Now we come to the final part of this series. This is to sum up what I’ve been talking about throughout these posts and is meant to solidify my intent here.
The writer of Philippians comes to now to perhaps one of the most difficult parts in the American Christian life, and perhaps the entirety of all Christian struggles: Contentment. He begins his transition into the summation of what it means to be “content” by telling them first where their hearts and minds ought to be.
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Notice the first thing he tells them to dwell on. He begins with what distinguishes the Christian Gospel above all others (which are not really “gospels”), that being the one thing our society seems to deny and claim at the same time, as well as the very thing we are told to follow as Christians and is the foundation of righteousness. Truth. To dwell upon the truth is to dwell upon what is righteous before God, and to live in truth is to live as Christ, who was Himself the very definition of truth, being the only Truth (John 14:6). This “truth” being the full reality of what is “right” (or righteous) before God. It is the right answer to all of the questions, the correct way of viewing all created things, and as is the nature of truth, there can only be one truth, and it must be consistent with all that it claims. And so when Jesus said He was “the Truth,” it was a very particular claim with broad implications. He was, to be clear, calling Himself God, because there is only ever One who can define truth. We can seek to understand it, at best, but can never define it. We live in it, talk about it, and hope to find more of it, but never can we define truth before it exists. And so he says to dwell upon truth, that being this Word of God, this Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to live in light of it as a direct result. And as a result of dwelling upon the truth, we are told to then dwell on things that go hand-in-hand with it. “…whatever is honorable…right…pure…lovely…good repute…” These can only be found and defined within the context of the Scripture, and by these commands we live, setting ourselves apart from the world by the very nature of God which we are filled it through the Spirit and His Son, if we are indeed in Christ. But then he goes further, adding that if there is anything of “excellence” and is “worthy of praise,” we are to dwell on these things. And not only this, but we are given an example in Paul himself, who more than anyone of us, had all the reason in the world to be in despair (2 Cor. 11). He who sought to destroy the church became the one who would write the majority of the New Testament, and he tells the church in Philippi, and through them us, to live in his example, so far as they are consistent within the bounds of God’s Word (Gal. 1:8). And so he goes on into the next verses clarifying what he means.
But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Nevertheless, you have done well to share with me in my affliction.
Here we see Paul rejoicing, just as he told the Philippians to do in verse 4, and the reason why is quite interesting, to say the least. He was not rejoicing because he was now feeling better, had more friends, nor even getting better “stuff,” as we seem to identify joy with these days, but instead rejoices that the Philippians have at last had opportunity to show their concern for Paul. Seen throughout the first letter to the Thessalonians, we see that Paul has a joy for the churches that show their concern and joy for Paul. Why is this the case? Is it because Paul just longed to be loved, or was it for something else? As he reveals in that letter, as well as this, it had nothing to do with himself, but rather, their concern for him was a direct fruit of their claim to the faith. That is to say, it proved that they were not pressured away from the Gospel, as opposed to the churches in Corinth and Galatia, who quickly fell into false “gospels” and radical ideals (or the lack thereof). The Thessalonians gave Paul great joy because they did exactly as Paul is telling the Philippians to do.
You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come. (1:6-10)
The Galatians had received Paul with eagerness, and yet within a very short period of time Paul wrote a letter to them rebuking them for practically throwing out the Gospel they had claimed to receive, fleeing to the Law and traditions which Paul himself had come from and preached the fulfillment of them. The Thessalonians, and Philippians here, had proven themselves not merely “hearers of the Word,” but “doers,” in that they held to the Gospel they professed to believe, despite the persecution that had begun to surround them (literally). And so when Paul rejoices in the Philippians’ concern for him, it is not out of an inner love nor concern for himself, but rather was an outpouring of what he saw to be proof that they would stand before God as righteous, being Christians, not merely professors of the Gospel.
