Jeremiah Burroughs. The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (1648).
“There is no work which God has made . . . in which so much of the glory of God appears as in a man who lives quietly in the midst of adversity” (122).
Jeremiah Burroughs (1599-1646) is one of the lesser-known “dead white guys” whose sermonic writings endure for the edification of the believer. Burroughs, educated at Cambridge, preached to congregations in London among other places and was a part of the great Westminster Assembly, which restructured the Anglican church and to which we owe the famous Westminster Confession. This little volume is a collection of Burroughs’s teachings on contentment.
There should be two prerequisites for reading this work. One, readiness for some hard truths. A serious look at contentment is a challenge to the soul. If we haven’t felt the prick of conviction in a while, a serious reading of his descriptions of the contented state and its value to the soul can be powerful. An example: “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” (120). The second requirement is probably a belief in the absolute sovereignty of God–even in hard circumstances. Such a belief is utterly taken for granted by Burroughs, if it isn’t for the reader he is unlikely to enjoy this book.
Burroughs defines Christian contentment and explains its theological basis, following with many exhortations to the believer on how to recognize, value, and strive for this contentment. He is careful to remind us that nearing a state where “whatever our circumstances we have learned to be content” (Philippians 4:11) is ultimately “a sign of a great deal of strength of grace” (122). The types of affliction examined are often poverty and illness, the lack of money or of health. Burroughs claims, “The reason why you have not got contentment in the things of the world is not because you have not got enough of them. . . [but] because they are not things proportionable to that immortal soul of yours that is capable of God himself” (91). As C. S. Lewis famously has it, “our desires are not too strong, but too weak” (The Weight of Glory, chapter 1).
A major theme of this work is submitting our will to that of God, or being able to say that one’s good “is more in God than in [one]self” (54) and that “God’s ends are my ends” (90). There is no other way in which we can have contentment and our own way at the same time. Therein lies the rub. We are many of us content to be afflicted, provided we choose the type of affliction (191-194). But it is God who disposes: “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” (19, italics mine). This is weighty. This is Mary in Luke 1:38, this is Jesus in Gethsemane in Matthew 26.
In places the work is slightly dated by references to English politics and the plague which afflicted England during the summer when many of the sermons were first delivered. There are also places where his reasoning is a little funny, as when he tries to make light of our afflictions by saying that if all the suffering in the world were evenly divided there is almost no man who would not “be likely to come into a greater share” (193) than he has. I find this claim not so much untrue as unverifiable. However in my judgement these writings have worn well and are still of great use to the believer. I found them both convicting and profoundly inspiring and believe Burroughs’s exhortations will be of service to me in my own efforts to quiet my heart and grasp the durable joys.