Everyone talks about being happy; so it seems like that’s what everyone wants. Perhaps they do. Yet throughout most of my life, if someone had asked me, “Are you happy?” I know I would have hesitated to say, “Yes.” When I discovered C. S. Lewis (Ironically, C. S. Lewis died on November 22, 1963, the same day as the assassination of President Jack Kennedy) and later read his Surprised by Joy, I quickly transferred my desire for happiness, such as it was, to a choice to seek joy. Yet, I was still missing something until I read this (I Corinthians 4:11b-13):
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.
This I could wrap my thoughts around. Happiness tends to be circumstantial, and we must deal with plenty of unpleasant, unwanted circumstances. Joy is a permanent spiritual reality yet I live in this physical realm where the spiritual can seem far away. Paul puts his finger right on the crux, noting circumstances may be good or not, but starving or feasting, he learned to be content. That’s what I sought to do…with some success as I reflect today. More and more I realize this: I am content.
Being content involves overcoming anxiety, fear, worry, stress, doubt, uncertainty, loneliness. Ask yourself what robs you of your contentment. I’d prefer not to call my thoughts here keys; I’ve never cared much for messages and articles that promised keys for success or whatever. Most things aren’t as simple as opening a lock with a key: Click, and it’s done. Instead these are more like tools, principles that one uses to accomplish a task, in this case, a project that leads ultimately to contentment. I should add one caution. As with patience, the goal is illusive and never ending (in this life). We can always be more patient, and we can always be more content. So what are those principles?
To start with, make being content your objective. Put happiness and joy and other possible goals aside for the moment, and focus on contentment. It is a good quality to desire and achieve. In a sense it has a (temporary) leveling quality, lowering the moments of ecstasy to avoid the subsequent pits of despair and allowing you later to enjoy great moments without feeling deprived afterward. It is a persistent sense of peace that looks beyond the less pleasant moments to acknowledge what is and will be eternally good. To do that, we need to anchor our knowledge in eternal truth so we can look beyond the temporary, changing, and worrisome circumstances. The “keys” are simply some of those truths, truths you should claim and then rest your life upon them.
- Accept God’s gift by trusting him. Perhaps our greatest fear is death; whether oblivion, hell, or not knowing, we dread that ending except “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It all starts with this; just put your faith in Jesus and in his death on your behalf. He died so you might live eternally, but many make the mistake of thinking this is only life after death. If you’re 19, death often seems far off, and life after that is hard to get excited about. Yet eternal life begins with a second or new birth, and that new life begins now and is forever, an everlasting, eternal life. For those forced to face death through age, illness, trauma, or tragedy, no comfort is greater than the assurance that we will live and be reunited with loves ones.
Even better, Jesus promised yet more, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Other translations describe his gift of life as “a rich and satisfying life,” “life in all its fullness,” but abundant life seems to be the favorite. Some imagine living forever as a real “life sentence,” where the zest of living is gone and only everlasting boredom remains. Yet Jesus promises life truly lived, not a life that dwindles into a nightmare, but rather a life that expands with vitality and increasing awareness of the marvels of the creation, the variety of people and their gifts, and the very presence and awareness of God himself.
- Know that you are loved, that God loves you. Romans 5:8 offers a sense of how greatly he loves us: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This assertion lies at the crux of our doubt; we know we are unworthy of the very love of God yet, so great is his love that Jesus, the Son of God, died to rectify the problem, to wipe away our sin, our guilt, and our unworthiness and take us into his very family. Read the context and find even more encouragement. God’s love…for you…and me…is amazing! If you would be content, don’t focus on yourself and your failings; focus instead on him and his loving sacrifice for you. Know and enjoy that you are truly, unconditionally loved!
Paul adds another dimension in Ephesians: “(B)ecause of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” Better than zombies who live in death, we are truly resurrected, reborn, no longer dead in sin, but alive in righteousness. You say, “But I still sin,” but God doesn’t see it, as offensive as sin is to him; he sees the righteousness of the Savior…because of his great love for you!
