The Hellish Sin of Discontent

by Thomas Boston (1676-1732)

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”—Exodus 20:17

Question: “What is forbidden in the Tenth Commandment?” Answer: “The Tenth Commandment forbiddeth all discontentment with our own estate, envying, or grieving at the good of our neighbor, and all inordinate motions and affections to anything that is his.” This command is a curb and bridle to the distempered[67] heart of man, which of all parts of man is the hardest to be commanded and kept within bounds. Men may be of a courteous, obliging behavior: [they may] keep their hands from killing or what tendeth thereunto, their bodies from uncleanness, their hands from stealing, and their tongues from lying, while in the meantime, the heart in all these respects may be going within the breast like a troubled sea, unto which this command by divine authority saith, “Peace, and be still” (cf. Mar 4:39).

The heart distempered by original sin runs out in the irascible faculty in tormenting passions, bearing an aversion of the heart to what the Lord in His wisdom lays before men…Thus, the corrupt heart runs in direct opposition to the will of God, refusing what He would have us to accept and embracing closely what He would have us to stand at a distance from. The corrupt fountain with its several streams is all here forbidden…Let us view

The tormenting passions in which the corruption of nature vents itself, for sin, in its own nature, is misery. We need but go in the paths of sin to make us miserable and in the high road of duty to make us happy. We shall consider the tormenting passion of discontent with our own estate or condition. This is plainly forbidden here. For discontentment is presupposed to coveting, and there could be no coveting of what we want without discontentment with what we have…

First, i will shew the evil of discontentment and paint out this sin in its black colors. It is the hue of hell all over.

1. In the nature of it, discontent is a compound of the blackest ingredients: the scum of the corrupt heart boiling up and mixed to make up the hellish composition.

Unsubjection to and rebellion against the will of God: “Israel slideth back as a backsliding heifer” (Hos 4:16)—backsliding or refractory that will not admit the yoke farther than it is forced on. The discontented heart cannot submit…Though God guides and governs the world, they are the malcontents that are not pleased with the government but mutiny against it. What pleases God pleases them not; what is right in God’s eyes is evil in theirs. Nothing will please them but to have the reins of government out of God’s hands into their own…

Sorrow of heart under the divine dispensation towards them: It is not according to their mind, and so their heart sinks in sorrow (1Ki 21:4). God crosses their will, and they pierce their own hearts with many sorrows…This is a killing sorrow, a sword thrust into a man’s heart by his own hands (2Co 7:10). It melts a man’s heart within him…It makes him [depressed] and heavy like Ahab and is a heavy load above the burden of affliction. That is the black smoke of discontentment that yet often breaks out into a fiery flame…

Anger and wrath against their lot: complainers (Jude 1:16). The word signifies such as are angry with their lot and in the distributions Providence makes of the world…They are angry at God’s dispensations, and their hearts rise against it and snarl at it. This is a fretting anger, whereby men disquiet and vex themselves in vain, like men dashing their heads against the wall. The wall stands unmoved, but their heads are wounded!...

Lastly, there is a spice of heart-blasphemy in it: [Discontent] strikes very directly against God, the Governor of the world, and accuses His administration. For an evidence of this, it sometimes breaks out in words: “Your words have been stout against me, saith the LORD… Ye have said, It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance?” (Mal 3:13-14).

Discontent accuses Him (1) of folly—as if He were not wise enough to govern the world. The peevish, discontented person in his false light sees many flaws in the conduct of Providence and pretends to tell God how He may correct His work and how it would be better…(2) of injustice—as if He did us wrong. The Judge of all the earth cannot but do right. He cannot be bribed nor biased. Yet the discontented heart rises against Him and blasphemes Him as a respecter of persons…If we do deserve the evil in our lot, there is no wrong done us. Why do we then complain? And to fill up the measure, it accuseth Him (3) of cruelty. Job, in a fit of discontent, speaks it out, “Thou art become cruel to me” (Job 30:21). Thus, goodness itself is blasphemed by the discontented, who behave as if they were under the hands of a merciless tyrant who would sport himself with one’s misery. Discontent fills the heart with black and hard thoughts of God and represents Him as a rigid master and cruel lord. Otherwise, people would lay their hand on their mouth and be content…

Thus, ye see the picture of discontent. Does it not look very black? There are ounces and pounds of rebellion against the will of God! [There are] killing sorrow, fretting anger, and hideous heart-blasphemy in it, while there is not one grain of religion or reason that goes into this hellish composition. If one should take it for a description of hell, he would not be far out. For the truth is, discontent is a hell in the bosom and a lively emblem of the pit of darkness!

