ARCANE AND GERMANE BOOK REVIEWS #6
““After reading a new book, never allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
“All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”
A wise mentor once taught me that, one of the biggest challenges of the Christian life, is learning to receive the gifts that God in his sovereign freedom and generosity has chosen to give us, rather than looking over our shoulder with envy and regret at the gifts that He has chosen to give to others.
He was of course right. And it’s not only the wealth, experiences and ‘stuff’ that we find ourselves coveting, but their situation in life. For example: God’s gift to others of the single life, or the married life; of a life with or without children. We may feel short-changed in intellect, good health or physical prowess. Perhaps we feel that our family background, educational and financial opportunities compare unfavourably to those of other families.
We may come to that time of life when work promotions or travel opportunities come to our friends at a similar ‘age and stage’ but not to us.
We may come to that time of life when work promotions or travel opportunities come to our friends at a similar ‘age and stage’ but not to us. Some families experience immense physical, mental or emotional hardships, while others appear to move smoothly from one stage of life and one great achievement to the next.
In later life it may be the recognition, fame and accolades that others receive for past achievements; while our lives remain invisible.
There is the impatience we feel at the slowness of God’s work of transformation in our lives. While other believers seem to grow in leaps and bounds, for us it’s one step forward and five back. All too aware of our own spiritual struggles, in others we can only see their steady progress in the faith.
Jeremiah Burroughs in His Time (1599-1646)
In the first half of the 17th century, at a time when Puritan pastors were seeking the on-going reform of the church in England, feelings of discontent, bitterness and anger at their treatment by the established church must have been significant temptations. Jeremiah Burroughs was educated at Emmanuel College Cambridge but, despite being a capable student and godly servant of Jesus, was expelled for being a non-conformist. He served briefly in various churches in England but, during the persecutions of the Puritan parties, spent time in exile serving the church in Rotterdam.
Later returning to England preaching in the city of London, Burroughs became one of the theological architects of the Westminster Confession. He worked tirelessly to promote unity amongst the various reforming parties both inside and outside the Church of England—a ministry that was cut short when he died prematurely at the age of 47 (the age I am as I write this).
Most of his writings, including The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment were published posthumously.
The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment
Jeremiah Burroughs’ book comprises a series of sermons which expound and apply these words of the Apostle Paul:
…I have learnt to be content whatever the circumstances … I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.’ (Philippians 4:11,13)
Paul’s meaning [in 4:10-20] is that “I find a sufficiency of satisfaction in my own heart, through the grace of Christ that is in me. Though I have not outward comforts and worldly conveniences to supply my necessities, yet I have a sufficient portion between Christ and my soul abundantly to satisfy me in every condition.” (p.18)
Burroughs defines Christian contentment as follows:
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. (p.19)
Christian contentment is indeed a rare and precious jewel. What Burroughs describes in his book is not merely the gift of a naturally optimistic temperament; an inherited personality trait that some people have and some people don’t. It is learned over a life-time as we keep in step with the Spirit’s work in our lives and go on applying the truth of the gospel and the sufficiency of Christ in each new challenge that we face. We must keep encouraging one another with the truths that, in every circumstance, God is working for our long term good (Romans 8:28f); and that he himself is our great reward (e.g. Psalm 73:21-26).
The Providence of God
Of the mystery of God’s providence Burroughs writes:
We learn from God’s word and the practice of our lives that God’s blessing many times is a secret from his servants so that they do not know from which way it is coming. (p.24)
Nothing befalls you, good or evil, but there is a providence in those things that is of the infinite and eternal God…’ (p. 112) ‘We…look at things by pieces, we look at one detail and do not consider the relation that one thing has to another, but God looks at all things at once, and sees the relation of one thing to another. (p.113)
The Way of the Cross
Quoting Luther he writes:
It is the way of God: he humbles that he may exalt, he kills that he might make alive, he confounds that he might glorify. (p.117)
This is the ‘foolish’ way of Jesus’ cross that brought about our salvation (1Cor 1:18-25). And it is in the way of the cross that we are now called to walk (Mark 8:31-38). By this we show forth in our weaknesses the all sufficiency of his grace to us in Christ (2Cor 4:7-12; 12:7-10).
… God when he will bring life, brings it out of death, he brings joy out of sorrow, and he brings prosperity out of adversity, yes and many times brings grace out of sin, that is, makes use of sin to work furtherance of grace. It is the way of God to bring good out of evil, not only to overcome the evil, but to make the evil work toward the good. Through Christ’s death on the cross, God brings the greatest good out of the greatest evil (cf. Genesis 50:20; Acts 2:36 Romans 5:20-21). (p.117)
The difficulties and frustrations we experience will not finally derail our faith in God, or become excuses for us turning from God, if our confidence is in him and his good work in our lives.
