What Is Contentment?
I’ve been reading Jeremiah Burroughs’ classic book, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, and wanted to share a bit of it here. If you haven’t read this book, let me encourage you to get it and read it. American culture fosters discontentment and all the miseries and heartaches that go along with it. Discontentment is coveting what we do not have, longing for it, believing that if we have it, then we will be satisfied. To be content is to obey the 10th commandment, “You shall not covet” in the power of Christ and the gospel of grace. Here’s my summary of 20 ways that Burroughs describes contentment.
“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Phil 4:11).
1. Contentment is a sweet, inward matter of the heart. Many people appear to be calm on the outside, but inwardly, they are frantic emotional basket-cases. True contentment is an inward peace and calmness of soul no matter what kinds of terrible trials and sufferings may be happening on the outside.
2. Contentment doesn’t mean that you don’t feel the pain of your suffering. In fact, in order to learn contentment, you have to feel the pain of your sufferings. The pains and sorrows of whatever crosses you’re bearing are the things God uses to teach you to find comfort in Christ. If you ignore the pain, belittle it, or mindlessly muscle your way through it, you’ll never learn the lesson of contentment in Christ.
3. Contentment doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to cry out to God and to your friends in Christ. It’s only by crying out to God in faith and submission that you’ll find contentment. God brings you into a state of contentment through communion with Himself. And often, God uses godly friends to speak the truth to you in love, to remind you of the graces of Christ, and to comfort you in His love.
4. Contentment doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to end your suffering. You should certainly seek every God-honoring and lawful means of ending the sufferings you’re experiencing in life. Particularly, if an injustice is being committed against you, and it’s causing you suffering, then it’s your Christian duty to try to end it in any lawful way possible.
5. Contentment means that you should not grumble under God’s good hand. If you’re content, you’ll remember that God Himself has a hand in your suffering. Some people complain that God isn’t good or wise in what He does in their lives, and they think they know better than Him how their lives ought to be. But grumbling and complaining is forbidden because it fails to rest in the knowledge of God and receive His comfort and strength.
6. Contentment means that you mustn’t become bitter or angrily lash out at God and others. Some get so deeply angry when trials come into their lives that they lash out at God and others. But God calls you to quietly accept His loving Fatherly rod of discipline. He kindly calls you to contentment for your own good.
7. Contentment means that you’re not distracted from your God-given duties. Some are so discontent in their trials that they neglect the responsibilities God gives them in life. They may begin to neglect family, church, or their job responsibilities because their present circumstances are so full of sorrow. But this isn’t how a Christian should respond to suffering. Often it’s by doing what God calls you to do in a disciplined way that you can grow in contentment.
8. Contentment means that you don’t neglect communion with Christ. It’s possible for your fears and anxieties to become so great that you neglect vital union and communion with Jesus. But knowledge of Christ’s love and communion with Him is the very foundation of contentment and the source of peace with God and joy in this fallen world.
9. Contentment doesn’t sink into dark discouragements. The believer who is content in God remembers God’s power and love, that He’s able to rescue sinners, to heal the sick, to make the blind see. God calls us to trust that He will deliver us from our sufferings in His time and in His way, according to His good pleasure.
10. Contentment doesn’t sin to try to get relief from pain. Sometimes when things are particularly dark, Christians are tempted to find comfort in their sin. They look for a sinful escape or distraction from their trials. Or they may be tempted to believe false doctrine as a means of escaping their pain and fostering some false hope of temporal rescue. But Christ would have us to be content in Himself and to flee from sin and heresy.
11. Contentment doesn’t rebel against God. When people are least content, they’re often tempted to shake their fists in God’s face. They blame God and accuse Him for their troubles. They believe the worst of Him for brining trails into their lives. But God only has thoughts of love in everything He does to those who belong to Him. It isn’t from ill-will that God brings suffering into the lives of His beloved children.
12. Contentment is a grace that spreads through the whole person. That is, a content person’s thoughts, emotions, and will are all content in Christ. Sometimes people have a very hard time even understanding why they should be content in their situation. Other times, they may understand the reasons they should be content, but they have a very hard time actually feeling content. And still other times, people will not act with contentment. True contentment involves the whole man.
13. Contentment comes from within, from the heart. It’s possible for a person to warm up by a fire for awhile, but he gets cold again when he leaves the warmth of the fire. Some people get temporary contentment by surrounding themselves with external arguments, with people, and with circumstances that make them feel content for a little while, but when their circumstances change, their contentment also leaves them. True contentment, however, radiates from within by the Spirit of Christ. Christian contentment isn’t conditioned upon outward circumstances.
14. Contentment is a habitual character of the heart. Someone who has learned to be content has a habit and discipline of bringing his heart into a state of stable and peaceful contentment, even though the world around him is constantly changing. He practices contentment during lesser trials so that he is strong and able to practice contentment during greater trials.
15. Contentment does not come from a naturally sturdy disposition. Some people have a natural ability to stabilize themselves by sheer force of will. They do this by dulling their emotions and distancing themselves from attachments to the world in a stoic way. But true godly contentment is not dull. The source of godly contentment is Christ. It longs for Him, trusts in Him, rejoices in Him, and wants to honor Him in all of life.
16. Contentment submits to God’s sovereign will. A content person bows under God’s sovereign hand and submits to what God has ordained in his life. He acknowledges that God has appointed this hardship in life and so accepts it from God’s hand. A submissive Christian realizes that he is under authority and he does not resist God’s authority.
17. Contentment takes pleasure in God’s sovereign will. Far more than just submitting to God’s will, a content person knows that there must be good in what God has ordained. Burroughs wrote, “I find there is honey in this rock, and so I do not only say, I must, or I will submit to God’s hand. No, the hand of God is good, ‘it is good that I am afflicted.'”
18. Contentment submits to every kind of affliction. For example, some people may be able to submit to God striking their own personal health. But they wouldn’t be able to stand God striking their spouse or their child. True contentment submits to all of God’s wise providences.
19. Contentment submits to God’s time-table of affliction. Some would say, “This affliction has lasted too long. The affliction itself is bearable, but the length of time I’m required to endure this affliction is unbearable.” But true contentment acknowledges that God’s time-table is good and wise.
20. Contentment submits to afflictions when many come at the same time. Some may say, “This one affliction is bearable all by itself, but it has come with so many other trails and troubles at the same time.” One suffering often comes with many other sufferings. But true contentment submits to God’s wisdom in brining more than one kind of affliction at once.
If you’ve made it to the end of this post, and you’re convicted of your own discontentment, as I am of mine, then the law has done its most basic work. The 10th commandment declares: “You shall not covet.” But the law cannot save you or change you. The law, which commands you to be content, has no power to make you content. You can’t simply decide by force of will that you’re going to start keeping the law and become more content.
Rather, you need Jesus. Only a believing sight of Jesus, our glorious Savior, can quiet your heart and make you content. If you are a believer, remember that Christ died for your sin of discontentment. His blood washes you completely clean. His righteousness covers you so that you’re accepted in the courts of heaven before the bar of God’s justice. It’s only by thinking on Christ, His glories, His wisdom, His greatness, and His perfect love for you, that you will be able to grow little by little, more and more, into contentment for your own joy and for the glory God. It’s when you purposely, and in a disciplined way, draw near to Christ from the heart that you can learn to keep God’s law, to be content, and reap the blessings of it.