It’s hard to avoid being at least unsettled by the constant focus on Coronavirus and its progress. It has been estimated that 40-70% of the world’s population will contract the virus this year. Whether or not they do, the impact in many other ways is likely to be significant. Suddenly, even praying for our daily bread can seem a far more immediate concern. We should, of course be concerned to preserve the life and health of ourselves and others carefully and lawfully. This is part of what the sixth commandment requires. What should be our response in a climate of panic and alarm when we don’t know what the future may hold? Perhaps we are inclined to shrug it off as hype and exaggeration. But neither panic nor carelessness are the right response. How do we express a confident trust in God’s sovereign care in a way that is not merely glib?
Christians have been in similar situations before. It is important to recognise that Coronavirus is nothing like as devastating as the plague. We can still learn, however, from how Christians responded to it. Jeremiah Burroughs was one of the members of the Westminster Assembly. He lived through various outbreaks of the plague. In 1625 41,313 died in London and between 1640 and 1646 there were 11,000 deaths. During those years he preached a series of sermons from Philippians 4:11 on the subject of attaining contentment. He speaks of how contentment is possible, even in times of prevailing plague panic. These sermons were later published and have been valued by many as the book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.
What did he mean by 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.” Such contentment is active trust not a frozen fatalistic resignation. It does not mean mere passivity, we can use means in a way that follows God’s providence. The key matter is to submit to God’s will in such a way that “our wills are melted into the will of God”. “One drop of the sweetness of heaven is enough to take away all the sourness and bitterness of all the afflictions in the world”. He said that “a murmuring spirit is a greater evil than any affliction, whatever the affliction”.
Burroughs identifies the plague as the saddest affliction of all. When it visited your home it meant almost certainly that the family would all be taken. What could possibly make up for so great an affliction? Burroughs tells us in this updated extract that God’s Covenant and its promises are enough in such circumstances.
1. Look for God’s Promises
There is no condition that a godly man or woman can be in, but there is some promise or other in the Scripture to help him in that condition. Contentment goes out to the promises and can fetch from the promise that which will supply its needs. This is the most real thing in the world to a gracious heart. When they find a lack of contentment they go to the promise and the covenant. They plead the promises that God has made.
I will only mention one situation that is the saddest affliction of all; the plague visiting the home. In other afflictions they might have their friends and other things to comfort them. But in this they cannot have their friends come to them or other comforts because of the plague. Psalm 91:10 is a promise regarding the plague and also Psalm 91:5-6. It is a portion of Scripture for those in danger of the plague. But you will say “this is a promise that the plague shall not come near to them”. But notice that it also speaks of no evil coming on them, in other words the evil of it shall not come near you.
But you will say, “It does come to many godly people, and how can they make use of this portion of Scripture. It is rather a Scripture that would trouble them, because it is a promise that it will not come near them and yet it has. What good is there in such a promise?” You are under the protection of God more than others. But you also have this comfort, that the evil of it shall be taken from you. If God will make use of this affliction for other purposes, He will do it in such a way as He will make it up to you in some other way. Perhaps you have given your children something, but afterwards you need it back. So you say, “I will make it up to you some other way”. Your child does not think that your love is any whit less to them. So it is when God by His promise gives you His protection yet something happens. It is only as if a father should say, “I gave you that indeed, but let me have it and I will make it up to you some other way that will be as good”. God says “let me have your health and liberty, and life, and it shall be made up to you some other way”.
2. Look for God’s Purposes
When the plague comes to those that have such a promise, it is for some special and notable reason. God requires them to search and examine His purpose in a special way. There is so much to be learned in the promise that God has made concerning this particular evil that the people of God they may come to calm their hearts in this affliction. They can say “I read in this Psalm that God has made a promise to His people to deliver them from the plague. Yet I find it has come. It may be I have not made use of my faith in this promise before now. If God brings afflictions on me, yet God will make it up some other way. God made a promise to deliver me or at least to deliver me from all the evil of it.
