We live in a culture that’s working up a good sweat, always pushing us to excel. Goal-setting. Achieve more. Grow. And all of this is, of course, the American way…
But what if where you are, right now, is where you need to be? What if striving for more and better and bigger isn’t on Jesus’ agenda for you right now? How can we set a future path for growth and excellence in ministry while simultaneously embracing contentment in the present? And is it even possible?
Contentment is a priority in the Kingdom of God
The Apostle Paul tells us: “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have” (Philippians 4:11). But it’s this same driven guy who spurs us on with this little gem: “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win!” (1 Corinthians 9:24). So, if a guy like Paul, who spearheaded the expansion of the church around the known world, can live in the tension between contentment and striving, maybe there’s a path forward for us, too… I’ve been on a mission to discover this path over the past five years…
I was raised in a family culture that labeled rest as laziness and treated “good enough” as if it was a sin. My dad owned a business roofing houses. And when he wasn’t doing that back-breaking work, he was running a small farm, trapping our food (yes, I’m serious), working in his shop, or one of a million other things. As best I can remember, he sat down for one hour a week…when Gunsmoke was on. Oher than that, he was working. And he wanted us to be working as well.
I’ve spent the better part of 50 years striving to accomplish the “next thing”—making goals, charting my progress, and beating myself up over failures when I didn’t measure up. My wife describes it as “work mode”—an inability to relax because I’m always pushing toward something at all costs.
Several years ago, a good friend and spiritual mentor wrecked 45 years of a fairly successful model of “getting things done.” One goal I’d always relentlessly pursued, but never achieved, was lasting weight loss. “Darren,” he asked me, “what if this IS your ideal weight?” I laughed because I thought he was joking. When I realized he was serious, I pushed back. I mean, I’m overweight, so this can’t be “ideal.” I hadn’t achieved the goal. We’re called to set goals and pursue excellence. That’s the “run to win the prize” challenge that Paul is giving us. But how do we do that from a place of contentment?
I’ve always had a demanding voice inside me that equates lack of movement with failure.
So I set targets and sacrificed everything to hit the bullseye. When I didn’t, I crucified myself internally. My dreams and goals were driven by emotional processes that have gripped me for years. Not, it must be obvious, by the kind of guidance we crave in our intimate interactions with Jesus. I did what fear and shame and guilt drove me to do, not what the voice of Jesus influence me to do: “This.. This right here? This should be different. And you’re gonna be a part of making it different.” Contentment, I discovered, comes only when I pay ridiculous attention to what Jesus is speaking to me. A lot of what he wants me to be striving for isn’t even on my guilt/shame radar. And some of my objectives weren’t on his radar.
I set some of my goals on the shelf.
Weight loss took a back seat to wholeness. Sabbath became more important than a clean garage. Priorities shifted along with my definitions—“contentment” had been code for “complacent.” But it’s not true. Contentment means we look to Jesus to set our agenda, whether it’s resting or striving. It’s his job to discern what we most need, when we most need it.. It’s our job to listen and follow.
|Complacency says: “I don’t care if this thing gets advanced or not.”||Contentment says: “Advancement requires only the level of participation Jesus is guiding me into. But I give my whole heart to whatever he gives me to do!”|
|Complacency says: “I know there’s stuff to do, but Netflix is my jam.”||Contentment says: “The wisest use of my Kingdom minutes right now is spent decompressing with Netflix, so that I’m “fully charged” for the next 24 hours of stuff I need to do.”|
|Complacency says: “I’m lazy because I’m not doing more.”||Contentment says: “I’m wise because I’m doing enough.”|
Who and what are you listening to as you set goals?
As you compete for the prize, how are you tending to your soul?
And how is Jesus speaking into the goals you’re pursuing, and has your pursuit of accomplishment trumped your pursuit of him?