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The Mystery of Christian Contentment

September 1, 2009

Reading Tim Challies’ blog (see link to the right) over the past months turned me on to a little book by 17th century British Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs called The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. Phil Simpson has an entire blog dedicated to Burroughs (jeremiahburroughs.blogspot.com) and has this to say about his favorite Puritan preacher:

Men like Burroughs were first-rate thinkers; they could take a truth from Scripture, and meditate on the implications and ramifications of that truth, and come back with a veritable treasure trove of jewels, which they then share with their readers. However, their words were not, as they are often mischaracterized, “stale intellect”. Rather, Burroughs and his fellow Puritans were preachers of the highest rank. They would present a truth, apply it practically to the life of the hearer, and then exhort with passion and conviction. The adage which is often ascribed to the Puritans is true; they preached with “light and heat”; They would illuminate the head, then preach warmly to the heart.

Chapter 2 of Burrough’s book is a rich repository of the “treasure trove of jewels” that can be had when men and women who have their minds shaped by long and loving meditation on the whole of Scripture, focus their attention on a single verse. In chapter 1, Burroughs takes Paul’s confession from Philippians 4:11, “I have learned to be content in whatever state I am” and begins to polish and examine the many faces of this increasingly rare jewel of Christian contentment.

He sets up his second chapter by describing “the mystery of contentment” like this:

How to join these two together: to be sensible in affliction as much as a man or woman who is not content; I am sensible of it as fully as they, and I seek ways to be delivered from it it as well as they and yet still my heart abides content – this is, I say, a mystery, and very hard for the carnal mind to understand. But grace teaches such a mixture, teaches us how to make a mixture of sorrow and joy together ; and that makes contentment, the mingling of joy and sorrow, of gracious joy and gracious sorrow together. Grace teaches us how to moderate and to order an affliction so that there shall be a sense of it, and yet for all that contentment under it.

When Burroughs declares this contentment a “mystery”, he means it is something that we cannot understand and apply without being trained in the “art” of it. So he sets out in chapters 2-4 to “open to [us] the art and mystery of contentment.” He proceeds to unpack it by identifying a string of paradoxes that are simultaneously true of the contented Christian. Here are the first seven in his own words:

1. He is the most satisfied man in the world, and yet the most unsatisfied man in the world. A little in the world will content a Christian for his passage, but all the world, and ten thousand times more, will not content a Christian for his portion. A heart that is made for God can be filled with nothing else but God. A gracious heart knows it is capable of God, therefore he is content if he has but a crust of bread and water when that is God’s disposal of him in this world, but he is not satisfied with the promise of all the world, without not God.

2. A Christian comes to contentment, not so much by way of addition but by way of subtraction. Contentment does not come by adding to what you want, but by subtracting from your desires. The world is infinitely deceived in thinking that contentment lies in having more than we already have. Here lies the bottom and root of all contentment, when there is an evenness and proportion between our hearts and our circumstances. [I would want to qualify what Burrough’s is saying here by adding that it is because of the infinitely superior satisfaction that we find in Christ that we ratchet down our desires for the things of this world. Otherwise the contentment he is describing here seems little different than a stoic renunciation of pleasure, which is not Christian contentment at all.]

3. A Christian comes to contentment, not so much by getting rid of the burden that is on him, as by adding another burden to himself. What, do you think there is no way for the contentment of your spirit, but to get rid of your burden? O you are deceived. If you got it off, the burden would be right back on you again. The way of contentment is to add another burden, that is, to labor to load and burden your heart with you sin; the heavier the burden of your sin is to your heart, the lighter will the burden of your affliction be to your heart, and so you shall come to be content. If a man’s estate is broken, how shall this man have contentment? By the breaking of his heart. God has broken your estate; oh seek Him for the breaking of your heart likewise. Indeed, a broken heart and a whole heart, a hard heart, will not join together; there will be no contentment. But a broken estate and a broken heart will so suite on another, as that there will be more contentment than there was before.

4. It is not so much the removing of the affliction that is upon us as the changing of the affliction…I mean in regard to the use of it, though for the thing itself affliction remains. “Oh that it may be gone” cries the carnal heart. “No” says a gracious heart, “there is a power of grace to turn this affliction into good, to take away the sting and the poison of it.” Grace has the power to turn afflictions into mercies. Christianity would teach contentment, though poverty continues. It will teach you how to turn your poverty to spiritual riches. You shall be poor still as to your outward possessions, but this shall be altered; whereas before it was a natural evil to you, it comes now to be turned to a spiritual benefit to you. And so you come to be content. Godly men get more riches out of their poverty than out of their revenues.

5. A Christian comes to this contentment not by making up the wants of his circumstances, but by the performance of the work of his circumstances. A carnal heart thinks, “I must have my wants made up or else it is impossible that I should be content.” But a gracious heart asks, “What is the duty of the circumstances God has put me into? Let me exert my strength to perform the duties of my present circumstances. Others spend their thoughts on things that disturb and disquiet them, and so they grow more and more discontented. Let me spend my thoughts in thinking what my duty is.”

6. A gracious heart is contented by the melting of his will and desires into God’s will and desires, by this means he gets contentment. A gracious heart will say, “O what God would have, I would have too; I will not only yield to it, but I would have it too.” So that, in this sense, he comes to have his desires satisfied though he does not obtain the thing he desired before; still he comes to be satisfied with this, because he makes his will to be at one with God’s will. What a sweet satisfaction a soul must have in this condition, when all is made over to God.

7. The mystery consists not in bringing anything from the outside to make my condition more comfortable, but in purging out something that is within. “From whence are wars, and strifes? Are they not from your lusts that are within you?” (Js. 4:1). So if those lusts that are within, in your heart, were got out, your condition would be a contented condition.

Many of these points are driven home with simple and powerful illustrations which I would love to include but which would make a too-long post even longer!  May we each grow in the art and mystery of Christian contentment as we set about what God has given us to do this week! Even if you just pick one of these seven fronts to work on this week, do it in the strength He provides, and with the confidence that He is and He supplies all you need!

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