By Jonathan Hart, LPC
Philippians 4:12-13 (ESV)
I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
The concept of “facing plenty” has bugged me for a long time. We don’t often use the language of “facing…” when we are talking about a good thing. “I was facing a time of wealth and comfort, but I made it through by the grace of God.” But this is the language Paul uses: plenty and abundance are something to be faced, in a parallel way to facing lack and poverty. There are unique challenges in having plenty and abundance, and they can be as difficult as having want and need.
Part of the challenge, I think, comes from our habit of thinking that plenty and abundance are “the norm” and that anything less is a burden to be borne and overcome as soon as possible. I can’t imagine relating to abundance in this way. “I have too much money. I have to get rid of it somehow and get back to scraping by from check to check!” How many people are dropping into horrific debt in order to “maintain the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed”?
When we are in pain, grief, loss, hurt, or distress, we do one thing uncommonly well: we complain. We articulate our pain, we feel every inch of it and talk about it in the hopes of finding someone who can identify with it and tell us it’s OK to feel that way about it. What if we “complained” about our abundance the same way? What if we treated our abundance and surplus the same way we treated our challenges and loss? We don’t often do this because of our misconception that plenty and abundance are the norm: we are entitled to them and therefore they are not noteworthy.
I encourage many people to “wallow” in their good times, to store them up in memory and savor them richly. I encourage people to concentrate on being fully present in the joy of the moment and holding on to it so that when it passes (as it inevitably will), we can more fully recall it and taste it again in our mind. Articulate and “complain” about how good things are, much as we articulate and complain about our pain, because joy and pain alike are part of living in a broken world.
I am not talking about disassociating from joy and pain, as much of Christianity is taught to do: “Times are bad, but the joy of the Lord is my strength!! I don’t feel the pain because Jesus is so good!” I am actually encouraging us to feel the joy – and the pain – more fully.
This practice can give us much more resilience and strength to last through the difficult times. We can soothe our hearts and minds on the fact that pain and shortfall are not all that has ever been, that resources come and go, that pain, like joy, is temporary in this life. The seasons continue to turn, and life is more than this present moment; the joy of last year still exists, even though this moment is hard, and the joy that I knew then will come again in time.
This practice helps us hold on more tenaciously to times of plenty as well. We can practice the recognition that this joy is temporary and that it is a gift, rather than an entitlement. Nothing draws our attention to life more than a death in the family. Nothing raises our awareness of the value of our spouse or children than to hear that a friend has lost those most precious to them. If we can practice this mental discipline of savoring our joy and plenty because it is temporary, we will live and enjoy it much more fully.