Wednesday, May 13, 2015

ISI 18: Expectations and Contentment (Happiness vs Joy)

[This Bible study starts at the bottom of the May posts, with the “Iron Sharpens Iron Bible Study Intro” post.  And remember that my answers to some of the questions are in [brackets].]

Icebreaker Question:
What is your favorite season, and what do you love so much about it?  And what are your favorite things about each of the other three seasons?  Least favorite things?

Open With Prayer

Read Lesson and Bible Verses:
            Philippians 4:12:  “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.” 
            1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:  “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

            Contentment and Joy.  Aren’t these two things that we are always looking for?  Actually, what I should say is that we are usually looking for happiness when we should be looking for joy.  And we are not usually content with the way life is because we have too many expectations about what it should be.  Isn’t this more like it for most of us?
            So what is the difference between joy and happiness? 

            The way I see it, happiness is a feeling based on our circumstances.  If we get what we want, we are happy.  If things go our way, we are happy.  If life is good, we are happy.  But joy is a different animal altogether.  Joy is a state of mind that comes from living life firmly rooted in God. 
            Happiness is like having calm waters and lots of food, but joy is the ability to have a deep sense of stability and thankfulness and faith in God despite the stormy waves and famine.  Happiness can be bought at a cheap price, but joy is hard-earned. 
            Joy comes after the pain and the trials, after we struggle with letting go of our expectations of what we think will make us happy and learn to accept things as they are. 
            This is not easy to do.  We want things to be a certain way, and it’s hard to let go of those desires, dreams, and plans.  It’s hard to wait on God for answers, or to accept His “no.”  But a major part of humility is remembering that He is God and we are not.   
            I think that most discontentment comes from feeling like God owes us something that He isn’t giving us.  When in reality, we owe Him everything that we already have.  The secret to being content, I think, is to remember that whatever comes (or doesn’t come) our way is from His hands.  And our focus should be on how to glorify Him in those circumstances, instead of trying to run from them, change them, or fight our way out before it is time! 
            [Of course, we need to pray and let God know of our wants and desires, but we need to be able to genuinely say and mean, “Not my will, but Yours be done” with each request.  And that is not always easy to do.  And it often takes a lot of time and tears to get to that point and really mean it.  Jesus prayed and cried all night in the garden of Gethsemane before being able to really accept that God’s Will was that there was no other way but the cross.]

            An issue that I have struggled with for years is loneliness.  I have always felt like I was on the outside, looking in.  Like I never really fit in with almost everybody else.  And so I have always felt lonely.  And that bothered me for years.  I always felt like things were supposed to be different.  They weren’t what they should have been.  And I fought to make my life match the image in my head.
            And while it is true that relationships are not what they are supposed to be nowadays, I came to realize after years that it wasn’t the lack of relationships that really bothered me.  It was my expectations of how things “should be” that were making me miserable.  I hadn’t learned how to be content in the life I was living.  I hadn’t learned how to find joy in it, as it is.  I kept searching for something else, something that I felt was missing.  And the more I tried to find it, the more discouraged I got and the less I was able to enjoy the life I was living.
            It took me a lot of time to learn contentment in this area, to find joy in it.  I had to identify the expectations that I had, to examine the ways they were hurting my life, and to accept that God had me where He did for a reason.  I realized that I could keep fighting Him, or I could sit way back into my situation and learn from it, find the unexpected blessings in it. 
            And once I shifted my outlook, I found myself being content in a way that I didn’t know was possible.  I found myself joyful even though I didn’t have all that I wanted to make me happy.
            And I remember the day that contentment broke through my expectations.  I was knee-deep in depression, lamenting what a failure I was in all areas of my life and lamenting my loneliness again.  And the thought hit me that if I lived on a prairie somewhere centuries ago, I would be in the middle of nowhere, with very few people around me.  And this is not too different from how I feel now.  And then I asked myself, Would I be able to accept this loneliness if I were on a prairie somewhere in the middle of nowhere? 
            And I figured that I would be able to graciously accept it because that’s the way it would be on a prairie.  I wouldn’t have any expectations that things should be different because there would be nothing I could do to change it.  So I would have to accept it.  And I would be okay.  I would make the best of it. 
            And it dawned on me that if I could be content about loneliness under different conditions, then contentment really is a choice.  It was my expectations about how things “should be” that caused my discontentment. 
            But if I could be content then, I could be content now.  And so I chose to be content with the loneliness.  I chose to accept it.  And I stopped asking God to bring me more friendships, and I started asking Him to help me be the best, most God-glorifying, lonely person I could be.
            Yes, I am still lonely and, yes, there is still an ache there.  But I am learning to “control” the loneliness instead of letting the loneliness control me.  I am learning to live a full life even when I don’t have everything I want to make me happy. 
            It’s a great blessing to get what we ask for, but sometimes it’s a greater, more eternal blessing to learn to be content without.  I can’t necessarily change my circumstances (trust me, I’ve tried), but I can change how I live in them.  And this was a huge key in helping me shift my focus from my despair to how I could glorify God anyway and be a blessing to others, even in the loneliness.  (In fact, my blogs are pretty much a direct result of my loneliness, of not really having people to talk all this stuff over with.  And even if people don’t read them, it’s still neat to me to see what my pain has produced.) 
            It also helped to remember that someday all things will be made right again.  Someday, relationships will be all that they are supposed to be.  And so I don’t have to fight to make everything the way it’s “supposed to be” now, as though death were the deadline to accomplish everything by. 
            It’s not that I’ll never have the life and relationships that I want; it’s just postponed for now.  And I think we can live with just about anything as long as we have hope that it won’t always be this way.  That someday, all things will be made beautiful and perfect again. 
            But waiting for God to make all things beautiful and perfect means learning to live with “ugly” and “imperfect” until then.     
            We shouldn’t limit God by our expectations and parameters, by our demands that He does the things we want, when and how we want.  Because then we blind ourselves to what He is really doing, to the blessings that He has given us now, to the answers that He gives to our prayers, and to how we can glorify Him in the life we have. 
            We fail to find Him in our current situation when all we do is strive for something else.
            But if we strive to find Him in all situations, to find the blessings of the moment, and to remember that He is a good, loving, sovereign Father, we will be able to find contentment and joy.  No matter what.  We might not even really be all that happy because life might still be hard and discouraging, but we can find joy if we look for it and if we keep our eyes on God and remember that He is all we really need.  Everything else is just extra.


