Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The excuses of a discontented heart

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.
(Chapter 11, part one)

We are nearing the end of our readings in this Christian classic. By now, if you've been following along, you've begun to see the importance of contentment in your life, and begun earnestly striving to attain it. By now you've also likely found yourself inventing "good excuses" for not being content in this or that circumstance. And when I say "good excuses," I mean spiritual-sounding ones. Our author, anticipating our immense capacity for spiritualizing our sin, addresses the "spiritual" excuses of the "spiritual" among us, has devoted this entire chapter to shooting them down one by one.
"But now, my brethren, because this discontented humour is tough, and very hard to work upon - there is none who is discontented but has something to say for their discontent - I shall therefore seek to take away what every discontented heart has to say for himself."
I. One that is discontented says, 'It is not discontent; it is a sense of my condition'.

You will remember that back in Chapter 1 we learned that godly contentment is not "opposed to...a due sense of affliction", that "God gives his people leave to be sensible of what they suffer. Christ does not say, 'Do not count as a cross what is a cross'; he says, 'Take up your cross daily'." Now Burroughs is warning us of the danger of using that very thing as an excuse to wallow in our discontent. I've noticed that we Christians are fondest of these kinds of excuses. These are our favorites because because they allow us not only to hold on to our sin but to feel very spiritual about it as well. These are also the excuses which are the hardest to address in ourselves and others. They are a form of self-deception.

So, Burroughs gives three diagnostic tools to apply to ourselves to determine whether we are harboring the sin of discontent or not.

1. There is no sense of any affliction that will hinder the sense of God's mercies.
"...the more we are sensible of our afflictions, providing it is in a gracious manner, the more sensible we will be of god's mercy. But you are so sensible of your affliction that it takes away the sense of all your mercies. Oh, this is sinful discontent."
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith - more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire - may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls." 1 Tim. 1:3-9
"We may be sorrowful when God afflicts, but, oh, that I might know when my sorrow goes beyond the bounds of it! Truly, you may know it by this, does the sense of your afflictions take away the sense of your mercies? If it does, then it goes beyond the bounds."
Does your sense of suffering take away the sense of how merciful and gracious God has been toward you? Does it prevent you, in the midst of the trial, from experiencing the joy of our great salvation? If it does, it goes beyond a "sense of affliction" and is in fact sinful discontent. Take a moment to prayerfully examine your heart and confess any sinful discontent you may have been hiding behind that excuse.

2. If it were but a bare sense of an affliction it would not hinder you in the duties of your condition.
"The right sense of our afflicitions will never hinder us in the performance of the duties of our condition..."
I've found this to be a simpler test. It's easy to see if you're not doing what you should be doing. If you find that your current affliction is leading you to neglect the duties God has given you to do, then you have crossed the line into discontent. If you are so distraught you "cannot" function in your required capacities, if you cannot be kind, or display common courtesy, if you have no joy, this is a sign of more than just a sense of suffering. Kicking the dog, snapping at spouses, yelling at tele-marketers, are all evidences of discontent. (We are not speaking, of course, of actual physical limitations such as physical weakness due to illness or other frailty. Rather we are speaking of emotional incapacitation.)

"No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it." 1 Cor. 10:13
"Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he as stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when tempted, 'I am being tempted by God,' for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire." James 1:12-14

