Trapped in a Suburban Twilight Zone

“As a Christian there is stuff I know we should be doing, and really want to be doing, but in our lives right now there just isn’t enough time.” Does that sound like something you have said? If you haven’t said it, is it at least how you have felt, yet you never dared speak those words out loud for fear that doing so would somehow force you to deal with the reality of what your own ears heard your mouth say?  In a recent conversation a friend relayed just those words to me. They had been speaking to someone who has a longing, a deep yearning, to do something more, something significant for the kingdom of God. They even have a sense of what that would be. But they just don’t have the time. Now we are not talking about starting a ministry that will end world hunger in forty days, or bring the Gospel to every person on the planet in their own language by next year. We are talking about things like, “I need to be in community with other followers of Christ in a way that we really do life together”. It is about the yearning “To live in such a way that I know my neighbors better and am serving them as Jesus serves”. It’s about “having a more devoted time of prayer and reading God’s Word so that it shapes me into who Jesus wants me to be”. It is about stuff that every follower of Christ can and should do, but so often says, “I just don’t have time”. Something is seriously wrong.

Think about this for a moment. There is stuff you know you should be doing and even want to be doing, but there is just not enough time. WOW! How is that possible? How can you not have time to do something you know God wants you to do and you have a desire to do? Is God playing some kind of cosmic joke on you? He gives you a desire and longing to do something and then makes the days too short for it to be possible? He gives you a desire and a command to spend more time with your children but at the end of the day He arranges your priorities so it is impossible. As a result you are left feeling frustrated, disappointed, and guilty. All because you haven’t done what you are sure God wants you to do? All the while, deep in the recesses of your soul is this feeling that God is just not being fair. He asks something of you then seems to make it impossible to accomplish. It sounds like an episode out of the Twilight Zone, where some unseen entity is running experiments on a person to see how long it takes for them to go nuts when faced with a crucial task that just can’t be completed, no matter how hard they try.

What makes this especially surreal is the explosion of modern time-saving devices. Devices that were supposed to free us up for all kinds of noble pursuits have completely failed. It took my grandmother a couple of hours everyday just to make dinner. Now we can pop it in the microwave or order take out and save hundreds of hours a year. It used to take the better part of an afternoon to cut and rake the yard with a rotary, manual push mower and a rake. Now the whole thing gets done in 30 minutes with a direct drive mower with bag attachment. We don’t even need to waste the 5 minutes it takes to make a hard-boiled egg. You can buy them from the grocery store by the half-dozen. And they are already peeled for crying out loud! So what is the deal?

The deal is, we have allowed a picture of a suburban American lifestyle and the upward push of economic advancement to compete with the good that God has for us. At worst I have seen this drive for the nicer house, newer car, advancement of the career and social status, literally rip families apart. At best it has people living a life with a veneer of respectability, rushing to soccer games, participating in church events, attending social functions, but underneath, no one is happy. The parents are at odds over money, time, and other priorities, and the kids have a nagging sense of insecurity because there never seems to be any sense of contentment or peace or tranquility. There is a constant striving for something more and an underlying angst that if we get that “something more” we will still be left feeling unsatisfied.

Some may think that the problem is in our yearning, our appetite for things. It is because we want so much stuff so strongly that we are left hungering for more of the respectable, comfortable, suburban dream. I was reminded recently that C. S. Lewis maintained that the problem we have is not that our appetites are too strong, but that they are too weak. Our appetites for things like comfort, respectability, social standing, and the like, are actually very small appetites. They are but unfulfilling morsels that have the allure of greatness but the substance of vapor. Yet we are made for much more. We have placed within us a longing and yearning for the eternal, the holy, the majestic. We have a hunger for true meaning and significance. We have been created by God to be His image bearers in the world, to be vice-regents over creation, to reflect the glory of a holy, eternal, all-powerful, gracious, loving God. Our hearts ache to fulfill our created purpose. Stupidly we think we will fulfill that purpose by filling our lives with middle-class morality, respectability, and comfort.

There is nothing inherently wrong with running the kids to soccer games, having a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and working at a job that demands much but pays well. What is wrong is when those things become our means to fulfillment, when they become badges of our right relationship with God. We are fooling ourselves when we think so. At that point they are merely idols we worship. And like all idols they over promise and under deliver. And we are still left unfulfilled, frustrated, and yearning for something more. It is only when we take the radical and provocative step of laying down those idols and looking to find our fulfillment in a full on, sold out relationship with Jesus that we find our purpose. Do you want to be in real community with others but have no time? Then dump an idol and replace it with opening your home in hospitality to others. Do you want to make an impact in the life of someone in need? Then forget about your gym membership and spend the time tutoring an inner city child. Do you want to leave a lasting legacy of God’s grace and mercy, then bag your vacation and spend two weeks every summer for the next ten years serving orphans in Haiti or Africa. You see, there is time to fulfill those yearnings God has placed within you. The question is, are you willing to break out of the suburban twilight zone and lay down your idols?

