What do you do when life feels out of control? Is there a way to discover contentment in your most difficult circumstances?
- Can you remember a time when you were fully content? What made it so?
- Do you know someone who lives with pervasive discontentment? If so, how does that discontentment affect the quality of their life?
- What do you think of the idea that God may do extraordinary and unexpected things through your challenging circumstances? What makes that difficult or easy to believe?
- Would your life look different if you resisted the pressures and temptations of your circumstances? How so? Can you think of a practical way to do this?
NOTE: The following content is a raw transcript and has not been edited for grammar, punctuation, or word usage.
Now, here’s basically what the series is about. It’s called “In The Meantime”, and we’re answering the question, what do you do when there’s nothing you can do? What do you do when there’s nothing you can do? What do you do when you find yourself in a circumstance or a set of circumstances, or a season of life and there’s really no way forward and there’s no way out? It’s a relationship and it’s not just going anywhere, and you’re married, and you don’t think you should abandon the relationship, you certainly don’t wanna abandon your family, but it is not going in the direction you want it to go in, counseling doesn’t seem to help, and you just feel stuck. What do you do when there’s nothing you can do?
What do you do financially when financially things aren’t going well, and the only way out is a long hard road and you’re never gonna be where you thought you’d be financially and, again, the only options are bad options that are options that are gonna complicate your life? You just feel stuck. What do you do when there’s nothing you can do? Maybe you got a bad report from your doctor, and that whatever it is is not gonna kill you, but it is gonna change your lifestyle, and there’s no way to make it better. It’s just gonna slow you down. It is a forever status that you find yourself in. What do you do when there’s nothing you can do? Maybe academically that’s where it’s hit you, because you were always gonna go to medical school and you are never going to medical school. You were always gonna go to law school, you are never gonna go to law school unless you leave the country, and then you can’t practice here. In other words, your future is not what you thought it was gonna be. You’re disappointed in you. Your parents are disappointed in you. Your friends, they’re trying to be nice, but they’re talking about you behind your back. Your dream isn’t gonna come true, and there’s really no way to fix it. This is just life for you. What do you do when there’s nothing you can do, and there’s no way forward and there’s no way out?
Now, one of the things that’s helpful to do when you think about adversity, one of the things that’s helpful to do when you think about these ‘in the meantime’ set of circumstances is to remember this. The men and women who brought us the story of the New Testament, actually the entire scripture, but think about the New Testament for a minute. The men and women who brought us the New Testament, the Gospel, were men and women who were not strangers to adversity. In fact, when you read their stories and you know their stories, they… Conflict which is part of their life. And here’s the interesting thing. Unlike us Westerners, and unlike those of us who honestly are kind of spoiled a little bit, and I don’t think it’s bad to be spoiled. I kind of thought that was the goal to just be spoiled. But for those of us who think like Westerners, we have a conflict sometimes between the idea of there being a good God, and the idea of there being difficulty, and conflict and adversity in life.
But the men and women who brought us the story of Jesus, they were not put off by that conflict. They did not see that as a contradiction at all. And their lives were full of turmoil, and their lives were full of difficulty. In fact, last week we saw this with the Apostle Paul. We saw that Paul, the man who was responsible basically for taking the Gospel and presenting it to people other than Jewish people, but the man who essentially almost single-handedly planted all the churches along the Mediterranean rim that would eventually create the church that most of us now are part of. The Apostle Paul had a situation in his life that was painful. Remember this list? Painful, humiliating, debilitating and permanent. And he said, “God, would you remove it?” And God said, “No.” And Paul just went right on. That somehow for the Apostle Paul, to deal with something that was painful, humiliating, debilitating and permanent; somehow that did not cause him to divorce his confidence from God.
Somehow, he was able to continue to believe God, trust God and move on with his life. For him, there was no contradiction. There was no conflict. That he was able to live in that ‘in the meantime’ moment and still do amazing, amazing things. And what we’re gonna discover today is this. Not only did he teach us what we learned last week, the Apostle Paul makes this incredibly bold statement, I hope I do justice to it today. The Apostle Paul also said that even in the midst of the most incredible adversity, there is a way to find contentment. You know what contentment is? Contentment is somehow something on the inside is at peace even when everything on the outside is going crazy. Contentment is the ability to stop striving internally even though things on the outside are out of control. And the Apostle Paul said, “In Christ there is an element, there is a way to find and achieve contentment in spite of the fact that you have no control over what’s going on around you.”
