Simplicity — 3

Monday, August 12

Read: Philippians 4:10-12

Consider: When I read Paul’s words on the secret of contentment, I feel them deeply. It’s a mixture of, “I know what he’s talking about” and “I long to know that way of living.” I’ll be honest, too many times I’ve postponed contentment because I didn’t grasp the art of simple living.

Paul wrote about contentment in the middle of a letter that is known for and filled with joy. Now, as abstract concepts, I’m sure we could split hairs on the definition and peculiarities of contentment and how it differs from and relates to joy. But then, why would we want to talk about them in abstract, theoretical ways? When we think about contentment and joy, we don’t ask, “What?” We ask, “How? How can I know contentment and how can I experience joy?”

Because contentment and joy are bound together in our experience, this week we’re going to look at both as we continue to engage the journey of simplicity. As we grow in living the Christian value of simplicity, we will see results in every area of our lives. But some of the most profound changes we will experience will be in the quality and depth of our peace, contentment and joy.

Of course, the thing that strikes us about Paul’s words is that his joy and contentment were not dependent on his circumstances. He said…

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances…I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…” (4:11-12)

That’s remarkable! “Any and every” situation?

This is at odds with all that we’ve ever known. We spend our lives saying, “I’ll have joy when…” and “I’ll be content when…” When I’m done with my degree, when I get that job, when I get out of debt, when I can retire, when, when, when…

In other words, most people think—or at least, live as though—contentment and peace are achieved by engineering our lives into the best conditions. We believe the right circumstances yield security, contentment, joy and peace. And yet, we must remind ourselves that Philippians is one of the New Testament’s prison letters. That’s right, from prison Paul wrote, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.”

Pray: “Lord, I know you want me to grow. You want me to flourish. And yet, so often I think that can only happen in the right circumstances. Help me to understand that I can know real life ‘in any and every situation.’ Today I’ll ask you to change my circumstances. But please change me, so that, until my circumstances change, I will know your peace and contentment. Please do the impossible in me.”


Tuesday, August 13

Read: Philippians 4:10-13

Consider: Yesterday we marveled that, from prison, a man could say…

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances…I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…” (4:11-12)

I’ve read Philippians for decades, and I’m still blown away by those words.

The “secret” Paul learned had to do with this thing we’re calling simplicity. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve laid some groundwork by considering simplicity of expectation and simplicity of desire.

Remember, stress (the kind of stress that destroys peace and contentment) is experienced in the gap between expectation and reality. Unrealistic expectations work to steal our contentment and joy, at times even consuming us with bitterness and self-pity. But simple—realistic—expectations bring us to reality and help us find Christ there. Knowing that this life will bring pain does not diminish us. It empowers us to journey with Christ through the pain.

Am I saying that Paul expected to go to prison? Well…yes. He said…

“Compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.” (Acts 20:22-23)

Now, Paul did his best to stay out of prison. There is nothing wrong with trying to avoid disaster and striving to improve our situations. But, because he knew the cost of following Jesus, he was never surprised by what he had to endure. He didn’t sit in prison, increasingly consumed by bitterness, railing at his misfortune.

And his realistic expectations impacted his desires.

I think if I were in prison, my greatest desire would be to get out—fast! I would yearn to be released and vindicated. But Paul’s longing was for something much greater. In that powerful letter from prison—the letter of joy—Paul said…

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings…” (3:10)

His expectations were simple. He knew that following Christ would give him a life full of joy and a life full of trouble.

Simple expectations with a simple desire — “I want to know Christ…”

And the profound simplicity of his desire brought him to the point where he would say, “I’ve learned the secret…”

Pray: “Lord, too often I’ve looked for improved situations on the outside to give me peace and contentment on the inside. Of course, the perfect situation seldom arrives, and when it does, it never lasts very long. That leaves me yearning for circumstantial change rather than longing for you. Help me to make Paul’s prayer my prayer — ‘I want to know Christ’.”


Wednesday, August 14

Read: 1 Timothy 6:6-7

Consider: Every night I lay my head on the pillow and begin my final prayer of the day with these words…

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked will I return. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)

Paul thought it was important to remind Timothy, his son in the faith, of that same truth. He said…

“We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” (6:7)

Now, if we take that prayer or Paul’s words out of context, they may sound hopeless. What’s the use? Why am I working so hard? Why is life so tough? If it’s just a slog through a transitory existence, what’s the point?

