In this series called “In The Meantime“, we are addressing the question, what do you do when there’s nothing you can do? What do you do when you find yourself in a situation or a season of life when there’s really no way forward and no way out?
It can be a relationship that’s not just going anywhere. Maybe you’re married and you don’t think you should abandon the relationship, and you certainly don’t want to abandon your family, but it is not going in the direction you want it to go in. Counseling doesn’t seem to be helping, and you feel stuck. What do you do?
What do you do when financially you are not doing well, bills aren’t getting paid, money’s tight, you’re in debt and the only way out is a long, hard road that seems endless. You feel stuck.
Maybe you’re caring for a loved one, and it’s exhausting. It’s beating you down. Maybe this has been going on for weeks, maybe this has been going on for years.
Maybe you got a bad report from your doctor, and while what you’ve been diagnosed with may not kill you, it’s going to greatly change your lifestyle. There’s going to be things that you can no longer do, new things you have to do, and there’s no way to make it better.
Maybe academically is where it hits you. Your plans were always to go to medical school. Now due to something you did or something that has nothing to do with you, you’re not going. In other words, your future is not what you thought it was going to be. You’re disappointed. Your parents are disappointed. Your dream isn’t going to come true, and there’s really no way to fix it.
So what do you do when there’s nothing you can do? There’s always the temptation to run. And there’s always the temptation to do something stupid, like drink yourself into oblivion, or whatever it takes to kind of get through this. But again, those things just create more complicated circumstances.
And then, there’s the whole internal battle. We get jealous of other people because it seems like everybody else’s life is so much better than ours. In fact, just in general, everybody else’s life seems more perfect than ours, doesn’t it? When you look around, we sort of get the highlights especially through social media, and we see all this happiness, then we look back at our lives, and we’re like ugh.
And when you’re in a season of life where things really aren’t going well for you, your failures are exaggerated, and other people’s successes are even more exaggerated. That’s why it’s easy to be jealous, resentful, and certainly angry. Even angry at God.
Or should I say especially angry at God because you know if God is who God is supposed to be, and who God was presented you to be, then God could have done something about this. God seems to make everybody else’s life a wrinkle-free life, so He could have made your life a wrinkle-free life too, and you could’ve had better kids, a better marriage, a higher IQ. But He didn’t. So at some point, this kind of comes back to “It’s God’s fault”.
At some point along the way, we tend to believe the lies like, “I’ll never be happy again. And nothing good can come from this.” And I know what some of you are thinking right now. “Don’t get up there and tell me that something good can come from this, because if I were to get up there and tell everybody my sad story, everybody would agree nothing good can come from this.” You look at your circumstances and you think there’s no happy ending. There’s no silver lining.
And for some of you, maybe you’re at that point of ultimate desperation where you think there’s really not any point in continuing. There’s no point in battling through this situation. There’s no point staying in this marriage. There’s no point in staying in school or staying moral and ethical. There’s no point in continuing to do the right thing hoping the right thing will happen to me.
You know the options that you have are only going to make your life more complicated, but you’re so sick and tired of the status quo. So what do you do when it seems like there’s absolutely nothing you can do?
This is what we call in-the-meantime moments. On week one, we kind of went to the heart of the tension that we feel in the meantime moments. And we discovered together that adversity does not equate to God being absent. The way we said it was, “In the meantime, God is not absent, God is not apathetic, and God is not angry.” He is not punishing you!
And then last week, we looked into one of the greatest mysteries in all of Christianity.
We discovered that we have the option to view our adversity, to view these in-the-meantime moments, as a gift from your Heavenly Father that has both a purpose and a promise.
The purpose is often yet to be revealed, but the promise is that God’s grace is sufficient for you. And as I said last week, I would never tell someone you have to do this because this has to be the place that you get to with God, the place He takes you. But through people we’ve met, and people like the Apostle Paul, we see that there is the option to view adversity as a gift with a purpose and a promise.
Now, one thing that’s helpful to do when you are facing adversity or in-the-meantime moments is to remember that the men and women who bring us the Gospel of Jesus Christ, were not strangers to adversity. We Westerners, we who honestly are spoiled, have a conflict sometimes between the idea of there being a good God, and the idea of there being difficulty and adversity in life. But the men and women who brought us the story of Jesus, they were not put off by that conflict. They did not see that as a contradiction at all.
Their lives were full of turmoil and difficulties. In fact, last week we saw this with the Apostle Paul, the man who was responsible for taking the Gospel and presenting it to non-Jewish people, the man who essentially almost single-handedly planted all the churches along the Mediterranean rim that would eventually create the church that we now are a part of, yet the Apostle Paul had a situation in his life that was painful, humiliating, debilitating and permanent.
