The Secret of Contentment

Philippians 4:10-13 (ESV) - [10] I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. [11] Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. [12] I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. [13] I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Not Painfully, But Constantly

    The American author John Steinbeck, in a book called Sweet Thursday, describes the emotional state of one of his characters, and at the same time he gives us a profoundly insightful glimpse into the inner workings of the human heart: “Now discontent nibbled at him—not painfully, but constantly. Where does discontent start? You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you. You have been loved, but your yearning wanders in new fields.” [1]

    I think all of us know what he’s describing. We’ve experienced it before. You cognitively know there’s no reason for discontent, but it’s there anyway, nibbling and gnawing, not painfully but constantly—so constantly that you sometimes forget it’s there the same way you forget a bad smell when you've been in a room long enough. But in the middle of this examination of discontent, Steinbeck asks the key question: Where does it start?

    Now most of us would reflexively answer that discontentment is a product of some external deficiency. It starts with not having enough of something: money, relationships, time, power, control, acceptance, comfort, anything.

    But that’s a really naive answer. If discontent really started with external deficiency, then the people with the most would be the most content, and we all know that’s not the case. In fact, all you have to do is take a good hard look at your own life: Has getting more ever cured your discontent?

    If you’re anything like me, you spend most of your life like a kid waiting for Christmas. “When I finally get that one thing, everything’s going to change.” And as soon as you open the package—as soon as you get what you set your heart on—the disappointment you thought would disappear actually grows.

    Getting more doesn’t cure discontent because discontent isn’t primarily a material deficiency. Like Steinbeck said, you’re warm enough but you shiver. Discontent isn’t fundamentally a material deficiency; it’s a spiritual one. It’s a spiritual hunger that never gets satisfied, no matter how much you consume, attain, or possess. And it starts with a heart that needs and yearns and longs for satisfaction and fullness, but is looking for it in all the wrong places—in things that don’t actually have the power to make you whole.

    So the discontent keeps on lingering—not painfully, but constantly—until it grows up into something that is really painful.

    But in Philippians 4:10-13, the Apostle Paul says, “I’ve found the secret.” “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret” of contentment. I’ve learned the secret of how to go through life with a contented heart.

    Now we might expect him to give us a technique. In our culture, everybody’s selling a technique for contentment, some simple behavior or thought process that’ll make all the difference.

    Think positive thoughts. Or spend 10 minutes a day concentrating on what’s going right in your life. Or let your discontent drive you to truly fulfill your dreams. That’s how you’ll find contentment.

    But according to Paul, the secret of contentment isn’t a technique. It’s a person. It’s a person who fills your spiritual hunger with himself in a way that nothing else ever could.

    If you’re going to know the beauty of contentment, you’ve got to know this person. If you’re going to know the beauty of contentment, you’ve got to know Jesus in all his promise-keeping, soul-satisfying glory.

    And understand, this is for Christians and non-Christians alike. If you’re spiritually curious but have never given any real attention to Jesus, you need to be honest with yourself and recognize that the ways you’re searching for contentment only deepen the emptiness, and you can’t break that cycle on your own.

    And if you’re a Christian who can say “I know Jesus already,” don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve figured this all out. You need to be honest about the ways you continue to seek contentment in all sorts of other things, and you need to see that knowing Jesus isn’t a one-time acquaintance. It’s a lifetime of pressing further into his promises and his character so that the deep desires of your heart are transformed and met in him.

The Danger of Discontent

    In modern American life, we by and large consider discontent to be normal. Discontent is just part of what it feels like to live in the modern world. There’s a pervasive dissatisfaction with life—a sense that there’s more to life, but an inability to find it.

    And the forces of consumerism in our culture use that emptiness and feed it with every new product that’ll finally be the key to unlocking real happiness. Our consumerism is a product of this dissatisfaction (we buy to fill the void), but consumerism is also an engine that keeps our dissatisfaction alive (it teaches and forms us to stay discontent and to keep on grabbing for more).

    Far from being abnormal or alarming, discontent is almost viewed as a virtue. It’s a badge of honor, a sign of high expectations, a proud declaration to the world that you deserve more than you’ve gotten. So whoever airs out their discontent most publicly gets held in esteem. He who complains the loudest wins.

    Discontent may be normal, but that doesn’t make it safe. Heart disease is normal for modern people too, but it’ll still kill you. And here’s the thing: discontent is heart disease. It’s a spiritual disorder that begins in the heart and spreads in destructive ways throughout every part of life.

