We cannot do without them. And therefore there is in our hearts a certain measure of desire for them, which is perfectly legitimate: for we are earthy, and have need of earthy things. We want them, expect them, look for them, and strive to acquire them in the way of God’s precepts. We need bread to eat and clothing to cover us, a home to shelter us. And we need the means to obtain these. Moreover, we crave for health and strength, that we may go about and labor. We hunger for friendship and love, for happiness and liberty. Contentment has respect to the relation between the things we have and the desires of our hearts with regard to those earthly things. It is the perfect equilibrium between, the two, the constant adaptation of the one to the other, the continuous adjustment of our inner state to outward circumstances. It is the positive answer to the question: have you enough? It answers affirmatively to the query: are you satisfied? The very opposite is discontent, which gives the negative answer to these questions in every state. When the inner state of our heart and mind, our desires and longings with respect to earthly things is wholly in accord with the measure of earthly things which we possess, with the circumstances in which we find ourselves, with them way which we must travel, with the experiences we are called to pass through, and when this harmony between outward circumstances and. the inner state of our heart and mind is essentially an adjustment of the latter to the former, then we are content.
It is evident, therefore, that the cause of contentment lies not in things, but in the heart. It is not from without, but from within. It does hot arise from the fact that all things seem to bend to our slightest wish, but from the spiritual power always to adapt our inner state to our outward conditions. This is evident from the text we quoted above. In the passage the apostle gives a reason for the preceding statement. He had assured the Philippians that he spoke not in respect of want. He knew no want. He had enough. And the reason for this expression of satisfaction lay not in the fact that the apostle had an abundance of things, that he enjoyed the fellowship of friends and brethren, that he could do as he pleased: for he was in prison, and Nero’s sword was even at this moment threatening to take his very life. But the reason is expressed in the statement: “For I have learned to be content with whatsoever state is mine.” That is, I have learned to adjust the inner state of my mind and heart to outward things and circumstances. Contentment is not the satisfaction of the Epicurean, who carefully measures the capacity of his inner needs and desires, in order that he may exactly fill them with earthly things. For this Epicurean satisfaction is utterly dependent on outward things. Nor is contentment the proud show of the stoic, who chokes down the cravings of his heart that they may not appear in his face. For this stoical pride is inner-dissatisfaction: it is not happiness. Nor is contentment the slavish satisfaction of ignorance, that is content with things that are because it knows no better. But it is that state of mind in which we are able correctly to evaluate all earthly things, circumstances, and experiences, and correctly judging of their real significance and value to clearly perceive that we have just enough, that we need what we have. It is a state of profound inner satisfaction with all things, a state of constant tranquility and happiness, that reflects itself in the very features of its subject.
We understand, of course, that contentment is a gift of grace. It is not a natural trait of character, common to all men. By nature we are not content, and never can be. The natural man is a stranger to this blessed state of mind and heart, and must needs be a stranger.
It is true that even in the world there is found a resemblance of this spiritual power. There certainly is difference between man and man as to the measure of his craving for things of the world. One is more easily satisfied than another. And after men had a taste of abundance and worldly prosperity, it is more difficult than before to adjust their, desires to a state of economic depression.
Yet, the contentment of which we speak in this chapter is a gift of grace, and the natural man does not know it. Nor is he capable of learning its secret. You may explain it to him. You may exhort him to be content with whatsoever he may be and whatsoever way he may have to walk. He will not and cannot understand it. In as far as he understands not the blessedness, but the doctrine, of true contentment, he will even despise it. For he is natural, not spiritual. And the natural man is carnal. He has a carnal mind, which is enmity against God. It is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. Nor is it subject in any way or in any measure to the eighth commandment. The man of the world does not, and cannot have his joy in the Lord. The precepts of the most high are not his delight. To know Him and taste His grace and enter into the secret of His fellowship, to serve Him and love Him with all his heart and mind and soul and strength, to seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness and consider all other things as subservient to this highest purpose, also the material things of this world,—these things are hid from him. He cannot see them afar off. He has his delight in the things of the present time. The things of this world, the earthly things, that were ordained to be a mere means to an end, to him are an end in themselves. He seeks them. He wants them. And he wants more and more, and still more of them. To possess them is inseparable from his happiness to him. Prosperity he craves, and he grumbles if he cannot have it. And still he murmurs and grumbles if he can have all the world may offer, for the things 6f this world can never satisfy. He has separated the means from the end, the world and himself from God, the things temporal from the things eternal. And temporal things have their end in death. He knows it, and therefore can never find contentment in the material things of this world. There is death in all he has.
