Addition by Subtraction

December 2nd, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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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).

A Holiday Rant

December 1st, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I’m not in the habit of ranting—at least not this early in the morning—and the holidays don’t bother me much, but there has been something brewing in me for several years now, and I feel it is time to let it out. As I say that, the wisdom of Proverbs assails me, imploring me to hold my tongue: “Those who guard their lips preserve their lives,” I hear, “but those who speak rashly will come to ruin” (13:3); “a fool’s heart blurts out folly” (12:23), they tell me, but still I speak.


Here it goes.


There has been a growing frustration among evangelicals about the phrase “Happy Holidays,” which is now excoriated almost universally among my brethren as “offensive”HappyHolidaysGiftChristmasTree2012_freecomputerdesktopwallpaper_2560 and “politically correct” (an odd combination of critiques). It represents, so they tell me, the slow degeneration of the once great American society—a Christian society, you will remember—into the godless postmodern slough we now inhabit. Christmas is about Jesus (as it surely is), and December is about Christmas—that’s why your kids have a break, after all—so let’s all just acknowledge this fact and wish everybody a merry Christmas, and expect everyone to wish us the same, even if they’re Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist. It would be offensive for them not to, that’s what I says.


I confess I find this logic (a generous term) bewildering. Debates about just how Christian a nation America ever was notwithstanding (the evidence is a pretty mixed bag though—just ask the esteemed Mr. Jefferson), I still can’t understand why we make such a fuss about this. America is not now a Christian nation. Given the history of Christendom, I think we can all thank God for that; I would much rather we be yeast in the dough, rather than decreeing that all the dough has been successfully leavened by government fiat (see: Theodosius, Edict of Thessalonica). Many who inhabit this great nation believe in other gods, or believe in none at all. That is part of what makes our nation great, and is a tremendous spur to winsome, loving evangelism in one of the largest mission fields in the world.


And there’s the rub: how can our winsome, loving evangelism and our petulant, trenchant demands that everyone wish us a merry Christmas coexist? In the community of believers, it is a reasonable expectation. Outside, I’m not so sure. Do we imagine ourselves to be contending for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints by insisting everyone celebrate our holiday on our terms? Do we think we honor the name of Christ by demanding that our Hindu or Sikh or agnostic neighbor speak our language or face our wrath (and, worse still, our clever memes on social media)? Why would we expect someone who does not believe in the incarnation of Christ to pretend that matters to them? Would we even want them to?


In acting thus, many of us have defamed the name of Christ, and have given offense where none is needed. We imagine our friends and family, neighbors and coworkers, have stumbled over the Cornerstone, when in fact we have simply tripped them (1 Peter 2:7-8). This is not the offense of the cross. This is a scandal of our own making. Rather than becoming all things to all people so that by all possible means we might save some, we have demanded all people come to us on our terms. Those terms are two: “merry” and “Christmas.”


If we would rather be the aroma of life this Christmas season, let us revere Christ as Lord in our hearts and in our Advent practices, being ready to give an answer to anyone who inquires as to our holiday plans or our seasonal worship customs (1 Peter 3:15-16). We have had a number of people ask about various family worship practices during Advent, leading to some rich conversations. Evangelism is a process, and we have the opportunity to encourage a step in that blessed process—or to stall it before it begins. As for me and my house, would to God it be the former.


Enough, already. Happy holidays, everyone.