PRACTICAL PIETY by Hannah More, 1811
ON THE SUFFERINGS OF GOOD MEN
Affliction is the school in which great virtues are acquired and in which great characters are formed. It is like a spiritual gymnasium in which the disciples of Christ are trained in robust exercise, hardy exertion and severe conflict.
We do not hear of military heroes in peacetime, nor of the most distinguished saints in the quiet and unmolested periods of church history. The courage in the warrior and the devotion in the saint continue to survive, ready to be brought into action when perils beset the country or trials assail the Church, but it must be admitted that in long periods of inaction both are susceptible to decay.
The Christian in our comparatively tranquil day is happily exempt from the trials and terrors which the annals of persecution record. Thanks to the establishment of the church, and thanks to the of our laws and to the mild and tolerating spirit of both, one is far from being liable to pains and penalties for his attachment to his religion.
The Christian is still not exempt from his individual trials. We can include those cruel mockings which Paul appropriately ranked in the same list with bonds, imprisonments, exiles and martyrdom itself. We can also add those misrepresentations and attacks to which the zealous Christian is particularly liable. The true Christian is not only called to struggle with trials of large dimensions, but with the daily demands and difficulties of this earthly life.
The pampered Christian, thus continually gravitating to the earth, would have his heart solely bent toward the trials of daily life, unmindful of the crown God gives to His true servants when this mortal life is over.
It is an unspeakable blessing that no events are left to the choice of beings who in their blindness would constantly choose wrongly. Were circumstances at our own disposal, we would choose for ourselves nothing but ease and success, nothing but riches and fame, nothing but perpetual youth, health and unmitigated happiness. We are placed on earth temporarily, and our situation in eternity depends on the use we make of this present time. Therefore nothing would be more dangerous than such a power to choose for ourselves.
If a surgeon were to put into the hand of a wounded patient the probe or the scalpel, how tenderly would he treat himself! How skin-deep would be the examination, how slight the incision! The patient would escape the pain, but the wound might prove fatal. The surgeon therefore wisely uses his instruments himself. He goes deep perhaps, but not deeper than the case demands. The pain may be acute, but the life is preserved. Thus He in whose hand we are, is too good and loves us too well to trust us with our own surgery. He knows that we will not contradict our own inclinations, that we will not impose on ourselves any voluntary pain, however necessary the infliction, however healthful the effect. God graciously does this for us Himself because otherwise He knows it would never be done.
A Christian is liable to the same sorrows and sufferings as others. Nowhere do we have a promise of immunity from the troubles of life, but we do have a merciful promise of support when we go through them. Therefore we consider them from another view. We bear them with another spirit, utilize them to other purposes than those whose view is limited to this world. Whatever may be the instruments of our suffering, whether sickness, losses, vilification, persecutions, we know that they all proceed from God. All methods are HIS instruments. All secondary causes operate by HIS directing hand.
We said that a Christian is liable to the same sufferings as other men. Might we not repeat what we have said before, that our very Christian profession is often the cause of our sufferings? They are the badge of our discipleship, the evidences of our Father's love. They are at once the marks of God's favor and the preparations for our own future happiness.
What were the arguments held out through the whole New Testament to encourage the world to embrace the faith it taught? What was the condition of Paul's introduction to Christianity? It was not, "I will crown him with honor and prosperity, with dignity and pleasure," but "I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name's sake."
What were the chief virtues which Christ taught? What were the graces He most recommended by His example? Were they not self-denial, mortification, patience, renouncing ease and pleasure? These are the marks which have always distinguished Christianity from all the other religions of the world, and therefore prove its divine origin. Ease, splendor, external prosperity, conquest had no part in its establishment. Other empires have been founded in the blood of the vanquished. The dominion of Christ was founded in His own blood. Most of the beatitudes which He pronounced in His infinite compassion have the sorrows of the earth for their subject but the joys of heaven for their completion.
To establish this religion in the world the Almighty, as His own Word assures us, subverted kingdoms and altered the face of nations. "For thus says the Lord of Hosts," says Haggai, "yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens and the earth, and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all nations and the Desire of all nations shall come." Could a religion, the kingdom of which was to be founded by such awful means, be established and perpetuated without involving the sufferings of its subjects?
