Contentment: a book review

Monday, May 8, 2017

A picture of true contentment.

I've been reading a little book called The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. It's an old, old book, written by Jeremiah Burroughs (1600-1646), a Puritan.

The word "Puritan" conjures up so many negative connotations in the modern mind. It's
unfortunate that the Puritans have been so maligned and misunderstood. Not only are they doctrinally sound and a balm to the soul in these relativistic times, full of depth and insight, but they demonstrate an unexpected compassion and understanding of the human soul. Moreover, their writings are very practical and applicable, even today. 

J.I. Packer says that the Puritans are the theological and devotional Redwoods of the Western world. No surface slush here. And, wow, do their words bring conviction.

 I'm also attracted to the Puritans simply because of the beauty and richness of the old words and descriptive language in their writings. Take just the first sentence from the book:

This text contains a very timely cordial to revive the drooping spirits of the saints in these sad and sinking times. For the 'hour of temptation' has already come upon all the world to try the inhabitants of the earth. In particular, this is the day of Jacob's trouble in our own bowels.

Isn't that lovely? Don't you just want some of that cordial? And doesn't it seem perfectly relevant almost 400 years later?

Be forewarned; the Puritans can be wordy, too. If you can say something in 50 words, they love to say it in 500. 

 The book is short, though, only 144 pages. But it still takes some time to read through. I was highlighting and underlining and taking notes and then stopping to think about it all. I had to start skimming to finish the book by our book club meeting, which was actually pretty easy to do because of the way it's written.

Burroughs, like other Puritans I've read, writes in a very orderly and logical fashion. The Puritans were organized thinkers, fond of lists. Burroughs tells us what contentment is, and then follows with a list of points and several subpoints, all fleshed out with lots of detail and examples. And then he tells us what it is not, and then follows with another list. Here's how you get contentment, and then you get it broken down, point by point. 

You could say the Puritans were the original creators of the modern how-to, self-help books.

So if you need to skim, it's not hard at all. Just look for the next number in the list and read the first sentence. But I don't recommend this. There's so much meat here, you'll not want to miss anything. I'm definitely going to be re-reading this book. You could even use it as a devotional.

So what exactly does Burroughs say about contentment?

Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God's wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.

It is a "rare jewel" because of course this kind of attitude can seem impossible to have, let alone maintain.

But he patiently and logically takes us through how we might obtain this rare jewel. He cautions us that this kind of contentment is an inside job, a deep work in the heart. So many of us can appear calm and content on the outside, but if we are full of anxieties on the inside, we know we are lacking this "sweet, inward, quiet frame of spirit."

He urges us to imitate Paul in saying, "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances." (Phil. 4:11.)

Much of the book seems geared to helping people who have lost material possessions or are poor in this world, but his advice can be applied to all areas in which we are struggling with discontent. When prayers are not answered. When things aren't going the way we want.

Here are just a few of the gems scattered throughout the book.

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 as 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. 

If I followed this one piece of advice, how much more content might I be? How many times do I run around doing something on my own, without questioning whether or not I'm called to it?

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.

There is so much wisdom in the first part of this admonition, but the second part particularly struck me in light of the nastiness surrounding the recent election. How much anxiety and fear and discontent have I suffered in the past year just by taking in too much news and social media?

Burroughs tell us that a contented heart is "opposed to distracting, heart-consuming cares." Such a person should "not allow the fear and noise of evil tidings to take such a hold in his soul as to make a division and struggling there."

A well-tempered spirit may enquire after things outside in the world, and suffer some ordinary cares and fears to break into the suburbs of the soul, so as to touch lightly upon the thoughts. Yet it will not on any account allow an intrusion into the private room, which should be wholly reserved for Jesus Christ in his inward temple. (emphasis mine)

While Burroughs reminds us that "vexing and fretting" and "tumultuousness of spirit" are wrong, he assures us that we need not turn into stoic martyrs. There is a place to "unbosom" our hearts to God, and "communicate his (our) sad condition to our Christian friends" so that they may comfort us.

He also stresses that we can make all "lawful seeking for help . . . to be delivered out of our present afflictions." 

