How can we find contentment in the many unfinished symphonies of our lives? This is what God invites us into.
Hello. We made it. It’s the final weekend of 2020. My name is Vincent. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the production director here at Cornerstone and also part of the teaching team. It’s my joy to help produce and organize all these Sunday services, as well as all the artistic expressions you see, like the Christmas mosaic we had last week. If you haven’t checked it out, I encourage you to do so because there is still time in the year for some Christmas joy.
When Pastor Terry was planning this advent message series, the heart of worship, he was speaking to me and said that he had a spot available on the 27th of December. Would I like to share something on the heart of worship? I said, “No, I don’t think I’m the right person to share anything about the heart of worship. There are way more qualified people than me. I’m not sure I’m the best fit for something like this. Thanks, no thanks.” It wasn’t until my drive home and the next day when I was having a conversation with a friend that the Lord convicted me of my response.
He actually gave me a word to share. I was having a discussion about the idea of contentment. Suddenly, I realized, okay, this is the word I am to share, this fits into the theme. I spoke to Pastor Terry. We chatted about it. As we discussed and explored the idea, we decided it was a good fit after all. Here I am, on December 27th, 2020, sharing a message about contentment, even though I said I didn’t want to. The Lord has funny ways of working, doesn’t he? Now, the irony of this is because I have struggled so much with contentment over my life.
In the last season, we’ve had, but I feel like I’ve come to a term to, a season now where I am beginning to understand and feel more contentment. It’s also ironic. Because I think this year, for all of us, has been in summary, a year of discontent. I think it’s also been an opportunity for us to take inventory and stock of our lives, once everything has been stripped away from all the distractions and so many of the things we did, and even the things that we found meaning in have been taken away from us. That forces us to face these questions of, what does matter?
How do I find contentment in any circumstance? That’s what I’d like to share about today. I think a heart of worship both begins and ends with contentment. I think it’s a great way to end the year, and also a wonderful way to launch into next year. To start, there’s a passage in Philippians that the apostle Paul wrote that I’d like us to use as a launching pad. It goes like this. I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.
I’ve learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength. Now, I was always amazed at this passage. Here’s a guy, the apostle Paul, who has been through it all. He’s been rich. He’s been powerful. He’s been wealthy. He’s also been stripped, bloodied, and beaten to the point of death. He’s been poor and imprisoned. He’s been hungry. He’s even been blind. Yet he has a declaration saying that he knows what it is to feel content in all of these things.
That’s impressive. If I were writing this passage, I think the opposite would be true for me. I have learned to be discontent in every season of my life. Wherever I am, whatever has happened to me, I have a hard time being there and being fully present and happy with any given moment. I’m always thinking about the past and things I should have done, or thinking about the future and things I still am to do in my to-do list or ways that I would make this moment even better because either I’m too tired or I’m sitting uncomfortably or there’s something wrong with everything.
That’s what it’s like to be inside my brain. Now, I don’t know if you think or feel the same way that I do. Maybe it’s easier for you to find contentment, to be happy, and to be joyful and present in each moment that’s given to you. I think some level of discontentment is actually the normal status quo of humankind. One of my favorite quotes of all time is by Karl Rahner. He says this, “In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we come to understand that here in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.”
He’s essentially saying that here in this life, we will never be satisfied. This is what it means to be human. We are infinite beings in a finite world. Our hearts have been imprinted with the very fingerprints of God and nothing, this side of eternity, can ever fully satiate that. We live forever in these unfinished symphonies. Now, when you begin to wrestle with this idea to truly delve into it, it’s tempting to throw your arms up in the air and say, well, then what’s the point of anything?
Why even bother with seeking after anything, even God, if we’re never even going to be satisfied with anything that’s thrown our way? I have been there myself. I have been in the long seasons of that place. I haven’t been always able to reconcile my longings and my loneliness and my yearnings with the promise of fulfillment that God brings to us, the promise that is found in 1 Corinthians 15:58, where it says, nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. There is hope. There is contentment to be found. How? I have four ideas I’d like to explore.
Before I do that, I want to lay the table a little more with another passage from the Bible. This time, it’s from the Old Testament, from the book of Ecclesiastes. Now some context before we dive in. Ecclesiastes was written by King Solomon. By the way, if you see me leaning like this, it’s because I have paper and I’m taking what I’m putting on the floor. I’m not just doing random exercises while I’m sharing the message. Anyway, segue, so Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes was likely written by King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived.