Now if this thing does afflict me and yet I have a promise from God, certainly the evil of it is taken away. This promise tells me that if it does happen to me it is for some notable purpose. God has the use of my life and intends to bring about His glory some way that I do not know of. If He comes in fatherly chastisement, I will be satisfied. So a Christian heart by reasoning out of the Word, comes to satisfy their soul in the midst of the hand of God being so heavily on them and being in such a distressed condition as that.
Ungodly hearts do not find the same healing power in the Word to heal their worries and troubles of spirit. But when those that are godly come to the Word they find a plaster for all their wounds. So they come to have ease and contentment in such conditions that are very grievous and miserable to others.
3. Look to God’s Covenant
In 2 Samuel 23:5 David says that although he does not find his house to be as in every way as he would wish he has contentment. It is in the face that God has made with him an everlasting covenant. This is what helps everything. I am not so with God, nor is my house and family as I hoped it might be with God. Perhaps there is this or that affliction on my house. Suppose you would have the plague come into your house, and your house is not safe. You do not have that outward comfort in your house as formerly you had. But can you read this portion of Scripture and say the following?
“Although my house is not so blessed with health as other people’s houses are. Although my house is not so, yet He has made with me an everlasting covenant. I am still one in covenant with God. The Lord has made an everlasting covenant with me. As for things in this world, I see they are but momentary, they are not everlasting. I see that in a family when all was well only a week ago, everything is down now and the plague has swept away a great many of them. The rest are left in sadness and mourning. We see there is no rest in the things of this world, yet the Lord has made with me an everlasting covenant ordered in all things. I find disorder in my heart and in my family; but the everlasting covenant is ordered in all things. Yes and that is sure. There is nothing sure in these earthly things. I can be sure of nothing here, especially in these times”.
We know that we can be sure of little that we have. Who can be sure of what they possess? Some have lived well and comfortably, all was well, yet within a day or two all was taken away. There is no sureness in the things of this world. But the covenant is sure. Notice what follows, “this is all my salvation”. Why David do you not want salvation from your enemies and outward dangers, from pestilence and plague? The frame of his spirit is quietened, as if he said “if that salvation comes, well and good, I shall praise God for it, but what I have in the Covenant, that’s my salvation, I look on that as enough”. “This is all my salvation, and all my desire”. Why David is there not something else you want besides this covenant? “No”, he says, “it is all involved in this”. Surely those who have all they desire must live contented lives. This holy man says, “this is all my desire”. Even if God does not make my house to grow, I have all my desires.
Thus you see how a godly heart finds contentment in the covenant. Many of you speak of the covenant of God, and of the covenant of grace, but have you found it so effectual for your souls? Have you sucked this sweetness from the covenant and contentment to your hearts in your sad conditions? It is a special sign of true grace in any soul, that when any affliction comes to them they naturally go to the covenant. Just like a child goes to their mother or father as soon as it is in danger. So as soon as a gracious heart is in any trouble or affliction their new nature carries them immediately to the covenant. There they find ease and rest. If you find your heart running to the covenant, it is an excellent sign of the reality of grace.
Burroughs points us to the promises of God in times of trouble. There are various promises for the heart to find contentment in times of affliction such as Isaiah 43:2, Isaiah 54:17 and Joshua 1:5 (Hebrews 13:5 shows this applies to us as well as Joshua). Burroughs says that every time a godly person reads the Scriptures and encounters a promise, they ought to put their hand on it and say “this is a part of my heritage, it’s mine, and I am to live upon it”. This will make you to be contented. Other promises include Psalm 34:10, Psalm 37:6. Isaiah 58:10. We have to learn this lesson of contentment, as Paul did (Philippians 4:1) and we can only do it by grace. Burroughs says, “the Lord teach you thoroughly by His Spirit these lessons of contentment”. Here are some vital counsel for helping to quieten our hearts and strengthen our faith in troublous and uncertain times.
The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment is a classic book by Jeremiah Burroughs. Showing how Christ teaches contentment, he also defines and describes it. Besides explaining how to attain contentment, Burroughs also deals with the sin of murmuring.
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