Psalm 86 affirms God’s love and reminds us that love is his character. God is love! (I John 4:8) The Psalm adds “You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call to you.” (verse 5). “For great is your love toward me; you have delivered me from the depths, from the realm of the dead.” (13) “But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” (15) God is not a doting grandfather who loves with sugary sweetness but no grit. He hates sin. He doesn’t merely love us in spite of our sin; he loves us so much he delivers us from it. Be content in his great merciful, forgiving, and gracious love, but don’t be content in your sins!
Still, there’s more, lots more. “(W)e are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Knowing one is a sinner and unworthy of God’s love, it’s easy to worry about God saying, “Enough is enough!” What if I commit too many sins and God gives up on me? What if I commit the “unpardonable sin.” Ain’t gonna happen! Past sins are covered; “neither the present nor the future” sins or anything else can separate us from his love. Angels and demons are powerless against his love; whatever a demon may try to whisper in your ear or scare you into believing, he has nothing to stop God’s love. In his love we have been, we are, and we will be victorious, forever “more than conquerors.” With the aggressive persistence of Islamic radical terrorists, with an almost corresponding progressive drive to oppose and silence Christian liberty and practice, this promise is invaluable in enabling us to be content, in spite of those twisted lies and devious propaganda.
Go back and read the whole of Romans chapter 8; it’s filled with powerful, encouraging truth. Reading your Bible is a helpful discipline for those who would be content. If you haven’t started, begin with the passages I’m discussing here; just click on the links. If you want to read more, click on the 4 bars next to the reference/title. On the right at the top is access to all matter of study tools, a wealth of information as close as your computer or smart phone.
To finish this discussion on God’s love for you, check this out: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” Before you disqualify yourself for a lack of love for God, notice the other descriptor “who have been called according to his purpose.” Unless you are reading this as an objector and critic who rejects it all (for whom I pray that God will open your eyes), he has chosen you because he loves you, and he loves you because he chose you. If you can avoid getting caught up in words like “foreknew” and “predestined”, focus on what I’ve underlined: “(H)e predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Hopefully you know that God created man in his own image, and here he tells us he is working to conform us to the image of Jesus. The former suggests as Creator he loves this ultimate creature called human; the latter implies that love leads him to work out the dings and damage of sin to make us Christlike, to restore and perfect his original but damaged work. Worry about your shortcomings if you must, but he’s got them covered. By all means, work with him in his mission, just not in frantic fear of failure. He loves you, he won’t lose you, be content.
By the way, God highest commandment is to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. The God of love, who is love, wants his people to love as he does. That means a lot of people love you; I do if I know you. I will love you if I come to know you. At this stage of my life, I generally find it easy to care for folks cause of the work God has done for, in, and through me. A lot of supposed love has been corrupted by sin and selfishness, but this is the real deal. I can imagine few things as delightful as loving and enjoying people. It creates an amazing environment in which it’s no challenge to feel content!
- Let God show you the way. If you’re human and our superficial culture hasn’t ruined your natural instincts, you worry about the future, especially about what you will do. Most of us have an innate desire to be useful, profitable, make a difference. “What do I want to do?” “What should I do?” “What does God want me to do?” What will make me rich, successful, important, or powerful?” “How can I leave my mark on the world?” “How can I find love?”
Well, let’s jump to the chase: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.” This is better than a Garmin or Mapquest. God will show you the most direct route to your destination. You may not realize it yet, but that’s the path you want. Rely on your own understanding, and you will mess up. Trust the direction of your mother or a trusted friend, they will help you mess up1. Only God knows you perfectly. Only God knows and thoroughly understands your hopes, wishes, dreams, skills, gifts, and talents. Only He knows the future, and only he knows the traps and pitfalls that lie ahead. Only he knows the kinds of friends you need, the sorts of training, and the one to accompany you along the way. Relax. Trust him. He’ll get you there.
