By Rankin Wilbourne, Lead Pastor
Since my September 18th message on contentment, many people have written me about it. It struck a chord. The book I mentioned and quoted several times is The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by Jeremiah Burroughs. It’s worth your time, as is reflecting again on Paul’s humility:
“I have learned,” he says, “in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” (Philippians 4:11-12)
If that sounds impossible to you, notice that even Paul says in verse 11, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” In other words, “I have learned that contentment in every condition is a great art, an art to be learned. I have not always been a content person. There was a time when I wasn’t, but now after all I’ve been through, I have learned.”
Even Paul had to learn this secret.
I am not a content man. I have not yet learned what Paul has. What I am learning from Jesus, Paul, the rest of the Bible, and other wise teachers is the path toward contentment.
If Paul learned how to be content, what did he learn? Before we can learn this art, there is first something we must unlearn: discontentment.
It’s easy for me to think of discontentment as a fact of life, even a virtue in disguise, a by-product of ambition. So it was altogether striking to go back and read the story of God’s people wandering in the wilderness. The people had been liberated from Egypt, but they are not yet where they want to be. They are waiting – in limbo.
Things aren’t going well, so they do what we do when we’re not happy. They grumble, they complain, they murmur. And here’s what’s striking: it really bothers God. I’ll give two of many examples:
The LORD says, “How long will this wicked community grumble against Me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites.” (Numbers 14:27)
Three times in one verse, God repeats “grumble” and “complain” to show His indignation:
You murmured in your hearts and said, “Because the LORD hated us He has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites.” (Deuteronomy 1:27)
Now what’s the big deal about complaining and grumbling? We all do it. Whether it’s traffic or your job or your life, where you are right now. “I thought I’d be married by now.”
We think the real problem is what we’re complaining about. But no, that’s just smoke, and where’s there’s smoke there’s fire. And the fire, what’s smoldering underneath our grumbling spirit, is something far more serious, even sinister. And all the more sinister is that we treat it as a trifle.
Your discontentment is not a minor inconvenience. Your discontentment is a grave sin against God. Because every time we complain or grumble about our circumstances, we accuse God – we belittle God’s character and God’s care.
You can hope, you can be upset, you can long for things to be different. But when we are discontent, if we are not crying out to God, we are complaining about God, whether we realize it or not.
That’s the big deal: discontentment. That’s the fire underneath the smoke of our grumbling. And fueling this fire of discontent is a steady fuel of four lies.
The Four Lies We Have to Unlearn
1. God is holding out on me
All the way back in the garden, this was Satan’s game with Eve: “If God were really good, He’d let you eat from that tree. He doesn’t want you to have that, because He doesn’t want what’s best for you. He’s holding out on you.”
In the wilderness the people said, “Because the LORD hated us, He brought us out of Egypt.” Same idea. “If God were really good to us, we wouldn’t be stuck here!”
Similarly, when we complain today – without crying out to God in prayer – you are smearing God’s character. God is not holding out on you; that’s a lie.
2. God owes me
Behind our discontentment is an assumption that we are entitled to happiness. It’s in our national fabric: that we are entitled to “life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As if we have a right to happiness and therefore a right to be discontent.
Now this is going to be hard to hear, but it needs to be said: if we gave to God absolute 100% perfect obedience, every moment of our lives, we would only be giving Him what He deserves. At our best, we would have only done our duty.
And since we haven’t given God perfect obedience, God has treated us far better than we deserve.
I had a friend, an older man named Ken Camp, who just died. But what I thought about on the day of his funeral, what I always loved about Ken, was that he always greeted me the same way. I would say, “Hey Ken, how you doing?” And he’d always say the same thing: “Better than I deserve!”
Next time you complain, remember you don’t have a right to happiness. The only thing God owes us is justice. And everything in your life better than hell is the mercy of God.
3. If only
You ever play the “if only” game? You daydream, “If only I had that… then…”
Or “If only I had __________, then I could finally rest.”
Every great teacher from Buddha to Socrates has told us this is a lie. But we don’t seem to believe them. So God dedicated an entire book of the Bible so we might know that there is nothing under the sun that can satisfy our souls.
Imagine a man more brilliant that Albert Einstein, more wealthy than Bill Gates, more powerful than Barack Obama, the spiritual pedigree of Billy Graham, but more of a hedonist that Hugh Hefner. That’s King Solomon, who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes – who chased “if only” in terms of power, money, sex, fame and learning – but who concluded, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!”
“If only” is a chasing after the wind. It’s a lie.
4. I know what’s best for me
When you worry, you are saying, “I know what’s best for me, and I’m worried God won’t get it right.”
One old writer put it in a word picture:
Are you not the King’s son?
Are you the daughter of the King of heaven and earth?
And yet so disquieted and troubled and vexed at what is happening to you,
As if the King’s son were to cry out that he is undone for losing his rattler, his toy!
In every disposition, God knows better than you do what you need.
I realize this is some strong drink. But since we are so “entitled,” it must be said directly. We will never learn how to be content unless we first unlearn our discontent.
Grumbling, complaining is just the smoke. You can’t put out that fire unless you turn off the fuel, the lies fueling your discontentment. Discontent is the worm in the apple that eats out the sweetness of what is already in your hands by distracting you with what you don’t have.
We treat it as a trifle but it insults the character of God. If you think God takes it lightly, go and read the story told in Numbers, Chapter 11.
Our hope is that these lies can be unlearned. And only then we can find contentment. Paul shares with us the great ‘secret’ he has learned: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)
Only through Christ, who must not only save me but strengthen me. Lord Jesus, strengthen me today, to bear what is beyond my strength. Uphold me today.