December 18, 2017

Sweet Fruit From A Thorny Tree

Charles Spurgeon

At times when our heavenly Father weighs out to us a portion of wormwood and gall in the form of bloody pain, we very naturally ask the reason why. Human nature at times asks the question in petulance and gets no answer. Faith asks with bated breath and gains a gracious reply.

Our Lord has a right to do with us as He wills, and His dispensations are not to be challenged as though He were bound to give an account of His doings at the court of our bewildered reason. Still, if we are fully persuaded that the Lord always acts in love and wisdom, we may inquire into His design, and so far as experience can help, we may see the result of the suffering that He inflicts.

What are the comfortable fruits of righteousness that are produced by watering the soul from the bitter lakes? Where are the jewels of silver and gold with which we are adorned when we leave the Egyptian bondage of pain and weariness? May I, who have of late been a prisoner of the Lord in the sick chamber, witness my confession.

To Reduce Our Self-esteem

First, pain teaches us our nothingness. Health permits us to swell in self-esteem and gather much which is unreal, whereas sickness makes our feebleness conspicuous, and at the same time breaks up many of our shams. We need solid grace when we are thrown into the furnace of affliction; gilt and tinsel shrivel up in the fire.

The patience in which we rather prided ourselves — where is it when sharp pangs succeed each other like poisoned arrows setting the blood on fire? The joyful faith, that could do all things and bear all sufferings, is it always at hand when the time of trial arrives? The peace that stood aloft on the mountain’s summit and serenely smiled on storms beneath, does it hold its ground quite so easily as we expected when the day of battle comes?

How have I felt dwarfed and diminished by pain and depression! The preacher to thousands could creep into a nutshell and feel himself smaller than the worm that bored the tiny round hole by which he entered. I have admired and envied the least of my Lord’s servants and desired their prayers for me, though I felt unworthy of the kind thoughts of the weakest of them.

Most of us are far too great. A soap bubble has a scant measure of material in it for its size, and most of us are after the same order. It is greatly for our good to be reduced to our true dimension.

In stormy weather a low bush or narrow eaves may shelter a sparrow, while a larger bird must bear the beat of the rain and the wind. To be nothing, and to feel less than nothing, is most sweet, for then we cower down under the great wings of God as the little chick beneath the brooding hen, and in helplessness we find our strength and solace.

Nothing is lost, except that which ought to go: the flower falls, but the seed ripens. When nothing remains but the clinging of a weeping child who grasps his Father’s hand, nothing but the last resolve, Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him, no real loss has been sustained. Rather, a great gain has come to the humbled heart.

To Isolate Us from Burdens

Second, heavy sickness and crushing pain isolate us from a thousand minor cares. During such a season we cannot be cumbered with much serving, for others must take our place and be Martha in our stead. It is good if we are then enabled to take Mary’s place and even lie at Jesus’ feet. With me it has been so.

I could do nothing for that beloved congregation and church. I have been forced to leave them with the great Shepherd and with those dear associates whom He has called to share my burden. Those orphans, how could I watch over them? Those students, how could I instruct them? Those colporteurs, how could I provide for them? What if funds run low? They must do so. I could not increase the flow of the brook Cherith, nor even find out a widow of Zarephath whose barrel of meal and cruse of oil shall never waste.

The Lord must do all, or it must remain undone. The weary head could only exaggerate the need, and the sinking spirits could not suggest a supply. All must be left; yes, must be left. The reins drop from the driver’s hands; the ploughman forgets the furrow; the seed-basket hangs no longer on the sower’s arm.

Thus is the soul shut in with God as within a wall of fire, and all her thought must be of Him and of His presence and His help. We are forced to lie as one dead at the feet of the great Lord and look up and hope.

This cutting loose from earthly shores, this rehearsal of what must soon be done once for all in the hour of departure, is a salutary exercise, tending to cut away the hampering encumbrances of this mortal life, and make us free for the heavenly race. It is well to have those windows that look toward earth and its cares closed, that we may be driven to that fairer prospect that lies on the other side of Jordan. This is not the natural effect of pain, but when the Spirit of God works by it, the help that way is wonderful.

