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The Art of Divine Contentment, pt. 1

by Thomas Watson (1620-1686)


[Here, we begin a study by Thomas Watson, concerning being content with the life that our loving God has made for us.]—Ed.


I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content (Philippians 4:11, AV). 


Introduction to the Text


These words are brought in to anticipate and prevent an objection.  The apostle had, in the former verses, laid down many grave and heavenly exhortations; among the rest, to be “careful for nothing,” (Phil. 4:6).  This does not exclude,  1. A prudential care.  For, he that provides not for his own house, “hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel,” (I Tim. 5:8).  Nor,  2. A religious care:  for we must give all diligence to make our calling and election sure (see II Pet. 1:10).  But, 3. To exclude all anxious care about the issues and events of things; “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat,” (Matt. 6:25); and in this sense it should be a Christian’s care not to be careful.  The word in the Greek, “careful”, comes from a primitive that signifies, to cut the heart in pieces, a soul-dividing care:  take heed of this.  We are told to commit our way unto the Lord (see Ps. 37:5):  the Hebrew word is, “Roll thy way upon the Lord.”  It is our work to cast care (see I Pet. 5:7), and it is God’s work to take care.  By our immoderate anxiety we take His work out of His hand.

Care, when it is either distrustful or distracting, is very dishonorable to God:  it takes away His providence, as if He sat in heaven, and minded not what became of things here below; like a man that makes a clock, and then leaves it to go of itself.  Immoderate care takes the heart off from better things; and usually while we are thinking how we shall do to live, we forget how to die.  Care is a spiritual canker, that wastes and dispirits; and to what purpose?  We may sooner by our care add a furlong to our grief, than a foot to our comfort.  God threatens it as a curse:  “They shall eat their bread with carefulness,” (Ezek. 12:19):  better fast, than eat of that bread.  “Be careful for nothing” (Phil. 4:6).

Now lest anyone should say, “Yea, Paul, you preach that to us, which you have scarce learned yourself; have you learned not to be careful?”  The apostle seems tacitly to answer that, in the words of the text:  “I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”  A speech worthy to be engraven upon our hearts, and to be written in letters of gold upon the crowns and diadems of princes.  The text branches itself into these two general parts.

I.  The scholar, Paul:  “I have learned.”

II. The lesson:  “In every state to be content.”

I begin with the first.  I. The scholar, and his proficiency; “I have learned.”  Out of which I shall, in passing, observe by way of paraphrase, that the apostle does not say, “I have heard, that in every estate I should be content,” but, “I have learned.”  Whence we learn, that it is not enough for Christians to hear their duty, but they must learn their duty.  It is one thing to hear, and another thing to learn; as it is one thing to eat, and another thing to digest food.  Paul was a practitioner.  Christians hear much, but, it is feared, learn little.  There were four sorts of ground in the parable in Luke 8:5–8, and but one good ground; an emblem of this truth:  Many hearers, but few learners.

There are two things which keep us from learning:

1. Slighting what we hear.  Christ is the pearl of price:  when we disesteem this pearl, we shall never learn, either its value, or its virtue.  The gospel is a rare mystery; in one place it is called, “The gospel of grace” (Acts 20:24); in another, “The gospel of glory” (II Cor. 4:4), because in it, as in a transparent glass, the glory of God is resplendent:  but he that has learned to contemn this mystery, will hardly ever learn to obey it.  He that looks upon the things of heaven as things by-the-by, and perhaps the driving of a trade, or carrying on some politic design, to be of greater importance, this man is in the high road to damnation and will hardly ever learn the things of his peace.  Who will learn that which he thinks is scarce worth learning?

2. Forgetting what we hear.  If a scholar have his rules laid before him, and he forgets them as fast as he reads them, he will never learn (see James 1:23–24).  Aristotle calls the memory the scribe of the soul; and Bernard calls it the stomach of the soul, because it hath a retentive faculty, and turns heavenly food into blood and spirits.  We have great memories in other things.  We remember that which is vain.  Cyrus, it is said, could remember every soldier in his huge army.  We remember injuries.  This is to fill a precious cabinet with dung; but, as Jerome said, “How soon do we forget the sacred truths of God!”  We are apt to forget three things—our faults, our friends, our instructions.  Many Christians are like sieves; put a sieve into the water and it is full, but take it forth of the water, and all runs out:  so, while they are hearing a sermon, they remember something; but, take the sieve out of the water, as soon as they are gone out of the church, all is forgotten.  “Let these sayings,” said Christ, “sink down into your ears” (Luke 9:44):  in the original it is, “Put these sayings into your ears”; as a man that would hide a jewel from being stolen, locks it up safe in his chest.  Let them sink; the word must not only fall as dew that wets the leaf, but as rain which soaks to the root of the tree, and makes it fructify.  Oh, how often does Satan, that fowl of the air, pick up the good seed that is sown!

