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The Art of Divine Contentment, pt. 3
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).
The Resolving of Some Questions
For the illustration of the doctrine of contentment, I shall propound these questions:
Question 1. Can a Christian be sensible of a miserable condition, and yet be contented?
Answer. Yes; for else he is not a saint, but a stoic. Rachel did well to weep for her children—there was nature; but her fault was, she refused to be comforted—there was discontent. Christ Himself was sensible when He sweat great drops of blood, and said, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39); yet He was contented, and sweetly submitted His will— “nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” The apostle tells us to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God (see I Pet. 5:6), which we cannot do unless we are sensible of it.
Question 2 May a Christian lay open his grievances to God, and yet be contented?
Answer. Yes: “Unto Thee have I opened my cause” (Jer. 20:12); and David poured out his complaint before the Lord (see Ps. 142:2). We may cry to God, and desire Him to write down all our injuries. Shall not the child complain to his father? When any burden is upon the spirit, prayer gives vent, it eases the heart. Hannah’s spirit was burdened; “I am,” says she, “a woman of a sorrowful spirit,” (I Sam. 1: 15). Now, having prayed and wept, she went away, and was no more sad. Only here is the difference between a holy complaint, and a discontented complaint; in the one we complain to God, in the other we complain of God.
Question 3. What is it properly that contentment does exclude?
Answer. There are three things which contentment banishes out of its dioceses, and can by no means consist with it:
1. It excludes a vexatious repining; this is properly the daughter of discontent; “I mourn in my complaint” (Ps. 55:2), he does not say, I murmur in my complaint. Murmuring is no better than mutiny in the heart; it is a rising up against God. When the sea is rough and unquiet, it casts forth nothing but foam; when the heart is discontented, it casts forth the foam of anger, impatience, and sometimes little better than blasphemy. Murmuring is nothing else than the scum which boils off from a discontented heart.
2. It excludes an uneven discomposure; when a man says, “I am in such straits, that I know not how to move or get out; I shall be undone.” Head and heart are so taken up, that a man is not fit to pray, or meditate, etc., he is not himself: just as when an army is routed, one man runs this way, and another that, the army is put into disorder; so a man’s thoughts run up and down distracted. Discontent dislocates and unjoints the soul, it pulls off the wheels.
3. It excludes a childish despondency; and this is usually consequent upon the other. A man being in a hurry of mind, not knowing which way to extricate or wind himself out of the present trouble, begins to faint and sink under it. For care is to the mind as a burden to the back, it loads the spirits, and with overloading sinks them. A desponding spirit is a discontented spirit.
The Nature of Contentment
Having answered these questions, I shall, in the next place, come to describe this contentment.
It is a sweet temper of spirit, whereby a Christian carries himself in an equal poise in every condition. The nature of this will appear more clear in these three aphorisms:
1. Contentment is a divine thing; it becomes ours not by acquisition, but infusion. It is a slip taken off from the tree of life, and planted by the Spirit of God in the soul: it is a fruit that grows not in the garden of philosophy, but is of heavenly birth. It is therefore very observable, that contentment is joined with godliness, and goes along with it; “But godliness with contentment is great gain” (I Tim. 6:6). Contentment being a consequence of godliness, or concomitant, or both, I call it divine, to contradistinguish it from that contentment which a moral man may arrive at. Heathens have seemed to have this contentment, but it was only the shadow and picture of it: theirs was but civil, this is sacred; theirs was only from principles of reason, this of religion; theirs was only lighted at nature’s torch, this at the lamp of scripture. Reason may a little teach contentment; as thus: Whatever my condition be, this is that I am born to, and if I meet with crosses, it is but a universal misery; all have their share, why therefore should I be troubled? Reason may suggest this; and, indeed, this may be rather constraint, than content; but to live securely and cheerfully upon God in the abatement of creature supplies, religion only can bring this into the soul’s exchequer.
2. Contentment lies within a man; not in the bark, but the root. Contentment has both its fountain and stream in the soul. The beam has not its light from the air: the beams of comfort which a contented man has, do not arise from foreign comforts, but from within. As sorrow is seated in the spirit, “The heart knoweth his own bitterness” (Prov. 14:10), so contentment lies within the soul, and does not depend upon externals. Hence I gather, that outward troubles cannot hinder this blessed contentment; it is a spiritual thing, and arises from spiritual grounds, namely, the apprehension of God’s love. When there is a tempest without, there may be music within. A bee may sting through the skin, but it cannot sting to the heart: outward afflictions cannot sting to a Christian’s heart, where contentment lies. Thieves may plunder us of our money and plate, but not of this pearl of contentment, unless we are willing to part with it; for it is locked up in the cabinet of the heart. The soul which is possessed of this rich treasure of contentment, is like Noah in the ark, who can sing in the midst of a deluge.
3. Contentment is a habitual thing, it shines with a fixed light in the firmament of the soul. Contentment does not appear only now and then, as some stars which are seen but seldom: it is a settled temper of the heart. One action does not denominate the character: he is not said to be a liberal man, who gives alms once in his life; a covetous man may do so; but he is said to be liberal, who is given to liberality (see Rom. 12:13); that is, who upon all occasion is willing to relieve the necessities of the poor: so he is said to be a contented man who is given to contentment. It is not casual, but constant. Aristotle, in his rhetoric, distinguishes between colors in the face that arise from passion, and those which arise from complexion; the pale face may look red when it blushes, but this is only a passion: he is said properly to be ruddy and sanguine who is constantly so—it is his complexion. He is not a contented man who is so upon an occasion, and perhaps when he is pleased; but who is so constantly, when it is the habit and complexion of his soul.
