I am not a contented person by nature. I’m always wanting more.
I spent three days in a Tanzanian village earlier this week and realized how very discontented I am. I didn’t miss (for those three days) running water or electricity. Taking a bath out of a bowl of water isn’t so bad, and the absence of electricity only meant the night sky would be absolutely stunning.
But I can’t express to you how much I missed soft chairs, beds, and couches.* The cushiest thing I sat on during my stay in the village was a rock; and I thanked God for it’s anatomically-contoured curves. But still I was not content. I secretly longed to go read my Bible while sitting comfortably in the truck that was parked just a few meters away.
Nor was I content with the food I was served. I ate what was placed before me and enjoyed the company,** but I sure missed having some variation in my diet. In my mind, a guy can only eat so much rice or ugali — and dipping it in the same accompanying sauce at every meal is not my forte. Boredom sets in quickly with tasteless starches dunked in tomato-flavored boiled water.
I am not by nature a content person. And neither are you. Contentment is not inherent in fallen man. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
What I Learned On My Summer Mission Trip
Every short-term-mission-trip-goer is an expert on contentment. Because they’ve witnessed firsthand Haitians living in huts and Hondurans living off beans and rice. These Christians return to the states with a renewed appreciation for what they have and a strong desire to be as content as the completely satisfied Latin Americans.
To hear these mission trip goers, you’d think selfishness and materialism is a North American disease, one to which the rest of the world is immune. Not true.
The African living under a thatch roof desperately wants one made of tin. The Haitian family sleeping together in one bedroom lusts after their neighbors’ two-bedroom home. Godly contentment is not something the third-world has a firm grasp on. If you’ve witnessed true contentedness, it’s likely due to the Holy Spirit and not the absence of wealth.***
“…I’ve learned to be happy no matter what the situation. On one hand I’ve experienced not having anything at all, but on the other I’ve at times had more than I could ever possibly need or use. But most importantly, I have learned the secret of being content in all circumstances, whether hungry or full, whether lounging on a rock or a leather couch, and whether or not I own the newest Iproduct. I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.” – Philippians 4:11-13
A(n extremely) Common Misuse of Scripture
It’s odd that we’ve interpreted this last verse to mean nearly the exact opposite of what Paul intended. When I see a high school football team with Philippians 4:13 printed on the back of their state championship shirts, or a group of marathon runners who believe this verse means they can, and should, complete 26.2 miles to display Jesus’ power in them, I am saddened.
This verse would be more appropriately demonstrated by the little crippled boy who will never run a step in his life, but is happy just to be in the crowd. Or the football players who can’t play a lick and lose all their games, but enjoy the season and its accompanying camaraderie all the same. The family who has just lost a child in a car accident, but still believes — and acts as if — God is good. Or the Christian couple who desperately desire to have children but are unable and, so, volunteer their time at the local Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs.
While I’m certainly not against accomplishing great feats of athleticism — and am myself a runner and triathlete (though not one with any great feats to his name) — we can’t forget that “doing all things” to Paul meant being content no matter how horrible the situation.
[I would argue that the expression of joy during times of success is not nearly the witness of Christ as is the demonstration of contentment during defeat, poverty, or hard times.]
And Christ’s strength in us is the secret of that inextinguishable joy.
That is the meaning of Philippians 4:13 and the big secret Paul had learned — that Christ enables us to be content in any and every situation. Whether we’re marathon finishers or cassava farmers in Bilyahilu village, whether we’ve just received a raise or a pink slip, whether we live in an air-conditioned home or under a thatch-roof, we can have joy and Godly contentment because of Christ in us.
* I suppose this was made worse by my sore bottom due to arriving by bicycle.
** Well, all but the beans — God’s worst invention.
*** Though I’ll give you that the absence of wealth may give you a head start on contentment. Seems like Jesus may have touched on that with the whole camel-going-through-the-eye-of-a-needle thing.