A favorite topic of youth leaders is “Finding the Will of God.” Too many of them seem to be responding to the desire we have for “everything to work out.” “Tell me how to find the perfect mate.” “Tell me how to plan for a successful career.” People want a road map to assure they never get lost and always enjoy the stops along the way. Is that what God offers? I don’t think so. He pretty much has one goal, expressed in a variety of ways, and that is for us to live lives of love and godliness. For example, I Corinthians 10:13 promises, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” Despite our tendency to sin, he wants us to escape, not take that path, and promises a “way out.” Of course, he provides a way, but he doesn’t force you to take it. Or Matthew 7:13-14, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” In other words, don’t go for the easy way or follow the crowd; the path to life may be small, but it is not hidden. Here’s one more, I Thessalonians 5:16-18, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” “This is God’s will for you”—I wonder how much lives would change for those who began to practice this? We have a giant book filled with directions, wisdom, stories of believers who failed and yet succeeded. Do we need more personal direction or do we need to make better use of what God has already given us? If we do, we will most assuredly find we are more content.
- Give all your worries and anxieties to God…and leave them there! Peter wrote in I Peter 5:6-7, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” You may wonder how pride is relevant to dealing with anxiety. It’s simple. Many of us are simply too proud, too determined to maintain control and solve our own problems, and too reluctant to release our concerns into God’s eminently capable hands. I drive a taxi, and every day makes me more aware of just how dangerous the roads can be. Mistakes—bad drivers’, good drivers’, auto manufacturers’, and my own—are just too common, and I cannot possibly prevent or avoid them all. God can. He can take care of every single threat, misjudgment, careless act, or foolishly aggressive driving decision. He can take care of equipment failures and adverse road conditions. I just need to ask…and I do. I’ve learned to be humble enough to accept my limits and turn it all over to God in prayer. I pray for safety for my passengers, others on the roads, and myself. I pray for help to avoid costly tickets and even costlier foolish driving decisions. I give it all to God, and I trust him to take care of everything. I cease to worry or be fearful. I remain alert and do my best, but I let God take care of everything else.
Take a moment and reflect on the worries you have and the problems you should be facing. I have dental issues that I haven’t been able to have fixed—no insurance, not much money. I have medical concerns from bad knees to diabetes. It’s getting harder to take care of my home, especially since I keep quite busy between tutoring refugees and taxi-driving. My mother died at 89, and I don’t have children or a spouse to give me worry…or comfort. I used to fear loneliness, and I’ve watched good friendships slip away through a variety of circumstance. I miss going to movies with friends. Plus, the longer I live, the more I regret (It’s a rather pointless thing to do, but soooo easy!). Yet, so it’s clear, I’ve learned to give my cares to God and be content…and so can you!
It’s great being able to share what’s on our hearts and minds. That’s why we’re grateful to have friends who will listen, provide a sounding board, perhaps give advice or help. Best of all, we have a perfect friend in Jesus who does all that and more…because he cares for us. He loves us, and because he loves us, he looks after us. We can rest easy and be content.
Rest easy…? I have a friend—actually more than one—who has trouble sleeping. So many things can interfere with getting our needed rest. For example, I just read that smart phones can be a problem. What we eat or when we eat may interfere with good rest. Of course, anxiety and worry are big problems, but they are problems that can be alleviated by learning to be content, particularly, by given those worries, anxieties, and fears to God. Just release them into his care. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding,will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” is Paul’s advice.
I’ve learned that just trying not to do something, alone, doesn’t work. We need to move our minds off the negative and onto a positive. “Don’t worry” needs a remedy, and Paul provides it. Just “make your requests to God.” Ask him for what you need, to take away the worry, to take care of the matter that is troubling you, as the answer to anxiety. Ask and keep asking, believe he cares, and let the problems go. If you cannot sleep, then pray; pray yourself to sleep. Be content. Enjoy your rest.
- Stop being offended, upset, and angered by everything. We live in an increasingly angry society, one where nearly everybody gets upset by what everybody else does. I think it comes in part from our increasingly narcissistic, self-centered culture. Anything that gets in the way of my wishes and desires, that even hints that my wants and opinions may be wrong or unacceptable, offends me. How dare you have a different opinion? How dare you put a different view where I can see it? Apart from the damage that such attitudes do to our sense of community and to our ability to live peaceably together, this way of thinking destroys any chance for contentment. Think about it for a moment. With this frame of mind, a person will constantly be facing “inconvenient” reminders that we cannot live like selfish brats where every person around us caters to our every thought and demand. We will always be testy, upset, angry, frustrated, and discontented…or one of my favorites, grumpy.