If the Christian life had been meant to be a path of roses, would the life of the Author of Christianity have been a path strewn with thorns? "He made for us," says Jeremy Taylor, "a covenant of sufferings; His very promises were sufferings, His rewards were sufferings, and His arguments to invite men to follow Him were only taken from sufferings in this life and the reward for these sufferings hereafter."
No prince but the Prince of Peace ever set out with a proclamation of the future nature of his empire. No other king desiring to allay avarice and check ambition ever invited his subjects by the unattractive declaration that his "kingdom was not of this world." No other sovereign ever declared that it was not dignity or honors, valor or talents that made them worthy of him, but it is their "taking up the cross" that brings them close to Him. If no other lord ever made the sorrows which would attend his followers a motive for their allegiance, we must remember that no other ever had the goodness to promise or the power to make good His promise that He would give rest to "the heavy laden." Other kings have overcome the world for their own ambition, but none other ever made the suffering involved in achieving that conquest a ground for motivating his followers to faithfulness.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul enumerates the honors and distinctions prepared for his most favored converts, that they should not only believe in Christ, but that they should also suffer for him. Any other religion would use such a promise to deter, not to attract potential converts. That a religion should flourish under such discouraging invitations, with the threat of degrading circumstances and absolute losses, is unanswerable evidence that our faith was not of human origin.
It is among the mercies of God that he strengthens servants by hardening them through adverse circumstances, instead of leaving them to languish under the shining but withering sun of unclouded prosperity. When they cannot be attracted to Him by gentler influences, He sends these storms and tempests which purify while they alarm. Our gracious Father knows how long the happiness of eternity will be for His children.
The character of Christianity may be seen by how often the Scriptures use the image of military conflict to illustrate it. Suffering is the initiation into a Christian's calling. It is our education for heaven. Shall the scholar rebel at the discipline which is to fit him for his profession, or the soldier at the exercise which is to qualify him for victory?
But our trials do not all spring from outside ourselves. We would think them comparatively easy if we had only the opposition of men to struggle against, or even the severer measures of God to sustain. If we have a conflict with the world, we have a harder conflict within ourselves. Our bosom foe is our most unyielding enemy. This is what makes our other trials heavy, which makes our power for enduring them weak, which renders our conquest over them slow and inconclusive.
This world is the stage on which worldly men act. The things of the world and the applause of the world are the rewards which they propose for themselves. These they often attain, and are thereby satisfied. They aim at no higher end. But let us not long for the success of those whose motives we reject, whose practices we dare not adopt, whose end we deplore. If we feel any inclination to murmur when we see the worldly in great prosperity, let us ask ourselves if we would tread their path to attain their end, if we would do their work to obtain their wages. We know that we would not. Let us then cheerfully leave them to scramble for the prizes and jostle for the places which the world temptingly holds out, but which we will not purchase at the world's price.
Good causes are not always conducted by good men. A good cause may be connected with something that is not good. The right cause is promoted and effected by some lesser, or even unworthy one. Whereas worldly people may be suspicious of a cause espoused by Christians, the support of influential people outside the Church can well erase their suspicions. The character of the lofty cause may perhaps have to be lowered to suit the general taste, even to obtain the acceptance of the people for whose benefit it is intended.
We still fall into the error of which the prophet so long ago complained: "We call the proud happy" (Mal. 3:15) and the wicked fortunate. We may find ourselves envious of the powerful and influential. We feel this way, even when we remember that after the person has finished the work, the divine Employer throws that person aside, cut off and left to perish.
But you ENVY the powerful in the meantime, even though they have sacrificed every principle of justice, truth and mercy. Is this a man to be envied? Is this a prosperity to be coveted? Would you incur the penalties of that happiness?
