How to Attain Contentment
Now we are coming to the close of this point of contentment which Jesus Christ teaches those who are in his school. We have opened the point to you, and showed you wherein the art, and skill, and mystery of Christian contentment lies, and many things in the way of application, rebuking the want of it. In the last chapter, I finished that point of showing the various reasonings of a murmuring and discontented heart. I shall now, being desirous to make an end, leave what was said, and proceed to what remains. There are only these two things, for working your hearts to this grace of Christian contentment:
1 . TO PROPOUND SEVERAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR CONTENTING THE HEART IN ANY AFFLICTED CONDITION.
2 . TO PROPOUND DIRECTIONS, WHAT SHOULD BE DONE FOR WORKING OUR HEARTS TO THIS.
1. CONSIDERATIONS TO CONTENT THE HEART IN ANY AFFLICTED CONDITION.
1. We should consider, in all our wants and inclinations to discontent, the greatness of the mercies that we have, and the meanness of the things we lack. The things we lack, if we are godly, are things of very small moment in comparison to the things we have, and the things we have are things of very great moment. For the most part, the things for the want of which people are discontented and murmur are such things as reprobates have, or may have. Why should you be troubled so much for the want of something which a man or woman may have and yet be a reprobate? as, that your wealth is not so great, your health not so perfect, your credit not so much; you may have all those things and still be a reprobate! Now will you be discontented for what a reprobate may have? I will give you the example of a couple of godly men, meeting together, Anthony and Didymus: Didymus was blind, and yet a man of very excellent gifts and graces: Anthony asked him if he was not troubled at his want of sight. He confessed he was, 'But', he said, 'should you be troubled at the want of what flies and dogs have, and not rather rejoice and be thankful that you have what angels have?' God has given you those good things that make angels glorious; is not that enough for you, though you lack what a fly has? And so a Christian should reason the case with himself: what am I discontented for? I am discontented for want of what a dog may have, what a devil may have, what a reprobate may have; shall I be discontented for not having that, when God has given me what makes angels glorious? 'Blessed be God,' says the Apostle in Ephesians 1:3, 'who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places.' It may be you have not such great blessings in earthly places as some others have, but if the Lord has blessed you in heavenly places, that should content you. There are blessings in heaven, and he has set you here for the present, as it were in heaven, in a heavenly place. The consideration of the greatness of the mercies that we have, and the littleness of the things that God has denied us, is a very powerful consideration to work this grace of contentment.
2. The consideration that God is beforehand with us with his mercies should content us. I spoke of this as an aggravation of our discontent, but now I shall use it as a consideration to help us to contentment. You lack many comforts now, but has not God been beforehand with you heretofore? Oh, you have had mercy enough already to make you spend all the strength you have and time you shall live, to bless God for what you have had already. I remember reading of a good man who had lived to fifty years of age and enjoyed his health for eight and forty years exceedingly well, and lived in prosperity, but the last two years his body was exceedingly diseased, he had the strangury, and was in great pain. But he reasoned the case with himself thus: 'Oh, Lord, you might have made all my life a life of torment and pain, but you have left me have eight and forty years in health. I will praise your mercies for what I have had, and will praise your justice for what now I feel.' Oh, it is a good consideration for us, to think that God is beforehand with us, in the way of mercy. Suppose God should now take away your wealth from some of you who have lived comfortably a great while; you will say, 'That aggravates our misery, that we have had wealth.' But it is through your unthankfulness that it does so.
We should bless God for what we have had, and not think that we are worse because we have had thus and thus. We might always have been miserable who has no other great aggravation of his misery, but that once he was happy. If there is nothing else to make you miserable, then that is no aggravation that you may not bear, for there is much mercy in that you had it once. Therefore let that content you.
3. The consideration of the abundance of mercies that God bestows and we enjoy. It is a saying of Luther: 'The sea of God's mercies should swallow up all our particular afflictions.' Name any affliction that is upon you: there is a sea of mercy to swallow I up. If you pour a pailful of water on the floor of your house, it make a great show, but if you throw it into the sea, there is no sign of it. So, afflictions considered in themselves, we think are very great, but let them be considered with the sea of god's mercies we enjoy, and then they are not so much, they are nothing in comparison.
