St. Paul and the Shawshank Redemption

by Michael Usey

Philippians 4:10-14

If you are like me, you enjoy watching sports. While I’m not a huge basketball fan, women’s basketball is lovely to watch. Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird  shared a basketball court for what was likely the final time Friday when Taurasi’s Mercury hosted Bird’s Storm. Two of the greatest women’s basketball players to ever live — friends who’ve been linked for more than two decades — may never compete against each other again. They played together at UConn, which is James Blay’s favorite team. It was a historic night. This was the 46th time they played each other in the regular season, tying the WNBA record for most meetings. Friday was Taurasi’s 500th game, joining Bird as the only members of that club. Bird, 41, leads the rivalry 25-20 and is the league’s all-time leader in assists. She’s retiring at the end of the season. Taurasi, 40, is the league’s all-time leading scorer. She’s a free agent at the end of the season and hasn’t decided on retirement yet.  The two hoops legends also won five Olympic gold medals together, the only basketball players to ever accomplish that feat.  (Can you guess who won?  Taurasi’s Mercury, 94-78.]

Athletes like these two women amaze me. They seem to have superhuman powers. I was a pretty good athlete when I was younger, football (team captain) and wrestling team in HS, but maybe I should have had Phil 4:13 inked on my body. Perhaps that would have helped!  Our verse for today is often connected to sports. This verse shows up frequently in athletic environments, from Steph Curry writing the verse on his shoes, to Tim Tebow referencing the verse on his face stickers, the insinuation is that professional athletes will have a competitive edge because they believe in Jesus.

People use it to inspire them to reach their goals or win their games. That’s fair enough, but there is a depth of meaning in this verse that goes deeper than crossing the finish line and winning a gold medal. Seen in its larger context, this verse is more powerful than we think.  This is week 8 of our summer sermon series, I can do all things through a verse taken out of context, and this morning is the day we talk about the verse that gave us our frame.

I believe all of us want this verse to be true. All of us want strength for living. I know many of you are worn out, burned out, some maybe about to pass out. Maybe you are here today feeling exhausted by life. Maybe you have a tough decision to make and you don’t know if you have the strength to make it. Perhaps you have too many things on your plate and need to find your beach, like Corona promises.  Life can feel like a bad escape room. The pressures of work, family, and business and life have you at your wits end.

If that is how you feel, today’s verse may seem to be just what the doctor ordered. But notice the verse expresses that Paul had found strength in Christ. Paul doesn’t say, “You will find your strength in Christ to do all things.” Instead, he was testifying that he had found all the strength he needed in Christ. The question is how might we find that strength?

If we are honest, there are too days when we don’t feel that strong. We may have prayed. We may have been to church. We may have read our Bible. But the strength is not there. So we go on vacations. We read self-help books. We listen to TED talks and still the strength is not there.  This is one of the reasons why this is a favorite verse for many people. It expresses a sincere hope and desire to find strength. We yearn for it. We long for it, but many of us don’t experience it. How can we find the strength that Paul testified about?           

The key to finding this strength may be looking at Phil. 4:13 in its larger context.  I hope by now you are not surprised by this. Most people read only this verse and think, “Okay, Christ can give me strength too.” If I took a poll of how many of you know Phil 4:12, most would not know it. But I think we can’t understand Phil 4:13 unless we understand Phil 4:10, 11 and 12. We should see this extremely popular verse in light of its context. It is then and only then that we can discover how we might receive the strength in Christ to do all things. So let’s take a closer peek.

Paul was in a Roman prison when he wrote the letter to the Philippians. The congregation in Philippi was his favorite church. He founded it. He loved the people and they loved him. He had a special relationship with them. Phil 4:13 appears as Paul is wrapping up his letter. He is thanking the Philippians for sending him a gift, probably money to help his ministry. Paul had good etiquette. He knew it was classy to send a thank you note, as we have long drilled in my kids. So he says leading up to it in verse 10:

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need … (4:10-11)

Paul was quick to thank the Philippians for their love behind the gift. But he was equally quick to add that he didn’t need it. He wasn’t being rude; he simply seized an opportunity to share his wisdom. Listen to what Paul expresses in verse 11: for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.

This is Paul’s stoic Christian wisdom shining through. You may recall that Paul was an older man when he wrote these words. He had been through life’s battles. He had survived countless bouts of persecution. He sat in a Roman prison cell awaiting death at any moment. He knew what was most critical in life. He knew what counted. Life and faith had taught him to be self-sufficient regardless of his circumstances.

Most of us are quite the opposite. We are only happy and self-sufficient when circumstances are exactly how we want them. We feel good when life lines up just like we want it. We put ourselves at the mercy of circumstances, but Paul didn’t. Paul continues in verse 12: I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.

Paul was saying “been there; done that.” I have faced sad and desperate times, and I have lived wonderful and amazing times. Each has something to teach us. I have lived life fully, and I know what I am talking about.” If Paul were living today, he might have a t-shirt that says, “It so weird being the same age as old people,” or maybe, “I thought growing old would take longer.”

