The Old Preacher

Viewing the World through God's Word

Category: Contentment (page 1 of 2)

Contentment Secret: Christ

P.AllanWhile reading Jeremiah Burroughs’ 17th-century The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, I kept looking for his comments on “the contentment text.”  It never came.  So, for the last posting of this series, here are my comments on that text.  Let’s read it.

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me.
You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity.
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned
in whatever state I am to be content.
I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.
In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret
of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:10-13).

STOIC VERSUS CHRISTIAN CONTENTMENT.  Paul wrote this letter from Roman imprisonment about 30 years after the death and resurrection of Christ.  Philippi was the place where Paul first planted a church in Europe (Acts16:6-40).  The people then often supported him in his ministry (4:15,16), most recently sending a gift with Epaphroditus.  Paul rejoiced at their concern for him (4:10); but he wanted them to know his happiness was over them not their supply of his need (4:11a).  Why did Paul treat his need as insignificant?  He explains . . .

. . . for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content (4:11b).

 “Content” translates the Greek word autarkeia.  It comes from the Stoics and means “contentment based on self-sufficiency.”  The Stoics would say, “i have learned in whatever state I am to be content because I am sufficient within myself.”  Stoics were confident they had what it took in themselves to ride the storm through.

Paul used the word in a worlds-apart way from the Stoics.  For Paul contentment was based on Christ-sufficiency.  Paul wasn’t an independent or self-dependent Stoic; Paul was a Christ-dependent Christian.  He declares it in verse 13 . . .

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Paul was an “in Christ” man (3:14), a servant of Christ (1:1).  He rejoiced that Christ was preached, even if insincerely(1:18).  His hope was that Christ would always be honored in his body by life or death (1:20).  To him, to live was Christ (1:21).  He wanted to depart and be with Christ because that was far better (1:23).  He gloried in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh (3:3).  He suffered the loss of all things for Christ and counted them as rubbish to gain Christ and be found in Christ with Christ’s righteousness (3:9).  His aim was to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and share his sufferings, becoming like Christ in his death (3:10).  He believed Christ Jesus had made him his own (3:12).  He pressed on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (3:14).  The sufficiency that enabled Paul to be able to do all things and be content whatever the situation came from outside himself—namely, from Christ.

So Paul had learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need (4:12).  The secret into which he’d been initiated?  “Christ who strengthens me.”  He was able to be satisfied with whatever following Christ brought him because he was “in Christ” and Christ strengthened him.

HOW THIS CAN WORK FOR ME.  How can I be strengthened through Christ to be content whatever my situation?  First, I have to go through situations of want and plenty.  Contentment isn’t learned from books.  I have to experience want, experience pain, experience suffering—and find that Christ is there with me in it teaching me to treasure him with having little besides, and making me more like himself.  I have to experience plenty, experience abundance, experience having more “stuff” than I need—and find that Christ is there with me in it teaching me to treasure him more than all I have and making me more like himself by not loving this world’s things.

I can honestly say I’m generally more content now than when I started this series.  And I think I’m more content now than when I was young.  Then I thought I was really satisfied with Jesus; but it takes a lifetime of experiences to make that satisfaction ocean-deep.

Second, to be strengthened through Christ and be content I have to feed on his Word.  My mind won’t remain empty; Satan, the world and my own sinful nature will fill it with self-centered, insatiable desires.  So I have to fill my mind with God’s Word as regularly as meal-eating to have my desires shaped  after Christ.

Third, I have to pray.  ” . . . in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your request be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:6b).

Fourth, I should review this blog series.  Burroughs’ exhortations are essentially wise directions as to how we can be strengthened by Christ for contentment.

Bottom line?  “The contentment text” teaches me I get contentment through the strength of Christ.  So what should I do?  Today get Christ!

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Final Contentment Directions

O PreacherWe’ve reached the last chapter of 17th century Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs’ book, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.  In it he gives “directions” for being content.  Here are five of his directions (in bold face) with my comments following.

Get grace in your heart.  How?  By turning and giving our lives by faith to Jesus Christ.  According to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9, grace is God’s power displayed in our weakness. In Philippians 4:13 Paul writes, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”  God’s strength (that is, his grace) comes to us through the Lord Jesus Christ.   ” . . . grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).  Therefore, if we receive Christ, if we believe in his name, we have God’s grace.  Further, he invites us to “drink” again and again of that grace.   “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).  Getting contentment is primarily a relational, not academic, learning process.

Do not love the world.  In 1977 the Rolling Stones complained “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”— not from the car radio, not from TV commercials, not from girls they tried to “make”.   (For fans, here’s the song— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpZ3dVpE_pY).  The Rolling Stones aren’t exactly preeminent commentators on the culture.  But their song reminds us if we seek satisfaction from what this fallen world does, we can’t get none! “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19b).  Whatever pleasures sin may give are fleeting (Hebrews 11:25b).  “And the world is passing away along with its desires . . . ” (1 John 2:17a).  Loving the world and all that’s in it leads to discontent no matter what promises car makers and gold dealers and sex sellers and smooth politicians and pill pushers make.  If you look closely at all the things connected with this fallen world order, you’ll see the sign:  NO CONTENTMENT FOUND HERE.

