In the remote villages of Thailand, there is no electricity nor running water. Houses are built on stilts with animals sleeping underneath.
It is here that I had my first international experience. Right after joining the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ, I went on an 8-week summer mission trip to northern Thailand. That summer, our group spent one week in several villages showing JESUS, an evangelistic film scripted from the Gospel of Luke.
On the trip we brought our own food; for 3 meals a day I chose between canned tuna, ham or sardines rolled up in a handful of sticky rice.
After only 3 days, I was pushed way beyond my comfort zone.
And then it started raining.
Our group had been dropped off at the different villages by flatbed trucks. We would have to wait until the mountain dirt roads dried for the trucks to come back. But it kept raining.
As we began to run out of food, a woman who had become a Christian felt sorry for us. To show her gratitude she made a Thai delicacy: frog soup -- a big pot of green water with dead frogs floating in it.
Finally, roads still wet, we hiked out. We walked through mud, blistering heat and a torrential downpour, until a pineapple truck picked us up and took us to our hotel.
At the hotel, after the best shower of my life, our group gathered to share what God had done. I want to go to bed, I was thinking. But then I started hearing people talk about the most amazing things they'd seen God do.
I'll never forget someone's report from across the room:
"There was an elderly woman in the tribe we visited. She said, 'I've always wondered if there was a God; I'm so glad you came and told me before I die.'"
Then it hit me: I missed it. I was so focused on my circumstances and discomfort that I didn't see God working around me.
I've lived long enough to know you don't have to be in the jungles of Thailand to find yourself unhappy with your circumstances.
I've also learned there are 3 secrets to contentment. When we learn these secrets, our contentment can remain constant in the valley or on the mountaintop.
The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 4:11,12, "I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need."
The first secret to contentment is a focus on Christ.
Paul proves through his circumstances and his writing that his focus always came back to Christ. In Philippians 1:12-26 we learn that Paul was in prison because of his ministry. While he was there, people twisted his message, trying to cause distress. He was unable to see people he loved nor control the outcome of his fate.
If this were me, I'd be saying, I'm not where I want to be, I'm isolated and alone, and there is nothing I can do.
But I don't read this passage and see Paul unhappy with his circumstances. Paul saw the good in his situation -- the furtherance of the gospel -- and he trusted God with what he couldn't control. His focus was on Christ.
The world is constantly clamoring for our attention; it takes time and effort to keep our eyes on Christ. But a focus on Christ takes us through the circumstances we encounter. We must do whatever it takes to keep this focus -- reading the Word, worshipping God or memorizing Scripture -- because that's what gives us perspective.
The second thing Paul did was focus on others.
Even in prison, he was more concerned about the welfare of the church than his circumstances. I've read Paul's letter many times and never observed a tone of misery or complaint. Throughout the book, it is evident Paul is thinking about the Philippians and what they needed to hear.
About 5 years ago I moved to Austin, Texas. I had lived in Alabama for over 10 years and felt surrounded by people who loved me. But I'd wanted to live in Austin for 16 years; moving to this city was my dream come true.
When I got there, I didn't know a soul. I lived by myself for the first time -- talk about lonely. But it forced me to do things for other people and get my focus off myself.
We live in a me-centered world. Learning to focus on others takes our eyes off our own circumstances. Instead of thinking, Poor, pitiful me, I've learned to find ways to give to others -- cook a meal, make a phone call, invite a friend to lunch or write a note.
The third secret to contentment is to focus on truth.
Life is full of uncertainties, questions and even disappointments. All these occasions tempt us to believe lies rather than truth.
But in Philippians 4:8, Paul reminds us to think rightly: "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things."
At a friend's birthday party I found myself in several conversations with girls who had just begun dating relationships. Although single, my life dreams were of marriage, children and family. Why did they get all that and I never got it? Catching myself, I instead focused on truth. Psalm 84:11 says, "No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly."
I've encountered a few storms while learning the lessons of contentment. But I've learned to keep my focus on Christ, on others and on truth.
Life is full of rain and frog soup, but we don't have to settle for the circumstances. Through contentment, we can see God.