I’ve been thinking a lot about contentment and have been drawn back into the Puritans. Who were the Puritans? They were a group of English Reformed Protestants in the 16th and 17th century who sought to reform the Church of England. John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, was a Puritan, as was William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth colony. If you’ve never read the Puritans you’re really missing out on something special. They are difficult to get used to, but once you get adjusted to their language, you’ll realize what a profound treasure they are. J.I. Packer (1926-2020), who made it part of his life’s work to study the Puritans, was so right when he said they were folk who lived slowly enough to think about God deeply. Jeremiah Burroughs wrote one of the most insightful and challenging books on contentment. He called it The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. It’s short but densely populated with great Biblical truth. I also just picked up Thomas Watson’s book on the subject called The Art of Divine Contentment.
Burroughs defines contentment as a mystery and an art that every Christian must learn: “Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.”
Many of us desire to be content but we try to get there from the outside in. We apply various salves to our harried souls (food, vacations, relationships, organizational schemes) but soon find ourselves empty again. What makes Burroughs’ and Watson’s writing so penetrating and powerful is their foundation, the basis for their convictions. They both make an essential presupposition – God’s sovereignty. Go back and read Burroughs’ definition and focus on the end. The contented person freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.
But what is God’s sovereignty? Can you define it? Most of us can’t if pressed. Here is Jonathan Edwards, the great American theologian of the 18th century and one who was devoted to Puritan Reformed theology, on the subject:
The sovereignty of God is his absolute, independent right of disposing of all creatures according to his own pleasure.
Imagine the opposite. If you don’t believe that God is in complete control of all things, from the falling of a sparrow (Matthew 10:29) to the rise of nations (Isaiah 40:21-24), how can you possibly be content? There is no sure and steady foundation for life and so you’re constantly tossed to and fro. Contentment requires confidence that there is someone in complete control of outcomes. Contentment doesn’t depend on the predictability of events but on the One who controls those events. And if we love God, we are promised that all those events will work for our good, for our growth in Christlikeness. (Romans 8:28-30) For the God who is sovereign is also good.
One of the deep and abiding convictions in the hearts of the Puritans was God’s sovereignty. That conviction was born out of diligent and careful study of the Scripture, and it was a key ingredient in the soil of their hearts that allowed many graces to grow including contentment. What constitutes the soil of your heart? Of my heart? Is there some tilling and fertilizing that I need to do in order to allow contentment to grow? I commend the Puritans but I also commend the study of God’s sovereignty.