2. If ye view discontentment in the rise of it, ye will see further into the evil of it. It takes its rise from

A blinded judgment that puts darkness for light and light for darkness. [It] cannot see into the wisdom of the conduct of Providence, which does all things well. When our blind minds begin to refine on the management of holy Providence, they are apt to produce discontent, which in respect of Providence is always unreasonable. See how good Jacob bewrays his folly and ignorance of the methods of Providence: “Me have ye bereaved of my children: Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin away: all these things are against me” (Gen 42:36). Compare this with the promise, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28); and compare the event. Ye will see that all these things were for the benefit of the good patriarch and that of his numerous family…There is never a ground of discontent, but the blind mind does magnify it and lays to it such heaps of rubbish [that] the heart is not able to stand under it, as in the case of Rachel. When Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister. [She] said unto Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die” (Gen 30:1). Thus, our own dark minds are the anvil on which our miseries are beat out into greater breadth and length than they are [when] they come out of the hand of God, to the end they may cover our hearts with discontent. Happy is the man that can take up his cross as God lays it down without adding more to it.

A proud heart. Haman’s pride discontented him for want of bows and cringes from Mordecai (Est 3:2, 5), which would never have troubled a humble man. A proud heart is a wide heart (Pro 28: 25). Little will not fill it: it is long ere it will say, “It is enough”; so it natively produces discontent. The devil is the proudest creature and withal the most discontented, for pride and discontent always lodge under one roof…

An unmortified affection to the creature (1Ti 6:9-10). Jonah had a gourd, and he was exceedingly glad of it. It is taken away, and then he was exceedingly discontented (Jon 4:6, 9). The heart takes such a hold of such and such a created comfort that it becomes like a live limb of a man’s body. So when it is rent away, [it is no wonder that one cries out] as if men were cutting a limb off him?...So, were our affection to the creature deadened to it—as it should be—discontent could have no access.

A spirit of unbelief. Lack of faith marred the acceptance of Cain’s offering and opened the sluice of discontent on him too. “Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell” (Heb 11:4; Gen 4:5). Discontent feeds on need; faith brings in the supply of needs and can feed on it while it is yet in the promise. No wonder discontent prevails where unbelief is! A [living] faith would kill discontent, whereas unbelief nourishes and cherishes it. Discontent puts an effectual bar in the way of the rest of the heart, which it can never attain but in God.

3. View it in the effect, and it will appear very black. The tree is known by its fruits.

It mars communion with and access to God. Muddy and troubled water receives not the image of the sun as clear and standing water does. So a discontented heart is unfit for communion with a holy God (1Ti 2:8). “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amo 3:3). If one would have communion with God, his heart must not be boiling with anger against his brother (Mat 5:23-24). How then can he have it when he is angry with his God, as in discontent?

It quite unfits a man for holy duties—for speaking to God in prayer or His speaking to them by His Word—so that he cannot perform them rightly or acceptably. (1) It deadens one’s heart within him as in Nabal’s case. “His heart died within him, and he became as a stone” (1Sa 25:37). (2) It takes away the relish of spiritual things, vitiates[79] the taste, and turns them saplessto people, as it did to the Israelites in Egypt (Exo 6:7-9). (3) To pore on the ground of discontent carries the heart off [Christian] duty and makes [God’s people] drive heavily in God’s worship and serve Him drooping and heartless, as it did the Jews in Malachi’s time (Mal 2:13-14). Their unkindness to their wives made them discontented and fretful, so that when they came to the temple, they were quite out of humor.

It mars the comfort of society and makes people [disagreeable] to those that are about them. When Elkanah went up to Shiloh with his family to rejoice before the Lord, fretting Hannah was out of tune and marred the harmony (1Sa 1:7-8). Peninnah provoked Hannah, Hannah was angry with her, and Elkanah [was angry] with both. So discontent is the pest of society and makes an evil world ten times worse. It makes people a burden to others because it gives them a cloudy day while it lasts.

It is a torment to one’s self and makes a man his own tormentor (1Ki 21:4). It wraps him up in darkness, feeds him with bitterness, and gives him gall and wormwood to drink for his ordinary (Pro 15:16). It robs him of the best worldly thing he can possess, i. e., his peace and tranquility of mind. [It] makes his mind within him as the troubled sea that cannot rest. So the discontented person is on a continual rack, and he himself is executioner…

It sucks the sap out of all one’s enjoyments. As a few drops of gall will embitter a cup of wine and a few drops of ink will blacken a cup of the clearest liquor, so discontent upon one ground will embitter and blacken all other enjoyments…See it in Ahab: “And Ahab came into his house heavy and displeased because of the word which Naboth the Jezreelite had spoken to him: for he had said, I will not give thee the inheritance of my fathers. And he laid him down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no bread” (1Ki 21:4). As contentment turns all metals into gold, so discontentment turns them into iron. What taste is there in the white of an egg without salt? There is as much as in any enjoyment under the sun without contentment…therefore let a man have what he will, he enjoys no more than what he has contentment in.

Hence, it always makes one unthankful. Let Providence set the discontented man in a paradise: the fruit of that one tree that is forbidden him…will so embitter him that he will not give God thanks for all the variety of other delights that the garden is furnished with. For all these avail him nothing while that is kept out of his reach…Ingratitude is a sin of a black die: how much more must that be so which is the cause of it?

