Paul’s Contentment

“…for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought, 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 4:11b-13

A few months ago a sermon on these verses whacked me over my head.

Contentment eluded me for my entire life. I had spent years familiar with these verses but never finding the meaning. Here was someone (Paul) saying he had learned to be content in every circumstance.

Wait. What? How? How was Paul content when he was low, hungry, and in need? Was he bluffing?

I could understand his contentment in plenty. I was frequently quite settled when things were going well, but when times were hard I freaked out, often disastrously.

What was Paul’s secret?

We often hear that last verse quoted as though it were some kind of good luck charm. But “I can do all things” isn’t pertaining to some feat of strength or passing a test. In context it’s so much more.

The secret to Paul’s contentment was his faith in Christ. Instead of depending on his ever changing circumstances for his peace he depended on the solid foundation of Jesus. Jesus never changes. There is no fluctuation in the love of Christ, unlike the other things we put our faith in.

A lifetime doesn’t seem to be enough to grasp this concept. Even though I tried to be content in Christ as all good Christians should be, I didn’t see my idols. For many years I was plagued by anxiety because this or that wasn’t right in my life. I experienced long periods of want. Instead of trusting God and being content, I allowed these periods to devour me. Anxiety and fear ran my life.

Only recently did I discover that I made idols out of so many things. And everything failed me one way or another. Instead of rightly seeing the things I had and desired to have as gifts from God, I made them into demands. When I didn’t get my demands, I became a poster child of discontent. This discontentment then proceeded to destroy many of those good gifts.

It took losing the most important thing in my life (my biggest idol) to show me the power of my idols. It took months of floundering and grasping for that idol to wake me up. I had depended on something temporal, something delicate. When it broke and went away, it almost broke me.

I was drowning but those verses hit me like a lifebouy. Paul depended on Christ, and Paul made it through excruciating suffering. Not only was I made aware that what I had lost was an idol, but I realized that all of those things which had driven my anxiety were idols as well: financial security, steady employment, well behaved kids, a clean house, sex, intimacy, friendships, my pride, etc. All of these things had failed me at times and because I had depended on them I was always left staggering.

Christ never fails. He never gives up on me. He never stops loving me. Even when I run towards my idols He always pulls me back into the fold. When I lean on Him I am never left staggering. It took going through hell to teach me this, but when I started to grasp it I felt a peace like I never have before.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t hurt or have days of discouragement and discontent. I am still going through this trial. I am still suffering. At times I feel like a train is sitting on my chest. It’s hell. I still want to restore what was lost (it is a good thing in and of itself, when properly esteemed). But I am content. Christ is sovereign, God is working for my good and His glory. I don’t have to flail or kick against His Providence because I know it is perfect.

When I am lonely or struggling with thoughts of suicide (I am ashamed to even admit this) or wasting away in pain I can call on Him and He restores peace to my soul. I can read His word and find comfort in His promises, as well as instruction on how to handle difficult people and circumstances. I can know that no matter what happens to me I am secure in my salvation. I may suffer and even die, but my eternity is secure.

Perhaps “I can do all things” means “I can endure all things”. No matter what God gives or takes away in His Providence, we can be sure that if we (like Paul) rest in Him we will endure. If we call on Him when in trial or despair we can find real comfort. When we obey His law and trust in His word we can handle any circumstance that comes our way.

That is true contentment.

Pain

A brilliant man once said “Life is pain, highness, anyone who says differently is selling something.” He may not have been too far off from the truth. In my thirty-five years of life I have found that pain is one of the few certainties in my existence.

Since I was twelve I have suffered from nearly constant back pain and neck pain, the result of a bike accident. I have had two surgeries, one to remove a benign bone tumor from my knee and one to place a titanium plate on my broken collar bone. Both resulted in nerve damage which is often painful. Wear and tear from hard work has given me various aches from my feet to my hands. Our physical bodies are certainly frail. But what of our minds and souls?