Consider Ephesians 4:26-27: “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. Do not give the devil a foothold.” Some Christians teach, or at least imply, that anger is a good thing and useful some how. “Be outraged,” and then use that (negative) energy to change the world, I guess. I see nothing in this verse to suggest that. We have anger; we get angry. We are human, and anger is an emotion we must manage like all other emotions. Unlike Star Wars’ Obi Kenobi, I do not suggest we “Trust our feelings,” for they are most unreliable and often counter-productive. Even seemingly positive emotion can get us into trouble, especially if we stop thinking! And, there’s nothing like anger to interfere with rational thought!!
I am reading Unoffendable: How Just One Change Can Make All of Life Better by Brant Hansen. He got me to thinking about this, but I just realized that there is more to this verse in Ephesians than, say, religious instruction. Dealing with your anger before day’s end is a good way to unwind, reduce tension, and put one’s mind at ease. It’s simple. Brant writes that you can’t be angry and grateful at the same time. True enough. It is also true that you cannot be angry and content at the same time.
- Love your neighbor. To continue a line of thought, we often say and believe that our anger is someone else’s fault. “You make me so angry!” Really? If that is true, why does one person get angry but another does not, in exactly the same circumstances!? Those who counsel angry people or people who are prone to arguments and disagreement often suggest a change of words, to say instead, “When you do thus and so, I get so angry” to place the anger where it belongs (and also to de-escalate interpersonal conflicts). To deal with our anger, we need to own it.
More importantly, for we who are Christ’s followers, we need to obey his first and greatest command2, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Consider this. It will help you be more content if you’re simply doing what Jesus told you to do, right? We who trust him are saved, we live under grace, we need not fear for our eternal future, and we have him looking after us at every moment. That should provide awesome comfort and peace of mind. However, if we ignore his wishes, then we raise a wall between ourselves and our friend and Lord; that has to have an impact on our sense of rightness. This applies to every word of instruction found in the Bible. We cannot ignore his Word and truly be content.
Yet, it seems to me that many, many Christians ignore this greatest commandment, one that covers and summarizes all others, so great is their pride (another word for selfishness). In our presumption, we put other “commands” ahead of this one, ignoring the plain warning of I Corinthians 13:1-3.
But put aside the issue of disobedience for a moment. In addition to the effects of disobedience, which are significant, we are cutting ourselves off from an enormous source of encouragement and comfort. By loving and building good relationships with others, we are creating an expanding network of those who share our faith and values, who will in turn care for us, and who will bathe us in contentment producing fellowship. Just keep in mind that it only works if we love them.
Yet, in terms of contentment, actively loving your neighbors does a significantly important thing: it takes your attention off yourself, your problems, your worries, and your anxieties. When you begin to care as much for others as you do for yourself, you will find yourself too busy to worry. Put in reverse, if you are upset, lay it aside (in keeping with what we’ve already considered), and go find someone to help. Take an interest in that neighbor you have ignored or perhaps even fought with. Look for a person who needs help with a chore or project. Make yourself available to meet a need, not with a check although that has it’s place, but with yourself, your hands, and your heart and mind. Pick up your phone (if it’s not already in your hand) and call someone who is alone, lonely, home-bound, or needing a friend to listen. You will be amazed at the effect of the distraction and the good feeling that comes from doing good for someone else. You might just find yourself remarkably content.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Also in the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Be reconciled to your brother.” Peter wrote, “Seek peace and pursue it,” quoting Psalm 34:14. It is easy to think, given the common emphasis in songs and sermons, that God’s peace is all about serenity, personal peace, much like I’ve been discussing here. However, personal peace is difficult if we’re fighting with someone or if conflict is the norm all around us, as it often is! Christianity is not just about personal peace; it has a strong emphasis on reconciliation and peace, between God and humans, but also between us broken men and women. Clearly, you cannot be loving your neighbor and, at the same time, be fighting with him (or her).