Don’t focus on your affliction.  This is tough for me.  My chronic illness/disability is always with meHow not to focus on it?  Sleep—usually welcome, but not very productive!  The other is to focus completely on something else.  Frustratingly, I’ve found that prayer isn’t a “something else.”  That’s because, though I reluctantly visit doctors, I believe if healing is to come it will come through our Father in heaven.  So when I talk to him “my illness” is my mind’s default setting.  I have to get off that topic quickly and get into a serious reading of his Word.  Presently Lois and I are “doing our devotions” in bed at night.  Praying with her—even when some of it is about me—helps turn me from my pain to the Lord’s glory and goodness.

Labor to be spiritually-minded.  “Labor” implies hard, sweaty work.  Not little, occasional  effort but big, disciplined effort.  Think:   a burly man digging a trench with pick and shovel, not a polished CEO behind his mahogany desk.  So Paul writes with strong language to the church . . .

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above,
where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth . . .
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you:
sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which
is idolatry . . .
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience,
bearing with one another and . . . forgiving each other (Colossians 3:1,2,5,12,13).

Being “spiritually-minded” to Paul meant more than envisioning gold streets and personal mansions.  It meant thinking about virtues like compassion and humility, but it also meant living out those virtues—being compassionate, kind, humble, meek, patient, forbearing and forgiving.  In a dissatisfying, potentially painful life, this gives us purpose.  For example, by forgiving each other, instead of holding grudges, we show that we belong to a heavenly kingdom and the heavenly King.  Our aim is to make much of him.  We find contentment in progressively living out the new person we are in Christ.

Live by faith.  We live in a visually-oriented world that subconsciously teaches us to “walk by sight.”  Over against that the apostle Paul wrote that we followers of the Lord Jesus Christ are to “walk by faith” (2 Corinthians 5:7).  He wrote those words in the context of the end of life (2 Corinthians 5:1-10).  So this faith believes that now “we are at home in the body [and] away from the Lord” (5:6).  It believes that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (5:10).  Therefore, this faith believes that our aim should be “to please [Christ]” (5:9a).  In my affliction that’s what my aim should be—because I will receive from him at judgment what I’ve done in this body, whether good or evil (5:10).  I’m to live, not just  to endure my affliction, but to please Christ in it.  Contentment, then, comes to me as I live with eternal judgment in view—which is to say, as I live by faith in a reward and a Lord I haven’t yet seen.

* * *

Burroughs’ directions aren’t steps leading to contentment at the top.  Contentment is part of the Spirit’s ongoing sanctifying process in us.  And that process is more roller coast than level highway.   For example, Paul himself was not always content.  Writing to the Corinthians in the mid-50’s A.D., he told of the “affliction we experienced in Asia” and admitted, ” . . . we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8).  Doesn’t sound like contentment, does it!  But seven years later imprisoned in Rome he was able to write, ” . . . I have learned in whatever state I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11b).  Up and down.  On and on.  Moving ahead slowly.

So, we are learning.  I pray that the Lord will  use this series to advance that learning process, so increasingly we might say with Paul, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content”—satisfied, fulfilled through Christ to his glory and our joy.

 

 
 

 

 

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Mind-Chewing Contentment

O PreacherAt the end of The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, Jeremiah Burroughs tells how to attain contentment. What we’ve been waiting for, right?  The Contentment Pill!  Sorry, Charlie.  Even Obamacare can’t get you one.

No pill, because attaining contentment is a learning process.   ” . . . I have learned in whatever situation I am to  be content” (Philippians 4:11b).  Paul had to experience lowliness and flourishing, plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  No pill—life lessons.

And those life lessons are best learned coupled with “mind-chewing.”  Like a cow and her cud.  Like savoring each bite of chocolate cake.  Like worrying.  Like pondering in our mind the mercies we don’t deserve from God.   Here are seven Burroughs sets out for our mind to chew on . . .

One, these mercies we have from God are great and the things we lack are little.  Paul begins his letter to the church at Ephesus like this:  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ Jesus with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places . . . ” (1:3).  Every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places!  Blessings like being chosen, adopted, redeemed, and forgiven (Ephesians 1:4-7).   The earthly blessings we lack are little compared  to the magnitude of every spiritual , heavenly blessing we have in Christ!

Two, whatever our affliction now, we’ve enjoyed many blessings of God’s mercies before.  Affliction knows no age limits.  But usually afflictions pile up for the old.  For the last eight years my health has been deteriorating.  How easily I overlook the preceding 63 years of good health!  It’s my bent.  I belong to the “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” school.  Also known as the people of the half-empty glass.  It’s true, though, isn’t it, that the  blessings of God’s mercies counted from birth add up to a lot more than today’s affliction.