I am no stranger to emotional pain. This is the kind of pain which rots your soul and makes you wish to die. It is tempting to flee this pain in myriad ways, frequently replacing the internal pain with a physical pain. Unfortunately, this is a dreadful payoff.

Death seems like a great escape. After all, I believe there is eternal bliss on the other side. But who am I to tell God when it’s my time? And what of those I would leave behind? What of their emotional pain? As my son put it “You can’t die, who would take care of us?” Escaping my pain is not worth dumping it onto them.

Other temptations are equally fraught with ugly. I could drink myself into a stupor, but that would result in not only a dreadful hangover the next day but it could result in neglecting my loved ones or worse. Same with drugs. Sex? Temporary. And when used incorrectly, also dangerous to others.

So what do I do with my pain?

It would be easy to say I simply pray it all away. After all, that’s what the prosperity preachers say to do. But prayer doesn’t always eliminate pain. In fact sometimes it seems more pain is the answer to prayer. I definitely do pray and cling to the promises of God. But there is more to it than that.

I’ve come to the conclusion that pain never completely goes away. There is always going to be some kind of pain in our lives. Knowing that pain will always be present gives me some consolation. I’m not cursed. I’m not strange. What I deal with is common to all.

But is it my fault? I think this is the most common question people have about pain. “What did I do to bring this upon myself?” I don’t internalize too much. Not all the pain in life is purely your fault. Don’t listen to Job’s friends and assume your pain is the result of some horrible sin you have done (though it might be).

Sometimes pain is the result of the actions of others. We live in a world full of depraved souls, friction is inevitable. People hurt us with words, with actions, and sometimes in ways we don’t fully understand. Often we allow even the innocent actions of others to hurt us. Our thoughts about the actions directly feed our feelings of pain. The best we can do for this pain is to forgive. Vengeance or wrathful responses will only injure us more.

Escape if you have to, then let it go. Or simply seek to understand the motives behind the actions and words of others. If pure, you may need to examine your own pride. Maybe you are being oversensitive, maybe you hate yourself and are projecting that hatred into what others do. Maybe you simply need to tell them it hurts. We all do the best we can with what we know, it’s likely you hurt many people without knowing or intending.

It soothes my pain to know that we are all suffering in this world together. We all hurt each other. We are all equals in this respect. I can respond with anger, or I can respond with compassion. Compassion is much less painful for both parties, at least in the long run.

I refuse to let pain consume me. I refuse to let pain lead me into giving up my faith. I refuse to let pain kill my love for others. Or kill me for that matter. Pain can only grow me.

I choose what I allow pain to do to me.

A Hex on The Stoics

The other day, I was listening to an episode about prayer on Ligonier’s “Renewing Your Mind”. The speaker, R.C. Sproul, mentioned that prayer is a lot like a love letter. He said the even though God already knows about our life, we should be excited to pray and tell God all about it.

This made me wonder, why aren’t more people who claim to love God giving Him love letters in their prayers?

I then realized that many Christians don’t pray at all. Perhaps much of what prevents them from praying is a lack of real joy in their life.

They prefer to be stoics.

People are told so often not to let their emotions control them and dictate their actions that they often assume it’s safer not to have any feelings. They think “Don’t let your emotions rule you” really means stop having emotions at all.

Should emotions rule us and dictate everything we do or say? No, we should certainly apply logic and rational thinking when making decisions. But should emotions have some influence? Perhaps.

I think it’s unbiblical to say we shouldn’t have our emotions influence any of our actions. In the Bible there are numerous examples of people weeping, soaking their beds in tears, and rending their clothing in mourning. In the Gospels we have Jesus flipping tables. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” got angry and showed it. The people of the Bible were very emotional and their actions certainly displayed it.

I think the modern (or not so modern, honestly) tendency to stoicism is very unbiblical. We were created to feel. God Himself has emotions, and strong ones at that. Part of being created in His image is the ability to emote.

Most of Fruits of the Spirit are emotional. For example, what is joy if not happy? What is joy if not exuberant? We should let joy influence us. Especially in our prayers.

