by Octavius Winslow
"That we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22).
There are few things in the spiritual history of the child of God more really helpful heavenward than sanctified trial. He treads no path in which he finds aids more favourable to advancement in the divine life, circumstances which contribute more to the development and completeness of Christian character—the teaching, the quickening, the purifying—than the path of hallowed sorrow; sorrow which a covenant God has sent, which grace sanctifies, and which knits the heart to Christ. The atmosphere is not more purified by the electric storm, nor the earth more fructified by the descending rain, than is the regenerate soul advanced in its highest interests by the afflictive dealings in God's government of his saints. 'Sweet are the uses of adversity' to an heir of heaven. Its form may appear 'ugly and venomous', for 'no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous'; nevertheless it 'bears a precious jewel in its head', for 'afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby' (Heb. 12:11). Affliction is to the believer what the wing is to the lark and what the eye is to the eagle, the means by which the soul mounts in praise heavenward, gazing closely and steadily upon the glorious Sun of righteousness. Chastening seals our sonship, sorrow disciplines the heart, affliction propels the soul onward. We should have a more vivid conception of the power of affliction as an ingredient of holiness if we kept more constantly in remembrance the fact that all the afflictive, trying dispensations of the believer are covenant dispensations, that they are not of the same character nor do they produce the same results as in the ungodly. They are among the 'sure mercies of David'. In the case of the unregenerate, all afflictions are a part and parcel of the curse and work naturally against their good; but in the case of the regenerate, they are, in virtue of the covenant of grace, transformed into blessings and work spiritually for their good. Just as the mountain stream coursing its way meets some sanative mineral by which it becomes endowed with a healing property, so afflictions, passing through the covenant, change their character, derive a sanctifying property, and thus become a healing medicine to the soul.
Thus we find tribulation the ancient and beaten path of the Church of God. A great cloud of witnesses all testify to sorrow as the ordained path to heaven. Both Christ and his apostles gently forewarned the saints that 'in the world ye shall have tribulation' (John 16:33), and that 'we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God' (Acts 14:22). Here may be descried the trail of the flock and, yet more deeply and visibly imprinted, the footsteps of the Great Shepherd of the sheep, 'leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps' (1 Pet. 2:21). Who, then, with Christ in his heart, the hope of glory, would wish exemption from what is common to the whole Church of God? Who would not sail to glory in the same vessel with Jesus and his disciples, tossed though that vessel be amidst the surging waves of life's troubled ocean? All shall arrive in heaven at last, 'some on boards, and some on broken pieces of the ship...[but] all safe to land' (Acts 27:44). It is not necessary, beloved reader, that in a chapter devoted to an exposition of the blessings which flow from sanctified trial, we enumerate all, or even any, of the varied forms which trial assumes. The truth with which we have now to do is the impetus that trial gives to the soul heavenward—the friendly hand it outstretches to assist the Christian pilgrim to his shrine, the traveller to his journey's end, the child to his Father's house.
Our first remark, then, with regard to trial, is that it is a time of spiritual instruction and so a help heavenward. It is not blindly but intelligently that we walk in the ways of the Lord and are travelling home to God. Great stress is laid by the Holy Ghost in the writings of the apostle upon the believer's advance in spiritual knowledge. In his prayer for the Ephesian saints he asks for them, that 'the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him: the eyes of your understanding being enlightened' (Eph. 1:17-18). In another place he exhorts the saints to 'grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ' (2 Pet. 3:18). In his own personal experience he set no limit to his spiritual knowledge: 'that I might know Christ' was the great aspiration of his soul, and he counted all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus his Lord.
