Truth & Orthodoxy

Learning How To Handle Abundance

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My life is filled with good things. As I write, my sweet boy is crawling around the room babbling to himself, every now and then coming to check in with me, snuggle, and play. My two girls are still asleep after a late night yesterday— one of them stayed up to help me clean while waiting for daddy to come home. So I sit in a now tidied-up room in a home I love. I write with a relatively clear mind and healthy body. The sun rose again this morning as it does every day, and I remember its glory I witnessed during Monday’s solar eclipse. I hear footsteps upstairs now. One little lady is up and calling for me.

My life is filled to overflowing with good and sometimes I don’t know how to handle it. I don’t merely mean sentimentally, though at times my heart does feel so full it could burst. And I don’t mean how to handle all the cuteness of my fuzzy haired boy or handle the messiness caused by my energetic, playful, artistic girls.

What I mean is that I often struggle with knowing what it means to respond to all this good, or as Paul writes in Philippians, how to “abound” and “have plenty,” in a Godward way. It may sound like I’m overthinking things, and maybe there’s a hint of truth in that, but stick with me for a moment here. I have a hunch that I’m not alone in this.

A few weeks ago, I read a fascinating NY Times magazine article, “Losing It in the Anti-Dieting Age.” In it the writer shares an anecdote about how she decided to stop dieting only to realize she didn’t know how or what to eat. She writes about seeing a nutritional therapist and learning to eat in an intuitive-eating class. In it, they took small pieces of food, starting with a raisin, and learned to eat food as if they were “aliens who had just arrived on Earth and were learning what this thing called food was and why and how you would eat it.

Ever since Adam and Eve took of the fruit and ate it, our relationship with things of the Earth has been complicated to say the least. Because what God made is good, there is good in the world. The skies proclaim his glory, people reflect his worth. But with sin’s entrance came the distortion of good things.  Food is one example of this, but it is just one category among all created things has the potential to be confusing, twisted, or misused.

After the Fall of man, we have elevated created things to the place of God and misused what we have toward idolatrous ends. We are tempted to find satisfaction in people and things rather than God and to use them for our own glory.  Furthermore, with sin came an element of fearful anxiety cast over our days, the entrance of loss and risk in a world now inhabited by thorns. We make friendships, work, buy houses, and start families knowing we could lose everything we have in an instant. And even with all the good we have, in the back of our minds we are always aware of countless others who are presently suffering.

In a world East of Eden, filled with good things but also of temptation, uncertainty, and suffering, it is then a struggle to know how to handle the “good things” in life– the created things that God has declared good. Like someone learning to see a raisin in a healthy way, we often need to undo and relearn our relationship to created things.

Apart from God, we only see glimpses of the purposefulness behind the universe and all it contains. But as Christians, our relationship to created things is redefined by our knowledge of the Creator to whom, for whom, and through whom all things exist. And as we grow in the faith, God teaches us how to relate not only to trials in life, but to the good, the blessings he chooses to give.

For those who struggle with temptation, guilt, fear, or anxiety in dealing with good things from God, here are some ways to start rethinking and receiving God’s gifts.

Receive good from God as a gift. (Or, receive with thanksgiving.)

I’ve written about how when my son was born, I struggled with reconciling such enormous blessing from God with the suffering I witnessed around me. Why God, why such blessing? I wondered. And God’s answer to me was simply that he is a good God who gives good gifts (Ja. 1:17).

I cannot make sense of the good things I have because I don’t deserve any of it. But I don’t need to deserve it to receive them as gifts. I am called thus to turn to God in thanksgiving, to the Giver of every good and perfect gift. And when I meditate on the heart of the Giver, I am drawn to him not to his blessings as ultimate, but to see his grace and surrender to his wisdom.

Receive good from God as a sermon. (Or, turn to God in worship.)

God speaks through the goodness of created things. As a Creator, his nature is reflected in his works— his beauty in the skies, his abundance in supplying our physical needs, his wisdom in creating our bodies, his lovingkindness in the care of others.

Sometimes, in an effort to push back against the prosperity gospel, we neglect to see that though God speaks through suffering, he also speaks in his endless supply of good things. The sun rises and rain falls— that is a sign of his goodness to all creation, to both evil and good. The skies proclaim his handiwork, day to day pouring out speech, declaring his glory. We breathe in his air, we walk on his earth, we enjoy the company of others made by him in his image.

All the goodness in creation is a sermon meant to harken our ears to the Preacher and turn to him in worship. As one pastor said, we don’t honor the Preacher by ignoring the sermon (quoted here.) As we guard our hearts against thinking God only speaks in blessing us, we don’t need to ignore the ways he does speak to us in giving good gifts. Rather we can see his character in the things created and turn to him in worship.

Receive good from God as a postcard. (Or, long for home with hope.)

Because we live in a world where death and sin have yet to be swallowed up, our enjoyment of good is often tainted with sorrow. We are sorrowful over our inability to enjoy good gifts today with those who have passed on. We endure the uncertainty of knowing those we love aren’t guaranteed safety and longevity. We are aware that every vacation must come to an end, each peaceful stretch on life’s road will eventually come turn into a place of struggle. As another has written, the “prospect of pain threatens our pleasure.”

We live in the time in between Jesus’ resurrection and return, after the beginning of the restoration of all things, but not at home yet. And so, all of our enjoyment of created things, though real, is still a flicker. Our delight in God’s good gifts are in a sense still fleeting. The flickering and fleetingness, though meaningful and wonderful, point us to our lasting hope at the end of the road. Only at the return of Jesus will our joys never be followed with sorrow, our gains never threatened with loss.

