THE LIGHTS AND SHADOWS OF SPIRITUAL LIFE by Octavius Winslow
“Sickness, The Succor and Soothing of Spiritual Life”
“Beloved, I wish above all things that you may prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers.” -3 John 2.
There is, perhaps, no picture of spiritual life in which its lights and shadows more strangely meet, or more harmoniously blend, than the one selected for the present chapter of our work. Certainly, there is no affliction in which sympathy, succor, and soothing, are more imperiously demanded; or, in which the grace and fruit of spiritual life are more conspicuous and rich, than the season and suffering of bodily sickness. Taking a comprehensive view of the subject, the circle to which this chapter will apply is illimitable.
Bodily disease, in some one or more of its complicated and countless forms, is a part of the sad inheritance bequeathed by our fallen Parent, of which every individual of the human race is heir. “All the world,” says England’s Poet, “is a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” in the great drama of life, the scenes and issues of which are indescribably solemn and momentous! With equal truth, and by a figure yet more expressive, the world may be described as a vast Hospital, of which all are patients. But the present object limits our illustration of this subject to the “household of faith” sickness being one of the most common trials, as one of the most certain tests and helps, of spiritual life.
It was to such an one the beloved Gaius- the loving Apostle addressed the present epistle. How instructive and touching his words! “Beloved, I wish above all things that you may prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers.” The connection of bodily disease with soul health will at once suggest itself to the thoughtful reader. In the history of the believer’s spiritual life, physical disease and spiritual health would seem almost convertible terms- as closely united and as reciprocally dependent the one upon the other as the body and soul itself. Sickness, viewed in the abstract- and apart from its hallowed results- is not a thing to be desired. And Bunyan- that wise and holy man, who at one period of his life derived so great a blessing from a season of illness- was betrayed into the unwise act of asking God for such another discipline! Thus a wise man may not always be wise. The Apostle would seem to have fallen into a similar mistake when three times be prayed for the removal of a dispensation of trial, the existence and prolongation of which, God saw the absolute necessity.
Oh, these examples should teach us to desire nothing- to seek nothing- to ask for nothing, less or more, than that God, in His infinite wisdom and goodness, knows we need, and sees fit to send. It is not proper or wise to pray for any evil that good might spring from it. Our duty, as our wisdom, simply is, to be still, committing all our concerns to the government of God, placing all our affairs in our Father’s hands, who is too wise to err in counsel, and too good to be unkind in discipline. As our present object is to show how promotive bodily disease and suffering are of spiritual life, and to suggest such succourings and soothing as this most painful discipline demands, let us at once approach the subject.
We must remark, in the outset, that, in the sovereignty of God, sickness has often proved a means of conversion. Speaking figuratively, the sick-bed has become a converting-bed. Withdrawn by disease from the world’s busy hum- its absorbing interests, its busy engagements, its ambitious hopes- to the quiet seclusion, the restless couch, the sleepless pillow, of a sick-room, the Holy Spirit approaches, and, amid the scene of pain and languor, of gloom and depression, commences that marvellous work of spiritual quickening which is to end in the soul’s perfect and eternal health. And here the first pulse of spiritual life beats- and the first conviction of sin is felt- and the first tear of penitence is shed- and the first prayer for pardon is breathed- and the first look of faith is exercised- and the first thrill of love is inspired; and JESUS, that great Physician, has- as was His way when upon earth- made the body’s physical disease the occasion and the channel of the soul’s spiritual health.
Thus God, in the wonder-working of His sovereign grace, has brought that poor sinner to review penitentially his past life- to reflect thoughtfully upon his present condition- and to take a close, solemn, and realizing view of eternity! and in the agony of his soul to fly to Jesus- to look- believe and be saved; and from that sick-bed he has arisen a new creature in Christ Jesus- thanking God for his sickness through all time and through all eternity.
And who can fully describe the hallowed results of sickness in the experience of the advanced Christian? The quickening of his spiritual life- the deepening of the work of grace- the stirring up of the spirit of prayer- the recall of the truant heart to God- the self-acquaintance and sin-loathing- and the increased sense of Christ’s preciousness are sacred and costly results of the sanctified discipline of sickness.
