The Long Game

The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.  Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.  (Ecclesiastes 9:17-18)

Faith has not come easy to me.  Although I was raised in a nominally Christian home, secular matters were always the first order of business.  My two brothers and I were pretty much forced to attend church as children, but once we were confirmed (in a Lutheran church), nothing more was said about faith and one by one we turned our focus to school and athletics.  My parents seldom attended church together that I recall.  My mother went fairly regularly when we were young, but stopped altogether in her mid 50’s as she retreated into discontent and bitterness.  My father, on the other hand, had a deep interest in spiritual matters.  And while faith, at least the easy believism of some evangelicals, was hard for him, he never stopped seeking and eventually became a Roman Catholic.

I have written in the past of my own faith journey from agnostic to Christian.  About a distress prayer I made in a time of great fear.  About a sign from God in the form of a rainbow.  About a “chance” reading of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.  About three years of intense reading and reflection.  And most impactfully, about the steadfast and gentle witness of my wife Pat and several close Christian friends – people who prayed for me for many years, but whose principal witness was their consistent embodiment of the values they professed.  In the words of Eugene Peterson, theirs was a long obedience in the same direction.  But mostly I have written about my continued personal journey of faith as I have endeavored to learn how to live a Christian life.

Today’s post marks the 50th reflection I have written over the same number of months.  It has been a good discipline for me to write like this.  A month has seemed just the right length of time to collect my thoughts and organize them within some sort of coherent framework.  I have never presumed to tell others how to live out their faith, but have simply used this blog as a way to publically reflect on my own journey and what I believe are the essential teachings of Jesus.  There is nothing magical about the number fifty, but it feels right to me that I should take a break for a while and turn my focus elsewhere.

I have written about the pursuit of virtue because it is the way to follow Christ.  Moreover, it is our principal witness to the world.  I complete this series of writings with a reflection on how the evangelical church in America is straying from the way of Christ and losing its witness through involvement in politics.  I have been reluctant to comment on politics in this blog because there are people I love on opposite ends of the political spectrum.  I have also avoided doing so because I don’t like the controversy that often emerges from those with deep-seated opinions.  What I write now is not to advocate for or against any political candidate or party, but about how Christians should play the long game in politics as the best way to witness for Christ.  In any event, I appeal to your grace if anything I write causes you offense.

No political event in the past four years was more surprising than the election of Donald Trump.  And no response more stunning to me than his embrace by many evangelical leaders.  It is not because they like his outrageous and often immoral conduct, but rather that he promises to enact policies and appoint judges that they support.  The quid pro quo that he demands and receives is unquestioned loyalty no matter what his conduct.  Anyone who speaks against his character literally loses a seat at the table.  To be fair, I have not heard any evangelical leader say that immoral and unethical behavior is okay, but their silence is deafening and contrary to God’s word.  For example, Paul tells us, Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.”  (Ephesians 5:11)  Indeed, Jesus commands us to publically confront the sins of those who claim to be Christians and don’t listen.  (Matthew 18:15-17)  God hates sin and no doubt commands us to confront it because many people interpret silence as tacit assent, which is even more problematic.

These evangelical leaders are not bad people nor is their desire to protect their beliefs wrong.  Indeed, many of their goals are laudable.  However, there are two problems.  The first is that God’s word is “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:21)  Evil always begets more evil, and remaining mute in the face of evil is complicity.  The way of Christ is the way of love – that is the only way if we are to follow him.  The second problem is that their goals are short-sighted and doomed to fail.  There is no policy or judge that is worth the cost.  For when political winds change (as they always do) and leaders change, policies and judges will also change.  What is gained today can be lost tomorrow.  And then all that remains is our integrity, our virtue, our character, our moral voice.  In the words of Scripture, “The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”  (Isaiah 40:8)  Make no mistake, our witness is always tied to our values – to the way we treat and love others.  It is certain that these values are the practical distinctive of Christianity in our culture.  If we compromise our values, what remains of our faith witness is very thin indeed.

I remember well the ethical failings of Bill Clinton and the moral outrage of evangelicals.  I was not a believer at the time, and had no love for the Christian right.  Yet, I knew their criticism was correct – infidelity and lying are wrong.  Soon after this my spiritual journey took off.  Today, God’s word has not changed, but many of the same evangelical leaders who were so outraged by Clinton’s actions now embrace a president whose words and actions are anathema to people of faith.  This hypocrisy is precisely what Jesus condemned in the religious leaders of his day.

Please do not misinterpret what I write – I do not opine on whom a Christian should vote for – elections always present a binary choice that must be weighed by one’s own conscience.  But regardless of whom we vote for, we must never compromise God’s moral principles.  We must expect our evangelical leaders to play the long game and speak the truth (in love) regardless of the short-term personal cost.

