Will You Have a Happy New Year?
January 3, 1999
This week I made a list of things to worry about as we start the new year. These things are not personal in nature, rather they touch on national and international issues that affect all of us.
1. The impeachment crisis in Washington
No one can say with certainty what will happen when the trial of President Clinton begins in the Senate in a few days.
2. Bombing in Iraq
This week the Iraqis fired on our planes and we launched missiles and dropped bombs on their radar and launch sites in southern Iraq.
3. New trouble in Israel
The recently signed Wye River Accords are beginning to unravel because Prime Minister Netanyahu has lost his support in the Israeli Knesset and may be replaced, throwing the entire Middle East peace process into confusion once again.
4. Economic uncertainty throughout the world
In 1998 inflation in Russia reached 84%. The Asian economies are in dire straits, and many economists are talking openly about a recession in the US in 1999.
5. Rising global tensions
A recent article in USA Today (January 1,1999) reports that “1999 begins with the world facing an upsurge in wars that have outstripped predictions of a year ago and raised concerns of a bloody end to the 20th century.” “We’re not heading into a new world order, but an age of chaos,’’ said Thomas Moore, director of international studies at The Heritage Foundation. Major flash points include Iraq, North Korea, Indonesia, the Middle East and the Balkans.
6. Y2K problem
The Chicago Tribune above-the-fold front page story for January 1 carried this ominous
headline: Millennium Bug lurks with time running out.
On Friday I spent some time on the Internet reading articles from USA Today, CNN, and MSNBC. It is obvious that we are living in a time of growing uncertainty and personal anxiety. One noted researcher argues that as we enter the 21st century we are moving from a period of basic world stability to a period of global instability. Many people feel this in a very personal way. We enter the final year of this century with some concern for what will happen to us and to our families. I know I am speaking to people with health concerns, financial worries, career issues, marital problems, spiritual struggles, unanswered prayers, and serious concerns about what the new year will bring for you and your loved ones. You may not be worried about Iraq or the Y2K problem, but you have your own issues that keep you awake late into the night.
Often we say “Happy New Year” rather glibly—many times without any thought at all. Perhaps we should make it a question—Will 1999 be a happy new year for you? In this message I want to give you some words of encouragement for the year that stretches before us. Instability is nothing new for the people of God. In every generation believers have faced moments when fear threatened to overwhelm faith. God’s word to his people is always “Fear not.” Years ago I remember reading that the phrase “Fear not” is repeated 365 times in the Bible—once for every day in the year. No matter what happens in 1999—or in the years to come—God’s word to you is the same: “Fear not.”
Our text offers some practical help as we move forward. Philippians 4:10-13 is perhaps the greatest statement in the New Testament on the subject of Christian contentment. We need to hear God’s message to us in the midst of so much public and private uncertainty.
A Place to Begin …
I’d like to begin by offering my own three-part definition of contentment:
A) Contentment is the belief that I have everything I need at this present moment.
B) It is also the confidence that if I needed anything else, God would give it to me.
C) It is also the certainty that when I need anything else, God will give it to me.
The first part is the key. True contentment means understanding that at any given moment I have everything I truly need. I almost certainly don’t have everything I want. And I probably don’t have everything I think I need. This part of the definition means that God has so ordered the universe that no matter where you are right now you have everything you truly need to be content. That’s an awesome statement—and I know it’s one thing to say that on Sunday morning, it’s something else to believe that when your husband walks out on you or the doctor says, “I’m sorry. There’s nothing else we can do.”
How do we know this is true? We know it because God has said it is true. He has promised to supply our needs. He has guaranteed that he will feed and clothe us. He has promised to hear our prayers. He has given the Holy Spirit to lead us and the Word of God to guide us. He has redeemed us from our sins, given us new life, placed us in Christ, endowed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, seated us with Christ in heaven, given us abundant life, filled us with his Spirit, placed us in the body of Christ, promised us a way of escape in the moment of temptation, sent his angels to encamp around us, translated us from the realm of darkness into the kingdom of his dear Son, sealed us with the Spirit who is the earnest of our salvation, caused us to pass from death to life, justified us while we were still ungodly, called us his children, caused us to be born again by the Spirit, adopted us into his family, sanctified us, promised never to leave us, set our feet on the road to heaven, broken Satan’s power, removed the fear of death, and guaranteed our future resurrection.