Now, a quick little background on the Apostle Paul, and this is so important, especially if you’re new to Bible study or maybe you’re very suspect of the scriptures. I understand that. But here’s something you need to understand about the Apostle Paul. As you may know, the Apostle Paul steps on to the pages of history as someone who hates Christians. So, if you hate Christians, you love the Apostle Paul. You know Christians you’d like to see put in jail, he actually did it. Okay, so anyway, the Apostle Paul steps onto the pages of history as the Christian arrester. He becomes one, he becomes a Christian, and then he launches into this incredible missionary endeavor where he’s planting churches all over the place. Now, about 10 years in, this is so important. About 10 years in the Apostle Paul is arrested. And he ends up in Rome under house arrest awaiting a trial.
And as you may know, the emperor at that time was Nero. So, to be a Christian in Rome under arrest with Nero as the emperor, that’s not a great combination, okay? Because Nero as we knew lit his gardens with Christians. Nero was all about blaming the Christians for everything he could blame Christians on. So, here is the Apostle Paul, Mr. Go-Get-Them-Change-The-World. He’s in Rome under house arrest, and it looks like from all appearances, Rome won, Jesus lost. The Empire of Rome wins, the Kingdom of God loses. Nero wins, Jesus loses. I mean, it looks like game over. I mean, here is the guy that had the responsibility for taking the Gospel to the Gentiles, and now he’s not only under arrest, he’s under arrest in Rome with Nero as the emperor. Now, here’s the really cool part, okay. So, now you got the Apostle Paul, and understand he’s a very ambitious guy. He’s not a “Well, whatever, whatever, whatever.” That’s not Paul. Here’s this very ambitious guy with this giant vision to change the world. He’s under arrest, he’s in Rome, and he has nothing to do. Because he can’t go anywhere, he can’t do anything.
So, he decides, “Well, I’m not gonna waste time. I’m gonna write some letters.” Little did he know he was writing some of the most widely-read, widely translated literature in all the history of literature. In his mind, “You know what? There’s nothing I can do. I’m stuck here. What am I gonna do in the meantime? Well, I’ll make the best of it. I’ll write a few letters to some Christians in some of these cities where I visited and planted churches.” So, he wrote what we know as the “Letter to Ephesus” or “The Book of Ephesians. He wrote Colossians. He wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. In fact, these are known as the Prison Epistles. Now, this is what I want you to get in your head because this is gonna be practical for all of us in just a minute. In his mind, he’s just, “Well, whatever, there’s nothing else I can do.” In reality, he is changing the Western world. He’s changing the way people view God. He’s changing the way Gentiles approach God. He is writing literature that would ultimately be part of undermining the Roman Empire. In fact, what he wrote would be so well-read and so published, it would become part of the vernacular in multiple languages.
In fact, I think I could argue that after the time of Jesus when Jesus went to heaven, the apostle Paul had more to do with shaping culture and shaping western culture than anyone that lived right up until the printing press. And when the printing press finally got underway in about 1450, Gutenberg’s press, what’s the first book he printed? The Bible. So, the first book that was printed, mass produced, if you can think of mass production in 1450, was essentially, contained the writings of the apostle Paul, some of which was written in prison when he was in an in the meantime moment. Now, that’s incredible. Nobody here seems to think that’s incredible, but me. So, let me try to kind of jack up the incredible nature of this, okay?
Ladies, alright ladies, did you know while Paul was in prison, he writes the book of Ephesians. In the book of Ephesians, it says, “Husbands, love your wives like Christ loved the church and be willing to give your lives for your wives.” Aren’t you glad Paul went to prison so he could write that?
That’s pretty amazing. That’s just the beginning. So, so much of this mind-changing, theological literature was written during times of extraordinary adversity. Now, here’s the point. This is a big deal. Listen, Paul had no idea. Paul had no idea. The apostle Paul had no idea what hung in the balance of his decision to remain faithful when remaining faithful was difficult. The apostle Paul had no idea what hung in the balance of his decision to continue to follow Jesus when the circumstances mitigated against it. The apostle Paul had no idea what God was up to through him. He’s just sitting there writing and in some cases, apparently, had really bad eyesight. He’s dictating and he says, and somebody’s dictating.
