Perhaps the most obvious reason why Christ’s school of contentment ranks as the toughest curriculum on the planet is the fact that it is a mysterious school.
Consider these words by Paul in Philippians 4:12 – 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 (emphasis mine).
The Greek verb translated I have learned the secret appears only here in the New Testament. That means we have to go outside the Bible into the literature of the first century to make some sense of what Paul means when he says this. The word is a cultic term that was used for describing the process of being initiated into various spiritual mysteries. Paul may have used it with irony in that frankly he discovered the secret of contentment within the mundane experiences of daily life, as opposed to some super-secret realities, whether plenty or hunger, abundance or need.
So what exactly makes Jesus’ school of contentment mysterious or secretive? I think we can point to at least two factors.
First, true Christian contentment consists of a paradoxical blend of rejoicing and sorrow. Contented believers have learned how to make a mixture of the gracious sweet and gracious sour of life together. This is indeed a mystery. The world doesn’t get it. Paul said it well elsewhere in 2 Corinthians 6:10 – as sorrowful yet always rejoicing.
I learned something about this paradox/mystery in 2005 with my head-and-neck cancer experience. Surgery, radiation, chemo, nausea, vomiting, hospitals, tests, doctors, shots, pain, for the better part of the year, plundered me over and over again with a sorrow unlike anything I ever experienced before. However, beneath the river of sorrow ran a current of joy that I can only chalk up to a consideration of things spiritually that made rejoicing in my blessings in Christ as superior to any physical suffering I endured. And that kind of thinking, if anything, is mysterious indeed.
I like how my Puritan friend put it (big surprise by now):
It may be said of one who is contented in a Christian way that he is the most contented man in the world, and yet the most unsatisfied man in the world; these two together must needs be mysterious. I say, a contented man, just as he is the most contented, so he is the most unsatisfied man in the world. You never learned the mystery of contentment unless it may be said of you that, just as you are the most contented man, so you are also the most unsatisfied man in the world. You will say, ‘How is that?’ A man who has learned the art of contentment is the most contented with any low condition that he has in the world, and yet he cannot be satisfied with the enjoyment of all the world. He is contented if he has but a crust, but bread and water, that is, if God disposes of him, for the things of the world, to have but bread and water for his present condition, he can be satisfied with God’s disposal in that; yet if God should give unto him Kingdoms and Empires, all the world to rule, if he should give it him for his portion, he would not be satisfied with that. Here is the mystery of it: though his heart is so enlarged that the enjoyment of all the world and ten thousand worlds cannot satisfy him for his portion; yet he has a heart quieted under God’s disposal, if he gives him but bread and water. To join these two together must needs be a great art and mystery.
No kidding. I’m not exactly sure what would be the plenty standing opposite to my want of cancer. But either way, abundance or need, I want to learn the secret – to be the most contented person is to be the most unsatisfied.
More on this mysterious school in my next post, Lord willing. And with that I will try to be content.