Despite my concerns, I remain optimistic about our faith because the words of the Lord are: I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.  (Matthew 16:18)  Even as I write about what I see as a heartbreaking miscalculation by many evangelical leaders, there are other Christian leaders who are appalled at what they are witnessing and who are daring to speak truth to power.  But more importantly, I know many, many followers of Christ who are truly “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  For the most part, they are quietly going through life with all of its ups and downs while remaining faithful to the Lord.  I have written about many of them.  Here are some living out the Beatitudes daily.  Here are some shining the light of Christ into dark areas of the word.  Here are some serving immigrants and the homeless.  Here are some caring for the elderly.  And here are many more whose daily prayer is, “Thy kingdom come Thy will be done.”

And so I bid you farewell for a while.  I expect to be writing again, but not monthly.  I thank you all for your patience, kind words, and grace.  May the Lord truly bless you.




“I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin”  (Psalm 39:1)

Today we welcome a new year.  For roughly 40% of us Americans, this means a New Year’s Resolution in which we resolve to accomplish something that has eluded us in the past.  According to one source, here are the top ten New Year’s Resolutions:
1.   Exercise more
2.   Lose weight
3.   Get organized
4.   Learn a new skill or hobby
5.   Live life to the fullest
6.   Save more and/or spend less money
7.   Quit smoking
8.   Spend more time with family and friends
9.   Travel more
10.  Read more

I recently conducted an informal survey of resolutions with about twenty Christian men between the ages of 45 and 80, and the results were remarkably similar.  Roughly 40% make a New Year’s resolution in any given year.  For those who make resolutions, I asked two things:  1) name a resolution you recall making in the past; and 2) name a resolution you are considering for 2020.  Regarding the past – only three resolutions were mentioned and all are found on the above list – “exercise more,” “lose weight,” and “read more.”  The one significant difference is that resolutions to “read more” specifically mentioned the Bible.  I’ll reveal their 2020 resolutions in a bit, but first a few thoughts.

Why do so many of us make resolutions?  The allure of a fresh start and the idea of improving oneself no doubt play a significant role.   But at its root there is a vision of a better life – one in which a bad habit that has entrapped us is broken, or one in which a beneficial pattern of behavior is established.  In this regard, all of the “top ten” resolutions have value as no doubt each of them can improve the quality of a physical life.  I find it curious however that none of these ten has a significant moral component.  For the most part they are morally neutral, meaning they are not inherently good or bad. This does not mean that they have no moral component because they do.  For example, improving one’s health is a way we care for the temple of the Holy Spirit.  Still, their main focus is on temporal matters.

Because their primary orientation is not in the moral realm, these types of resolutions will not prepare us for the spiritual challenges that will undoubtedly confront us in the year ahead.  Such challenges typically hit us in the form of temptations – everything from lust, anger, and pride, to gossip, criticism, and worry.  Or, in the words of the Apostle John, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” (1 John 2:16)  If we are unprepared, spiritual struggles born of such temptations have the potential to turn us away from God, harm our relationships with other people, and generally eat away at our faith journey.

It is important that we care for our physical body through exercise and diet, and improve our mind through reading, and travel.  But no less so that we care for our soul, which we do by following the way of Jesus.  This is not an abstract belief in Christ, but an active robust faith developed through practicing the virtues modeled and taught by Jesus, such as humility, forgiveness, love, honesty, purity, etc.  As followers of Christ, the extent to which we pursue godly virtues goes the heart of what we believe, the heart of who we are, and the heart of our witness.

It is unfortunate that with a majority Christian population in the United States, there are no classical Christian virtues on the list of New Year’s Resolutions.  Perhaps we Christians should use the occasion of the New Year to resolve to focus on a virtue.   With a little prayer, the Lord would surely reveal one that he would have us pursue.  Here are some that figure prominently in the Bible, but there are many, many more.
1.  Forgiveness
2.  Humility
3.  Compassion
4.  Kindness
5.  Graciousness
6.  Patience
7.  Encouragement
8.  Service
9.  Generosity
10.  Purity

The truth is that we don’t just stumble into virtue the way it seems we sometimes stumble into a vice.  We are informed by Scripture that Christian virtues are something that have to be thought out and put into practice.  Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.” (James 1:22)  NT Wright explains it this way, “The difference between vices and virtues is this:  Anybody can learn a vice – all you have to do is to go into neutral, slide along the way life is going and before long the habits of life will have you in their grip or vice.  But virtue you have to think about – you need to make a decision to be this sort of person now.”  This means that we follow the way of Jesus by practicing the kind of life he commands – the biblical record is unequivocal on this point.