But contentment is a gift of grace, bestowed by the God of all grace upon His regenerated child, through Christ Jesus our Lord; and by the power of, His word in the holy gospel. Only the Christian, redeemed from the present world, delivered from the power of sin through our Lord Jesus Christ, by mere and sovereign grace, can be content in principle. He can say: I am content in whatsoever state I am. Contentment is indeed rooted in the principle of the law, written in our hearts, which is the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. This love of God in Christ is spread abroad in our hearts, in the first place, not as our love to Him, but as His love toward us, seeking and finding its response in our love to God. And because of this love of God, our joy is first of all in Him, and it is our highest delight to be well-pleasing to Him, and to glorify Him and serve Him with all our being and with every means, in whatever state we are. Because of it, we know that hope maketh not ashamed; and we do not seek the things that are below, but the things that are above, the things heavenly and eternal, and know that things earthly the things heavenly and eternal, and know that all things earthly are but-means to the realization of our eternal glory. And by that love we have, confidence that our God in Christ Jesus will surely send us all those things that end to His glory and to our salvation. And thus there arises within our hearts the tranquil assurance that all things work together for good, and the calm confidence that tie have just enough, in whatsoever state we may be. Contentment is the perfect victory over all things earthy and transient, and is independence with respect to all outward circumstances. It is able to leave all things to God, and be truly patient in adversity as well as thankful in prosperity.
Of course, we must remember that we have but a small beginning of this new obedience. To be sure, the gift of grace that is called contentment is in our hearts, but it is there only in principle. There is another law in our members, warring against the law of our mind. And according to that other law we always seek the things of the world, and are never satisfied with that which God bestows upon us in the measure of material things. Hence, as it is with all other gifts of grace, so it is with contentment: it always, assumes the form of a battle. We must fight the good fight even unto the end. And that battle is a particularly difficult one,—difficult also because God’s ways are often dark and rough. Contentment frequently means that we must be satisfied in ways of suffering and grief and tribulation! And this is very difficult for the Christian, because he has not reached that perfection by which he can live by grace only. Hence, we must learn to be content in the way of sanctification, in which alone we truly seek the things above and have our joy in the Lord. Walking in the way of the Lord; according to His precepts, fighting the good fight in prayer and supplication, we shall be able to say: “I have learned to be content in whatsoever state I am.”
It stands to reason, that living from the principle of contentment in the true, spiritual sense of the word, we refrain from the sin of stealing in any form, and are willing to be stewards of God in Christ Jesus with regard to our earthly possessions.
Then, in the first place; we certainly are willing to have nothing in our possession which we have not lawfully acquired, and of which tie cannot confess that it has been bestowed upon us by the Lord our God. But, in the second place, living from that principle, the Christian is also ready to manage the earthly goods over which he has been placed as before the face of God and according to His precepts. In other words, he manages them as God’s steward. The Christian steward, living from the principle of his stewardship, confesses even with regard to that over which he has been placed as steward, that is, with regard to that portion of earthly possessions of which he can honestly say that he had acquired it of the Lord,—he confesses that his earthly possessions do not belong to him in the absolute sense of the word. They are and remain the Lord’s. The believer knows that he is in God’s employ. And as our employer, God assigns to us our position and the means necessary to occupy that position in order to be faithful in our employment. The believer is God’s officebearer, also with regard to his earthly possessions. And this implies that as officebearers we realize our calling with regard to the earthly goods, whatever they may be, however much they may be, or however little, to serve and glorify our God with them, and walk in the way of His precepts. We do not use them for ourselves and for our own carnal enjoyment, but for the glory of God and the well-being of the neighbor. Such is our calling. In as far as we do not realize that calling, we are thieves, and violate the eighth commandment. Hence, with our earthly possessions, the homes in which we live, the bread we eat, the water we drink, the clothes we put on, the capital we acquire,—we stand as stewards before the face of God, and ask Him humbly: “Lord, what wilt Thou have us do?”
This implies many things. It certainly implies, as the Catechism has it, that we refrain from all thefts and robberies which are punishable by the magistrate in any form. It also implies that we refrain from that form of stealing which consists in wicked tricks and devices, whereby we design to appropriate to ourselves the goods which rightfully belong to our neighbor. And it implies also that as stewards over our earthly possessions, before the face of God, we refrain from all covetousness and all abuse and waste of our earthly goods.