on subliminal gospel preaching

So I’ve been reading W.B. Barcley’s The Secret of Contentment recently and thinking about Philippians 4:11-13.

It’s one of my favourite parts of the Bible to feel smug and sanctimonious about – you know how it is, verse 13 is one of the most misquoted verses in the Bible; people use it to give every one of their actions divine backing and therefore diving legitimacy, because they can do all things in Christ. But in fact all the ‘things’ of verse 13 are precisely the unglamorous things Paul had listed just a sentence ago: being in want, having almost nothing, being hungry. So every time I read that verse I like to smugly give myself a self-five. Nice one, you’re not like the muggles.

I’m not proud of that habit of mine, but it comes up a lot. But one thing caught me off guard this time around: I have in fact completely missed the point of what Paul is saying. I was so happy about avoiding misinterpretation that I’d completely ignored Paul’s message.

I’ve written before about how greedy our ambitions and need for emotional affirmation can be. I’ve always tried to fight these urges, sitting on them like a live hand grenade, but this time I got thinking: what if the key to laying these hungry demons to rest is to, you know, do what Paul is actually saying and be content in Christ?

So I started with simply preaching that truth to myself everyday: that despite all the things I wish I had or that I was unhappy about, I am in fact content deep down because Christ is alive, he loves me, and he will make all things right some day. Even when that niggling, squirming, gnawing, itchy thought comes in that I wish things were better, I tell myself yes, ok, but I am content deep down. And I will stay that way because what makes me content will not change.

Now I know that just seems… ridiculous in many ways. Walking down the street and cramming these mantras into my head? It’s like those Christian caricatures who live on well-meaning half-truths and lies, clamping their hands on their ears and going lalalalala as they stomp through life with big, comical steps. Surely I’m just telling myself lies to soothe myself?

But at the same time: what’s the alternative? I live in Hong Kong, a city where nine out of ten billboards on the street are advertisements for some newfangled product or amazing experience. They follow you everywhere: on the train, on the bus, even on the taxi (newer models have a TV screen advertising this or that fixed right in front of the passenger’s face, and it can’t be turned off).

The world screams at me that more is always better. There is an ad that says ‘Happiness is a Better Job’. There’s another poster for a realty development, decorated with a slick, white businessman wearing a punchable smirk on his face, the caption reading ‘Elevation of Status.’

Through all this the world screams at me that I shouldn’t feel content because there are all these things I am missing out on. It bombards me with this thought, Inception-style, because that’s how money is made. So I start living by what I’m told: I’m not content because I could have a better job, a better church, a better love life, a better spiritual state.

So as I walk down the street doing these Pauline counter-mantras, telling myself that I am content because of Christ, I’m not shovelling lies into my ears; I’m presenting myself with an alternative world view. On one hand, the world tells me I can’t be content if I don’t buy this or that product or experience. On the other hand, the gospel tells me that I may be unhappy but I can always be content. Can I honestly say this second claim is more of a lie than the first?

Because the world really is telling us one of the oldest lies in the book: newer is not always better, more is not always better, higher pay is not always better, whiter and smirkier is not always better. Anyone who’s experienced even a bit of life can tell you that. Anyone who has binged on food, games, books, net surfing, relationships, work, shopping, sex, porn, experiences, serving in church and a million other bingeable things can tell you – that’s a big lie. Christ, on the other hand, is not something I have truly tried to binge on yet.

So maybe I’m not lying to myself as I drone to myself on the street. Maybe I am actually content because of Christ? Because the alternative that the world tells me is not demonstrably more truthful. And what’s more, history has proven again and again that the most fragile lies are shouted the loudest – ask the propagandists of Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and a whole host of others. Paul, on the other hand, tells us that learning contentment is not easy; it’s not hurled at you, it’s hard to find, it’s quiet, and getting at it is almost as hard as entering one of the ancient mystery religions (4:12). Doth the first lady protest too much in this case?

So now who’s the muggle? I can’t tell yet, but I have a good feeling that it’s me.

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