But those are not the words of a cynic. They’re words of great hope, joy, peace and contentment. In fact, Paul was giving us great insight into simplicity. It’s the paradox that we must understand if we’re going to grasp Christian simplicity—less is more.

“Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world…”

Our “great gain” is found in our emptiness. Jesus taught this repeatedly, particularly in the first Beatitude — “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Our emptiness is the space readied for his presence. The clutter of our expectations, our desires, our ambitions—the clutter in our souls—is the very thing that robs us of contentment and joy. When we simplify—when we choose to embrace our emptiness before God—we allow ourselves to experience the “great gain” of the knowledge of his presence.

Meister Eckhart, a thirteenth century Christian writer, was fond of saying, “The soul does not grow by addition but by subtraction.”

Pray: “Lord, I came into this world naked and empty-handed, and that is how I will enter the fullness of your presence when I leave the world as I know it now. Too often I’ve lost sight of that as I’ve tried to accumulate things—material things, reputation, honor, esteem and so much more. Lord, you are all I really have and all I really need. May I allow you to plant this truth deep in my soul, so that I will know the contentment and joy of your presence. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”


Thursday, August 15

Read: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Consider: Words are funny. Words are strange. Words are powerful. I love words. They convey pictures and ideas. And sometimes they are used to communicate what is beyond our comprehension. Words like “love” and “faith” and “God” are meager vehicles for what they are trying to convey.

This week we’ve been talking about contentment and joy. But contentment is not a thing. Even though we speak of “finding” contentment, it really isn’t some thing that can be grasped. Even though we “look” for joy, it’s not something that can be pursued—though we often try to chase it down, tackle it and hold on to it.

No, contentment, joy and peace are not entities that God doles out to us if we ask for them in the right way or work hard enough to earn them. Those words are simply inadequate descriptions of a relationship that the New Testament describes as Christ in us and us in Christ. We do not pursue contentment and joy. We open our spiritual “eyes” to see and our spiritual “ears” to hear, then we begin to know the reality of Christ’s presence in us and the reality of life in him.

I believe this rut—thinking of contentment and joy as things—causes us to read some portions of scripture through the wrong lens. Today’s passage is an example.

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances…” (5:16-18)

If you read this as three rules to follow so you can gain peace and joy, those words will seem shallow. You’ll feel like a hypocrite rejoicing and giving thanks when you’re wounded and devastated. You’ll feel like those words don’t relate to the real world. In fact, you may even feel angry with God that he would expect you to rejoice when the world—your world—is falling apart before your eyes.

But these are not words that deny reality. They open us to reality. No, I can’t give thanks that my loved one died. But I can believe and see that, in my profound grief, God kept his promise, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). I may not be able to rejoice that I’m in a dark place right now, but I can be grateful that “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).

Our act of giving thanks is not an attempt to appease God, or even an attempt to manufacture a certain emotion within ourselves that helps us cope with life. No, it is an act of opening our eyes and recognizing the reality of God’s presence with us. A person who is never grateful loses touch with reality.

When we dispense with trying to grasp joy or peace or contentment, we just may simplify our spirits enough to receive the gift of his presence. Then we’ll see again that less is more. Our emptiness makes his presence a reality.

Pray: Throughout this day, allow those words to sink deep into your soul — “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances.” Don’t use it as a mantra or as an attempt to lift your emotions. Don’t “pray continually” with words. Simply ask the Lord to help you open your spiritual senses to his presence and to reality. That’s prayer. And give God thanks for his presence in all circumstances” regardless of whether you can thank him for all circumstances.


Friday, August 16

Read: Philippians 4:10-13

Consider: Let’s return to the passage we looked at on Monday and Tuesday. We need to dwell a little longer on the grace and power of the Spirit’s work that taught Paul contentment “in any and every situation” (4:11-12).

Paul wrote about “the secret” of that kind of contentment. Of course, he was speaking in a figurative manner. It was not a secret to be hidden, but a secret to be shared—simple truth that changes everything.

But you’ll notice that he didn’t say that he discovered the secret or happened on it by accident. No, he said that he learned the secret of being content” (4:12). That rings true for me, because on my journey, contentment has never come naturally. I must learn it. In fact, I must learn it every day.

We all learn in different ways, and sometimes we do learn things by accident. (We usually refer to those instances as the times we “learned it the hard way.”) But our best learning is our intentional learning. Even when I learn from my mistakes, I usually learn the most when I consciously look for what I can learn from the messes I’ve made.

So how do we learn this secret? What disciplines or actions do we need to take?

Speaking from my own experience, there are two things I’m trying to learn about living a joy-filled, contented life. First, I’m learning to simplify my desires. The wrong desires, too many desires, or inappropriate intensity of lesser desires can make contentment impossible. So, I must discipline my mind and ask God to mold my heart so that I may desire what he desires for me. Remember the secret of simplicity—less is more.

Secondly, I’m trying to grow in my continual awareness of God’s presence. The more we know his presence, the more we experience his peace. And the more we live in peace, the more we long for his presence. So, we can partner with God by using spiritual disciplines of subtraction to raise and enhance our sense of his presence. But remember, we’re not earning contentment. We’re learning the secret of contentment.

Pray: “Lord, to know your presence is the meaning of prayer. It’s not my words that matter, but my awareness of you. Help me to make this day a prayer. And as I live one day at a time, I’ll trust you to make my life a prayer—a celebration that God is with us.”


Saturday, August 17

Read: Genesis 28:10-16

Consider: What brings you joy? Well, that probably depends on how you define joy.

I used to differentiate between joy and happiness. I thought happiness was fleeting because it was based on short-lived experiences. I spoke about joy as something deep in our souls, something that would outlast happiness.

Well, there’s probably some good truth there. After all, the joy of salvation is more important than the happiness of ice cream. But I really think I was missing something very important. What we may consider to be small joys—moments of happiness—really are amazing gifts from God. I call them eternal moments. And on my journey to fully embrace Christian simplicity, I’m discovering the importance of the simplicity of joy in those moments when eternity enters time.

I know this is going to sound like a cliché—you know, “stop and smell the roses”—and I really don’t want to come off sounding schmaltzy. But, we all know that the complexity of our lives—the clutter of our days and the clutter in our souls—keeps us from seeing, hearing and experiencing daily gifts from God, which in fact, are the very presence of God. We don’t stop to listen to talking children or laughing toddlers. We don’t go outside to watch sunsets. We don’t smile when we see teenagers or elderly people holding hands. We don’t dance at weddings or cry at funerals. We don’t even savor our food because we’re snarfing it down while we drive. God keeps showing himself to us and keeps pouring beauty into our lives day-by-day and moment-by-moment, but we’re too busy to see it. Far too many times I lived like Jacob who said, “The Lord was here, and I didn’t even notice” (Genesis 10:16—my paraphrase).

I keep discovering that joy is offered to me every day of my life. If I can have eyes to see and ears to hear, I’ll encounter God more often than I ever thought I could. The great saints of the past would say that this is the essence of Christian spirituality. A saint is not someone who accomplishes great things or someone who is naturally more “holy” than others. The great saints were simply people who saw God every day, every moment in everything that surrounded them. And that sense of God’s presence revolutionized their lives and made them agents of grace in a broken world.

I’ve tried to make this a spiritual discipline—a lovely, wonderful discipline. I used to actually put it on my to-do list (what an un-saintly thing to do). Every day my list had an entry that said “DSTBYJ”—which meant, “Do something that brings you joy.” It was my way of reminding myself to look for God in the small things. It may be getting up early enough to watch the sun rise. It may be stopping by my favorite coffee shop and savoring a beautiful mocha latte. It may be taking my wife to lunch. It may be playing with my grandkids. It was usually something so simple that no one would notice it but me.

I use different reminders now, but I’m finding that what had to be intentional is beginning to become more habitual. Oh, how I long for the habit of seeing God and dwelling with Christ every moment.

I challenge you to do the same. Don’t make it complicated. Most days you won’t have time to go rock climbing or fishing. Those are good, but it’s important to learn how to find joy in the daily, simple things, because there is where you see God. So even if you are going through the darkest of times, look for God in smallness—in the places where you least expect to see him.

Pray:“Lord, I realize that finding daily joy starts with daily thanksgiving. So today, I will have eyes to see, ears to hear and a heart that says, ‘Thank you!’ Amen.”