Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Excellence of Contentment - Part 1

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.

The Excellence of Contentment

Chapter Seven washed over me like a cool shower at the end of a long hot day. After all those sometimes difficult lessons on how to be content, I was ready for some refreshment. Here Burroughs seemed to invite us to cease our strivings to stand back for a while and admire this grace of contentment in all its beauty, to look at the glorious fruits of contentment in the lives of who've mastered it. Here we’ll find encouragement, and invigoration to continue our quest.

By contentment we come to give God the worship that is due to him.
"The word that the Greeks have that signifies, 'to worship' is the same as to come and crouch before someone, as if a dog should come crouching to you, and be willing to lie down at your feet. So the creature in the apprehension of its own baseness, and the infinite excellence that is in God above it, when it comes to worship God, comes and crouches to this God, and lies down at the feet of God: then the creature worships God....Now in what disposition of heart do we thus crouch to God more than when we have this state of contentment in all the conditions that God disposes us to?...You worship God more by this than when you come to hear a sermon, or spend half and hour, or an hour, in prayer, or when you come to receive a sacrament...this is the soul's worship, to subject itself thus to God....in active obedience we worship God by doing what pleases God, but by passive obedience we do as well worship God by being pleased with what God does."
Honestly, Burroughs' illustration of a dog before its master has made me cringe a bit every time I've read it. But all it takes is a moment of comparing myself with the Almighty to remember how infinitely higher and wonderful He is in comparison to me, than I am when compared to my dog. My dog and I have this in common: we are both creatures of this same Creator. As a mere creature I really have no right to be offended when put on the same level as another mere creature.

Keeping that in mind, read the familiar story of the faith of a Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28. How much clearer it now seems that Jesus would exclaim of her: "O woman, great is your faith!" The Canaanite woman had the attitude of true worship - the posture of genuine faith. This Gentile woman understood and accepted her position as a dependent creature. She knew she had no special standing before God. She didn’t complain at unfairness that she didn’t get to be born a Jew. She did not argue against the status she found herself in. She acknowledged her unworthy and undeserving status and appealed to God’s unmerited favor. She was content with “crumbs” because she knew it was more than she deserved. She knew she was undeserving of God’s goodness, and at the same time she counted on that very goodness. And to Christ that attitude was evidence of great faith. Another story in Scripture comes to mind which also illustrates that true faith and worship involve the understanding and willing acceptance of our positions as creatures under the authority of our Creator. It is the story of the Centurion in Matthew 8:5-13. Here once again we find Jesus marveling: "Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith." These two Gentiles understood who God is and who they were, and with this God was pleased.

Reflect for a moment on how a discontented heart affects your worship. What does your discontent reveal about how you really view God? Or to think of it another way, if you were to complain out loud to an unbeliever about all the things with which you are dissatisfied, what would they think your attitude is toward your God? It is hypocritical to claim that God is good, and to claim to love and trust Him, and claim to believe in His sovereignty and then to murmur against Him in discontentment. In Burroughs' words, “God does not regard such worship…”

In contentment there is much exercise of grace

…yea, there is much beauty of grace in contentment.” Beauty holds special meaning for women. I don’t really know why it’s so, but we women love beautiful things and we desire to be beautiful ourselves. I hope my female readers are beginning to see how truly lovely a jewel this contentment is - how beautiful in the sight of God - and to desire to adorn themselves with it. "Do not let your adorning be external - the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear - but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening." (1 Peter 3:3-6) This is a lovely description of what Christian contentment looks like in the life of a woman.

Next Burroughs lists five components of the exercise of grace in contentment:

1. "Much exercise of grace. There is a compound of grace in contentment: there is faith, and there is humility, and love, and there is patience, and there is wisdom, and there is hope: almost all graces are compounded. It is an oil which has the ingredients of every kind of grace; and therefore, though you cannot see the particular grace, yet in this oil you have it all...this pleases God at the heart to see the graces of his Spirit exercised."

In other words, contentment is like a fantastic gourmet dish made up of various flavorful and subtle ingredients which together combine into something more unique and wonderful to the taste than any one of the ingredients on its own. Though you may not be able to discern each ingredient, the dish would not be complete if any one were left out.

2. "There is a great deal of strength of grace in contentment."
As Burroughs says: "...it is an argument of a gracious magnitude of spirit, that whatsoever befalls it, yet it is not always whining and complaining as others do, but it goes on in its way and course, and blesses God, and keeps in a constant tenor whatever befalls it. Such things as cause others to be dejected and fretted and vexed, and take away all the comfort of their lives make no alteration at all in the spirits of these men and woman." Reflect for a moment on how this Christian strength is distinct from good old-fashioned Stoicism. (My emphasis in bold is a hint.)

3. It is also an argument of a great deal of beauty of grace.
After all these weeks of learning contentment we are probably ready to embrace the truth of Burroughs’ sweeping statement:
“The glory of God appears here more than in any of his works. There is no work which God has made – the sun, moon, stars and all the world – in which so much of the glory of God appears as in a man who lives quietly in the midst of adversity.”
That is a very large assertion. But if it is true, and I believe it is, and it is also true that the chief end of our existence is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, then we’re beginning to see just how integral contentment is to our very purpose and meaning in life. We cannot fulfill our purpose in life - we cannot glorify God without it. As Burroughs puts it,
"...when a Christian can walk in the midst of fiery trials, without his garments being singed, and has comfort and joy in the midst of everything (when like Paul in the stocks he can sing, which wrought upon the jailor) it will convince men, when they see the power of grace in the midst of afflictions. When they can behave themselves in a gracious and holy manner in such affliction as would make others roar; Oh, this is the glory of a Christian."
"...this is the glory of a Christian." I found myself here pondering that if God is glorified in our response to trials, what glory is being robbed Him by those who preach and believe that God wants us healthy and wealthy and prosperous in every way here in this life?

