Christian Counseling: The Relationship between Transcendence of Self and Contentment

How was it that the apostle Paul was able to master contentedness despite the numerous hardships of life—mockings, beatings, rejections, imprisonments, and “conflicts without, fears within…depressed” (2 Cor. 7:5, 6), oops, maybe he wasn’t always contented. Okay, neither was Jesus (sweating blood in the Garden before His arrest). Okay, okay, He also said to the disciples, “‘How long shall I put up with you?’” (Mt. 17:17).

So what was Paul referring to when he said, “…for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am...I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.” (Phil 4:11, 12). Here is his secret of contentment—“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:13). Through experience, Paul “learned” to accept the good and the bad, the easy with the hard and he found that God had gifted him with mental and, likely, physical strength. Of course God won’t give that to us unless we are in need, which means we live a life of vulnerability, as Jesus, Paul and the early disciples.

Consider what underlies Paul’s secret. He was not pursuing anything like the American Dream, but God’s Heavenly Dream. He says in verse 11, “Not that I speak from want,” which might refer to a different way of living—not looking to advance in earthly wealth or position or to keep up with the Joneses. Paul’s wants were not often earthly-driven, but wants attached to the things above—heavenly. He was able to transcend his much of his own self—desires, personal dreams, and society’s imparted values of how to do life. When we can healthily move beyond ourselves and the things of the earth and into the world of caring for others and the things of God, it becomes easier to accept the good and the bad, the easy with the hard, or, to say it differently, contented, but not perfectly. Sometimes life just gets to you.

Two caveats. First, contentment is not an attitude you can quickly adopt or a behavior to be put on like a piece of clothing. It is a process learned over time and experience. It comes with maturity. Second, this message is limited to only those who are too self-focused and struggle to let self go. This message is not intended for those who are: people-pleasers, can’t say “No!” to people, often guilt-ridden if they seek any pleasure, always other-focused when around others, and, the key point, who have never developed a sense of self to begin with. These people often engage in self-sacrifice to the detriment of their health. They need to focus on developing a sense of self for the first time, a necessary self that can interact in an effective way with the world (challenge and confront) and with God (wrestle). A part of self is required for healthy living. Much of what remains is to be transcended. In order to give up, surrender, submit, transcend, deny, and even die to self, one must first have a self. It may seem absurd to develop a self and then to give a good amount of it up, but it doesn’t work any other way.

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