One of the apostle Paul’s most famous declarations is this: “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need” (Phil 4:11-12).
Learning to be content with little and learning to be content with much are both difficult. But, according to the Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs, the latter is perhaps more so. Burroughs “insightfully observed that the lesson of finding contentment in a prosperous condition was more difficult than learning contentment while in need. ‘You think it’s hard for poor people to know who to be in want,’ he once said, ‘but the truth is, it’s rather the harder of the two to know how to be full.’”
Burroughs is well-known for his sermon series, which became the book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. “However,” writes Phil Simpson, “most modern readers of Burroughs are unaware that he followed this series on contentment in times of need with three sermons on achieving contentment during times of abundance.”
I recently read that three-sermon series since Reformation Heritage Books has recently published it as a separate volume in their new Puritan Treasures for Today series. Contentment, Prosperity, and God’s Glory is another wonderful read and will challenge your heart as it has mine. Today’s post is a summary of the second chapter, “What Learning to Be Full Means.” Burroughs defines learning to be full in eleven ways.
A man learns how to be full when…
- He has learned to set a suitable price on his fullness. When he has learned to set a due price and value upon those mercies God has been pleased to grant to him, when he can prize such mercies—not too highly, nor too lowly, but as they are—he has learned how to be full. No man can attain to the grace of Christian contentment if he is unable to handle his affliction; he must understand and know his affliction, or he cannot come to Christian contentment.
- He can discern the best use of what he has—that is, when he can tell how best to distribute the fullness God gives him. A man learns this lesson when he makes no more use of what he has than is appropriate for him, even though he is in the midst of abundance.
- He can use the comforts he has received but does so in a way that avoids the evil of the temptations that go along with them. A man who learns how to be full uses his possessions but is still able to deliver himself from the evil of the temptations that accompany his fullness. [S]omeone who has understanding knows how to pick out the good and fling away that which is not good, and yet not to fling it all away just because there’s something in it that is not good as well as good.
- He can keep under his command everything he enjoys, and he can retain command over his own spirit in what he enjoys. Therefore, he is not a slave to what he has, but he makes what he has a slave to himself.
- He can use the gifts from God and yet remain ready to part with all his comforts if God calls for them….We are too passionate about created things when our hearts cleave to them, and taking them away rips our hearts….A man has never learned how to be full if he becomes immoderately sorrowful when God takes away his possessions.
- He can make all his fullness to further grow in all his graces—to act upon his graces, to exercise his graces, and to draw forth his graces. He can make the fullness he has a means to grow in the grace of love…help his faith…exercise the grace of charity to others.
- His fullness leads him to the source of his fullness—that is, when his grace leads him to God. Reflecting on Philippians 4:7, Burroughs writes, “For someone with a grace-filled heart, it is not enough to have the peace of God; he must have the God of peace. It is not enough to have honor from God; he must have the God of that honor. All the riches in the world cannot satisfy him unless he has the God that gave him those riches.
- He can spread out all his fullness and offer it to God for His use—that is, when he can improve what he has to serve God. "I use it, yes, but I do not use it for myself so much as for God," says Burroughs.
- He uses the things of this world as if he did not use them (1 Cor 7:30-31). [He] enjoys them but does not depend on them for his joy. He has comfort in them, but his comfort does not depend on them.
- He knows how to make use of his worldly comforts, yet is able to do so in such a way that he is not hindered by the afflictions or troubles that go along with those comforts. For example, Haman abounded, but he did not know how to abound. Therefore, when he became aggravated in one thing (that Mordecai did not bow the knee to him), why, all the comfort of his prosperity vanished….You do not know how to abound when you cannot take into account the good of mercy when you consider an affliction.
- He knows how to abound if he knows his own heart in the midst of his abundance. It’s common for people not to know themselves once they come into abundance. Saul was little in his own eyes when he was in a meager condition, but when he came to abound he did not know himself.
Near the close of the chapter Burroughs offers this insightful illustration.
Sailors are not so concerned about maneuvering a ship if they are given enough room at sea to do so. They find this to be an easy part of their job; as long as they have enough room at sea, they feel safe doing so. But this is not the case when you have the great sea of prosperity. In a vast sea of prosperity you actually fare far worse for yourselves. It is the abundance of outward prosperity that is the undoing of most men. The more abundance you have, the more difficult it will be for you to know how to order yourselves as you go about your business. An abundance of pleasures is surely difficult to navigate safely; as one early church father said, no sins are more difficult to overcome than sins of pleasure. Extra space, extra freedom to maneuver around, may be your undoing.
Let us be reminded of what God’s Word teaches us concerning contentment. Godliness is a means of great gain only if contentment of heart accompanies it (1 Tim 6:6). Fullness of wealth is not evil, but it often leads to many evils---even walking away from true faith (1 Tim 6:10). Lord, cultivate a heart of contentment within us so that---whether in fullness or in need---we may walk with You closely.
[You can read a brief introduction to Jeremiah Burroughs here.]