Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Rare Jewel - Chapter Five

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.

How Christ Teaches Contentment


You may have thought we'd already made a lot of progress in this business of Christan contentment by now (and I think we have!), but according to Burroughs we are just now, here in Chapter Five beginning our lessons. This is where some difficult lessons begin. We've up till now just installed the new tires, but this is where the rubber starts meeting the road. If I’m any indicator, this is where things start hitting pretty close to home. If you're feeling convicted, like you’ve got a lot more work to do than you ever anticipated, you’re not alone.

Just as anyone in this life who has ever become a great scholar began first with his alphabet and worked up from there, so...
"...a Christian coming to contentment is as a scholar in Christ's school, and there are many lessons to teach the soul to bring it to this learning; every godly man or woman is a scholar. It cannot be said of any Christian that he is illiterate, but he is literate, a learned man, a learned woman. Now the lessons that Christ teaches to bring us to contentment are these..."
According to Burroughs, these are just the ABC’s of Christian living and contentment, only the start. We well begin here laying a foundation for all other godliness. If we try to build a “Christian” life without this foundation, it will not stand. (Remember, godliness is gain if it is with contentment. 1 Tim. 6:6) This is seriously humbling stuff.

I.The Lesson of Self-denial


“This is where Christ begins with his scholars, and those in the lowest form must begin with this; if you mean to be Christians at all, you must buckle to this or you can never be Christians.”
Mr. Burroughs is referring to the saying of a martyr that “Whoever has not learned the lesson of the cross, has not learned his ABC in Christianity”.

This is a very strong statement. We don’t hear much of this kind of talk from modern pulpits. But is it true? Does it accurately represent the heart of Christ in the matter? Read the following Scriptures and see what you think: Matthew 10: 34-39; Matthew 16:21-26; Luke 9:23-26; Luke 14:25-34

Now Burroughs begins with a list of outlooks a self-denying (Christian) person has toward his life which ultimately result in his contentment:

1. "Such a person learns to know that he is nothing. This should serve to remind us that all we receive is of grace."
(Rom. 7:18; John 15:5)

When we know we are deserving of nothing, and have no value in and of ourselves, we recognize grace when we see it and rejoice in it for the free gift that it is. That grace is then sufficient for us so that we no longer put our hopes in expectations for this life which lead to disappointment.
"That man or woman who indeed knows that he or she is nothing, and has learned it thoroughly will be able to bear anything."

2. "Such a person knows that he deserves nothing…except it be hell. "
(See Romans 6: 23 & Luke 17: 7-10)

If we could but remember this one thing, and keep it before our eyes in this day and age of entitlement, we would already have come far toward contentment and being salt and light to a dark and corrupt world. This kind of thinking is exactly opposed to what the world is telling us.

Just think of all the things we tend to think we “should have,” things that when we are forced to do without bring discontent. Think of all the things we actually think we have a “right” to be disgruntled about. Think, if you will, of things beyond the flat-screen TV’s to things more basic like a good night's sleep, health insurance, employment suited to one's level of education, freedom of speech, freedom to worship, indoor plumbing and clean water, polite treatment, good service, freedom from physical pain, reliable transportation, air conditioning, heating. May the Lord bring these things to which we feel entitled to our attention so we can, instead of feeling entitled to them, be deeply thankful for them. Every one of these things is a mercy to us who by our sin have earned death. (Rom. 6:23)

3. “I can do nothing.”
"Do but consider of what use you are in the world, and if you consider what little need God has of you, and what little use you are, you will not be much discontented...though God cuts you short of certain comforts, yet you will say, 'Since I do but little, why should I have much.'"
This section brought to my mind God’s scathing words to Job, at the end of his ordeal:
“Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding….” (Job 38: 2-4)

and

Job 42:5-6: “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, But now my eye sees You. Therefore, I abhor myself, And repent in dust and ashes.”
As looking at the galaxies from our earthly perspective gives us the sense that everything revolves around us, from our vantage points, each of us seems to be the center of our universe. As Copernicus called the earth’s scientists to a more accurate view of reality, Christ is calling His people to a Copernican Revolution of our own. No matter how it looks to us, we are not the center of our universe. We are not vital to its existence. It existed before us, and God will continue to sustain it after we’ve died. This is all very humbling. We are not as important as we like to think. (See 1 Cor. 3:6-7; 1 Cor. 4:7; Rom. 7:18)