And so, why not start today by making a firm resolve to pursue a Christian virtue?  What better occasion than New Year’s Day to refocus one’s efforts on living the kind of life envisioned by God?  There are at least two objections to embracing New Years Day as a time for making spiritual resolutions.  Both of these can be easily answered.

The first objection is that the pursuit of virtue is an ongoing, everyday affair for followers of Christ.  And so it is!  Indeed, Jesus tells us we are to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  (Matthew 6:33)  And that Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”  (Luke 9:23).  Repentance is a never-ending (in this life) endeavor.  We are to be constantly turning to the ways of the Lord, and not relegating it to a once a year kind of commitment.  However, the same argument could be made for any occasion of spiritual focus.  For example, reflection upon our sin and the sacrifice of Christ is a foundational principle of our faith, but still we have no trouble placing specific emphasis on it during Lent.  Sometimes when something is to be done “all of the time” it tends to be done none of the time.  Emphasizing the practice of Christian virtues at the New Year would put a fine point on Jesus’ teaching that “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  (Matthew 7:21)

The second objection is that New Years Day is a secular holiday that is not traditionally recognized by the church.  Perhaps it is time to change this.  We all know that in the 1950’s and early 1960’s Christmas underwent a hostile takeover by the forces of modern secularism.  It caught many Christians by surprise because we unwittingly participated in the takeover.  We fell into line as commercial interests joined forces with Santa Clause, and relegated Jesus to a cameo role as a manger prop and picture on a Christmas card.  Perhaps it is time for Christians to plot a friendly takeover of New Years Day by emphasizing New Years Resolutions that are based on Christian virtues.  What would the impact be if those of us with bitter hearts resolved in the New Year to truly forgive those who have hurt us?  Or those with selfish hearts resolved to serve people in need?  Or those with critical hearts resolved to guard their tongue?  The possibilities are endless.  And in doing this we would breathe new life into what it means to be transformed, what it means to be fully human, and what it means to be a true follower of Christ.

Returning to the informal survey mentioned at the beginning, in which past resolutions closely matched those of the general population.  When asked about resolutions to be made in 2020, there was a significant shift in emphasis.  Although exercise, lose weight, and read more still appear, other resolutions include:  “Growing closer to father and brother,” “Regularity in dates with wife,” “Volunteer,” “Get closer to God,” “Better family leader,” and “Obedient to God.”  These seem like a pretty good start.



You are the light of the world.”  (Matthew 5:14)

When I was growing up in the 1950’s, I watched for three faithful heralds of Christmas:  the Sears Christmas catalog, an Advent calendar, and sugar cutout cookies.  The Sears Christmas catalog, colloquially known as the Christmas Wish Book, was the first to arrive in early November.  I spent hours pouring through its pages and dreaming about Fort Apache toys, Davy Crocket hats, Erector sets, Lionel trains, transistor radios, and festively displayed chemistry sets.  In my mind I can still smell the ink and feel the tissue-like texture of the oft-turned pages.  The Advent calendar was the second to arrive on the first of December.  It was a cardboard affair with small windows numbered from one to twenty-five.  Each morning another day in the countdown to Christmas was marked, as a new window was peeled opened revealing the picture of a toy or winter scene.  Sugar cutout cookies, like the ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, were more mercurial, arriving in their own time – in other words, whenever my mother had time to bake them.  Normally they appeared a week or so before Christmas Day.  Shaped like camels, angels, and stars, these were plain sugar cookies with no frosting or decorations, yet they were most welcome guests.  Like apparitions they soon disappeared.

You might wonder why I have not mentioned a Christmas tree as being a herald of Christmas?   The reason is that in our house the tree was never put up early, indeed, sometimes as late as Christmas Eve itself.  And so, when I was a child, the Christmas tree was mostly a lagging indicator of Christmas.  Why we waited until the end of Advent may seem inexplicable to some.  But my father had his reasons, which were rooted in basic economics, as opposed to any deep theological objection or concern over “rushing” the season, as it were.  For, you see, my father was a child of the Great Depression, which had indelibly imprinted frugality upon his soul.  He was also a natural negotiator and reckoned that if he waited until Christmas Eve to buy a tree that he would get an undoubted bargain.  As a philosophical matter, I questioned the strategy some years later when the thought occurred to me that the seller surely recognized a buyer who had his own pressure to come home with a tree.  Nonetheless, many a Christmas Eve found my Dad shopping the lots for a last minute sale.

