autarkes, and its literal meaning is “self-sufficient, self-supporting, independent.” It is a powerful word. The Stoics understood autarkes to mean “the ability to be free from all wants or needs,” and they elevated it to the chief of all virtues.
Obviously, and the scriptural context makes this clear, it is not referring to self-sufficiency apart from Christ; rather, it is referring to inner strength and sufficiency that is learned and developed by trusting Jesus through the circumstances of life. When you truly trust Jesus it produces the ability to “do.” Authentic faith leads to effective action.
Autarkes does not refer to independence from Christ; it refers to independence from external circumstances. It means that contentment and inner peace have nothing to do with events and situations you are facing; your contentment comes from trusting Jesus no matter what you are experiencing.
Autarkes means learning to trust the Lord and be content “in any and every circumstance.” This is the context for “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” When the apostle says “all things,” he is talking about trusting God in response to both “plenty and hunger,” and in response to the low points and the high points in life.
I am fascinated by the apostle’s statement that he “learned the secret” of contentment. The verb for “I have learned the secret” is the Greek mueo, which is related to musterion, from which we get the English word “mystery.” In many respects, how to be content — autarkes — in the midst of the many different situations of life is a mystery that is hidden to most people. It is uncommon. It is rare. Therefore, like any mystery, it must be discovered. It must be learned.
Because most people have not discovered and learned the “secret” of contentment, they live at the mercy of their circumstances. When things don’t go well or when they experience adversity, their reaction is to engage in BCD (Blame, Complain, Defensiveness).
It is heartbreaking when professing Christians engage in BCD, as it reveals a serious lack of obedience to biblical teaching and a major deviation from the path to which the Lord calls us. Simply put, authentic Christianity doesn’t complain.
Paul is being very candid here. Like us, contentment did not come naturally to him, nor was it automatically given to him by the Lord. It was a discovery process; a learning process; it was a deep spiritual discipline that he had to discover and develop by walking with God each day through the situations and challenges of life in a broken world.
The same should be true for you and me. Key to the process is allowing God to use all of your circumstances to teach you about himself and train you in the mental and spiritual skills of the Christian faith, thereby producing autarkes in your life.
This is part of what scripture means in 1 Timothy 4 when it says “train yourself in godliness.” The notion that the Lord somehow magically gives you peace and contentment whenever you ask for it is contrary to the process of spiritual transformation that is laid out in scripture. There are times when the Lord infuses his people with peace, but those are unique, special situations. They are the exception, not the rule.
Let me say it again: An autarkes life is rare. It is uncommon. Therefore, like any mystery, it must be discovered and developed. It is the life to which the Lord calls us. It is authentic Christianity.
Trust God, do the work, and learn the secret of contentment.