And he just thinks, “Well, hopefully, these letters will get through.” What are the odds? I mean, come on. What are the odds that letters written in Rome while under house arrest, what are the odds they even survived the first century, much less became part of the most widely read literature in all of the history of literature? What are the odds of that? Things that emperors wrote, things that emperors dictated had been long lost and long gone, and they put them in vaults and multiple copies and made sure they were protected for the sake of history. The apostle Paul is a prisoner, one copy. “Deliver this,” and we’re still reading it today. He had no idea what hung in the balance of his decision to remain faithful.
Do you know what hung in the balance? The church hung in the balance and the reason he accomplished what he did, then we’re gonna move on, don’t miss this. It’s so important. The reason he was able to accomplish what he did was because of his adversity, and because of his response to his adversity. Now, here’s why that’s a big deal.
You have no idea, you have no idea what or who hangs in the balance of your decision to remain faithful when everything around you says “Be faithless”. You have no idea what God might be up to through your faithfulness when everything around you says, “There’s no point in being ethical. There’s no point being moral. There’s no point being faithful. There’s no point in staying. There’s no point in telling the truth. There’s no point in doing it the way it ought to be done. There’s no point being obedient. There’s no point being submissive. There’s no point in saying yes to God because there’s no win. You’re just stuck and you’re just living for some kind of fantasy out there.” You have no idea what hangs in the balance, and the problem is and the tragedy is and the challenge is you’ll never know unless you’re willing to remain faithful in the midst of adversity and what you have lived long enough to already learn is simply this, that oftentimes it’s within the context of adversity that God does his most amazing things in us, and through us, and in the world. So, this is a big deal.
So, when you find yourself, as some of you are right now, when we find ourselves in an ‘in the meantime’ set of circumstances, God is not absent. God’s not apathetic. God’s not angry as we’re gonna discover, especially in a few weeks from now. God’s oftentimes at work and the worst thing we could possibly do is to hit the abandon ship button. Hit the eject button and somehow try to get ourselves out of circumstances that are only gonna complicate our circumstances instead of saying, “God, I wouldn’t choose this for me. God, I wouldn’t choose this for an enemy, but here I am. Here I am. Teach me what it means to be content in the midst of these circumstances.”
So it’s in one of these letters. Actually the letter that he wrote to the church in Philippi, Philippians that he wrote from prison that the apostle Paul addresses this issue of contentment. And he makes a big, bold statement that I wanna show you, talk about, try to illustrate. So here’s what he says, he’s writing to the church of Philippi from, he’s on house arrest in Rome. He doesn’t know what’s gonna happen, he doesn’t know when his case will be called up. He assumes that his life will be forfeit because of who’s the emperor at the time. So here’s what he writes to Christians in the city of Philippi, he says this.
He says, “I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last… “, and I’ll explain what this means in just a minute. “That at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed you were concerned but you had no opportunity to show it”. So here’s what happened, it’s kinda cool. The apostle Paul is under arrest. News travels slow so finally the Christians in Philippi, they get news that their guy, the guy that started the church, Paul, is under arrest and he’s in Rome. So they send him a care package. Well, it takes a long time for the care package to get there. So there’s the apostle Paul rotting away or kinda just waiting to see what’s gonna happen, and he gets this care package from his friends in Philippi and he’s like, “Wow! They didn’t forget about me”. So he writes in this letter, “I’m so glad that you renewed your concern for me”. So he was opening the care package and there’s some books, and a thumb drive with some cool stuff and video games. We don’t know what’s in the care package. But he’s just… Maybe a cloak, a coat, it’s cold. So he’s just very, very grateful.
He says, “So I’m so glad that you renewed your concern for me”. And then he uses this as a launching point to talk about this big complicated word, ‘contentment’. Here’s what he says. He says, “I’m not saying this because I’m in need”. In other words, “I’m glad you sent me the care package, I’m glad you remembered me, I’m glad you didn’t forget about me. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not glad because I was afraid, I’m not glad because I’m going crazy on the inside, I’m not glad because I’m overwhelmed with anxiety. I’m not saying this because I’m in need for… “, and here it is, “For I have learned… “. In other words, it took awhile. “I have learned to process. I have learned. This didn’t come to me intuitively. I have learned, this isn’t natural. I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”
The idea of content means basically to be internally self-sufficient. “I’ve learned to deal with it. I’ve learned to not let it drag me down. I’ve learned to live in such a state that even though things around me are unsure I’m not stressing out, I’m not striving, I’m not yearning, and I’m not running. I’ve learned to be content”. Now, this is an amazing statement. “In whatever circumstances I’m in”. I don’t know about you, but when I read that I think, and maybe it’s just me, I wanna learn that. If there is a way to learn how to be content in any kinda circumstances. Not happy, not, “Hey, I’m glad it’s happening”. Not, “Bring on more, I’ll have another please”. Not, “I just wanna be miserable to be miserable”. In other words, whatever the circumstances, circumstances we have no control over. If there is a way… This is amazing. If there is a way on the inside to be okay when things on the outside are not okay, I want to learn that, where do I sign up for that? I’ll be there whatever time that class starts, I will be there on the front row. If there is a way to learn to be content in whatever circumstances I’m in.
