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In Difficult Circumstances, Part 1

From the series I Choose Peace

As we travel, we understand the horizon is always moving. The same is true in our desperate search for peace. In this program, Chip tells us peace is not a thing to be achieved, but a secret to be discovered.

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Message Transcript

Webster, if you’re wondering exactly what contentment is, says that contentment is “happy enough with what one has or is; not desiring something more or different.”  In other words, you’re satisfied.  When you’re content, it’s not just you’re happy with what you have; you – you’re happy with who you are.  You wouldn’t want to be three inches taller or seven inches shorter or . . .  You know?  You’re content.  You would say, “It’s enough; it’s good.”  And I want you to think back to what is it you believe would really help you be content, and the clearer that you can get on that, I believe, the more powerfully God is going to speak to you.

‘Cause in human terms, the problem with contentment is that the horizon is always moving.  There’s a time in your life when you say, “If I ever get a car, any kind of car, a beat-up junker, just a car, that I’d be happy.”  You know, then you get that car and you want one that really runs, and then you get that car, and then pretty soon, you want one that it runs and looks nice, and you get that car.  And pretty soon, now you want two cars, and . . .

You know?  It goes on and on and on and on.  The horizon always keeps moving.  “If I ever get married, God, I’d never ask for another thing.”  Three years later, “Oh, God, if You could ever work out this marriage, I’d never ask for another thing!”  “God, if You’d give me – give us a child!  Oh, Lord, how did You bring that last one?”  You know.  The horizon keeps moving.

And so, being human nature what it is, philosophically, people over the ages have tried to solve this contentment issue in – in two drastic ways.  One group has taken that contentment will be found by conquering, achieving, acquiring until satisfied.  That was the Roman Empire: You know what?  We got part of the world; we’re going to get the whole world.

We’re going to own, acquire, have, get, bigger, better, more, and then as soon as we get that, there’s got to be just a little bit more, and when we do, then we’ll be content.

But we know, from our personal experience, that that doesn’t work.  Sure, it’s nice to have nice stuff, it’s nice to have a better job than the one you used to have, et cetera, et cetera, but that horizon keeps moving.  And it’s kind of a funny thing: You think to yourself, I liked this watch until we went to the mall yesterday.  I mean, this was a great watch – you know?  You – hypothetically?  And then you walk by and you see Bulova, Rolex.  Oh, I guess it’s an okay watch.  And so no matter but if I turned this one in and got another one, I could go to the mall next week, couldn’t I?  And have the exact same problem.

And so, in philosophic thought, one group of people thought, that’s not the way to go.  It’s not about getting, getting, acquiring, and having, because there’s no end to it.  A group called the Stoics turned it around and said, “We’re going to desire less and less, until it doesn’t matter.”  In fact, Eastern and Buddhist thought goes along these lines: I want less, less, less, less.

And so, the Stoic philosophers got where they could emotionally detach.  They would take a – a vase or a cup that they liked, and as a part of the process of their thinking, they would throw it to the ground, watch it break, and say, “It doesn’t matter.”  And then they would literally allow – this is historical – they would get a pet that they were fond of and kill the pet, and then say, “It doesn’t matter.”

The only way to have peace is get less and less and less.  And then when one of their children died or something happened, it would be . . .  It can’t impact me.  I like the quote of T.R. Glover, said, “The Stoics made the heart a desert and called it peace.”

And I don’t know about you, but we got a little problem here.  If getting more, more, more, more can never bring contentment, and if desiring less, less, less, then the question is, how can we be satisfied today?

And the answer to that is from the apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and he’s going to tell you, and he’s going to tell me, how you actually can be content, not when this, this, th –  You can be content today.  You can actually live your life in a way, empowered by the Spirit of God, so that when things are great or when things are terrible, you can say, and mean it, “It is well with my soul.”  And you’re going to learn it today.

In fact, when I got thinking about this, we should have charged people to come in.  It can have such a profound impact, in terms of the whole world’s looking for happiness, and today, God is going to teach us, His children, how you can experience a “it is well with your soul,” 24/7, 365, 24 hours a day.

Now, it’s a journey; it doesn’t happen all at once.

Well, let’s find out where that answer is found – Philippians chapter 4, 10 to 13.

If you have your Bible, you can track along with me, but I put the text in, so we could be in the same translation.