Use.  Let me put you upon a serious trial.  Some of you have heard much; you have lived forty, fifty, sixty years, under the blessed trumpet of the gospel; what have you learned?  You may have heard a thousand sermons, and yet not have learned one.  Search your consciences.

You have heard much against sin:  are you hearers? Or are you scholars?

How many sermons have you heard against covetousness, that it is the root on which pride, idolatry, treason do grow? (see I Tim. 6:6–10).  One calls it a metropolitan sin:  it twists a great many sins in with it.  There is hardly any sin, but covetousness is a main ingredient in it; and yet men are like the two daughters of the horse-leech, that cry, “Give, give.”  How much have you heard against rash anger, that it is a short frenzy, a dry drunkenness; that it rests in the bosom of fools (see Eccl. 7:9); and upon the least occasion do your spirits begin to take fire?  How much have you heard against swearing?  It is Christ’s express mandate, “Swear not at all,” (Matt. 5:34).  This sin of all others may be termed the “unfruitful work of darkness,” (Eph. 5:11).  It is neither sweetened with pleasure, nor enriched with profit, the usual vermilion wherewith Satan paints sin.  Swearing is forbidden with a curse.  While the swearer shoots his oaths, like flying arrows, at God, to pierce His glory, God shoots a flying roll of curses against him (see Zech. 5:2–4):  and do you make your tongue a racket, by which you toss oaths as tennis-balls?  Do you sport yourselves with oaths as the Philistines did with Samson, which will at last pull the house about your ears?  Alas!  How have they learned what sin is, that have not yet learned to leave sin!  Does he know what a viper is, that plays with it?

You have heard much of Christ; have you learned Christ?  The Jews, as one said, carried Christ in their Bibles, but not in their hearts; “their sound went into all the earth” (see Rom. 10:18).  The prophets and apostles were as trumpets, whose sound went abroad into the world; yet many thousands who heard the noise of these trumpets, had not learned Christ, “They have not all obeyed,” (Rom. 10:16). 

A man may know much of Christ, and yet not learn Christ.  Even the devils knew Christ (see Mark 1:34).

A man may preach Christ, and yet not learn Christ; as Judas and the false apostles (see Phil. 1:15).

A man may profess Christ, and yet not learn Christ.  There are many professors in the world whom Christ will profess against (see Matt. 7:23).

Question.  What is it then to learn Christ?

Answer.  1. To learn Christ is to be made like Christ; when the Divine characters of His holiness are engraven upon our hearts.  “We all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image” (II Cor. 3:18).  There is a metamorphosis made; a sinner viewing Christ’s image in the glass of the gospel, is transformed into that image.  Never did any man look upon Christ with a spiritual eye, but he went away quite changed.  A true saint is a divine landscape or picture, where all the true beauties of Christ are portrayed in a lively manner and drawn forth.  He hath the same spirit, the same judgment, the same will with Jesus Christ. 

2. To learn Christ is to believe in Him, as our Lord and our God (see John 20:28).  When we do not only believe God, but in God; which is the actual application of Christ to ourselves, and, as it were, the spreading of the sacred medicine of His blood upon our souls.  You that have heard much of Christ, and yet cannot with an humble adherence say, “My Jesus”; be not offended if I tell you, the devil can say his creed as well as you.

3.  To learn Christ is to live Christ.  When we have Bible conversations, our lives, as rich diamonds, cast a sparkling luster in the church of God (see Phil. 1:27); and are, in some sense, parallel with the life of Christ, as the transcript with the original.  So much for the first notion of the word.

This expression, “I have learned,” imports difficulty; it shows with what difficulty the apostle came by his contentment of mind; it did not spring up naturally.  Paul did not come naturally by it, but he had learned it.  It cost him many a prayer and tear; it was taught him by the Spirit.  Whence we learn that, good things are hard to obtain.  The business of religion is not so easy as most do imagine.  “I have learned,” said Paul.  Indeed you need not teach a man to sin; this is natural (see Ps. 58:3), and therefore easy; it comes as water out of a spring.  It is an easy thing to be wicked; hell will be taken without storm, but religion must be learned.  To cut the flesh is easy; but to prick a vein, and not to cut an artery, is hard.  The trade of sin needs not to be learned, but the art of divine contentment is not achieved without holy industry; “I have learned.”