Stephen Baldwin Does Not Need Your Money

Why do Christians continue to miss the point of why things happen in our lives? Why do we keep thinking that the best way for God to be honored and for people to want to follow Jesus is for us to be blessed with wealth, fame, and prestige? I ask this in light of the campaign being waged to restore wealth to Stephen Baldwin that he has apparently lost because he is following Jesus. A website called Restore Stephen Baldwin has been established in order to financially support him.

The thinking is that he is being left out of roles or declined roles, and thus he is loosing income because of his faith in Christ. So people in Hollywood are smirking and saying “so what good is it that you are following Jesus?” As a result they are mocking Stephen and mocking God. The people behind the website think that if Christians around the world sent money to help restore Stephen financially that this would be an amazing statement for the power of God.

What are they thinking? What about the Apostle Paul bringing glory to God by saying 10I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12I 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. 13I can do everything through him who gives me strength. Philippians 4:10-13

We don’t only bring glory to God by being rich and powerful. In fact, we usually do not. Paul is saying that we bring glory to God by learning to be content no matter what situation we find ourselves in. How big a statement would it be to the people of Hollywood if they saw Stephen happier than ever even though he had less? What if they saw him at peace and content regardless of how much or how little he had? What if they saw his family actually be stronger in their relationships even though they no longer had big houses and expensive cars? I wonder what that would say about the power of God then?

Hollywood is called tinsel town for a reason. Most everything is fake and designed to be shiny for a season. But the seasons and the glitter don’t last. Faith in Jesus, contentment in Christ, finding your sufficiency in God alone, those things are lasting and these are the things that lead people to faith in Jesus. Every Hollywood star goes through a down time in life. What if they saw a peer who was actually content and secure in Christ and not the glitter?

Jesus doesn’t need Stephen Baldwin, you, or me to be rich and powerful. He needs us to be content in Him no matter what.

Provocative Contentment: Is God Really Enough?

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:11-13

My wife teaches at a Christian school and several years ago each teacher was asked to pick a verse from the Bible that was to be their guiding verse for the year. When this was published along with their profile, I noticed then nearly 30% of the teachers chose “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” as their verse for the year. My first thought was that I didn’t know teaching elementary students was so tough. But it also got me thinking more about that verse. Many people, not just elementary school teachers go to those words for strength in time of hardship and struggle. They are great words of hope.

But when we look carefully at the passage it is astounding to realize that we are usually only focused on half of the story. Sure Paul says that in times of hunger or struggle or suffering, he has learned to be content with God and to find strength in Christ to endure. But at the same time Paul says that he has also learned to be content when things are going great, he is well fed, and life is just cruising along. In those times he has also learned to survive by depending on the strength that Christ gives. Now you may be thinking, well anyone can learn to be content when life is good. How hard can that be? Actually it is harder than you think. One of the effects of sin is that when we have “enough”, we very quickly become dissatisfied with that and we want more. In many ways it is the same as the diminishing return a drug user gets over time. After awhile the body becomes used to the drug and the impact is felt less from the same amount. So in order to achieve a high, the user needs more and stronger doses. The same thing happens with the good times in our lives. For the moment we are content. But after awhile the effect wears thin. We find that we need the next cool thing, the next new product, the next amazing experience. We get bored and easily discontent.

Paul understood that in order to be truly content in both abundance and want, the only answer was to depend on Christ for His strength. In essence that means being content with Christ no matter what our physical and emotional circumstances are. For Paul it was ultimately all about Jesus. He said earlier in the letter that whether he lived or died really didn’t matter, as long as Jesus was glorified. Paul discovered that everything else paled in comparison to the joy of knowing Jesus. For Paul, God really was enough to make his life full and complete. If he had abundance then the goal was, how can my abundance bring Glory to Jesus and me closer to Him. If he had little then the goal was, how can my poverty bring Glory to Jesus and me closer to Him. No matter his life situation, for Paul it always came back to the Glory of God and being in closer fellowship with Him.

In that regard, God was enough for Paul. Jesus and the strength He offered, was really all Paul needed or wanted. Nothing else mattered because nothing else gave him purpose, or joy, or security, or status. Are you that content? If God suddenly made you poor, would you be just as happy as if you were rich? How often have things given you contentment that was temporary, only to discover that after awhile you wanted more. That nice house that seemed so big and wonderful. When did it become unsatisfying? Was it when your friend or sibling bought a newer, bigger house? The same can be asked of your car, new dress, cell phone or vacation experience.

In some ways it is the times of blessing that are hardest to deal with because we don’t think we need the strength of Jesus. Yet those are the most dangerous times. we get sucked into a delusion of being just fine spiritually because we are just fine physically. We need to cling to Jesus all the more in our abundance and blessing. Paul knew that for himself. We need to know that for ourselves.