4. Consider the way of God towards all creatures. God carries on all creatures in a vicissitude of several conditions: thus, we do not always have summer, but winter succeeds summer; we do not always have day, but day and night; we do not always have fair weather, but fair and foul; the vegetative creatures do not always flourish, but the sap is in the root and they seem to be dead. There is a vicissitude of all things in the world: the sun does not shine always on us here, but darkness comes after light. Now seeing God has so ordered things with all creatures, that there is a mixture of conditions, why should be thing it much that there should be a vicissitude of conditions with us, sometimes in a way of prosperity, and sometimes in a way of affliction? 5. The creatures suffer for us; why should not we be willing to suffer, to be serviceable to God? God subjects other creatures, they are fain to lose their lives for us, to lose whatever beauty and excellence they have, to be serviceable to us; why should not we be willing to part with anything in service for God? Certainly, there is not as great a distance between other creatures and mankind, as there is between mankind and God. This is an expression of the martyr, Master Hooper, which we read of in the Book of Martyrs: in laboring to work his own heart, and the hearts of others to contentedness in the midst of his sufferings, he has this comparison, and you may be put in mind of it every day: he said, 'I look upon the creature and see what it suffers to be useful to me. Thus, the brute beasts must die, must be roasted in the fire, and boiled, must come on to the plate, be hacked all in pieces, must be chewed in the mouth, and in the stomach turned to that which is loathsome, if one should behold it; and all to nourish me, to be useful to my body, and shall not I be willing to be made anything for God, for his service? What an abundance of alterations the creature undergoes to be made useful to me, to preserve me! Then, if God will do so with me for his use, as he subjects the creatures to me for my use, why should I not reset contented? If God will take away my wealth, and make me poor, if God will take away life, hack me to pieces, put me in prison-whatever he does, yet I shall not suffer more for God than the creature does for me. And surely I am infinitely more bound to God than the creature is to me, and there is not so much distance between me and the creature, as between me and God!' Such considerations as these wrought the heart of that martyr to contentedness in his sufferings. And every time the creature is upon your plates you may think, What! does God make the creature suffer for my use, not only for my nourishment, but for my delight? what am I, then, in respect of the infinite God? 6. Consider that we have but a little time in this world. If you are godly you will never suffer except in this world. Why, do but shut your eyes and soon another life is come, as that martyr said to his fellow martyr, 'Do but shut your eyes', he said, 'and the next time they are opened you shall be in another world.' When he was banished, Athanasius said, 'It is but a little cloud and it will be over, notwithstanding, soon.' These afflictions are but for a moment. When a sailor is at sea he does not think it much if a storm arises, especially if he can see the Heavens clear beyond it; he says, 'It will be over soon.' Consider, we have not long to live, it may be over before our days are at an end. But supposing it should not, death will put an end to all, all afflictions and troubles will soon be at an end by death.
7. Consider the condition that others have been in, who have been our betters. We made some use of this before to show the evil of discontent.
But, further, it is a mighty argument to work on our hearts a contentedness in any condition. You many times consider who are above you; but consider who are under you.
Jacob, who was the heir of both Abraham and Isaac, for the blessing was on him and the promise ran in him, yet was in a poor, mean condition.
Abraham, his grandfather, was able to make a kind of army of his own household, three hundred, to fight with a king, yet Jacob his grandchild goes over Jordan with a staff, and lives in a very poor and mean condition for a long time. Moses might have had all the treasure in Egypt, and some historians say of him, Pharaoh's daughter adopted him for her son, because Pharaoh had no heir for the crown, and so he was likely to have come to the crown. Yet what a low condition he lived in, when he went to live with Jethro his father-in-law forty years on end! Afterwards when he returned to Egypt, with his wife and children, and all that he had, he had only one beast to carry him; he went back to Egypt from his father-in-law in a mean condition.
And we know how Elijah was fed with ravens, and how he had to shift for his life from time to time, and run into the wilderness up and down; and so did Elisha: he was many times in a low condition; the prophets of God were hid in a cave by Obadiah, and there fed with bread and water; and the prophet Jeremiah put into a dungeon, and oh, how he was used! And it would be endless to name the particulars of the great sufferings of the people of God.
