Six Letters on Afflictions
My Dear Madam,
I have seen of late, more of the importance of a thankful spirit, not only for its own sake, but as a useful and almost necessary means of serving the Lord acceptably. An unbelieving poring over our sinful selves, not only robs us of our comfort, but of our strength likewise, and makes us forget the innumerable mercies with which the Lord has enriched us.
To be humbled and ashamed before him, under a sense of our vileness, is quite correct. But still, while Jesus is our Head, our Righteousness, our Shepherd, our Lord, and our God; and while we feel a growing desire of grace and communion maintained in the soul — we shall not sorrow, without rejoicing at the same time. This was the experience of the great apostle of the Gentiles; he felt this in an eminent degree when he said, "he was sorrowful — yet always rejoicing," so that if he was with us now, he would join with us in saying:
"I the chief of sinners am,
But Jesus died for me!"
You see then, my dear Madam, we have daily reason to sorrow because we are sinners — and greater reason to rejoice, because Jesus has put away sin by the sacrifice of himself!
I hope your nephew enjoys good bodily health, and his soul is nourished and refreshed. Though he lives in a barren land, I trust he finds that the Lord can open springs and fountains in the wilderness. The word of grace and the throne of grace afford wells of salvation, from which he cannot be debarred. From thence, I hope, he will daily draw the water of life with joy; and, like a tree of the Lord's planting — strike root downwards, and bear fruit upwards, and experience that the Lord is able to keep, establish, and comfort him — though for a season he is deprived of the public ordinances of the Gospel.
It is observable, that none of David's Psalms express more lively emotions of faith and love, than some of those which he penned when he was driven from the opportunities of public worship, and constrained to dwell alone like a desert owl in the wilderness; such was his situation when he wrote the 42nd, 57th, 63rd, 142nd, and 143rd Psalms.
Blessed are we, when we can clearly see that every event and circumstance of our lives, is under the immediate direction and appointment of Him who cares for us, and who has engaged that all things shall, notwithstanding all our doubts and misgivings, work together for good.
May you, my dear Madam, go on in the ways of the Lord, with fresh animation and delight, and may your prospects be bright and unclouded, so that you may with joy be able to sing with the seraphic poet:
"I now can read my title clear,
To mansions in the skies;
I bid farewell to every fear,
And wipe my weeping eyes!
"There shall I bathe my weary soul
In seas of heavenly rest;
And not a wave of trouble roll
Across my peaceful breast."
And now, my dear Madam, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
And with this I will conclude, assuring you that I am,
Your much obliged and affectionate servant,
My Dear Madam,
I perceive that your heavenly Father has again put you into the furnace — and I trust he will divinely impress upon your heart, that there is a needs be for it, and that the outcome of your present trial shall surely end in some good or another to your soul.
His word tells us that trials are absolutely necessary, and why they are so — as he would not afflict those he loves, but for their real profit. So he chooses those afflictions for us, and appoints them for us at such seasons, and attended with such circumstances, as he sees will be (all things considered) most for our spiritual advantage. The afflictions and trials of his people are always sent, either to prevent or to cure something still worse. We know how we feel under a present trouble — but we know not how we might have been without it.
Satan is compared to a fowler, and we sometimes are as little upon our guard as a thoughtless bird — the danger is close to us, but we are not aware of it. But, as a sudden noise affrights the bird, and makes it take wing and escape the snare — so the Lord often disappoints the devices of the enemy, by sending a seasonable trial to his dear children, which rouses them, and makes them flee to him for safety.
I have often thought if David had fallen and broke his leg when he was going up to the housetop — he would have missed the sight of Bathsheba, and that long train of evils, which made him cry out of broken bones in a still more painful sense.
We know how things are with us now, but we know not how they might have been by this time, if such or such a painful dispensation had not happened. A course of continual prosperity might have lulled us to sleep. We cannot but allow this when we find ourselves still apt to be drowsy — though the Lord is pleased to put thorns into our pillow. Notwithstanding the feeling proofs we have of the vanity of the present state, our spirits are still too apt to cleave to the dust. What then might have been the case, had our path been always smooth?
