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.

Presenting Our Grief to the God of Hope

Life is sometimes really hard to understand. When tragedy strikes, a lot of times we’re left with more questions than answers. Something devastating happens, and we feel alone and confused. We don’t know where to turn. We don’t know how to pray. We don’t even know what kind of response is right or faithful or helpful. Should we put on a brave face? Show we pretend nothing ever happened? Should we just let go and fall to pieces?

One thing is for certain—we are grieved. The most natural and immediate reaction we have is to feel grief, to mourn over what has happened. But grief is a powerful thing. It can push us to despair and anger and rebellion against God, or it can push us deeper into his loving arms. In the complicated moments where personal sin or unexpected disaster leave us feeling trapped in a whirlwind of pain, we need God to tell us how to grieve in faith, and we need him to give us the hope so that we can grieve in faith.

And you know what? He’s done exactly that. He’s given his church his word so that we could know how we ought to bring our sadness to God, and why our sadness doesn’t have to overtake us. He’s given us the word so that we can rightly grieve as his children, and so that we can walk beside others down the path of grief with hearts that still trust in God. As we look to Scripture, we need to consider two important questions. Is there a place for grief in the Christian life? And if there is, then what does it look like to faithfully present our grief to God?

 

1) Should we even grieve in the first place? Is there a place for grief in the Christian life?

A lot of times, we picture the perfect Christian as the one who is unfazed by anything. The people who really know how to be Christians are stoic and brave and unmoved. They’re the ones who could look disaster square in the eye and never flinch. We imagine that that kind of Christian would be solid as a rock, never questioning God, without a single tear, not even a hint that peace and happiness were being threatened. We think to ourselves in the midst of our pain, “If I was really living like a Christian, I would never feel this way.” And what happens is that we end up feeling guilty because we are sad, and the burdens keep piling on.

Why is it that we tend to see grief as if it has no place in the church? What is it about mourning that makes us think we ought to hide it, push it down, and keep it away from other people and from God?

 

Maybe we think grief is a sign of weakness. People who grieve are people who can’t take care of themselves, who require help, who can’t make it on their own, who need someone to step in and comfort them because they don’t have the strength to keep going alone. We want to be strong, not weak, so we convince ourselves that grief is wrong.

But underneath that strong exterior lies nothing but pride. You see, God didn’t make us in his image to live in our own strength, in independence from God. We may not want to be seen as weak, but that’s exactly what we are! We were made to depend on God and to find our rest in him. We were made to go to him with our needs and trust in his provision. We are sinful and broken people who don’t have the wisdom or ability to provide everything we need.

Believe it or not, it takes more strength to admit your weakness and cry out to God than it does to pridefully pretend you’ve got it all together. And when our weakness drives us to take our grief to God and depend on him, he gets the glory as the only one who is strong enough to take care of us. God says, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

 

Maybe we think that grief is pointless. We learned when we were little that “there’s no use crying over spilt milk.” The whole point of that saying is that what’s done is done, what happened happened, and no amount of grief is going to change it. We hear Javert from Les Miserables in the back of our minds yelling, “Save your breath and save your tears!” So we figure the best thing we can do is move on.

But that’s not really the way the Bible talks about our grief. God doesn’t tell his people to wipe away their tears and keep pressing on. He tells them, “I am the one who will wipe away your tears.” God invites us to bring our pain and our weak hearts to him so that he can comfort us with his grace and his truth. Throughout Scripture, God says the needy cries of his people came to him, and he heard them and graciously worked for their good.

Grief isn’t pointless at all; it actually serves an important purpose for God’s people. If we bottle up our fears and our questions and our anguish, we may think we won’t have to deal with it, but those things will never go away. But when we cry out to God, when we present our grief to him, that enables us to honestly recognize the pain of our situation, and it makes it possible for us to be comforted by God’s word. Only when we’ve approached God with our grief will we be able to receive his words of love and comfort and promise.

“There’s no use crying over spilt milk,” but there is use in crying out to God, because he speaks peace to his grieving people. And when we’re broken before God, he is using that very experience of suffering to demonstrate his faithfulness to us and strengthen our hope in the good news that Jesus has purchased our life.

 

But perhaps our most powerful problem with grief is that it just seems so unspiritual. It feels like our grief is an admission that we lack faith, that we don’t really trust God like we should. If we truly trusted him, wouldn’t we have perfect joy that was never interrupted by tears? But this view of the Christian life is warped and doesn’t line up with Scripture in a number of ways.

First of all, sin has wreaked havoc in the world. So it’s right to recognize and grieve over our sin, the sin of others, and the effects of sin on creation. It’s not super-spiritual to pretend like everything’s just right with the world because everything is not right with the world! We are commanded by God to hate what is evil and to mourn with those who mourn. That means there has to be a place for grieving over all the destructive results of sin.

