There’s no greater challenge in ministry than managing expectations. I have in mind here more the ways we feel obligated to one another. For example, at the end of my first year with a congregation I served, the leaders distributed a survey to the entire congregation to find out what kind of job I was doing. (That’s a whole different post). One person faulted me for not being friendly enough. People who know me are probably thinking, “nailed it!” True enough, I’m probably not the warmest person in the world and have come to realize that I have a foreboding resting face, but all-in-all I think I’m friendly enough. I have friends.
But I failed to meet this person’s expectations of what it meant to be friends. This person volunteered for everything. Our exchanges had been pleasant. I was grateful for the help and had communicated that. But evidently, the return did not match the investment in this person’s eyes. More was expected in terms of social interaction. All of this volunteering should have made us friends. What else could it be? I simply wasn’t friendly enough.
These kinds of obligations related to reciprocity can create resentments. Paul knew this. He lived in a world built on gift giving and reciprocity. His refusal of the patronage offered by the church in Corinth was a way of circumventing the obligational norms of gift giving in a patron-client relationship. Paul’s sense of calling to the gospel created inherent conflicts with the cultural norms related to gift giving. God was his patron, not wealthy Corinthians. So, he worked with his hands to avoid these kinds of expectations.
I think this is going on in Philippians as well. I am convince that this letter written from prison was to let the church know that though he appreciated the gift he had received from them, this did not obligate him to return to Philippi. More, they had all they needed even if Paul never returned. This letter begins with the assurance that “the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Christ” (1:5) and ends by reminding them that just as Christ supplies all his needs, so all of theirs will be met in Christ as well (4:19).
Paul is working tricky turf here. He has exceedingly warm regard for this church, but he’s not sure if he will ever be able to meet their expectations of a return visit. The end of the letter is a master class in managing expectations.
“10 I rejoice[g] in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.[h] 11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.
15 You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. 16 For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. 18 I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
I think Paul’s logic goes like this: Thanks for the gift. Not that I needed the gift. Christ satisfies all my needs. I am content in any circumstance. Still, nice gift and appreciated. No one shares in giving and receiving like you guys do. Not that I seek the gift, but I want you to see how the gift accumulates to your account. It’s not a gift given to me, not really. It’s a fragrant offering to God. And God is the one who will repay your gift by supplying all of your needs as well.
In the “economy” of the kingdom of God, there is no direct exchange between persons. What I offer, I offer through Christ who supplies my every need. I give freely out of the abundance of knowing Christ. This breaks the sometimes vicious cycle of reciprocity or obligation and allows giving and receiving to continue without resentments, but with thanksgiving. It’s not your gift that binds me to you, but the gift of Christ that obligates me to love you and others the way I have been loved.
The trick to all of this is learning the secret of contentment that comes from knowing Christ. The key is living daily in the mercies of God, receiving our life daily as a gift from God, and practicing thankfulness. That’s the trick.