Jesus told us to store up treasure in heaven, for where our treasure is there will our heart be also. And Paul said that he could be content in all circumstances through Christ who gives him strength. If our treasure is in heaven and the joy of the Lord gives us strength, then we can be content in all circumstances. And that is an awesome promise. But God’s promises are almost never as we expect them to be. We are so small and so temporary and so shallow, that we can never really comprehend God’s love and we always try to make him fit our ideas of loving and comforting and strengthening. When we imagine being “content in all circumstances”, I think, a lot of the time, we imagine being happy. Sitting in a lounge chair with a cup of coffee, sighing in appreciation of a beautiful sunset, knowing in the pit of our stomachs that God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world. A feeling of peace and calm, safe in the knowledge that everything is beautiful and settled, whatever that means for us. That’s not really what Paul says.
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. -Philippians 4:11-13
He doesn’t say he is not brought low, he says he knows how to be brought low and be content. He doesn’t say he’s not hungry, he says he has learned to face hunger and be content. He is not content because Jesus magically took away his pain, he is content in his lowliness and hunger because Jesus gives him strength. He said this to the Corinthians:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. -2 Corinthians 4:16-18
He doesn’t say that the affliction is removed or lessened so that we can focus on eternal glory. He says that our affliction is preparing us for eternal glory that will make this suffering seem light and momentary by comparison. While we suffer our current afflictions, we must be content in our eternal reward, in Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice and our salvation, in the the goodness of God. Content while we hunger. Content while we want. Content while we hurt. As is so often the case, the difficulty lies not in either part but in the tension of holding both at once. I can understand wrath. I can even understand grace. The hard part is understanding being wrathful and choosing grace, without setting down your wrath. That’s what God does. I know how to be content by ignoring my suffering or telling myself it doesn’t matter. I know how to suffer without being content (boy, howdy, do I!). What I struggle with and pray about is being in pain WHILE being content. But learning how brings us closer to God, because that’s what God does. He is brokenhearted at our sin, but content in his own goodness. That’s what Jesus did. He cried for Jerusalem, he mourned for Lazarus, he raged at the Pharisees; all while being content in His Father. Our Father.
And it’s important to note that difference because (as is coming to my attention this week), there are some hurts in this world, afflictions as it were, for which there is no comfort. When people I love are not saved, I can pray for them, I can hope for them, I can love them like Jesus. But, at the end of the day, I have to acknowledge that they may not end up with the Lord, because it’s not up to me. And there is nothing I can do or say or think in this world that makes that not hurt. When people we love act out of hate and reject us no matter what we do, there’s no worldly comfort for that. There isn’t anything that lessens that pain. We can forgive them. We can focus on our love because it is stronger than our anger. We can remind ourselves that our eternal glory will make these afflictions seem light and momentary, but that doesn’t make it any less painful, it just gives hope for what’s to come. You know, like faith? =)
So I guess the struggle is having pain, but not holding it. Clinging not to our pain, but to the cross and the God that gives us hope in the midst of our pain, even as he gave us redemption in the midst of our sin. We can have comfort while we are still hurting, just as we receive salvation while we are still broken.