From Holy Living by Jeremy Taylor (1613-67) (paraphrased). Taylor was an English clergyman, author, and chaplain to King Charles I. He was called “the Shakespeare of the pulpit.”
God has appointed a simple remedy for many of the evils in the world and that is a spirit of contentment. For since much of the evil in life consists in there being a difference between the way things are and the way one wants them to be, he that adjusts his spirit to his situation will not be as often troubled, because his desires will not go beyond his present fortune. For no matter what troubles one finds himself in, there is in the trouble some virtue or another to be learned or exercised, be it patience, thanksgiving, love, fear, moderation, humility, charity, or contentedness; and all of them can serve the purpose of his overall happiness. After all, beauty is not made by blue eyes and a round face and a perfect body and smooth skin; but by how it fits with what we fancy to be beauty. Our happiness and contentment is created in our minds, and by the grace of God we can be reconciled to even poverty. For no man is poor that does not think himself so; and even if he is very rich, if with impatience he desires even more, he will even then think himself poor.
1. Contentment in all situations consists in the good sense of complying with the Divine Providence which governs all the world, and has so ordered us in the administration of his great family. All gifts come from God, and therefore it is fit He should dispense them as he pleases. God is the master of the scenes, and we do not get to choose which part we shall act. It concerns us only to be careful that we do our part well, always saying, ‘If this please God, let it be as it is.’ We who pray that God’s will may be done in earth as it is in heaven, must remember that even the angels do whatever is commanded them and go wherever they are sent and refuse no circumstances. You should do likewise, keeping to the station where God has placed you, not longing for something else, but simply accepting God’s providence. For are not we his creatures? Are we not as clay in the hand of the potter? Do we not live upon his provision and move by his strength? Are we anything but what we have from him? God, who can do what he pleases, is wise to choose safely for us. Here, therefore, is the wisdom of the contented man– to let God choose for him; for when we have given up our wills to him, and stand in that station of the battle where our great general has placed us, our spirits can rest while we have for our security the power, the wisdom, and the love of God.
2. Contentment in all afflictions brings great peace of spirit and is the only way to happiness in this life. It removes the sting from the situation, and makes a man not dependent upon chance, but only upon God. Our place in life is what we make of it; and when God lets loose a tyrant upon us, or a sickness, or scorn, or a lessened fortune, if we then fear to die, or know not how to be patient, or are proud, or covetous, then the calamity brings us to despair. But if we know how to be faithful and noble, and fear not death so much as a dishonest action, and think impatience a worse evil than a fever, and pride to be the biggest disgrace, and poverty to be infinitely desirable before the torments of covetousness; then we shall find that we can bear all things and be content. But no man can be happy that has great expectations and hopes and great fears of things outside of himself that depend upon other men or upon the chances of fortune. The rewards of virtue are certain, but he that has all his hope in things that are within the power of others will certainly be disappointed. My fear can make me miserable, and possessions can be enjoyed only by those who are not afraid to lose them. Fear of the future takes off all the pleasure of the present possession. Therefore, if you have lost your land, do not also lose your contentment, and if you must die a little sooner, yet do not die impatiently. For no chance circumstances are evil to him that is content. No man can make another man to be his slave unless be has first enslaved himself to life and death, to pleasure or pain, to hope or fear. Command these passions, and you will be freer than any king.
3. When anything happens to our displeasure, let us endeavor to take off its trouble by turning it into spiritual advantage. When an enemy reproaches you, look on him as an impartial revealer of your faults, for he will be more truthful with you than your fondest friend; so make use of his words. That is better than to be flattered into pride and carelessness. When a storm of a sad misfortune beats upon our spirits, turn it into some advantage by observing where it can serve a godly purpose. If nothing else, it may make us weary of the world’s vanity, take off our confidence from uncertain riches, and make our spirits content. And if it does any good to our souls, it has made more than sufficient recompense for any temporal affliction.
Almighty God, have mercy upon us, forgive us all our sins, and deliver us from all evil; confirm and strengthen us in all goodness, and bring us to life everlasting. Amen.
—Book of Common Prayer, Scotland