Taking the advice of C. S. Lewis, we want to help our readers “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” which, as he argued, “can be done only by reading old books.” To that end, our Rediscovering Forgotten Classics series surveys some forgotten Christian classics that remain relevant and serve the church today.
Discontentment is a problem as old as time. God had created Adam and Eve in perfect relationship with himself and each other. They lived in a beautiful world, free to eat from any tree except one.
But they wanted precisely what they didn’t have.
Puritan writer Jeremiah Burroughs (1599–1646) thought contentment was lacking in his own day, too. In his excellent book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, he defines contentment as “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).
For Burroughs, discontentment strikes right at the heart of God’s character. When we question our circumstances, we doubt his wisdom and power. On the contrary, the content person will be able to say:
The Lord knows how to order things better than I. The Lord sees further than I do; I only see things at present but the Lord sees a great while from now. And how do I know but that had it not been for this affliction, I should have been undone. (36)
Seen in this light, the world hasn’t changed much since the 17th century. Sure, our culture and technology and comforts are vastly different, but the same sins lurk our hearts. Burroughs doesn’t leave us without hope, however. More than simply diagnosing discontentment, he instructs us how to fight it. Here are four ways.
1. Hate Sin
The way of contentment is to add another burden, that is, to labor 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. (47)
Contentment is more than looking on the bright side. We shouldn’t seek just to make ourselves happy in the situation we’re in. If that’s our foundation, what’ll happen when God brings even severer suffering?
Instead, Burroughs shows we must attack discontentment at its root. We expel it from our hearts by moving our focus away from our suffering. When we view our sin as the greatest evil in the world, virtually any suffering we face will pale in comparison.
2. Look Ahead
A godly man in the midst of the waves and storms that he meets with can see the glory of heaven before him and so contents himself. One drop of the sweetness of heaven is enough to take away all the sourness and bitterness of all the afflictions in the world. (84)
We’re not long in this world. If all our energy is spent fretting about our life here, what energy will remain to contemplate the life to come?
There are few things I’ve found as helpful to my pursuit of contentment as meditating on eternity. Any hardship here is bearable when we know, with the apostle Paul, that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).
3. Embrace Humility
A man who is little in his own eyes will account every affliction as little, and every mercy as great. (89)
Discontentment springs from unmet expectations. We think we deserve an easy life, with comforts and luxuries, so we become discontent when instead we face sickness and hardship. Yet if we soberly examine ourselves in light of Scripture, we’ll see we deserve nothing but condemnation from God.
Such humility allows his grace to flood our hearts. We can rejoice in the gifts he’s given us, rather than dwelling on what we think he’s withheld.
4. Rely on the Word
Oh, the Word holds forth a way full of comfort and peace to the people of God even in this world. You may live happy lives in the midst of all the storms and tempests in the world. (227)
How can we grumble when we have grand promises like these?
- “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28–30)
- “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28)
- “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Cor. 5:17)
- “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” (1 Pet. 1:3–4)
Regularly immersing ourselves in the Bible enables us to see and grasp these promises, and draw strength from seeing how faithfully God has kept his word in the past. They’re our anchor in the fiercest tempest.
Even though discontentment is timeless, there are unique ways it manifests in our era. You might think our modern world makes contentment easier, as we have greater riches and comforts than ever before in history. But we also have far more choices. We constantly feel like there must be something better out there, if only we can find it. Our hearts are restless and hungry.
Too often we Christians adopt the world’s standards. We feel entitled to what everyone around us has—comforts, money, freedoms. But we belong to Jesus Christ; shouldn’t we expect suffering, hardships, and persecution as he did? He gave up all his rights for us; should we be entitled to better?
How to Read This Book Well
Puritan books are goldmines of wisdom. When you put in the effort to read them slowly and prayerfully, the rewards are great. You’ll probably find it helpful to take notes or highlight significant quotes as you read The Rare Jewel. The language will take some getting used to, so don’t expect to finish it in an afternoon. Consider even meeting to discuss it over several weeks with a few friends.
For all the benefits of mining the Puritans, you can also try panning for gold. I occasionally pull one of my Puritan paperbacks off the shelf and re-read a section at random. There’s always plenty to chew and pray over.
Along with Burroughs, let’s create a better vision than the grumbling and self-pity of this world. Let’s adjust our eyes to the radiant beauty of contentment:
There is no work which God has made—the sun, moon, stars and all the world—in which so much of the glory of God appears as in a man who lives quietly in the midst of adversity. (122–23)