A few years ago I visited an old prison in Armenia. It was a jail that once housed St. Gregory the Illuminator, the patron saint of Armenia. The prison wasn’t in use but we were able to descend to his cell. It was windowless, it was damp, it was well below ground level and for those of us who were claustrophobic it was an impossible place.
Ancient prisons were difficult places. For that matter so are modern prisons. And so it’s interesting that the apostle Paul writes from prison and says “I’ve learned how to be content.” Phillipians
Paul believed that contentment is an ‘inside-out’ thing. Psychologists agree with Paul, by the way. They’re always trying to get their clients to develop and internal locus of control not an external one.
You see, we live in a world that believes contentment moves from the outside and then in. That’s why we try to control our circumstances whenever we can. I know that I do better when the weather is good, the sky is blue and there’s nothing but clear sailing on the horizon. I’ve discovered that when the outside influences are going well…
When my relationships are strong.
When health is good.
When work is satisfying.
When there’s enough money in the bank to pay the bills
When the to-do list is doable
When my sports teams are winning
When the weather is great
When I feel God’s blessing more than His discipline … then life is good.
I feel content. Until a wheel falls off. Until a relationship goes south or work isn’t satisfying or when the Cubs miss the playoff and then I can get a little disgruntled, no longer at peace, discontented. And wheels fall off all the time. Every day. Despite my best efforts (and believe me I try) I can't control my circumstances. Only my response to them.
What’s out there determines my mood. But it’s the most unreliable guide for contentment.
I think contentment in today’s world is hard to come by. People are dissatisfied, anxious, and agitated in almost epic proportions. Discontentment is the cultural game and it bleeds into our lives. Outside in doesn’t work.
Paging through the New Testament the apostle Paul writes to the Church in Phillipi. He writes from prison and he pens these words.
… for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.
I have learned how to be content. I’ve learned the secret.
For Paul, the secret is the deep belief that God began and continued a good work in him. It’s this deep conviction that ‘he could do anything and everything through Christ who gave him strength.’ Paul believed that his inner Holy Spirit driven spiritual compass and constant companion, Jesus. could keep him on course and at peace despite the circumstances of his life.
It’s what’s inside that counts.
I bow to circumstance far too often. Maybe you do too.
How’s that working for you? I know, for me, it doesn’t work well at all.
Today, I received two e-mails. Let's just say the words pierced deep, wounding. No fun. Also had a doctor's appointment. His assessment. Get thin or else.
So, the weight of circumstance is huge. Daggers to my ego, my abilities, and longevity. Almost everything in me wants to run, hide, and escape. Almost everything. Thankfully, there's a current of peace and contentment running through me. It reminds me that bad days happen. This too shall pass. Circumstances are out of our control. Our response isn't.
So, riding that current of peace and contentment is vital. It reminds me that God is in control. It doesn't mean that I don't heed my doctor's instructions or seek to reconcile with the e-mailers or look carefully at the issues raised. No, that wouldn't be God's best for me. Contentment can't be fed by avoidance. But in the midst of 'pressing in' God wants me to find the current of his peace.
God's best means I give Him permission to keep working in and through my life. To have him complete that good work He started in me long ago.