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Great Christian Works:       Covetousness     by William Gouge

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Covetousness
by William Gouge

CONTENTS

  1.   Of the Nature of Covetousness
  2.   Of the Practice of Covetousness in Getting Wealth
  3.   Of the Practice of Covetousness in Keeping Wealth
  4.   Of the Practice of Covetousness in Spending
  5.   Of the Heinousness of Covetousness
  6.   Of Remedies Against Covetousness
  7.   Of Well-Using Abundance
  8.   Of Examination of a Man's Self About Covetousness
  9.   Of Rules to Find Out Covetousness
  10.   Of Over-Rash Censuring Others of Covetousness
  11.   Of Contentedness. What It Is. The Grounds of Contentedness.



Of the Nature of Covetousness

Covetousness is an immoderate desire of riches. The apostle implieth as much, under this phrase, boulomenoi ploutein they that will be rich, 1 Tim. vi. 9; under that word, will, a desire, and that unsatiable desire, is comprised. The notation of both the words before mentioned, namely, love of silver and desire of having more, do demonstrate that covetousness consisteth in a desire.

Desire of riches is not simply covetousness, for a man may lawfully pray for them. So much is intended in the fourth petition. Now what a man may pray for, he may desire, with the same limitations as he may pray for it. Therefore it is an immoderate desire: that is, when a man is not content with that portion which God by his providence in a lawful and warrantable course doth afford unto him, but (according to the apostle's phrase) he will be rich; he will have more than God alloweth him in a fair way; and if he cannot otherwise get more, he will be discontent.

The general object of covetousness is riches. Under this word all the commodities of this world are comprised, and withal abundance of them, yea, more than is necessary. Things necessary may be desired, but not superfluity, Prov. xxx. 8.

This sin is especially in the heart. One may have little, and yet be covetous; and one may be rich, and yet free from covetousness.

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Of the Practice of Covetousness in Getting Wealth

Covetousness is practiced three ways:

1. In getting.   2. In keeping.   3. In spending what a man hath.

1. When wealth is gotten unconscionably or immoderately, it is a sign of a covetous heart.

That is said to be unconscionably gotten which is gotten against any duty whereunto conscience is bound, as-

1. Against any particular precept. Therein Achan covetously transgressed, Josh. vii. 21.
2. Against piety; as they which buy and sell on the Sabbath-day for gain, Neh. xiii. 16.
3. Against justice; as Ahab, who by Naboth's unjust death got his vineyard, 1 Kings xxi. 19.
4. Against charity; as the rich man that took the poor man's sheep to entertain his friend, 2 Sam. xii. 6.
5. Against equity; as Gehazi, who got that which his master refused, 2 Kings v. 20.
6. Against truth; as Ananias and Sapphira with a lie kept back part of that which was devoted to the church, Acts v. 2.
7. Against all these; which was Judas his sin in betraying his Master for thirty pieces of silver, Mat. xxvi. 15.

Whatsoever is by force or fraud, by stealing, lying, or any other indirect course gotten, is an effect of covetousness. It argueth an over-greedy desire. If it were not so, no means would be used but that which is lawful; and in the use of them men would depend on God, and be content with that portion which he by his providence affords them.

An immoderate getting is, when men spend their wit, pains, and time in getting the goods of this world, and rather than fail, lose their meal's meat, and sleep, and other refreshments, yea, and neglect the means of getting heavenly treasure: they are only and wholly for the things of this world. If spiritual and temporal blessings cannot stand together, temporals shall be preferred and spiritual neglected: as the Gadarenes, for fear of losing more swine, prayed Christ to depart from their coast, Mark v. 17; and they who, for their farm and oxen's sake, refused to come to the Lord's supper, Luke xiv. 18.

