One of the apostle Paul’s most significant teachings—one which we tend to gloss over and undervalue—concerns contentment during life’s trials. To the church at Philippi, he wrote, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Phil 4:11). Coming from a man who had been flogged, beaten, shipwrecked, and imprisoned, this is quite a powerful statement.
Paul’s firm conviction was that we, as Christians, can experience deep-level contentment during circumstances in which everything has been turned upside down, throughout the times in life when many of God’s most precious gifts have been stripped away: “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” (4:12). Indeed, the Lord Christ offers to anchor our inner life even in the midst of life’s most tempestuous storms. We can experience serenity and deepened faith even when life’s circumstances would otherwise trigger protracted distress and despair.
Even through the soaring highs and devastating lows of our lives, we can learn, like Paul, to keep our eyes on the prize: the all-surpassing worth of Christ. There is nothing that life could give, or affliction could take away, that is more valuable than the Lord Christ and the promise that he will return one day to make all things right. Christ is the greatest treasure of all.
I find it fascinating that Paul (even Paul, the super-Christian!) needed to “learn” how to abound. God found it necessary to “teach” Paul the secret of facing life on life’s terms. After all, Paul seems to be the greatest Christian of all time, the GOAT of spiritual warfare, the exemplar extraordinaire. Yet, even the great apostle had to graduate from the school of hard knocks if he would experience the deepest and most satisfying type of relationship with God.
The lesson that Paul learned—to count all of life’s gifts as “rubbish” and as “loss” in comparison with Christ—is a lesson we must also learn. Thus, when God abruptly enrolls us in the school of hard knocks, we must find a way to embrace the opportunity. We must ask for power from on high so that we can learn the lessons God intends.
In the school of hard knocks, Paul is not our only instructor. The Bible offers a diverse array of faculty members, including the Old Testament saint Job. In the previous installments of this series, we have traced the broad contours of Job’s story. In this installment, however, we summarize what we can learn from Job’s enrollment in a PhD-level version of the school of hard knocks.
The central theme of Job’s story is God’s faithfulness to transform his people in the midst of suffering. While we may never understand why God allows certain painful experiences in our lives, we can begin to understand the good God intends to bring from those experiences. Through our suffering, we learn to treasure Christ more than the comforts of life. We learn to place less value on life’s other attachments and more value on Christ.
As we learn to value Christ above all other treasures, we gain a type of wisdom we could not otherwise gain. We learn what it means to truly fear God, and “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 1:7; 9:10). We gain discernment of God’s workings behind the scenes. We also gain the ability to give wise counsel to fellow travelers who are in anguish and are having a hard time accepting life on life’s terms. This sort of wisdom will infuse and reform our thinking, feeling, and acting.
Furthermore, we gain a new lens through which to read Scripture. Whereas we might have previously been tempted to gloss over the Bible’s pervasive instruction about human suffering, we will now be more keen to embrace those teachings with discipline, depth, and demonstration.
Sometimes, the Lord works through suffering to lovingly discipline us, making us aware of character defects that he wishes to address. Consider the suffering of King David after he had coveted Bathsheba, acted on his lusts, and attempted to remove the consequences of his sin. In this instance, God leveraged David’s pain the way a metalsmith leverages a white-hot fire: to remove the impurities. Similarly, God used Job’s suffering to make him more righteous than he would have been. He worked through painful experiences to remove remnants of Job’s pride and dissolve the fear and anxiety Job displayed in worrying excessively about his children.
Other times, the Lord works through our pain to bring depth in our walk with him. Consider the case of Paul, who suffered greatly for his faith, and who said that through it the Lord had taught him the secret of contentment (Phil 4:11). Similarly, God leveraged Job’s anguish to instill in him the type of wisdom and humility he otherwise would not have gained.
Yet another way the Lord works in our lives through suffering is by demonstration. Sometimes, he reveals his greatness by delivering the suffering person in a visible and demonstrable way; consider the example of Daniel being delivered from the Lion’s Den. God allowed an evil king to persecute Daniel by throwing him to the lions. Only after Daniel had been thrown to the lions did God extend his strong arm to save.
Other times, he demonstrates his infinite value by not delivering the person from the suffering of this world; consider the examples from Hebrews 11:35-40, in which great men and women of faith went to their graves destitute, tormented, and afflicted. In such instances, God demonstrates his greatness to anybody watching when he enables us to treasure God more than God’s gifts. Certainly, this is part of what God was doing in Job’s life. He was demonstrating not only to Job’s friends, but also to Satan, that Job worshiped God because God in fact is worthy of worship.
Thus, from Job as from Paul, we learn to be content. Our discontentment is rooted in the illusion that God owes us a turmoil-free existence in this fallen world, in our desire to walk through life unscathed by affliction. Thus, like Paul and Job, we must discard the illusion and put to death our idols by embracing Christ as the greatest treasure that life could give or that suffering and death could take away. We must love the Giver more than his gifts.