    Of course, discontent will destroy your personal peace. That’s the effect that’s easiest to spot. The spiritual hunger underneath our discontent—the need to always get more that never quite gets met—makes us miserable. It saps away our joy and kills our ability to live in and savor the present because we’re always anxiously living for the future.

    But the destruction runs deeper and spreads farther. How?

Discontent and Stability

    Discontent will destroy your stability. When times are bad and you’re suffering—when the thing you’re depending on for contentment gets ripped away from you—you’ll only know how to respond in damaging ways. You’ll despair over your loss; you’ll get angry at the world; you’ll get self-absorbed in your pain. And you’ll strive in pursuit of some fleeting sense of contentment even more obsessively than you did before. A discontented heart is totally unstable in hardship.

    But listen to what Paul says: “In any and every circumstance, I’ve learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Do you see what he’s saying there? He’s saying that hunger and need—suffering and hardship—aren’t the only obstacles that could destroy him. Plenty and abundance are obstacles that he’s had to learn to face as well.

    And that’s because, if your heart is chronically discontent—if it’s searching for life in the wrong places—success and gain will hurt you just as much (if not more) than failure and loss. You won’t be able to handle the bad times, but you won’t be able to handle the good times either.

    Why? Because the moment you get your hands on that treasured prize, you’ll become proud. You’ll think you’re actually self-sufficient. You’ll become intolerably judgmental of others. And when that temporary buzz finally starts to wear off, the need for more will still be there, and it’ll take your anxiety, your emptiness, and your striving to an even more intense level.

    If you’re heart is discontent because it’s set on the wrong things, then both failure and success, both suffering and abundance, will change you in ugly and undesirable ways, and you won’t have the stability to face either situation well.

Discontent and Relationships

    Discontent will destroy your relationships with others, too. If your heart is a black hole of desire, then the people who’re closest to you will inevitably get sucked into the gravitational pull of your neediness.

    You’ll become a taker—a consumer of people—who uses relationships as a means to the end of personal fulfillment. You won’t be able to enjoy people for who they are or love them in self-denial because you’ll always be leveraging your relationships to get the thing you’re chasing—to get closer to the contentment that eludes you.

    And if someone in your life should happen to experience blessing and joy—if they end up experiencing the wealth or beauty or work success or romantic relationship or social approval that you’ve tried to build your life on—you will stew in bitterness toward them. Other people’s blessings will just be ammunition for your hatred. Your discontented heart won’t allow you to celebrate their joys. It’ll lead you to covet them in ways that wish them harm (and potentially even actively work for their harm).

Discontent and the Glory of God

    But most significantly, discontent defames God. Just consider what a lack of contentment says about God. That kind of life says:

  •     “God isn’t good because he hasn’t cared for me properly.”
  •     “God isn’t wise because he hasn’t provided for my needs.”
  •     “God isn’t loving because he’s left me stranded, empty, and alone.”
  •     “God isn’t sufficient because his presence, his promises, and his blessings aren’t enough to satisfy. I need something else truly be happy and whole.”

    And ultimately, it says that God isn’t really God. You see, the thing that controls your contentment, that’s your god. That’s the thing that you’re really putting your hope in and chasing after and worshiping. That’s the thing you’re really loving and bowing down to. At the core of discontent, there’s always a substitute god that we actually believe is more desirable, satisfying, and glorious than the God of the Bible. So if you want to know what you’re worshiping—whether you’re religious or not—all you have to do is ask a simple question: What do I believe would actually make me content?

    And this discontent lies underneath every other kind of sin. Let’s just run through a few of the 10 commandments.

    Why do we break the seventh commandment in sexual unfaithfulness? Because we’re not content with God’s gifts to us in our singleness or our marriage, so we seek fulfillment in sexual consumerism.

    Why do we break the eighth commandment and steal? Because we’re not content with what God’s granted us and are driven to take from others.

    Why do we break the ninth commandment and lie? Because we’re not content with what the truth will bring us, and we can get more money, approval, or power by bending it.

    Why do we break the fourth commandment and refuse to rest? Because we’re not content with God, and we throw ourselves into the never ending work we believe will give us the acclaim, the accomplishments, or the comfort that will fill up that hole.

