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.

Again and Again

A not so old photo made to look old, like me.

Where have I been? Maybe you’re not really asking. I don’t know how much interest there truly is in this blog, but maybe someone out there misses me and my posts.

Short answer: distracted.

Long answer: Working on my other blog, posting everything I have ever painted/photographed/photo manipulated. And getting way bogged down in the complexities of life.

How am I doing with my New Year’s resolutions? Well… I dunno.

I don’t know if I have recaptured any of my youthful vigor yet. I’m still listening to local music and I even went to a show recently. I left with ringing ears and a headache but dagnabbit I was there!

Hensley

The first month and a half of 2020 was hell. About mid February everything started to look up. Well, most of it anyway. I honestly had no time to think about trying to go back to all of my good character traits from the past. Instead I would like to think I gained new ones.

I have learned to be content, I faced the struggle of January with a stiff neck and a clenched jaw. I worked myself to exhaustion just trying to keep things afloat. Most of that work was met with success, some of it not so much. But I didn’t let the failures knock me down. I just kept swimming.

When things started to get better, I breathed. I slowed down and took stock of the situation and started planning for the future. Bad times could come again, as they have many times in recent years. Perhaps I can be a bit more prepared so I don’t have to work so hard to stay afloat.

All of this was financial stuff mind you. My house is falling apart, my relationship with my wife is rocky, and my mental health is… Well… It’s day by day.

And that’s just how I’m going to face those challenges: day by day.

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.

Is It Wrong To Want Things?

Sometimes you just have to scrap an entire blog. My original title for this was “Happiness As a Goal”. But I’ve renamed it and rewritten it. And then rewrote it again. And then renamed it again.

So here it is, after a ton of editing:

I have struggled with the concept of wants and needs for a while. God gives us everything we need, so everything we don’t have we don’t need, right? And if God doesn’t give it to us and we don’t need it, it’s sinful to want it, right?

For a long time I felt that contentment meant being completely satisfied with what you have. This means that any desire for something one doesn’t have is discontentment and therefore sinful.

This was my train of thought: It is a sin to be discontent, to be content means you don’t want anything, you are satisfied with what you have. Therefore to want is to be discontent, therefore to want is to sin. Furthermore, God gives us everything we need, if we don’t have it we don’t need it. If we don’t need it we just want it, and wanting anything is a sin.

From the last three paragraphs you can see why my life has become kind of messy. I have shoved down a lot of desires and drives mistaking them for sin. This has made me a bit of a limp noodle. If wants and desires are inherently sinful what’s the point of trying? After all, you’re going to get what you need.

But then I realized that the Bible clearly talks about wants.

“You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” James 4:2b-3

James does not condemn his audience for asking for things.

In 1 John we read this:
“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”

One only asks for things if one wants something. Since asking is not condemned, wanting is not condemned. I was wrong to think merely having wants was sinful. God clearly wants us to want things that are in accordance with His will and to ask Him for them. Asking is encouraged, and we are to do it with confidence.

Ultimately I don’t have to feel shame or guilt for wanting things (or experiences, or good feelings). But I do have to ask the question “is this in accordance with God’s will?”

Probably the easiest way to determine this is to ask the questions “Do I want this purely for selfish gain? Does my desire ultimately serve others and/or bring glory to God?” If the answer to the first is no and the answer to the second is yes then I am free to ask and to pursue what I want.

This whole train of thought has further implications, obviously. This is me after all. I can’t keep anything too simple. Keep checking back and I will try to further expound on these thoughts in other posts as I get to them.

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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.

New Chapter

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Now we are back. Back from the woods. Back from the mountain. Back from the small town.

We have arrived in the big city. the flatlands, the urban surroundings, the crazy.

For a while during the summer I thought of this as the pause button. I thought of it as the boring part. The summer is the excitement, the productive part of the year,  and the winter is the lull, the bleak months of bread lines and struggle. I viewed the return to here as the inconvenient return to reality and drudgery.

That’s not how life works.

There is no pause, there are no breaks and inconvenient stops. Sure, there are seasons in life. There are periods of calm, times of chaos, bleak days and happy days. But life ticks on.

This is not a season for sitting on my haunches and being miserable. Instead, I need to see this as an opportunity to grow. I have the time and the energy to invest in so much right now, it would be foolish to let my anxiety get the best of me.

It hasn’t been three days back and we already have met a few setbacks. I need a functioning truck to make money. She needs a vehicle to get to Virginia to make money. One’s got shot brakes and the other is still full of unpacked junk. We have a lot of emotional baggage about this house. There aren’t a lot of good memories here, and walking in the door to find it still cluttered with all the trinkets and accumulated crap from all the years is a drain on the mind and spirit.

Not to mention the adjustment to the time zone difference. Two hours makes a surprising difference.

In spite of that I have been able to accomplish many things so far. I have unpacked boxes, bundled up laundry, cleaned up the mile thick layer of dust on several surfaces, mowed the front yard and start tackling the back, cleaned the fridge of six months of scary, unburied the kitchen counters, diagnosed a brake issue, and hung out with friends.

Tackling this is no easy feat.

Taking credit and feeling proud of my accomplishments is not something which comes naturally for me. I tend to downplay or just outright deny my successes. This is something I am working on. There is nothing inherently wrong with looking at something I have completed and saying “I did this well.” It is not arrogance to take pride in legitimate accomplishments, only in made up ones.

