Contentment: Wise Advice from the 17th Century

Richard Steele (modern English version by Randall Caldwell)

From: The Tradesman’s Calling by Richard Steel. Modern English translation, entitled The Religious Tradesman, by Randall Caldwell, copyright © Vision Harvest Inc., 2005. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.  Job 1:21

With regard to the tradesman, contentment represents a cheerful satisfaction with the place and calling God has given him. Some people, having a somewhat obstinate and self-sufficient temper, are more indifferent to the circumstances of life than others. But Christian contentment is a nobler thing. It arises from an appropriate sense of God’s dominion over us, as our Lord and Owner who therefore may do with His own as He pleases. It expresses a humble trust in God the Father, whose wisdom and goodness directs by His grace everything He does towards us, in both the common things in life as well as the more pleasurable and profitable ones. This enables one to be content regardless of the situation they’re in.

But, alas, where do we find this desirable virtue of contentment today? Men are usually not satisfied with their situation in life, and yearn for a change. Then, once they’ve made the change, they’re as far from being happy as they were before.

Weary of being held back, children and employees often seek to be liberated from their parents or employers. Parents and employers, weary of the difficulties associated with their work, look forward to retirement. Those who are unmarried are frequently not content with their situation, while many of those who are married become even less content with theirs. The poor envy the wealth of the rich, while the rich admire the quiet and plain life of the poor.

Similarly, tradesmen are not free of restlessness. They often come to prefer other trades above their own. Indeed, ever since Adam became dissatisfied with the delights of paradise, all his posterity has been infected with this same unhappy disease. This continues until that time when God, by His grace, renews their nature, limits their desires, and shows them those things more lasting and substantial than the pleasures of the world, including the favor and enjoyment of His great and blessed Self.


Examples for the Tradesman

Let’s consider some examples where the tradesman is called to find contentment.

1. In cheerfully handling the conveniences and difficulties of his calling. There are certain inconveniences common to most businesses. Indeed, none are truly free of them. For example, each tradesman is dependent upon many others. A mechanic will usually need to depend on many other experts. Those who are in commerce will often need to rely on many customers, including some who are indignant or arrogant, which try the patience of those in the trade.

Another inconvenience the tradesman often has to deal with are problem employees, such as those who tend to be lazy, careless, unfaithful, or even vicious. As soon as he turns has back, his business begins to fall apart: work is neglected, customers are slighted, and his goods embezzled. He finds himself losing more profit from within his place of business than he can bring in from the outside. Then there are all the different types of men he must meet and deal with. Some are liars and others deceitful.

In addition to the above inconveniences, there are those that relate to certain types of businesses. Some businesses require hard labor, and others continual attention. Other businesses are active at certain times but then have little to do at other times. Such things can bring discontent to the tradesman. He may inwardly broil or outwardly flame to the point where he cries out, “Who would lead such a life as this?” or “Never was man so confused as this, or been such a slave!” Realizing that he is unable to reform others, he torments himself, is unable to find rest, and spends his time dwelling mostly on the miseries of his trade.

No one should think himself exempt from the common lot of mankind, or that the tempers and manners of men will change from what they’ve always been. Given our knowledge of our own shortcomings, we can’t expect that those others will suddenly disappear, or that we might somehow ride through the storms of life without being tossed about by the waves. It is best that we be patient with the matters of life and, realizing that we cannot make others better, we should be watchful that they not cause us to become anxious and impatient. Remembering that we have been placed in this world by divine providence, we should be certain to exercise our wisdom, patience and humility, in order to prepare us for a better place, and be contented with what we have.

2. In business trials. Through patience, the tradesman can find contentment during times of losses and disappointments in business. Sometimes the losses may be great because of the poor quality of the goods the tradesman deals in. At other times, it may be that his employees or partners are the source of problems. Storms and other adversities, as well as changes in the popularity of his goods, may be the source of financial losses.

In such situations, those with a discontented mind can become uneasy and confused. This can lead to severe business problems and a general contempt for all mankind because of the dishonesty of some. I fear that too often God’s providence is blamed, if the tradesman doesn’t already deny it because it does not favor his own plans. Thus, he neither enjoys nor gives God the praise for what he has, because he hasn’t gotten everything he’s wanted.

Christian contentment, although it isn’t insensitive to financial losses, helps to absorb them. When situations are bad, they don’t lead to depression or irresponsible behavior. The good man knows the constant happiness if found nowhere but in God and the testimony of a good conscience. The tradesman should realize that both difficult and prosperous times flow from the wisdom and goodness of his heavenly Father, and that the more humble and submissive he deals with the difficult times, the sooner he’ll overcome them. During such times, he should give thanks to God for what he has and be compassionate toward others who might be similarly afflicted through no treachery of their own.


Beware of Vice

Contentment can be maintained by monitoring those vices which conflict with it. We’ll discuss what I mean by this with several examples.


Ambition can cause the tradesman to aim at things beyond his abilities, making him restless and uneasy with his current situation. This can occur when his thoughts are too high for his calling or he hasn’t achieved what he thinks is success. The shoe doesn’t fit because the foot is swollen. Such dissatisfaction ruined our first parents, and it has led to fatal consequences for many of their children. Because of their foolish ambitions, many tradesmen have started businesses that then deprived them of the comfort they once enjoyed.

It is reasonable that people should seek to improve their situation in life according to their abilities and the time available to them. However, it is not right for those desires and pursuits to lead them to become discontented and ungrateful for their present work, and interfere with their love and responsibilities to God and their neighbors. Instead of promoting the desires of benevolence and charity, ambition can encourage pride and a false sense of hope.


