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Having concluded our study of the lessons we are to learn, we come to the next sub-division, which is, the excellence of this grace of contentment .
There is, indeed, a great deal of excellence in contentment; that is, as it were, another lesson for us to learn.
The apostle says ‘I have learned’, as if he should say: Blessed be God for this! Oh! it is a mercy of God to me that I have learned this lesson, I find so much good in this contentment, that I would not for a world be without it. ‘I have learned it’, he says.
Now even the heathen philosophers had a sight of the great excellence that is in contentment. I remember reading of Antisthenes, who desired of his gods (speaking after the heathenish way) nothing in this world to make his life happy but contentment, and if he might have anything that he would desire to make his life happy, he would ask of them that he might have the spirit of Socrates, to be able to bear any wrong, any injuries that he met with, and to continue in a quiet temper of spirit whatsoever befell him; for that was the temper of Socrates: whatever befell him he continued the same man, whatever cross befell him, however great, nobody could perceive any alteration of his spirit. This a heathen attained to by the strength of nature, and a common work of the Spirit. now Antisthenes saw such an excellence in this spirit that, as Solomon when God said to him: ‘What shall I give thee?’ asked of him wisdom, so he said: ‘If the gods should put it to me to know what I would have, I would desire this thing, that I might have the spirit of Socrates.’ He saw what a great excellence there was in this; and certainly a Christian may see an abundance of excellence in it. I shall labor to set it out to you in this chapter that you might be in love with this grace of contentment. 1. By contentment we come to give God the worship that is due to him . It is a special part of the divine worship that we owe to God, to be content in a Christian way, as has been shown to you. I say it is a special part of the divine worship that the creature owes to the infinite Creator, in that I tender the respect that is due from me to the Creator. The word that the Greeks have that signifies, ‘to worship’ is the same as to come and crouch before someone, as if a dog should come crouching to you, and be willing to lie down at your feet. So the creature in the apprehension of its own baseness, and the infinite excellence that is in God above it, when it comes to worship God, comes and crouches to this God, and lies down at the feet of God: then the creature worships God. When you see a dog come crouching to you, and by holding your hand over him, you can make him lie down at your feet, then consider, thus should you do before the Lord: you should come crouching to him, and lie down at his feet, even on your backs or bellies, to lie down in the dust before him so as to be willing that he should do with you what he will. Just as sometimes you may turn a dog this way or that way, up and down, with your hand, and there he lies before you, according to your showing him with your hand; so when the creature shall come and lie down thus before the Lord, then a creature worships God and tenders the worship that is due to him. Now in what disposition of heart do we thus crouch to God more than when we have this state of contentment in all the conditions that God disposes us to? This is crouching to God’s disposal, to be like the poor woman of Canaan, who when Christ said, ‘It is not fit to give children’s meat to dogs’, said ‘The dogs have crumbs’, I am a dog I confess, but let me have only a crumb. And so when the soul shall be in such a disposition as to lie down and say, ‘Lord, I am but as a dog, yet let me have a crumb’, then it highly honors God. It may be that some of you have not your table spread as others have, but God gives you crumbs; now, says the poor woman, dogs have crumbs, and when you can find your hearts thus submitting to God, to be but as a dog, and can be contented and bless God for any crumb, I say this is a great worship of God.
You worship God more by this than when you come to hear a sermon, or spend half an hour, or an hour, in prayer, or when you come to receive a sacrament. These are the acts of God’s worship, but they are only external acts of worship, to hear and pray and receive sacraments. But this is the soul’s worship, to subject itself thus to God. You who often will worship God by hearing, and praying, and receiving sacraments, and yet afterwards will be froward and discontented - know that God does not regard such worship, he will have the soul’s worship, in this subjecting of the soul unto God. Note this, I beseech you: in active obedience we worship God by doing what pleases God, but by passive obedience we do as well worship God by being pleased with what God does. now when I perform a duty, I worship God, I do what pleases God; why should I not as well worship God when I am pleased with what God does? As it was said of Christ’s obedience: Christ was active in his passive obedience, and passive in his active obedience; so the saints are passive in their active obedience, they are first passive in the reception of grace, and then active. And when they come to passive obedience, they are active, they put forth grace in active obedience. When they performed actions to God, then the soul says: ‘Oh! that I could do what pleases God!’ When they come to suffer any cross: ‘Oh, that what God does might please me!’ I labor to do what pleases God, and I labor that what God does shall please me: here is a Christian indeed, who shall endeavor both these. It is but one side of a Christian to endeavor to do what pleases God; you must as well endeavor to be pleased with what God does, and so you will come to be a complete Christian when you can do both, and that is the first thing in the excellence of this grace of contentment. 2. IN CONTENTMENT THERE IS MUCH EXERCISE OF GRACE.
