Enjoying God and contentment


Hardly anyone is happy with the way life really is right now. Oh, they could tell you how a world would be that they might like—a world where the kids don’t misbehave; where there are no financial problems; where marriage is a fifty-year honeymoon; where there is no sickness or disease; where the boss is kind, supporting and encouraging; where work is fulfilling. They could tell you about a world where everything was perfect, and they could be happy in a world like that. But, back in the real world there is plenty to complain about. There are dishes and yard work and bills and disease and dysfunctional relationships and on and on and on. For some, it is almost a feather in their cap to be skilled at carefully describing various problems.

People who enjoy God have the same problems. But, somehow they have learned not only to survive, but to thrive in such a world.

People who enjoy God have the same problems. But, somehow they have learned not only to survive, but to thrive in such a world. This does not mean that they do not try to avoid problems when they can; only fools live lives where they willingly contribute to their problems. But when they have done the best they can, they have learned not merely to put up with problems, but to enjoy them.

Sound absurd? This is exactly what James said in James 1:2, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” It would be an easier passage for your pastor to preach if it said, “Learn to have a stiff upper lip, to endure bravely without complaining.” But that is not what it says. What it says is, when you want to have a big party and you want it to be a big, gala affair, invite trouble. How could James say such a thing?

James teaches that the happiest lives are those with a liberal dose of pain mixed in. Posh lives that have nothing but ice cream and pillows don’t have the most smiles.

It has to do with values, goals, and beliefs, although we may not be aware of them. Why is it we tend to complain about our problems? Because we believe that a life free of problems would be happier than a life with problems. This seems self-evident. But James teaches that the happiest lives are those with a liberal dose of pain mixed in. Posh lives that have nothing but ice cream and pillows don’t have the most smiles.

We see this instinctively in several areas of life. Parents know that the path to having happy kids is paved with discipline. And it hurts. I remember complaining to my mother one time when she was spanking me. “That hurts!” I said in shocked disbelief. Somehow, I fully expected she would say, “Oh, gee, I didn’t mean to hurt you, I will be more gentle when I spank.” No such luck, “I meant for it to hurt.” The accent in her voice was on the second word. It really did hurt. It hurt badly. But I am a happier person; I have had a happier life because she hurt me.

Sin is needing anything more than what God provides to be happy.

It is true of athletes. They have worn it to a trite slogan— “No pain, no gain.” It is true on the purely physical level, but it is true in terms of development as well. Teams that want to do well must pay the price in terms of discipline, pain, and self-denial. They must lift weights, practice plays, study defenses and offenses, and go through a whole battery of rigorous drills. This is not a detour to joy, it is the means of joy. It is the only way they will arrive at ultimate happiness. This is James 1:2.

These examples serve to illustrate that pain is not incongruous with joy, even pain that really hurts. On the contrary, pain is necessary for ultimate joy. That is what the brother of our Lord taught us. Perhaps he learned it from Jesus. Remember the verse that says that Jesus endured the cross for the goal of ultimate joy (Hebrews 12:2). There is something about pain that produces in us the kind of character that can experience ultimate happiness.

We may not fully understand this, and thankfully we do not have to. An athlete does not have to understand exactly how it is that weight lifting produces stronger muscles; he only needs to know that it does. In the same way, we do not understand exactly how it is that suffering produces character; we simply must trust God that it does. When we come to believe—really believe—that suffering comes so that we will experience ultimate happiness we will rejoice at its arrival. Certain joys can only be experienced by mature people. Just as expert snow skiers know an exhilaration that can barely be imagined by novices, so those whose character is matured will know a joy in God that others hardly believe possible. Who can really imagine what it feels like to zip down a mountain at eighty miles an hour, or to fly a hundred yards in the air? In the same way, we will never know the joy in God that is available, indeed common, in those whose character is mature. But the only way to know that joy is through hours and hours and days and years of practice, discipline, and pain. There is no other way to know the joy. And There is no other way to know joy in God except by going through the door called pain. And pain hurts. That is why we call it pain.15

There is no other way to know joy in God except by going through the door called pain.

There is another reason why people who enjoy God are content. They know God. They know God to be a God of love and power. There are not accidents with God. Everything that happens to us must pass by His desk first. This is such an important topic, we will return to it later, in Section Three.

The point here is that people who enjoy God realize that every complaint is ultimately a complaint against God. When we are discontent, we not only make ourselves, and everyone around us miserable, but we grieve the heart of God. When faced with these choices, those who enjoy God easily decide to hold their tongue. Whatever joy there is in complaining is greatly offset by the joys that come from not complaining.

People who enjoy God realize that every complaint is ultimately a complaint against God.

Pain is going to come anyway, to the just and the unjust. We have no choice about that. We do have a choice—and no one can take this from us—as to how we will respond. An oft-quoted story in this regard is of Victor Frankle who was humiliated in German war camps before he learned this lesson. No one can take from us our freedom to choose how we will respond to trouble and pain. We can keep the root of bitterness from taking hold. They decide how they will treat us. We decide how we will respond.16

The pain will not produce the desired results if we complain. It is as if complaining serves as an antidote to the good effect that pain is supposed to have on us. Unless we choose to rejoice, the character we hope to acquire will evade us.

Paul said it this way, (Philippians 4:12) , “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Remember, he did not write this in his air conditioned room in the Rome Hilton. No, he was chained in a stinky Roman jail.

But, even in circumstances like this, Paul saw the benefits. He knew these events had passed God’s desk for a reason: (Philippians 1:13, 14 ) “As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.” He could think of all kinds of reasons why God would have allowed him to be there. Certainly, cultivating his character was one, but there were others: the palace guard was being evangelized, and the brothers were speaking the word more fearlessly because of his chain

The pain will not produce the desired results if we complain.

s just as a church often kicks into high gear when they are without a pastor. When the professional is in place they can slow down. With Paul out of the picture, everyone knew they had to do more. (Oh, what we could accomplish if we could come to believe that all of our gifts are needed all the time.)

So, how are we to respond when unexpected bills, or illness or other disappointments come our way? Once again, Paul shows us the way, ( Romans 5:3-5) “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

We choose to believe that God is working for our ultimate happiness, like parents disciplining their children.

We make a choice to rejoice.17 We choose to believe that God is working for our ultimate happiness, like parents disciplining their children or a coach drilling his team. We understand that one definition of sin is, “needing anything other than what God provides to be happy.” Since this suffering is really helping us to accomplish our goal of ultimate joy in God, we rejoice. We value suffering as a friend, an opportunity to strengthen our faith.

Once again, our values, our beliefs, and our goals determine our emotions. If we value pain as a vital tool toward our goal of Christ-like character, and if we really believe this is the only way it will happen, we will throw a party when pain comes.


15C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.

16Victor Frankle, Quoted by Alan Loy McGinnis The Power of Optimism, Harper and Row: New York, 1990.

17I give credit to Jack Taylor for this phrase.

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