    Discontent makes us personally miserable, sure. But it goes way farther than that. If left unchecked, discontent will fuel all sorts of dangerous patterns in your life that will destroy your stability, your relationships, and your enjoyment of and obedience to God. So if we’re going to walk with God and experience satisfaction—and those two things are intimately connected to each other—we have to know the secret of contentment.

The Secret of Contentment

    There are a few typical ways we try to solve our contentment problems.

Counterfeit Contentments

    Often, we believe that the secret of contentment is changing our circumstances:

  •     “If only I had more money…”
  •     “If only I lost 10 pounds…”
  •     “If only I had a more fulfilling job…”
  •     “If only I had a spouse…”
  •     “Or a different spouse…”

    “…then I could finally be content. Then I could finally be satisfied.”

    But that totally misses the point. Like Steinbeck showed us, our discontent doesn't start with material deficiency. It starts in a heart that’s searching for peace, fullness, healing, and joy in things that can’t possibly give it.

    So simply changing your circumstances won’t actually deal with the root of your discontent. At best it’ll offer you a counterfeit contentment. It’ll give you the temporary exhilaration of change, but it won’t give you long-lasting satisfaction. Why? Because your hungry heart will just keep starving for more.

    On the other hand, we sometimes believe that the secret of contentment is deadening our desires. This is the stoic option. “If I harden myself and stop desiring things and become emotionally invulnerable, then I’ll never have to deal with the ache of disappointment.”

    But that’s a counterfeit contentment, too. It settles for the mere absence of pain when real contentment is actually a fullness of joy, not just a lack of unmet desires. And if you try to harden yourself to cure your discontent, all you’ll end up doing is becoming a shell of a person who’s protected yourself from pain, but has given up the possibility of loving others and enjoying life in the process.

    Neither of those approaches will bring real contentment. So what’s the real secret?

The Real Secret

    Paul tells us. He’s writing from a prison cell, thanking the Philippians for their love and financial support. But even in his gratitude, he doesn’t want them to get the impression that he was somehow in a state of spiritual desperation. He had needs that they graciously met, yes. But even in the midst of that need, he was content.

    Listen to what he says: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” And here’s the secret: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” The secret of Paul’s contentment is a person, the person of Jesus Christ.

    Now a lot of people will quote verse 13 (“I can do all things through him who strengthens me”) as a sort of self-empowerment motto. It’s basically become the Christian version of “You can do anything you set your mind to,” only it’s “You can do anything you set your mind to because Jesus will help you.”

    But all you have to do is read that verse in connection with the rest of these verses to see that Paul’s not saying, “Jesus will help make my dreams come true.” He’s saying, “I can do all things—I can face plenty and hunger, abundance and need, any and every circumstance—with spiritual peace because I know the Jesus who fills me up and satisfies me and gives me the strength to receive all of life’s ups and downs with contentment.”

    You see, the defining message of Christianity is that, in Jesus, God gave you himself so that you could be joyfully contented with him for all eternity. All of us have sought our contentment in other things. We’ve de-Godded God and set up substitutes that we thought would bless us with satisfaction. We’ve fractured the relationship with the only true source of joy, and God would’ve been perfectly just to leave us in our spiritual emptiness and pour out his holy anger on us.

    But instead, he sent his Son into the world to live the perfectly contented life of worship that we should’ve lived.

    And then Jesus went to the cross.

    His relationship with God the Father was fractured so that ours could be healed. He received the anger and death that we deserved so that we could receive God’s gracious, loving pleasure and a life of unbreakable fellowship with him. He gave up all the rights he had as the Son of God so that we could be daughters and sons who have not only a place in God’s family but an infinite, eternal inheritance. He took on our guilt so that we could be counted righteous. He took on our shame so that we could be made beautiful and acceptable. He walked into the hell of spiritual starvation at the cross so that we could be granted the satisfaction of spiritual fullness with God.

    And do you know what that means? It means there’s no place life can take you where you aren’t securely wrapped in the love of God. It means that no matter where you go, you go in fellowship with God. It means that nothing in the whole universe can strip away the blessings of forgiveness, approval, beauty, and life that Jesus lived and died to purchase for you. And in those promises lies the strength to be content as you go through all of life.

    Jesus—in all the glory of his gospel grace—is uniquely able to satisfy the spiritual hunger in your heart because he’s uniquely able to reconcile you to the God you were made for.

