A Word for Invalids
Hetty Bowman, 1867
"I am poor and needy; yet the Lord thinks upon me." Psalm 40:17
"I am poor and needy." Just the right words for you, are they not, dear friend? You cannot take in much, for you often feel as if your mind had lost its power of grasp; but this sense of utter want and weakness is too constantly, too oppressively present to be forgotten. Every moment it is there, whenever you try to move or to think. Pleasant things bring it, as well as painful things.
A friend calls to see you, perhaps, and for a little while you are cheered by the new face, and the new thoughts coming fresh from the vigorous world of health and work, and given in kindly exchange for the worn-out dreams—thoughts you cannot call them—that have grown so faded and dim from their silent brooding in your one quiet room. But in a few moments, you begin to grow weary. Even the hearing of so much busy stir and strife bewilders you. Once you would have rejoiced to mingle in it, but now you only long for rest. The new argument confuses you. Once you could have followed it, oh, how keenly, how eagerly! but not now. You are thankful enough if, with many a struggle, you can just manage to keep your hold of what has long been proved and tried. Even the unaccustomed voice sets every nerve thrilling. You strive not to betray impatience or pain, and, by the help of a silent prayer, you succeed in keeping down any token of them.
But when your visitor leaves (telling you, most likely, that you are looking very well, because excitement has made your eyes bright, and brought a flush of color to your cheeks), you can do nothing but lie back on your sofa, strength and voice utterly gone, and the throbbing beat in your head sounding almost like the steady tramp of a troop of horse.
Or you take up a book, and, for a page or two, all goes smoothly. It is so pleasant to be borne in thought away from your own dusky and narrow surroundings to another time and land, where you can breathe a freer air, and hear a nobler speech. Better still to feel for a moment, a breath from the everlasting hills, to hear the sweet speech of that better country where 'the inhabitant shall no more say, I am sick.' But very soon your eyes grow heavy, and your brain becomes confused. The letters are mere letters, nothing more. You gaze at them without in the least understanding what they mean, and at last you are gladly to lay the book aside, with a wistful wonder whether the day will ever come when you shall be able to do anything more than watch the mazy dance of those idle buzzing flies.
Even in prayer the same difficulties beset you; nay, it is then more than at any other time that this feeling of entire incapacity comes over you. You have no words and no thoughts; even worse, you seem often to have no desires. No warm, buoyant feeling, and not much care about the lack of it; but only earthliness, and indifference, and torpor.
People who do not understand illness, often say to you, by way of comfort, as they think, 'Well, you are laid aside from active service for God; but you can pray. You have so much time for it. We look to you to sustain us in our work, to hold up your hands in the mount while we are down in the battle. The weak ones have their own ministry—they are to be God's remembrancers.'
Alas! how your heart sinks at the words! Time! yes, you have plenty of time for prayer; but you do not know how to use it. For often, if you begin a petition, before you reach the end it seems to have gone from you; passed, perhaps, even from memory, for you cannot recollect what you were going to ask for; and, in the effort to recall it, you get wearied, or some unaccountable thrill of pain leaves you nothing but the consciousness of suffering. And thus the prayer, as you think, is lost; it cannot have reached your Father's heart; it is only melted into air.
'Poor.' Yes, you are poor enough, so far as any power of mental or physical efforts is concerned. 'And needy' sometimes, indeed, you do not realize this, more than you realize anything, beyond discomfort and unrest. But very often the sense of it almost crushes you. You need so much—patience, and submission, and calmness, and strength, and more, far more, than words can tell; for so many things in an invalid's life are entirely inexplicable. You cannot make your needs clear to even the nearest and tenderest friend. You have tried to do so, again and again; but you know that even the most carefully chosen words have conveyed a wrong impression.
You get no sympathy for the one sharp thorn which wounds you so sorely; but a great deal for imaginary thorns which you do not feel. And so at last you have ceased to seek or expect it, though you will never cease to yearn for it. Oh, if you could find one, only one, who would read what you cannot tell; who would understand your needs, and could supply them!
And One there surely is—unseen, yet ever near; soothing with tenderest love; watching with patient, unwearied care. Do not let the thought of your own helplessness, shut out the thought of his presence. Do not forget the little word with which David follows up the confession of his weakness: 'I am poor and needy; yet the Lord thinks upon me.' The former part of the verse is your peculiar portion; do not allow yourself to doubt that the latter is no less so.