Three, we enjoy an affluence of mercies from God.  Martin Luther called God’s mercies a sea:  “The sea of God’s mercies should swallow up all our particular afflictions”.   As a young boy, I struggled to carry a big pail of water across the beach.  But when I dumped it in the ocean,  my heavy load of water was swallowed up by the sea.  Suffering may be a heavy pail to carry, but God’s ocean of mercies swallows it up.

Four, God has made his world with changeable conditions.  Vibrant spring, freezing winter.  Bright sunlight, black night.  Gusty winds, breathless calm  Those are mercies because they reveal more to us of what our God is like.  So, Burroughs argues, since God made the world with all this change, why think it should be different for us?    “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).  So we have healthy days and ill, joyful days and sad.  It’s the reality of life in this fallen world.

Five, our time in this world is short.  Doesn’t seem like a mercy, does it—until we remember the fallenness of this world and the sufferings we endure here.  But contrasted with “an eternal weight of glory”, Paul called our affliction now “light” and “momentary” (2 Corinthians 4:17).  Time with its pain is short; eternity with its weight of glory is forever.

Six, saints in Scripture have endured far more than most of us.  “Some were tortured . . . Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword.  They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated . . . wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Hebrews 11:35b-38).  The prophet Isaiah speaks of Christ’s suffering like this:  “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief . . . he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities . . . He was oppressed and he was afflicted . . . like a lamb that is led to the slaughter . . . By oppression and judgment he was taken away” (Isaiah 53:3,5-8a).  “A servant is not greater than his master” (Jesus, John 15:20a).  Are we afflicted?  Yes.  But it’s only God’s mercy that we have been spared what Scripture’s saints endured  And it’s only God’s mercy that we are saved from eternal suffering through the blood of Christ.

Seven
, God has mercifully brought good out of suffering.  Romans 8:28 is a shop-worn, but remarkable promise.  Affliction isn’t bad luck or “the way life is.”  Affliction is a surgeon’s instrument in the hand of our Father.  Out of our brokenness, he brings good.  “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified”” (Romans 8:28-30).  This affliction, whatever it may be, is part of God’s sanctifying work in our lives aimed,  ultimately at glorifying us by conforming us to the image of his Son.

So let’s be like a cow.  Like a chocolate cake-savorer.  Like a worrier.  Let’s chew over again and again these mercies of God.  We won’t gain weight or lose.  But we should better learn to submit to and delight in whatever situation our heavenly Father puts us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Complain, Complain

P.Allan

” . . . I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11).

“And the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes, and when the LORD heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp” (Numbers 11:1,2).

 It’s been five weeks since we left our contentment series.  I’m afraid I’m not much more content now than when we began, stuck somewhere between the two Scriptures above.   How about you?  That’s what I thought.  So let’s get back to it.

Review.  First, a brief review.  I’ve been summarizing and commenting on 17th century-Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs’ book, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.  He defines contentment as “that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious, frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.”  In other words, I am content when my inmost being is inclined to submit to and delight in whatever situation our Father puts me in.

Providence.  Contentment brings us face to face with “providence.”  J. I. Packer quotes the Westminster Shorter Catechism, then gives us his definition of God’s providence . . .

“God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.11). If Creation was a unique exercise of divine energy causing the world to be, providence is a continued exercise of that same energy whereby the Creator, according to his own will, (a) keeps all creatures in being, (b) involves himself in all events, and (c) directs all things to their appointed end. The model is of purposive personal management with total “hands-on” control: God is completely in charge of his world. His hand may be hidden, but his rule is absolute.”

“Situations.”  Jesus once assured his fearful disciples . . .

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?
And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.
But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.
Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31).

In his providence, our Father puts us in “situations” (a sparrow falls, I become disabled).  Paul had learned to submit to and delight in God putting him in whatever situation he providentially chose.  I’m still learning, still enrolled in our Father’s contentment course.  I still complain.

Israelites.  In Numbers 11, the Israelites had just left Mount Sinai.  Their wilderness journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land was starting its second year.  Despite the Lord’s miraculous provisions along the way, they grumbled.  No food (Exodus 16:1-3).  The Lord provided bread and quail (Exodus 16:4-36).  No water (Exodus 17:1-4).  The Lord gushed it from a rock (Exodus 17:5-7).  Now, like whining children in the backseat, they were complaining about their whole hard-knock life—particularly the food.  No more lip-smacking Egyptian menu.  Only manna from heaven (Numbers 11:4-6).

When the Lord heard their complaints (apparently he does hear what we’d rather he didn’t), “his anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp” (Numbers 11:1b).  Think Sc-Fi.  Some giant, other-worldly being focuses his raging anger at Earth.  A beam of white-hot light fires from his eye and Manhattan burns.

Evils. Fiery anger?  Over a little complaining?  Why did the LORD get so hot?  Burroughs wrote two chapters titled, “The Evils of a Murmuring (Complaining)  Spirit.”  Here are seven evils he cites . . .