In former time, we have sometimes made use of this argument in other ways: the great instruments of God in the first Reformation lived in great straits, in a very low condition. Even Luther himself, when he was about to die, though he was a man of such public use, and was a great man in the courts of princes, said, 'Lord, I have neither house nor lands, nor estate, to leave anything to wife or children, but I commit them to thee.' And so Musculus who was a very choice instrument of God in his time, though he was a man who was worth even a kingdom for the excellence of his spirit, and learning, for he was one of the most learned men of his time, yet sometimes was forced to dig in the common ditch to get bread for his family. What would we do, if we were in such a condition as these men were? But, above all, set Christ before us, who professes that the birds of the air had nests, and the foxes had holes, yet the Son of man had no place to hide his head, such a low condition was he in. The consideration of such things as these is very useful. It is likewise useful for men and women of wealth to go to poor people's houses and see how they live, to go to hospitals, and to see the wounds of soldiers and others, and to see the lamentable condition that people live in who live in some alms-houses, and what poor fare they have, and what straits they are put to. You hear sometimes of them, but if you went to see them it would not only stir up charity in yourselves towards them, but stir up thankfulness in your hearts towards God, it would be a special means to help you against any discontent. You would go away and see cause to bless God and say, 'If I were in such a condition as they are in what should I do? How could I bear it? And yet what reason is there that God so orders and disposes of things that they should be so low in their conditions and I so high? I know no reason but free grace: God will have mercy upon whom he will have mercy.' These are good considerations for the furtherance of contentment.
8. Before your conversion, before God wrought upon your souls, you were contented with the world without grace, though you had no interest in God nor Christ; why cannot you now be contented with grace and spiritual things without the world? If you yourselves were content with the world without grace, there is reason you should be content with grace without the world. Certainly there is infinitely more reason. You see that many men of the world have a kind of contentment; they do not murmur or repine with the world, though they have no interest in God and Christ. Then cannot you have as much contentment with God and Christ, without the world, as they can, with the world, without God and Christ? It is an infinite shame that this should be so.
9. Yea, consider, when God has given you such contentments you have not given him the glory. When God has let you have your heart's desire, what have you done with your heart's desire? You have not been any the better for it; it may be you have been worse many times. Therefore let that satisfy you-I meet with crosses, but when I had contentment and all things coming in, God got but little or no glory from me, and therefore let that be a means now to quiet me in my discontented thoughts.
10. Finally, consider all the experience that you have had of God's doing good to you in the want of many comforts. When God crosses you, have you never had experience of abundance of good in afflictions? It is true, when ministers only tell men that God will work good out of their afflictions, they hear them speak, and think they speak like good men, but they feel little or no good; they feel nothing but pain. But when we cannot only say to you that God has said he will work good out of your afflictions, but we can say to you, that you yourselves have found it so by experience, that God has made former afflictions to be great benefits to you, and that you would not have been without them, or without the good that came by them for a world, such experiences will exceedingly quiet the heart and bring it to contentment. Therefore think thus with yourself: Lord, why may not this affliction work as great a good upon me as afflictions have done before? Perhaps you may find many other considerations, besides, in your own meditations; these are the principal ones that I have thought of.
I will add only one word to this, of one who once was a great merchant and trader-his name was Zeno-and it happened once that he suffered shipwreck, and he said, 'I never made a better voyage and sailed better than at the time that I suffered shipwreck.' Now this was a strange saying that he had never made a better voyage! It would be a strange paradox to you who are seamen, to say that it is a good voyage, when you suffer shipwreck.
But he meant because he got so much good by it; God was pleased to bless it so far to him that he gained much to his soul by it, so much soul-riches that he made account that it was the best voyage that ever he had. Truly, sometimes it is so, yes, to you who are godly; I make no question but you find it so, that your worst voyages have proved your best. When you have met with the greatest crosses in a voyage, God has been pleased to turn them to a greater good to you, in some other way. It is true, we may desire crosses that they may be turned to other advantages; but when God in his providence so orders things, that you meet with bad voyages, you may expect that God will turn them to a greater good, and I do not doubt but that those who have been exercised in the ways of godliness any long time have abundant experiences, which they have gained by them.