Even though the tree arrived late in the season, its importance was not diminished.  It was to squeals of delight that the tree, always a balsam fir, was carried into the house and secured in its stand.  Many hands made short work of trimming it – first with lights, then with ornaments, and finally with strands of aluminum tinsel.  The ornaments were nothing special – an eclectic assortment of family keepsakes, trinkets crafted at school, and plain dime store balls.  But they were our ornaments and we each had several favorites that we gently hung on the tree after first making a careful reckoning of the best location.  Lovely as the ornaments were, for me the magic was forever in the lights.  Red and green and white and blue, strings of lights girdling the tree washed it with a spectrum of color.  A special few bulbs were shaped like candles and had a liquid core that bubbled when heated by their socket.  When night fell and the tree lights turned on, everything was transformed.  The tree positively glowed, and the room took on a new quality in the soft illumination from so many points of light.

As the years have passed, the heralds of Christmas have changed.  When Pat and I married we blended what was best from our families of origin, and gradually new traditions emerged.  These continued to evolve as our children grew, and we adapted to different seasons of life.  These days I no longer pour over a Sears Wish Book, indeed Sears itself has been through bankruptcy.  Advent calendars disappeared with the passing of childhood and only make a brief appearance now as gifts to our grandchildren.  And while Christmas cookies are still a big deal, expanding waistlines mean that we no longer devour them as once we did in our youth.  The Christmas tree, however, remains an essential part of our Christmas celebration.  It literally stands alone as a tradition that has transcended the passage of time.  No longer a last minute purchase, we now secure a tree shortly after Thanksgiving, decorate it, and enjoy its comforting presence in our living room until the New Year.

The tree has, for me, never lost its luster.  The magic I felt as a child is still there when the tree lights are turned on against the darkness of night.  Each little bulb casting a soft light that reflects off of so many shiny ornaments and merges with the light of myriad others to gently illuminate the room.  This is a time when many of us study the lights and reflect upon the season.

There are those who see the heavenly stars when they look at Christmas tree lights.  Perhaps the day in creation when, God said, ‘Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.”  (Genesis 1:14-15)  Others are reminded of the star of Bethlehem heralding the coming of our Savior, and of the Magi who asked,  “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?  We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  (Matthew 2:2) These are all wonderful points of reflection to fill the soul of an evening during Advent.

But, for me, it isn’t so much the stars of the heavens that I see in Christmas tree lights.  Nor is it even the light most central to the Christmas story, namely that of Christ, whose “life was the light of all mankind.” (John 1:4)  Rather, in pondering Christmas lights I see the faces of many people I know, authentic followers of Jesus, who have, “the light of life.”  (John 8:12).  These are the faces of friends and family who are incarnating the spirit of Christ by selflessly serving others.  The ones who have taken Jesus’ words to heart, You are the light of the world.  A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:14-16)

There are so many people who come to mind.  Here is one sacrificially loving a spouse.  Here is one honoring a parent.  Here is one patiently listening to a child.  Here is one advocating for immigrants.  Here is one giving food to the needy.  Here is one visiting shut-ins.  Here is one providing medical care for addicts.  Here is one praying for the sick.  Here is one bringing the good news to a far corner of the world.  Here is one encouraging the anxious.  These and so many others who offer hope where there is despair, healing where there is pain, and indeed light where there is darkness.

When the Christmas tree is illuminated after sundown, the darkness of the room does not vanquish the light of the tree.  Just the opposite – the lights of the tree overcome the darkness as hundreds of tiny little bulbs bravely stand against the stygian gloom and cheerfully and indiscriminately radiate their light onto everything in their path.  And so it is with true believers who shine the light of Christ into a dark world.  May it be so with you.



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).

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, 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.


Contentment (Part 1)

“Real contentment must come from within.  You and I cannot control the world around us, but we can change and control the world within us.”  (Warren Wiersbe)

There is a way of living that more than any other reflects the depth of our faith journey.  It is a way that most of us have experienced but few have sustained.  A way marked by an abiding sense of peace, patience and joy.  A way abounding in the abundant life promised by Jesus.  The way known as contentment.

This reflection on contentment will be in two posts.  This month is the nature of contentment by looking at three examples from the Psalms.  Next month is how to find contentment by exploring the Apostle Paul’s “secret of being content.”  But first to the Psalms where there are at least three distinct manifestations of contentment that are helpful in fleshing out its essential nature.  These are Discontentment, Conditional Contentment, and Deep Contentment

“When our ancestors were in Egypt, they gave no thought to your miracles; they did not remember your many kindnesses, and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea.”  (Psalm 106:7)  If there is one thing that stands out in the Exodus, it is how the Israelites were perpetually complaining.  Despite God’s miraculous provision, they constantly vexed him by their rebellion and discontent.

