The Chastening Rod in the Father's Hand
by James Buchanan
"This is my comfort in my affliction." Psalm 119:50
"He does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men." Lamentations 3:33
One of the most solemnly interesting inquiries to which the thoughts of a reflecting mind can be directed is — To what cause are we to attribute the prevalence and the unequal distribution of affliction in the present state? And the solution of this question will lead to another of equal importance and interest, namely — How far these afflictions should affect our confidence in God, or our future hopes under his government?
In reference to the first of these questions, namely — To what cause we are to attribute the prevalence and the unequal distribution of affliction in the present state — both reason and Scripture concur in ascribing every affliction with which men are visited, to the purpose and providence of God. Suffering does not arise accidentally in his dominions — but is the product of his deliberate counsel, and the result of laws which he has established for the government of his subjects. It is neither a necessary adjunct, nor a casual accident of our nature; not necessary, for omniscient wisdom and almighty power might constitute even a created being without suffering — such are now the angels in Heaven, and such was man before the Fall; nor accidental, for that were to exempt the happiness of his creatures from God's control, and virtually to set aside his overruling providence.
It is true, that suffering sometimes proceeds so immediately and so manifestly from the conduct of individual men, that to their follies or vices it may be ascribed as its proximate cause — the horrors of disease being the natural fruit of profligate manners, and the hardships of poverty resulting naturally from habits of indolent indulgence, or improvident thoughtlessness. But even in such cases, these afflictive results are determined by a law which God has established — a law which attaches health and comfort to frugal and temperate habits — and entails disease and poverty on the opposite vices. And God being the author of that constitution of things under which we live — to his sovereign will we must look as the ultimate cause of such a connection between sin and its appropriate misery.
And, in other cases, as in the dread visitation of famine, or pestilence, or the more ordinary occurrence of family bereavement — we see his hand, as it were, visibly stretched forth: "Is there evil in a city," says the sacred writer, "and the Lord has not done it?" "I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil! I the Lord do all these things." It was the Lord who rained fire and brimstone out of Heaven on the cities of the plain; it was the Lord who sent the deluge on the earth, until all men and every living thing died; it was the Lord who glorified himself in the destruction of the Egyptian army. And he still guards us against the foolish notion that the sufferings of life are accidental, lest we should thereby be led to overlook his hand in them, and so "to despise the chastening of the Lord."
Every affliction, then, with which any of us is visited — is the result of God's deliberate purpose. No evil befalls us without his permission or appointment. Nor are our afflictions to be regarded as the results of the careless or capricious exercise of almighty power; but, on the contrary, they are to be ascribed to the most comprehensive wisdom, acting according to principles which are fixed and determined as laws of the divine government. God is not a careless or inattentive spectator of what passes among his subjects; he does not send evil among them at random, nor without cause, nor without a well-defined end in view. Such capricious exercise of almighty power is incompatible with the possession of omniscient wisdom. He cannot be taken by surprise, neither can he act from the impulse of momentary feeling. Every attribute of his nature, and every principle of his government, are alike stable and excellent; and from these, not from caprice or passion — does affliction spring.
Far less can affliction be ascribed to the deliberate exercise of divine cruelty, or the sudden gust of revenge. If the comprehensive wisdom, the almighty power, and the perfect independence of God, forbid us to imagine that he can, in any case, permit evil to arise through negligence or caprice — then surely the infinite benevolence which prompted him to communicate being to his creatures, and to open up for them so many sources of enjoyment, may well forbid the thought that he is capable of nourishing one vindictive feeling, or of taking delight in the infliction of suffering. Infinitely great, and glorious, and happy in himself — what possible motive can exist in the divine mind for the exercise of these cruel and vengeful passions, which he has forbidden his own creatures to nourish, and by which, where they are indulged, his creatures are debased? Shall we attribute to the most glorious Being in the universe — those evil passions by which only the basest of mankind are animated; and which, wherever they exist, render the character hateful, and the bosom which contains them wretched as well as guilty?
