A Classic Study:
Patience in Affliction
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A Classic Study by Richard Baxter (1615–1691)
[In each article, Mr. Baxter gives advice on how to be patient through a specific type of affliction.]—Ed.
Heavy Judgments on the Land
Another trial of our patience is, public, and common, and heavy chastisements of God, upon whole cities, countries, and kingdoms; especially by plagues, famine, fire, and war.
1. In 1665, during the plague, how doleful was the case of London! When a hundred thousand died in a short time; when men were cast by heaps into pits for burial, and when good and bad were swept away, and the living were hard put to it to bury the dead, and husbands and wives, and parents and children, who were burying their friends, expected to be presently dead themselves; and when the houses that were not used to prayer, had praying doors, “God be merciful to us” being written on them to notify their case; and when we were glad to fly into remote and solitary places, and were afraid to meet a man, lest he should infect us.
2. And how doleful was the very next year’s case, where the rich and famous city of London was burnt! Oh what a sight were those dreadful, raging, mounting flames! How many thousand houses were consumed in three days, which pride had adorned with costly furniture, and where luxury had wasted the creatures of God! What treasures that had been long in heaping up, were there consumed! To see the streets crowded with men astonished, that looked on all their wealth consumed, and could do nothing to save it from the flames; and others carrying out their goods, and some laying them in vaults for safety, and some in churches, and altogether there consumed! The booksellers hoped that the famous structure and vaults of St. Paul’s church might have saved their great treasure of excellent books, which yet did but increase the church’s ruin. Yea, the houses of the most just and godly men no more escaped than the rest, even where God was daily called on and worshipped! No, nor the churches, where many holy, excellent men had been famous, fruitful preachers, and where the bodies of thousands of true saints had been buried. About seventy churches burnt down; when it was but about four years before that most or many of their faithful pastors had been cast out and forbidden to preach the gospel; and now those that were set up in their steads are driven out by the flames, as they lately fled away from the plague; and most of them to this day, or very many, lie unbuilt, and God’s worship is performed in such poor wooden tabernacles, as before would have been made a scorn. And how many thousand families had no habitation, and were reduced to poverty, and to this day live in the distress which those flames did bring upon them! And since then, how many dreadful fires have consumed many corporations in this land! Near us, how calamitous was that in Southwark! And but a fortnight past, that more dreadful fire at Wapping, where about a thousand houses, that had above three thousand families, were burnt!
3. And though God hath not yet tried us with any common destructive famine, poverty causeth thousands to die of sicknesses taken by want; even by drinking water, and wanting fire and clothes, and eating unwholesome food. And we have oft had notice of the case of Germany, after the wars, about 1627, when they were fain to watch the graves, lest the dead bodies should be digged up and eaten.
4. But alas! Bloody wars have been more common, and men to men more terrible than mad dogs, or wolves, or tigers. We had sad experience of it in England, Scotland, and Ireland; but other countries have felt much more. They that have not tried it, know not what it is to live under the power of savage soldiers, who domineer over all, and make all slaves to them in their own houses, and keep them under daily fear of death, and take away all they have, and make no more to kill men, than to kill dogs or flies; and if they can but call them enemies, think him the most honourable who killeth most. Oh what dismal sights were our fields, covered with the dead, and garrisons stormed, and all countries filled with men-hunters, who took their neighbours’ estates and lives for their lawful prey. Besides that one party of them grew to that inhumanity and blasphemy, as to make scorn of death and hell, and so to defy God. And others that professed piety, fell into pride and presumption, and contentious sects, for which they usually raged and were confident. Is it not hard to think of such things with patience, much more to see and feel much of them? But God hath not left us without remedy:
I. As to plagues, 1. The great number that die together, make us think otherwise of it than is meet: it is but death, and all must die. Not one more dieth of the plague, than would ere long if there were no plague; and it is usually a shorter pain than other fevers bring; and the pain is small in comparison of the stone in the bladder, and many other diseases.
2. And the terror of men’s danger and dying multitudes usually doth more to awaken men to repentance and serious preparation, than other diseases use to do. Though fear alone make not a sound repentance, fear is a great and necessary preparatory. I have reason to hope, that the great plague in London was a help to the conversion of many hundred souls; not only as it called men to review their lives, and bethink them of their state; but as it made them far more impartial hearers of public preaching and private counsel. There was then in London no scorning at holy seriousness and diligence for salvation, in comparison of what is now. The houses that now roar out drunken songs and scorns at godliness, and revile, threaten, and curse the religious sort, had other language then, when ‘Lord, have mercy on us’ was written on the doors. When the public ministers fled, God stirred up the charity of many silenced ministers, who till then had forborne public preaching, and they ventured among them, and begged money out of the country for the poor; visited them, and preached to them in the deserted pulpits. And the sense of approaching death so awakened both preachers and hearers, that multitudes of young men and others were converted to true repentance.
