The secret to being content

Photo by Hannah Domsic on Unsplash

As I lean forward over the handlebars of my bike, tiny arrows of rain slant under my glasses and sting my lower eyelids, my upper cheeks. A laugh escapes as I savor the joy of this morning’s adventure, feeling a cool rivulet creep down the front of my jacket, and the puddles that have formed in the toes of my shoes sneak a little further back with each press of the pedal. I’m alive! For this half hour, I’m out in this beautiful world. And, most wonderful of all, Jesus and I are on this adventure together.

I can’t see the detail of the leaves beside the path today, but I know what I’d see if my vision wasn’t obscured by dozens of convex droplets, each their own little lens, changing the shape of the lenses I need to correct my vision. I’ve been watching the leaves on the thorny thimbleberry vines that creep along beside the path and climb into mounds of tangled vines. The berries are long gone, and since the cold snap a couple of weeks ago, the leaves have begun to change. But each leaf is dying differently. One still clings to its summer green except where tiny paths of gold creep along the veins and a rim of red tints the pinked edges.

Another is almost completely crimson, with hints of peach tracking each vein.

Another is turning from the tip, red creeping down into the center of the dark green leaf like a fire intent on consuming the whole.

Is it always in the dying, in the ceasing to cling to our lives, that we become most beautiful, most freely and fully ourselves?

This week I’ve been pondering Paul’s statement:

“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 4:12).

What was this secret that he knew? And why didn’t he share it with us? 

Or did he? 

I trace my way back through the letter that he wrote to the church in Philippi and find that right at the heart of the letter Paul lays out the secret, and only at the end of the letter does he tell his readers that he has given them this treasure. 

Right there in the middle of the letter is this:

“What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and may be found in him. . .” (Phil 3:8) 

The secret to being content no matter what life throws at you? Want Christ. 

Get to know Christ deeply enough that you learn to want, more than anything else, the one thing that matters more than anything else in the world, and that no one and nothing can take away from you.

We can’t make ourselves want something or someone by willpower. We can only get to know someone and let that Someone teach our hearts to love. It’s like a marriage, or the decision to have children, or to write a book or grow a business or pursue a vocation: you give up your independence in order to commit to something or someone. And, in the best cases, you do it not because you have to but because something is burning in you and you’ve discovered that you can’t live without that person, or you don’t want to, or that book just has to come out. In every choice, there is cost. But still we choose because we believe the gain is greater.

So get to know Christ, Paul says. Choose Him, and you’ll find that what used to feel like losses don’t bother you as much anymore because you’re in this together, you and the One in whose love you have made your home. 

But Paul offers his readers more than simply telling us the secret of contentment. He offers us behind-the-scenes steps to help us get to know Christ in that Christ-matters-to-me-more-than-anything-else kind of way.

Our part comes down to two simple steps: Focus, and enjoy. Keep looking for the fingerprints God leaves on our lives, and celebrate those signs of His love. Or, in Paul’s words, “Set your minds,” and “rejoice in the Lord.”

Focus:

 “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col 3:1).

“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).

And enjoy:

“Rejoice in the Lord always, I say it again, rejoice” (Phil 4:4).

For me, “focus” starts with a few sentences in a journal each evening. What am I most thankful for today? Where did I notice God’s presence and God’s good gifts, in my day? No matter what the day has held, there are always places I can rejoice in God’s goodness to me and his presence with me. And then I pause to enjoy resting quietly with God in that place of loving and being loved. And over time, the focusing creeps off my journal pages into my day and the enjoying follows even into rainy Sunday mornings.

And the moments and days I find it hard to keep my mind focussed on Jesus? There’s good news here too. First, from a neurological point of view, what creates new pathways in our brain is not the perfect maintenance of focus, but the turning again and again back to focus on God (Blanton, Contemplation and Counselling, p. 11). Refocussing helps retrain my mind to move naturally in that new direction.

Second, it’s not all up to me—thank God! As I keep choosing to turn my mind back to God, bringing my requests and my thanks to God, He’s right there protecting and helping me, surrounding me with his peace (Phil 4:6-7). As much as I want to keep growing in knowing Christ (a sure sign that God has already been deeply at work in me), He wants it more, and is right alongside, eager to help me notice His kindness and settle a little more deeply into His love.

Why—and what—to remember

I’d been looking for ten days and finally, on my way home from church yesterday, I spotted a couple of cadets, small and tidy in their uniforms, with pans of poppies hung around their necks. I picked a poppy from their tray, slipping a coin into the slotted box.

There was only one more day this year that I could wear the flower before slipping it into my drawer to save for next year, but still it seemed important to buy it.

On this Remembrance Day, I, along with the people of my own nation and those of many others, want to remember the members of our armed forces who have died in the line of duty.

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

I want to remember their hopes and dreams, their blood-sealed belief that freedom, justice, and peace are worth fighting for.

I want to remember, too, the many who have given their lives in another war and whose voices from under the altar cry for God’s justice (Rev 6:9-11).

