Sunday, July 16, 2017

Contentment

As of last Tuesday, I was planning on preaching on the first two verses of Romans 12. It seemed a good text, and I had written out quite a few ideas. But the Spirit made it clear to me that that isn’t what you need to hear. So, I put all of that aside and waited for Him to let me know what He wanted me to do. In due time, He directed me to a text that has to do with contentment. I’m going to assume that He re-directed me because He is aware of a need among us for some reflection on this topic. And that isn’t surprising. We live in a very discontented society. It would be naive to think that that doesn’t affect us.

So, let me read what the Spirit led me to so that we can do some thinking about His idea of contentment. Paul writes this to one of the churches he planted.


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. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 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. Philippians 4.10-13

Let’s start where I often like to start, with a definition. What is contentment? Here’s one definition. Contentment is all about taking a look at your life and always being able to say, ‘It’s okay’, and to do that with a smile. The contented Christian is someone who is feeling pretty good about his or her life. ‘It’s okay.’

So, what do you think? Is that how the Spirit defines contentment? I think not. It’s incomplete. It lacks some important elements of Christian contentment. And I have some Scripture to back that up.

Let’s consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, discussing things with His Father. Jesus took a look at His life, what the next day held, being forsaken by the Father and the physical pain of crucifixion. And, in effect, He said, ‘It’s not okay’. I don’t think that we want to say that He sinned by not being content. This is why I think that we need to work on our definition.

Let’s start with some basics and then build on that. It’s accurate to say that contentment is being able to take a look at your life and say, ‘It’s okay’. But while you can sometimes say that with a smile, there will be times when you can’t. When Paul wrote about his being content, he included those times when life wasn’t very enjoyable. It wasn’t okay. He mentioned times when he was brought low, facing hunger and in need. So, life was not very ‘okay’ and yet, Paul could still say that he was content. How?

Contentment begins by looking beyond life as you see it before you. It’s about looking further than the particulars of your situation that are staring you in the face. Contentment begins by remembering that Jesus is Lord and that He is busy building His kingdom. And once you remember that, then you say this: ‘My life is okay because Jesus is at work building His kingdom in my life and through my life.’ If Jesus’ kingdom building is really important to you, you can say, ‘My life is okay’, when you are faced with abundance and plenty, and you can say that when you are faced with hunger and need. And that means that there will be times when you will say that with a large smile, and there will be times when you will say that through tears.

We can say that life is okay, we can be content with what’s going on, when we look not to how well or poorly things are going for us but rather to what Jesus is doing through what is happening to us to bring all of His creation to a happy conclusion. He uses us in that building project, sometimes by giving us happy times and sometimes by giving us sad times. And we are okay with all of that. We are content.

That’s the basic idea about contentment. Now, for some nuance. Did you notice that Paul wrote,

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.

None of us is born with the ability to be content. Actually, our starting point is something very different. So, like Paul, we all have to learn how to be content. And coming to understand that is actually very encouraging.

Think about learning. We rarely learn things in one fell swoop. It’s a process. It’s one step and then another and then another until we get it. And that means that along the way we sometimes get it wrong. There are those times when we give in to attitudes that are anything but contentment. And that just means that we have more to learn.

Now, you don’t see Paul beating himself up for getting things wrong and needing to learn this, do you? So, no berating yourself when you blow it. You’re still learning. You know what to do in situations like that. Repentance and faith. Those are necessary tools when it comes to learning how to live as a Christian.

It makes sense that this learning about contentment is a process. It makes sense because becoming content is hard. Listen again to a sentence I’m sure you’ve all heard before.

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Now, let’s think about what that means. A little meditating. Why does Paul talk about the strength that Jesus gives him in this context? It’s because he understood that making progress in these lessons about being content is hard. It was something that he could not do on his own. Making progress in the lessons was hard for Paul, but he had gotten all the help that he needed from Jesus. So, along with this call from Jesus to become content, there is also His grace to make it happen.

And Jesus uses the same dynamic here as He does with other areas where we need to grow. He instructs us about whatever it is we need to work on. Then, when we falter - and we do - He points out our sin by the Spirit. We respond with honest dealings with our sin - repentance - and then coming again to Him for forgiveness and for change. That’s what happens with learning how to be content just like it is with any other command from Jesus. It’s law and grace. We need both. That’s how we learn to live as Christians.

Now, let’s return to Jesus in that Garden the night before He would face those horrible experiences on the Cross. He doesn’t sound very content with what’s going to happen, does He? What can we learn from this? There will be times when you will not be very happy with what is going on in your life. What do you do then? What did Jesus do? He had an honest conversation about it with His Father, honest and pretty intense. It was so intense that Jesus was sweating blood and an angel was sent to encourage Him. An honest and intense conversation.