  1.  Murmuring and discontentedness reveals corruption in our soul.
  2. God considers complaining rebellion.  (See Numbers 16:41 and 17:10).
  3. Complaining is contrary to the work of God’s grace in us.
  4. Thanklessness for what one has is a mark of ungodliness (Romans 1:21).
  5. Complaining is contrary to our prayer, “Your will be done.”
  6. Complaining robs us of the present comfort we do have.  It can’t get us what we want.  It makes our affliction worse.
  7. Complaining provokes God’s wrath.

At first glance the Lord’s anger seems over the top.  And Burroughs seems a tad extreme to talk about the evils of complainingUntil I stop and think deeply about that list.  Complaining comes from a corrupted soul.  It’s rebellion.  Contrary to God’s grace-work in us.  Ingratitude is a sign of ungodliness.  When we pray, “Your will be done” and it is, then we complain?   I suppose an occasional complaint isn’t so bad.  But when complaining becomes my default reaction to “situations”, what else can it be but sin?

I’m surprised my backyard isn’t burning.

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Content with Christ (2)

P.AllanI confess.  It’s hard for me to be content when circumstances are discontenting.  But that’s the point of learning contentment, isn’t it.  I’m trusting that, from the cumulative impact of Burroughs’ book, Paul’s affirmation can be mine . . .

” . . . I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11).

So I move ahead, briefly summarizing and commenting on Jeremiah Burroughs’ 17th century book, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.  Here are three more lessons Burroughs says Christ teaches.

The Burden of Prosperity.  I’m retired, so I don’t want to have more years than money.  Maybe I should play the lottery.  But the Bible butts in and shoots down my money-brings-contentment dream.  “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 Timothy 6:10).  Prosperity doesn’t spell contentment.  In God’s view, prosperity preachers hang a millstone around our necks.  The American Dream is spun by the devil in disguise.  Prosperity is an albatross, not a liberator.  A killer, not a life-saver.  A false god, not a satisfier.

Remember the man in the Gospels whose land produced a bumper crop?  As the story goes, he planned to build bigger barns and say to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”  God called him a fool.  In hours he’d be dead and get to enjoy none of it—nor the God he’d ignored all his life (Luke12:13-21).

Tempted to run after prosperity for contentment, I can pray the Proverbs’ prayer!  ” . . . give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:8,9).

The Evil of Getting What You Want.  Getting what my heart desires can be evil?  Three times Paul reports God’s horrible sentence on those who got what they wanted:  “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity . . . ” (1:24) . . .”For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions . . . ” (1:26) . . . “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (1:28).  Humans hearts lust for impurity, so God gives us over to it.  Human hearts beat with dishonorable passions, so God gives us over to them.  Human hearts think what God marks off-limits is good, so God gives us over to morally depraved minds.  Getting what our hearts naturally desire leads to evil, not contentment.  Contentment comes from getting what God wants.

The Providence of God.  J.I. Packer defines providence . . .

“God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.11). If Creation was a unique exercise of divine energy causing the world to be, providence is a continued exercise of that same energy whereby the Creator, according to his own will, (a) keeps all creatures in being, (b) involves himself in all events, and (c) directs all things to their appointed end. The model is of purposive personal management with total “hands-on” control: God is completely in charge of his world. His hand may be hidden, but his rule is absolute.”

 God providentially rules all things, not just generally, but in every detail.  So Jesus taught, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  But even the hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:29,30).  And Burroughs comments, ” . . . there is nothing that befalls you but there is a hand of God in it—this is from God, and is a great help to contentment.”

Furthermore, God works his providence interdependently.  Burroughs challenges me:  ” . . . when God has ordered a thing for the present to be thus . . . how do you know how many things depend on this thing?  God may have some work to do twenty years hence that depends on this passage of providence that falls out this day or this week.”  So, because he was providentially arrested in Jerusalem,  Paul testified to kings  (Acts 21:37-26:32) and because of his providential imprisonment in Rome “it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ” (Philippians 1:13).

Finally knowing God’s ways in providence help me learn contentment.  Burroughs identifies three . . .

  1. “God’s ordinary course is that his people in this world should be in an afflicted condition.”  ” . . . through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22b).  “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12,13).
  2. Usually when God intends the greatest mercy to any of his people he brings them into the lowest condition.  Before God mercifully saved the Hebrews to become his treasured-possession people, he allowed Pharaoh to cruelly abuse them as his slaves (Exodus 1-19).  Before God mercifully set David on Israel’s throne, he drove him into the mountains as a fugitive from King Saul (1 Samuel 26,27).  Before God raised his Son from the dead that he might lavish his mercy on lost sinners like me, he nailed him to a cross (Romans 4:24).
  3. It is the way of God to work by contraries, to turn the greatest evil into the greatest good.  Martin Luther wrote, “It is the way of God:  he humbles that he might exalt, he kills that he might make alive, he confounds that he might glorify.”  Sounds foolish, doesn’t it!  “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God . . . Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:18,20b).  That’s the heart of the Gospel—and I have to learn it for myself to learn contentment.

