My children, there could hardly be a more important book for you to read, understand, ponder and internalize than the book of Proverbs. You are going to discover soon enough that while there are many Christians, there are not many wise Christians. Most Christians believe that if you believe in Jesus, that is enough. And that is enough for salvation. But it is most certainly not enough for a life well-lived. A life well-lived requires insight, prudence, and understanding what is right and just and fair. It requires knowledge and discretion, learning, understanding, and wisdom. And Proverbs promises all of these to its students. I’m more convinced than ever that this book would have saved me from the vast majority of my self-inflicted wounds. I’m more convinced than ever that the more I internalize this book, the more fully, usefully, satisfyingly and joyfully I will live. Hear, my sons and daughter(s?), your father’s instruction.
From the Institutes (I.II.1):
“By piety I mean that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires. For, until men feel that they owe everything to God, that they are cherished by his paternal care, and that he is the author of all their blessings, so that [nothing] is to be looked for away from him, they will never submit to him in voluntary obedience; nay, unless they place their entire happiness in him, they will never yield up their whole selves to him in truth and sincerity.“
A few more excerpts from and reflections on The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, touching on the peculiar (that was free) way that Christians must go about finding contentment:
IV. “It is not so much the removing of the affliction that is upon us as the changing of the affliction—the metamorphosing of the affliction—so that it is quite turned and changed into something else” (49).
“The way of contentment to an [unbelieving] heart is only the removing of the affliction. O that it may be gone! ‘No,’ says a gracious heart, ‘God has taught me a way to be content though the affliction itself still continues.’ There is a power of grace to turn this affliction into good; it takes away the sting and poison of it.’ …You shall be poor still as to your outward possessions, but this shall be altered; whereas before it was a natural evil to you, it comes now to be turned to a spiritual benefit to you. …You do not find one godly man who came out of an affliction worse than when he went into it. Though for a while he was shaken, yet at last he was better for an affliction. But a great many godly men, you find, have been worse for their prosperity” (49).
This struck me as utterly profound and useful: “You do not find one godly man who came out of an affliction worse than when he went into it.” I hope this will be true in my life; that the afflictions I walk through will serve me well and that I will be all the better, stronger, and holier because of them. In the midst of affliction, particularly some I’ve walked through lately, it is nearly impossible to believe that this will be the case. But I pray, “Lord, I believe—help my unbelief!”
V. “A Christian comes to this contentment not by [meeting] the [needs] of his circumstances, but by the performance of the work of his circumstances” (51).
“A carnal heart thinks, ‘I must have my [desires] made up or else it is impossible that I should be content.’ But a gracious heart says, ‘What is the duty of the circumstances God has put me into? …I am serving the counsels of God in those circumstances where I am; it is the counsel of God that has brought me into these circumstances that I am in, and I desire to serve the counsel of God in these circumstances’” (51-2).
We can’t have everything we want, can we? We shouldn’t have everything we want. Some things I want very badly would likely not be good for me. I believe this because if those things would truly be good for me, the God who works all things together for my good (Rom. 8:28) would surely see to it that I have them. A faithful disciple of Christ, then, faces this reality and seeks to find contentment in being faithful in whatever circumstances he finds himself in, rather than constantly seeking to find his way into ‘better’ circumstances than where God has placed him.
VI. “A gracious heart is contented by the melting of his will and desires into God’s will and desires; by this means he gets contentment” (53).
“You all say that you should submit to God’s will; a Christian has got beyond this. He can make God’s will and his own the same” (53).
Again, this insight struck me as incredibly profound: It is not enough to say, “This is God’s will, so I guess I’ll deal with it.” Anyone can say that. God is sovereign! He does all he pleases (Ps. 115:3)! What else can we say?! The faithful disciple of Christ must not only submit to God’s will, but he must pray, “Lord, even though your desires are not currently my desires, I plead with you: change my mind—make your desires my own, so that I would not only submit to what is good, but would want what is good.” Words fail me in trying to express how crucial this prayer is for me right now.
VII. “The mystery consists not in bringing anything from outside to make my condition more comfortable, but in purging out something that is within” (55).
“The way of contentment is to purge out your lusts and bitter humours ” (55).
In other words, frequently it is our own sinful desires and inclinations that lead us into discontent and hold us there. Therefore, one of the chief means of finding divine contentment is, through prayer, disciplined reflection on God’s word, and the work of the Spirit, to purge ourselves of the sinful desires, wants, inclinations, lusts, and thirsts that steal away our deepest contentment, peace, and satisfaction.
One of the most helpful books I read this year was one I read back in August when Vince and I hit the trail into Glacier National Park for a week, called The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by Jeremiah Burroughs.
I had no idea how helpful it would be when I first decided to read it, and I had no idea that it would be as helpful as it has been since. In it, Burroughs tries to show the way to true, divine contentment as a Christian, as opposed to contentment of the kind the world desires and in the ways the world seeks it.