Another way in which afflictions work for good is, that they put us in a situation for the more observable exercise and manifestation of our graces — and thereby afford us fairer opportunity for glorifying God. You know as well as I do, that the glory of God should be our highest aim — and in our better moments, it is so. The Holy Spirit teaches us to pray, that we may live to his glory — and he often answers this prayer by sending us trials. His wisdom, faithfulness and power, in supporting and delivering — are more clearly seen in a time of suffering. And the graces of faith, patience, and submission, are more evident then, than they would be if we were always at ease.
The case of Job is recorded for our instruction in this view. He received personal benefit by his heavy troubles, and came out of the furnace purified like gold. But his great honor was, that by his sufferings he was made of eminent use to the church of God; and believers in all ages, have been and will be edified and comforted by what they read of the Lord's dealings with him.
And though we are not called upon to appear (as he was) as public examples — yet, within the circle of our own connections, if the Lord enables us to suffer as Christians — others will be encouraged and excited to trust and praise the Lord, when they see what he is pleased to do for us.
In this sense, Christians in private life suffer for his sake. He will have it known . . .
that his grace is all-sufficient,
that he is a present help in time of trouble,
that his promises are sure, and
that he can carry his children safely through fire and water.
And for this purpose he calls out (when, and as he pleases) — some of those whom he most loves, to endure hardships — so that both friends and enemies may see that his grace bestowed upon them was not in vain.
How else should the power of precious faith be known — if it was not tried? It is an honor to serve God by doing his will; but in outward services there is something pleasing to self. But it is a much greater honor to serve him by suffering his will — here self has less concern, and our obedience is more simple and unselfish. May we be of the Apostle's mind, and glory in tribulation, if, by anything we can suffer and endure — that the power of Christ may be manifested and honored.
He is a good master to serve — I have found him so for thirty years. He can, and he will make us rich amends. He well deserves our patient submission to trials, when we consider what he has endured for us.
Cheer up, dear Madam, the Lord does all things well! Do not be afraid of storms, for you have an infallible Pilot who will . . .
guide you with his eye,
uphold you with his arm, and
every minute is bringing you nearer to the harbor of eternal rest and peace!
We have just began harvest in these parts. The corn has passed through a variety of weather; but frosts and winds, rains and heat, each of which, singly, would have destroyed it — have each in their places (through the blessing of the Lord's overruling providence) concurred to bring it to its present maturity. The farmers here, as well as elsewhere — have had different fears and complaints at different times. They have thought sometimes the weather to be too cold or too hot, too wet or too dry, by turns. But their fears were groundless and vain — the crop is ripe, the stalks are loaded, and bend under the weight of the grain.
Is not this an emblem of the spiritual life? What changes of weather have we passed through, since the seeds of grace were first sown in our hearts? How often have we been ready to murmur at the appointments of the Heavenly Gardener! How hardly could we be persuaded that the afflictions, temptations, trials, and desertions we have been exercised with — have, in their places, been no less subservient to our growth, than the more pleasing sunshine we have been sometimes favored with? Yet, I trust, we are still growing and getting forward — neither frost or floods have been able to destroy us!
Oh, Madam, (may our hearts rejoice at the thought!) the harvest is approaching! And when he sees that we are fully ripe, when all that he has designed to do for us, in us, and by us, is completed — he will separate us from these clods of earth, and remove us into his garner, where we shall be done with fears and changes forever.
We shall not then live this poor dying life — neither shall we have to complain of an evil heart of unbelief! We shall not mourn an absent God; or complain of a cold and careless heart; or feel a law in our members warring against the law of our minds. For then we shall be at the fountain-head of all our best wishes and desires — and enjoying, through eternal ages, that ineffable bliss which is prepared for all who love God, and who have been called by divine grace — out of the service of sin, Satan, and the world, to love and serve Him who is the Rock of eternal ages. Yes, my dear Madam, we shall, with unspeakable delight — see Jesus as he is, and be completely like him! Let us, then, not be weary in well doing — for, in due season, we shall reap, if we fail not.
I am, my dear Madam,
Your obliged and affectionate Servant,
My Dearest Madam,
Inclination would lead me to write to you very often, but opportunity is often lacking. Every day brings business of its own which must be attended to — and something often remains to add to the business of tomorrow. This is remarkably the case with me at present; I have a drawer full (indeed, it is not a large one) of unanswered letters — yours must be despatched among the first.