And now he adds to it further. He clarifies the above point by making clear that he himself did not truly need anything. And what is interesting about this is the historical context of his claims to be content in plenty and nothing. To phrase it more specifically, it is as though Paul says this: “I have learned to be content in a dirty, old prison in Jerusalem, and in the prisons of Rome where I received better treatment.” Paul was not saying, in other words, that he had the privilege of dining with kings in comfort, as the vast majority of his history in Acts is his travels through the various nations, and imprisonment. We are only never given details about him dining with the rich and powerful without any persecution or suffering for the Gospel. I am not going to get into a sermon about the history of Paul, but my point is to narrow down what he means. It could well be said that he is stating more specifically, “Sometimes it is easy to be content, sometimes it isn’t.” It would be much easier to be in an American prison as compared to an Iranian prison, for example. One has TVs, consistent meals, and a general comfort found in few nations in the world. The latter has a more bitter atmosphere of beatings and mockery and suffering. One doesn’t care what you believe, the other would have you killed for professing anything but Islam.
What does any of this have to do with depression? Everything, really. I would make the claim that the vast majority of cases of “depression” have to do with circumstances. This is not to say that there aren’t some who just feel depressed regardless of what is happening, but at the same time, sadness is scarcely without circumstantial cause. Whether it be current events or past choices, anyone who struggles with despair can trace it back to a cause. But let us say, for the sake of argument, that we have an individual who is sad all of the time, and they have no reason to be. They have plenty to live on, friends, family, love, etc. So what is such a person to do? Well if Paul is to believed, the answer remains the same. Because he does not simply leave it at “Learn to be content when you have little!” No, he adds that we are to be content even when we have plenty to be thankful for. With the commands to be content always, and to rejoice always, we find a combination that does not find exception within the Word of God. He says to “rejoice always,” and to be content no matter where we find ourselves, in an abundance of good or ill, and keep our focus on others, because of our focus upon God. The one who gives into depression proves through action that they have learned to be content with a lack of rejoicing, directly contradicting the former command in the first part of this chapter, while claiming to hold to the second part. And that cannot be justified in Scripture. We are told to have both. And there is no exception to be found. As the Thessalonians and Philippians, we are to look for the needs of others, in light of our love of God, and when despair begins to show its ugly face, we give even more of ourselves to God and others, so as to keep little of ourselves to ourselves, giving depression no room to flourish. And the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds, the things we have left to ourselves, and that through His Word alone.
“But you don’t understand,” some may say. “That isn’t possible.” It fascinates me how so many can misuse a verse, while denying its truth in its proper context. “I can do all things through Him [Christ] who strengthens me.” We can write it and say it without looking it up in our Bibles. We can say it when applying for a job, and when chasing our dreams, and yet cringe when it is placed within its actually meaning- contentment. Because such a statement is never said about college, careers, family or the like, but is instead directed at our response to them, whether we get them or not. We are to be content in all of these things- whether we get the job or not- and are to rejoice always. And we do all of this, not in and of our own strength, but in the power of God. And yes, this covers even those with a physical/mental cause of depression as well. There is no exception given, nor should anyone ever seek any excuse. Because such a goal is to contradict our claim to God’s power and sovereignty. And these moral principles can be seen clearly in Christ our Lord. And as I dealt with earlier, in Philippians 3, although we never claim to reach such perfection (consistency), we aim for it, never settling for anything less than the absolute completion seen only in Christ. Because we will attain this perfection, but as stated especially to the churches in Revelation, we must persevere. Because the only area of contentment condemned within the Scripture is contentment with anything less than the nature of Christ.
So to sum it up in a single phrase as a conclusion to my various thoughts, I say this: There is no such thing as a “depressed” Christian. That is not to say there is no such thing as a Christian who does not struggle with depression, but there it is contrary the very nature of Christ and His Gospel to become characterized as a person who lives in despair, regardless of the cause. Just as it is impossible to be a homosexual Christian, or a lying Christian, or a murdering Christian, or a covetous Christian. Because to be called a “Christian” and, at the same time, that to be called that which directly contradicts the calling of the saint, is both hypocritical and destructive to the claim that we are Christian. Because it is impossible to be both Christian and sinner. Either the Lord took all of our sins (past, present and future) upon Himself, or He didn’t. And if He didn’t, we are still in our sins, and are condemned forever, and have no right to call ourselves Children of God.
Such harsh things can be hard to swallow. But the Word of God cuts right to heart, as it is supposed to do, and if it doesn’t hurt us or cause us to squirm in our seats, then perhaps we ought to search our own hearts, not condemn that which God has made clear.
For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.
– Romans 7:14-25