'Poor and needy.' Ah! yes—and with deeper poverty than any we have touched on yet; with nothing you can offer to God but sin; no health of heart or spirit, any more than of body.
'Yet the Lord thinks upon me;' or, as the margin gives it, 'Carries me on his heart.' And his thoughts towards you are 'thoughts of peace, and not of evil.' For He thinks of you as 'accepted in the Beloved;' clothed in the fair white robe of his righteousness, and sealed by his Spirit 'unto the day of redemption.' And thus you are still his own, not the less loved because you are chastened. Surely a father must think upon his child! "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!" Isaiah 49:15
He thinks upon you! You are tempted sometimes to imagine that no one else does. It is a morbid feeling, and you strive with it as such; but it will have its own way now and then, and it costs you some tears, which are not the less bitter because you are ashamed of them. Life is such a busy thing for the healthy and strong, that you cannot wonder if, in the midst of its plans and cares, there should be small thought of one who can take no part in either.
'It is very natural,' you say, and your lips will quiver while you try to smile, 'I cannot expect it to be otherwise. They are all very kind, they often come and talk to me, and look at me with wistful, pitying eyes; but I know that the hush of my sick-room is only a wearisome restraint; I know they draw a long breath of relief when they leave it, and dismiss the remembrance for a time, with the thought, "poor thing."'
Very likely all this is nothing more than your own gloomy imagination; but I will not reason with you about it. I will only ask you to try and believe that, even if it were true, you are still not left desolate or lonely.
'The Lord thinks upon you.' Is not that enough? You may weary others—but you cannot weary Him. Day after day, and year after year, glides slowly along, with little change, except perhaps from pain to pain; but through them all, He is near. One by one, those who soothed and watched you, pass from your side, some borne away by death, and some by life. But He, the Comforter, 'abides with you forever.' In the long, quiet night, which brings you such strange thoughts and fears, that you have learned to dread its gathering shade, 'He neither slumbers nor sleeps.'
Deeper than the calm of sleep, sweeter than the lulling of pain—is the peace of his presence; and even when you do not feel him near, and can only say with David, 'Fearfulness and trembling have come upon me, and horror has overwhelmed me'—still you do not know from what 'powers of darkness' his hand shields you, or how much deeper, but for him, might be the waters in which you seem to sink.
And when at last it comes, the sleep for which you have waited so wearily—remember that He sends it—his special gift to his beloved. For He has thought of you in all the difficult hours, when He appeared to neglect. He knew the exact moment when strength and endurance would fail; and then, just then, He quieted the throbbing pulse, and bade the burning brain forget. And, with the morning light, He is there. You awake, perhaps, with the low, faint 'twitter of leaf-hidden birds,' which comes before the dawn; and you turn on your pillow and sigh as you contrast their breezy life of song and freedom, with your own.
But a whisper of his Spirit reminds you of the bright hereafter, and bids you to patiently and thankfully bear the burden of present suffering—in prospect of everlasting redemption and rest. And in every trial of the day, He is still 'a present help.' How often He 'delivers you out of all your fears!' How many fresh springs of gladness He opens for you in a barren land—quiet and low, so that you can stoop to drink with effort, and rise up the stronger! A pleasant letter, the loan of a book, a kind word—trifles all of them, yet still tokens that 'the Lord thinks upon you.' For He knows what friends often do not understand, that just in little things like these, lies much of the brightness of your life.
And better blessings still He gives—the sympathy which you have found so often to be the means of grace, or the teaching directly from himself; the text, read or remembered, which lies upon your spirit like a leaf of healing from the tree of life; the soft echo of a hymn learned long ago, which comes to you, when you are wearied with thinking and suffering, and soothes you with its old, familiar music.
Thinking of all this, can you not say, with one whose sweet songs flowed often from a sorrowful heart, 'The Lord will command His loving-kindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me, a prayer to the God of my life.' Psalm 42:8
'The Lord thinks upon me.' Let the words bring you a message of joy, as the sweet Sabbath days come around and find you still shut out from the services of God's house. Often you can feel Him near; perhaps even nearer than when in days of health you joined in the voice of praise and thanksgiving 'among such as keep holiday,' for He fulfills his own promise, to be to you 'a little sanctuary'—and you hear his voice in the stillness as you never heard it before. But now and then the yearning is strong upon you to worship once more 'in the great congregation.'
