Waisale Serevi is arguably the greatest rugby 7s player ever. He represented Fiji from 1989 until 2007. This is an astonishing feat in a game that demands the utmost in speed, strength, stamina and skill. I remember the first time I noticed Serevi on television, as he had the words “Philippians 4:13” written (somewhere) on him. I understand he’d later have these words on his boots, strapping and jersey for every game. In fact, there are a number of high profile athletes who have taken to writing this reference on their arms or strapping, and some have even had them tattooed on their bodies. Joe Tomane, of the Brumbies and Wallabies, in a recent interview revealed that he has the whole text inked on his torso. It’s a verse from the Bible and this is what it says:
I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
What does it mean exactly? And what’s the appeal for athletes in particular? Is it saying that I can score more tries, kick more goals, lower my golf handicap, run faster times, improve my win/loss record, gain Olympic gold? Does it mean that with God’s help I can pull off anything I put my mind to? Are these words a recipe for success, reaching our dreams and achieving personal bests? And what’s the ‘everything’ spoken of in this verse?
As with any Bible reading, and all responsible reading in general, we need to take the words in their context. Someone once said that a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text. I just wanted to write that! Nobody likes having their words taken out of context and made to say something that they never intended. So let’s have a look at the verse in its context:
10 I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 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.13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength.14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. 15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. 17 Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. 18 I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. 19 And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:10-19)
We can see from its original context that the Apostle Paul is expressing his thanks to the Christians in Philippi for supporting him in his time of need. He thanks God for their gifts, not so much because he was in need but because it shows they have generous hearts. The immediate context is verse 12, where he reveals that he has learned the secret of contentment. He is able to be content in any and every situation.
The extraordinary thing is that Paul’s contentment is not contingent on his circumstances. His words are powerfully backed up by the fact that he’s in prison as he writes. He’s not waiting for good things to come his way. Winning Lotto won’t make him content. Having a supermodel wife won’t make him content. Winning the championship won’t make him content. Having his book published won’t make him content. He’s learned to be content even when he’s hungry, even when he’s abandoned, even when he’s imprisoned. How can this be? How can Paul find contentment even when things go pear-shaped? Here, in context, is his answer:
I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
Left to his own resources, Paul would be unsettled, dissatisfied, complaining, grumbling, miserable, and always wanting things to be different. In other words, he’d be like a lot of us – desperately hanging out for his circumstances to get better. Then we’d be content – or so we think. But for Paul contentment doesn’t come from his circumstances. Nor does it come from his inner strength, his resilience or his personal resources. It comes from the God who enables us to rise above our circumstances.
I’ve found these words to be a powerful challenge in the past week. I’ve been struggling with discontentment. The freezing cold here in Canberra. The frustration of having to back off the chemotherapy just as we see it further reducing the size of the cancer. The pain and discomfort in my feet preventing me from walking very far. The uncertainties about the future and my inability to make long-term plans. The grief of things lost and unfulfilled. Even the jealousy of having some of my close friends enjoying time in Darwin, instead of me! To be honest, I’ve been irritable, frustrated, depressed and generally discontented.
So what can I do? What should I do?
I should pray that God will strengthen me to learn the secret of contentment. That’s what I should do. That’s what I will do! I know the truth that contentment is not to be found by changing the circumstances. It comes from changing the heart. My prayer is that God will change my heart and help me to see things as he does. Knowing the secret of contentment rescues me from being self-obsessed. It frees me to love God, to love my wife and my children, to love my friends and others, even to love my ‘enemies’.
My prayer is that God will continually remind me of all that I have and all that I am in Christ Jesus, that he will strengthen me to be satisfied in him whatever my circumstances, and that he will teach me the secret of genuine contentment.