The good gifts from God we enjoy today are “postcards from the lasting city that are meant to be handled, admired, passed around, stuck on the fridge.” They are truly good but they are still shadows of what is to come for those who believe in Christ. So we enjoy these postcards with great hope and anticipation of a place filled with only good and eternal joy.

Receive good from God as a stewardship. (Or, seek to be generous.)

Sometimes, when we consider our lack of merit in receiving good from God, we are tempted toward guilt and introspection. Who are we to receive such good? And while there is an appropriateness to feeling our unworthiness, we are not meant to stay there because all we’ve been given is not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of others.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul exhorts the church in Corinth to give generously so that their abundance may supply the needs of others. He references the Israelites gathering manna, saying “As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’” (2 Cor. 8:1-15).

Rather than merely feeling guilty about our lives being relatively struggle-free compared to others or even fearing that the trials of others will come upon us, we are called to willingly enter into the suffering of others to bring relief. Whether this means having the time and emotional capacity to intercede for the hurting or financial means to give to someone who lacks, all we have has been allotted by God to us to use for others. We are merely stewards of the created things we have however much and for however long God chooses to entrust them to us.

My life is filled to overflowing with good. Little things like a curbside find of a like-new infant push-walker we’d mentioned would be nice to have but weren’t going to buy or opening up the fridge for a late night snack to find fried chicken wings Jeff brought back from church last night. Important things like our wedding anniversary we just celebrated, three sweet little people in our home, and a cherished church family.

And I am learning to receive all this good and more from our gracious God— in thanksgiving, worship, hope, and generosity.

“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom. 11:36)

Truth & Orthodoxy

Contentment’s secret?

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 (ESV)

For a while I have been thinking about this passage and the context of the oft quoted verse “I can do all things through him [God] who strengthens me.” A few months ago, I began to wrestle with Paul’s so-called “secret” to contentment. I wrestled with it because there was a disconnect on two fronts in my mind: 1) how the “I can do all things!” passage is normally used and 2) how the topic of contentment is normally addressed.

When I thought about the way I have heard and I myself have thought about verse 13, I think about athletes or other Christians referring to it in terms of God helping them excel in their work or about people in ministry accomplishing hard things for God. The context for Paul saying that he can do all things through Christ though isn’t about self-empowerment (or even God-empowerment)  when trying to achieve your dreams or even to do great work for God- at least not in the way we think of it. Of course it is true that God is able to do impossible things through people (because he is God!) and is able to bring himself glory by accomplishing spectacular things through feeble people, but that isn’t the context here. Paul isn’t directly talking about feeling discouraged about ministry. he’s talking about contentment.

In the passage, Paul addresses the Philippians about their giving toward his ministry and in it shares to them how he has learned to be content. He refers to the having learned to be content in every situation and the “secret” of facing life whether he has little or much. He isn’t saying that God’s strength will help him change the situation (i.e. he will no longer be in need), but rather that he has learned to be content while being in need- and that secret is that he can do all things through Christ.

Is it just me or does the secret that Paul gives for contentment seem less than relevant or at the least not intuitive? If someone came and talked to me about being discontent in their financial situation or  any other situation (singleness, marriage, church, etc.) and I wanted to encourage them to be content, I wouldn’t immediately think of this verse.  I would think about encouraging them to be grateful and thankful for what they have or warn them against complaining or tell them to trust that God is good and sovereign. The Bible talks about these things in other parts of Scripture and it is so important to have a handle on these truths, so it’s not that I think these things wouldn’t be helpful towards contentment. It’s just that I wouldn’t think to say to this person, “you can do all things through Christ- so even if your circumstances don’t change, you can be content.”

Two things that I have been meditating on as if late in terms of the connection between contentment and doing all things through Christ: The first is that by his power and with the strength that he gives, I am able to be content. His supernatural power is what enables us to be content even when we are in need. Contentment is not a natural state of our sinful hearts- comparison, covetousness, greed, jealousy are. But in the new heart, born of God, contentment is possible through the power of God.

The second thing I have been seeing, and what has been helpful for me lately, is recognizing one of my common responses in circumstances when I feel I am in need. (This isn’t exactly the same as Paul though, who talking about facing real physical needs- like for food!) Still, in my own smaller sets of trials, I find in my thoughts and even in my prayers that I start saying “God, I CANNOT do this.” This “God, I can’t!” isn’t the humble-recognition-of-my-need-for-God kind of prayer, it’s more like the “God, why would you put me in this situation. I cannot stand it and I am not going to make it through this- so change things to be how I feel they should be!” type prayers. Sometimes even though I know all that Scripture says about God’s purposes accomplished through trial and suffering, it’s not that I doubt God’s final goal, but whether or not I’ll make it.  I have been catching myself responding this way to various frustrating and trying circumstances, but by his grace I have felt God slowly changing my heart.

In light of Philippians 4, instead of going into this mode of discontentment, I am learning to trust in God who supplies strength to endure. This passage shows that God’s people are not exempt from trials, suffering, or even being in great need. God can choose to deliver healing and bring revival and completely change everything at once- he has in Scripture and in our lives, and he is good to do so. God can also choose to allow us to- though for a short time only, since the suffering of our whole lives are light and momentary compared to the eternal weight of glory- continue on in the path of trial and suffering. There are plenty of godly people in Scripture who walked this road, and most importantly, our forerunner the Son of God did too. In these trials, God is accomplishing his eternal purposes in the world and in us. And in these trials, he has promised that in Christ, we can persevere.

I can and do still pray for God to provide and for God to change circumstances, people, etc. But when he doesn’t choose (or hasn’t yet chosen) to deliver in the way I am longing for, I am learning to trust that he will provide strength enough for each day. I am hoping to, with his strength, rest content in his promise that in all the circumstances that he allows for my sanctification and his glory, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”