Content or Contempt?
            How would you define “contempt”?  An outright hatred for someone?  Despising them?  Being deliberately malicious or looking down on others? 
            What if I told you that contempt toward God is not so much “despising Him” as it is “grumbling about our lives, failing to thank Him for His care, and refusing to trust Him with the future”?
            In Numbers 14, we read about how God viewed the grumbling that the Israelites did in the desert.  He had gotten them out of Egypt and was leading them to the Promised Land.  But in the meantime, things did not match up to the Israelite’s expectations.  They grumbled about the food, the water, the walking, the obstacles, the set-backs, etc.  They grumbled about everything, going in the opposite direction from contentment.  No thankfulness.  No learning to praise God in the midst of trials.  No learning to accept the hardships or trusting that God knew what He was doing.  No saying, “You are God and I am not.  Your Will be done.”  No trusting that He will work it all out in the end.
            Instead, they grumbled.
            And in Numbers 14:11, we read this: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will these people treat me with contempt?  How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?”
            Grumbling about our unpleasant circumstances is not just “being honest” or “being understandably upset or concerned.”  It is contempt for Him because it is essentially showing doubt about Him and disapproval of His care for us.  It is passing judgment on His ability to be God in our lives.   
            The thing is, I think that there would have been a much different outcome if the Israelites had humbly sought God and prayed about their needs.  But instead of humbling themselves before God and coming to Him with their needs, they complained to others about their circumstances. 
            When we complain to others about what’s going on in our lives, it is grumbling.  It is contempt for God.  And it is the opposite of learning contentment. 
            Contentment doesn’t mean that we have to like our circumstances or to be happy about them.  Many of God’s “favorite” people in the Bible encountered very difficult circumstances.  Hard times don’t necessarily mean that God has abandoned you or that He is not pleased with you.  They are just a part of life in a fallen world, and they are often a part of great spiritual growth.
            But contentment is when we take our eyes off of our circumstances and put them on God.  It’s when we humble ourselves before Him, when we recognize the care and blessings He provides, when we admit that He has the right to be God and to allow what He does in our lives, and when we learn to live in a state of thankfulness despite our hard times. 
            Contentment comes from finding our joy in God rather than in our life.  It comes when we learn to live the best life we can, with the circumstances and trials we have. 

            And the thing is, we don’t have to “keep our chin up” when our hearts are broken, acting like everything is okay when it is not.  We can go to God with everything that is in our hearts, all the aches, hurts, fears, doubts, unfulfilled dreams, etc.   
            It’s one thing to complain to others (or to ourselves) about the things we don’t like in life.  That is contempt for God. 
            But “complaining” to God about our concerns, needs, and feelings . . . well, that is prayer.  (And I don’t mean telling Him all the ways He is failing to be a good God.  I mean sharing your honest thoughts and feelings with Him, even the painful and ugly ones.) 
            One is talking against Him, and the other is talking to Him.  One is shutting the door to Him, and the other is opening it.  One elevates us and our desires, and the other humbles us before Him.  One passes judgment on God’s ability to be God, and the other reminds us that He is God and we are not.  One leads to discontentment, and the other leads to contentment. 
            I have often wondered what might have happened if the Israelites simply talked to God about the things they were unhappy about, instead of talking to each other about what a “poor job” God was doing.
            I’m not saying that it’s always easy to trust God and to accept His ways.  In fact, it’s incredibly difficult for many of us.  (But it’s a whole lot better than going our own way, making messes that didn’t have to happen if we had just learned to trust and to rest in God in the first place.)  It takes time to learn to trust Him despite heartaches, setbacks, and trials.  It takes a lot of “dying to self.”  It means humbling ourselves, learning to focus on Him instead of on life, and learning to praise Him, even when we don’t feel like it. 
            It takes facing – and working through – doubts, fears, negative feelings, and negative thoughts, figuring out why trust is so hard for us and how our expectations are getting in the way of our relationship with God.  And this means learning that it’s okay to have doubts, fears, negative feelings, and negative thoughts . . . as long as we honestly, humbly bring them to God, instead of trying to put on a “good face” while grumbling in our hearts (or to others) against Him. 
            Why do we share our real feelings and thoughts with others but try to hide them from God?  Why do we try to polish ourselves up when approaching God?  He knows us better than we know ourselves, and yet we try to put on the “I’m fine” act with Him, while harboring bitterness or doubt against Him.   
            I think the best way to start learning to trust and be content is this: stop grumbling to others (or to ourselves) and start being transparent with the Lord about our concerns, doubts, fears, and feelings.  Complaining to others is contempt for God and it divides you and the Lord.  But “complaining” to God is prayer and it draws Him closer to your hurting heart.
            Psalm 34:17-18: “The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles.  The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” 
            As we open our hearts to Him and share what’s really inside and invite Him in to help us, He will begin to soothe our hurts, refocus our priorities, help us see things the way He does, and show us what a good, loving God He is.  We will begin to learn how sufficient His grace is and to find our joy and peace in Him.  And we will find ourselves on the road to contentment!
 

The Importance of Thankfulness
            Luke 17:15-18:  “One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice.  He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him – and he was a Samaritan.  Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed?  Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’”

            Ten men were healed.  Only one came back to thank Jesus. 
            Did the other nine say in their hearts, “Oh, I’m sure He knows that I am thankful.  I don’t have to go find Him and actually say it out loud.  Besides, I’m too busy enjoying the blessing, the healing.  Isn’t that thanks enough?”
            Were they so distracted by their joy of being healed that they simply forgot there was a Healer who made it possible?
            Did they feel a sense of entitlement to the healing, that God somehow owed it to them?  “It’s about time!”  And so they didn’t feel like they had to thank Him because they were just getting what they deserved all along? 
            Did they go away and suddenly get bitter when they realized how much time passed before they were healed?
            Were they so focused on all the things they were now able to do that they forgot how thankful they were to be healed?
            Nine out of ten did not make the effort to thank Jesus or feel they should have to, for whatever reason.  Is it that much different with us?  Really?

            We thank Him for a dramatic answer to a desperate prayer, but do we thank Him for every uneventful day that goes by when He prevented anything tragic from happening?
            We thank Him for the “extra” blessings, but are we truly, humbly thankful for “our daily bread” - the roof over our heads and the food on our plates?  Or do we feel that we are entitled to those blessings because we work hard and earn the money ourselves?  Do we take those simple, basic blessings for granted, when so many other people around the world would fall at Jesus’ feet in extreme gratitude to simply have one full meal every day?  Clean drinking water? 
            Do we feel entitled to “more” than the basic, everyday blessings, like God owes us something better?  Have we gotten bored with the “tired, old blessings” that He has given us, such as an adequate home or car, a menial job or role, all the toys and gadgets that we “had to have” that are now rotting in our garage or on our shelves, a perfectly good marriage and committed spouse? 
            Instead of cherishing what we have and considering them treasures and thanking Him for them, are we envying the blessings that someone else has?  Better home, better looks, more money, more success, more prestige, more friends, flashier job, more exciting opportunities, more attractive spouse?  Are we tossing aside the old blessings to run after newer, “better” blessings? 
            Now, it’s not necessarily wrong to buy or do things that make us happy.  What is wrong is when we are pursuing happiness because we haven’t learned to be content with God’s providence and to glorify Him with the life He gave us, when we are seeking fulfillment in anything outside of His plan for us, and when we think we need “more or better” before we can be joyful and thankful. 
            Always thinking we need “more” leads to discontentment.  But appreciating the gifts that God has already given us leads to contentment.
            Are we so focused on the gifts and on getting “more” that we fail to focus on the Giver?
            Or maybe we don’t even notice the blessings because we are filled with so much fear, pain, and heartache, and all we can think about are our concerns and needs and troubles. 
            When we focus on our problems, they become huge and God becomes tiny.  And the only way to get past this is to set our mind on God’s goodness and love and to pray our fears and concerns over to Him.  Big problems are for a big God to handle.  Little problems are for a big God to handle.  And our God is big enough and good enough and loving enough to handle all of it.  If we let Him.
            Oh, I have been there.  I’ve been through times when the trials were long and my pain was deep and my fears were so huge that I didn’t even notice the simple, hidden blessings that God put in my life daily.  And I didn’t trust Him enough to fully give Him my concerns.  I was too focused on all the things that were “wrong” and on trying to make it better.  I was like an Israelite in the desert, totally forgetting God’s power, care, and faithfulness, totally freaking out when there was no water to drink instead of praying, trusting, and thanking Him for being the big God that He is.
            And I’ve been through times when I considered all of the basic blessings as essentials that God “owes” us or that I earned somehow. 
            “Of course, God will give us such-and-such because that’s the way it is.”  I expected those blessings to be there.  Not in a way that showed that I trusted His providence and was thankful for it, but in a way that showed that I was entitled to it and took it for granted and expected more than just the basic. 