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Of the Practice of Covetousness in Keeping Wealth

Covetousness in keeping wealth is practiced two ways:

1. When men hoard up all that they can, though they have enough for the present, yet fearing want for the future, treasure up whatsoever they can get. So did the rich fool in the Gospel. His ground bearing fruit plentifully, his mind was presently set upon enlarging his barns to lay up for many years to come, Luke xii. etc. The wise man doth set out this covetous practice, 'There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labour; neither is his eye satisfied with riches,' Eccles. iv. 8. These are they that take thought for the morrow; that is, cark and care for the future time, which Christ expressly forbiddeth, Mat. vi. 34. They think that whosoever want, they will not.

2. When men hoard up only for themselves, they care not what treasure for the future the commonwealth or the church hath against times of need and trial, nor do they care for the flock of the poor.



Of the Practice of Covetousness in Spending

A covetous practice in spending is manifested two ways:

1. By spending too sparingly and too niggardly in all things, as when men live under their degree and place, when they regard not decency in apparel or other like things, when they afford not necessaries to themselves or to those that are under their charge- these are pinch-pennies. Thus doth the wise man set out such a one, 'A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth: yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof,' Eccles. vi. 2.

2. By being too prodigal in some things, as in housekeeping, in apparel, in their pleasures on themselves, wives, and children, but are too strait-handed in all works of charity, and in contributions to church and state. Nabal was such a one. He made a feast in his house 'like the feast of a king,' but yet refused to refresh David's soldiers in their necessity with any part of his provision, 1 Sam. xxv. 11, 36. And such a one was Dives; he was 'clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day,' yet refused to feed Lazarus with the crumbs that fell from his table, Luke xvi. 19, etc. These may be counted pound-prodigal, and penny-covetous.

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Of the Heinousness of Covetousness

There are many circumstances concerning covetousness which do much aggravate the heinousness thereof; for,

1. It is a deceiving sin; it blinds the understanding and corrupts the judgment in a main point of happiness: for the covetous man 'maketh gold his hope, and fine gold his confidence,' Job xxxi. 24. This is further manifest by the titles that are usually given to it, as 'substance,' and 'goods.' They who get much wealth, are said to be made for ever; and they who lose much, to be undone for ever. The rich man, when his corn exceedingly increased, thus saith to his soul, 'Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry,' Luke xii. 19. Upon this conceit of happiness, wealth so stealeth away a man's heart, and so inflames his affections, as he maketh it his god. Justly there fore is a covetous person called an idolater, Eph. v. 5; and covetousness idolatry, Col. iii. 5.

2. It is an unsatiable sin. 'He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase,' Eccles. v. 10. In this respect covetousness is like a dropsy, which increaseth thirst by much drinking; and like a fire, which by addition of fuel is the more fierce. The desire of a covetous man ariseth from abundance, and in that respect is unnatural; for nature is satisfied with sufficiency. Hunger and thirst cease when a man hath eaten and drunk that which is sufficient.

3. It is a galling sin; it works a continual vexation, and takes away all the comforts of this life. The apostle saith, that 'they which covet after money, pierce themselves through with many sorrows,' 1 Tim. vi. 10. There is a threefold woe that accompanieth covetousness-1. A woe of labour and toil in getting wealth; 2. A woe of care and trouble in keeping it; 3. A-woe of grief and anguish in parting with it. Nothing makes death more unwelcome than a covetous desire of the things of this world. 4. It is an ensnaring sin. 'They that will be rich, fall into temptation and a snare,' 1 Tim. vi. 9. Wealth, as it is a bait to allure men to snap thereat, so it is a snare fast to hold them, and a hook to pull them down to perdition. 'How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God !' Mark x. 23. This snare kept the farmers from the wedding feast, Luke xiv. 18, 19. It keeps many from the word; yea, it steals away the heart of those that come to the word; for 'their heart goeth after their covetousness,' Ezek. xxxiii. 31.

5. It is a mother sin. 'The love of money is the root of all evil,' 1 Tim. vi. 10. Fitly therefore doth the prophet thus style it 'evil covetousness,' Hab. ii. 9. There is no evil which a covetous man will forbear. His covetousness puts him on to all evil. It is a root of impiety. It draws the heart from God, so as there can be no true love nor fear of God in a covetous heart. It makes a man be of that religion which is professed in the place where he liveth, though it be palpable idolatry. A covetous man can swallow all manner of oaths, yea, and perjury itself. For gain he will profane the Sabbath. It makes inferiors purloin from their superiors, and superiors to neglect their inferiors. It is a cause of much rebellion, of many treasons, murders, thefts, robberies, deceit, lying, false witness, breach of promise, and what not.

