Addition by Subtraction

The holiday season exposes the deep greed within us (or at least within our kids) as few other times can. If we are not careful—examining ourselves relentlessly, allowing clip_holding giftsothers to correct and admonish us as needed—we can unwittingly believe the lie and buy the hype. If I had this or that, my life would truly be richer, and I, I would finally be content.


That last bit is an especially treacherous deceit. We are fools indeed if we believe we will experience contentment when our circumstances change, for contentment is an inward disposition. The one who is not content with the spiritual blessings given him or her in Christ Jesus will not be content with any baubles collected in addition to the boundless riches of grace. Infinite blessing is already ours, and as any child caught in a game of one-upmanship knows, there is no such thing as infinity plus one.


Consider how this worked in the life of Paul, the apostle who had learned the secret of contentment (Philippians 4:11). In recounting the hardships he endured to the Corinthian church—the church enraptured by a theology of easy glory—he described himself as “poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Jeremiah Burroughs, that prince of Puritan preachers known especially for his book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, comments on this verse: Paul “does not say: ‘As possessing all things,’ but ‘possessing all things.’ I have very little in the world, he says, but yet possessing all things.”[1] Paul has infinite treasure in Christ, so the state of his bank account concerns him but little.


Burroughs then proceeds to argue that true Christian contentment comes not by addition, but by subtraction. Adding mere trinkets never brings contentment, but learning satisfaction in Christ alone surely will. He writes,


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…. 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.[2]


His wealth is the same because he still possesses Christ, and in possessing Christ he possesses infinite treasure. In other words, by subtracting grumbling desires from his heart, he adds the grace of contentment to his spirit. It is addition by subtraction.


I should add that this lesson—a hard one to learn indeed!—pertains to more than just possessions. We must not think that our contentment will or should depend on our circumstances. For example, I am currently unemployed. I would be a fool to think that if I am not now content in Christ, that I will be once I have gainful employment again or a fruitful ministry in which to serve. If I am not content in my reconciliation to God through Christ, I will not be content in any circumstances until God, in his grace, should change my stony heart.


As Burroughs forcefully puts it,


I am discontented for want of what a dog may have, what a devil may have, what a reprobate may have; shall I be discontented for not having that, when God has given me what makes angels glorious? ‘Blessed be God,’ says the Apostle in Ephesians I. 3, ‘who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places.’ It may be you have not such great blessings in earthly places as some others have, but if the Lord has blessed you in heavenly places, that should content you. There are blessings in heaven, in a heavenly place. The consideration of the greatness of the mercies that we have, and the littleness of the things that God has denied us, is a very powerful consideration to work this grace of contentment.[3]


This Christmas season, let us consider the richness of our blessing in Christ, and let God’s grace work in us to produce a heart well and truly satisfied in him.


[1] The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, first published 1684 (reprint Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1964): 35.

[2] Ibid., 45 (emphasis added).

[3] Ibid., 208 (emphasis added).

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