It turns out, then, that prosperity that people naturally seek for contentment actually becomes a back-breaking burden . . . that getting what my heart naturally desires to be content actually produces evil
. . . and that knowing (and trusting!) God’s counter-intuitive providential ways teaches me contentment.  Help me, Father, not to love and think like the world, but to love and think like you!

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Content with Christ

P.AllanWhat would a phone-photo of contented you look  like?  Mine would be wife and me relaxing on the sunny beach reading and talking.  Ah, but most of life isn’t beach.  It’s noisy kids or struggling business or chronic illness or dirty laundry or bill pile or some combination of other un-beach-like stuff.

That spells trouble when contentment naturally depends on satisfying circumstances.  But the apostle Paul, under house-arrest in Rome, wrote, “I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor” (Philippians 4:12, CEB).

I want to learn that.  So I’m reading 17th century Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs’ book, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, and noting his main points and my responses to them.  In chapters 5 and 6 he explains what I have to learn from Christ to be content.

Self-Denial. Burroughs hits his puritanical high when he explains I should think of myself as “worse than nothing”, so that my expectations aren’t too high and I fall into discontent.  I disagree (see my last blog post).  But following Jesus does demand denying self-fulfillment on my terms, even to the point of laying down my life for him.  It was on his way to the cross when Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross . . . ” (Mark 8:34).  Though he wasn’t speaking in the context of contentment, it’s clear that contentment demands saying “no” to fulfillment on my own terms, and “yes” to it on his.  “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).  Burroughs comments:  “If a man is selfish and self-love prevails in his 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.”  Seeking God’s ends while denying my own teaches contentment.

Creature Vanity.  ” . . . whatever there is in the creature there is an emptiness in it” (Burroughs).   Again:  ” . . . it is not because you have not got enough of [the things of this world], but because [they are not the things] that are  proportionable to the immortal soul God has given you.”  The words of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes:  “” . . . vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.  What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:1,3).  The prophet Isaiah:  “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (55:2). And the prophet Jeremiah:  ” . . . my people have committed two evils:  they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (2:13).  Contentment comes from seeking the God for whom we were created, not vain, transient, empty things of the creature.

One Necessary Thing.   My To-Do list shrunk when disability drove me to retire.  Even so, I still don’t get everything done.  How did I ever meet all the demands of a 30-year-old husband/father/pastor?  At times I was like Martha setting the table, cooking the feast and perfuming her sweat.  Exasperated, she goes to Jesus and says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?  Tell her then to help me.”  Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.  Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:40-42).  Mary had chosen to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to his teaching (Luke 10:39).  How to do that in these busy days may be a puzzle, but the lesson is obvious, no?

Soul to World.  “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles . . . Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles . . . ” (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11a).  “And they admitted they were strangers and exiles on earth” (Hebrews 11:3).    Years ago I spent a week on business in Waco, Texas.  The afternoon before I was to head back to New Jersey, I drove to the airport hotel to be ready for my morning flight.  I ate alone in the restaurant.  Returned to my room by myself.  Laid in bed with no one next to me.  I felt like I didn’t belong.  But I didn’t complain.  I was content, because I knew I was just passing through.  In the morning I would be off to a far better place—home.   Burroughs writes:  ” . . . 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 . . . a right understanding of [the relationship of the soul to the world] is a mighty help to contentment in whatever befalls. . . ”

* * *

I have to learn contentment.  That’s what Paul did:  “I have learned to be content . . . ”  I learn from reading Scripture.  (That’s the easy part.)  And I learn from practicing in life the lessons from the Book.  (That’s the hard part.)  But contentment can come no other way.  So I push on in the process, trusting the power of the Spirit of the Risen Christ to make this slow learner, who doesn’t deserve it, satisfied with Jesus who made me for himself.

 

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Discontent with a Dead Saint

P.AllanYou are nothing.  You deserve nothing.  Apart from Christ you can do nothing.  You can’t receive any good without spoiling it.  You can’t make use of anything if God withdraws himself.  You are worse than nothing.  And you will cause no loss when you perish.

That, writes Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs (The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment) is what we must learn about ourselves if we are to deny ourselves, as Jesus taught on his way to the cross.  (“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself . . . ” (Mark 10:34b).  And we must deny ourselves, if we are to learn contentment whatever our situation (” I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content”—Paul, Philippians 4:11).

Whoa!  Wait just a minute now!  I can’t argue with a “dead saint” (17th century Burroughs) over his interpretation of self-denial.  But I can say if we push the doctrine of total depravity to its extreme, outsiders may dismiss our gospel out of hand and we may be guilty of de-glorifying (is that a word?) God.  Let me digress from our “contentment” theme to discuss depravity.