Here’s the occasion: The – the occasion is the apostle Paul is in prison.  So, you’ve got to remember he’s writing a letter, and this church – the Philippian church – they’ve got this great relationship, and the theme of this whole letter that he writes to them is about joy, and it started in such a way where there are not a lot of problems in this church, maybe one little relational problem toward the end, but . . .

But he – he’s built this bond with them, and things have gone a little bit south for him.  He’s ended up in jail; he’s in a Roman prison.  And I’m not exactly sure what all that, but I know that every four to six hours, a new guard is chained to him.  The food is not real good.  He’s got scars on his body.  He’s had a very difficult life.  This is toward the latter parts of his life.  So you’ve got bad food, it’s cold, it’s damp, there are rats, there’s probably the smell of excrement.  I mean, his situation is really bad.

But Epaphroditus, one of the church guys, found out, finally – ‘cause they’d lost track of one another – where he was, and they came and brought him a gift.  And what you’re going to read is his literal thank-you note.  He’s just writing a thank-you note.  So listen to what he says in verse 10.  He says, “I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me.  Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.”

And circle the word renewed.  This word, renewed, is used for when a flower or a plant that has been dormant is now beginning to bloom.

And the apostle Paul is saying, “We had those great times together, and God birthed the Church, and we were that band of brothers and sisters, and then I ended up in prison.  We lost track of one another.  I knew you cared about me, but now you have opportunity –”  And it’s like the relationship has bloomed again.

And notice the phrase: “I greatly rejoice… I’m happy!  I’m sitting in this prison, but I greatly rejoice in the Lord.”

And then, notice he’s going to clarify his motives, ‘cause I don’t know about you, sometimes if you’ve helped someone – this is the only church we know of, early on, that financially supported Paul.  It was the first one.  And so he wants them to know – now, this is not, one of those thank-you letters, “Thank you for this great contribution to the ministry.  Now, let me tell you how much money I need next.”  He says, “My motives are just from the heart.”

Picking it up in verse 11, he says, “I’m not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”  He goes on to say, “I know what it is to be in need . . . 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.”

Now, would you go through and take the word learned and put a box around it, and then skip down where he says, “I’ve learned,” again.  It’s very interesting.  This isn’t a tense of the verb – it’s not present tense, “I am learning to be content.”  This is a tense of the verb that’s punctiliar, seeing something.  He basically is saying, “In this journey with God, I’ve had mountain peaks and low times.  I remember when I had a lot; I was a young man.”

Some say he may have been the most brilliant mind of his time. He got his MBA and his doctorate at Harvard Business School of his day and graduated number one.  He was a Pharisee. He came from an upper-crust family.  He was a Roman citizen.  He was from this place called Tarsus.

Barnabas, early friend, was very, very wealthy.  He knows what it’s like to drive the nicest cars, have the nicest clothes, be esteemed by people, live in a nice house, go to any restaurant whenever, and have a fat 401(k).  He knows what that life’s like.

But he says, “I’ve had plenty,” but he also says, “The ups, I’ve also had downs, night and a day in the deep.  I’ve been beat within an inch of my life” – the 39 lashes – “three times.  I’ve been left for dead once.”  In this current situation, one of his closest friend named Demas betrayed him and left.  He’s by himself.  His body is marked with the scars.  He’s had times where he has had no food for days at a time.

He’s lived as high as you can live in his day, and he’s lived as low as you can live.  And in the ups and downs, there’s a thread that connects all of them, and it’s a supernatural relationship with Jesus.

And he says – he looks at that whole thing, and he says, like he’s taking a photograph – snap – “I have learned.”  Now, this is – this is what he’s saying – like, I learned to ride a bike, okay?  I’m not learning to ride a bike.

If you put a bike up here, trust me, I can get on it and I can ride it.  I can get better, but I have learned to ride a bike.  You know what he’s saying here?  “I’ve learned to be content,” which means it’s possible.

“I’ve learned to have a ton of money in the bank, to go to the finest restaurants, have everything going my way, and I’ve learned, when my physical body didn’t work, when my closest friends betrayed me, when people walked out on my life, and when it seemed like things could not have been any worse, I have learned already, out of my relationship with Christ, to say and to actually experience, ‘It’s well with my soul.’  No fake, no artificial...”

And then in verse 13, he tells us how it occurs.  He says, “I [actually] can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.”