            There’s a fine line between thankfulness and entitlement, between faith and presumption.      

            Thankfulness shows that we know Who gives us what we have, that we have faith in Him and rely on His providence, that we are grateful for it and don’t take it for granted, that we are focused more on the Giver than the gifts, and that we desire to glorify and praise Him with however much or however little we have been given.
            Entitlement shows that we feel we have earned it or deserve it, that God is here to serve us and give us what we want, that we presume that He will give us “good things” without praying for it and without humbling our hearts in obedience, that we deserve more than just the basics, and that all of our stuff is for our enjoyment instead of for God’s glory. 
            Thankfulness and faith is God-glorifying and leads to contentment.  Entitlement and presumption is self-glorifying and leads to discontentment.  
            And unfortunately, it is too easy to convince ourselves that we are glorifying God with all of our stuff and that we are living in thankfulness when we are really glorifying ourselves and enjoying the gifts more than the Giver. 
            I would guess that we fail to thank God and to honor Him with whatever blessings He has given us nine times out of ten.  We fail to even notice nine blessings out of ten, because some of them are so basic and simple and ordinary.  We fail to thank Him nine times out of ten because we are so focused on the gifts we have or on the gifts that we don’t have and wish we did.  We fail to praise Him and trust Him and rely on Him nine times out of ten because of our many fears and doubts and concerns and wants.
            And if we fail to live in thankfulness . . . if we fail to focus on the Giver instead of the gifts . . . if we fail to remember the awesome power and faithfulness of our Father . . . and if we fail to fall at Jesus’ feet in daily submission, humility, and gratefulness, then we will not know the kind of contentment and peace and joy that we are meant to know and our lives will not bring God the kind of glory He deserves.

            The thing is, remembering God’s faithfulness and practicing thankfulness makes it easier to leave current fears and concerns in His hands. 
            As we saw earlier, one of the reasons the Israelites’ time in the desert was so hard and long is because they grumbled and they forgot who God is and what He can do.  Two things that are so easy to do when times are tough and fears loom large: grumbling and forgetting. 
            But the opposite of grumbling and forgetting is being thankful and praising God (even in the pain) and remembering all that He has done before. 
            Thankfulness is about learning to find God in everything, looking for the blessings in each day and for the good that has come (or can come) out of any situation.  It means remembering all of His goodness to us in the past and letting that carry us through the current hard times.  And sometimes, when we can’t see any obvious and exciting blessings, it’s just thanking God for the most basic gifts: His presence, our lives, a flower, the sunshine, or the rain.  Maybe it even means thanking Him for the problems that we have, because it could be so much worse.   
            We can get so down in the dumps sometimes - in those darkest nights of our lives - that all we see is the garbage and blackness around us.  But even if we can’t change the dump we are in, we can choose to look up at the stars.  Our minds can go back to the times that God has shown His power, goodness, faithfulness, and love before.  Like stars, those times can shine brightly against a dark sky.  But when we don’t remember what He has done for us in the past, we forget what He is capable of doing.  And then our current concerns or fears seem so big and ominous.
            [If you want to be more thankful and content, and get your priorities more in line, and be more aware of the needs of others, and curb your spending on “stuff,” try this:  
            Never compare your circumstances against someone who has it “better” than you, but only against those who have it worse than you.    
            Focusing on someone who has a “better life” only makes you bitter, envious, thankless, self-centered, and causes you to pursue “stuff” to make yourself “happier.”  But there’s almost no quicker way to thankfulness and to gaining a softer heart for those who hurt than to remember how many people have it harder than you do, how many would change places with you in a heartbeat.]  
            I think one of the best practices to start – especially when times are tough – is to keep a running, written list of all the things that you are thankful for.  Past things.  Current things.  Exciting things.  Basic things.  Overlooked things.  Good things that came out of bad times.  And things about God’s character that you are thankful for.  When nothing else can sustain your hope and strength during the trials, this will (along with God’s Word).     