You desire my thoughts concerning the difference which the Lord is pleased to appoint in the situation of his people, with respect to trials and circumstances. In externals, there is a great difference. Some few have sat upon a throne — while the many have lived in poverty. For the most part, the Lord's children are a poor and afflicted people. The Lord chooses poverty as the safest state for them in this ensnaring world.
And if any of them are rich, it is not, I apprehend, for their own sakes — but that they may be some way instrumental in promoting his cause and interest in the world — that they may assist their poor brethren — that they may be witnesses for the truth to those in their own rank of life, and that the power of his grace may triumph in every situation.
Perhaps you may have seen my published letter on the advantages of poverty, and therefore I shall not enlarge much upon this subject. I would only observe, that those who live in affluence are exempted from one trial at least, which is exceeding hard to bear — I see much of it here, though it is not exclusively confined to Olney. Many — I may say most of our serious people, are exercised with pinching poverty. Some have little more than dry bread, some (who are slow workers, or sew coarse laces) can hardly get so much as bread, without contracting debts, which distress their minds lest they should be unable to pay, and thereby cause their profession to be spoken against.
The Lord notwithstanding carries them through, and at times gives them food which the world knows nothing of. But their trial is grievous, and is not, like many others, occasional — but returns from day to day, as constant as the sun. By being placed among such a people, I hope the Lord shows me that I have great reason to be thankful for the necessities and the comforts of life.
In other respects there is not perhaps so great a difference in point of trials, as there may seem to be, if such considerations as the following are taken into the account:
First, we know our own trials, but can form no right judgment, at least no certain judgment — as to how it is with others. A person whom we look upon as happy — may have some trouble corroding at heart, though concealed, which if we knew, we would be unwilling to take in exchange for our own.
Secondly, there are seasons of trials. Some who are now in comfortable circumstances — have perhaps had great afflictions in time past. Or they may live to see and feel too — very heavy and unexpected troubles, which may make them the objects rather of pity than of envy. We know not what a day may bring forth. And others, who are now in difficulty and perplexity — may live to see better days. The Lord can command light to arise out of darkness, and make crooked things straight, and the present crosses may be preparing the way for great comforts. Everything is so uncertain here, that we cannot form a tolerable estimate of any particular person's case while living.
Thirdly, trials are to be computed rather by their effect, than by their cause. That is a great trial which makes a great impression upon the mind — though perhaps to a bye-stander, the immediate occasion may seem trivial. And the heaviest trial is lighter — if the Lord affords a proportionable measure of strength, grace, and comfort, to sustain it. If he puts forth his grace — then his people are strengthened, hard things are made easy, and bitter things sweet. They can go through the water, or through the fire unhurt, and almost unmoved — if he is with them. But if he withdraws, they are ready to sink under the weight of a feather — for they have no strength of their own.
So far as we think we see a difference, we may observe that those whom the Lord most favors, who are simply devoted to him, and dependent upon him — usually are exercised with the sharpest afflictions. This seems strange to an eye of sense; but faith, instructed by the Word and Spirit of God — sees a wisdom and beauty in this appointment. He afflicts them — because he loves them! Their trials are sanctified, and their eminence in grace is owing (as a means) to the Lord's blessing on the afflictions through which they pass — which, under the influence of his Spirit, are suited . . .
to quicken them to prayer;
to wean them from the world;
to manifest to them the sweetness and certainty of the promises;
to make the name and grace of Jesus more precious to them,
and to animate their desires towards their heavenly rest.
Thus, all things work together for their good, and those who have fewer trials, though they escape some smart, are for the most part — very light, unsavory, and unsteady in their walk and conduct. They neither have so much true comfort from Him who is the great Comforter of the children of God; nor does their light so advantageously shine before men to the praise of his glory.
We have had a comfortable season during the holidays. I preach more frequently than usual at that time of the year — I hope many have tasted that the Lord is gracious. My time now is much taken up, and I am interrupted more than once, before I can finish a letter.
We beg our best respects to Mr. L. May the Lord give you both all the blessings of grace and peace you need. Pray remember us also to Miss L.
