Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Contentment and small trials and 'irritations'

'But godliness with contentment is great gain' 1 Timothy 6:6

'Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, "children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation". Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life' Philippians 2: 14-16

Often on this blog, I consider how we can stand fast in our faith in the face of trials. Many times I have discussed ways in which we don't just stand fast, but see our faith in our amazing God flourish and see Him working all kinds of good in us, through us and around us through perseverance in the face of trials. (For example, here, here, here or here). But, lately I have also been thinking about what a person might consider a 'trial' to be.

Is it easier to accept a sudden, unexpected, extreme event as within God's sovereignty rather than the more trivial, day-to-day inconveniences? Is it easier to see how God is in perfect control when something that seems entirely outside of human control occurs?

The other morning I read this very helpful article via the Desiring God website: 'Ten Thousand Small Trials' This made me think about the things that can throw me off course and feel discontent during daily life. A powercut on the day I forgot to fully charge my computer and mifi device. A traffic jam, simply because another driver seeks to be selfish and has cut through the traffic to the junction and completely blocked the other side of the road.  A colleague who seems to be struggling to understand and act on some instructions, and it seems it would have been a lot quicker just to have done the task without delegating. A relational misunderstanding that seems set to escalate without easy resolution. A child whose behaviour has been trying in small but persistent ways through the day. Is God sovereign in these? Absolutely! Can God develop our faith in these? Without doubt! Are these trials enough to build in us all the wonderful things that are listed in 1 Peter 1, James 1, Romans 5 and the other passages (things like perseverance, character, hope, faith being proven genuine, hope that does not disappoint). Yes indeed!

Of course everything has it's flipside, and the opposite of contentment is often envy. On that same morning, I also read this article on 'Seven Strategies for Fighting Envy'. Envy is a funny one  - it gets onto all the lists of sins to avoid and characteristics of ungodly people, but in some ways it is different from other sins. It doesn't lure us with the promise of something (pleasure, success, popularity, comfort, ease, whatever it is we perhaps long for). It is something that may not have an obvious external manifestation. And I think (in my circles at least) it is something that is rarely discussed among Christians, and something which people rarely admit to. For me, it is a horrible sin that hits at the most unexpected times, sometimes for no discernible reason.

I think there is something which bring both of these issues to the forefront: social media! The first thing I wish to say, is that I think social media can be very useful, and can be used in many different ways to glorify God. Personally, living many thousands of miles from family and many of my closest friends, I find it a valuable way to be able to maintain relationships, at least to an extent, to share to a tiny degree in life events that I miss out on (birthdays, weddings, graduations, holidays), and to seek to encourage my friends and 'consider how you may spur one another on towards love and good deeds' (Hebrews 10:24). The second thing I would say, is that 'there is nothing new under the sun'. Changing means of communication and technology does not cause sin, but rather might provide a new avenue for sin, or open up a temptation we had not predicted. This is not a rant against one specific thing, but rather an observation.

One trend I have noticed, is the type of post which moans about a small trial. For example, it is currently warm in Europe. For most of the year, people complain about the weather, and now that it is hot and sunny, there are an equal number of complaints. 'How can a person manage with a baby in this heat?', 'This is unbearable', 'Where is the ice?', and so forth. This is just an example. I also see it among new parents, whose post seem to be a continual complaint about the day to day realities of looking after a baby - listing the number of times the baby woke in the night, describing in detail a nappy change that went awry, these types of situations. And the responses are usually affirmatory - 'Poor you, it's so tough, yes, I will validate you in this'. The reason I struggle with those types of posts is that rather than helping the person see their experience as a reality of life, and embracing it as every bit as God-given as anything else, they tend to take a person's eyes off the goodness of God, and onto themselves. And with social media, it is rare indeed for a person to post a comment that does not go along with what the original poster wishes. And so it can be self-perpetuating. Rather than thanking God for a healthy child who wakes in the night for a feed, and thanking God for those quiet night hours which are an opportunity to find strength in Him and to pray, people can be encouraged to self-pity and to think that their experience is outside the normal boundaries of reality. There can be an unhealthy introspection (for example, the pregnant friend who complains daily about the pregnancy might not see how that can be hurtful to the single friend or the one who longs for a child). But within the narrow bounds of social media, it can be very difficult to draw alongside the person who persistently makes these types of posts and seek to encourage and disciple them that there can be a better way. (Here, I am not talking so much about the occasional post, but those individuals who make it a pattern. If you use social media, you know what I mean!)

The Bible makes it clear that thinking positively is both a choice and a discipline. Look at Philippians 4:8: 'Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things'. Or 2 Corinthians 10:5 'We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ'. We should be encouraging one another to learn an 'attitude of gratitude', and yet these subtle things on social media are doing the exact opposite, and seem to encourage one another that it is OK to complain about small things. We should be seeking to live differently to the world around us. And the wonderful promise in Philippians 2 is that by doing so, we can 'shine like stars in the universe as we hold out the word of life'. It is so counter-cultural to be content and thankful, that our attitude in the face of both the big trials and the day-to-day hassles can be a means of sharing 'the reason for the hope that we have' (1 Peter 3:15)

I think one reason this grumbling might happen, and it ties in with the thoughts about envy, is that social media can paint a very false reality. I am aware that when a person looks at my Facebook page (the main page which is open, more than what I might share in smaller groups of trusted friends), it can look as though I live in tropical paradise, with endless field trips and adventures, continual home cooking and outdoor activities, surrounded by friends. These aspects are all there! But between these, is the day to day grind (powercuts, traffic jams, minor illnesses, children to discipline, work to complete, medical emergencies, general life, work and relational issues). But those aren't things that make a nice photo, or that I write home about. One thing I struggle with in this season of life is that my husband and I very rarely have time alone outside the house without the children (maybe once a year at current rates) - and when that is getting me down, I seem to notice that 'everybody' on Facebook has had an evening out with their spouse, has had grandparents take the children for a weekend, has had opportunity to do the one thing that I find elusive. And so, rather than celebrating what God has provided for both my friends, and for my own family, envy creeps in. I tell you for sure, if we did have an evening together, I would not post about it on Facebook but would be off enjoying the time! But you see the principle, and I need to know when just to stop, to stop comparing myself to others or allowing envy and discontentment to creep in and steal the joy in what blessings I have. I need to know when 'catching up with old friends' becomes unhealthy.

One never really can tell what lies behind a perfect picture. And, one never can tell what will happen tomorrow, or even later today. The book of Ecclesiastes is very clear that there is a 'time for everything' time to mourn, time to dance, time to live, time to die. When we look only at a snapshot, that can cause both discontentment or envy, and the root of both is often a failure to appreciate and celebrate God's sovereignty in the rich abundance of life.

Recently, I reflected on why sometimes it can seem that God has answered the same prayer of two individuals in different ways, and how this can fit with a God that is sovereign, good, loving, kind and wise. Many of the principles are just the same in the 'smaller' trials. Why does one person have a baby who sleeps 'through the night' by six weeks, when mine took five years to achieve this? Why does my friend not seem to struggle with the child discipline issues that cause us such difficulty? Why do I suffer with an invisible hidden disability which sometimes keeps me from serving God in a way which I think would be more effective than my current life? Why does my friend have a bigger, nicer home, better for hospitality? Why this, why that? Why not accept all things, both good and challenging, as part of God's wonderful, abundant, bountiful provision for your individual life, and seek to honour Him in that?

So, as I prepare for today - and whatever joys or challenges (and combination of the two) that lie ahead, I resolve to see everything as an opportunity to serve God, and glorify Him.

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