Keeping Self-Sufficiency in Check

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"I can't believe I have to patch rust spots on the truck again."

"Didn't you just do them?" asked Julie, remembering my complaining from last time.

"Yeah, like six months ago." I began pacing the kitchen. "I wish I could buy new bumpers, new doors, and a new bed, but the truck is already 18 years old—where am I going to get parts like that? They'd all be rusted, anyway. And the whole thing would be so expensive. Why can't I just buy a new truck altogether?"

My patient wife. She lets me rant because she knows I'll eventually remember Paul's comment to the Philippians: "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" (4:12). Paul's mature acceptance helps me realize I need to confess my negative, whiny attitude.

But wait. This response is a bit off-track. Be grateful and stop complaining isn't Paul's message here. "Content" comes from the word autarkes, which means "self-sufficient." An autarkic country, for example, is economically self-sufficient. What Paul has learned is not the secret to happiness, but the secret of needing no economic assistance, a point he also makes in 2 Thessalonians 3:8 and Acts 20:34. So while I ought to stop complaining about my truck, Philippians 4:12 isn't the right verse for the job.

This raises two questions for me. One, how can I stop misreading this verse when I (popularly) think being "content" means being satisfied or happy? And two, what lesson could emerge about sufficiency?

I'm not sure how I can stop misreading the verse. Languages develop like cicadas—slowly, with discarded exoskeletons of word meanings. What a challenge for readers—and for Bible translators! However, I'm beginning to learn more about sufficiency and how it relates to my work. God empowers us with a degree of self-sufficiency, but he also makes it clear that we are powerless without Christ.

An Attitude of Self-Sufficiency

In the passage above, Paul is thanking the Philippians for a monetary donation while also claiming that he can take care of matters on his own.

My kids do this. Thanks, Dad, but I can cut my own hot dog. I can pedal up this hill by myself. I can buckle my own seat belt. Of course, they need me, but not entirely. "The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it" (Gen. 2:15). God gave Adam the command to cultivate and the ingredients to do it—and then set him free. By no later than Genesis 4, we see that Tubal-Cain had already "forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron" (v. 22).

What a tremendous gift, this creative self-sufficiency. Sometimes we use it to cultivate for pleasure, sometimes to cope with discomfort, and sometimes because desperation demands it. "Necessity is the mother of invention," you know, and we need everything from pleasure to emergency solutions. I don't know how Paul found food in times of hunger, but I bet he didn't wait for it to fall from the sky.

An Attitude of Christ-Sufficiency

Yet in the very next verse Paul concludes, "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Phil. 4:13). It was Christ who freed Paul on the road to Damascus; Christ who provided the gospel; Christ who provided grace in Paul's weaknesses, and so on. Paul's self-sufficiency wasn't an idol (nor an argument for churches and nonprofit organizations to stop accepting donations) but an appropriate response to the Creator.

We need both expressions in our vocations: I can do this, and I need Your help. It's a delicate balance. Tilt one way and you'll find yourself with a messiah-complex. Tilt the other and you'll be no earthly good.

Moses knew about this balance when he warned the Israelites, "You may say to yourself, 'My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.' But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth . . . " (Deut. 8:17-18).

We can be creative cultivators today. Let's just not forget who makes it possible. (And while we're at it, let's not whine either.)