It’s an analysis of life’s experiences and a critical essay on life’s true meaning. Solomon had asked God for wisdom and he had received that wisdom, but he hadn’t always lived out that wisdom. He takes us on a tour of his life and all of his experiences almost in a scientific step-by-step study of everything he did. He looks at it. He looks at most of his life with regret and through a lens of humility. He’s taking inventory of his life, hoping to spare us, his readers, the bitterness and devastation of learning through our own experiences the same conclusion that he comes to.
When we read this book, you’ll notice that there are two voices. First is the teacher, the main voice. He’s a character in the book written by the author, and the author is anonymous. Now the author introduces us to the teacher in the beginning, let them talk about pretty much all the 12 chapters. Then the author comes back at the end, summarizes, and evaluates everything the teacher said. Now let me warn you, Ecclesiastes can be pretty depressing. N.T. Wright, the biblical theologian, and scholar calls it the Eeyore of the Bible.
It’s important to note that the teacher writes of earthly observations and not spiritual realities. He doesn’t, in his writings, bring into account the hope that is found in God, nor does he weigh his findings against the promise of the coming Messiah. The author lets the teacher do this because his ultimate goal is to highlight all the ways we search for meaning and purpose in our lives apart from God, and then he points us to the meaning to be found at him. There’s always wisdom to be found in these dark and seemingly strange, mysterious, heavy places.
The Lord can be found in those places too, and that’s what the author hopes to illustrate for us. Ecclesiastes 1:1 to 18, the words of the teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new?” It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them. I, the teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, chasing after the wind. What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.
I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief. Whoo! We skip then to the end of Ecclesiastes 12, where it says, not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered, searched out, and set in order many proverbs.
This is the author now speaking. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The teacher searches to find just the right words and what he wrote was upright and true. Now all has been heard, here is the conclusion of the matter. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. Whoo! I need to pray after that. Join me, won’t you?
Dear Lord, I thank you so much for the wisdom to be found in your words, for the honesty to be found there, for the ways that we can approach this and see our own lives in it. I thank you that you guide us to the path of contentment, joy, peace, purpose, and meaning that is found in you. I pray for our remaining time right now as we delve into the themes, Lord, that you’ve set out to for us. We invite you here. We ask for your presence. We ask for your joy and your understanding to view this with clean hearts and fresh eyes. In Jesus’ name, amen.
I didn’t read the whole book of Ecclesiastes to you today because it’s much of the same for 10 chapters. I didn’t want you to turn this video off and go find something else. In just those excerpts, especially the opening chapter, you can notice three themes prevalent there. The first theme is the idea of the match and the progress of time. The fact that time just keeps going like a train, it doesn’t stop for anyone. We’ve been here. There will be generations to come off to that as there’ve been generations before that. There’s nothing we can do about that.
The second theme is death. We’re all going to die. The same fate overtakes all of us, whether we’re righteous, whether we’re wicked. The third theme is the randomness of fate. Sometimes good things happen to bad people, and sometimes bad things happen to good people. It’s pretty heavy, pretty depressing themes. The author doesn’t let us end there. He gets the final word at the end because he doesn’t want us to leave without hope. He concludes these themes by saying that the correct response in spite of all of these things that you’ve observed, in spite of the incessant nature of time, and the fact that we’re going to die, and that life seems random.
The correct response is to fear the Lord and keep His commandments. As you can see, it’s pretty negative and pretty pessimistic, but there’s still much wisdom to be found in all of these principles. Solomon had a very honest approach to writing this book. He wasn’t trying to destroy hope in everything, but rather to direct our hopes into the one who can truly fulfill our longings and give them meaning, just as the author summarized at the end. In these passages, even though Solomon is saying they’re all meaningless, he actually does affirm the value of these things that God brings us, family, work, pleasure, and relationships.
He acknowledges them only in their proper place. Everything temporal in this life must be viewed in light of the eternal. That’s the point he’s trying to make. Another thing you’ll notice is the word meaningless, which is used, I think, about 38 times or almost 40 times, something like that. It’s used a lot. Now the translation of this word and the poetic nature of it has been lost, I think, with the English translation. It’s actually a Hebrew word meaning hevel, which translates to smoke or vapor.
The idea here is when he’s saying that everything is hevel, is that life is like hevel in terms of – It’s like smoke. It’s beautiful and it’s mysterious. It takes on one shape and then another, never the same thing at any given moment. It looks like it’s solid, but you try to grab it and you can’t. It escapes your grasp. It’s an enigma. It’s temporary. It’s fleeting. It doesn’t last. Also, when you’re in the middle of all this hevel, in the middle of the smoke, and middle of life, it’s hard to make sense of it. You can’t view it clearly. The meaning of life is hard to find. That’s what he’s saying.