I don’t talk often about this war. Mostly I think that’s because I find it more helpful to focus on my leader than on the enemy, listening for God’s voice, trusting his love, trying to obey his commands. 

But might it sometimes be because I don’t want to remember? Because I’d rather look away from the truth that war is not past tense, nor happening only on the other side of the world?

Whether I like it or not, I, along with every other person in this world, am smack in the middle of a cosmic war that will not end until Jesus returns, taking his rightful place and bringing the true and never-ending freedom, justice and peace for which we long.

“This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels” (Eph 6:12, The Message).

Life and peace, justice and freedom, are at stake. Focus and obedience matter.

Remembering the reality of slavery and the costly path to freedom is not optional. It is a repeated command, a cornerstone of a well-lived life.

 “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut 5:15).

“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years. . .” (Deut. 8:2).

“Do this in remembrance of me” (I Cor 11:24).

God doesn’t command us to remember the reality of the war in order to make us afraid. He calls us to remember in order not to be afraid.

But do not be afraid of them; remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt” (Deut. 7:18).

I look and remember—yes, there’s a war, and I’m in it—and then I look back at the One who has already won the battle at the heart of the war, guaranteeing the war’s final outcome. I don’t need to fear the already conquered enemy, just to do my part in the clean-up operation. The outcome of the war does not rest on my shoulders.

And so I look, not to tremble, but to remember that what I do matters.

I look, not to design my own battle strategy, but to recommit myself to my Leader who conquers death and destruction through love and calls me to join him. 

I look, not to gaze at the enemy, but to bow in worship of my loving, victorious King.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).

One small step toward becoming the person you want to be.

My family doctor once asked me two questions that I return to again and again. She asked them when I was struggling with depression, but she could just as well have asked them in one of the times my physical illness has flared and I’ve felt hemmed in by my limitations, or, for that matter, by a situation outside of me.

What kind of person do you want to be?

What’s one small step you can take today toward that end?

The questions could, I suppose, feel heavy, but to me they feel like grace. No matter what is going on inside me or outside me, I still have choice. No matter how much is beyond my control, there’s always something I can do to cooperate with God’s work in me. These two simple questions lead me out into a spacious place where I am no longer trapped or helpless but remember again that God gives me choice and agency and authority at least in the small bit of creation that is myself.

Among all of God’s creation, he honours us humans particularly with this: we get to participate with God in shaping ourselves. We are, of course, completely dependent on God to sustain us in being, to give us choice, to do in us the many things we cannot do in ourselves. (“Without me you can do nothing” John 15:5.) Yet also, as part of our bearing the image of a sovereign Creator, God makes us co-creators with him in the shaping of our own selves and lives.

So:

  • I want to be a person who hears God’s heartbeat. Today I can be still in his presence even for a few minutes, opening my heart to him.
  • I want to be a person who is honest. Today, rather than trying to push away the uncomfortable questions and emotions, I can sit with them in Jesus’ presence and tell him what I’m feeling.
  • I want to be a person marked by gratitude. Even on a difficult day, after I’ve let Jesus into the hard feelings, I can look for his grace in the day and write out the things I’m thankful for (starting with his welcome of me just as I am).

It’s a big responsibility, but also a gracious one, this participation in our own transformation. It’s a plan designed by a God who loves and honours and cherishes us, and who is so gentle and gracious and kind that He receives our smallest attempts to cooperate with Him like a mother delights in the bouquet of dandelions brought to her by her two year old. He well knows that we can’t transform ourselves, not deeply and thoroughly like Jesus can. But still He honors us and the choice He has given to us, and invites our consent and cooperation in the process, and even on the hard days (maybe especially) on the hard days, our job is to open to this One who loves us and do the bit we can to cooperate with what he is doing. 

What kind of person do you want to be? What’s one small step you can take today toward that end?

Finding your true home

One morning as I biked last week, the word “home” was on my mind. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because the fall leaves drew my eye to the homes peeking out behind them.

Perhaps because the heavy clouds above the fall leaves just allowed peeks of the mountains, and something stirred in me as though my heart was being drawn toward heaven.

Or perhaps because, as I rode, my mind drifted back to a letter written by a wise mentor to someone asking the question, “Why didn’t God take me to heaven the moment I trusted Jesus? Does he have a special work for me to accomplish for Him?” As I pondered what I could remember of his response, I recognized all over again that our true home is neither earth nor heaven but God.

“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. . . . Make yourselves at home in my love” (John 15:4,9, The Message). 

Both our temporary home here on earth and our long-term home in the new heavens and the new earth point us to our true Home, helping us settle more deeply into God’s love.

There are, of course, many reasons God leaves us on earth. Here He gives us the privilege of participating with Him in his work in the world, even of sharing in His sufferings. But more deeply still, as Edward Miller says, God leaves us on earth to know Him.

There are ways we will only know God when we finally walk with him face to face. And there are other precious and beautiful characteristics of God that we can only experience here on earth.