If all that is true, how can we doubt that God will give us what we need when we need it? And if we truly need something else, he’ll give that to us too. Which means that if we don’t have something we think we need, it’s because our heavenly Father knows best and has chosen not to give it to us right now. If we truly need it later, he’ll see that we get it.
That applies to every area of life—to your finances, your job, your health, your marriage, your friendships, your children, your parents, every relationship of life, and to all your dreams for the future. You’ve got everything you need to be content right now—and if you’re not, please don’t blame God. It’s not his fault.
Let’s take a look and see how this principle works out in this passage.
I. Contentment is not automatic but must be learned over time.
Look how clearly Paul states this truth. In verse 11 he declares, “I have learned to be content” and in verse 12 he says, “I have learned the secret of being content.” Why did Paul have to learn contentment? Why wasn’t it just given to him as a gift from God? The answer is that God is most glorified when we struggle through the process of being weaned from our dependence on the things of the world. The picture is one only a mother can fully understand. A child is born and for a long time he looks to his mother’s breast as the source of his nourishment. Breakfast, lunch and supper all come from the same place. When he is hungry, he cries and his mother knows exactly what to do. Her milk satisfies him and back to sleep he goes.
But the day comes when he has to learn how to take a bottle. He cries, big tears roll down his face, his arms reach out but his mother pushes them away. He fights, he pouts, he screams, all to no avail. What has happened to mom? She who used to be his friend has now become his enemy. If mom has a heart at all, she cries too because from now on things will be different.
When the battle is over, when the tears have stopped, when he learns to eat with his brothers and sisters, then the child comes, lays his head on his mother’s breast, not in order to be fed, but just because he wants to be near her.
Here is the truth: Unless a mother weans her child, he will never grow up. Though it may seem hard, and though the child misunderstands, if a mother truly loves her child, she will not stop until her child has been weaned from her breast. When the job is done, the child no longer begs for that which once seemed indispensable. Once he could not live without his mother’s milk; now he no longer needs it.
To be weaned is to have something removed from your life which you thought you couldn’t live without. Most of us live on the opposite principle. In our hearts we think, “I would be happy if only I had a new car or a new job or a new dress or a new husband or a new wife.” Since life is hardly ever that simple, we stay frustrated when we ought to be happy.
No wonder we are never satisfied. Instead of being weaned from the world, we are wedded to it. Or maybe I should say, welded to it.
II. Happiness depends on circumstances; Contentment comes from my confidence in God.
Verse 12 lays this out very clearly. “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.” In case we missed it he adds this phrase, “Whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” It’s easy to assume Paul means being well fed is good and going hungry is bad. But that’s not correct. Poverty and prosperity both have their good uses—and both can lead us astray spiritually. If we take the words of Jesus seriously, riches can wreck the soul much quicker than poverty (see Matthew 19:23-26).
The comedy film Cool Runnings is about the first Jamaican bobsled team to go to the Winter Olympics. John Candy plays a former American gold medallist who becomes a coach for the Jamaican team. The players grow to like the American coach and affectionately dub him “Sled-god.” Late in the story the coach’s dark history comes out. In an Olympics following his gold medal performance, he broke the rules by weighting the U.S. sled, bringing disgrace on himself and his team. One of the Jamaican bobsledders could not understand why anyone who had already won a gold medal would cheat. Finally he nervously asked Candy to explain.
“I thought I had to win,” said the coach. “But I learned something. If you are not happy without a gold medal, you won’t be happy with it, either.”
Paul knew that riches are not the way to contentment. So he was willing to hold material things with an open hand. He refused to become a slave to wealth. He could walk away from prosperity when service to the Lord demanded it. What about you? Are you killing yourself to get that gold medal? Let me remind you – if you’re not happy without it, you won’t be happy with it either.
III. Contentment rests on two great truths:
A. That God has ordained every circumstance of my life.
I know of no truth more important than this. This week I was asked during a radio interview to explain why the wicked prosper while the righteous often suffer in this world. As a pastor I constantly face this question in dealing with the seeming inequities of life. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear about someone in our congregation who is battling with cancer. What I can’t explain is why it happens to one person and not to another. Not long ago I was given a test in a hospital to see if I had a certain form of cancer. That’s a little scary no matter how healthy you feel. The results were good—no evidence of cancer. But as I thought about it, it occurred to me that from a human point of view I had simply dodged a bullet. And maybe only temporarily. Last Sunday Roberta Hoppe and her children worshipped with us. That reminded me that her husband Len died almost exactly three years ago.
