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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
J. J. Brown, Birmingham
From The Baptist Magazine, 1858
"Is any among you afflicted? let him pray." (James 5:13)
Human life consists of alternations of joy and sorrow. These make up both the experience and the discipline of the present state. They form the chief elements which enter into individual experience, and they mark the changes which constitute the history of families and of nations. The one follows the other in rapid succession, and sometimes joy and sorrow are so intermingled that it is difficult to determine which feeling preponderates. No one is entirely free from "affliction;" no one is wholly precluded from being "merry." Now adversity depresses the soul, and then prosperity elates the mind. Joy and sorrow are frequently found mingled in the same families, ofttimes struggling in at same heart.
They resemble the changeable season of spring. As at one moment the sun shines in mild, but unclouded radiance, and at another the heavens are clothed with vapour, and the refreshing shower descends. So at one instant the heart is "merry," and the smile lights up the countenance, and at the next the tears suffuse the cheeks, and chase away the transient gleam.
The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is designed to regulate every state in which we can be placed. Its holy and consolatory influences extend to every condition and circumstance of human life. It is intended to sanctify both our trials and our pleasures. It does not promise exemption from affliction, but it provides a resource for the afflicted. It does not secure constant joy and gladness, but it increases, purifies, and regulates them when possessed.
There are many who reserve religion for special seasons and circumstances. They deem it suitable for adversity, affliction, and death. They think it can minister support in trial, consolation in sorrow, and hope in death. It enters the house with the physician, and leaves it with him also. They do not see its excellency, nor feel their need of it in prosperity. They think it detracts from their enjoyments, and casts a gloom upon their happiest moments. It interferes with the desires, affections, and pursuits which they cherish. It prescribes a discipline, and enforces duties for which they have no taste. In short, with multitudes religion is a refuge to which they would escape at last : under the influence of the gospel they fain would die, but would not live.
The holy Scriptures present religion to us in a very different light. Religion has its place in joy as well as in sorrow. It has modes of expression suited to the meanest heart as well as the saddest spirit. It has mercies designed for the heights of prosperity and for the depths of adversity. It has its seat in the soul, and rules over all the affections of the inward man, and all the actions of the outward man. It furnishes holy vent for all the emotions of the mind; it teaches the afflicted soul to pray, and the merry heart to sing.
"Is any among you afflicted?" If this inquiry were put in any moderate-sized company, it would be sure to be answered in the affirmative. There is a large amount of affliction in our world. We continually witness it in others. We sometimes are the subjects of it ourselves. Some suffer acutely in body; others suffer yet more acutely in mind. "Man is born unto trouble." (Job 5:7) It is the common patrimony of our race.
In every period of life, in every station of society, we are exposed to suffering. There are griefs which are common to all; there are others which are peculiar to some. There are afflictions with which we can all sympathise, for we have experienced them ourselves. There are others, the intensity and bitterness of which we cannot comprehend, for we have never passed through them. We can trace physical suffering in the prostration of the outward frame. We can see the effects of mental suffering in the saddened countenance, but there are depths of sorrow which we cannot penetrate, and which can only be fully understood by God.
The manner in which affliction is borne, and the effects which it produces, are very varied. With multitudes who are acquainted with the great truths of the Christian faith, it does lead to humble, penitential, fervent prayer. By many, affliction is borne with almost total insensibility. They endure it in proud, hard, cold indifference; it is looked upon as inevitable, and must be borne.
The losses, and bereavements, and sufferings of life, are treated as the decrees of some stern power against which it is in vain to contend. They regard themselves as the slaves of circumstances. They are ready to say that they must submit to their destiny. They are "dumb" under afflictions; not from the conviction that they are wise, and just, and good, but from feeling which is akin to despair. The trials of life lead to no serious reflection. They excite no deep and solemn feeling; they are associated with no cause, and are regarded as conducive to no end. God is not recognised in them; the discipline of life is not advanced by them.
