“And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:19) It was the favorite verse of every impoverished college student, and we repeated it to one another encouragingly as we worked our campus jobs, and prayed over bills, and looked for lists of secondhand textbooks on the board in the Campus Center, checked our post office boxes for letters from home in hopes of a check. Lessons in faith well-learned in those years and often leaned upon. But somehow financial needs are the most straightforward place to trust and I have been struggling ever since to know where else to pin it.
Is that verse for parents who are raising a child with overwhelming health needs and finding it takes more energy than they have to give? Will God supply for the parents who are moving a college grad back home because he can’t find a job, knowing full well that student loans are looming? Does God’s promise of provision cover the heart-sore mother over another holiday, who just wishes her family could be together? Does that verse belong to the ministry leader who keeps pleading for more workers, and often grows weary? So many needs, and they color our lives with desperation for a solution, because they make us feel helpless and afraid. We need a Provider, and doesn’t this well-known verse say that God will supply all our needs?
It strikes me, all these years later, that maybe it wasn’t really meant to be applied to many other things. Just before the Church-Planter Paul made this sweeping claim for the Philippian church, he commends them for giving generously to him in spite of their own hardship, and he confides to them that he has learned the secret of contentment through trial and error….in all the pressing and shifting circumstances of his journeys, he had found this one thing to be constant: the God who had called him was with him always and gave him strength to meet every situation.
In joyful abundance, it is Christ who enables Paul to live well in the midst of it. And in hunger and need, it is Christ who sustains him. It is a secret, a treasure Paul has found hidden in life’s ups and downs, the kind of thing you only find out by living through both. Clearly then, his statement to the Philippian church was no promise that God would supply everything lacking in their lives, nor was it a promise that they would never go without in the future. Maybe it’s just that their generosity is something God notices and rewards.
Indeed, because the secret of contentment is worth sharing with his readers, Paul implies that both abundance and need are only a means to an end. To his way of thinking it is good for our souls to experience both (and probably repeatedly, given how slow we are to learn) so that we may find the treasure of knowing Jesus Christ. Clearly going without was not something Paul feared– not something he would be quick to promise away for his readers. And yet a few paragraphs later he says God will supply all their needs, so it makes me think that maybe his idea of need is something different than mine.
We believe that Christ’s riches are big enough to cover, and we would definitely like God to supply all our needs as concretely as money in a bag, but I think Paul’s real point is about that deeper issue: the secret of knowing God and living in His presence, whether you have the tangible things you need or not. When I go looking for verses about God’s provision I see Him promising forgiveness, mercy, peace, justice, Presence, strength to do what is in front of me….these are the intangibles He thinks I need in life. The other stuff is just the extra details, the context. Like Jesus said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)
It is a kind of culture shock, this head-long collision between normal human perspective and the spiritual reality, like trying to get my brain around a foreign concept. Show me what I really need, Lord, in each situation, and help me to focus there, rather than on the needs most obvious. Help me discover this secret of being “content in whatever circumstances I am.”
It would be frightening to depend on a God who cared more about my spiritual growth than my situation, except that I know His heart. I know His mercy endures forever. Verse after verse piles up overwhelmingly in my favor. He loves me and He is good. I can trust Him in this.
“He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)
“It is in our acceptance of what is given that God gives Himself.” (These Strange Ashes, Elizabeth Elliot)