Looking forward to the next thing? That's not where you'll find joy.
Between the ages of 6 and 18 I was home schooled. I never went to school dances, never was a star varsity quarterback, never dismantled an opponent as part of the debate club, and never built a foam solar system for the school science fair. I was valedictorian of my class, but that's not much of an accomplishment when your class consists of exactly one person.
Now don't get me wrong: I'm grateful that I was home schooled and wouldn't change a thing if I had to do it all over again. But by the time high school graduation rolled around I was ready for a change. The prospect of college excited me.
What would it be like to have a teacher who wasn't also my mom? What would it be like to have the option of skipping class? What would it be like to stroll the halls of academia, to hear the sound of chalk on raw blackboard, and to feel the nervous energy of a classroom full of students who hadn't studied for a test?
All this, and much more, awaited me in college.
College was all that I ever dreamed, and more — for two days. Then I made some unpleasant discoveries. I found that I wasn't a big fan of spending my weekends writing 10-page papers and memorizing obscure geologic formations. I realized that a five-hour exam cram session didn't rank high on my favorite activities list. I discovered that there were professors who were about as interesting as a bowl of shredded wheat. And that these professors always had a mandatory attendance policy.
By the end of the first two weeks I was living for the weekend. By the end of the first year I was ready to get out into the real world and make some real money. Just like high school, college didn't satisfy me. I was ready for the next thing.
And you know what? The real world didn't satisfy me either. It seems that my professors forgot to tell me that in the real world you work in a real cubicle, and wear a real shirt and tie, and have a real boss, and have to meet real, ulcer-inducing deadlines.
After a few short months I was eager and ready for the next new thing.
The thing is, the root of my dissatisfaction wasn't my circumstances. It was my sinful heart. What I needed most was a heart change, not a change in circumstances.
Could I Be Happy In Jail?
Acts 16:22-24 recounts the arrest of Paul and Silas:
The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.
Now if I'm Paul or Silas, at this point I'm thinking, OK, it's official: It stinks to be me. After all, they had just been attacked by a crazed mob, given a royal beat down, and then tossed into a filthy prison. No one would fault Paul or Silas for being at least slightly discontent.
Yet how did they respond to their circumstances? Acts 16:25 tells us: "About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God...." This isn't your typical response to massive suffering. In the midst of horrendous circumstances, Paul and Silas were praying and singing. They weren't complaining, they were rejoicing!
Where does such invincible joy come from? How could Paul be content in the midst of such a bleak time? What was his secret? Paul tells us:
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for 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. (Philippians 4:11-13)
Paul's joy wasn't rooted in his circumstances, but in Christ. Paul could be happy in plenty or in pain, in days of sunshine or in days of rain. How? By finding his strength and joy in Christ.
Notice that Paul didn't buy into the "Greener Grass Conspiracy." No matter what my circumstances, I'm regularly tempted to believe that the grass is greener somewhere else, that something else will make me happy. A new, more exciting job, a new relationship, less homework, spring break, summer break, marriage, something, anything. It's all a pack of lies. Satisfying joy is found in knowing and delighting in Jesus Christ.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
So what does this look like practically? How did I find contentment in the midst of term papers, boring summer jobs, and singleness?
First, I fought to be happy in God. How? By regularly spending time reading God's Word and praying. When I read God's word I experience the real, soul-satisfying, empowering presence of God, and as I encounter the presence of God I experience the joy of God. I can say with the Psalmist, "You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Psalm 16:11).
As I pored over the sacred book, I asked God to open my eyes to see his all-satisfying glory. Let me encourage you to do the same. Ask God to fill you with His holy joy. Plead with God for the joyful strength of Christ — the strength that will empower you to be content in whatever circumstances you find yourself.
Jesus said, "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full" (John 15:10-11). Joy flows through the channel of the words of Christ. Jesus is eager to give us joy, but we must step into the channel through which it flows. Read God's word. Ask for joy. Be transformed. I've found that it's really that simple.
Second, I threw myself into my work. Not out of some abstract moralistic work ethic, but out of love for Christ. Colossians 3:23-24 says, "Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ."
Notice the all-encompassing phrase, "whatever you do." Whether it's writing term papers, or writing computer programs, or babysitting younger siblings, it's all to be done for the glory of Christ. God calls me to work hard at whatever I'm doing because I'm ultimately working for Christ.
I think Jim Elliot captured the force of this verse well when he said, "Wherever you are, be there 100 percent." In my years as a single man, I wanted to be there 100 percent for the glory of God. I wanted to take full advantage of my singleness by serving those in my church, and spending time in God's Word, and encouraging other Christians. I didn't want to waste my singleness.
Let me encourage you to follow Jim Elliot's advice as well. If you're in college, be there 100 percent. Study hard for the glory of God. Write boring term papers with the passion of one who's been bought with blood. Take your finals as if Christ himself were administering them. Don't waste your college years by continually looking forward to the end. The grass isn't greener on the other side of college.
The Final Verdict
One day each of us will stand before our Creator to give an account of our lives. On that day my only hope and plea will be the precious blood of Christ. In every season of my life there's been some measure of sinful discontentment, and so I will cling to Jesus as my only hope for heaven.
My heavenly rewards, however, will be dependent on the way I lived my life, and I want to hear Christ say, "Well done, good and faithful servant." I can prepare for that day now by finding my joy in Him and working hard for the glory of God.
So if you'll excuse me, I've got some reading to do.
Copyright 2008 Stephen Altrogge. All rights reserved.