Jeremiah Burroughs’ thoughts on self-denial as the path to contentment need some explanation. The Biblical concept that he called self-denial at the turn of the 17th century is the theological term we use today called co-crucifixion. This little-understood concept comes from Galatians 2:20 and the broader concept is explained in Romans chapter six. Another term used today is “complete surrender” or “completely yielded.”
To be very clear: Biblical self-denial is NOT the practice of the ancient Greek philosophers – asceticism, cynicism, or stoicism. It is not abstinence from material objects or denial of worldly pleasures in order to achieve some spiritual goal or benefit. It is not the payment of some indulgence or performance of outward penance as taught by the Roman Church. Paul taught in Romans 14:5-6, Colossians 2:20-23 and elsewhere that eating or not eating food has no spiritual value in itself. Similarly, a painful ritual or costly, elaborate religious ceremony will not gain you favor with God. Remember—man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. (I Samuel 16:7; Isaiah 57:15; Psalm 34:18, 51:17) Jesus said, “…the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23)
The Biblical principle of self-denial is surrendering ourselves completely to God and His will. Self (the flesh) and the world (Galatians 5:24; 6:14) are reckoned dead on the cross and alive unto God. (Romans 6:6-18)
With that in mind, Jeremiah Burroughs offers us these gems to consider how true self-denial brings us closer to spiritual contentment:
“Just as no one can be a scholar unless he learns his ABCs, so you must learn the lesson of self-denial or you can never become a scholar in Christ’s school, and be learned in this mystery of contentment. The lesson of self-denial is the first lesson that Jesus Christ teaches those who are seeking contentment.”
“When you strike something soft it makes no noise, but if you strike a hard thing it makes a noise. So it is with the hearts of men who are full of themselves and hardened with self-love. A self-denying Christian yields to God’s hand and makes no noise. That is the first lesson that Christ teaches any soul—self-denial—which brings contentment; which brings down and softens a man’s heart.”
- A person must learn that he is nothing—“He comes to this, to be able to say, ‘Well, I see I am nothing in myself.’”
- I deserve nothing—“I am nothing and I deserve nothing. We deserve nothing and therefore why should we be impatient if we do not get what we desire?”
- I can do nothing—“Christ said, ‘Without me you can do nothing.’ (John 15:5) Do but consider of what use you are in the world and if you consider what little need God has of you, and what little use you are, you will not be much discontented.”
- I cannot receive any good—“I am so vile that I cannot of myself receive any good. I am not only an empty vessel, but a corrupt and unclean vessel that would spoil anything good that comes into it.”
- We are worse than nothing—“Sin makes us more vile than nothing and contrary to all good. We are not empty pitchers in respect of good, but we are like pitchers filled with poison, and is it much for such as we are to be cut short of our outward comforts?”
- Any good I do is nothing without God—If God cleans our vessel and puts in something good, some grace of His Spirit, we can do nothing with it without God.”
- If we perish, we will be no loss—If God should annihilate me, what loss would it be to His purposes? God can raise up someone else in my place to serve Him in a different way.” [See Esther 4:14 as an example of this.]
“I beseech you to notice this: If a man is selfish and self-love prevails in his heart, he will be glad of those things that suit with his own ends, but a godly man who has denied himself will suit with and be glad of all things that shall suit with God’s ends. When a man is selfish, he cannot but have a great deal of trouble and vexation of spirit, for if I regard myself, my ends are so narrow that a hundred things will come and jostle me and I cannot have room in those narrow ends of my own. Those whose hearts are enlarged and make public things their ends, and can deny themselves, have room to walk and never jostle with one another as others do.”
“[To the chief Musician, Altaschith, Michtam of David, when he fled from Saul in the cave.] Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me: for my soul trusteth in thee: yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast. I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth all things for me.” Psalm 57:1-2
The Sovereignty and Providence of God in Psalm 57:2
from The Mystery of Providence, by John Flavel, (c. 1630–1691)
“It is the duty of the saints, especially in times of straits, to reflect upon the performances of Providence for them in all the states and through all the stages of their lives.” John Flavel
[David’s] “…extreme danger is expressed in both the title and the body of Psalm 57. Yet, this does not frighten him out of his faith and duty, but between the jaws of death he prays, and earnestly addresses himself to God for mercy: ‘Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me.’ In the words of this psalm I shall consider two things: the duty resolved upon, and the encouragement to that resolution.
