Posted by: William | May 10, 2008

The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment

burroughs_rare-jewel-contentment In Philippians 4:11, Paul says, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am”; he will not be swayed by the afflictions of living with much, or living with little—giving note to the fact that there are heavy afflictions in both circumstances. This is the subject and the work of Jeremiah Burroughs in his classic text, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. Originally published in 1648, Contentment later underwent some language modernization and was most recently republished by Banner of Truth as a part of their Puritan Paperbacks series.

I finished the text today and have some mixed feelings regarding Burroughs’ thoughts on the topic. Burroughs’ text focuses on attempting to unpack Paul’s words to the Philippians. What does it mean to be “content”? How can that be achieved? What are the implications upon a content person’s life? What if we’re not content? Burroughs answers all of these questions quite clearly—sometimes too clearly. Unfortunately, at times his answers, well, just aren’t really satisfactory considering the evidence.

Burroughs begins by defining contentment. After reading the first chapter (slowly), there was still a bit of ambiguity concerning what exactly it means for a person to be “content”. I ended up attempting to draw conclusions of Burroughs’ definition from the coming context of the book. Unfortunately, it still wasn’t especially clear. It seems after finishing the book that Burroughs’ means to say that contentment is a sense of being okay with, satisfied in, not needing more than, whatever physical circumstance we may find ourselves in. This seems to be a relatively obvious interpretation of Paul’s words to the Philippians, however, Burroughs doesn’t always sound like that’s what he means when talking about contentment. Perhaps its generational.

Burroughs flows through a kind of rocky path of exploration. He begins with a definition of contentment, flows into how mysterious and miraculous a thing it is (although, doesn’t seem to designate it as something Christians can exclusively enjoy), then moves into the modes of teaching Christ employs when instructing his people. Following that, he goes on to explain the ‘excellence’ of being content. Up until this point, I tracked quite well and often added audible “hmm” noises to my reading. Following his bit on contentment’s excellence, he moves into the sin of not being content, or as he puts it, the sin of a ‘murmuring’ spirit. It’s at this point that things began to swing a bit out of balance—at least in terms of the whole of scripture.

Burroughs makes the point well that contentment is a duty. We ought to fight for it, seek it, labor to attain it. It is also convincing that to be discontented is sinful and we should not be okay with that kind of ingratitude. Unfortunately though, Burroughs’ bit on sin, unlike many of his contemporaries, seems never to really call back to the work of Christ on the cross. Frankly, I was a bit astonished. He had a great deal to say about God’s wrath and his wrath poured out on the discontented, worldly heart. But strikingly little to say about the great ocean of wrath poured out on the dying Jesus on behalf of his bride, who would undoubtedly struggle to achieve contentment all her days.

His definition of ‘murmuring’ is also a bit unclear. At times it seems that he means some deeper heart condition that is out of rest and ungrateful toward God. However, at other times, it seems that his definition might mean something more like complaining. At times of the latter, it’s hard not to call to memory David’s psalms, which are flooded with complaints.

When finally emerging from those chapters on the evils of discontent, Burroughs’ returns to more useful discourse. Namely a conversation about how people regularly will excuse themselves from guilt in discontentment, followed by a clear and practical discussion of how to achieve contentment.

Much of Burroughs’ text was convicting and inspiring. Some of it was discouraging and frankly, out of balance. However, while I disagree with a good chunk of his thoughts, even in the midst of questionable things, there are to be found nuggets of really good insights. I think unlike some of the other books in the Puritan Paperbacks collection, this one may be written more directly to its specific time period. Not that contentment isn’t ageless duty, but rather his method and tone may not be suited well for all time periods.

Because of my own reservations, I don’t recommend this book unless your up for the challenge of discerning and scrutinizing the text. If that is something you’re up for, there’s some excellent insight to be gained here. If you’re not up for that, may I recommend anything written by John Piper; God willing, the intended effect will be much the same.

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