I imagine that, perhaps when Paul was younger, he made the mistake of relying on his circumstances for happiness and contentment. But then he realized that life is a series of ups and downs. If you rely on circumstances, you are going to be often disappointed.

Then Paul throws in a phrase that is just so remarkable. We don’t find anything like it anywhere else in scripture really. Paul says in verse 12: I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 

I mean, just wow, Paul as the Buddha, Paul as the stoic philosopher. Paul said he had learned the secret of being content no matter what life threw at him. Whether he was hungry or full, in prison or in his own bed, he knew the secret to being content. I don’t know about you, but I cannot yet say that, and I want that secret.

It does seem like a secret doesn’t it? Everywhere you look today folks are unhappy.  Even those who have everything they want are still not content. Everywhere you look folks are relying on circumstances to bring them strength and contentment, and it always disappoints. It does seem like a secret.

Maybe the secret has eluded you. You would love to live this secret.Well, the truth is the secret is found in Phil 4:13. Paul wasn’t trying to hide it. The problem is we have read this verse so many times that we miss it. Let me read the verse again: I can do all things through him who gives me strength.

Whenever we read this verse, I think most focus on the word “strength.” It is a crucial word, but not the central one. The most significant word in this verse is “do.” I can DO all things through Christ, the one who gives me strength.

Paul’s secret to strength and contentment lay in learning to focus on what he was supposed to “do,” not what he felt he should have. Paul didn’t say “I can have all things…” He said, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” It was not money, things, power, or prestige that empowered him; it was his relationship with Christ and what Christ had called him to DO.

Paul detached himself from the non-essentials of life and focused on what  mattered for eternity. In doing so, he found all the strength he would ever need. So what is the secret to contentment and the way to endless strength? Here’s what I think Paul would say: Let go of what you think you should HAVE and grab hold of what you should DO. [Repeat]

I’ve come to believe that most of us don’t have the strength we need because our focus is misplaced. When we focus on having instead of doing, we never have enough energy. Why? Because HAVE is never satisfied. This is why self-centered churches die and outwardly focused churches thrive. HAVING saps energy: DOING gives energy.

We didn’t read the end of chapter 4, but Paul says something absolutely remarkable in the next to last verse before he closes out his thank you note.  He wrote,  All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor’s household.  He drops this so casually but the implication is huge: there are now Christians in the emperor’s household, and it’s so very likely that this is because of Paul’s words and witness.  In Rome under arrest, in what he probably knows are his last days, he is converting members of the emperor’s own household.  He is doing, and not focused on having.

You want power? Change your perspective. Do what Paul did. Take your mind and heart off the non-essentials and focus on the eternal. Let go of what you should have and grab hold of what you should do.  Get to work following Jesus and everything else will take care of itself. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.”

The happiest, most energetic people I know are those who faithfully serve God. This is because God loves giving strength to those who want to be involved with what God is doing in the world. People who are out doing for God rarely complain of not having enough strength. They may complain of not having enough time or resources or money, but not strength. Earlier in Philippians Paul said, “The One who began a good work in you will see it to completion.”

I have discovered that I can find rest when I have worked on what I know to be essential. I can find strength when I am doing for others. I can find joy when I am serving. The more I give, the more I am given, and I am not talking about money. That’s how it works: I can DO all things through Christ who strengthens me.

You will HAVE when you DO. You want fulfillment? Help feed the hungry children here in Greensboro. You want joy and meaning? Talk to another person about how God accepts everyone, and loves everyone. You want purpose? Tell God you are open and available, and watch your life transform. You will be so busy and so alive you won’t care anymore about having what you want. You will have found the secret to contentment.   

One of my favorite movies is The Shawshank Redemption.  It’s based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.  If you haven’t read it or seen the movie, you should. If you only read one thing by King, this should be it. Both are so well done, and filled with baptismal and birth imagery.

The film stars Morgan Freeman as Red and Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne. They are both prisoners and become good friends. Andy is sentenced to two consecutive life terms for a double murder he did not commit. He experiences the brutality of prison life and works for a cruel, disturbed warden. He longs to be free from prison, so he begins to plan his escape without telling a soul.

There is a great scene when Andy and Red are sitting against a wall in the prison yard. Andy keeps talking and daydreaming about what life would be like if he were free. He said he would go to Mexico and live on the Pacific. He would run a hotel. He would buy an old boat and go fishing. Do you remember that name of the beach town? Zihuatanejo (zee·waa·tuh·nay·ho) Red, unaware of Andy’s plan to escape, tries to talk him back to reality: “Why are you wasting time with these pipe dreams? All that stuff is out there and you are in here.” Andy replies, “Well, life comes down to a simple choice. Get busy living or get busy dying.”

When I read Phil 4:13, I don’t see an olympic medal, a superbowl ring, or a basketball championship: I hear a challenge: “Usey, get busy living outloud for God, or get busy dying in stupid pursuits, and having trivial things.” Many of us here choose living, today. Which might you choose? Let go of what you think you should HAVE, and grab hold of what you should DO. Get busy living or get busy dying.