The Secret to Contentment

Have you ever had a big event where you expected a lot of people to show up? You planned for a Bible study and had 25 people tell you that they would come. Then, only 5 showed up. You planned an anniversary party for 100, and only 50 showed up. Disappointment.

Getting involved with people can be disappointing. The Apostle Paul was involved with a lot of people. He was dependent on people to give him money to fund his work.

We might expect that when people didn’t give what they had promised, he might be frustrated. But he wasn’t. He had learned the secret to contentment: “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” (Phil. 4:11-12).

Most of us walk around thinking that we would be happy if other people would change. If my kids would act differently, if my spouse would show me respect, if my employer was more understanding, if I had more money, if I had a better car, if I lived somewhere else, I’d be happy.

The trouble with this approach is that things outside of us will rarely match up to our expectations inside us. So, we’ll always be unhappy.

There’s another option. We can adjust to our circumstances. That’s the secret to contentment that the Apostle Paul had learned.

Notice that he had learned it. He does not say that he knew how to be content the moment he became a Christian. It’s something he learned.

So, we can learn it, too.

Here’s the sum of what he learned: leave the past in the past, leave the future in the future, and embrace the present good and opportunities.

Leave the past in the past. We often can’t let go of the failures, hurts, and losses of the past, and so we can’t be happy in the present. The Apostle Paul had learned to let those things go. “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).

Leave the future in the future. Worry about the future robs us of contentment in the present. Here’s what Paul had learned: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6). We can be sure that our heavenly Father will take care of us in the future and that our future is bright. We just need to lay these worries on Him and let Him carry them.

Embrace the present good. As I pointed out here, our brain is like velcro for the bad and teflon for the good. We need to start taking in the good. Since we normally don’t take in the good around us, it’s not surprising that we’er unhappy.

Here’s what the Apostle Paul said: “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” (Phil. 4:8). Don’t ignore the bad. Just take in the good. That’s the secret to contentment.

The most important present good is the love of Christ. We can rejoice in the Lord. In Him, we are the forgiven, justified, adopted children of God who are being made like Christ and transformed into eternal glory. If we would take this one thing in, we would be much less concerned about our circumstances.

Finally, we need to embrace the present opportunities. We are often stuck in the opportunities of the past or looking for those of the future, but there are opportunities for us to do significant things today. The Apostle Paul prayed that they would find this, “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more” (Phil. 1:9). Not tomorrow but today.

For example, people often lament that their family relationships aren’t what they had hoped for, and they lose sight of the opportunity that they have the opportunity to work on those relationships today.

Embracing the opportunities we do have and letting go of the opportunities we’d like to have but don’t will bring us contentment in the present.

God has so much more for us than we tend to think or often notice. He has love and peace for us that transcends our understandings. He has blessings in abundance. He wants to use us to do significant things that bless ourselves and others and glorify God. So, let’s leave the past in the past, leave the future in the future, and embrace the present good and opportunities.

This may seem like a tough task. Another part of Paul’s secret is that we can’t do it on our own. It’s Christ in us: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me the strength.” It’s ultimately Christ who gives us the very peace that produces contentment.

In the church, we often talk about receiving Christ as our Savior. If you haven’t done that, I would encourage you to do so. But that’s just the beginning. Christ is not only the one who saves us. He’s the one who continues to empower us and shower us with His love. We need to continue to embrace that by the same faith by which we first believed.

Unlike some cynics, I don’t think Tim Tebow is wrong to apply Phil. 4:13 to football. God is pleased with our work and play in creation as well as activities that relate to salvation.

However, let’s note the immediate context. This is about contentment. God wants us to experience joy and peace. He’s not only calling us to experience it. He’s empowering us to do it. Let’s believe and claim this promise.

Hardwiring Happiness

Our brains present an interesting paradox. When it comes to bad things, we worry about them and go over them again and again.

When it comes to good things, we don’t even hold them in our mind for ten seconds.

