Some Advice to the Discontented
February 19, 2008
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Ever since the beginning of creation, when the first creatures came from the hand of God, there has always been someone, somewhere, unhappy with his position in the universe. It all started with an angel named Lucifer, the brightest star of the heavenly firmament, who was not satisfied to be the apex of God’s creation. He wanted something more than his assigned position as the greatest of all created beings. His seething discontentment caused him to lead a rebellion against the Most High. Fully one-third of the angels joined with him in his abortive quest to overthrow the Throne of the Lord. For his rebellion, he and his followers were kicked out of heaven. Ever since that dark day, he has been known as Satan and the devil, and he has been the implacable foe of God and all his works.
It was discontentment that made him do it. And discontentment has been one of his best weapons ever since. His earliest triumph came in the Garden of Eden when he sowed seeds of discontentment in Eve’s unsuspecting heart. By misquoting the Lord, he made Eve think that God was somehow trying to cheat her, to keep her down, to keep her from becoming “like God.” So Eve took the fruit and ate it. She gave it to Adam and he ate it. Thus did sin enter the human bloodstream. The seeds of discontentment brought forth the bitter harvest of disobedience, which led to the loss of paradise and the entrance of evil into our world.
Unhappy Ever Since
And ever since then we have been an unhappy race. After Eden we have never been fully satisfied with anything on earth. And we’re still not satisfied thousands of years later. We always want something different.
* If we’re young, we want to be older. If we’re old, we wish we were younger.
* If it’s old, we want something new. If it’s new, we want something newer.
* If it’s small, we want something bigger. If it’s big, we want something really big.
* If we have a hundred dollars, we want two hundred. If we have two hundred, we want five hundred.
* If we have an apartment, we want a condo. If we have a condo, we want a house. If we have a house, we want a bigger house. Or a new house. Or a nicer house. Or maybe we want to scale down and live in an apartment again.
* If we have a job, we dream of a better job, a bigger job, a closer job, with a bigger office, a better boss, better benefits, more challenge, bigger opportunity, nicer people to work for, and more vacation time.
* If we’re single, we dream of being married. If we’re married, … (you can finish that sentence yourself.).
We Were Born Discontented
None of this is unusual in any way. We were born discontented and some of us stay that way forever. A certain amount of discontentment can be good for the soul. It’s not wrong to have dreams about what the future might hold. The hope of something better drives us forward and keeps us working, inventing, striving, creating and innovating. But there is a kind of discontentment that leads in a wrong direction.
Here are five signs that discontentment is dragging us down spiritually:
1) Envy. The inability to rejoice at the success of others.
2) Uncontrolled Ambition. The desire to win at all costs, no matter what it takes or who gets trampled in the process.
3) Critical Spirit. The tendency to make negative, hurtful, cutting remarks about others.
4) Complaining Spirit. The disposition to make excuses and to blame others or bad circumstances for our problems. A refusal to take personal responsibility. Inability to be thankful for what we already have.
5) Outbursts of Anger. Angry words spoken because our expectations were not met.
The discontented person looks around and says, “I deserve something better than this.” Because he is never happy and never satisfied, he drags others into the swamp with him. No wonder Benjamin Franklin declared, “Contentment makes a poor man rich, discontent makes a rich man poor.” Discontentment is the cancer of the soul. It eats away our joy, corrodes our happiness, destroys our outlook on life, and produces a terminal jaundice of the soul so that everything looks negative to us. We cannot be happy because we will not be happy. We cannot be satisfied because we will not be satisfied. Such a person is truly a lost soul—miserable today and miserable tomorrow.
So how can we overcome this debilitating condition? I believe the answer (as always) lies with good theology. Sin always stems from wrong thinking about God, about ourselves, and about life in general. Jeremiah 29 contains some amazingly helpful insights about discontentment even though the word itself is never used.
I. You Are Where You Are Because God Wants You There.
Remember the background of Jeremiah 29. It is a letter from the prophet Jeremiah in Jerusalem to the Jewish exiles in faraway Babylon. They felt
How could they ever sing the songs of Zion while living in a pagan land? How could they ever find hope knowing that it was their own foolish choices that put them in Babylon? And how could they find the courage to go on when God had said, “You will be in exile for 70 years?”
To all of those concerns, God answers in verse 4, “I carried you to Babylon.” Here is one of the clearest statements of God’s sovereignty in the Bible. Although the hated Babylonians had captured them, behind the pagan army stands the Lord himself.
“I did it,” says the Lord.
“Don’t blame the Babylonians. They were merely my instruments to do my will. You sinned and brought this judgment on yourself, but I am the one who carried you to Babylon.”
To say it that way doesn’t cancel human choices and the very real consequences of our sin. It merely points out that things are not always as they seem on the surface. The exiles had vivid memories of the shock, pain and shame of being wrenched from their homeland and being carried away to Babylon. God says, “There is more going on here than you know. I warned you this would happen. You ignored me, and now what I said has come to pass. If you want to blame anyone, blame yourself. Don’t blame the Babylonians. They were acting on my command—though they did not realize it.”
