[Guest post by… (drumroll…) the hubby!]
One of the books that have really changed my perspective on the Christian life is Jeremiah Burroughs’ “The Rare Jewel of Christian contentment“.[Besides the Bible and this book, I can only think of one other book that has made such an impact on me.] I chanced upon Burroughs’ book in 2011, when I was at a local bookstore. The title immediately caught my eye, and I decided to buy it.
I am now on my second read of the book.And amazingly, the book continues to speak to my soul more powerfully than when I first read it.Unlike some contemporary books, it is not possible to read it at one sitting. The length of the book is not daunting (200+ pages), but it does take a while to read. Why? Like good food, the contents need to be chewed upon, thought about, and processed into the heart. For a book was written in 1648, the language is crisp, and the analogies still relevant and cogent.
Why is this book important? As a mid-aged adult living in materialistic Singapore, it has become increasingly clear to me that Christian contentment is an essential quality to Christian living. It is not something that can be bought (ironically), but something that needs to be wrought, and learnt and taught by the Holy Spirit. We think that we would be content if and when we score a perfect score in an exam, marry your childhood sweetheart, grow a church ministry to hundreds of people, reach a million in assets, oversee a team of 20 people at the workplace, have the latest sports car, etc. But all of us who have lived long enough know that the soul never finds perfect and everlasting contentment on such earthly matters. Once we attain the goal(s), our soul invariably starts to yearn for something more.
Hence the importance of this book. Taking Philippians 4:13 “I have learnt to be content, whether abase or abound”, the book posits that it is essential for a mature Christian to train and develop the art of Christian contentment. Through 228 pages, he carefully unpacks the central statement:
Christian 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 conditions [sic].
For those who are interested, I have enclosed some extracts to give you a foretaste of the book. To be precise, there are 10. For lack of a better term, I have labelled them “themes” or key takeaways. I’ve highlighted some lines in bold.
Theme 1: To know that one thing that is needful
Many men think that when they are troubled and have not got contentment, it is because they have but a little in the world, and that if they have more then they would be content. It is not because you have not got enough of [things], but because it is not the thing that is proportionable to the immortal soul that God has given you. When a soul comes into the school of Jesus Christ, and there comes to see vanity in all things in the world, then such a soul comes to have contentment. If you seek contentment elsewhere, like the unclean spirit you seek for rest but find none.
Theme 2: The right knowledge of Christ’s providence
It is the way of God to work by contraries, to turn the greatest evil into the greatest good. Luther has a striking expression for this. He says, “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. It is the way of God to bring all good out of evil, not only to overcome the evil, but to make the evil work towards the good. Now when the souls come to understand this, it will take away our murmuring and bring contentment into our spirits.
Theme 3: The excellence of contentment
By contentment, we come to give God the worship that is due to him. It is a special part of the divine worship that we owe to God, to be content in a Christian way, as has been shown to you. Now in what disposition of heart do we thus crouch to God more than when we have this state of contentment in all the conditions that God disposes us to? This is crouching to God’s dispoal, to be like the poor woman of Canaan, who when Christ said, “it is not fit to given children’s meat to dogs”, said “The dogs have crumbs”, I am a dog I confess, but let me have only a crumb. And so when the soul shall be in such a disposition as to lie down and say “Lord, I am but as a dog, yet let me have a crumb”, then it highly honours God.
You worship God more by this than when you come to hear a sermon, or spend half an hour, in prayer, or when you come to receive a sacrament. In active obedience, we worship God by doing what pleases God. But by passive obedience, we do as well worship God by being pleased with what God does. Now, when I perform a duty, I worship God, I do what pleases God. Why should I not as well worship God when I am pleased with what God does? It is but one side of a Christian to endeavour to do what pleases God; you must as well endeavour to be pleased with what God does. And so, you will come to be a complete Christian when you can do both.
Theme 4: The Soul is fitted to receive mercy
If we would be vessels to receive God’s mercy, and would have the Lord pour his mercy into us, we must have quiet, still hearts. If a child throws and kicks up and down for a thing, you do not give it him when he cries so, but first, you will have the child quiet. Even though, perhaps, you intend him to have what he cries for, you will not give it him till he is quiet, and comes, and stands still before you, and is contented without it, and then, you will give it him. And truly so does the Lord deal with us, for our dealings with him are just as your froward children’s are with you. As soon as you want a thing from God, if you cannot have it, you are disquieted at once and all in an uproar, as it were, in your spirits. God intends mercy to you, but he says, “You shall not have it yet, I will see you quiet first, and then in the quietness of your heart come to me, and see what I will do with you.”
Theme 5: By contentment, the soul comes to an excellence near to God himself, yea, the nearest possible.
