Thursday, July 2, 2009

More thoughts on the "Mystery of Contentment"

The following is another installment in the 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 beginning of Chapter Three of our reading, Burroughs explains that part of the "mystery of contentment" is that the Christian "lives upon the dew of God's blessing": “…they find there is a sweetness in what they do enjoy, and they know by experience that they never had such sweetness in former times.” He explains how a believer comes to live this way with the following five points. These are five ways of looking at the world and our circumstances which I would like to dwell on a bit longer as these are thoughts worth not just chewing on but digesting.
  1. "Because in what he has, he has the love of God to him....Every good thing the people of God enjoy, they enjoy it in God's love, as a token of God's love.” In this Burroughs proves true to his Augustinian roots:
    “If physical objects please you, praise God for them, but turn back your love to their Creator, lest, in those things which please you, you displease him. If souls please you, let them be loved in God; for in themselves they are mutable, but in him firmly established – without him they would simply cease to exist. In him, then, let them be loved; and bring along to him with yourself as many souls as you can and say to them; ‘Let us love him, for he himself created all these, and he is not far away from them. For he did not create them, and then go away. They are of him and in him.” Confessions, Augustine: Book 4, Ch. 12: 18
  2. "What they have is sanctified to them for good...” Unbelievers just have what they have. Believers have what they have along with the knowledge that it is a gift of God's love to them.
  3. "A gracious heart has what he has free of cost: he is not likely to be called to pay for it....the wicked in all their pomp, and pride, and finery; they have what they ask for, but there must come a reckoning for everything, they must pay for all at the conclusion, and is it not better to have a little free of cost, than to have to pay for everything?”
  4. "A godly man may very well be content, though he has only a little, for what he does have he has by right of Jesus Christ, by the purchase of Jesus Christ."
  5. "Every little that they have is but an earnest penny for all the glory that is reserved for them; it is given them by God as the forerunner of those eternal mercies that the Lord intends for them....Just as every affliction that the wicked have here is but the beginning of sorrows, and forerunner of those eternal sorrows that they are likely to have hereafter in Hell, so every comfort you have is a forerunner of those eternal mercies you shall have with God in Heaven.”
I'd like to take some time with the third and fourth points together, since I found that the fourth really helped clarify the third. Mr. Burroughs in his day assumed his readers would possess, based upon common religious education practices of that time, a rather mature understanding of such doctrines as the depravity of man, the atonement, adoption, predestination, perseverance of the saints, the mercy of God, the wrath of God, the glorification of the saints, and eternal damnation for those who die in their sin.

In our time, this level of doctrinal understanding among Christian readers can no longer be safely assumed. So I’d like to slow down a bit here and not assume we all know what he’s talking about. The points he makes are just too important to risk just breezing through without understanding, or to risk misunderstanding entirely.

Burroughs makes statements like: “by right of Jesus Christ” & “ by the purchase of Jesus Christ”, which are spoken briefly, as in passing, but are too rich with meaning for me to allow to just pass. What is the "right of Jesus Christ"? What did He actually purchase on that Cross? These are truths worth meditating on. Let’s take a look at what Scripture teaches about the effect of Christ’s sacrifice for the world, believers and unbelievers.
“The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see, life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” John 3: 35-36
First let's see what the Scripture says about man's depravity apart from Christ:
Please read the following passages: Romans 1:18-25; Romans 2:3-11; and Romans 9: 19-24. (You may read them here by rolling over the reference on your screen.) There’s a lot going on in the final passage that I will not address at this time. For now I merely want to draw attention to how God’s plan to reveal His glory to His "vessels of mercy" spills over in benefits even to those who will never repent, by way of the patience and long-suffering God shows toward them. From the beginning of the history of mankind, this has been the way God has dealt with sinners, with long-suffering for the sake of those who will be saved, because from the beginning of history the Cross of Christ has always been in view.

Now, back to Point Four in our Rare Jewel reading:
“So it is with the wicked: they have forfeited all their right to the comforts of this world, they are condemned by God as criminals, and are going to execution; but if God in his bounty gives them something to preserve them here in the world, they cannot be said to be thieves or robbers. But if a man is given a supper overnight before his execution, it that like the supper that he was wont to have in his own house, when he ate his own bread, and had his wife and children about him? Oh, a dish of green herbs at home would be a great deal better than any dainties in such a supper as that.”
We have seen in Romans that the ungodly stand condemned by God, and are even, on some level, aware of it. For this reason they cannot truly enjoy the good blessings they receive from the hand of God. The blessings themselves are truly good, but are like the fancy dinner of the condemned man. (It really is better to have a simple meal without the death sentence!)