John MacArthur explains in the notes of his Study Bible that the same Greek word "peirazo" in these verses translated alternately 'trial and 'temptation'...
"connotes trouble, or something that breaks the pattern of peace, comfort, joy, and happiness in someone's life. The verb for of this word means 'to put someone or something to the test,' with the purpose of discovering that person's nature or that thing's quality. God brings such tests to prove - and increase - the strength and quality of one's faith and to demonstrate its validity. Every trial becomes a test of faith designed to strengthen; if the believer fails the test by wrongly responding that test then becomes a temptation, or a solicitation to evil....James' point is that every difficult circumstance that enters a believer's life can either strengthen him if he obeys God and remains confident in His care, or become a solicitation to evil if the believer chooses instead to doubt God and disobey His Word....God purposes trials to occur and in them He allows temptation to happen, but He has promised not to allow more than believers can endure and never without a way to escape. They choose whether to take the escape God provides or to give in."
(As an aside, the phrase "for God cannot be tempted by evil..." in James 1:13 uses the Greek adjective form of "apeirastos" meaning "untempted" or "untried". When coupled with the verb "to be" it translates "untemptable" or as we have here, "cannot be tempted". It can be fruitful, though difficult and mind-boggling, to ponder what this says about God's character, especially in light of the process of sin as James explains it. There is no place, no chink, no weakness, no evil desire by which He can be led astray and enticed. Every desire in the heart of God is only holy all the time. Sin can gain no foothold where every desire is only and completely pure and holy at all times, where the very prospect of sin is completely and totally repugnant to the deepest core of the being. This is the holiness of our God. He will not, and thus cannot be corrupted with evil, ever. This also gives a window into the impeccable nature of Christ, how our Lord could be tempted in every way as we are and yet be without sin. And finally it lends the tiniest bit of insight into the sinless condition in which we will find ourselves in our glorified state.)

Now, take a moment to read 2 Cor. 6:3-10. Note the kinds of hardships Paul not only endured, but ministered through with an attitude that was "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing".

Augustine had something beautiful to say about the perseverance of the saints in the midst of affliction in his work, The City of God:
"Every man who not merely supposes but certainly knows that he shall eternally enjoy the most high God, in the company of angels and beyond the reach of ill - this man, no matter what bodily torments afflict him, is more blessed than was he who, even in that great felicity of paradise, was uncertain of his fate."

Augustine's point is that if you are a Christian, you are in a better state than Adam - for you are in Christ, and someday will be like Him - impeccable in holiness before the throne of the Most High. Think on this. Meditate on it and let this truth be your escape when you are tested.

How have you handled your sense of affliction this past week. Were there times when you let a spirit of discontent prevent you from glorifying God in the work He's given you to do? Were there times when you handled your pain with contentment, accepting it as from God's hand and in a manner worthy of our great salvation?

3. If it were but a mere sense of your affliction, then you could in this your condition bless God for the mercies that others have; but your discontentedness usually breeds envy at others.

Envy of those who are not suffering, or have been delivered from their suffering is a sure sign of discontent. This envy can take many forms, resentment for instance, of those who you perceive as better off in any way. I remember a quote, I believe from Linda Dillow's helpful little book, Calm my Anxious Heart, that says simply: "Envy stares."

This is an area where your discontent can directly and obviously affect your Christian witness:
"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another." John 15: 12-17

"I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me, I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me." John 17:20-23

Read also 1 John 2:9-11, 1 John 3:10-23, and 1 Cor. 13:1-7.

It is the command of Christ that we love one another. We are His friends if we love one another. It is by our oneness as Christians that the world will know that Christ is sent from God, and that we are His. Love does not envy. So-called love, where there is envy is worthless. If we are envying, we are not loving. We are walking in darkness. And, most frightening of all, if, like Cain (see 1 John 3:12), we are characterized by envy instead of love for our brother, we have no reason to believe we are of God at all - and neither does the on-looking world. Of course we must remember, we are, as my pastor likes to say, "at best partially sanctified". We are all tempted to envy, and at times succumb, but if we are children of God this will not characterize our personalities and consume us.

II. One that is discontent may say, "I am not so much troubled with my afflictions, but it is for my sin rather than my affliction...we should be troubled and discontented with our sin."
"There are many people who, when God's hand is out against them, will say they are troubled for their sin, but the truth is the affliction that troubles them rather than their sin. Their heart greatly deceives them in this very thing."
In other words, "It's not because everything's going wrong, and I'm poor, and my kid's in trouble, it's just that I'm so brokenhearted and grieved by my sinful self that I can't possibly function...I'm just so convicted and so sad about being so sinful, that's why I'm so sad and pathetic all the time..."

This must be the most pious sounding of all the excuses, and perhaps the most insidious as well, cloaked as it is in false humility and spiritual sounding language. How can you even begin to detect such deception in yourself? Well, Burroughs asks the tough questions that cut straight to the heart of the matter:

1. If it truly is your sin which troubles you, why were you never very troubled for your sin before this affliction came?