Now, the school of trial is the school of spiritual knowledge. We grow in a knowledge of ourselves, learning more of our superficial attainments, shallow experience, and limited grace. We learn, too, more of our weakness, emptiness, and vileness, the ploughshare of trial penetrating deep into the heart and throwing up its veiled iniquity. And oh, how does this deeper self-knowledge lay us low, humble and abase us; and when our self-sufficiency and our self-seeking and our self-glorying is thus mowed down, then the showers of the Saviour's grace descend 'as rain upon the mown grass' and so we advance in knowledge and holiness heavenward. We know more of the Lord Jesus through one sanctified affliction than by all the treatises the human pen ever wrote. Christ is only savingly known as he is known personally and experimentally. Books cannot teach him, sermons cannot teach him, lectures cannot teach him; they may aid our information and correct our views, but to know him as he is and as we ought, we must have personal dealings with him. Our sins must bring us to his blood, our condemnation must bring us to his righteousness, our corruptions must bring us to his grace, our wants must bring us to his fulness, our weakness must bring us to his strength, our sorrow must bring us to his sympathy, and his own loveliness and love must attract us to himself And oh, in one hour, in a single transaction, in a lone sorrow, which has brought us to Jesus, who can estimate how rapidly and to what an extent we have grown in a knowledge of his person and work, his character and love?
I need not enlarge upon other branches of spiritual knowledge which trial promotes—how it increases our personal intimacy with God as our loving Father and Friend; and how it opens our understanding to discern the deep things of God in the Scriptures, so that the Bible in the hour of affliction appears like a new revelation to us. Oh yes, times of trial are times of growth in experimental knowledge. We see God and Jesus and truth from new stand-points and in a different light, and we thank the Lord for the storm which dispelled the mist that hid all this glory, unveiling so lovely a landscape and so serene a sky to our view. Beloved, is the Lord now bringing your religion to the touchstone of trial, testing your experience and knowledge and faith in the crucible? Be calm in the assurance that he but designs your advancement in an experimental acquaintance with himself and his gospel, and that you shall emerge from it testifying, 'I have seen more of my own vileness, have known more of Jesus, have penetrated deeper into the heart of God, have a clearer understanding of revealed truth, and have learned more of the mysteries of the divine life, on this bed of sickness, in this time of bereaved sorrow, in this dark cloud that has overshadowed me, than in all my life before.' 'Blessed is the man whom thou chastenest, O LORD, and teachest him out of thy law' (Psa. 94:12). Oh yes, we learn God's power to support, his wisdom to guide, his love to comfort us, in a degree we could not have learned but in the way of trial.
Trial quickens us in prayer, and so effectually helps us heavenward. The life of God in the soul on earth is a life of communion of the soul with God in heaven. Prayer is nothing less than the divine nature in fellowship with the divine, the renewed creature in communion with God. And it would be as impossible for a regenerate soul to live without prayer, as for the natural life to exist without breathing. Oh, what a sacred and precious privilege is this! Is there one to be compared with it? When we have closed the door—for we speak now of that most solemn and holy habit of prayer, private communion—and have shut out the world, and the creature, and even the saints, and are closeted in personal, solemn, and confiding audience with God, what words can portray the preciousness and solemnity of that hour! Then is guilt confessed, and backslidings deplored, and care unburdened, and sorrow unveiled, and pardon sought, and grace implored, and blessings invoked, in all the filial trustfulness of a child unbosoming itself in the very depths of a father's love, pity, and succour.