Conflict and disagreement, per se, isn’t wrong; it’s not a sin. We have been created to be unique and uniquely gifted individuals. We come from different families, communities, nations, cultures, and even languages. We live separate lives and have our own set of original experiences. We are bound to see things differently, as male and female, we have different inclinations, and we are living encyclopedias of diverse opinions. How could there not be conflict?! We just need to remember one simple thing: those we love—and we are commanded to love everyone—we will not allow to be divided by conflict. Go back and review some of my earlier thoughts with this in mind, and you will see how much this will help you find contentment.
One more thing fits here. We seem always on the threshold of war, and war seems to be going on some place all the time. “Wars and rumors of war” from Matthew 24:6 are signs of troubled times where Jesus said, “(S)ee to it you’re not alarmed” (KJV–”be not troubled”). War is major conflict, and it exists as described in the previous paragraph. Moreover, like all conflict, sinful responses, intolerance of differences, and violence may lead to terror, destruction, and death. War between tribes, nations, and religions reflect an invisible war of evil spiritual powers opposing God but working through the hearts of men and women. I’ve written briefly about that and note here that Jesus taught us to “love your enemy.”
- Be confident and content in your salvation. In my years as a teacher and counselor, I have learned that it’s important not to apply the wrong promise to a situation. In particular, I don’t emphasize behavior to those who have spiritual doubts regarding their salvation, and I don’t emphasize promises regarding our salvation to those who are living grossly disobedient lives. While God wants you to fear, that is, respect him, he does most assuredly love and care for you…us. He wants you to know you are his child forever. If you’ve read this far and are still not sure about that, just let me know, and I will direct you to more of those promises.
If you are knowingly and happily doing what you know you should not, then you will feel uncertain. I am aware how hard it can be to stop sinning, especially those sins we rather favor or enjoy. I know you stumble, because I stumble, too. That is why God’s mercy and grace are so awesome, because we need them so badly. Just be sure you’re not complacent in your sins, that you don’t really care. That’s the point where the question of sincere faith in Jesus and his work at Calvary becomes a concern. Take a moment to reflect: As time passes, do you feel more and more sinful and feel guilty about it. As you think about Jesus dying for you horribly, hanging from a cross, in unimaginable pain, and finally dying because he can no longer raise his feet on the nails that hold them enough to breathe; he did that to free you (and me, too) from your sin. Imagine Jesus in the room with you as you sin (He is there you know); imagine his eyes, not angry, not fierce, but kind and loving but weeping. If you can do that without feeling horrible, then maybe we need to go back to basics.
Just remember these things. Salvation is a gift from God, and he never takes it back. He has forever adopted you as his child whom he loves unfailingly. He wants you to succeed more than you desire it, and he has and will give you clear direction if you want it. Give all your worry, fear, doubt, anxiety, and stress to God, and let him handle all those concerns for you. Stop letting yourself be offended and angry at every little thing, especially since most of those offenses are not and never were personal and shouldn’t be seen that way. Love and be at peace with your neighbor, remembering that everyone is your neighbor; learn to love even your enemy, who in the end is a sinner just like you are. Relax and enjoy your confidence in the work Christ as done for you, and permit yourself to be content.
1I’m not suggesting you ignore wise people who love you as long as their wisdom is gentle and caring. Give special attention to their warnings; they may spare you serious heartache. Be cautious though, for they are also sinners, limited human beings, and not God. Be especially careful of those who “know” what you should do. As an experienced counselor, I avoid giving specific advice; that means, I will not tell people what to do, even if they ask!
2I’m not forgetting the first part of that command, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. For one thing, we do get mad at God and blame him for our ill feelings. For another, some try to excuse their failing to love people by saying they’re focused on loving God; this is contrary to teachings in I John that say you can’t claim to love an invisible God if you fail to love quite visible people. For yet another, we need to get away from the silly idea that love is about how we feel rather than about how we act. Loving God requires obedience; loving our neighbors is at the top of God’s commands.