Solomon said it very succinctly in Proverbs 16:9. “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” The Jews never planned to end up in Babylon. In fact, that would have been the last place they intended to go, but the Lord determined that would be their destination for the next 70 years. Is this any consolation? It all depends on what you believe about God. If you don’t believe that God involves himself in the affairs of life, then it won’t matter because you won’t see his hand at work even in the darkest moments. But if you believe God is a God of the details, then it makes all the difference in the world to know that he takes personal responsibility for allowing certain things to happen that you regard as catastrophes.
Tony Evans says that everything in the universe is either caused by God or allowed by God, and there is no third category. That’s huge because many of us create a third category, something like “really bad things that happen for no reason at all.” There is no such category.
You are where you are right now because God wants you there. You may be happy about your current circumstances or you may be miserable. Most likely you are somewhere in between. It doesn’t matter. You are where you are at this moment because God wants you there. How do I know that? Because if God wanted you somewhere else, you’d be somewhere, and when he does want you somewhere else, that’s where you will be. If God is God, that must be true.
When God says, “I carried you to Babylon,” he wants his children to know that though they have sinned grievously, he has not forgotten them. He carried them to Babylon—partly as judgment and partly as a sign of his mercy. They certainly understood the judgment part. They would understand the mercy part later. Sometimes the most we can say is, “I know I am here because God wants me here. I don’t know why, but I know I am not here by chance.” It is a great advance in the life of faith to be able to say that much—even if you can’t say anything else.
II. You Are Called to Make the Most of Your Present Circumstances.
Verses 5-6 give us God’s specific directions to the exiles in Babylon. It definitely was not what they expected to hear.
Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.
They wanted God to say something like this: “My children, I know you don’t like living in Babylon so I have some very good news for you. Sit tight, stay out of trouble, do your time, and before you know it, you will be back home again.” But that’s not what God said. His advice is quite different. “You’re going to be here for a long time—70 years, to be exact. Since you won’t be coming home early, it’s important that you make the best of your situation.”
Build houses and settle down.
Plant gardens and eat what they produce.
Marry and have sons and daughters.
Let your children get married and have children.
Increase in number. Do not decrease.
To borrow a familiar phrase, God’s command is simple. Bloom where you are planted. You may not like where you are, but that doesn’t matter. As I have planted you in Babylon (transplanted would be more like it), go ahead and put you roots down. Buy some land, build nice homes, plant some gardens, go into business, build a community,
In every hard situation, we have to face the same question. Are we going to complain or are we going to get busy? God says, “You are in Babylon now. Make the best of it. Don’t complain. Don’t mope. Don’t spend your days pining away for Jerusalem. You aren’t going back there for 70 years. I put you in Babylon for a reason. Don’t waste a single moment looking back on what used to be. Use your energies to make your life better now.”
That’s really good advice, isn’t it?
In the last several years Marlene and I have done a lot of thinking about the way God leads his children. One thing is certain. The will of God is not a destination, it’s a journey. We’ve always believed that, but now we know it in a new way. When we left Chicago in October 2005, I said that we were moving to Tupelo for four or five months. Six months tops. We planned to stay in Tupelo for a while and then move on to whatever the Lord had for us next. And here we are, still in Tupelo 29 months later. I don’t know what to conclude from that, except that I’m not much of a prophet. I say that with conviction because every prediction I’ve made about our own future has been wrong. When we left Chicago, Keep Believing Ministries was at best a kind of misty dream. I had lots of ideas of my own, including moving back to Chicago after a few months. Along the way we had this plan and that plan. As a wise man said, “You want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.” So I told God my plans, he laughed and said, “Why don’t you stay in Tupelo for a while?”
We are learning to live in the moment and not to make too many long-range plans. It happens that I am writing these words from Nanchang, China where we are visiting Josh and Leah this week. Already this year we have been to Bolivia, I have been to Columbus, Ohio and Indio, California, we both traveled to Dallas, last week we were in Florida, this week we’re in China, and in two weeks, I’m speaking in Oklahoma. I draw no conclusions from that except that life has really changed for us. Four years ago I was the pastor of a wonderful church in Oak Park, IL. My days and weeks had a certain rhythm that gave stability. On Tuesday I met with the staff. On Wednesday I turned in my sermon title and the back page article, and I taught my Wednesday night class. On Friday I met with the other pastors. On Sunday I preached during the worship services. And so it went week after week. That life has disappeared. Each week is different now, and there is no predictable rhythm.
We are learning—and continue to learn—that we never really arrive in this life. Sometimes when I call home from the road, I will tell Marlene that I can’t wait to get home. When I finally arrive, I don’t kiss the drapes and say, “Drapes, I love you so much.” I can’t wait to get home because the people I love the most are there. When they are gone, the home becomes a house again. For many years we lived at the corner of Wesley and Randolph in Oak Park. That’s where we raised our sons. The house holds many happy memories. Yet when we drove past it recently, I felt no twinge of sadness. It was like any other house to me. The people who made it special no longer live there.
It’s always easy (and dangerous) to play the “if only” game:
If only I get married, I’ll be happy.