You know sometimes it is better to be in a little ship, for they have an advantage over greater ones in storms many times: in a storm a little ship can thrust into a shallow place and so be safe, but your great ships cannot, they must be abroad and tossed up and down in the storm and tempest, and so many times split against the rocks. And so, it may be, God sees there is a storm coming, and if you are in your great ship you may be split upon rocks and lands. God, therefore, puts you into a smaller vessel that you may be more safe. We will lay aside speaking of those considerations now, but I would not have you lay them aside, and put them out of your thoughts, but labor (those especially that most concern you) to make use of them in a needful time, when you find any discontentedness of spirit arising in you.
The main thing that I intend by way of appliance, is to propound directions, what to do for helping our hearts to contentment. For, as for any further considerations, we have already spoken largely of them, because we have opened most things in showing what the lessons are that Christ teaches men, when he brings them into his school, to teach them this art. I say, we have spoken there of the special things that are most considerable for helping us to this grace of contentment. Therefore, now, all that I shall further do about this point, will be the giving of some directions, what course to take that we may come to attain this grace of contentment.
1. All the rules and helps in the world will do us little good unless we get a good temper within our hearts. You can never make a ship go steady, by propping it outside; you know there must be ballast within the ship, to make it go steady. And so, there is nothing outside us that can keep our hearts in a steady, constant way, but what is within us: grace is within the soul, and it will do this.
2. If you would get a contented life, do not grasp too much of the world, do not take in more of the business of the world than God calls you to. Do not be greedy of taking in a great deal of the world, for if a man goes among thorns, when he may take a simpler way, he has no reason to complain that he is pricked with them. You go among thorns-is it your way? Must you of necessity go among them? Then it I another matter. But if you voluntarily choose that way, when you may go another, then you have no cause to complain. If men and women will thrust themselves on things of the world which they do not need, then o wonder that they are pricked and meet with what disturbs them. For such is the nature of all things here in this world, that everything has some prick or other in it. We will meet with disappointments and discontentments in everything we meddle with, and therefore those who have least to do in the world, that is, unless God calls them to it (we must put in that), are likely to meet with many things that will dissatisfy them.
3. Be sure of your call to every business you go about. Though it is the least business, be sure of your call to it; then, whatever you meet with, you may quiet your heart with this: I know I am where God would have me.
Nothing in the world will quiet the heart so much as this: when I meet with any cross, I know I am where God would have me, in my place and calling; I am about the work that God has set me. Oh, this will quiet and content you when you meet with trouble. What God calls a man to, in that he may have comfort whatever befalls him. God will look to you, and see you blessed if you are in the work God calls you to.
4. What has just been said is especially true if I add: That I walk by rule in the work that I am called to. I am called to such a business, but I must manage this work that I am called to by rule. I must walk by the Word, order myself in this business according to God's mind as far as I am able.
Now add this to the other, and then the quiet and peace of the soul may be made even perfect in a way. When I know that I have not put myself on the work, but God has called me to it, and I walk by the rule of the Word in it, then, whatever may come, God will take care of me there. It was a saying of a heathen: 'If you will subject all things to yourself, subject yourself to reason and by that you will make all things to be under you.' I may add a little more to it: if you will subject all things under you, subject yourself to God, and then, the truth is, all things are under you.
It has been as many times we have hinted: the reason why many of our gentry have been so malignant among us is, because they are willing to be slaves themselves under some above them at Court, so that they may keep their neighbors under, to be slaves to them, for, you know, any man before who was great at Court, could crush any countryman with whom he was angry. If there were an arbitrary government, then all those who would be willing to be vassals and slaves to the Prince could make all others vassals and slaves under them. Now be willing to be a vassal to God, to be absolutely under God's command, and then, I say, all things in the world are under you. 'All things are yours,' says the Apostle, 'life and death, every thing is yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's.' 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. You will say, 'How are they my servants? I cannot command them.' They are servants in this, that God orders them all to work for your good. There is nothing the world but, says God, it shall work for your good, and be serviceable to you, if you will be serviceable to me.' Who would not be now God's servant? Subject yourself to God, and all things shall be subjected to you.
So long as we keep within our bounds, we are under protection, but if once we break our bounds, we must expect it to be with us as it is with the deer in the park: while the deer keep within the pale, no dogs come after them, and they can feed quietly, but let the deer get outside the pale, and then every dog in the country will be hunting after them. So it is with men: let men and women keep within the bounds of the command of God, of the rule that God has set them in his Word, and then they are protected by God, and they may go about their business in peace, and never be troubled for anything, but cast all their care upon God. God provides for them. But if they go beyond the pale, if they pass their bounds, then they may expect to meet with troubles, and afflictions, and discontent. And therefore that is a fourth direction: walk by rule.
