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Addition by Subtraction

It was the year 1636. Amid the darkness of the Thirty Years’ War, a German pastor, Martin Rinkart, is said to have buried five thousand of his parishioners in one year. This was an average of fifteen funerals a day. His parish was ravaged by war, death, and economic disaster.In the heart of that darkness, with the cries of fear outside his window, he sat down and wrote this table grace for his children:

Now thank we all our God
With heart and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom this world rejoices.
Who, from our mother’s arms,
Hath led us on our way
With countless gifts of love
And still is ours today.

Here was a man of God who knew thanksgiving comes from love of God. He understood that contentment comes, not from his surrounding circumstances, but from resting upon the perfect provision of a Sovereign God whose provision is perfect.

We each live in a time and place where those types of circumstances are so foreign to us. We can’t even begin to imagine what it means to suffer, to be persecuted, to have thousands perish in one day. Oh, we read about these things in the newspaper. We see graphic images flash before us as we surf our big screen televisions in the comfort of our climate controlled living rooms: earthquakes in Turkey – mass murders in Chechnya – Christians worshiping in clandestine house churches in China for fear of persecution – pastors gunned down in Bogotá – murders and church burnings in India – hundreds of thousands dying of starvation in North Korea – all while we casually complain that what we have is not enough. We’re too hot (or too cold). We don’t have enough food or the food we have is not what we want. We want bigger houses, more name brand clothes, more free time, more money in the bank, bigger SUV’s, more, more, more. . . And all this from people who call themselves Christians. Where is the contentment?

That word – contentment – is an interesting one as it is used in the Greek text of the New Testament. It is actually a compound word consisting of the words “self” + sufficiency.”  By the world’s standards it does seem that contentment is derived from surrounding one’s self with sufficient material goods and wealth. But what do the Scriptures say about contentment?

Jesus while talking with some soldiers said, “. . . be content with your wages” (Luke 3:15). Paul said to Timothy, “And if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content’ (1 Timothy 6:8). The writer of Hebrews put it this way, “Let your way of life be free from the love of money, being content with what you have. . . (Heb. 13:5).

Jeremiah Burroughs (1599-1646) a puritan preacher and a graduate of Emmanuel College, Cambridge understood persecution. He had fled from the Laudian persecution in the 1630’s to a congregation in Rotterdam where he was a ‘teacher’ of an English congregation. A prominent participant in the Westminster Assembly of divines, he wrote a treatise on contentment titled, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (1648).

His concern was to promote peace and contentment in the hearts of individual believers during what he described as ‘sad and sinking times’.  In it he says, “. . . one who is contented in a Christian way is . . the most contented man in the world, and yet the most unsatisfied man in the world. . . A man who has learned the art of contentment is the most contented with any low condition that he has in the world, and yet he cannot be satisfied with the enjoyment of all the world. He is contented if he has but a crust, but bread and water. . . he can be satisfied with God’s disposal in that. . . yet if God should give unto him Kingdoms and Empires, all the world to rule, if he should give it him for his portion, he would not be satisfied with that. . . The men of the world seek after wealth, and think if they had thus much, and thus much, they would be content. . . But a gracious heart says that if he had ten hundred thousand times so much a year, it would not satisfy him. . . and yet this man can sing, and be merry and joyful when he has only a crust of bread and a little water in the world. . . A soul that is capable of God can be filled with nothing else but God; nothing but God can fill a soul that is capable of God” (p. 42-43).

He goes on to say that “a Christian comes to contentment, not so much by way of addition, as by way of subtraction. . . The way to be rich is not by increasing wealth, but by diminishing our desires. Certainly that man or woman is rich, who have their desires satisfied. Now a contented man has his desires satisfied, God satisfies them, that is all considered, he is satisfied that his circumstances are for the present the best circumstances. So he comes to this contentment by way of subtraction, and not addition” ( 46-47).

Burroughs says, “A gracious heart is contented by the melting of his will and desires into God’s will and desires. . . So that, in one sense, he comes to have his desires satisfied though he does not obtain the thing the he desired before; still he comes to be satisfied with this, because he makes his will to be at one with God’s will. This is a small degree higher than submitting to the will of God. You all say that you should submit to God’s will; a Christian has got beyond this. He can make God’s will and his own the same. It is said of believers that they are joined to the Lord, and are one spirit; that means, that whatever God’s will is, I do not only see good reason to submit to it, but God’s will is my will. When the soul can make over, as it were, its will to God, it must needs be contented” (p. 53).

So the Apostle Paul can say, “For I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. . . I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13).

That contentment, that “self-sufficiency” comes from the sufficiency of One found within ourselves, through faith in Jesus Christ who, through the power of His Spirit, gives us strength as we throw ourselves upon Him, finding contentment in God’s perfect provision.Would you call yourself a contented person? Are you contented with where you live? With where God has you right now? With what you have? With your income level? With the amount of food on your table or in your cupboard? Our grumbling and complaining about all these things (and more) is evidence of our discontentment. What is frightening is that we are admitting that God’s provision is not sufficient to meet all our needs. And that, my friends, is sin. . .

Almighty God and Heavenly Father, Perfect Provider, Sovereign Sustainer, we admit our sin of “self-sufficiency.” We pray “give us this day our daily bread” and immediately turn to our own inadequate resources as we make plans for tomorrow’s comfort. Forgive us, Oh Lord, we pray, for not trusting in your perfectly complete provision of the day. You give meat and bread in due season. You open your hands to fill our hands with the abundance of your eternal blessings only to find our hands are full of our own self-sufficiency. Forgive us for our discontentment and lack of faithful trust in You who perfectly provides for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. Are we not, created in Your image, more valuable to you than these? Too often we forget that life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. May we be ever reminded that our sufficiency is to be found in your perfect provision, the sacrifice of your Son who is the True Bread from heaven, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Pastor Mark

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