God forbid! All nature bears witness to the benevolence of its author; and that benevolence assures us, that whatever evils may exist under his government, they are not inflicted in the exercise of cruelty, or for the gratification of passion — that to whatever other cause they may be ascribed, they cannot be referred to any disposition on the part of God, that would lead him unnecessarily to make his creatures unhappy, or to take pleasure in their suffering. And, in addition to the testimony of nature, God does most solemnly disclaim every such feeling, and assures us, "that he afflicts not willingly, nor grieve the children of men."
In these words, it is not denied that affliction proceeds from the hand of God; on the contrary, it is admitted that he does afflict and grieve the children of men: but then, in regard to the disposition and feelings with which he does so, it is affirmed that he "afflicts not willingly." This cannot be understood to signify that affliction comes without the will, or contrary to the purpose of God, or that he does not approve of the painful discipline to which his people are subjected. On the contrary, every suffering which he inflicts, is the fruit of his deliberate wisdom, and the object of his holy approbation. But when it is said that he "afflicts not willingly" — we are given to understand that he has no pleasure in the misery of his creatures, considered in itself, and apart from its causes and ends; that he does not lift the rod merely to render them unhappy, and far less to gratify his own passion; that, but for moral considerations, physical happiness is with him a far more pleasing thing than physical suffering; and that, while he has no pleasure in making his subjects wretched — he does delight in their comfort and well-being.
This view, indeed, of the feelings with which God contemplates the sufferings of his creatures, necessarily arises out of the simplest idea which we can form of his character, as a perfectly wise and good Being; and to what cause, then, it may be asked, are we to ascribe the sufferings which do actually prevail under his administration? The Bible enables us fully to answer this question, by the views which it presents of God's character, as the Governor of the world — and of the present state, as one of sin and trial.
God is revealed, not only as a being of infinite moral perfection and blessedness — but as the righteous moral governor of his intelligent creatures. And the course of his providence is represented as not only comprehending the means by which he preserves them in existence — but also as constituting the discipline by which the ends of his moral government are fulfilled. To the idea of a moral government, a law of some kind is absolutely essential; and a law of any kind being given, it was necessary that it should be accompanied with such sanctions of reward and punishment, as might put a difference between the obedient and disobedient subjects of it. Hence, if by any means sin should appear, God determined that suffering should arise along with it; and in the very structure of our own being, he has instituted physical checks as well as moral restraints to disobedience, and has connected therewith not only the pangs of an accusing conscience — but also a numerous train of diseases, and the sentence of death.
These arrangements, by which suffering is inseparably connected with sin, are far from being arbitrary; they flow necessarily from the perfections of the divine nature. Could we, indeed, entertain, for one instant, the monstrous idea, that God, although possessed of infinite power, and wisdom, and benevolence — was nevertheless, in moral respects, a being of a neutral character — that he had no holiness, no rectitude, no justice — that he had no predilection for one style of moral character in his subjects, more than another — that ingratitude, and sensuality, and deceit, were not more offensive to him than the opposite virtues — then, and then only, could we conceive of him lavishing the wealth of almighty power and unbounded beneficence on all his creatures alike, and making no difference between seraphic virtue and satanic guilt. But, being holy and just, as well as good — he must necessarily approve of what is congenial to his own character, and conformable to that law which is but the transcript of his character, and the expression of his unchangeable will. Although, therefore, from the benevolence of his nature, he must delight in the diffusion of happiness — yet, from the holiness and rectitude of his character, the principle, that sin should be connected with suffering — must be the object of his moral approbation.
Farther, men are not only represented in Scripture as the subjects of a moral government — but as subjects placed in a very peculiar and interesting state, a state of acknowledged guilt — yet of delayed punishment, in order to their probation and trial for an everlasting destiny hereafter. Their present state is not one of "retribution — but of respite." Sentence has been passed against them as guilty — but the effect of that sentence has been for a time suspended, in order to the application of means, on the part of God, for their redemption. And being neither like the angels — perfectly holy and happy; nor like devils — absolutely lost, they occupy a middle state, which may be either the scene of their education for Heaven, or of their preparation for Hell. To one or other of these departments of the invisible world — all will before long be transferred; but, meanwhile, they are dealt with as creatures that have incurred condemnation — but who, through the mercy of God, are capable of rising to glory.