A Christian is desirous that the Word of God should take full possession as to divide between soul and spirit (Heb 4:12), but he would not allow the fear and noise of evil tidings to take such a hold in him as to make a division and struggling there. (p.23)
It is the disposition of our own hearts and not any external thing that brings forth gracious contentment…
A contented heart is a gracious heart that is contented with its own afflictions; but will rise up when God is dishonored. (pp. 27, 31)
If you have a love and friendship to God, be willing to be crossed in a few things that the Lord may have his work go on in general, in a thousand other things. (p.114)
God Gives us All That We Need
Burroughs helpfully exposes the lies we tell ourselves about God’s lack of kindness and perceived stinginess towards us. So often we are quick to complain and slow to give thanks.
We are at God’s table every day, and it is free, whatever we have. It is accounted very unmannerly for a man at his friend’s table to find fault with things…Now when we are at the table of God (for all God’s administrations to us are his table)…for us to be finding fault and to be discontented is a great aggravation of our sin. (p.178)
Looking ‘over the fence’ and comparing our lot with others only breeds envy and resentment. At times our focus on our own situation eclipses all else. We become insensible to the needs of others, and fail to relate to our neighbors in the way of love.
… your discontentedness usually breeds envy at others. When anyone is discontented with their condition, they have an envious spirit at the condition of those who are delivered from what afflictions they bear. Certainly then, it has turned sour when you are so sensible of your sufferings and insensible of mercies that you are unfit for the duties of your condition, and envious of others who are not afflicted as you are. (p.186)
The greatest misery of all is for God to give you up to your heart’s lusts and desires, to give you up to your own counsels (cf. Ps 81:11-12). [When visited by various trials and difficulties] think thus: ‘Lord, you have laid an afflicted condition upon me, but, Lord, you have not given me the plague of a hard heart.’ (p.109)
God knows what we need and when we need it, and thankfully it his will he is working out for our lives, and not ours.
The circumstances that I am in, God has put me into by his own counsel, the counsel of his own will… whatever is the counsel of God in my circumstances, I must be careful to serve that. So I shall have my heart quieted for the present, and shall live and die peaceably and comfortably, if I am careful to serve God’s counsel. (p. 53)
It is said that Enoch and Noah walked with God – walked with God, what is that? It is, to observe what work God is now about, and join with God in that work of His; so that, according as God turns this or that way, the heart should turn with God. (p.181)
The One Thing Necessary
Burroughs turns our gaze away from the fool’s gold we seek when we place the gifts, rather than the Giver, at the centre of our lives: those false gods that we hope will provide us with peace and security. For the more we have of this world’s riches, the more we have to worry about—to maintain, preserve, insure, protect! The idols we think will give us life and freedom, apart from God’s forgiving mercy, enslave and destroy us (Matt 6:15-34; 1Tim 6:6-9). Only one thing is necessary; one thing that we cannot do without. The good news is that God provides this for us willingly through the gift of his Son Jesus:
All creatures in the world say contentment is not in us, riches say, contentment is not in me. No, contentment is higher … the soul which, by coming into the school of Christ, by understanding the glorious mysteries of the gospel, comes to see the vanity of all things in the world, is the soul that comes to true contentment … [that soul says] I see that it is not necessary for me to be rich, but it is necessary for me to make my peace with God; it is not necessary that I have a pleasurable life in the world, but it is absolutely necessary that I should have a pardon for my sin; it is not necessary that I should have honor and preferment, but it is necessary that I should have Christ as my portion, and have my part in Jesus Christ; and that I should be saved on the last day … (p.92)
The other things are pretty fine indeed, and I should be glad if God give me them, a fine house, and income, and clothes, and advancement for my wife and children: these are comfortable things, but they are not the necessary things. I may have these and yet perish forever … No matter how poor I am, I may have what is absolutely necessary: that is what Christ and his gospel teaches me. (p.93)
Burroughs turns our gaze away from the fool’s gold we seek when we place the gifts, rather than the Giver, at the centre of our lives: those false gods that we hope will provide us with peace and security.
All Things are Yours
Demonstrating a deep and expert knowledge of Scripture and the human heart, Burroughs writes with the humane compassion of a fellow believer who struggled to know and rejoice in the all-sufficiency of Christ for him, and for those whom God had given him to serve. What makes this book so helpful is that it builds up the faith of believers by lifting our eyes from ourselves to our Saviour, and glorifying God by magnifying the fullness of his goodness towards us in Christ.
“All things are yours,” says the Apostle, “life and death, everything is yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” (1Cor 3:21-23) All things in the world are serviceable to that man or woman who is serviceable to God. It is a mighty commendation of God’s service; be willing to be serviceable to God yourself and God makes all things in the world your servants, for so they are…They are servants in this; that God orders them all to work for your good. There is nothing in the world but, says God, it shall work for your good…Who would not be now God’s servant? Subject yourself to God and all things shall be subjected to you. (p.218)
 Page numbers from Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust; 2013/1648)