            I’ll be honest.  I am still struggling with learning to be thankful in the midst of heartache, with learning to be content with life as it is.  With having very little contact with my family.  With having only one or two friends I barely get to see.  With learning to cope with feeling lonely, overlooked, and like a failure in so many areas.  With waking up every day and pouring myself into work that the world does not notice, highly regard, or appreciate: making meals, doing dishes and laundry, putting away papers, doing schoolwork with the boys, etc.
            I struggle daily with thankfulness and contentment.  Some days I feel more light and hopeful.  And other days I just pray that Jesus comes back now.  All the heartache in the world.  All the sin and suffering and striving.  All the tears and strife and bloodshed.  All the people who don’t seem to care that they are on the road to hell.  Please come back, Lord, and put an end to all of this fallenness.  Restore it to wholeness. 
            Oftentimes, it seems as though there is more to discourage me than to encourage me.  Which is why it is so important to remain connected to Him, to faithfully do whatever little bit God asks me to do, and to find everything there is to be thankful for.  I need to talk with God all day (even though I rarely hear anything back) about things I am concerned about, things I am struggling through, and things that I am thankful for, even if they are bittersweet blessings.  I need to absorb God’s Word daily.  I need to remind myself that I am so tiny compared to God, yet so loved.  That I am the clay and He is the Potter.  I need to recall God’s blessings, and the ways He has worked in my life in the past, and how He has brought good out of bad.  I need to remember that my purpose and goal is to live Christ to others and to build up eternity, not to seek fulfillment in this life.  And I need to praise Him, even when it hurts. 
            Sometimes, the greatest act of humility is simply praising God when we are hurting.     

            Colossians 2: 6-7:  “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”

            I’m going to paraphrase Luke 16:10 here. 
            “Whoever is thankful when they have very little will also be thankful when they have much, and whoever is unthankful with very little will also be unthankful with much.” 
            If we can’t be thankful for the little things, most likely we will take the big things for granted, too.  But if we can notice and be thankful for the little things, our lives will be so much more rewarding and full, whether we have a little or a lot.   
            But regardless of if we get what we want or not, we are still commanded to praise Him.   
            Hebrews 13:15:  “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise - the fruit of lips that confess his name.”  
            Did you notice the phrase – “a sacrifice of praise.”  Sometimes, our praise of God is a sacrifice because it’s not what we want to do.  Maybe we are unhappy with the way He is doing things, unhappy because everyone else but us seems to get what they want.  But we still need to offer the sacrifice of praise because we “confess His name.”  We have decided that He is God and we are not. 
            As I said in earlier lessons, I think we often live like, “I have faith in You that You can do what I am asking You to do.” 
            But God might just be saying, “Yes, but will you still have faith in Me and worship Me if I don’t do what you’re asking Me to do?”  This is a much deeper, truer level of faith. 
            Of course, we should pray and set our requests and desires before God.  But we need to give Him the right to answer as He will.  And once we let go of expectations that we have and begin to see how God is blessing us Today and how we can glorify Him Today, we will be able to say with Paul that we have “learned the secret of being content in all things”.  And life will be sweeter. 
            It might be bittersweet.  But it will be sweeter because we will be able to find God everywhere.  And this is why I don’t really feel lonely anymore.  I am learning to find a little bit of God’s friendship while I tend to my vegetable and flower gardens, and in the chickadees at the bird feeder, and in the amazing colors and scents of the different seasons.  His goodness is everywhere. 
            Contentment starts right now – in the life we have, as it is – or else it never starts at all!

            My favorite garden statue is of a frog who is bowing his head and folding his hands in thankfulness for his dinner.  But upon his plate is not an abundance of food or fancy food.  On his plate is one single fly.  And for this one single fly, he is humbly and thankfully praising God. 
            I love it!  I smile every time I see it.  And I can learn a lot from it, especially when things don’t go the way I want and when I don’t get the things I want. 
            In fact, for years I feel like I have been learning a lesson in thankfulness and contentment.  I have been learning to develop a “frog heart,” to be thankful for all that God has given me even when it’s far less than what I think I “should” have and even when the blessings come through trials and pain.  I can always find something to be thankful for, even if it’s just one single fly.
            Contrary to what everyone believes, this life is not about making sure we are happy.  It’s about glorifying God and building His Kingdom and enjoying a relationship with Him.  But do we only believe that He is a good, loving God when we get what we want, or can we trust Him and praise Him regardless? 