We hope to have the pleasure of hearing from you soon. Do not forget us when upon your knees before God, and believe me to be,
I am, my dear Madam,
Your obliged and affectionate Servant,
My Dear Madam,
Though I would have been happy to have spent the day with you when I called — yet I discovered that you were not well, and appeared restless; however, it gave me great pleasure to see you at any rate, and I have rejoiced since, to find prayer answered in your happy delivery, and that the Lord had been gracious, and faithful to his promise, in dispelling your fears, and affording you support and comfort in the hour of trial. I hope this will encourage you to put your trust in him in future, and that you will readily know where to go for help, with a firm expectation of obtaining it. "Because he has heard my prayer," says David, "therefore will I call upon him as long as I live." I will make every new deliverance an argument and plea for more; for, as I know I shall continually need his assistance — so I am persuaded he will never be weary of affording it.
Thus, troubles quicken prayer, prayer hastens relief, relief awakens praise, and praise strengthens our faith and hope. We shall go through this course of changes so long as we remain in this world; but we are every moment drawing nearer to an unchangeable state, where our hearts shall be filled with his praise, through the whole length of an eternal day.
My body was weary, and my spirit dissipated all the while I was in town. I seem not cut out for a London situation, and have therefore reason to be thankful that my lot is cast in a retired corner. And though I am glad occasionally to see my friends — yet I am glad to get back out of the noise, smoke and hurry. However, the path of duty, lead where it will, is always safe — provided we are aware of danger, and are dependent upon the Lord to keep us. He is all-sufficient to his people in every place and circumstance. His presence can make a dungeon pleasant, and without it a palace would prove a dungeon to the soul that has tasted he is gracious — at least it ought to be so.
We are not in our right minds, if we can be for an hour satisfied with outward things, unless we are either rejoicing in him, or sighing and hungering after him: either of these is a good frame, and the latter not less so than the former, though it is less comfortable.
But it would not do for us to be always upon the mount. We must have fightings — or we could not have victories. Without a feeling sense of our own weakness and insufficiency — we could not duly prize the all-sufficient and compassionate Physician. Unless we have some seasons of darkness — we shall not be sensible of the value of light; indeed, we know not how to properly appreciate any one blessing — until we are deprived of it.
Take for another instance, the case of health — if we were never ill, we would never know how to estimate the value of health. The great thing is, to be enabled to resign ourselves into the hands of the Lord, and to rejoice and glory in Christ Jesus, as made of God unto us, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; and to be content and glad to be nothing in our own estimation — that he may be, and appear to be, all in all.
When the heart is sincere, the chief remaining difficulty arises from the tendency we have to a self-righteous and legal spirit. This often makes our peace as variable as our frames, and we reason and complain, as if the Lord was as changeable as ourselves. But he is the same from first to last; he alone could begin the good work in our hearts, and he alone is able to carry it on. Blessed be his name, he has promised that he will carry it on until the end; he will be a shield to protect, and a sun to nourish.
And though some, who I doubt not, mean well, are afraid lest the doctrine of his free unalterable grace should make people careless — yet, I dare appeal to the experience of all who know their own hearts, and have tasted of his mercy, whether they do not find that the more firmly they can trust him, and venture their all upon his word and his power — so much the more they are disposed to serve him, and cleave to him in love alone.
A well-grounded confidence, that our labor shall not be in vain in the Lord, is what the Apostle proposes as a prevailing motive to be always abounding in his work. The whole of our profession may be comprised in looking unto Jesus; to take our eyes off from other objects, especially from ourselves, and to fix them upon him. The more we abound in believing, admiring views of his person, offices, love, obedience unto death, victories, intercession, and his fullness of grace to supply all our needs — so much the more shall we abound unto every good work. For he is our life, and our root, and it is only by receiving from his fullness, that we can . . .
make good our calling,
overcome the world, and
bring forth fruit unto God.
I had a safe and pleasant journey home on Saturday, and am now gotten into my old track again. I have many causes of complaint in myself — but more causes of rejoicing in Jesus. For though I hate sin, and long to be rid of it — yet, where sin has abounded, grace has much more abounded.
