This is the fifth of a series on “Exploring Spiritual Formation” by Lynn Karidis.
Pasta. Again. Don’t get me wrong, I like pasta. At least, I used to before it began to show up on my dinner table multiple times a week. Now I’m not so sure. My predicament is no one’s fault but my own. I’m the one who stocked the pantry for our shelter-in-place experience.
It’s true I’m discovering how many ways one can use pasta to feed the family. But my discontent is troubling me. After hearing about the thousands of people who’ve lost their jobs—and seeing hundreds of cars lined up to receive help from food banks—I feel a bit foolish for complaining about anything that shows up on my dinner table. Though my dilemma is real, I want to avoid responding like the Israelites did while wandering in the wilderness.
Despite God’s unique daily provision of manna during their time in the wilderness (Exod. 16), the Israelites “began to crave other food” (Num. 11:4). They grew tired of manna—described as tasting like “wafers made with honey” in Exodus 16:31 and like “something made with olive oil” in Numbers 11:8—and craved “meat.…fish…cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” (Num. 11:4-5).
It’s interesting that the Israelite’s behavior is described not as “complaining to” God, but instead as “grumbling against” God (Exod. 16:7, 8; Num. 14:27, 21:4-9). This indicates the issue was not the existence of discontent, but their response to it. First, they don’t direct their complaints to God, but instead, appear to be complaining to each other. Second, they don’t just grumble about the lack of variety in their food but, in their grumbling, they complain about God and impugn his character (Exod. 16:3; Num. 14:3, 21:4-5).
So, is there a way to respond to my circumstances that honors God without minimizing my suffering? As I’ve studied the subject of suffering (and the source of contentment while suffering), I’ve noticed some consistent themes. And during this unsettling time in our history—which has provided multiple sources of suffering and discontent—it’s been helpful to meditate on the following.
There is a Universality to Suffering
First, no one gets off the planet without experiencing suffering. Timothy Keller, in his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering says, “Suffering is everywhere, unavoidable, and it’s scope often overwhelms.”1Keller, Timothy, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 1. As I review the pages of Scripture and observe the lives of my family and friends, I am compelled to agree. I can name no one who has not endured suffering.
This is a gentle reminder that I should not be surprised by suffering. I was once, when, at the tender age of eighteen, my mother died unexpectedly. That tragedy motivated me to begin a search for the secret of contentment.2Besides the books listed in the notes in this article, here are some of the books I’ve found to be helpful in my journey toward contentment (not listed in any particular order): Knowing God, by J.I. Packer; The Cross of Christ, by John Stott; Invitation to a Journey, but M. Robert Mulholland; A Testament of Devotion, by Thomas Kelly; Of the Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a’ Kempis; The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence; Why Suffering?, by Ravi Zacharias and Vince Vitale; A Path Through Suffering, by Elisabeth Elliot; Suffering, by Paul David Tripp; Suffering and the Goodness of God, edited by Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson; A Sacred Sorrow, by Michael Card; and The Rare Jewel of Contentment, by Jeremiah Burroughs. Please note, I do not necessarily agree with all that is written in each book cited. One must run all things through the grid of Scripture. Over the years I’ve discovered that it’s not found in ignoring our circumstances and pretending that everything is fine.3Fleece, Esther, No More Faking Fine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017). Instead, it’s found in knowing God and sharing our hearts with him.
After a diving accident that rendered her a paraplegic, Joni Eareckson Tada concluded that approaching God with anger, despair, and questions doesn’t displease him. Instead, she says that taking our feelings and confusion to God moves us toward—and helps us encounter—him. She says, “He is the answer and we need him.”4Tada, Joni Eareckson, When God Weeps (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 155, 168. She discovered this truth while studying the Psalms (more about the Psalms later), and her conclusion mirrors the experience of the Apostle Paul.
There is a Source of Contentment
Second, the life and words of the Apostle Paul suggest that it’s possible to not only endure suffering, but “to be content whatever the circumstances” in which I find myself (Phil. 4:11). Paul, who was not shy about reciting the litany of his own sufferings, points to the source of his contentment in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 where he declares God’s grace and power to be sufficient in the midst of his weakness.
This idea of sufficiency is actually at the heart of the Greek word autarkes, translated as “content” in Philippians 4:11.5Bauer, Walter, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), 122b. Here, Paul says the secret to his contentment (literally, his secret to his self-sufficiency) is found in “him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13). While discontent can arise out of a lack (or loss) of things (food, people, money, possessions, experiences, etc.), the ability to live contentedly—or with sufficiency—in the face of such deprivation is found in God, in his person, grace, and strength.
As a legitimate response to suffering, contentment should not be confused with “resignation,” “apathy,” “delusion,” or “Pollyannaish optimism.”6Simpson, Amy, Blessed Are the Unsatisfied: Finding Spiritual Freedom in an Imperfect World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 146-147. Instead, contentment is simply “an ease of mind that comes with setting aside our yearning and striving for something more or different.”7Ibid., 145. It is a releasing of our demands and expectations coupled with a deliberate choice to embrace the reality of what God allows.
How does this happen? It can be thought of as an exchange. I verbalize my discontent to God and invite him to help me, as Paul did when he approached God about the “thorn” in his flesh and “pleaded with the Lord to take it away” (2 Cor. 12:7-10). Then I accept the response of God and rest in the powerful grace he offers me. The Book of Psalms is a treasure trove of such exchanges.
