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The Art of Divine Contentment, pt. 2
by Thomas Watson (1620-1686)
[Here, we continue a study by Thomas Watson, concerning being content with the life that our loving God has made for us.]—Ed.
I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content (Philippians 4:11, AV).
Introduction to the Text - pt. 2
I come now to the main thing, the lesson itself: “In whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”
Here was a rare piece of learning indeed, and certainly more to be wondered at in Paul, that he knew how to turn himself to every condition, than all the learning in the world besides, which hath been so applauded in former ages by Julius Caesar, Ptolemy, Xenophon, the great admirers of learning.
The text hath but few words in it—In every state contentment; but if that be true which one Fulgentius said, that the most golden sentence is ever measured by brevity and suavity, then this is a most accomplished speech: here is much in a little. The text is like a precious jewel, little in quantity, but great in worth and value.
The main proposition I shall insist upon is this—That a gracious spirit is a contented spirit. The doctrine of contentment is very superlative; and till we have learned this, we have not learned to be Christians.
1. It is a hard lesson. Even angels in heaven had not learned it; they were not contented. Though their estate was very glorious, yet they were still soaring aloft, and aimed at something higher, as alluded to in Jude: “The angels which kept not their first estate,” (Jude 6). They kept not their estate, because they were not contented with their estate. Our first parents, clothed with the white robe of innocence in paradise, had not learned to be content; they had aspiring hearts, and thinking their human nature too low and homely, desired to be crowned with the Deity, and be as gods (see Gen. 3:5). Though they had the choice of all the trees in the garden, yet none would content them but the tree of knowledge, which they supposed would have been as eye-salve to have made them omniscient. Oh then, if this lesson were so hard to learn in innocence, how shall we find it, who are clogged with corruption?
2. It is of universal extent, it concerns all. It concerns rich men. One would think it needless to press those to contentment whom God has blessed with great estates, but rather persuade them to be humble and thankful; nay, but I say, “Be content.” Rich men have their discontents as well as others, as appears, when they have a great estate, yet they are discontented that they have no more; they would make the hundred talents a thousand. A man in wine, the more he drinks, the more he thirsts. Covetousness is a dry dropsy: an earthly heart is like the grave, that is never satisfied (see Prov. 30:16). Therefore I say to you rich men, “Be content.”
Rich men, if we may suppose them to be content with their estates (which is very seldom), yet, though they have estate enough, they have not honor enough; if their barns are full enough, yet their turrets are not high enough. They would be somebody in the world, like Theudas, who boasted himself to be somebody (see Acts 5:36). They never go so cheerfully as when the wind of honor and applause fills their sails; if this wind be down, they are discontented. One would think Haman had as much as his proud heart could desire; he was set above all the princes, advanced upon the pinnacle of honor to be the second man in the kingdom (see Esth. 3:1); yet in the midst of all his pomp, because Mordecai would not uncover and kneel, he is discontented (see verse 2), and full of wrath (see verse 5); and there is no way to assuage this pleurisy of revenge, but by shedding all the Jews’ blood, and offering them up in sacrifice. This eager desire for honor is seldom allayed without blood; therefore I say to you rich men, “Be content.”
Rich men, if we may suppose them to be content with their honor and magnificent titles, yet they have not always contentment in their relations. She that lies in the bosom, may sometimes blow the coals, as job’s wife, who in a fit would have him fall out with God Himself: “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). Sometimes children cause discontent; how often is it seen that the mother’s milk nourishes a viper! And he that once sucked her breast, goes about to suck her blood! Parents do often of grapes gather thorns, and of figs thistles. Children are sweetbrier; like the rose, which is a fragrant flower, but, as Basil said, it has its prickles. Our relative comforts are not all pure wine, but mixed; they have in them more dregs than spirits, and are like that river Plutarch speaks of, where the waters in the morning run sweet, but in the evening run bitter. We have no charter of exemption granted us in this life; therefore rich men had need be called upon to be contented.
The doctrine of contentment also concerns poor men. You that do suck so liberally from the breasts of Providence, be content; it is a hard lesson, therefore it had need be set upon the sooner. How hard is it when the livelihood is even gone, a great estate boiled away almost to nothing, then to be content. The means of subsistence is in scripture called our life, because it is the very sinews of life. The woman in the gospel spent all her living upon the physicians (see Luke 8:43); in the Greek it is, “She spent her whole life upon the physicians”, because she spent her means by which she should live. It is much when poverty has clipped our wings, then to be content; but, though hard, it is excellent: and the apostle here had learned in every state to be content.
God had brought Paul into as great variety of conditions, as ever we read of any man, and yet he was content; else surely he could never have gone through it with so much cheerfulness. See into what vicissitudes this blessed apostle was cast. “We are troubled on every side”—there was the sadness of his condition—“yet not distressed”—there was his contentment in that condition; “we are perplexed”—there is his affliction—“but not in despair”—there is his contentment (see II Cor. 4:8). And if we read a little further— “In affliction, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults,” etc. (II Cor. 6:4-5), there is his trouble; and behold his contentment. “As having nothing, and yet possessing all things” (vs. 10). When the apostle was driven out of all, yet in regard of that sweet contentment of mind, which was like music in his soul, he possessed all. We read a short map or history of his sufferings— “In prisons more frequent, in deaths oft” (see II Cor. 11:23-33). Yet behold the blessed frame and temper of his spirit: “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”
Which way soever Providence did blow, he had such heavenly skill and dexterity, that he knew how to steer his course. For his outward estate he was indifferent; he could be either on the top of Jacob’s ladder or at the bottom; he could sing either the dirge or the anthem; he could be anything that God would have him: “I know how to want, how to abound”—here is a rare pattern for us to imitate. Paul, in regard of his faith and courage, was like a cedar, he could not be stirred; but for his outward condition he was like a reed, bending every way with the wind of Providence. When a prosperous gale did blow upon him, he could bend with that—“I know how to be full”; and when a boisterous gust of affliction did blow, he could bend in humility with that—“I know how to be hungry.” Paul was like a die that has four squares; throw it which way you will, it falls upon a bottom. Let God throw the apostle which way he would, he fell upon this bottom of contentment. A contented spirit is like a watch; though you carry it up and down with you, yet the spring of it is not shaken, nor the wheels out of order, but the watch keeps its perfect motion. So it was with Paul; though God had carried him into various conditions, yet he was not lifted up with the one, nor cast down with the other: the spring of his heart was not broken, the wheels of his affection were not destroyed, but kept their constant motion towards heaven—still contentment. The ship that lies at anchor may sometimes be a little shaken, but never sinks: flesh and blood may have its fears and disquiets, but grace checks them. A Christian having cast anchor in heaven, his heart never sinks; a gracious spirit is a contented spirit.
This is a rare art. Paul did not learn it at the feet of Gamaliel. He says, “I am instructed” (Phil. 4:12); I am initiated into this holy mystery; as if he had said, I have gotten the divine art. God must teach us the right art. If we should put some men to an art that they are not skilled in, how unfit would they be for it! Put a husbandman to drawing pictures, what strange work would he make! This is out of his sphere. Take a painter that is exact in laying of colors, and put him to plough, or set him to planting and grafting of trees; this is not his art, he is not skilled in it. Bid a natural man live by faith, and when all things go cross, be contented; you bid him do what he has no skill in; you may as well bid a child guide the stern of a ship. To live contented upon God in the deficiency of outward comforts, is an art which flesh and blood has not revealed; nay, many of God’s own children, who excel in some duties of religion, when they come to this of contentment, how do they bungle! They have scarcely commenced masters of this art.