A Classic Study:
Patience in Affliction
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A Classic Study by Richard Baxter (1615–1691)
[Here, we continue a reprint of 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 Does Not Bless
the Labors of Our Callings - I
Another case which greatly needeth patience is when God doth not bless and prosper our endeavors: when ministers study, and preach, and pray, and yet see but small fruit of their labors; few converted, reformed, or strengthened, but all their labor seemeth lost; when parents take pains with their children, and they remain still obstinate and wicked; when magistrates’ endeavors are frustrated by a contentious, rebellious people; when men labor in their lawful callings, and all goeth backward, and God seemeth not to bless their labors; in sickness our physic doth not prosper; when we are falsely accused, our just defense is not believed; when we endeavor the public good, we prosper not. This maketh men fear that God forsaketh them.
These several causes should be severally considered. And the case of unprosperous ministers, I confess, is very bad. When a man from his youth is devoted to that holy work, and by many years’ hard study prepared for it, and studieth for it all his life, and spends time and strength in constant labor, and after all can see small fruit; this lieth heavy, and tempteth them to doubt whether they were called of God, and whether they are not unfit for the work, or unfaithful in it. Through God’s great mercy it is not my own trial: I know not that ever I labored anywhere in vain; but I have lived near far better men, who have lived to above fourscore years of age, and have said, that they know not of two souls converted by them in the parishes where they lived: some speed better upon such as came from other parishes, and some on very few at all. And alas! To see no better fruit of such employment, than barely to have a benefice to live on, and some reverence from the people, or a few good words, is a poor encouragement.
But, 1. The first thing to be done in this sad case is to search whether the fault be not in ourselves. Whether we choose such subjects to preach on as are most suitable to the hearers’ state, and fittest to convince and win them: whether we study plainness and familiar words, and a close, convincing way of speech; whether by familiar conversation with them we get their love, and also find out their ignorance, error, and sin, their objections and doubts, that we may know what they need; and whether we deal with them privately and personally as well as publicly, for their instruction; whether our lives preach to them as well as our tongues, and show them that we believe what we speak; and whether we do all in the expression of unfeigned love, and do them all the good we can for their bodies, and quarrel not with them for worldly things, but lose our right rather than scandalize them, and harden them against the truth: If any of this be amiss, it must be amended; if not, then consider:
2. That to labor is our part, and to prosper is God’s. Paul and Apollos can but plant and water, but it is God that must give the increase. Christ Himself both preached and wrought miracles in some places, when yet few believed on Him; yea, though the people cried Him up, it was no great number that were thoroughly converted by all His preaching and works, that being reserved for the coming down of the Holy Ghost, after His death and resurrection. And in some places few were converted by the apostles. Even among the learned philosophers at Athens, how little was their success!
3. God knoweth His chosen, and all shall come to Christ that the Father hath given Him, and none of them shall be lost: and God loveth souls and holiness better than we do. All souls are His; and Christ knoweth the price of them. And we know that all that God doth is good, and we shall see the reason of it at last.
The prophets and apostles had more unthankful requitals, than the mere loss of their labour with the greater part. They were also persecuted, scorned, and killed, by them whose salvation they desired. “Which of the prophets have not your fathers killed and persecuted,” saith Christ (Matt. 23). See also Isa. 53:1, etc.; John 12:37–38; Acts 17; 19:9; 28:24. Yea, to some the word is the savor of death unto death, and Christ is a stone of stumbling, and ministers are the scorn of the world, and the off-scouring of all things; and, alas!, they must be witnesses against their hearers to their condemnation, and must “shake off the dust of their feet against them” (Matt. 10:14).
4. If our success were according to our own desires, it would be beyond what God intendeth for men in the world: we would have every man in the world converted and saved. It is our duty to desire and endeavor it as far as we are able, for it is not God’s decrees, but His commands, which are our rule. “Many widows” (saith Christ) “were in the days of Elisha, but it was not to many that he was sent” (see Luke 4:25ff). We may have comfort in our just desires and endeavors.
5. God will accept and reward us, according to our faithful work, and not according to our success. A bad man may be used to save other men’s souls, when his own is lost. “Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God shall be my strength” (Isa. 49:5). It is spoken both of the prophets and of Christ. It was to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” that Christ saith He was sent; and He is called a minister of the circumcision. And yet Israel was not gathered, when He would have gathered them as a hen doth her chickens (see Matt. 23). But they were to be utterly ruined for rejecting Him. “Now thanks be to God, who causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of His knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savor of Christ in them that are saved, and in them that perish. To the one the savor of death to death, and to the other the savor of life unto life: and who is sufficient for these things?” (II Cor. 2:14–15). Faithful labor is never wholly lost.
6. And one soul is so precious, as is worth more than all the labor of our lives. He is a hyprocrite himself, and no faithful minister of Christ, that had not rather save one soul, though he live in poverty, than have the richest bishopric, and save none. His money shall perish with him, who loveth money better than the soul of the poorest beggar.
7. There may perhaps be many more souls converted than the preacher ever heareth of. The work hath often obscure beginnings. You know not what workings may be in the secret hearts of sinners: and some are bashful, and some have not opportunity to show themselves. I have visited some aged women before death, who were not noted for any zealous profession of religion, but what they showed in the church assemblies, and I found them of solid understanding and experience; and perceived by their talk that they had been constant in all secret duties, and conscionable in all their course. And when I enquired further, I found that they had husbands that restrained them from the society of godly people, and from all open manifestation of what was in their, save what their church worship and upright living showed. And this is the case of some children and servants, who are under the restraint of bad parents and masters. We must not then conclude, that all the seed is lost, which seemeth buried, and appeareth not to us.
8. It is not lost labor which doth but restrain men from being worse. The suppression of vice, and the keeping up a profession of the truth, is worth all our labor; as also the keeping out heresies and errors; and it is worth our labor to feed Christ’s sheep, and help to confirm such as are true Christians already, and to increase the grace they have; and to comfort the sad, and resolve the doubting, and edify the body of Christ. Surely, the work which is to be done in guiding and edifying the converted, requireth as great skill at least, as that which is required to the converting of infidels and wicked men (though the change made on the learners be not so great, in regard of the terminus a quo; for the higher includeth the lower); and more learning is necessary to teach the higher form, than to teach the alphabet. Some are for planting, and some for watering; some went forth to make disciples of the nations, and baptize them, and some were to guide them when baptized, and teach them to observe all Christ’s commands.
9. If your study and doctrine edify and save yourselves, it is an unspeakable mercy; you have had the comfort of sweet and holy studies, and the pleasant work of opening and pleading saving truth: and if all this study and preaching have but prevailed with yourselves, and conquered your own sins, and subdued your souls to the obedience of Christ, how happy are you! Yet all this is not said to make you indifferent as to your success: I further, therefore, advise you, (1.) Long for the winning and edifying of souls; for I have observed, that few prosper this way, but those that earnestly desire it.
(2.) Pray hard for them to God, and see that you neglect not your own duty. Study for eminent abilities; preach plainly, earnestly, reverently; exhort them personally; do them good charitably; hurt none; avoid scandal; live as you teach; shun all unnecessary crossness and singularity; “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace with all true believers” (Eph. 4:3); and patiently leave the issue to God.
(3.) If you are distasted through prejudice, and have long laboured without any notable success, advise with your brethren whether you should not remove, and another be not fitter for that people, and you for another, and do accordingly.
(This study will continue in the next issue, D.V.)