There are many out there who say that happiness is not something we should strive for. I think this is hogwash. We should feel nothing but happy knowing that the God of creation loves us, cares about us, provides for us, and even died for our sins. If nothing else, we should strive to be happy about those facts.

That happiness ought to be reflected in our prayers. We should be excited to pray because God is listening. He values and loves the prayers of His saints and wants us to come to Him with our burdens and worship. We should be glad to give Him our love letters of prayer, because his love gives us great joy.

As usual, Sproul was right.

Perspective

Perspective is a hell of a thing.

What we may perceive as small is actually an illusion created by our relative position to the object. This kind of illusion applies to many places in life, not just visually. Sometimes when we are distant from a person we tend to underestimate the big affairs going on in his or her life.

Sure, we may see the problems, clearly even. But because of our distance from the situation we may interpret what we see as a small issue. We may even think “we could handle that, why don’t they seem able to?”

But we don’t see how big the problem truly is to the person standing right under its power.

The only way to truly see how big the troubles are in someone’s life is to get closer to them. Spend time with them, talk to them, maybe share some of your big struggles with them to encourage them to bring up theirs.

Remind them that with time and distance problems always seem to shrink. What seemed big last week is now a tiny speck on the horizon of memory.

Of course this also should remind us all that what appears to be a little problem way out there in the future may end up quite large by the time we confront it. Small problems grow to big ones if not taken care of.

Don’t let your perceptions fool you. “Small” is not always small.

Thankfully “big” isn’t always big either.

Diversions

Ooo, shiny!

We live in an insatiablely intolerable world at times. Life is a messy, dirty, steaming pile of excrement some days. There is no escaping the to-do lists and the schedules and the ever growing piles of bills. It almost makes me jealous of the people of old who lived short miserable lives. At least they were short…

I’ve never been able to drown out my worries with diversions. I hear of people escaping their troubles and woes with movies, music, video games, or even alcohol. Perhaps I’m just not a focused enough person to forget my cares and immerse myself in numbness or fantasy? I can only be so distracted before my mind wanders back to the struggle of the day.

Painting, writing, playing Pokémon GO with my kids and wife. I enjoy these. But none provide any forgetfulness. Stress is always right there making it hard to find forgiveness for not accomplishing everything on that to-do list. “Why are you taking a break when you should be doing this?!”

Will it ever change? Maybe. Maybe one day my cares will be few enough to drown out with frivolity, at least for fleeting moments. Until then I’ll just continue distracting myself half-heartedly.

What’s Up With Marie Kondo?


There’s a new craze going on. People are going “KonMari” on their homes and tidying them up. Lives are changing, with every cymbal flourish and Marie Kondo Coo, rooms are being magically transformed from dumps to habitable spaces.

I knew nothing of this show until it started appearing in my newsfeed. Then my wife watched it…

My wife has spent literally the last ten years trying to KonMari our house without knowing she was doing it. She has emptied her closet onto the bed several times and whittled down the clothes to a manageable number. She has sought to create spaces for the objects that she loves to be on display to bring joy to her house. She emptied and rearranged kitchen cabinets, she disposed of piles of things that no longer meant anything to anyone (and a lot that she still loved).

But because of me, this labor was in vain. I am a hoarder, or at least a recovering one. I have held onto papers and books and random objects from my youth for odd and unhealthy reasons. It’s been a process, slow and painful (yet cathartic), to get rid of my stuff and only keep what really makes me happy.

So seeing the craze, and hearing my wife’s reviews, I decided I should watch a few episodes myself and see what it was all about.

First off, skip the first episode unless you want to know why the rest of the world dislikes Americans. Stereotypes exist for a reason, sadly. The one upside to the episode is that it normalizes breastfeeding.

But episode three was great (we accidentally skipped episode two), especially for us, because we live in a smallish house with seven people in it. Seeing another family downsize from a huge space to a tiny space was uplifting and gave me some hope for this household. Plus they were just so dern wholesome. The kids were polite and the parents well spoken. They seemed like normal people trying to get by, just like most of us.