And so it is with many today who seem to be perpetually discontented even in the face of enormous blessings in their life.  It is curious how easy it is to focus on negative things and take positive ones for granted.  I am not writing about those who are suffering or in the throes of personal tragedy.  But rather about those who, despite generally good health and relationships, are nonetheless discontent.  Somehow in their journey they have lost a sense of the richness of their lives, and chosen instead to be resentful and angry.

In writing about struggles of our middle years of life, Ronald Rolheiser observes, “Many … deeply regret that during the healthiest and most productive years of their lives they were too driven and too unaware of the richness of their own lives to appreciate and enjoy what they were doing.  Instead of privilege, they felt burden; instead of gratitude, they felt resentment; and instead of joy, they felt anger.  One of the demons we wrestle with during our adult years is the resentment of Martha, that is, a joylessness bordering on anger for, ironically, being burdened with the privilege of health, work, and status.”  (Sacred Fire)

The danger of chronic discontentment is that it increasingly becomes one’s identity.  We have all known people who despite many blessings are perpetually discontented, having allowed their lives to be consumed by bitterness and anger.  One of the ironies of discontentment is that it is off-putting to others, and consequently they pull away.  The more they pull away, the more bitterness and anger grow.  It is a negative feedback loop that can be difficult to stop – particularly as we age.  But there is always hope because according to the Apostle Paul, contentment is something that can be learned.  Still, overcoming discontentment, like any vice, becomes more difficult with the passage of time.  Discontented old people were once discontented young people.

The spiritual implications of discontentment are chilling.  Because of the discontentment and incessant grumbling of the Israelites, God declared that they would indeed die in the wilderness and never enter the Promised Land.  (Numbers 14:26-29)

Conditional Contentment
“But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.”  (Psalm 131:2)  A child with its mother – here we have a beautiful image of contentment and peace.  So why is this not the paradigm for biblical contentment?  The answer is that the child has good reason to be content – it is with its mother, perhaps asleep in her arms.  And these favorable circumstances are precisely what make its contentment conditional.  For we all know what will happen when the child gets hungry or its mother has to leave.

Conditional contentment is therefore contentment that is dependent upon circumstances being favorable.  This fits well with one definition, “Contentment is happiness and satisfaction, often because you have everything you need.”  (Cambridge English Dictionary)  And it also fits pretty well with the spirit of our age that promises us that contentment comes as soon as our perceived needs are fulfilled.  As soon as we find someone to love us, we will be content; as soon as we get the mortgage paid off, we will be content; or as soon as we retire, we will be content.  But for those of us who bought into this storyline, inevitably we have come away disappointed.  It was great when I married Pat, but the honeymoon eventually ended.  I was elated when I paid off our mortgage, but it was short-lived because I then had to replace all of the windows and doors.  And soon after I retired, I encountered unexpected and difficult medical and family crises.

I am not alone in experiencing contentment conditionally.  Most of us have seasons of contentment when things are going well, and times of discontentment when troubles come.  And indeed, troubles always come!  Yet, as I honestly reflect on my life, I see so many blessings even during difficult times: a loving wife, faithful friends and family, and good medical care.  Christian maturity demands that we look beyond the temporal and take the long view.  This brings us to the third level of contentment, which is deep contentment.

Deep Contentment
“Although the earth erupts in quakes, we will not shake or fear; though glaciers crash into the sea, our God is always near.  And though the oceans roar and foam, and breakers crash and swell, though mountains sway and split in two, we know that all is well.”  (Psalm 46:2-3)  Here we have the true Biblical paradigm of contentment.  When our world is coming apart, there is a place of deep contentment.  A place where we can stand and truly say ‘all is well.’

Deep contentment is radically different from conditional contentment.  Consider the words of the Apostle Paul, I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  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 4:11-13)  Contentment for Paul did not depend upon his circumstances or even whether his most basic physical needs were met.  To the contrary, Paul had learned contentment whatever his situation.

I don’t want to be glib about being content when things are in turmoil.  Struggles and suffering are real.  And it is easy to write about contentment when things are going well.  Still, there is value in thinking and praying about contentment when not in the middle of a crisis.  Paul writes, “train yourself to be godly”  (1 Timothy 4:7), which implies developing holy habits, such as contentment, before trials come into our lives.