You pray to be kept from murmuring, and you do not question the love which appoints your lot; but yet the tears will sometimes start, as the day of worship returns, and one after another looks in to say, 'Good-bye,' and you listen until the sound of passing feet dies into quiet, and you are left, a prisoner still.
Yes, but one of God's prisoners—and He does not forget you. He hears indeed the burst of praise and prayer which rises from the 'gates of Zion;' but He is not unmindful of the 'dwellings of Jacob.' Has He not a blessing for those whom He appoints to wait and suffer? Does He not accept the offering which you lay upon his altar—the hours of patient endurance, the will that longs to be made one with his? Does not the great High Priest within the veil present the sacrifice for you—in itself all unworthy, but accepted by the Father for his sake? And though you cannot enter with praise his earthly courts, you can still bring Him a song of grateful joy from the heart, if not from the lips—for the tokens of tender mercy which are new every morning; tokens all the sweeter because He has taught you to see them, where many would pass them by without a thought.
'The Lord thinks upon you.' Yes, even when you can hardly think of Him. For 'As a father has compassion on his children—so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.' He is touched with the feeling of your infirmities, and judging you often more tenderly than you judge yourself. You cannot pray to Him as you long to do; but He has promised to be 'very gracious unto you at the voice of your cry.' You feel as if you had indeed 'no language but a cry'—for words slip from your mind when you most need them, and if they did not, they would hardly fit your need. But the sigh of unuttered and unutterable longing is enough. He can interpret and He will answer it. No other ear heard, and you were yourself hardly conscious that it escaped you; but your sigh found its way to your Father's throne, and will surely bring his blessing.
'Poor and needy,' but in Christ made rich. 'In Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily;' and 'you are complete,' or, as I believe the word might be rendered, 'you are fulfilled in Him.' Try to rest upon this thought when you are weary, as you often are; and weary most of all of your own sinful, miserable self. For thus, 'in the Beloved,' the Lord thinks upon you. Your prayer has often been, with Nehemiah, 'Think upon me, my God, for good'—and you must not put away from you the joy of his gracious answer.
He thinks upon you—and with thoughts of love and tenderness. You wonder how this can be, when you feel, as you often do feel, entirely unlovable. For one of the great trials of illness is the heightened nervous susceptibility, which involves such temptation to impatience that you need constant watchfulness to restrain the expression of it. And the worst is, that very often you do not restrain it. It overtakes you so suddenly, so unaccountably, that before you have time to think or pray—the wrong is done. Someone speaks to you—and the moment you have answered, you know that your voice has been fretful and cross. Or someone does not speak to you, and, in the silence, the rustle of a newspaper, or even the too loud ticking of a watch—acts in some strange way upon your nerves, until you are on the very point of tears, if not of scolding.
When the irritation is over, you could hate yourself for it, so foolish, so sinful it seems. And, alas! the next hour too probably renews it; and you can only grieve hopelessly over what seems beyond your power to prevent. But you must surely wear out your friends by such constant disagreeableness. Duty may keep them watchful and attentive, but affection must give way. So you will be left at last in a solitude of your own making, which no pleasant memories can brighten.
Must it be so? Nay, there is a better future for you than this. But even taking things at the worst, as it is sometimes wisest to do—remember ever that 'the Lord thinks upon you.' The struggle which others cannot see—is visible to Him, and He can measure the difficulties which no other person can appreciate. He will deal very tenderly with the bruised reed—He who alone knows how bruised and broken it is. And when the strong pressure comes, He will shelter it beneath his own almighty wings.
Poor and needy! Yes, indeed! Do not try to hide, do not shrink from confessing it—but be assured that God's love finds no barrier here. 'His thoughts are not as our thoughts.' We need no worthiness to commend ourselves to his favor. Not the righteous—but sinners, Jesus calls. Not the ninety-nine who have never strayed—but the one poor wandering sheep, He came to seek and to save.