The following is a talk given to the ladies of the Free Reformed Church of Melville on October 20, 2017.
I was recently speaking with a former missionary to Brazil. A couple of years after starting work there, he had a small congregation made up mostly of women and children. There were only a couple of men. One of them was an older man. The missionary told me about visiting this man in a favela in this Brazilian city. His house was just a small shack, maybe 3 meters by 3 meters – at the most. Dirt floor and you could look up through the rafters and see the tin roof. The missionary arrived just after the man had his dinner of beans and manioc flour. He was sitting on one side of a couch, the missionary on the other side – a hole in the couch between them. The Brazilian man was dressed only in shorts – no shirt, no socks. He leaned back into his seat, patted his tummy, looked at the missionary and said with a smile, “Now John, this is the life.” Though he had so little compared to us, he was thankful for what he had — his attitude was sheer contentment.
That poor Brazilian could do that as a disciple of our Lord Jesus. All Christians are to think of themselves as disciples. For whatever reason, this is not an idea that you hear much about in our churches. I find that strange. It’s strange because being a disciple is a core part of the identity of a Christian according to the New Testament. We seem to hardly ever talk about it. But we’re going to look at it in this talk.
So, let’s first be clear about what a disciple is. Simply, a disciple is a student. In New Testament times, religious teachers were known to gather disciples. John the Baptist had disciples who followed him. Before becoming a Christian, Saul of Tarsus was a disciple of the great rabbi Gamaliel. But a disciple was not just a student like we think of students today. A disciple spent almost all of his time with his master. A disciple not only listened to the teaching of his master, but also carefully watched his example. You see, a disciple was not just interested in learning information from his master — he wanted to be like his master. So the disciples of Jesus in the New Testament hung on his words, but also observed his life. For Christians today, we’re disciples. We learn from our Master’s teaching in the Bible, but we also study his example, and we strive to walk in his ways, we want to be like him.
Every true Christian is a disciple. That means we’re to be under the instruction of our Lord Jesus, in his school. One of the most important classes in this school has to do with contentment. Our Master wants to teach his disciples all about Christian contentment. That’s how we’re going to be approaching our topic – learning about it as disciples of Jesus. There are four questions we’re going to explore:
- What is Christian contentment?
- Why is it so hard for disciples to learn it?
- Why is it still worth pursuing for disciples of Jesus?
- How do disciples of Jesus pursue it?
What is Christian contentment?
There was once a gospel preacher in England. It was a difficult time for gospel preachers because the King and his government were hostile to the true Christian faith. This was in the late 1630s. One day this preacher had a conversation with a colleague about the powers of the King. The preacher thought it was just a private conversation with a friend and he expressed his view that the powers of the King were not absolute. His so-called friend soon afterwards betrayed him and reported him to the King’s officials. The preacher was soon going to be arrested. Other faithful preachers had recently been sentenced to life in prison, given heavy fines, and even had their ears sliced off. The preacher saw the writing on the wall and decided to flee England. He sailed across the English Channel to Rotterdam and became the pastor of an English-speaking church there for a couple of years.
This preacher was a Puritan by the name of Jeremiah Burroughs. Because of his desire to be faithful to God’s Word, he experienced hardship and persecution. Some years later, with these experiences behind him, Jeremiah Burroughs wrote a remarkable book entitled, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. It’s still in print today as part of the Puritan Paperbacks series published by Banner of Truth Trust. There are precious few books today on the subject of contentment, and among those few, I doubt any would stand up to Burroughs in terms of biblical faithfulness and comprehensiveness. Moreover, Burroughs didn’t write about contentment in an abstract or theoretical way – he wrote about it from the perspective of someone who had learned it experientially, the hard way.
I can’t think of a better definition of contentment than the one that Jeremiah Burroughs gives early on in The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. From his study of the Bible on this, Burroughs says that 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.”
There are a couple of things to note in that definition.
First of all, contentment is a “frame of spirit.” This is about your inner life. Contentment is about what’s going on in your heart. It’ll having a bearing on what goes on in your mind, what comes out of your mouth, what your hands find to do, where your feet take you. But in its bare essence, contentment rests in your heart, in your inner being.
