Jeremiah Burroughs, a 17th century Puritan pastor, spoke of contentment as a rare jewel. It’s something experienced by some but not all. A paradox he also noted is that for Christians true contentment will always leave us dissatisfied. He unfolded one side of this mystery but left the other side undeveloped. Both are important and invite some reflection.
Burroughs anchored his main theme in the contentment that comes through a relationship with God. A person’s heart is satisfied “by the melding of his will and desires into God’s will and desires.” [The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, 53] I invite you to embrace his point and to press into it.
The desires God has for us are the basis for his will. In his creative care each of us is made for good works. As we live these out we are both responding to and displaying his care for us: “We love because he first loved us.” [1 John 4:19] On God’s part the epitome of this love for us is the Son’s incarnation, death, and resurrection offered as his means to restore the communion Adam abandoned in Eden. In John 17: 4-5 Jesus prayed and celebrated this, his Father’s plan, as the basis for his own work—and the basis for God’s inherent, mutual glory. “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”
For our part we find his particular will and desires for us to be increasingly natural and welcome because our new life in Christ draws us to share in God’s heart. God made us, for instance, to find greater joy in giving than in receiving. As we live freely in this new Christ-like selflessness we are never again satisfied with receiving rather than giving. Or as we grow in serving others we find that the luxury industries that may have once drawn us—high-end hotels, cruise liners, resorts, and more—now feel like distractions from what we really want.
The point is that when our hearts are melded with God’s heart nothing that comes our way feels like a violation; instead everything is seen as a gift. God’s love ensures us that everything is working for good, no matter what our circumstances might be. That’s the basis for contentment: our faith in God sees his love as great enough to trump any fears. Our prior skepticism about God’s character—what the serpent promoted in Eden—now evaporates in the joy of the empty tomb. Christ’s work on our behalf is not simply a judicial event—our being declared righteous—but the basis for our renewed bond with God as our maker who loves us. And in that bond we find what we were made for.
The apostle Paul, for instance, found his own purpose in telling non-Jews that they have equal access to Christ, even if they don’t share in Jewish conversion rituals: Jews and Gentiles can be one in Christ! With that truth came Paul’s certainty that a reconciliation of Jewish and non-Jewish Christians was worth dying for. Given that confidence he carried a major gift to the believers in Jerusalem from the Gentile churches he had founded or aided. On the way to Jerusalem he was warned more than once that the gesture would backfire—that he would be arrested and imprisoned. Even though he realized that prospect was real it didn’t stop him.
So it was, after his arrest on the Temple mount in Jerusalem, that Paul ended up in chains in a Roman prison. His expression of love was met by hatred. His freedom to minister ended in an open-ended imprisonment. But listen to his heart express contentment, despite the context of a jail: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice.” Why? He answers,
I have learned in whatever situation I am in to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound in any and every circumstance. I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger; abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. [Philippians 4:11-13]
Paul was not a Stoic striving to achieve apatheia here! Rather he was certain that God’s love had equipped him for the good work of reaching out even to those who were ready to kill him. It was love that moved him, the love birthed by his new life in Christ. It was the same sort of love that caused the Father to send the Son, his one and only Son, to die for us. And the sort of love that led the Son to the cross in light of the joy that stood beyond death. And the love that the Spirit now pours out into the hearts of those who called to follow Christ.
But what of the other side of our paradox? Given this sacrificial devotion in a contented heart, how is there room for dissatisfaction? The answer is found in strong marriages. To love deeply is to be reoriented away from selfishness by a heartfelt devotion to another. The one beloved is captivating to the lover. So in meeting Christ we find a person so full and rich that we are content: we have all we need in him. We are reassured that his care for us is even greater than the self-obsessed love we once knew. Our skepticism about God’s love caused us to collapse into a sense of inadequacy—of feeling naked—but in Christ we find ourselves newly settled-in-soul even when our circumstances may be precarious. That doesn’t matter as long as we know we matter to God.
So the dissatisfaction comes in our now having access to a Person whose love is greater than our ability to experience love. Paul summed this up in his paradoxical prayer that God would strengthen us by his Spirit in our inner being,
so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. [Ephesians 3:17-19 ESV]
It is not that we are unable to experience that love, but that we will never exhaust it. God’s fullness is rich with satisfaction, while always drawing us deeper with a holy dissatisfaction that asks for still more. Content, yet hungry. The paradox is no mystery. It speaks of our finite experience of an infinite God. How, then, do we go forward from here? May we all, with our Puritan friend Jeremiah Burroughs, continue to taste and see that the LORD is good. We will never have enough, but we will always be content.