But precious and costly as is this privilege of prayer, we need rousing to its observance. Trial is eminently instrumental in this. God often sends affliction for the accomplishment of this one end, that we might be stirred up to take hold of him. 'LORD, in trouble have they visited thee, they poured out a prayer when thy chastening was upon them' (Isa. 26:16). To whom in sorrow do we turn, to whom in difficulty do we repair, to whom in need do we fly but to the Lord? If in prosperity we have 'waxed fat and kicked' if when the sun has shone upon us we have walked independently and proudly and distantly, now that affliction has overtaken us we are humbled and prostrate at his feet; retrace our steps, return to God, and find a new impulse given to, and a new power and meetness and soothing in, communion with God. Be assured of this, my reader, there is no help heavenward like unto prayer. There is no ladder the rungs of which will bring you so near to God, there are no wings the plumage of which will carry you so close to heaven as prayer. The moment you have unpinioned your soul for communion with God, let your pressure, your sorrow, your sin be what it may, that moment your heart has departed earth and is on its way heavenward. You are soaring above the region of sorrow and battle and sin, and your spirit is expatiating beneath a purer, happier, sunnier sky. Oh the soothing, the strengthening, the uplifting found in prayer beneath the cross! Thus trial helps us heavenward by quickening us to devotion, by stirring us up to closeness of walk. Child of God, do you desire speedier advance heavenward? Seek it in closer converse with God. Oh, what mighty power has prayer! It has controlled the elements of nature, stopped the sun in its course, and stayed the arm of God. A man mighty in the prayer of faith is clothed with an invincible panoply. He is in possession of a force which Omnipotence cannot resist, for he has power with God and prevails. Oh, turn your difficulty into prayer, turn your sorrow into prayer, turn your want into prayer, turn your very sins and backslidings into confession, supplication, and prayer, and on its wing your soul shall rise to a region of thought and feeling and fellowship close to the very gates of heaven! Lord, we thank thee for the sacred privilege of prayer; we thank thee for the mercy-seat, sprinkled with blood, the place of prayer; we thank thee for Jesus' precious name, our only plea in prayer; we thank thee for the divine grace of prayer, and not less, Lord, do we praise thee for the trial, the suffering, the sorrow which stimulates our languid spirit and wakes our dormant heart to the holy, earnest exercise of prayer!
Trials are necessary to wean us from the world. Perhaps nothing possesses so detaching, divorcing an effect in the experience of the Christian as affliction. The world is a great snare to the child of God. Its rank is a snare, its possessions are a snare, its honours are a snare, its enterprises are a snare, the very duties and engagements of daily life are a snare, to a soul whose citizenship is in heaven and whose heart yearns to be more frequently and exclusively where Jesus, its treasure, is. Oh, how the things that are seen veil the things that are not seen! How do things temporal banish from our thoughts and affections and desires the things that are eternal! Why does the sun appear so small an orb, so minute a speck to our eye? Simply because of its remote distance. Oh, is it not thus that Christ with his surpassing loveliness, and heaven with its winning attractions, and eternal things with their profound solemnity, and communion with God in Christ, so soothing and precious, are objects so dim and superficial just because we of the earth earthy, live at so great a distance from God and allow the influence of the world an ascendancy over us so supreme and absorbing? But God in wisdom and mercy sends us trial to detach us from earth, to lessen our worldly mindedness, more deeply to convince us how empty and insufficient is all created good when his chastening is upon us, to intensify our affection for spiritual things, and to bring our souls nearer to himself. 'Take away the dross from the silver, and there shall come forth a vessel for the finer' (Prov. 25:4). 'I will turn my hand upon thee, and purely purge away thy dross, and take away all thy tin' (Isa. 1:25).
Oh, when the heart is chastened and subdued by sorrow, when the soul is smitten and humbled by adversity, when death bereaves, or sickness invades, or resources narrow, or calamity in one of its many crushing forms lights heavily upon us, how solemn, earnest, and distinct is the voice of our ascended Redeemer, 'If ye be risen with me, seek those things which are above, where I sit at the right hand of God. Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth. I am your Treasure, your Portion, your All. Sharers of my resurrection-life, you are partakers of its holy, quickening power and its heaven-bestowing blessings. Soon to be with me in glory, let your heart travel thitherward, and in its loosenings from earth, its divorcements from the creature, cultivate the mind of my holy apostle, who desired to depart and be with me.' Oh that to this touching appeal our hearts may respond, 'Lord, whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. Thou hast stricken and wounded and laid me low, but thou wilt comfort, heal, and raise me up again. Righteous art thou, O Lord, when I plead with thee; yet let me talk with thee of thy judgments. Let this trial detach me from the world, wean me from my idols, transfer my heart to thee, and speed my soul with a quicker step heavenward.' Thus the heart, crusted by the continuous influence of earthly things, is mellowed by sorrow through the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost. Then the Word becomes more fruitful, and the Lord Jesus grows more precious and conformity to God more promoted, earth recedes and heaven approaches, and we exclaim in the words of the psalmist, 'Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word' (Psa. 119:67). 'It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes' (Psa. 119:71).
