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True contentment

Pastoral Messages | September 12, 2019

Ask yourself to name your most contented moments in life and chances are good you’ll think of times when everything clicked. Positive circumstances prevailed. A relationship came together beautifully. Life worked in your favor. You were at peace.

I wonder, however, if the true nature of Christian contentment doesn’t have more to do with our inner life than our outer circumstances. In other words, doesn’t contentment have to do with a basic satisfaction with one’s own life, accepting what God has made one to be? When writing from a prison cell one day, the apostle Paul insisted that personal circumstances had no impact on his contentment meter. “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.” Contentment comes from the inside out, not from circumstances and forces on the outside deciding to calm down.

I thought about all of this recently while in a Boston museum studying photographs of Frederick Douglass. Did you know there are more known photographs of this 19th century orator and abolitionist than there are of Abraham Lincoln? Douglass sat for 160 photo sessions over the course of five decades, mostly because he didn’t want the prevailing racial stereotypes of the day or caricatures of black people to cover his deepest humanity.

Prior to his escape from slavery in 1838, Douglass’ owner, Thomas Auld, sought to prevent him from learning to read. Literacy would make him a restless slave, Auld reasoned. Not only would he become unmanageable and of lesser value to his owner, “[literacy] would make him discontented and unhappy.” Indeed, reading made Douglass fiercely discontented with his enslavement. But as friends of Douglass later noticed, his freedom from a plantation owner’s bondage wasn’t half as important as his discovery of a deep internal sufficiency. When Douglass decided late in life to visit and forgive his former owner who lay dying, his supporters discouraged him. But that encounter turned out to be unforgettably emotional as both men held hands and wept.

True contentment entails some degree of detachment from external forces, fetters of iron in the case of Frederick Douglass; other stresses, maladies, and difficult circumstances for others of us. But, even more important than that detachment from externals is the discovery and attachment to an internal freedom and sufficiency God has planted in us. It doesn’t take magic to discover this liberating internal contentment. It certainly doesn’t require affluence or poverty, according to Paul. It only requires our daily consent: To be who we are and who God made us to be, and who God wants us to be. Searching for and honoring this internal sufficiency – call it divine GRACE embedded in the human heart – might save us time from complaining about our conditions and longing for different circumstances.

-Peter W. Marty

6 Comments on “True contentment”

  • Arlene Warner

    September 15, 2019 at 10:48 am

    I agree with Paul when he said ,”I have learned to be CONTENT with whatever I have. I know what is is to have little and I know what it is to have PLENTY.” I feel very lucky with what God has given me.

  • David Chamberlin

    September 14, 2019 at 12:44 pm

    Yes!!! Thank you!

  • Carol Seitz

    September 12, 2019 at 6:39 pm

    Thank you for these beautiful examples of lives lived well.

  • Connie Siffring

    September 12, 2019 at 5:36 pm

    Thank you, Pastor Marty. This came an a perfect time for someone I know, and it was certainly not wasted on me, either!

  • Kathleen Hurty

    September 12, 2019 at 4:54 pm

    Very touching story! Thank you!!

  • william wittkamp

    September 12, 2019 at 3:21 pm

    Very much on target, pastor. Thank you.

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Malachi 3:1-4

The Coming Messenger 3 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.[a] 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Hebrews 2:14-18

14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters[a] in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Luke 2:22-40

Jesus Is Presented in the Temple 22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon;[a] this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.[b] 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon[c] came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon[d] took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant[e] in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon[f] blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna[g] the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child[h] to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. The Return to Nazareth 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.