There is a Biblical Way to Complain
Third, the Book of Psalms demonstrates that not only is complaining to God allowed,8In Philippians 2:14, which, in English, appears to be a command to not complain, the Greek word gongusmos translated as “murmuring” or “complaining” carries with it the sense of murmuring against someone else in the same way the Israelites grumbled against God in Exodus and Numbers. See Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker, 164c. Please note that the same word for “grumbling” used in Philippians 2:14 is also used in the Septuagint in Exodus 16:7, 8, and that a form of the word is used in Numbers 14:27. As such, Philippians 2:14 is not likely a prohibition of articulating a lament to God. but it provides us with a biblical pattern to express our discontent to God.9Fee, Gordon and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 187-205. It’s interesting that, of the 50 Psalms of Lament,10Walton, John H., Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 73. 34 were written by David (leader of mighty warriors, King of Israel, and man after God’s own heart—1 Chron. 11:10-47; 1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22).
In the Psalms of Lament, the authors complain about a variety of things including: fear, rejection, affliction, loneliness, wounded hearts, physical sickness, anguish in their souls, the felt absence of God, and all the terrible things their enemies are doing to them. And while the Psalmists ask God for different forms of help, there are two consistent aspects in each Psalm.
First, all are addressed directly to God. Second, all have within them a statement of trust in God and/or a statement of assurance that God will help them.11Fee, Gordon and Douglas Stuart, 197-200. In this section, Fee and Stuart present the six elements that comprise a Psalm of Lament. This is where the Psalms of Lament differ from the response of the Israelites who, despite observing some incredibly powerful works of God, could not seem to trust him for their daily bread. In contrast, the Psalmists—who were experiencing far greater troubles—were faithful to extol God’s character and to verbalize their trust in him, as they made their laments to him.
There is a Benefit in Suffering
Fourth, while pain is a reality in the midst of suffering, it is possible for our souls to benefit from it.12Lewis, C.S., The Problem of Pain (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996), 105. If you read The Problem of Pain, be sure to follow it up with A Grief Observed. The first was written before his wife died, the latter, afterward. This is part of the “good” that our powerful God is able to work in our lives (Rom. 8:28).13Please note that Romans 8:28 does not call all things good, but says that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” See Walvoord, John F. and Roy B. Zuck, “Romans,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament (Colorado Springs: Cook Communications Ministries, 2000), 474. Knowing this before one enters into deep suffering can provide some comfort in the midst of it, though it may not mitigate the pain.14Please note it is not necessarily an act of kindness to point out this truth to one who 1) has not yet learned it, and 2) who is in the midst of suffering.
One of the chief benefits of suffering is the cultivation of perseverance and maturity in our souls (James 1:1-4). While it’s true that the prospect of eating too much pasta is a relatively minor issue, it’s also true that the small problems in life, though trivial, are not inconsequential. They serve as the training ground for the larger issues of life. Case in point: the Israelites demonstrated no more trust in God as they faced the prospect of giants at the entrance to the Promised Land than they did while facing their perceived food shortage at the beginning of their journey (Num. 14:11). Obviously, they failed the test. I hope to fare better in my walk with God.
How will I avoid the failure of the Israelites and, instead, grow my faith by practicing contentment in the face of suffering? I will do this by clinging to the Anchor of my faith while being buffeted by the storms of life. While living in plenty or want, I will pour out my heart to the God who sees, knows, cares, and who is able to provide—the God whose love for me is unfailing and who will never leave or forsake me (Gen. 16:13; Pss. 13:5,147:5; Matt. 6:25-34; 1 Pet. 5:7; Heb. 13:5). When I can’t find words of my own, I will pray the Psalms of Lament back to God.15Psalms of Individual Lament: 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 13, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 31, 35, 39, 42, 43, 51, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 69, 70, 71, 76, 77, 86, 88, 102, 109, 120, 130, 140, 141, 142, 143. Psalms of National Lament: 44, 74, 79, 80, 83, 90. Walton, John H., 73.
I will emulate my brother Jesus who did not pretend that the death of his friend Lazarus didn’t bother him, but who wept (John 11:1-35). Who did not ignore the impending pain of the cross and the agony of bearing the sins of the world, but whose sweat was like drops of blood while praying to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:39-44). Who, when he suffered the felt absence of God, cried out the words from a Psalm of Lament, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1, Mark 15:34).
I will imitate my brother Paul who found the strength to sing hymns to God after being flogged and thrown into prison (Acts 16:23-25). Who suggests I offer my anxiousness to God in prayer in exchange for peace (Phil. 4:6-7). Who cast himself on the mercy of God and recognized that both living and dying hold opportunities for the believer to glorify Christ (Phil. 1:21).
I will remember to ask God for what I need with the humility and faith of the Centurion (Matt. 8:5-13). I will wait on God, like the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, to work all things out in his timing (Heb. 11:1-40; Ps. 46:1-11). I will remember to be grateful like the one leper who returned to thank Jesus for his healing (Luke 17:11-19). And each time I face another bowl of pasta, I will rejoice and praise the goodness and mercy of the One who provided it.
Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™