That illness has, perhaps, rescued from an existing evil, or has averted a threatening one. It required this ‘decoy of health’ to raise you from some profound depth- or to rescue you from some yawning precipice- or to place you in some yet loftier position of power and usefulness in the Church and in the world. And so the sickness of the body has, by its sanctified influence, quickened and advanced the spiritual life of the soul- and thus has, perhaps, proved the greatest boon, the most salutary and precious visitation of your life!
We have observed that, there are few experiences of the Christian in which the lights and shadows of his spiritual life meet and blend with such remarkable and perfect harmony as in the hour of sickness. Here are bodily disease-physical languor-torturing pain-and extreme nervousness; and, for a while, all objects, temporal and spiritual, and all beings, the closest and the fondest, are viewed through a jaundiced and distorted medium- the mind is shaded, the heart unstrung- and shadows, many and dark, dance upon the walls of that lone chamber, and fall thick and fast around that pillow of suffering. Hard thoughts of God are cherished- wrong interpretations of His providence are indulged- it is the “fourth watch of the night, and Jesus has not come!” and Satan, taking advantage of bodily suffering, mental despondency, and the temporary absence of Jesus, is hurling a whole quiver of fiery darts at his poor, enfeebled, and dejected victim!
These are the shadings of the scene. But, are there no lights in the picture? no bright touches of the Artist’s Divine pencil? Oh yes! many and brilliant! and all the more brilliant from the dark shadows which have so thickly pencilled it, the effect of which has been to bring into bolder relief the great and essential features of the scene. Let us trace them.
The first bright light illumining the picture is the submission of the will. The conflict has been long and painful, the struggle terrible and severe- but, grace has conquered- God’s will has triumphed! “Not my will, O my Father, but Yours be done,” is now the music of the soul- the sacred anthem pealing from that sick pillow. Oh what a beauteous light is this- how pure, how brilliant! Angels, methinks, look down from heaven’s glory to gaze upon the light of grace thus bathing that scene of suffering and languor. “The cup which my Father has given me, shall I not drink it?”
When Dr. Payson was asked by a friend, in a season of severe illness, if he could see any particular reason for the present dispensation, he replied- “No; but I am as well satisfied as if I could see ten thousand. God’s will is the very perfection of all reason.” Sublime reply! God’s will- be it His permitting or His approving will- is the perfection of infinite wisdom, righteousness, and love; and therefore must do right, and cannot do wrong! Beloved, in your present mystery of suffering and season of languor, be your experience that of the pious Payson; yet higher and holier still- that of our Lord and Savior- “May Your Will Be Done!”
Oh, what words can describe, or imagery depict, the perfect peace, the sweet repose which, like the gentle dawn of light, or the soft zephyr of evening, will steal calmly over your soul the moment the conflict of the will ceases, and, in suffering and weakness, you are brought to “Lie passive in His hands, And know no will but His!”
The discipline of patience is another light blending with the shadows of sickness. No unimportant or untimely grace of the Spirit is this; the development and culture of which finds no school more appropriate, or discipline more effectual, than that of ‘pining sickness.’ The continuous endurance of unmitigated pain- the prolonged and deathly weakness- the failure of skill and remedies to promote a cure- the morbid irritability and fretting almost inseparable from the prolongation of suffering- and the remembrance of duties neglected, of affairs deranged, of expenses incurred- all conspire to render the discipline of patience the most needed and precious; and when attained, to shed one of the most luminous graces of the Spirit upon the shaded picture of bodily disease.
