Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Lessons from Paul in divine discontentment

Someone asked me apropos James 2 and 4 about when it was right for Christians to agitate for change when Paul says that we should be content with the way things are. It was part of a broader discussion about those areas where people think James and Paul are at odds on some pretty fundamental issues of the faith.

It's a serious question, though I think one that gets a bit overblown, so I've been pondering it over the past day or so and here's what I think.

When Paul says he was content and had learned to be content (Philippians 4:11), he did not mean that nothing bothered him or that he put up with what ever came his way or that he didn't think there was a lot wrong with the world that the followers of Jesus should be concerned about putting right, but simply that his personal economic circumstances did not determine how he responded to or felt about things.

He was clearly discontented about many things: that Christ had not yet been formed in his Galatian converts (Galatians 4:19); that those who followed Jesus were failing to share what they had with the poor (1 Corinthians 11:17ff; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15); he wanted to see justice done between Philemon and Onesimus, being discontented with the current situation between them; he was concerned that the Thessalonians didn’t succumb to the lure of being clients but worked to have something to share, indicating a level of profound discontentment about current economic relations in the wider society (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; see Bruce Winter ‘From secular clients to Christian Benefactors’ in his Seek the Welfare of the City [Eerdmans 1994]).

There were a whole range of things that grieved Paul, made him angry at their injustice, that he was definitely not content about and not prepared to learn to be content about.

Indeed, he was only prepared to learn to be content about his own personal circumstances. At the start of Philippians he spoke about his imprisonment being not what he’d have chosen, but still working out for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. And at the end, in relation to their gift, he spoke about having learned to be content about his own personal economic circumstances – whether he had a lot or a little didn’t make him view the world any differently.

But in all sorts of other areas, he seethed with a divinely-inspired discontent at the way the world was and campaigned and agitated to see it change, working mainly through to creating communities which embodied the values of Jesus’ reign, but not afraid to comment on how those values challenged the prevailing ethos of the world around them. And he would have said a loud and enthusiastic 'amen' to how James urges his readers to live.

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