The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul
THE CHRISTIAN STRUGGLING UNDER GREAT AND HEAVY AFFLICTION.
—1. Here it is advised—that afflictions should only be expected. —2. That the righteous hand of God should be acknowledged in them when they come. —3. That they should be borne with patience. —4. That the divine conduct in them should be cordially approved. —5. That thankfulness should be maintained in the midst of trials. —6. That the design of afflictions should be diligently inquired into, and all proper assistance taken in discovering it. —7. That, when it is discovered, it should humbly be complied with and answered. A prayer suited to such a case.
1. Since “man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward,” (Job 5:7) and Adam has entailed on all his race the sad inheritance of calamity in their way to death, it will certainly be prudent and necessary that we should all expect to meet with trials and afflictions; and that you, reader, whoever you are, should be endeavoring to gird on your armor, and put yourself in a posture to encounter those trials which will fall to your lot as a man and a Christian. Prepare yourself to receive your afflictions, and to endure them, in a manner agreeable to both these characters. In this view, when you see others under the burden, consider how possible it is that you may be called out to the very same difficulties, or to others equal to them. Put your soul as in the place of theirs. Think how you could endure the load under which they lie, and endeavor at once to comfort them, and to strengthen your own heart, or rather pray that God would do it. And observing how liable mortal life is to such sorrows, moderate your expectations from it; raise your thoughts above it; and form your schemes of happiness only for that world where they cannot be disappointed; in the mean time, blessing God that your prosperity is lengthened out thus far, and ascribing it to his special providence that you continue so long unwounded, when so many showers of arrows are flying around you, and so many are falling by them, on the right hand and on the left.
2. When at length your turn comes, as it certainly will, from the first hour in which an affliction seizes you, realize to yourself the hand of God in it, and lose not the view of him in any second cause, which may have proved the immediate occasion. Let it be your first care to “humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time,” (1 Pet. 5:6). Own that “he is just in all that is brought upon you,” (Neh. 9:33) and that in all these things “he punishes you less than your iniquities deserve,” (Ezra 9:13). Compose yourself to bear his hand with patience, to glorify his name by a submission to his will, and to fall in with the gracious design of his visitation, as well as to wait the issue of it quietly, whatsoever the event may be.
3. Now, that “patience may have its perfect work,” (James 1:4) reflect frequently, and deeply upon your own unworthiness and sinfulness. Consider how often every mercy has been forfeited, and every judgment deserved. And consider, too, how long the patience of God hath borne with you, and how wonderfully it is still exerted towards you; and indeed not only his patience, but his bounty too. Afflicted as you are, (for I speak to you now as actually under the pressure) look around and survey your remaining mercies, and be gratefully sensible of them. Make the supposition of their being removed: what if God should stretch out his hand against you, and add poverty to pain, or pain to poverty, or the loss of friends to both, or the death of surviving friends to that of those whom you are now mourning over; would not the wound be more grievous? Adore his goodness that this is not the case; and take heed lest your unthankfulness should provoke him to multiply your sorrows. Consider also the need you have of discipline, how wholesome it may prove to your soul, and what merciful designs our Heavenly Father has in all the corrections he sends upon his children.
4. Nay, I will add, that, in consequence of all these considerations, it may be well expected, not only that you should submit to your afflictions, as what you cannot avoid, but that you should sweetly acquiesce in them, and approve them; that you should not only justify, but glorify God in sending them; that you should glorify him with your heart and with your lips too. Think not praises unsuitable on such an occasion; nor that praise alone to be suitable, which takes its rise from remaining comforts; but know that it is your duty, not only to be thankful in your afflictions, but to be thankful on account of them.
5. God himself hath said, “in every thing give thanks,” (1 Thess. 5:18) and he has taught his servants to say, “Yea, also we glory in tribulation,” (Rom. 5:3). And most certain it is, that to true believers, afflictions are tokens of divine mercy; for “whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth,” with peculiar and distinguishing endearment, (Heb. 12:6). View your present afflictions in this light, as chastisements of love; and then let your own heart say, whether love does not demand praise. Think with yourself, “it is thus that God is making me conformable to his own Son; it is thus that he is training me up for complete glory. Thus he kills my corruptions; thus he strengthens my graces; thus he is wisely contriving to bring me nearer to himself and to ripen me for the honors of his heavenly kingdom. It is, if need be, that ‘I am in heaviness,’ (1 Pet. 1:6) and he surely knows what that need is better than I can pretend to teach him, and knows what peculiar propriety there is in this affliction to answer my present necessity, and to do me that peculiar good which he is graciously intending me by it. This tribulation shall ‘work patience, and patience experience,’ and ‘experience a more assured hope,’ even a hope which ‘shall not make ashamed,’ while the love of God is shed abroad in my heart, (Rom. 5:3,5) and shines through my affliction, like the sun through a gentle descending cloud, darting in light upon the shade, and mingling fruitfulness with weeping.”
