Saturday, June 20, 2009

Christian contentment described

The following is the next installment in the series Reading the Classics Together - The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment edition. I'll try to make each post readable on its own, however I highly encourage your own study of this Puritan classic by Jeremiah Burroughs.

It is a great thing to think, with all the promises that we may not see fulfilled until we enter eternity, and the understanding that we will not reach sinless perfection until that time, that there are some Christian graces which we really can achieve in this life. Contentment is one of them. The apostle Paul tells us in Phil. 4:11, "I have learned it". As Burroughs expands: "I do not have to learn it now, nor did I have the art at first; I have attained it, though with much ado, and now, by the grace of God, I have become the master of this art."

We can and should take great hope in Paul’s statement that he has learned how to be content. In this we see that this is something possible for us to learn. It’s a skill, that by God’s grace we can truly master! And, I would add that since without it our godliness is not even considered to be gain unless it is accompanied by contentment (1 Tim. 6:6), it should become a very high priority. Or as our author puts it, "...to be well skilled in the mystery of Christian contentment is the duty, glory, and excellence of a Christian."

Now, Burroughs could hardly hold up his head among the Puritans if he did not define his terms, (The Puritans had learned that many misunderstandings are avoided in this way!) and so I will begin with his definition of Christian contentment.

"Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God's wise and fatherly disposal in every condition."
Notice that contentment doesn’t only apply to money or possessions, but "...is very comforting and useful for troubled hearts, in troubled times and conditions." Contentment is for all circumstances, conditions, and situations. Burroughs then proceeds to unpack his definition word by carefully chosen word, characteristic by characteristic.

It is inward. As with all true Christian virtues, contentment, too, is a "heart thing" - "...it is the inward submission of the heart...Not only must the tongue hold its peace, the soul must be silent. Many may sit silently, refraining from discontented expressions, yet inwardly, they are bursting with discontent...God hears the peevish fretful language of their souls...If the attainment of true contentment were as easy as keeping quiet outwardly, it would not need much learning." If we've taken away anything at all from the Sermon on the Mount, it should at least be that God is at least as concerned with the attitudes of our hearts as with our actions. He holds us accountable for both. True contentment, as opposed to false contentment, is from the heart.

It is quiet. In explaining the meaning of “quiet of heart” he lists three things which are NOT symptoms of discontent. These are things that you may do or experience without having an unquiet heart.

  1. "a due sense of affliction": "God gives his people leave to be sensible of what they suffer. Christ does not say, 'Do not count as a cross what is a cross'; he says, 'Take up your cross daily.' In other words, contentment does not mean that your pain does not hurt, or that you take no notice of it. Your discomforts are real. It is not sin to notice your hurts. In fact, hurts would not be hurts if you did not feel the pain. And so contentment is only contentment when experienced in the presence of difficulties.
  2. "It is not opposed to making in an orderly manner our moan and complaint to God, and to our friends. Though a Christian ought to be quiet under God's correcting hand, he may without any breach of Christian contentment complain to God."
  3. It is not opposed to all lawful seeking for help in different circumstances, nor to endeavoring simply to be delivered out of present afflictions by the use of lawful means. Such "lawful means" may be just the way God intends you to change your circumstances. And so taking that aspirin may be just the thing God would have you to do to relieve your pain. Taking that new job may be just what God would have you do to relieve your financial burden.
Having explained what can be present in a quiet heart, Burroughs next lists eight things that have no place whatsoever in a quiet heart. I would call them Eight Symptoms of a Discontented Heart
  1. "Murmuring and repining at the hand of God, as the Israelites often did."
  2. "Vexing and fretting"
  3. "Tumultuousness of spirit, when the thoughts run distractingly and work in a confused manner...'Ye ought to be quiet and to do nothing rashly.'"
  4. "An unsettled and unstable spirit, whereby the heart is distracted from the present duty that God requires in our several relationships, towards God, ourselves and others. We should prize duty more highly than to be distracted by every trivial occasion."
  5. "Distracting, heart-consuming cares. A gracious heart so esteems its union with Christ and the work that God sets it about that it will not willingly suffer anything to come in to choke it or deaden it."
  6. "Sinking discouragements. When things do not fall out according to expectation....God would have us to depend on him though we do not see how the thing may be brought about; otherwise we do not show a quiet spirit."
  7. "Sinful shiftings and shirkings to get relief and help....not content to await God's time and use God's means...not able to trust God and follow him fully in all things and always."
  8. "Desperate risings of the heart against God by way of rebellion...sometimes the very saints of God find the beginnings of this, when an affliction remains for a long time and is very severe and heavy indeed upon them, and strikes them, as it were, in the master vein...their thoughts begin to rise against God himself. Especially is this the case with those who besides their corruptions have a large measure of melancholy." (He is stating with this phrase regarding melancholy, that those prone to depression are especially prone to this kind of disquiet of heart. He, as is common among the Puritans, seems rather ahead of his time in that he views depression as an ailment with a physical cause to which some are predisposed. So he is quite compassionate, and yet he warns that such people have the added burden of watchfulness that their physical infirmity not be allowed to lead to sinful attitudes.)

Next, contentment is a frame of spirit. That is "it is a grace that spreads itself through the whole soul." As the frame of a house reaches all through it, supporting all it's various parts, so contentment touches every aspect of our lives and every situation and condition. And it comes from the soul..."the disposition of their own hearts causes and brings forth this gracious contentment rather than any external thing...To be content as a result of some external thing is like warming a man's clothes by the fire. But to be content through an inward disposition of the soul is like the warmth that a man's clothes have from the natural heat of his body."

"Contentment is the gracious frame of the heart." When Puritans refer to a gracious individual, or a gracious heart, they are referring to person or heart that has received the grace of God that is in Christ, so they are speaking specifically about a Christian. True Christian contentment is not a personality trait (thought is affects the personality). It is not stoicism. It is not a trait brought about merely by calm rationality. It comes from the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers. In it is "a compound of all spiritual graces...where contentment of heart springs from grace, the heart is very quick and lively in the service of God...active and busy in sanctifying God's name in the affliction that befalls him."

Christian contentment freely submits to God’s disposal. It is readily brought to see the hand of God at work and accepts it without constraint. "...for men and women who know better, who know that the condition they are in is an afflicted and sad condition, and still by a sanctified judgment can bring their hearts to contentment - this is freedom."

Christian contentment is "taking pleasure in God's disposal....This is so when I am well pleased in what God does, in so far as I can see God in it..." This does not mean I enjoy my difficult circumstances, per se. It means that I take joy in the knowledge that God has a purpose in them. "He sees the wisdom of God in everything. In his submission he sees his sovereignty, but what makes him take pleasure is God's wisdom. The Lord knows how to order things better than I. The Lord sees further than I do. I only see things at present, but the Lord sees a great while from now. And how do I know but that had it not been for this affliction, I should have been undone."

"The last thing is, This is in every condition".
This means any kind of condition, no matter how long it lasts, or how many afflictions are heaped up one on top of another. "...till God opens the door, we should be willing to stay; God has put us in, and God will bring us out...God requires it at our hands, that we should not be willing to come out till he comes and fetches us out."

And now that all the terms are defined, and we’re all on the same page and most likely feeling terribly inadequate (which we are apart from Christ), and now that we have an idea what that this Rare Jewel looks like, we can set about acquiring it for ourselves, being encouraged because we’re on the path to the kind of godliness that is actually great gain!

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