“The duty resolved upon: ‘I will cry unto God.’ Crying unto God is an expression that denotes not only prayer, but an intense and fervent prayer. To cry is to pray in a holy passion; and such are usually speeding prayers (Psalm 18:6; Hebrews 5;7)
“The encouragement to that resolution: ‘I will cry unto God most high’”
The sovereignty of God – “In this, [David] acts his fath in extremity of danger. Saul is high, but God is the Most High, and without His permission he is assured Saul cannot touch him. He had none to help, and if he had, he knew God must first help the helpers or they cannot help him. He had no means of defense or escape before him, but the Most High is not limited by means. This is the singular proposition of faith. (Psalm 59:9)”
The experience of His Providence – “The word which we translate ‘performeth’ comes from a root that signifies both to perfect, and to desist or cease. For when a business is performed or perfected, the agent then ceases or desists from working. ‘The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me.’
“Let us bring our thoughts a little closer to this Scripture, and it will give us a fair and lovely prospect of providence in its universal, effectual, beneficial, and encouraging influence upon the affairs and concerns of the saints.”
“The expression [performeth] imparts the universal interest and influence of divine Providence in and upon all the concerns and interests of the saints. It not only has its hand in this or that, but in all that concerns them. It has its eye upon everything that relates to them throughout their lives, from first to last.
“The text displays the efficacy of providential influences. Providence not only undertakes but perfects what concerns us. No difficulty so clogs it, no cross accident fall into its way, but it carries its design through it.
“And (which is sweet to consider) all its products and issues are exceedingly beneficial to the saints. It performs all things for them.
“…how cheering, supporting, and encouraging must the consideration of these things be in a day of distress and trouble! What life and hope will it inspire our hearts and prayers with when great pressures lie upon us!”
John Flavel (1630-1691) was born at Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, Britain about 1630, and thus spent his childhood in the stormy years which led up to the Civil War in 1642. He attended University College, Oxford, and entered the ministry in the decade of spiritual reaping which preceded the restoration of Charles II.
Flavel’s life and work was carried on in the county of Devon in the thriving sea-port of Dartmouth until August 1662 when about 120 ministers in Devon and approaching 1,800 in England were thrown out of their livings for failing to comply with the terms of the Act of Uniformity.
Thereafter he took his place in the suffering ranks of the nonconformists and had a full share of the persecution which with greater or less intensity, and short intermissions, was to continue until James II fled the country in 1688. The repressive legislation which followed 1662, while it broke the evangelical ministry of England in a public sense, scattered Gospel light into new areas and led not infrequently to the use of strange pulpits. We hear of Flavel preaching at midnight in a house at South Molton; in a wood three miles from Exeter; and – the most colourful site of all (though it could not have been a comfortable one) – at Saltstone Rock, an island in the Salcombe Estuary which is submerged at high tide.
After the Indulgence given by Charles II in 1672, Flavel obtained license for a Nonconformist meeting-house in the town, and, when this was soon withdrawn, he stayed at his post until the summer of 1682 when his person was in such danger that he took ship to London.
In London, Flavel joined a congregation and narrowly escaped arrest when some members were seized in 1684. He returned to Dartmouth where that same year he was burned in effigy by a mob and, despite all hazards, maintained a ministry among his scattered flock until November 1688 when James II fled the throne. By that time, Flavel’s work was approaching its end. Speaking for his fellow-ministers he wrote, ‘We have long borne the burden and heat of the day; we are veteran soldiers almost worn out.’ He died of a stroke on June 26, 1691, in his 61st year.
