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Learning Contentment | Part 1

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A preacher once said, “Discontentment is a disease of the soul that is almost an epidemic.” Pretty true words, right? But you may be surprised to know that the preacher who said those words lived in England in the 1600s. Even in the days before fancy cars and technical gadgets, people had major struggles with feelings of discontentment.

The truth is, man’s battle with discontentment goes all the way back to our first parents, Adam and Eve. Placed by God in the midst of a lush garden with every provision they could have needed, in a state of sweet innocence like you and I have never known, Satan provoked a new feeling within them – the feeling of discontentment. “You’re missing out. It could be better. God is keeping something from you.”

In fact, God’s care for Adam and Eve was lavish. He told them to enjoy the fruit of every tree in the garden, except for one. And, every indication is that for a period of time, they did just that. They enjoyed the bounty God had made. And then Satan baited the first couple with discontentment: Don’t you know that the fruit of that forbidden tree will make you wise

Suddenly, everything that was luscious and beautiful and perfect about life in the garden, paled in comparison to the fruit on that one tree. Perfect peace was gone and replaced with the nagging sense that: If only I could taste the fruit of that tree, then I’d know more than I know now, and that would have to be good, right?

The dictionary defines discontentment as a restless desire or craving for something one does not have. It is the “if only’s” of life. Finish this thought in your mind: I know what I have, but I would be a better spouse or parent or worshipper or worker or whatever, if only I had…” And you can fill in the blank.

Discontentment is a disease of the soul. It is a longing that expresses our distrust in the kindness and providence of God. In fact, discontentment is my heart saying, “If I was the loving God of the universe, I would probably give me this thing, or change my circumstances, or remove that pressure, or fix my spouse, child, parent, etc. That would be the loving thing.” That’s why discontentment is a form of idolatry. God, and His good and wise provision, are just not enough.

In Philippians 4:10-13, Paul expressed deep gratitude for how the believers in Philippi had cared for him and showed their love.

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 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. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Paul wrote those words from prison, where he was being persecuted. He wanted the Philippians to know how much he appreciated their generosity, but he also wanted to make it clear that he had not been feeling neglected. In fact, he used the opportunity to give us God’s wisdom on the subject of contentment.

And here’s the heart of the message: Contentment is a learned heart attitude of sufficiency in Christ that can endure through every circumstance.

There are four elements to contentment in that description. Let’s think about two of them in this blogpost, and the other two next time.

First, contentment must be learned. Discontentment is our natural state, and if you’re struggling with it, take heart. Contentment can and should be learned.

In verse 11, Paul used a verb to describe learning by instruction and experience. And he wrote it in a way that doesn’t indicate an instantaneous type of learning. There was not a magical moment in Paul’s life when he got contentment. Rather, his whole life as a believer brought him to this place. As Paul experienced life, God taught him contentment.

In other words, God’s Word is telling us thru Paul’s experience that contentment probably won’t just show up one day, like a gift. It is, rather, something God teaches us over time, as we learn to depend on Him and trust Him through the course of our lives, and experience the various circumstances that God ordains for us. Through those things, we learn contentment.

After all, Paul wrote this from prison. And it was not a good place. Some of the earlier language in Philippians makes it clear that Paul knew that this imprisonment could end with his death. In Philippians 1:20, he said his hope was to honor Christ in His body, whether by life or by death. In 2:17 he indicated that his life could be on the verge of being sacrificed for Christ.

Roman imprisonment was not comfortable, but Paul had already been in training to learn contentment.

The implication for you and I is that we must be teachable and seek to learn contentment. You won’t wake up tomorrow and say, “Got it.” But you should wake up and pray, “Lord, teach me today to be content. Help me to understand and live with contentment.”

Contentment is learned, and second, contentment is a heart attitude.

In verse 11, the Greek word for content might seem odd to us, but it would’ve been very familiar to his readers. Autarkous was from the Greek words autos, meaning self, and arkeo, meaning to suffice. It could literally translate as self-sufficient or self-satisfied.

The idea it’s trying to convey is, “I’ve learned to be satisfied with my lot in life. Here’s where I am and it’s good.” That’s the word for content in verse 11.

It was familiar language in that day. One of the main schools of ancient Greek philosophy that flourished in the Roman Empire was stoicism. It was sort of an early version of mind-over-matter thinking. “Regardless of what happens, I must stand firm and not be shaken. When troubles come, I should bite my tongue and push through.” There’s a whole American form of this that we know as self-reliance or rugged individualism.

Herbert Hoover, campaigning for the presidency in 1928, argued for what he called “the American system of rugged individualism.” In other words, give people opportunity and freedom, and it’s up to them to press forward for success.

Regardless of how you see that as a governing philosophy, the word autarkous reminded the Philippians of the stoic approach to life, that essentially celebrated self-sufficiency: “I can do this. I am independent. I don’t need help.” That is obviously not how Paul used this word, and we’ll see how he repurposed it in our next blog post.

