When we lived in Southern California, we observed that the weather there tends to fluctuate between extremes. Some years the rain would be plentiful, then there would be years of drought. There’s a lake near where we lived, which during years of abundant rain would swell to the top of its banks and flow under the freeway. During years of drought, the water level would recede so much that the lake no longer made it to the freeway. When the lake was high, it would look beautiful. When the water receded, the lakebed would be exposed along with trash and debris that had accumulated there—not a pretty sight.
In a similar way, a circumstantial drought can cause the lake of our contentment to recede so that our idols, which had been hidden under the waters of our prosperity, are exposed for all to see—like a junky car that had been previously hidden in the lakebed.
During times of drought, we can learn to be content by following the Apostle Paul’s example: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11b-13).
Our nation has just come through a decade of economic prosperity. When the year began, we had nearly full employment. The stock market was at an all-time high. Wages were rising. The economy was growing. You could say that the lake of our financial circumstances was overflowing. Paul says that there is a “secret” to living in the midst of “plenty” and “abundance.” Perhaps he is thinking of the warning in Proverbs that riches can be spiritually dangerous because we can be tempted to be proudly self-sufficient and forget our dependence upon God (Prov. 30:8-9; also see Matt. 19:24). How did you fare in recent years when you were tested by prosperity? Were you, like the Philippians, generous towards the Lord’s work (Phil. 4:10-11a) and those in need? (2 Cor. 8:1ff)? Was heavenly treasure more important to you than earthly wealth (Matt. 6:19-21)?
With the sudden onset of the pandemic, many of us have found ourselves in a time of drought. Tens of millions of people have lost their jobs. Thousands of businesses are on the verge of bankruptcy. People approaching retirement have seen their life savings decimated by sharp drops in the stock market. Some are concerned about foreclosure or eviction from their homes. Our freedoms of movement are being restricted. Perhaps for the first time in world history, churches all over the world have been unable to gather on the Lord’s Day. Many are living in fear of death from the virus. And perhaps the greatest challenge is that the future seems uncertain and possibly very bleak. We don’t know when the pandemic will end or if life will ever return to “normal.”
For many of us, this sudden change in circumstances can be like the drought in which the calm waters of our prosperity recede and our previously hidden idols are exposed. Perhaps we thought we were trusting God, but now that our idol of financial security is threatened, we have become worried and fearful. Perhaps we thought we were content, but when forced to reduce our lifestyle, we become dissatisfied. Our idols of materialism, comfort, and control may also be exposed. This should especially be humbling for those of us in the West, where it is highly unlikely that we will be without food, clothing, and shelter.1It is very likely that the pandemic’s impact in developing countries will be a much greater impact in terms of deprivation, suffering, and death. Yet, we may be tempted to be miserable if our vacation plans are canceled, we can’t eat out as often as we previously did, we can’t afford new clothes, we have to rent an apartment rather than owning a large house, our favorite cut of meat (or brand of toilet paper) isn’t available at the grocery store, or if our Amazon orders don’t arrive the next day. Many of us have an idol of comfort and can be quite upset when it is threatened.
When our idols are exposed by a drought, we are given the opportunity to smash and remove them. We need to learn, with Paul, the lesson of contentment. Paul learned the secret of facing hunger and need. Such contentment does not come easily or naturally. Both James and Peter (James 1:2ff; 1 Pet. 1:6ff) remind us that God uses trials to expose and refine our weaknesses. The author of Hebrews teaches that even Jesus, who was completely sinless, still had to be matured in His humanity through the trials He suffered. “Although He was a son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:8). If Jesus had to learn obedience through His suffering, how much more necessary our trials must be for our sanctification.
While I don’t know all of the reasons God has allowed a pandemic, I am convinced that for many of us, one purpose is to teach us the secret of contentment in all circumstances. Paul, who was a model of joy and contentment even as he was in prison facing possible execution, teaches us how we can grow to be more content.
- Rejoice in the Lord (Phil. 4:4). Rather than trying to find happiness in our idols, which are crumbling in the present drought, learn to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). The joy of the Lord is our strength (Neh. 8:10), which cannot be shaken by circumstances.
- Don’t worry (Phil. 4:6a). Trust God that He who feeds the birds and clothes the grass will also provide for you, His child (Matt. 6:25-34).
- Pray (Phil. 4:6b). Cry out to God to meet your material needs and strengthen you spiritually during these troubled times.
- Give thanks (Phil. 4:6c). Take your eyes off your troubles as you remember and specifically declare all of God’s past and present goodness and faithfulness to you.
- Focus your thoughts on the best things (Phil. 4:8-9). During times of great trial, it’s easy for our thoughts to be consumed by our troubles. We can consciously choose what to think about. I have been combatting my own fears by reading extra Psalms each day.
- Trust God to give you strength (Phil. 4:13). “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” is one of the most famous, but misused verses written by Paul. He is not talking about winning a sporting contest or running a marathon. Rather, he is talking about how Christ strengthens him to be joyful and content while in a prison cell, facing possible execution. If Christ can do that for Paul, then He can help us to live with the much less severe deprivations of being quarantined and the much lower likelihood of death.
- Do today what needs to be done today (Matt. 6:34). For my last point, I will go from Paul to Jesus, who, when teaching us to trust God instead of worrying, said, “Do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” We are living with great uncertainty concerning the future. We shouldn’t waste immense amounts of time and energy uselessly feeding our anxiety about what we cannot control. On the other hand, each day we wake up with responsibilities we can and should fulfill—to care for our families, love our brothers and sisters in the church, and perhaps to look for work. It is wise to focus upon what we can do now while trusting God for what we cannot do about tomorrow.
Don’t be shocked if the present pandemic drought has caused the waters of your comfort to recede, thus exposing your idols. Rather, see this as an opportunity from God to learn the secret of being content in all circumstances.
Questions for Reflection
- What idols in your life have been exposed by the drought of the current pandemic?
- Will you seek to learn contentment in these areas?
- 1It is very likely that the pandemic’s impact in developing countries will be a much greater impact in terms of deprivation, suffering, and death.