You can go through life asking, Why did this happen? and you’ll end up frustrated and disappointed because in this life there is rarely a satisfactory answer to that question. We simply don’t know why some people live long and prosper while others never seem to catch a break. In the world’s terms, they are victims of bad luck. From the standpoint of Holy Scripture, we can only say that God is working out his plan in ways we can’t see from our limited vantage point.
This becomes very personal when I pray with members of our congregation as they face the uncertainties of life. One thing I’ve learned is that there are no guarantees, which is why a long time ago I stopped making promises about what God will do in a particular situation. Generally, I don’t know what God is going to do, and I’m content to leave matters in his hands.
In verse 12 Paul says “I have learned the secret of being content.” Don’t you love secrets? It’s always fun when anyone says, “Let me tell you a secret.” So what is the secret of contentment? I think the answer can be found in two phrases. First, in verse 11 he mentions “whatever the circumstances,” and then in verse 12 he says “in any and every situation.” Those two phrases would appear to cover all that life has to offer. The secret of contentment lies in understanding that nothing happens by chance, but everything is ordained by the hand of a loving God.
I like the word “ordained” because it is a very strong word. Some people may think it smacks of fatalism but to me it simply means that God is in charge of all the details of life—the good and the bad, the positive, the negative—and he has ordained not only what happens to us, but when it happens, how it happens, where it happens, what happens before it happens, and what happens after it happens.
I know it’s easy to get hung up on that, and to worry about things like predestination—which is a very biblical concept. It helps to remember that from our point of view we simply see events unfold topsy-turvy, almost like a handful of dice that come rolling out of the sky. Everything seems random, nothing seems to have a purpose. And so we react to life as it comes, not knowing what tomorrow will bring.
Here’s where biblical faith comes in. As I stand and watch those dice rolling all around me, I can look up and see the invisible hand of God blowing on the dice so that the numbers come up just the way he wants (see Proverbs 16:33). Nothing happens by chance. There is no such thing as luck or fate or kismet or happenstance.
Contentment is possible when I realize that everything happens for a purpose—whether I see it or not. Usually I don’t see as it unfolds before me—and often I never fully understand it even in retrospect. This is where the First Rule of the Spiritual Life becomes so helpful: He’s God and we’re not.
That leads me to a personal question. Are you willing to let God be God in your life in 1999? Or do you intend to tell him how to do his job? You can be God or he can be God—and there’s nothing in between those two options. As long as you try to be God, you’ll be miserable, frustrated, and very discontented because you were not made to run the universe—not even the little patch of it you call your life. Even that small patch belongs to God—and you’ll never be happy or content until you surrender your right to run your own life and let God be God in all things.
B. That God will give me strength in every circumstance to do his will.
This is the true meaning of Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” This verse, wonderful as it is, has sometimes been misused by well-meaning believers who make it say more than Paul intended. Occasionally people say things like “You can do whatever you want to do—Philippians 4:13″—as if it were a magic formula that could make me a millionaire or give me wings to fly through the air. The phrase “all things” must be defined by its context. Paul is talking about being content in every circumstance—whether he had plenty or whether he had next to nothing. Verse 13 explains how he managed to live above his circumstances. He did it only by the power of Jesus Christ dwelling in him. For him, the secret of contentment was not a stiff upper lip or a positive mental attitude. He was content precisely because he had learned to rely completely on Jesus Christ.
This takes more than positive thinking. You’ve got to have Jesus Christ on the inside. Are we who believe better than other people? No. Do we suffer? Yes. What makes the difference? We have the power of the indwelling Christ who gives us the strength we need.
Is it enough? Is Jesus Christ enough for the problems of life? Is his broken body enough? Is his shed blood sufficient? Is his intercession in heaven able to sustain us? Can his power meet the problems of life? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, and the saints across the ages testify that Jesus Christ is enough.
Show me a truly contented person and I’ll show you a miracle. In this fallen world contentment cannot be explained apart from the supernatural power of Jesus Christ. The beauty is that if you’re not a content person, if you haven’t experienced that miracle, you can – simply by learning to lean on the Lord.
I come now to the end of my message. What will the final year of this millennium mean for the world, for America, for your family, for you personally? No one but God can answer those questions. But there is one thing we know. God has given us everything we need for this new year. Therefore we can be content whatever happens, and we need not fear the future.