Second, contentment involves looking at God and considering him in a certain way. It’s considering him in terms of what the Bible teaches about him. Specifically, we think of God as wise and fatherly. He knows what is best and he always does what is best for his children. He also rules over “every condition.” Everything that happens is under his control. So not only is he wise and loving, he’s also sovereign. We contemplate these things about who our God is, what he’s like, and we say, “This is my God and I trust him. I can be at peace with whatever he gives because I know what he’s like.” That’s contentment.
When we try to define and understand Christian contentment, it’s also helpful to think in terms of its opposite. What is the opposite of contentment? Obviously, that would be discontentment. Discontentment would be a frame of spirit too, something going on in your inner life, in your heart. It would be a bitter and angry frame of spirit. It too would involve looking at God and considering him in a certain way. It could be just ignoring or being indifferent towards him. Or discontentment might look at God as less than wise. He does not know what is best for me. He does not do what is best for me. He does not act as a loving Father towards me. Instead, he’s cruel. Perhaps a discontented person would even go so far as to deny God’s sovereign rule over all things. If God were really in control, and if he really loved me, he would give me what I want.
It’s good to name the sins involved here. It’s good to think about the commandments being broken with discontentment and being kept with contentment. There are particularly two and they’re tightly connected. It’s the First and the Tenth.
The First Commandment tells us that not only are we to worship the one true God alone, but we’re also to trust in him alone and “submit to him with all humility and patience.” (HC QA 94). The First Commandment teaches us to look to God in a certain way. We’re to have that inward frame of contentment knowing who he is and how he manages all things. Discontentment is a sin against the First Commandment because it fails to look at God in the right way. Discontentment fails to have the right frame of heart about who he is and how he does things.
It’s often been pointed out that the First and Tenth Commandments are linked. They both address the desires of our heart. Who do we worship and how are our desires framed as a result? The Tenth Commandment teaches us to be content with what God has given. Discontentment is a sin against the Tenth Commandment because it involves wrong desires for things that God in his fatherly wisdom hasn’t given.
The link between these two is most explicit in Colossians 3:5. The Holy Spirit says in Colossians 3:5 that covetousness is idolatry. It’s idolatry because it’s a matter of wrong priorities, but it’s also idolatry because it fails to reckon with the true revelation of who God is and how he relates to us as his children.
Confronted with those facts, I think we all realize we fall short. I’ve not always been content, and I’m sure you can say the same. When that happens, we have to call what it is: it’s sin. It’s evil and rebellion against God. But know also this: your discontentment is a sin for which Christ shed his blood on the cross. The gospel promises that through Christ all your past, present, and future discontentment is wiped away in the sight of God. Through Jesus and his cross, your discontentment is forgiven in full.
But the gospel is even better than that. The gospel tells us not only of a Saviour who paid for our discontent, but also of a Saviour who lived the contented life. In Luke 24, Christ told his disciples that the Old Testament pointed to him. He told them that the book of Psalms was about him. So when we read, say Psalm 131, we have to keep that interpretive key in mind. Psalm 131 says, “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.” That’s contentment. But we have to remember that it’s Christ’s song. He tells us first of all about his contentment, his perfect “sweet, inward, gracious frame of spirit.” The First Commandment found its perfect fulfilment in Jesus, and so did the Tenth. Now this is gospel, this is good news, because when we place our trust in him, his obedience is credited to us. God looks at us as his children and through Christ’s work, he sees us not only as forgiven, but as 100% positively righteous all the time. He sees us like the Saviour in Psalm 131. God says, “There’s my child with that sweet, inward, gracious frame of spirit. That’s beautiful. She’s content.”
But God doesn’t want to leave it at that. The Bible also teaches us to be who we are. If have this righteousness before God through Christ, it’s meant to transform our lives in the here and now. We look to our Saviour and hear him calling us to follow him, to be his disciples. We hear him call us to a life of thankful, loving obedience in response to the gospel of grace. Our Master says in John 14:15, “If you love, you will keep my commandments.” That holds true for the First and Tenth Commandments; it holds true when it comes to contentment. As disciples of Christ, we’re called by our Teacher to pursue contentment in our lives.