And Paul says, “I just want you to know whether you ever learn it or not, it exists. Whether you ever get there or not, whether you pay attention to anything else I write, I just want you to know there is a category of contentment that works in all circumstances”. Now, is it just me, doesn’t that make you wanna lean in a little bit? “Tell me what that is?” That’s amazing. What that means is this. That in the meantime when you find yourself in that set of circumstances where there’s no way forward, no way out, and there’s nothing you can do about it, it just is what it is. There is a way to be content. Now, this is important. Not apathetic, Paul was not apathetic. Not, “Oh well, whatever”. Paul was not, “Oh well, whatever”. Okay? This is the guy that was gonna singlehandedly win the whole world to Jesus. Very ambitious guy. When he wasn’t a Christian he was gonna kill them all, when he became a Christian he was gonna win them all.
He’s a man of extremes. But he said, “In spite of my personality and in spite of my circumstances I have learned the secret. I’ve learned how to be content”. That’s a powerful statement. He goes on, he says, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty“. Now, this is a big statement too. I’m not gonna spend a lotta time on it. Here’s what he’s saying. He said, “I’ve had more than I needed, and I didn’t get addicted to having more than I needed so that when I was in need I was unhappy. I’ve learned to navigate having a lot and I’ve learned to navigate not having enough. Having a lot didn’t wreck my contentment, having less than I needed didn’t wreck my contentment”. He goes on, “I have learned”, and I love this, this is so cool. “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”.
And then, after we are all kinda leaning in, like, “What is it, what is it, what is it? Teach us, what’s the secret? I promise I won’t tell anybody, but I wanna know. How can I be content in any and every circumstance? How can I survive the kinda stuff you’re surviving? Paul, before you were arrested, you just kept getting the stuff beat out of you, and you were stoned and left for dead, and a snake would bite you, and you’d be shipwrecked, and people would throw you out of the city, you had to scape over walls, and then that was on a good day, and then on a bad day you were actually arrested and brought to Rome. And you’ve lost your friends, you just hope you get some mail.
How in the world, how in the world can you be content with all that?” And in the next verse he tells us, and the next verse is one of the most famous verses in the entire New Testament. It is also, perhaps, one of the most misapplied verses in all of literature. This is one of those verses that you’ve probably heard in some way, shape or form, you’ve seen it written somewhere and unfortunately it’s so pithy, it’s so easy to remember people have yanked it way out of context and applied it to all kinds of stuff, but the context for this verse that perhaps you’ve heard before or heard somebody say before, the context for this is, this is the Apostle Paul summary of how you live with contentment in the midst of circumstances that are chaotic and in his case, actually life threatening. So you ready? Here it is. So tell us how Paul. “I can do all this.” “All what?” “Oh, persecuted, run out of town and stoned and left for dead. None of my friends will talk to me, nobody is about to marry me, are you kidding? Who wants to be my wife? I just live a very lonely life and I’m here and there, and I don’t know what’s gonna happen.
I don’t know if I’m gonna make it out of here, but I can do all of this. I can do all of this and maintain my commitment. I’m not striving, I’m not tempted to disobey, I’m not tempted to compromise, I’m not tempted to say, “Nero is lord, can I go home now?” I can do all of this through him.” Maybe if you grew up in church with the King James Bible that said, “Through Christ,” “I can do all of this, I can survive all of this, I can maintain my commitment, my contentment through Christ who gives me strength. Literally, if I could add a word Paul, you wanna talk about it when I get to Heaven, okay? I want to just add one word for clarification, “who gives me His strength.” Because Paul would later elaborate in other books that he wrote that became part of the New Testament, he would elaborate that there is a mystery. This is why he chose that word, that mysterious, that sort of Cultic initiation. There’s a mystery, for believers.