And he said, “God, would you remove it?” And God said, “No.” And yet somehow that did not cause him to lose his confidence from God. Somehow, he was able to continue to believe God, trust God, and move on with his life. For him, there was no contradiction. There was no conflict between his believe in God and his adversity. He was able to live in that in-the-meantime moment and still do amazing things.
So not only did Paul teach us that there is an option to view adversity as a gift with a purpose and a promise, but Paul also made an incredibly bold statement which is what we are going to talk about today. And in this bold statement he talks about contentment. Now before I get into this, let me just define the word contentment. Contentment means being at peace on the inside even when everything on the outside is going crazy. Contentment is the ability to stop fighting internally and being at peace even though things on the outside are out of control.
Something that’s very important to understand about Paul’s faith journey is that before he became a Jesus follower and the greatest evangelist of his day and age, Paul was a Christian hater. He stepped on to the pages of history as someone who hated Christians. Not only did he hate them, but he persecuted them, sought them out, arrested them, had them killed.
Yet one day, Paul had an encounter with Jesus that changed all of that. And about 10 years into his ministry for Jesus, the Apostle Paul was arrested, and ends up in Rome under house arrest awaiting trial.
Now the emperor at that time was Nero. And to be a Christian in Rome under arrest with Nero as the emperor, was not a great combination because Nero was all about blaming the Christians for everything he could. So here’s Paul in Rome under house arrest, and it looks like from all appearances, Rome won, Jesus lost. The Empire of Rome wins, the Kingdom of God loses. It looks like game over.
But here’s the really cool part. We understand that Paul was a very ambitious guy with this giant vision to change the world. He’s under arrest in Rome, and he has nothing to do because he can’t go anywhere. So, he decides to some letters. Little did he know, that he was writing some of the most widely read, widely translated literature in all the history of literature.
In his mind, “There’s nothing I can do. I’m stuck here. What am I going to do in the meantime? Well, I’ll make the best of it, and I’ll write a few letters to the Christians in some of these cities where I visited and planted churches.”
But those little letters became what we know as the books of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. In fact, these are known as the Prison Epistles. Now, this is what I want you to get in your head because this is going to be practical for all of us in just a minute.
So he writes these letters just to pass the time, to encourage his friends. There’s nothing else to do, so why not. Just make the most of the time you have cause who knows if you’re going to survive this. Yet in reality, he changed the Western world. He changed the way Gentiles approach God. He changed the way people view God. He is writing literature that would ultimately be part of undermining the Roman empire.
In fact, I would argue that in the time after Jesus, the Apostle Paul had more to do with shaping the culture and shaping the western culture more than anyone that lived right up until the printing press. And when the printing press finally got underway in about 1450, Gutenberg’s press, what’s the first book he printed? The Bible.
The first book that was printed, mass produced, if you can think of mass production in 1450, contained the writings of the Apostle Paul, some of which was written in prison when he was in an in-the-meantime moment. Now, that’s incredible. Anybody else here think that’s incredible?
Here’s another really cool thing to think about. What are the odds, I mean, come on, what are the odds that letters written in Rome while under house arrest would even survived the first century, would even get to where they were meant to go, much less became part of the most widely read literature in all of the history of literature?
Things that emperors wrote were put in vaults to protect them, multiple copies were made, yet are long gone. However, the Apostle Paul is a prisoner, one copy, he says “deliver this,” and we’re still reading it today. He had no idea what hung in the balance of his decision to remain faithful.
Do you know what hung in the balance? We hung in the balance. The church hung in the balance. And the reason he accomplished what he did, don’t miss this, it’s so important, the reason he was able to accomplish what he did was because of his adversity, and because of his response to his adversity. And here’s why that’s a big deal.
You have no idea what or who hangs in the balance of your decision to remain faithful when everything around you says “be faithless”. You have no idea what God might be up to through your faithfulness when everything around you says, “There’s no point in being ethical. There’s no point being moral, or faithful, or staying, or pushing forward.”
You have no idea what hangs in the balance, and the challenge is that you’ll never know unless you’re willing to remain faithful in the midst of that adversity. What you have lived long enough to already know is simply this, that often times it’s within the context of adversity that God does His most amazing work in us, and through us, and in the world. So, this is a very big deal.
When you find yourself, as some of you are right now, in an in-the-meantime moment, God is not absent. God’s not apathetic. God’s not angry, and as we’re going to discover in a few weeks from now, God oftentimes is at work and the worst thing we could possibly do is abandon ship. What if instead of abandoning ship, we said, “God, I don’t want this, I wouldn’t choose this for my worst enemy, but here I am. Teach me what it means to be content in the midst of these circumstances.”
