What We Learn in God’s Holding Patterns

CC BY-NC, Fly For Fun, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Fly For Fun, Flickr

A flight holding pattern is a delay tactic airports use when planes cannot land for different reasons, like congestion or bad weather. If you’ve flown enough, you have probably experienced one of these. In fact, you may have looked out your window and saw the airport but wondered why on earth you were flying around it in circles.

Depending on the type of delay and number of incoming aircraft, planes can be stacked in holding until air traffic controllers can land them one-by-one, starting with the lowest plane.

God’s way with us is like holding sometimes, can you agree?

Learning Contentment

Who doesn’t love that great Pauline verse—“I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Ph. 4:13). But I’ve found that many of us don’t understand its context. It is definitely deeper than the Christian self-help it has become in recent times. Paul refers to his ability through Christ to keep at an even keel while facing the highs and lows of his life. He expresses how the grace of God offers him contentment.

So let’s back up a little. Paul, a prisoner now and finalizing his letter to the Philippian Christians, thanks them for their generosity to him. Then, he quickly clarifies that he doesn’t bring up the matter for any new need he has…and this is where the important context begins.

“For I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need” (vs. 11b-12, ESV).

Is Contentment Satisfaction?

This is a revealing glimpse at Paul’s life. His words comfort us in our trials today because someone as sage and godly as he is transparent enough to share his own holding patterns in the will of God.

What does Paul mean by content? Surely he desired to be out of that prison. His churches were better served by his presence among them; after all, he’s sending them a letter here. Certainly he preferred a full stomach to a grumbling one and peaceful presentations of the gospel instead of violent protests.

If we’re not careful, we will make Paul say that he was satisfied with his circumstances. But consider yourself: perhaps there was a time when you didn’t have the things you needed. Did that cancel your desire to have more or better, especially if someone depended on you? No, it didn’t.

Think about the plan God has shown you for your life. Maybe you’re in a hard place right now and simply cannot fathom how he will make good on his promise. Although it’s difficult now, God showed you his plan at the start to provide you hope for when the good times turned. He doesn’t mean for you to build a home in the wasteland.

Something on the Inside, Working…

Instead, Paul’s contentment means he was inwardly self-sufficient, not requiring outside support. It means that he was indeed satisfied with the grace of God that propelled him forward in the divine will despite his external circumstances. In fact, it was knowing that wherever he was in life somehow accomplished the will of God for him; and because of that he could do all things through Christ who strengthened him. The scope is pervasive, all-inclusive.

Herein we are offered a deep lesson about what we possess and don’t possess. The highs and lows enter our lives to lend us perspective and never to disturb our rest in God. For whatever may come, we cling to grace, not things.

Let me sum it up this way: Contentment is to not worry about anything you see around you or off in the distance, whether it’s your natural sustenance or the very promises of God. But it is to learn and progress right where you stand. And it is to trust God—who knows exactly where you are in the holding pattern—until he lands you where he wants you next.

More on this topic: The Perils of Covetousness and God, You’re Killing Me!

My Two Cents on Generosity

CC BY, emilianohorcada, Flickr

CC BY, emilianohorcada, Flickr

Thought: If I had millions of dollars, I’d be an incredibly generous person.

I’m sure you’ve heard this kind of talk, especially when the jackpot swells. Wealth does indeed allow people to be generous and helpful. My problem with this rationale, however, is that we should think more money makes us more generous persons.

Now I don’t doubt that there are many who have respected their fortune by carefully weighing the responsibility of managing it—and have become more generous due to a new appreciation for wealth’s power. And there are those who have purposefully and creatively used earlier hardship as the impetus to empower others less fortunate.

These kinds of people underscore a process of building virtue and have understood that to be reckless with wealth is to disregard the noble prospects it is capable of producing.

But to assume that abundance directly translates into abundant virtue…well Jesus would quickly disagree with us.

Asian Hospitality

Let me tell you about a wonderful encounter of hospitality I had.

I was a teacher in Japan and decided to spend my first vacation in Tokyo. My American co-worker (and college mate) grew up there and was going to visit family; he asked me to come along. Lodging for me was arranged with a Christian family who gladly agreed to house me.