Rick Hanson, in his helpful book Hardwiring Happiness deals at length with this paradox from the perspective of brain science.

Hanson notes that our brain “has a hair-trigger readiness to go negative to help you survive” (20). He describes the way our brain works this way, “when the least little thing goes wrong or could be trouble, the brain zooms in on it with a kind of tunnel vision that downplays everything else” (21).

In contrast, Hanson notes, our brains hardly give any attention to good experiences. “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones” (27).

Think about it: “how often do we stay with a positive experience for five, ten, or twenty seconds in row?” (27).

We just don’t take in the good.

In a previous article, I pointed out that part of the cure of anxiety is prayer and trust in our heavenly Father. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6; you can read my post on this topic, “The Anxiety Cure,” here).

Another direction from which we can attack anxiety is by taking in good things. Notice that little prepositional phrase that Paul adds to his statement about prayer, “with thanksgiving.” That means, even in our stress, we need to take in the good and be thankful for what we have.

That’s also what Paul mentions immediately afterwards. “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” (Phil. 4:8).

What does this look like? Obviously, for the Christian, it means that we take in the good news that we are accepted by God and adopted as His children in Jesus Christ. We need to dwell on this in our minds for a period of time (see more on this here).

But we shouldn’t limit it to that. God has given us good things all around us. For myself, I go out onto my deck in the morning and enjoy a time of meditation, prayer, study, and coffee. I need to take this experience in and enjoy it. I need to dwell on the fact that I have beautiful trees around me and that God has blessed me with a beautiful place to live. I see all the places where my children play and enjoy the beautiful property where God has blessed us to live. He has given me a mind to know Him and interact with Him. He blesses me with the quiet of the morning. He provides me with good things like coffee that give me pleasure.

This is not a call to ignore hard things. It’s a call to balance, to really see and experience the good.

But what would happen if we really took in these good things consistently throughout the day by meditating on them for 10 or 20 seconds or longer? Wouldn’t thinking on what is good and lovely have a significant effect on our mental well-being?

What if we accompanied every request we made with thanksgiving that dwelt on the goodness of God and the resources He has available for us?

Rick Hanson gives a helpful description of the science of contentment, but we have more. We have the promise of God. “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).

Your Best Days Are Ahead of You

How much can you grow? How much could you improve if you really worked at it?

Many of us think that our days of growth are behind us. We think we’ve mastered most of the things we can master. We think we’ve learned most of what we need to learn.

True, we might not say it, but that’s our operating assumption. We don’t think of ourselves as people who have a lot of growing to do.

I’m going to recount an embarrassing story that illustrates these points. Around 2012, I spent some time studying leadership principles. I enjoyed that study, and I learned a lot.

By 2014, I felt (this is the embarrassing part) that I had learned most of what I needed to learn from the leadership gurus. My learning was over in that area.

Earlier that year, I had reserved my spot at a satellite campus presentation of the Global Leadership Summit. By July, I was not excited about it because I felt that I wouldn’t learn that much from it.

Well, I was wrong. That year, I listened to Susan Cain talk about introverts and leadership and Joseph Grenny talk about how to have crucial conversations. Both of these talks (and later the books) introduced me to extremely important concepts that I’ve continued to incorporate into my life and ministry. Continue reading “Your Best Days Are Ahead of You”

4 Weights from Our Past that Keep Us from Running in the Present

God has so much more ahead of us than we could possibly believe.

That’s why the Apostle Paul said that he resolved to keep moving forward: “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13–14).

But forgetting the past is easier said than done. The past continues to haunt our present, weigh us down, and keep us from running.

We need to resolve to leave the past in the past so we can run in the present, but we also need help with how.

Below are four weights that keep us from running the present and how we can “forget” them and leave them in the past.

  1. Losses

    Losses include more than people. We can experience loss when our dreams collapse, when we lose a job, or when plans or relationships fail. These losses weigh us down and make us feel like there is no hope.

