Thoughts on Religious Experience

Archibald Alexander, 1844

The rich and the poor—The various trials of believers

They are not 'the happy' whom the blinded world think to be such. The man of successful enterprise and increasing wealth had some enjoyment while busily occupied in making a fortune—but now when he has arrived at a higher pitch of wealth than his most expectant hopes had anticipated—he is far from being happy, or even contented. The desire of acquisition has grown into an inveterate habit, and he cannot stop in his career; he must find out some new enterprise; he must engage in some new speculation; and before all is over, it is well if he loses not all he had gained. Being accustomed to live high, he is unprepared to meet poverty; and to preserve his family from such a mortifying change of circumstances, he contrives ways and means to defraud his creditors. This man is not happy in his prosperity, and under a reverse of fortune he is truly miserable. He has put away a good conscience, which is the most essential ingredient in that peace which Christ gives to His disciples. His reputation too, if not tarnished, remains under a dark cloud of suspicion which never can be removed. In the world around he meets with neglect and sometimes contempt from those on whom he once looked down; at home he has before him the sad spectacle of a family degraded from their former rank and under all the feelings of mortified pride, struggling to conceal their poverty from the gaze and contempt of an unpitying world.

But even if no reverse is experienced and the man continues to be successful in all his enterprises, and if at the close of his career he can calculate millions in the bank or in real estate, his only remaining difficulty is how to dispose of such a mass of wealth. He has a son, it is true—but he is a base profligate, and in a single year would, by reckless speculation or at the gaming table, dissipate the whole which has been so carefully hoarded up. And yet this man could scarcely be induced to give a dollar to any benevolent object, lest he should lessen the amount which he was by every means raking together for this unworthy son. He has daughters, too, whose husbands in selecting them had more respect to their fortunes than to any personal qualifications, and these are impatient that the old man should live so long, and hold the purse-strings with so close a grip. Though they will go through all the ceremonial of deep grief, and mourn as decently and as long as fashion requires, yet no event is heard with more heart-felt pleasure than that their aged relative is at last obliged to give up all his possessions!

Are the rich happy? Not such as have been described. But there are a favored few who seem to have learned the secret of using wealth so as to do much good, and to derive from it much enjoyment. They are desirous of making increase too—but it is all for the Lord; not to be hoarded until they are obliged to leave it, and then to be distributed among benevolent societies. No! They are continually contriving methods of making it produce good—now. They are frugal to themselves, that they may be liberal to the poor, and may be able to enrich the treasury of the Lord. Such men are blessed in their deed; and though unostentatious in their charities, their light cannot be hidden. A few rich men of this description have lived in England, and even our new country records with gratitude the names of a few benefactors of the public; and we trust in God that the number will be multiplied. Reader, go and do likewise.

But, more commonly, the elect of God are not called to glorify Him in this way. Wealth is a dangerous talent, and is very apt so to block up the way to heaven, that those who do press in, have, as it were, to squeeze through a gate as difficult of entrance as the eye of a needle to a camel. Alas! many professors who bid fair for heaven when in moderate circumstances, after becoming rich are found "drowned in perdition"—"pierced through with many sorrows". (1 Tim 6:9-10)

Poverty and suffering are by infinite wisdom judged best for the traveler to Zion. Let the Lord's people be contented with their condition, and thankful that they are preserved from snares and temptations which they would have found it difficult to withstand. God will not allow them to be tempted above what they are able to bear—but with the temptation provides a way for their escape.

The rich are exposed to suffering as well as the poor, though their sufferings may be of a different kind. The poor man may be forced by necessity to live on coarse bread; the rich man also, while tantalized with the daily sight of the finest of the wheat, is obliged for the sake of his health to live upon bran. The poor man lies on a hard bed because he can afford to get no better; the rich man lies as hard to preserve himself from the aches and pains which are the natural fruit of luxury. The poor man has little of the honors of the world—but then he is envied by none, and passes along in obscurity, without being set up as a mark to be shot at by envy and malignity, which is often the lot of the rich. When sickness comes, the rich man has some advantages—but when oppressed with painful sickness, neither a bed of down, nor rich hangings and carpets, contribute anything to his relief; and in such a time of distress the privations of the poor, though the imagination readily magnifies them, add not much to the pain produced by disease.

But we have dwelt too long on this comparison between the real sufferings of the rich and the poor. Happiness after all, depends upon the submission and patient temper of the mind, than upon external circumstances. And indeed, so short is the time of man's continuance upon earth, and so infinite the joys or miseries of the future world, that to make much of these little differences would be like estimating the weight of a feather, when engaged in weighing mountains. Who thinks it a matter of any concern, whether the circumstances of people who lived a thousand years ago were affluent or destitute, except so far as these external enjoyments and privations contributed to their spiritual improvement, or the contrary? If we could be duly impressed with the truths which respect our eternal condition, we would consider our afflictions here on earth, as scarcely worthy of being named. Thus the apostle Paul seemed to view his own sufferings, and those of his fellow Christians, when he said, "For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time, are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us." (Rom 8:18) Compared with the sufferings of others, those of the apostle were neither few nor small; but in the view of eternity by faith, he calls them "these light afflictions which are but for a moment"; (2 Cor 4:17) and he had learned the happy are, not only of being contented in whatever state he was—but of rejoicing in all his tribulations. Not that tribulation, considered in itself, could be a matter of rejoicing, for who ever found pain and reproach to be pleasant? But he rejoiced in these things on account of their beneficial effects, "but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope." (Rom 5:3-4) The primitive Christians were encouraged to bear patiently and joyfully their present sufferings, on account of the rich and gracious reward which awaited them in the world to come. Upon the mere principle of contrast, our earthly sorrows will render our heavenly joys the sweeter.

