What does the Bible say about the source of our contentment? Can we find our contentment or adequacy in Jesus Christ alone? Is Jesus REALLY enough?
January 5, 1976, was a day that neither I nor my wife will soon forget. It was the dead of winter in Dallas, Texas, and as the sun set the temperature plummeted to well below the freezing mark. I was in my third year of seminary studies and was up late reading.
“Fire!” The word rang out on that cold night with frightening urgency, bringing me out of my chair and into the parking lot of our apartment complex. There it was. Only three doors away a fire was raging.
My first reaction was to awaken Ann and get her to safety. By the time she had escaped and we had moved our car away from danger, the fire department arrived and cordoned off the entire complex. In doing so they shattered any hope I had of rushing back inside to save something of our possessions.
It was there in the parking lot at 11:00 p.m., in sub-freezing cold, that I learned an important lesson about myself: The flames did more than simply light up the cold Texas sky. They shone ablaze in my heart as well, dispelling the darkness of sin’s deceit. While mournfully contemplating what would surely be the loss of all earthly possessions, it suddenly struck me how attached I had become to material things. My sinful dependence on earthly goods was exposed as I envisioned a future without clothes, without furniture, and worst of all, without theology books. I was shamed by the painful realization that my happiness was so closely tied up with what I owned.
We frequently talk about Christ being all-sufficient, but I fear that it has become little more than a theological cliché. Though I had often affirmed this truth, I never really knew that Jesus was enough, until He was all that I had left. To be sure, I had my health; and my wife was safe. But in one chilling moment in 1976 it suddenly clicked: Jesus is not only necessary, He is enough.
As things turned out, the fire was extinguished just as it reached our apartment. There was extensive smoke and water damage, but most of our possessions (meager though they were) were saved. Still, the lesson I learned has stayed with me. If I have Christ, I have all I need. No material loss or personal tragedy, however painful or inconvenient it may be, can pose a threat to who I am and what I have in Christ.
A God-Shaped Vacuum
I am persuaded that all of our problems are conceived and born in the sinful belief, embedded deeply within, that something or someone other than Jesus Christ can quench the thirst of our souls. Each of us by nature is determined to make life work without Christ. We are committed to independence at any cost.
Saint Augustine was the first to speak of a place in every heart that only God Himself can fill – a God-shaped vacuum. But we steadfastly refuse to believe it is true. We fervently try to stuff that vacuum with anything that will make us feel full. But like a Chinese dinner, though satisfying at first, soon we sense the gnawing hunger within.
The Lord Jesus Christ has invited us to feast to our everlasting fill and to drink of water that will forever quench our spiritually parched souls. But we persist in eating fast food and satisfying our thirst at the shallow wells of a fallen world. Our sinful flesh/nature refuses to feed on Christ, leaving us painfully empty and ever more determined to find satisfaction somewhere or in someone else.
Contentment in Christ
In thinking along these lines I have often found both encouragement and insight in something Paul said in his letter to the Philippians:
I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me – Phil. 4:11-13.
What is Paul saying when he tells us that he has learned to be “content” in the midst of any and all circumstances? It helps to look at the word he uses. This particular term was a favorite one among the Stoics, those ancient philosophers who prided themselves on living independently of the world around them. Whatever resources were necessary for survival came from within, as they disciplined themselves to shun any reliance on external aids or props.
I’m not at all suggesting that Paul was a stone-faced apostle, or in any way reluctant to display his feelings. But something about this man of God enabled him to experience a spiritual contentment in the midst of indescribably tumultuous and often tragic circumstances. In 2 Cor. 11:23-27 he briefly described what his ministry for the sake of the gospel had entailed:
imprisonment, floggings, beatings, a stoning, shipwrecks; danger from rivers, bandits, his own countrymen, Gentiles and false brothers; hunger and thirst, days and nights without sleep.
Without in any way minimizing your problems, how do your struggles compare with Paul’s? Yet he dares to tell us that he has “learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” This ability was not something Paul was born with. It had to be learned. It was evidently the result of a long and painful process during which Paul somehow weaned himself from reliance on anything or anyone.
