The 21st century is unlike any other time in history. The fast-paced and ever-changing world around us often pulls our attention from the immutable God, to the highs and lows of life’s circumstances. In turn, we become accustomed to experiencing joy when things are going well and sorrow when they are not. Yet, grounding our joy in the fluctuating conditions of this life is a sure way to attract discontentment. No one is immune from the imperfections of this fallen world, which means that joy can only be sustainable when it is rooted in a sovereign and righteous God that transcends our daily struggles. As biblical counselors, helping our counselees recognize this truth is often the turning point that they need to find contentment.
This brings to mind my very first counseling case, where the lows of life had worn down the spirit of my counselee. Having spent the first few weeks addressing the heart and the sovereignty of God, I was thrilled to hear him say, “I am beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.” However, this statement was not satisfying until I understood what he qualified as the “light” at the end of the tunnel. So, I asked him just that, and his response provided the perfect platform for presenting a lasting form of contentment and altering the trajectory of his life away from the temporal and onto the eternal (cf. Colossians 3:1-2).
When he originally sought counsel he believed that reaching the end of the tunnel would mean that his marriage was enjoyable again, that things at work would be more bearable, and that his gloomy attitude toward life would disappear. On the surface, these are excellent goals and I made sure to inform him of that. What could possibly be wrong with desiring a healthier marriage, for example? Nothing per se, but that was not the primary issue. If the light at the end of the tunnel represented a regaining of contentment and joy, my counselee had set himself up for failure. He needed to redefine what his goals were. That is why I responded by challenging him to reconsider his chief objectives as (1) his sanctification and (2) God’s glory. Why? Because when we desire to grow in Christlikeness and bring God glory in the process, we position ourselves for contentment in every area of our life. The fluctuations in our circumstances can never become the measure of our joy and satisfaction in Christ; rather, the intentional pursuit of spiritual growth in the midst of trials is what guarantees that permanent contentment can be obtained.
To further flesh this out, I asked my counselee, “What happens if your wife is unwilling to cooperate in your marital efforts? Moreover, what if your boss becomes worse toward you, not better?” Surely, this would keep my counselee stuck in the tunnel if the requirement for reaching the light depended on circumstances outside of his control. However, if growing in godly virtues such as selflessness, patience, humility, and prayerfulness became his chief ambition, he could exit the tunnel immediately and never look back. When we prioritize the glory of God and the further development of our spiritual lives, every circumstance becomes a platform for success in those areas. Therefore, we must help our counselees to recalibrate their contentment with the infinite joy of growing in Christlikeness.
Having shared that counseling case, it is the Word of God that will reveal these truths most powerfully. Though there are many passages to consider, I wish only to examine one that will assist a counselee in setting the right goals and reaching an unmovable joy. Open your Bible to Philippians 4:10-13. Anyone familiar with the Christian faith recognizes the famous verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (v. 13), yet, few have taken the time to analyze the preceding words.
It may be helpful to remind your counselee that Paul is imprisoned at the time of writing this letter. Being confined to a Roman cell for the sake of Christ, Paul had every worldly reason to feel discontent. Yet, we read in verse 10 that he is rejoicing at the love the Philippians had shown to him. Moreover, in verse 11, Paul demonstrates that his contentment was something he had “learned.” This reality offers insight for a counselee in seeing that true contentment is a skill borne out of a disciplined heart and mind, which Paul had mastered (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Furthermore, the subsequent statement that Paul’s contentment was found “in whatever situation” highlights the fact that he did not depend on his circumstances in order to maintain his joy. Just because worldly satisfaction cannot be obtained does not mean that all satisfaction is out of reach. In fact, the most permanent and genuine form of contentment is always attainable for those willing to make God the center of their life. Surely, this is what Paul had in mind. He was looking not to “the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
In this way, Paul reveals to those in Phillipi that his unfavorable circumstances have had no negative impact on his faith in God. Why? Because his contentment did not depend on things going right in his life. And he had already prepared for when things went wrong. Most importantly, however, is that Paul reoriented his life around his own sanctification and God’s glory which became the basis of his contentment.
It is at this juncture that a counselor may wish to challenge their counselee to alter their thinking and expectations. This is where you should read verses 10-13 with your counselee. Show them how this passage displays the reorganization of Paul’s life to fit his eternal purpose which protected him from the emotional rollercoaster ride of everyday living. Remember, contentment is never the result of sheer willpower that is divorced from God; rather, it is the natural outworking of those willing to lean on God and His provision. It is only when we have grasped that truth that the full thrust and power of verse 13 can be understood and appreciated. Paul is stating that he has the resources in Christ to endure any and every circumstance to the praise of God’s glory. Far from speaking of physical strength, this passage emphasizes the spiritual strength and contentment found in Christ regardless of external pressures. I don’t know about you, but I would take the latter over the former any day of the week. Therefore, as faithful counselors, let us always assist our counselees in prioritizing eternal matters and the spiritual growth that results therein. For that is their only hope for being “content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Help your counselees discover this freedom in Christ!