Nothing brings a sense of contentment to me more than thinking about the imminent return of Jesus Christ! The apostle Paul encouraged his readers not to believe a rumor or false teaching that the Lord’s return had passed already and that they might never see their saved loved ones again. His words of comfort give us insight into what God has planned for those who belong to Him:
“For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep [died]. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.” I Thessalonians 4:15-18 (NKJV)
Jesus is Coming Again
by John W. Peterson *
Marvelous message we bring,
Glorious carol we sing,
Wonderful word of the King,
Jesus is coming again!
Coming again, Coming again,
May be morning, may be noon,
May be evening and may be soon!
Coming again, Coming again;
O what a wonderful day it will be –
Jesus is coming again!
Forest and flower exclaim,
Mountain and meadow the same,
All earth and heaven proclaim,
Jesus is coming again! [Chorus]
Standing before Him at last,
Trial and trouble all past,
Crowns at His feet we will cast,
Jesus is coming again! [Chorus]
* John Willard Peterson (1921 –2006) was born in Lindsborg, Kansas. He served as an Army Air Force pilot flying the China Hump from Burma during World War II. He attended Moody Bible Institute and graduated from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago and shortly thereafter began his songwriting career. For over ten years he was President and Editor-in-Chief of Singspiration, a sacred music publishing company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While there, he compiled and edited a popular hymnal called “Great Hymns of the Faith.” He had a major influence on evangelical Christian music in the 1950s through the 1970s. He wrote over 1,000 songs and 35 cantatas.
Some of John Peterson’s more popular song titles include “Heaven Came Down,” “So Send I You,” “Springs of Living Water,” “Jesus is Coming Again,” “Surely Goodness and Mercy,” “This is the day that the Lord hath made,” and “O Glorious Love.” His cantatas include “Down From His Glory,” “Born a King,” and “Hallelujah for the Cross.”
“Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.” Matthew 10:29-31
“The art of contentment is a right knowledge of God’s providence.”
Jeremiah Burroughs (1599-1646), in his book, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, points out that a correct understanding of God’s providence is needed for spiritual contentment in the face of the trials and difficulties of life as a Christian.
Here is a good theological definition of divine providence: “It is the governance of God by which He, with wisdom and love, cares for and directs all things in the universe. The doctrine of divine providence asserts that God is in complete control of all things. He is sovereign over the universe as a whole (Psalm 103:19), the physical world (Matthew 5:45), the affairs of nations (Psalm 66:7), human destiny (Galatians 1:15), human successes and failures (Luke 1:52), and the protection of His people (Psalm 4:8). This doctrine stands in direct opposition to the idea that the universe is governed by chance or fate.” https://www.gotquestions.org/divine-providence.html
Burroughs explains three ways that a proper understanding of God’s providence can influence our contentment:
Providence is universal—“The soul must be thoroughly instructed in providence to come to the art of contentment. Not only that God by his providence rules the world and governs all things in general, but that it reaches to every detail; not only to order the great affairs of kingdoms, but it reaches to every man’s family; it reaches to every person in the family; it reaches to every condition; yea, to every happening, to everything that falls out concerning you in every particular: not one hair falls from your head, not a sparrow to the ground, without the providence of God. There is nothing that befalls you but there is a hand of God in it—this is from God and is a great help in contentment.”
Providence is efficacious [effective; successful in producing its desired or intended result]—“Suppose we are discontented and vexed and troubled, and we fret and rage, yet we need not think that we will alter the course of providence by our discontent. I may say to every discontented, impatient heart: What, shall the providence of God change its course for you? Do you think that because it does not please you it must alter its course? Whether or not you are content, the providence of God will go on. It has an efficacy of power, of virtue, to carry all things before it. Can you make one hair black or white with all the stir that you are making? When you are in a ship at sea which has all its sails spread with a full gale of wind, and is swiftly sailing, can you make it stand still by running up and down in the ship? No more can you make the providence of God alter and change its course with your vexing and fretting; it will go on with power, do what you can. But understand the power and efficacy of providence and it will be a mighty means helping you to learn this lesson of contentment.”