6. Let it be then your earnest care, while you thus look on your affliction, whatever it may be, as coming from the hand of God, to improve it to the purposes for which it was sent. And that you may so improve it, let it be your first concern to know what those purposes are. Summon up all the attention of your soul to bear the rod, and him “who hath appointed it,” (Micah 6:9) and pray earnestly that you may understand its voice. Examine your life, your words and your heart; and pray that God would so guide your inquiries, that you may “return unto the Lord that smiteth you,” (Isa. 9:13). To assist you in this, call in the help of pious friends, and particularly of your minister: entreat not only their prayers, but their advice too, as to the probable design of Providence; and encourage them freely to tell you anything which occurs to their minds upon this head. And if such an occasion should lead them to touch upon some of the imperfections of your character and conduct look upon it as a great token of their friendship, and take it, not only patiently, but thankfully. It does but ill become a Christian, at any time, to resent reproofs and admonitions; and least of all does it become him, when the rebukes of his Heavenly Father are upon him. He ought rather to seek admonitions at such a time as this, and voluntarily offer his wounds to be searched by a faithful and skillful band.
7. And when, by one means or another, you have got a ray of light to direct you in the meaning and language of such dispensations, take heed that you do not, in any degree, “harden yourself against God, and walk contrary to him,” (Lev. 26:27). Obstinate reluctance to the apprehended design of any providential stroke is inexpressibly provoking to him. Set yourself therefore, to an immediate reformation of whatever you discover amiss, and labor to learn the general lessons of greater submission to God’s will, of a more calm indifference to the world, and of a closer attachment to divine converse, and to the views of an approaching invisible state. And whatever particular proportion or correspondence you may observe between this or that circumstance in your affliction and your former transgressions, be especially careful to act according to that more peculiar and express voice of the rod. Then you may perhaps have speedy and remarkable reasons to say, that “it hath been good for you that you have been afflicted,” (Ps. 119:71) and, with a multitude of others, may learn to number the times of your sharpest trials among the sweetest and most exalted moments of your life. For this purpose, let prayer be your frequent employment; and let such sentiments as these, if not in the very same terms be often and affectionately poured out before God.
An humble Address to God under the Pressure of heavy Affliction.
“O thou Supreme, yet all righteous and gracious Governor of the whole universe! mean and inconsiderable as this little province of thy spacious empire may appear, thou dost not disregard the earth and its inhabitants, but attendest to its concerns with the most condescending and gracious regard. ‘Thou reignest, and I rejoice in it;’ as it is indeed ‘matter of universal joy,’ (Ps. 97:1). I believe thy providence and care; and I firmly believe thy wise, holy, and kind interposition in everything which relates to me and to the circumstances of my abode in this world. I would look through all inferior causes unto thee, whose eyes are upon all thy creatures; to thee, ‘who formest light and createst darkness’ who ‘makest peace and createst evil;’ (Isa. 45:7) to thee, Lord, who at thy pleasure canst exchange the one for the other, canst turn the brightest noon into midnight, and the darkest midnight into noon.
“O thou wise and merciful Governor of the world! I have often said, ‘Thy will be done;’ and now, thy will is painful to me. But shall I upon that account unsay what I have so often said? God forbid! I come rather to lay myself down at thy feet, and to declare my full and free submission to all thy sacred pleasure. O Lord! thou art just and righteous in all! I acknowledge, in thy venerable and awful presence, that ‘I have deserved this,’ and ten thousand times more, (Ezra 9:13). I acknowledge that ‘it is of thy mercy that I am not utterly consumed,’ (Lam. 3:22) and that any, the least degree, of comfort yet remains. O Lord! I most readily confess that the sins of one day of my life have merited all these chastisements; and that every day of my life has been more or less sinful. Smite, therefore, O thou Righteous Judge! and I will still adore thee, that, instead of the scourge, thou hast not given a commission to the sword, to do all the dreadful work of justice, and to pour out my blood in thy presence.