Consider 1 John 1:5-10. If it really is your sin that's bothering you, rather than your problems, what would be the appropriate behavior for you? If you've sinned, repent. Confess your sins and receive His forgiveness.

2. "If it is your sin that troubles you, then even if God should take away your affliction, yet unless your sin is taken away, and your heart is better, this would not content you, you could not be satisfied."
"But we see usually that if God removes their affliction, they have no more trouble for their sin."

"We must take heed of dallying with God, who is the seer and searcher of the secrets of all hearts. Many of you go sullen and dumpish up and down in your homes, and then you say, it is your sin that lies upon you, when God knows it is otherwise - it is because you cannot have your desires as you would have."
3. "If you are troubled for your sin, then it will be your great care not to sin in your trouble, so as not, by your trouble, to increase your sin."

If I were really just upset because of my sin, I would be especially careful not to add to my sin by murmuring and being miserable and discontent. If I were really trying not to sin, the last thing I would be doing is adding to my sin by complaining.

4. "If it is your sin that troubles you, then you have the more need to submit to God's hand, and to accept the punishment of your iniquity."

Take a moment to read Leviticus 26: 40-44. If anything, true acceptance of our guilt should bring an end to our murmuring and lead us to repentance and acceptance of our situation as from the hand of our Father.

III. One that is discontent may say, "I find my affliction is such that God withdraws himself from me in my affliction. That is what troubles me..."

Yet another "spiritual" excuse. "I don't feel the presence of God, or see any sign of Him in my hardship, so I have a right to distrust Him and be discontent." Now, we probably wouldn't be so crass as to put it quite that way, but that's what's at the heart of the excuse. Here's how to deal with it:

1. "It is a very evil thing for men and women over every affliction to conclude that God is departed from them."
"It may be, when it comes to be examined, there is no other reason why you think that God is withdrawn and departed, but because he afflicts you. Now for you to make such a conclusion, that every time God lays an affliction upon you, he is departed, is a sinful disorder of your heart, and is very dishonourable to God, and grievous to his Spirit."
Read Exodus 17:1-7. The text tells us that we are guilty of "tempting the LORD" or "putting Him to the proof" or "the test" when we question His presence with us based solely upon whether we are having troubles or not.
"I beseech you to observe this Scripture: God calls it a tempting of him, when he afflicts anyone, for them to conclude and say that God is departed from them."
2. "If God is departed, the greatest sign of God's departing is because you are so disturbed."
"Your disquiet drives him from you, and you can never expect God's coming to manifest himself comfortably to your souls, till you have gotten your hearts quiet under your afflictions."
"For thus says the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, 'In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.' But you were unwilling, and you said, No! We will flee upon horses'; therefore you shall flee away; and, 'We will ride upon swift steeds'; therefore your pursuers shall be swift." Isaiah: 15-16

In resting - in quiet trust - we find salvation and strength.

3. "Do you find God departing from you in your affliction? Will you therefore depart from God too? Is this your help?"
"If the child sees the mother going from it, it is not for the child to say, My mother is gone yonder and I will go the other way; no, but the child goes crying after the mother. So should the soul say, I see the Lord is withdrawing his presence from me, and now it is best for me to make after the Lord with all my might, and I am sure this murmuring humour is not making after God, but by it I go further and further away from God, and what a distance there will be between God and me within a little while!"
If you are truly concerned that God has moved farther from you, instead of grumbling you should be running after Him with all your might.

2 comments:

Lisa notes... said...

Great summary again. It helps me to better understand Burroughs' words when I read them through the eyes of others, and with scriptural backup. Thanks!

I'm still working on my summary. I think I will also have to chop it up into more than one part. This chapter was too full for a single post.

"Envy stares." I hope I will remember that simple phrase so I can be moved away from my own envious feelings. It really captures the ugly essence of it.

jeri said...

You are a talented summarizer and commentator my friend. I look forward to getting to this book, but I've certainly benefited from your recaps.