Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Have I Learned Contentment Yet?

This morning, during my Bible study, I committed these words from Phil. 4:11 to memory.

Paul says, "I have learned to be content, wherever the circumstances." The verb he uses here is emathon, root math. Interestingly, this root is found in the noun mathētēs, the New Testament word for "disciple." A disciple is a learner, though not a "student" in the sense of someone who sits in a classroom and listens to someone lecture. The other night I was watching The Chosen and there was a scene in which Jesus calls out to his "students." Surely there are better English words for mathētēs than that. "Apprentices" would work well. So would "trainees." (At Walmart, new employees are called trainees when they are hired. They are not "students" in a classroom but "apprentices" out on the floor while learning their craft from someone who is more experienced than they are.) Contentment, says Paul, cannot be acquired without experience. You can't get it directly from God as a gift. You have to "learn" it. And a degree in contentment ranks right up there with the rarest accomplishments of life. Discontentment, not contentment, is our natural disposition. We don't need to be taught to complain. On a farm, if you want weeds, you do nothing. But if you want a crop, you have to plow and sow. Contentment has to be cultivated. 

Yesterday my son asked me, "Dad, what are you going to do when your teaching career comes to an end?" In a roundabout way, he was asking me, "Dad, have you learned the secret of contentment? Will you submit to the will and good pleasure of God when he removes your career from you?" Spurgeon once wrote: "To hear another man praised at your own expense, to find your own virtues ignored in order to describe the superior qualities of some new rival, to be able to bear this with joy and thankfulness, and to praise God is beyond human nature." Then he added this profound statement: "There must be something nobel in the heart of a man who is able to lay down all of his honors as willingly as he took them up." 

My son, in essence, was asking me, "Dad, will you as cheerfully be humbled by the Lord as to be lifted up by him?" Paul, at the end of his life and career, had learned the art of contentment. He could face any circumstance "through the one who infuses his strength into me" (Phil. 4:13). Barclay writes, "The Stoic was self-sufficient; but Paul was God-sufficient." 

So ... to come full circle. How will I react when I enter the classroom for the last time, when speaking invitations no longer come my way, when I can no longer write and publish books? Will I have learned contentment to the degree that I will be able to say with Malcolm Muggeridge, "I may, I suppose, regard myself, or pass for being, a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets -- that's fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Inland Revenue -- that's success. Furnished with money and a little fame, even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions -- that's pleasure. It might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time -- that's fulfillment. Yet I say to you, and I beg you to believe me, multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing -- less than nothing, a positive impediment -- measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are."

When that day comes, will I pass the final exam in "Contentment 101"? I honestly don't know. But I hope so.