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The Secret of ‘Red-Zone’ Thinking

As we draw closer to our life's end, it's important to follow St. Paul's example of learning to be content in all things.

As any football fan knows, the twenty yards of the field closest to the opponent’s end zone is known as the “red zone”—that area where the offense is closest to completing its goal of scoring a touchdown, and the effort put into play calling and execution takes on a greater urgency. 

In our context, “red zone thinking” is about taking the urgency of our relationship with God more seriously. It seems that most of us live our lives with little sense of urgency, sometimes no differently than everyone else around us. We may be serious about practicing the disciplines of our faith, maybe even to the point of being an annoying stickler to the straight and narrow. But seriously, if you and I were to find ourselves standing face to face with God tonight, could either of us stand before him without embarrassment? 

One of the most crucial yet dagnabbitly elusive aspects of red zone thinking is contentment. When we’ve arrived in the “red zone” of life, or are planning for it, we want to be content. We don’t want to spend our time looking back with regret or being anxious about tomorrow, wringing our hands over all the unknowns that keep poking their ugly heads into our path. We want to wake up in the morning and (at least after our first or second cup of coffee) look forward with optimistic joy to the day ahead. 

Which is why I believe St. Paul wrote most of his epistles through the lens of red zone thinking. He may not have used this terminology, but constantly in all his letters he exhorts his readers to follow our Savior as if they might meet him soon. For example, these words to the Christians in Rome have the clear ring of red zone thinking: 

Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy (Rom. 13:11-13, emphasis added). 

Red Zone Thinking means not letting these words of Scripture pass by without pausing and thinking, “Wait—he’s talking to me! Right now, not some day way in the future. How should my life, starting now, by grace, be different before it’s too late?” 

And he also spoke of contentment. When Paul wrote his letter to his Christian friends at Philippi, he happened to be imprisoned and in chains for the preaching of the gospel. After many positive words of encouragement, he wrote: 

Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me (Phil. 4:11-13, emphasis added).

Notice that Paul doesn’t merely say, “I am content in whatever state I am” but rather “I have learned to be content.” 

In other places, he commands his readers to choose contentment: 

“. . . if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (1 Tim. 6:8). 

“Keep your life free from the love of money, and be content with what you have” (Heb. 13:5a). 

And in another place, Paul emphasizes that this contentment, which he exhorts others to choose, is something he himself has chosen: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). 

Contentment is an attitude we choose, but in his red zone thinking, Paul recognizes that it is a virtue he had to learn, by grace, as his heart learned to see the struggles of his life through the lens of the cross of Christ, for he says, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” He even learned to accept the sufferings he received from living the gospel as the means by which he could “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col. 1:24). 

It seems to me that learning contentment in the red zone requires reflecting back on our mistakes. I can’t help but picture Paul, as he sat in his cell, encumbered by chains, writing this letter, pausing to remember an event that had happened years before when he first brought the gospel to these very Philippian Christians—an event which, with hindsight, he might have handled differently. His companion Luke had recorded it in his second letter, so Paul couldn’t escape public knowledge of his brash act of discontentment. 

Paul and Silas, and apparently their new companion Luke, were on their second missionary journey, immediately after the Jerusalem council. They had arrived in Philippi, and on the sabbath, as Paul and his companions were headed toward the synagogue, this is what happened: 

As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by soothsaying. She followed Paul and us, crying, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she did for many days. 

But Paul was annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 

But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the rulers; and when they had brought them to the magistrates they said, “These men are Jews and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs which it is not lawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” 

The crowd joined in attacking them; and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, charging the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks (Acts 16:16-24).

All because Paul got annoyed. I can just see Silas, as they sat side by side in the stocks, saying, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.” With hindsight, Paul might have wondered if there wasn’t perhaps a better way he could have handled things. I mean, as crazy as she might have been, still, the slave girl was accurately promoting their cause: “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And, yes, freeing the girl of that demon was a praiseworthy thing, but maybe with a little more patience (i.e., counting to ten first), he might have avoided their being seized, dragged, convicted, attacked, stripped, beat with rods, thrown into prison, and stuck in the stocks. 

Of course, Paul could claim that the rest of the story justified his actions and their sufferings. For, as St. Luke continues, the benefits that God brought out of this “nice mess” began through their decision to choose contentment: 

But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and every one’s fetters were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 

But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 

And [the jailer] called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out and said, “Men, what must I do to be saved?” 

And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house. 

And [the jailer] took them the same hour of the night, and washed their wounds, and he was baptized at once, with all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them; and he rejoiced with all his household that he had believed in God (Acts 16:25-34).

As Paul reminisced, he may have seen how giving into discontentment had gotten them into a “nice mess,” whereas an act of grateful, worshipful contentment had opened the floodgates of God’s grace and mercy. 

It seems to me that red zone thinking involves learning to be content by looking back and learning from our failures as well as our victories in Christ. 

St. Paul admitted that contentment is something we learn, but this learning requires that we choose to move forward toward contentment even when we don’t feel it—for the feeling of contentment is something we leave to God. Earlier, in Philippians 4:6-8, Paul describes a process that maybe he had found helpful for choosing, growing, and learning contentment: 

(1) “Have no anxiety about anything” [The first step involves recognizing, identifying, and owning any resentment we might have harbored about anything! This must be rejected, or it will grow into bitterness and discontent]; 

(2) “but in everything by prayer and supplication . . . let your requests be made known to God” [The most important response to any anxiety is turning to our loving God, asking for his forgiveness, wisdom, grace, and mercy]; 

(3) “. . . with thanksgiving” [Choosing to be thankful is the most important attitude not just for growing in contentment but for growing in every aspect of the Christian life—we must remember and recognize that every single thing we have in our lives come from him, and we must receive it all with gratitude!]; 

(4) “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” [Here is the feeling of contentment that is not something we can make happen but is rather a gift from God that can help keep us in him]; and 

(5) “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” [We need to replace anything in our minds that might draw us towards bitterness and discontentment with things that draw us closer to God.] 

As I think about this, with beverage of choice in hand before the warmth of my hearth, I need to end with the same disclaimer that Paul himself used earlier in his letter: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3:12). 

Lord, help us all to learn to grow in contentment. 

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