For some, contentment means having no desires.  For example, one definition of contentment is “A state of mind in which one’s desires are confined to his lot whatever it may be.”  (Easton’s Bible Dictionary)  This is not so far from Buddhist belief that desire is a root of suffering and therefore to be eliminated.  We should be clear on this:  Death of desire has no place in Christian practice!  We are to desire God’s kingdom to come in our marriages, our homes, our community, and our world, and we are to work for its fulfillment.  Scripture calls us to action – from helping the oppressed to working on our character.  Indeed, it is precisely because we are called by God to fight injustice and to seek righteousness that contentment finds its true home.  Biblical contentment never seeks the end of godly desires.  Instead, its power is in not allowing those desires to rule our lives.  We draw our life not from whether we obtain our desires, but from the Spirit.  This is why Paul tells us that if we walk by the Spirit, we will experience joy, peace, patience, etc.  (Galatians 5:16, 22)

Deep contentment is not an impossible dream.  It is not just Jesus who could sleep in a boat in the middle of a storm (Matthew 8:24-25), or Paul who be content even when hungry (Philippians 4:12).  There are people in every age who have demonstrated deep contentment in the face of personal hardship and tragedy.  For example, Horatio Spafford was a Christian and successful businessman in Chicago in the latter part of the 19th Century.  Spafford lost his only son to scarlet fever in 1870.  The next year, his real estate investments were destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire.  Two years after that, his four daughters drowned when their ship was struck and sank while crossing the Atlantic.  His wife miraculously survived, and as Spafford sailed to join her, his ship passed near the spot where his daughters went down.  It was there he penned the words of one of the great hymns of our faith.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Deep contentment is being able to say when sorrows come, “It is well with my soul.”


PS   Next month I will reflect on the secret of contentment that the Apostle Paul discovered.


“Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good.  Anyone who does what is good is from God.  Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.”  (3 John 1:11)

An anechoic chamber is the quietest place on earth.  Acoustically isolated from the outside world and fitted with irregular foam shapes on the inside walls, all sound generated from within is absorbed.  The word anechoic literally means “without echo,” which accurately describes the function of the specially constructed walls.  Scientists use these rooms to conduct acoustic tests, such as determining the noise level of various consumer products.  Some years ago I had an opportunity to spend a few minutes inside an anechoic chamber.  When I stepped into the room and the door closed behind me, I spoke a few words but did not recognize my own voice.  The walls literally absorbed all of the sound, and the normal echoes one takes for granted simply ceased to exist.  If I had screamed at the top of my lungs, it would have made no difference for all noise would still be absorbed by the non-reflective walls.  There is an otherworldliness feeling to anechoic chambers, and I can understand why NASA uses them to help astronauts get accustomed to the silence of outer space.

Fortunately, God did not design an anechoic world.  Just the opposite, because echoes add an amazing richness and timbre to our lives.  For example, the Lord has made great canyons where the splashing of rushing torrents echoes in splendid cacophony.  A place where deep calls to deep in the roar of [his] waterfalls.”  (Psalm 42:7)  Each day starts anew with the waking sounds of creation greeting him.  “Awake my soul, arise with me, awake O harp and strings; together we will wake the dawn as all creation sings.”  (Psalm 57:8)  He created old growth forests where bird songs like that of the Wood Thrush reverberate with a flute-like trill.  For there, “the birds of the sky nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.”  (Psalm 104:12)   And great cathedrals built to honor the Lord uniquely resonate as sacred music and hymns of praise echo off of vaulted ceilings. For God is King of all the earth so sing Him songs that please; sing psalms and hymns and spirituals with sweetest melodies.”  (Psalm 47:7)

But it is not simply a matter of aesthetics that God designed sound to be reflective.  Functionally, the echo of sound waves bouncing off of our surroundings helps give us our bearings.  We intuitively sense the position of objects by the direction and speed of sound that is reflected from their surfaces.  And with the two ears God has given us, we can judge direction and distances even in the dark.  Truly, the echoes of sound in the natural world are a wonderful gift from the Lord.

When it comes to our spiritual life we have a tendency to echo whatever we observe in others.  If those around us embody that which is good and decent, we are encouraged to do the same.  Contrariwise, if those around embody that which is evil, we are tempted to follow.  God, of course, does not intend for us to echo the latter, but the former.  “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good.”  (3 John 1:11a)  Rather than echoing the evil we see and hear, the Lord would have us absorb it like the walls of an anechoic chamber absorb sound.  Yet this is hard for us to do.  For when evil is experienced by us, we are tempted to retaliate.  And even when evil is only observed by us, we can be tempted to imitate.