I was shown incredible hospitality. The entire upstairs loft belonged to me, and my host pre-stocked the refrigerator there with every imaginable treat. My clothes were washed, ironed, folded, and delivered daily. Meals were prompt and the matron’s sister baked and sent over exquisite breads for us. I was insisted upon to use the home phone to call and chat with my family back in the U.S. And despite the language barrier, we enjoyed the presence of Christ together in devotions after meals.

My friend had decided to join me the second day. Those he visited were elderly, so he opted to lodge with us and use his fluency to help us all communicate. When it came time for our departure, the patriarch handed each of us an envelope that, to our astonishment, contained almost $200 to pay for our train home—and a trip to visit them again.

Cultivated Hearts

This kind of hospitality, which I bumped into regularly as a gaijin (foreigner), is extreme by American standards. Obviously, it’s largely rooted in Japanese and Southeast Asian culture, but that lends to what I attempt to convey here. (And I should again emphasize and beg you to consider, to my point, the authentic faith I witnessed in this home.)

To think that wealth, newfound or otherwise, makes us more generous individuals really is to deceive ourselves. If you missed the point the first time: the heart must be cultivated this way.

I hope you go out of your way to accommodate others, really. But the level of generosity I described—let’s face it—isn’t quite American, culturally, for reasons I cannot explain now. When you go on vacation, is it imperative that you return bearing gifts for co-workers to show you were thinking about them? No, you hightail it outta the office just to get away from them jokers!

Gifts of the Heart

Let me be concise. I’m not convinced by wealth-induced “sudden generosity” because abundance has very little to do with virtue. Folk who have nothing but are truly generous people will share the little they have with others in need without a second thought. Did we clearly hear Jesus’s proposition—“Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Real generosity doesn’t need wealth.

After observing the rich give their offerings and a widow place two copper coins in the temple treasury, Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “They all (the rich) gave out of their wealth,” meaning their gifts were inconsequential to what they possessed and were easy to offer. For all their abundance and the pride they derived from it, they possessed little spiritual wealth that begged of sacrifice and unadulterated devotion.

But this widow “out of her poverty, put in everything she had”—two paltry coins—and so confirms my point here.

More posts on this topic: The Perils of Covetousness, Living with Simplicity, and Why Do the Wicked Prosper? 

Why Do the Wicked Prosper?

CC BY-NC, Steve Corey, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Steve Corey, Flickr

Have you ever been “broke, busted, and disgusted,” wondering where God was, and found yourself despising a well-off person you were certain didn’t care anything about God? Did you sizzle? Rant? Curse? I imagine there are many reasonable Christians who’ve wrestled with these feelings—and taken it out on God. I’ve been there. It’s comforting to know that the scripture writers have, too.

It’s a question asked throughout the Bible, especially in the Prophets, and by do-gooders everywhere: why do the wicked prosper? What is more interesting is God’s answer to the question. But before we get to his response, I need to provoke a discussion. *toothy grin*

This one calls for getting to the heart of why we feel the way we do about the issue. I know what a shoestring budget feels like standing in the grocery line with my bare necessities watching some thug/some white collar highbrow/some self-righteous prude lay all their goodies and spirits on the checkout, me thinking, I’m trying to live for you and I’m just getting by! Judgmental perhaps, but if you’ve been there, can I get an ‘Amen’?

God, You Owe Me!

We have to ask ourselves “Does godliness merit ease and prosperity?” On the one hand we have a God who promises, “All these blessings shall overtake you if…” and on the other he acknowledges, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous…” Might our real problem with the wicked prospering be that we feel God owes us for serving him? That we should be treated better…look like his children, yet the wicked appear more like what his children should be?

Jeremiah in his twelfth chapter and Asaph in Psalm 73 both deal with this topic. Jeremiah laments, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?…You are always on their lips but far from their hearts” (12:1-2). One thing we see from Jeremiah’s complaint was that God’s bounty was in the land but was being circumvented by the powerful and greedy, leaving the rich to grow richer and the poor poorer (v. 4). It’s understandable to be angry about these conditions.