And this was the chief occasion of the public preaching of the silenced ministers ever since. They had so great experience of God’s blessing, and their young converts were so sensible of the benefit, that both preachers and hearers then resolved to hold on as long as they could.
And was not London now a gainer by this plague? Did it not make men better? Compare it and other places then. At Oxford the parliament of lords, bishops, and commons, who fled thither from the plague, even then in the heat of it were making that swearing act, which ruineth and imprisoneth nonconformists that come within five miles of any city, or burgess corporation, and take not their oath and declaration (yea, and some lawyers say, conformists too, that have but once preached in that which they call a conventicler, and take not the oath). But in London there is no such work; they were not then sending the preachers to jail, or hunting them as rogues or rebels, but gladly hearing them, and begging for their prayers.
II. And as to famine or common poverty, I have spoken of it before. The great distress that the fires and other means have brought on many thousand families, hath but drawn out the charity of others, and exercised the repentance, humility, and mortification of the poor, and so hath prepared both sorts, rich and poor, for a greater reward: it hath done much to try men’s charity, and to show the difference between man and man. I that have had the opportunity to try both sorts, have found by long experience, that whereas malignant, worldly men were wont to say, that these religious persons were but hypocrites; though they read the Scripture and prayed much, they were as covetous and uncharitable as others: it is so much contrary, that they excel others in charity as much as in piety; and I can sooner get ten pounds, or twenty, for the poor, from religious persons, than ten shillings from those that speak against them, that are of greater wealth than they.
III. And though the foresaid flames of London, Southwark, Wapping, Northhampton, etc, were great corrections, let us not make them greater than they are. As to the loss of estate by them, it is but what the richest merchant is liable to by piracy or shipwreck, and not so much as death will shortly bring on all, when all the world must be forsaken. 2. And it was a great mercy of God, that men’s lives were preserved when their wealth was gone; so that they had time to improve the correction. 3. And a great help it was to men of any sense and consideration, to see the vanity of all worldly wealth and treasure, and to prepare for the time when it must be finally left. And the flames of London and its after-ruins, were a notable fore-signification of the great flames and ruins of the final judgment day; and it loudly called on men to examine what the corporation common sin of England is, which laid so many corporations in ashes; and to repent in time. And we need not make it an aggravation that it was done by malice; for it is easier to our consciences, that it be done by others than ourselves; and it helpeth those men to see the evil of those destructive principles which engage men to do such mischief on pretence of the service of the church. 4. Yea, and it is a presignification of the new heaven and earth, when all things shall be restored, to see such a city so soon rebuilt, in far greater splendour than before.
IV. But cruel wars and soldiers are a more sharp calamity; but yet leave us alleviating considerations, and matter enough to exercise and help our patience. For, 1. It doth lively tell us what man is in his corrupted state, and what sin is, and what we had been if grace had forsaken us. 2. It tells us what our state on earth is, a militant life; and calls us to remember our spiritual enemies and warfare, and to live as armed in constant watchfulness. 3. It helps our faith to believe that there are devils, and a hell, when we see the works and instruments of devils upon earth, and see earth made so like to hell. 4. It teacheth us to set light by earthly treasure, which thieves and plunderers can so quickly take away; and to live in constant preparation for death, when men are so ready to take away our lives. 5. And it tells us how much we are beholden to God for our preservation, and for our peace, that all men be not thus continually as incarnate devils to one another. 6. And it calls us to long for the world of perfect love and peace, where there are no such men, and no such doings. How sweet will everlasting peace and joy be when we come newly out of such a world of savage cruelty! 7. And God often by wars, prepareth people for a better peace than they had before; the sweetness of which doth make the miseries of war forgotten. Wicked men are mad with sin, and will not give peace to themselves or others: while they run with rage to murder others, they are killed themselves, and God is known by the judgment which He executeth, while the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands, and dashed in pieces by their own rage; “for the wicked are like the raging sea, which casts out dirt. There is no peace to the wicked, saith the Lord” (Isa. 57:20-21, AV). And while men bite and devour one another, they are devoured one of another; and “they that lead into captivity, shall be led into captivity; and they that kill with the sword, shall be killed by the sword” (Rev. 13:10). So that it should seem no strange thing to a soldier of Christ, that the world which He is passing through is malignant.