This Sunday, I heard a sermon where the preacher shared that the secret to having a life of contentment is being content with my life as it is. Admittedly, he didn’t come up with the profound thought…he borrowed it from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: I am not saying this because I am in need, for 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. (Philippians 4:11-12)
Paul wrote this when he was in prison. Being curious, I decided to do some research on the first century Roman prisons because my only understanding of prison is Hollywood’s version. I learned that Paul was in prison for two years waiting trial—there hadn’t even been a trial let alone a conviction. Day after day for two years wondering if this was the day he would get his day in court.
These prisons were often subterranean, dug out solid rock with an opening the size of a manhole as the only entrance and exit. Such was the Mamertine prison Rome where tradition tells us Paul was held. The prison itself was essentially two large rooms on different levels with iron shackles fixed to the walls. The Roman historian Sallust, writing a century before Paul, said of this dungeon, "[It] is sunk about twelve feet underground. Walls secure it on every side, and over it is a vaulted roof connected with stone arches; but its appearance is disgusting and horrible, by reason of the filth, darkness and stench." I imagine that conditions didn't improve over the century between Sallust's writing and Paul's stay. A few prisoners had friends who provided them with clothing, blankets, food and water. The others did without. It was in this place that Paul wrote to Philippians about the secret of contentment.
If Paul could find contentment there, I should be able to find contentment in my warm, clean, spacious apartment even if I could use a little more storage and an updated living room set. While we’re at it, I’d love to replace the kitchen cabinets and maybe a little color on the walls too. Today on my way to work I saw a homeless man dressed in the same dirty gray sweatshirt and ripped tan trousers that he’s been wearing every day for years, walking alongside the road with his little cart that holds all his worldly belongings and the aluminum cans that he picks up to recycles for money. I bet he would be more than content with an apartment like mine and my 4-year old car, even if it doesn’t have blue tooth capability. Sometimes my blessings are so continuous that I take them for granted and the joy and gratitude I should be receiving them in diminishes until they almost disappear. Shame on me for that.
Now I know I’m not supposed to compare myself to others—it makes for some real unhappiness when I’m the poorer person and sometimes can lead to arrogance when I’m the richer. But I have to tell you that seeing that man today reminded me that God has blessed me greatly and not so I could be happy, but so I can share it with those who are waiting for God’s blessing to come to them through me and my stewardship of what God has given me.
I also learned in my research that visiting a first century Roman prison could be dangerous. Visitors ran the risk of being associated with the alleged crimes of the accused. When early Christians visited those who were in prison, they were let down into the prison by rope and left only at the convenience of the guards. They weren’t just performing an inconvenient or unpleasant act of kindness—they were risking their own lives and freedom as well. This is the kind of love and concern we are to have for each other. Am I that giving—that selfless, that I put others’ needs above my own convenience let alone my own safety? I wish I could say yes, but the truth is no. No, I’m not that selfless and giving and I’m leaning on God’s grace right now to see past this when he looks at me.
Want to know the secret to finding a deep, lasting peace? I’ll let Paul share it in his own words: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)