A Puritan Call to Contentment

Puritan Thomas Watson’s book The Art of Divine Contentment (1660) is a challenging and encouraging call for Christians to pursue contentment in God. It is full of Watson’s characteristic imagery and pastoral care. The central text comes from Philippians 4:11, where Paul states, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (ESV).

After spending several months translating this book into modern English, I thought it would be helpful to provide a short review of Watson’s argument and how he challenges us to reconsider some of the ways we excuse our discontent.

Contentment must be pursued

Watson begins by pointing out that even the Apostle Paul had to learn contentment. If that was true for Paul, it must be true for us. We can’t just wait for circumstances to bring us contentment; we have to study contentment. And, furthermore, this contentment is to exist in “whatever situation” (v. 11) and “in any and every circumstance” (v. 12). Watson rightly points out that this is a difficult lesson for all of us, because we all have hard areas in our lives that seem to make true peace impossible.

Acknowledge your pain

Like many other puritan writers, Watson asks questions and objections throughout the book and then answers them. One of the first questions he addresses is, “whether a Christian may not be sensible of his condition, and yet be contented?” He emphatically answers yes, we can feel the pain in our circumstances. We should even pray for their removal. Watson points to Christ’s example as he not only prayed for the Father to remove the cross but did so in agony and with sweat “like great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44). In the same way, we should acknowledge our suffering and pray to our Father for help.

But if our pain does not preclude contentment, what does?

Avoid murmuring

Watson asserts that the main enemy of contentment is a complaining, bitter spirit that ultimately slanders the goodness of God. Watson points out that we tend to be blind to this. Instead, we protect and defend our right to be discontent. He spends a lengthy chapter addressing several different objections to contentment based on circumstances. However, he continually asserts that discontent is a sin.

“We must lay it down for a rule, that discontent is a sin; so that all the pretences and apologies wherewith it labours to justify itself, are but the painting and dressing of a strumpet.” (Original version)

I think it is at this point that the we might pause. Is discontent really a sin? Watson makes a convincing Biblical argument that it is. But he does an excellent job of qualifying what a sinful discontent looks like. I really liked his use of the word murmuring for this purpose, because it is so descriptive of a spirit of rebellion against the God and His sovereignty. During the update, I left this word in several places for its descriptive powers, even though it is not as commonly used today. When we are sinfully discontent, we murmur and insinuate that God is not for us, that He is not in control, and that we could do better in His place.

The path forward

For all of his scriptural depth, Watson is very pastoral in providing practical suggestions for learning this art of contentment. First, he states that contentment is impossible to achieve without the power of the Spirit through a saving faith in Christ. Paul affirms this point when he says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).

In the final section of the book, Watson recommends the following practical steps to cultivate contentment:

  1. Advance in faith
  2. Labor for assurance of your salvation
  3. Get a humble spirit
  4. Keep a clear conscience
  5. Learn to deny yourself
  6. Put heaven into your heart
  7. Stay positive
  8. Consider the times and your status as an alien and a stranger in this world
  9. Do not place your hope on outward things
  10. Often acknowledge that you get better than you deserve
  11. Do not focus on what you lack but what you have
  12. Study the inconstancy of the world
  13. Regulate your perceptions
  14. Consider how little will meet your needs
  15. Believe that the present condition is best
  16. Do not overindulge the flesh
  17. Meditate often on the coming glory
  18. Pray often

Watson goes into more detail on each of these areas in that chapter. One that stood out to me was his discussion of the twelfth rule, to study the inconstancy of the world. Watson encourages us to look to look away from temporary things as our foundation. God is the only constant in our lives, and Christ is the only rest for our souls.

“Why are we discontent at the loss of these things? It is because we expect something from them that they cannot give, and we rest in them, which we should not do!”

The Art of Divine Contentment: In Modern English, pg. 136

Conclusion

The Art of Divine Contentment is a wonderful book that applies to every Christian. Watson knows that this is a lesson that we will never come to the end of in this life, but he makes a loving plea for us to pursue contentment. In doing so, he has greatly helped his brothers and sisters in Christ–both his contemporaries and, 350 years later, you and me. In the next life, we will be perfectly content in the Lord, and hopefully we will meet Thomas Watson to thank him for his help on our journey.

“I know that there will not be perfect contentment here in this life. Perfect pleasure is only at God’s right hand; yet we can begin now to tune our instrument before we play the sweet music of contentment with perfection in heaven.”

The Art of Divine Contentment: In Modern English, pg. 4

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