By contentment the soul is fitted to receive mercy, and to do service.
"...if we would be vessels to receive God's mercy, and would have the Lord pour his mercy into us, we must have quiet, still hearts. We must not have hearts hurrying up and down in trouble, discontent and vexing, but still and quiet hearts, if we receive mercy from the Lord. If a child throws and kicks up and down for a thing, you do not give it him when he cries so, but first you will have the child quiet. Even though, perhaps, you intend him to have what he cries for you will not give it him till he is quiet, and comes, and stands still before you, and is contented without it, and then you will give it hem. And truly so does the Lord deal with us, for our dealings with him are just as your froward children's are with you."
And suddenly new light was shed for me on a passage in James over which I've sometimes puzzled. See if it doesn't do the same for you:

"Count it all joy my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways." James 1:2-8.

As contentment makes fit to receive mercy, so fit to do service.

"Oh the quiet fruits of righteousness, the peaceable fruits of righteousness! They indeed prosper and multiply most when they come to be peaceable fruits of righteousness. As the philosophers say of everything that moves, nothing moves but upon something that is immovable. A thing which moves upon the earth, could not move if the earth were not still."
While we might find his reference to the unmoving earth amusing, I think his point is still clear: "...those who have unsteady, disturbed spirits which have no steadfastness at all in them are not fit to do service for God, but such as have steadfastness in their spirits are men and women fit to do any service."

Contentment delivers us from an abundance of temptations.
"The Devil loves to fish in troubled waters....when he sees men and women go up and down discontented, and he can get them alone, then he comes with his temptations: 'Will you suffer such a thing?' he says, 'take this shift, this indirect way, do you not see how poor you are, others are well off, you do not know what to do for the winter, to provide fuel and get bread for you and your children', and so he tempts them to unlawful courses. This is the special disorder that the Devil fastens upon, when he gets men and women to give their souls to him: it is from discontent, that is the ground of all who have been witches..."
I left in that bit about the witches intentionally. We don’t hear much talk of witches in our day and the term may seem antiquated; so as you finish reading think instead of some modern day practitioners: psychics, mediums, channels, astrologers or, readers of tarot cards, tea leaves, etc. Any of these practices would have been included in the category of witchcraft in Burroughs’ time; and if you read with that in mind you will find his words as relevant in our day as they were in his.

"...it is noticeable that those upon whom the Devil works, to make them witches, are usually old and melancholy people, and women especially, and those of the poorer sort who are discontented at home. Their neighbors trouble them and vex them, and their spirits are weak and they cannot bear it, so upon that the Devil fastens his temptations and draws them to anything. If they are poor, then he promises them money..."
Such folk are also easy prey for the false gospel of the health, wealth, and prosperity preachers. These are the folks targeted by unscrupulous television evangelists who promise answers to prayer in exchange for monetary donations.

Further on Burroughs speaks again as though he lived in our own times, with our crumbling economy: “Oh, in such times as these, when men are in danger of the loss of their wealth, I say men who have not got this grace are in a most lamentable condition, they are in more danger for their souls than they are for their outward possessions.” It is as the apostle Paul told young Timothy: "But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs." 1 Tim. 6:8-10

(Look for the conclusion of this chapter in my next post.)

4 comments:

haithabu said...

It's interesting that you see a parallel between the desires that tempt people to witchcraft and those that draw them to health and wealth teaching. I never thought of it before but I can see that the common denominator is the desire for a shortcut to happiness.

However I wouldn't want to tar everyone in the H&W camp with the brush of witchcraft. Some who are nominally identified with the prosperity gospel have pretty good teaching on the whole - such as Beth Moore and Joyce Meyer. The Copelands themselves come up with pretty good stuff sometimes....but there are other times when they just seem to take it over the top.

I think what it is is that you have some teachers who are genuine believers who want to assert the positive effect of God's promises, but they have followers looking for the shortcut who respond most positively to certain aspects of their teaching which can tempt them to emphasize them at the expense of a biblical balance. As in much of life, people tend to get the behaviour they reward.

Laurie M. said...

Having come out of the Word of Faith movement myself (two decades ago), I'm still affected sometimes by the deep superstitions it instilled. I in no way intended to imply it is synonymous with witchcraft (which is why I began a new paragraph)- or that there are no true Christians within the movement - but I can say from insider knowledge, that there are many within those circles for whom the Scriptures are used in the manner of spells to manipulate the Diety - they are as viewed words by which the Diety has bound Himself and by which we can manipulate Him to our wills and desires. The promises of Scriptures are not to be quietly trusted, but petulantly demanded. If they are not received, if the prayers for health and wealth are not answered, then sin is to blame and the legalism comes in. The Word of Faith message is like that of Job's friends. I know nothing of Joyce Meyer or Beth Moore (though as I understand it, Moore is a sound Biblical teacher). They were not around back then. But as for the Copelands and the rest, I can say that the teaching, at least back then, came that way straight from the pulpit.

haithabu said...

That's where the "claim it" aspect comes in. it's still there, unfortunately, at least for the Copelands. My wife likes watching them, though, not for that but for other aspects of their teaching which she enjoys - kind of along the line of eat the chicken, spit out the bones.

Lisa notes... said...

I agree with you that this chapter was very refreshing. You made a great point that if we voiced our discontent to an unbeliever, what would they think we believed about God? Something to think about.

Yes, #3 is a large assertion, but I am also being blown away by the truth of it. I always knew that contentment was a "good thing" but I underestimated its value to glorify the Father.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!