Who can understand it? They conclude by saying that the true meaning of this life, of this hevel, of this mysterious enigma that we’re placed in, is the hope of the judgment of God, that he will one day clear away all this hevel and bring us to a sense of contentment and full purpose. The key is acceptance. Since we can’t control our lives and all these things that happen to us, we should stop trying. Now not in a nihilistic way where we don’t think anything matters because they do, but more in a humble realistic way, realizing that the only thing we really have control of is our response to the moment that’s given to us and our attitudes towards the Lord.
That’s the only thing we have control over. This, I think, is the foundation for a life lived in contentment. To elaborate on this, I have four main ideas I’d like to explore around the ideas of what it means to be content. I have four obstacles, I think, preventing us from being content, as well as four remedies to this. Now, my hope here is that you will invite the Lord into these next few minutes and really seek with intention and focus on which of these areas you resonate most deeply with. The first obstacle to being content is probably the hardest for me.
It’s what I like to call being preoccupied versus being present. We mentioned this earlier in the conclusion of Ecclesiastes, that the acceptance of one’s fate and choosing to enjoy the present moment is a key to contentment. This is so hard for me to do, like I said, at the beginning as well. I am always looking in the past, always looking to the future, never happy with what’s given to me at this moment. I see too much of the sorrow and the joy sometimes. I see too much of the imperfections.
I wonder when things will be perfect and why can’t things ever be perfect and just always, never focused on now. The antidote to this is being fully present wherever we are. We only have this moment. We aren’t guaranteed anymore. We don’t know the number of our days. Whatever moments come next will never be like the one we have now. How can we invite the Lord into this? How can we invite him into this present moment? If we invite into every small moment instead of waiting for things to be perfect or things to feel better, why don’t we feel more content?
How can you be more present this season? Maybe we’re too distracted. We turn off that phone for a whole day or turn off the computer or the TV, whatever you watch stuff on these days. I don’t have a TV. It’s called a computer in our house. Not now. Don’t turn off this right now. Just wait till I’m finished talking, at least. That’ll be much appreciated. Maybe we can be intentional about scheduling a Sabbath, a true day of rest. I say the word ‘scheduling’ because I think if we don’t actually become intentional about scheduling the use of rest, we won’t do them.
Let go of the past and the future worries and all the distractions around us and just be present in this moment. That’s a step towards being more content. The second obstacle I see to contentment is comparison. This is what I like to call comparison versus gratitude. The moment we stop comparing anything in our lives with that of someone else’s, it is a very dangerous zone and start of a journey into discontentment. Someone has better hair than us, better clothes, a better job, or has a job and we don’t have a job, or make more money at their job, or that church has more attendees than ours, or that video has more views than ours, whatever it may be, someone has more Facebook friends or better Instagram filters or TikTok views.
Comparison is a dangerous game because it ignores the gifts we have right in front of us, as well as negates the unique beauty inherent in ourselves and in our own experiences. There are times, I think, when it’s okay to compare when we’re admiring something that we strive to be, something that’s more Christ-like, or someone that has more biblical knowledge than us. These are good things to want to be and to aspire to. The moment we let this become a total model of comparison where it negates what we bring to the table, that’s the danger zone.
The antidote to this is gratitude. We have been given much. Even if we haven’t been given much in this life, we still have been given much because we’ve all been given Jesus. A few weeks ago, at the start of this message series, we heard from Pastor Adalis and how she shared her journey and encouraged us to live with gratitude in every season, in every circumstance. This is very hard to do. I think it’s important because there is always something to be grateful for in whatever season we find ourselves in.
We can find contentment and gratitude on this side of the fence without looking over to the other side that is greener. What are you grateful for? Let’s take inventory this season. Let’s write down what we’re grateful for. I do this practice called T2BT4, which stands for things to be thankful for. Every night before I go to bed, I have to write down three things I’m grateful for that day. It has to be three. That’s my only rule. If it’s a no-good, horrible, terrible, worst day in the whole world, sometimes I will write, I’m glad I get to go to bed, I’m glad I survived, I’m glad I didn’t die today.