In Philippians 4:11, we discover that contentment is something to be learned: “…I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” It needs to be learned. It is not something that comes naturally to us. It’s something that has to be taught to us as Christian disciples.
Why is contentment so hard for Christian disciples to learn?
And it’s a hard thing for Christian disciples to learn. Let’s spend a couple of moments reflecting on why it’s so hard for us. I can think of at least five reasons. There are probably more, but these five are significant.
The first is adversity. When you experience hard things, it’s challenging to be content. Whether it’s a marriage that isn’t all you hoped it would be, difficulties in raising children, or disappointments and conflicts in other relationships, contentment can be difficult to attain. Throw in challenges with mental health, depression, anxiety, and so on, and the challenge rises significantly. All these forms of adversity make it hard for Christian disciples to learn contentment – note that I didn’t say impossible, but “hard.”
Another reason is that we obviously live in a hugely prosperous culture. We live in a time where the relentless pursuit for more is a given. Materialism is rampant all around us. Advertising reminds us of all the things we don’t have, but should be wanting. In fact, wants become needs. You don’t just want a new iPhone X, you need it. How would you possibly live without it? The culture of materialistic consumerism depends on discontentment to feed it. We’re not unaffected by this as disciples of Christ, especially if we allow these subtle messages to take root in our hearts.
We not only live in a prosperous Australian culture, we also live in a very prosperous Free Reformed church culture. It was once said of the pilgrims who first came to America that they came to do good, but they ended up doing well. The same might be said of the Dutch immigrants who came here in the post-war period. They’ve done quite well. There’s a lot of money floating around. But rather than breeding contentment, it often has the opposite effect. How much wealth is enough? The answer is typically: a little more. We have our subtle rationalizations to justify this – we have to be good stewards, and so on. There is a reason why Christ said that it is more difficult for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. There is a reason why he spoke of the deceitfulness of riches in the Parable of the Sower.
If the first two were not big enough challenges, then there’s also what we face whenever we walk into a vanilla Christian bookstore. Look at the shelf with the best-sellers. You’ll see names like Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar and Joyce Meyer, just to name a few. There’s no warning on these books alerting you to the fact that these authors are false teachers and gospel-deniers. Authors promoting what is known as the prosperity gospel are writing best-selling books and people from our churches can sometimes be duped too. The prosperity gospel tells you that God wants you to be rich. You should want to be rich. You should not be happy until you get that blessing God wants you to have: name your desire, and claim it. Scripture warns repeatedly that the love of money is a soul-killer. Yet these people write and preach as gospel the very thing that will kill your soul! It’s deplorable. Especially for Christian women, you need to be aware of someone like Joyce Meyer. She’s not a faithful teacher of Scripture. Her gospel is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Steer clear.
But the last thing that makes contentment hard for Christian disciples is our own hearts. Martin Luther once said, “I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, Self.” Even as Christians, we have the remnants of a sinful nature. Sin hides in the cracks and crevasses of our hearts. It calls us back to a life of thorough rebellion against God. Whenever we’re discontented, we might want to put the blame on all these outside sources. But in reality, it’s our own hearts that ultimately lead us astray. We’re the problem. It’s hard to be contented when you’ve still got sinful inclinations in your heart.
Why is contentment worth pursuing?
Facing those challenges, why is it still worth it for disciples of Jesus to pursue contentment? Again, I can think of five reasons.
The main reason it’s worth it is because Scripture teaches us to. First Timothy 6:6 reminds us that “…godliness with contentment is great gain.” God sets contentment in front of us as something he wills for our lives. He sets discontentment in front of us as a sinful and wicked thing. Since he’s our Father, we as Christian disciples are going to take that seriously. Since he’s our good God, we realize that his will for us is good and worth pursuing.