These two views, the one of God's character — as a moral governor and judge; and the other of mankind — as sinners in a state of respite and trial — satisfactorily account both for the sufferings which men endure, and for the unequal distribution of them. Were there no sin — there would be no suffering; or were this the place of strict retribution — suffering would be awarded according to the amount of guilt. But it now being a middle state, enjoyment and sorrow are so intermingled as to prove, at once, the benevolence and the rectitude of God. To the great moral ends of this economy, the discipline of affliction is, in many respects, needful; and hence the varied evils with which God has seen meet to visit us. Of these afflictions, viewed as parts of his own procedure, and a means of beneficial discipline — God must be supposed to entertain a holy moral approbation; and yet, in none of his dispensations, however dark and distressing, does he take pleasure in inflicting unnecessary suffering, or in making his creatures unhappy; for it is expressly declared, that "he has no pleasure in the death of the sinner," and that "he does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men."
These views throw an interesting light, both on the character of God — and on the nature and design of affliction under his government. As God is to be regarded both as an affectionate father and a righteous judge — so affliction is presented in two lights in Scripture, in each of which, it is compatible with the most perfect benevolence in the divine mind. It is there represented as being partly corrective and partly penal. At one time, the chastisement of an affectionate father — at another, the award of a righteous judge. While, in both, it is declared to be the result of sin. In neither case is it the spontaneous infliction of one who delights in suffering for its own sake — but the result of principles from which no wise father or judge will ever depart in the management of his children or subjects.
The meaning of the declaration, that "God does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men," may, perhaps, be best illustrated, if, conceiving of him as the father and governor of his rational creatures, we take as an illustration, the parallel case of an affectionate father, or a benevolent judge, among ourselves.
Take the case of an earthly parent — suppose him to be endowed with all the tenderest sensibilities of nature. Conceive of him as delighting in the health and welfare of his children, and, in the exercise of every benevolent affection, lavishing on them all the riches of a father's kindness and a father's care. You say, on looking at his kind countenance and his smiling family — this is an affectionate father. But a secret canker of ingratitude seizes one or more of his children — they shun his presence, or dislike his society, and at length venture on acts of positive disobedience. He warns them, he expostulates with them — but in vain, they revolt more and more; and at length, in the exercise of deliberate thought, he lifts the rod and chastens them! And he who once was the author of all their happiness — has become also their calm but firm reprover. And who that knows the tenderness of a father's heart, will not acknowledge — that as severe as may be the suffering inflicted, such a man does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of his love!
Again, conceive of a man of benevolent feelings invested with the office of a benevolent judge — conceive of Howard, the unwearied friend of his race, who visited the prisons of Europe to alleviate the miseries of the worst and most destitute of men — conceive of such a man sitting in judgment over the life or liberty of another; and can you not suppose that, while every feeling within him inclined him to the side of mercy, and his every sensibility would be gratified, were it possible to make the felon virtuous and happy — he might, notwithstanding, have such a deep moral persuasion of the importance of virtue and order to the well-being of the state, that he could consign the prisoner to a dungeon or the gallows, and that, too, with the perfect conviction that it was right and good to do so. While, still, every sentiment of the heart within him, if it could be disclosed, would bear witness that he afflicted not willingly, and that he had no pleasure in the death of the criminal!
Such a father and such a judge is God; and the sufferings which he inflicts, whether they be viewed as corrective or penal — are compatible with the loftiest benevolence in the divine mind. And unquestionably, the fact, that "God does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men," may, in one light, be regarded as a ground of consolation, inasmuch as it assures us that the Almighty Being, in whose hands our destinies are placed, has no pleasure in the mere infliction of suffering — that, in his holy mind, not one passion exists which can be gratified by it — and that, even "as a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him."