Sometimes it’s bare bones. That’s what I’m grateful for. Sometimes there are so many things. Sometimes I’ll write more than three, but I have to write at least three. Maybe that’s something you can try to do this season or something you can start the New Year with. It can even just be one thing. Whatever it is, start the day that way. What are you grateful for? Take a moment to take stock of your life and all the gifts that the Lord has given to you, even if you don’t see them right away.
Once we shift our minds and hearts into this attitude of gratitude, it really helps us on our journey to be in contempt. Another obstacle to contentment is too much striving. This is what I call striving versus stillness. We want more, more money, more possessions, more promotions, bigger houses, more clothes, more Nintendo Switch games, more friends, more church attendees, more video views, more, more, more, more, more. Now, again, don’t get me wrong. As with most things, there are nuances to this. I think it is okay to strive for things.
It’s okay to strive for things in the kingdom of God to want to advance it further, to strive for knowledge in him furthering the kingdom always. We must be careful not to be so consumed with having or working or achieving that this becomes the ultimate goal. Because chances are, we will never be satisfied. The passage in Ecclesiastes actually says that the pleasures in life are okay to enjoy and encourage us to strive for them. When we strive for them apart from God, that’s where the problem lies. All these things that we strive for, well, most of them at least, come from God.
They point us towards him. They’re never the goal in and of themselves. There’s a passage in Luke, in the Gospel of Luke, that tells us that those who are faithful with the little will be made faithful with a lot. I think the same principle holds true with contentment. If you’re not content with the little that you have, chances are, you’re not going to be content with more things. Our lives and our longings are just great big grand canyons without a bottom. The antidote to this, the antidote to striving is stillness. Let’s never lose sight of the one for whom we strive.
Are you ceaselessly striving? Well, stop and rest in his arms. Is it possible that he just wants you for who you are, not what you’re doing and bringing to him? If this is something you wrestle or struggle with, I invite you to just sit in his presence and offer your hearts to him as the best form of worship, rather than any tasks or things you might be able to achieve or strive for. This is another step we can take to contentment. The final obstacle is what I call restless longing versus redirected longing. This is one that I find that hits home to me the most.
I think one thing that unites all of us humankind is our loneliness and our longing. To some degree, we always feel lonely. We always have a longing for something or for someone. I look at my own journey and how I reflect on the Philippians passage we opened up with today. I know I’m still in my mid-30s. I have more of my life to experience, God willing. I have had my fair share of experiences. When I joked about how I would write the first thing, I know how to be discontent every season. Here’s what I meant.
When I look back to when I was single, I was never happy with that season. I was never content. I longed to be married and to be a father. I had a certain amount of loneliness, a longing that I carried. Then when I was married, I was content in that way. I still found myself with loneliness and longing that wasn’t met in marriage. I think that’s true for all of us. There is no one person in this world that’s going to satiate all of our longing and loneliness. That’s not how it works. I didn’t rest in the stillness of that season as much as I could have.
I was always looking back and looking too much forward. Then we became parents. More content came with this new life bringing into the world and discovering a new season. I also was still lonely in some regards and longing. I longed for the season of rest and productivity that I had to say goodbye to. I looked at my whole journey as being a father and it’s both what I expected, but not at all what I expected. It’s both the most wonderful thing, but also the most difficult excruciating thing. It’s like it’s never perfect.
You have these moments of joy and these pockets of contentment, but most of it is mundane and exhausting. I don’t look at fatherhood or any part of my life with this Instagram filter of, oh, it’s going to be this glorious thing all the time. Nothing is ever that. We are always carrying loneliness and longing to some degree in our life. Then when my wife, Elisa, died, I really wrestled with longing and loneliness in a whole new way, unlike anything other. Now in this season, this year has stripped so much away from us.
I have really started to come into a season of contentment, where I am accepting the season that I’m in for all of its joys and for all of its sadnesses, for all of its victories and all of its challenges. I think that’s where this idea of contentment comes in as well, to accept both the longing and the loneliness that we all have. As Ronald Rolheiser says, “These longings are part of all of us.” He says that we are destined for a great love. Thus, our Eros is wide. Our longing is infinite. Our urge to embrace is completely promiscuous. We are infinite in yearning and infinite in capacity.
Yet in this life, what we meet is never the infinite, but the finite. I used to think that the remedy to all these longings was to ignore them, was to deny them. I pray to the Lord to do away with all these longings. I didn’t want to feel this way, because I felt that they always directed me into the wrong things that didn’t draw me closer to him. The remedy isn’t to become a nihilist or to become a hedonist or to become stoic, devoid of all feeling and longing. I think the remedy is to redirect our longings and point them to God.
