The Widow Directed to the Widow's God

by John Angell James, 1841


It may not be amiss to introduce here a few of the benefits, which afflictions in general are intended and calculated to produce. God does not afflict willingly—nor grieve the children of men. He takes no delight in seeing our tears—or hearing our groans. But he does take delight in doing us good, making us holy, conforming us to his own image, and fitting us to dwell in his own presence. He treats us as the sculptor does the marble under his hand, which from a rough unsightly mass, he intends to carve into a splendid statue, a glorious work of art. Every application of the chisel, every blow of the mallet, is to strike off some bit of the stone, which must be removed to bring out the figure in perfection, which he designs to form.

In our case how much is necessary to be struck off from our corrupt nature, and from what appertains to us, before we can be brought into that form and beauty which it is the intention of the divine Craftsman we should bear, especially as it is his plan to mold us into his own image. How much of pride and vanity; of carnality and worldly-mindedness; of self-sufficiency and independence; of creature-love and earthly dependence; must be removed by each blow of the mallet, and each cut of the chisel, before the beauties of holiness, humility, meekness, and heavenly mindedness; and all the graceful proportions and features of the divine nature can be exhibited.

1. Affliction quickens DEVOTION.
Our prayers are too often only said in prosperity—now they are prayed! In prosperity, they do but drop—now they are poured out, and flow like a stream; or rise like a cloud of incense, in almost uninterrupted exercise, until the thoughts and feelings seem to follow without intermission in one continued prayer. Ah! how many can look back to the place of affliction, and say, "There it was, that my soul poured out many prayers to the Lord. I had grown negligent of prayer, and careless in its performance. But when I was afflicted, I prayed indeed—then I had communion with God; then I sought the Lord, and he heard me and delivered me from all my fears."

Nearness to God is the happiness of the renewed soul. Affliction is but one of God's servants to bring us into his presence, and the enjoyment of this privilege. God delights to hear from us often, as the kind parent loves to hear from his child when at a distance from home. Affliction comes and knocks at the door, enters into our habitation, asks us if we have not forgotten our father, and expresses a willingness to conduct us to him. Many have found, in trial, the lost spirit of prayer, and have experienced in that one benefit, more than a compensation for all they have suffered. Many a woman has been recalled, as a widow, to the closet of devotion, which as a wife, she had forsaken.

2. Affliction discloses, mortifies, and prevents SIN.
Affliction is a season of REMEMBRANCE of sin. The sin of Joseph's brethren was forgotten until they were in prison; then it came to their recollection, and they exclaimed, "Surely we are being punished because of our brother." Genesis 42:21. The poor widow of Zarephath, when her child lay dead in the house, thus addressed the prophet, "What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?" 1 Kings 17:18. Perhaps at that moment, the guilt of all her past life, for which she had not sufficiently humbled herself before God, came before her perturbed mind.

Sin appears but small, and presses but lightly on the conscience in the days of prosperity—but its dreadful form seems alarming in the night season of trial. Our sorrows look then as the shadows of sins, and address us as with a kind of spectral voice. We go back through our lives; we follow ourselves through every scene; we look at our conduct with an inquisitive and jealous eye; we examine our motives, and weigh our spirits—and oh what humbling disclosures are the result! Many have gained more self-knowledge by a month's learning in the school of sorrow, than by all their previous life.

As affliction discloses sin—so it DESTROYS THE STRENGTH OF SIN. As wise and salutary discipline weakens evil habits and strengthens the moral virtues; as the frosts of winter kill the noxious insects, and the poisonous weeds; as the knife prunes the tree of its dead and superfluous branches; and as the fire purifies the precious metals, so that they lose nothing by its burning, but their dross—so trials purge the soul of its corruptions—by weakening the love of sin; giving an experimental proof of its malignity; awakening strenuous efforts to resist its influence; and teaching the necessity of renewed acts of faith on the atoning blood of the Savior, and dependence on the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. "Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit." John 15:2. "By this, therefore, shall the iniquity of Jacob be purged; and this is all the fruit to take away his sin."

