by Richard Sibbes
We are under a providence that is above our own; which should be a ground unto us, of exercising those graces that tend to settle the soul, in all events. As,
1. Hence to lay our hand upon our mouths, and command the soul an holy silence, not daring to yield to the least rising of our hearts against God. 'I was dumb, and opened not my mouth, because thou didst it,' Ps. 39:9, saith David. Thus Aaron, when he had lost his two sons, both at once, and that by fire, Lev. 10:1, 2, and by fire from heaven, which carried an evidence of God's great displeasure with it, yet held his peace. In this silence and hope is our strength. Flesh and blood is prone to expostulate with God, and to question his dealing, as we see in Gideon, Jeremiah, Asaph, Habakkuk, and others, 'If the Lord be with us, why then is all this befallen us?' Jud. 6:13; but, after some struggling between the flesh and the spirit, the conclusion will be, yet howsoever matters go, 'God is good to Israel,' Ps. 73:1. Where a fearful spirit, and a melancholy temper, a weak judgment, and a scrupulous and raw conscience meet in one, there Satan and his, together with men's own hearts, which, like sophisters, are continually cavilling against themselves, breed much disquiet, and makes the life uncomfortable. Such, therefore, should have a special care, as to grow in knowledge, so to stick close to sure and certain grounds, and bring their consciences to the rule. Darkness causeth fears. The more light, the more confidence. When we yield up ourselves to God, we should resolve upon quietness, and if the heart stirs, presently use this check of David, 'Why art thou disquieted?'
God's ways seem oft to us full of contradictions, because his course is to bring things to pass by contrary means. There is a mystery not only in God's decree concerning man's eternal estate, but likewise in his providence, as why he should deal unequally with men otherwise equal. His judgments are a great depth, which we cannot fathom, but they will swallow up our thoughts and understandings. God oft wraps himself in a cloud, and will not be seen till afterward. Where we cannot trace him, we ought with St Paul to admire and adore him. When we are in heaven, it will be one part of our happiness to see the harmony of those things that seem now confused unto us. All God's dealings will appear beautiful in their due seasons, though we for the present see not the contiguity and linking together of one with another.
2. Hence likewise proceeds a holy resigning of ourselves to God, 'who doth all things according to the counsel of his own will,' Dan. 11:16; Eph. 1:11. Voluntas Dei, necessitas rei. His will is a wise will; it is guided by counsel, a sovereign prevailing will. The only way to have our will is to bring it to God's will. If we could delight in him, we should have our heart's desire. Thus David yields up himself to God: 'Here I am; let the Lord deal with me as seemeth good unto him, 2 Sam. 15:26. And thus Eli, when God foretold by Samuel the ruin of his house, quiets himself: 'It is the Lord; let him do what seemeth him good,' 1 Sam. 3:18. Thus our blessed Saviour stays himself: 'Not my will, but thy will be done.' And thus the people of God, when Paul was resolved to go to Jerusalem, submitted, saying, 'The will of the Lord be done,' Acts 21:14,—a speech fit to proceed out of the heart and mouth of a Christian. Vox vere Christianorum.
We may desire and long after a change of our condition, when we look upon the grievance itself, but yet remember still that it be with reservation, when we look upon the will of God, as, 'How long, Lord, holy and true,' &c. Rev. 6:10. Out of inferior reasons we may with our Saviour desire a removal of the cup; but when we look to the supreme reason of reasons, the will of God, here we must stoop and kiss the rod. 'Thus humbling ourselves under his mighty hand,' 1 Peter 5:6, which by murmuring and fretting we may make more heavy, but not take off, still adding new guilt and pulling on new judgments.
3. The way patiently to suffer God's will, is to inure ourselves first to do it. Passive obedience springs from active. He that endures anything will endure it quietly, when he knows it is the will of God, and considers that whatever befalls him comes from his good pleasure. Those that have not inured themselves to the yoke of obedience, will never endure the yoke of suffering; they fume and rage 'as a wild boar in a net,' Isa. 51:20, as the prophet speaks. It is worth the considering, to see two men of equal parts under the same cross, how quietly and calmly the one that establisheth his soul on Christ will bear his afflictions, whereas the other rageth as a fool, and is more beaten.
Nothing should displease us that pleaseth God: neither should anything be pleasing to us that displeaseth him. This conformity is the ground of comfort. Our own will takes away God, as much as in it lies. Propria voluntas Deum quantum in ipsa eximit. 'If we acknowledge God in all our ways, he will direct our paths, and lead us the way that we should go,' Prov. 3:6. The quarrel betwixt God and us is taken up, when his will and our will are one; when we have sacrificed ourselves and our wills unto God; when, as he is highest in himself, so his will hath the highest place in our hearts. We find by experience that, when our wills are so subdued, that we delight to do what God would have us do, and to be what God would have us be, that then sweet peace presently riseth to the soul.