If only I get a new job, I’ll be happy.
If only I graduate from college, I’ll be happy.
If only we have children, I’ll be happy.
If only we can retire to Florida, we’ll be happy.
If only I make more money, I’ll be happy.
If only I win this case, I’ll be happy.
If only we move to a new home, I’ll be happy.
If only I climb this one last mountain, I’ll be happy.
But life generally doesn’t work that way. I watched Mel Gibson on one of the late-night talk shows discussing his rehab stint for alcohol addiction. He made a profound observation about the importance of living one day at a time. “You can’t live in the future,” he said. “That’s a bad place to live.”
Somewhere I read that when new inmates come to prison for the first time, they are given a crucial piece of advice: “Keep your head where you seat is.” If you spend your days thinking about the past or about what might have been, you’ll lose focus on where you are, and you’re liable to do something stupid that will get you in even worse trouble. You have to live in the present—not the past or the future.
III. You Must Come to Grips With Reality.
This point follows from the last one. If we are going to settle down in Babylon and make the best of a bad situation, we must come to grips with reality. This may be the hardest thing for all of us to do. Sometimes the best thing that can happen is to get a cold splash of reality right in the face. Not long ago we happened to meet a friend in the airport who was traveling on the same flight with us. During a long conversation, he confided that after nearly 20 years in a successful position, he is about to be replaced. Something had happened that very week to confirm that his superiors are looking to replace him with someone younger who will work for a smaller salary. On one hand, the man was shocked to learn the news because he has been a model employee. On the other hand, he’s realistic enough to know that he wasn’t going to be in his present position forever. In his own estimation, he has maybe four or five months before he is let go. I told him that he has been given a great gift—one that most people never receive. He’s been given a cold splash of reality right in the face. Yes, it’s a shock, but far better to know the truth than to live in a dreamland thinking that your job is secure.
You owe it to yourself and to others not to live in fantasyland. Your children will be blessed if they see you making the best of your own situation. God told the exiles to settle down and build something for themselves in Babylon. And he told them to have children and then grandchildren, to increase and not to decrease. Blessed are the sons and daughters who see their parents making the best of their situation.
Some of us get messed up right at this point. We feel bad about the past and therefore we never move forward. The key to a better future is to stop trying to have a better past. Here’s a deep theological truth about your past: It is what it is. You can’t change it, you can’t delete it, you can’t improve it, but you can accept it and move on from it. Years ago I formulated three simple statements that I call the First Law of Spiritual Progress:
I can’t go back.
I can’t stay here.
I must go forward.
God bless those brave souls who embrace reality with courage, who accept the past for what it is, and who move forward with energetic faith in God.
What is the bottom line?
1) You are where you are by the sovereign choice of God.
2) You can serve the Lord where you are right now.
3) You can glorify the Lord where you are right now.
4) If you complain, you are attacking the Lord, not serving him.
So the question comes down to this: Do you believe in God or don’t you? Do you believe God will give you what you need right now so you can serve him right where you are? There is a sense in which, when you complain and dwell in discontentment, at that point you no longer believe in God. That is, on one level you certainly do believe in God, but by your discontented complaining, you are denying the truth you claim to believe. If you can’t do everything you would like to do, you can joyfully accept your situation as being from the hand of the Lord. You can always pray, you can always praise, you can always sing in your heart to the Lord, you can always refresh yourself in the streams that flow forth from the heart of God.
How should we apply the truth from this passage?
1) Bloom where you are planted.
2) Serve the Lord right where you are.
3) Stop moping!
4) Don’t live in the past or the future!
5) Let God define your life, not earthly circumstances.
6) Don’t expect change to make you happy.
7) Never forget that you won’t be here forever.
The Only Thing That Matters
That brings us to a very important spiritual truth: The only thing that matters is knowing Jesus and through him, growing closer to God day by day. Nothing else matters. If we know God in Christ, then we are of all people most blessed and highly favored. We have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:3). And if we don’t know Christ, then the rest of life won’t satisfy our deepest longings anyway. Christ must be the center of life or else the circumference will never satisfy. Circumstances—even happy ones—can never replace the soul’s longing for the Lord.
Seen in that light, discontentment is a grievous sin because it is an attempt to overthrow God. It is an attack on the Sovereign who sits on the throne of the universe. When you complain against the Lord, you are repeating Satan’s mistake. It’s the first great rebellion played out in your own heart. And you will not be any more successful than Lucifer was.
I would like you to consider the following two sentences carefully:
If I am in Jerusalem, I will serve him in Jerusalem.
If I am in Babylon, I will serve him in Babylon.
This is true no matter where you are. You can be in . . .
or anywhere else on God’s green earth and still serve the Lord.
It’s not about geography. It’s about your heart.
If God has put you in Babylon, serve him there.
Build a house.
Plant a garden.
Start a business.
Have some children.
Have some grandchildren.
Settle down and enjoy life.
You can serve God in Babylon just as well as you can in Jerusalem. It’s a hard lesson, but it is also good news if we will receive it from the Lord. Amen.