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Peace and Tranquility and Prosperity

4 Feb

Peace.

We sometimes think the way we gain peace is by getting more. More money. More security. More achievements. More people knowing about us.

And so we attempt to achieve peace by working more, earning more, knowing more, doing more.

John Calvin suggests this approach to obtaining peace is wrong-headed. Instead, a peaceful life begins with giving yourselves and possessions and desires and ambitions to God and trusting completely in his blessing.

He writes,

“To begin with, then, in seeking either the convenience or the tranquility of the present life, Scripture calls us to resign ourselves and all our possessions to the Lord’s will, and to yield to him the desires of our hearts to be tamed and subjugated.”

Instead of thinking I will achieve the life I want by getting something outside of me, I will instead find peace when I trust all that I have and all that I want to God’s wisdom about what is best for me. We have to make a deliberate and daily decision to do this, because we are wanting beings, and our desires are constantly running this way and that. In particular, Calvin continues,

“To covet wealth and honors, to strive for authority, to make for magnificence and pomp, our lust is mad, our desire boundless. On the other hand, wonderful is our fear, wonderful our hatred, of poverty, lowly birth, and humble condition! And we are spurred to rid ourselves of them by every means. Hence we can see how uneasy in mind all those persons are who order their lives according to their own plan. We can see how artfully they strive – to the point of weariness – to obtain the goal of their ambition or greed, while, on the other hand, avoiding poverty or lowly condition.”

If left to ourselves, we run as fast as we can from humbling situations towards positions of importance. We naturally strive for achieving a better position for ourselves, but unfortunately this pursuit often distracts us from really enjoying and using the life God’s given us.

How do we avoid getting stuck in this trap?

Especially, when everything and everyone around us is encouraging us to engage in this pointless pursuit.

John Calvin continues,

“In order not to be caught in such snares, godly men must hold to this path. First of all, let them neither desire nor hope for, nor contemplate any other way of prospering than by the Lord’s blessing. Upon this, then, let them safely and confidently throw themselves and rest. For however beautifully the flesh may seem to provide for itself, while it either strives by its own effort for honors and riches or relies upon its diligence, or is aided by the favor of men, yet it is certain that all these things are nothing, nor will we benefit at all, by skill or by labor, except in so far as the Lord prospers them both. On the contrary, however, his blessing alone finds a way, even through all hindrances, to bring all things to a happy and favorable outcome for us.”

If I want peace, instead of worrying so much about how I can get more, I need to work hard at resting in God’s loving concern for me and trusting that He will provide for me exactly what I need when I want it.

Relying on the Lord’s blessing alone like this is not only right, it is wise. If we get everything we want by our own strength, we won’t be able to enjoy it. It will be a cursed prosperity.

“Again, though we might be enabled to obtain some glory and riches for ourselves by following our own plans and trusting in our own efforts, if the curse of God rests on us, we will not really taste even the least particle of lasting happiness from it. (A worldly prosperity may be attained in forgetfulness of God, but it is accursed.) Without God’s blessing, we shall obtain nothing but what turns to our misfortune. For we ought by no means to desire what makes men more miserable. Therefore, suppose we believe that every means towards a prosperous and desirable outcome rests upon the blessing of God alone, and that, when this is absent, all sorts of misery and calamity dog us. It remains for us not greedily to strive after riches and honors, whether relying upon our own skills, our intelligence, or our own diligence, or depending upon the favor of men, or having confidence in vainly imagined fortune – but for us always to look to the Lord so that by his guidance we may be led to whatever lot he has provided for us. Thus it will first come to pass that we shall not dash out to seize upon riches and usurp honors through wickedness and by evil plans, or greed, to the injury of our neighbors, but pursue only those enterprises which do not lead us away from innocence.”

How to Be Rich without Choking Yourself

18 May

“Someone might ask whether it is right for God’s children to be rich, to employ the good things which God so generously gives and to derive pleasure from them. After all, our text says “Woe to you who laugh. Woe to you rich. Woe to you when men speak well of you.” “What’s this?” you say. “Is it wrong to lead a good and virtuous life and to be well spoken of? Doesn’t St. Paul urge us to do good in the sight of all? Don’t we read somewhere else that every mouth should be stopped and that men should glorify God when they see us walking in his fear?” We might, then, think it harsh and puzzling that the rich, the comfortably off, and the happy should be condemned.

Now that is not what our Lord is saying here. What he is condemning is the attitude of those who, intent on living well in this world, as so stupid and senseless as to forget there is a heavenly kingdom. This will be clearer if we think of how believers behave when times are good. If God sends them peace and prosperity, they will give him the praise; they will use his gifts soberly, endeavouring always to live an upright life. They will not want to squander such gifts, but they will recognize them as blessings from God. Or again, if someone possesses a rare gift of God’s Spirit, he will not pretend he doesn’t have it, for that would be mere hypocrisy. So whether believers are rich, or in robust health, or wonderfully endowed with the Spirit’s gifts, they acknowledge that God’s favour is its only source. Their joy is real, and so is their thanksgiving. That is how they will use the good tings of this present life.

