The second season in the life of a Christian, requiring more than common diligence to keep his heart, is the time of adversity. When Providence frowns upon you, and blasts your outward comforts, then look to your heart; keep it with all diligence from repining against God, or fainting under his hand; for troubles, though sanctified, are troubles still. Jonah was a good man, and yet how fretful was his heart under affliction! Job was the mirror of patience, yet how was his heart discomposed by trouble! You will find it hard to get a composed spirit under great afflictions. O the hurries and tumults which they occasion even in the best hearts I — Let me show you, then, how a Christian under great afflictions may keep his heart from repining or desponding, under the hand of God.
I will here offer several helps to keep the heart in this condition.
1 By these cross providences God is faithfully pursuing the great design of electing love upon the souls of his people, and orders all these afflictions as means sanctified to that end. Afflictions come not by casualty, but by counsel. By this counsel of God they are ordained as means of much spiritual good to saints. “By this shall the iniquity of Jacob be purged”. “But he for our profit”. “All things work together for good”. They are God’s workmen upon our hearts, to pull down the pride and carnal security of them; and being so, their nature is changed; they are turned into blessings and benefits. “It is good for me that I have been afflicted,” says David. Surely then thou hast no reason to quarrel with God, but rather to wonder that he should concern himself so much in thy good as to use any means for accomplishing it. Paul could bless God if by any means he might attain the resurrection of the dead. “My brethren,” says James, “count it all joy when you fall into divers temptations.” ‘My Father is about a design of love upon my soul, and do I well to be angry with him? All that he does is in pursuance of, and in reference to some eternal, glorious ends upon my soul. It is my ignorance of God’s design that makes me quarrel with him.’ He says to thee in this case, as he did to Peter, “What I do, thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter.”
2 Though God has reserved to himself a liberty of afflicting his people, yet he has tied up his own hands by promise never to take away his loving kindness from them. Can I contemplate this scripture with a repining, discontented spirit: “I will be his Father, and be shall be my son: if he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of man, and with the stripes of the children of men nevertheless my mercy shall not depart away from him.” O my heart, my haughty heart! dost thou well to be discontent, when God has given thee the whole tree, with all the clusters of comfort growing on it, because he suffers the wind to blow down a few leaves? Christians have two kinds of goods, the goods of the throne and the goods of the footstool; immoveables and moveables. If God has secured those, never let my heart be troubled at the loss of these: indeed, if he had cut off his love or discovenanted my soul; I had reason to be cast down; but this he hath not done, nor can he do it.
3 It is of great efficacy to keep the heart from sinking under afflictions, to call to mind that thine own Father has the ordering of them. Not a creature moves hand or tongue against thee but by his permission. Suppose the cup be bitter, yet it is the cup which thy Father hath given thee; and canst thou suspect poison to be in it? Foolish man, put home the case to thine own heart; canst thou give thy child that which would ruin him? No! thou wouldst as soon hurt thyself as him. “If thou then, being evil, knowest how to give good gifts to thy children,” how much more does God! The very consideration of his nature as a God of love, pity, and tender mercies; or of his relation to thee as a father, husband, friend, may be security enough, if he had not spoken a word to quiet thee in this case; and yet you have his word too, by the prophet Jeremiah: “I will do you no hurt.” You lie too near his heart for him to hurt you; nothing grieves him more than your groundless and unworthy suspicions of his designs. Would it not grieve a faithful, tender-hearted physician, when he had studied the case of his patient, and prepared the most excellent medicines to save his life, to hear him cry out, ‘O he has undone me! he has poisoned me!’ because it pains him in the operation? O when will you be ingenuous?
4 God respects you as much in a low as in a high condition; and therefore it need not so much trouble you to be made low; nay, he manifests more of his love, grace and tenderness in the time of affliction than in the time of prosperity. As God did not at first choose you because you were high, he will not now forsake you because you are low. Men may look shy upon you, and alter their respects as your condition is altered; when Providence has blasted your estate, your summer-friends may grow strange, fearing you may be troublesome to them; but will God do so? No, no: “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.” says he. If adversity and poverty could bar you from access to God, it were indeed a deplorable condition: but, so far from this, you may go to him as freely as ever. “My God will hear me,” says the church. Poor David, when stripped of all earthly comforts, could encourage himself in the Lord his God; and why cannot you? Suppose your husband or son had lost all at sea, and should come to you in rags; could you deny the relation, or refuse to entertain him? If you would not, much less will God. Why then are you so troubled? Though your condition be changed, your Father’s love is not changed.
5 What if by the loss of outward comforts God preserves your soul from the ruining power of temptation? Surely then you have little cause to sink your heart by such sad thoughts. Do not earthly enjoyments make men shrink and warp in times of trial? For the love of these many have forsaken Christ in such an hour. The young ruler “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” If this is God’s design, how ungrateful to murmur against him for it! We see mariners in a storm can throw overboard the most valuable goods to preserve their lives. We know it is usual for soldiers in a besieged city to destroy the finest buildings without the walls in which the enemy may take shelter; and no one doubts that it is wisely done. Those who have mortified limbs willingly stretch them out to be cut off, and not only thank, but pay the surgeon. Must God be murmured against for casting over that which would sink you in a storm; for pulling down that which would assist your enemy in the siege of temptation; for cutting off what would endanger your everlasting life? O, inconsiderate, ungrateful man! are not these things for which thou grievest, the very things that have ruined thousands of souls?