There are many upon whom affliction produces a different, but by no means a better, effect. It excites irritation, discontent, and murmuring. It is regarded as a wrong inflicted. The sufferer rebels against the chastening hand. He does not attempt to conceal his dissatisfaction. It is proclaimed by his lowering brow; it is seen in his morose, impatient, fretful temper; and sometimes it finds utterance in express complaint. It has the effect to bring to light those moral humours which lay latent in the soul, as medicine does those which lie concealed in the body. But it exercises no soothing, subduing influence. It produces no purifying effect upon the soul. It does not lead the sufferer to pray. He may cry out, but it is in impatience, for the removal of the affliction itself.
He is silent, but it is in hard, reckless endurance of what can neither be alleviated nor removed. There is no supplication for strength to bear the affliction, or for grace to submit to the Divine will. There is no desire that the visitation may be sanctified, and that the spiritual interests of the sufferer may be subserved by the affliction. There is no faith in God; no confidence in his wisdom and goodness; no humiliation under his chastening hand.
What is uttered is the language of complaint, not of prayer. It is the expression of the discontented, rebellious; not the supplication of the humble, contrite, believing soul. These are the ways in which affliction is borne by the great majority of mankind. It is submitted to in hard, thoughtless insensibility. It is regarded as the result of blind fortune, or inevitable destiny. It gives utterance to complaint, and not to prayer.
This is very far from the Christian spirit and temper. The afflictions of the Christian lead him to prayer; the experience of every believer harmonizes with the apostolic precept. The first thought which suffering excites in the Christian mind is that of prayer. The natural prompting of the renewed mind directs the believer to the mercy seat. He goes to his Heavenly Father, and unloads all his griefs before him. With the humility of a sinner and the confidence of a child, he will pour out his heart. He will wait for no other consolations; he will apply to no secondary sources of comfort and strength, but he goes at once to the throne of grace.
Valuable as is the privilege of prayer at all times, it is especially precious in seasons of affliction. It is sweet to confide our cares to a tender and kind friend. It affords some relief to pour our sorrows into his bosom, and to be assured that we have his sympathy. But human sympathy is difficult to excite, is weak and changeable when awakened, is not equal to the demands which suffering makes upon it, nor can the afflicted always calculate upon it.
But it is not so with the Divine tenderness and sympathy. He "knoweth what is in man." (John 2:25) He "knoweth our frame; he remembereth we are dust." (Ps. 103:14) "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him." (Ps. 103:13) He knows how little we are able to bear, how ready we are to despond and faint in our minds, and, therefore, we may go to him in the "full assurance of faith " that we shall meet with acceptance, sympathy, and consolation.
There are many reasons which show how peculiarly suited prayer is to the afflicted. Let us cite only two of them.
In the first place, we thus recognise the Divine agency in superintending them. We are in danger of losing sight of God in the secondary agencies which we are able to trace. The Divine agency is imperceptible, though always operating. No sense can discern his movements. We hear not his steps—we see not his hand. This organ is deranged, or that member is inflamed. One part of the frame discharges its functions too rapidly, and another too slowly. One portion of the organization has been heated to excess, and another has been chilled. We rarely rise from these secondary causes to the great First Cause on which they all depend. We rest in that which is seen, understood, and explained by us.
And yet "affliction cometh not forth out of the dust, neither doth trouble spring out of the ground." (Job 5:6) As our "times are in the hand of the LORD," (Ps. 31:15), so are all the events and incidents through which we have to pass. Prosperity and adversity, health and sickness, life and death, are superintended by him. He mingles the ingredients in our cups; he chooses our inheritance for us. As we "receive good at the hand of God," (Job 2:10), so too we "must receive evil." (Job 2:10)
In all this he has wise and beneficent purposes to accomplish. He is excellent in counsel and wonderful in working. He sees some diseases which need to be removed, or some graces which require discipline for their development and growth. He has perceived some sins of which you need to be convinced. They may have been committed in secret, unseen and unsuspected by man, and the more dangerous on that very account, but they were not unknown to God.
