The fifth season, requiring diligence in keeping the heart, is the time of outward wants. Although at such times we should complain to God, not of God, (the throne of grace being erected for a “time of need,”) yet when the waters of relief run low, and want begins to press, how prone are the best hearts to distrust the fountain! When the meal in the barrel and the oil in the cruse are almost spent, our faith and patience too are almost spent. It is now difficult to keep the proud and unbelieving heart in a holy quietude and sweet submission at the foot of God. It is an easy thing to talk of trusting God for daily bread, while we have a full barn or purse; but to say as the prophet, “Though the fig-tree should not blossom, neither fruit be in the vine, yet will I rejoice in the Lord:” surely this is not easy.
Would you know then how a Christian may keep his heart from distrusting God, or repining against him, when outward wants are either felt or feared? — The case deserves to be seriously considered, especially now, since it seems to be the design of Providence to empty the people of God of their creature fullness, and acquaint them with those difficulties to which hitherto they have been altogether strangers. To secure the heart from the dangers attending this condition, these considerations may, through the blessing of the Spirit, prove effectual:
1 If God reduces you to necessities, he therein deals no otherwise with you than he has done with some of the holiest men that ever lived. Your condition is not singular; though you have hitherto been a stranger to want, other saints have been familiarly acquainted with it. Hear what Paul says, not of himself only, but in the name of other saints reduced to like exigencies: “Even to the present hour, we both hunger and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling-place.” To see such a man as Paul going up and down the world naked, and hungry, and houseless; one that was so far above thee in grace and holiness; one that did more service for God in a day than perhaps thou hast done in all thy days may well put an end to your repining. Have you forgotten how much even a David has suffered? How great were his difficulties! “Give, I pray thee,” says he to Nabal, “whatsoever cometh to thy hand, to thy servants, and to thy son David.” But why speak I of these? Behold a greater than any of them, even the Son of God, who is the heir of all things, and by whom the worlds were made, sometimes would have been glad of any thing, having nothing to eat. “And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry; and seeing a fig-tree, afar off, having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon.”
Hereby then God has set no mark of hatred upon you, neither can you infer want of love from want of bread. When thy repining heart puts the question, ‘Was there ever sorrow like unto mine?’ ask these worthies, and they will tell thee that though they did not complain as thou dost, yet their condition was as necessitous as thine is.
2 If God leave you not in this condition without a promise, you have no reason to repine or despond under it. That is a sad condition indeed to which no promise belongs. Calvin in his comment on Isaiah 9:1, explains in what sense the darkness of the captivity was not so great as that of the lesser incursions made by Tiglath Pileser. In the captivity, the city was destroyed and the temple burnt with fire: there was no comparison in the affliction, yet the darkness was not so great, because, says he, “there was a certain promise made in this case, but none in the other.” It is better to be as low as hell with a promise, than to be in paradise without one. Even the darkness of hell itself would be no darkness comparatively at all, were there but a promise to enlighten it. Now, God has left many sweet promises for the faith of his poor people to live upon in this condition; such as these: “O fear the Lord, ye his saints, for there is no want to them that fear him; the lions do lack and suffer hunger, but they that fear the Lord shall not want any good thing.” “The eye of the Lord is upon the righteous to keep them alive in famine.” “No good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.” “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” “When the poor and the needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.” Here you see their extreme wants, water being put for their necessaries of life; and their certain relief, “I the Lord will hear them;” in which it is supposed that they cry unto him in their distress, and he hears their cry. Having therefore these promises, why should not your distrustful heart conclude like David’s, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want?”
‘But these promises imply conditions: if they were absolute, they would afford more satisfaction.’ What are those tacit conditions of which you speak but these, that he will either supply or sanctify your wants; that you shall have so much as God sees fit for you? And does this trouble you? Would you have the mercy, whether sanctified or not? whether God sees it fit for you or not? The appetites of saints after earthly things should not be so ravenous as to seize greedily upon any enjoyment without regarding circumstances.