Second, God shows us in his word that grief is a part of life. Ecclesiastes 3 teaches that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” In a complicated world, there are times when it’s appropriate to celebrate and to cry out in desperation. And if you look in the Psalms, there God has provided many examples of godly, faithful grief to instruct his people in the way to mourn in hope. Scholars classify a whole group of Psalms as “Psalms of Lament”—the whole point of these Psalms is to lament with God because of personal and communal hardships.

David writes in Psalm 31, "Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away."

In Scripture, we have Spirit-inspired crying to God. With Psalms like these, God is essentially saying “Bring your  sorrows to me! Come to me with your grief!” Yes, there may be doubt swirling around in your heart. Yes, you may have questions without answers. But God invites you to bring your fragile faith to him so that he can confirm his promises to you in his word. So while there are definitely sinful ways to grieve, God’s word shows us that grief itself is not always sinful.

But third, and most importantly, Jesus himself grieved. The second person of the Trinity took on flesh and experienced all the sadness that comes with living in a broken and sinful world. Jesus wept at the funeral for his friend Lazarus. Jesus lamented over Jerusalem  because their sin had blinded them to his identity as Son of God and his mission for salvation: “O Jerusalem…How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” And when he went into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray just before he was arrested and crucified, he told his disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.”

Jesus, the perfectly faithful human being, grieved at the tragedies of sin and death. If the Son of God stood with us in our grief, then we can’t make the argument that grief is unspiritual or un-Christian.

The answer to our question, then, is yes—there is a place for grief in the Christian life. But now we have to ask an even more difficult question.

 

2) How should we grieve? What does it look like to faithfully present our grief to God?

We noted that God has given us models of grief in the Psalms of Lament, and two of those Psalms in particular can help us answer this question.

Psalms 42 and 43 are numbered separately and can be read separately, but they’re probably intended to be read as a single literary piece. When you read them one after the other, you’ll hear three main sections with a repeated chorus after each one, and this repetition is a clue that we should examine these two Psalms together.

In this prayer of lament, the Psalmist expresses his desire to return to God’s temple and worship in his presence, and he cries out to God because, for the time being, it doesn’t seem like that will happen. The Psalmist mourns over his situation, and he provides a template for how we must bring our grief to God.

 

First, we must come to God thirsty for God. Psalm 42 begins, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” This is more than an expression of desire—it’s an expression of desperation. The Psalmist isn’t just saying that he really loves God. He’s saying he’s panting for God like a dying animal. He’s saying that he feels like he’s on the verge of death because the one thing he needs most to survive is the thing that seems most far away.

When we grieve before God in prayer, we can’t begin by making demands—we don’t have the right or the authority. And we can’t approach him as if we almost have it together in our own strength and just need a quick helping hand. When we grieve before God in prayer, we must embrace a posture of humility. We’ve got to recognize our brokenness and our neediness and our absolute dependence on God.

And notice what the Psalmist requests from the very beginning. Before anything else, he wants God himself. In our grief, our first prayers are often for different circumstances, better emotions, quick recovery, or a better future. But you can get all of those things, and still be lacking the only thing that will really bring healing.

What we need most is God himself. We need God to work in ways that only he can. We need God to act in wisdom because only he fully understands our circumstances. We need God to comfort our hearts with his word of promise. We need God to work everything that happened for the good of his people and the glory of his name. We need God to dwell with us, transform our desires, shape our reactions, and give us the deep joy of knowing that we are safe with him no matter what may come.

In our prayers of anguish, we’ve got to recognize that we are empty and that the love and presence of the Triune God is our truest need—we’ve got to come thirsty for God.

 

Second, we must come to God in honesty. Sometimes there’s a temptation and a pressure when we cry out to God to have all the right words, to have all the answers beforehand, to sound really pious and spiritual and knowledgeable and wise as we bring our pain to God. But if we’re really panting for God, if we’re coming in humility to a loving Father who’s the only one that can restore us to peace and joy, then we don’t have to hide the raw and ugly truth about what’s going on in our hearts.

Listen to the way the Psalmist lays himself bare in honesty before God. He tells God about the depth of his distress in verse 3: “My tears have been my food day and night.” He confesses his despair in verse 6: “My soul is cast down within me.” In verse 7, he expresses his feelings of powerlessness, like he’s caught in a rushing flood: “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” Anyone who’s ever been knocked over by an unexpected wave in the ocean knows exactly the kind of fear and disorientation the Psalmist is describing.

