Monday, June 26, 2006

If only...

This week I am thinking again about contentment. (For previous reflections on that subject, go here, here, and here.) I will be preaching on Philippians 4:10-13 this coming Sunday. In that passage of Scripture Paul says, "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation" (vs. 12).

I am aware in myself of a constant tendency to think in terms of "If only's."

  • If only I didn't have so many bills to pay, I could live a lot more freely.
  • If only I were younger, I could do so much more for the Kingdom.
  • If only my kids lived closer, I could play a more important role in my grandkids' lives.
  • If only Orlando had more culture, I could enjoy living in Florida!
  • If only I didn't have to wait in this line, I could get a lot more done today.
  • If only my parents had been more affectionate, I would be a lot more secure and confident.
  • If only . . .
As I think about my "if only's," I see that they all serve to excuse me from doing something to redeem my present situation. When Paul wrote the book of Philippians, his situation was miserable. He was languishing in a Roman prison, unable to move about freely, chained 24 hours a day to a Roman guard. I wonder what prison food was like...probably horrible. He had no certainty about what he would wake up to the next day. He could be set free, or he could be executed. He had little contact with the people he loved.

In spite of his circumstances, Paul found reason to be content, "whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." I get upset when somebody tracks dirt into our living room, for crying out loud.

Why is that? Why is contentment so elusive? Because I am seeking contentment in the wrong things. I figure that I will be content when there's plenty of money in the bank, the grass is mowed, people around me are happy, the votes in Congress go my way, and my iPod still has battery life. All those things are transient, here one moment and gone the next. Paul's contentment was rooted in things that never change: God's love and enabling grace. He says, "I can do everything through Him who gives me strength" (Phil. 4:13).

So I find that I must train my heart to find contentment in God. Not in things of this world, not in people (even those I love the most), not in my performance or my ministry or my possessions or my dreams of the future. Some of the things that help me find contentment in God are the following:

  • Reading great Christian classics. For example, right now I am leading a group through Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. I love that book for its lessons on contentment.

  • Meditating on some of the great old hymns, like this one by John Newton (1779):
Though troubles assail us and dangers affright,
Though friends should all fail us and foes all unite,
Yet one thing secures us, whatever betide,
The promise assures us, "The Lord will provide."

The birds, without garner or storehouse, are fed;
From them let us learn to trust God for our bread.
His saints what is fitting shall ne'er be denied
So long as 'tis written, "The Lord will provide."

When Satan assails us to stop up our path,
And courage all fails us, we triumph by faith.
He cannot take from us, though oft he has tried,
This heart-cheering promise, "The Lord will provide."

  • Turning off noise. I find that sometimes it helps NOT to listen to talk radio or music while driving, but simply to enjoy the quiet. I also enjoy just sitting on our back porch and enjoying God's world - its sounds, its sights, its peacefulness.
  • Recalling God's faithfulness in the past. When I think of all God has done, I cannot but be more confident and content in what He is doing now. Particularly, when I remember what God did to save me from my sin, bless me with a wonderful wife and family, and heal me from wounds of the past, I almost immediately feel more content.
  • Praying. It helps me when I take my discontent to God in prayer, confessing it as idolatry and ingratitude, but at the same time freely expressing my longings and desires to Him in some detail. It's important not to suppress our cravings. They are, as C. S. Lewis said, signs that we were made for another world. Carnell writes, "That we are haunted by unquenchable longings points to a goal for that longing -- in eternity if not in time." There is such a thing as a "holy discontent." When expressed in prayer, our longings and desires can actually draw us closer to God, the Source of true contentment.

What enables you to be content?

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