“…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” – Philippians 4:11b-13
By the time you read this, you will have likely completed all your work for finals week. Congratulations! You were able to persevere through a very challenging semester during a very challenging moment in history. This is no small accomplishment, one in which you should take great satisfaction. Yet, I want to take this moment to suggest that you and I don’t put too much stock in this or any other accomplishment, no matter how significant or impressive.
Our modern society is characterized by two prominent characteristics. First, we value achieved statuses (positions we earn) over ascribed statuses (positions we are born into). While this is an admirable quality for a variety of reasons, it also creates a culture in which we always feel compelled to do more, to achieve more, to be more. As a result, our accomplishments usually define who we are.
it also creates a culture in which we always feel compelled to do more, to achieve more, to be more. As a result, our accomplishments usually define who we are.
The second characteristic of modern society is rapid social change. Our ancestors lived in a world that was mostly predictable with only incremental shifts during their lifetimes. But you and I live at a time in which we fully expect that the world when we die will look very different from the world when we were born. Again, we can celebrate many of these changes as welcome progress, but it also creates great unpredictability and instability in our lives.
What does it say about our identity if it is based on (1) the things we accomplish (2) in an increasingly changing and unpredictable world? It means that our identity is often based upon shifting sand, vulnerable to sharp vicissitudes of ups and downs, fluctuations of satisfaction and discontent. Our sense of self is never at rest.
The Apostle Paul suggests an alternative source to our identity. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul declares that he has learned to be content in all circumstances – whether he is rich or poor, whether he has plenty or little. His sense of self is not affected by his circumstances (4:11b-12). Paul’s affirmation is made all the more impressive when we recall that he was writing this from prison with the very real threat of death (1:20-23).
Paul’s advice here is not new; the Stoic philosophers of his day were saying much the same thing, to be content whatever the circumstance. But Paul adds an important twist: I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (4:13) Here and elsewhere, Paul encourages the early Christians to derive their identity – their sense of self and self-worth – in their relationship to God in Christ. This is the firm foundation our souls so desperately seek in an ever-fluctuating world.
Here and elsewhere, Paul encourages the early Christians to derive their identity – their sense of self and self-worth – in their relationship to God in Christ.
The New Testament is filled with passages encouraging us to ground our identity not in our own accomplishments, but in our connection to Christ. Let us never forget that – no matter our accomplishments or failures – you and I have intrinsic value because God:
- created us, and continues to turn us into new creations;
- established a covenant relationship with us;
- died for us;
- adopts us into God’s family;
- forms us into God’s Body, the Church;
- entrusts us with the responsibility of building God’s kingdom.
For these reasons and many more, let us be content in our identity as children of God, no matter our circumstance. Amen.
Dale McConkey has been at Berry for 27 years. He received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and specializes in the contemporary challenges of religious culture in the United States. In 2002, he sensed a calling to ministry which resulted in his service as Berry’s chaplain for nearly a decade. Now back to teaching sociology full time, Dale also pastors Mount Tabor United Methodist Church in rural Floyd County. He recently wrote a book, United Methodists Divided, that explores the controversy over same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination in the United Methodist Church.