Mr. Hall, who, I think, you visited with me when here, was released from his long affliction yesterday morning. A few days before he died, the Lord enabled him to express the return of a comfortable hope in the Lord Jesus after a long season of desertion and temptation. His situation, at times, was truly painful, as he had been in this dark state for more than three years. Thus, though God causes grief for wise reasons, which we cannot fathom — he will have compassion, and will show us that his covenant stands sure.
When the Lord shall have renewed your bodily strength, and raised you up again — I hope we shall have the pleasure of hearing from you, that we may join our praises to yours. My dear wife joins in very best respects to Mr. L. and yourself, with thanks to you both for your kind present, which came quite safe.
Your obliged and affectionate servant,
My Dear Madam,
Your obliging visit at Wimbleton gave me very great pleasure, and has made me your debtor more than before. I should be chargeable with ingratitude, if I did not write, since you are pleased to desire it. That I wish to have a letter from you now and then to answer, is not merely a point of punctilio; for if I had opportunity, and could give you any satisfaction — I would willingly send you ten for one; but if you could overcome your reluctance to writing, and favor me with some brief hints of the state of your mind, besides the pleasure I would have in hearing from you, it would enable me to offer you a word in season, which might be more agreeable, both to me and to you, than when I write without any determinate point in view.
You may be sure I could not be long at Wimbleton without inquiring concerning your welfare, and I suppose the accounts I received enabled me to form some judgment of your situation. The Lord, who loves you — appoints you trials for the exercise of your faith and patience. His power could, and his love would remove them; if therefore they continue, it is because his wisdom has designed you a greater good by their continuance, and his gracious promises warrant you to hope and plead, that when his proposed ends by them are duly answered, he will make crooked things straight, and satisfy you that he has done all things well.
What do you think, dear Madam, if you could see him with your bodily eyes, and hear him say with an audible voice, "Fear not, I am with you! Be not dismayed, I am your God! I will strengthen you, yes I will help you, yes I will uphold you!" Would not this comfort you, and dispose you to say, "Here am I — do with me as seems good in your sight?" If so, you have equal reason to make the same conclusion now; he is as near to you as if you saw him, and his promise in his blessed word is no less certain, no less worthy of our dependence, than if he was to repeat it by a voice from Heaven.
Therefore fear not — only believe. His grace shall be sufficient for you, and your strength be made equal to your day. Though you see not him — his eye is upon you for good continually. He is about your path, and about your bed. His ear is ever open to your prayers, and all the desires of your mind are written in his book of remembrance. Afflictions are his chosen methods of instructing his people; by these . . .
he teaches them the vanity of creatures,
subdues their spirits into a patient and submissive frame,
quickens them to prayer, and
takes occasion to show them more of his wisdom, power and love, manifested in their deliverance, than they could have otherwise known.
If Israel had not been oppressed in Egypt, and pursued into the wilderness — they would not have had that triumphant song to sing afterwards, at the Red Sea, when they saw what great things the right hand of the Lord had done for them. He has said, "those who sow in tears — shall reap in joy." Let this encourage you; you cannot be disappointed; you have only to wait patiently upon the Lord, to delight yourself in him — and he shall give you the desire of your heart.
I hope you will find the Lord's presence in Kent. I suppose it is a barren soil in point of ordinances; but to a believer the whole earth is the temple of the Lord. It is not the place you would choose — but if you go, his providence is concerned in it, and who knows what desirable and unexpected events may depend upon it? Who knows but he may make you a blessing and a messenger of peace to some around you!
However this may be, he will be present to keep and comfort you. When you see the sea dashing against the shore with an impetuosity that threatens to swallow up all before it, and yet restrained by the invisible force of that word, "Hitherto you shall come — and no farther;" you will then see an emblem of his power over the hearts of men.
When they seem most free to devise and to execute their own purposes, they, in reality, can perform nothing but what he intends to make subservient to his purpose — beyond that mark they cannot move an inch. Oh! 'tis a cheering thought, that he who once bore our sins in his own body on the tree — now reigns exalted high, and does according to his pleasure in the armies of Heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth. What can you want, and what have you to fear, when the Lord Almighty is your Shepherd, your Savior, and your Friend?
He will try you — but not above what he will enable you to bear. He will chasten you — but only for your profit, to make you a partaker of his holiness. The things which at present are not joyous, but grievous — shall yield to you the peaceful fruits of righteousness in due season.