In his letter to the church in Philippi, now known as the book of Philippians, the Apostle Paul addresses this issue of contentment in a really big, bold statement. Again, he’s writing from house arrest in Rome which evil Nero is the emperor of. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen. He doesn’t even know when he’ll have a trial or if he’ll survive, and here’s what he writes to Christians in the city of Philippi.
10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.
Let’s read between the lines a bit. News travels slow, so finally the Christians in Philippi get the news that Paul, the very man guy that started the church, is under arrest in Rome. So it’s like they sent him a care package or something. It takes a long time to get to Paul, and when he finally gets it, it’s like “Wow! They didn’t forget about me”. So he writes, “I’m so glad that you renewed your concern for me”. He opens the care package and there’s some books, and cookies…who knows. We don’t know what was in it. But he’s just so very grateful for it.
And then he uses this as a launching point to talk about contentment. Here’s what he says.
11 I am not saying this because I am in need,
In other words, “I’m glad you sent me the care package, I’m glad you remembered me, but don’t get me wrong, I’m not glad because I was afraid, or going crazy on the inside, or overwhelmed with anxiety.”
11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned (in other words, it took a while, it was a process) to be content whatever the circumstances.
So he’s learned to deal with it. I’ve learned to not let adversity drag him down. He’s learned to live in such a state that even though things around him are unsure, he’s not stressing out, not yearning, and not running. He’s learned to be content.
I think the part that gets me the most is the “whatever the circumstances” line. I don’t know about you, but when I read that I think, I want to learn that. If there is a way to learn how to be content in any kind of circumstances, circumstances that I have absolutely no control over, if there is a way on the inside to be okay when things on the outside are not okay, I want to learn that. Where do I sign up? I’ll be there whatever time that class starts in the front row.
And Paul says, “I just want you to know whether you ever learn it or not, it exists. Whether you ever get there or not, whether you pay attention to anything else I write, I just want you to know there is a category of contentment that works in all circumstances”. What that means is when you find yourself in and in-the-meantime set of circumstances where there’s no way forward, no way out, and there’s nothing you can do about it, it just is what it is, there is a way to be content.
Now, this is the guy that was going to singlehandedly win the whole world to Jesus. Very ambitious guy. When he wasn’t a Christian he was going to kill them all, when he became a Christian he was going to win them all. He’s a man of extremes. But he said, “In spite of my personality and in spite of my circumstances I have learned the secret to be content.”
That’s a powerful statement. He goes on,
12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.
Now, this is a big statement too. I’m not going to spend a lotta time on it, but here’s what he’s saying. “I’ve had more than I needed, and I didn’t get addicted to having more than I needed so that when I was in need I was unhappy. I’ve learned to navigate having a lot and I’ve learned to navigate not having enough.
He goes on,
12 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.
Now, this is really cool. In the Greek text, the Apostle Paul uses a word that shows up nowhere else in the entire New Testament. Ever have a conversation with someone and they throw out a really big word which pretty much just stops the conversation, because your now too busy trying to figure out what they just said.
Well in the same way, the Apostle Paul, every once in a while, in his literature will introduce a word that he never uses anywhere else, and that basically no biblical writer uses anywhere else. His point is to get people to stop and go, “Wow, you’re introducing something new. You’re trying to make a big point,” and the term that he uses here is translated to, learn the secret of being content.
It’s just one Greek word, and it’s a word that was only used in cultic mysticism to describe somebody being initiated into some kind of secret society or a secret cult. It would be like joining a fraternity or sorority where there was kind of that mystical moment where you got the secret handshake, and you realized you made it. Or maybe when you were growing up and you had the girl hater club in the tree fort, and you kind of had your secret stuff? So this word was a Greek word that described to talk about a secret thing going on, so the Apostle Paul grabs that word, placed it in this context and essentially here is what he’s saying.
“I have been initiated into this secret knowledge, this secret experience, this thing that’s available to everyone, but not a whole lot of people know about it.”
Now that he’s got everyone’s attention, we all want to know what the secret is to being content in any and every circumstance. We all want to know how to survive, especially survive the way Paul survived because before he was arrested, he just kept getting the stuffing beat out of him. He was stoned and left for dead, was shipwrecked, people would beat him and throw him out of town because of talking about Jesus, let alone being arrested and brought to Rome.
How in the world can he be content with all that? In the next verse he tells us. It’s one of the most famous verses in the entire New Testament. It’s also perhaps, one of the most misapplied verses in all of literature. This is one of those verses that you’ve probably heard in some way, shape or form, you’ve seen it on home décor, and unfortunately it’s so easy to remember that people have yanked it way out of context and applied it to all kinds of stuff. But the context for this verse that perhaps you’ve heard before is the Apostle Paul summary of how you live with contentment in the midst of circumstances that are chaotic and in his case, actually life threatening. So you ready? Here it is. So tell us how Paul.