There’s a mystery for Christians where actually the life of Jesus, the strength of Jesus, the endurance of Jesus is available to you and available to me in Christ, so he says, “So I can do all of this through him or Christ who gives me his strength.” Now just to be clear, and to be a bit critical, let me tell you what he was not talking about. He was not talking about this.
I thought that was really funny, and the other services didn’t laugh very loud either. Yeah, so this is a wonderful well-meaning Christian High School, I’m sure, and so the football team is about to run through, I can do all things and Paul’s up in Heaven going, “Really? I’m rotting away in prison, and you’re gonna use it to introduce your team at the football, this is not, that’s not what I was talking about. I’m not talking about winning something, I’m talking about surviving something. I’m not talking about a trophy, I’m talking about rewards in Heaven. I’m not talking about doing a deal and showing how strong I am, and nobody is gonna stop me with music playing. This isn’t Rocky, okay? I am in jail, I am fighting for my life, and this is cute and I… God bless them I think it’s awesome, I just want you to know, I just want you to know because you rip this verse out of context, and listen, this is a big deal and you missed the secret of contentment.”
You missed being initiated into the secret life of understanding what it means to … I can be fine on the inside even though the world around me is out of control. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me with His strength. I can survive all things. I can thrive under all circumstances. I can maintain my internal composure, not because I’m strong but because He gives me His strength. So let me summarize it for you, break it down a little bit. Then I’m gonna give you a homework assignment, I know you love that. Here’s essentially what he’s saying, “I can’t, He can, He can through me. I can’t, He can, He can through me.” I can, I’m not able. I’m cool and I’m strong, and I’m educated, and I got it going on, and I got a 401k, and I got a nice car, I got some friends but when it comes to this bad boy that I’m facing, I can’t, it’s beyond me. I can’t, I’m not gonna pretend I can, I’m not gonna lie and say I can. I’m not gonna drum up some kind of internal energy and have some cool sayings and some posters. I’m just gonna admit right upfront, “I can’t handle this.”
But Jesus can. And the reason I know Jesus can, is because he dragged his own cross to that hill and died for my sin. And if you can do that on purpose, if you can do that intentionally, then that’s nothing. What I’m facing is nothing compared to that. So the Apostle Paul says, “I can, he can. Most importantly, he can through me.” So you’re single and you’re sick and tired of being single, and you’ve tried being un-single, and that just made your life more complicated, now you’re in another stage of just being single again and you’re so tired. And there are options and you know those options are gonna complicate your life, you can’t, He can and He can through you. You’re pregnant, and this pregnancy means the end of your dreams, the end of the world as you know it, the end of your life as you know it. This was not what you wanted, this is not what you had in your future but you’re pregnant and you’re thinking, “I cannot have this baby.” You can’t, he can, he can through you.
You’re just miserable without him but when he was in your life things were bad? You are miserable without her and you want her back so badly, but you know that she’s gonna throw you way outside the will of God and way outside what God has for you but you just want her back, you want him back so, and you just don’t know what to do? You can’t, it’s okay. You just say, “God I can’t!” But You can and You can through me. Things aren’t good at home, everyday you drive home you don’t know who you’re driving home to. The garage door opens up and you don’t know who’s gonna walk in the door, there’s about three versions of him, there’s about three versions of her and you just kinda wait to see which version comes home today. And you just think, “God, I can’t keep doing this.” Your heavenly father says, “You can’t,” It’s alright, but I can and I can through you. It’s the mystery of Christ and you. And your health isn’t good and there’s just, the doctors kinda shrug and say, “Hey we can monitor it, we can treat it, we just can’t cure it.” And you think, “I can’t.” And you’re right, you can’t but he can and he can through you.
And your career is not under your control, there are other people who control what’s gonna happen to you financially and it just drives you crazy, and there’s times anxiety is just more that you can bear, and you’re so tempted to do something unethical, you’re so tempted to do something stupid, you’re so tempted to do something you know you’ll regret, and the inside is churning just like the outside and the Apostle Paul would say, “Hey, I can’t tell you how to live your life but I can tell you this. You can find contentment in all things but you can’t, he can, and he can through you.” You say, “I don’t understand it.” And Paul would say, “I don’t think I can explain it either, it is a mystery. But it is a mystery that creates reality, through you can contentment, you can have contentment through the ‘in the meantime’ set of circumstances because your Saviour lives inside of you.”