    So your contentment doesn’t have to rise and fall with your circumstances. In Christ, you’ve got God, and all the blessings of belonging to God, in every circumstance.

    And you don’t have to deaden your desires to escape the ache of disappointment. In Christ, you can finally let your desires become fully alive as you stop settling for counterfeit contentment and run full throttle after the eternal joy that only God can offer.

    When you know the secret—when you know Jesus—you can for the very first time in your life experience a security, a fullness, a contentment with the power to endure.

Fertile Soil

    Discontent very often grows in the fertile soil between what you think you deserve and what you think you’ve been given. When you’re convinced that you deserve everything and have been given peanuts, discontent thrives and blooms.

    But meeting Jesus shrinks the distance between those two. In fact, meeting Jesus actually reverses it, because meeting Jesus shows me that I’ve deserved far less than I thought and I’ve been given far more than I could’ve ever imagined.

    And that’s the fertile soil for contentment to sprout and blossom into something truly beautiful.

The Fruits of a Contented Heart

    As the soil of your heart is tilled with the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus—as contentment finally takes root and anchors in all the blessings Jesus grants you—a number of fruits will spring up in your life.

The Fruit of Resilience

    Contentment will bring a stable resilience in every kind of situation. A discontent heart can’t handle either failure or success without being changed in ugly ways. Your success will make you proud and even more voracious in your need to gain, and your failure will leave you hopeless but still striving.

    But as you cultivate contentment in Jesus, you can both succeed and fail with a peaceful joy and a resilient stability that isn’t defined by what happens to you.

    That kind of steadiness is one of the main characteristics Paul wants us to see: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

    So you can lose your money and still be content because God promises as your Father to meet your truest needs with his grace and to grant you a heavenly inheritance as his child. And you can gain all the money in the world without becoming a self-sufficient miser because you see your money as a gift, not your god.

    When you have power, you won’t be obsessed with protecting it and accumulating more. You’ll be able to exercise that power with a humility and fairness that stems from contentment with God. And when you don't have power, you’ll still have joy because you belong to the God of all power who promises to use that power for his glory and your good.

    If you’re content in the gospel, you can feel beautiful without obsessively comparing yourself to others. And you can feel ugly without despair because Christ’s beauty is the beauty that truly defines you.

    You can receive approval from others without becoming a people-pleasing addict. And you can experience rejection with deep security because God has already announced his approval over you in Jesus.

    Tim Keller’s fond of saying that, if the gospel is true, then your success won’t go to your head, and your failure won’t go to your heart. When you’re content in Jesus, neither your successes nor your failures will control you. Neither your abundance nor your need will have ultimate power over you because your confidence in God’s blessings toward you in the gospel will give you a stability that can handle both situations with calmness, grace, and joy. You’ll be constant and resilient in the good times and the bad

The Fruit of Relational Peace

    Contentment will bring peace in your relationships, too. Instead of being a taker who uses other people as a means to contentment, you’ll be able to relate to others out of your contentment in Christ. So because you’re content in Christ’s gift of himself, you’ll become a giver who’s generously willing to offer your money, your time, your wisdom, your home, your whole life to serve others.

    Instead of sucking the life out of people with constant complaints and neediness, you’ll become a source of life and blessing that other people long to be around.

    And where discontent inevitably makes you bitter and hateful when other people experience joy, gospel contentment will free you to celebrate their victories and their blessings. You won’t be left stewing over what you don’t have because your heart will be consumed with all that you do have through Christ. And that will make you a better, more peaceful friend to the people in your life.

The Fruit of Worship

    Finally, your contentment will magnify the glory of God. Where discontent leads to resentment and complaining toward God, gospel contentment will empower a life of glad worship and thanksgiving. You’ll be able to receive all of life with gratitude—even the hard things—because the cross guarantees that everything God gives you, he gives in love, and everything he withholds from you, he withholds in love.