When we can say, Lord, if thou wilt have me poor and disgraced, I am content to be so; if thou wilt have me serve thee in this condition I am in, I will gladly do so. It is enough to me that thou wouldst have it so. I desire to yield readily, humbly, and cheerfully to thy disposing providence. Thus a godly man says amen to God's amen, and puts his fiat and placet to God's. As the sea turns all rivers into its own relish, so he turns all to his own spirit, and makes whatsoever befalls him an exercise of some virtue. A heathen could say that calamities did rule over men, but a wise man hath a spirit overruling all calamities; much more a Christian. For a man to be in this estate, is to enjoy heaven in the world under heaven. God's kingdom comes where his will is thus done and suffered.
None feel more sweet experience of God's providence than those that are most resolute in their obedience. After we have given glory to God in relying upon his wisdom, power, and truth, we shall find him employing these for our direction, assistance, and bringing about of things to our desired issue, yea, above whatever we looked for, or thought of.
In all cases that fall out, or that we can put to ourselves, as in case of extremity, opposition, strange accidents, desertion, and damps of spirit, &c., here we may take sanctuary, that we are in covenant with him who sits at the stern and rules all, and hath committed the government of all things to his Son, our brother, our Joseph, the second person in heaven. We may be sure that no hurt shall befall us that he can hinder; and what cannot he hinder 'that hath the keys of hell and of death?' Rev. 1:18, unto whom we are so near that he carries 'our names in his breast, and on his shoulders,' Heb. 4:15, as the high priest did those of the twelve tribes. Though his church seems a widow neglected, ye he will make the world know that she hath a husband will right her in good time.
Quest. But it may be demanded, What course is to be taken for guidance of our lives in particular actions, wherein doubts may arise what is most agreeable to the will of God?
Ans. 1. We must not put all carelessly upon a providence, but first consider what is our part; and, so far as God prevents us with light, and affords us helps and means, we must not be failing in our duty. We should neither outrun nor be wanting to providence. But in perplexed cases, where the reasons on both sides seem to be equally balanced, see whether part make more for the main end, the glory of God, the service of others, and advancement of our own spiritual good. Summa ratio quæ pro religione facit. Some things are so clear and even, that there is not a best between them, but one may be done as well as the other, as when two ways equally tend to one and the same place.
2. We are not our own, and therefore must not set up ourselves. We must not consult with flesh and blood either in ourselves or others, for self-love will deprave all our actions, by setting before us corrupt ends. It considers not what is best, but what is safest. By-respects sway the balance the wrong way.
3. When things are clear, and God's will is manifest, further deliberation is dangerous, and for the most part argues a false heart; as we see in Balaam, who, though he knew God's mind, yet would be still consulting, till God in judgment gave him up to what his covetous heart led him unto, 2 Pet. 2:15. A man is not fit to deliberate till his heart be purged of false aims; for else God will give him to the darkness of his own spirit, and he will be always warping, unfit for any bias. Where the aims are good, there God delighteth to reveal his good pleasure. Such a soul is level and suitable to any good counsel that shall be given, and prepared to entertain it. In what measure any lust is favoured, in that measure the soul is darkened. Even wise Solomon, whilst he gave way to his lust, had like to have lost his wisdom.
We must look to our place wherein God hath set us. If we be in subjection to others, their authority in doubtful things ought to sway with us. It is certain we ought to obey; and if the thing wherein we are to obey be uncertain unto us, we ought to leave that which is uncertain and stick to that which is certain; in this case we must obey those that are gods under God. Neither is it the calling of those that are subjects, to inquire over curiously into the mysteries of government; for that, both in peace and war, breeds much disturbance, and would trouble all designs (g).*
The laws under which we live are particular determinations of the law of God [in some duties of the second table. For example, the law of God says, 'Exact no more than what is thy due,' Luke 3:13. But what in particular is thy due, and what another man's, the laws of men determine],* and therefore ought to be a rule unto us so far as they reach; though it be too narrow a rule to be good only so far as man's law guides unto.† Yet law being the joint reason and consent of many men for public good, hath a use for guidance of all actions that fall under the same. Where it dashes not against God's law, what is agreeable to law is agreeable to conscience.
The law of God in the due enlargement of it, to the least beginning and occasions, is exceeding broad, and allows of whatsoever stands with the light of reason or the bonds of humanity, civility, &c., and whatsoever is against these is so far against God's law. So that higher rules be looked to in the first place, there is nothing lovely or praiseworthy among men but ought to be seriously thought on.
