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The Secret of Contentment

“Be thankful for what you have.” Now there’s a common, parental refrain! Here is another one: “There are some who aren’t as lucky as you.” Or worse, “In my day, I didn’t have…” (you know the rest). We say these things to our children, we’ve heard them from our parents, and we even mutter them to ourselves. It’s our effort to have contentment (or persuade others be content) based on circumstances. Things could always be worse, right? But William Barcley, pastor of Sovereign Grace Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, wants us to rethink searching for contentment in our circumstances in his book The Secret of Contentment.

Don’t get me wrong, parents sometimes need all the ammunition they can get in order for picky 3-year-olds to eat, and we shouldn’t feel guilty about mentioning heart-wrenching poverty in the majority world. But discontentment doesn’t end after childhood. In a world economy that thrives off instilling dissatisfaction and unfulfilled dreams, telling ourselves, “It could be worse,” doesn’t quite do the job.

Barcley’s project isn’t new. He is a pastor who shepherds sinful people, and he’s looking for ways to instill contentment, not in our circumstances, but in God and his love for us in Christ. Since the problem of discontentment isn’t new, he has found help from old pastors, like the Puritans Jeremiah Burroughs and Thomas Watson. Barcley has taken their time-tested work and refashioned it for today.

The Secret of Contentment takes its shape by Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Philippians is Paul’s explanation of how he has labored for contentment in Christ and in the worst of circumstances he can have joy, since his circumstances could never give him the fulfillment he seeks anyway.

Barcley’s study is pastorally helpful for showing where our discontentment comes from. The sin of a murmuring heart seeks to find satisfaction in something other than God and his grace. It is a dangerous place to be. But if we are watchful, our grumbling can display the sickness of our heart, and we can repent.

As Barcley turns to help us pursue contentment in Christ, it’s important to note that many Christians make the mistake in thinking that if they just read a book on contentment, then that is what they shall be by the book’s end. But reading books never ushers in contentment, and I don’t think Barcley has any expectations that his book will accomplish that feat. However, Barcley’s book can serve his readers by setting us on the trajectory of contentment. Like any good pastor, he aids us in enjoying moments of sudden sanctification, those times when a teacher hits the mind or the heart of the Christian in a way that leads him to contemplate the goodness, mercy, or beauty of God. In those times, temptation to sin isn’t as strong and, if for just a moment, we are content with nothing other than our communion with God. But for the long haul of the Christian life, Barcley gives us resources to find joy in our status with God through Christ, to long for heaven and the unhindered knowledge of God, and to pursue the riches of godliness.

This is an ideal, short book for pastors to keep on hand to give away. But they should be aware of a few areas of concern:

1. In a few spots, Barcley explains the gospel and God’s grace with traditional, covenant theology language. My concern isn’t in the theological system, but that many Christians, unless they’re from a traditionally Reformed church, won’t be familiar with the language. This is unfortunate, especially if a pastor wants to hand the book to fairly young or immature Christians.

2. Barcley emphasizes that a Christian’s hope is in heaven. This is understandable since Barcley takes his cue from Paul’s letter to Philippians, where Paul reminds them their citizenship is in heaven and expresses his desire to be in heaven with Christ. However, there is an obvious absence of any mention of our final hope of bodily resurrection and the appearance of the New Heavens and Earth. I don’t think this would have been such a problem if Barcley’s description of a Christian’s hope and joy wasn’t so strangely ethereal. This only fuels the criticisms some have had of evangelicals for having a sub-par understanding of the Christian hope, as if eternity will only be a harp-strumming existence.

There are few other small problems here and there, like his section on appropriately bearing the burdens of our sins. I can imagine someone being confused as to the difference between mourning God’s displeasure with our sin and actually bearing the guilt for our sin, which Christ has done on behalf of Christians. Barcley could have been more clear, and I’m sure some would take issue with his Puritan-esque introspective conscience that is burdened by the weight of sin.

None of these issues should stop pastors from suggesting the book, as these concerns can be met with a short conversation with the recipient. There’s lots to like about this book, and I wish more contemporary authors would rely on time-tested pastoral resources for the struggles all Christians face.

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