    When you know that—when you’re content in God’s faithfulness and goodness and wisdom revealed most perfectly in Jesus—you can actively worship him through anything. And as you find your contentment in Jesus, your life will declare to the world:

    Jesus is better than silver or gold

    Jesus is better than treasures untold

    Jesus is better than all I can find

    Jesus is better, and Jesus is mine

Cultivating Contentment

    Make it your business to cultivate that kind of contentment. Meet with Jesus in his word where God can feed you with his character and promises over and over again. Confess your discontent with the confidence that God’s mercy is yours. Commune with God in prayer—alone and with others—and spend time fixing your gaze on his sufficiency and delighting in his soul-satisfying beauty. Prepare your heart—and one another’s hearts—for both failure and success so that Christ will be your treasure in the midst of both. Build rhythms of worship with the church community that reinforce God’s message of hunger-quenching grace so that you’re formed in ways that run counter to our consuming culture. Participate consistently in corporate worship with a readiness to hear anew and afresh in readings and songs and prayers and sermons how Jesus is enough to fuel your contentment. And venture regularly to the Lord’s Table to be nourished and sustained with physical symbols of the gospel.

    Christ gave himself, body and blood, to give you God. So know the beauty of contentment by knowing Jesus in all his promise-keeping, heart-fulfilling glory.

[1] John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday (Penguin: New York, 1954), 16.

Faithfully Meeting Together

Hebrews 10:23-25 (ESV) - [23] Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. [24] And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, [25] not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

 

In a passage aimed at encouraging Christians to persevere in the faith by holding on to and living in light of God’s promises, the author of Hebrews makes a point to command us to be faithful in meeting together with our fellow Christians. The phrase “meet together” could also be translated “the assembly.” It’s basically the same word for synagogue, and so commentators agree the author is referring to the regular meeting or assembly of Christians for fellowship and public worship around God’s word. Along with the fourth commandment, this passage is one of the go to texts to support the traditional teaching of the church that Christians should regularly and faithfully participate in corporate worship on the Lord’s Day.

In a mobile and consumerist culture such as ours, this clear teaching is often neglected. But apparently it was the “habit of some” even in the early church to neglect this duty. Cultural forces aside, it appears that in every generation, our idolatry will always lead us into rhythms of work and rest/worship that run against the good pattern God has commanded.

In this age, we tend to think that our absence on Sunday from public worship harms no one. “It’s harmless,” we think to ourselves, and we offer a thousand excuses ranging from the busyness of our week to a rare opportunity. I find that, by itself, it’s almost always the case that the excuse really does make sense. What’s problematic is the regularity of excuses and the habit of neglect rather than meeting.

But the real point that we often miss is staring us in the face in these few verses. Rather than being harmless, absence from public worship is a failure to lovingly encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ.[i] The author of Hebrews appeals to us to “consider how to stir one another up to love and good works.” We have a responsibility to our fellow church members to encourage each other to live godly, loving lives.  There are many ways we must do that, but one of them, the one mentioned here, is to be habitually present and engaged in public worship. So it isn’t harmless to neglect church on Sundays since this is one of the ways we are called to encourage each other.

Two implications of this principle stand out to me, one for pastors and one for church members.

First, perhaps one reason why many Christians don’t see any harm in their regular absence from public worship is that we pastors have created church services where the vast majority of those present do not participate in any significant way. What difference does it make if I am present or not when I am an anonymous face in the crowd? That’s a tough question to answer. While I know that we teach and admonish one another as we sing together corporately (Col. 3:16), that doesn’t exactly help any one person understand how their individual participation makes much of a difference. So I think pastors have to take responsibility for the fact that we have played our own part in fostering the idea that absence from public worship is harmless. And to own that responsibility, we must make sure that our church services are ordered liturgically in such a way that there is a meaningful way for congregants to minister to one another using their spiritual gifts. One way we do that at Trinity is by having an unstructured time in the middle of our services while we celebrate the Lord’s Table where everyone is encouraged to greet one another and minister to one another using their spiritual gifts.

Second, regardless of how pastors lead public worship, church members need to understand that public worship is not something we merely attend. Faithful presence in corporate worship involves worshipping God and encouraging others. It’s not merely the job of pastors and musicians to edify and encourage. When you go to church, understand that you are called to stir others up to love and good works, to pray for and with them, to offer counsel, to teach, and to care for others. You can be in the habit of attending public worship and still miss a large part of why you are supposed to be there. Public worship isn’t only about you and what you get out of it.

We read in Luke 4:16, “And [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day…” If Jesus made it his custom or habit to gather, perhaps we ought to consider our habit regarding public worship. Everyone will miss a Sunday here or there. Some have jobs that make regular participation almost impossible (which raises a question to be explored another time).  Everyone gets sick or visits family during the holidays. But the author of Hebrews instructs us to make it our habit to gather with God’s people on the Lord’s Day. Habits are things that we build our lives around. So as the day of Christ draws near, let’s form the loving habit of meeting on the Lord’s Day with our church and encouraging others while we are there. Not only will we find the grace of the gospel there, we will also experience the joy of deepening our fellowship with one another.