Nevertheless, while life for believers may be easy today, they will be ready tomorrow to endure whatever afflictions God may send them. He may, perhaps, take from them the goods he has given. They are prepared to surrender them, since they know they received them on one condition–that they should hand them back whenever God should choose. The believer reasons this way: “Rich today, poor tomorrow. If God should change my circumstances so that ease gives way to suffering and laughter to tears, it is enough to know that I am still his child. He has promised to acknowledge me always as his, and in that I rest content.

That, I repeat, is how believers will behave. They will live soberly, tightening their belts if that is necessary; they will be self-controlled, telling themselves that though they may rise to eminent rank and enjoy untold pleasure, they must set their sights on higher things. The good things given by God are but a path to lead us to him, a ladder to ascend on high, not a tomb in which to bury ourselves. We should not cling to happiness or greet its passing with a hollow laugh, for it is fleeting. Nor should we exult when men applaud us, as if we had already attained our reward for a virtuous life on earth. No, we are determined to press on through good report and bad. Such is the measured and moderate path pursued by the believer. We do not get drowsy, still less intoxicated, when times are good. And we are always willing to abandon everything if God requires. This is not how it is with unbelievers. Prosperity goes immediately to their heads, fills them to bursting; they are so befuddled that not once do they spare a thought for God or the spiritual life. In time they grow hard, and when misfortune comes they grind their teeth and blaspheme against God.

This is how we are to interpret the woes spoken against the rich, the satisfied, those who laugh and are glad. Remember Job, who amidst his suffering proclaimed: “If we have received good things from God’s hand, why should we not also receive the bad?” There is no doubt that this was something which Job had thought hard about–a treasure, so to speak, to be disclosed at the right time and place. We see then that although God may spare us and give us reason to rejoice, we should expect to receive both good and bad from his hand. Not reluctantly or because we are compelled, but meekly and cheerfully, obedient to his will. For he must rule us, not according to our own likes but according to what he knows is best and most expedient for us. We are confident that all things will work for our salvation: that is our motive for rejoicing.

That is the sense of Jesus’ teaching in this passage. To be rich, to be glad, to be satisfied is to be drunk on prosperity and to live the life of senseless beasts. If we are comfortably off, it is not so that we may cover ourselves with gold and silver, or boast of owning fields and meadows, like those whose goal in life is to have everything they want. Those kinds of people are as good as dead: they bury themselves in their perishable possessions and are incapable of seeing heaven above. As for us, we must take heed to ourselves lest the Son of God condemn us with his own lips: only by looking to him for continual blessing can we escape the misfortune promised here. We are taught, then, to pass through this world as strangers, convinced, as St. Paul says, that those who have should be as those who have not. No one would deny that those who have plenty to live on meet many more temptations and run more risk of falling. They need, therefore, to turn constantly to God, and to learn that his gifts are meant to draw them closer to him, to quicken their love and to encourage their obedience. The good things they receive must never bewitch them to the point that they become captives to the world.

In the midst of plenty we must guard against greedy excess, lest we choke ourselves and bring this curse upon us: Woe to you who are filled. If we are to be filled, it is in a different way–by contemplating God’s face, as we read in Psalm 16. We should regard material possessions simply as props to help us, until we see the Father face to face. He is our bliss and happiness. By all means let us laugh, but in the manner of those who are ready to weep should that be God’s will. Our joy should be joined with sadness, and with compassion for those who suffer. No one should live apart from others, and all should rejoice whenever God’s name is honored. Yes, rejoice, even when we have reason to feel sad and gloomy. Conversely, it may be that we are fine, in the best of spirits. But supposing there is some dire trouble in the church, or God’s name is blasphemed, held up to shame or ridicule–that should give us cause for grief, grief deeper even than the joy we felt. At such a time we ought to moderate the happiness which earthly blessings bring. We ought, as the proverb says, to mix water with our wine.”

John Calvin, Sermons on the Beatitudes (Banner of Truth), pp. 77-80.

Thinking about Contentment…

19 Mar

“You never learned the mystery of contentment unless it be said of you that, just as you are the most contented man, so you are also the most unsatisfied man in the world.”

“A man who has learned the art of contentment is the most contented with any low condition that he has in the world, and yet he cannot be satisfied with the enjoyment of all the world.”

“Though he is contented with God in a little, yet those things that would content other men will not content him.”

“A little in the world will content a Christian for his passage, but all the world, and ten thousand times more, will not content a Christian for his portion. A carnal heart will be content with these things of the world for his portion, and that is the difference between a carnal heart and a gracious heart.”

“Though a gracious heart knows that it is capable of God, and was made for God, carnal hearts think without reference to God. But a gracious heart being enlarged to be capable of God and enjoying somewhat of him, can be filled by nothing in the world, it must only be God himself. Therefore you will observe that whatever God may give to a gracious heart, a heart that is godly, unless he gives himself it will not do.”

Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment