The third season calling for more than ordinary diligence to keep the heart is the time of Zion’s troubles. When the Church, like the ship in which Christ and his disciples were, is oppressed and ready to perish in the waves of persecution, then good souls are ready to be shipwrecked too, upon the billows of their own fears. It is true, most men need the spur rather than the reins in this case; yet some men sit down discouraged under a sense of the Church’s troubles. The loss of the ark cost Eli his life; the sad posture in which Jerusalem lay made good Nehemiah’s countenance change in the midst of all the pleasures and accommodations of the court. But though God allows, yea, commands the most awakened apprehensions of these calamities, and in “such a day calls to mourning, weeping, and girding with sackcloth,” and severely threatens the insensible; yet it will not please him to see you sit like pensive Elijah under the juniper tree. “Ah, Lord God! it is enough, take away my life also.” No: a mourner in Zion you may and ought to be, but a self-tormentor you must not be; complain to God you may, but complain of God (though but by the language of your actions) you must not.
Now let us inquire how tender hearts may be relieved and supported, when they are even overwhelm-ed with the burdensome sense of Zion’s troubles? I grant it is hard for him who preferreth Zion to his chief joy, to keep his heart that it sink not below the due sense of its troubles; yet this ought to, and may be done, by the use of such heart-establishing directions as these:
1 Settle this great truth in your heart, that no trouble befalls Zion but by the permission of Zion’s God; and he permits nothing out of which he will not ultimately bring much good to his people. Comfort may be derived from reflections on the permitting as well as on the commanding will of God. “Let him alone, it may be God hath bidden him.” “Thou couldst have no power against me, except it were given thee from above.” It should much calm our spirits, that it is the will of God to suffer it; and that, had he not suffered it, it could, never have been as it is. This very consideration quieted Job, Eli, David, and Hezekiah. That the Lord did it was enough to them: and why should it not be so to us? If the Lord will have Zion ploughed as a field, and her goodly stones lie in the dust; if it be his pleasure that Anti-Christ shall rage yet longer and wear out the saints of the Most High; if it be his will that a day of trouble, and of treading down, and of perplexity by the Lord God of Hosts, shall be upon the valley of vision, that the wicked shall devour the man that is more righteous than he; what are we that we should contend with God? It is fit that we should be resigned to that Will whence we proceeded, and that He that made us should dispose of us as he pleases: he may do what seemeth him good without our consent.
Doth poor man stand upon equal ground, that he may capitulate with his Creator; or that God should render him an account of any of his matters? That we be content, however God may dispose of us, is as reasonable as that we be obedient, whatever he may require of us. But if we pursue this argument farther, and consider that God’s permissions all meet at last in the real good of his people, this will much more quiet our spirits. Do the enemies carry away the best among the people into captivity? This looks like a distressing providence; but God sends them thither for their good. Does God take the Assyrian as a staff in his hand to beat his people with? The end of his so doing is, “that he may accomplish his whole work upon Mount Zion.” If God can bring much good out of the greatest evil of sin, much more out of temporal afflictions; and that he will, is as evident as that he can do so. For it is inconsistent with the wisdom of a common agent to permit any thing (which he might prevent if he pleased) to cross his great design; and can it be imagined that the most wise God should do so? As, then, Luther said to Melancthon, so say I to you: “Let infinite wisdom, power and love alone” for by these all creatures are swayed, and all actions guided, in reference to the church. It is not our work to rule the world, but to submit to Him that does. The motions of Providence are all judicious, the wheels are full of eyes: it is enough that the affairs of Zion are in a good hand.
2 Ponder this heart-supporting truth: how many troubles soever are upon Zion, yet her King is in her. What! hath the Lord forsaken his churches? has he sold them into the enemy’s hands? Does he not regard what evil befalls them that our hearts sink thus? Is it not shamefully undervaluing the great God, and too much magnifying poor impotent man, to fear and tremble at creatures while God is in the midst of us? The church’s enemies are many and mighty: let that be granted, yet that argument with which Caleb and Joshua strove to raise their own hearts, is of as much force now as it was then: “The Lord is with, us, fear them not.”
A historian tells us, that when Antigonus overheard his soldiers reckoning how many their enemies were, and so discouraging one another, he suddenly stepped in among them with this question, “And how many do you reckon me for?” Discouraged souls, how many do you reckon the Lord for? Is he not an overmatch for all his enemies? Is not one Almighty more than many mighties? “If God be for us, who can be against us?” What think you was the reason of that great examination Gideon made? He questions, he desires a sign, and after that, another: and what was the end of all this, but that he might be sure the Lord was with him, and that he might but write this motto upon his ensign: The sword of the Lord and of Gideon. So if you can be well assured the Lord is with his people, you will thereby rise above all your discouragements: and that he is so, you need not require a sign from heaven; lo, you have a sign before you, even their marvellous preservation amidst all their enemies. If God be not with his people, how is it that they are not swallowed up quickly? Do their enemies want malice, power, or opportunity? No, but there is an invisible hand upon them. Let then his presence give us rest; and though the mountains be hurled into the sea, though heaven and earth mingle together, fear not; God is in the midst of Zion, she shall not be moved.
