Wednesday, October 17, 2012

True Contentment

In the fourth chapter of Philippians, Paul pens some words of wisdom we should all take to heart.  He writes: "I learned to be content in that in which I am.  I am aware what it is to be humbled as well as aware what it is to be super-abounding.  In everything and among all am I initiated, to be satisfied as well as to be hungering, to be super-abounding as well as to be in want.  For all am I strong in Him Who is invigorating me - Christ!"

The thrust of Paul's message is the essence of what it means to be content as a believer as a sojourner in a sinful world.  Paul endured more hardship than anyone could imagine, and his contentment was undoubtedly shaken countless times after being commissioned by Christ.  Paul endured prison, betrayal, persecution, harsh weather and living conditions, and an array of other sufferings most of us can't even fathom, all for the sake of his evangel.  None of our trials can even compare to those of Paul or the One who commissioned him.

How is it possible that Paul found contentment when nothing about his life should have produced contentment?  His words to the Philippians provide us with the answer.

When Paul says he has learned to be content in that in which he is, he provides us with two crucial insights.  First, becoming content is a learned process, not a natural one.  Paul didn't possess an innate ability to be content, even after the risen Lord appeared to Him.  As a man, no different than any of us, Paul's instinctive reaction to hardship was not abounding joy.  He had to train himself over time to be content as a follower of Christ.  Even Christ struggled to find contentment in the midst of suffering and pleaded with the Father to remove the cup from Him in the Garden of Gethsemane.  If the perfect Son of God cannot turn off the effects of misery, there is no way we humans possess the ability.

Second, we learn that Paul was content in who he was - in who God created him to be.  Paul likely wished at times that God would have created him with more strengths and fewer weaknesses, but he learned to accept himself as God created him rather than focusing on fruitless "if only..." wishes.

How often do we waste time wishing God had created us differently?  "If only my hair wasn't so thin;"   "if only I was a better communicator;" "if only I was more attractive;" "if only I had more talents;" "if only I were smarter;" "if only I had a nicer house;" "if only I had more friends;" "if only I were taller..."

The list is endless.  We can waste a lot of time wishing we were different, but in the end we can't change a single thing God has created in us.  Wishing we were different is literally a complete waste of time and only causes us unnecessary grief.  The first step in the race to contentment is recognizing you can't change what God has created you to be.  The Potter has formed you, the clay, for a unique and particular purpose.  What you view as loss, He sees as gain.

We might more easily understand the word "contentment" as "being at peace."  When we are content with the clay God has molded us to be, we find an overwhelming sense of peace rooted in trust for our Maker.  In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul reminds us that we are all part of the body of Christ and that the members who seem insignificant are, in fact, the most precious.  He writes, "Yet now there are, indeed, many members, yet one body.  Yet the eye can not say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' or, again, the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.'  Nay, much rather, those members of the body supposed to be inherently weaker are necessary, and which we suppose to be a more dishonored part of the body, these we are investing with more exceeding respectability.  Now our respectable members have no need, but God blends the body together, giving to that which is deficient more exceeding honor" (1 Cor. 12:20-25).

The divine design places the first last and the last first.  How awesome are God's ways!  When you feel useless and deem yourself unworthy to play a role in God's plan, pause to remember this miraculous truth.  Don't waste your time wishing God had created you differently; rather, be thankful for the strengths and weaknesses your Creator has given to you and understand that the characteristics you see as weaknesses, He sees as vital parts of the whole.

In the Philippians passage, Paul recognizes that his ability to be content comes, in large part, from his experience with contrast.  God caused Paul to know both hardship and joy, hunger and nourishment, friendship and persecution.  We often feel that we would be far happier if God would not include the negative side of experience in our lives.  In our flawed human logic, we reason that we could be just as mature and content without any hardship as we are with it.  But our wisdom is foolishness to the One who is perfect and knows every truth (1 Cor. 3:19), and our Father has given us contrast to make the truth more apparent.

Why do we appreciate the vacations we rarely get to take from work?  The contrast of the relaxing vacation, juxtaposed against the burden of work, causes us to appreciate the vacation to a greater degree.  Without the contrast of a hard job, the vacation wouldn't seem special at all.  In fact, we wouldn't even label it a "vacation" as to us it would be normal.

Paul concludes the contentment portion of his letter by declaring that his strength ultimately lies in Christ as the One who is "invigorating" him.  What, exactly, does he mean, though?  How does Christ "invigorate" Paul (and other believers)?  Paul was not physically stronger for his faith, nor was his life made easier to aid him in his ministry.  On the contrary, God allowed Paul to endure immense suffering, making it harder for him to fulfill his task.  On several occasions, Paul prayed for God to remove a splinter that was causing him pain and preventing him from being as mobile as he wanted to be.  What, then, does Paul mean when he says his strength is rooted in Christ?

For one, Paul knew that every step he took was divinely orchestrated by God.  Knowing God cannot fail, he ultimately had no reason to fear anything.  In addition, Paul recognized that while he could plant the seed, only God could cause it to grow (1 Cor. 3:6).

Stop wasting precious time wishing God had created you differently.  Accept yourself as you are - just as the Maker molded you.  Understand that the qualities about yourself that you view as weaknesses, God views as strengths.  Stop re-hashing the "only if"s and be content with who God has made you to be.  Only then will you be truly at peace like Paul.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

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