I thank Thee more that all our joy
Is touched with pain,
That shadows fall on brightest hours,
That thorns remain;
So that earth’s bliss may be our guide,
And not our chain.
— Adelaide Procter
I’m sitting on my parents’ porch swing, sheltered from the soon-to-be-merciless sun. Inside there are 17 other human beings, but here I am alone with the morning birdsong and a breeze that is almost cool. I find I am content.
Then I notice the detritus of children’s play strewn across the yard: a bike helmet, twine, an empty pail, a pair of shoes, a ball.
I’m immediately reminded that my nephew crashed his bike last night and now has four stitches in his chin. The proverbial shoe hits the floor.
My mind is now consumed with the second shoe. What might happen today?
Is there anything more fleeting than contentment? The moment we notice it is the moment we realize it could be lost, which is the moment it slips away.
Paul wrote in Philippians that “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” Is it sacrilegious to suggest that Paul was fibbing just a bit?
His claim to perpetual satisfaction is clearly in the context of material need. Jesus preached a similar message when he invoked the lilies of the field and said not to worry about food, drink and clothes. The Father knows we need them, so we can move on to other concerns.
A 15-year-old girl sent me this quote recently: “The secret to having it all is knowing you already do.”
This is just fine for a middle- or upper-class person living in a secure and stable society. However, the idea of passing along this inspirational nugget to someone living significantly below the poverty line makes me blush.
Still, Jesus seems to have practiced what he preached. He chose poverty and a nomadic lifestyle. The gospel writers never tell us that he was fed up with sleeping in random beds.
For those of us living materially comfortable lives, Paul’s words in Philippians lack spiritual punch unless we take it out of context just a smidge.
“Any and every situation” can include anything from chronic pain, unruly children or living in a house you don’t like. We’ve convinced ourselves that we can, “through him who gives us strength,” arrive at a place where we cannot be touched by negative feelings.
This is impossible and maybe not even desirable. (Can’t discontentment motivate us to get out of unhealthy situations?)
Also, I doubt Jesus would advocate such a plan. He certainly displayed emotions of discontent such as anger, disgust and sorrow.
Our society is eager to promote the quest for continual contentment. Especially those who can make money on it.
My favorite is the “peace of mind” promise. With the right insurance policy or investments, one can live worry-free.
Of course, we will only ever want insurance because we are afraid. We only need and want God to give us strength because we are so weak — and discontent.
Back on my parents’ porch swing, I am grateful for the gift of contentment, but I don’t consider it a mandate like I once did.
I don’t get to feel good or content all the time. I do, however, believe that I am promised the protection of the Holy Spirit from the controlling emotions of pain and joy. Jesus’ Spirit shields my faith, my trust and my hope from a cruel, broken and beautiful world.
Sarah Kehrberg lives in Swannanoa, N.C., and attends Asheville Mennonite Church.