            “But how can I praise Him,” you ask, “when I don’t feel like it?” 
            Well, simply put, praising Him is not a function of our emotions.  It’s not something we do because we “feel like it.”  He doesn’t say, “Be happy!”  He says “Praise!” 
            And praise is a verb, not a feeling we have to drum up.  When you read passages about praise, you’ll see that it’s a command to our wills.  And sometimes, as it says, it is a sacrifice.  But it’s something that we need to do because of who God is and who we are, regardless of if we feel like it or not.
            Thankfulness (or more accurately, thanksgiving) is not just about feeling warm and cozy and happy because life is going well.  It’s not about feeling mushy and gooey toward God because He gave us something we really wanted.  It’s not even really about what we have. 
            It’s about who God is and how much He loves us.  It’s about praising Him – regardless of what is going on in our lives - because He is a good, loving, faithful Father who cares about what’s going on and who will make all things right in the end. 
            It’s honoring and glorifying Him in the good times and bad, with the little we have or with the lot, because we know that everything is by Him and for Him. 
            And it’s for our spiritual health and protection.  Because bitterness, worry, and fear attract demons.  But praising God puts up a hedge of protection around us as we immerse ourselves in the Lord. 
            And if there is anything that we can be thankful for, it’s that He is a great big God who loves us a great big bunch, so much so that He came and died for us so that we could live with Him.  Can you think of any gift greater than that? 

            Psalm 96:4, 8:  “For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise . . . Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name . . .”

            1 Timothy 6:6-10:  “But godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.  People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.  Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”
 

Questions: 
1.  Did anything in this chapter stand out to you?  Any thoughts or Bible verses you want to share or talk about?

2.  How is your life different from what you thought (or think) it should be? 

3.  What have been the hardest things to get used to or to accept?  Have you found any hidden blessings in the “unexpected” things of life?  Any joy in the pain?

4.  What is the difference between happiness and joy?  Which should we be pursuing and how can we do that?  (What are some things that make you happy?  That bring you joy?  Is there a difference in these kinds of things?)
            [My answer: I like to think that joy is a spiritual thing and happiness is an earthly one.  Joy is about finding satisfaction in God and happiness is about finding satisfaction in life’s pleasures.  Joy is eternal; happiness is momentary.  And I think we need to be pursuing joy more, learning to be content in God, regardless of what He gives us or doesn’t give us. 
            I’m not saying that it’s wrong to get things that make us happy.  Go ahead and splurge on a big, fancy coffee drink if it helps you find a little happiness in a discouraging day.  Buy flowers for the table.  Go for the bigger television or the fancier car, if you like.  Go on a nice vacation with the family.  Create a big, beautiful garden in your backyard. 
            The problem isn’t that we do things to make us happy.  The problem is when we run from “happy thing” to “happy thing” because we feel like something is missing inside of us, like there is some hole we need to fill. 
            The problem is when we pursue things, experiences, or other people to make us happy because we haven’t learned to be content with the life God gave us, or to be thankful for what God has provided, or to find our identity in Him.  We haven’t learned to trust Him with our prayers and our dreams and our lives, to rest in His love and goodness, no matter what disappointing circumstances we are facing. 
            Life is going to be full of disappointments and trials.  We will struggle with self-image issues and times when we feel unfulfilled and overlooked.  There will be times that God feels far away and we will wonder if we really matter to Him or to others at all.  And at some point, we may look around us and think, “So this is life, huh?  How sad and pathetic!”  And this is when happiness falls short.  It can’t fill those deep voids or meet those deep longings or fix the big problems. 
            Happiness is a poor support when we need to lean strongly on something because we can’t hold ourselves up.  But joy in the Lord – knowing that we are His, that He is watching over us, that we matter to Him, and that He will make all things better eventually – will carry us through the hard times and this long life.  While happiness might be nice for the moment, joy is so important to our emotional health, spiritual health, and our eternity. 
            And in the name of all honesty, I’m still learning to find and develop joy.  It’s one thing to talk about it; it’s another thing to actually do it when times are tough and discouragement lingers too long. 
            Sometimes joy feels so far away that I’d settle for a tiny bit of happiness, even just a bite of chocolate.  And it takes everything in me sometimes to hang in there, to dig for and wait for joy.  The bigger the discouragements, the longer I have to wait for joy to arrive on the scene.
            But I have found that it is crucial to maintain contact with God as I wait and to let Him honestly know how I’m feeling and struggling.  Waiting and struggling are part of the journey to finding our identity in Him more, and to finding contentment and deeper wells of joy.  So hang in there!]   