God’s reply to Jeremiah is a noted verse in the book—“If you have raced with people on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?” (v. 5). God told Jeremiah that his issue was a small and ordinary concern, while the real problem was the moral darkness in the land that was incurring great judgment.

A ‘small and ordinary concern’…

I pause here to be fair. We should not grossly assume that because a person is not devout or is perhaps agnostic or atheist that they are somehow undeserving of good things, and, for that matter, incapable of generosity. The larger point is that wealthy “wicked” people have not necessarily gained their prosperity by being wicked and criminal any more than some Christians have earned a life of poverty by their godliness. Instead, they have worked hard for what they own and deserve any wealth they have. Moreover, honest and diligent work is all of our responsibility, and everyone can be wealthy. This is a clue that, in God’s mind, the issue is not about money.

Matters of the Heart

Asaph shows us the rest of the picture. “Surely God is good to Israel,” he says, “to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped” (73:1-2). What an admission! He rants for half the chapter until despairingly stating the same sentiments I’ve made in the grocery line: “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure…all day long I have been afflicted and every morning brings new punishments” (vs. 13-14).

But then the dawn of an answer breaks through:

“When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly they are destroyed, completely swept away by terrors!” (vs. 16-18).

Asaph only alludes to the real discovery, and what he realizes is the same message God was trying to get through to Jeremiah. The issue is not wealth but the condition of the heart. The “slippery ground” Asaph refers to explains it: money allows the desires and inhibitions of our hearts to easily surface.

Reading the demise Asaph describes for the wicked is nothing to rejoice about. It is very sad. He shows us a person who has gotten carried away by his or her desires. If the test of struggle is to survive the dearth, then the test of plenty is also to survive by not being drowned by fortune—or drowned in covetousness, pride and greed, power and control, vice and criminality.

Money doesn’t have a heart; people do—and people create crime and unfairness and the imbalance of justice. Thus, why the wicked prosper is manifold, from industriousness to unlawful dealings, but this is not the real issue. What we should hate is not the wicked with money but their state and be very sad about it and the judgment and sorrow their actions work to bring down upon them and a people.

Also on this blog regarding this topic: The Perils of Covetousness, Living with Simplicity, and The Disciple Who Never Was.

The Perils of Covetousness

CC BY-NC, boodie 131, Flickr

CC BY-NC, boodie 131, Flickr

Jesus tells the parable of the rich man in Luke 12 to warn his listeners and disciples about covetousness. He explains how a wealthy farmer had no remaining storage space for his flourishing crop. So he tore down his facilities and built larger ones. Pleased with his ever-increasing accomplishments, the man raised a toast to his life and success, but things suddenly changed. The man died and we hear God deem him a fool and question what would become of his wealth. Then, Jesus concludes that the man, although rich in earthly wares, was spiritually bankrupt.

God’s Concern about Our Wealth

The parable is a vivid opening to what is one of the richest treatises in the Bible concerning wealth and greed. It is significant for two major implications. First, Jesus never denounces wealth or affluence. Nowhere in the story does he view wealth or the man’s possession of it negatively. This is important because many people incorrectly believe that the scriptures condemn riches, but a topical study would prove otherwise. Whether studying the Prophets, Proverbs, the Gospels, or James, places where wealth is a prominent subject, we would quickly discover that what matters to God is not mere wealth, but how people use it.

Generally, what God condemns in the scriptures regarding wealth and affluence are: 1) people being caught up in their riches, 2) people not helping the poor, and 3) people using their wealth in ways that disenfranchise others. The first listed condemnation is the point of Jesus’s teaching, which is the tenth commandment: do not covet. Covetousness is often thought of as desiring what belongs to another person—and it is that. But the definition is broader and means a desire for gain or riches beyond what is necessary or that is beyond our ability to acquire.

Trade existed in the days of Christ and long before then; capitalism and the market system drive today’s world economy. People have more now than they have ever possessed in history, and the results prove positively in high standards of living, longer life expectancy, and a better overall quality of life. Yet the excesses that are the byproduct of the world’s wealth cause Christ’s teaching to loom in significance. In many societies it may also be true that never have people been more consumed with acquiring material possessions and becoming rich. So, although wealth is not bad, Jesus wants us to see that a heart set on it is a bad thing.