4. “I am so vile that I cannot of myself receive any good.”
"I am not only an empty vessel, but a corrupt and unclean vessel; that would spoil anything that comes into it. So are all our hearts: every one of them is not only empty of good but is like a musty bottle that spoils even good liquor that is poured into it."
As my own pastor is fond of saying, “If sin were the color blue, everything we do, apart from Christ, is some shade of blue.” These are hard words, and run contrary not only to our personal pride, but to the teaching of popular psychology and self-help writers, and the bulk of modern evangelical teaching as well. Lest you think this statement is too strong, read Romans 7:14–25 & Rom 8:1-4 (Thank God there is now also a new law at work within us!)


5. “…we can make use of nothing when we have it, if God but withdraws himself.”

Put simply, we must remember that we depend entirely upon God and the power of His Holy Spirit at work within us for the ability to do any good thing at all.
(Read Philippians 2:12-13, Romans 8:6-9, and 1 Corinthians 4:7


6.“We are worse than nothing.”
"Sin makes us more vile than nothing, and contrary to all good....We are not empty pitchers in respect of good, but we are like pitchers filled with poison..."
Once again Burroughs is resorting to very harsh words. In case you think he’s overstating his case here, read Romans 3: 9-19 and Romans 7:18.

7. “If we perish we will be no loss.”

It's easy to think at this point that these last couple of thoughts sound like nothing more than a depressed soul working up itself up to suicide. So to show why this is not the case here I'll offer a clue from the text:
“A man who is little in his own eyes will account every affliction as little, and every mercy as great."

A man who has a high opinion and/or strong love of his self will feel life not worth living if he cannot have or achieve what he thinks he “should” have. He will not be able to be thankful for so-called small mercies, like breath, family, flowers, etc, because they don’t measure up to what he actually thinks he deserves or thinks he could aspire to if he just had the right opportunities, or abilities, or the appreciation of which he thinks he’s been shortchanged.


8. It is by self-denial that “the soul comes to rejoice and take satisfaction in all God’s ways…”
"If a man is selfish and self-love prevails in heart, he will be glad of those things that suit with his own ends, but a godly man who has denied himself will suit with and be glad of all things that shall suit with God's ends."
Christ Himself took this path to joy as He submitted His own great and perfect self as an example to us:
"Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Philippians 2:3-11

"So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name." Heb. 13:12-15

We need to, like Christ, find our pleasure in the will of the Father, in seeing His will accomplished and Him glorified.

As Burroughs says: “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.”

II. The vanity of the creature. "That is the second lesson in Christ's school..."
“If you look for contentment in the creature you will fail.”
"The devil said to him, 'If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.' And Jesus answered him, 'It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone.'" Luke 4: 3-4

I ask you to prayerfully read as well John 6: 26-50, where we learn that Jesus is the Bread of Life, and Luke 12: 13-34. How much of your time and resources do you invest toward things that are merely temporal as it compares with your investment in things which are eternal. How do they stack up? Are you laboring for food that perishes?

III. To know the one thing needful
“it is not necessary for me to be rich, but it is necessary for me to make my peace with God…”
Above we read the parable of the rich fool, which illustrates this point as well. Now continue reading in Luke 12: 35-56.

The above passage makes clear Burroughs point that Christ’s intention is to cause...
“the fear of eternity to fall upon you, and causes such a real sight of the great things of eternity, and the absolute necessity of those things, that it possesses your heart with fear and takes you off from all other things in the world....when the soul is once taken up with the things that are of absolute necessity, it will not be much troubled about other things.”
And here follows a fantastic illustration for this point:
"Who are the men who are most discontented, but the idle persons, persons who have nothing to occupy their minds? Every little thing disquiets and discontents them; but in the case of a man who has business of great weight and consequence, if all things go well with his great business which is in his head, he is not aware of meaner things in the family. On the other hand a man who lies at home and has nothing to do finds fault with everything. So it is with the heart..."
IV. To know one’s relation to the world
“God has set me in this world, not as in my home, but as a mere stranger and a pilgrim who is traveling to another home, and that I am here a soldier in my warfare. I say, a right understanding of this is a mighty help to contentment in whatever befalls one....If you were to live a hundred years, in comparison to eternity it is not as much as a night, it is as though you were traveling, and had come to an inn. And what madness is it for a man to be discontented because he has not got what he sees there, seeing he may be going away again within less than quarter of an hour?”
This is a profoundly scriptural theme. We are likened to pilgrims, to soldiers, to aliens throughout Scripture. Our stay here is temporary. For a deeper understanding, please read:
2 Timothy 2:3-4; Hebrews 11:8-16; Hebrews 13:12-15; 1 Peter 1:17; 1 Peter 2:11