3 Consider the great advantages attending the people of God in an afflicted condition. If a low and an afflicted state in the world be really best for the church, then your dejection is not only irrational, but ungrateful. Indeed if you estimate the happiness of the church by its worldly ease, splendor and prosperity, then such times of affliction will appear to be unfavorable; but if you reckon its glory to consist in its humility, faith, and heavenly-mindedness, no condition so much abounds with advantages for these as an afflicted condition. It was not persecutions and prisons, but worldliness and wantonness that poisoned the church: neither was it the earthly glory of its professors, but the blood of its martyrs that was the seed of the church. The power of godliness did never thrive better than in affliction, and was never less thriving than in times of greatest prosperity: when “we are left a poor and an afflicted people, then we learn to trust in the name of the Lord.” It is indeed for the saints’ advantage to be weaned from love of, and delight in, ensnaring earthly vanities; to be quickened and urged forward with more haste to heaven; to have clearer discoveries of their own hearts; to be taught to pray more fervently, frequently, spiritually; to look and long for the rest to come more ardently. If these be for their advantage, experience teaches us that no condition is ordinarily blessed with such fruits as these, like an afflicted condition. Is it well then to repine and droop, because your Father consults the advantage of your soul rather than the gratification of your humors? because he will bring you to heaven by a nearer way than you are willing to go? Is this a due requital of his love, who is pleased so much to concern himself in your welfare — who does more for you than he will do for thousands in the world, upon whom he will not lay a rod, dispense an affliction to them for their good? But alas! we judge by sense, and reckon things good or evil, according to our present taste.
4 Take heed that you overlook not the many precious mercies which the people of God enjoy amidst all their trouble. It is a pity that our tears on account of our troubles should so blind our eyes that we should not see our mercies. I will not insist upon the mercy of having your life given you for a prey; nor upon the many outward comforts which you enjoy, even above what were enjoyed by Christ and his precious servants, of whom the world was not worthy. But what say you to pardon of sin; interest in Christ; the covenant of promise; and an eternity of happiness in the presence of God, after a few days are over? O that a people entitled to such mercies as these should droop under any temporal affliction, or be so much concerned for the frowns of men and the loss of trifles. You have not the smiles of great men, but you have the favor of the great God; you are perhaps diminished in temporal, but you are thereby increased in spiritual and eternal goods. You cannot live so plentifully as before; but you may live as heavenly as ever. Will you grieve so much for these circumstances as to forget your substance? Shall light troubles make you forget weighty mercies? Remember the true riches of the church are laid out of the reach of all enemies. What though God do not in his outward dispensations distinguish between his own and others? Yea, what though his judgments single out the best, and spare the worst? What though an Abel be killed in love, and a Cain survive in hatred; a bloody Dionysius die in his bed, and a good Josiah fall in battle? What though the belly of the wicked be filled with hidden treasures, and the teeth of the saints with gravel-stones? Still there is much matter of praise; for electing love has distinguished, though common providence has not: and while prosperity and impunity slay the wicked, even slaying and adversity shall benefit and save the righteous.
5 Believe that how low soever the church be plunged under the waters of adversity, she shall assuredly rise again. Fear not; for as surely as Christ arose the third day, notwithstanding the seal and watch upon him; so surely Zion shall arise out of all her troubles, and lift up her victorious head over all her enemies. There is no reason to fear the ruin of that people who thrive by their losses and multiply by being diminished. Be not too hasty to bury the church before she is dead; stay till Christ has tried his skill, before you give her up for lost. The bush may be all in a flame, but shall never be consumed; and that because of the good will of Him that dwelleth in it.
6 Remember the instances of God’s care and tenderness over his people in former difficulties. For above eighteen hundred years the Christian church has been in affliction, and yet it is not consumed; many a wave of persecution has gone over it, yet it is not drowned; many devices have been formed against it, hitherto none of them has prospered. This is not the first time that Hamans and Ahithophels have plotted its ruin; that a Herod has stretched out his hand to vex it; still it has been preserved from, supported under, or delivered out of all its troubles. Is it not as dear to God as ever? Is he not as able to save it now as formerly? Though we know not whence deliverance should arise, “yet the Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations.”
7 If you can derive no comfort from any of these considerations, try to draw some out of your very trouble. Surely this trouble of yours is a good evidence of your integrity. Union is the ground of sympathy: if you had not some rich, adventure in that ship, you would not tremble as you do when it is in danger. Beside this framer of spirit may afford you this consolation, that if you are so sensible of Zion’s trouble, Jesus Christ is much more sensible of and solicitous about it than you can be, and he will have an eye of favor upon them that mourn for it.