Burroughs, whose circumstances did not foster contentment (as I am reading in the wonderful biography of Burroughs by Phillip Simpson), looked in Paul’s words found in Philippians 4:11-12:
11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
Burroughs first notes the route to contentment. This is perhaps the most troubling aspect — I know no one who would not receive contentment (sure some will not want to become static and mouldering, but that is not Paul’s meaning here) — is that contentment is not a gift without gaining. Contentment must be learned.
He here keys in on the words which we have translated as “I have learned the secret”. Burroughs’ translation merely had the word “instructed” and thus he needs to bring out the matter: Contentment is not something to be found easily — it is a secret (Burroughs uses the word “mystery” as we would use the word “secret”). Thus, we must learn this mystery, this secret:
Contentment in every condition is a great art, a spiritual mystery. It is to be learned, and to be learned as a mystery. And so in verse 12 he affirms: ‘I know how to be abased, and I now how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed.’ The word which is translated ‘instructed’ is derived from the word that signifies ‘mystery’; it is just as if he had said, ‘I have learned the mystery of this business.’ Contentment is to be learned as a great mystery, and those who are thoroughly trained in this art, which is like Samson’s riddle to a natural man, have learned a deep mystery. ‘I have learned it’-I do not have to learn it now, nor did I have the art at first; I have attained it, though with much ado, and now, by the grace of God, I have become the master of this art.
Here is the beginning of the matter: it is an art, a skill to be learned; not merely a state to be enjoyed.
What does this mean?
First, since it can be learned, it will require the transfer and assimilation of some knowledge. Second, it can not merely learned, but it can also be taught. Third, such knowledge is not immediately apparent — it will be acquired as a secret (though it is not a secret because it cannot be had by all — this is not Gnosticism. It is a strange sort of secret. It is a secret in plain sight.).
In short, contentment will take effort.
We can further infer: Since discontentment is a sin (in that discontentment is a judgment that God has done wrong by so ordering the world), contentment is a necessary aspect of sanctification. Therefore, this knowledge cannot be truly had without the Spirit: “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). It is not a mere matter of information; it is a matter of information which transforms the mind (Romans 12:2). And so this matter of contentment will take prayer and meditation.