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The Secret of Contentment

June 8, 2008

Matthew 11:28-30: 2 Corinthians 11:23-28; Philippians 4:4-20; I Timothy 6:6; Hebrews 13:5; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

“Something is missing from my life,” she said. About three years ago, she sat in my office, a woman who seemed to have almost everything. Married to a man who had done very well in the business world, she had three children – all educated, all married. She had started her own business, one that seemed to be profitable. “I just need something to do,” she said. It was really not that she did not have anything to do. She was very involved in her church and active in a number of community organizations; but as she put it, “Something is missing…I feel so edgy, so restless, much of the time.”

A number of years ago, I was in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I visited a man in the hospital there who had nearly died from a perforated ulcer. When his physicians examined him, they found that he had several more ulcers. In his mid-forties, he was a lawyer who hoped to be chosen as a judge one day. He had been very involved in politics and even had thoughts of running for public office. He owned an expensive home in an exclusive residential area and very fine automobiles. His marriage was on shaky ground, and he spent a lot of time worrying about the stock market. I talked with him over a period of several days and re-interpreted for him a passage of Scripture found in Matthew 16: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his marriage? What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his children? What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his stomach lining? What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?”

In the United States of America, we live in an age of discontent. People are searching for something that is missing in their lives. Many people seem to have a sense of emptiness, a sense of restlessness.

One woman told me of her severe headaches. “They did a scan of my head,” she said, “but found nothing.” That was her worst fear – that they would find nothing.

What would happen if doctors could do a scan of the human soul? Would they find a kind of hollowness, a gaping void? It is true that for many of us, our worst fear is right in the center of our very being. Depending on a big brown horse to win a race is not going to give you contentment. Neither is hitching your star to any one political candidate. We act as if we are desperate, searching franticly for something that is missing. Some have simply given up, living, as Thoreau said, “in quiet desperation.” We become resigned that life is supposed to be less than satisfying. Maybe you remember the song, “Is That All There Is?” One man said, “You are born and work hard all your life. Then you die, and that is it.”

It is exactly to the people like us, exactly like the woman who said something was missing and like the man who had ulcers that Jesus gave what is known as the Great Invitation: “Come unto me, all who are weary and heavy laden.” “Come unto me” is quite a remarkable invitation. He is implying that those who come to him will find what is missing. They will find rest for their soul. In fact, he is implying that they might discover their soul.

The truth is that we are a little jaded about the prospect of finding the missing part of our lives. We often hear the same sales pitch used in advertisements. We can scan through television channels and see someone promoting a product like the latest exercise equipment. The sales person guarantees the equipment will make you look good, feel better, and change your life forever. Perhaps you see an ad praising a ninety-day supply of a new herbal discovery that promises to make your body feel fresh and clean. Both products pledge to change your life by giving you more vigor, more zest. Other advertisements claim to will help you get rich quick. They propose buying repossessed property, upgrading it, and then selling it at a profit. Of course, the people who sell the ads make the real money. Television, filled with these kinds of offers, really create more unhappiness in us.

I am embarrassed when people use religion to promote fulfillment. “Give to this televangelist or give to that cause, and you will find prosperity.” “Just send your check to us, and you are guaranteed that God will give you a blessing.” Paul called those kinds of people peddlers of the gospel. We are all looking for something, and I am afraid that Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, and Wall Street simply, by design, make us more dissatisfied with our lives. Contentment is hard to obtain.

I had an opportunity to visit Carlisle Marney, a great mentor of mine, near the end of his life. His home was a converted apple barn on Wolf Pen Mountain in Wayne County, North Carolina. I saw him right after Christmas one year, and we spent a day talking about many topics. He told me, “Kirk, people who are in despair are constantly looking for a way out. The best remedy for despair is hard work because hard work leads to fatigue. The best remedy for fatigue is worship.” I must tell you that his idea took me by surprise. I have often thought about his commentary, and I believe he was right. I do not think I fully understand all of its dimensions, but I do know it corresponds to the invitation Jesus gives.