There was another episode with a couple just like us, the wife (in our case, me) just couldn’t bear to get rid of her clothes, books, and miscellaneous items. We had to laugh because if we didn’t laugh we would cry. This woman said many of the things I do. It was humbling to see someone else do it. She kept things for  various reasons, usually utilitarian in her mind. I completely understood what she was saying. And her husband? The words he spoke could have been stolen from my wife’s mouth.

So what do I think of Marie Kondo?

Well, first off, she seems like an absolute sweetheart. She doesn’t come into her client’s home like a wrecking ball, deriding them for having stuff. Instead, she sweetly reminds them of some pretty common sense stuff like you’re all in this household together, so you have to work as a team to keep it tidy and only keep what brings you joy. Common sense frequently escapes me, so her reminders were well needed.

Other shows of this genre show you “horrible” people and build up drama around their horrible addiction to materials. They literally guilt you into cleaning up your house, because only “horrible” people live in messy houses. Not “Tidying Up”, this show shows you average people who are just trying to get themselves out from a completely relate-able situation. It’s feel good TV.

People will mock Marie because of her Shinto beliefs, saying she does odd things like “waking up books” and greeting the house. Sure, there is a bit of superstition involved, but that doesn’t make everything she does incorrect. Watching her talk about her beliefs got me to thinking, what is the correct way for Christians to think about the objects in their house?

So many Christians in America just go along with the materialism of our culture. We buy stuff we don’t need, we collect things with no intrinsic value, we hoard and take pride in our displays of wealth and blessings. Most of us are able to keep our material possessions manageable, but there are more than just a few of us that are drowning in them.

Wealth is not bad. Having material possessions isn’t sinful. Buying stuff you don’t need or having collections are not intrinsically bad behaviors. But, like all things we do, we should examine our motives and the effects the behaviors have on our lives and the lives of those around us.

Watching the show encouraged me to ask myself a few questions:

Does my home or the objects in it hinder my ability to share the Gospel?

I can’t share the Gospel when I can’t invite anyone in to my home. My home is an extension of my life, and the best way to spread the Gospel is to let others into it. But I am too embarrassed by my chaos to let others in.

Does my home reveal a lack of self-control, a Fruit of the Spirit?

My home definitely reveals some lack of self-control. There are places for things, but things are not put away. Clothes are not put in hampers, dishes are lost in far corners, the tables are used as catch-alls. Habits are not maintained.

Is there peace in my home, or is it chaos?

There is no peace. While training to be a bus driver I was told that having a clean bus actually encourages good student behavior. This is obvious even in my home. My kids aren’t bad, but clutter stresses them out and can lead to grumpiness, sloppiness, and laziness. How much more relaxed would they be if they knew where their stuff was? How much more willing would they be to keep up with their chores if they didn’t have to shift around mounds of stuff?

What does my mountain of stuff and my inability to get rid of it say about what me and what’s important to me?

What’s more important to me: this stuff that I’ve been dragging around for years, or the health and well being of my family? Stuff, or my ability to have friends over to share my life? Stuff, or my ability to do the things I love instead of wasting my time moving sand dunes of clothes and papers around?

Do these objects rob me or members of my family of joy, also one of the Fruits of the Spirit?

Joy is the one thing that Marie brings up more often than her love of tidying. Objects can rob us of our joy. Mountains of material possessions can drag us into depressing and awful places.


We should only keep what brings us joy. We should not hold on to the stuff that robs us of joy or inhibits our ability to share the Gospel. We should use our home to bring joy to others. Keeping a house full of clutter often means keeping a home empty of friends.

Go check out the show, then go KonMari on your house, you won’t be disappointed.

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No-stalgia

My carefree childhood, I was such a dork…

What is it about the past that we think was so much better? Why is it so easy to sit in a current rough patch and think “I wish I was back in such and such a time”? Was the past really that great?