“The benefits earth yields outstrip heaven in many ways. Take, for example, knowing God as our Sustainer through trouble. This is our privileged experience now rather than later, after all tears have been dried by His own hand. It’s here on earth that God unveils to us His priesthood and enters into our sufferings, rather than in Glory where no one suffers. Only on earth does God show Himself to us as our Fortress and Defender, for who opposes us in heaven? On earth He shows Himself as our Rock and the One who lifts up our heads.
            Here, when we faint, His everlasting arms catch and support us. Here He is our Saviour and Advocate and gentle Shepherd. Through the changing experiences of this life we are introduced to His hands, His feet, His wings, and His heart.” (Edward Miller, Letters to the Thirsty, p. 8-9).

I asked the question on Facebook, “What word(s) would you use to describe God’s love? Which of those characteristics means the most to you today?” The responses were beautiful and varied. And I’m guessing that most of them came from the hard times. My own favourite—gentle—has certainly been most deeply discovered in the times of challenge.

So, friends, join me in letting whatever challenges you face this week press you deeper into God’s love? There are many ways I do this, but lately God’s promise in Isaiah 66:13 has been calling me to come close with the same trust and vulnerability as a sick or sad or hurting child runs to her mother for comfort, unashamed of pain or tears, and confident in the safety of her mother’s arms.

“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13, NIV).

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What would it look like for you to make your home in Jesus’ love today? How might it change your day?

PS. I’ve just created a new facebook page to accompany this blog. Thoughts and quotes that I’m loving and that don’t make it to the blog will end up there, and from now on I’ll ask questions like I asked about your favourite characteristic of God’s love on that new page instead of on my personal profile. If you’d like to be part of the conversation happening over there, please do pop over and like or follow the new page!

“No longer my own”: the good news

The Sunday bulletin slipped through the mail slot in my door. I’d been home sick and a friend had dropped it off. I read the simple liturgy used that week to commission volunteers for their service in the church and the world. At the end, the whole congregation was asked to stand, recommitting themselves, too, by praying together the Covenant Prayer written by John Wesley almost three hundred years ago. 

“I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
you are mine, and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.”

I’ve encountered this prayer several times in recent years, and each time have been challenged by it. 

Seeing it there, bolded on the page, it drew me again, and challenged me. It drew me not because I could easily pray it, but because I couldn’t. In the days of lacking energy to write the ideas burning within me, or clean my own apartment or buy my own groceries, could I honestly pray, “Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you”?

And yet, day after day I’ve been returning to the prayer, asking for grace to be able to pray it. And as I ask, once again I’m hearing the good news in that first line more fully.

“I am no longer my own but yours. . .”

Sometimes when the prayer has come across my path, I’ve been able immediately to hear that line as good news. Other times, I first hear in that line what I’m giving up – the right to my own self-determination, and with it, a sense of control and the apparent security of choosing the comfortable options. 

Now when I read that line and the echoing lines near the end, I hear more deeply what I gain in exchange. I need to know this in order to dare to pray the rest of the prayer. I gain all of the tender, protective, providing love of the Trinity, who takes on my problems as though they were God’s own. Still more: I gain all of God himself.

“. . . And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
you are mine, and I am yours. So be it. . .”

Only when I know that I’m safely held and cared for can I dare to pray, “Let me have all things, let me have nothing,” knowing that if God chooses to let me have nothing, he himself will provide, day by day, exactly what I need.

Only when I know I’m already cherished as someone worth dying for can I let go of my striving to have others think well of me and pray freely, “Rank me with whom you will.”

Only when I know God gives himself wholly to me can I dare to give myself wholly to him.

The first line and the echoing lines near the end remind me that in this prayer I’m reaffirming the covenant of marriage that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 5, where the command to submit to God is given alongside a description of the God to whom we’re asked to submit.

God doesn’t ask me to surrender to abuse, or even to uncertainty, but to love, gentle and passionate love that protects and provides and cherishes even to the point of giving up his life for me.

God doesn’t ask me to do anything that he doesn’t do first.

He gives himself wholly to me, asking me to open to that love by giving myself wholly to him. 

As in a loving marriage, when I suffer, he suffers with me. When I have nothing, he steps up to provide. We are in this together, sharers of life and love. He asks for all of me—and gives me all of himself. (I think I’m the clear winner in this exchange. Incredibly, he seems to think he hasn’t done badly either. “The Lord delights in his people.” Psalm 149:4) He loves me.

When I let all those middle lines of the prayer stay framed in this truth that I am not only his but he is mine, then I see that what I lose in this arrangement is not security, but the weight of having to provide it for myself. 

I pray, “Let me be employed for you or set aside for you,” and I’m freer to receive both the days when I don’t have energy to work and the days when I do as gifts. God and I are both in each kind of day, loving each other, giving ourselves to each other, and that is enough to make even a low-energy day a beautiful, worthwhile day.

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Which line do you find most difficult to pray? Why? How do you think the God who delights in you might want to be with you both in your current situation and in your struggle to pray that line?

What’s the greatest freedom or encouragement for you in this prayer?

Related post: What you were made for