Jesus invites, “Come unto me, and I will put a yoke on your shoulder.” “Come unto me…” Wait a minute. What kind of invitation is this? The invitation reads that way, right? “Come unto me, and I will make you a beast of burden, like an ox or a donkey, or a mule.” “Come to me, and take my yoke upon you.” You have to be kidding! I am tired and frustrated, overworked and overwrought, and you invite me to take a yoke? You invite me to be a beast of burden? Do you think I am a dumb ox or something worse? One of the great ironies of this invitation is that if we accept this yoke, we will find exactly what we want. We will find rest for our souls, soul-rest. A yoke is a piece of carefully shaped wood that allows two animals, linked together, to pull or bear a load as one. When Jesus invites us to take his yoke, he is promising, “I am going to get under the load and help you pull it. There is going to be a burden; but this yoke will fit well, and your burden will actually be lighter.”

Why is this load lighter? When we are yoked with Jesus, his purpose becomes our purpose. His direction becomes our direction. His work becomes our work. When we are put in the yoke with Jesus, we become yoke fellows with the Lord himself. He has not asked us to sit down and do nothing. He has given us an invitation to accept the responsibility of joining him in what he is doing. Being yoked with him will ease our burden and give us rest for our soul. That soul-rest is what is meant by the word ease.

How do we find that joy? Join me in looking at the case study of one person who found contentment. Listen to Paul’s message to the Corinthian churches in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28:

I had worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.

I submit to you that this man, weary and heavy-laden, needs some soul-rest. I am not saying that Paul had a more difficult life than any of you, but he certainly had his share of difficulties. He needs the invitation of Jesus. Paul found this soul rest, this contentment. Where? Of all places, he found it in prison. He found it on death row. He found it in circumstances that seem as bad as any we could imagine. Philippians 4:4-20:

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 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 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.
Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all of your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.

How did Paul find contentment? First, Paul tells us in Verse 4 that Christian joy does not depend on external circumstance. Joy is not a matter of finding happiness in our life situations. Joy can come even in hardship. In fact, I am not even sure that a person can actually be content until they encounter some hardships. You have to discover that real joy does not depend on having everything go well for you. Paul makes an assertion as if he does not think we are going to believe it. He repeats himself – “Rejoice. Again, I say rejoice” – emphasizing that joy can be found even if in prison.

Second, in Verse 5, Paul professes that because the Lord is close at hand, always near, we should act like it. We should conduct ourselves in a way that makes it evident to everyone that is our belief. God has promised, “I will never leave you and I will never forsake you.” Paul believes in God’s promise.

Paul asserts in Verse 6 that we should channel our worries and frets into prayer. We should make our anxieties the subject of prayer. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything with prayer and supplication (prayer of petition), with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God,” Paul writes. Do not be concerned about matters. Go to God in prayer.

Fourth, Verse 7 stresses that peace is not the absence of conflict. It does not mean that everything is sweet and happy and all is right with the world. Peace is a matter of the heart and mind. It comes, not because of the absence of conflict, but because of a relationship with Christ. Look at Paul, who was chained to a Roman soldier, shackled around his arm or maybe around his leg. He can talk about peace because his inner peace comes from being secure in Christ. We, too, can have that same peace.

Verse 8 states that our thoughts must be positive. How easy it is to turn our thoughts to the negative, especially when life is not going well. Look at what Paul says, “Whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy, think about those things.” Contentment is really a matter of attitude adjustment. Instead of being controlled by negative thoughts, allow positive thoughts to be the norm.

Sixth, Verse 10 tells of Paul’s gratitude that the Philippians have at last renewed their concern for him. Let me give you some background. When Paul left Philippi and traveled into the peninsula of Greece, the Philippians were very responsive to him, giving him several offerings. They were the most charitable of all his churches and probably the church least able to be generous to him. They were very supportive from the beginning. Now it has been ten years since he has heard from them. They have sent no offering, made no contact, and given nothing in the way of support or encouragement. Faith means being willing to wait patiently for the providence of God. “Lord, help me but hurry up” is neither the way to pray nor the way to live. Real faith knows that God is sovereign and that He is going to respond in His way and in His time. Faith means waiting patiently for a sovereign God to respond.

