Secrets have a way of grabbing our attention, particularly if the secret comes with a promise of something good. If I claimed to know the secret location of a buried treasure or to possess the secret for permanent and effortless weight loss, the world would beat a path to my door.
Paul claimed to know a secret of even greater value:
“In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content . . .”
(Philippians 4:12 CSB)
In 1643, Jeremiah Burroughs unearthed Paul’s secret in great detail in The Rare Jewel Of Christian Contentment. Pastor and author Andrew M. Davis revisits the classic work, providing updated illustrations and a fresh look at Burrough’s wise counsel:
“To be well schooled in the mystery of Christian contentment is the duty, glory and excellence of a Christian.” (40)
The Power of Christian Contentment begins by documenting Paul’s credentials for his claim, reminding readers that, while Paul tested the limits of extreme discipleship, contentment was not something he was born with or that came to him on the Damascus Road.
A Secret to Be Learned
Christian contentment is a secret to be learned. When Paul wrote about contentment, he used a Greek word whose simplest translation is “self-sufficient.” He wanted to communicate his freedom from dependence on any created thing, and this is crucial because, while believers are not invited to share God’s incommunicable attribute of self-existence, there is a sense in which, at least spiritually, our contentment in Christ is a dim shadow of God’s self-existence (or “aseity”).
As usual, C.S. Lewis says it succinctly and distinctly:
“He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God alone.” (33)
If contentment is a secret to be learned, it is important to define what Paul meant. Davis unpacks Burroughs’s very thorough description:
“Christian contentment is the sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.” (40)
It is imperative to note that contentment does NOT excuse complacency, nor does it mean putting up with injustice or passively accepting circumstances that should be changed and set to rights. Paul set the example by speaking out against injustice and held the magistrate’s officers’ feet to the fire when he and Silas were mistreated in Philippi.
What is the Secret?
Fortunately, Paul was not stingy with his secret, for he was quick to reveal his Source of contentment:
“I know both how to make do with little, and I know how to make do with a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content—whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. I am able to do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:12-13)
Contentment comes from valuing Christ above all other possessions and relationships, above all other sources of strength and encouragement. It is a supernatural weapon in the trusting believer’s arsenal. Since God has commanded us to be content, he has also provided the means.
The Miracle of Subtraction
When I read Burroughs’s work several years ago, this wisdom stuck like a burr:
“Contentment comes, not so much by way of addition, as by way of subtraction.”
Rather than adding to our possessions in hope that the pile will one day satisfy, biblical contentment carves down our desires until they “equal what our loving heavenly Father chooses to provide.” (70) This, to me, seems to be the most difficult and yet most indispensable understanding of what it means to delight in the Lord without making an idol of his gifts.
Finding contentment in prosperity can be as challenging as finding contentment in suffering, and there is never a season of life in which we’re not tempted to complain–and then to make excuses for it. Davis offers boots-on-the-ground advice for combating a spirit of entitlement which includes:
- studying the lives of biblical and historical figures who persevered with a spirit of contentment;
- learning about the persecuted church;
- becoming sacrificially involved in missions;
- fasting periodically from comforts that have become idols;
- getting involved in volunteer activities that are hidden and thankless;
- giving freely and extravagantly from your wealth;
- praying fervently for growth in contentment and setting the example for your family;
- reading deeply and widely from resources about seeking pleasure in God alone;
- practicing vigilance in your entertainment and social media exposure.
Discontentment is an insidious evil, easy to overlook and hard to uproot. A mindset that views every single circumstance as a gift from God’s good hand is a frame of mind and heart that requires supernatural help and continual vigilance. By grace, growth in Christian contentment will lead to a deeper fulfillment in the following life and a richer experience of gospel truth.
Many thanks to Baker Books for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.
Because “godliness with contentment is great gain,”
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