Closely related to that, contentment “is great gain.” Just intuitively, we recognize that contentment is a good thing to have. Discontentment is toxic and it feels that way too. When you’re discontented, filled with bitterness that you don’t have what you want, it feels rotten. This negativity eats away at you and produces nothing good in your life. All sin is like that. It’s self-destructive. Contentment, on the other hand, is good for us.
It’s also good for those around us. When we have that “sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit,” that’s going to bear fruit in our relationships with others. The inner calm that we have with God’s ordering of things is going to make us more patient in dealing with the people around us.
It’s also a witness to those around us. Think of our children. If we’re dealing with some harsh adversity and our children see us handle it with contentment, that’s a witness to them of what God has been doing in our lives with the gospel. But if God brings some trial and it makes us bitter and angry, that sends the signal that the gospel doesn’t change anything. The gospel doesn’t have power to change us, so why would it have the power to change anyone else? The powerful witness of a contented heart makes it worthwhile for Christian disciples to pursue contentment.
The last reason it’s worth pursuing brings us back to God. When we are the most contented in him, it brings him the most glory. When his people trust in his goodness and can calmly say, “I know who my Father is and I know his love and I know he’ll always do right. God is enough.” — that’s hugely God-glorifying. It lifts him up and shows that he is worthy of our praise and adoration. God created us for this. The cross of Christ redeemed us for this. The Holy Spirit made us disciples for this. Contentment is worth pursuing because it fulfils the purposes of God for us, especially the purpose of bringing the praise to him with our lives.
So why is contentment worth pursuing? Scripture teaches us to as part of God’s good will, contentment is good for us, it’s good for our relationships, it’s good for our witness, and it brings glory to God.
Now we come to the big question: how do we pursue it?
The first thing to realize is that it is attainable. Even if it’s not perfect or consistent, disciples of Christ can find a measure of contentment in this life. They can do this no matter what the circumstances they’re facing. So there’s no need to be fatalistic about this. Look at Philippians 4 again. You have to remember Paul’s situation as he writes this. He’s in prison. His freedom is restricted. His future is uncertain. Yet he says, “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.” He’s saying, I can be content in adversity and I can be content in prosperity. I have contentment and it doesn’t depend on my circumstances. My point is that it’s possible. If it was possible for Paul, it’s possible for us. Don’t be fatalistic about this, thinking that contentment is impossible or beyond your reach. It’s not.
Next, we need to realize that we are weak and incapable of working this up from within ourselves. Someone once said that apart from the power of the Holy Spirit, we are like anorexic weightlifters. We’re helpless, powerless. That’s why Paul writes what he does in verse 13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” That’s the key right there.
Now that verse is sometimes misunderstood. In my late teens, I was just a wee bit negative and cynical about all kinds of things. Someone gave me a book to read. It was called The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale. In many ways, Norman Vincent Peale is the spiritual father of people like Joel Osteen. Peale’s message was that if you just learn to think positive thoughts, then good things will invariably come to you. It’s like a machine – plug in good thoughts, and out come the good things you want. At one point, Peale quotes this verse from Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” He recommends repeating this verse to yourself many times through the course of a day. It’s the power of positive thinking – you can do anything you want because God is with you. The problem is that he misinterprets and misapplies it. There’s a saying that “a text without context is a pretext.” This is a classic example of that.
Paul was just writing about contentment in all circumstances. So when he says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” it doesn’t mean that through God’s strength he can literally do anything. It doesn’t mean that through God’s strength he can drain the ocean. It doesn’t mean that through God’s strength he can walk to the moon. In this context, it specifically means that contentment is possible in all circumstances through the strength of the Lord.
That means contentment comes first of all from resting and trusting in Christ alone. It means recognizing that when we have Christ, we have what is the best and most valuable treasure in the world. He is the pearl of great price. Having a relationship with him is priceless. What I’m talking about here is not a once-off thing. It’s a continual, conscientious entrusting of ourselves to him. As we look constantly to him in faith, we are united to him and our union with him grows stronger. We start more and more to look like our Master, the one to whom we’re united.