    How to leave it in the past: grieve. God has given us a way to deal with losses: eyes that cry. That’s why we have funerals. We gather friends and relatives and grieve together. Sometimes we need to have a funeral for a lost dream, vision, or relationship.

  2. Continue reading “4 Weights from Our Past that Keep Us from Running in the Present”

An Identity More Secure than Our Greatest Successes

A few weeks ago, I got an email from a friend. The subject line read: “I love you, but . . .”

So, I quickly deleted it. Just kidding.

It was a criticism of a suggestion that I had made to a common acquaintance of ours.

I called my friend and said, “Don’t worry about it. My identity is not wrapped up in whether my opinions or suggestions are right or not. And if it is, it shouldn’t be.”

In spite of what I said, I know that I do often wrap up my identity in being right about even the most trivial things. I shouldn’t, but I do.

I fear that if I’m not right or don’t have a good suggestion, then I won’t be valuable.

The fact is that I need to see myself this way: I am a man who makes mistakes. That’s just part of the package that is me.

Not only do I try to imagine I don’t make mistakes, but I also try to build my identity on my successes: how well I did, how many friends I have, what people think of me, what I have achieved.

The trouble with our successes is that they are always open to questions like these: How much money do I have to make to be valuable? How big does my church have to be? How successful do my children have to be? How many home runs do I have to hit? How many degrees should I have? What if people don’t like me? Am I still valuable?

We need a better foundation for our identity than our successes. The Bible reveals that better foundation. Our identity should be built not on what we do or what we say but on what God thinks of us. Continue reading “An Identity More Secure than Our Greatest Successes”

Our Inward Sickness

by Brian Carpenter
My sister-in-law got remarried not too long ago. Her new husband seems like a good man, and we have high hopes that their marriage will be a good one. Her first marriage was deeply unhappy and she was grievously sinned against in it. My wife had to shop for a wedding gift, of course. While she was doing that, I noticed that the famous love passage from 1 Corinthians 13 is a prominent theme on many of these gifts. You know the one. It begins “love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy or boast . . .” It ends with the words, “love never fails.”

Now, these are true words, and I believe them with my whole heart. The problem is that they are being subtly applied in a wrong way most of the time, and it has led to an epidemic of heartbreak. C.S. Lewis, in his book The Four Loves shows us that the Greeks had four words for love. Storgē, or “affection” is exemplified by the love between a parent and child, though it is much richer than that. Philia, or “friendship” has its own special meaning. Eros is “romantic” love. And there is Agapē, or “spiritual” love. Agapē is the love that God gives to His children and then commands them to give to everyone else. Agapē is what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13. Continue reading “Our Inward Sickness”

How to Have Humility When Both Sides Stop Listening

In a previous post, I claimed that humility is a healing balm for political discord. If we can learn to value others with whom disagree, show them respect, and listen, then we can create a better and more peaceful community without sacrificing any of our convictions.

But what happens when both sides stop listening? What happens when you’ve tried everything and someone will not be at peace with you? What happens when all that’s left is coercion or, in the case of nations, war?

Before I give an answer, let me say this. There are very few who have tried to listen in the way we should. I have found that people regularly think there is no way forward, but there is almost always a failure to listen, to think beyond old ways of doing thing, or to respect the other side.

Have you really given humility an honest try?

But back to the main question, what happens when you have and you still find yourself in entrenched conflict? I think not just of politics. Right now, I’m thinking of a split family where one side does nothing but attack. The result is that their family is like two armed camps. How do you exercise humility in such situations? Continue reading “How to Have Humility When Both Sides Stop Listening”

Humility: A Healing Balm for Political Discord

You don’t have to be an astute observer to recognize the intense political discord in our nation. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are merely dramatic examples of that phenomenon.