And so, having been made to understand the bad news, that we are beings who live all our days under the sentence of death, we are better prepared to recognize how truly good the Good News is when we hear it. And so now I'd like to discuss our great salvation from the wrath we rightfully deserve.
“Just as every affliction that the wicked have here is but the beginning of sorrows, and forerunner of those eternal sorrows that they are likely to have hereafter in Hell, so every comfort you have is a forerunner of those eternal mercies you shall have with God in Heaven.” (from point 4, pg. 58, Rare Jewel...)
"And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience - among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with whcih he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindenss toward us in Christ Jesus." Eph. 2:1-7
"For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation throught our Lord Jeus Christ..."1 Thess. 5:9
Also read Romans 5: 6-11 (we are saved from the wrath of God and reconciled with the Father.), Romans 8: 12-17 (We are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.), and Romans 8:28-39 (With Him He will freely give us all things, and we are more than conquerers).

And now I think we’re able to move as naturally into Burroughs did into his next point:
“Every little that they have is but an earnest penny for all the glory that is reserved for them; it is given them by God as the forerunner of those eternal mercies that the Lord intends for them.”
Look again at Romans 8:18-25 and think what a glorious thing we have to look forward to if even all of creation itself is groaning in anticipation, eagerly awaiting! What a great hope! What an amazing new creation awaits us all!
"For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creat was subjecte to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And nbot only the creation, but we ourselves, who have thr firstruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoptions as sone, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved..."
And...
"So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparision, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal." 2 Cor. 4:16-18
And with this foundation laid, I'd like to take a longer look at Burroughs' next major point from "The Mystery of Contentment". I think that his words here are beautiful, and we love the sound of them; but when we are called to live them out....Well, that's another story. Section IX begins this way:
“Not only in good things does a Christian have the dew of God’s blessing, and find them very sweet to him, but in all the afflictions, all the evils that befall him, he can see love, and can enjoy the sweetness of love in his afflictions as will as in his mercies. The truth is that the afflictions of God’s people come from the same eternal love that Jesus Christ came from.”
How hard it can be to believe this in the midst of difficulties and pain, in the midst of the modern church where prosperity is seen as a sign of God’s favor, and even more in the midst of a world of broken families, which make the concept of loving discipline nearly incomprehensible! But with God all things are possible and it is His grace which “enables men to see love in the very frown of God’s face, and so come[s] to receive contentment.”

Burroughs' is so right when he says that, "this is a mystery to a carnal heart. They can see no such thing; perhaps they think God loves them when he prospers them and makes them rich, but they think God loves them not when he afflicts them.” This is a pagan notion of God – this was my notion of God before my conversion, when I was merely a nominal Christian, particularly during and after my days of involvement with the Word of Faith movement.

The following is a portion of my personal testimony about the fear which stems from that belief system:
“I spent years in a belief system…in which you have to make sure every step you take is the perfect will of God for you or else you will have stepped out from under his “umbrella of protection”. What may not be obviously apparent is the terrible fear-based legalism that eventually results from this belief, particularly when things start going “wrong”. Though I no longer believe this is what it means to be “led by the Spirit”, long years of exposure still come back and bite me from time to time, usually when some major decision needs to be made. I’m still periodically paralyzed by the fear that I’ve made a wrong decision and have now forfeited God’s “perfect” will for my life. I’ve wasted weeks, even months, of my life as a believer in a miasma of fear and second-guessing, either unable to take a step forward in faith for fear I’ll make a horrible mistake and will no longer know what it is to have God’s blessing on my life, or frozen in terror after the decision is made because I may have just made the fateful decision that will be my final undoing. That’s the devastating fear.”
And again I will refer to Romans:
"There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For they that are after the flesh mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For the mind of the flesh is death; but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace: because the mind of the flesh is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can it be: and they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you. But if any man hath not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwelleth in you, he that raised up Christ Jesus from the dead shall give life also to your mortal bodies through his Spirit that dwelleth in you. So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh: for if ye live after the flesh, ye must die; but if by the Spirit ye put to death the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For ye received not the spirit of bondage again unto fear; but ye received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him." Romans 8:1-17
According to this passage, what are the results of having the Spirit of God dwelling in you?
The presence of the Spirit of God means: adoption (You are His child now!), absence of condemnation, freedom from the law of sin and death, a heart, mind, and life set on the things of God, life and peace, a desire to put to death the deeds of the body, a heart to cry out to God as your dear loving Father.

