Contentment (Part 2)


I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  (Philippians 4:12-13)

Sometimes of an evening Pat and I watch an episode of House Hunters International.  This is a reality TV program in which a couple is house hunting in a country outside the U.S.  We follow them as they view three properties, one of which they select at the end of the show.  The closing scene is several months after they have moved in, where they extol the wonderful choice they have made.  Often the couple is enjoying a glass of wine with friends as they admire the view from their new home.  It is intended to be a picture of contentment.  But most of us are not so easily duped because we know the moment will soon pass, and the reality of normal living will overtake them.  In a recent program, the couple was house hunting in Rome, where they found an apartment within eyesight of St. Peter’s Basilica.  How amusing to imagine contentment being found simply by viewing one of the holiest sites of Christianity – the one religion that teaches the narrow way of deep contentment.

The Apostle Paul had a stay in Rome 2000 years earlier.  We do not know if Paul had a view of the city, but his accommodation was certainly far less comfortable than modern day.  He was under arrest and whether confined to a house or prison cell, we can be certain that it was a Spartan existence at best.  Paul had good reason to be discontented.  Yet his letter to the church at Philippi tells a different story – one of joy that transcended his personal circumstances.  For despite the conditions, Paul had found deep contentment.  In his words, “I have learned the the secret of being content in any and every situation.”  (Philippians 4:12)

I wrote last month about the importance of contentment in our faith journey, and about three distinct manifestations:  discontentment, conditional contentment, and deep contentment.  This month I reflect on Paul’s “secret of being content in any and every situation.”  (Philippians 4:12)  At the outset, it should be noted that Paul doesn’t spell out what this “secret” is, but gives us some leeway in discovering it for ourselves.  He provides a clue by tying his own contentment back to Jesus “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  (Philippians 4:13)  And so, it seems right to consider what Jesus said about contentment, which he did in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

Jesus
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ concise teaching on life in the kingdom of God.  I have never heard it framed from the perspective of contentment.  But, in fact, this is exactly what Jesus does in the metaphor he uses to conclude the Sermon:  Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.”  (Matthew 7:24-25)  This seems clear enough:  our ability to stand firm in the face of the storms of life comes as we apply Jesus’ teaching, that is, as we put his words into practice.  Not falling apart when encountering difficult circumstances is a pretty good description of deep contentment.

So what, in essence, do Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount (recorded in Matthew 5-7) tell us?  Simply stated, we are to:  1) Forgive what is past; 2) Live honorably in the present; and 3) Be hopeful about the future.  As we do these things in increasing measure, deep contentment will more or less follow automatically.

Forgive What is Past.  Many of us are burdened by regrets, guilt, and even self-condemnation resulting from our past actions.  As a result we are restless and unable to experience deep contentment.  This is why Jesus teaches us to press into God by praying, “Forgive us our debts.”  (Matthew 6:12)  Jesus understands the destructiveness of a guilty conscience, and that this is something God alone can heal and will heal if we but ask him.

Our struggles though are not only with our own past actions, but also with how others have hurt us.  If we do not forgive them, we will not know deep contentment.  Living with unforgiveness is like living in the exhaust vent of a smoldering volcano that periodically releases fumes from a long past eruption.  We never experience deep contentment because we are repeatedly poisoned by escaping gases.  There is an inseparable connection between our need to be forgiven and our need to forgive.  Jesus makes it very clear.  “If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”  (Matthew 6:14)

Live Honorably in the Present.  If we do not live honorably in the present, we will not experience deep contentment. Those who do not respond to Jesus’ call to live a life of virtue – one of compassion, purity, honesty, love, etc. – will inevitably be distressed.  This we know from Scripture: “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil.”  (Romans 2:9)  And this we also know from the testimony of our own consciences.  We will never be settled as long as we are enslaved by patterns of sin in our lives.

Be Hopeful About the Future.  If we worry about the future, we will not know deep contentment.  Worry is one of the great cancers of the spiritual life.  It not only eats away at our present joy, but slowly consumes our soul as more and more of today is sacrificed to the future.  Jesus words in the Sermon are, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear … do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”  (Matthew 6:25, 34)  Not succumbing to our fears, but trusting fully in Jesus, is a measure of our Christian maturity.