5. Exercise much faith; that is the way for contentedness. After you have done with all the considerations that reason may suggest to you, if you find that these do not do it, Oh, then, call for the grace of faith. A man may go very far with the use of reason alone to help him to contentment, but when reason is at a nonplus, then set faith at work. It was a saying of the reverend divine, Master Perkins, whom God made so useful in his time: 'The life of faith', he said, 'is a true life, indeed the only life.' Exercise faith, not only in the promise that all shall work together for good to them that fear God, but likewise exercise faith in God himself; as well as in his Word, in the attributes of God. It was a saying of Socrates, a heathen: 'Since God is so careful for you, what need you be careful for any thing yourselves?'-it was a strange saying for a heathen.
Oh, Christian, if you have any faith, in the time of extremity think thus: this is the time that God calls for the exercise of faith. What can you do with your faith, if you cannot quiet your heart in discontent. There was a saying of one Dionysius, who had been a king, and afterwards was brought to such a low condition as to get his living by being a schoolmaster: someone comes and asks him, 'What have you got by your philosophy from Plato and others?' 'What have I got,' he says, 'I have got this, that though my condition is changed from so high a condition to low, yet I can be content.' So what do you get by being a believer, a Christian? What can you do by your faith? I can do this: I can in all states cast my care upon God, cast my burden upon God, I can commit my way to God in peace: faith can do this.
Therefore, when reason can go no higher, let faith get on the shoulders of reason and say, 'I see land though reason cannot see it, I see good that will come out of all this evil.' Exercise faith by often resigning yourself to God, by giving yourself up to God and his ways. The more you in a believing way surrender up yourself to God, the more quiet and peace you will have.
6. Labor to be spiritually minded. That is, be often in meditation of the things that are above. 'If we be risen with Christ,' say the Scriptures, 'let us seek the things that are above, where Christ is, that sits at the right hand of God.' Be much in spiritual thoughts, in conversing with things above.
Many Christians who have an interest in the things of Heaven converse but very little with them; their meditations are not much upon heavenly things.
Some give this as the reason why Adam did not see his nakedness, they think that he had so much converse with God and with things above sense, that he did not so much mind or think of what nakedness was. Whether that were so or not I will not say, but this I say, and am certain of, the reason why we are so troubled with our nakedness, with any wants that we have, is because we converse so little with God, so little with spiritual things; conversing with spiritual things would lift us above the things of the world.
Those who are bitten or struck by a snake, it is because they tread on the ground; if they could be lifted up above the earth they need never fear being stung by the snakes which are crawling underneath. So I may compare the sinful distemper of murmuring, and the temptations and evils that come from that, to snakes that crawl up and down below; but if we could get higher we should not be stung by them. A heavenly conversation is the way to contentment.
7. Do not promise yourselves too much beforehand; do not reckon on too great things. It is good for us to take hold very low, and not think to pitch too high. Do not soar too high in your thoughts beforehand, to think, Oh, if I had this and this, and imagine great matters to yourselves; but be as good Jacob: you know he was a man who lived a very contented life in a mean condition, and he said, 'Lord, if I may but have clothes to put on, and meat to eat.' He looked no higher, he was content with that. So if we would not pitch our thoughts high, and think that we might have what others have, so much and so much, we would not be troubled so much when we meet with disappointments. So Paul says, 'If we have but meat and drink and clothing, let us therewith be content.' He did not soar too high aloft. Those who look at high things in the world meet with disappointments, and so they come to be discontented. Be as high as you will in spiritual meditations; God gives liberty there to any one of you to be as high as you will, above angels. But, for your outward estate, God would not have you aim at high things; 'Seekest thou great things?' said the Lord to Baruch, 'seek them not' (
Jeremiah 45:5), you shall have your life for a prey. In these times especially, it would be a very great evil for anyone to aim at great things; seek them not, be willing to take hold low, and to creep low, and if God raises you, you will have cause to bless him, but if you should not be raised, there would not be much trouble. One who creeps low cannot fall far, but it is those who are on high whose fall bruises them most. That is a good rule: do not promise yourselves great things, neither aim at any great things in the world.