“But shall I speak unto thee only as my Judge? O Lord! thou hast taught me a tenderer name: thou condescendest to call thyself my Father, and to speak of correction as the effect of thy love. O welcome, welcome, those afflictions which are the tokens of thy paternal affection, the marks of my adoption into thy family! Thou knowest what discipline I need. Thou seest, O Lord! that bundle of folly which there is in the heart of thy poor, froward, and thoughtless child, and knowest what rods and what strokes are needful to drive it away. I would therefore ‘be in humble subjection to the Father of spirits,’ who ‘chastened me for my profit;’ would ‘be in subjection to him and live,’ (Heb. 12:9-10). I would bear thy strokes, not merely because I cannot resist them, but because I love and trust in thee. I would sweetly acquiesce and rest in thy will, as well as stoop to it; and would say, ‘Good is the word of the Lord,’ (2 Kings 20:19); and I desire that not only my lips, but my soul may acquiesce. Yea, Lord, I would praise thee, that thou wilt show so much regard to me as to apply such remedies as these to the diseases of my mind, and art thus kindly careful to train me up for glory. I have no objection against being afflicted, against being afflicted in this particular way. ‘The cup which my Father puts into my hand, shall I not drink it?’ (John 18:11). By thine assistance and support I will. Only be pleased, O Lord! to stand by me, and sometimes to grant me a favorable look in the midst of my sufferings! Support my soul, I beseech thee, by thy consolations mingled with my tribulations, and I shall glory in those tribulations that are thus allayed! It has been the experience of many, who have reflected on afflicted days with pleasure, and have acknowledged that their comforts have swallowed up their sorrows. And after all that thou hast done, ‘are thy mercies restrained?’ (Isa. 63:15). ‘Is thy hand waxed short?’ (Num. 11:25). Or canst thou not do the same for me?
“If my heart be less tender, less sensible, thou canst cure that disorder, and canst make this affliction the means of curing it. Thus let it be; and at length, in thine own due time, and in the way which thou shalt choose, work out deliverance for me, ‘and show me thy marvellous loving-kindness, O thou that savest by thy right hand them that put their trust in thee!’ (Ps. 17:7). For I well know, that how dark soever this night of affliction may seem, if thou sayest, ‘Let there be light,’ there shall be light. But I would urge nothing before the time thy wisdom and goodness shall appoint. I am much more concerned that my afflictions may be sanctified, than that they may be removed. Number me, O God! among the happy persons whom, whilst thou chastenest, thou ‘teachest out of thy law!’ (Ps. 94:12). Show me, I beseech thee, ‘wherefore thou, contendest with me,’ (Job 19:2) and purify me by the fire, which is to painful to me while I am passing through it? Dost thou not chasten thy children for this very end, ‘that they may be partakers of thy holiness?’ (Heb. 12:10). Thou knowest, O God! it is this my soul is breathing after. I am partaker of thy bounty every day and moment of my life: I am partaker of thy Gospel, and I hope, in some measure too, a partaker of the grace of it operating on my heart. O may it operate more and more, that I may largely partake of thine holiness too; that I may come nearer and nearer in the temper of my mind to thee, O blessed God! the supreme model of perfection! Let my soul be, as it were, melted, thought with the intensest heat or the furnace, if I may but thereby be made fit for being delivered into the mold of the Gospel, and bearing thy bright and amiable image!”
“O Lord, ‘my soul longeth for thee; it crieth out for the living God!’ (Ps. 84:2). In thy presence, and under the support of thy love, I can bear anything; and am willing to bear it, if I may grow more lovely in thine eyes, and more meet for thy kingdom. The days of my affliction will have an end; the hour will at length come, when thou ‘wilt wipe away all my tears,’ (Rev. 21:4). ‘Though it tarry,’ I would ‘wait for it,’ (Heb. 2:3). My foolish heart, in the midst of all its trials, is ready to grow fond of this earth, disappointing and grievous as it is; and graciously, O God, dost thou deal with me, in breaking those bonds that would tie me faster to it. O let my soul be girding itself up, and, as it were, stretching its wings in expectation of that blessed hour when it shall drop all its sorrows and encumbrances at once, and soar away, to expatiate with infinite delight in the regions of liberty, peace and joy. Amen.
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