Still, worry is more than fear about the future, although it is that.  Worry includes any undue emphasis we place on our desires being met.  For example, the great political divide in this country is reflected in the passionate views held by people on all sides.  Whenever our emotions come to dominate our reason we will not know deep contentment.  Dallas Willard put it thus, “Those who are wise will, accordingly, never allow themselves, if they can help it, to get in a position where they feel too deeply about any human matter.  They will never willingly choose to allow feelings to govern them.  They will carefully keep the pathway open to the house of reason and go there regularly to listen.”  (Renovation of the Heart, page 125)

Paul
Paul, of course, wrote extensively about these three – forgiving the past, living righteously in the present, and not being anxious about the future.  But Paul gives us one more handle that ties all three together.  Namely, gratitude.

Paul’s letters often mention gratitude (thankfulness).  For example, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)  “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.  And be thankful.”  (Colossians 3:15)  And in his letter to the Philippians, in which he writes about deep contentment, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  (Philippians 4:6)

In the context of mature discipleship, Ronald Rolheiser observes, “Gratitude is the basis of all holiness.  The holiest person you know is the most grateful person you know.  That is true too for love:  the most loving person you know is also the most grateful person you know because even love finds its basis in gratitude.  Anything we call love, but that is not rooted in gratitude, will, at the end of the day, be manipulative and self-serving.  If our love and service of others does not begin in gratitude, we will end up carrying peoples’ crosses and sending them the bill.”  (247-248)

Jesus modeled gratitude as he often thanked the Father when he prayed.  But while Jesus does not speak directly about the importance of thankfulness, Paul does.  Indeed, Paul puts a rather fine point on thankfulness, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”  (Philippians 4:8)  True gratitude always starts with our thoughts.  Thinking about things that are excellent and praiseworthy is precisely what fosters gratitude in our hearts.  Gratitude leads to loving acts and contentment grows.

The human heart longs to experience deep contentment.  To know and feel an abiding sense of peace, patience, and joy that transcends external circumstances.  The paradox of deep contentment is that it not achievable by direct effort.  Rather, it is the by-product of a living a certain kind of life – a life that is within our reach – one of forgiveness, righteousness, and hope.  And one that is forever grounded in gratitude.

S

7 thoughts on “Contentment (Part 2)

  1. Love what you say about forgiveness, righteousness, and hope.
    I am reminded of St. Augustine’s thought: “Thou has made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee”
    I’m sitting here pondering gratitude, and wondering if a person can experience gratitude in their hearts if they have never experienced want. In this age of entitlement, i hear people say that everyone has a ‘right’ to what, years ago, would be considered gifts ( or at least things people worked for and earned), e.g. health care, a good education, a living wage…..It seems like gratitude has diminished the more people believe that the world owes them something….instead of us owing God our very lives, presented back to Him, for His service. Gratitude is a response to receiving a gift, these gifts of life, of a meal, of a warm bed, of friends, of children, of God’s great goodness and mercy.
    Thank you for your exhortation, Scott.

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  2. Joanie,

    Thank you for your comment. I always appreciate your thoughtful reflections and am greatly encouraged when I read them.

    I think you put your finger on the essential challenge of the pursuit of virtue. Namely, that we need to learn to do things that don’t come naturally to us. If we are starving and are offered something to eat, gratitude is a natural human response. But what about the person who has never known hunger and has always had someone to prepare his or her favorite foods? The “natural” response is to take the food and the preparer for granted.

    The pursuit of virtue is just this – that we learn to do those things that do not come naturally to us. Paul’s exhortation in so many places is “be grateful.” It is something we are to learn through practice.

    If I may use a personal example, when I was a teenager I still remember one day realizing how much effort my mother put into making dinner for us every night. That night I thanked her for making the meal, and pretty much from then on I thanked her every night. This has carried over in my marriage, and indeed whenever someone prepares or serves a meal for me. Even though I was not a believer at the time, I believe that this prompting to say ‘thank you’ was from God, from his common grace if you will. I don’t think I have mentioned this to anyone before this because I never thought of it as that big a deal. I only mention it now for the point that gratitude can arise from something other than want. And in fact it must arise at all times – whether in plenty or want.

