This months marks an anniversary of sorts for me. Last year, I journeyed through a rather debilitating bout of anxiety. It consumed all my mental energy and physically manifested itself in ways that gave me cause for great concern. In turn, the physical symptoms only furthered the severity of my mental anxiety. It was a viscious cycle.
Looking back, the journey is bookended in my mind by two distinct events. The first, which sort of signifies the beginning, is a teaching that I gave at our ladies Bible study. I see now that the teaching was preparing for me for what lay ahead. And then last May, the journey culminated in the discovery of our third pregnancy and a simultaneous mission trip to Belize.
For a while now, I’ve been meaning to share my experience through that journey and the way the Lord revealed Himself to me in the midst of my overwhelming fear. Trying to encapsulate the experience into words is a daunting task; but I know it’s time to try. And looking back now, I can honestly say that I’m thankful I endured it all. For in my fear, I had to cling to the Lord, and it was in that clinging that I experienced His faithful goodness and protection.
I’ve decided to share this journey with you as a series, rather than in one long War-and-Peace-length novel of a post. So today, it seems fitting to begin this anxiety series with that very same lesson I shared to my ladies Bible study over a year and a half ago. It examines a passage in Philippians 4 and tells the true story of an event that occurred to my grandfather more than 50 years ago. (The images scattered throughout are pictures I’ve captured of my grandparents’ farm.)
If you have ever struggled with anxiety or lack of contentment, I hope you will find some encouragement here. And I especially hope you’ll return over the next few days to hear my story and how I learned to apply this passage in Philippians during some dark days in my own life.
LEARNING CONTENTMENT | Delivered Fall of 2011
In the summer of 1962, a young farmer was out driving a hay rake across his alfalfa fields. As a storm began to sweep in across the Kansas plains, his wife loaded their three daughters into the car and headed into the field to retrieve the farmer before the torrential rain hit. As the field came into view, they noticed their neighbor’s car (not an unusual site) and the farmer’s tractor. As they neared the tractor, however, they saw that the young farmer lay on the ground, and the neighbor was waving his arms violently. Stopping the car, the young wife got out and ran to her husband. When she arrived at his side, he was unconscious, wasn’t breathing and did not have a heartbeat. Surveying the scene, she realized the ghastly truth: His tractor had been struck by lightning, and the current had passed through his body, down his right side. The hair on his arms was knotted and scorched; a deep gash was near his neck. His straw hat had exploded and was lying on the ground smoking.
At the hospital several days later, after regaining consciousness, his young wife sat at his side. Knowing the prognosis wasn’t good and desperate for some miracle, she asked him if he had children. He nodded weakly, and named his three daughters. “Who am I?” she asked. The farmer shook his head helplessly. “I don’t know who you are.” His answer left the young wife heartbroken, utterly discouraged and severely discontented with the ominous circumstances surrounding her.
While we may not have experienced circumstances as grave as a lightning strike, there’s an element of this story that resonates with us all. We tend to let our circumstances dictate our contentment. They can be as traumatic as a lightning strike or as trivial as a friend’s beautiful home that makes yours feel a bit too dirty. Or perhaps it’s a never-filled nest when you desperately want children or an empty nest when want them to come back home. Maybe it’s an illness, a job loss, a financial set back, a wayward family member. These things, if we let them, can open the door to discontentment and anxiety that can rob us of our peace in Christ.
Today we’re going to look at a passage of scripture that examines the issue of contentment despite difficult circumstances. The passage is found in the final chapter of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. In this letter we’re going to see four things regarding contentment, and ultimately we’ll see that contentment is only realized by abiding in Christ, even when our circumstances are unfavorable.
But first, it’s important understand a bit of history. Paul was writing this letter from prison; most likely during his first imprisonment in Rome. His living conditions were dank and dismal. And yet amidst these circumstances, the tone of the letter is joyful, and some critics have called Philippians the epistle of joy.
We’ll pick up in Philippians 4, verses 4 through 13.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, 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. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me–put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 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. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
The first thing we see about contentment in verses 11 through 13 is that contentment is not natural. Paul says “I have learned … “ This indicates that contentment is not innate. It didn’t come naturally to Paul, and it doesn’t come naturally to us. Our flesh wars against contentment, and this battle goes all the way back to the garden. The very story of the fall of Adam and Eve is one of discontent. Adam and Eve weren’t content to NOT eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We’re cut from the same cloth, and thus discontentment has been part of our human fabric since the beginning. Therefore, like Paul, it is something we have to LEARN.
The second thing we see about contentment from these verses is that contentment is not a product of our circumstances. Paul says “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.” Paul’s contentment was not a result of his circumstances. His circumstances were excruciatingly difficult; yet the tone of his letter is joyful. He was writing while in chains, yet he was rejoicing.
Thirdly we see that contentment is not easy. Paul punctuates these verses by saying “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” This verse indicates that Paul can realize contentment while chained to a Roman guard, held captive inside a Roman prison, with the prospect of an execution looming ONLY because CHRIST gives him the strength.
And this brings us to the fourth point. While contentment is NOT natural, NOT circumstantial, and NOT easy, it IS a direct result of Christ working in us. It is ONLY found by taking our eyes OFF our circumstances and refocusing them on Christ.
It’s important to point out here that the original Greek word for “content” in this passage is translated as self-sufficiency. The root for the word is understood in an idea made popular in Paul’s day by the Stoics: that a person could become so self-sufficient they wouldn’t have a need for anyone or anything, thus being content no matter what happened. But Paul turns that notion on its head and says it’s not that I’m content because of my own self-sufficiency. Rather I’m content because I’m united with the God who is sufficient to meet all my needs. Thus when we seek Christ and allow Him to work through us, HE bring about peace and contentment in our own lives.
In verses 6 through 7 Paul writes: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” When we submit our concerns to Him; when we lay anything that may cause anxiety or discontentment at his feet, the knowledge that He is sufficient to meet all our needs DISPLACES our anxiety. That is the secret Paul reveals about contentment. That we can experience it even when our circumstances are unfavorable, because He gives us strength to endure and peace to displace our worries.
And that same peace Paul wrote of is the very contentment my grandmother experienced as she sat by my grandfather’s hospital bed in 1962. In a state of humble vulnerability, my grandmother cried out to the Lord, and the Lord answered her with a peace that passes understanding. In a time when her circumstances seemed exceptionally dismal, my grandmother realized a contentment that only came from seeking the Lord. My grandfather did miraculously recover, though he suffered from a few lifelong complications. But the Lord used the experience of my grandfather’s lightning strike to strengthen my grandparents’ faith. And through it all, my grandparents experienced a contentment that only the Lord can offer. That contentment is available to us too, if we’ll take our eyes off our circumstances and instead focus on the Lord who is sufficient to meet all our needs.
How about you, sweet reader? Do you suffer with anxiety or discontentment? How has the Lord provided peace in the midst of difficult circumstances?