In his book, Five Points, John Piper discusses the five points of Calvinism/Reformed Theology.  The first is total depravity.  Piper writes:  “Our sinful corruption is so deep and so strong as to make us slaves of sin and morally unable to overcome our own rebellion and blindness.  This inability to save ourselves from ourselves is total.  We are utterly dependent on God’s grace to overcome our rebellion, give us eyes to see, and effectively draw us to the Savior.”  Again, “In summary, total depravity means that our rebellion against God is total, everything we do in this rebellion is sinful, our inability to submit to God or reform ourselves is total, and we are therefore totally deserving of eternal punishment.”

I believe it, because I believe Scriptures such as these . . .

  • “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (Jesus, John 8:34).
  • “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:10).
  • ” . . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
  • “For the mind that is set on the flesh (that is, the mind without the indwelling Spirit of Christ) is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot” (Romans 8:7)
  • “And you were (before you believed in Christ by his grace) dead in . . . trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).

But what is meant by total depravity?  Piper’s explanation may suggest that, apart from God’s regenerating and saving grace in Christ, we can do nothing good.  Our depravity (corruption,evil,perversion)is total.  If Piper (and Calvin, etc.) mean “total” in the sense that no part of our being (physical, psychological, moral, spiritual)  remains untouched by depravity, I agree.  If he means that apart from God’s regenerating and saving grace in Christ we can’t trust Christ, I agree.  If he means that apart from God’s regenerating and saving grace in Christ we can’t do anything purely good in God’s sight, I agree.  But if he means apart from God’s regenerating and saving grace we can’t do any good, I disagree.

A Muslim surgeon removes a cancerous tumor from a young mother’s body and saves her life.  An atheist  fireman risks his own life and saves a baby from a burning home.  Neither act makes either person righteous before God.  But who can say that these unregenerate, unsaved unbelievers didn’t do good?

Further, if we push total depravity beyond its limits we “de-glorify” God.  In the beginning, God created humans in his image.  “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26a,27).  However we understand “image of God”, we would probably say we are somewhat “like” God in that we have moral standards, we appreciate beauty, we possess knowledge and wisdom, we can do good acts, we love and so on.  Human life is sacred precisely because we have been created by God in God’s image.

From Adam and Eve onward sin has marred that image.  But sin hasn’t eradicated it.  Any morality, beauty, knowledge, wisdom, good and love we see in people is evidence of God’s image in us.  (Those virtues should be heightened for believers indwelt by the Holy Spirit.) Apart from God’s regenerating, saving grace in Christ humans are depraved and doomed.  But, because we are made in God’s image (and because God reins us in!), we aren’t as evil as we might be.

So, are we nothing?  Do we deserve nothing?  Can we do nothing apart from Christ?  (Note:  answer depends on how we interpret Jesus’ words in John 15:5).  Can’t we receive any good without spoiling it?  Can we not make use of anything if God withdraws himself?  Are we worse than nothing?  When we perish will we cause no loss?  (I hope a few tears will fall when I’m gone.)

I think I prefer Paul’s words more than Burroughs”—“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3a).  “Sober judgment” should cause us to admit sinful depravity has affected and infected every part of our being (and we are totally dependent on God’s grace to regenerate and save us through faith).

But we’re not junk.  There’s a sanctity to our life, because, to whatever extent sin has marred it, we’re still made in the image of the holy God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Contentment: a Mystery (Part 4)

P.Allan“I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.
In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger,
abundance and need” (Philippians 4:12). 

I’m still learning the secret.  So here’s my prayer for us learners . . .

  “Father in heaven, please use this summary study
of Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs’ book
to change our hearts and teach us to be able to say with the apostle Paul,
‘I  have learned in whatever situation I am to be content'” (Philippians 4:11).

* * *

“Contentment” as Burroughs defines is “that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal (arranging, managing)  in every condition.”  He calls it a “mystery”—“a profound secret beyond human comprehension.”  Here are a few more clues to learning this mystery . . .

A Christian heart is able to make up all his outward wants of creature comforts from what he finds in himself.  The want or lack of “creature comforts” often cause discontent.  But Burroughs writes we can make up for that lack from what we find in ourselves.  I paraphrase him:  “If you have no song in this world, you have a bird within you that sings the most delightful song you’ve ever heard.”  (That’s quaint Puritan talk.)  Or, “If you’re poor and must forgo items you’d love to have, remember you have within yourself great riches that bring deep satisfaction.”

Does everyone have what it takes within?  Burroughs answers:  ” . . . a gracious heart, . . . [has] the Spirit of God within him, and his heart [is] filled with grace, . . . that makes him find contentment.”  Those who’ve trusted themselves to Christ have the Spirit of Christ come from outside to live inside.

 ” . . . do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,
whom you have from God?”
(Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:19). 

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins,
and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”
(Peter on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:38). 

Therefore, we repentant, baptized believers in Jesus Christ can make up for what we lack on the outside by the presence of the Holy Spirit living inside.  He makes our heart gracious.  He is our song.  He is our wealth.  He is the Presence of God in us.

