Saturday, July 18, 2009

Contentment and Self-denial

The following is the next installment in Tim Challies' series Reading the Classics Together - The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. 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.

In the first part of his chapter "How Christ Teaches Contentment", Burroughs begins listing a series of lessons Christ teaches His people in order to teach them contentment. The first of these lessons is "the lesson of self-denial." And since our author admits "it is a hard lesson" and I agree; and also says that
“Whoever has not learned the lesson of the cross, has not learned his ABC in Christianity”, and then insists this, the strongest statement of all: " ...if you mean to be Christians at all you must buckle to this or you can never be Christians." I thought it was time to put on the brakes and look into this matter more carefully. He's not saying you can't be content unless you deny yourself - he's saying you can not even be a Christian unless you do! According to Jeremiah Burroughs you cannot be a Christian at all if you do not deny yourself! You cannot just have Jesus as your Savior; He must be your Lord too, or you are not a Christian. Stop and let that sink in.

It is never a good idea to just let such statements float past us, or, on the other hand, to swallow them unquestioningly. Where does Burroughs get such ideas? What gives him the right to make such harsh statements? Is what he says even scriptural? Is he accurately representing the heart of the gospel in saying such things?
There's only one way to find out. We must turn to Scripture.

First let's listen to Jesus Himself explaining what being a Christian will require of us:
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.” Matthew 10: 34-39

And again:

“From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!’ But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.’ Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” Matthew 16:21-26

And again:

“Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it – lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going to make war against another king does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple. ‘Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is neither fit for the land nor for the dunghill, but men throw it out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Luke 14:25-34

(Take note of that last statement about salt with no flavor being useless. Salt with no saltiness is not salt at all. It is useless. The implication is that a person claiming to be a disciple, but who has not forsaken all that he has, is useless.)

Indeed Christ's words were even harder than Burroughs'. What are we to make of this talk about hating people? (I think it a good idea to clear that up before we move on!) I found J.M. Boice very helpful in explaining this:

“We recognize that there is a certain amount of Semitic hyperbole in these statements. The One who told us to love each other is not advocating that we cultivate a literal animosity toward the members of our own family. Moreover, this is only one side of the story. Jesus also said, ‘There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundred-fold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.’ (Mk. 10:29-30). But even this is to be with persecutions, and it does not eliminate the elements of death and denial.

We do not work ourselves up to death and denial, however. Rather, we need them before we can start out at all. Paul shows this by introducing self-sacrifice as the initial principle of the Christian life in his most formal treatment of that life. ’I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’ (Rom. 12:1).”

And further:

Self-denial should not be difficult for any Christian to understand for this is what it means to become a Christian. It means to have turned your back on any attempt to please God through your own human abilities and efforts, and instead to have accepted by faith what God has done in Christ for your salvation. No one can save himself or herself. So we stop trying. We die to our efforts. We must say no to them. When we have done this, we receive God’s salvation as a free gift. Living the Christian life is, therefore, only a matter of continuing in the way we have started. Yet this is difficult to apply. This principle is so uncongenial that even Christians quickly forget it and try to live by other standards.

It can hardly be otherwise, given our own natural dispositions and the culture in which we live. (Now he quotes Francis A. Schaeffer.) ‘We are surrounded by a world that says No to nothing. When we are surrounded with this sort of mentality, in which everything is judged by bigness and by success, then suddenly to be told that in the Christian life there is to be this strong negative aspect of saying No to things and No to self, must seem hard. And if it does not feel hard to us, we are not really letting it speak to us.’” J.M. Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith

So, with all that explained we can turn back to our book, and our discussion of it. Yes, these statements are strong, and they are meant to be. The Christian life is serious business. It’s life and death business. We must be willing to give up this life, and everything in it, to gain the life to come. And if we don’t, in the end we will lose both. Christ is saying that He must be everything to us – that He must be enough for us. We must be satisfied with Him. This is the essence of what it means to be a Christian.

It is now becoming much clearer why contentment is so essential to godliness.

"Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day as long as it is called 'today,' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ. If indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said, 'Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden you hearts as in the rebellion.' For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? Who we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief." (Heb. 3:12-19)

So, what was the sin that kept the Israelites from entering God's rest? Unbelief. And do you remember how that unbelief manifested itself in the lives of those people? What behavior was it that so provoked God against them? It was their grumbling and complaining against the difficulties of their circumstances in spite of God's promises to provide for them and the great miracles he had performed in delivering them (Num. 11:1-3; Num. 14:1-12). Listen to what God had to say about their behavior:

"And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 'How long shall this wicked congregation grumble against me? I have heard the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against me. Say to them, 'As I live, declares the LORD, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness..."(Num. 14:26-29)
The complaining and grumbling which come from discontented hearts are a testimony to unbelief and not to be treated lightly. We must take discontent seriously. If it characterizes who we are, we may not be even be Christians. But for even for those who are Christians, it must be dealt with as a most serious sin, and viewed as a sign of a deeper spiritual problem.

And so, rather than grumbling at difficult circumstances, the self-denying, believing, soul looks at life this way:

“O Lord, you know what is the better way; let this or that be done as you shall please. Give what you will, and how much you will, and when you will. Do with me as you know, and as best pleases you, and is most for your honor. Set me where you will, and deal with me in all things just as you will….When could it be ill with me, when you are present? I had rather be poor for you, than rich without you. I rather choose to be a pilgrim on earth with you, than without you to posses heaven. Where you are, there is heaven; and where you are not, there is death and hell.” Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

The Christian finds joy and contentment in seeing God glorified, regardless of what loss or difficulty or pain that may require of him. In fact true Christians can even find comfort in the very fact that they are suffering difficulties, seeing it as another example of God's care for them:

"And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
'My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.'
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline. If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons...he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it." (Heb. 12: 5-8, 10-11)

Yesterday I finished reading a work called "The Sovereignty and Goodness of God." It is the autobiographical account of the kidnap and captivity of Puritan Mary Rowlandson by Native Americans in New England in February of 1676. Her ordeal began with a massacre in which about 13 English people were murdered, among them her sister and sister's children, and from which she and her own three children were taken hostage. (Her husband had been away in another town.) She and her daughter had been shot, and the child later died in her arms. Her other two children had been parcelled out among the Indians and taken she knew not where. Eleven weeks later she was ransomed and a few weeks after that, so were her surviving children.

I will let her closing words close today's discussion on contentment and self-denial. See if she doesn't, after all she endured, testify to the truth of Burroughs' assertion that: “A gracious heart says, God’s ends are my ends and I have denied my own ends; so he comes to find contentment in all God’s ends and ways, and his comforts are multiplied.”

"Before I knew what affliction meant, I was ready sometimes to wish for it. When I lived in prosperity, having the comforts of the World about me, my heart chearfull: and taking little care for any thing; and yet seeing many, whom I preferred before my self, under many tryals and afflictions, in sickness, weakness, poverty, losses, crosses, and cares of the World, I should be sometimes jealous least I should have my portion in this life, and that Scripture would come to my mind, Heb. 12.6. For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every Son whom he receiveth. But now I see the Lord had his time to scourge and chasten me. The portion of some is to have their affictions by drops, now one drop and then another; but the dregs of the Cup, the Wine of astonishment: like a sweeping rain that leaveth no food, did the Lord prepare to be my portion. Affliction I wanted, and affliction I had, full measure (I thought) pressed down and running over; yet I see, when God calls a Person to any thing, and through never so many difficulties, yet he is fully able to carry them through and make them see, and say they have been gainers thereby. And I hope I can say in some measure, As David did, It is good for me that I have been afflicted (Ps. 119:71). The Lord had shewed me the vanity of these outward things. That they are the Vanity of vanities, and vexation of spirit (Ecc. 1:2,14); that they are but a shadow, a blast, a bubble, and things of no continuance. That we must rely on God himself, and our whole dependance must be upon him. If trouble from smaller matters begin to arise in me, I have something at hand to check my self with, and say, why am I troubled? It was but the other day that if I had had the world, I would have given it for my freedom, or to have been a Servant to a Christian. [She had been sold as a slave among the Indians.] I have learned to look beyond present and smaller troubles, and to be quieted under them as Moses said, Exod. 14.3. Stand still and see the Salvation of the Lord." (All empasis in italics and odd spellings in the original. Explanation in brackets mine.)

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