    I believe that gratitude, like every virtue, is a choice. Even though there are times when it arises naturally, like when someone gives us a gift, we need to pursue gratitude at all times. As another example, consider ‘love.’ Some would say that love is only that which arises in response to a feeling, and that it does not take any effort. We Christians know this is wrong. True love always takes effort. And the same can be said about any other virtue

    What do you think?

    Thanks again for your comment. I really like engaging in a way that helps me think and see things differently.

    Scott

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    1. I have been pondering this post for a while, and trying to sort out my thoughts.

      You are so right, it is a ‘renewing of the mind’ that we all need. Corralling our thoughts, and choosing the discipline of regular internal housekeeping is something I struggle with continually. But we do get to choose our attitudes. Like the amazing decision you made as a young man to express gratitude to your mother after a meal. Bravo!

      I was at the local jail with our ministry team last Sunday. I spoke a few words to the women about our internal attitudes, reminiscing about my time at the orphanage. I said that even though the nuns ordered our days to the minutest detail, they could not reach inside me and order my heart, my mind, my thoughts or my attitudes. I got to choose those. I discovered that you can be free on the inside, even though your body is ‘in prison’. And conversely you can be ‘in jail’ on the inside even though you are a free agent on the outside. I said that we get to choose our attitudes. We don’t get to choose our feelings. But we do get to choose our attitudes. And this is where your ‘pursuit of virtue’ comes in.
      The sticking point for me, which i can’t resolve, is the Scriptural reference(s) that ‘our righteousness is as filthy rags’, and the admonition in Ephesians that we are “saved by grace, through faith, and that not of ourselves…..not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
      And Romans 4:4 says “…to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.” Pretty amazing statement. “But to him who does not work, but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”

      When is it that we pursue virtue, and when is it that we pursue God? And, are these the same thing?

      My heart says no. It reminds me of the time, when the girls were little, and I was walking up the stairs one day, and I was saying to God, “Just show me what the right thing to do is, and I’ll do it Just show me, what is the right thing, God?” I felt that the Lord whispered to me “Do you want to be right or righteous?” I was blown away, and still am, by that question.

      Thanks for making me think again about these things, Scott.

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      1. Joanie,

        Thanks as always for your considered response. If I may, I would like to comment on the “sticking point” you mentioned regarding certain Scriptural references.

        1) Isaiah 64:6 “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” I would simply observe that this verse is about hypocrisy, and not virtue per se. In the preceding verse, Isaiah writes, “You [God] come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.” (64:5) Thus, according to Isaiah, God does indeed care about those who do what is right and who remember His ways. I am guessing that the “righteous acts” Isaiah is referring to in verse 6 may be the Jewish ceremonial laws. Indeed, in Chapter 58, God’s word is that he does not care about ceremonial fasting when our actions do not help the downtrodden and oppressed. To this point, I am very proud to hear how you visited prisoners on Sunday. This is precisely the kind of virtuous act that God tells us he desires.
        One other point about righteous acts being like filthy rags. Such an idea goes against the length and breadth of Scripture. For example, the Psalms are one extended comparison of the righteous and the ungodly. And can anyone imagine that when Paul told the Colossians to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, etc.” that he thought they were putting on filthy rags? Certainly this could not have been Jesus’ intent when he commanded us to love one another.

        2) Ephesians 2:8-10 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We are forever saved by the grace of God – it is a free gift and there is nothing we can do to merit or earn it. However, we must receive the gift, which we do through faith. Here there is simply too much to write in so short a response except to note that James was pretty emphatic that faith is much more that mental assent to a theological principle and that true faith requires action, which I would call virtue. Again, we could look at the breadth of Scripture to see the truth in this. Paul himself emphasizes this in verse 10 in asserting that we are created “to do good works.”

        3) Romans 4:4 My mind kind of explodes when I read some of what Paul wrote in Romans. I am confident however of two things. First, nothing he writes contradicts Jesus, who says things such as: God’s forgiveness of us is conditional upon our forgiving others (a virtue), the kingdom of God is entered only by those who do the will of the Father (virtues), and if we love him (Jesus) we will do what he commands (virtues). Second, Paul himself writes extensively about virtue, including even in the book of Romans – for example, Romans 12.

        One final note. I believe the pursuit of virtue is precisely the way we pursue God. Whether it is responding to God by visiting prisoners, helping a friend with her garden, loving a spouse, or praying for a child – these are all how we pursue God.

