I have just returned from visiting a care home. Every Tuesday afternoon, unless otherwise prevented, I go to see a friend whom I have known for over 25 years. During my ministry at Chelmsford he came to renewed faith, and I had the joy of baptising him. Although he has gone through tough times, for the most part life has been good to him. A Cambridge graduate, he became a medical doctor, spent some time in Kenya, before settling down as a GP in Chelmsford. Blessed with an outgoing wife, as a couple they have had a wide circle of friends. But in the last five years or so, his world has been turned upside down. For although when I first knew him he was one of the strongest and fittest men I have ever known, he now can only walk with difficulty with a Zimmer frame. For the last two years he has been “incarcerated” in a care home. True, most days his wife takes him out, but most of his time is spent in a home where most residents are old ladies with degrees of dementia – and where the care assistants seem to have little understanding of the human body. Not surprisingly, he feels pretty ‘down’. Here is a cultured, thoughtful, gifted man now confined in a body that is weak, to a room which is soul-less, to a home where nobody has anything worthwhile to say, and to a form of existence which is a pale imitation of the life he previously knew. Understandably, in spite of his Christian faith, he struggles to be content.
But my friend is not alone in that struggle. Gordon Rupp in a sermon on growing older quoted the results of an American study into people aged eighty-five and over, which distinguished three groups of people: the Angry Ones, the Rocking Chair People and the Mature: “The Angry Ones were pathetic and disturbing, because we have all met people who seem to have become sour and embittered, disillusioned and resentful as they grow old. They have accumulated frustrations, they are nostalgic or guilty, they become a trial to those about them, and their tempers range from general grumpiness to downright nastiness”.
My mind goes to the words of Paul the Apostle: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have” (Phil 4.11 NRSV). He went on: “I know what it is to have little” – literally, ‘I know what it is to be brought low’. Paul must have felt low at times, because when he wrote this letter he was chained to a Roman solider, with his future quite uncertain. Yet in spite of all the difficulties he had experienced, Paul was content.
Or is contentment the right translation here? The GNB has Paul say: “I have learnt to be satisfied with what I have”. The underlying Greek word (autarkia) was used by the Stoics to describe people who through self-discipline had become independent of their external circumstances. By contrast, Paul’s ‘sufficiency’ was rooted in Christ. In the words of one commentator: “The self-sufficiency of the Christian is relative: an independence of the world through dependence upon God. The Stoic self-sufficiency pretends to be absolute. One is the contentment of faith, the other is the contentment of pride”.
This sense of contentment or self-sufficiency had to be learnt. Walter Hansen commented: “The emphatic use of the personal pronoun I highlights his claim that he did his homework, mastered his lessons, and passed his tests. Although the attitude of contentment was not natural nor did it come easily, this quality of contentment eventually became an essential attribute of his character.” Then, united with Christ, the source of absolute power, Paul was able to face life – and whatever life might throw at him. Indeed, it was Paul’s experience that it was precisely in his time of greatest need, in his moment of utter weakness, that he experienced the power of Christ to the full. For it was when he was troubled by his thorn in the flesh, that the Lord said to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness“. To which Paul added: “for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12.9,10).
At the moment I am still blessed with health and strength. I trust, however, that when health and strength is no longer mine – when perhaps life becomes limited and confined – I too will learn that sufficiency, that contentment, which the Apostle exemplified.