Next clue to learning the mystery of contentment:  A gracious heart gets its supply of all things from the Covenant.  God’s promises to his people are all rooted in the New Covenant he ratified in Christ’s blood.
” . . . all the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ] (2 Corinthianbs1:20a).  God’s promises are “good” to those who trust Christ’s sacrifice for their reconciliation with God—and through Christ those promises are all guaranteed.

Further, the New Covenant is eternal. So, under that Covenant, we view God’s promises from an eternal perspective.  Take Psalm 91.  “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you” (91:7).  “Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place–the Most High who is my refuge . . . no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent” (91:9, 10).  Christians die in war, right?  We succumb to disease.  But, interpreted in view of the New Covenant, while God may not keep plague from coming near our tent, he does, turn the plague into something good and will ultimately give us all things.

“And we know that for those who love God,
all things work together for good,
for those who are called according to his purpose.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son,

in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:28,29)
.

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all,
how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom 8:32).

So we sit by faith at the New Covenant table and learn to be content with God’s supply.  His grace is sufficient now (2 Corinthians 12:9).  And what he will do is  “far more abundantly than all we can ask or think” (Ephesians 2:20).

Another clue to the mystery of contentment:  A Christian realizes the glorious things of heaven.  Some Christian martyrs reminded each other, “Do but shut your eyes and you shall be in heaven at once.”  Paul provided this perspective . . .

“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 comparison,
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 Corinthians 4:16-18).

The glory of heaven to come is a clue to contentment now.

A final clue:  Godly persons have contentment by opening and letting out their hearts to God.  With all
the “clues” before us,  let’s go to God in prayer.  Wait before him.  Open our hearts to him.  Tell him what troubles us.  Then meditate on the clues and the Word from which they come.

“There, O Father, in your presence with the expounded truth of your Word,
may we find that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit
which freely submits to and delights in
your wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.  Amen.”

 

 
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Contentment: A Mystery (Part 2)

“There is an ark that you may come into and no [people] in the world may live such contented lives as the saints of God.”

That we might enter that “ark”—that’s why 17th century English Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs wrote The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.  I want to be able to say with the apostle Paul ” . . . I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11b).  I think you might want to also.  So I’m reading and briefly summarizing the book, and adding my thoughts along the way.  Since I wrote last a few weeks ago, you may wish to click on “Contentment:  A Mystery (Part 1)” under “Recent Posts” to the right.

Burroughs defined contentment as “that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal (arranging, managing)  in every condition.”  “Mystery” is “a profound secret beyond human comprehension.”  But the mystery of contentment can be learned.  Last post Burroughs gave us seven counter-intuitive clues we must understand to learn it.  Here are six more . . .

The contented Christian lives upon the dew of God’s blessing.  “Dew” is the moisture we find on cool early morning ground.  Remember how the Israelites found manna from heaven on the ground?   So through Jesus Christ God will freely provide the “dew” of his blessing on our journey.   By that “dew”, he sustains us.  And so we can be  content in him.

In all afflictions, the contented Christian can enjoy the sweetness of God’s love and mercies. Afflictions, wrote Burroughs, “come from the same eternal love that Jesus Christ came from.”  Afflictions come from God’s love.  Thus the ways of God are not only ways of prosperity, but also of pain.  “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies” (Psalm 25:10).  We can taste sweet love and mercies of God in our ability and disability.  And in that taste we can learn to be content.

A contented Christian sees all his afflictions sanctified in Jesus Christ.  In other words, afflictions for the believer become holy things shaping us toward increasing holiness.  Adversity hits.  It hit Jesus—not to spare us from it, but to take the curse (Burroughs calls it “the sting and venom and poison”) out of it.  So we see our afflictions “sanctified” in Christ toward sanctifying us.  Seeing this, we learn to be content.

A contented Christian gets his strength from Jesus Christ.  A prosperity preacher proclaims, “There is a power in you greater than any power that comes against you.”  But, as Burroughs wrote, ” . . .  a Christian finds satisfaction in every circumstance by getting strength from another . . . by . . . faith acting upon Christ, and bringing the strength of Christ into his own soul, he is thereby enabled to bear whatever God lays on him . . . Of his fullness do we receive grace for grace.”  The power is in us, but it is from Another in us.  We learn to be content by drawing on his strength.

A contented Christian enjoys much of God in everything he has, and knows how to make up all his wants (what he doesn’t have) in God himself.  “What is it that satisfies God himself,” said Burroughs, “but that he enjoys all fullness in himself . . . Now if you enjoy God as your portion, if your soul can say . . . ‘The LORD is my portion, therefore I will hope in him’ (Lamentations 3:24), why should you not be satisfied and contented like God? . . . Since God is contented with himself alone, if you have him, you may be contented with him alone, and it may be, that is the reason why your outward comforts are taken from you, that God may be all in all to you.”  As Paul wrote, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).  Through Christ we have God who is content, and having God, we have all things.  So we can learn to be content in him whatever our situation.