He seems to be saying, “My happiness and joy transcend bodily hurts or health, poverty or prosperity, the turbulent as well as the tranquil. I can face each day poor and hungry while maintaining my spiritual and emotional equilibrium. I can fall asleep filled and prosperous without losing sight of the God from whom all good gifts ultimately come. I know how to be deprived of material blessings and peaceful surroundings without thinking that life has lost its purpose. And I know how to thrive and feel good without being deceived into thinking that such pleasure alone is what makes life worth living.”
What was the secret Paul had learned? Christ! “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). The inner resource which Paul would draw was not the power of the human resolve but the power of the risen Lord. How did the apostle cope? Very simply by learning the lesson I hope and pray each of us learns: that Jesus is enough! “The secret of Paul’s independence,” observes commentator Gerald Hawthorne, “was his dependence upon Another (Christ). His self-sufficiency in reality came from being in vital union with One who is all-sufficient.” By God’s grace Paul had made great strides in ridding himself of the sin of misplaced dependency. His dependency was placed in Christ.
The Biblical Bottom Line
I don’t think Paul could have been any more explicit than this. I don’t think he needs to be. He offers no fancy formulas or complex theories. The bottom line is this: Either you believe in the adequacy of Jesus Christ or you don’t. Paul did. And it made all the difference in the world in how he dealt with defeat and rejection and how he coped with the frightening circumstances he faced.
There are, however, two sides to this truth. Some of us, like Paul, have to be weaned from self in order to learn dependency on God. But if Paul once suffered from too much confidence in his own abilities, Moses is an example of someone who suffered from too little. Both men had to learn that “all things” can indeed be accomplished, but only “through Him who strengthens us.”
Moses was plagued by self-doubt. Stung by the memory of his impetuous murder of an Egyptian, he balked when God selected him to deliver the Jews from bondage. Self-doubt, to be sure, is not always bad. Neither, for that matter, is self-confidence. But self-doubt must lead to trust in God or it serves only to paralyze and inhibit. Self-doubt ought not produce despair, but should drive us to God from whom we draw the strength and skills that we ourselves lack.
We often find ourselves confronted with tasks of far less significance than either Moses or Paul, yet we persistently ask, as Moses did, “Who am I, Lord?” To be honest, the answer may well be: “Not much!” The fact is, we are too weak and impetuous and ill-prepared, by ourselves, to do anything of lasting importance for God. But that’s okay. God wants it that way. It is as if God had said to Moses, “If you really were somebody, you might get the glory when the Israelites are delivered. But because you are an inarticulate and impetuous shepherd, I, Yahweh, will get all the glory.” And that’s how it should be. Paul stressed this theme in 1 Cor. 1:26-29, in speaking of God’s purpose in divine election:
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him.
The disciples must have felt much like Moses as they heard the Lord Jesus issue His Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). Going into all the world and discipling/making converts of all the nations is a tall order, even for men like Peter and John. Some of these men probably had too much, and others too little confidence in themselves at the time they heard those words. Each of them, though, had to learn what Moses and Paul knew: Ultimately it is our great Triune God through whom we do all things. The disciples went forth in confidence, not because of who they were but because of who was with them: “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
Is Jesus enough? You may want me to say more than this. You may want Paul or Moses or some other biblical author to say more. After all, it’s embarrassing to suddenly realize how simple the solution is. Sometimes we prefer to believe the answer is deep and profound, because that would give an excuse for not doing anything about our problems.
I have no desire to make light of your struggles. In saying the solution is simple I’m not chiding you for failing to understand what a child of ten could see. But how else can I say it? Paul’s language won’t permit me to put it in any other terms. It was true for him (and for Moses) and it is true for us: The secret to successful Christian living is the sufficiency of Christ! Period.
Faith or Fear?
