Monday, July 23, 2012


I wonder a lot about contentment. It seems like a characteristic that is similar to peace. If one is content, one will be at peace. Paul writes, from prison no less, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Phil. 4:11) He then goes on to list a variety of physical situations that he has lived through and in which he was “content.”

This contentment that Paul writes about clearly comes to him from God (vs. 13 and 19). And contentment in all circumstances seems to be a goal that Paul advocates, given the general context here.

But my question in all of this, is whether it is ever ok to be discontent. Are there circumstances in which we actually should lack contentment?

So, for example, should we be content with poverty in the world? Should we be content that women and children are regularly exploited in various places? Ok, so those examples are rather extreme.

What about our own spiritual growth? Should we be content with where we are spiritually and not strive, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, toward holiness even though it often feels like we are making little progress? Should we be content when a friend, or loved one, or acquaintance is content with where he or she is at spiritually or should we gently prod them to strive for more? For example, perhaps you have a friend who doesn’t think they need to go to church anymore. They can worship just as well on a hike. Should we be content with that, allowing them to find their own path, as it were, or should we carefully and pastorally call attention to this spirit-killing behavior?

Or is contentment, the sort Paul is talking about, something like being discontent with situations like these and striving for change, and yet being content as we work and pray knowing that ultimately God is in control? And maybe is that even true with Paul’s situations? Could it be that the learned contentment  with being imprisoned, for example, had to do with praying for release – a lack of contentment with the immediate situation – yet an overarching contentment knowing that whether in prison or out, God would accomplish his purpose.

So maybe contentment, at least in certain cases, must always be mixed up with a dose of holy lack of contentment.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fire and Prayer

My sister lives with her family in Colorado Springs. The past several weeks have been a very difficult time for them and many others in that area. The country overall has been very hot and dry, as we all know. And we probably also all know that a large area in and around Colorado Springs has been on fire. My sister’s neighborhood was one such area.

Today, she emailed me and others in our family a slide show she made that both narrated their story of the past several weeks, and showed the devastation caused by the fire in their neighborhood. Although I had seen some pictures on the news as I followed the progress of the fire, the photos of her street before and after were numbing.

And the story itself, with the pictures attached was almost surreal. They wake up seeing smoke on the ridge that is visible from their house. As the day progresses, so does the fire. In the later pictures, the fire itself is visible in the smoke. I can’t begin to imagine what it feels like to see an inferno advancing toward your home. By the time the evacuation orders came, the air was thick with smoke and ash and, of course, they left their home having no idea if it would be there when they came back. Also horrifying.

The path of the fire was erratic. There were pictures of cement foundations where houses once stood. Yet just a short distance away, houses stood unscathed. It looked more like the path of a tornado than a fire.

My sister’s house was spared. They didn’t even lose the food in their freezer from the power outage. We all said it was an “answer to prayer.”

But right down the street were foundations and ash, all that remained of the houses of their neighbors. Those people lost everything except their lives. And while we are grateful to God for sparing the lives of these folks, one cannot help but wonder why my sister’s house was spared, but these other houses were not.

Did we pray harder than the friends and families of those who lost all their possessions? Did God choose to listen to us and not them? Was God only able to save a certain number of homes and no more? Was my sister somehow more deserving than the others?

I think it is safe to say that the answer to all of those questions is a resounding “no.” Which in fact is why I am hesitant to exclaim, “what an answer to prayer.” Because God listened to and answered all the prayers lifted on behalf of those affected by the fire. But for some, his answer came in a form quite different than that my sister experienced.

This is all very difficult to understand. And our tendency to act as though God is more like a cosmic Santa Claus than the Holy One of Israel doesn’t help much. But the fact is, that God’s ways with us are “unsearchable,” as Paul writes. And we must learn to accept good from God as well as bad, something two Old Testament sufferers, Naomi and Job, knew well.

All this is to say that thankfulness for God’s protection is a very appropriate response. But we might want to be cautious about how we talk about prayer and God’s response to it.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Manna and Quail

In reading through the book of Numbers the other day, I came across the passage that describes Israel’s complaints about their hardships in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. In case you haven’t found yourself reading Numbers lately, let me remind you of the story.

Israel was enslaved in Egypt for many generations. By the time of Moses’ birth, the work was hard, and the Egyptian midwives had been ordered to kill all Israelite baby boys. Moses was spared because of God’s provision of two faithful midwives who refused to kill the Israelite babies, and a courageous mother who made sure he would live.

God spared Moses’ life for a purpose. Through Moses, God miraculously led Israel out of Egypt, out of slavery.

After leaving Egypt and arriving at the “mountain of the LORD” and receiving their marching orders, Israel set out for the land of Canaan. But they soon grew tired of the wilderness. Although God had provided not only freedom, but nourishment for the journey in the form of manna, it was not enough. The people wanted other food. They even suggested that life was better for them in Egypt. In Egypt, they claimed, there was a wide variety of food: fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onion, and garlic. They were tired of manna cakes for breakfast, manna bread for lunch, and manna porridge for dinner. They wanted more.

What is interesting about this story is that in and of itself, there is nothing wrong with wanting good food. Fish, cucumbers, and the like are God’s good gifts to humans. That the people would want these sorts of things is, at some level, natural.

The problem seems to be in the timing of the desire and the lack of gratitude for what God had provided.

On this particular journey, God’s gift to his people was manna. Instead of gratitude for God’s gift of life in the place of death – for that is what the wilderness is – the people’s response was complaint. Instead of being content with what God had provided for the journey, or perhaps asking God if there were any alternatives, the people looked back to Egypt. Like picky children, Israel did not want what God had offered. They wanted a banquet, not daily bread.

The funny thing is, with a little patience, a banquet would be theirs, for the promised land was said to flow with milk and honey.

God gave them what they wanted. But desiring God’s gifts in the wrong way or at the wrong time came with consequences. Israel would get meat to eat but by the end of the month, they would loathe it. Why?

Because in rejecting the gifts God had offered, they had rejected God.

I can’t help but wonder how often I crave God’s good gifts in the wrong way or at the wrong time. How often do I complain because I want the promises of the future now? And how often does that complaint amount to ingratitude for the many good gifts I already have? Its worth thinking about.