The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment

Last year I led a study through the Puritan Classic, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by Jeremiah Burroughs. It was one of the most challenging and fruitful endeavors I've ever undertaken. Contentment is a fairly unique aspect of godliness in that we are assured by at least one mere human in Scripture that it is actually achievable in this life. The apostle Paul says, in Philippians 4:11, "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content." He claims to have succeeded in learning it, and I can testify that it is possible. I've learned it as well. I know how to be content.

Now, I'd like to think after all that study and practice that I'll never fail to be content, but as with any other virtue, the world around me and the sin within me seeks to snuff it out. The habit of contentment, like any good habit once it is established, is maintained by nurture and reinforcement. Years ago I was a driving instructor by trade (yes, the kind that taught your teen to drive and pass his DMV tests). In order to qualify for this position I had to master all the rules of the road, and defensive driving, and practice them perfectly. This I did, and not only when I was working. I obeyed all the rules all the time, otherwise I would lose my sensitivity to the errors of my students and not only fail to teach them properly, but also endanger lives. I knew how to drive perfectly and practiced doing it perfectly in order to prevent sloppiness from creeping in. It has been some years since I gave up that particular profession. It took a while, but I now have some very sloppy driving habits. Lately I've gotten to thinking about how my sloppiness could end up causing an accident some day. I still know how to drive just right, but I've not practiced what I know and have lost the habit.

And so it is with contentment. I've noticed recently that I've been less peaceful in my life. I've begun preferring my time sitting at home to my time when I'm busy with the tasks God has assigned to me. I've begun to wish I was doing something different than the necessary things. I've found myself complaining sometimes. I've lost much of the joy of glorifying God with my labors. In short, I've become discontent. I know how to be content. I spent many, many months learning it, but I've let it slide and little by little gotten sloppier until the awareness finally dawned that I'm not as happy as I used to be. It's crept up quietly and little by little begun to manifest itself in various aspects of my life. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit has prodded me to take notice, and the timing couldn't be more perfect. A few weeks ago a friend mentioned that Tim Challies is starting a "new" book in his series Reading the Classics Together, and guess what it is - yep - The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment! Now, I've read this book many times, and don't really want to do a full reading of it at this time; but I thought this would be a great opportunity to both review my notes from the class and to make them available to others who might be reading along.

The reading officially begins today and so I thought I would provide some basic information that corresponds to the biographical introduction in the Banner of Truth Trust edition.

Before reading this work I had never heard of Jeremiah Burroughs, but was very interested to learn that he played a pivotal role in a great transition in Protestant Christendom. As the introduction informs us, after the Long Parliament was established, exiled Puritans, Burroughs among them, were able to return to England from their time of exile in Holland. And Burroughs himself was "summoned to take his place as a member of the Westminster Assembly". As a congregationalist he was regarded as an "independent", one of the men who came to be known as "The Five Dissenting Brethren". Aside from their view of what constitutes biblical church government, these brothers were "in full doctrinal agreement with the other Puritans". I was a bit startled to think of the division that resulted from just one different perspective about one aspect of doctrine. Yet, it was just such a difference that brought about, in the end, a profound change in the way the body of Christ - his church - came to be viewed. It was from these "Dissenting Brethren" that our modern idea of denominationalism originated.

From Church History In Plain Language, by B. Shelley:

“Denominationalism, as originally designed, is the opposite of sectarianism. A sect claims the authority of Christ for itself alone. It believes that it is the true body of Christ; all truth belongs to it and to no other religion. So by definition a sect is exclusive. The word denomination by contrast was an inclusive term. It implied that the Christian group called or denominated by a particular name was but one member of a larger group – the church- to which all denominations belong. The denominational theory of the church, then, insists that the true church cannot be identified with any single ecclesiastical structure. No denomination claims to represent the whole church of Christ. Each simply constitutes a different form – in worship and organization – of the larger life of the church.

The Reformers had planted the seeds of the denominational theory of the church when they insisted that the true church can never be identified in any exclusive sense with a particular institution. The true succession is not of bishops but of believers….

The real architects of the denominational theory of the church were the seventeenth-century Independents (Congregationalists) who represented the minority voice at the Westminster Assembly (1642-1649). The majority at the Assembly held to Presbyterian principles and expressed these convictions classically in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms.

The Independents, however, who held to congregational principles, were keenly aware of the dangers of ‘dividing the godly Protestant party’ in England so they looked for some way to express Christian unity even when Christians did not agree. These Dissenting Brethren of Westminster articulated the denominational theory of the church in several fundamental truths:

First, considering man’s inability to always see the truth clearly, differences of opinion about the outward form of the church are inevitable.

Second, even though these differences do not involve fundamentals of the faith, they are not matters of indifference. Every Christian is obligated to practice what he believes the Bible teaches.

Third, since no church has a final and full grasp of divine truth, the true Church of Christ can never be fully represented by any single ecclesiastical structure.

Finally, the mere fact of separation does not of itself constitute schism. It is possible to be divided at many points and still be united in Christ”

(All emphasis is mine.)
This is a phenomenal shift in the mindset of the church, and this Jeremiah Burroughs was at the heart of it. That this man, of this influence, devoted himself in this way to the study of such a humble virtue as contentment, for some reason made all he had to say seem even richer. It was also helpful to know that in all other areas of doctrine he promoted and held fast to the teachings contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith. And I've no doubt that his firm belief in the great biblical doctrines spelled out in Westminster are the foundation for true Christian contentment.

From the Westminster Confession of Faith:

“God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass. Yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin or is violence offered to the will of the creatures…”

I will go so far as to assert that true Christian contentment is not possible apart from firm belief in the sovereignty of God over "all things whatsoever that comes to pass". And so I've listed below a few Scriptures that lay the foundation for this doctrine.

“[He] works all things according to the counsel of His will.” Eph. 1:11

“I know that Thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted.” Job 42:2

“There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the Lord.” Prov. 21:30

"I say: ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please'.” Isaiah 46:10

“In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.” Prov. 16:9

“Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the LORD, it will stand.” Prov. 19:21

“Man’s steps are ordained by the LORD, how then can man understand his way.” Prov. 20:24

“The LORD foils the plans of the nations;

He thwarts the purposes of the peoples.

But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever,

The purposes of His heart through all generations.” Ps. 33: 10-11

“Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases.” Ps. 115: 3

“His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; no one can stay his hand or say to hm, ‘What have you done?’” Dan. 4: 34-35

“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He will.” Prov. 21:1

And, there are more:

Lamentations 3: 37-38; Job 23: 13-14; Amos 3:6; Deut. 32:39; 1 Sam. 2: 6-7; Ex. 4: 11; Isaiah 45:7; Prov. 16:33; Jer. 10:23; Job 1:21-22

Trust in God's control is the basis for our trust in his ability to keep his promises. This in turn is the only solid basis for contentment.


Lisa notes... said…
Thanks for the very thorough introduction to the book. I loved the first chapter and am looking forward to the rest. Your notes will be helpful for me to follow.

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