To Increase Our Fervor

Third, sickness has caused many workers to become more intense when they have again been favored to return to their place. We lie and bemoan our shortcomings, discovering faults which in healthier hours had escaped notice, resolving in God’s strength, to throw our energies more fully into the weightiest matters and spend less time on secondary things. How much lasting good shall come of this!

The time, apparently wasted, may turn out for a more efficient use of life if the worker shall be more earnest, more careful, more prayerful, more dependent upon God and more passionately set upon doing the Lord’s business thoroughly, for years to come.

Oh, that we could all thus utilize our seasons of sickness! Then should we come forth like the sun from the chambers of the east, all the brighter for the night’s chill darkness, while about us would be the dew of the Spirit and the freshness of a new dawning. Sickness would be like a going into the desert to rest awhile. Oh, that it might be so with me! My Lord, grant that it may be so, for the sake of the many people to whom these hands must yet break the bread of life.

They say that pearls are bred in the oyster by disease: May our graces be such pearls! Falling leaves enrich the soil about the forest tree: May God grant that our weeping autumns would yield us fairer springs and larger growths. May the divine Spirit cause it so to be!

To Increase Our Tenderness

Fourth, pain, if sanctified, creates tenderness toward others. Alone it may harden and shut the sufferer up within himself, a student of his own nerves and ailments and a hater of all who would rival him in suffering. Mixed with grace, our aches and pains are a medicine that causes the milk of human kindness to fill the heart.

The sick feel for the sick when their afflictions have worked in a healthy manner. One could have wished to give the gruff, unsympathetic boor a twist or two of rheumatism, were it not that our experience would make us spare even him out of pity. It is surely right to assume that those who first founded hospitals had been sick themselves, for grief has often been the mother of mercy, and the pangs of sickness the birth-throes of compassion.

If our hearts learn sympathy, they have been in a good school, the Master may have used the rod most heavily. To those who are teachers of others, this is of prime importance, for none can bear with the infirmities of others if they have not been made compassionate. The keys of people’s hearts hang up in the narrow chamber of suffering, and he who has not been there can scarcely know the art of opening the recesses of the soul.

The believing sufferer instinctively turns to the Lord Jesus because He has been tempted in all points like as we are. In a lesser degree the sufferer naturally looks most hopefully to those of his brethren who have most experience with infirmity and are most familiar with anguish. Happy is the man who has been afflicted, if the Spirit shall thereby make him a son of compassion to the mourners in Zion.

To Inspire Our Gratitude

Fifth, as I find my scarcely-recovered mind cannot continue this mediation much longer, I will only add that pain has a tendency to make us grateful when health returns. We value the powers of locomotion after tossing long upon a bed from which we cannot rise. The open air is especially sweet after the confinement of the chamber. Food is relished when the appetite returns. In every aspect, the time of recovery is one of marked enjoyment.

As birds sing most after their winter’s silence, when the warm spring has newly returned, so should we give greatest praise when our gloomy hours are changed by restoration. Blessed be the Lord Who healeth all our diseases.

Jehovah Rophi is a name much treasured by those who know the Lord Who heals them. Gratitude is a choice spice for Heaven’s altar. It burns well in the censer and sends up a fragrant cloud acceptable to the great High Priest.

Perhaps God would have lost much praise if His servant had not suffered much. Thus sickness yields a large tribute to the King’s revenue, and as this is the case, we may cheerfully endure it. Bow down frail body and faint heart, if in so bowing you are able to yield what you had never produced standing erect in full vigor! Bruise, Lord, the spice, that otherwise would keep its sweetness slumbering and useless!

Heaven’s poetry is in the agonizing cry, Nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt; and it is a grand result of trial if we learn to imitate our Lord with this hearty utterance, and thus to have fellowship with His sufferings. Here a great ocean opens up before us; pain may aid us in communion with our much suffering Lord. Anything is a boon by which we are made more fully to be partakers with Him.

Alas, we cannot pursue the theme. As when the mariner in northern seas forces his way through an ice-blocked strait and sees opening up before him a boundless sea, even so do we perceive great truths in our subject, but our vessel has been so tempest-tossed of late that we cannot enter on the taxing voyage but must cast anchor under the shelter of Cape Fellowship and leave our readers to push on into the blessed depths. May the good Spirit fill their sails and bear them into the expanse.

(Originally published in FrontLine • January/February 1994. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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