One verse to work on

One of the speakers at the Wee Kirk conference talked about the persecuted Church in Iran (his homeland) and other lands. There was a lot of meat in his talk, but what especially struck me was when he talked about the danger of learning truth faster than you can live it.

He was telling about somewhere, I don’t remember in what country, where new Christians had no Bibles. Someone was able, however, to write down Bible verses on stones, each of which he gave to one of the new Christians, instructing him to pass it along to someone else after he had learned it. When he later returned with more stones and more verses, the people had a deep understanding of Christian truth – far deeper than many Christians who have the entire Bible at their disposal.

I have always heard about how the faith of Christians under persecution is much stronger than that of those who practice their faith freely. I have always understood this to be because people who follow Christ in conditions of persecution have to choose to “count the cost.” I’m sure this is part of the explanation, but the speaker pointed out other factors I had not considered.

One was that people come to the end of their own strength. I had been thinking in terms of their suffering making them strong, but he put it in terms of how intense suffering made them weak – so that in their emptiness Jesus could fill them.

I’ve many times heard how people need to hit bottom in order to trust in God, but the stories I had heard before were of people who started in good circumstances and lost it all through their own foolish choices. I suppose it makes sense, though, that people would have to learn the same lesson through suffering that was not their own fault. It’s not the suffering, after all, that makes people strong but how they react to it.

The other factor I had not thought about was the lack of Bibles. I had often heard how Christians without Bibles prized every scrap of Scripture, but I had thought of that as the result of their deeper faith, not a cause of it. But this speaker indicated that living out each truth as they learned it leads to a much stronger faith than that of people who know far more truth than they live.

In Bible school, we had a number of classes on evangelism. One of the instructors compared us to sponges, soaking up Scriptural truths as we sat through hours and hours of Bible instruction every weeks. If we just did not give out some of that truth in witnessing, he said, we would be like sponges full of milk sitting on a kitchen counter – getting sour and stinky. I’m not sure how good a metaphor that is, but I’ve often thought of it, realizing unhappily what a gap exists between what I have learned and what I have put into practice.

That teaching was primarily about evangelism, but the speaker this week made me realize that it applies just as much to any form of obedience. Of course, it’s much too late for me not to have learned all sorts of things I have failed to practice, but I decided to try to focus on one principle at a time that I know I need to learn – not just in principle but in practice.

The one that has been on my mind for a few weeks is about contentment. I have a lot of time to pray while I drive to and from work these days (my commute is about 50 minutes). One day I was asking God what area of my life I particularly needed to work on. The way my “conversations” with God go, I seem to do most of the talking, but I sometimes have a sense that what I’m saying is, or is not, on the mark.

The first two areas I thought of – probably Bible study and prayer – did not seem to be what I (or God?) was looking for. Then I suggested contentment, and I was immediately sure that I had the answer to my question. I doubt I appear particularly discontented to people around me most of the time, but I’m afraid I’m often more resigned to circumstances than actually contented.

I’ve given thought to the topic from time to time, thinking of writing a blog post or giving an inspirational speech at Toastmasters. I’ve collected quotes on the subject and thought of possible outlines for a post or a speech. But I get stuck on two points. One is the tension between being content on the one hand, and being motivated to improve myself or circumstances on the other hand. The second point is figuring out how to speak or write well on something that I don’t practice very well.

I could think of two Bible verses about contentment, one from Philippians and one from 1 Timothy.

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)

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. (1 Timothy 6:6-8)

Both those verses teach about the value of contentment, but say little about how to achieve it. (Someone on worldmagblog pointed out once that we can take comfort from the fact that Paul says he “learned” to be content, so he didn’t start out knowing it either.) I looked on BibleGateway.com to see what other verses I could find about being content.

I didn’t find very many, but one particularly struck me.

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)

I don’t think of myself as having a love of money – to the extent that I become preoccupied with money issues it is because I feel guilty for having allowed my husband and myself to take on too much debt. What surprised me about the verse, however – besides that fact that I have certainly read it many times and don’t remember having looked at it this way before – is the connection between being content and God’s promise not to leave us.

I have to admit that I’ve never thought that God might leave me – as long as I can remember, even before I considered myself a believer, I was taught that God is always with us. And even aside from that, I find it hard to feel more contented because of the knowledge that God will not leave me. I assume that the idea is that if I have God, I have enough. But if I know I have God, and still don’t feel content, what then? Presumably there’s something wrong with my idea of God, or of what it means to “have God.”

BibleGateway.com links this verse in Hebrews to Deut. 31:6, where the promise of God’s presence is linked, not with contentment, but with courage in the context of battle against Israel’s enemies. Now that connection makes sense to me – though perhaps only because I’ve heard it so many times. Logically, I suppose it makes as much sense for God’s presence to help one obey by being content as by having courage.

The commentary here on Heb. 13:5 helps explain the connection.

God will not leave his people in the hands of their enemies, nor forsake them in distress, nor withhold any good thing from them needful for them, but will supply them with the necessaries of life, with which they should be content … the Jews explain such places as speak of God’s not forsaking men, of the sustenance of them, as Psalm 37:25 and observe that the word “forsaking”, is never used but with respect to “sustenance.”

This sustenance, John Gill (1697-1771) goes on to explain, refers to both physical and spiritual needs. Whether the need is for daily bread, strength in battle, or resisting the temptation to yearn for what I do not have, God provides what I need.

That still leaves my question about how to be content with things as they are yet motivated to make things better. Today I finally came across a blog post that deals with this issue, in the context of God’s creation of the world. Each day, we read in Genesis 1, God said that what He had made was good. Yet for each of the first five days, this “it is good” is followed on the next day by God creating more, and presumably making His creation even better.

In the creation week, God’s contentment is temporally and eschatologically qualified.  ”Good” means “Good for today,” but then the next day He does another good thing.  To be content is to come to evening able to say “Good; things are done enough.”  Even for God, contentment is not Stoic stasis; much less for us. … So too throughout history, God is not statically satisfied with where things are right now, but satisfied with where they have come to, how much progress has been made toward His final end of summing up all things in the Son by the Spirit.

All this is still a lot easier to write out than to live. At the moment, I have a sinus headache, a pile of unwashed dishes in the sink, a broken toilet seat that I need to replace, and a prescription I need to get filled because I used up the previous medication this morning. (My doctor is changing my antidepressant prescription.) I am reasonably content with the idea of going shopping because Jon and Al are watching an action movie and I would just as soon get away from the noise of it.

But mostly I’m still thinking in terms of getting done what needs to get done before I can lie down and get some more sleep. I am not conscious of being particularly unhappy with my circumstances, but I don’t know that I could say I’m exactly content, either.

But this seems to be the verse and idea that I need to continue to think about and work on, so I will.

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