Therefore, dear Madam, be strong — yes, I say unto you, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might — and he will do more for you than you can ask or think! And while you are fighting the good fight of faith — look forward to the crown which the Lord is preparing for you. Yet a little while, and you shall enter upon a state of joy without abatement, interruption, or end.
We are well, and join in love and respects to you. We think and talk of you, and pray for you often. Do give me the pleasure of a letter soon. We beg our respects and best wishes to Mr. L.
I am, dear Madam, sincerely,
Your much obliged, and affectionate servant,
My Dear Madam,
The assurance you give me that my letters are acceptable, ought to prompt me to write frequently, and indeed my inclination is not lacking — if my time was not so much taken up with necessities.
Yesterday I preached at Collingtree, and my subject was, the Lord's question to the prophet, (Ezekiel 37,) "Can these dry bones live?" A question which, as to the substance and intent of it, will often occur to us if we fix our eyes too attentively upon outward appearances. A thousand difficulties will occur to dampen our expectations of what God has promised — unless, like Abraham, we retreat to the consideration of his almighty power, and believe that what he has promised, he is fully able to perform.
What can be more unlikely than for dry bones to live? Yet, if the Lord has said it — it shall be done. He can . . .
turn the heart of stone into a heart of flesh,
raise the spiritually dead,
cause light to shine out of darkness,
and make mountains sink into plains.
And as he can — so he has engaged that he will do great things for those who fear him. We may answer all our fears, corruptions, temptations, and difficulties, with this thought — the sum of all that they can suggest to discourage, amounts to this, "Can these dry bones live?" And we may say, "Yes, they can!" As hard and impossible as it seems to us — it is perfectly easy to Him who can do all things; and who delights to show himself a God, working wonders for the relief and comfort of his people.
He allows us to meet with troubles for this very reason, that an occasion may be afforded for the manifestation of his glorious power and faithfulness in our support and deliverance. At the same time, he has an eye to our good in all; only we have need of patience to wait his time, by humble prayer. For, until his hour has come, nothing can be effectually done.
We are expecting to sustain a heavy loss soon — and yet we can hardly desire it should be otherwise. Mrs. R., whom you know is suffering greatly from her cancer, which has been gradually increasing for some time — she is now brought very low, her pains are extreme — but her peace is abiding, and her comforts, at times, unspeakable. In such a case as her's — the reality and power of religion appear to great advantage.
I am sometimes ready to wish that believers could die in public. I cannot but think that such a death-bed scene would be the most probable means of curing the prejudices with which multitudes are possessed against the Gospel; and demonstrating the comparative insignificance and poverty of all that this world can propose for our satisfaction. This is still more striking in the case of the poor simple villagers, who have lived in a happy ignorance of the polite world, and cannot be suspected of any artifice or design.
Oh, with what dignity and certainty, with what warmth and sensibility have I heard some of our poor people speak — when death has been approaching, and eternity opening to their view!
Take courage, dear Madam — we have not followed cunningly devised fables. The Lord he is God — He will be an all-sufficient good to those who fear him. And though he leads them through the fire and the water — they shall neither be drowned or burnt — he will shortly bring them out into a wealthy place!
Dear Mrs. R. is in an almost continual agony of pain. She cannot have a moment's intermission or rest, but what is procured by repeated opiates. Her disorder now grows very offensive to herself, as well as to others. Her hearing is almost totally lost — and yet she is happy. She knows in whom she has believed — she feels his supporting presence — she has a foretaste of eternal glory. She is confident, that the moment she shall be absent from the body, she shall be present with the Lord, who has loved her with an everlasting love, and whom I am satisfied she sincerely loves. How much more happy is her situation than the wise and the wealthy, the great and the mirthful, the men of business, or the men of pleasure — who live without God in the world!
The Lord has placed you in a state of affluence; but how much more cause have you to be thankful, dear Madam, that he has given you the knowledge of his grace! This is a mercy which, it is to be feared, few in your situation are acquainted with, or desirous of.
If Miss G. is with you, pray give our love to her. Our circle join in kindest respects to you and Mr. L.
Your most affectionate and obliged Servant,