8. Labor to get your hearts mortified to the world, dead to the world. We must not content ourselves that we have gotten some reasoning about the vanity of the creature, and such things as these, but we must exercise mortification, and be crucified to the world. Paul said, 'I die daily', we should die daily to the world. We are baptized into the death of Christ, that is to signify that we have taken such a profession as to profess to be even as dead men to the world. Now no crosses that fall out in the world trouble those who are dead; if our hearts were dead to the world we should not be much troubled with the changes of the world, nor the tossings about of worldly things. It is very noteworthy in those soldiers who came to break the bones of Christ, that they broke the legs of one who was crucified with him, and of the other, but when they came to Christ, they found he was dead, and so they did not break his legs; there was a providence in it, to fulfill a prophecy, but because they found he was dead, they did not break his bones. Let afflictions and troubles find you with a mortified heart to the world, and they will not break your bones; those whose bones are broken by crosses and afflictions are those who are alive to the world, but are not dead to the world. But no afflictions or troubles will break the bones of one who has a mortified heart and is dead to the world; that is, they will not be very grievous or painful to such a one as is mortified to the world. This, I fear, is a mystery and riddle to many, for one to be dead to the world, to be mortified to the world. Now it is not my work to open to you what mortification is, or death to the world is, but only what it is to have our hearts so taken off from the things of the world, as that we use them as if we used them not, not accounting that our lives, our comforts, our happiness consist in these things. The things in which our happiness consists are of a different kind, and we may be happy with out these: this is a kind of deadness to the world.
9. Let not men and women pore too much upon their afflictions: that is, busy their thoughts too much to look down into their afflictions. You find many people, all of whose thoughts are taken up about what their crosses and afflictions are, they are altogether thinking and speaking of them. it is just with them as with a child who has a sore: his finger is always on the sore; so men's and women's thoughts are always on their afflictions. When they awake in the night their thoughts are on their afflictions, and when they converse with others-it may be even when they are praying to God-they are thinking of their afflictions. Oh, no marvel that you live a discontented life, if your thoughts are always poring over such things. You should rather labor to have your thoughts on those things that may comfort you. There are many who, if you propound any rule to them to do them good, will take it well while they are with you, and thank you for it, but when they are gone they soon forget it. It is very noteworthy of Jacob, that when his wife died in child-birth, she called the child Ben-oni, that is, a son of sorrows; but Jacob thought with himself, If I should call this child Ben-oni, every time that I name him it will put me in mind of the death of my dear wife, and of that affliction, and that will be a continued affliction to me, therefore I will not have my child have that name, and so the text says that Jacob called his name Benjamin, the son of my right hand. Now this is to show us thus much, that when afflictions befall us we should not give way to having our thoughts continually upon them, but rather upon those things that may stir up our thankfulness to God for mercies.
There is a comparison made by Basil, a learned man: It is in this case as with men and women who have sore eyes: now it is not good for them to be always looking into the fire, or at the beams of the sun. 'No', he says, 'one who has sore eyes must get things that are suitable to him, and such objects as are fit for one with such weak eyes.' Therefore they get green colors, as being a more easy color and better for weak eyes, and they hang green sarsenet before their eyes because it is more suitable to them. It is the very same with weak spirits. A man or woman who has a weak spirit must not be looking into the fire of their afflictions, upon those things that deject, that cast them down, but they ought to be looking rather on that which may be suitable for healing and helping them; they should consider those things rather than the other. It will be of very great use and benefit to you, if you lay it to heart, not to be poring always on afflictions, but on mercies.
10. I beseech you to observe this, though you should forget many of the others: Make a good interpretation of God's ways towards you. If any good interpretation can be made of God's ways towards you, make it. You think it much if you have a friend who always makes bad interpretations of your ways towards him; you would take that badly. If you should converse with people with whom you cannot speak a word, but they are ready to make a bad interpretation of it, and to take it in an ill sense, you would think their company very tedious to you. It is very tedious to the Spirit of God when we make such bad interpretations of his ways towards us. When God deals with us otherwise than we would have him do, if one sense worse than another can be put upon it, we will be sure to do it. Thus, when an affliction befalls you, many good senses may be made of God's works towards you. You should think thus: it may be, God intends only to try me by this, it may be, God saw my heart was too much set on the creature, and so he intends to show me what is in my heart, it may be, that God saw that if my wealth did continue, I should fall into sin, that the better my position were the worse my soul would be, it may be, God intended only to exercise some grace, it may be, God intends to prepare me for some great work which he has for me: thus you should reason.
