Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak to our church congregation on the subject of "being content in all circumstances" ... a timely subject, I thought, given the impending Rugby World Cup final.
I started with 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, Romans 8:35-39, and Phillipians 4:6-7 and 11-13. A simple summary is that people who trust God and receive forgiveness through Jesus should not be perturbed by changing circumstances. It's sometimes appropriate to feel sad and grieve --- Jesus did --- but our internal peace and security should not be affected.
These are relatively well-known passages but it's easy to see that this is not true in the lives of most Christians ... certainly not for those NZers I know who watch rugby games from behind the couch! So the focus of my message was getting from knowing how we should feel to actually feeling it.
Some people believe that our feelings are mostly immutable, beyond our conscious control. I don't agree. God doesn't ask us to do the impossible. Furthermore I have some experience at training my feelings in certain directions. A small example is how I've vowed, even on this blog, to get less emotionally involved in rugby games. Thinking and talking about that helps make the feelings follow.
Another example is love and marriage. I think it's very important to act lovingly towards your spouse whenever possible, even if you don't feel like it at the time, or you think it doesn't matter. In our culture people habitually joke about having a poor relationship with their spouse --- jokes about nagging wives, selfish husbands, relationships with in-laws, and all that. I think these traditions are destructive. Even small intimacies like holding hands are good habits and promote positive feelings. They're worth consciously maintaining.
The idea of acting in a certain way to encourage feelings to follow raises the possibility of that one becomes a hypocrite. I think it depends whether your goal is to promote genuine feelings in yourself, or to convince the world you're something you're not. In C.S. Lewis' "Surprised By Joy", he wrote:
The distinction between pretending to be better than you are and beginning to be better in reality is finer than moral sleuthhounds conceive…. When a boor first enters the society of courteous people what can he do, for a while, except imitate the motions? How can he learn except by imitation?
Christians must remember that change is not something that comes about just through our own efforts. Paul says he can do all this "through he [Jesus] who gives me strength". We believe in self-improvement, but "of self", not "by self".
Christian equanimity isn't about detachment. None of the passages quoted tell us to care less about other people or what's going on in the world. We don't need to walk along a razor's edge between caring too much and caring too little. Instead, we can continue to care about all sorts of things, but put them in the right perspective: dwarfed by God.
As it happens, the All Blacks managed to win last night, but it was a tense game and I hope some of the people who heard this message put it into practice. :-) There will be lots of more important opportunities to do so.