Monday, February 01, 2016

January 31, 2016 Philippians: In Search of Contentment

I woke up early Monday morning, looked at the alarm clock, and was relieved to know it wasn’t time to get up.  But then I noticed that our house was very cold (my family believes I keep the thermostat far too low in the winter and too high in the summer, and since I pay the electric and gas bills I tell them if they would like to offer a contribution we can talk about an adjustment).  It only took a moment to realize something was definitely wrong. In the quiet of the morning I could hear a strange noise through the vent system of the furnace trying to start but then turning off.  It took only a few moments to realize that our heat was out.  My first thought should have been one of gratitude that it wasn’t as cold as it had been the previous week, but it wasn’t; my mind quickly became occupied with all the adjustments to my day to see that the furnace could be fixed.  It took a day and a half for the heat to be repaired and it was cold the next night in the house and that circumstance shaped my thinking throughout that entire time.

It wasn’t the end of the world certainly, but it did occupy my mind quite a bit, and being inconvenienced in such a way brought me to thinking about how easily we are influenced by what takes place around us, by our circumstances.  It doesn’t take much to bring us to a state of discontent.  One change in our morning or day can completely alter our sense of contentment about life.

This morning we conclude our series of messages from the book of Philippians, and as we do we come to one of the most powerful passages in this powerful book.

As we have journeyed through the book of Philippians, each week I have called attention to the circumstances in which Paul found himself.  He was in chains, a prisoner of the Roman Empire, and about to be executed.  And yet, in spite of his circumstances, the Scripture text for this week reveals to us a person who exudes contentment.  How could this be?  Shouldn’t Paul have been angry about his circumstances?  Shouldn’t he have been bitter about the miscarriage of justice that, instead of freeing him, had condemned him to death?  Perhaps Paul could have justified such feelings, but he did not give in to them.

Philippians 4:8-13 –

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.
Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.
11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
12 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.
13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

In spite of greater affluence, greater opportunity, better medical care, education, and mounds of technology to bring far greater convenience to our lives, I’m not sure we have found any greater sense of contentment. 

Am I wrong?  Are you content?  If so, how did you arrive at such a state?  If not, what do you think makes contentment so elusive?

Considering the state of the world one could be forgiven for believing there is no way to experience any sense of contentment when so much suffering, violence, and other tragedies fill our world.  And I’m not talking about the struggle with depression that is so overwhelming to many people.  That is a very real, very devastating disease and those who struggle with depression will very quickly tell you that it is next to impossible to find any sense of contentment in the midst of that struggle.

Where would we be willing to go to find contentment?  What would we be willing to do to find contentment?  What would we be willing to pay to find contentment?  What would you be wiling to give to find contentment, especially on the level that was present in the life of Paul?

As I thought about this message I wondered a good deal about the difference between happiness and contentment.  Happiness and contentment are not the same; happiness, to me, contains more of an emotional component, while contentment speaks to our basic sense of well-being in our lives.  Contentment is the bedrock sense of who we are and the way in which we view life and our place in this world.

Contentment rests upon a number of factors, but I want to concentrate on just a few of them this morning and do so through the lens of Paul’s sense of contentment, which obviously came from his faith.

1.  Let Faith Change How You Think About Yourself.
Over the course of my ministry I have come to understand that some people need extra encouragement at particular points in their lives.  There is one person who requires a great deal of my time, in terms of offering encouragement.  In fact, it has become a part of my daily routine to offer this person encouragement.  I encourage this person by telling them that they are a beloved child of God and that they are able to fulfill the call of God on their life, and many other words of encouragement.  And then I turn away from the mirror and try and live the words that I spoke to myself.

Most of us probably believe that our contentment has far more to do with external circumstances, but our contentment is not based so much upon what is happening around us but within us, and a great deal of that contentment is based upon the way we view ourselves, and a great deal of that view is derived from others.  It is a very special and secure person who does not draw their sense of self from others.  I find Paul to be a very interesting person, and one of the reasons is that he didn’t seem to worry what others thought about him, and I don’t mean that in a way that intimates that he was insensitive.  I just believe that Paul had a very strong sense of who he was, and I believe that came because of his faith.

In verse 8, when he says, 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, Paul is reminding us of the power of the mind and how it can help us to see our circumstances and our lives as blessing or struggle.  It begins with what we think and how we think.  If we have a tape of negativity and defeatism running through our minds, telling us that we are not as worthy as others, that our life is lesser than the lives others are leading, that we can never overcome our circumstances, it will be next to impossible to find any sense of contentment.  But, if we follow the example of Paul and erase the tape in our mind that is running nothing but negativity and replace it with a positive message, things become different.  If we think about the fact that we are a child of God and therefore a person with as much worth and value as anyone else, and if we believe, like Paul, that I can do all this through him who gives me strength (verse 13), we won’t feel overwhelmed and defeated by our circumstances.