In verse 9 he asks God the only question he can muster: “Why have you forgotten me?” And in Psalm 43:2, the question is even more powerful: “Why have you rejected me?” He even tells God about the hatred and persecution he’s experienced from other people: “Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’”

When we grieve, we can open up the dark places of our hearts and cry honestly with God. When our faith feels like it’s failing, we can confess it to God. When we experience all sorts of conflicting emotions, we can tell God about our anger, fear, despair, loneliness, powerlessness, and abandonment. When we are frustrated by our circumstances and don’t have a clue what’s really going on, we can bring God our confusion and our questions. As a father longs to hear why his little child is crying, God the Father longs to hear the honest cries of his children—the children that he foreknew before time, redeemed at the cross, and adopted by grace.

But there’s a danger here that we’ve got to keep in mind. If you stop at this point, if you stop with telling God openly what’s going on and how your heart is dealing with your pain, and if you don’t let him speak back in his word, you can very easily drive yourself to all kinds of destructive places.

You might end up angry at God. It’s possible to express your grief to God in a way that emphasizes just how unfair this situation is, how you don’t deserve this, how this is just too hard. And you can work yourself into a fury that leads you to lash out at God in rebellion and anger.

Your honest grief can lead to unbelief. If you sit in your own pain and wallow in your experience of sadness, you can rehearse your complaints until you convince yourself that God must not be good and loving after all. You can present your grief to God in a way that calls God’s character into question and shouts, “How could a good God do this to me?!” and pain can push you to reject the kind of God that would allow such a thing to happen. Or you can be so hurt by someone else’s actions that you refuse to trust a God whose followers can still be so sinful.

If you stop with honest expression of grief, you can end up questioning your acceptance with God. You not only tell God that it feels like you’ve been abandoned, but you begin believing that he has indeed abandoned you: “If I were really God’s child, if I really belonged to him, if he truly loved me, he never would have allowed this to happen.” Rather than grieving so that God can bring comfort, you can grieve in a way that pulls you down the spiral of despair and leaves you with your pain and a crippling fear that God has turned his back on you.

These are real dangers when we honestly confess what our hearts are feeling, how much it hurts, and the confusion that seems like it will never end. And that’s why it’s so important that we don’t stop with making our grief known—we’ve got to keep going when we grieve with God.

 

Third, we must come to God remembering God’s promises. Why is this so pivotal? Because without God’s promises our grief will end in despair. But if we come to God clinging to the promises he’s made to us in his word, we can grieve with faith and hope.

This is exactly what the Psalmist is doing in his repeated chorus: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” He asks questions to his own heart—Why are you cast down? Why are you in turmoil?—and the reason he does that is because God’s promises give the kind of comfort to pull him out of the pit of sadness in which he’s been drowning.

He calls the Lord “my salvation and my God.” These are words of confidence; these are words of security. God has made a covenant with his people that he will be their salvation. God has guaranteed that because of his work, “They will be my people, and I will be their God.” That’s the hope that undergirds every part of the Psalmist’s grieving prayer.

The difference between hopeless grief and hopeful grief is remembering all that God has said and done even while we bring our prayers to him. In verse 6, the Psalmist says, “My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.” He’s far from the sanctuary in Jerusalem where the presence of God dwelt with his people, so he must recall to mind who God is and all he’s done to show his faithfulness to his people. Standing on the verge of despair, the only thing keeping him from descending into it is the remembrance of his covenant God.

Look again at verses 8-9: “By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God, my rock: ‘Why have you forgotten me?’” Do you see what’s going on here? The Psalmist begins by remembering the steadfast love of the Lord and his continual presence. He calls God “my rock,” the one on whom his whole life is built—God is the never-failing, never-changing rock that gives him the security he needs. Only then does he even ask the question, “Why have you forgotten me?”

The whole point is that God hasn’t forgotten him. The Lord commands his steadfast love. The Lord is his rock. And while it may feel like God has forgotten him for a time, underneath that question, the Psalmist knows that God hasn’t turned his back. The way the Psalmist expresses his grief is shaped by the confidence that God is present, strong, and loving toward his child.

When we approach God, God’s promises to us have to always be in front of our eyes. We grieve with God not because he’s abandoned us, but because we know that he is our true and certain hope. So even while we mourn, we have to call out to our hearts, “Why are you cast down, O my soul? Hope in God! He is my salvation and my God! Though the world around me crumbles, though my heart wastes away within me, the Lord will not forsake his people. He will not fail in his promises. I am safe and accepted with him, and there is the hope of restoration.”

So what are the promises we’ve got to remember? What should we hold on to as we grieve with God? The answer is in the gospel.

