On the morning of February 16, 2011, two days after Valentine's Day and five days before my husband left on his 365 deployment, I read this devotional by Charles Hadden Spurgeon:
" I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content." - Phillipians 4:11 (KJV)
"These words show us that contentment is not a natural propensity of man. 'Ill weeds grow apace.' Covetousness, discontent, and murmuring are as natural to man as thorns are to the soil. We need not sow thistles and brambles; they come up naturally enough, because they are indigenous to earth: and so, we need not teach men to complain; they complain fast enough without any education. But the precious things of the earth must be cultivated. If we would have wheat, we must plough and sow; if we want flowers, there must be the garden, and all the gardener's care. Now, contentment is one of the flowers of heaven, and if we would have it, it must be cultivated; it will not grow in us by nature; it is the new nature alone that can produce it, and even then we must be specially careful and watchful that we maintain and cultivate the grace which God has sown in us. Paul says, "I have learned... to be content;" as much as to say, he did not know how at one time. It cost him some pains to attain to the mystery of that great truth. No doubt he sometimes thought he had learned, and then broke down. And when at last he had attained unto it, and could say, "I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content," he was an old, grey-headed man, upon the borders of the grave - a poor prisoner shut up in Nero's dungeon at Rome. We might well be willing to endure Paul's infirmities, and share the cold dungeon with him, if we too might by any means attain unto his good degree. Do not indulge the notion that you can be contented with learning, or learn without discipline. It is not a power that may be exercised naturally, but a science to be acquired gradually. We know this from experience. Brother, hush that murmur, natural though it be, and continue a diligent pupil in the College of Content." (Begg, 2003, p.16).
These words came at a significant moment in my life. Three months earlier, my husband came home with news I'd vainly hoped I'd never hear: it was his turn for a yearlong deployment. When I married him in 2007, I had a vague awareness that someday we would be forced to weather a deployment. When he left for two months in 2009, I felt like that was good enough; I didn't need any more experience with marital separation. But in November 2010, the process of preparing for a year apart began, despite my best efforts to convince God that there were better ways for us to spend our time.
In the months leading up to my husband's departure date, I came to appreciate Spurgeon's exhortation that "We need not sow thistles and brambles; they come up naturally enough" (Begg, 2003). As I adjusted to the reality of a year without my husband, thistles of bitterness and brambles of discontent sprouted and began to grow in my mind, without any prompting or encouragement. Every time my husband had to work late, I grumbled my way through the evening, thinking, "As if they can't do without him. He's so critical to the mission. What about me?" In my mind, I was becoming like a petulant child, whining over every little thing that didn't go her way. As we got closer and closer to that inevitable day, it became more and more difficult for me not only to deny his departure, but also to enjoy our remaining moments together.
We took a vacation in January 2011, one last opportunity for us to be alone and focused entirely on each other before he left. As we lay on the beach in Cozumel, I somehow felt awashwith peace. Despite the thicket of bitterness that had been growing, I was reminded of all of the reasons I married my husband, and all of the ways he matched me like a perfect puzzle piece. We began to discuss how we could stay close while we were physically so far apart. God used those days to begin showing me what contentment really is: a choice.
In Philippians 4:11, the Apostle Paul says he has "learned to be content in whatever circumstances" he encountered (New American Standard Version). The word content means "to be independent of extrenal circumstances." I started to see that my contentment in life didn't have to depend on my husband being in the same room with me. My contentment didn't have to hinge upon where I lived, who I lived with, where I work or didn't work, or any other external thing. My contentment is sourced in God's constancy. My husband's love is a shadow of the love God has for me, which means it is reliable, deep and lasting.
And so, on February 16, 2011, as I faced the final days of time with my love, I could appreciate the truth that I was in the process of learning to be content. It wouldn't come without endless nights of tears or days that seemed to never end. It wouldn't come without endless nights of tears or days that seemed to never end. It wouldn't come without painful reminders of what I was missing. It wouldn't come without a constant ache of loneliness present in quiet moments when the knowledge of being apart from my husband reverberated through every part of my body. And yet, somehow, it would come. Even though it certainly felt like the deployment experience was going to be a cold, dank dungeon, lingering just beyond the present moment was the promise of warmth, comfort and joy.
Begg, A. 2003. Morning and Evening: A New Edition of the Classic Devotional Based on The Holy Bible English Standard Version by Charles Haddon Spurgeon.