It was spring, but it was summer I wanted,
the warm days, and the great outdoors.
It was summer, but it was fall I wanted,
the colorful leaves, and the cool, dry air.
It was autumn, but it was winter I wanted,
the beautiful snow, and the joy of the holiday season.
I was a child, but it was adulthood I wanted,
the freedom, and the respect.
I was twenty, but it was thirty I wanted,
to be mature, and sophisticated.
I was middle-aged, but it was thirty I wanted,
the youth, and the free spirit.
I was retired, but it was middle-age that I wanted,
the presence of mind, without limitations.
My life was over,
but I never got what I wanted.
I don’t know the secret to the changing seasons. I don’t know the secret to a long life. I don’t know the secret to keeping a clear complexion, or keeping my hair from turning gray or turning loose. I don’t know the secret to avoiding the common cold in the winter. Those would be nice secrets to unlock, and I would be happy to share the answers with you if I stumbled upon them. But can I tell you a secret? This one is huge, and makes long life, hairiness, clear skin, and healthy sinuses seem trivial in comparison. It is particularly appropriate to learn this secret during this season of the year, as we bask in our recent thankfulness and approach a time of giving and receiving gifts at Christmas. OK, here it is:
I am learning the secret of contentment. I am not able to say with Paul, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” No, I am still learning. But what Paul said was no glib statement from a man in a chaise lounge on the deck of a cruise ship, sipping a lemonade and reading Grisham. Contentment in any circumstance for the Apostle Paul included having his back laid open with a whip more than once, being stoned and left for dead, being shipwrecked, and sitting in a Roman prison awaiting trial and possible execution. He says, “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Whether he had a full belly or not, whether he had just been beaten or just been welcomed to a warm home, Paul was content. It stands to reason that Paul didn’t fret about losing his hair, or his complexion, or even his life! He had found the secret of contentment.
The secret of contentment is found in joyful submission to Christ. It is realized as we grow in our trust that He does all things for our good. We can trust Him when there is plenty, and we can trust Him when there is nothing at all. Whether he was sleeping on the stone floor of a dungeon or in a comfortable bed, Paul’s life was in God’s hands, and he knew it. He kept himself under God, accepting with joy everything God brought his way, instead of putting himself over God by expecting or even demanding a quieter, easier, more prosperous and enjoyable life. Those who do not know Christ have what they have simply from God’s general providence. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, as the Bible says. Jeremiah Burroughs writes, “But the saints have (what they have) in a special way. The saint says, ‘I have it, and I have a sanctified use of it, too; God goes along with what I have to draw my heart nearer to him and sanctify my heart to him.’” There it is. The secret of contentment is found in trusting God for each moment of each day, that what He gives is for our good and for His glory.
This is a secret too good to keep to yourself. Pass it on!
Peter brings his first letter full circle at the end, reminding the elect exiles that their suffering is purposeful but temporary. “After you have suffered a little while,” he writes. Some of you might feel like your suffering has gone on for much more than a little while, and indeed there are people who suffer most or all of their lives with chronic illness. But the Bible tells us we are not victims of chance. We are not tossed about by the wind and waves of fate or cruel destiny. Instead, the God of all grace is for us, and he has called us to his eternal glory in Christ. And even though our suffering may last a lifetime, it is still a ‘little while’ compared to the eternal glory we have waiting for us. As the Puritans liked to say, “Affliction may be lasting, but it is not everlasting.”
Peter then tells us four things God is doing for us now and will bring to completion then, on that day when we see Jesus face to face. First, he will restore us. It is the word used for restoring a broken bone, putting it back in place. That restoration work is mostly painful, and many of you know that a physical therapist’s main job is to hurt you in order to help you. The process may be painful but it is purposeful, just as our suffering and often our restoration can be.
Second, he will confirm us. The word means to establish, to set fast or permanent, so you won’t topple or be knocked over. I remember years ago when Cindy and I were in our first home, and putting up our first Christmas tree, which I had cut down in the field behind us, some scraggly pine that was barely a notch better than Charlie Brown’s. I had a stand that I put the tree in but it wasn’t a good stand and the tree was wobbly. So I ran outside in the dark to where I knew there were a couple of cinderblocks and I grabbed one, without gloves, and carried it toward the house. As I got to the back stoop, and into the light, I looked down and saw, right next to my thumb, the biggest healthiest black widow I had ever seen. I screamed and dropped the cinderblock, probably on my foot, I don’t remember. But God doesn’t use cinderblocks or spiders to help us stand firm and not be wobbly in our faith. But by all means, if you’re going to get a cinderblock in the dark, use a flashlight. Or at least gloves. God strengthens us by the means of grace: his Word, prayer, the church, fellowship with our brothers and sisters. Paul wrote in his final words to the Romans, “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ…” The promise that God will make us stand up straight in trials is a great comfort to all of us who know we are weak.
Third, he will strengthen us. God not only keeps us from toppling but gives us strength to accomplish his purpose. He makes us strong in our soul and more and more as we walk with him. It would be a good practice for all of us, but perhaps especially for we who are ‘seasoned saints,’ to read Isaiah 40 every week. We may be feeling weakly so we need to read this weekly. “…They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” I also believe we who are older have been given strength by God to encourage and teach and strengthen someone younger to come along behind and pick up where we will leave off. It is our gift to the future of His church to do so!
Fourth, he will establish us. This means he will place us on a firm foundation that we may be steadfast. Our hearts may waver and our strength may be small for a time, as Peter knew better than anyone. But God promises to establish us in him, even and especially through dark and difficult days. I think of John the Baptist in prison and his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth perhaps having a conversation about whether their son would be ok and stand strong through his trial. And saying to one another, “I think we put him on the right path as a little boy growing up in this house. We taught him about Jehovah and how to trust in God even in times when he can’t see his plan. I think he will be ok.” And he was. God kept him strong, even through momentary doubts, as he does us as well. All the way to the end.
We can say with Peter, “To him be glory and dominion forever and ever!”