We echo evil when retaliation is our response to someone who is treating us unjustly.  Paul tells us “do not overcome evil with evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:21)  A common way we retaliate is by anger.  Anger is like a wildfire – once it is lit it can quickly consume all those in its path.  But even though anger may automatically rise up in us as a response to the unjust and evil actions of others, we don’t have to yield to it, and can choose to absorb it like the walls of an anechoic chamber.  In the words of Dallas Willard, While anger arises spontaneously, we can choose whether [or not] to receive it and indulge it.” (The Divine Conspiracy)  Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is, You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.  If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”  (Matthew 5:38-39)

Still, there is a far more subtle way that we echo evil, which is when we imitate those around us who disregard God’s moral law.  I am not referring to the pagan culture in which we live because most of us Christians are aware of the dangers inherent to the spirit of our age.  Rather, it is the danger of our relationship with those who claim to be Christians – be they our friends or public figures – who act in ungodly ways.  For even when we know the difference between right and wrong, there is a temptation to disregard moral restraints when we observe other Christians doing so.  I don’t completely understand the psychology behind this, yet we all know it is true.  Somehow when we see others who claim to be Christians acting in an ungodly manner, we can be tempted to believe that it must be okay for us to act in the same way.  In some cases we may trust their judgments more than our own, or perhaps we feel social pressure to conform our behavior.  It’s almost like we are hearing the words of the serpent, “Did God really say that you must not eat from any tree in the garden?”  (Genesis 3:1)

For example, if a Christian we know and respect slanders someone, we may question whether slander is really so bad.  Like masters of illusion, we tell ourselves that it is really not slander or that it is somehow justified.  The Apostle Paul recognized the danger, which is why he tells us to have nothing to do with those claiming to be Christians but not acting accordingly.  But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler.  Do not even eat with such people.  (1 Corinthians 5:11)

Paul’s counsel can present us with a dilemma when the person acting immorally is a personal friend.  For example, if they are having an affair, should we drop them as a friend?  Or what if they have an addiction or are pursuing some other idol in their life?  There are Biblical principles about loving and caring for those in need, so simply not associating with them may not be the right thing to do.  And frankly we all fall at times, and our critique of the sins of others can quickly lead us down a path of graceless judgments and self-righteousness.  At the same time, I believe we can underestimate the danger of being around those who habitually sin because of the temptation to echo their behavior and similarly fall.  Paul’s word to the Galatians reflects this dilemma, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.  But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.  Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  (Galatians 6:1-2)

The matter is somewhat different when the Christian who is acting immorally is in the public arena, such as the church, sports, politics, media, or entertainment.  For when they act immorally, it is not just us who are in danger of echoing their behavior, but all who see them.  Given that our ability to influence a public figure is usually minimal, our best course of action is to move beyond the sphere of his or her influence.  We hear a lot these days about the need for role models because of how those in authority can influence others for good or ill.  Jesus paid particular attention to this when he warned against causing people to go astray, and the particular punishment for those who do.  “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble!  Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!”  (Matthew 18:6-7)

Jesus, of course, never echoed evil.  He never repaid evil for evil – never!  Even on the cross, he did not revile his persecutors.  In this he showed us the way.  “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.  ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’  When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.  Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.  (1 Peter 2:21-23)  Jesus is our model – we are not to echo evil and injustice, but we are to absorb it like the walls of an anechoic chamber soaks up sound.  As we do this in increasing measure, we anticipate our destiny, which is “to become conformed to the image of his son.”  (Romans 8:29)



“The first duty of love is to listen”  (Paul Tillich)

I would like to be a better listener.  To be attentive and focused when someone is speaking to me.  To be interested in what they are saying.  And to be slow to jump in with a response.  But lifelong habits are hard to break.  When I am involved with something, I don’t suffer interruptions well.  When a person is rambling or speaking slowly, I can become impatient.  And frequently my mind wanders from what is being said to how I will respond.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, I write about Christian virtues not because I am particularly proficient in any, but precisely because I am not.  I write to think them through and remind myself what is important to God.  Listening well is surely one of these.

The desire to be really heard and understood by others is a bedrock need of every human.  It is a need that can only be fulfilled when someone makes an effort to listen well.  Author Ralph Nichols puts it this way:  “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood.  The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”  Imagine a world in which no one ever listened to us.  Perhaps a world in which everyone wore headphones.  People could tune into their favorite station and never be interrupted by another.  It would be like a world of animatrons “that have ears but cannot hear.”  (Psalm 135:17)  This may not be so far removed from the worlds that some have created.  With all of the ways we can isolate ourselves physically and emotionally from others, many of us have ceased to listen to those desperate to be heard.  And when we cease to listen we cease to love.  As Rick Warren writes: “You see pain with your eyes, but you sympathize with your ears.  Sometimes the greatest way to serve someone is just by listening.  Behind every need is a story.”