Here, we address the matter of men who become envious of the prosperity of others. One may think others less deserving of financial success than they, who are less diligent but somehow more successful. There are some who appear to live without much care or effort, yet all the riches they want just seem to easily flow towards them. The world is very unequally divided: some will work hard and be disappointed, while others will have a life of ease and wealth. Envy tells us to focus on that fine house, that expensive furniture, that growing business, and so forth, which someone else enjoys.

A little modesty will remind you that the Governor of the universe knows best where to bestow His gifts, both for you and for your neighbor. If you truly seek the favor of the God of heaven, be content to be at His disposal. Be satisfied with what you have. You may not know the burdens of those you envy. You may see what seems to be their happiness but not see their miseries. You may not be aware of some of the cares, fears, or sorrows that can accompany financial wealth, along with the powerful temptations to pride, sensuality and forgetfulness of God that prosperity exposes on to. It might be that the people you envy need your compassion more than your emulation. “Be not thou afraid when one is made rich, when the glory of his house is increased” (Psalm 49:16). He that rejoices at the prosperity of others makes it his own. But he that envies it deprives himself of the comfort of what he possesses.


Covetousness is another vice that works against contentment. By covetousness, I mean an insatiable desire of wealth, when men think they cannot be happy unless they are rich. If the tradesman allows this desire into his heart he will become tormented by it. Because of his great desire to have more, he will not be able to find satisfaction with what he has. Because of this, he will worry over every little loss, and be filled with anguish over every disappointment. To gain wealth, he’ll deny himself and his family of certain conveniences and necessities. His desire for wealth will be like the thirst from a fever: the more he drinks, the more he thirsts. How sad this is.

Riches don’t make men more wise, happy or good. Neither do they help them develop good consciences or be employed to good purposes. Those who say their seeking wealth is motivated by a desire towards kindness and charity should judge their sincerity by how they are using what they already have. We should not forget that those who are unfaithful with little will also be unfaithful with much. Similarly, a man who does not wisely employ a few talents will not be a good steward of many. If you neglect God’s will for stewarding what He has given you, the pride and pleasure of life, as well as an increasing love of money, will interfere with your bearing the fruit of good works through increased wealth.

Man does not find true satisfaction through an increase of possessions but by managing his desires, for “He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 5:10). Scripture, as well as experience, assures us that the happiness of man’s life does not consist in the abundance which he possesses. Scripture tells us that, “”¦if riches increase, set not your heart upon them” (Psalm 62:10). Don’t let your possessions possess you. Imitate the example of the good man, who said, “I take God to witness to my conscience. From Him, I desire no more in this world than that without which I cannot keep His laws.”


Paths to Contentment

Consider the following avenues to a happier disposition:

1. Keep an external perspective. Focus your mind on the reality and importance of the future condition. The man who thinks of himself as on earth only for a short time as part of an eternal existence, and finds himself battling for his soul with enemies within and without, will see the absurdity of being concerned about trivial matters in this life. I encourage you to evaluate the condition of your own soul. The mercy shown you and the righteousness you desire will serve to quench your thirst after other things. How deep is the passion of the sinful man, that he can be so continually and restlessly seeking after temporary and worthless things, while the image of God is lost in his soul and the anger of God ready to consume him!

2. Stay humble. If you wish to be content, seek to have a humble spirit. Pride causes men to be ungrateful for the mercy they receive and impatient under their crosses. But the one who is truly humble will easily bear afflictions and gratefully acknowledge blessings. The humble man recognizes that, although he may have a poor trade and a difficult condition, it could be worse. He might be begging or starving, or pining away in pain and misery. Yes, others may have more enjoyment of the temporal things of the world. But, the one who recognizes that he merits nothing of himself will be well contented with little.

3. Seek moderation. If you are to attain this happy state of contentment, learn to control and moderate your desires. “Nature and grace are contented with little, but pride and humor with nothing.” The real needs of men are few and can quickly be supplied. But if all the things we merely desire or want somehow come to represent what we need, there will be no end to them. The only path to happiness is to find contentment with your situation in life, which is within the power of everyone by divine assistance. But few are they who achieve this. We find that when men arrived at that place they thought would bring happiness, where their wealth is increasing, they are actually as discontented as ever. Therefore, if we have but a moderate lifestyle, we should be satisfied with it.

4. Trust in God. Lastly, you should seek to live a life that is dependent upon the blessings of God. When you place your happiness in His hands, you will easily be contented with whatever the world brings you. The soul that lives in fellowship with God and finds its happiness in Him will enjoy delights so noble and excellent that it will look with pity on the deluded world, which pursues the empty shadows of earthly happiness while neglecting the well-being of an immortal spirit. He who knows God, that all the perfection of God is engaged for his good, will be easily satisfied during every stage of life. Learn to be content with God’s blessings and to accept His providence. Believe God to be both wise and good, to know what is best for you and willing to bestow it upon you, if you are careful to please Him. He who has promised glory and happiness in the end to those who love and fear Him will not deny them any necessary good on the way. Therefore, even in times of discouragement, seek to live according to His infallible word and promises, and you will certainly find that your hope was well placed.

Excerpted from The Tradesman’s Calling by Richard Steele. Modern English translation, entitled The Religious Tradesman, by Randall Caldwell, copyright © Vision Harvest Inc., 2005.

For a bio of Richard Steele (1629-1692), click here.