“There can be no way forward but through prayer.”
I feel sure these words aren’t originally mine, but they also are difficult to cite.
Contentment is full of irony. I have always been somewhat impressed by Paul’s words in Philippians 4:10-15, “I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only;” (NIV).
I think this ranks right up there as one of those most often misinterpreted passages, because we equate contentment with uninhibited elation oozing from our pores or something. That’s not contentment. That’s actually probably closer to insanity. It’s certainly not based in reality. People have those kinds of experiences maybe a handful of times in their entire lives, if they’re lucky. If you stop to think about the adrenaline rush and the subsequent crash, you’ll likely agree that it wouldn’t be advisable or enjoyable to live in a perpetual state of bliss. Too much of (even) a good thing is still too much…
I don’t think Paul is implying that he has learned to be outlandishly jovial or to lose touch with reality, nor do I think he is indicating that he has found a way to get everything he wants or even everything he needs. There is nothing in Paul’s words that makes me wonder if his ‘doing all things through Christ’ includes calling on the clouds to rain down elephants or magically growing strawberries on fig trees. And yet this passage is often taught as either a ‘suck it up even when it sucks’ lesson or a challenge of the power constraints of the God of the universe. I’m fairly certain both extremes neglect the point.
We almost always stop reading with verse 13. Verse 15 is actually a significantly weird cutting off point in the daily office, ending with a semi-colon. But I wonder if there is something to be learned from the words Paul speaks next… the words of standing in solidarity… the words of presence—of sharing trouble, of giving and receiving…
It might seem strangely disconnected, but I think these are also words of community, and all of this returns, full circle, to prayer… of God’s presence… of another kind of give and take…
Maybe that’s exactly why Psalm 17:6 makes an appearance, today, as well:
“I call on you, my God, for you will answer me; turn your ear to me and hear my prayer” (NIV).
The answer may not be exactly what we expect (or even hope for), but the hearing… the listening… the holding close… this is where contentment begins. And we can’t move forward without a beginning.