Essay / Theology

Everything You Think About Contentment is Wrong

Tim Challies hosts a “Reading Classics Together” blog event, and the book he’s working through now is The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by Jeremiah Burroughs (1600-1646). This week’s reading is the second and third sermons in the book.

In Philippians 4, Paul says “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content,” and goes on to add that this is because “I have learned the secret.”

Burroughs wants to know what that secret, that “art,” that “deep mysterie” is. It seems impossible to be equally content with bad times as with good times. But that is because we have not learned the secret. If a simple, untrained person walks into a mechanic’s shop, or any place where skilled craftsmen are at work, he will think he could never do the kind of work done there. It seems magical to him, impossible. “But,” says Burroughs, “that’s because he understands not the art of it; there is a turning of the hand so as you may do it with ease.” It’s all in the wrist, just a simple trick. And, he adds, that’s why he’s writing this book: “That’s the business of this exercise, to open unto you the Art and Mysterie of Contentment.”

What comes next is a series of 13 apparent contradictions. Burroughs plays the game of Chestertonian inversion, showing you a paradox and then explaining how it makes perfect sense. Some examples:

*Most people think contentment comes by adding. In fact, it comes by subtracting. If your situation doesn’t match your desires, subtract from your desires.

*Most people seek contentment through removing burdens. Grace teaches that we get contentment by adding a burden. Remember your sinfulness well enough and you will be content. “If thou canst get thy heart to be more burdened with thy sin, thou wilt be less burdened with thy afflictions.”

*Most people think contentment comes because of outside influences. But it really comes from interior healing. A sick man (“with aguish humor” or “a bitter choleric humor within”) tastes bitterness in every drink. He shouldn’t call his wife to sugar his drink, he should call the doctor to purge his bitter humor. Only then will the drink be sweet.

But above all these “everything you know is wrong” tricks, Burroughs teaches one key truth about the mystery of Christian contentment, and he wraps it in his best paradox: A contented Christian is “the most contented man in the world, and the most unsatisfied man in the world.”

Most contented, but least satisfied. How is that?

A little in the world will content a Christian for his passage: Mark, here lies the Mysterie of it, 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: now a Carnal heart will be content with these things of the world for his Portion; and there is the difference between a Carnal heart and a Gracious heart…

In the journey from here to heaven, a contented Christian can get by with very little. But when it comes to his heavenly reward, his portion, he cannot settle for anything less than God. Or, if it helps you to think about the experienced reality of it, without reference to the afterlife, consider this: The Christian can eat very meager food and live in an inadequate place, but he must know that God is with him there. “That Soul that is capable of God, can be filled with nothing else but God; nothing but God can fill a Soul that is capable of God: Carnal hearts think of no reference to God; but a Gracious heart, being enlarged to be capable of God, and enjoying somewhat of him, nothing in the world can fill a gracious heart, it must be onely God himself…”

We are to be easily contented in our passage, but never satisfied except with our portion, which is God himself.

The carnal heart is too easily satisfied with outward things, and as a result is never contented with any thing. Even when a carnal heart seeks peace, it seeks political peace, family peace, and interpersonal peace rather than peace with God or the peace of God. But the heart that knows grace wants more:

But mark how a Godly heart goes beyond a Carnal; all outward peace is not enough but I must have the peace of God. But suppose you have the peace of God, Will not that quiet you? No I must have the God of peace, as the peace of God, so the God of peace, that is I must enjoy that God that gives me the peace, I must have the Cause as well as the Effect; I must see from whence my peace comes and enjoy the fountain of my peace as well as the stream of my peace.

What we want is God. That is the key to the mystery of Christian contentment, and the reason for all the other paradoxes Burroughs lists.

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