A contented Christian relies on the Covenant God has made with him.  Burroughs taught, “There is no condition that a godly man or woman can be in, but there is some promise . . . in the Scripture to help him . . . ”  Take Psalm 91:10.  ” . . . no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.”  But, we’ve found it does come near, haven’t we!  Burroughs explains.  While in the days of the  Old Testament God kept these promises outwardly, now in these days of Messiah God keeps them inwardly or spiritually.  He may allow a plague to come near “to show that his ways are unsearchable, and his judgments past finding out.”  And if he allows a “plague”, it will not be for evil, but for a greater good  (Romans 8:28).  This is covenant grace.  From it we learn contentment, because to those who are his, God promises evil will not win.  Contentment results from relying on his covenant.

“There is an ark that you may come into . . . “

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Contentment: A Mystery (Part 1)

“Mystery” doesn’t mean Christian contentment is a who-dun-it.  It means it’s a profound secret beyond human comprehension.  Kind of counter-intuitive.  Even paradoxical.

That’s my conclusion after reading chapter 2 of The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by the 17th century Puritan, Jeremiah Burroughs.  I want (need!) to learn to be content.  And since I don’t think I’m the only contentment-learning student, I’m passing along my thoughts from Burroughs’ book.  So what’s the big mystery we can’t figure out on our own?  Burroughs says we start uncovering it by knowing seven things.  (My comments follow each “thing”.)

1.  The contented Christian is the most contented person in the world, yet the most unsatisfied.  As God continues his work of grace in our hearts, we become increasingly contented with God.  In fact, only God himself will satisfy us.  At the same time we become increasingly dissatisfied with what this world offers us.   For example, the world’s currency (literally and metaphorically) is money.  The world offers money (and what it buys) as a chief means of contentment.  But God’s progressive work of grace in our hearts offers us God as the chief means of contentment.  Because God is most satisfying and money can’t deliver on its promise, the contented Christian is the most contented person in the world, yet the most unsatisfied (with this world).

2.  A Christian comes to contentment, not so much by way of addition, as by way of subtraction.
Burroughs writes:  “The world is infinitely deceived in thinking that contentment lies in having more than we already have.”  Right now my “more” would be body parts that work right—just add new ones on to this old carcass.  But Burroughs surprisingly argues:  By God’s grace reduce your desires to fit your circumstances.  In my case, I should want to live well within the parameters of my disability.  Now here’s the key:  God can actually change our desire so we are satisfied that our present circumstances are the best!

3.  A Christian comes to contentment, not so much by getting rid of the burden that is on him, as by adding another burden to himself.  This sounds crazier than #2!  The burden Burroughs calls us to add is the weight of our sin.  Characteristic Puritan gloom?  No.  How lightly I regard my sin!  Often I’m far more concerned about God healing my body than God sanctifying my soul.  When we see ourselves as naturally depraved sinners, our view of affliction changes.  Consequently, as sinners being saved, the more contented with Christ we become.

4.  It is not so much the removing of the affliction that is upon us as the changing of the affliction, so that it is quite turned and changed into something else.  Whatever our trouble, it hurts or wearies or frightens or depresses us.  But God’s grace can take the sting out and turn the trouble into good.  That’s “Christianity 101”, right?  When God promises to work for good in all things for those who love him, he is assuring us that we always emerge from bad times a better believer. 

5.  A Christian comes to contentment not by making up the wants of his circumstances, but by doing the the work of his circumstances.  In affliction, I want this or I want that.  I want my wants “made up” or fulfilled.  I want to keep pastoring and preaching.  But my disability disallows that.  So now the question is:  What work has God given me to do for his sake in my “retirement”?  Instead of yearning for what used to be (which leaves me discontented)I should yearn for and start doing what God calls me to do now, in this circumstance (that leads to contentment).

6.  A gracious heart is contented by the melting of one’s will into God’s will and desires.  My sin-nature heart lusts to satisfy its own desires.  My grace-nature heart melts my will and desires into God’s will and desires.   God’s will becomes my will.  What God wants, I want.  I’m satisfied if God is satisfied, because I come to have no will of my own.  With people this is impossible.  But with God all things are possible.

7.  The mystery consists not in bringing anything from outside to make my condition more comfortable, but in purging out something that is within.   Dissatisfied?  Buy a new dress.  Binge on forbidden dessert.  Buy a new car.  Have an affair.  (Do we still call adultery that?)  Burroughs argues that the solution to our dissatisfaction isn’t something we have to get from outside, but something we have to get rid of from inside. Selfishness.  Anger.  Covetousness.  Pride.    God isn’t out to make us comfortable but to make us holy.  And the only way a believer in Christ can be content is by becoming like Christ.

I’d rather a contentment pill.  Take one a day after eating.  Simple.  But pills generally don’t cure.  They merely mask the symptoms.  (Take it from a pill-taker.)  Remember Paul wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11b).  So we’re learning.  We’re learning contentment is a mystery.  And the more we get this chapter’s lesson in our mind, the more of the mystery we’ll understand and (by God’s grace) the more contented we’ll become.

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