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The Puritans on Contentment

Truth in Love 338

How should we understand contentment and how do we keep from confusing this idea with something like apathy or indifference?

Nov 22, 2021

Dale Johnson: Once again this week, similar to last week, I have with me on the podcast Dr. Stephen Yuille. He is the Vice President of Academics at Heritage Bible College and Seminary in Ontario, Canada. He’s married to Allison and he’s been an ACBC member for several years. He was actually my pastor at Grace Community Church in Glen Rose, Texas for several years while both of us lived in Texas, and neither of us live there anymore. I’m so grateful for this brother. Dr. Yuille, thank you so much for joining us. I’m looking forward to our talk on this issue of contentment. 

Stephen Yuille: Yeah, it’s great to be back with you again. Pleasure. 

Dale Johnson: Now, you’ve done a lot of work certainly in Puritan literature. You studied that quite a bit. Your ultimate love is certainly for Scripture, but I do want to get and glean some information from you relative to this issue of contentment and particularly how the Puritans thought about that. I do find it interesting, first of all, that we don’t seem to think that deeply about these types of issues like contentment in our modern-day. It seems as though some of our predecessors really spent a lot of time thinking very deeply about these types of issues like gratitude, thankfulness, contentment, the things that hindered them from enjoying contentment in their life. So I want you to just talk for a second about the Puritans, how they wrote on this subject—they wrote on this subject actually quite a bit—and why you think that might be the case.

Stephen Yuille: Yeah, you know, it’s difficult to say with any certainty. I have a theory and I think it’s probably close to hitting the mark. The Puritans tended to write out of their experience, both personal and pastoral. I think there were two realities that really shaped their perspective and helped to determine what they gave their attention to. The first reality was what it means to live in a fallen world and what it means to face adverse circumstances. What it means to live in a day and age in which many of the Puritans were persecuted. Life expectancy, low. Infant mortality rate, high. You think of the towering Puritan theologian like John Owen. I mean, he buried 10 of his 11 children. They died in infancy. No medical amenities, like we enjoy today. A very difficult existence living in a fallen world and then that coupled with a second factor. They understood the human condition, the human heart, and especially how we tend to place a disproportionate value on earthly things. You put those two together. So, what it means to live in a fallen world and face very adverse circumstances, you couple it with just the darkness of the human heart and our, again, inclination towards overvaluing earthly things. They understood how this was a dual-threat, which would really lead then to a spirit of discontentment. This spirit of discontentment then leading to envy, anger, bitterness, resentment. And for the Puritans, when you think in terms of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, you know, what is man’s primary purpose? Well, it’s to glorify God and enjoy him forever. They saw then that spirit of discontent as being antithetical to what they perceived to be their chief end of glorifying God and enjoying him forever. I can see no other explanation for why then they gave so much time and attention to this particular subject. 

Dale Johnson: So I think as I consider even why they thought this is important, their view of suffering was obviously quite different than ours. I think that’s a really critical point and that they’re writing out of the realities of the destructions of sin, maybe in a way that we don’t think about that. Now, that sort of turns my attention a little bit to think about contentment, maybe in a little bit of a different way. Maybe the reason, Dr. Yuille, that we don’t think about contentment is, we’re sort of confused by what it means. We have this tendency maybe to think about contentment as, well, that just means I have to always be happy and just as if I’m dismissing any bad that happens in my life. Well, based on what you just described from the Puritans, nothing could be further from the truth. There was reality of hurt, pain, difficulty, striving in the reality of the cursed world that we live in. So, let’s bring some clarity to this issue of contentment. How should we understand it? What it means to be content? and then maybe a second follow-up to that—how do we keep from confusing this idea of contentment with something like apathy or indifference? 

Stephen Yuille: Yeah, I hear you. Those are great questions. Clarity in this is extremely important so we don’t open ourselves up to a misunderstanding. I think two clarifying remarks that are very important are these: Firstly, when we speak of contentment, we don’t want to confuse that with the idea that I shouldn’t change circumstances if I can. So to be content isn’t just to accept circumstances as they are and just say, well, that’s the way it is, that’s the way it’s going to be, and just putting up with it. No, we are called to change circumstances that are within our power sphere of influence to change. There’s nothing wrong with us to be praying that the Lord might change our circumstances or deliver us from certain things. So we want to make sure we’re not confusing it with some sort of, you know, just indifference to what happens, and I’m just supposed to accept whatever, just live in it and deal with it. No, we’re to exercise biblical wisdom. We’re to make changes when changes are possible. We enter into the realm of contentment, though, especially when it’s not possible to change things. When situations aren’t within our control. How do we respond? How do we approach these things? How do we deal with these things? This is, I think, where the second word of clarification is necessary.