The good news of Jesus is that God the Father sent his Son Jesus Christ to fulfill all of God’s promises to the world. The message of Jesus’ perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection is the God-given hope for sinners like you and me. The only reason we can cry out to “my salvation and my God” is because Jesus came to reveal God to the world and to purchase salvation for all who believe. And this gospel has the power to sustain you even when tears have been your food day and night.

So here is the hope for those who trust the gospel: 

  • Jesus lived the perfect human life as your substitute, so you can grieve with the hope that God looks upon you as a righteous, obedient, acceptable child.
  • Jesus died on the cross as your substitute, so you can grieve with the hope that your pain is not a sign of God’s wrath against you, but will be used for your good.
  • Jesus was declared righteous in his resurrection and shares that righteousness with his people, so you can grieve with the hope that even though you are still sinful, you will one day be vindicated when God pronounces his verdict over you.
  • Jesus was forsaken by God at the cross for your sin, so you can grieve with the hope that God will never turn his back on you again.
  • Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, so you can grieve with the hope that God intimately understands the pain you’re going through.
  • Jesus gave us his Holy Spirit, so you can grieve with the hope that God is always present with you, even in the darkest hour.
  • Jesus began his kingdom in his death and resurrection, and he promises to return to make everything new, so you can grieve with the hope that God will one day restore everything that’s broken, right every wrong, wipe away every tear, and dwell with his people in joy forever.

Those are but a few of the glorious promises that Jesus secured for us in the gospel. And if we are remembering those promises when we grieve, then we will be able to grieve in hope.

 

Finally, we must come to God in worship. When we remember all the promises that Jesus has secured for us in the gospel, our hearts are moved to rest and rejoice in God. Read the last few verses of Psalm 43: “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”

The prayer of grief that started with panting for God ends with praise to the God who hears, loves, and promises to sustain. It’s not that the grief goes away. No, the grief may linger for a long, long time. But even while the tears keep falling, we can worship God because we have a hope that’s bigger than our pain.

 

So cry out for God in brokenness. Tell him about your sadness, confusion, and fear. Remember his promises to you in the gospel. Be filled with hope by God’s word. And worship him for his faithfulness and sovereignty and wisdom and goodness while you grieve over sin and its horrific effects.

In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus brought us to God, so we can present our grief to God with the hope that he will never let us go.

Sermon Discussion: Luke 14:25-35 - The Cost of Discipleship

Here are some questions to discuss together in our home groups:

  1. What questions did you have during and after the sermon? Did you have any insights that weren’t mentioned?
  2. How was the sermon outlined?
  3. In our culture, what does it mean to be a “follower”? How can those ideas end up shaping what we think it means to be a follower of Jesus?
  4. What does Jesus say it will cost us to be his disciple? How does he challenge both traditional, family-oriented and modern, individualistic cultures? Is there a cost to following Jesus that you needed to be particularly reminded of?
  5. What do Jesus’ two illustrations communicate? Why is this message so important for both non-believers and believers to hear?
  6. What’s the difference between the “forgiveness-only gospel” and the biblical gospel? How does the biblical gospel help us understand how our discipleship is completely a gift of grace and yet costly for us to pursue? Take some time to consider together how the message of the cross frees us to joyfully pay the cost of discipleship.
  7. What is the main point of Jesus’ parable in verses 34-35? How does it push us to personal repentance?
  8. As we seek to be a church family of salty disciples, why is it important for us to guard to content of our message? Why is it just as important for us to guard the form, flavor, and character of our community life?
  9. How do the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Table) shape both our message and the form of our community? How do they help us count the cost of discipleship together?

Sermon Discussion: Luke 13:1-9 - Understanding and Responding to Tragedy

Here are a few questions to consider as we eat, pray, and look at God’s word together in our home groups:

  1. What questions did you have during and after the sermon? What insights did you have that may not have been mentioned?
  2. What was the outline for the sermon?
  3. Explain the moralistic religious way of interpreting tragedy. Who is most likely to understand tragedy this way and why? What are the results of this sort of thinking? What it is about us that is prone to think and be this way?
  4. Explain the cynical irreligious way of interpreting tragedy. What is the result of this sort of thinking? What is it about us that is prone to think and be this way?
  5. How does Jesus’ parable undermine both of the errors we are prone to make in understanding tragedy? What is the message of the parable and what response does it demand?
  6. How does the cross demonstrate the same lesson of Jesus’ parable? How does the cross provide the power to endure suffering and tragedy?
  7. What are some of the unique temptations that arise when we are not suffering? What are some of the unique temptations that arise when we are suffering? How do the cross and the call to repent of our sin combat the temptations of suffering and tragedy?
  8. How should this passage inform our understanding of those who make judgments about the meaning of particular cases of tragedy or suffering for those involved?
  9. How can this passage help us to explain the Christian faith in a compelling way to non-Christians?