Learning to Let Go
- Friday, September 26, 2003
When I moved into my apartment, it pained me to unpack my brand-new dishes and actually use them ... by myself. For several years, I had amassed a collection of dishes for my hope chest, and they, along with several other boxes of household items, were not intended to be used until I got married. Opening the boxes and unwrapping each piece was a solemn occasion, as I let go of some long-held dreams.
I recently talked to a friend in the middle of the "all my friends are getting married" phase, and she mourned her place in life. She talked of the many things she thought she'd be doing at this point--with her husband. To go ahead and do them without him seemed like an admission of defeat, admitting all of her dreams were dead.
Most of us grew up expecting to graduate from high school, go to college, get married, start a family, and then turn 25. For many of us, though, we're racing toward 25 with no prospects on the horizon, or we're looking at 25 in the rearview mirror with no one else in the car. We are faced with two choices: pull over and wait for our self-scripted lives to catch up, or forget the plan and focus on the road ahead.
Some singles do their best to focus on the road ahead, carrying lists of adventures to have and goals to achieve. They busily check things off alone, but nagging deep inside is a disappointment with the way life has turned out. Unfulfilled expectations have planted seeds of discontent. The grass looks greener on the other side of "I do," and being single is a phase to endure until true happiness whisks them over the fence.
The Deeper Issue
For them, singles' activities become "hunting grounds." Side-glances intimate true love, and small conversations are laden with significant undercurrents. Sometimes we call them "desperate," but desperate is just a symptom of a deeper issue--discontentment. You don't have to be in the same company long to know they're unhappy and dissatisfied. It's heard in their cynical statements; it's seen on their faces. God's course isn't what they want; singleness wasn't their plan. The weight of discontent drains their joy.
They think what's missing is the joy of a relationship and marriage. Ironically, what's really missing is joy in general--joy of life, joy of singleness. I can hear the skeptical laugh of some single friends--"Joy of singleness?!" Yup. If there's not joy in singleness, there won't be joy in marriage either. Joy is not the fruit of "favorable" circumstances. Rather, it's the outpouring of a contented heart.
Content. The root of the word means "contained." Dr. Warren Wiersbe says it describes a "man whose resources are within him so that he does not have to depend on substitutes without." It's the portrait of a person who withstands the blows of life by drawing upon what's inside. New Agers would applaud such a statement, but the truth is that only God supplies such internal resources. God in us provides more than an adequate supply of spiritual strength.
Philippians is a book penned by a man buffeted by life's bad weather, but yet a man with a contented heart. Eugene Peterson calls the epistle "infectiously happy." "Before we've read a dozen lines, we begin to feel the joy ourselves--the dance of words and the exclamations of delight have a way of getting inside us." Joy spills from Paul's pen across the pages of his letter; it's drenched with obvious contentment and confidence. Perhaps Paul was just one of those annoying people who actually wakes up when the alarm goes off. Instead of stumbling in and out of the shower, maybe he had his day half planned before the water ever got hot. It's possible he whistled while preparing breakfast and then finished a few household tasks before strolling off to work.
Learning to be Joyful
His personality could have been a factor, but Paul makes it clear that he didn't come by contentment and joy strictly through genetics. He learned it, and he learned it the hard way: ". . . for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances" (Phil. 4:11). His list of circumstances stacks up against anybody's claim to hardship: he'd been imprisoned, flogged, exposed, beaten with rods, stoned until nearly dead, and shipwrecked three times. Everywhere he went--city, country, open seas--he was in danger. His enemies included bandits, his own countrymen, Gentiles, and false brothers. He had gone without food and water; he had known cold and nakedness. Oh, and one more thing--he was probably single.
Paul took life's tests and aced them. Adversities became the objects of growth that God intended them to be. How could he so happily endure such hardship? Near the end of Philippians, Paul reveals that he had learned the "secret of being content in any and every situation" (4:12). The cheat sheet for the secret is found throughout his writings. Paul knew above all else that God was sovereign. God was in control. When the ship became floating debris or dear coworkers forsook the gospel, God had a plan. Secondly, Paul had confidence that God was sufficient. He trusted God's ability to work His plan. God's power in Paul was more than enough to handle any circumstance. "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (4:13). The secret of contentment, then, begins with acknowledging that God is sovereign and that God is sufficient. The secret is sealed, however, when experience proves it true.
My favorite joyful person talks with a southern Indiana accent. He's a Hoosier to the bone with basketball in his blood and a grin that's permanently stretched across his face. His laughter splashes joy across any room.
Jon McDugle is a year younger than I, but he's seen a lot more of life than I have. More accurately, he's come face-to-face with death more than I have. During his first week at college, Jon's mom was diagnosed with cancer. After a two-year struggle, she died. After graduation, Jon married his high school sweetheart, Tammy, and headed to seminary. During their time in seminary, Tammy was diagnosed with cancer. She won the five-month battle, but not before Jon put his educational and career plans on hold.
When Jon finally approached graduation from seminary, he candidated at my church for the position of youth pastor. He went through hours of interviews and meetings that would put an FBI investigation to shame, answering an endless stream of questions about his philosophy of youth ministry and how he intended to implement it. I, along with the rest of those who listened to him, recognized his enthusiasm and obvious gifts for ministry, but also hesitated slightly at his inexperience.
The Secret of Contentment
Yet there was something about Jon that made his professional experience less important. Jon had experience with life and with God. He had faced a series of the most difficult pitches life can throw, and he had swung the bat of God's sovereignty and sufficiency. I never doubted that Jon could do the job we were calling him to do, because in addition to his gifts and passions, he had the inner resources to do any job. He had learned the secret of contentment.
Of all the things Jon said during that weekend of candidating, one statement is imprinted in my memory. It came in response to a parent's question about how he would handle difficult situations. Jon answered that his goal was to view every problem as an adventure and to enjoy the ride. That's joy. Joy that comes from a confident contentment in God. In his own words, Jon desires to be "ever-saturated with the sufficiency of God." Dr. Wiersbe calls this kind of living being the victor instead of the victim.
It's easy to want to be the victim. Life isn't fair, and it often doesn't make sense. It is full of unanswered questions and uncomfortable answers. But the secret to enjoying it to its fullest, whatever "it" may be, is found in being content. Contentment keeps the statements of well-meaning friends from rattling you. It stills your reeling emotions when others make their journeys across the threshold. It grants peace when heaven is silent about your future. It turns Satan's attempts to defeat you into God's opportunities to amaze you.
Excerpted with permission from "Living Whole Without a Better Half" by Wendy Widder, copyright Kregel Publications, 2000.
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