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The Art of Divine Contentment, pt. 4
by Thomas Watson (1620-1686)
[Here, we continue 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).
Uses of the Doctrine
Use 1. It shows us how a Christian may come to lead a comfortable life, even a heaven upon earth, be the times what they will; namely, by Christian contentment (see Prov. 15:13). The comfort of life does not stand in having much; it is Christ’s maxim, “Man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth,” (Luke 12:15); but it is in being contented. Is not the bee as well contented with sucking from a flower, as the ox that grazes on the mountains? Contentment lies within a man, in the heart: and the way to be comfortable, is not by having our barns filled, but our minds quiet. The contented man, said Seneca, is the happy man: discontent is a fretting humor which dries the brains, wastes the spirits, corrodes and eats out the comfort of life. Discontentment keeps a man from enjoying what he possesses. A drop or two of vinegar will sour a whole glass of wine. Let a man have the affluence and confluence of worldly comforts, a drop or two of discontent will embitter and poison all. Comfort depends upon contentment; Jacob went halting when the sinew upon the hollow of his thigh shrank; so when the sinew of contentment begins to shrink, we go halting in our comforts. Contentment is as necessary to keep the life comfortable, as oil is necessary to keep the lamp burning; the clouds of discontent do often drop the showers of tears. Would we have comfort in our lives? We may have it if we will. A Christian may carve out what condition he will to himself. Why do you complain of your troubles? It is not trouble that troubles, but discontentment; it is not the water without the ship, but the water that gets within the leak which sinks it: it is not outward affliction that can make the life of a Christian sad; a contented mind would sail above these waters; but when there is a leak of discontent open, and trouble gets into the heart, then it is disquieted and sinks. Do therefore as the mariners, pump the water out, and stop this spiritual leak in the soul; and no trouble can hurt you.
Use 2. Here is a just reproof to such as are discontented with their condition. This disease is almost epidemical. Some not content with their callings which God has set them in, must be a step higher, from the plough to the throne; who, like the spider in the Proverbs, will take hold with their hands, and be in kings’ palaces (see Prov. 20:28); others from the shop to the pulpit; they would be in the temple of honor, before they are in the temple of virtue; who step into Moses’ chair, without Aaron’s bells and pomegranates; like apes, which do most show their deformity when they are climbing. Is it not enough that God has bestowed gifts upon men in private to edify, that He has enriched them with many mercies; but must they seek the priesthood also? (see Num. 16:9). What is this but discontentment arising from high-flown pride? These do secretly tax the wisdom of God, that He has not screwed them up in their condition a peg higher. Every man is complaining that his estate is no better, though he seldom complains that his heart is no better. One man commends this kind of life, another commends that; one man thinks a country life best, another a city life. The soldier thinks it best to be a merchant, and the merchant to be a soldier. Men can be content to be anything but what God will have them be. How is it that no man is contented? Very few Christians have learned Paul’s lesson. Neither poor, nor rich know how to be content; they can learn anything but this.
1. If men are poor, they learn to be, (1.) Envious: they malign those that are above them. Another’s prosperity is an eye-sore. When God’s candle shines upon their neighbor’s tabernacle, this light offends them. In the midst of wants, men can, in this sense, abound, namely, in envy and malice: an envious eye is an evil eye. (2.) They learn to be querulous, still complaining as if God had dealt hardly with them; they are ever telling of their wants: they want this and that comfort; whereas, their greatest want is a contented spirit. They are well enough content with their sins, yet are not content with their condition.
2. If men are rich, they learn to be covetous; thirsting insatiably after the world, and by any unjust means scraping it together; “their right hand is full of bribes,” as the psalmist expresses it (see Ps. 26:20). Put a good cause in one scale, and a piece of gold in the other and the gold weighs heaviest. There are, said Solomon, four things that never say, “It is enough” (see Prov. 30:15). I may add a fifth, namely, the heart of a covetous man. So that neither poor nor rich know how to be content.
Never certainly since the creation did this sin of discontent reign or rather rage more than in our times; never was God more dishonored. You can hardly speak with any, but the passion of his tongue betrays the discontent of his heart: every one lisps out his trouble, and here even the stammering tongue speaks too freely and fluently.
If we have not what we desire, we become sick with discontent, and are ready to die out of a humor. If God will not forgive the people of Israel for their lusts, they bid Him take their lives; they must have quails to their manna. Ahab, though a king, (and one would think his crown lands had been sufficient for him), yet is sullen and discontented for want of Naboth’s vineyard. Jonah, though a good man and a prophet, yet is ready to die (see Jonah 4:8); and because God killed his gourd, “Kill me too”, said he. Rachel said, “Give me children, or else I die”; she had many blessings, if she could have seen them, but wanted this to be content. God will supply our wants, but must He satisfy our lusts too? Many are discontented for a very trifle; another has a better dress, a richer jewel, a newer fashion. Nero, not content with his empire, was troubled that the musicians had more skill in playing than he: how fantastic are some, that pine away in discontent for the want of those things, which if they had would but render them more ridiculous!
Use 3. It exhorts us to labor for contentment; this is that which beautifies and bespangles a Christian, and as a spiritual embroidery, sets him off in the eyes of the world.
But methinks I hear some bitterly complaining, and saying to me, “Alas, how is it possible to be contented?”; the Lord “hath made my chain heavy” (Lam. 3:7); He has cast me into a very sad condition!
Answer. There is no sin, but labors either to hide itself under some mask; or, if it cannot be concealed, then to vindicate itself by some excuses. This sin of discontent I find very skillful in its excuses, which I shall first discover, and then make a reply. We must lay it down for a rule, that discontent is a sin, so that all the pretences and excuses wherewith it labors to justify itself, are but the painting and dressing of a strumpet.
[In the next issue, Mr. Watson will begin enumerating, and giving answers to excuses for being discontented.]