On being content
I have learned, whatever state I am in, therein to be content.
This is really an extraordinary statement. It is a striking comment on life in general and this man’s life in particular. It was written by Paul the Christian Apostle before any of the gospels were composed. It had been agreed by the leaders of Christianity (then a new Jewish Sect), that Paul should take the good news of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. By ‘Gentiles’ was meant the whole wide world outside Jewry - outside Palestine and the various little Jewish settlements around the known world.
Whilst the statement is remarkable enough in itself, it is incredible when one looks at the sort of life being led by the speaker. He was of a rare breed - an academically minded young man, turned firebrand. He had trained under Gameliel in Jerusalem. That means that he had studied deeply the true Jewish faith. He had learned all the Law and he had been trained in the history of the Jewish Faith. He had been taught and read all about the great Jewish figures of the past - and the past was especially important to Jews because they understood who they were and where they were by looking back and interpreting the way God had led them to that point.
In addition to being full of learning, he was also passionate. He is described as ‘full of zeal’ - he felt passionately about things. When he took something up he took it up with all his heart and soul and mind. Being hooked on his Jewishness made him passionate about pursuing anything and everything that would assist his cause - the purity of the faith. He wanted to see Jews becoming pure and devoted to the Law as in times past.
In particular he wanted to purge Jewish faith and practice of those people who would contaminate it. He was against all competing faiths and ideas. So much so that he became the protagonist for the Jewish Authorities and started to persecute those who were considered to be contaminating the faith. In particular he wanted to wipe out this new sect that followed a convicted and crucified man called Jesus. He had heard about Jesus and thought of it all as pernicious nonsense. The man was clearly a trouble maker and better dead than alive and causing problems. Good riddance to Jesus, and now he started trying to eradicate his sect - the Jews who were his followers.
Apparently as quite a young man he got involved in the murder of one of those followers. Although he didn’t throw the sharp stones that killed Stephen himself, he approved of what was happening, held the coats of those who stripped off to really get into the stone throwing business, and he watched as Stephen died. It was a vicious way to kill someone - and Paul watched it all. It probably had a profound effect on him, although superficially he thoroughly approved of all that was happening.
Paul followed that by becoming the official persecutor of the followers of Jesus. He started to hunt them out wherever he could find them. Obviously his instructions were to eradicate this sect before it could grow and become troublesome. The Jewish Authorities wanted it killed and dead.
Why was the sect spreading? Why were the extraordinary statements of this man Jesus (‘if your brother strikes you on one cheek turn the other’ and ‘love your enemies’ etc) so powerful? What was it about these people that attracted new disciples? Well, at least there was something he could do - he could really get down to hunting them out and getting rid of them one way or an other. He was given the authority to do just that.
Then Paul met Jesus. It was all rather supernatural. It happened while he was on his journeys to persecute and eliminate the members of this sect - and it can only be explained by saying that something extraordinary struck Paul. He heard and saw things that others did not see and hear - but they had a catatonic effect on him - so much so that he was led as one blind into a nearby town, obviously incapable of continuing his journey for the time being.
Then a Christian called Ananias came visiting. It was an act of great courage. Imagine a Jew in Berlin going to see a top Gestapo official in Germany in the late thirties! He went because he felt God was telling him to go to Paul. When he got to see him he spoke words and touched him with healing hands and Paul regained normality. An extraordinary thing to happen - both what happened on the road and what happened in the rest house or inn.
That was the turning point. A complete turnaround happened in Paul. From being the firebrand for Jewish purity that he was, he became a learner - someone wanting to know more about Jesus and to learn how to go forward.
We are told that Paul went into Arabia - the desert? - for three years (Galatians 1.18) to reorient his life. He had to reform his whole approach to life. All the ideas, dogma, concepts that he had held previously was in the melting pot. He had to try to rebuild his faith and his life on a new basis. He had to learn what it is to be a Christian.
When he emerged from the desert he was a totally changed man. Whereas before he was obviously arrogant, proud, opinionated, now he was humbled, teachable, growing in love. Being Paul he did not change in basic character - he was still of firebrand material! Instead of being vehemently against Christians he became vehemently for them.
His life from that point on was a succession of journeys and a life of teaching. He became the Apostle to the Gentiles. He travelled the then known world. Everywhere he went he preached Christ and him crucified. Everywhere he went small groups of people sprang into being - groups that were learning together how to be a follower of Jesus Christ. He lived just as hectic a life as previously - in fact more hectic because instead of one enemy (the occupying Romans) he now had two - (Romans and Jews).
His life must have been pretty hectic. Think of it! First of all he had the long journeys he undertook - considerable planning must have been necessary for those. He would be away for months. He constantly wrote letters to the young churches he had founded. Not letters such as we would send - these were great long epistles, carefully thought out, lovingly written, full of teaching and caring. I imagine that he must have kept some sort of record of what he had written. On top of all of that he also had to work for his living - apparently making sails for fishing boats. He always tried to travel with a small team of committed men. Wherever he went he tried to avoid being a burden on the resident Christians, and his way of doing this was to make sails. In addition to all of this he had his own thinking and, probably, reading to fit in. Vicars find it difficult to look after just three or four churches - Paul had dozens.
All the fiery energy of the young persecutor of Christians turned into the missionary zeal of a man with a world vision. He was at full stretch all the time. So when did he have time to relax? When did he take a holiday? Which days did he have off duty? Probably none at all! It would seem from his writings and his personality that he kept going continuously.
So how could he write this phrase about being content? Perhaps the secret is how one regards the word ’content’. Being content for us usually means that we are able to be quiet and relax. That we cease striving for things and are able to let go. Being content usually means that we can stop striving for our objectives. I doubt that Paul ever stopped striving for his objectives. So how could he say that he was always content?
He doesn’t say that he is striving to be content - that would surely be a contradiction in terms. But that is what we often do - we say to ourselves ‘Now I am going to relax. I will relax. I will be quiet’
So what was this contentment that Paul experienced - and can we experience the same thing?
I think it rested on what had happened on that Damascus road when he was struck down from his present way of life and found totally different aims. It is rooted in the fact that at the very base of his life he had given up trying to run his own life and handed over his whole being into God’s hands. Presumably he thought he had done this, as a good Jew, before the Damascus Road experience. Wasn’t he a good Jew, zealous for the Lord? But he hadn’t. He had been full of Paul, full of self. When he discovered that Jesus was alive and talking to him, he was faced with a choice - whether to respond and hand his life over to Jesus Christ or whether to go on as before striving, fighting, struggling.
Paul’s whole future lay in the simple fact that at that point he surrendered his life to Christ and asked him to come into his heart as Lord and Master. Do you want contentment? It lies not in absence of wanting (as some Eastern religions suggest) but rather in putting your self into Christ’s hands. Make him your Lord and Master and you will find that contentment flows into your life as a by-product. Never available when made the primary goal, contentment becomes freely available when you rest your being in God. And is that hard to do? No, not really. It may seem like climbing Mount Everest, before you take your courage in both hands and ask God to really come into your life - but immediately you make the decision to hand over your life to God there comes a sense of peace. That is real contentment. You increasingly learn that it is yours whatever the circumstances of your life.