The seventh point Paul stresses is the importance of being satisfied with simplicity. Paul has learned the secret to being satisfied, content, in every circumstance. Verses 11-12 are right at the core of what he says about contentment. Paul writes about this theme in his letter to the Corinthians, and we find it elsewhere in the New Testament. He writes in I Timothy 6:6, “Godliness was contentment with great gain.” Hebrews 13:5 says to be content with what you have because God has promised that He will never leave you and never forsake you. Being satisfied with the simple things is very hard for American people. If you are always looking to upgrade, you will never be content. Having an attitude of satisfaction with simplicity is a very important part of contentment.

After Christmas, I suppose in one day, we received about ten mail-order catalogues promoting after-Christmas sales. We had not even ordered anything from a mail-order catalogue during the Christmas season. I did not bother to take them in the house. Instead, I just put them in a bag in the back of my truck to throw away at the first opportunity. Marketing strategies used in our country keep us unsatisfied. Advertisements tell us that enough is never enough, that we need more, more, and more.

I remember a story about a young pastor and his wife who were invited to lead a revival in the mountains of Kentucky. The church had made arrangements for them to stay in the home of an elderly couple. The first night in the home, the four were sitting by the fire. The elderly man told the young couple, “It is time for us to go to bed, but you can stay here by the fire for a while. If you need anything, you just make yourself at home and get what you need. If you need something and you cannot find it, wake us up. We’ll be glad to get it for you. If you need something but cannot find it and you wake us up and we do not have it, we will teach you how to get along without it.”

A strength beyond our own is available to us, Paul says in Verse 13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” I am not really sure you can learn contentment until you face such adversity and come to the end of your own strength.

Clare and I were in the car, driving to Charleston, when we received word that our son Erik had died. Clare leaned over, put her hand on my arm, and said, “I don’t know where this Scripture is, but the Bible says, ‘The eternal God is your resting place, and underneath are the everlasting arms’” (Deuteronomy 33:27). That is the strength we need.

Paul writes about this strength in II Corinthians 12:7-10, when he shares that God refused to take the “thorn in the flesh” away from him. Paul’s comment, “When I am weak, then I am strong” sounds like a riddle; but he is saying, “When I come to the end of my own strength, there is more strength to be had. It is not my strength; it is the strength of Christ.”

In Verse 14, Paul simply offers a “Thank you.” Gratitude is one of the hallmarks of a person who lives in contentment. Dr. Hans Selye said that the greatest single stress reducer is an attitude of thanksgiving. We are to be grateful, appreciative of what is ours.

A tenth point Paul makes in Verse 19 is that we must have confidence in the provision of God. Paul claims, “My God will meet all of your needs in Christ Jesus.” He was content though shackled. Think of his shackles as a yoke. He never called himself a prisoner of Rome. He referred to himself as a “prisoner of Christ” (Ephesians 3:1; Philemon 1:1, 9). He felt connected to Jesus, yoked to Jesus. “Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus said, “and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).

I have one final thought for you. This yoke that Jesus asks us to take is not shaped in that familiar bow we know. This yoke is cross-shaped. This invitation is very much the same as Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 16:24: “If anyone will come after me, let that person deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” When we take the yoke, we take the cross and pledge to bring our lives in alignment with Jesus. That is the secret of contentment. That is the place to find rest for your souls. Everyone needs this peace that comes from the security of knowing Jesus.

I told somebody after the early service that I am still trying to cultivate these ways to find contentment in my own life. I do not pretend to believe that I have arrived; but I know that as long as I am with Jesus, I am on the right track.

What about you? Do you know Christ as your Savior? Have you made the decision to come into alignment with his will? If not, the beginning place is accepting Jesus as your Savior. Some of you have other decisions to make. You know that God has been working in your life, that He has decisions He wants you to make, maybe a decision regarding the course of your life, maybe a decision regarding membership. We invite you to respond in whatever way God leads, as we sing together our hymn of invitation, “Close to Thee.”

© 2008 Kirk H. Neely

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