6 It would much support thy heart under adversity, to consider that God by such humbling providences maybe accomplishing that for which you have long prayed and waited. And should you be troubled at that? Say, Christian, hast thou not many prayers depending before God upon such accounts as these; that he would keep thee from sin; discover to thee the emptiness of the creature; that he would mortify and kill thy lusts; that thy heart may never find rest in any enjoyment but Christ? By such humbling and impoverishing strokes God may be fulfilling thy desire. Wouldst thou be kept from sin? Lo, he hath hedged up thy way with thorns. Wouldst thou see the creature’s vanity? Thy affliction is a fair glass to discover it; for the vanity of the creature is never so effectually and sensibly discovered, as in our own experience. Wouldst thou have thy corruptions mortified? This is the way: to have the food and fuel removed that maintained them; for as prosperity begat and fed them, so adversity, when sanctified, is a means to kill them. Wouldst thou have thy heart rest no where but in the bosom of God? What better method could Providence take to accomplish thy desire than pulling from under thy head that soft pillow of creature-delights on which you rested before? And yet you fret at this: peevish child, how dost thou try thy Father’s patience! If he delay to answer thy prayers, thou art ready to say he regards thee not; if he does that which really answers the end of them, though not in the way which you expect, you murmur against him for that; as if, instead of answering, he were crossing all thy hopes and aims. Is this ingenuous? Is it not enough that God is so gracious as to do what thou desirest: must thou be so impudent as to expect him to do it in the way which thou prescribest?
7 It may support thy heart, to consider that in these troubles God is performing that work in which thy soul would rejoice, if thou didst see the design of it. We are clouded with much ignorance, and are not able to discern how particular providences tend to the fulfillment of God’s designs; and therefore, like Israel in the wilderness, are often murmuring, because Providence leads us about in a howling desert, where we are exposed to difficulties; though then he led them, and is now leading us, by the right way to a city of habitations. If you could but see how God in his secret counsel has exactly laid the whole plan of your salvation, even to the smallest means and circumstances; could you but discern the admirable harmony of divine dispensations, their mutual relations, together with the general respect they all have to the last end; had you liberty to make your own choice, you would, of all conditions in the world, choose that in which you now are. Providence is like a curious piece of tapestry made of a thousand shreds, which, single, appear useless, but put together, they represent a beautiful history to the eye. As God does all things according to the counsel of his own will, of course this is ordained as the best method to effect your salvation. Such an one has a proud heart, so many humbling providences appoint for him; such an one has an earthly heart, see many impoverishing providences for him. Did you but see this, I need say no more to support the most dejected heart.
8 It would much conduce to the settlement of your heart, to consider that by fretting and discontent you do yourself more injury than all your afflictions could do. Your own discontent is that which arms your troubles with a sting; you make your burden heavy by struggling under it. Did you but lie quietly under the hand of God, your condition would be much more easy than it is. “Impatience in the sick occasions severity in the physician.” This makes God afflict the more, as a father a stubborn child that receives not correction. Beside, it unfits the soul to pray over its troubles, or receive the sense of that good which God intends by them. Affliction is a pill, which, being wrapt up in patience and quiet submission, may be easily swallowed; but discontent chews the pill, and so embitters the soul. God throws away some comfort which he saw would hurt you, and you will throw away your peace after it; he shoots an arrow which sticks in your clothes, and was never intended to hurt, but only to drive you from sin, and you will thrust it deeper, to the piercing of your very heart, by despondency and discontent.
9 If thy heart (like that of Rachel) still refuses to be comforted, then do one thing more: compare the condition thou art now in, and with which thou art so much dissatisfied, with the condition in which others are, and in which thou deservest to be. ‘Others are roaring in flames, howling under the scourge of vengeance; and among them I deserve to be. O my soul is this hell? is my condition as bad as that of the damned? what would thousands now in hell give to exchange conditions with me!’ I have read (says an author) that when the Duke of Conde had voluntarily subjected himself to the inconveniences of poverty, he was one day observed and pitied by a lord of Italy, who from tenderness wished him to be more careful of his person. The good duke answered, “Sir, be not troubled, and think not that I suffer from want; for I send a harbinger before me, who makes ready my lodgings and takes care that I be royally entertained.” The lord asked him who was his harbinger? He answered, “The knowledge of myself, and the consideration of what I deserve for my sins, which is eternal torment; when with this knowledge I arrive at my lodging, however unprovided I find it, methinks it is much better than I deserve. Why doth the living man complain?” Thus the heart may be kept from desponding or repining under adversity.