a. What do you find it easy to be thankful for? Or in what situations do you find it easy to be content
b. What about the opposite: In what situations do you find thankfulness more difficult, or in what circumstances is it difficult for you to find contentment? Why?
1. Giving and receiving gifts can be tricky business. Think of it: if someone gives you a gift, what should you do in response? If you give someone a gift and they turn around and give you a gift that is more valuable, what does that say about your relationship with that person? Or, if you are in a position where you really needed something, and someone steps in and meets that need, how can that change your relationship? In the ancient world that Paul writes in, gift giving, and reciprocating with another gift (or praise and honour), was one way of establishing a sort of “friendship”, but it was also a way of ensuring that the status of each person involved was obvious: the one who gives less is ‘below’ the one who gives more.
Further, when a gift is given, there can often be implicit strings attached, an unspoken: “You owe me.” Money is often equated with power or influence – both then and now. But the way Paul handles this financial gift shows that this is not the case for those who are in Christ and part of the Church. In this section of the letter then, Paul wants to both thank the Philippian church for their gift to him (it was really helpful, after all: see v.18), but he does it in a way that protects their relationship from the common Greco-Roman practice of gift-giving and receiving, and the cultural baggage about ‘superior/inferior’, or “you owe me” that often comes with it. Paul is recasting giving and receiving in a distinctly Christian way.
Read Philippians 4:10-20. What strikes you as interesting about this section – about the way Paul speaks of their gift and his lack of need? How might Paul be ‘protecting’ their relationship form any misunderstandings of superior/inferior, or “you owe me”, by the way he words this section?
2. In distinction from the status-conscious Greco-Roman culture, Paul speaks a great deal about the relationship he has with the Philippian believers in terms of “partnership” (1:6-7) and speaks of people within that community as “co-workers” in the gospel (4:2-3). How should this pattern of speaking and acting as “partnership” be an example to how we are to relate to people within the community of God today?
3. Read vv.12-13 again. We’ve been talking about “real joy in real life” throughout our series. Do you think that contentment is, in some ways, connected with joy? If so, how?
4. Given what we have learned throughout this little letter, what do you think the “secret of contentment” is all about?
5. The Stoic philosopher Senica writes in De Vita Beata “the happy man is content with his present lot, no matter what it is, and is reconciled to his circumstances” (6.2). The source of contentment for Stoics was self-mastery achieved through “detachment.” Paul never seeks detachment from his circumstances, however. Instead, he has learned to “read” his circumstances through the lens of what God has accomplished through the story of God’s saving work. How do many of your own peers (neighbours, co-workers, class mates) seek to deal with their circumstances that might be difficult? How is that different than Paul’s approach?
6. How do you tend to deal with difficult circumstances? How does Paul’s example here encourage you or provide a new way forward?
7. Paul does not feel any need to repay the gift from the Philippians, even though that would be seen as ‘proper’ in their culture. Instead, Paul sets the gift-giving act from the Philippian church to him in its proper theological context: that of co-workers together in the gospel. Paul sees there gift not so much as for him, but as a gift to God – since it is furthering God’s work. Because of this, God will acknowledge the gift of the Philippians and delight in it, just as God received the offerings of God’s people in the Old Testament (the language in v.18b picks up on the imagery of the sacrificial system). When we give of our time, our talents and our treasures (finances etc.) to further God’s work in the world, we are assured that God sees what we do. And it is to be done out of love for him – not to earn favour with God, or be seen by others – but truly as participation in his mission. How does the reality that God loves it when we give freely, generously, and sacrificially encourage you to be a person who is open and generous?
Pray: Take time in your group to give thanks to God for the gracious gift of his presence with us, and his care for us whether we are “in plenty or in want” – that he does not leave us to detach from our circumstances, but through Christ’s empowerment, to live faithfully (even contented!) in our situation. Pray for the needs of your group members, since God loves to hear our prayers, and give us his peace (Phil 4:5-7).