“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.