Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatever state I am, therewith to be content.
I. THE GREAT LESSON. "I have learned," etc. Man might very correctly be distinguished as the discontented animal.
1. We are not content with life in its severer aspects.
(1) We do not know how to be abased, neither are we instructed to be hungry. In the fields and woods we find organic life most responsive to changing environment — the spreading tree at the first chill beginning to modify its leaf, to retrench its branchery, to economize its flower; the bird of the orient at the first scent of a less genial air preparing to sacrifice in size or ornament to adjust itself to an altered sphere; but man rebels to accept a dress less rich or resources less abundant.
(2) The apostle had learned this lesson of accepting adversity with noble cheerfulness. (2 Corinthians 4:8-9; 2 Corinthians 6:9-10). How immense the distance between this and stoicism. That with its insensibility and hopelessness is the confession of inability to deal with the problem of suffering. Thousands since St. Paul have mastered the same lesson. A lovely child of wealthy parents was brought to the poet artist Blake. Sitting in his old worn clothes, amidst poverty, he looked at her very kindly for a long while without speaking, and then gently stroking her long bright curls, said, "May God make this world to you, my child, as beautiful as it has been to me."
2. We are not content with life in its fairer aspects.
(1) We do not know how to abound, neither are we instructed to be full. The fairy chorus of the bees in the limes is expressive of a sublime content, and the blackbird in the ripe cherry tree asks for nothing but to be let alone, a wasp half buried in a melting nectarine has forgotten its fretfulness, the chirp of the sparrow looking at a golden harvest sheaf rises into something like music; but man at his best estate is consumed with regrets and repinings.
(2) The apostle has learned this lesson. The problem of affluence is one that many deep thinkers have had to give up. Oriental asceticism finding men full of power and wealth and yet unhappy thought the remedy lay in stripping life of its amenities. The same failure is confessed by Catholic monasticism, and by men like Thoreau. But the apostle found joy in all the gifts of God, and realized through them a still higher capacity and power of service and blessedness.
3. We are not content with life under any aspect.
(1) A lady was out in the fields when her little daughter begged to gather wild flowers. Having gathered a nice few she murmured when the mother wished to continue her walk. "Well, get all in the field if you like," said the mother. Then for a while the eager creature ran about plucking the coveted things, only at last to burst into tears because she could not gather all. Thus is it ever with poor human nature.
(2) Now in opposition to this, Paul has learned the difficult lesson thoroughly, and intimates that not only could he endure uniform prosperity or adversity, but could pass from the one to the other with serenity. It has been thought that our ancestors did not grumble so much at the vicissitudes of the climate as we do — they had not the same opportunity for instituting odious comparisons. It was not their custom to rush off to Cannes for a fortnight, or to contrast the ferocious frosts of the North with the balmy atmosphere of Palermo. The chief grumblers at the weather, we are told, are those who thus feel the force of the contrast. And, really, the severest trial of the faith and temper of men is in widely contrasted experiences. Much of the bitter discontent of our age is found in that strange mingling of riches and poverty, things grand and grievous in close succession. But Paul is undismayed by any possible combination of events. He is not the victim of circumstances, but their master. He could be exalted without pride and abased without despair; full without presumption, empty without fretfulness.
II. THE GRAND TEACHER. "I can do all things," etc. Let us see how Christ teaches the supreme art.
1. Christ sets man right within himself. We think our discontents are circumstantial, but really their origin is to be sought in the anarchy of the soul. Many philosophers have perceived this and have sorrowfully turned away from the painful problem, or confessing that the inner discord is incurable. This is Schopenhauer's position, but it is the work of Christ to do what he declares impossible. "Has there ever been a man in complete accord with himself?" asks the German. Yes, Paul, here. It is the unique work of Jesus Christ to restore purity, energy, harmony within our hearts. "A human being is the possibility of many contradictions," and it is the work of Christ to attune the subtle chords of our reasonable and immortal nature, and bring forth in our heart the music of heaven.
2. Christ makes clear to us the whole sphere of life.
(1) Some modern sceptics teach contentment by narrowing the horizon, by denying our ideals and hopes, and thus strive to make life as prosaic as possible. If this could be done it would be a mighty misfortune. All civilization arises in the sense of discontent. As soon as the savage feels a sense of want, he has been started on the grand tour. The history of constitutional government is a noble discontent. That a man is discontented with his caste and seeks to improve himself raises the whole social order. Dissatisfaction with manual labour stimulates invention, and art, and science. Christ never attempts to contract our horizon, but mightily reinforces the romantic element in our nature.
(2) But whilst Christ discovers to us the infinity of life, He teaches the relative importance of the sphere of the senses and of the spirit. We soon get to the end of the possibilities of sensual and social enjoyments. We can enjoy very little however vast our resources; having just so much nerve force, so much appetite, five senses, twenty-four hours in the day and sixty minutes to the hour.
(3) But Christ opens to us a new world of ambition, and pleasure, and hope, in our moral life and destiny. Never does the New Testament give us any immoderate promises in the carnal sphere (1 Timothy 6:6-8; Hebrews 13:5). But out and beyond Christ opens to us boundless regions in which our nature may find fulness of joy. To destroy the larger thought and noble restlessness of the heart would leave man a maimed and wretched creature, and strike a blow at progress; but to leave man his instinct for greatness, his dreams of glory, his aspirations for knowledge, and power, and felicity, teaching him to expect his full satisfaction in the regions of his higher being and destiny is to fill him with sublime content.
3. Christ teaches us that all the events of this present life equally contribute to our personal and everlasting perfection. The apostle knew that the end of life was not more or less temporal good, but the hallowing of the spirit to God's love and service. "All things work together for good," etc. It was in that knowledge that Paul found deep reason for resignation. The finest races have a composite character. Who can analyse the elements of our own. Now Paul has got an insight into the analogous fact that the widest ranges of circumstance and experience would create the finest type of moral life.
(W. L. Watkinson.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.