When Mr. Cecil was walking in the Botanical Gardens of Oxford, his attention was arrested by a fine pomegranate tree, cut almost through the stem near the root. On asking the gardener the reason of this, "Sir," said he, "this tree used to shoot so strong, that it bore nothing but leaves. I was therefore obliged to cut it in this manner; and when it was almost cut through, then it began to bear plenty of fruit." The reply afforded this inquisitive student a general practical lesson, which was of considerable use to him in after life, when severely exercised by personal and domestic afflictions. Alas! in many cases, it is not enough that the useless branches of the tree be lopped off—but the stock itself must be cut—and cut nearly through—before it can become extensively fruitful. And sometimes the finer the tree, and the more luxuriant its growth, the deeper must be the incision."

Nor is affliction without its benefit in PREVENTING sin. We never know how near we are to danger. We are like blind men wandering near the edge of a precipice, the mouth of a well, or the margin of a deep pit; and then God by a severe wrench, it may be, and a violent jerk that puts us to some pain, and gives us a severe jolt—plucks us from the ruin that we did not see. Oh what hairbreadth escapes from destruction, effected perhaps by some distressing visitation, shall we in eternity be made to understand, we experienced on earth. We now often stand amazed at some severe trial; we cannot conjecture why it was sent; we see no purpose it was to serve, no end it was to accomplish—but there was an omniscient eye that saw what we did not, and could not see—and he sent forth this severe trial to pluck our feet from the net which had been spread for them! How we shall adore God in heaven for these 'preventing mercies', which came in the form of some dark and inexplicable event, which filled us at the time with lamentation and woe! Oh woman, even your husband's grave, was to prevent perhaps a calamity still deeper and heavier than his death!

3. Affliction tends to exercise, improve and quicken our GRACES.
In the present state our graces are all imperfect, and our conformity to the divine purity is only like the resemblance of the sun in a watery cloud—our imperfections envelope and obscure our excellencies. Therefore God sends the stormy wind of his providential and painful visitations, to sweep away the clouds and cause the hidden luminary to shine forth.

How is faith tested, revealed and strengthened by tribulation! Abraham had not known the strength of his faith, had he not been called to sacrifice Isaac; nor Peter his, had he not been called by Christ to tread the waves. How many have gone with a weak and faltering belief to the riverside, and yet when there, have had their confidence in God so strengthened, that they plunged into the flood, and have emerged, wondering at the grace which carried them safety through.

Resignation has also been revealed and strengthened by tribulation! There are some graces, which, like the stars, can be seen only in the dark, and this is one of them. As they came to the trial, these afflicted ones saw that their only hope was in submission, and they sent one piercing cry to heaven, "Lord, save me—or I perish. Help me to bow down with unresisting acquiescence." Resignation was given to them; and they kissed the rod, exclaiming, "Even so, Father, for so it seems good in your sight."

Their trust and confidence have equaled their faith and submission. At one time they trembled at the shaking of a leaf; to their surprise they now find they can brave storms, or face lions! Then, it did not seem as if they could trust God for anything—now, they can confide everything to him. They have been taught lessons of reliance, which in seasons of unmolested ease, seemed as much beyond their comprehension as their attainment. "Tribulation works perseverance," and if it does not accomplish this in perfection, it produces it in large measures. Oh what a blessing is perseverance! It is beautifully said by Bishop Hopkins, "If God confirms and augments your perseverance under sufferings, sufferings are mercies; afflictions are favors. He blesses you by chastisements, and crowns you with glory—even while he seems to crown you with thorns. Perseverance stoops to the heaviest burdens, and carries them as long as God shall please, without murmuring and repining; and if that be to the grave, it knows that what is now a load, shall then be found to be a treasure. A Christian does but carry his own wealth, his crown, and his scepter; which though here they be burdensome, shall hereafter be eternally glorious."

The following is an extract from a letter of Oberlin to a lady who had suffered many bereavements–"I have before me two stones, which are in imitation of precious stones. They are both perfectly alike in color, they are both of the same quality—clear, pure, and clean. Yet there is a marked difference between them, as to their luster and brilliancy. One has a dazzling brightness, while the other is dull, so that the eye passes over it, and derives no pleasure from the sight. What can the reason of this difference be? It is this; the one is cut but in few facets; the other has ten times as many. These facets are produced by a very violent operation. It is requisite to cut, to smooth, and polish. Had these stones been endued with life, so as to have been capable of feeling what they underwent, the one which has received eighty facets would have thought itself very unhappy, and would have envied the fate of the other, which, having received but eight, has undergone but a tenth part of its sufferings. Nevertheless, the operations being over, it is done forever—the difference between the two stones always remains strongly marked. That which has suffered but little, is entirely eclipsed by the other, which alone is held in estimation, and attracts attention. May not this serve to explain the saying of our Savior, whose words always bear some reference to eternity—'Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted'. Blessed whether we contemplate them apart, or in comparison with those who have not passed through so many trials. O that we were always able to cast ourselves into his arms, like little children—to draw near him like helpless lambs—and ever to ask of him patience, resignation, an entire surrender to his will—faith, trust, and a heartfelt obedience to the commands which he gives to those who are willing to be his disciples! 'The Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces.'"

4. Afflictions tend to wean us from the world, and to fix our affections on things above.
We are all too worldly. We gravitate too much to earth. We have not attained to that conquest of the world by faith, which is our duty to seek, and would be our privilege to obtain. Our feet stick in the mire, and we do not soar aloft on the wings of faith and hope into the regions above us, as we ought. We are like moles, when we should be like eagles—mere earthly men, when we should be as the angels of God. With such a revelation as we possess of the eternal world; with such an opening as is made in the clouds of mortality, by the discoveries of the New Testament; and such a vista as is opened into the realms of immortality, how easy a thing ought it to be, to overcome the world. With the holy mount so near, and so accessible to our faith, how is it that we grovel as we do here? How is it that heaven is opening to present its sights to our eyes, and its sounds to our ears, and that we will neither look at the one, nor listen to the other?

"A Christian ought to be," says Lady Powerscourt, "Not one who looks up from earth to heaven—but one who looks down from heaven to earth." Yet the multitude do neither. Instead of dwelling in heaven, they do not visit it—instead of abiding in it, in the state of their affections, they do not look at it. Hence the need, and the benefit too, of afflictions. They cover the earth with the shades of night, the pall of darkness, so that if there be any light at all, it must come from the skies. How differently things look when seen from the chamber of sickness, or the grave of a friend! Honor, wealth, and pleasure, lose their charms then, and present no beauty, that we should desire them. We seem to regard the world as an impostor that has deceived us, and turn from it with disgust. The loss of a friend, and especially such a friend as a husband, does more to prove the truth of Solomon's description of the vanity of everything beneath the sun, than all the sermons we have ever heard, and all the volumes we have ever read.

Such are a few of the benefits to be derived, and which by many have been derived from affliction. "Take care, Christian," said the late Mr. Cecil, "whatever you meet with in your way, that you do not forget your Father! When the proud and wealthy rush by in triumph, while you are poor and in sorrow, listen and hear your Father saying to you, 'My son, had I loved them, I would have corrected them too. I give them up to the way of their own hearts. But to my children, if I give sorrow, it is that I may lead them to an unfading and eternal crown of glory!"

The excellent Joseph Williams, of Kidderminster, one of the best men of modern times, does but give the testimony of all God's chosen and tried people, where in his diary he says, "I find afflictions to be good for me. I have ever found them so. They are happy means in the hands of the Holy Spirit to crush my corruptions, to subdue my pride, my evil passions, my inordinate love to the creature. They soften my hard heart, bring me on my knees, exercise and increase faith, love, humility, and self-denial. They make me poor in spirit, and nothing in my own eyes. Welcome the cross! Welcome deep adversity! Welcome stripping Providences."

Humbled in the lowest deep,
You for my suffering I bless;
Think of all your love, and weep
For my own unfaithfulness:
I have most rebellious been,
You have laid your hand on me,
Kindly visited my sin,
Scourged the wanderer back to thee.

Taught obedience to my God
By the things I have endured,
Meekly now I kiss the rod,
Wounded by the rod—and cured!
Good for me the grief and pain,
Let me but your grace adore;
Keep the pardon I regain,
Stand in awe and sin no more.
—Charles Wesley.