2.  Let Faith Change How We Think About Others
In Matthew 7:1-2 Jesus says Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you us, it will be measured to you.  I think Jesus’ warning not to judge is applicable for several other reasons as well, and one of those reasons is because no matter how much we think we know people, no matter how much we think we know their circumstances, no mater how much we think we know their motivations, no matter how much we think we know their problems, and no matter how much we think we know their blessings, we really don’t know. We think we know people, but we don’t. 

The person we believe is living a life full of blessing and abundance?  Maybe they are not.  The person we believe to have it made, living a life that seems incredibly charmed?  Maybe they are not.  That person we think needs to pull their life together and just get their act together?  We don’t know what’s going on.  The person who sometimes acts in ways we don’t understand?  We don’t know what they’ve experienced in life.  The person who struggles with relationships and we think they simply need to get serious and grow up?  We don’t know what has happened in their lives to make them very guarded when it comes to other people.

One of the most common criticisms leveled at Jesus was his willingness to associate with “questionable” people.  The truth is, we’re all questionable people in some way.  You can argue that point with me if you like, but I’m not changing my opinion, because I’ve worked with people for far too long.  And I don’t mean that in a negative, condemning way.  We are all people who struggle with problems and issues and none of us are any different from any other in that respect.

And Paul faced the same criticism as Jesus, because while many – including Peter and some of the other disciples – were resistant to all these strange, unfamiliar Gentile people coming into the church, Paul was welcoming them with open arms.  They were different, but underneath the surface differences we’re not really all that different.  Paul took his example from Jesus and would not allow his mind to be shaped by the culture in which he lived in terms of how he viewed people, and neither should we.

3.  Let Faith Change How We Think of Our Circumstances.
We are profoundly shaped by our circumstances.  Tanya’s grandmother was, we might say, thrifty.  She was a child of the Great Depression, and it was impossible to live through such a time without being shaped by the great need of the time.  To the end of her life she would not throw anything away.  When her bread became moldy she picked the mold off the bread.  I couldn’t imagine doing so, but I didn’t live through a time such as the Depression, but that experience had a profound affect upon her.

When I was on sabbatical last year I learned some interesting lessons.  One lesson that I discovered was a change in our circumstances doesn’t guarantee a change in who we are and how content we feel about life.  Many of us long for the time when we reach retirement, anticipating the time when we get to do what we want, when we want.  If we could just escape the drudgery of work, we would much more content about life.  I anticipated very much the idea of three months to do what I wanted.  And while I enjoyed the time, and enjoyed the break from the pressures of trying to keep up with so many responsibilities, I quickly found that a change in my circumstances did not automatically bring about a change in my sense of contentment.  Contentment, I realized, was a result not of my external circumstances, but my internal thinking processes.

Our circumstances, however, can teach us many lessons, and one of those lessons is that while we spend a lot of energy in life in an effort to reduce difficult circumstances and in an effort to make ourselves comfortable, we must remember that if we never experience discomfort and difficulty, we will never have an adequate understanding of what life is like for billions of people in this world, and we will never develop a sense of empathy, understanding, and compassion.

What would it be like, for instance, to live in the war zone that is Syria, which is less of a nation than it is a war zone with the appearance of national borders, and where millions of people have found it necessary to pick up what few things they can carry, to pay someone to give them a life jacket that will more likely cost them their life than to save it, to load their families into a small rubber raft for a journey across the Mediterranean Sea, with no promise of surviving the journey and if you do you find you must walk across Europe in hopes of finding a home in which the government will not take the valuables and cash you managed to bring with you?

What would it be like to wake each day and wonder how you will feed your family?  What would it be like to wake each day with the knowledge that you must send your child on a walk of many miles to carry back to your home a little bit of clean water.  What would it be like to wake each day in a land where you could be persecuted even to the point of death just because of claiming faith?  What would it be like to live in the southern portion of our hemisphere, where parents face the agonizing choice of sending their children, alone, on the terrifying journey to this country in order to escape the violence of the drug trafficking in their homelands?

I would never diminish anyone’s difficult circumstances, but when we experience times of difficulty, rather than being drawn into ourselves we should pray that God would use those times to open our hearts to the sufferings of others, to give us compassion and empathy as we answer the call to minister to others.  When we do this, we can truly say that we can do all this through him who gives me strength!

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