13 I can do all this (persecuted, run out of town, stoned and left for dead more than once, I can do all of this and maintain my commitment) through him who gives me strength.
A later manuscript took out Him and put in Christ, so everybody knows for sure who he’s talking about.
If I could add a word for clarification, I would add the word His…”who gives me His strength.” Because Paul would later elaborate in other books of the New Testament, that there is a mystery for believers. This is why he chose that word, that mysterious, that sort of initiation word.
There’s a mystery for Christians where actually the strength and endurance of Jesus is available to you and me. So he says, “So I can do all of this through Him or Christ who gives me His strength.”
Now just to be clear, and to be a bit critical, let me tell you what he was not talking about.
There is a wonderful well-meaning Christian High School, I’m sure, whose football team or cheerleaders wrote this verse on a big paper for the football team to run through. I imagine Paul up in Heaven going, “Really? I was rotting away in prison, and you’re going to use it to introduce your football team. That’s not what I was talking about. I’m not talking about winning something, I’m talking about surviving something. I’m not talking about a trophy, I’m talking about rewards in Heaven.” God bless them as I’m sure they meant well, but I just want you to know this because when you rip this verse out of context, you miss the secret of contentment.
So let me summarize it for you. Here’s essentially what Paul’s saying, “I can’t. Jesus can through me.” I may be cool, strong, educated, and I got it going on. I got a 401k, and I got a nice car. I got some friends but when it comes to this bad boy that I’m facing, I can’t. It’s beyond me. I’m not going to pretend I can, I’m not going to lie and say I can. I’m just going to admit right up front, because I can’t handle this.
But Jesus can. And the reason I know Jesus can is because He dragged His own cross to that hill and died for our sin. And if He can do that on purpose, if He can do that intentionally, then what I’m facing is nothing compared to that. So the Apostle Paul says, “I can’t, but He can. And most importantly, He can through me.”
So when you think I just can’t, I can’t keep doing this. Life is out of control. I can’t handle the chaos, the drama, the pain, the exhaustion. I can’t keep living through this in-the-meantime moment. And you say, “God, I can’t keep doing this.” Your heavenly Father says to you, “You can’t, and that’s alright, but I can and I can do it through you.”
It’s the mystery of Christ and you.
I want to give you a homework assignment because we all love homework assignments, right? On your way out today, you’re going to get a little card. What I want you to do is to put it somewhere you’re going to see it every morning and every evening. The bathroom mirror is a great spot.
And for at least a week, or for some of you, you need to do this throughout the season of life you’re in. Every morning, before you even get out of bed, I want you to say, “I can’t, You can.” Before your feet even hit the floor, “I can’t, You can. I can do all things through Christ who gives me His strength.” Before I even start I’m just going to acknowledge, “Good morning, God! I can’t, You can.”
And then every night when you go to bed, I want you to whisper this prayer. “Teach me the mystery of Christ in me.”
“I want to learn the secret of contentment.” That’s how Paul said it. I learned, I didn’t know it automatically. So every morning, “God, I just want to declare I can’t, but I believe you can.” Every night “God, I want you to teach me the mystery of you living through me.”
The bottom line for this message is simply this, in the meantime, learn the secret of contentment, Christ in you, empowering you.
Now we’re going to give you those cards on the way out. For those of you who are watching online, just write it on a piece of paper or better yet write it on your mirror with a dry erase marker or your wife’s eyeliner.
So I want to end today by praying for you, but as I do, I want all of us to think about that thing in our life that stirs our discontentment more than anything else. It’s that thing that just won’t change.
Whether it’s a person, a set of circumstances, something to do with your education, your income, debt, something you’re not going to be able to accomplish in life, whatever it is get it on your mind.
Let me just say, that thing you’re thinking about right now is the epicenter of where God has the greatest potential to do the greatest work in your life. It is. It’s Paul being in prison that launched his writing ministry that changed the world. In fact, whenever you hear people tell the story of what God did through them or how God did something great, they don’t talk about the wrinkle free days. They talk about that in-the-meantime season of their life that changed everything.
So again, we have no idea of what God wants to do through us and in us in this in-the-meantime set of circumstances. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, most of us lived long enough to know that, it’s in these in-the-meantime moments that you really do have the greatest opportunity to amazing things in us. Mostly because it’s here that you have our attention. So Father, please give us eyes to see this thing the way you see it and please teach us the secret of contentment. We confess that we can’t, but we believe You can and You can through us. Father, we pray all of these things in the matchless name of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who lives in and through us. Amen.