‘But when wants press, and I see not whence supplies should come, my faith in the promise shakes, and I, like murmuring Israel, cry, “He gave bread, can he give water also?”’ O unbelieving heart! when did his promises fail? who ever trusted them and was ashamed? May not God upbraid thee with thine unreasonable infidelity, as in Jeremiah 2:31, “Have I been a wilderness unto you?” or as Christ said to his disciples, “Since I was with you, lacked ye any thing?” Yea, may you not upbraid yourself; may you not say with good old Polycarp, “These many years I have served Christ, and found him a good Master?”
Indeed he may deny what your wantonness, but not what your want calls for. He will not regard the cry of your lusts, nor yet despise the cry of your faith: though he will not indulge your wanton appetites, yet he will not violate his own faithful promises. These promises are your best security for eternal life; and it is strange they should not satisfy you for daily bread. Remember the words of the Lord, and solace your heart with them amidst all your wants. It is said of Epicurus, that in dreadful paroxysms of the cholic he often refreshed himself by calling to mind his inventions in philosophy; and of Possodonius the philosopher, that in an acute disorder he solaced himself with discourses on moral virtue; and when distressed, he would say, “O pain, thou dost nothing; though thou art a little troublesome, I will never confess thee to be evil.” If upon such grounds as these they could support themselves under such racking pains, and even deluded their diseases by them; how much rather should the promises of God, and the sweet experiences which have gone along step by step with them, make you forget all your wants, and comfort you in every difficulty?
3 If it be bad now, it might have been worse. Has God denied thee the comforts of this life? He might have denied thee Christ, peace, and pardon also; and then thy case had been woful indeed.
You know God has done so to millions. How many such wretched objects max your eyes behold every day, that have no comfort in hand, nor yet in hope; that are miserable here, and will be so to eternity; that have a bitter cup, and nothing to sweeten it — no, not so much as any hope that it will be better. But it is not so with you: though you be poor in this world, yet you are “rich in faith, and an heir of the kingdom which God has promised.” Learn to set spiritual riches over against temporal poverty. Balance all your present troubles with your spiritual privileges. Indeed if God has denied your soul the robe of righteousness to clothe it, the hidden manna to feed it, the heavenly mansion to receive it, you might well be pensive; but the consideration that he has not may administer comfort under any outward distress. When Luther began to be pressed by want, he said, “Let us be contented with our hard fare; for do not we feast upon Christ, the bread of life?“ “Blessed be God (said Paul) who hath abounded to us in all spiritual blessings.”
4 Though this affliction be great, God has far greater, with which he chastises the dearly beloved of his soul in this world. Should he remove this and inflict those, you would account your present state a very comfortable one, and bless God to be as you now are. Should God remove your present troubles, supply all your outward wants, give you the desire of your heart in creature-comforts; but hide his face from you, shoot his arrows into your soul, and cause the venom of them to drink up your spirit: should he leave you but a few days to the buffetings of Satan: should he hold your eyes but a few nights waking with horrors of conscience, tossing to and fro till the dawning of the day: — should he lead you through the chambers of death, show you the visions of darkness, and make his terrors set themselves in array against you: then tell me if you would not think it a great mercy to be back again in your former necessitous condition, with peace of conscience; and account bread and water, with God’s favor, a happy state? O then take heed of repining. Say not that God deals hardly with you, lest you provoke him to convince you by your own sense that he has worse rods than these for unsubmissive and froward children.
5 If it be had now, it will be better shortly. Keep thy heart by this consideration, ‘the meal in the barrel is almost spent; well, be it so, why should that trouble me, if I am almost beyond the need and use of these things?’ The traveler has spent almost all his money; ‘well,’ says he, ‘though my money be almost spent, my journey is almost finished too: I am near home, and shall soon be fully supplied.’ If there be no candles in the house, it is a comfort to think that it is almost day, and then there will be no need of them. I am afraid, Christian, you misreckon when you think your provision is almost spent, and you have a great way to travel, many years to live and nothing to live upon; it may be not half so many, as you suppose In this be confident, if your provision be spent, either fresh supplies are coining, though you see not whence, or you are nearer your journey’s end than you reckon yourself to be. Desponding soul, does it become a man traveling upon the road to that heavenly city, and almost arrived there, within a few days’ journey of his Father’s house, where all his wants shall be supplied, to be so anxious about a little meat, or drink, or clothes, which he fears he shall want by the way? It was nobly said by the forty martyrs when turned out naked in a frosty night to be starved to death, “The winter indeed is sharp and cold, but heaven is warm and comfortable; here we shiver for cold, but Abraham’s bosom will make amends for all.”