But, this is clear: contentment is an attitude, just like discontentment is. Both arise out of your heart. Discontentment is our natural bent. We feel a lack of sufficiency. “I don’t have everything I think I should have or deserve.” We can easily gravitate toward being discontent with life and people and circumstances, unless, by God’s grace, we make the learning of the attitude of contentment a discipline that we pursue.

in Life

When Self-Pity Raids Fellowship

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Woe is me.

I don’t say it as I walk through the doors of our lovely church and greet our fellow saints every Sunday morning. But—if I got the kids out the door and the limping dog fed and the home group meal made while my husband was off at another drill weekend—it’s likely I’m thinking it. 

Woe is me. I am only trying to get to church.

For years, I thought the problem with this scenario was that the God of the universe didn’t swoop down to help everything go perfectly on Sunday morning. There was the morning I got entirely ready before fetching my toddler, thankful we might be on time—for once!—only to find she had discovered some paint supplies while wearing a soiled diaper and redecorated the nursery in a certain shade of brown.

Other mornings, it’s a 102-degree fever discovered when we’re already on our way or the car doors that seem to, almost providentially, auto-lock every time I’m headed toward them with my hands full of piping-hot casserole for a potluck lunch. Sometimes it doesn’t take much at all—a bad hair day, a botched breakfast—to send the woman who woke ready to praise the Lord careening down a cliff of “why me”s.

Rather than entering the house of the Lord with a smile befitting my salvation, I rush to my seat with clenched teeth. Tell the story of Jesus and his glory? I can’t wait to tell the tale of my terrible morning. I have more than a chip on my shoulder; I am bearing a silent grudge against a God who didn’t orchestrate my circumstances to my liking. Rather than a garment of praise, I walk in wearing something that feels more comfortable than putting on Christ: self-pity.

Woe is me.

Somewhere between the barking dog that woke the baby and the closet filled with “nothing to wear,” I bought in to the lie that the God who gave me his own Son didn’t give me enough this morning. I believed the whisper that, above all, the Savior who says he gives peace that surpasses understanding still owes me a peaceful Sunday morning.

But do you know what God says about my pity party? “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).

Oh, the slippery slope that hope becomes when we place it in lesser things than the one who promises to be “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:18–19). How quickly pity rises when I fixate my meager hopes on a tranquil morning rather than the lasting source that springs eternal. But how did I get here?

How is it that, even as I prepare to enter the sanctuary to celebrate this shared eternal hope, I find my own hope placed in so many trappings of the Sunday morning experience instead? Like a piece of driftwood, these hopes of on-time arrivals and family-feud-free drives are dashed to pieces on the rocky shores of circumstances that are out of my control.

But here’s the thing: I think that’s exactly what God wants.

When I place my hopes and mood and focus for a Sunday morning in things other than the only one who’s worthy of them—it is a mercy for them to be shattered.

In the early days of my first baby’s arrival, I told a friend that it often felt like God was opposing me when a series of these little things went wrong—especially if it was while I was on my way to do a good thing, such as get to church on time.

“Why would he do that?” I asked out loud.

“Well,” she said, wincing before delivering the blow, “God does oppose the proud.”

Sigh.

“But gives grace to the humble,” I said, remembering the rest of 1 Peter 5:5.

It took days for the truth of that phrase to settle in. This, too, is a mercy, I thought. It is a mercy that God allows blow after blow to my thoughts of self-sufficiency on a Sunday morning, that he delivers me utterly humbled and limping across the threshold.

“We’re here!” I should say, as I throw my children across the finish line into the church foyer. “By the grace of God, we’re here.”

And what if I did that? What if I did high-five the mother of five who makes it to church (with a smile!) without the help of her worship-leading husband? What if I silenced the voice of Self-Pity 2.0 that says when I see her, “Look, even she made it to church on time. You only have two kids. She has five!” and offered instead a knowing glance, a reassuring hug. You’ve arrived. We’ve arrived.

I shudder to think about the half-truths that marinate in my mind and keep me from doing just that, that keep me rooted in thoughts about myself rather than reaching out to others. Because, if there’s one thing self-pity does on a Sunday morning—with the help of its friends comparison and envy—it’s suffocate fellowship. It is the tip of an iceberg of ingratitude, looming large beneath the surface. It is a symptom of a heart that fails to receive what God has delivered to us that morning and, instead, looks longingly on the lots of others.

We can chip away at self-pity with a little self-talk, sure. But it can do very little to cure us of our condition. This iceberg must be swallowed up by something larger, melted by the glory of a God who is worthy of the hopes we have placed in lesser things, able to bear them fully, able to fulfill them fully. Worthy of our Sunday mornings.

When I meditate on the upside-down arch of Christ’s life and coming kingdom, I see that we should not be surprised by the “fiery trial” of another Sunday morning. I see that, in Christ, we have both the example and the ability to receive it humbly, even to fellowship in it.

Philippians 2:1–8 (NIV): “Therefore, if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others."

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

I see that Christ—the only one untainted by the sin that threatens to sink me every Sunday—did not shake his fist at a God who ordained circumstances he alone did not deserve. He asked for the cup to pass from him, yes, but then received it fully. “Not as I will,” he said, “but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).

Lord, let us remember that whatever passes into our Sunday mornings passed first through the fingers of a suffering Savior. Even the most unwelcome of circumstances—especially those—can be used to humble us, to sanctify us, to lift our eyes from the burning eggs to remember the Bread of Life. Let us fix our gaze on the object of Sunday morning worship and find self-pity—find our very selves—swallowed up by Him.

This post originally appeared at deeplyrootedmag.com.

in Life

Biding Your Time (Part 2)


Have you ever been let down by something that you anticipated with high hopes? The blind date that seemed promising, or the exotic vacation that you saved for, or that new next-generation electronic device?

Anticipation can make our imaginations run wild. We hope for something better, something more, something that matches our highest of expectations.

The Bible indicates that there’s an innate sense of anticipation that we all possess. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says God “has put eternity in man’s heart."

In our last blogpost we started looking at what the Bible says about time in the book of Ecclesiastes. And one of the clear themes of Ecclesiastes is captured with the phrase “under the sun” or “under heaven.” It’s meant to sum up the worldview of those who have little or no regard for God. They are focused on life in the here and now, life under heaven, with little concern about any life beyond this one.

But Ecclesiastes also has an interesting way of showing that there’s more to life than just what we experience in our fleeting days on earth. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God has made us in such a way that we cannot find ultimate satisfaction or joy under the sun. He has put eternity in our hearts so that we will anticipate something more above the sun. In other words, there’s a God-given sense inside of you and I that rightly looks around and says, “This can’t be all there is. There must be something more.” And there is!

I love this line from one writer: “We feel like aliens in the world of time and yearn to be part of eternity” (Duane Garrett). That is God’s design. We are bound in time, always facing the pressure of the clock. We can’t see the whole sweep of life and death, only what’s come before and what’s happening in this moment. But, our Creator has made us to long for eternity, to believe that there is life after death, life above the sun.

That’s why, when Ecclesiastes provides some of God’s lessons for time management, we are told, on one hand, to rejoice in the moment. Or, as Ecclesiastes 3:13 says, “…everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil – this is God’s gift to man.” Give thanks for God’s good gifts today, in the here and now. Acknowledge His rule over life. Enjoy what God has given.

But, remember this: “I perceived that whatever God does ensures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before Him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).

The ultimate goal in God’s design for how we use our time and how we think about tomorrow and the rest of the future is to get us to see Him. God wants us to see how all that we have is a gift of His kindness. Our time is in His hands. Therefore, we should look to God and stand in awe of Him. He is the one who brings value and beauty to the feeble work of our hands.

But that’s not all. This long-term, eternal perspective on life, also allows us to rest when it comes to matters of injustice. That’s one of the chief lessons in the remainder of Ecclesiastes, chapter three. We see injustice all the time. People suffer from evil perpetrated by others. And we’re tempted to wonder when victims will be paid back for their suffering.

People suffer and are oppressed under the sun. But that’s why the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us again that we are bound in time. We can’t see the end from the beginning. We see the injustice, but we don’t always see the recompense. But, Ecclesiastes 3:17 says, “God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work.”

While the old saying may be that “Justice delayed is justice denied,” we who belong to the just God of the universe can rest in this: the righteous judgment of an eternal God will stand. Our God is sovereign and His rule will not be thwarted.

But, let’s finish this meditation on God’s rule, especially over our time, with these words from Ecclesiastes 4:4-6

4 Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
5 The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.
6 Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.

Your response to God’s rule over your time and your life can easily go in wrong directions. You can respond like the foolish person of verse four who believes that the main takeaway from the reality of a short life here on earth is that I need to strive for everything I can get, while there’s time. The under-the-sun, forget-God approach boils life down to a mad rush to accumulate stuff.

Or, you may respond like the fatalistic person of verse five who says, “My times are in God’s hands, so I’ll just sit here and fold my hands and do nothing. God can do whatever He wants. I quit.”

But, the best response is the one given in verse six: rather than grabbing for everything you can get in life, or giving up, like all of life is hopeless, Ecclesiastes 3:6 says the answer is quiet contentment. Instead of being restless or agitated, the person in verse six is at ease. He or she is able to stop in each moment and savor it as a gift from God. This person trusts in God’s sovereign rule.

Our great God longs to give us strength to serve Him in life, to use our time well. But, in the end, He wants us to find perfect rest in Him. He wants us to work hard underthe sun, but not to make life on earth the sum of all of our goals. Instead, we are to live in awe of Him and to know that there is life in His presence beyond the sun. God has made us to enter into an eternal rest that can only be found by trusting in Jesus Christ and resting in the rule of our sovereign King.

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