In the Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s Bassanio refers to the outwardly hypocritical as having “hearts as false as stairs of sand.” The vivid imagery immediately brings to the mind’s eye the frustration of a man seeking to ascend by stairs made of sand, collapsing beneath the weight of his own advance.
Inherent in the natural heart is a desire for more; there is the unending hope of better times evidenced by the long lines at the lottery sales. The human heart wants more, something bigger, faster, more entertaining, more thrilling, more prestigious. Contentment is a stranger to the human heart, a visitor who finds a “no vacancy” sign permanently affixed to the door.
Yet even the most cursory observation must reveal to us that most men ascend by “stairs of sand.” Our world is filled with frustrated, struggling humanity. Contentment is a rare commodity. Men struggle for advancement, only to meet disillusionment and disapp ointment. Even those who manage to struggle up the “stairs of sand,” gaining the admiration of their peers, frequently voice the dissatisfaction that comes with “having arrived.”
Paul, with deft strokes of his pen in Philippians 3 and 4, brings into sharp focus the tension of the Christian life. In chapter 3, he paints the portrait of a man who is discontented; in chapter 4, he shows us a man who has found the secret to contentment. This is no paradox or sudden change of thought by the apostle. The distinctive difference is that in the first instance, it is a man who is not satisfied with his spiritual attainments, while in ch 4 he is entirely satisfied with his earthly circumstances.
A moment’s reflection should cause most of us to bow in confession that it is the opposite which is true of us.
Despite our familiarity with Philippians 3, who does not thrill to the picture of the runner striving for the prize, of the accountant carefully balancing the ledger, of the disciple longing to be like His Lord? Paul is not ascending by “stairs of sand.” The excellency of the knowledge, the exceeding greatness of His power, the enablement of an indwelling Spirit, all combine to hasten Paul along the road of conformity to the One whom he called, “Christ Jesus, my Lord.” “My Lord!” what volumes it speaks of an enraptured heart, of willing enslavement and ardent endeavor.
In contrast, in Philippians 4:11, he wrote,” I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” This depicts a man who has learned contentment in whatever circumstances he is found: abounding or suffering need, fullness or hunger, weakness or strength. It is not flesh which has been trained or disciplined to endure austerity, but a glorified Savior who is pouring strength into an empty vessel.
May the Spirit of God teach us, as He did Paul, the secret of true contentment with life’s circumstances, and a holy discontentment with spiritual attainment.