Old Testament Study:
A Classic Study:
Patience in Affliction
To contact us:
A Classic Study by Richard Baxter (1615–1691)
[Here, we continue a reprint of excerpts from Richard Baxter’s work entitled Obedient Patience. In each article, Mr. Baxter gives advice on how to be patient through a specific type of affliction.]—Ed.
When God Seemeth Not to Bless Means to Us:
Preaching, Praying, etc. - I
Another great trial of patience is, when praying and preaching seem to us to be all lost, and God denieth His answer and His blessing. When we hear from day to day, and understand and remember little that we hear, and find not that we are any stronger in faith, love, and patience than we were; when we pray daily for more grace, and yet find no more than we had before; and we pray for our country, and our rulers, and teachers, and for many friends, and God seemeth to deny us almost all.
And this is not only grievous in itself, but in the temptations which it occasioneth. 1. Satan hence would tempt us to doubt whether God regarded man, and man’s concerns, as the Scripture tells us that He doth. 2. And he would tempt us to doubt whether the promises of God are to be trusted. 3. And consequently to question all religion, and to give over least to use them heartlessly, with little faith, and hope, and comfort: and how should patience here be exercised, and these temptations overcome?
I. Our first work must be to understand God’s instituted means, and the promises of God concerning their success, that we may be neither too high nor too low in our expectations, nor charge God foolishly through our mistake.
What is it that God denieth you? Is it outward things, as health, wealth, deliverance from dangers, the life of your friends, the conversion of your relations, etc.? And why think you that prayer in such cases is in vain?
1. Did you think that it was ever the mind and promise of God, that on pretence of hearing prayer, He should give up to us the government of the world? And that we should never be poor, nor sick, nor die till we are willing? I doubt then few would ever consent, but live longer than Methuselah in earthly prosperity and pleasure. And must our friends never suffer nor die as long as we will pray against it? Where then would there be room for those that are born (unless God made our friends a burden to us; and would not that be as much against our prayers as their death)? Did you think that God must reverse His first sentence, if you will but pray for it? “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return unto the ground” (Gen. 3:17–19). Must there be no thorns or briers, no cold or winter, no night or darkness, if you will but pray that there be none? You will say, it is moderate and reasonable prayers that you make.
But, 2. Who must be judge what requests are reasonable: God, or you? If you must be judge, how can we tell what bounds your desires will have? You will not ask to live in prosperity a thousand years; but when death is coming at a hundred years’ end, you would live yet longer, and so on forever, still longer and longer; and a thousand years would not make you willing, if either faith or affliction do it not.
3. And would you have all others have the same grant, that affliction and death should be kept off if they do but pray for it; and that God should give them what they ask? This would infer a thousand contradictions. A thousand men would ask to be kings of England, where there can be but one. Many would ask for the same lordships, lands, or offices: some of them would take you for enemies, and ask for your death or ruin, and it may be you would ask for theirs. They would have your house, your wife, your trade, and you would have theirs. So many would live long, as that you would want food and room. What a mad wish were this, for all men to have their wills! The world is full of folly and wickedness, and wrath and malice; should all such persons have their wills? What is this conceit but a dream of millions of mischiefs, confusions, and impossibilities? One may see by such desires how the world would be governed, if God gave it up to the will of man. Could there be any unity, where every man would rule, and every man hath an interest cross to others? Can there be any order or goodness, when all men are partly bad, and every bad man would have his will?
But you will say, that it is not bad men, nor bad desires, that you would have God to grant, but only what is just and good. Answer. But who shall be judge of what is just and good? If every man must be judge, unjust and wicked prayers must be granted; and the judgment and wishes of many will be against yours. If it be you that must be judge, though it is likely you would have it so, you cannot for shame sure speak it out. This were for God to resign His place to you, and make you the God and Governor of the world, and only those prayers must be granted which you think just and good. Whence are all the bloody wars in the world, but that one king would have that which another hath, or have his will against another? You may see then that it is worse than madness to desire that any but God should be the highest disposer of the affairs of men, and determine what shall befall us in this world.
4. And do you think that God is unfit to do it? Doth He lack wisdom to know what is best? Doth He lack goodness to choose what is best? Or doth He lack power to do what is best? Who hath it if God lacks it? And how did they come to have it if not by Him? And doth He give more than He hath Himself? If He hath any imperfection He is not God.
5. It is most certain that all things are done well by God, and as they should be; and therefore the cause of your dissatisfaction is in yourselves. And indeed in these several evils you may find it:
(i). By your sin you provoked God in justice to correct you, and deny your prayers.
(ii). And by your present badness you make yourselves unfit for that which you desire, that is good.
(iii). And by your blindness and fleshly mind, you desire that which is not to be desired.
(iv). And after all this, by your idolatrous, usurping self-will you are discontented with God for not giving you your desires. These four things contain your case: and is not every one of them a shameful evil?
II. But suppose that it be not outward things, but more grace, and assurance, and comfort, and deliverance from temptation and sin, that you pray against, and God doth not give it you: is not this cause of questioning the success of prayer, or of doubting at least of my own success, and whether my prayers are not all in vain?
Answer. That I may give you full satisfaction, I will tell you, 1. What kind of means prayer is. 2. What prayer it is that is such a means. 3. What may be expected by means of prayer, and what not. 4. I will prove to you that prayer is not in vain, nor God’s promises to it broken. 5. I will show you why you should be patient under God’s denials.
1. Prayer is not a purchasing means, nor a meriting by giving God anything which may benefit Him; nor doth it work any change on God; but it procureth blessings by fitting the petitioner to receive them. And that in several respects:
(i) Even naturally considered, it is a contradiction for a man to be unwillingly happy, and to attain the happiness which he desireth without so much as asking Him that alone can give it.
(ii). Morally considered, a man is very unfit for and unworthy of the benefit which he thinks not worth his asking; especially if it be the greatest blessing that man is capable of, which he so despiseth.
(iii). And legally considered, the gift cannot be his, that performeth not the condition imposed by the donor, especially when it is but so reasonable a one, as ask and have.
So that you see, though prayer purchase not and change not God, it is a naturally, morally, and economically necessary qualification and condition of our reception, and thus only it hath the nature of a means.
2. There are three sorts of prayer, which are not in vain, and yet much differ as to their success:
(i). There is prayer that is not dissembled, but cometh only from natural principles or common grace; such as Ahab’s humiliation, and the mariners’ prayers in Jonah; and it is like the Ninevites’ and Simon Magus’s desires to escape punishment. This is not in vain. I cannot say that God is under any promise to grant it, but He oft doth grant it, and pity such as cry to Him in their misery.
(ii). There is the prayer of sincere, weak Christians, who are guilty of much weakness of faith, and coldness of desire; these yet through Christ have certain promises of necessary things.
(iii). There are the fervent and faithful prayers of men of eminent faith and holiness; and these oft prevail for extraordinary blessings, which are not promised to the prayers of every true Christian. Elijah, and Elisha, and Peter did miracles by prayer. There are devils, and sins, and sufferings, that go not out but by fasting and prayer. The effectual, fervent prayer of an excellent, righteous man, availeth more than ordinary Christians. If church history may be credited, such were the prayers of Gregory of Neocaesarea, Martin of Tours, and some other holy men that prevailed for wonders or miracles with God. Not all attain their success.
(This study will continue in the next issue, D.V.)