This is a new chapter in our adventure. I intend to make it a good one.

 

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Honesty

How honest are you? In real life? In social media? Would the people who know you be surprised if you did something shocking?

Back in the day when someone went off and committed some horrid thing you would see the neighbors saying things like “He was always a little strange, but we never saw this coming.” Now that we have social media the circle of people who “never saw it coming” has grown.

And the ability to sugar coat has gotten easier.

Not only have we gotten better at hiding the bad, we have gotten better at exaggerating the good. When a man flies off the handle and kills his wife and children, we look back at their posts and say “but they had such a great marriage!” We look at smiling pictures of those who commit suicide and wonder where the problems were hiding.

So how honest are you? How much do you show the warts in your life? How much do you confide in real people? How much do you share with virtual people? How much do you exaggerate the good? Would your friends and neighbors on and offline be shocked if you did something tragic?

Why do people hide behind positive posts and perfectly filtered pictures? Are they afraid people might know their secrets? It’s easier to hide secrets now that we can bury them under a facade of beauty. It’s no longer just “he was a quiet guy”, now it’s “he really seemed to have it together.”

It is my goal here and elsewhere to be honest and open. I don’t ever want to sugarcoat my situation. If I ever seem too optimistic, call me out on it. If you ever need to confide something, I’m here.

The last thing we need is to be all over the news with our friends and neighbors surprised that our lives were really not so great.

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Stabbing Anxiety In the Face With a Soldering Iron, Part 2

Last week I discussed some of the things I do to conquer the physical aspects of anxiety. But what about the thoughts?

In order to kill bad thoughts it helps to understand the motives behind one’s thoughts. Most of my anxious thoughts stem from my severe need to be in control of all things. I am a control freak. When things are out of my control I panic. I begin to think the worst. I lose all faith and go into the selfish cocoon of anxiety.

Knowing what motivates my wrong thoughts helps in creating a strategy to defeat them.

So what do I do?

Well, I take control of the things I actually have control of. Despite my negativity, there are things I actually have some power over. Like my time, my children, and my personal space.

I make a schedule and try to stick with it, understanding that sometimes things happen that make that schedule obsolete for the moment. At the very least I follow a routine and make habits.

I work on establishing healthy boundaries with my children. Kids can be chaos incarnate, but usually only because we don’t put a foot down and make it clear what is allowed and not allowed. Discipline goes a long way towards helping calm that storm. Boundaries are important to all relationships, if there are other relationships in your life that create stress and anxiety it is likely that you need to establish some basic rules regarding it.

By personal space, I mean my house. I have control over the cleanliness and clutter of my home. Part of a good schedule and routine is taking time to organize and clean up. Visual clutter and messes are huge triggers for anxious thoughts. It took me years to figure this out, but it has made a huge difference since.

As for the things I can’t control… (which are far fewer in number than my mind will let me believe) those things get put into my prayers. Only God can control those things.

That may seem like a cop out answer, but I assure you that faith is harder than any scheduling, disciplining, or cleaning. Having faith requires catching my thoughts and correcting them. Taking every thought captive requires constantly telling myself truths to correct the lies that my mind wants to tell me. In order to do this I have to know truths, I have to study and think about truths, and I have to believe truths.

Anxiety is ultimately the antithesis of faith. Faith is ultimately the solution to anxiety.

Bad Week

So you had a bad week,

What could you do?

Providence isn’t always easy,

What we all go through.

Maybe you were tired,

Maybe you ate too much junk.

Maybe you indulged

In sin or in too much.

Maybe you fed your guilt,

Or stroked your shame.

Maybe you didn’t give your sins to God,

And instead soaked in blame.

So you had a bad week,

Everyone does,

Sometimes.

Will next week be better?

Who’s to say?

Perhaps it will get better,

Maybe it will stay the same.

You can’t always control the circumstances,

Just how you respond.

And I promise you this:

If you respond the same,

The bad will remain.

So change.

Epiphany

Do you ever feel like you don’t know what you feel? Like you just have a blockage somewhere and you wish something could come along and clear out the pipes of your soul?

I don’t know if I have ever used the term “emotional constipation” on this site, but it is a phrase which occasionally pops into my brain. This constipation frequently occurs when I have nothing to worry about.

Anxiety is like fiber in that it really pushes all that emotional crap out into the world. It’s an extroverted emotion that wants to display itself and be the center of attention.

Peace on the other hand… Peace just likes to be. When I am at peace I tend to hole up and be insulated. I need no one to share with, no one to dump on. When life is stress free, nothing moves.

Stillness can be great, don’t get me wrong. But my natural inclinations are towards worry, so when nothing is moving I feel like a marble on a tabletop. I just roll wherever I am tilted.

This leads to conflict, I don’t know what I am feeling. Am I at peace? Am I secretly anxious? What should I be? Then I get meta-feelings about my feelings. Or non-feelings. Whichever happen to be occurring at the moment. Then I get all clogged up, not knowing which way to go.

How do I solve this blockage? Simple: stress. Writing, reading, sex, painting, singing, praying, a walk, running, weight lifting, forcing myself to do something intense, anything which puts a load on my body or my mind to the point where it just can’t hold anymore.

Some people need peace and quiet. I need a challenge.