We’re not talking about apathy. We’re not simply talking about stoicism, you know, stiff-upper-lip old man and just accept things as they are, develop some sort of emotional detachment from reality and from what’s going on in your life. No, when we’re content, we still care and we care deeply and we feel deeply. And so, you know, to be content or to cultivate contentment, it really does arise from this conviction that God is sovereign over all things and we can be certain of His good providence towards us and we can be certain of and rest in His fatherly care for us. The Puritans were clear on this and Jeremiah Burroughs certainly wrote a great deal on it. This isn’t his exact wording, but in essence, he defined contentment as just a peaceful quiet frame of spirit when we freely submit to the circumstances of life. We freely submit to those circumstances because we are convinced of God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition. That’s the essence of contentment. 

Dale Johnson: I love that because it’s an admission that this is not something simple. It’s not like the promises of God are some sort of magic wand, right? It’s the idea of striving and it’s something that we strive toward. Now, you mentioned something earlier about how the Puritans write out of their experience. Now, I want to make sure that we don’t misunderstand that today. When we think about experience, we sort of take that as our own personal authority. Well, that’s definitely not the case when you think about the Puritans and yet we have to make sure that we’re being Bereans relative to Puritans. We certainly respect them and honor them. They weren’t perfect in everything that they said, but when they wrote out of their experiences, they were rooting this in Scripture. They were rooting their understanding, how they saw the experience that they were walking through at any given moment—they were seeing that through the lens of Scripture. What I want to do is to help us to turn our direction on, what were some of the Puritans’ favorite passages of Scripture that they thought through as they were trying to wrestle with this issue of contentment and to understand the experiences that they were walking through. 

Stephen Yuille: Well, there are lots of Scripture. Even the entire, what we would call realm of theology proper and who God is, is key to cultivating contentment, you know, meditating upon what Scripture says concerning God’s faithfulness, concerning God’s steadfast love, concerning God’s immutability. So much of Scripture speaks to cultivating this spirit of contentment where we trust in God’s wise providence and fatherly care. I mean, they gravitated to certain texts. There are just certain pithy statements, verses, that appear constantly. Psalm 131:1-2 is used a lot. I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child with its mother. What does that mean? What does that look like? How do we do that? From the New Testament, 1 Peter 5:6-7, cast all your anxieties on Him, on the Lord, because He cares for you. So they would take just a statement like that and then get down to what this means 24/7, day-in-day-out, to do this, to live in this kind of posture of heart. Big texts—obviously the second half of Matthew 6 in The Sermon on the Mount where the Lord says, do not be anxious. He issues that command three times and again points to God’s providence. And then a really prevalent text would be obviously Philippians 4:10-14 where Paul himself says, I have learned to be content. They would have spent a lot of time explaining, what does it mean to learn this? This isn’t something that just happens in a moment, in an instant. This is a process. This is a life-long process and I don’t think Paul, when he says that I have learned to be content, was saying, I just figured this out two days ago. No, this is something Paul over years, decades, was still growing in. So they do give a lot of attention to that and helping people under their care in their churches to learn contentment and seeing contentment as standing based on certain foundation stones, biblical truths. 

Dale Johnson: You mentioned Paul and you talked about his confession that he was in the process of learning this and evidently he learned it. I find that encouraging because the Lord certainly continues to challenge me to learn these things with patience and endurance and learning contentment. I can’t make that confession yet that I have learned as if it’s past tense, but the Puritans certainly address this. So how did the Puritans believe that we could learn this process, as Paul did, to be content? 

Stephen Yuille: Yeah, I think we need to be aware that the Puritans, they wrote books, some massive volumes, on this subject. So without, again, oversimplifying, I tend to condense their teaching or summarize their teaching in five or six key points that you see repeatedly that they seem to come to time and time again and spend a lot of time developing and applying. The first is this, they really emphasized the need to learn to practice thankfulness. I’ve picked up on this in a couple of Puritan works. They’ll often refer to Paul and Silas languishing in the prison in Philippi and there they have been beaten, they’re bruised and battered, they’re in chains, and in the dead of night, they begin to worship and praise God. Do we think Paul and Silas felt like it? They didn’t feel like it. They must have consciously turned their minds and their hearts to express gratitude despite their pain and their suffering. How important that is to learn to practice thankfulness no matter our circumstances.

A second emphasis that you’ll see in Puritan works is the need to learn to cultivate heavenly-mindedness, what it really means to set our minds on things above, what it means to be able to say with Paul in Romans 8, I consider that present suffering is not worth comparing to future glory. You know what, it means to make future glory and all that God has promised us to make it a present reality. So that it shapes us and leads us to contentment.

A third important emphasis brings us back again to God’s providence. Will any teach God knowledge? I mean, His ways are inscrutable, His judgments past finding out. That was Calvin’s great lesson when you look at his—what was it, 150 sermons?—on the Book of Job. And you can basically summarize it in a single statement. We are to rest in God’s incomprehensibility. His ways are not our ways. His judgments are not our judgments. But we know He’s good and we know He is our Father. We know He’s working all things together for good. So being able to trust and to declare with the Psalmist, my God, I trust in you.

A fourth lesson, learning what it means to wait. It’s very interesting that in the Latin-based languages, wait and hope, it’s the same verb in Spanish and Portuguese. We’ve disconnected the two in our day and yet they’re the same thing. To hope is to wait. To wait is to hope. It is simply to wait for what God has promised and to understand that He has promised us, in the present, yes, to provide for us and to meet our needs as He deems best. But ultimately, most of the biblical promises, they’re all future. We own them by right, but we’ve not yet entered into them. And this great hope, this great expectation, that we are indeed being guarded for salvation, ready to be revealed in the last day, and what it means to live by promises, following Christ’s example as one who knew contentment despite His adverse circumstances and many challenges, and what it means to follow the Lord Jesus who, for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, and I think a sixth and final—I mean, there are many, but this just gives you a sampling—I think a sixth and final really important lesson that looms large in puritan thinking is, we need to learn to treasure Christ and treasure Christ above all things. So Paul says in Philippians 4, yes, I have learned to be content in whatever my circumstances are, but earlier to the Philippians, what does he declare? For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. I think he’s given us there at least a hint of how he learned contentment. It’s that he had really learned to prize Christ above all things and to define life through the lens of what it means to rejoice and delight in Christ and to understand to die is ultimately gain. So I think when you read their works, these are the sorts of truths, sorts of lessons, that they’re emphasizing and it’s pure gold. I mean it’s an invaluable well of information, knowledge, and counsel for us today. 

Dale Johnson: Amen to that. I almost want to apologize before I ask you this last question. I really wish we could continue this conversation. I mean, just being able to dive into the deep well of guys who meditated deeply on the Scriptures and who had very real human experiences of suffering and difficulty and how through that they learn to trust in the promises of the Lord. They learn to lean in and it helped them to walk, self-controlled and patient, and waiting in hope on the Lord. So this last question I want to ask is, how do we narrow this down to one resource? You’ve mentioned so many Puritan resources and sort of your synopsis or summarizing of all that we can glean from them, but I want to try and do that. If you can narrow this down to maybe one good resource for our listeners to maybe start with, to dip their toe in the water of reading a Puritan resource about this issue of contentment, what would that one resource be on this subject? 

Stephen Yuille: All right, I’m going to take the liberty of mentioning two just because you can’t cut me off. The first would be a book called The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment—What a beautiful title. The rare jewel because it is rare and is something that needs to be prized and cultivated and something that is a lifelong process—written by a man named Jeremiah Burroughs. The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burrows would be a fabulous read for our listeners. A second work, not far behind, All Things for Good by Thomas Watson. It was originally published as a Divine Cordial, a divine help or remedy, if you like. I think the modern editions had changed the title to All Things for Good. It’s an exposition of Romans 8:28. If we can take to the heart what Thomas Watson is writing in that book, we have the key to finding this rare jewel of Christian contentment. So those would be the two resources that I would recommend without any hesitation, without any qualification.

Dale Johnson: That’s outstanding and I would echo those two for sure. Dr. Yuille, this has been so great, so refreshing. I do pray that our listeners will pause this week and be able to pay attention, slow down their life a bit, really focus on the goodness of the Lord learned from the Puritans, and learn from these passages that really encourage our heart. So thank you, brother, for your work. I really appreciate it.

Helpful Resources:

The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment

All Things for Good

Dr. Yuille’s Publications