5.  Do you think that Christians are guilty of pursuing happiness over joy?  How?  What problems does this cause?  And what are the effects on our spiritual lives?
            [If we constantly try to find happiness in some temporary pleasure whenever we feel some kind of void or ache, we miss out on the spiritual growth that comes with struggling with that ache.  Every ache or void or longing is a chance to grow.  It’s a chance to figure out what’s hurting or broken inside of us and to find healing in God.  And it’s a chance to learn contentment and to trust God and to rely on Him. 
            Sometimes, in response to a void or ache, God gives us something that we wanted or something that will make us happy.  But sometimes, He asks us to go without and to learn to praise Him anyway.  And if we constantly run after happiness to make us feel better, we miss out on the deeper lessons and deeper spiritual growth - the kind that only happens when life doesn’t go our way, when we don’t get what we want, and when we have to learn to live with it. 
            It’s easy to praise Him when life is good and we are satisfied.  It’s much harder to praise Him when we ache and hurt and have to go without.  But there will be points in our lives when God has to teach us to do that.  And while it won’t feel good, it will eventually tap into deeper wells of peace and joy and trust than we thought possible.  And it will help us find our strength and fulfillment in Him alone.]

6.  Do you think our expectations get in the way of our joy?  How?  And what kinds of expectations do we tend to have about life and about God? 
            [I definitely think they get in the way.  When we have our own ideas of how God should act or treat us and how life should be, it really hurts and confuses us when reality doesn’t match up.   
            It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to have expectations, like expecting that family should have each other’s backs or that God will grant us health.  But the problem is when we get hung up on the times that reality doesn’t match our expectations, when we get into a deep funk over it and start questioning our worth and God and His truth, faithfulness, goodness, and love. 
            But those questions are important stepping stones to finding truth and healing.  So when the questions come up, don’t just wallow in them and in your disappointment with life and God.  Figure out why you are disappointed.  Figure out what your expectations are and if they are reasonable and biblical or not.  Ask God to help you understand and to see things through His eyes.  Go to the Bible to learn about who God really is, who you really are, and what we can really expect out of Him.  And if nothing else, run to God for comfort. 
            Eventually, you might realize that your expectations were off, that it wasn’t God letting you down.
            Or maybe your expectations were reasonable, like expecting that your marriage should last or that your kids should go to college and get a good job.  But sometimes, reality doesn’t match up to even reasonable expectations.  And you have to learn to live with a lot less than you wanted.  But this is where you have to find comfort and strength in the Lord and trust that He holds all things in His hands and that He will eventually make all things right in the end.          
            And while it might hurt to have to adjust expectations or let certain dreams go, it can lead to greater spiritual depth and growth, if you let it.  And that will have a great eternal impact, making the temporary disappointments worth it.] 

7.  How do you define contentment?  Are you content?  Are most Christians, in your opinion? 
 
8.  “Most discontentment comes from feeling like God owes us something that He isn’t giving us.  When in reality, we owe Him everything that we already have.” 
            Do you think this is true?  What else causes discontentment?  And how can we break out of discontentment?

9.  I said that we limit God by our expectations and parameters.  Do you think this is true or not?  And how would you explain what this means?  What problems might it cause? 

10.  What expectations have you had about God that have caused you problems?

11.  Can our expectations of how God should answer our prayers get in the way of noticing and accepting how He really does answer them?  Can you think of any examples?  Any from your own life?

12.  How can “our feelings” create problems in our spiritual lives?  In our everyday lives?  What would God’s response to this be? 
            [Our feelings can lead to all sorts of problems . . . if we let them lead.  And unfortunately, we often let our feelings dictate how we act and live. 
            We run after things that make us happy.  (Because happiness is the most important thing in the world, right?) 
            We “follow our heart” because it “can’t be wrong.”  (So if that means finding a spouse that makes you happier or neglecting your kids so that you can pursue your dream, then go for it!)
            We don’t obey because we “don’t feel like it.”  (“Lord, I know that I should walk away from this immoral thing . . . or put someone else over myself . . . or praise You even in the hard times . . . or tithe even though money is tight . . . or follow You even when You lead me somewhere I don’t want to go.  But I just don’t feel like it.”) 
            And we think that somehow “our feelings” will be an acceptable excuse for why we didn’t do things we should have done or why we did things we shouldn’t have done. 
            We need to be careful to not let our feelings lead.  Sure, they can be good indicators of what’s going on in life and they can help us figure out who we really are inside, but they shouldn’t lead.  We need to let godly wisdom lead us.  We need to be in the Word and in prayer to find out what God expects of us and how He is leading us.  And whether or not we feel like it, we need to learn to obey. 
            It’s also important, though, to be honest with ourselves and with God about our feelings, especially when they conflict with what He wants from us.  Sometimes, we need to lay our feelings down as sacrifices at His feet (instead of just shoving them down and ignoring them), if we are going to be able to pick up the cross He wants us to bear. 
            The thing about feelings is that they will eventually get in line.  In the beginning, they might not have been on the same page as godly wisdom.  But as we obey and do the right thing, they will eventually catch up.  But if we let them lead us to where we shouldn’t go, we will always feel unrest until we make things right between us and God.]