6. It is a growing sin. The longer men live in the world, the more covetous they use to be after the world. Old men are commonly the most covetous. Herein it differeth from other violent sins, which by age abate in their violence.

7. It is a devouring sin. 'The deceitfulness of riches choke the word,' Mat. xiii. 22. Covetousness is like Pharaoh's lean cows, 'which did eat up the fat cows; and when they had eaten them up, it could not be known that they had eaten them; but they were still as ill-favoured as at the beginning,' Gen. xii. 20, 21.

8. It is a crying sin. 'The cries of them which are oppressed' by covetous persons 'enter into the ears of the Lord.' Hereupon an apostle bids them 'weep and howl,' James v. 1, Covetousness causeth a curse from man and God. 'He that withholdeth corn' (as the covetous man will when he can), 'the people shall curse him.' As for God's curse, 'the wrath of God cometh upon men because of these things,' Eph. v. 5, 6. The apostle reckoneth 'covetous persons' among those that 'shall not inherit the kingdom of God,' 1 Cor. vi. 10.

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Of Remedies Against Covetousness

For preventing or redressing covetousness, these rules following are to be observed:

1. The judgment must rightly be informed in these two points-

(1.) In the nature of true happiness.
(2.) In the vanity and deceitfulness of riches.

Many learned men lack this point of understanding.

It is the blindness of a man's mind that maketh him place a kind of happiness in the things of this world, whereby he is brought even to coat upon them. If therefore we shall be rightly instructed that happiness consisteth in matters of another kind than this world affords, and that the things of this world are so vain as they can afford no solid comfort to a man, especially in spiritual distress, and so uncertain as they may suddenly be taken away from men, or men from them, surely their immoderate desire of riches could not be but much allayed. He that said, 'There be many that say, Who will shew us any good O Lord, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us,' Ps. iv. 6, well discerned the difference betwixt earthly and heavenly blessings. So did he who said, 'Riches profit not in the day of wrath; but righteousness delivereth from death,' Prov. xi. 4.

2. The will and heart of man must follow the judgment well informed, and raise themselves up to that sphere where true happiness resteth. 'Set 'our affection on things above, not on things on the earth,' Col. iii. 2. This will keep the heart from coating on things below; for 'where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,' Mat. vi. 21. A beast which is feeding in fair and fresh pasture will not stray into a bare and barren heath; much less will an understanding man, that finds the sweetness of spiritual and heavenly blessings, feed upon earthly trash. This made Paul account all outward things but dung, because his heart had tasted of the sweetness of Christ, Phil. iii. 8.

3. A man's confidence must be placed on God and his providence. God's providence is an overflowing and ever-flowing fountain. The richest treasures of men may be exhausted; God's cannot be. Be therefore fully resolved of this, that 'God will provide,' Gen. xxii. 8. This casting of our care on God's providence is much pressed in Scripture, as Ps. lv. 22, 1 Pet. v. 7, Mat. vi. 25, 26, By experience we see how children depend on their parents' providence. Should not we much more on our heavenly Father? This resting upon God's providence is the more to be pressed in this case, because nothing makes men more to misplace their confidence than riches. 'The rich man's wealth is his strong city,' Prov. x. 15.

4. Our appetite or desire of riches must be moderate. Herein be of his mind who thus prayed, 'Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me,' Prov. xxx. 8. This is the main scope of the fourth petition, Matt. vi. 11. Be content, therefore, with that portion which God gives thee, and be persuaded it is best for thee. This lesson had Paul well learned, Phil. iv. 11. Contentedness and covetousness are directly opposite, as light and darkness. The apostle here in this text opposeth them.