These longings remind us that he put them in us that we need him. We should submit our longings, our loneliness, our desires to the Lordship of Christ. It’s here that we find our contentment, not in chasing after them or ignoring them. Those are the four ideas of contentment that I have. Maybe there’s one that speaks to you the most about what you want to focus on this at the end of the season as we launched into a new one. I think we can see all of these themes played out in Ecclesiastes as well with the author’s final declaration, fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.
Even in the Apostle Paul’s declaration in Philippians where he says, I can do all this through Him who gives me strength. The secret to contentment is accepting that much of our lives is out of our control, and that it will leave us ever longing. This can point us to the one who made us and will one day fulfill us. He put the desires in us. He, ironically, gives us the eyes and the strength to seek after him. He ultimately is the answer to all of these longings. When we stop demanding that life and everything in it, our spouse, our jobs, our vacations, our children, our possessions, give us something that it cannot, an end to our symphony, a fulfillment to our longings, that’s when true contentment begins.
As Ronald Rolheiser says, “The world, well, not necessarily against God, invites us to forget God. Distract yourself,” it says, “lower your ideals, forget about immortal longings and eternal peace, and think of your immediate frustrations, your lack of self-expression, your yearning hormones, and of how little of the good life you’ve actually got. Do more things, change marriage partners, make a career change, have a bit of sex life, travel more, read more books, go to more movies, or write a book, plant a tree, have a child, find enough life, and leave some mark and you won’t be restless.”
The path to contentment is a journey inward. We calm our raging storms of restlessness when we journey to the still, silent place of union with God and rest there in his presence. This is what the author of Ecclesiastes says. This is what Paul says in Philippians. This is what Christ invites us to. If we take our desires, if we sit in the stillness of his presence with a deep sense of gratitude, truly given over to this very moment, how can we not be contempt? Let’s do that this season. It’s not too late to end the year well or to start the new one better than we ended.
Let’s take our distractions of desires of striving, our comparisons, everything we listed above as obstacles and redirect them to God. Let’s surrender every part of our heart, our mind, our body, our soul to him and invite him to fill all the gaps we still feel, to keep orchestrating all those unfinished symphonies of our lives until they are one day finished. Then maybe, just maybe, we’ll be on the way to discovering the art of contentment. Thank you for letting me share this word with you today.
I hope it was encouraging and will move you closer to the presence of the Lord who is all things and will become all things. In a moment, Pastor Terry will come back and share a final closing encouragement as we head into the New Year. The band will sing a song that I’ve asked them to perform, which ties in with all these themes. Before that, this is the time of our service where we have our time of giving. I encourage you to participate in your tithes and offerings that you’ve been so faithful to do. You can do so online through our app.
You can also call the office if you get confused about how to do that or send in a check, whatever makes you feel comfortable and easier. Thank you so much for your continued faithfulness throughout this whole year. It’s been wonderful to see how the Lord has worked through your finances and through your prayers and time. With that, I’d love to pray and hand this off to the band. Lord, I thank you so much for this time we have shared together. May you help us give all of our unfinished symphonies to you so that you can continue to orchestrate and conduct them into the perfect, complete fulfilled will that can be found in your presence, in Jesus’ name. May we continue to walk evermore forward to this. Amen.
All right, what a blessing. The Lord is here. He’s among us. As we bring our year to a close, we need to remember that, that he will never leave you nor forsake you. He is with you always even into the end of the world, the end of the age, the end of the year, and beyond. We’re not alone. If you think about it, we’ve been talking about how Jesus was Emmanuel, God with us. In a song, we talked about how the Lord wants to hold us like a child, the one who came like a child will hold us like a child when we need it most.
That invites us into His love and invites us into humility, doesn’t it? He’s so good. He’s so God. He wants us to so good, he wants us to so God, especially as we make our way into a new year. We’re going to wave goodbye to 2020. Some of us were saying, “Good, let’s get on with it.” We’re going to welcome in a new year, 2021. I pray that we will use this time to draw closer to the Lord and to anchor ourselves in the truth of who he is and who he says we are, for you are a beloved son and you are a beloved daughter.
Let’s live with that understanding always, unafraid, courageous, secure in the love that will never quit nor forsake us. May he keep you in your spirit, in your soul, and in your body. That is my prayer. I really mean that. We’re going to make this journey together. We made it this far. We’re going to go forward together by grace, by faith, in Jesus’ name. Here we go, 2021. Lord, be with us.