Reasons Pressing to Holy Contentment
Having opened the nature of contentment, I come next to lay down some reasons or arguments to contentment which may preponderate with us:
1. The first is, God’s precept. It is charged upon us as a duty, “Be content with such things” (Heb. 13:5): the same God who has bade us believe, has bade us be content; if we obey not, we expose ourselves to a spiritual penalty and punishment. God’s word is a sufficient warrant; it has authority in it, and must be a sacred spell to remove discontent. “He has said it,” was enough among Pythagoras’s scholars. “Be it enacted,” is the royal style. God’s word must be the star that guides, and His will the weight that moves our obedience: His fiat is a law, and has majesty enough in it to captivate us into obedience: our hearts must not be more unquiet than the raging sea, which at His word is stilled (see Matt. 8:26).
2. The second reason enforcing contentment is, God’s promise; “For He has said, ‘I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee’” (Heb. 13:5). Thus God has engaged Himself under hand and seal, for our necessary provisions. If a king should say to one of his subjects, “I will take care of you; as long as I have any crown revenues, you shall be provided for; if you are in danger, I will secure you; if in want, I will supply you”, would not that subject be content? Behold, God has here made a promise to the believer, and, as it were, entered into bond for his security; “I will never leave thee”; shall not this charm down the devil of discontent? “Leave thy fatherless children, I will preserve them alive” (Jer. 49:11). Methinks I see the godly man on his death-bed much discontented, and hear him complaining, “What will become of my wife and children when I am dead and gone? They may come to poverty.” God says, “Trouble not thyself, be content; I will take care of thy children, and let thy widow trust in me.” God has made a promise to us, that he will not leave us, and has entailed the promise upon our wives and children; and will not this satisfy? True faith will take God’s single bond without calling for witnesses.
Be contented, by virtue of a decree. Whatever our condition be, God, the great umpire of the world, has from eternity decreed that condition for us, and by His providence ordered all appurtenances thereunto. Let a Christian often think with himself, “Who has placed me here, whether I am in a higher sphere, or in a lower?” Not chance or fortune, as the purblind heathens imagined: no, it is the wise God who has by His providence fixed me in this orb. We must act that scene which God will have us: say not, “Such a one has occasioned this to me; look not too much at the under wheel.” We read in Ezekiel of a wheel within a wheel (see Ezek. 1:16). God’s decree is the cause of the turning of the wheels, and His providence is the inner wheel that moves all the rest. God’s providence is that helm, which turns about the whole ship of the universe. Say then, as holy David, “I was dumb, because Thou, Lord, didst it” (Ps. 39:9). God’s providence, which is nothing else than the carrying on of His decree, should supersede and counterpoise; God has set us in our station, and He has done it in wisdom.
We fancy such a condition of life good for us, whereas if we were our own carvers, we should often cut the worst piece. Lot being put to his choice, chose Sodom (see Gen. 13:11), which soon after was burnt with fire. Rachel was very desirous of children, “Give me children, or else I die” (Gen. 30:1); and it cost her her life in bringing forth a child. Abraham was earnest for Ishmael, “O that Ishmael might live before thee!” (Gen. 27:18), but he had little comfort either of him or his seed; he was born a son of strife; his hand was against every man, and every man’s hand against him. The disciples wept for Christ’s leaving the world, they chose His bodily presence; whereas it was best for them that Christ should be gone, or else the Comforter would not come (see John 16:7). David chose the life of his child, he wept and fasted for it (see II Sam. 12:16); whereas if the child had lived, it would have been a perpetual monument of his shame. We stand often in our own light; if we should sort or parcel out our own comforts, we should hit upon the wrong. Is it not well for the child that the parent chooses for it? Were it left to itself, it would perhaps choose a knife to cut its own fingers. A man in a paroxysm calls for wine, which if he had, it were little better than poison: it is well for the patient, that he is at the physician’s appointment.
The consideration of a decree determining, and a providence disposing all things that fall out, should work our hearts to holy contentment. The wise God has ordered our condition: if he sees it better for us to abound, we shall abound; if he sees it better for us to want, we shall want. Be content to be at God’s disposal.
God sees in His infinite wisdom that the same condition is not convenient for all; that which is good for one, may be bad for another. One season of weather will not serve all men’s occasions; one needs sunshine, another rain. One condition of life will not fit every man, any more than one suit of apparel will fit every body: prosperity is not fit for all, nor yet adversity. If one man be brought low, perhaps he can bear it better; he has a greater stock of grace, more faith and patience; he can gather grapes of thorns, pick some comfort out of the cross: not every one can do this. Another man is seated in an eminent place of dignity; he is fitter for it: perhaps it is a place that requires more parts and judgment, which every one is not capable of; perhaps he can use his estate better; he has a public heart as well as a public place. The wise God sees that condition to be bad for one, which is good for another; hence it is He who places men in different spheres; some higher, some lower. One man desires health; God sees that sickness is better for him; God will work health out of sickness, by bringing the body of death into a consumption. Another man desires liberty; God sees restraint better for him: He will work his liberty by restraint; when his feet are bound, his heart shall be most enlarged. If we believed this, it would give check to the sinful disputes and cavils of our hearts. Shall I be discontented at that which is enacted by a decree, and ordered by a providence? Is this to be a child, or a rebel?