There are two reasons why there must be so much study and exercitation.

1.  Because spiritual things are against nature.  Everything in religion is antipodes to nature.  There are in religion things to be believed and to be done, and both are against nature.  Matters of faith, such as, for a man to be justified by the righteousness of another, to become a fool that he may be wise, to save all by losing all; these are against nature.  And, matters of practice, such as, (1.) Self-denial:  for a man to deny his own wisdom, and see himself blind; his own will, and have it melted into the will of God; plucking out the right eye, beheading and crucifying that sin, which is the favorite, and lies nearest to the heart; for a man to be dead to the world, and in the midst of want to abound; for him to take up the cross, and follow Christ, not only in golden, but bloody paths; to embrace religion when it is dressed in its plainest clothes, all the jewels of honor and preferment being pulled off:  this is against nature, and therefore must be learned.  (2.)  Self-examination.  For a man to take his heart, as a watch, all in pieces; to set up a spiritual inquisition, or court of conscience, and traverse things in his own soul; to take David’s candle and lantern (see Ps. 119:105), and search for sin; nay, as judge, to pass the sentence upon himself (see II Sam. 24:17):  this is against nature, and will not easily be attained to without learning.  (3.)  Self-reformation.  To see a man, as Caleb, of another spirit, walking antipodes to himself, the current of his life altered, and running into the channel of religion; this is wholly against nature.  When a stone ascends, it is not a natural, but a violent motion:  the motion of the soul heavenward is a violent motion, it must be learned; flesh and blood is not skilled in these things.  Nature can no more cast out nature, than Satan can cast out Satan.

2.  Because spiritual things are above nature.  There are some things in nature that are hard to find out, as the causes of things, which are not learned without study.  Aristotle, a great philosopher (whom some have called an eagle fallen from the clouds), yet could not find out the motion of the river Euripus, therefore he threw himself into it.  What then are divine things, which are in a sphere above nature, and beyond all human disquisition, such as the Trinity, the hypostatical union, the mystery of faith to believe against hope?  Only God’s Spirit can light our candle.  The apostle calls these “the deep things of God” (see I Cor. 2:10).  The gospel is full of jewels, but they are locked up from sense and reason.  The angels in heaven are searching into these sacred depths (see I Pet. 1:12).

Use.  Let us beg the Spirit of God to teach us.  We must be Divinely instructed.  The eunuch could read, but he could not understand, till Philip joined himself to his chariot (see Acts 8:29).  God’s Spirit must join himself to our chariot; He must teach, or we cannot learn:  “All thy children shall be taught of the Lord” (Isa. 54:13).  A man may read the figure on the dial, but he cannot tell how the day goes, unless the sun shine upon the dial:  we may read the Bible over, but we cannot learn to purpose till the spirit of God shine into our hearts (see II Cor. 4:6).  Oh, implore this blessed Spirit; it is God’s royal prerogative to teach.  “I am the Lord thy God which teacheth thee to profit” (Isa. 48:17).  Ministers may tell us our lesson; God only can teach us.  We have lost both our hearing and eye-sight, therefore are very unfit to learn.  Ever since Eve listened to the serpent, we have been deaf; and since she looked on the tree of knowledge, we have been blind:  but when God comes to teach, He removes these impediments (see Isa. 35:5).  We are naturally dead (see Eph. 2:1).  Who will go about to teach a dead man?  Yet behold, God undertakes to make dead men to understand mysteries!  God is the grand Teacher.  This is the reason the word preached works so differently upon men.  Where two are in a pew, the one is wrought upon effectually, the other lies at the ordinances as a dead child at the breast, and gets no nourishment.  What is the reason?  Because the heavenly gale of the Spirit blows upon one, and not upon the other.  One has the anointing of God, which teaches him all things (see I John 2:27); the other has it not.  God’s Spirit speaks sweetly, but irresistibly.  In that heavenly doxology, none could sing the new song, but those who were sealed in their foreheads (see Rev. 14:1); reprobates could not sing it.  Those that are skillful in the mysteries of salvation, must have the seal of the Spirit upon them.  Let us make this our prayer, Lord: breathe Thy Spirit into Thy word.  And we have a promise, which may add wings to prayer, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children:  how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?” (Luke 11:13).