Taken from Jeremiah Burroughs’ “The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment” (p.45-47), published by Banner of Truth. Jeremiah Burroughs (1599–1646) was an English Puritan preacher, who played a prominent role in the Westminster Assembly of divines.
A Christian comes to contentment, not so much by way of addition, as by way of subtraction. That is his way of contentment, and it is a way that the world has no skill in. I open it thus: not so much by adding to what he would have, or to what he has, not by adding more to his condition; but rather by subtracting from his desires, so as to make his desires and his circumstances even and equal. A carnal heart knows no way to be contented but this: I have such and such possessions, and if I had this added to them, and the other comfort added that I have not now, then I should be contented. Perhaps I have lost my possessions, if I could only have given to me something to make up my loss, then I should be a contented man. But contentment does not come in that way; it does not come, I say, by adding to what you want, but by subtracting from your desires. It is all one to a Christian, whether I get up to what I would have, or get my desires down to what I have, either to attain what I do desire, or to bring down my desires to what I have already attained. My wealth is the same, for it is as fitting for me to bring my desire down to my circumstances, as it is to raise up my circumstances to my desire.
Now, I say that a heart that has no grace, and is not instructed in this mystery of contentment, knows of no way to get contentment, but to have his possessions raised up to his desires; but the Christian has another way to contentment, that is, he can bring his desires down to his possessions, and so he attains his contentment. Thus, the Lord fashions the hearts of the children of men. If the heart of a man is fashioned to his circumstances, he may have as much contentment as if his circumstances were fashioned to his heart. Some men have a mighty large heart, but they have straitened circumstances and they can never have contentment when their hearts are big and their circumstances are little. But though a man cannot bring his circumstances to be as great as his heart, yet if he can bring his heart to be as little as his circumstances, to make them even, this is the way to contentment. The world is infinitely deceived in thinking that contentment lies in having more than we already have. Here lies the bottom and root of all contentment, when there is an evenness and proportion between our hearts and our circumstances. That is why many godly men who are in a low position live more sweet and comfortable lives than those who are richer. Contentment is not always clothed with silk and purple and velvet, but it is sometimes in a home-spun suit, in mean circumstances, as well as in higher. Many men who once have had great estates, and God has brought them into a lower position have had more contentment in those circumstances than they had before.
Now, how can that possibly be? Quite easily, if you only understood that the root of contentment consists in the suitableness and proportion of a man’s spirit to his possessions, an evenness where one end is not longer and bigger than the other. The heart is contented and there is comfort in those circumstances. But now let God give a man riches, no matter how great, yet if the Lord gives him up to the pride of his heart, he will never be contented; on the other hand, let God bring anyone into mean circumstances, and then let God but fashion and suit his heart to those circumstances and he will be content.
It is the same in walking: Suppose a man had a very long leg, and his other leg was short—why, though one of his legs was longer than usual, still he could not go as well as a man both of whose legs are shorter than his. I would compare a long leg, when one is longer than the other, to a man who has a high position and is very rich and a great man in the world, but he has a very proud heart, too, and that is longer and larger than his position. This man cannot but be troubled in his circumstances. Another man is in a low position, his circumstances are low and his heart is low too, so that his heart and his circumstances are even. This man walks with abundantly more ease than the other.
Thus, a gracious heart thinks in this way: “The Lord has been pleased to bring down my circumstances; now if the Lord brings down my heart and makes it equal to my circumstances, then I am well enough.” So, when God brings down his circumstances, he does not so much labour to raise up his circumstances again as to bring his heart down to his circumstances. Even the heathen philosophers had a little glimpse of this: they could say that the best riches is poverty of desires—those are the words of a heathen. That is, if a man or woman has his or her desires cut short, and has no large desires, that man or woman is rich.
So, this is the art of contentment: not to seek to add to our circumstances, but to subtract from our desires. Another author has said, The way to be rich is not by increasing wealth, but by diminishing our desires. Certainly, that man or woman is rich, who has his or her 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 circumstances. So, he comes to this contentment by way of subtraction, and not addition.