I find it curious that there is not much in Scripture about the importance of listening to one another.  I once counted over 300 Bible verses relating to the words we speak.  Yet, I am hard pressed to find verses about listening to others.  The one verse Christians point to in regard to listening is in the book of James, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19)  But even this verse in context has more to do with listening to the word of God than listening to other people.  There are a handful of verses in Proverbs that speak to the importance of listening to others, but for the most part these relate to the listener gaining wisdom, rather than the speaker being helped.  For example, The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” (Proverbs 12:15)  By any reckoning, the virtue of listening to others is not emphasized in the Bible.  Although there is much recorded about listening to God, the importance of our listening to one another must be teased out of God’s Word.  This is not to say that listening to others is unimportant.  To the contrary, it is the quintessential way we love others.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book  “Life Together” writes, “The first service one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.  Just as love of God begins in listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.”

Listening to others is an important means for mediating other Christian virtues.  Consider the seven virtues Paul mentions in Colossians, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”  (Colossians 3:12-14)  Each of these seven virtues – compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and forgiveness – is demonstrated (or not) to the extent we really listen to others.

Listening with compassion means we seek to share in the pain of the person speaking.  When tornados devastated parts of Dayton on May 27, a number of my friends were filled with compassion for the victims and immediately volunteered with the cleanup effort.  But often people suffer in ways that are not self-evident.  Only by taking time to listen to them tell their story – without judgment or comment – can we demonstrate compassion.  The word compassion comes from two Latin words: “cum,” meaning “with;” and “pati,” meaning “suffering.”  So listening with “com-passion” means we suffer with the person as they unburden themselves.  Job’s friends initially listened with compassion when they sat with Job for seven days – saying nothing and listening to Job speak.  But eventually they could not restrain their tongues and accused Job of doing evil.  Recriminations are incompatible with compassionate listening.

Listening with kindness means we seek to orient our heart to the other person.  We show kindness by being available and attentive when they need to be heard, not just when we feel like listening.  We may demonstrate our interest by being an active listener and reflecting back what they are saying.  But the real grace of listening with kindness comes in providing an emotional space where the other person feels like they are really being heard.  Simply knowing that someone is truly listening can provide a healing balm to a troubled soul.  Among all the ways we can show kindness to another person, one of these is surely listening with an open heart.

Listening with humility means we seek to restrain our own words and ego.  We listen to the other person without turning attention to ourselves.  When we truly listen to another person, our pride screams at us to say something.  We feel an overwhelming urge to respond by giving advice and sharing our own brilliant ideas.  Stephen R. Covey observed that, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People)  When the mind turns its focus from what is being said to what its response is going to be, it is listening with pride and not humility.  “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.” (Proverbs 18:2)

Listening with gentleness means we seek to create a safe place for the other person to share.  We are non-threatening as we listen without judgment.  The other person opens up and unburdens their heart in the presence of someone who is interested and safe.  Jonathan Edwards said that, “real disciples of Christ have a gentle spirit in them.”  Listening with gentleness means that our gentle spirit is present to the other person.  This presence will be like a well-worn cardigan that we wrap around them.

Listening with patience means we seek to be fully present to the other person.  We are attentive although we would rather be doing something else.  And we stay engaged even in the face of boring or rambling comments.  It is hard enough in normal interactions to stay focused when another person is speaking.  But this is exacerbated when the person is speaking about something that is of no interest to us or that we cannot understand.  And so we practice listening with patience as we shut out all other thoughts and concentrate on the words being spoken.  Listening with patience can be particularly important when we are present with older people whose minds no longer function as they once did.

Listening with forbearance means we seek to accept the other person as they are and not as we would like them to be.  Even when we disagree or perhaps even dislike the other person, we are listening to understand rather than to be understood.  We listen as a matter of respect for the other person as one made in the image of God.  We don’t listen because we seek to gain anything from the interaction.  Rather, we listen because God commands us to, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 22:39)  How much of the conflict in our marriages, our families, and our communities could be ameliorated if we learned the discipline of listening with forbearance.

Listening with forgiveness means we seek to release a person from the debt of their wrongdoing.  But here our listening must be of a different kind, because often we need to forgive someone who will never speak to us, let alone apologize.  They may be estranged, or in another town, or even dead.  Listening to them is therefore impossible.  And so, when we are listening with forgiveness, we are listening to a different voice – the voice of One who forgave even as He was going to His death.  We listen again to the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” and our hearts start to thaw.

Listening to others is simple, but it is not easy.  It is simple because it only requires time and a willing heart.  It is not easy because it requires us to overcome engrained habits born of self-interest.  Yet, there are few actions that reveal more about our spiritual maturity than how well (or not) we listen to others.  Jesus is the only hope for a broken world, and we are his people, the instruments through which his grace and healing is dispensed.  In the midst of all that is wrong and broken in the world today, we have the opportunity to shine his light through the simple act of listening.