But this is not all: hear the words of Jesus Himself, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake: rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven." (Matt 5:10-12) Peter also testifies, "and if you suffer for righteousness' sake, happy are you" (1 Pet 3:14)—"for it is better, if the will of God be so, that you suffer for well doing than for evil doing. For Christ once suffered, the just for the unjust." (1 Pet 3:17-18) He was also of the same opinion with his brother Paul, that Christians ought to rejoice in all their sufferings for righteousness' sake. "Beloved," says he, "do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you." (1 Pet 4:12-14) "However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name." (1 Pet 4:16)

Let Zion's mourners lift up their heads and rejoice, for though weeping may endure for a night, joy comes in the morning! Let all Christians manifest to others the sweetness and excellency of piety by rejoicing continually in the Lord. The perennial sources of their spiritual joy can never fail—for while God lives and reigns they ought to rejoice. Since Christ has died, and ever lives to make intercession for them, they have ground of unceasing joy. While the throne of grace is accessible, let the saints rejoice; let them rejoice in all the promises of God, which are exceeding great and precious, and are all yes and amen in Christ Jesus to the glory of God.

In one sense all our sufferings are the fruits of sin—for if we had never sinned we would never have suffered. But in another sense, the sufferings of believers are produced by love: "whom the Lord loves he chastens, and scourges every son whom he receives". (Heb 12:6) As in the economy of salvation, God leaves His chosen people to struggle with the remainders of sin in their own hearts, so He has ordained, that their pilgrimage to the heavenly Canaan shall be through much tribulation. From the beginning, the saints have generally been a poor and afflicted people, often oppressed and persecuted; and when exempt from sufferings from the hands of men, they are often visited with sickness, or have their hearts sorely lacerated by the bereavement of dear friends, are punished with poverty, or loaded with calumny and reproach. There seems to be an incongruity in believers enjoying ease and prosperity in this world, when their Lord was "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief". (Isa 53:3) It seems, indeed, to be a condition of our reigning with Him, that we should suffer with Him. When James and John, under the influence of ambition, asked for the highest places in His kingdom, He said to them, "Can you drink of the cup which I drink of, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" (Mark 10:38) They seem not to have understood His meaning, for with self-confidence they answered, "We are able." (Matt 20:22) He replied, "You shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with." (Mark 10:39)

For the Christian to seek great things for himself here in this world, does not befit the character of a disciple of the meek and lowly Jesus. The early Christians were called to endure much persecution—but they did not count their lives dear unto them. When the apostles, after our Lord's ascension, were publicly beaten for preaching that the Savior was risen, they rejoiced together that they were counted worthy to suffer such things for His name's sake.

It is a striking peculiarity in the religion of Christ, that in the conditions of discipleship, "taking up the cross" (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23) is the first thing. He never enticed any to follow Him with the promise of earthly prosperity, or exemption from suffering. On the contrary, He assures them that in the world they shall have tribulation. (John 16:33) He does, indeed, promise to those who forsake father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, houses and lands—a compensation of a hundredfold more than they had left; but He permits them not to fall into the delusion that this hundredfold was to consist in earthly good things, for He immediately adds, "with persecutions". (Mark 10:30) Whoever will not take Christ with His cross shall never sit with Him on His throne. "No cross, no crown", holds out an important truth in few words. In his intercessory prayer, Christ does request for His disciples that they may be kept from the evil which is in the world, (John 17:15) but He means from the "evil one"—from the evil of sin, and from temptations above their strength to endure.

The reasons why Christ has chosen that His people should be afflicted, and often sorely persecuted, are not difficult to ascertain. We have already shown that the rod is one of God's means for recovering backsliders from their wanderings; but afflictions are also employed to prevent Christians from backsliding. In prosperity, pride is apt to rise and swell; carnal security blinds their eyes; the love of riches increases; spiritual affections are feeble; and eternal things are viewed as far off, and concealed by a thick mist. These circumstances are, indeed, the common precursors of backsliding; but to prevent this evil, and to stir up the benumbed feelings of piety, the believer is put into the furnace. At first he finds it hard to submit, and is like a wild bull in a net. His pride and his love of carnal ease resist the hand that smites him; but severe pain awakes him from his spiritual sleep. He finds himself in the hands of his heavenly Father, and sees that nothing can be gained by murmuring or rebelling. His sins rise up to view, and he is convinced of the justice of the divine dispensations. His hard heart begins to yield, and he is stirred up to cry mightily to God for helping grace. Although he wishes and prays for deliverance from the pressure of affliction, yet he is more solicitous that it should be rendered effectual to subdue his pride, wean him from the love of the world, and give perfect exercise to patience and resignation, than that it should be removed. He knows that the furnace is the place for purification. He hopes and prays that his dross may be consumed, and that he may come forth as gold which has passed seven times through the refiner's fire.

Paul attributes a powerful efficacy to afflictions, so as to place them among the most efficacious means of grace. "For," says he, "our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works out for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." (2 Cor 4:17) "Furthermore, we had natural fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but He does it for our benefit, so that we can share His holiness. No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it." (Heb 12:9-11) When faith is in very lively exercise, believers can rejoice even in tribulation. Not that they cease to feel the pain of the rod—for then it would cease to be an affliction—but while they experience the smart they are convinced that it is operating as a beneficial, though bitter medicine; and they rejoice in the prospect or feeling of returning spiritual health.

But again, God does not pour the rich consolations of His grace into a heart that is not broken. "He sends the rich empty away." (Luke 1:53) "The whole need not a physician." (Matt 9:12; Luke 5:31) But when by affliction He has broken the hard heart and emptied it of self-confidence, He delights to pour in the joy of the Holy Spirit. Therefore it often occurs that the believer's most joyful seasons are his suffering seasons. He has, it is true, more pungent pain than when in prosperity and ease—but he has also richer, deeper draughts of consolation. Though sorrow and joy are opposite, there is a mysterious connection between them. Sorrow, as it were, softens and prepares the heart for the reception of the joy of the Lord.

As the dispensations of God towards His children are exceedingly diverse in different ages; likewise His dealings with individual believers who live at the same time are very different. Why it is so we cannot tell; but we are sure that He has wise reasons for all that He does. In some cases pious people appear to pass through life with scarcely a touch from His rod; while others, who to us do not appear to need more chastisement than those, are held the greater part of their life under the heavy pressure of affliction, with scarcely any intermission. Here is a Christian man who has nearly reached the usual termination of human life, and has hardly known what external affliction is in his own experience. Prosperity has attended him through his whole course. But there is a desolate widow who has been bereaved of her husband and children, and has neither brother nor sister, nephew nor niece, and for eight years has been confined to her bed by wasting and painful disease, and has no hope of relief on this side of the grave.

Such a disparity is striking; but we see only the outside of things. There are sore afflictions of the mind, while the body is in health. That man may have had severer chastisement of the mind—than this afflicted, desolate widow. I have heard an aged Christian declare that though he had experienced much sickness, lost many dear friends, and met with many sore disappointments in life, his sufferings on these accounts were not to be compared with the internal anguish which he often endured, and of which no creature had the least conception. This shows that we are not competent to form an accurate judgment of the sufferings of different people. Besides, when affliction has been long continued, we become in a measure accustomed to it and, as it were, hardened against it; but when we judge of such cases, we transfer our own acute feelings to the condition, which are no correct standard of the sufferings, of the patient under a lingering disease.

The widow to whom I referred was not a fictitious person—but a real person. I once visited her and conversed with her and found her serene and happy, desiring nothing but a speedy departure, that she might be absent from the body, and present with the Lord. But she was not impatient; she was willing to remain and suffer just as long as God pleased. Her heart was truly subdued to the obedience of Christ. There was only one earthly object for which she seemed to feel solicitude, and that was the little forsaken and almost desolate church of which she was a member. For a series of years disaster after disaster had fallen upon this little flock. Their house of worship had been accidentally burned, and was in need of repair; and they had been so long without a pastor that they dwindled down to a few disheartened and scattered members, and only one aged elder remained. Seldom was there a sermon, as they had no convenient house of meeting. Now although this poor widow could not have attended if there had been preaching every Lord's day, yet that little church lay as a burden on her mind; and I heard a minister who knew the circumstances say, that as once a poor wise man saved a city, so this poor, pious widow by her prayers saved a church from extinction. For before her death, a neat, new church was erected, and a pastor settled, and a number of souls hopefully converted and gathered into the church.

I was once on a visit with a friend who requested me to accompany her to see a sick woman, supposed to be near her end. The house was a mere wreck of a once comfortable dwelling. Every appearance of comfort was absent. The partitions appeared to have been taken down, and the whole house was turned into one large room. There was no glass in the windows. Upon entering this desolate place, I saw the sick woman lying on a miserable bed, unable to raise her head from the pillow, and attended only by an aged mother over eighty years of age, and a little daughter about seven or eight. I was told that her brutal husband generally came home drunk, and never gave her a kind or soothing word. Here, indeed, seemed to be the very picture of wretchedness. Hear the conclusion. I truly thought before I left the house--that this was the happiest woman I ever saw! Her devout and tender eye was sweetly fixed on heaven. Her countenance was serene, and illumined with a heavenly smile. "Let me die the death of the righteous—and may my end be like theirs!" Numbers 23:10