‘But,’ says the desponding soul, ‘I may die for want.’ Who ever did so? When were the righteous forsaken? If indeed it be so, your journey is ended, and you fully supplied.
‘But I am not sure of that; were I sure of heaven, it would be another matter.’ Are you not sure of that? then you have other matters to trouble yourself about than these; methinks these should be the least of all your cares. I do not find that souls perplexed about the want of Christ, pardon of sin, are usually very solicitous about these things. He that seriously puts such questions as these, ‘What shall I do to be saved? how shall I know my sin is pardoned?’ does not trouble himself with, “What shall I eat, what shall I drink, or wherewithal shall I be clothed?”
6 Does it become the children of such a Father to distrust his all-sufficiency, or repine at any of his dispensations? Do you well to question his care and love upon every new exigency? Say, have you not formerly been ashamed of this? Has not your Father’s seasonable provision for you in former difficulties put you to the blush, and made you resolve never more to question his love and care? And yet will you again renew your unworthy suspicions of him? Disingenuous child! reason thus with yourself: “If I perish for want of what is good and needful for me, it must be either because my Father knows not my wants, Or has not wherewith to supply them, or regards not what becomes of me. Which of these shall I charge upon him? Not the first: for my Father knows what I have need of Not the second: for the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; his name is God All-sufficient. Not the last: for as a Father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him; the Lord is exceeding pitiful and of tender mercy; he hears the young ravens when they cry: — and will he not hear me? Consider, says Christ, the fowls of the air; not the fowls at the door, that are fed every day by hand, but the fowls of the air that have none to provide for them. Does he feed and clothe his enemies, and will he forget his children? he heard even the cry of Ishmael in distress. O my unbelieving heart, dost thou yet doubt?”
7 Your poverty is not your sin, but your affliction. If you have not by sinful means brought it upon yourself, and if it be but an affliction, it may the more easily be borne. It is hard indeed to bear an affliction coming upon us as the fruit and punishment of sin. When men are under trouble upon that account; they say, ‘O if it were but a single affliction, coming from the hand of God by way of trial, I could bear it; but I have brought it upon myself by sin, it comes as the punishment of sin; the marks of God’s displeasure are upon it: it is the guilt within that troubles and galls more than the want without.’ But it is not so here; therefore you have no reason to be cast down under it.
‘But though there be no sting of guilt, yet this condition wants not other stings; as, for instance, The discredit of religion. I cannot comply with my engagements in the world, and thereby religion is likely to suffer.’ It is well you have a heart to discharge every duty; yet if God disable you by providence, it is no discredit to your profession that you do not that which you cannot do, so long as it is your desire and endeavor to do what you can and ought to do; and in this case God’s will is, that lenity and forbearance be toward you.
‘But it grieves me to behold the necessities of others, whom I was wont to relieve and refresh, but now cannot.’ If you cannot, it ceases to be your duty, and God accepts the drawing out of your soul to the hungry in compassion and desire to help them, though you cannot draw forth a full purse to relieve and supply them.
‘But I find such a condition full of temptations, a great hinderance in the way to heaven.’ Every condition in the world has its hinderances and attending temptations; and were you in a prosperous condition, you might there meet with more temptations and fewer advantages than you now have; for though I confess poverty as well as prosperity has its temptations, yet I am confident prosperity has not those advantages that poverty has. Here you have an opportunity to discover the sincerity of your love to God, when you can live upon him, find enough in him, and constantly follow him, even when all external inducements and motives fail.
Thus I have shown you how to keep your heart from the temptations and dangers attending a low condition in the world. When want oppresses and the heart begins to sink, then improve, and bless God for these helps to keep it.