Christian Counselor Seattle
Paul’s famous line “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13) is often taken to mean we should think positively and ignore the negative, no matter what happens.
However, Paul’s meaning is different here. He is not referring to some positive mental attitude philosophy. He is speaking of something more mysterious. He calls contentment a mystery. Let’s take another look at this passage from Philippians, this time in its entirety:
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of placing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:10-13, ESV
The book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs was written to unpack this passage. It was written in 1645, and yet it couldn’t be more relevant today. At the beginning of the book, Burroughs says “Contentment is to be learned as a great mystery.” (9)
This means a few things. For one, contentment is not something that we can drum up all on our own. We are dependent on God for it. This isn’t the first time that Paul in the Bible presents something very important to do in tension with the fact that we can’t do it on our own.
Think of Galatians 5:23-25, where Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit. The qualities listed – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – are all model virtues that anyone claiming to be a Christian would say are important to follow. And yet, Paul says they are fruit of the Spirit, meaning they come by the Spirit, which is to say, not by our own power.
Note that we are dependent on the Spirit, not on our own power. But also not on external conditions. Take a look at how Burroughs defines contentment: “Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, freely submitting to, and taking complacency in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.” (11)
Considering his definition here along with what Paul says about our dependence on God, the mystery of contentment starts to become clearer. The contentment Paul is talking about is mysterious because it doesn’t make sense. Earlier in Philippians chapter 4, he talks about the “peace of God that surpasses human understanding.” (Philippians 4:7) In other words, this is a peace that doesn’t make sense. It is even a peace that should not be, considering the circumstances.
I’ve come to understand my work as a therapist to be (at least in part) helping the client to find a place of peace, even if the circumstances or the other person do not change. I have found this to be true regardless of the context of the client sitting before me.
Burroughs follows a similar line of thought in his book. The book itself is a series of sermons on the topic, through which he unfolds a deeper understanding and practice of cultivating contentment in the context of worship. Throughout the book, Burroughs gives several definitions of contentment and the art of cultivating it. Here is another, from page 33: “So this is the art of contentment: not to seek to add to our conditions, but to subtract from our desires.”
One of the most powerful aspects for me of this book, as a therapist, is how it intersects with the CBT work I already do with my clients. CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and it is a therapeutic modality that involves working with our active beliefs and thoughts. CBT centers on the idea that thoughts have a lot of power in determining the emotions we feel. Change the thought, change the emotion.
Since contentment and peace are emotional realities, not just mental ones, it makes sense that the direction Burroughs gives in his book would overlap with the CBT framework as defined above. Interestingly, as mentioned above, Burroughs wrote this book in 1645. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is not yet one hundred years old, at least in American practice.
But both Burroughs and CBT have much to say about the power of thought to drive emotional states, and the importance of paying attention to what our thoughts are telling us is true.
Christianity takes this practice both further and deeper. One of the central focal points of Burroughs’s work is to help us root this type of mindful thought work in a context of Christian worship.
Burroughs makes points about the practice of cultivating contentment throughout this book that cut deep, in a wise way. For example, “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 an enemy comes?” (109)
We are to have peace when things are peaceful and going well, and many can say that they do. But do we have peace when things seem to be turning against us? Of course, it’s OK to be bothered at evil, or appropriately angry, or to grieve a loss, but are we sure that our emotions are in proper proportion to the circumstances?
Notice that Paul in Philippians 4 talks not only about facing trouble, but also about facing abundance. What does it mean to face abundance? Why would he even need to bring this up? Burroughs clarifies. He states that a peace that comes from any source other than the God of peace is no peace at all, and not worth having. But this is often the very point that gets forgotten.
One of the quotes that sits deep at the heart of the inner meaning of Burroughs’ entire work is: “the afflictions of God’s people come from the same eternal love that Jesus Christ did come from.” (49) Can we say this and mean it? We are back in the mystery of contentment once again. How mysterious and profound it is to find someone whose circumstances are not going well, but whose heart is at rest!
I was troubled at one point while working through this book that Burroughs was advocating a position of “being OK with whatever happens.” As a counselor, I thought: “What about those in abusive contexts, or relationships? Should they just “take it for the glory of God?”
I am relieved to report that this is not the case. There is plenty of room here for standing up for what is right, defending against evil, and establishing and enforcing healthy boundaries. No need to take Philippians 4 out of the context of the whole counsel of God.
Since this is a book review, I want to end by making a few of the kinds of comments a typical reviewer would make. I read quite a bit, especially in the areas of counseling, philosophy, and theology. There are very few books I would consider “top shelf” books in my library, not because I read a lot of bad books, but because a book has to really shine to make it onto that shelf for me.
The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment is the first book in a very long time that I am comfortable adding to this “top shelf” of Christian books. Not to mention that I got it for $0.99 on the Kindle Store, which makes it, without a doubt, the best dollar I’ve spent in 2022 so far. Maybe even also in 2021.
I highly recommend this book both for counselors and clients.
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