We confine our present meditation to the mere negative view of affliction, that it is not the result of a capricious or cruel delight in suffering on the part of God. Hereafter we shall see abundant reason to believe that it is, under a system of grace — the result of pure and comprehensive benevolence, and the means of much positive good. In the meanwhile, let us not allow even the darkest aspects of God's providence to shake our faith in the benevolence of his character. And when, through the sharp inflictions of his rod, we are tempted to entertain hard thoughts of Him — let us remember the precious truth, that "God afflicts not willingly, nor grieves the children of men."
But while these views are, in some respects, highly consolatory, inasmuch as they assure us of the benevolence of God — yet, to every reflecting mind, another question will suggest itself, to which, without such a revelation as is contained in the Gospel, no satisfactory answer can, in our opinion, be returned. The benevolence of God being admitted, the question arises — How far the afflictions which do prevail, notwithstanding, should affect our hopes of future happiness under His government? To those who rest their hopes of exemption from future punishment on the mere general benevolence of God, this should be a very serious and solemn inquiry; for God is, at this moment, a Being of infinite benevolence — and yet, suffering to a great extent prevails in his empire; and the question may well be entertained, whether, being afflicted now under his administration, we may not, for the same reasons — be equally or still more afflicted hereafter? And this inquiry becomes the more serious, when we connect affliction with the causes to which it is ascribed.
What are these causes? why, they are the sins with which we are chargeable on the one hand — and the holiness and justice of God's character on the other hand. But an effect can only be prevented by the removal of its cause. And is it not a very solemn reflection, that the holiness and justice of God are unchangeable attributes of his nature; and that, if we continue to be chargeable with sin, they must, for anything we know, perpetuate our sufferings? So far from allaying our apprehensions from this cause, the fact that God "afflicts not willingly, nor grieves the children of men," gives a very solemn sanction to the moral principles of his government, when, notwithstanding his benevolence, he does visit his creatures with severe calamity.
The benevolence of God being admitted, the whole course of his providence may be regarded as a very solemn exhibition of the holiness and justice of the divine government. And unless, in these circumstances, we can discover some way of escaping from guilt, or can entertain the delusive hope, that God's holy and righteous government is to be radically changed — we cannot fail to have many dark thoughts, and many anxious fears, respecting our future prospects. We see that God is wise, and righteous, and benevolent — and yet notwithstanding, or rather for that very reason — we feel that God is pouring many a bitter ingredient into our cup — that he is visiting us with trials of a very severe and confounding nature. And can we help inquiring whether it will be so forever? Whether this life is to be the pattern of our immortal existence? Or whether, in the eternity which awaits us, we have reason to expect either the unmingled good, or the unmingled evil which are combined, at present, in the chequered scene of life? We want some assurance, on this point, to remove our doubts, and misgivings, and fears; and, without such assurance, we feel that our eternal prospects are dark and uncertain indeed.
These misgivings are not without a foundation in reason; for manifold as are the proofs which our own experience supplies of the benevolent character of God, and as explicit as is the sanction which Scripture gives to the indications of nature — there are many things, notwithstanding, both in nature and in Scripture, which are fitted to awaken alarm respecting the relation in which we stand to that august Being, and the mode in which he may yet deal with us here and hereafter.
God may be perfectly wise, and just, and good; yet, conceiving of him as the moral Governor and Judge of mankind — we cannot fail to understand that he must put a difference between the righteous and the wicked — that his administration may require the sanction of punishment, and that the very perfection of his character may thus become the strongest reason for the infliction of suffering, where his law has been dishonored, and his authority despised. The infinite power, and rectitude, and wisdom of God, which, to innocent beings, must be a source of the highest and purest delight — may thus become, to fallen creatures — the occasion of alarm, and suspicion, and jealousy; and a secret distrust of their interest in his favor will prey upon their minds, even in the midst of all the riches of his benevolence which nature displays.
