In the light of all the foregoing, we should therefore not be surprised when we find that we must affirm the goodness of the material world. This should be obvious, but tragically many Christians find it easy to slip off the point. When the Creator God created and fashioned everything, it was His good pleasure to declare it all good or very good (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, and 31). In the second place, the Incarnation of Christ was a permanent reality. The second person of the Trinity took on flesh (Jn. 1:14) and dwelt among us. He will be Immanuel always. He is our priest forever, making intercession for us always (Heb. 7:25). And third, we were not promised immortal souls, but rather a resurrection from the dead. We will be embodied creatures forever (1 Cor. 15:12). Matter is good. God likes it. He invented it in the first place, and He redeemed it. He did not do this in order to throw it away.
“Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:11–13).
Summary of the Text
The apostle Paul is thanking the Philippians for the financial support they had sent to him, but he hastens to add that he would have been alright regardless (v. 10). He was content before their gift arrived, and he was grateful and contented after it had done so (v. 11). This is something that the apostle had to learn, and we may be assured that we must learn it also. But then when he starts to explain the lesson, we see how much we have to learn. He had to learn in both directions, and we tend to assume that we only have to learn in one direction. Paul had learned to be abased and he had learned how to abound (v. 12). He was instructed on how to be full and how to be hungry (v. 12). He had learned to abound and to suffer want (v. 12). He can do all things through Christ, who is the one who gives him strength (v. 13).
We think we need such lessons for our afflictions, of course, but we assume that we have abundance nailed. We have that down. But I am afraid we do not. We must still learn contentment even if we have never had it so good. And simply going without whatever it was we lost won’t teach us that.
Two Basic Errors
On the one hand is the error of the “health and wealth” preachers, those who say that godliness should be considered an automatic path to wealth (1 Tim. 6:5-6). On the other hand we have an abundance of suspicious gnostic teachers, who despise the material world. If you let a devil teach you, what will he teach? “Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:3–4).
“Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy”
1 Timothy 6:17 (KJV)
The devil hates you, and doesn’t much mind which way he destroys you. If he drowns you in a swamp, in a glut of material possessions, he is fine with that. If he starves you in a desolate wilderness, he is good with that.
Learning Gladness and Gratitude Is No Trifle
So learning contentment in abundance is a crucial lesson.
“Because thou servedst not the Lord thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things; Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the Lord shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee”
Dt. 28:47-48 (KJV)
When Israel went down in defeat before her enemies, why was this? When Israel was hauled off into exile, what was their sin? Their sin was an inability to rejoice in their stuff in the presence of God. The carnal heart cannot bring those two things together. The carnal heart wants to come to church and give the good Lord His ethereal due, and then sneak off to enjoy whatever idolatrous tidbits it has stashed somewhere off to the side. But God will have none of it. He wants us to come before Him and rejoice in what He has given us there. He wants us to glory in His goodness to us there.
Faith is the Eye
But we are not to look at our faith through our goods, as though wealth were a sign of election. Rather we are to look at all our goods through faith. Faith is what sees. Faith is the eye. What we have, or whatever we do not have, is what we are supposed to see in faith.
Faith does handle adversity well. But faith also handles affluence well. We mark the great heroes of the faith for their accomplishments, some of which accomplishments the world would call success and some of which the world would call humiliating defeat. What do we call it and why? We call it whatever faith teaches us to call it.
Sometimes faith subdues kingdoms, works righteousness, obtains promises, stops the mouths of lions, quenches fire, escapes the sword, grows strong when weak, became valiant in war, repulses invaders, and receives the dead back to life (Heb. 11:33-35a). And other times faith is tortured, mocked, scourged, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, tempted, slaughtered with the sword, wanders in the wilderness, is impoverished, afflicted, tormented, and lives in caves (Heb. 11:35b-38).
What is the thread that ties all these pearls together, the pearls of both affluence and affliction? Is it not our faith? Without faith, there is never a necklace.
O So Merry and Bright
And so this is something we all of us must learn. The material world is good. The material world is very good. The stupidity of our sinfulness and rebellion tried to wreck it, but despite our best efforts, has not succeeded. The world is broken, but still with plenty of goodness to go around. And the main thing that is wrong with it—be sure to look in the mirror here—has been put to rights in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. He did that so that we might be recreated in His image.
“Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10).
So as you bake, and as you shop, and as you wrap, and as you smuggle contraband into the house, and as you decorate the tree, and as you set the table, and as you invite people over, and as you deliver cookies to friends, and as you tighten your belts this year, and as you give a lavish gift that is perhaps five percent beyond wise, and as you laugh over dinner, and as you come here to sing carols, remember that Christ is in all of it. All of Christ for all of life. As the poem by Hopkins has it, Christ plays in ten thousand places.