I watched the CNN produced documentary “The Nineties” on Netflix last week. Despite living up to the “Clinton News Network” nickname (that man could do no wrong in CNN’s eyes), it did make me miss some of thatdecade’s better features.

The thing I miss the most is the popular music. I’m not up to date on the latest pop music, everything modern I listen to now is “weird” to most people. Most people meaning my wife, her opinion is the only one that matters. The rare time I do get to hear current hits I gag a little. At least in the nineties the mainstream was trying to be creative and make something people had not heard before. Now it’s just repackaged garbage from some other time and place. Just because that time was often the nineties doesn’t mean they do it well though.

Other features of the decade? Was it really that great of a time? I started high school in the final year of the decade, so my memories are a jumbled heap of childhood memories and silliness. Comparisons are easy to make though, one doesn’t need precise memories of events to remember that some stuff just plain sucked back in the day.

I definitely don’t miss dial-up internet. Yes, kids, there was a day when the internet wasn’t “on” all the time. You had to pay by the minute, and those minutes did not produce much more than a page or two of TEXT. Pictures? Come back after you have gone to the kitchen for a Surge and a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. I remember the first time I heard of Ethernet, it was a mind blowing concept.you meqn the internet is always connected? You can watch movie clips on it?!

Cell phones? As a kid i only knew one person with a cell phone and it was corded and attached to a bag. You could not watch movies on it or play Candy Crush”. The only cool feature on a cell phone back then was “Centipede” which could be played on a black and green screen. You could play it for days though without charging the phone. My memory could be a bit skewed but I swear those phone batteries lasted for-ev-errrr (if you don’t get that reference, you’re killing me, Smalls).

The movies were better then. I mean, they actually had to try. CGI was limited to Star Wars (and it was bad), so Hollywood actually had to build sets and scale models. And aside from the epic that was Titanic, not every movie was a three hour highly involved action sequence. You could watch an hour and a half movie and then go about your day. After you returned the video cassette to Blockbuster of course. If you were kind you would rewind. If you were a jerk… Well…

You didn’t have to commit hours to sitting around binging on TV shows either. What was on TV was what was on, you didn’t get to pick, and you definitely didn’t get to skip commercials.

For some of us TV was called “Cable” which despite being roughly the same technology as today, was nothing like it’s current counterpart. There were no DVRs and no easy index channel which could take you directly to the channel of your liking. You had to wait for the preview channel to scroll through allof the channels and then manually get yourself to the show you wanted.

Most people had a VCR, which, if you had a degree in engineering (or nursing, as did my mom), you could program it to record something. But.It had to be on the right channel. It was largely just used for playing movies, not recording them.

If you didn’t have cable you had to stick to the old rabbit ears and a non-digital *gasp* signal. Which meant you got like six channels. You missed out on Nickelodeon, the beginnings of the Cartoon Network, and all the major 24/7 news channels.

Which reminds me:

The politics haven’t changed.

The 90’s was full of political scandals. But they seemed to move a lot slower than current scandals. Even with 24/7 news networks coming onto the scene the slower pace of information streaming (well, it was dial up, there was no “streaming” as we know it) meant that you could watch the news and not be suffocated in useless data. There was only so much new stuff to report so you could watch an hour and pretty much get it all.

I certainly don’t miss the outfits or the hairstyles. Except for the grunge. We can keep the grunge. Bring back flannel already!

What were we thinking? And she’s going to kill me. Also: Epic 90’s album cover material!

I will be happy once modern fashion gets out of its 80’s slump. That is a decade I am too young to be nostalgic for. Except for Reagan, who isn’t nostalgic for Reagan? There I go with the politics again…

I will probably always be sappy and sentimental, it’s just my nature. But closer inspection reveals that the past wasn’t really better than the present. Sure, I was a kid and responsibilities were fewer and stakes were lower. But if I were the me of today living then would I find it better? Probably not. How would I make money? How would I talk to you on this blog? How much smaller was the world back then?

It’s nice to think back on those days, but I’m content to see what the future will bring.