But we, on the contrary, make bad interpretations of God's thus dealing with us, and say, God does not mean this; surely, the Lord means by this to manifest his wrath and displeasure against me, and this is but a furtherance of further evils that he intends toward me! Just as they did in the wilderness: 'God hath brought us hither to slay us.' This is the worst interpretation that you can possibly make of God's ways; oh, why will you make these worst interpretations, when there may be better? In
1 Corinthians 13:5, when the Scripture speaks of love, it says, 'Love thinketh no evil.' Love is of that nature that if ten interpretations may be made of a thing, nine of them bad and one good, love will take that which is good and leave the other nine. And so, though ten interpretations might be presented to you concerning God's way towards you, and if but one is good and nine bad, you should take that one which is good, and leave the other nine.
I beseech you to consider that God does not deal by you as you deal with him. Should God make the worst interpretation of all your ways towards him, as you do of his towards you, it would be very ill with you. God is pleased to manifest his love thus to us, to make the best interpretations of what we do, and therefore God puts a sense upon the action of his people that one would think could hardly be. For example, God is pleased to call those perfect who have any uprightness of heart in them, he accounteth them perfect: 'Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect'; uprightness in God's sense is perfection. Now, alas, when we look into our own hearts we can scarce see any good at all there, and yet God is pleased to make such an interpretation as to say, It is perfect. When we look into our own hearts, we can see nothing but uncleanness; God calls you his saints, he calls the meanest Christian who has the least grace under the greatest corruption his saint. You say we cannot be saint here, but yet I God's esteem we are saints. You know the usual title the Holy Ghost gives, in several of the Epistles, to those who had any grace, any uprightness, is, to the saints in such a place; you see what an interpretation God puts upon them, they are saints to him. And so I might name in many other particulars, how God makes the best interpretation of things; if there is an abundance of evil and a little good, God rather passes by the evil and takes notice of the good.
I have sometimes made use of a very notable place in Peter, concerning Sarah: Sarah had a speech to her husband in Genesis 18:12, she called her husband lord. There was only that one good word in a bad, unbelieving speech; but yet when the Apostle mentions that speech in
1 Peter 3:6, the Holy Ghost leaves all the bad, and commends her for calling her husband 'lord', for putting a reverent title upon her husband. Thus how graciously God deals with us! If there is but one good word among a great many ill, what an interpretation God makes! So should we do, if there is only one good interpretation that we can make of a thing we should rather make use of the good one than the bad. Oh, my brethren (I would I could now speak only to such as are godly), retain good thoughts of God, take heed of judging God to be a hard master, make good interpretations of his ways, and that is a special means to help you to contentment in all one's course.
11. Do not so much regard the fancies of other men, as what indeed you feel yourselves. For the reason of our discontentment many times is rather from the fancies of other men than from what we find we lack ourselves.
We think poverty to be such a great evil-Why? because it is so esteemed by others, rather then that people feel it so themselves, unless they are in an extremity of poverty. I will give you a clear demonstration that almost all the discontent in the world is rather from the fancies of others than from the evil that is on themselves. You may think your wealth to be small and you are thereupon discontented, and it is a grievous affliction to you; but if all men in the world were poorer than you, then you would not be discontented, then you would rejoice in your estates though you had not a penny more than you have. Take a man who can get but his twelve pence a day, and you will say, This is but a poor thing to maintain a family. But suppose there were no man in the world that had more than this, yea, that all other men but yourselves had somewhat less wages than you, then you would think your condition pretty good. You would have no more then than you have now; therefore it appears by this that it is rather from the fancies of other men than what you feel that makes you think your condition to be so grievous, for if all the men in the world looked upon you as happy, more happy than themselves, then you would be contented. Oh, do not let your happiness depend upon the fancies of other men. There is a saying of Chrysostom I remember in this very case: 'Let us not make the people in this case to be our lords; as we must not make men to be the lords of our faith, so not the lords of our comforts.' That is, our comfort should not depend more upon their imaginations, than upon what we feel in ourselves.
