“I want to be free of self pity. It is a tool of Satan to rot away a life.”
I have often pondered these words of Barbara Youderian, one of the widows of the five American missionaries murdered by the Auca savages in Ecuador on January 8, 1956. This type of devastating event has never occurred in my life (thankfully!), but even so, all too often I give in to the sin of self pity rather than following the example of the apostle Paul who wrote, “...I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” (Philippians 4:12).
I am going to share two lessons (still in process!) that God began to teach me while my husband was in his first pastorate position.
First, I learned that there can be no true contentment without true forgiveness. I was aware that criticism would go hand in hand with ministry. I expected it.
However, I was not prepared for the depth of the hurt when it did come. I don’t know which is more painful–the criticism that is unfair and untrue, or the type that is true and IS justified.
Could we have done more, prayed more, reached out more in the ministry?
Have I at times been hypercritical of others, misunderstanding my brothers and sisters in Christ and judging them unfairly?
I have been guilty of the very things of which I have accused in others. I would be wise to remember the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 7:21-22:
“Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you–for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others.“
While I was feeling used and unappreciated by the church community, was I not also guilty of taking those around me (specifically my immediate family) for granted? So how could I not forgive? Oh Lord, may I not be like that unmerciful servant in Matthew 18 about whom Jesus said, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
The second contentment lesson occurred through the painful isolation I experienced in the church
. This was completely unexpected; no one had ever warned me that some church communities simply do not want the pastor or his family involved in their lives.
Even though my husband’s job happened to be that of a minister, I still felt like a normal person! I still needed friends. I just wanted to be “one of the girls.”
For years I wondered what was wrong with me.
Did I not wear nice enough clothes?
Was I just too much of an oddball to fit in with my peer group?
Every Sunday my spirit would sink as I watched the other young families congregate, enjoying fellowship with each other while I was starving for community. Realizing that I should have been rejoicing that our church was growing and thriving didn’t offer me much comfort then.
The enemy got to me in a couple of ways here. Not only was I hurting from the lack of friendships, but it was also like there was a constant accusing voice whispering in my ear that I must certainly be spiritually inferior, because otherwise the “cool Christians” would certainly want me on their “team” and invite me to their exclusive Bible study, and the women would surely come to me for counsel, prayer, or to “just talk,” etc., wouldn’t they?
If I was really the “good Christian” I was supposed to be, wouldn’t I have friends? Wouldn’t people look to me as an example?
I felt so ignored, isolated, and excluded that Sundays for at least a couple of years were completely dark. And as I gave in to the despair, I became incapacitated, useless, ineffective, and unable to see the blessings and beauty around me.
Even the love and acceptance of my husband and children didn’t matter to me in those dark times. It was only after desperately seeking advice from other godly people who had been there–women who had gone through what I was talking about–that I was able to begin accepting that maybe all this isolation was just related to the position I was in–pastor’s wife.
Then it also happened that on one of those Sundays during congregational worship, the hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” was sung. I don’t know how many times I had heard or sung this song in my lifetime, but it was like I was hearing for the first time the words, “Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise…….” I had been guilty of believing the lie that contentment was not possible with the life I had now, with the gifts God had blesses me with, that I needed something else–friends, and more specifically, the approval of the Christians around me, whose opinions I had come to value more than the opinions of God Himself.
I just hope that now, having learned a little more about humility from my experiences, that I will be more likely to notice the lonely person, less likely to devalue someone (on the basis of appearance, career, spiritual gifts, or whatever) and more careful even with my Facebook posts, so as not to cause someone to feel excluded by what I do/say.
God is not honored when we show favoritism. But neither is He honored when we hold back in welcoming people, giving in to intimidation as we assume their gifts (spiritual or otherwise) are more important than ours.
I am very thankful for the lessons I am still learning about contentment, but I will admit that it is very refreshing to now be in a church environment which is more representative of a true community. From day one, we have felt warmly accepted and welcomed here. The memories of the past still hurt sometimes, but I know God had reasons for placing me (and my family) where He did, “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in [me] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
Post script. I (DM) recently asked some of my friends to think on the topic of Contentment. Some of you reading this were part of that project. This is the first of several essays on contentment.