Life at All Levels

CC BY-NC-ND, Steve Martin, Flickr

CC BY-NC-ND, Steve Martin, Flickr

The second implication from the parable derives from God’s pronouncement on the man—“You fool!” Understand this: the man wasn’t censured because of his status. It is not for us to ridicule those who are rich, especially if their wealth has been earned honestly. It is the blessing of God to them. People balk and even view it as disgusting that some live in multi-million dollar mansions that may be ten times the size of a normal home. But we should avoid this type of attitude.

People live at all levels. It is the goodness of God to work and achieve and be sumptuously remunerated for it. That shouldn’t be criticized because everyone has a duty to work for their well-being. We should also not think it strange that God bestows wealth on some. Wealth is not extravagance and vanity of itself; it is better to understand excess as being relative to our socio-economic level. Furthermore, simplicity is encouraged at whatever level we live.

We can be more critical when the rich do nothing to help the less fortunate. We would be hard-pressed to deny the scriptures’ emphasis on that obligation. But help may mean something more than monetary aid; instead, it could be the help that attends a wealth of influence and decision-making and is capable of making systemic changes that benefit people on a large scale.

Caught Unaware

The rich man’s problem was that he only lived for his wealth. Work, making money, achievement, and even prestige became the point of his life. He forgot or purposely omitted his eternal welfare, and he didn’t look beyond himself to help others. Then, he suddenly died. It is important to note here that Jesus is not implying that the man died because God killed him for any reason. The man died in what we are to assume was the natural course of his life, yet he died in a state of ungodliness and, therefore, eternal loss. “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matt. 16:26) The man is a fool—a stupid one—because he didn’t build a lasting fortune with God in the way he built his earthly fortune.

Our Small Concerns

Jesus continues and opens a larger discussion on covetousness and the dangers of a life lived only for wealth and material possessions. He uses the fate of the rich man to underscore his thesis already stated in the parable—“Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (v. 15b). In his exposition he specifies these (but certainly doesn’t limit them) as food and clothing, very basic needs for human survival and well-being. Although the theme of greed continues, the topic shifts slightly to incorporate worry for things beyond our control.

Masterfully, Jesus draws upon God’s providence in nature to answer human concern. The birds do not sow or reap in the field; they have no storage places. The flowers do not work or make their own clothing but are magnificently adorned just to beautify grassy fields that are constantly mowed down. God feeds the birds; God clothes the earth. If the Creator supplies the basic needs for the natural world, he will certainly care for those he has given his own image, for “how much more valuable you are than birds!” (v. 24).

Jesus questions the worth of worry: “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” (v. 25-26). He alludes to the providence of God: that God is in control of our lives and is always working to care for our needs. Our very lives are in his hands. In effect, Jesus asks what would be the benefit in worrying about how long one would live, except to keep him or her fearful of dying and joyless about the present moment. Worry only produces more stress and never a solution. Matter-of-factly, he calls the days of our lives a small thing in God’s eyes. So if worry can satisfy nothing about the little concerns of our lives, which are already too big for us, then we must trust God to handle the truly complex ones.

The Snare of Covetousness

CC BY-NC-ND, Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, Flickr

CC BY-NC-ND, Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, Flickr

Still working from Jesus’s thesis—“Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions”—the implication of verses 25 and 26 is significant, for it addresses the poor and the rich alike on the topic. There is more to life than what is seen and tangible. It is deeply sacred and lends incredible dignity to humanity, human relationships, and life in this world. It is spiritual wisdom and it derives from God—and is owed to him in worship.

Covetousness, a form of idolatry, becomes a trap that keeps us entrenched in this life bent on acquiring temporal material things. It effectively nullifies our spiritual and eternal outlook. If not careful, the poor and the rich together will be snared by the rich man’s temptation: to live only for material gain. The less fortunate will do all for comfort sake; the very fortunate will hoard and do everything to maintain their comfort.