So, this is by way of an overview of what’s happening, and by way of conclusion, contentment is not a thing to be achieved but a secret to be discovered.  As we’re here today, you can actually discover a secret.  There is a way – he said, “I’ve learned the secret,” and he says, “I’ve got it!  I am content.”  It’s not something to be achieved; there is a pattern of things that you can learn, that you could walk out that door or one of those doors out of here, and you could start a journey, and you could come to the point in this life that, regardless of your circumstances, you could be fully satisfied, content, not want for anything else and be satisfied and content with who you are, where you are, what you’re doing.

And this word means – the word content means “self-sufficiency.”  This is not the removal of – I love what one commentator says: “He learned the secret of deep peace based on detachment from his outward circumstances.”  And then he goes on to say, “This is not a fatalism which cuts the nerve of ambition or smoothes endeavors.  No, it is a detachment from anxious concern about the outward features of this life.”  This kind of contentment doesn’t mean you – “Well, I’m going to lay back on the couch and –”  This is pressing on, being all you want to be.  And in the midst of the ups and downs of life - a veritable peace in your heart, a satisfaction that’s supernatural.

And the question I want to ask is, how do you get that?  Paul knew it was a moving target.  Paul knew from his experience that getting more and more and more wouldn’t do it.  Paul knew – the philosophers of his day – there were multiple Stoics.  He knew pretending that relationships don’t matter and saying, “Less and less,” isn’t it.  And the apostle Paul is gonna say, “I’m going to share the secret.  I will show you, in this text,” he’s saying to us, “how you can be content.”  So let’s dig in.

Four principles and four practices.  Okay, this isn’t idealistic.  This isn’t, one of those messages, somewhere, someday.  He’s going to walk you through and walk me through four specific practices that there’s a principle behind them, that if you understand the principle and start to progressively begin to practice it, you can come to a day in your life where you could say, “I’ve learned to be content.”  Just like you can say, “I can ride a bike,” just like you can say, “I’ve mastered this or that,” you can learn to be content.  That’s pretty exciting.  The question is – how?

Contrary to the lie that I’ll be content when my circumstances align with my desires, the first secret of contentment is learning our contentment –

principle number one – is not dependent on our circumstances.  See, unconsciously, what you’ve been taught, what I’ve been taught, what the world teaches us, what each commercial says is, here are your circumstances over here, and here are your desires.  Someday, some way, through lots of things, when your circumstances and desires align, then you can be happy, then you can be satisfied.

I call it the “when/then” syndrome.  Here’s the when: When I get married, then I’ll be happy.  When I have a great job, then I’ll be happy.  When my marriage is on all cylinders, then I’ll be happy.  When we have a child, when we have more money, when we have a second house, when we remodel the bathroom, when I make the cheerleading squad, when I finally score this on the SAT, when I get into this college, when, when, when, then, then, then, then!  It’s a lie.

The people that have the “then” are not happy.  And yet we, like cats chasing their tail, just increase the speed of the “when/then” mentality. Paul says the answer is to break the power of this lie, and he gives us the practice: Be grateful.  Be grateful.  Be thankful.  Put another way, develop the discipline of thanking God for what you do have instead of focusing on what you don’t have.

You understand that billions of dollars each year coming across the screen, in every magazine ad are designed specifically to make you - what?  Discontent.  In other words, that set of cloths will make you . . .  So, I gotta go get that.  This food will make you . . .  This drink will make you . . .  This job will make you . . .  This surgery will make you . . .  This diet will make you . . .  When/then, when/then.

Paul says human nature, as we focus on what we don’t have, don’t have, don’t have – he says, “Here’s what I’ve learned: I habitually, relentlessly, obediently thank God, moment for moment, for what I do have.”

And this is not a nice suggestion, you know, the power of positive thinking.  Jot down, if you will, 1 Thessalonians 5, verses 16 through 18.  Sixteen says, “Rejoice always.”  Seventeen says, “Pray without ceasing.”  Eighteen says, “…  giving thanks in all things, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”  The giving of thanks in all things, and for all things, it’s God’s will.

Let me give you a picture.  By the way, Christian or not – you can be a Christian and be a very ungrateful, crumbling person, and it can be very, very subtle and destroy your contentment.

