To have what we want is riches, but to be able to do without is power. To have shoes is a good thing; to be able to walk without them is a better.
– George MacDonald, Donal Grant
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Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American essayist and poet, famously touted the virtue of self-reliance. Paul the apostle, Pilgrim that he was, took a somewhat different tack: he recommended self-sufficiency within the context of reliance upon Another.
The Greek term Paul used to convey his thought was autarkeia, a compound of autos, “self”, and arkes, “sufficient, enough.” The word occurs, among other places, in 1 Timothy 6:6, where it is commonly rendered as contentment: “Now godliness with contentment is great gain.”
Interestingly, the English adjective content (“satisfied”) is directly related to the noun con’-tent – “the stuff inside.” Both words are derived from the verb to contain. Contentment is wealth; and the wealth of contentment consists in the mind-boggling realization that (the claims of advertisers notwithstanding) everything I could ever possibly want or need I already possess within myself – not because I am infinite, omniscient, or omnipotent in my own right, but because, as a disciple of Christ, “I too have the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 7:40).
It was this radical truth that enabled Paul to tell the Christians at Corinth, “All things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come – all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23). On the basis of this same internal reality, the apostle could also boast with reference to himself, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content (autarkes): I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 411-13).
In his timeless novel War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy describes how his protagonist, the loveable but inept Pierre Bezukhov, is taken prisoner by Napoleon’s forces after stumbling wide-eyed through the horrors of the battlefield at Borodino. For all his naïveté, Pierre possesses a rare wisdom and insight; for upon finding himself detained and shackled by the French soldiers, he never thinks to fret or fume. Instead, he laughs out loud. With unfeigned wonder he looks up at the night sky and declares, “The soldier did not let me pass! They took me and shut me up! They hold me captive! What, me? Me? My immortal soul? Ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha!” And with that, says Tolstoy, Pierre “laughed till tears started into his eyes.”
And why not? After all, when a man possesses all things – when the world, life, death, things present, and things to come are all his, and when even the stars twinkling in the heavens make up part of the internal vastness he has in mind whenever he says “I” – how is it possible for any mere sergeant-at-arms to take all of that and shut it up inside a shed boarded over with planks? No wonder Pierre smiled at the thought.
Somehow in his good-natured simplicity, Pierre – a true Pilgrim in spite of his pampered aristocratic upbringing – had laid hold of an eternal truth. Somehow, he had grasped the meaning of autarkeia. He knew that it makes no difference what one owns, what one has accomplished, or how much wealth and stature one has achieved.
He understood that, in God, it is enough to be – no matter how or where.