Accordingly, may I not appeal to every human being, whether he has not felt in his own bosom many a secret misgiving respecting his personal interest in the favor of his Judge, and many a dark foreboding in respect to his future prospects, and that, too, while he could not shut his eyes to the evidence, nor bring himself to deny the reality of God's wisdom, and rectitude, and love? The reason is, that every man knows and feels that he is guilty; that he has violated the law, and forsaken the service of God; and that God, being a righteous governor, may, notwithstanding his benevolence — be disposed to punish transgressors. Conscience makes this suggestion, and the course of God's providence confirms it; else, why so much suffering, if a benevolent God entertains no hatred against sin?
The feelings of our own minds must convince us, that the present course of God's providence is utterly irreconcilable with the idea, either of his wisdom or benevolence, unless, in our own conduct, he finds a holy reason for his method of dealing with us. And no conscience can be so blinded as not to perceive much in the state and conduct of every man, that may warrant a Holy God in inflicting suffering and death.
The Bible does unquestionably, in the first instance, confirm the testimony of nature and conscience in respect to the present state of trial. It acknowledges the existence of sorrow and suffering, under the government of a most wise and benevolent God. It declares that, notwithstanding the moral faculties which God has given to us, and the moral indications which the course of providence affords — good and evil are not here dealt out according to the strict measure of desert. And the reason which it assigns for the sufferings that prevail in the world, is the prevalence of sin; while it attributes the regular distribution of good and evil, to the nature of the present state, as one of respite and trial for an eternal state after death. Had its communications stopped at this point, it would have confirmed our worst fears, and deepened our most distressing thoughts; for, when revealing, as it does, the benevolence of God — it declares notwithstanding, that even under his government — sin must be connected with suffering. And when it points to an eternal state, where the principles of his holy and righteous administration shall have their ultimate outcome, and be more fully unfolded — how could we avoid the apprehension that we are obnoxious to our Almighty Judge, and in danger of an eternal state of retribution from his righteous hand?
So far from allaying these apprehensions, in the first instance, or declaring them to be unreasonable in themselves, or inconsistent with our just deserts — it is one leading object of the Bible to confirm their certainty, to impress their truth on the heart, and to assure us that judgments, infinitely more dreadful than those which prevail in the present world, await the transgressors of the Divine law, in a future state of strict judicial retribution. The Bible sanctions all the judgments which conscience has ever pronounced against us; it delineates our characters in the darkest shades of guilt; and it affirms that, notwithstanding the benevolence of God — sin cannot escape punishment, without inferring a violation of those eternal principles on which the government of the universe is conducted, and on the maintenance of which, the glory of God, and the happiness of his obedient creatures depend.
Are any who now meditate on this serious subject along with me ready to exclaim: How, then, can the Bible be our comfort in affliction — the Bible, which presents a more humiliating view of our character, and a more distressing view of our state, and a more alarming view of our everlasting prospects, than what is contained in any other book, or what has been suggested from any other quarter, or what, fearful and desponding as we are, we have ever been willing to entertain? Ah! brethren, you see how true it is, that the Bible does not seek to comfort you by denying the evils of your condition, or by withdrawing your attention from them, or by soothing you with partial views of their extent, or by delusive expectations of their removal.
It probes your case to the very bottom! It unfolds all the evil that is within, or around, or before you. And this it does, not only from a regard to truth, which, however dark and distressing, cannot be compromised in any communication from God to his creatures — but also, and especially, with a view to shatter your confidence in every spring of spurious comfort, and every false ground of hope, and to lead you in simplicity to a ground of consolation, which alone can cheer your hearts amidst your present sorrows, and support your spirits in the prospect of what is yet before you; and which, bearing as it does the impress of God's hand, shall endure, when all other confidences are shattered, and all other hopes destroyed!
Lord, unafflicted, undismayed,
In pleasure's path how long I strayed:
But you have made me feel your rod,
And turned my soul to you, my God.
What though it pierced my fainting heart,
I bless your hand that caused the smart;
It taught my tears awhile to flow —
But saved me from eternal woe.
O, had you left me unchastised,
Your precepts I had still despised,
And still the snare in secret laid
Had my unwary feet betrayed.
I love your chastenings, my God,
They fix my hopes on your abode;
Where, in your presence fully blessed,
Your stricken saints forever rest!