There is much strength of grace, yea, there is much beauty of grace in contentment; there is much exercise of grace, strength of grace, and beauty of grace: I put all these together. 1. Much exercise of grace . There is a compound of grace in contentment: there is faith, and there is humility, and love, and there is patience, and there is wisdom, and there is hope; almost all graces are compounded. It is an oil which has the ingredients of every kind of grace; and therefore, though you cannot see the particular grace; yet in this oil you have it all.
God sees the graces of his Spirit exercised in a special manner, and this pleases God at the heart to see the graces of his Spirit exercised. In one action that you do you may exercise one grace especially, but in contentment you exercise a great many graces at once. 2. There is a great deal of strength of grace in contentment. It argues a great deal of strength in the body for it to be able to endure hard weather and whatever comes, and yet not to be much altered by it; so it argues strength of grace to be content. You who complain of weakness of memory, of weakness of gifts, you cannot do what others do in other things; but have you this gracious heart-contentment, that has been explained to you? I know that you have attained to strength of grace in this, when it is as spiritual as has been shown to you in the explication of this point. If a man is distempered in his body, and has many obstructions, has an ill stomach, and his spleen and liver obstructed, and yet for all this his brain is not disordered, it is an argument of a great strength of brain; though many evil fumes may arise from his corrupt stomach, yet still his brain is not disordered but he continues in the free exercise of his reason and understanding. Every one may understand that this man has a very strong brain, when such things do not upset him. If other people who have a weak brain do not digest but one meal’s meat, the fumes that arise from their stomach disorder their brain and make them unfit for everything, whereas these have strong heads, and strong brains, and though their stomachs are ill and they cannot digest meat, yet they still have the free use of their brain: this, I say, argues strength. So it is in a man’s spirit: you find many who have weak spirits, and if they have any ill fumes, if accidents befall them, you will soon find them out of temper; but there are other men, who though things fume up, still keep in a steady way, and have the use of reason and of their graces, and possess their souls in patience.
I remember it is reported of the eagle that it is not like other fowls: when other fowls are hungry they make a noise; but the eagle is never heard to make noise though it lacks food. Now it is from the magnitude of its spirit that it will not make such complaints as other fowls do when they lack food, because it is above hunger, and above thirst. Similarly it is an argument of a gracious magnitude of spirit, that whatsoever befalls it, yet it is not always whining and complaining as others do, but it goes on in its way and course, and blesses God, and keeps in a constant tenor whatever befalls it. Such things as cause others to be dejected and fretted and vexed, and take away all the comfort of their lives make no alteration at all in the spirits of these men and women. This, I say, is a sign of a great deal of strength of grace. 3. It is also an argument of a great deal of beauty of grace . There is a saying of Seneca, a heathen, ‘When you go out into groves and woods, and see the tallness of the trees and their shadows, it strikes a kind of awful fear of a deity in you, and when you see the vast rivers and fountains and deep waters, that strikes a kind of fear of a God in you, but’, he said, ‘do you see a man who is quiet in tempests, and who lives happily in the midst of adversities, why do not you worship that man?’ He thinks him a man worthy of such honor who will be quiet and live a happy life, though in the midst of adversities. The glory of God appears here more than in any of his works. There is no work which God has made - the sun, moon, stars and all the world - in which so much of the glory of God appears as in a man who lives quietly in the midst of adversity. That was what convinced the king: when he saw that the three children could walk in the midst of the fiery furnace and not be touched, the king was mightily convinced by this, that surely their God was the great God indeed, and that they were highly beloved of their God who could walk in the midst of the furnace and not be touched, whereas the others who came only to the mouth of the furnace were devoured. So when a Christian can walk in the midst of fiery trials, without his garments being singed, and has comfort and joy in the midst of everything (when like Paul in the stocks he can sing, which wrought upon the jailor) it will convince men, when they see the power of grace in the midst of afflictions. When they can behave themselves in a gracious and holy manner in such afflictions as would make others roar: Oh, this is the glory of a Christian.
It is what is said to be the glory of Christ, (for it is thought by interpreters to be meant of Christ) in Micah 5:5: ‘And this man shall be the peace when the Assyrian shall come into our land, and when he shall tread in our palaces.’