But sometimes we have to live in circumstances that we can't change. How do we experience that deep, soul-satisfying contentment then?

Like a wise and experienced guide, Burroughs leads us through, step by step, and shows us how. 

To be content as a result of some external thing is like warming a man's clothes by the fire. But to be content through an inward disposition of the soul is like the warmth that a man's clothes have from the natural heat of the body.

I have only scratched the surface of this little, but very rich book. If you'd like to read it yourself, you can find it on Amazon. Or read it online for free here. Beware, though, that it has been poorly proofread; you will find some typos throughout the book.

Anybody out there admire the Puritans as I do? Found help from their writings? Found other helpful books on this subject?

12 comments :

  1. I have read quite a bit of William Bradford's writings, but had been ignorant of other writings available. I will be checking into this as a result your recommendation. I agree that Puritans are not well understood and often maligned, but then there's a whole lot of that going on in today's political climate.

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  2. I like what Packer said about the redwoods. True. Have you read 'Valley of Vision' (a collection of Puritan prayer and devotions, categorized). I'll check into this book. I'm always loving to check on book recommendations if it's on a topic I love. Thanks.

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  3. Wow! There's so much here to delight the mind and the soul. I often think about the difference between being "happy" and being "content," and I've concluded that happiness is a feeling that is usually short lived, but contentment is a state that will last if we are properly grateful for all the wonderful little things that make it possible, such as delighting in the purr of a sleeping cat.

    Lovely post, Deborah.

    Cheers, M-T

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  4. I think every group has been misunderstood at some point. It's the case of not agreeing with one, because they're not like the others. I honestly didn't know much about the puritans, but from what I looked up, they were basically Episcopalians, which is kind of like the Church of England. My mother is a high Episcopal, so I should know this lol Anyway, the book definitely sounds interesting.

    The shower turned out lovely and I'll bet the bride to be was really pleased :)

    xo,
    rue

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  5. Very interesting, Deborah. I am curious as to how this particular book came on the radar of your book club? Some of the statements really gave me pause, and I have a family member who I think would especially enjoy this read. Thank you for the review.

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  6. Sounds like some great thoughts there, Deborah. I could definitely benefit from some contentment in my life and will need to check into this book. Thank you for sharing it with us, and also your views on it.

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  7. What a book! Sad to say, I have never even heard of this author. I do love the rich, old language of writers of that period. What is amazing to me is that no matter how much time changes things- underneath they remain the same in so many ways. xo Diana

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  8. I think this book would be good for a Bible Study, lots to learn and discuss.
    Isn't it nice that religion, and this book can be discussed freely?

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  9. Dearest Deborah,
    Guess that the early teachings we had about being content, are the wisest lessons taught.
    Nowadays the younger generations want only instant gratification and they perceive happiness as a different measure.
    Sad! There is a Dutch writer, Nol van Roessel who got named the Contente Mens (human) by his way of writing. There even is a statue in Eersel, a city in Brabant/The Netherlands with the contente mens.
    So in our culture we have been raised more or less like that.
    A farmer on Sunday, after going to Mass and in his best clothes overlooking his fields and being content!
    Wish this could be still passed on to the young generation!
    Hugs,
    Mariette

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  10. I actually have this book. It is one I read many times over. Thank you for reviewing it here. And for not turning aside from the Puritans because of modern day bashing of them.

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  11. Hi Deborah, I have not heard of this author but the details of this writing is interesting. Contentment in life is something we have to arrive up to to appreciate I think. Happiness doesn't come without being content in my view. In fact in church today the sermon was built around how so many put lots of stock into self improvement and then becoming more self centered rather then putting GOD's direction and search first. It gave much to think about in a world that truly has become very self centered. Our pastor said, in the end those very folks are found to be the most depressed in our society. Not sure this has a lot to do with your book review but in the end, giving back and putting others first is another way to have contentment and happiness. Thank you for sharing this review.
    Wishing you a Happy Mother's Day sweet lady. xo

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  12. I'm glad I pushed further back from your current post to read this. I enjoy reading from and about the Puritans and I think this might work for our book club. I appreciate your review of it and the wisdom your shared from it.

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