Providence has infinite variety, all working together—“There is an infinite variety of the works of God in ordinary providence, and yet they all work in an orderly way. We put these two things together: for God in his providence causes a thousand thousand things to depend on upon another. There are an infinite number of wheels, as I may say, in the works of providence. God may have some work to do twenty years hence that depends on this passage of providence that falls out in your life this day or this week. Let me therefore be quiet and content, for though I am crossed in some one particular thing, God attains his end; at least his end may be furthered in a thousand things by this one thing that I am crossed in. Therefore let a man consider that this is an act of providence. How do I know what God is about to do, and how many things the Lord may have his work go on in general, in a thousand other things?”
“Be Thou My Vision” is a traditional Christian hymn of Irish origin. The words are based on a Middle Irish poem or prayer often attributed to a sixth-century Irish Christian, however it may have been written later than that. The text reflects aspects of life in Early Christian Ireland (c. 400-800 AD). The prayer is a prayer for protection and is best seen in a verse omitted from most modern hymnals:
Be Thou my Breastplate, my Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my whole Armor, be Thou my true Might;
Be Thou my soul’s Shelter, be Thou my strong Tow’r,
O raise Thou me heav’nward, great Pow’r of my pow’r.
The symbolic use of a battle-shield and a sword to invoke the power and protection of God draws on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 6:16–17), which refers to “the shield of faith” and “the sword of the Spirit”. Such military symbolism was common in the poetry and hymnnology of Christian monasteries of the period due to the prevalence of clan warfare across Ireland. The poem makes reference to God as the “High King of Heaven”. This depiction of the Christian God as a chieftain or High King is a traditional representation in Irish literature; medieval Irish poetry typically used heroic imagery to portray God as a clan protector.
Be Thou My Vision
Translated by Mary Byrne; *
Versified by Eleanor Hull **
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art;
Thou my best thought, by day or by night;
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
Be Thou my wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father and I, Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise;
Thou mine inheritance, now and always;
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart;
O King of glory, my treasure Thou art.
O King of glory, my victory won;
Rule and reign in me ’til Thy will be done;
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall;
Still be my vision, O Ruler of all.
* Mary Byrne (1880 – 1931) was born in Ireland and first translated the old Irish hymn, “Bí Thusa ‘mo Shúile,” into English as “Be Thou My Vision” in Ériu (the journal of the School of Irish Learning), in 1905. A linguist, Byrne received her education from the National University of Ireland. She contributed to the Old and Mid-Irish Dictionary and Dictionary of the Irish Language.
** Eleanor Hull (1860 – 1935) was born in England, of a County Down family. She was educated at Alexandra College, Dublin and was a student of Irish Studies. She was a co-founder of the Irish Texts Society for the publication of early manuscripts and president of the Irish Literary Society. The best-known English version of “Be Thou My Vision”, with some minor variations, was translated by her and published in 1912. Since 1919 it has been commonly sung to an Irish folk tune and is one of the most popular hymns in the United Kingdom.
[Jesus] “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Philippians 2:6-8
The Determination to Serve
From My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers *
“Paul’s idea of service is the same as Our Lord’s: ‘I am among you as He that serveth’; ‘ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.’ We have an idea that a man called to the ministry is called to be a different kind of being from other men. According to Jesus Christ, he is called to be the ‘doormat’ of other men; their spiritual leader, but never their superior. ‘I know how to be abased,’ says Paul. This is Paul’s idea of service: ‘I will spend myself for the last ebb for you; you may give me praise or you may give me blame, it will make no difference. So long as there is a human being who does not know Jesus Christ, I am his debtor to serve him until he does.’
“The mainspring of Paul’s service is not love for men, but love for Jesus Christ. If we are devoted to the cause of humanity, we shall soon be crushed or broken-hearted, for we shall often meet with more ingratitude from men than we would from a dog; but if our motive is love to God, no ingratitude can hinder us from serving our fellow man.
“Paul’s realization of how Jesus Christ had dealt with him is the secret of his determination to serve others. “I was before a perjurer, a blasphemer, an injurious person’—no matter how men may treat me, they will never treat me with the spite and hatred with which I treated Jesus Christ. When we realize that Jesus Christ has served us to the end of our meanness, our selfishness, and sin, nothing that we meet from others can exhaust our determination to serve men for His sake.”