Nature of itself is wild and untamed, and impatient of the yoke; but as beasts that cannot endure the yoke at first, after they are inured awhile unto it bear it willingly, and carry their work more easily by it, so the yoke of obedience makes the life regular and quiet. The meeting of authority and obedience together, maintains the peace and order of the world.
So of that question.‡
5. Though blind enfolded§ obedience, such as our adversaries would have, be such as will never stand with sound peace of conscience, which always looks to have light to direct it; for else a blind conscience would breed blind fears; yet in such doubtful cases wherein we cannot wind out ourselves, we ought to light our candles at others whom we have cause to think, by their place and parts, should see further than we. In matters of outward estate, we will have men skilful of our counsel; and Christians would find more sound peace, if they would advise with their godly and learned pastors and friends. Where there is not a direct word, there is place for the counsel of a prudent man, sententia boni viri. And it is a happiness for them whose business is much, and parts not large, to have the benefit of those that can give aim, and see further than themselves. The meanest Christian understands his own way, and knows how to do things with better advantage to his soul than a graceless though learned man; yet is still glad of further discovery. In counsel there is peace, the thoughts being thus established, Prov. 20:18.
When we have advised and served God's providence in the use of means, then if it fall out otherwise than we look for, we may confidently conclude that God would not have it so, otherwise to our grief we may say it was the fruit of our own rashness.
Where we have cause to think that we have used better means in the search of grounds, and are more free from partial affections than others, there we may use our own advice more safely. Otherwise what we do by consent from others, is more secure and less offensive, as being more countenanced.
In advice with others, it is not sufficient to be generally wise, but experienced and knowing in that we ask, which is an honour to God's gifts where we find them in any kind. When we set about things in passion, we work not as men or Christians, but in a bestial manner. The more passion, the less discretion; because passion hinders the sight of what is to be done. It clouds the soul, and puts it on to action without advisement. Where passions are subdued, and the soul purged and cleared, there is nothing to hinder the impression of God's Spirit; the soul is fitted as a clean glass to receive light from above. And that is the reason why mortified men are fittest to advise with in the particular cases incident to a Christian life.
After all advice, extract what is fittest, and what our spirits do most bend unto; for in things that concern ourselves God affords a light to discern, out of what is spoken, what best suiteth us. And every man is to follow most what his own conscience, after information, dictates unto him; because conscience is God's deputy in us, and under God most to be regarded, and Whosoever sins against it, in his own construction sins against God. God vouchsafeth every Christian in some degree the grace of spiritual prudence, Whereby they are enabled to discern what is fittest to be done in things that fall within their compass.
It is good to observe the particular becks* of providence, how things join and meet together. Fit occasions and suiting of things are intimations of God's will. Providence hath a language which is well understood by those that have a familiar acquaintance with God's dealing; they see a train of providence leading one way more than to another.
Take especial heed of not grieving the Spirit when he offers to be our guide, by studying evasions, and wishing the case were otherwise. This is to be lawgivers to ourselves, thinking that we are wiser than God. The use of discretion is not to direct us about the end, whether we should do well or ill (for a single heart always aims at good), but when we resolve upon doing well, and yet doubt of the manner how to perform it. Discretion looks not so much to what is lawful, for that is taken for granted, but what is most expedient. A discreet man looks not to what is best, so much as what is fittest in such and such respects, by eyeing circumstances, which, if they sort not, do vary the nature of the thing itself.
And because it is not in man to know his own ways, we should look up unto Christ, the great Counsellor of his church, to vouchsafe the spirit of Counsel and direction to us; that 'make our way plain before us,' by suggesting unto us, 'this is the way, walk in it,' Isa. 30:21. We owe God this respect, to depend upon him for direction in the particular passages of our lives, in regard that he is our Sovereign, and his will is the rule, and we are to be accountable to him as our judge. It is God only that can see through businesses, and all helps and lets that stand about.
After we have rolled ourselves upon God, we should immediately take that course he inclines our hearts unto, without further distracting fear. Otherwise it is a sign we 'commit not our way to him,' 1 Pet. 4:19, when we do not quietly trust him, but remain still as thoughtful as if we did not trust him. After prayer and trust follows 'the peace of God,' Phil. 2:4, and a heart void of further dividing care. We should therefore presently question our hearts, for questioning his care, and not regard what fear will be ready to suggest, for that is apt to raise conclusions against ourselves, out of self-conceited grounds, whereby we usurp upon God and wrong ourselves.
It was a good resolution of the three young men in Daniel, 'We are not careful to answer thee, O king,' Dan. 3:16. We know our duty, let God do with us as he pleaseth. If Abraham had hearkened to the voice of nature, he would never have resolved to sacrifice Isaac, but because he east himself upon God's providing, God in the mount provided a ram instead of his son.
From The Soul's Conflict WIth Itself, by RIchard Sibbes