In affliction our sins are often brought before us in bold and striking relief. We see how gradually and imperceptibly we were becoming worldly and carnal. We discover the sinfulness of our selfish and unsanctified tempers. We feel our need of sympathy and tenderness from others; and thus are prepared in some measure to cultivate the same dispositions towards those who require them. We are ready to exclaim:
"Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults." (Ps. 19:12)He designs to promote your holiness. It is trial by fire, in order to purify; it is pruning, in order to growth and fruit-bearing; it is discipline, in order to spiritual health, vigour, and progress.
"By this shall the iniquity of Jacob be purged, and this is the fruit of it, to take away his sin." (Isa. 27:9)
"Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous; nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness to them who are exercised thereby." (Heb. 12:11)
"My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth." (Heb. 12:5-6)
Now, in prayer, we acknowledge the agency of God in the afflictions through which we pass. We rise superior to visible, secondary, human causes; we rest only in unseen, spiritual, Divine agency. We trace the confusions of time to the order of eternity; we associate the changes of earth with the immutability of heaven. In prayer, we say emphatically, "It is the Lord" that acts; he elevates, he depresses, he kills, he makes alive. "The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD." (Job 1:21) We "humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God." (I Pet. 5:6)
In the next place, the seasonableness of prayer in affliction arises from the peculiar grace which we need. It is exceedingly difficult to bear suffering well. We are naturally disposed to murmur and rebel. We do not welcome the visitation; we do not feel our need of the rebuke or the chastening. We are ready to ask in tones of sullen peevishness, if not of positive anger, "Wherefore dost thou contend with me?" Divine assistance is especially necessary in seasons of trial. We need strength, and patience, and resignation, and we must pray for them.
Would you be still, submissive to the will of Heaven, in the hour of trial? Then retire from the world and pour out your souls before God in secret. Would you derive from your afflictions all the good they are designed to confer? Then pray that God would teach you the end for which they are sent; would sanctify them and accompany them with gracious effusions of his Holy Spirit. The power of prayer is confessedly great.
The apostle James says, it "availeth much." (James 5:16) It has stayed the sun in his daily march, and the moon in her nightly walk. It has made the heavens as brass that they should not rain; and it has caused the fertilising showers to descend. It has healed the sick. It has raised the dead. Even in our own experience it is impossible to estimate its influence. It is quite impossible to say how many blessings we have received in direct answer to prayer.
We are not able to trace the connection between the cause and the effect, and we are scarcely willing to believe there is one. We are infidels on our very knees. And it is equally impossible to say how many mercies we "have not, because we ask not." (James 4:2) Without expecting any supernatural intervention in answer to prayer, its power is great; it calms the spirit and strengthens the mind of the afflicted. "
From the ends of the earth will I call upon thee, when my heart is in heaviness;" and if the answer comes in no other form, it will come in the form of peace to the soul. It will be found the antidote to despondency. It will silence complaint and murmuring. It will impart a softness and tenderness to the very sorrows which he endures. It will calm the perturbed passions of the human spirit. It will help to cherish child-like confidence and submission. It will bring down the sanctifying blessings of God upon our trials.
There are many other arguments by which the seasonableness of prayer in affliction might be urged. Let these suffice. "Is any among you afflicted? let him pray." (James 5:13) From whatever cause the affliction arises, this is the best resource to which you can apply. In every personal sorrow be humble, fervent in prayer. In every domestic trial, go to the throne of divine mercy. In every calamity bow yourself before the Lord of heaven and earth. If the affliction is to be removed, this is one of the means to affect it; if it is to be borne, this is the quarter in which you must seek the requisite strength. To pray is your duty, to pray is your privilege.
While you thus pray in your own afflictions cultivate sympathy with others. "Weep with them that weep." (Rom 12:15) While you may be "merry," there are others who are deeply "afflicted." In the very same street, in the very next dwelling, they may often be found. You may lighten their sorrows and cheer their hearts. The very expression of your countenance and the tones of your voice may impart comfort. Alas! for that person who has never sympathised with others! When he most needs sympathy himself, he will be incapable of receiving it.