        S

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  3. Hi Scott,
    I have been trying to sort out whether this is a matter of semantics.

    Also, I have been struggling with the definition of virtue: is it a choice made by an act of the will, or is it the fruit of a relationship? A fruit is a natural by-product of a healthy tree/shrub. Is there any striving on the part of the tree to produce fruit? is there even a decision on the part of the tree to produce fruit? ….or does the fruit come naturally when the branch is connected in to the vine?

    You so beautifully pointed out, Ephesians 2:8-9 are followed by verse 10 which says ‘we are created anew in Jesus so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago’. I think you are so right, God planned for us to do good things. I can see some of my dilemma is tied up in the questions: What is my part? and, What is God’s part? And what am I trusting in?

    You comment re: Isaiah 64, which says “all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags”…. points out that such an idea goes against the length and breadth of Scripture.

    But then, I think of the Pharisees, especially one Pharisee, who stood praying at the temple, who said, “God I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner'”

    Why am I so reluctant to “work” on virtue, to pursue it? Maybe it is a character flaw.

    Jesus said, “go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

    Are the ‘works of virtue’ a fruit of my own self-will, and self discipline? Or are they a fruit of my relationship with God my Father, and Jesus my Savior?

    Are the good works we do with a tainted or wrong motive still ‘virtue’? Am I doing a good work to make myself feel better? to justify myself? or is it an outpouring of love and thankfulness to the Father, who redeemed my life from destruction and crowned me with lovingkindness? is it a response to a prompting of the Holy Spirit within me, or an intellectual decision to ‘do good’? Does it matter?

    One evening as I was going to bed I asked the Lord, “How did I do today, God?”

    I heard Him say, “Did you love me?”

    Did you love me?

    (My heart was pierced)

    What is it He really wants from us?

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    1. Joanie,

      Thanks for your continued engagement on this. This is why I write – not that everyone should agree with one point of view, but that it would stimulate all of us to thought and discussion. And so, in the words of the writer of Hebrews, that hopefully, “we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”

      1) You write, “Is virtue a choice made by an act of the will, or is it the fruit of a relationship?” My response is “yes.” Dallas Willard put it succinctly when he wrote, “I can do nothing without the Holy Spirit. But if I do nothing, it will be without the Holy Spirit.” It takes God and me acting together. Virtue is both a work and a gift. It is a work because Jesus, Paul, and others command us to do this. It is a gift because it is a fruit of the Spirit.

      2) You write, “Why am I so reluctant to “work” on virtue, to pursue it? Maybe it is a character flaw.” Well, in fact, I believe you do pursue virtue. You may be uneasy with the word “virtue,” but you are pursuing it nonetheless. I have seen you forgive people who have hurt you, extend compassion to those who are suffering, kindly serve others, etc. Jesus never speaks against those who are seeking to live righteously – never! To the contrary, he says we are to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Jesus speaks against the self-righteous and proud. The pursuit of virtue is the concrete way we pursue God. If we ever think we have arrived, that is a sure sign that we haven’t. When Jesus calls sinners to “repentance,” he is calling me. And I am pretty sure that by repentance he has in mind a lot more than me saying I am sorry. He wants me to turn and follow Him, which is God’s path.

      3) Regarding your comment about the Pharisee and tax collector. I would simply note that the problem with the Pharisee was precisely the problem that Isaiah was talking about – someone being self-righteous and hypocritical. It seems to me that in the parable Jesus is making a point of comparison between pride and humility. Pride, as CS Lewis noted, is the Great Sin.

      4) As to motives, I don’t think any of us can completely dissect our true motives because they are seldom pure. I feel good about myself when I do kind deeds – and I like to feel good about myself. I know that others like me when I do kind deeds – and I like others to think well of me. I know that good deeds sometimes bring a reward – and I also like rewards. Additionally, I know that Jesus commands good deeds for those who would live in the kingdom – and I want to live in his kingdom. The danger I see is not so much in my motives, as a feeling that I have arrived. If I start thinking that I am something special or better than others as a result of my good deeds, then I am as the Pharisee.

      5) Finally, you write that the Lord asked you – “Did you love me?” and “What is it He really wants from us?” I believe Jesus answers both questions succinctly, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

      What do you think?

      S

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