He bases his treatise on Philippians 4:11-13:
“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.”
His desire, in the book, is to show “That to be well skilled in the mystery of Christian contentment is the duty, glory and excellence of a Christian. …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 condition” (19), and to unpack for the reader how this contentment can be obtained.
His fifteen theses expounding Christian contentment are the heart of the book. I’ll share them here in brief in the next few posts:
I. “It may be said of one who is contented in a Christian way that he is the most contented man in the world, and yet the most unsatisfied man in the world. These two together must needs be mysterious” (42).
“A gracious (“gracious” here means “grace-filled” or “grace-wrought”) heart says, ‘Lord, do with me what you will for my passage through this world; I will be content with that, but I cannot be content with all the world for my portion. …Whatever God may give to a gracious heart—a heart that is godly—unless he gives himself it will not do. A godly heart will not only have the mercy, but the God of that mercy as well” (43-4).
In other words, do you want justification? Do you want sanctification? Do you want redemption? Do you want ransom? Or do you want the God that enters into a relationship with us through these things? A Christian cannot be satisfied with anything less than God himself, however many other blessings come his way. And if he has God, he is satisfied whatever else comes his way.
II. “A Christian comes to contentment not so much by way of addition, as by way of subtraction” (45).
“That is his way of contentment, and it is a way that the world has no skill in. I open it thus: not so much by abiding to what he would have, or to what he has—not by adding more to his condition, but rather by subtracting from his desires, so as to make his desires and his circumstances even and equal. …If he can bring his heart to be as little as his circumstances, to make them even, this is the way to contentment. The world is infinitely deceived in thinking that contentment lies in having more than we already have” (45-6).
This was probably the most powerfully shaping thing I learned in this book. Distinctly Christian contentment normally comes to us through subtracting from our desires, not adding to our circumstances or possessions. I have been praying much more lately, “Lord, give me small and humble desires with regards to the things of this world.”
III. “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” (47).
“The way of contentment is to add another burden. That is, to labour to load and burden your heart with your sin; the heavier the burden of your sin is to your heart, the lighter will the burden of your affliction be to your heart, and so you shall come to be content. …Have you ever tried this way, husband and wife? Have you ever got alone and said, ‘Come, Oh let us go and humble our souls before God together, let us go into our chamber and humble our souls before God for our sin, by which we have abused those mercies that God has taken away from us, and we have provoked God against us. Oh let us charge ourselves with our sin, and be humbled before the Lord together.’? Have you tried such a way as this? Oh you would find that the cloud would be taken away, and the sun would shine in upon you, and you would have a great deal more contentment than ever you had” (47-8).
In other words, when we have a proper view of our own sin, we very quickly realize that what we already have is entirely undeserved and is therefore an unspeakable kindness from the hand of an extraordinarily kind God.
The Sunday school my wife and I are a part of is currently reading together through Don’t Waste Your Life, by John Piper.
Here is a fascinating excerpt from our assigned reading for this week:
“The really wonderful moments of joy in this world are not the moments of self-satisfaction, but self-forgetfulness. Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and contemplating your own greatness is pathological. At such moments we are made for a mgnificent joy that comes from outside ourselves. And each of these rare and precious moments in life—beside the Canyon, before the Alps, under the stars—is an echo of a far greater excellence, namely, the glory of God. That is why the Bible says, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork’ (Psalm 19:1)” (DWYL, 33-34).
By the way, if you have some vacation coming this summer and are looking for some places to stand in awe and contemplate something bigger than yourself as an echo of the far greater excellence of God, I have included below my list of the 20 most beautiful places I have ever been. Enjoy!:
#1: Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin. Obviously.
#2: Whistler/Pacific Coast Range, British Columbia, Canada.
#3: Banff/Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada.
#4: Glacier National Park, Montana. Particularly near Lake Elizabeth and Red Gap Pass.
#5: Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Particularly on the Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim.
#6: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Particularly near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Lake Yellowstone.
#7: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Particularly near Paintbrush Divide.
#8: Mykonos and Santorini Islands, Greece.
#9: Big Horn National Forest, Wyoming. Particularly near Hwy. 14, east of Shell, WY.
#10: Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria.
#11: Costa Rica. Particularly along the Rio Pacuare.
#12: Rocky Mountain National Park. Particularly near Bear Lake.
#13: Pfeifferhorn Peak, Wasatch Range near Salt Lake City, Utah.
#14: Wind River Range, near Lander, Wyoming.
#15: Lone Peak, Big Sky, Montana.
#16: Acropolis, Athens, Greece.
#17: Tettegouche State Park, near Silver Bay, Minnesota. Particularly at Shovel Point.
#18: Devil’s Lake State Park, near Baraboo, Wisconsin.
#19: Peninsula State Park, near Fish Creek, Wisconsin.
#20: Central Park, New York City.
Did I miss anything? Anyone want to add to the list? Where have you been that I need to go?!