I married a wonderful, wonderful woman named Theresa, and we had no premarital counseling, and she loved God and I loved God, and within six months, we were in seminary.  And everything about her was – she’s east, I’m west; north – I’m south.  We don’t – we only have to take one test on all those inventories.  Whoever takes the test, then whatever that person is you just put the exact opposite, and that’s what you are.  Saves a lot of time.  And so differences attract – like two magnets, it was, like, Woom!  Oh, man, this is awesome!

But about nine months into our marriage, or a year, year and a half, as we kept going, those opposites - she was very, very faithful; now she’s rigid.  She has great integrity; now she’s just picky over little things.  And so, I had a list, after about six or eight months in our marriage.

I’m thinking, “This is a good marriage, but . . .”  I focused on the five percent.  I just unconsciously said, There are five or six things that she can improve, and when she improves, we’ll have a great marriage.

So, I started the self-help program of how to make Theresa who she needs to be.  You know, if she was a little more that way, a little more that way, a lot less that way, if she would do this, stop doing this, this is going to be great.

So –  it’s a project, gotta do what you’re supposed to do.

So I decided to focus on those areas she needed to develop.  Now, a lot of times I never said anything, but this is what’s going through my mind.  And it comes out in my habits.  And pretty soon, we’re – you know what?  We really love each other, we really love God, and I’m in seminary preparing for ministry, and we’re making each other nuts.

And I got to tell you something: Not only did God provide some wise pastoral counseling – and we went to some counseling and worked through some of our baggage and we learned all that – but I’ll tell you, at the heart of it – and I still do it, you know.  Almost, I don’t know, 27, 30 years later, I still do it.  I begin the process of being grateful and thanking God for what I did have in my wife and stop focusing on the five percent that I didn’t have.

It’ll change your world.  To this day, I’ll still go out to a coffee shop, and sometimes – just when I’m struggling emotionally – and every – everyone does, and you have these little, kind of, distances in your marriage – I will often get out a napkin and start writing down, “She is faithful.  She’s an awesome mom.  Man, she prays for me.  She is beautiful.”

And I’ll just write down all the things, and I’ll thank God, thank God, thank God, thank God.  You know what happens?  My emotions change.  And when my emotions change, I treat her differently, and when I treat her differently, that five percent keeps shrinking.

What’s your situation?  What relationship, what issue in your life are you constantly focusing on what you don’t have, instead of thanking God for what you do have?  The apostle Paul says if you want to experience contentment – it is well with your soul – practice number one: Be grateful.

The second secret to contentment dispels the myth that contentment is a future event.  Somehow, in America and – and multiple places around the world, we think there’s some future event – not just a when/then, but it’s like there’s a lotto out there.  The lotto might be a person, the lotto might be the actual Lotto and I’m going to get 35 billion zillion dollars, but there’s this event, and when it occurs, [gasps] “Ahhh!”

Notice what the apostle Paul says, principle number two: Contentment is an attitude we learn, not a thing that we achieve.

You say, “Well, where do you get that?”  Well, look at verse 11: “I have learned.”  Look at verse 12: “I have learned.”  You might circle those, if you have it.  Contentment is not out there, external.  Contentment is God doing something in you, through you, so it’s in here.  Epicurus said, “To him who little is not enough, nothing is enough.”  The practice: Be teachable.  Be teachable.  If you really want to learn to ride the bicycle of contentment as a way of life, you learn to practice gratefulness, thankfulness, and then, be teachable.  Ask God what He wants you to learn in your present circumstance, instead of telling God what you want Him to change.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if we put a little recorder under your pillow or someplace where you pray – if you pray out loud – where we could record your mind and we could listen to your prayers?  My prayers?  I wonder how many of our prayers are totally about, “God, I want You to change my boss, I want You to change my wife, I want You to – actually, I’d like to change something, ‘cause I don’t have a wife.  Uh, I want You to change this; I want You to change that.  I want You to change this about me; I want You to change this about that.

God, here’s Your agenda.  I know You’re the great self-help genie and Your whole goal at being the Creator of all that there is, is to make me happy, fulfilled, warm, and fuzzy every day and every way, so here’s my list.  Take care of it, will You?”  See, unconsciously, that’s the lie we’ve believed.

People that are content first say, “Thank You, Lord.”  Not pie in the sky, “Thank You, God.  It’s hard, it’s difficult, I don’t like it, but I choose to say thank You.”  And then they’re teachable: “God, because of these circumstances, what do You want to teach me?  Instead of asking You to do something out there, what is it You want me to learn?”