13.  I said that we share our real feelings with others but polish ourselves up for God.  Do you think this is true?  How and why do we do this?  And what are the effects?

14.  What are the dangers of grumbling and forgetting?  How does it affect our lives and our faith?

15.  Why might we have a hard time trusting God?  Have you ever faced this?

16.  How important is it to learn to praise God in the pain and the trials?  What effect does it have on us when we do this?  When we don’t do this?

17.  What do you think Colossians 2:6-7 is saying and how can we apply it to our lives?
            “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”

18.  Any thoughts on the differences between “thankfulness and entitlement”?  “Faith and presumption”?

19.  Think for a moment about the Israelites and the manna in the desert.  Did you know that when God provided the manna, He was actually testing them? 
            Deuteronomy 8:16 says “He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you.”
            Verse 2 explains why He tested them: “. . . in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.” 
            What can we learn from the Israelites and the manna, as it relates to contentment and thankfulness?  How does contentment and thankfulness possibly relate to “whether or not we keep His commands”?       

20.  Can you think of a time that God gave you a “manna test”?  How did you do?  And what did you learn through it? 
            [For example, in my marriage, we have basically never been given more than our “daily” bread.  We’ve never had an “abundance” of money and, oftentimes, we’ve had a lot less.  And so we’ve always had to be very cautious with it.  And this has worn us down at times with discouragement, stress, and worry over our finances. 
            Now that I think about it, it has been a kind of “manna test” where God is calling us every day to trust Him to provide what we need for that day only.  And He is teaching me to be content with receiving only that much, to keep my focus on the things that I can manage and to let Him handle the rest, and to not store my treasures on earth but in heaven. 
            And I will admit that I have failed this test over and over again by being anxious or grumbling or judging God because He wasn’t doing what I thought He “should” be doing.  But I keep trying to refocus on Him and to be thankful for the things I do have. 
            How about you?  Any “manna tests”?]    

21.  There are lots of things in life that are not what they should be.  When is it right to strive for ore or for better?  Basically, when and in what situations is “contentment” an unhealthy thing?  (Examples from your own life?) 

22.  When and in what situations might it be better to be learn to be content with things as they are?  When does striving for “more” or for “better” actually harm us instead of helping us?  (Examples from your life?)

23.  Is there anything you have had to learn to be content with?  What helped you learn to be content with it?  And what blessings came from it?

24.  Is there anything that you need to learn to be content with?  Why are you having a hard time with it? 
           [Lately, God has been teaching me to be content with a lot less than I wanted for my life – less friends, less success, less money, less attention, less comforts, less family contact, less, less, less.  And the greatest lesson I am learning in all this is to praise Him anyway.  To be able to say like Job, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  And as I said in the lesson, what I am learning about contentment is this . . . “Contentment starts now or it never starts at all.”]

25.  What do you think the “secret to being content” is?   

26.  What are the ultimate truths and hopes that we can cling to that make it possible to bear with anything this life throws at us? 
            [It’s simply knowing that God is with us, that He is holding us in His hands, that we matter to Him, and that He will eventually make all things right in the end and turn all the ugliness into beauty.  And for that alone, I can say, “God is good.  Blessed be His name!”  I’m learning to live for eternity, because this world pales in comparison to the hope and joy and peace we have waiting for us on the other side.]

27.  Has God taught you anything in particular or challenged you in any way through this lesson?

28.  What advice would you give to someone going through a hard time?

29.  Are there any other thoughts or questions that you want to add?

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A place for you to share your thoughts and to encourage each other. But please understand that as a busy homeschooling mom who is seldomly on-line, I may not be able to reply to most comments. But I will be reading them as I can and praying for you. Thank you for your comments! Please keep them godly and uplifting, as I will delete any that are mean or ungodly. I intend for this to be a safe place where people feel encouraged and respected.