But is it happiness to commit sin, to be abhorred by the upright in character, to offend God, and to ruin one's own soul? Do you really consider a temporary success compensation enough for deeds which will insure eternal misery to the doer? Is the successful bad person happy? Of what materials then is happiness made? Is it composed of a disturbed mind and an unquiet conscience? Are doubt and difficulty, are terror and apprehension, are distrust and suspicion, the gratification for which Christians would renounce their peace, displease their Maker, and would risk their soul? Think of the hidden vulture that feeds on the hearts of successful wickedness, and your longings and envy will cease. Your indignation will be changed into compassion, your denunciations into prayer.
But if such a person feels neither the scourge of conscience nor the sting of remorse, pity that individual the more. Pity them for the very want of that addition to their unhappiness, for if they added to their miseries the anticipation of their punishment, they might be led by repentance to avoid it. Can you reckon the blinding of their eyes and the hardening of their heart any part of their happiness? This opinion, however, is being expressed whenever we grudge the prosperity of the wicked. God, by delaying the punishment of bad people may have designs of mercy of which we know nothing—mercy perhaps to them, or if not to them, yet mercy to those who are suffering because of their actions, whom He intends through these bad instruments, to punish, and by punishing, eventually to save.
There is a sentiment even more bizarre than envy which prosperous wickedness excites in certain minds, and that is RESPECT; but this feeling is never raised unless both the wickedness and the prosperity be on a grand scale. This sentiment exposes the belief that God does not govern human affairs, or that our motives do not concern Him, or that prosperity is a certain proof of His favor.
But though God may be patient with triumphant wickedness, He does not wink at or connive with it. The difference between being permitted and being supported, between being employed and approved, is greater than we are ready to acknowledge. Perhaps "the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full." God has always the means of punishment as well as of pardon in His own hands. However, for God to punish at the exact moment when we demand it, might abort His greater plan and diminish the larger consequences. "They have drunk their hemlock," says a fine writer, "but the poison does not yet work." Let us not be impatient to administer a sentence which infinite justice sees right to defer. Let us think more of restraining our own vindictive tempers than of precipitating their destruction. They may yet repent of the crimes they are perpetrating. By some scheme, intricate and unintelligible to us, God may still pardon the sin which we think exceeds the limits even of His mercy.
We contrive to make revenge itself look like religion. We call down thunder on many a head under the pretense that those on whom we invoke it are God's enemies, when perhaps we invoke it because they are ours. Though they should go on fully prosperous to the end, will it not cure our impatience to know that their end must come? Will it not satisfy us that they must die, that they must come to judgment? Which is to be envied, the Christian who dies ending their brief sorrows, or the one who closes a prosperous life and enters on a miserable eternity? The first has nothing to fear if the promises of the Gospel be true, the other has nothing to hope for, if they are factual. The Word of God must be a lie, heaven a fable, hell an invention, before the impenitent sinner can be safe. Is that person to be envied whose security depends on their falsehood? Is the other to be pitied whose hope is founded on their reality?
In estimating the comparative happiness of good and bad people, we should ever bear in mind that of all the calamities which can be inflicted or suffered, sin is the greatest; and of all punishments, insensibility to sin is the heaviest which the wrath of God inflicts in this world. God lets the wicked continue their smooth and prosperous course to the awful destiny in store for them, which will only be revealed when there is no longer any room for mercy.
We can see this same truth without looking to the hereafter and consulting only the present suffering. If we put the inward consolation derived from communion with God, the humble confidence of prayer, the devout trust in divine protection on the scale opposite to all the unjust power ever bestowed or guilty wealth ever possessed, we shall have no hesitation in deciding on which side even present happiness lies.
With a mind thus fixed, with a faith thus firm, one great object so absorbs the Christian that our peace is not tossed about by the things which confuse ordinary people. The Christian afflicted in the world may say, "My fortune is shattered; but since I made not gold my confidence while I possessed it, in losing it I have not lost myself. I leaned not on power, for I knew its instability. Had prosperity been my dependence, I would have fallen when it was removed."
Many lament the Christian who suffers while innocent. Surely believers should not try to avoid suffering by sinful conformity to worldly standards! Think how ease would be destroyed by the price paid for it! How short a time he would enjoy it, even if it were not bought at the expense of his soul!
