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Financial suffering is a reality in the lives of many Christians today. Many of us are familiar with the vulnerable moments of financial crisis. Will I be able to get a job this month? Will I have enough money to pay rent? Will I be able to make my car payment? Will I be able to put food on the table for my wife and kids?
Sadly, this form of suffering is frequently written off as a First World problem. After all, physical persecution is the only way a Christian can suffer on behalf of the gospel, right? Not according to Paul. He certainly suffered physically (2 Cor. 1:8–9; 4:8; 11:23–26), but he also suffered emotionally (11:28), spiritually (v. 29), and financially (1 Cor. 4:11–12; 2 Cor. 6:5; 11:27). Even so, little consideration is given to how God uses financial suffering in the church to shine the light of the gospel in a dark world. But we can learn a rich lesson about enduring poverty from Philippians 4:10–13.
This passage is well known for all the wrong reasons. Many well-intentioned Christians misuse, misinterpret, and misapply the divine promise of Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” They assume that it means God will provide anything and everything they desire in this life. They cling to this verse like a lucky rabbit’s foot, rubbing it while repeating the promise in order to receive all that they desire. For many, this includes monetary gain. But Philippians 4:13 doesn’t make that kind of promise. When read in context, we see that God promises contentment, not by pulling us out of financial suffering but by empowering us to endure it with contentment. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, and the world will notice it.
Let’s consider the context of Philippians 4:10–13 for a moment. Paul penned these words from a jail cell (1:7, 13, 14). Unlike today, prisoners in the ancient world relied entirely on friends and family members to provide food and clothing. The state offered very little help. Paul was completely dependent on the mercy of others. He was vulnerable and in need. He was suffering physically and financially. Thankfully, the Philippian believers expressed their concern tangibly by sending material gifts to their imprisoned Apostle (2:29–30; 4:18). Surprisingly, in response to the Philippians’ generosity, Paul “rejoices in the Lord” (4:10); that is, the “Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2; cf. 2:11, 19; 3:8, 20). He alone “revived” the Philippians’ concern for Paul, which allowed Paul to experience relief from his financial suffering in prison. “I have received full payment,” Paul declares, “and I abound” (4:18). The Philippians’ gift placed Paul in a state of material abundance.
And yet, Paul prohibits the Philippians from thinking that his joy in the Lord is entirely over their material gift. That is why he immediately includes a disclaimer, “Not that I speak according to need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (v. 11). From the world’s perspective, contentment comes from within oneself. One strives in one’s own strength to become content. This is self-sufficiency at its finest.
But for the Christian, true contentment comes from outside oneself. “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things [lit.] in Christ who strengthens me” (vv. 12–13). This is not self-sufficiency but Christ-sufficiency. The source of strength to experience contentment on both sides of the economic spectrum is found “in Christ.” Our union with Christ by faith enables us to endure lowliness, hunger, need, and even the most severe financial suffering with contentment. For the branch “can do nothing” apart from the vine (John 15:5). But “in Christ,” we can do all things. We can abound financially or suffer financially with contentment.
While the world looks to itself in financial suffering, the Christian looks to Christ. This is precisely how believers shine as lights in the world. I will never forget my wife’s concern about our finances when I was completing my Ph.D. in England. A fierce argument ensued. Anxieties and fears were disclosed. And there were many tears. But when we came to our Christian senses, we fell on our knees, prayed to the Lord, forgave one another, and listened to His voice in Scripture. In God’s timing, a sense of peace fell over us—to the point where we not only read but also proclaimed Habakkuk 3:17–19a:
Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength.
Many Christians are acquainted with this peace that surpasses all understanding during financial crises. Though the world looks for contentment in all the wrong places, Christians can cope with financial suffering in a manner that demonstrates their utter dependence on Jesus Christ. While the world may commend the strength of your faith during financial hardships, you can declare the strength that Christ provides by faith in the gospel. The good news is that despite your financial situation in this life, Christ suffered and died for the sins of His people, delivered them from eternal suffering, and will ultimately bring them to eternal rest with God. And since He has pledged His love for you in the gospel, He will never leave nor forsake you—even when you suffer financially (Heb. 13:5).