Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatever state I am, therewith to be content.
These words signify how contentedness may be attained. It is not an endowment innate to us, but it is a product of discipline "I have learned." It was a question of Plato, whether virtue is to be learned. St. Paul plainly resolves it by the testimony, of his experience. It however requires great resolution and diligence in conquering our desires; hence it is an art which few study.
I. IN REGARD TO GOD, we may consider that equity exacts, gratitude requires, and reason dictates that we should be content; or that, in being discontented, we behave ourselves unbeseemingly and unworthily, are very unjust, ungrateful, and foolish towards Him.
1. The point of equity considered, according to the gospel rule, "Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?"
2. That of gratitude; inasmuch as we have no right or title to anything; all we have coming from God's pure bounty and designed for our good.
3. That of reason; because it is most reasonable to acquiesce in God's choice of our estate, He being infinitely more wise than we are; loves us better than we love ourselves; and has a right to dispose of us as He pleases.
II. IN REGARD TO OURSELVES we may observe much reason for contentment.
1. As men and creatures, we are naturally indigent and impotent; have no just claim to anything, nor can maintain anything by our own power. Wherefore how little soever is allowed us no wrong is done and no reason to complain.
2. And on a moral account we have still less.
(1) As sinners we are obnoxious to wrath and should therefore complain of nothing.
(2) We are God's servants and shall a mere servant, or slave, presume to choose his place, or determine his rank in the family? Is it not fit that these things should be left to the Master's discretion and pleasure?
(3) Again, if we consider ourselves as the children of God by birth and nature, or by adoption and grace, how can we be discontented with anything?
III. IF WE CONSIDER OUR CONDITION, be it what it may, we can have no reasonable ground for discontent.
1. Our state cannot if rightly considered and well managed be insupportable. The defect of some things is supplied by other enjoyments. If we think highly of some things no wonder our condition is unpleasant if we want them; and if we consider others mighty evils, if they come upon us we can hardly escape being displeased; but if we estimate all things according to the dictates of true reason, we shall find that neither the absence of the one nor the presence of the other is deplorable.
(1) Take poverty; that is, the absence of a few superfluous things which please our fancy rather than answer our need, and without which nature is easily satisfied.
(2) Take his case who has fallen from honour into contempt; that may be only a change in the opinion of giddy men, the breaking of a bubble, the changing of the wind.
(3) Take him who is slandered; is not every man subject to this? and the greatest and wisest most exposed to it? Or is thy reproach just? Then improve this dealing and make it wholesome.
(4) Take him who is disappointed and crossed in his undertakings. Why art thou disquieted on this score? Didst thou build much expectation on uncertainties? Didst thou not foresee a possibility that thy design might miscarry? and if so, why art thou not prepared to receive what happeneth?
(5) Take one who has met with unkindness and ingratitude from friends. Such misbehaviour, however, is more their calamity than ours. The loss of bad friends is no damage, but an advantage.
(6) Take him who mourns the death of friends. Can he, after all, lose his best friend? Neither is it loss which he laments but only separation for a short time. He is only gone as taking a little journey. But —
(7) It may perhaps displease us, that the course of this world does not go right, or according to our mind; that justice is not well dispensed, virtue not duly considered, industry not sufficiently rewarded; but favour, partiality, flattery, craft, and corruption, carry all before them. Yet why should this displease thee? Art thou guilty of contributing to it? then mend it thyself: if not, then bear it; for so it always hath been, and ever will be. Yet God is engaged competently to provide for us. God observeth this course of things, yet He permits it. But He has appointed a judgment hereafter.
2. As there is no condition here perfectly and purely good, so there is none so thoroughly bad, that it has not somewhat convenient and comfortable therein. Seldom or never all good things forsake a man at once, and in every state there is some compensation for evil. We should not pore over small inconveniences and overlook benefits. This hinders us reaping satisfaction in all other things.
3. Is our condition so extremely bad that it might not be worse? Surely not. God's providence will not suffer it. There are succours always ready against extremities — our own wit and industry; the pity and help of others. When all is gone we may keep the inestimable blessing of a good conscience, have hope in God, enjoy His favour. Why, then, are we discontented.
4. Then look at the uses of adversity — the school of wisdom, the purifying furnace of the soul, God's method of reclaiming sinners, the preparation for heaven. Who ever became great or wise or good without adversity.
5. Whatever our state it cannot be lasting. Hope lies at the bottom of the worst state that can be. "Take no thought for the morrow." Mark the promises that none who hope in God shall be disappointed. And then death will end it all and heaven compensate for all earthly ills.
IV. CONSIDER THE WORLD AND THE GENERAL STATE OF MEN HERE.
1. Look on the world as generally managed by men. Art thou displeased that thou dost not prosper therein? If thou art wise thou wilt not grieve, for perhaps thou hast no capacity nor disposition. This world is for worldlings.
2. We are indeed very apt to look upward towards those few, who, in supposed advantages of life, seem to surpass us, and to repine at their fortune; but seldom do we cast down our eyes on those innumerable good people, who lie beneath us in all manner of accommodations; whereas if we would consider the case of most men, we should see abundant reason to be satisfied with our own.
3. If even we would take care diligently to compare our state with that of persons whom we are most apt to admire and envy, it would often afford matter of consolation and contentment to us.
4. It may induce us to be content, if we consider what commonly hath been the lot of good men in the world. Scarcely is there recorded in holy Scripture any person eminent for goodness, who did not taste deeply of wants and distresses — even our Lord. Have all these then, "of whom the world was not worthy," undergone all sorts of inconvenience, being "destitute, afflicted, tormented;" and shall we disdain, or be sorry to be in such company?
V. CONSIDER THE NATURE OF THE DUTY ITSELF.
1. It is the sovereign remedy for all poverty and suffering; removing them or allaying the mischief they can do us.
2. Its happiness is better than any arising from secular prosperity. Satisfaction springing from rational content, virtuous disposition, is more noble, solid, and durable than any fruition of worldly goods can afford.
3. Contentment is the best way of bettering our condition, disposing us to employ advantages as they occur, and securing God's blessing
(Isaac Barrow, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.