Because of the BENEFITS that suffering brings to the Christian's character, we can say that suffering itself is the reward of virtue. It becomes not only the instrument of promoting virtue, but the instrument of rewarding it. Besides, God promises a future reward to his children who suffer. To suppose that He cannot ultimately compensate His virtuous afflicted children is to believe Him less powerful than an earthly father—to suppose that He will not, is to believe Him less merciful.
Great trials are more often proofs of God's favor than of displeasure. An inferior officer will suffice for inferior expeditions, but the Sovereign selects the ablest general for the most difficult service. And not only does the King evidence his favor by the selection, but the soldier proves his attachment by rejoicing in the preference. One victory gained is no reason for his being set aside. One conquest only qualifies him for new attacks, suggests a reason for his being again employed.
The sufferings of good men by no means contradict the promise "that the meek shall inherit the earth." They "possess" it in such a way that they are willing to give it up when called to do so.
The belief that trials will facilitate salvation is another source of consolation. Sufferings also diminish the dread of death by cheapening the price of life. The affections even of the devout Christian are too much drawn downwards. Our heart too fondly cleaves to the dust, though we know that only trouble can spring from it. How would it be if we invariably possessed present enjoyments, and if a long panorama of delights lay always open before us? We have a far greater comfort in our own honest consciousness. Our Christian feelings under trials are a cheering evidence that our devotion is sincere. The gold has been melted down, and its purity is ascertained.
Among our other advantages, the afflicted Christian can apply to the mercy of God, but not as a new and uncertain resource. We do not come as an alien before a strange master, but as a child into the well-known presence of a tender father. We did not use prayer as a final resort to be used only in the great water floods. We had long and diligently sought God in the calm; we had clung to him, before we were driven to Him. We had sought God's favor while we still enjoyed the favor of the world. We did not defer our meditations on heavenly things to the disconsolate hour when earth had nothing for us. We can cheerfully associate our faith with those former days of felicity, when, with everything before us out of which to choose, we chose God. We not only feel the support derived from our present prayers, but the benefit of all those which we offered up in the day of joy and gladness. We will especially derive comfort from the supplications we had made for the anticipated though unknown trial of the present hour, and which in such a world of change it was reasonable to expect.
Let us confess then, that in all the trying circumstances of this changeful scene there is something infinitely soothing to the feelings of a Christian and inexpressibly tranquillizing to our mind– to know that we have nothing to do with events but to submit to them. We have nothing to do with the revolutions of life but to acquiesce in them as the offerings of eternal wisdom. We do not need to take the management out of the hands of Providence, but submissively to follow the divine leading. We do not have to scheme for tomorrow, but to live in the present with cheerful resignation. Let us be thankful that as we can not by foreseeing prevent them, we can be thankful for ignorance where knowledge would only prolong and not prevent our suffering. We have grace which has promised that our strength shall be proportioned to our day.
By the goodness of God these trials may be used for the noblest purposes. The quiet acquiescence of the heart and the submission of the will under actual trials, great or small, are more acceptable to God and more indicative of true faith, than the strongest general resolutions of firm action and deep submission under the most trying of imagined events. In the latter case it is the imagination which submits: in the former case it is the will.
We are too ready to imagine that there is no other way to serve God but by active exertions; exertions which only indulge our natural appetite, and gratify our own inclinations. It is an error to imagine that God who puts us into different situations, puts it out of our power to glorify him. Every circumstance may be turned to some good, either for ourselves or for others. Joseph in his prison under the strongest restrictions, loss of liberty, and a shattered reputation, made way for both his own high advancement and for the deliverance of Israel. Daniel in his dungeon, not only the destined prey, but in the very jaws of furious beasts, converted the king of Babylon and brought him to the knowledge of the true God. Could prosperity have achieved the former? Would not prosperity have prevented the latter?
We may often wonder why many of God's servants who are eminently fitted to instruct and reform the people of the land are disqualified by disease and thereby set aside from their public duty of which the necessity is so obvious and the fruits so remarkable. It may also cause us concern that many others possess uninterrupted health and strength, who are little gifted and at that, not even motivated to assist the welfare of the world in which they live.
But God's ways are not as our ways. He is not accountable to His creatures. The questioner needs to know why it is right. The suffering Christian believes and feels it to be right, humbly acknowledging the necessity of the affliction which friends are lamenting. This believer feels the mercy of what others are seeing as injustice. With deep humility this one is persuaded that if the affliction is not yet withdrawn, it is because it has not yet accomplished the purpose for which it was sent. The deprivation is probably intended both for the individual interests of the sufferer and for the reproof of those who have neglected to profit by this believer's labors. Perhaps God especially draws still nearer to Himself the one who had drawn so many others.
We are too ready to consider suffering as an indication of God's displeasure, not so much against sin in general as against the individual sufferer. Were this the case then those saints and martyrs who have pined in exile and groaned in dungeons and expired on scaffolds would have been the objects of God's peculiar wrath instead of His favor. But the truth is that our unbelief enters into almost all our reasoning on these topics. We do not constantly take into account a future state. We want God, if I may hazard the expression, to justify Himself as He goes. We cannot give Him even such long credit as the length of a human life. He must every moment be vindicating His character against every skeptical critic. He must unravel His plans to every shallow judge, revealing the knowledge of His design before its operations are completed. If we may adopt a phrase from a more common use, we will trust Him no farther than we can see Him. Though He has said, "Judge nothing before the time," we judge instantly, and therefore rashly, and in a word falsely. We would have more patience with God if we kept the brevity of earthly prosperity and suffering, the certainty of God's justice, and the eternity of future blessedness perpetually in view.
Even in judging fiction we are more just. During the reading of a tragedy, though we feel for the distresses of those involved, yet we do not form an ultimate judgment of the propriety or injustice of their sufferings until the end. We give the poet credit either that they will extricate them from their distresses, or eventually explain the justice of them. We do not condemn them at the end of every scene for the trials which the sufferers do not appear to have deserved, nor for the sufferings which do not always seem to have arisen from their own misconduct. We behold the trials of the virtuous with sympathy and the successes of the wicked with indignation, but we do not pass our final sentence until the poet has passed his. We reserve our decisive judgment until the last scene closes and until the curtain drops. Shall we not treat the schemes of infinite Wisdom with as much respect as the plot of a drama?
If we might borrow an illustration from the legal profession, in a court of justice the bystanders do not give their sentence in the midst of a trial. We wait patiently until all the evidence is collected, carefully detailed and finally summed up. We then commonly applaud the justice of the jury and the equity of the judge, even though human decisions are imperfect and fallible. The felon they condemn, we rarely acquit; where they release the accused, we rarely denounce it. It is only infinite Wisdom on whose purposes we cannot rely; it is only infinite Mercy whose operations we cannot trust. It is only "the judge of all the earth" who cannot do right. We reverse the order of God by summoning Him to our bar, at whose awful bar we shall soon be judged.
But to return to our more immediate point: the apparently unfair distribution of prosperity between good and bad people. While the good constantly derive their happiness from a sense of God's omniscience, the other finds it frightful. The eye of God is a pillar of light to the one, and a cloud of darkness to the other. The awful thought, "You, God, see all!"is as much a terror to people who dread His justice as it is a joy to those who derive all their support from it.
The one who may feel sad, is safe, while the other, though confident, is insecure. He is as far from peace as he is from God. Every day brings Christians nearer to their crown; sinners are every day working their way nearer to their ruin. The hour of death, which the one dreads as something worse than extinction, is to the other the hour of nativity, the birthday of immortality. At the height of his sufferings the good person knows that he will soon die. At the zenith of his success the sinner has a similar assurance, but how different is the result of the same conviction! An invincible faith sustains the one in the severest straits, while an unavoidable dread gives the lie to the proudest triumphs of the other.
The only happy person, after all, is not the one whom worldly prosperity renders apparently happy, but the one who no change of worldly circumstances can make essentially miserable. The latter's peace does not depend on external events, but on an internal support; not on that success which is common to all, but on that hope which is his peculiar privilege. It rests on that promise which is the sole prerogative of the Christian.
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