Thus, as an old divine wrote,
Afflictions are God's most effectual means to keep us from losing our way to our heavenly rest. Without this hedge of thorns on the right hand and on the left, we should hardly keep the way to heaven. If there be but one gap open, how ready are we to find it and turn out at it! When we grow wanton, or worldly, or proud, how doth sickness or other afflictions reduce us! Every Christian, as well as Luther, can call affliction one of his best schoolmasters; and with David may say, 'Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word.' Many thousand rescued sinners may cry, O healthful sickness! O comfortable sorrow! O gainful losses! O enriching poverty! O blessed day that ever I was afflicted! Not only the green pastures and still waters, but the rod and staff, they comfort us. Though the Word and the Spirit do the main work, yet suffering so unbolts the door of the heart, that the Word hath easier entrance.
The moral purity of heart which chastened trial produces must have a distinct and prominent place in this enumeration of helps heavenward. Holiness, as it is an essential element of heaven, becomes an essential element in our spiritual meetness for its enjoyment. The inspired declaration is as solemn as it is emphatic, 'Holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord' (Heb. 12:14). The beautiful beatitude of our Saviour embodies and enforces the same truth, 'Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God' (Matt. 5:8). Let us not, beloved, mistake this character. It is of infinite importance to us that we properly understand it. It is emphatically 'the pure in heart', not the informed in judgment, not the reformed in life, not the orthodox in creed, not the apostolic in worship; all these things may exist, as did the outward ritualism of the Pharisees, apart from inward sanctification. But the 'pure in heart'—that is, those whose hearts are sprinkled with the cleansing blood of Jesus, sanctified by the indwelling of the Spirit, growing in a hatred to, and in a disenthralment from, the power of indwelling sin, who feel its existence, mourn its power, loathe its taint, and pray and strive for holiness—such shall see God. They shall see him now in Christ, in the gospel, and in the gracious manifestations of his love. And they shall see him hereafter without a cloud to shade, or a sin to mar, or a sorrow to sadden, or a moment to interrupt the blessed vision.
Oh, with a prospect so full of glory, so near and so certain, who that loves the Saviour would not strive after more of that purity of heart, clad in which and through whose medium we shall behold God forever, as revealed and seen in Christ Jesus? To this end let us welcome God's purifying agent, sanctified trial. When he causes us to walk in the midst of trouble, let us be submissive, humble, and obedient. Resignation to the divine will secures the end God intends to accomplish—our personal and deeper holiness. So long as we cherish an unsubmissive, rebellious spirit, the medicine will not cure, the lesson will not instruct, the agent will not work its mission; in a word, our purity of heart will not be promoted. In the words of Samuel Rutherford, 'When God strikes, let us beware of striking back again; for God will always have the last blow.' When his uplifted hand lights upon us, let us not fly up into his face as the chaff, but fall down at his feet as the wheat. Thus,'Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time' (1 Pet. 5:6); and in the school of his most trying dispensations we shall learn the sweetest lessons of his love.
