What do you do when your life doesn’t turn out as you expected? In the Army, as I suspect in the other branches, the unexpected is oftentimes the norm. In fact, as a play on the Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fi” (Always Faithful), we often say, “Semper Gumby” (Always Flexible). As someone has famously said, “Battle plans never survive first contact with the enemy.” Adjustments are always made, and those adjustments are always adjusted until the mission is done, so there is often little predictability.
Before joining the Army I had the luxury of certainty. Work was 9 to 5. Seminary was 6 to 10. My wife and I carefully managed our ministry schedule, and for the most part, we even controlled the unpredictable. I remember one day, years ago, I was working at a hardware store and my wife called me to ask if I could get the next few days off. I wondered what for and she said, “Let’s go to Colorado!” My boss let me off, so we drove about 22 hours straight through, spent a day and a half in the snow and drove back. We can’t do that now. We have little to no control over our schedule.
Western culture teaches us that we deserve to be happy. The dilemma is that the Bible doesn’t teach this. Biblical grammar focuses on contentment and blessedness. Certainly, there are examples in the Bible of people being happy, but it is never commended as an expectation or goal. Pointedly, most of the lament that appears in the Bible is there because people’s expectations differed drastically from God’s plan and they tried to make sense of the disconnect. It’s not that God wants us to be unhappy, but our pursuit of happiness overwhelmingly outstrips our pursuit of contentment. This imbalance, in many unfortunate cases, disillusions people’s relationships with God because they falsely believe happiness to be a God ordained ambition. Contentment is the biblical model; therefore, we must refocus our pursuit. We might just find that we are not so disappointed with God, or even with our life, but rather our culture.
Paul’s life was not a happy one. He endured imprisonments, countless beatings, 5 times receiving 39 lashes, 3 times beaten with rods, stoned once, 3 times shipwrecked, set adrift at sea, other dangers in every conceivable environment, loss of sleep, lack of food and that’s not to mention the anxiety of ministry in general. I find it hard to see him being happy in all that mess. Indeed, he never mentions that he was. He endured the suffering because of Philippians 4.12b: “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Calvin comments that Paul “has a mind adapted to bear any kind of condition.” He dealt with his life, endured to the end and he was satisfied. Significantly, his famous life-summary in 2 Timothy 4.7 recounts exertion and endurance, not happiness. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is Constitutional, but not truly biblical. In the Army we say, “It briefs well.” The implication being, it sounds great, but it’s not practical. My family deals with deployments, but is never happy with them. Each is a challenge of flexibility with the unexpected and finding contentment in Christ, knowing that our ultimate goal is not 80, or so, years of happiness, but an eternity with God.
“Semper Gumby, per virtute Spiritus Sancti”
[Always flexible, by the power of the Holy Spirit]