It may be, others think you to be in an afflicted condition, yea, but I thank God, for myself I do not so apprehend it. Were it not for the disgrace, disregard and slightings of other men, my condition would not be so bad to me as it is now. This is what makes my condition afflictive.
12. Be not inordinately taken up with the comforts of this world when you have them. When you have them, do not take too much satisfaction in them.
It is a certain rule: however inordinate any man or woman is in sorrow when a comfort is taken from them, so were they immoderate in their rejoicing in the comfort when they had it. For instance, God takes away a child and you are inordinately sorrowful, beyond what God allows in a natural or Christian way; now though I never knew before how your heart was towards the child, yet when I see this, though you are a mere stranger to me, I may without breach of charity conclude that your heart was immoderately set upon your child or husband, or upon any other comfort that I see you grieving for when God has taken it away. If you hear ill tidings about your estates, and your hearts are dejected immoderately, and you are in a discontented mood because of such and such a cross, certainly your hearts were immoderately set upon the world. So, likewise, for your reputation, if you hear others report this or that ill of you, and you hearts are dejected because you think you suffer in your name, your hearts were inordinately set upon your name and reputation. Now, therefore, the way for you not to be immoderate in your sorrow for afflictions is not to be immoderate in your love and delights when you have prosperity.
These are the principal directions for our help, that we may live quiet and contented lives.
My brethren, to conclude this point, if I were to tell you that I could show you a way never to be in want of anything, I do not doubt but then we should have much flocking to such a sermon, when a man should undertake to manifest to people how they should never be in want any more. But what I have been preaching to you now comes to as much. It countervails this, and is in effect all one. Is it not almost all one, never to be in want, or never to be without contentment? That man or woman who is never without a contented spirit, truly can never be said to want much. Oh, the Word holds forth a way full of comfort and peace to the people of God even in this world. You may live happy lives in the midst of all the storms and tempests in the world. There is an ark that you may come into, and no men in the world may live such comfortable, cheerful and contented lives as the saints of God. Oh, that we had learned this lesson.
I have spent many sermons over this lesson of contentment, but I am afraid that you will be longer in learning it than I have been preaching of it; it is a harder thing to learn it than it is to preach or speak of it. I remember I have read of one man reading of that place in the
39th Psalm, 'I will take heed that I offend not with my tongue'; he said, I have been these thirty-eight years learning this lesson and have not learned it thoroughly. The truth is, there are many, I am afraid, who have been professors near eight and thirty years, who have hardly learned this lesson. It would be a good lesson, for young professors to begin to learn this early. But this lesson of Christian contentment is as hard, and perhaps you may be many years learning it. I am afraid there are some Christians who have not yet learned not to offend grossly with their tongues. The Scripture says that all a man's religion is in vain if he cannot bridle his tongue; therefore one would think that those who make any profession of godliness should quickly learn this lesson, such a lesson that, unless learned, makes all their religion vain. But this lesson of Christian contentment may take more time to learn, and there are many who are learning it all the days of their lives and yet are not proficient.
But God forbid that it should be said of any of us concerning this lesson, as the Apostle says of widows, in Timothy, That they were ever learning and never came to the knowledge of the truth. Oh let us not be ever learning this lesson of contentment and yet not come to have skill in it. You would think it much if you had been at sea twenty years, and yet had attained to no skill in your art of navigation; you will say, I have used the sea twenty or thirty years and I hope I may know by this time what concerns the sea. Oh, that you would but say so in respect of the art of Christianity! When anything is spoken concerning the duty of a Christian, Oh, that Christians could but say, I have been a Christian so long, and I hope I am not wanting in a thing that is so necessary for a Christian. Here is a necessary lesson for a Christian, that Paul said, he had learned in all estate therewith to be content.
Oh, do not be content with yourselves till you have learned this lesson of Christian contentment, and have obtained some better skill in it than before.
Now there is in the text another lesson, which is a hard lesson: 'I have learned to abound.' That does not so nearly concern us at this time, because the times are afflictive times, and there is now, more than ordinarily, an uncertainty in all things in the world. In such times as these are, there are few who have such an abundance that they need to be much taught in that lesson.