Long before Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, however, Americans were becoming less and less capable of even talking with those who disagree with them strongly. David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, and Gabe Lyons in their book Good Faith state: “Our research shows that having meaningful conversations is increasingly difficult for many of us. This is true not only on an individual level but also society-wide” (Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016], 17. Check out the book to see their research on this point. For one example, they report that 87% of evangelicals don’t feel comfortable having a religious conversation with a Muslim!).

Social media has only made this worse. In a recent interview, NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggested that with social media present, there is little hope of healing our political discord: “So long as we are all immersed in a constant stream of unbelievable outrages perpetrated by the other side, I don’t see how we can ever trust each other and work together again” (read the whole interview here.)

Strong ideological opinions and religious views always seem to lead to conflict.

This is not surprising. If someone believes that their viewpoint is absolute, then shouldn’t they seek to give it political prominence? Wouldn’t it lead to an attempt to dominate all others in the name of one’s absolute?

Some suggest that we can deal with this is to abandon our strong religious and ideological perspectives. At the least, we should just not talk about them. This is just what many people have chosen to do. As Kinnaman and Lyons explain, “An uncomfortably large segment of Christians would rather agree with people around them than experience even the mildest conflict” (Good Faith, 18).

But there are significant problems with this. First, pride and not the views themselves are the real problem, and pride is just as likely to assert itself in other areas. Rejecting strong ideological and religious views could simply lead people to fight over their own economic interests or preferences without any recourse to values that could connect opposing parties.

Second, it leaves some of what makes us most human out of our political discourse. To be human is to think of bigger things: God, beauty, morality, and a vision for things being better than they are.

Third, how can we ask people to embrace views that are simply contradictory? As John Dickson in his insightful book Humilitas puts it, “Can we seriously ask Buddhists to accept as valid the Hindu doctrine of ‘atman’ or eternal soul when the Buddha himself rejected the idea and taught that there is no soul, and ultimatley, not even a self?” (Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011], 165).

Is there a way that people of strongly divergent views can come together in a democracy in a way that is productive and provides helpful discourse?

Yes, there is. The answer is humility. Humility is a healing balm for our political discord. Continue reading “Humility: A Healing Balm for Political Discord”

Hardly Anybody Does This, But Everyone Should

Most people are concerned about their own interests, and it is hard for any of us to think much beyond them.

I remember one pastor had a plaque on his desk with a saying on it, “People are not against you. They are for themselves.”

As the Apostle Paul thought about the churches he had planted, he lamented, “Everyone looks out for his own interests, and not the interests of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:21).

Isn’t this true? How many of us are really able to think beyond our own prosperity and comfort? How many of us can sacrifice for a cause that is truly bigger than ourselves?

As a Pastor, I need to ask this, too. Would I care about the prosperity of the church I serve if I was not its Pastor? How much do I care about church in general? Do I participate in church activities when I’m not being paid?

If we’re honest, as Pastors, a lot of our interest in church is more self-interest than we realize.

Truly, everyone looks out for his own interests and not the interests of Jesus Christ.

Why are we so obsessed with our own interests? Continue reading “Hardly Anybody Does This, But Everyone Should”

How to Live by Grace

In Philippians 1, the Apostle Paul tells the Philippians that he prays to God that their love would increase (v. 9). This means that love is a gift of God’s grace, and we should ask Him to give us that gift. We can’t just manufacture love on our own.

This is further confirmed by what Paul goes on to say in the same passage. The fruit of righteousness “comes through Jesus Christ—to the praise and glory of God” (1:11).

In addition, the Philippians can be assured of the grace of God because “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (1:6).

Our virtues are gifts of God’s grace.

This is more controversial than it should be among Christians. One reason for this, I believe, is that people take these truths out of the broader context of Scripture.

So, Christian A will say, “Did you work out your own salvation with fear in trembling, or was it God who was working in you?”

Christian B responds, “I worked. Christianity has not been easy.”

Christian A responds, “No, it was God working in you.” And the conversation spirals down from there. Continue reading “How to Live by Grace”