We are facing unprecedented circumstances. Humanity is fighting a global Covid pandemic, and its infringements make it hard to imagine a ‘normal’ post-covid world. Compulsory physical isolation, social distancing, mandatory masks, and border closures are realities that are taking a toll. Research reveals “high levels of psychological distress in the general community” as people worldwide fear the loss of loved ones, livelihood, and liberty, often bringing the worst in humanity to the forefront. Fights, even with the elderly over trivial matters like toilet paper, erupt in plain sight. This post draws from the context of Phil 4:13 to evaluate Paul’s attitude towards suffering. It reflects on Paul’s resolve in affliction, hoping to encourage twenty-first-century believers to follow his example, mirroring Christianity well in distressing times. First-century awareness will assist with twenty-first-century application. Therefore, we start with literary style, background, occasion, and purpose for writing the letter and conclude with a few practical applications.
Tradition stipulates that Paul, joined by Timothy, penned the letter to the church in Philippi, from Roman imprisonment, around A.D. 62. The gentle tone signifies a special relationship between the author and the first church he founded around A.D. 48-49. The Philippians provided financial support from inception (1:5) and emotional support when needed (4:18). It is a friendship letter of gratitude (4:14-18), moral exhortation (4:8-9), and encouragement, following typical Graeco-Roman letter-writing conventions. Paul opens with a standard greeting and prayer (1:1-11), the body introducing the reason for writing (1:12), restating the purpose towards the end (4:10-20), concluding with greetings to others and a farewell prayer (4:21-23).
Paul’s letter to the Philippians was intended to be read aloud; hence, he uses literary markers, like ‘Now’ (1:12), to capture the audience’s attention, divulging his resolve regarding his suffering. Paul’s imprisonment traumatised the Christians in Philippi; still, he recognises the greater purpose of his current affliction. Incarceration advanced the gospel and encouraged others to proclaim Jesus boldly (1:12-14). This inference also introduces the reason for the letter. Paul urges Philippians to remain steadfast despite opposition (1:27-30), making Jesus central notwithstanding the influence of false prophets (3:1-4), to lift their eyes from temporal suffering and devote their gaze to eternal glory (3:20). Paul furthermore pleads with believers to strive for unity, think of others first (2:1-2) and to be joyful always (4:4-7).
The final appeal to ‘rejoice in the Lord always’ (4:4) and exhortation to meditate on all things good (4:8) precede Paul’s final thank you for the gift, delivered by Epaphroditus, a primary reasons for writing the letter (4:18). The first passage in the last “thank you” houses 4:13 and illuminates the more profound meaning behind this verse. Paul says that he ‘has learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (4:11-12); the key to understanding the meaning of 4:13 fully. Paul does not encourage from conditions of abundance or luxury; he exhorts from Roman imprisonment, house arrest, chained to a guard (Acts 28:16), wholly reliant upon the generosity of others for his every need. Suffering hallmarked Paul’s last years (Acts 21:15-28:29). He faced tremendous hardship (II Cor 11:25), especially during his second imprisonment in the infamous Mamertine dungeon. Death was a reality; his zeal for Christ eventually culminating in martyrdom under Nero. Therefore, his words carried weight then and still today. But what caused these dire circumstances?
Paul reveals the reason for imprisonment in 1:13. He was ‘in chains’ for preaching Christ. Emperor worship in first-century Rome was one of the many mechanisms that held the Empire together. Religion and politics were intertwined, and people revered the emperor as a god. Therefore, the Christian confession of Jesus’ lordship that Paul emphatically encouraged was ‘a political challenge’ to the Roman powers, eventually costing him his liberty and life. Still, Paul’s revelation of Christ determined his attitude, not his circumstances. Instead of lamenting, Paul considered everything he has lost “garbage” compared to what he has gained from knowing Christ (3:4-14). Is this our confession too?
Many Australians struggle with Covid lockdown and compulsory isolation, the loss of liberty. Admittingly it is a challenging situation. Still, I will not trade our circumstances for Paul’s. There is no valid reason for panic buying or for fighting over toilet paper. We still have most of the supplies we need, and we are not wholly dependent upon the generosity of patrons. In my opinion, Paul’s lockup circumstances were more challenging than our lockdown stipulations, and yet, Paul seems to be coping better, piquing my curiosity about the influence behind his attitude.
Paul’s encounter with God changed his outlook on life completely. His life revolved around Jesus and the message of the cross. I propose that 4:19 contains the secret to Paul’s contentment, assurance that God will meet all his needs. For Paul, this truth is much more than a positive affirmation; it is a conviction worth imitating. I suggest that we take heed, be deliberate with our testimony, make Jesus central, confess his faithfulness, and trust his more excellent plan and purpose for our lives, starting immediately.
We can, from today, implement a few practical strategies to remain hopeful despite Covid “opposition”. Firstly, we can pray for Australia’s leaders every time we receive a Covid update; prayer is an empowering weapon. Secondly, we can start a “gratitude” jar, including three things we are grateful for. I have learned that it is virtually impossible to be thankful and fearful at the same time. Thirdly, we can begin an achievement journal, listing three things we were able to complete, big or small, and make sure it includes something we do for someone else, as well.
Many more healthy habits can improve mental health, and I encourage you to make your list. A positive outlook enhances perspective, and it can help us to respond Christlike under pressure.
In conclusion, 4:10-20, the final passages containing our central verse, reveal significant themes in Paul’s letter, joy and gratitude in all times, timeless encouragement for all centuries. Paul did not encourage from a place of comfort or luxury; he practised what he preached from a place of uncertainty and want. His example is inspiring and worth following. Circumstances did not dictate Paul’s attitude. He recognised Jesus, the sacrifice, the cross, and ensuing salvation, asserting that the gift of eternal life trumps any temporal loss or inconvenience. Likewise, our words and actions in times like Covid are our testimony and witness to Christ. Our attitude may either repel or entice others to discover Jesus for themselves. By the grace of God, I pray it is the latter.
 Susan L Rossell et al., “An Overview of Current Mental Health in the General Population of Australia during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Results from the COLLATE Project,” Psychiatry Research 296 (February 1, 2021): 113660.
 9 News Australia, Shoppers Charged over Toilet Paper Brawl | Nine News Australia, 2020, accessed April 21, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1nEnOmC6IQ.
 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour (Zondervan, 2014), 353.
 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, 3 edition. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 325-326.
 Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book, 354-358.
 D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd edition. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2005), loc 8576.
 Ibid, 238-239.
 Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book, 354-355.
 James W Thompson, “Preaching to Philippians,” Interpretation 61, no. 3 (July 2007): 298–309.
 Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 1 edition. (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1997), loc 8853.
 Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 1 edition. (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1997), loc 8837.
 “Historical Background of Paul’s Final Imprisonment,” accessed April 22, 2021, https://insight.org/resources/article-library/individual/historical-background-of-paul-s-final-imprisonment.
 Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, 231.
 Harry O. Maier, New Testament Christianity in the Roman World (Oxford University Press USA - OSO, 2018), accessed February 16, 2021, 83-84..
 James W Thompson, “Preaching to Philippians,” Interpretation 61, no. 3 (July 2007), 300.
 Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament loc 9276.
 “31 Tips to Boost Your Mental Health,” Mental Health America, accessed April 22, 2021, https://www.mhanational.org/31-tips-boost-your-mental-health.