By TOM MAY
A radio host warned that there was just one week left before Thanksgiving. “One week left to apologize to all the relatives you made mad at last Thanksgiving.”
The holidays can do that to us — bring out the worst in us — the less patient, the less gracious, the less thankful.
Is there a way to realistically be more thankful this year? Have you ever turned to the Bible to find such an answer? The apostle Paul may have given the Philippian Christians a clue to its success.
For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:11-13 NIV).
Let’s focus on three words in this short passage of Scripture — learned, content, and whatever — that give us some secrets to being more thankful.
The first word is “learned.” To say that we have to learn to be content implies that it does not come naturally. Paul uses two different words that are translated “learned” in this passage.
The first implies that we have learned something that was “proved” to us. Did you ever try to prove to someone that you were right? Paul says that being content is something that God wants to prove to us — it isn’t something that we know instinctively.
The second word carries the meaning that we have learned something that had been kept secret, something that not everyone knows. Contentment surely seems like it is a secret. There are not many in life who understand it, let alone practice it. If it is something that we will learn, it is almost as if God is letting us in on a secret.
How do you learn best? I learn best when someone shows me and then gives me a chance to do it immediately afterward. Wouldn’t it be great if someone around me could model contentment and then I would try to mimic it in my own life?
The next word is “content” and it is rare. It implies “self-suffcient,” not needing anything more. Content means you have prepared for the event and there is not anything else that you have to do. There is a point when the presents are wrapped, the table is set, and the food is cooked. All that is left is for the guests to arrive. That is contentment.
The word also carries the meaning of “free from strife.” When we are not content, there is a constant churning deep within us. When we are content, we are at peace with the circumstances. It doesn’t mean we have to like it, it means we have to come to terms with it.
The year Tom Crean took over as Indiana University men’s basketball coach, all but two players either left the team or were dismissed. The number of minutes of game experience the two shared could be counted on two hands. Although the year was not going to produce many wins, I was content with the circumstance because I believed the school had hired the right man for the job. The program was going to be built the right way, from the ground up.
When we are at peace, we can be thankful. This is Paul’s secret for being thankful in all things.
The final word, “whatever,” doesn’t always carry a good connotation today. A student who had missed several college classes and assignments approached me in an attempt to get caught up and not fail the class. While the student may have hoped that I would waive some of the assignments, instead I put forth a very calculated plan for making up all of the missed work without falling any further behind.
I was not required to allow the student to make up missed work. I thought I was being gracious in presenting a plan that would work. When I finished speaking, the student turned to walk away and uttered one word under his breath.
While the secret may be in finding contentment whatever, the truth is there are times when contentment is much more difficult. While I may be content where I live, there is a part of me that wishes I lived near an ocean. Do you see where this is headed?
Let me share a couple of things right now which rob me of my contentment. I am not content in how I feel. I woke up this morning with nearly every joint in my body aching. The time was when I knew exactly why I was sore — five softball games in an afternoon or helping the son move into an apartment. Today, I was sore for … whatever.
I am also not content with fast, unexpected changes. There is hardly a foot of the roads that I travel each day that aren’t under construction. New policies at work seem to change my job and its expectations. So much of life centers on new technologies, new processes, or new innovations.
When I find it difficult to be content, I find it impossible to be thankful. For me to be content with everything in life — with all my “whatevers” — I am going to have to rely on strength outside myself. Perhaps it will be friends who encourage me to appreciate my life. Perhaps it will be the moments I take to count my blessings. Perhaps it will come from God who gives me strength to be thankful. Whatever.
— Tom May is the Minister of Discipleship at Eastside Christian Church in Jeffersonville. He is an adjunct instructor in the Communications Department at Indiana University Southeast. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org