This man shall be the peace when the Assyrian shall come into our land - for one to be in peace when there are no enemies is no great thing, but the text says, when the Assyrian shall come into our land, then this man shall be the peace. That is, when all shall be in a hubbub and uproar, yet then this man shall be peace. That is the trial of grace, when you find Jesus Christ to be peace in your hearts when the Assyrian shall come into the land. You may think you find peace in Christ when you have no outward troubles, but is Christ your peace when the Assyrian comes into the land, when the enemy comes? Suppose you should hear the enemy come marching to the city and they had taken the works, and were plundering, what would be your peace?
Jesus Christ would be peace to the soul when the enemy comes into the city, and into your houses. If any of you have been where the enemy has come, what has been the peace of your souls? What is said of Christ may be applied to this grace of contentment: when the Assyrian, the plunderers, the enemies, when any affliction, trouble, distress befalls such a heart, then this grace of contentment bring peace to the soul; it brings peace to the soul at the time when the Assyrian comes into the land. The grace of contentment is an excellent grace: there is much beauty, much strength in it, there is a great deal of worth in this grace, and therefore be in love with it. 3. BY CONTENTMENT THE SOUL IS FITTED TO RECEIVE MERCY, AND TO DO SERVICE.
I will put these two together: contentment makes the soul fit to receive mercy, and to do service. No man or woman in the world is as fit to receive the grace of God, and to do the work of God, as those who have contented spirits. Those who are contented are fitted to receive mercy from the Lord . If you want a vessel to take in any liquor, you must hold it still for if the vessel stirs and shakes up and down, you cannot pour in anything, but you will say, ‘Hold still’, that you may pour it in and not lose any. So if we would be vessels to receive God’s mercy, and would have the Lord pour his mercy into us, we must have quiet, still hearts. We must not have hearts hurrying up and down in trouble, discontent and vexing, but still and quiet hearts, if we receive mercy from the Lord. If a child throws and kicks up and down for a thing, you do not give it him when he cries so, but first you will have the child quiet. Even though, perhaps, you intend him to have what he cries for, you will not give it him till he is quiet, and comes, and stands still before you, and is contented without it, and then you will give it him. And truly so does the Lord deal with us, for our dealings with him are just as your froward children’s are with you. As soon as you want a thing from God, if you cannot have it you are disquieted at once and all in an uproar, as it were, in your spirits. God intends mercy to you, but he says, ‘You shall not have it yet, I will see you quiet first, and then in the quietness of your hearts come to me, and see what I will do with you.’ I appeal to you who are in any way acquainted with the ways of God, have you not found this to be the way of God towards you/ When you were troubled for want, perhaps, of some spiritual comfort and your hearts were vexed at it, you got nothing from God all that while; but if you have got your heart into a quiet frame, and can say, ‘Well, it is right that the Lord should do with his poor creatures what he will, I am under his feet, and am resolved to do what I can to honor him, and whatever he does with me, I will seek him as long as I live, I will be content with what God gives, and whether he gives or not I will be content.’ ‘Are you in this frame?’ says God, ‘now you shall have comfort, now I will give you the mercy.’
A prisoner must not think he will get rid of his chains by pulling and tearing; he may gall his flesh and rend it to the very bone, but certainly he will not be unfettered sooner. If he wants his fetters taken off he must quietly give up himself to some man to take them off. If a beggar knocks once or twice at the door and you do not come, and thereupon he is vexed and troubled and thinks it much that you let him stand a little while without anything, you think that this beggar is not fit to receive an alms. But if you hear two or three beggars at your door, and out of your window you hear them say, ‘Let us be content to stay, perhaps they are busy, it is right that we should stay, it is well if we get anything in the end, we deserve nothing at all, and therefore we may well wait a while’, you would then quickly send them an alms. So God deals with the heart: when it is in a disquiet mood then God does not give; but when the heart lies down quietly under God’s hand, then is it in a fit frame to receive mercy. ‘Your strength shall be to sit still,’ says God, ‘you shall not be delivered from Babylon but by your sitting still.’ 4. AS CONTENTMENT MAKES FIT TO RECEIVE MERCY, SO FIT TO DO SERVICE.
O the quiet fruits of righteousness, the peaceable fruits of righteousness!
They indeed prosper and multiply most when they come to be peaceable fruits of righteousness. As the philosophers say of everything that moves, nothing moves but upon something that is immovable. A thing which moves upon the earth, could not move if the earth were not still.