Take yourself in hand for a moment and ask some heart-probing questions. “Why do I not give myself wholly to Christ? Why do I hesitate at many of His commands? Why do I keep a tight emotional grip on material possessions, allowing them to cloud my commitment to Christ? Why do I keep silent when I know that God would have me share the gospel with an unsaved neighbor or classmate? Why do I vigorously defend myself when unjustly slandered?” I think the answer is obvious: Fear. It isn’t so much that we deliberately turn our backs on Christ’s call to take up our cross (i.e., be willing to die for Him) and follow Him. It isn’t that we don’t love the Savior or that we are ungrateful for His multitude of blessings. What is lacking is simple faith that God is both willing and able to provide for the needs of those who risk everything in the pursuit of holiness (i.e., living sinlessly).
Those of us who lack this faith are often the very people who have experienced betrayal by someone we deeply loved. Human love is vacillating. People are often painfully unreliable. And some make the tragic mistake of thinking that God is no better. But human failure is not the measure of divine faithfulness. As difficult as it may be to again entrust yourself to another’s care, be assured that God is adequate. He is reliable. He will never by no means ever, leave you or forsake you.
The bottom line, then, is that we fail to give and to serve and to sacrifice and to minister because we are fearful of being shortchanged. We are afraid that in attending to others we will be left unattended. We are afraid that our most urgent needs will go unmet, and the prospect of more disappointment and emotional pain is simply too horrifying to ignore. Our fears are fueled by doubts about God’s adequacy to do for us what will inevitably need to be done.
We must say it. We must confess it out loud. The primary reason we spend our lives in sinful and ultimately destructive dependency on other people, manipulating them to meet our needs, is because we do not believe that Christ can.
The primary reason we are wedded to our wealth is our belief that it can do what Christ can’t.
A Sympathetic Savior
Yet some of us have difficulty trusting that Jesus will meet our needs because we doubt that He truly understands our pain – the kind of pain no one sees. We all know that Jesus suffered physically. We are all familiar with the details of His abuse at the hands of the Roman soldiers and His eventual execution on a cross. But our suffering is on the inside. What can Jesus possibly do about that?
As she addresses these questions in, her book Glorious Intruder, Joni Eareckson Tada wisely points us to Isaiah 53. One of the first things we notice is that our Lord was probably not the most handsome guy in the ancient world. In Isa. 53:2-3 we are told,
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.
Evidently Jesus knew what it was like to be ignored. He knew what it was like to be laughed at. He knew the pain of loneliness and rejection that comes from being average-looking, or perhaps even downright unattractive.
In Isaiah 53:6 says, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Joni describes what Jesus must have felt:
Everybody turned away from Him. Alone, Jesus shouldered the burden of our sin and rebellion. Just as you have felt the stab of other people’s pity or the indifference of uncaring friends, Jesus, too, endured the sting of rebuff and the ache of loneliness. And it wasn’t an occasional thing from a few fair-weather friends. He felt the awful realization that no one was on His side. No one bothered to listen or care.
Isaiah 53:11 speaks of the suffering of “His soul.” That has to be the worst kind of suffering possible… when you cry those deep, heaving sobs that come from way down inside. Real anguish you just can’t stop.
You know how that feels. So does He.
That’s really my message here: Jesus does understand the ache on the inside, having felt it in His own soul to a depth far beyond what you or I will ever know. Have you been ignored? So was He. Have your friends abandoned you? So did His. Have you been treated cheaply? So was He. That is why, says Joni, “if you bring that pain to Him, He will never make light of it.”
So what’s the point? Jesus knows who you are, where you are, and better still, He knows how you feel. When no one else is around, or even cares to be, Jesus is. You see, we never really know that Jesus is enough until He’s all we’ve got left.
If you and I learn nothing else, let it be that in Jesus Christ we have a truly sympathetic Savior … one who knows our pain and can meet the need of any moment, however agonizing it may be.
We can take the risk of loving those on whose response we cannot depend, because we are accepted in Christ. We can take the risk of vulnerable ministry to those who cannot be trusted, because Christ can be trusted! We can give without hope of return, we can serve without hope of being served, knowing we are secure in Christ’s love and are of immeasurable value to His heart.
C. Samuel Storms, Discipleship Journal