It is a fruitful womb of other sins. It brings forth a great brood of other lusts…I will instance in three of the grossest sins that man can readily fall into, which are the natural product of discontentment. (1) Murder—the grossest sin of the Second Table…is the product of discontent. For once the heart, smoking with discontent, breaks out into a flame, it breathes out blood and slaughter…The worst sort of murder proceeds from it: the murder of nearest relations, as in the case of Cain’s murdering Abel (Gen 4:5, 8). Worst of all, self-murder always proceeds from it…People grow discontented with their lot, [and] their proud hearts are not able to bear it. They turn desperate, seeing they cannot [remedy] it, and make away with themselves. (2) Dealing with the devil—being angry with God, the discontented are in a fair way to be a prey to Satan. Thus Saul, in a fit of discontent, went to the witch at Endor (1Sa 28). The discontented heart is a drumly heart, and it is in such waters that Satan loves to fish. Here is his hook wherewith he catches them: he proffers to do for them or give to them that which God will not. And they being intent upon it, so that they cannot be easy without it, are easily ensnared…(3) Blasphemy against God—the grossest sin of the First Table, for of that kind is the unpardonable sin. Discontent is in its own nature a practical blasphemy. Therefore, when it comes to a height, it breaks out in open blasphemy, as in that abominable mouth, “Behold, this evil is of the LORD; what should I wait for the LORD any longer?” (2Ki 6:33). For being angry with God, people begin to quarrel with Him and murmur against Him…It is hard to speak and speak right under great pressures. These effects may convince us of the exceeding evil of this root of bitterness.

Lastly, view it in the qualities that agree to it, which are not in many other sins. I will name the following:

Discontent is the noted rebel in the kingdom of providence. God, Who has created the world, vindicates the government of it to Himself alone. But the discontented go about to wrest the reins of government out of His hand! Discontent wages war with the Governor of the world and strives with Him, as if the clay should strive with the potter and say, “Why hast thou made me thus?” (Rom 9:20).

Discontent is a peculiar despiser of the kingdom of grace. There is a particular malignity in it against the grace of the Gospel; for it throws contempt on God, heaven, and all the purchase of Christ, which is [declared] in the Gospel to fill up the room of what the discontented lacks (Exo 6:7, 9). It is true: other lusts do so too, such as covetousness, sensuality, and profaneness. But here lies the difference: these lusts have a bait of profit or pleasure with them and have something to put in the [place] of spiritual things. Discontent has no bait with it, or anything to put in the [place] of them…The discontented would rather pine away without any comfort than take it from the Gospel…

Discontent follows men to and will continue with them in the kingdom of darkness forever. There are some lusts that men have no use for beyond the line of time. The covetous will despise their gold, money, and wealth in hell, the unclean person his filthy companions, etc. But when the discontented die without repentance, their works will follow them to the pit. In hell, they will be discontented forever without the least intermission. They will never give one smile more, but an eternal cloud of darkness will be on their countenance. They will fret, murmur, and rage against God and themselves and blaspheme for evermore. Let us see the evil of this, then, and guard against it.

Second, i will offer some remedies against discontent and advices in the case.

Practice the directions for contentment. Particularly, take God for your God in Christ, and labor to believe He is so. Take Him in the room of whatever ye lack or lies on you that discontents you. Without this, all else will be in vain. The enjoyment of God is able to make up the greatest hole in your heart!...“The LORD thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing” (Zep 3:17).

Labor to be humble. Humility lets us see that our true worth is nothing and fences the heart against discontent (Gen 32:10). It makes one wonder he has anything at all left him, and so lets him into the mystery of that text: “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1Th 5:18). He that is convinced that he deserves death will not be discontent with banishment. And he that believes that he deserves to lose the presence of God forever will lay his hand on his mouth under temporal losses.

Do not pore upon your crosses, for that does but breed and feed discontent (Psa 39:3)…Turn your eyes on your mercies that you enjoy and be thankful.

Be much exercised in religious duties. Go often to your knees and pour out your hearts before the Lord. Tell Him all your [needs]. This gave Hannah a sweet ease (1Sa 1:18). Go often to your Bibles and hear the good news there from the far country…There are springs of consolation there that a person never tastes of until he is brought into the condition for which they were placed there.

Curb discontent as soon as it begins to set out its head. Nip it in the bud, for it is a fire that gathers force by continuing and spreading…Discontent is a striving with God and is like the letting out of waters, which, however small at the beginning, grows to a monstrous bigness if not remedied [early].

Lastly, live by faith. That is the best preservative against discontent. Faith stays the soul in all events on the promises [and] gives a favorable view of all crosses and afflictions, as tending to the good of the party. [Faith] lays hold upon things unseen as the great portion and so lessens the care about things of the world. In a word, [faith] finds all it needs in God. Thus much of discontent.

From “Of the Tenth Commandment” in The Complete Works of Thomas Boston, Vol. 2, reprinted by Tentmaker Publications,

Thomas Boston (1676-1732): Scottish Presbyterian minister and scholar; born in Duns, Berwickshire.

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