Dr. William Ames (1576-1633)
One of the most difficult of Christian virtues to obtain.
Contentment by Dr. William Ames
1. The virtue of contentment is the acquiescence of the mind in the lot God has given, 1 Tim. 6:6; Heb. 13:5; Phil. 4:11.
2. This contentment is ordered in the tenth commandment as appears from the words themselves. It is not at all proper to refer this precept to the inward and original purity of righteousness, which is the fountain of all obedience; such purity is not commanded in any one commandment but in all. And the precept no more belongs to the second table where it is situated than to the first.
3. Of all the virtues contained in the second table, however, none is more internal or intimate to vital righteousness than contentment. By it we are, as it were, led by the hand to contemplate and seek righteousness. And so righteousness in its purity is fitly handled here.
4. Joy for the prosperity of our neighbor, as if it were our own, is part of contentment, Rom. 12:15.
5. In contentment and joy are found the height and perfection of all love towards our neighbor. Hence contentment is in a way the perfection of godliness and of a godly man. 1 Tim. 6:6, There is great gain in godliness, met’ autarkeias, with contentment (or, that which produces the perfection of contentment).
6. Therefore, the last commandment stands at the end of an order which proceeds from the less to the more perfect and from the better known to the less known.
7. For this is our most perfect duty and yet least known to us by nature: Whatever we conceive or will should be joined with the good of our neighbor.
8. Although by its nature this is first among duties to our neighbor as the foundation of all the others, it is commanded in the last place, because it is the last to come into being for corrupted man.
9. Covetousness is opposed to contentment, Heb. 13:5.
10. Covetousness does not mean the power and faculty of desiring and seeking what is natural; or the act of that natural faculty, or its lawful operation, which is also natural; or the whole inclination of our corrupt nature (not specially condemned in any one precept but in the whole law); or the actual inordinate primary lusts (for the most part contrary to religion and condemned in the first table); or last, lusts which tend to the hurt of our neighbor (for those having a deliberate will and purpose behind them are condemned in the other commandments). Covetousness means that desire which first instigates and excites the mind to yearn for the good things of our neighbors although it has not yet occurred to us to get them by unlawful means, 1 Kings 21:2; Mark 10:19.
11. The affinity or close connection which these primary motives of injustice have with original corruption (whence they arise) has led many to confuse the two. But the following should be considered. First, original sin is an inborn disposition [habitus], so to speak, perpetually and continually with us during this life, and always in the same manner while we live here, but those motives are transient expressions of the disposition. Second, the sin in us is no more an original than a general principle of all vicious action, while the expressions of it which are condemned here are plainly limited to those which affect only our neighbor.
12. The Apostle himself in Rom. 7 clearly explains this commandment by a figure describing the operations of sin. Concupiscence, verse 7, is the same as the Passions of sinners, verse 5, and as Concupiscence effected by sin, verse 8, and must be distinguished from Indwelling sin, verse 7.
13. It is no marvel that the Pharisees (of whom Paul was one) did not acknowledge the first motives of covetousness to be sins. The same refusal is stiffly made by their cousins, the papists.
14. Those who divide this last commandment about covetousness in two, one part about coveting the house and the other about coveting the wife and other objects have forsaken all reason in this matter. They are forced either to abandon the second commandment of the first table or to turn it into a needless appendix of the first commandment so that they may in some way retain the number ten. Or rather, as is evident with many of them, obscuring the force of the second commandment in order with some show to separate from it themselves and their superstitions, they tear apart this tenth commandment. They have no choice about which is the ninth and which the tenth commandment because in the repetition of the law, Deut. 5:27, coveting the wife is put before coveting the house. They cannot say it is clearly wrong to join together these two types of coveting when they themselves in explaining the decalogue always join or rather confuse the ninth and tenth commandments. Last, the very words of the decalogue plainly show that it is one commandment, when they forbid one act (You shall not covet) and have a common object (Anything that is your neighbor’s).
15. An inordinate love of ourselves is a cause of covetousness,
16. This philaoutia, self-love, is the source and origin of all sins not which is called philaoutia, 2 Tim. 3:2. only against our neighbor, but against God himself, 2 Tim. 3:4.
17. Covetousness is divided by John into that of the flesh, having
to do with food and lust, that of the eyes, having to do with outward delight and profit, and the pride of living, having to do with the glory and pomp of this world, 1 John 2:16.
18. Envy or an Eye being evil is opposed to joy and pleasure in the prosperity of our neighbor. Matt. 20:15. Likewise opposed is any epikairekakia rejoicing over the hurt of our neighbor, Ps. 70:3, 4;
19. In the last commandment that perfection of righteousness is commanded which is in a way central to the whole second table, just as in the first commandment of the first table all parts of religion are in a way commanded. The first commandment of the first table contains the first and great commandment, You shall love God with nil your heart and the second commandment, like unto it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, is contained in the last commandment of the second table.
20. From the perfection which shines forth in any one of these commandments it is manifest that a complete and accurate fulfilling of the law is impossible even to the faithful by the grace bestowed upon them in this life. The rule and measure of our obedience (as has been well said) is in affirmatives, You shall love with all your heart and in negatives. You shall not covet, both of which are impossible in this life. It necessarily follows that no one can satisfy exactly the law.
21. In this life we know only in part, 1 Cor. 13:9, and, therefore, act only in part. We receive only the first fruits of the Spirit, Rom. 8:23. Therefore, we cannot precisely observe a law wholly spiritual, Rom. 7:14. We carry about us flesh that lusts against the Spirit, Gal. 5:17, and we cannot obey without covetousness, inclining and drawing us another way. Finally we are not perfect, Phil. 3:12, and we cannot render perfect obedience. We always need to have that petition in our heart and on our lips, Forgive us our debts.
22. Yet it is rightly and truly said that the Yoke of Christ is easy, his burden light. Matt. 11:30, and His commandments not grievous, 1 John 5:3. Here the yoke is considered, first, as the law is actually observed by the faithful who delight in it, Rom. 7:22; Ps. 119:14, 16, not as it ought to be observed. Even this kind of observance by the faithful brings rest to their souls. Matt. 11:29, although the imperfection which still cleaves to them is grievous and troublesome to them. Second, the yoke is here considered in relation to the spirit and not the flesh. Matt. 26:41. Third, it is here united with the remission of all the sin and imperfection which cling to our endeavors. Fourth, the yoke is light and not grievous in comparison with the letter of the law which kills. Fifth, it is a preparation for the reward appointed by God for obedience begun, though imperfect — in which sense all afflictions are counted light, 2 Cor. 4:17. The ease and lightness of the law of God is not in proportion to our strength: It comes from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God, with the gift of the Holy Spirit which is with all those who love the law of God. Amen.