 

[i] In another post or two, we could discuss how habitual absence from public worship harms us and neglects to honor God.

Food, Idolatry, and Fighting Sin

Those who know me know that I love food. I love to eat until I am stuffed, so much so that many of my friends often joke about letting me finish up the last bits of a shared meal. On more than one occasion, friends have mentioned that when they invite me and my family over, they plan for the large quantities of food I will eat.

Needless to say, I have a problem with food. As long as I can remember, I have eaten whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. In high school and college, I could get away with this because I was incredibly active, but once I got to graduate school, I started to gain weight fast. I gained so much weight, that at one point, my friend’s Wii Fit classified me as morbidly obese! That was embarrassing and led me to start dieting. This was 7 years ago or so, and I did lose 30 pounds in about 4 months. But I put it back on again over the next year. I tried dieting again a few years later, and again I lost about 25 pounds only to gain it back.

Food has regularly played the role of savior in my life. In hard times, no matter what I have going on—stress, pain, anger, disappointment, etc.—food has always promised to offer me a little comfort. In good times, food becomes the icing on the cake (literally) that culminates my enjoyment of life. So in both the hard and good times, I have consistently turned to food for comfort and joy.

Now that may seem harmless, but there is a real dark side to my love of food. My love for food has led to over eating, extra stress on my body (particularly my knees), and the possibility of future health problems. But beyond the negative physical effects of my diet, my love of food has led me to be downright unloving to those around me. My wife in particular has been the object of my wrath when I am disappointed about the quantity or quality of the food she lovingly and graciously prepares for my family and me. I have not been a good steward of my money because I have regularly opted for eating out instead of being content with a simple homemade lunch. I am sure there have been many occasions that I have not left enough for others when we have shared a meal. And my excess weight has definitely resulted in lethargy when I should be actively and energetically engaged with others (like my kids) or with work.

When others have tried to point out my food problem, I have often responded with some version of the line delivered by Chris Farley’s character in one of his SNL skits: “Lay off me! I’m starving!” Other times, I have acknowledged the problem, but I have lacked the motivation to do anything about it, even when I felt like a “fat guy in a little coat.” (He who has ears to hear, let him hear!) For years I have recognized my habits and my love for food are unhealthy. And even in the seasons where I actively fought to cut back, my love for (addiction to?) food roared back with matching strength.

Idolatry

I share this not as some form of public catharsis but to provide a living and personal example of the way idolatry works in our lives. Idolatry is the worship of a created thing rather than the Creator. It is turning a good thing God has made into the ultimate thing. It is turning to some part of God’s creation for our identity, comfort, salvation, hope, security, or happiness. Idolatry is at the heart of all sin. In my case, the love of food because of the comfort it offers results in me transgressing God’s law in numerous ways, particularly with gluttony, greed, unkindness, and poor stewardship.

The thing about my sinful idolatry of food is that it looks fairly harmless and less sinful when compared to things like murder, sexual immorality, drunkenness, and all the other “scandalous” sins. It’s easy for gluttonous pastors to rail against the sin of drunkenness (or the supposed sin of drinking alcohol at all) while at the very same time dreaming of the comfort of the potluck after church. But the reality is, those of us who turn to food as a constant comfort without restraint are in bondage like ever other sinner.

While I tend to idolize food, others idolize being skinny and treat food as evil rather than the good gift God intends it to be. There is a lot of talk these days about obesity, body image, redefining beauty, and accepting our bodies. But without diving into all the complexities of that discussion, it needs to be said that an idolatrous love of food isn’t healthy or godly. It’s just as sinful and powerful as hatred, greed, envy, and pride. So we should not celebrate the idolatry of food and overweight bodies any more than we should celebrate the idolatry of being skinny and unhealthy in the other direction.

Fighting Sin

Recently, I have been able to lose a lot of weight, but this is the third time I have tried to get healthy and to deal with my idolatrous love of food. I feel great, and I am more optimistic that I have turned a corner. But I also don’t want to get ahead of myself because I know the power of sin and the hold it has on my heart. I have lost weight before by taking some drastic steps in my diet only to see my discipline fade over time as I returned to old habits. Like all sin, we can try “starving” ourselves for a season, but if we have nothing else with which to feed our hearts, we will eventually run back to the banquet in the grave.

This time, I have greater hope that I am on the road toward a proper and healthy love of food. Not because I have some power or strength in myself but because Jesus Christ died and rose again to set me free from the power of sin. In the gospel, Jesus has given me a greater comfort and a deeper satisfaction than any food ever could. Because Christ rose from the dead, he has given me new life and the promise of a future banquet in his kingdom. He has offered me himself, the true bread of life. He has invited me to drink of his living water so that I will never thirst again. These are the deep resources of the gospel that I consistently have to turn to in my battle with the love of food. And I’m glad to say that I’m seeing change in my heart and in my habits.

And let me be clear, habits do matter. It’s easy to talk about fighting sin by addressing the heart, but if we never get to our habits, we aren’t really fighting sin. Sin starts in the heart, but it always works itself out in our lips and fingertips. In my fight with gluttony, I have used tools that help me monitor what and how much I eat. I have invited others to help me monitor what I am eating, and I have picked up a few routines that require me to be a bit more active. My struggle with the idolatry of food is long from over, but I believe God’s Spirit is working. I have not triumphed. I may fall into old habits once again. I am not what I should be, but I am not what I once was.

You may not be struggling with the love of food, but I am confident that you are struggling with some disordered love, misplaced trust, or false hope. Perhaps this struggle has been going on for years. Maybe you have tried over and over again to deal with it, seeing temporary results, only to see it roar back to full strength once again. But there is hope. Jesus didn’t rise from the grave to leave us in our sin. We may try and fail again, but slowly he is at work to bring us into the freedom of the new life of his kingdom.

Parenting in the Pew by Robbie Castleman

Robbie Castleman is a professor of biblical studies and theology and a pastor’s wife.  She is also the mother of two sons who have grown into strong men who love the Lord. I recently read her book Parenting in the Pew: Guiding Your Children into the Joy of Worship. The book aims to equip parents to train their children to worship the Triune God. She says, “This book is an expression of my joy in learning with my children how to remember the Lord’s Day and keep it holy.”[1]

If you have been at Trinity for even a week, you may have an idea as to why this book may have piqued my interest. Castleman makes the case that children should be present in corporate worship with their parents who must train them to worship God with God’s people. This is our conviction at Trinity as well.

For most Christians today, this seems like an odd idea despite the fact that this has been the practice of the Christian church for almost its entire history, and for many traditions it remains the practice. However, on the whole, Evangelicalism and much of mainline Christianity have adopted a model of Sunday school, children’s church, and/or nursery which has effectively removed young children from corporate worship. In some churches, “worship experiences” are created to fit every life stage and music preference such that it isn’t until after college that young people are integrated into corporate worship with the rest of the body. At Trinity, we believe non-integrated worship is not only harmful to our formation as disciples but that it is unfaithful to our witness to the kingdom. So I am grateful for resources such as Castleman’s book because they serve to help us relearn how to worship together.

I must admit, I didn’t find the whole book helpful. Some of Castleman’s discussion deals with forms of corporate worship that do not fit Trinity’s context (i.e. chapters 6 & 7). I actually think the strength of the book lies with the first five chapters (chapters 4 & 5 being the best). But there are nuggets of wisdom throughout. I want to offer some highlights from the first five chapters of the book so that you will consider reading the whole thing. In order to grasp the full arguments, you need to read the book, and I strongly encourage all of our parents and soon to be parents to read it and to talk about it with others at home group.

Chapter 1: Daddy, I’d Like You To Meet My Children

  • While it is difficult to pay attention in corporate worship while we have young children, training our children to worship will pay off in the long run for both child and parent since both will grow in their attentiveness and participation through the training.
  • Attending or going to church is different than participating in worship. Parents should be aimed at training their children to worship, not just be quiet.
  • Parents make the effort to train their kids in numerous ways (sports, education, work, money, etc.), and they should be just as diligent, if not more, to train their children to worship.

Chapter 2: Worship BC (before children) and AD (after diapers)

  • Worship is not primarily about what we get out of worship but what we give to God. Children can and do interfere with our experience of corporate worship (for a season), but our main concern should be with God’s glory in the worship of his people. Worship of God takes work, and with children it takes hard work.
  • Children learn best by doing, and so training children to worship requires that we help them do it with us.
  • As a pastor’s wife whose husband spent most of his time leading worship services, Castleman was the primary and usually only person responsible for training her children. It took time, practice, energy, and attention, but she was able to train two young boys almost on her own.
  • Worship begins in the heart of the believer. It is easy to blame the church or our children for our frustrations or spiritual dryness, but we need to take responsibility for ourselves and make our participation and the participation of our children a priority.
  • Only when our hearts are in the right place will we be freed from the fear of what other people are thinking about us and the behavior of our children.

Chapter 3: Praise and Puppies

  • Children have a unique perspective on the world and can actually enhance the worship of God enjoyed by the congregation because of their unfettered faith and expectation.
  • Children have a unique capacity for faith and a joyful expectation of God that must challenge and encourage the church.
  • Most churches develop children’s programs because the parents are not equipped or willing to train their own children. Integrated worship only works if parents are training their children at home in the faith.

Chapter 4: Sunday Morning Starts Saturday Night

  • Sunday’s are often the most hectic and stressful time of the week for parents as they try to get their family to church. But this is often true because parents do not work ahead of time to prepare for corporate worship.
  • The Lord’s Day is meant to be a day of rest and worship, but it will not be a day of rest if we do not work the other 6 days of the week and Saturday in particular.
  • We have to take time to prepare our hearts for corporate worship so that we are eager and grateful to come to worship. We cannot come having given no forethought and with a packed schedule leading up to church and expect everything at church to go smoothly.
  • Practically, we need to plan a day ahead what we will wear, what we need at church, what we will eat before and after, and so forth so that there isn’t a mad rush to get to church and get out.
  • We need to build an environment in our homes that looks forward to Sunday and that sets it apart as a time of rest and corporate worship. This includes setting the day apart and not allowing travel, sports, work, and other activities to slide into the Lord’s Day from the other six days of the week.
  • Corporate worship must be a non-negotiable for the family, something only missed in extreme situations or due to sickness. Otherwise, corporate worship will become like everything else, just another thing to juggle in our hectic lives.
  • Make it a priority to show hospitality after corporate worship so as to enjoy fellowship with God’s people.

Chapter 5: Counting Bricks or Encountering God

  • The entertainment culture we live in shapes us to only pay attention to that which entertains. It has popularized the notion that we entertain in order to teach. But education-as-entertainment has not improved the scholastic achievements of children, and it will not improve our children’s ability to worship either. Worship must remain the one element in our culture that refuses to accept the entertainment addiction.
  • Sit with your children in worship even when they are teenagers. It helps them pay attention, and there is no substitute for presence when it comes to teaching. If you train well, the relationship with your kids can move into companionship in the teenage years.
  • Castleman’s research and experience has taught her that by the age of 4, children can be trained to sit in the entire church service. Babies, toddlers, and younger children can be trained to be present for parts of the service, but may need to be taken to a nursery or toddler room.
  • Take children to the bathroom before the service, and then communicate and expect them to sit through the service without needing a bathroom break (unless of course there is an emergency).
  • Eliminate distractions in corporate worship, like toys, loose change, and even paper and pen. It is helpful to give your children paper to draw or take notes on during the sermon, but they should be participating in the other portions of the service.
  • Castleman also discourages candy or gum to keep kids quiet (although I personally found this helpful when my kids first starting sitting through sermons as a way of introducing them to being quiet and still for that long).
  • There is a long section on children with ADD or ADHD.
  • The discipline of our home life will show in the church service. If we are inconsistent in the expectations and consequences we give at home, then we will have a hard time training our children at church. But if our authority is established at home and we are empowering our children to make godly choices by listening to us at home, then our children will understand the consequences of being disruptive in church. In such cases, children will need to be removed by their parents for private discipline.

Castleman writes in a simple and straightforward manner, but she is no simpleton. A scholar in her own right, she comes to the topic with a deeply theological grasp of Scripture and with the practical experience to put it into practice. The book gave me hope that integrated worship is not only possible but vital to a rich environment of discipleship. I am excited about what the Lord can and will do as we train our children together. It will take focus and hard work, especially as we prioritize preparing for corporate worship beforehand, but we must train our children to worship. And as God’s grace trains each of us to worship him in spirit and in truth, we can train our children to worship.

[1] Robbie Castleman, Parenting in the Pew: Guiding Your Children into the Joy of Worship, Revised and Updated Edition (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2013), 23.