Suppose there were no creatures in the world, and that all the creatures in the world were annihilated: God will remain the same blessed God that he is now, he would not be a worse condition if all creatures were gone; neither would a contented heart, if God should take away all creatures (read: created things) from him. A contented heart has enough in the lack of all creatures, and would not be more miserable than he is now. Supposed that God should keep you here, and all the creatures that are in the world were taken away, yet you still, having God to be your portion, would be as happy as you are now. Therefore, contentment has a great deal of excellence in it.
Theme 6: Aggravations of the Sin of Murmuring
For men and women to be discontented in the midst of mercies, in enjoyment of an abundance of mercies, aggravates the sin of discontentment and murmuring. To be discontented in any afflicted condition is sinful and evil, but to be discontented when we are in the midst of God’s mercies, when we are not able to count the mercies, still to be discontented because we have not got all we would have, this is a greater evil.
Objection: you will say, Yes, but you do not know what our afflictions are; our afflictions are such as you do not conceive of, because you do not feel them.
Answer: Through I cannot know what your afflictions are, yet I know what your mercies are, and I know they are so great that I am sure there can be no afflictions in this world as great as the mercies you have. … the great design God has in afflicting you, is to break and humble your heart, and will you maintain a spirit quite opposite to the work of God? For you to murmur and be discontented is to resist the work of God. God is doing you good if you could see it, and if he is pleased to sanctify your affliction to break that hard heart of yours, and humble that proud spirit of yours, it would be the greatest mercy that you ever had in all your life. Now, will you still stand out against God?
Theme 7: The excuses of a discontented heart
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. …. If you could only cure your disquiet, if you could but quiet your own hearts and get them into a better frame of contentedness under God’s hand in affliction, then you would find God’s presence with you.
Theme 8: High Calling
You who perhaps spend your time in a poor business, in the meanest calling, if you are a dung-raker, to rake channels, or to clean places of filth, or any other thing in the world that is the meanest that can be conceived of, your general calling as a Christian advances you higher than any particular calling can advance any man in the world. … For when the Lord comes to reward, he does not examine what work men and women have been exercised in, but what their faithfulness has been. “Well done, good and faithful servant”, says the Lord; he does not “Well done, good servant, for you have been faithful to me in public works, ruling cities and states, and affairs in kingdoms, and therefore you shall be rewarded”. No, but “Well done, good and faithful servant”. God looks to a man’s faithfulness, and you may have as great a reward for your faithfulness who are a poor servant in the kitchen all the day, as another who sits upon the throne all day.
Theme 9: How to attain contentment
When God has let you have your heart’s desire, what have you done with your heart’s desire? You have not been any the better for it; it may be you have been worse many times. Therefore, let that satisfy you – I meet with crosses, but when I had contentment and all things coming in, God got but little or no glory from me, and therefore let that be a means now to quiet me in my discontented thoughts. It is true, when ministers only tell men that God will work good out of their afflictions, they hear them speak, and think they speak like good men, but they fell little or no good; they feel nothing but pain. But when we cannot only say to you that God has said he will work out of your afflictions, but we can say to you, that you yourselves have found it so by experience, that God has made former afflictions to be great benefits to you, and that you would not have been without them, or without the good that came by them for a world; such experiences will exceedingly quiet the heart and bring it to contentment. Therefore, think thus with yourself: Lord, why may not this affliction work as great a good upon me afflictions have done before?
Theme 10: How to attain contentment v2
If you would get a contented life, do not grasp too much of the world, do not take in more of the business of the world than God calls you to. Do not be greedy of taking in a great deal of the world, for if a man goes among thorns, when he may take a simpler way, he has not reason to complain that he is pricked with them. You go among thorns – is it your way? Must you of necessity go among them? Then it is another matter. But if you voluntarily choose that way, when you may go another, then you have no cause to complain. If men and women will thrust themselves on things of the world which they do not need, then no wonder that they are pricked, and meet with what disturbs them.
[If you are still with me after reading the above, you are greatly commended!}
So as a reader, what does this mean to you? I would like to address how this book would help you, whether you are a Christian or not.
If you are a Christian, this book exhorts you to find your contentment in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Saviour. Things on this earth do not last, and even if they do, do not satisfy forever. And unless we find our sufficiency and joy in Jesus, we would continue to be joyless and in a discontented state. The quicker we learn this lesson, the better it is for us.
If you are not a Christian, this book provides a view on how Christians have been encouraged to view the things of this world. You may or may not agree with the central thesis on this book. But if you struggle to understand materialism (especially in Singapore), this book may speak to you, and hopefully point you to Someone beyond this world.
I would like to offer a free book to one of you out there, anywhere in the world. Just leave a comment below with your email address, and we’ll pick a winner on 25 Oct 2013. If you don’t win it, the book is available for less than US$10. It is a real steal for such priceless truths! I have also donated a book to our church library, and am planning to buy more for close friends and families. So, if you are planning for an inexpensive gift for Christmas, why not consider this book for you and your loved ones? This could be a gift that could change lives forever!