And lest we forget what our goal is and lose hope, I think this is probably a good time for a little reminder of what we are looking forward to. Read: John 14: 1-4; John 17: 24-26; 1 Thess. 4:15-18; Rev. 21:9-27

V. Wherein the good of the creature is
"...so far as I can enjoy God in it, so far it is good to me, and so far as I do not enjoy God in it, so far there is no goodness in any creature."
In the previous points we we discussed the vanity/emptiness of the creature, and how contentment can never be found in it. Now we learn that there is value in the creature after all.

When God finished His work in creation He proclaimed that it was good. And it is, though it suffers from the curse of sin as we do, and groans as we do awaiting our redemption. The Scripture testifies to the special role creation has in God’s self-revelation:
"The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge... (Ps. 19:1,2)

"When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?" (Ps. 8: 3,4)

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. Fro what can be know about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." (Rom. 1: 18-20)

And as Calvin so eloquently testifies:

“Indeed, this life, however crammed with infinite miseries it may be, is still rightly to be counted among those blessings of God which are not to be spurned. Therefore, if we recognize in it no divine benefit, we are already guilty of grave ingratitude toward God himself. For believers especially, this ought to be a testimony of divine benevolence, wholly destined, as it is, to promote their salvation. For before he shows us openly the inheritance of eternal glory, God wills by lesser proofs to show himself to be our Father. These are the benefits that are daily conferred on us by him. Since, therefore, this life serves us in understanding God’s goodness, should we despise it as if it had not grain of good in itself?…nature itself also exhorts us to give thanks to the Lord because he has brought us into its light, granted us the use of it, and provided all the necessary means to preserve it… When we are certain that the earthly life we live is a gift of God’s kindness, as we are beholden to him for it we ought to remember it and be thankful.” Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, Ch. IX, 3.

VI. The knowledge of one’s own heart
“You must learn this or you will never learn contentment. You must learn to know your own hearts well, to be good students of your own hearts.”
Here Burroughs once again echos Calvin, who opens his Institutes this way:
"I. Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God -
Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves."
Our author lists three ways in which learning our own hearts will help us to contentment:
1. “…you will soon discover wherein your discontent lies”
“…If we are very well versed in our own hearts, when anything happens to unsettle us, we soon find out the cause of it, and so quickly become quiet.”
2.“…we shall come to know what best suits our condition.”
“…when God comes with afflictions to the man or woman who have studied their own hearts, they can say, ‘I would not have been without this affliction for anything in the world, God has so suited this affliction to my condition and has come in such a way that if this affliction had not come I am afraid I should have fallen into sin.’”
Can you look at your life as a believer and remember times when you could actually look at your affliction, while you were yet in the middle of it and see some of the good it was doing for you and take comfort in that?

3.“By knowing their own hearts they know what they are able to manage…”

In our day it’s popular, even in song, to say, “Thank God for unanswered prayer.” That’s a bit of what the author is saying here. God knows what is best for us to have, and what He does not want us to have because it would not suit us or the purpose He has for us in our lives, particularly our holiness.
"A man desires greedily to hold on to more than he is able to manage, and so undoes himself....we would not cry for some things if we knew that we were not able to manage them. When you vex and fret for what you have not got, I may say to you as Christ said, 'You know not of what spirit you are.'" (quoted from Luke 9:55, see Geneva Bible)

2 comments:

Lisa notes... said...

Great commentary, Laurie! You really summarize well AND contribute even more to Burroughs' work. It's such a great follow-up for me to read your posts after reading Burroughs' chapter. This was a tough chapter to swallow, but it is such a necessary and truthful one if we're to truly find our contentment in the Lord. Thanks for your work in this!

Boomer in the Pew (aka David Porter) said...

Laurie,

A wonderful, and thoughtful recap.