A couple of years ago at a conference in Vancouver, one of the speakers was asked in a Q&A session, “what are some of the greatest struggles facing North American Christians today?” I usually find these types of questions too broad or vague to be interesting, but because the speaker was my favourite theologian, J. I. Packer, my ears perked up.
He said materialism was one of the greatest sins that North American Christians must face up to. Though this didn’t surprise me, it did make me think more seriously about if this was still a sin in my life even though I felt it was less tempting to me than other sins. I started to realize that this wasn’t just about shopping, which I naturally despise, but also thinking and dreaming about being someone who was generally likeable, stylish, professional, and on the “ins” in life, which often births a desire to re-make myself by having things from a certain brand or aligning the look of my apartment or clothes with whatever is fashionable. One book that has helped me get to the root of this problem by replacing dissatisfaction and covetousness with contentment is Jeremiah Burroughs’s The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (1648). Though Burroughs addresses serious life problems that won’t go away (very similar to what Thomas Boston says in his Crook in the Lot), he also addresses the less dramatic but still damning problem of always wanting things you don’t have, whether it be something physical or abstract.
Burroughs’s bases his counsel on Philippians 4:11-13 which says, “not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation 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.” Burroughs argues that to be content means to be self-sufficient, and since only God is fully self-sufficient, believers can only find sufficiency through Christ’s grace in them. Being content in Christ means that even if you add nothing else to your life, you are still satisfied with who you are as someone in relationship with Christ (though not with your sin, or the sin around you). Thus, Burroughs claims that Paul’s phrase “in whatever situation” means “in what I am”; it identifies a person’s core.
After explaining this passage, Burroughs presents his own definition of contentment and breaks down each part. Contentment is “that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition”:
First, contentment is an inward state or a heart-thing. How calm, cool, and collected you look or do not look on the outside doesn’t necessarily matter because God sees your soul. Just as “a shoe may be smooth and neat outside, while inside it pinches the flesh,” so “outwardly, there may be great calmness and stillness, yet within amazing confusion, bitterness, disturbance, and vexation.”
Then, Burroughs clarifies that being content doesn’t mean you can’t be properly distressed about a bad situation, or talk to God or a friend to get help. What it does mean is that your soul is quiet instead of disturbed by constant worries, distractions, discouragements, and temptations. This is good news for those who have a lot to do every day or are surrounded by literal noise, whether it be kids crying, machines operating, or sirens wailing.
- Gracious frame of spirit
By frame of spirit, Burroughs means a constant inner state. Contentment is not a flash of mood that can be easily lost, but a stable thing. By gracious, Burroughs means something that does not come from nature—like your personality, or level of intelligence or resilience—but from God’s grace. This kind of frame of spirit enables you to spring up to serve and praise God even when you are in a troubling situation or don’t get what you want. In contrast to this sense of contentment from God, natural contentment does not go so far as to say that discontentment is a sin that needs to be rejected because it angers God, but rather desires contentedness only for the sake of making yourself happy.
- Freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal
To submit to God’s disposal means to send your soul “under the power, authority, sovereignty, and dominion God has over it.”However, this is not a heartless act, but a wholehearted one. True contentment is attractive and makes you see that it is good. Burroughs explains, “must be content is too low for a Christian; it should be ‘readily and freely I will be content’”.Contentment is desirable because it is true worship, makes you fit to serve God, brings comfort, and delivers you from temptations. Complaining, on the other hand, is a serious sin, goes against God’s work in salvation, is below the Christian’s position and dignity, wastes time, distracts, puts you in a bad mood, annoys other people, and squanders the good that could have been extracted from a difficult situation.
- In every condition
Finally, Burroughs laments the human condition of always thinking that any situation is better than your current situation. If we don’t have health, we say we’d rather have health than our wealth; if we don’t have wealth, we say we’d rather have wealth than our health. But contentedness leads our hearts to hope in God in every situation.
This contentment is not gained in ways that many think it would be accordingly to a worldly understanding of life. Instead of adding to what you have, getting rid of a burden, waiting until you get what you want before starting to work, or bringing something from the outside to make your condition more comfortable, contentment is gained by subtracting a desire, adding to your burden by realizing you have sin (e.g., your real burden is not health problems but complaining about health problems), performing your work under difficult circumstances, and purging something from inside you.
If you’re struggling with discontentment, here is Burroughs’s advice for you:
- Don’t look for contentment in the world or get obsessed with the stuff you have because “when the heart of a man has nothing to do but to be busy about creature comforts, every little thing troubles him”
- Don’t think about what others have or their opinions regarding what you don’t have because this always leads to wanting more than you have
- Consider the greatness of the mercies God gives you and the smallness of the things you lack, since you have everything with God and nothing without him and “when the heart is taken up with the weighty things of eternity, the things of here below that disquieted it before are things now of no consequence”
Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 2.