* Oswald Chambers (1874—1917) was an early-twentieth-century Scottish Baptist and Holiness Movement evangelist and teacher, best known for the devotional My Utmost for His Highest.
Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, Chambers moved with his family in 1876 to Stoke-on-Trent when his father, Clarence Chambers, became Home Missions evangelist for the North Staffordshire Baptist Association. At age sixteen, Oswald Chambers was baptized and became a member of Rye Lane Baptist Chapel. Even as a teenager, Chambers was noted for his deep spirituality and he participated in the evangelization of poor occupants of local lodging houses.
While studying art in Edinburgh, he felt called to ministry and he left for Dunoon College, a small theological training school near Glasgow. Chambers was soon teaching classes at the school and took over much of the administration. Thereafter he spoke at evangelistic meetings in Great Britain and spent a semester teaching at God’s Bible School, a Holiness institution in Cincinnati, Ohio, then spent a few months in Japan working with the Oriental Missionary Society. Sailing back to the United States in 1908, Chambers became better acquainted with Gertrude Hobbs, the daughter of friends, whom he had known casually. They married in 1910. Chambers considered ministry a partnership in which Biddy—who could take shorthand at 250 words per minute—would transcribe and type his sermons and lessons into written form.
In 1911 Chambers founded and was principal of the Bible Training College in Clapham Common, Greater London. In 1915, a year after the outbreak of World War I, Chambers suspended the operation of the school and was accepted as a YMCA chaplain. He was assigned to Zeitoun, Cairo, Egypt, where he ministered to Australian and New Zealand troops, who later participated in the Battle of Gallipoli. Chambers raised the spiritual tone of a center intended by both the military and the YMCA to be simply an institution of social service providing wholesome alternatives to the brothels of Cairo. Soon his wooden-framed “hut” was packed with hundreds of soldiers listening attentively to messages such as “What Is the Good of Prayer?” Confronted by a soldier who said, “I can’t stand religious people,” Chambers replied, “Neither can I.”
Chambers was stricken with appendicitis on 17 October 1917, but resisted going to a hospital on the grounds that the beds would be needed by men wounded in the Third Battle of Gaza. On 29 October, a surgeon performed an emergency appendectomy; however, Chambers died 15 November 1917 from a pulmonary hemorrhage. He was buried in Cairo with full military honors.
For the remainder of her life—and at first under very straitened circumstances—Chambers’ widow transcribed and published books and articles edited from the notes she had taken in shorthand during the Bible College years and in Cairo, Egypt. Most successful of the thirty books was My Utmost for His Highest (1924). The work has never been out of print and has been translated into 39 languages.
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Psalm 23:1
The King of Love My Shepherd Is
by Henry W. Baker *
The King of love my Shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never,
I nothing lack if I am His
And He is mine forever.
Where streams of living water flow
My ransomed soul He leadeth,
And where the verdant pastures grow,
With food celestial feedeth.
Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love He sought me,
And on His shoulder gently laid,
And home, rejoicing, brought me.
In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
With Thee, dear Lord, beside me;
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy cross before to guide me.
Thou spread’st a table in my sight;
Thy unction grace bestoweth;
And O what transport of delight
From Thy pure chalice floweth!
And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise
Within Thy house forever.
* Sir Henry Williams Baker (1821-1877) was the eldest son of Admiral Sir Henry Loraine Baker. He was educated at Trinity College and took Holy Orders in 1844. Sir Henry’s name is intimately associated with hymnody. One of his earliest compositions was the very beautiful hymn, “Oh! what if we are Christ’s,” which he contributed to Murray’s Hymnal for the Use of the English Church, 1852. His hymns, including metrical litanies and translations, number 33 in all. The last audible words which lingered on his dying lips were the third stanza of his exquisite rendering of the 23rd Psalm, “The King of Love, my Shepherd is”:
Perverse and foolish, oft I strayed,
But yet in love He sought me,
And on His Shoulder gently laid,
And home, rejoicing, brought me.
This tender sadness, brightened by a soft calm peace, epitomized his poetical life. (This hymn was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in Westminster Abbey, London, September 6, 1997.)