by Humphrey Mildred
November 26, 2014
Humphrey Mildred, the pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, Edinburgh (and formerly with the Banner of Truth Trust for over forty years) provides an introduction to and comments upon A Lifting Up for the Downcast1 by William Bridge.
7 ENCOURAGING REMINDERS BY A PURITAN PHYSICIAN OF THE SOUL
YOU KNOW YOU REALLY SHOULD READ THIS ARTICLE! ‘Why, because I wrote it? No, but because the subject is a vital one; it is a neglected one, and we can learn a great deal from a Puritan preacher who addressed it with rare skill in one of his sermons. What follows is a very free summary of chapter six of A Lifting Up for the Downcast by William Bridge, one of my favourite Puritan authors. It is titled ‘A Lifting Up in the Case of Desertion’. My other reason for wanting you to read this article is that I hope it will result in your reading the book – it is a wonderful feast of spiritual refreshments.
1. Bridge begins by stating that this feeling of desertion is a not uncommon spiritual experience and it is one of the worst of the many afflictions of the righteous for two very obvious reasons:
a) It is harder to bear all our other trials if we no longer feel the Lord is with us.
b) Just as the presence of Christ sweetens all our comforts so his absence embitters all other sufferings.
2. Without the sunshine of his smile upon us he seems to us to be our enemy, and not just an absent friend. Satan seeks to persuade us this is the real situation. Let’s listen to Luther! ‘When God seems to be my enemy and to stand with a drawn sword against me, then I do cast and throw myself into his arms.’ That is a truly spiritual response, a response of faith to this severest of trials. See Isaiah 50:10. ‘Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the word of his servant? Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.’
3. We must remember that God is said to forsake man, either in regard of his power, grace and strength, or in regard of the comfortable feelings of his love. In other words, either in regard to union, or to vision. In regard to union he never forsakes his children. In regard to vision he forsakes us only for a time – he will always return to us. Other Puritans used the word ‘communion’ rather than ‘vision’ to express this particular truth.
Bridge is reminding us – and how much we need the reminder – that although we may and do lose our enjoyment of Christ and the salvation he gives us, it is not that in desertion we become non-Christians! We may not have the enjoyments of Christ but we still have our union with Christ. Desertion is not losing our union with him, but losing the blessings of his felt presence with us. If we appreciated his presence more, we would grieve over his absence more deeply. All preachers know what it is when preaching to be sadly aware of the Holy Spirit’s absence. But how thankful we are when we enjoy seasons of his presence. Thus it is for all believers in our daily pilgrimage – Christ leaves us for a season but he never forsakes us utterly. He will always return at the time of his choice.
4. What purpose does the Lord have in forsaking us for a time? Do we need to ask? Can we not trust that he has a purpose of love, a purpose to bless us, a purpose to bring great good from this apparent evil? Has he not said that he delights to do us good? It is one of his great instruments of our sanctification in three ways:
a) He withdraws himself from us that he may draw us closer to himself.
b) He withdraws for a moment that we might die to this world and long more vehemently for heaven.
c) He withdraws that we might die to the walk of sight and live to a walk of faith. ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust him!’
5. Though God hides his face from his people for a time, so they are in the dark, it is never pitch black. ‘He leaves us enough light to work by.’ This is a great encouragement and challenge. What is our spiritual work? To seek him with our whole heart. To serve him with all our strength. To seek to comfort others in the same twilight. To set about the work of intercession for Christ’s world-wide kingdom. Let us recall past periods of blessed sunshine with gratitude and hope.
6. Remember that our great High Priest knows what it is to be deserted by God. Does not his anguished quotation of Psalm 22:1 encourage our timid souls? Was that the end of the matter? No – that cry was soon followed by resurrection glory and then ascension glory! What must we do? Wait upon the Lord – wait patiently for him.
7. Have you not known periods of desertion before? And has not Christ always returned to you? Then be tough with yourself and mortify the sin of unbelief. Be tough with Satan and say to him, ‘Yes, Satan, I know the’ Lord loves me, because you tell me he hates me!’ And say to your Lord and Saviour, ‘Your will, not mine, be done. Bless this great trial to me and may it be a means of making me a more obedient servant, enabling me to glorify you more!’
This subject of our periods of desertion by the Lord is a vast one and it is strange that the literature on it is not more extensive. If you are interested in this experience may I commend another title to you, one by a living author? This is Deserted by God? by Sinclair Ferguson, published by Banner of Truth.2 He bases each short chapter on a psalm and thus shows how common the experience is but also the wealth of experimental teaching there is on it in the book of Psalms.
John Flavel lived between 1627 and 1691, dying at the age of sixty-three. Samuel Rutherford, that great Scottish minister, was born in 1600 and died in 1661 at the age of sixty-one. Did they ever meet? I do not know, but Rutherford certainly experienced periods of desertion, and although only really two of his letters out of the 365 in the Banner edition of The Letters of Samuel Rutherford3 are directly about desertion by the Lord, there are many references to his struggles in his writings. What is spiritual desertion? Let Rutherford echo Flavel:
Love would have the company of the party loved; and my greatest pain is the want of him, not of his joys and comforts, but of a near union and communion.4
The church of Jesus Christ owes a great debt to Mrs Ann Cousins (1824-1906), the wife of the Free Church of Scotland Minister in Melrose. She it was who wrote a long poem based on sayings of Rutherford, some verses of which appear in many hymn books. It is known by the first line, ‘The Sands of Time are Sinking’. Let me close by quoting one of the verses not in the hymn books:
But flowers need night’s cool darkness,
The moonlight and the dew;
So Christ, from one who loved it,
His shining oft withdrew;
And then for cause of absence,
My troubled soul I scanned –
But glory, shadeless, shineth
In Immanuel’s land.5
I wonder, when did we last scan our troubled soul, seeking to know why Christ has left us?
Is not this the real problem facing some Reformed congregations today?
The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, Letter 112 to Rev John Fergushill, p. 228.
The poem is quoted in full in the Appendix of The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, pp. 741-744.
This article is taken from Reformation Today, No. 262 (Nov-Dec 2014) with permission. Notes added.