5. We must pray against covetousness, as he who said, 'Incline my heart unto thy testimonies, and not to covetousness,' Ps. cxix. 36. We ought the rather to pray to God against it, because it is a hereditary disease, and in that respect the more hardly cured. It was one of Christ's greatest miracles to cure one that was born blind, John ix. 32.



Of Well-Using Abundance

In case God by his providence give abundance, as he gave to many of the patriarchs-to Job, David, Solomon, and others-great care must be taken about well-using the same. For that end let these rules following be observed. Some of them are negative, and some affirmative.

1. Negative rules are such as these:

(1.) 'Abuse not the world,' 1 Cor. vii. 31. By the world is meant the things of the world-all manner of earthly commodities. These are abused when they are esteemed above that for which they were given-when they are preferred before spiritual and heavenly things.
(2.) 'Set not your heart on riches if they increase, Ps. lxii. 10. Delight not too much in them.
(3.) 'Trust not in uncertain riches,' 1 Tim. vi. 17. Do not so place thy confidence on them, as if happiness were to be found in them.
(4.) 'Let not the rich man glory in his riches,' Jer. ix. 23, nor be puffed up by them. There is nothing in them to make a man proud of them.
(5.) Let not thy wealth move thee to scorn the poor. This is it which an apostle taxeth in rich men; saying, 'Ye have despised the poor,' James ii. 6.
(6.) Let them not occasion thee to oppress others. The foresaid apostle implieth that rich men are prone hereunto, where he saith, 'Do not the rich oppress you?' James ii. 6. The rich man that took his poor neighbour's lamb to entertain a traveller, oppressed him, 2 Sam. xiii. 4.

2. Affirmative rules are such as these:

(1.) 'Honour the Lord with thy substance,' Prov. iii. 9. So order the goods of this world which God giveth thee, as with them thou mayest maintain the service of God, and promote piety.
(2.) Be 'rich in good works,' i Tim. vi. 18. According to the abundance which God hath given thee, abound in works of charity. He that had five talents gained thereby five other talents, Mat. xxv. 20.
(3.) 'Make friends of thy riches,' Luke xvi. 9. They are made friends when they are so used as they may be evidences, and thereby give testimony of our piety, charity, justice, and other like graces.
(4.) Seriously and frequently meditate on the account that men are to give of using their wealth. We are not lords of our riches, but stewards; and a steward must give an account of his stewardship, Luke xvi. 2. That which the wise man saith to the young man, may be applied to a rich man, 'For all these things God will bring thee into judgment,' Eccles. xi. 9.
(5.) Be ready to let go whatsoever God shall be pleased to take away. Of this mind was he who, when he had lost all that he had, thus said, 'The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord,' Job i. 21.
(6.) Trust in the Lord. This advice doth the apostle give to rich men, 1 Tim. vi. 17; for this very end, to draw them from trusting in riches. He doth therefore thus infer the one upon the other, 'Trust not in uncertain riches, but in the living Lord.'

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Of Examination of a Man's Self About Covetousness

Covetousness being such a sin, as hath been declared, in the nature, practice, and heinousness of it, it nearly concerns every Christian to consider how far it hath seized on him, and how guilty he stands thereof. This duty lieth on every one in these especial respects:

1. Covetousness doth especially consist in the inward desire of a man, which is best known to himself. A man's desire is one of the things of a man which no man knoweth, 'save the spirit of man which is in him,' 1 Cor. ii. 11.

2. It is so hereditary a disease, as no man is altogether free from it. It will in some degree or other be found in the best, if they thoroughly sift themselves. Certainly he found himself addicted thereto who thus prayed to God, 'Incline my heart unto thy testimonies, and not to covetousness,' Ps. cxix. 36; yet he was 'a man after God's own heart,' Acts xiii. 22.

3. It is so deceiving a sin, covering itself under the veil of prudence, providence, good husbandry, thriftiness, harmlessness, and sundry other presences, as if it be not thoroughly examined, it will hardly be discerned.

