“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:11-12
During my last back surgery, I came out of anesthesia quoting the last part of this verse. I just kept repeating the phrase, “I can do all things through Jesus…” Every time a wave of pain rushed over me, I just kept speaking the verse like a mantra.
But it’s not a mantra. And the pain didn’t dissipate (until they shot me with some drugs again). And the surgery didn’t work. That was in June of 2016. What followed was hard. Infection. Daily antibiotic infusions. Then a gall bladder surgery. Everything finally stopped in September 2016. I healed and rested and enjoyed my children and grandchildren. Now, however, In less than two weeks, I’ll undergo a lumbar fusion surgery. I’m not happy. I’m not content. And I’m not sure I can do it. I keep telling God, “Nope. I’m scared. I know what’s coming this time.”
Knowing makes it harder. Knowing it can get worse makes it much harder.
But…whining is NOT a godly attribute. When Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control—“whininess” is not sandwiched in between goodness and faithfulness (although it has a nice ring to it).
So how do I get back to a place of trust and contentment? It’s ultimately between me and God and His Word. No amount of human consolation will help.
Contentment is a battle warred between my natural fears and God’s supernatural plan for my life.
If anyone (other than Jesus) deserved to be whiny, it was Paul: Imprisoned over and over, flogged, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked, and eventually beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero. A tentmaker and Pharisee. A Roman citizen. And the man Jesus chose to give the Gospel to the Gentiles.
Why would anyone choose to suffer like that unless he was certain of his purpose and the truth of the Gospel?
I admire Paul, but I’m not that strong. Maybe that is why God is refining me. Maybe that is why God refines all of us. We are the salt and light of this world. If we aren’t purified, His glory is diluted–a weakened solution that has no “bite.”
A little over a year ago, I started a prayer journey. I’ve already written about it, but in hindsight, I can see that through prayer and the desire to be molded into a “woman of God,” I have been brought low—almost to a place of despair.
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this [Paul’s thorn in the flesh], that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:8-10.
There’s that word again: content. Here the word “content” is used as a verb: “eudokeō.” I wish I knew biblical Greek, BUT I do have Zodhiates’ The Complete Word Study Dictionary for a Deeper Understanding of the Word! (Could he have made his title any longer?) I like looking at this book because it provides connotation rather than just denotation—it provides the intention of the writer, who in this case is Paul. The definition is:
“Content:eudokeō.: To be well-pleased, to think it good. It means to think well of something by understanding not only what is right and good, but stressing the willingness and freedom of an intention or resolve regarding what is good” (Zodhiates 2106).
So Paul—like all of us at some point in our lives—had a “thorn in the flesh” that never went away. He never says what it was, but he prayed three times that the Lord would remove it. This was not a small irritation—the Greek word for “thorn” in this case is “skolops”—a pointed piece of wood; a stake; the point of a hook. This was not just a minor irritation, but one that God allowed in order to keep Paul from becoming boastful or conceited (read all of 2 Corinthians 12 to fully grasp what Paul is saying). When Paul is writing this chapter, he is referring to a vision he’d had 14 years earlier—so he’s probably had that “thorn” for the entire 14 years. A God of healing did not heal. Why? For the sake of Christ. Paul recognizes that his suffering is nothing compared to glories of Christ Jesus, His Lord. When Paul is weak, God is strong.
When I am weak, is God strong?
The paradox. Can I accept that my thorn is given for a godly purpose? How do I do that? How can we be “content—well-pleased—think it good” when suffering pours into our daily life drowning our faith and trust in a good Father?
I don’t think there is an easy answer. Contentment is a choice. I’m choosing to look at the blue sky today and recognize the creator God’s gift to His children. I choose to memorize scripture and focus on God’s larger purpose for my life. Only He knows what that is, but I can trust in the character of God. He doesn’t change; He is good and just and righteous. He loves steadfastly. I waver; He doesn’t.
If you’re in a “refining fire” right now, choose contentment. Realize God’s good grace is enough for each moment. Rejoice. Rejoice that we are eternal souls temporarily confined to fallible flesh. George Macdonald (a notable 19th century writer who influenced C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) said, “We don’t have a soul. We are a soul. We have a body.”
My thorn is temporary. Our thorns are temporary. We have the assurance of living in the presence of our Lord when we pass from this body.
Thus I must say, “It is well with my soul.”
“I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of; for to have been thought about, born in God’s thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest and most precious thing in all thinking.” George Macdonald