Such, then, may be denominated 'the pure in heart'. Perfect freedom from sin, the entire extermination of indwelling evil, root and branch, is not the idea which our Lord here inculcates. This can only be affirmed of Christ himself, of unfallen angels, and of the spirits of just men made perfect. Therefore, let no dear child of God desiring internal holiness, thirsting and struggling for purity of heart, be cast down or discouraged in the conflict by the daily, the hourly consciousness and working of existing impurity. There may be real holiness in the midst of innate unholiness; purity encircled by indwelling impurity; an intense thirst, an ardent prayerfulness for sanctification, and some measure of its attainment, in a soul far, very far, from having arrived at a state of perfect and entire sinlessness. Does not the earnest desire for holiness and the constant struggle for sanctification prove the existence and indwelling power of evil in the saints of God? Most assuredly. And the Lord the Spirit discovers to us more and more of the inbeing and evil of sin, unveils to us more vividly the chambers of abomination, that we may be the more intently set upon the great work of sanctification, that we may deal more closely with Christ's blood and be more earnest and importunate in our cry, 'Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me' (Psa. 51:10). An old divine wrote,
As a thing is said to be pure though it may have some dross cleaving to it, as is pure gold when it is digged out of the mine, though there be much dross in it; and we say it is pure air though for a time there be fogs and mists within it; and it is pure water though there be some mud at the bottom; a man may be said to have a pure heart though there be a cleaving of much dross to it. Holy men have a fountain of original corruption in them, and from this fountain sins arise continuously, as the scum in the pot; but as in wine, or honey, or water, though the scum arise, yet still it purifieth itself; contrarily in men of impure hearts the scum ariseth, but it seethes not. 'She hath wearied herself with lies, and her great scum went not forth out of her' (Ezek. 24:12). Holy men have their scum arising in their hearts, as well as the wicked; but here is the difference, wicked men's scum seethes in and mingles together, but men of pure heart have a cleansing and purifying disposition, that casts out whatever evil comes, though it be constantly rising. Though it be many times mixed, he still washeth himself again; he cannot endure it; he doth not, as the sinner, delight in it. But notwithstanding this boiling out of evil, he is a man of a pure heart; yet may sin cleave to a man as dross to the silver, but it mingles not with the regenerate heart, nor that mingles with it, no more than oil and water do, which though they touch they do not mingle together.
There is much truth and deep acquaintance with the human heart and the mystery of the divine life in these quaint remarks which may instruct and comfort those of the 'pure in heart' who are often cast down by the working of indwelling sin.
If, then, trial is the believer's pathway to heaven, if the afflictive dealings of our heavenly Father are designed to accelerate our progress in that path, if, in the words of Robert Leighton, 'God never had one son without suffering, and but one without sin,' if in sorrow the Saviour becomes more dear and sin more bitter, and the world is loosened, and the soul, chastened and purified, is matured for glory, if, in a word, this gloomy portal of tribulation through which I pass terminates my night of weeping and ushers me into a world where I shall bask in the young beams of a morning of joy, reap the golden fruit of the seed which often in tears I now sow to the Spirit, lay my weary, panting soul on the bosom of my Saviour, and weep and sigh and sin no more forever, then welcome, thrice welcome, sorrow! Welcome my Saviour's yoke, his burden, his cross! Welcome the discipline of the covenant, the seal of my sonship, the dealings of my God! If this be the path to glory, this the evidence of adoption, this the example my Saviour has left me, and this the help heavenward which sanctified trial brings—the steps by which I climb, the wings with which I mount, the door through which I enter as a sinner pardoned through the blood and justified by the righteousness of Christ—then, oh then, my Father, thy will, not mine, be done!
Jesus, 'tis my aim divine,
Hence to have no will but thine,
Let me covenant with thee,
Thine for evermore to be:
This my prayer, and this alone,
Saviour, let thy will be done!
Thee to love, to live to thee,
This my daily portion be,
Nothing to my Lord I give,
But from him I first receive:
Lord, for me thy blood was spilt,
Lead me, guide me, as thou wilt.
All that is opposed to thee,
Howsoever dear it be,
From my heart the idol tear,
Thou shalt have no rival there,
Only thou shalt fill the throne:
Saviour, let thy will be done.
Wilt thou, Lord, in me fulfil
All the pleasure of thy will;
Thine in life, and thine in death,
Thine in every fleeting breath,
Thou my hope and joy alone:
Saviour, let thy will be done.