Can you look into the face of the Father in the midst of your afflictions and think of Him as “Dear Father”? Is He dear to you in the midst of any kind of affliction, even the kind that you know comes as a direct result of your own sin? Do you see the Father’s loving eyes when He brings pain into your life? This is not to say there are no times of doubt – because our flesh remains with us, and old ways die hard – but have you known this to be the case in your life? Is the reminder that God is behind your affliction a comfort to you? If it is, then you have very good reason to be assured you are His - that His Spirit dwells within you.

As I look back over my own life I can see this as one of the surest signs of my conversion, and as a believer I can see that this is one of the greatest sources of assurance.

"Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that hath endured such gainsaying of sinners against himself, that ye wax not weary, fainting in your souls. Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin: and ye have forgotten the exhortation which reasoneth with you as with sons, My son, regard not lightly the chastening of the Lord, Nor faint when thou art reproved of him; For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, And scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. It is for chastening that ye endure; God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father chasteneth not? But if ye are without chastening, whereof all have been made partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore, we had the fathers of our flesh to chasten us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed good to them; but he for our profit, that we may be partakers of his holiness. All chastening seemeth for the present to be not joyous but grievous; yet afterward it yieldeth peaceable fruit unto them that have been exercised thereby, even the fruit of righteousness. Wherefore lift up the hands that hang down, and the palsied knees; and make straight paths for your feet, that that which is lame be not turned out of the way, but rather be healed. Hebrews 12: 1-13

And this leads us to Burroughs' next main point: His afflictions are sanctified in Christ, sanctified in an Mediator.... He sees...all the sting and venom and poison of them taken out by the virtue of Jesus Christ."
"Since then the children are sharers in flesh and blood, he also himself in like manner partook of the same; that through death he might bring to nought him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver all them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For verily not to angels doth he give help, but he giveth help to the seed of Abraham. Wherefore it behooved him in all things to be made like unto his brethren, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succor them that are tempted." (Heb. 2:14-18)
Now read Isaiah 53, taking particular notice of verse 10: "Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief..." Note that it is God who afflicts. And even though evil men and devils may be the agents of our suffering, as they were for Christ, it is ultimately God who oversees it, and God who has a good purpose in it all. ("Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the LORD has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?" Lamentations 3:37-38)

And, finally, He gets strength from Christ. “…if a man has a burden to bear, and yet can have strength added to him – if the burden is doubled, he can have his strength trebled [tripled] – the burden will not be heavier but lighter than it was before to his natural strength.”
"Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to aboutd. In any and ev ery circustance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things throught him who strengthens me." Philippians 4:11-13
Consider for a moment what types of things, according to Scripture, the power of God in our lives enables us to do?

It enables us to be abased and to abound, to be full and to be hungry, to suffer need. In short, Christ gives us strength to be content in any circumstance whatsoever. The power of God in our lives is evidenced when we are content no matter what befalls us, even when it means we suffer as Christ suffered. This is why Paul prays this way: "May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light." (Col. 1: 11-12)

These days when people are looking for signs of God’s “great and glorious power” what they are usually looking for is not patience or long-suffering. I can't tell you how many times I've heard someone warn, "Whatever you do, don't pray for patience!" Yet patience and long-suffering are exactly the signs of God’s glorious power at work in our lives. And if we are honest with ourselves about our own sinfulness, we know that these truly are glorious things. There is no greater miracle we can witness in this world than a sinful life transformed to Christ-likeness!

(The above thoughts are a compilation of my lecture and class discussion notes from this Chapter arranged in manner that, hopefully, makes them readable.)

2 comments:

jacob said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lisa notes... said...

I appreciate you sharing that portion of your personal testimony.

I grew up under the false illusion that we could easily lose our entire salvation if we made one little slip-up the second before we died. There was NO grace in that.

I thank God that he continues to use his Spirit to bring us out of the bondage of wrong thinking and into the light of his love.

Thanks for sharing.