Jesus’s teaching clashes with an age-old social norm of greed and personal satisfaction. What we cannot see when all we see is money and possessions is the condition of our souls and any lack of godly wealth. The prophet Haggai dealt with the same problem in his day. He criticized God’s people for living in highly decorated homes when the Temple of God lay in ruins (1:4). Thus, despite all our earthly comforts, we could end up bankrupt in the life to come and, instead, live eternally paying the price of our sinful negligence. Godliness is true wealth and is significant in ways we don’t understand in this life, yet God’s love assures us eternal gain.

All of these temporal things, Jesus says, are what unbelievers run after—merely these things, for the poor, and more of these things, for the rich (v. 30). The New Living Translation reads, “These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers…” This couldn’t be truer in a generation run amok with greed. Christ’s warning against worry extends even to our fantasies. We make ourselves sick with desire for material things: fancy homes, new cars, fine clothing, the latest smart device…anything. It’s fun to daydream about what our lives could be like in another set of circumstances, but too much of this becomes futile and counterproductive. In fact, it can eject us out of faith in God for our present, real needs and cause us to be unhappy with our situation and lustful for what is not in our power to acquire.

Rich or Poor, Same Problem

I mentioned earlier that people live at all levels. We should learn from and appreciate the level where we live because our situations could quickly change, for better or for worse. I firmly believe that it is God’s desire that we prosper at our level, which means to have our basic needs met and the ability to avoid struggle. Upward social mobility is a good thing, and I do not frown on people working diligently to lift themselves out of meager circumstances. But investing too much energy in an attitude of escapism or in “climbing the ladder” may not proceed from faith in God’s providence but in greed and vanity. Furthermore, we should work dutifully and trust God to bring us to new levels of increase in our lives.

Now, in verse 30, Jesus is ready to present the most important thing: “But seek his kingdom.” The interesting thing, however, is that all the preceding leaves little need for the exhortation and proves Jesus’s skill as a master teacher. God would supply all our personal needs, Jesus declares. A deeper consideration of the verse, within the context of the larger discussion, might be God’s desire that we seek his kingdom with our wealth. Jesus continues, “Your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (v. 32). The verse, ironically, seems to joyfully illustrate the plenty of God’s wealth. Galatians 5:23 footnotes the fruit of the Spirit in a like manner by saying, “Against such there is no law”—there are no injunctions against producing godly traits. They are freely offered by the Holy Spirit and available in copious supply. Therefore, do the things that engender godliness because the heart will reveal our true instincts.

CC BY NC-ND, Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Flickr

CC BY NC-ND, Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. Flickr

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v. 34). I enjoin this popular verse on the heart with another one that appears in the Matthew 6 rendition: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (v. 24). The illustration extends beyond money to our loyalties and indeed service to God. What we love the most will produce neglect for all else, and this underscores the danger of covetousness, whether we’re rich or poor: the pursuit of material gain will cause us to abandon our spiritual lives (1 Tim. 6:6-10).

Paul’s Heart on the Matter

The apostle Paul in Philippians 4 brings these verses to life. He cherishes the Philippian Christians because they have consistently supported his ministry when all others did not. He says to them, “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 all this through him who gives me strength” (vs. 11b-13).

Paul shows us a heart with God firmly fixed as its priority, and this was his anchor despite the highs and lows of his circumstances. Because God was first, he was sure not to be carried away by worry and fear and the need to escape his troubles and equally as sure to avoid the temptations of demanding money from his churches for his support and vindicating his apostleship.

It is interesting, however, that he states, “I have learned…” It is a sweet spot of transparency the great apostle reveals to us, for given the struggles he had to overcome in ministry, he didn’t learn simplicity overnight. There must have been moments when he hated his conditions and craved better resources, but, God getting the best of him, he learned that God’s will and the spread of the gospel far outweighed his creature comforts. Time and the Holy Spirit would have had to condition Paul’s heart and reset his priorities.

Paul affirms that by Christ he was able to accomplish all things (v. 13). It is a big statement—in Christ’s strength we should be able to endure the temptations of both lack and abundance. If we recognize the Lord to be our priority and true Sustainer in meager times and plentiful ones, then those times gain meaningful context within his purpose. Why God allows people to go through tough times is not always understood, but we have the confidence that in all our situations, he is at work for our good (Rom. 8:28). Job 1:21 expresses this concept beautifully: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Also on this topic: Why Do the Wicked Prosper?