4. It is so eating, fretting, and consuming a sin, as if it be not searched out, but suffered to lurk and grow, it may prove like the thorns which soak out the heart of the earth, and make the seed fruitless, Mat. xiii. 22. The heart of many that frequent the word 'goeth after their covetousness,' Ezek. xxxiii. 31. This covetousness in the heart of a professor may prove like the wild gourds that were put into the pot of pottage, 2 Kings iv. 39, 40; and like that accursed thing that was by Achan brought into the camp of the Israelites, Josh. vii. 11.

5. Many, for want of thorough trying of themselves in this case, think better of themselves than there is cause. The Pharisees were covetous, yet they thought too highly of themselves, Luke xvi. 14,15, and xviii.

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Of Rules to Find Out Covetousness

It is in vain for any to search after that which he knows not how to find out. God himself having exhorted Joshua and the elders of Israel to search out the accursed thing that was hid in the camp, gave him advice and direction how to do it, Josh. vii. 13, 14. I hold it meet, therefore, here to add a direction.

1. Observe the inward wishes of thine heart. If they be especially for the things of this world, they argue a covetous disposition. Covetousness is styled 'the lust of the eye,' 1 John ii. 16; that is, an inward inordinate desire arising from the sight of such and such a thing, Josh. vii. 21. Many things may be seen which are not desired, but if desired, and that inordinately, there is covetousness.

2. In things which differ, mark what is preferred. If earthly things be preferred before heavenly, temporal before spiritual, that disposition is covetous. Such was the disposition of those who are invited to the king's supper, and refused to go, Luke xiv. 18, ; and the disposition of the Gadarenes, Mark v. 17.

3. In the means of getting, consider whether they be just and right, or no; for all unjust and undue ways of getting, arise from covetousness. A mind free from it will rest content with that portion which by the divine providence shall be allotted, Jer. xxii. 17, Micah ii. 12.

4. Compare with the stint which thou first settest to thyself, the issue that followeth. If. upon the obtaining of the first desire, a man remain unsatisfied, and his desire be more and more enlarged, he hath a covetous heart. For example, a poor man thinks if he could get ten shillings a week, it would serve his turn; he hath it, but then he desireth ten shillings a day; he hath that also, yet is not satisfied; from shillings his desire ariseth to pounds, and yet is not satisfied. These are such of whom the prophet thus speaketh, 'Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth,' Isa. v. 8. Such a one is said to 'enlarge his desire as hell,' Hab. ii. 5.

5. Well weigh the effects of thy desire of riches. If thoughts thereupon break thy sleep, and care thereabouts consume thy flesh, and labour and toil therein take up all thy time, and impair health and strength, that desire is immoderate-it is plain covetousness, Eccles. ii. 23, and v. 12. This argueth a greediness after 'filthy lucre,' as the apostle terms it, 1 Tim. iii. 3.

6. Take notice of thy disposition in hoarding up and keeping wealth, and sparing to spend it; for covetousness consisteth as much (if not more) in keeping as in getting. The rich man in the parable herein especially manifested his covetousness, Luke xii. 19. The Lord, therefore, for avoiding covetousness, forbids from laying up treasures on earth, Mat. vi. 19.

7. Observe thy manner of spending. If it be too sparingly, niggardly, and basely, if under thy degree and means, if against health and strength in general, not affording what is needful thereunto; or against special occasions, not affording physic or other requisites in sickness, or help of surgery in case of wounds, sores, or other maladies; or against the charge that belongs unto thee, as wife, children, servants, kindred, and neighbours; or against the duty and due which thou owest to the poor, state, and church; or in what thou doest in any of the foresaid kinds, thou doest perforce so as otherwise thou wouldst not of it, surely this kind of spending savoureth rank of covetousness, Eccles. 4:18.



Of Over-Rash Censuring Others of Covetousness

Covetousness being a heinous sin, and exceedingly disgraceful to the profession of the true faith, we ought to be very tender about laying it to the charge of professors. It cannot be denied but that many professors are too guilty thereof: yet withal it cannot be denied but that many others are too rash in censuring professors. It may be that to lay covetousness to one's charge will not bear an action in our courts of justice, but in God's court of justice it may prove a matter of condemnation.