And that’s what we need to do in those kinds of situations. And once again, I will point you to the Psalms where there are many honest and intense conversations with God. So, feel free to tell the Father, ‘I really don’t want this to happen. I really don’t. It’s going to be so hard. Please don’t make it happen. Please!’ That’s what Jesus did. And that’s what we need to do.

But that raises this question. How is that being content with God’s plan for your life? How is that taking a look at your life and saying, ‘It’s okay’? It all depends on where you end up. Jesus was pretty blunt in His prayer. ‘I really don’t want this to happen. It’s not okay.’ But where did He end up? ‘Not My will but Thine be done.’

So, like Jesus, be honest with the Father. Don’t be religious about it. Pray what you’re really feeling. ‘I really don’t want this to happen, Father. Please! I really don’t.’ There will be times when He will answer you by saying, ‘Okay, I won’t do it’. At which point you quickly say, ‘Thank You, Father.’ But there will also be those times when He will answer you by saying, ‘I hear what you’re saying, but I still think that what I have in mind is the best course. This is the best way to build the kingdom’. At which point you say, ‘Whatever You want, Father, is fine with me. Just give me the grace to trust You in this so that I can fully accept what You will do. Please give me the ability, the grace, to be content’. This is how, even when we are faced with hunger and need and lots of other difficult parts of life, we can be content. It is by our being content, even in - or better, especially in - the midst of suffering, that Jesus builds His kingdom.

Now, I need to talk about a counterfeit of contentment. Satan is good at many things and one of them is counterfeiting the good things Jesus gives. So, he counterfeits contentment. And his counterfeit is complacency. That’s feeling satisfied with how things are going. When people are satisfied, they can take a look at life and say, ‘It’s okay’. And they can say that with a smile. But there is a big difference between complacency and contentment.

You can tell the difference by looking at the results in your life. The complacent person enjoys a truce. Life isn’t shooting at him. Things are going pretty well. So, he looks at his life and says, ‘It’s okay’, and says it with a smile. But that all goes away once he hits some difficulty. The truce is broken. There is no longer this complacency. He is no longer satisfied with his life. It’s replaced by some form of complaining about things. And that can show in different ways, things like anger or self-pity.

Contented saints, though, don’t enjoy a mere truce. They are at peace. And they are at peace because they are not focusing on the circumstances of their situations, whether they are really good or really bad. They will be aware of them, and may well have some very honest conversations with the Father about them. But they will not be focused on them. Instead, they will be focused on the thought that Jesus is busy using their lives to build His kingdom. So, if life gets hard for them, they know there’s a good reason for it. In some way or other, Jesus is at work. They are content with that. They are at peace.

But please note, it’s not as if we create this peace. No! Doing that is completely beyond our ability. Peace is something the Spirit gives. He blesses those who put Jesus and His kingdom ahead of their own plans and desires. He blesses with peace.

So, one sign that you are content and not merely complacent is that you are at peace, even in the hard spots of life. You might have an honest conversation with the Father about what’s going on, but you end up at the right spot.

There is a second sign to look for. In the contented saint, there will also be longing. We are content because we put aside our plans for the sake of Jesus’ plans. But let’s be honest, many of those plans of ours are about good things, good desires. They are about things that we were created to enjoy. But we put them second to having Jesus use us and our situations to build His kingdom.

Doesn’t that describe Paul? Do you think he enjoyed being hungry and in need - and worse - as he went around preaching the Gospel? Don’t you think that he would have enjoyed sitting at home with a wife, enjoying some grandchildren? Is that a wrong desire? Absolutely not! But he put it aside and was content to do that so that Jesus could use him to build His kingdom.

But those who imitate Paul in this way long - like Paul - to have those desires met. And that’s just another way of saying that they long for Jesus to finish His building project. They long for the new heavens and the new earth where every good desire will be completely satisfied forever.

The complacent person doesn’t have this longing. His complacency tells him that life is good enough now. He doesn’t look forward to any age to come. He is quite satisfied with what he has. How foolish. What does he tell himself when life is no longer good enough?

So, along with that sense of peace there is also this longing, a longing tempered by hope. One day the promises will be kept. Peace and longing - these are evidences of a soul that has learned  to be content. 

We live in a society that is anything but content. There are many who are complacent. They have enough of the good things of this life that they can look at their lives and tell themselves, ‘It’s okay’. There are many more who tell themselves that they don’t have enough of the good things of this life. And they complain, ‘My life isn’t okay’. What our world needs to see are Christians who are content in the way that the Spirit defines that word. What a powerful evangelistic tool that is. Let’s work on this so that Jesus will use us to build His kingdom which includes bringing many lost souls into His Church where they also, as saints, will find contentment.

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