Through Christ, we have adoption into God’s family. To pursue contentment, we need to see and embrace the reality that God is our Father, and we are his beloved children. He has not only a heart of love for us, but also a hand of power. Our Father is in control of all our circumstances and he’s a good Father, kind and merciful. Ever doubt that? Look to the cross. The Father gave up what was most valuable to him — he gave up his Son to suffering and death so that we would be his children. The cross assures us of God’s wonderful love.
We also have Christ’s Spirit living in us. We’re not left to flail through life on our own. Christ kept his promise and has not left us as orphans. He has come to us with his Spirit. His Spirit fills us and he will give us the strength to find contentment in all circumstances. For this we need to pray constantly. If contentment is a struggle for you, recognize that you need the Holy Spirit’s help to put to death your discontentment. You need the Holy Spirit’s help to foster contentment in your heart. Since you need the help, ask for it!
When faced with the challenge of contentment in the face of prosperity, Jeremiah Burroughs reminds us of something valuable: true Christian contentment does not come from addition, but from subtraction. What he means is that you’ll never find contentment from adding more stuff to your life. Contentment doesn’t come from more money, more toys, more of anything. Contentment comes with subtraction. It comes with subtracting from our evil desires for more. It actually comes with the Spirit-empowered killing of our evil desires. Those evil desires have to be killed or they will kill us. Burroughs is right: true Christian contentment does not come from addition, but from subtraction.
When faced with the challenge of contentment in the face of adversity, it’s time for meditation on Bible passages like Psalm 73. Asaph struggled with discontent. He looked around him and saw the wicked prospering, while he was a God-fearing man who was experiencing adversity. It seemed upside down to him. By the way, I once accidentally preached in a prosperity gospel church in Mexico. I didn’t know it was a prosperity gospel church when I accepted the invitation. Anyway, as providence would have it, I brought along my sermon on Psalm 73 and preached that, you know about the wicked prospering and the righteous suffering. The pastor of that church was pretty awkward afterwards! In Psalm 73, Asaph struggles with contentment in his situation. It all changes for him when he goes to the temple. He sees the blood and death associated with the sacrifices and he’s reminded that the wages of sin is death. There is ultimate justice for the wicked. They might get all the good stuff here, but it’s not going to help them at all in the end. For Asaph he gets to the point at the end of the psalm when he says, “God is enough. I could lose my life, but God will receive me to glory. God is enough. There is nothing on earth that I desire more than him.” He realizes that adversity is just a passing thing. In the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians, it’s a light and momentary affliction. If you’ve got Christ, if you’ve got a relationship with God through him, all the afflictions and trials of this life are comparably nothing. “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Christian disciples can find and do find contentment, even in hardships.
Let me finish by sharing with you another example of this. In my first congregation, there was an elderly widow. This woman had experienced an incredibly hard life. She and her husband had immigrated to Canada in the 1950s. They had a rough go of it. They spent most of their time living in poverty or close to it. In the 1970s, her husband died at a relatively young age. When I first met her, she was in her 90s. She was in a nursing home, bed-ridden. She didn’t have the health or strength to get out of bed anymore. She spent every day in bed. She’d been a widow for over thirty years. She was in her 90s and all her friends had died. Some of her children had predeceased her as well. Yet Aaltje was surprisingly contented. When I would visit with her she would say to me, “I’m so thankful. God has been so good to me in my life. I look forward to going home, but I’m happy right now too.” As a pastor, sometimes you go on visits and you know that it’s going to be all give on your part. Whenever I would visit Aaltje, I would be the one getting the most encouragement. This elderly disciple of Christ was the best example I’ve ever encountered of that “sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit” that Burroughs wrote about. When I get old, I want to be like Aaltje, because she showed what a contented disciple of Christ looks like. She’d been through Christ’s school of contentment and she graduated with honours. Today she’s with the Lord, forever contented in him. Fellow disciples, as we live here on our pilgrimage, let’s continue to follow our Master and learn from him. Some glorious day, we too will be with him, forever contented.