Men may more safely judge themselves hereabouts than others. For covetousness is an inward inordinate desire; and a man may better know the kind and qualification of his own desire than of others' 1 Cor. ii. 11.

The grounds which, ordinarily, men have of judging professors is suspicion or surmise, to which the apostle giveth this attribute, 'evil,' 1 Tim. vi. 4; for surmises are evil in their quality, and in their effects.

Ordinary surmises are such as these:

1. Such a man is very industrious and painful in his calling; he riseth early; he sitteth up late.
Ans. It may be that a good conscience about employing and improving his talent to the best advantage he can, putteth him on to that diligence, and not covetousness.

2. He lives not according to his estate, but much under it.
Ans. Thou mayest surmise his estate to be greater than it is. Dost thou know all his losses, all his debts, his manifold charges, and several ways of laying out?

3. He is not liberal to the poor.
Ans. He may be prudent in well ordering his charity; and conscionable in observing this rule of Christ, 'When thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth,' Mat. vi. 3.

4. He layeth up much.
Ans. Thou canst not tell what part of his estate he layeth up, nor to what ends. The apostle prescribeth it as a duty belonging to parents to lay up for their children, 2 Cor. xii. 14.

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Of Contentedness. What It Is. The Grounds of Contentedness.

Contentedness is a satisfaction of the mind concerning the sufficiency and fitness of one's present condition.

This general matter of contentedness, a satisfaction of mind, doth not only put a distinguishing difference betwixt contentedness and covetousness, but also sheweth that they are diametrically contrary one to another: for a covetous mind is never satisfied with any estate: and a contented mind is never unsatisfied with any.

This satisfaction useth to accompany such things as God bestoweth on such as he taketh an especial care of. Such persons having long life are satisfied therewith. God with the blessing giveth satisfaction, Ps. xci. 16. 'The meek shall eat and be satisfied,' Ps. xxii. 26. God 'will satisfy the poor with bread,' Ps. cxxxii. 15. When God promiseth to send corn, wine, and oil as a blessing, it is added, 'ye shall be satisfied therewith,' Joel ii. 19, 26.

This satisfaction is said to be of the mind, to shew that it extends itself as far as covetousness doth; which is an inward inordinate desire of the mind. A contented person doth not only forbear outward indirect courses of getting more and more; but doth also restrain the motions of his mind or soul, from desiring more than God is willing to allot unto him.

The sufficiency mentioned in the description, hath not reference to any set quantity or measure which the contented person propounds to himself; but only to the wise providence of God, who doth give to every one of his what is sufficient for him: answerably a contented person so accounts his own estate, and is satisfied. She that made this answer, to him that would have spoken to the captain of the host for some reward to her, 'I dwell among mine own people,' was such a contented one, 2 Kings iv. 13.

This word fitness is added, to shew that contentedness extends itself not only to the things which are needful for man's livelihood, as food and rainment, 1 Tim. vi. 8, but also to the several estates s hereunto man is subject: as of peace and trouble, ease and pain, honour and dishonour, prosperity and adversity. Contentedness makes a man account that estate, be it joyous or grievous, whereunto God brings him, to be the fittest and seasonablest for him.

The present condition wherewith a contented mind is limited in this text, admits a double reference. One to the time past; wherein though his condition hath been better, yet he repineth not at the alteration thereof.

The other reference is to the time to come; wherein though he have never so great hope of bettering himself, yet for the present he remaineth content with his present condition.

The Grounds of Contentedness.

The grounds of contentedness are such as follow:

1. Knowledge of God's disposing providence; that he ordereth all things in heaven and earth, according to his own will, Ps. cxv. 3, and cxxxv. 6. Hence we may safely infer that our estate, whatsoever it be, great or mean, plentiful or scanty, quiet or troublesome, is ordered by God. 'The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away,' Job i. 21. 'I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things,' Isa. xiv. 7. Who would not, who should not, be content with that estate which God provideth for him?

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© 1999 The Old Time Gospel Ministry
"When to seek God has become life and to glorify God has become self, then you have truly found God."