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Reinvention

People are always talking about changing themselves. They seem discontent with who they are and want to “reinvent” themselves. They go out and get a new haircut or a new wardrobe, they lose certain friends or go on fad diets. Constant change is seen as a good thing, but is it really?

I have spent many years of my life trying to be other people. I let others dictate my moods, my likes, my diet, and even my thoughts and beliefs. Mine is a super sympathetic personality. I mimic. To a fault.

So when I started trying to change that fault of mine the first inclination was to reinvent the wheel and become a whole new me. Reinvention never happened though. Not only is it hard to change old habits, it’s impossible to deny personality traits and innate passions.

There are things that I like that I had spent a ton of energy trying not to like or denying that I liked them out of embarrassment. I was trying to please other people by denying my own tastes. Honestly it makes no sense why I did that, except that I can be very insecure sometimes.

Some people want to reinvent the wheel. But the wheel doesn’t need reinventing. You can’t find something to replace the basic design, it’s already functional enough.

Although you can’t reinvent the wheel, you can improve: You can add rubber tread and a motor, or cogs and a chain, or a belt and a series of wheels. You can make the wheel do what you need it to do.

You can’t easily change your personality, or your tastes. But like the wheel you can make them work in your favor. You can embrace them and run with them.

That’s what I hope to do in the next few months. Perhaps you’ll be seeing some changes around here. Stay tuned!

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The Exhaustion of The Hunt

Maybe I have mentioned this before, I’m a romcom aficionado. I get all teared up and then all warm and fuzzy after watching them. Even a good romantic drama gets me right in the feels. I’m sappy. Too sappy.

There is a common theme in a lot of these comedies, a theme that has also shown itself in stand up routines and has seeped into my own social life: finding a mate is hard work.

My wife and I occasionally have the “if you died” discussion (sounds morbid I know) and we have both come to the conclusion that we would end up old spinsters.

Well, she thinks she would be, and I think I would be, but we are pretty sure the other would be just fine.

She’s hot, she’s hilarious, she has other qualities that would be inappropriate to discuss on this blog, why would she have a problem finding a man?

I’m hot (apparently), I have a great personality, I connect emotionally, and I’m good at… things…. Why would I have a problem finding a mate?

Because the market sucks!

I don’t envy the 20 and 30 somethings out there playing the field and trying to pick up women. I don’t wish to trade places with anyone trying to find someone to settle down with. Even the thought of perusing dating apps and bars and even church is enough to make me want to stay single.

From what I can tell listening to comedians and friends, people are mean. They are deceitful, manipulative, emotional, selfish, and ugly. All the attractive ones (ie not like those) are taken. It is an awful world out there for love.

Even if I managed to snag a good one, it wears out my spirit just thinking about going through the initial stages of a relationship right now.

I remember the boiling passion of our early relationship, it would be insane to go back to that. I am quite content with the simmering passion we have now, the kind that occasionally flashes out of the pan, but never leaves us feeling burned out by the other.

If I ever end up in the market for a new lover, I will probably end up taking out a want ad in the paper, asking for a particular set of qualifications, a photograph, and a promise that she is not nearly as sappy as me.

Because that would just be too exhausting.

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Persistence

“Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Luke 18:2-8

Persistence pays off.

Giving up is easier, waaaay easier. But when you give up you gain nothing. Persisting, though painful, usually pays off in dividends greater than the sacrifice you made.

Think about some of the things where persistence is vital. Diets, working out, blogging, painting, relationships, and on and on. You make sacrifices for these things and after a bit of time and sacrifice you end up with returns far greater than the sacrifice.

At least usually. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you put in, you don’t always get everything or even anything back. Persistence in this world sometimes means you are beating your head against a wall. Of course that’s no reason to quit.

But in prayer, we have a guarantee that our persistence will pay off. There is no such thing as “unanswered prayer”, Christ assures us that justice will always be done when we are persistent in prayer. Even if we don’t get exactly what we want, we will always get what is just.

It may be easy to give up on diets or exercise, because they frequently fail us, it should never be easy to give up on prayer.