Patience is one of those flowers of the wilderness, springing up from the seed of heaven, which never grows so truly or blooms so lovely, as amid the sharp, cutting bursts of affliction. “The trying of your faith works patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that you may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” “In your patience possess you your souls.” “Lord, subdue my impatience and rebellion, and grant that, in this hour of pain and uneasiness, I may wait Your time and mode of recovery; and that, the true posture and acknowledgment of my soul may be that of Your servant David- ‘Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.”‘
The strengthening and increase of faith constitutes one of the brightest lights in the picture of spiritual life- and nowhere does that light glow with a richer luster than on a sick-bed. It requires no small faith, beloved, fully to believe that you are a sick one whom Jesus loves. “Lord, he whom You love is sick,” is a precious declaration, as applicable to you as it was to Lazarus. Love blew upon the health that fades; love permitted the pain that afflicts; love appointed the disease that wastes; love, and nothing but love, has done it all. “Whom I love, I rebuke and chasten. Whom the Lord loves he chastens, and scourges every son whom he receives.” Thus, when fever is consuming, and pain is torturing, and the nerves are quivering, and the mind is desponding, and the harpsichord of the soul hangs mournfully and silently upon the willow, it demands no little exercise of faith in the unchanging love, infinite wisdom, and righteous government of God to feel that it is all well!
But, this light shall not be lacking amid the deep shadows now gloomily draping the spiritual life of your soul. Faith shall triumph; for there is One in heaven “now to appear in the presence of God for us;” and, in virtue of Christ’s present intercession, your faith, tried though as by fire, shall not fail, but shall rise superior to the slow process of decay, and grow brighter and stronger as the shadows fall, and strength fails- heaven thus opening and letting down such streams of glory around your sick and languid pillow as that faith, which is “the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen,” shall exclaim- “My heart and my flesh fails: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.” Thus, “though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.
“But a brighter light playing amid these darkling shadows is- the sensible, manifested presence of Jesus in the sick chamber of the disciple whom He loves. Yes, He is there! He is there as the Refiner- watching and tempering with unwearied eye and infinite skill the furnace fire of the sufferer. He is there as the Shepherd- guarding this tempted one of His flock, that no power pluck it from His hands. He is there to succor with His grace, to soothe with His love, to illumine with His presence, to cheer with His voice, and to encircle with His everlasting arms, the feeble, suffering, fainting child of His heart. “Lo! I am with you aways.”
The glory brought to God by a long and lingering illness, eternity alone can fully reveal- and this is the brightest light of all, gilding and softening the shadows that drape the sick and dying-bed of a believer in Jesus. The sick-bed, the languid couch, of a saint of God is the most powerful and impressive pulpit in the land! No sacred rostrum of the most eloquent preacher gives utterance to such a sermon as issues from thence! The assembly waiting upon its instructions is large! Children and families, friends and neighbors, the Church below and the Church above, intent upon the scene, are waiting and watching, as with bated breath, the practical testimony to the reality and power of Christianity as a divinely sustaining, soul elevating, death-conquering religion- to the comfort of the divine promises- to the faithfulness of God- and to the sustaining grace and human sympathy of Christ- borne from this touching and solemn stand-point of life. The meekness and patience, the submission to the divine will, and the animating hope of glory, witnessed in that scene of debility, restlessness, and pain, speak with an argument more convincing than an Apostle’s reasoning, and with an eloquence and pathos more winning than an angel’s voice.
God is glorified in the fires, and the Name of the Lord Jesus is magnified. Sick and suffering saint of God! your couch stands upon the borders of that blessed land, the “inhabitants of which shall no more say, I am sick.” Shrink not from the near approach of the “last enemy!” his form is lovely- his voice is soothing- his dart is stingless- and his mission a mission of love- sent to open your cage and set your spirit free- free as the dove soaring to its dove-cote in heaven! “Oh that I had wings like a dove! then would I fly away, and be at rest.”
“When languor and disease invade
This trembling house of clay,
It is sweet to look beyond our cage
And long to fly away.
“Sweet to look inward, and attend
The whispers of His love;
Sweet to look upward to the place
Where Jesus pleads above.
“Sweet to reflect how grace divine
My sins on Jesus laid!
Sweet to remember that His blood
My debt of suffering paid.
“Sweet, in the confidence of faith,
To trust His firm decrees;
Sweet to lie passive in His hands,
And know no will but His.”