A few weeks ago, I watched the 1955 movie, A Man Called Peter, which was about Peter Marshall, a preacher and Senate chaplain. I did not know much about Peter Marshall himself, but I enjoyed his wife Catherine’s book, Christy, along with the TV series and the movies that were inspired by it. And, a decade ago, I listened to a cassette tape in which his son, Peter, Jr., was vigorously arguing that America was a Christian nation.
But let’s not get on that controversial tangent! In this post, I want to use as a starting-point a story-line in the movie. Catherine in the movie gets tuberculosis and is bedridden. She and her husband pray continually for her to be healed, but to no avail. Peter wonders if God is punishing him for being prideful, on account of his numerous followers and his prestigious contacts. At one point, though, Catherine simply accepts her condition. She tells God that, if she is to remain an invalid for the rest of her natural life, then so be it. It is at that point that she is healed. She and Peter both agree that God decided to heal her after she finally accepted her condition. It’s as if God was waiting for her to stop striving, to make peace with her lot, and to let go.
The theme that I want to highlight is the tension between contentment and persevering in faith. Both themes are found in Scripture. On contentment, the apostle Paul says in Philippians 4:11-13:
11 Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.
12 I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.
13 I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. (KJV)
To quote the old hymn, “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul!”
And yet, there are also Scriptural passages about persevering in prayer and in faith, which implies not accepting the status quo. Luke 18:1 introduces a parable by saying: “And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint” (KJV). The parable is about an unjust judge who finally gives a woman justice after she has repeatedly asked him for it. Similarly, in Luke 11, Jesus teaches his disciples to seek and to ask, and he tells them a story about a person who begged his friend at night to give him three loaves. He got what he wanted, after his frequent requests.
Many Christians apply the theme of perseverance in prayer and faith to their own desires. They are believing God for a good job, or a spouse, or healing. Whether they are justified to apply these passages to these kinds of desires is a good question. The passages themselves relate to something rather specific. The story in Luke 18 is about God coming to avenge God’s elect, presumably for the persecution that they have received (Luke 18:7). Essentially, the afflicted Christians are to pray continually for the coming of the Son of Man, to hold on in faith that the Son of Man will come and bring justice. In Luke 11:13, Jesus says that God will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask. What are people supposed to seek, knock, and ask for, in Luke 11? The Holy Spirit. Within Luke-Acts, that was probably fulfilled in Acts 2, when God poured out the Holy Spirit onto the Jewish Christians on the day of Pentecost.
But can one believe God for other things? There are passages in the Bible about God providing for people, or God blessing people with good things. Who is to say that this cannot include a job, or healing? So often in the Gospels, sick people are healed according to their faith. One should not condemn people who remain sick or who die in sickness by telling them that their faith was not strong enough. Bad fruit has come from that approach. But why can’t people continually hold on to God in faith, keeping hope alive that God may heal them, or grant them the longings and desires of their heart?
In the 1990’s, there was a television show, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. In a very depressing plot-line, the town’s pastor, Timothy Johnson, was going blind. The Christians of the town continued to pray for God to heal him, and Timothy was trying to hold on to some hope that this healing would occur. But Sully wanted Timothy to prepare for his coming blindness, and he made Timothy a cane so that Timothy could get around once he became blind. Dr. Quinn transformed something that she heard from her Native American friend Cloud Dancing into a Christian message for Timothy: that trials occur because God is preparing us for a new stage in life. (Cloud Dancing said “the spirits” did this.) The show presented a question: Should Timothy hold out hope and continually pray for God to heal him, or should he simply accept his condition and try to cope with it? The show supported the second option.
Accepting one’s condition and trying to be happy or content with it can make one feel better. Being consumed with continuous, unmet desires can lead to feelings of restlessness, discontent, and unfulfillment. Acceptance, by contrast, can bring a person inner peace. At the same time, do we truly want to say that God is against us dreaming and hoping? Life would be boring without our dreams to keep us going.
I was listening to a sermon yesterday. This was from the prosperity church that I occasionally attend. The pastor in that particular sermon, however, was preaching contentment rather than hoping for prosperity or increase. He was saying that, if we find that Jesus is not enough for us, then we are making that something else that we “have” to have into an idol. He was saying that we should find our contentment and joy in our personal relationship with Jesus. We should have contentment, because Jesus should be enough.
In terms of my own personal journey, in some areas I have accepted my situation, and in some areas I have not. I am content with remaining single for the rest of my life. Maybe there is some hope for a romantic relationship somewhere in my mind, but it is not as consuming as it was back when I was in my twenties. I have more contentment and acceptance now, in that area of my life. At the same time, as my student loans loom in the background, I am trying to believe God that, at some point, God will provide for me financially, through employment. (Of course, I have to do my part, too.) In some cases, the status quo is tolerable. In other cases, change is necessary.
On finding contentment in Jesus, that is something I struggle to do, from my Christian agnostic perspective. I was reading an article yesterday, though, about academic envy, and it sensitized me to how even secular people need something to hold onto for their feelings of self-worth, apart from the vicissitudes of feast and famine, success and failure. To quote from the article: