by C. Harmon
How do you describe contentment?
Are you content on a day-to-day basis?
Recently on TV, I watched a couple search for a smaller house. Their goals: to reduce their housing expenses and maintenance; to lower their stress and spend more time with their two young children; and to find an extra sturdy house that could withstand hurricanes.
The couple chose a former large, green metal-covered shipping container (the approximate size of a railroad boxcar). Its conversion included a swing-out panel covering a door on one end and a wide pull-down deck, sliding glass door and windows on one side. When closed, this house could stand its ground against hurricane winds. Inside, a large wooden unit housed drawers, shelves, a pull-out bed at the bottom, and a wide sleeping area at the top. A tiny kitchen, small bathroom, and a little seating space completed this house of about 200 square feet.
The parents’ positive attitudes spilled over to their children. Scenes showed the kids happily playing in their sleeping loft, mom cooking on the two-burner stove and washing dishes in the large bathroom sink (the only sink in the house), and the kids eating at a table on the deck. The parents were sleeping better and enjoying their children during evenings and weekends. The dad’s closing remark was something like, “At the end of the day, it isn’t the things you have that matter; it’s family time and good relationships.” The family reflected contentment.
This story struck me because I cannot imagine being content in that small living space. Like most Americans, I’m used to more and want more. So many of us have an abundance compared to most people in other parts of the world and those Americans who are out of work or living in poverty. Yet, are we content?
The apostle Paul, writing from a prison cell in Rome, stated, “Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” Philippians 4:11-13. *
Paul said that he learned how to be content. How did he learn this? Before dramatically meeting Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul was a highly educated Pharisee who no doubt dressed and ate well and lived in a comfortable house. But he was not content without searching for Christians to persecute and bring before the Jewish authorities.
It was many years later, as a persecuted Christian himself, that he could make such an amazing declaration of contentment. During those years, Paul experienced all kinds of hardships—shipwrecks, stonings and beatings; hunger, thirst, and shaking cold; desertion by so-called friends; and strong criticism from fellow Jews.
How did the apostle react to all these hardships? Did he ask, “Why me, Lord?” Did he seek revenge on his persecutors?
On Paul’s first missionary journey, in Lystra the crowd decided he was a god until some angry Jews from other towns came and convinced the people that Paul should be killed. The mob then stoned Paul and dragged him out of town, leaving what they thought was his dead body. But as the few believers gathered around him, Paul regained consciousness, and no doubt with some help, walked back into town Acts 14: 19-20. Surely he had a concussion, massive bruises, and some broken bones.
As he lay in pain that night, did he question God’s call? When the crowd could so easily be turned against him, did Paul wonder if he was in the place of God’s choosing? The very next day God gave him strength to travel with Barnabas to the town of Derbe, most likely on the back of a donkey. I imagine Paul rested and at least began to heal while in Derbe. Yet the apostle, perhaps still battered, preached the Good News with Barnabas there, making many disciples. And then the pair bravely returned to Lystra and other nearby towns to strengthen the believers, reminding them that they must suffer many hardships. Do we tend to forget this—that we will at times be criticized, perhaps even persecuted, if we stand up for our faith in Jesus? Do we even live in such a way that others know we are believers in Jesus Christ?
Paul was given a presumed physical ailment which he called a thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment him and keep him from becoming proud 2 Corinthians 12:7. The apostle, human like the rest of us, asked God three times to remove his thorn. But God replied each time, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9 Paul chose to accept his weakness and allow the power of Christ to work through him. By the time he wrote the letter to the Philippians, he had learned to be content anywhere, including the dank, dark underground cell in Rome from where he wrote.
What if Paul had spent the rest of his life mired in guilt and shame over the many times he persecuted Christians or condoned executions? What if he had taken offense at ridicule and hurled insults back? Or what if he had sunk into self-pity and despair over frequent rejection of his message and persecution? The New Testament would be short by at least thirteen books, and an immense amount of wisdom, exhortation, and inspiration would be missing from the Bible.
In her book, Fear Not Tomorrow, God Is Already There, Ruth Graham, daughter of evangelist Billy Graham, wrote how God works best in our weakness and insufficiency. She said that although we would like to think we can control our tomorrow, most of us have discovered that we can do what’s right yet still see things go wrong. “Coming up against our own powerlessness can scare us,” she wrote, but “we don’t need to fear our insufficiency. Our weakness is the very environment in which God’s power thrives. Encountering our own weakness is what sets the stage for us to encounter God’s power!” She explained that when we are willing to be ourselves, when we are willing to let God work through our insufficiency, God can work and show His greatness.1
Ruth cited the apostle Peter as an example. After denying Jesus three times, Peter plunged into deep remorse and depression. No doubt concluding that he could no longer be useful to Jesus, Peter returned to his fishing career. But Jesus had different plans for him. Over a breakfast on the beach with several other disciples, Jesus confronted Peter over his failure (recorded in John 21). Ruth described the scene: three times Jesus asked him, “Do you love me with a Godlike love?” Each time Peter humbly responded, “I love You like a brother; I have affection for You.” Peter knew he had demonstrated cowardice and inability to love Jesus with Godlike love; he could no longer boast that he would die with Him. Peter was now broken, repentant, and surrendered. He realized his limitations and how desperately he needed God.2
“Jesus makes that kind of awareness a qualification for leadership,” Ruth wrote. “Peter was going to have to take care of sinful, broken people who had failed and made mistakes.”3 The same applies to us—we can either stay in regret, allowing our mistakes, sins, and wounds to define us, or we can move beyond them to let God define us.4
Ruth further noted that Jesus used the disciples to meet the needs of others, such as the miraculous feeding of thousands with only a little bread and fish. Nothing that we put in Jesus’ hands is too small for Him to use. He looks for ways to include us in His work. “Inclusion is His affirmation.”5 What a loving, gracious God!
Jesus said, “Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” Mark 14:38 Satan will tempt us to compare ourselves to others. Such comparisons can lead to discontent. Or we can become grieved or overwhelmed by bad circumstances beyond our control and feel sorry for ourselves. Both conditions diminish our usefulness to God.
One of my favorite promises from God is Isaiah 26:3: “You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You.” (New King James Version) The Amplified translation expands on this promise: “You will guard him and keep him in perfect and constant peace whose mind [both its inclination and its character] is stayed on You, because he commits himself to You, leans on You and hopes confidently in You.” There’s the bottom line—are we totally committed to God, leaning on and trusting Him for guidance and strength as we look toward a questionable future?
*Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations are taken from the New Living Translation.
1 Ruth Graham, Fear Not Tomorrow, God Is Already There (New York: Howard Books, 2009), 76.
2 Ibid, p. 190.
3 Ibid, p. 191.
4 Ibid, p. 181.
5 Ibid., p. 207.