GOOD AFFLICTIONS REV. JOSEPH STEVENS BUCKMINSTER.
PSALM cxix. 71.
IT IS GOOD FOR ME, THAT I HAVE BEEN AFFLICTED.
THIS acknowledgement is from the pen of David, the monarch of Israel, whose life was chequered with all the varieties of prosperous and adverse fortune ; and happy should we pronounce any man, whose sufferings, though less various and severe, have enabled him to repeat with equal sincerity, it is good for me, that I have been afflicted.
Little did I imagine, my christian friends — when I last stood in this desk of sacred instruction, listening to the solemn counsels of those, who were convened to sanction our mutual relation, and joyfully accepting the proffered fellowship and tender congratulations of my elder brethren — little did I imagine, that the cold hand of disease would so soon chill the ardour of my expectations, and cripple the vigour with which I hoped to enter on the duties, in which I should need so much aid from Heaven and so much indulgence from you. But our times are in (rod's
hand. The course of Providence cannot be hastened by our precipitancy ; nor the decrees of Heaven explored by our curiosity, or accommodated to our wishes. But the religion we profess, my friends, forbids us to suffer disappointment to damp the liveliness of our confidence in our Father who is in Heaven, or to awaken even a sentiment, much less to call forth an expression, of fretfulness, impatience or distrust ; and though it is not in the power of human nature to look at the beginning and the end of affliction with equal pleasure, and to feel the approach and the departure of pain with equal gratitude, still we can at least believe, and believing we shall confess, that the hand of God is guided in both by equal goodness : we can at least avoid despising the chastening, or fainting under the rebuke.
But this is not the place to talk of ourselves, or of our sufferings. Permit me only to observe, that I
have been induced to defer to some future day the appropriate discourses, which are usually expected from a pastor newly inducted, that I may direct your present attention to a subject, which you will easily perceive my late confinement has suggested to my thoughts. And if, by seizing the moments when my own reflections are most copious and warm, and my own recollections most vivid, I should be able, by the blessing of God, to impress on the mind of a single hearer the benefits of pain or sickness, or teach him to endure with fortitude and advantage the chastisements of Heaven, I shall bless the present occasion and say
with additional pleasure, it is good for you also, that I have been afflicted.
The discipline of Providence is as various, as are the characters and circumstances of men. Every thing which occurs to us in this life is probationary. Calamities, though they may wear the guise of punishments, are never administered solely for the sake of punishment, but of correction ; and what we call
indiscriminately fortunate events, and thoughtlessly imagine to be blessings, are never dispensed merely as the recompense, but rather as the trials of our obedience.
Of all the various forms, which affliction assumes, the most common is that of sickness. The shafts of disease shoot across our path in such a variety of courses, that the atmosphere of human life is darken* ed by their number, and the escape of an individual becomes almost miraculous. Is there one in this assembly, w ho has reached even half the term of human life, and who has never yet trembled at the approaches of disease, who has never groaned under the anguish of pain, who has never sunk helpless under the secret and imperceptible operation of an enfeebling disorder ; one on whose cheek the bloom of health has never faded, whose limbs the vigour of youth has at no time deserted, the energy of whose mind debility has at no time relaxed, or confinement wasted or disabled ? If there be such an one, who of you will venture to say, I envy that man. Let us grant, indeed, that of all the temporal gifts of God health is the most pure,
valuable and desirable ; the blessing most worthy of the petitions of the good, and least exposed to abuse by the corrupt. Still it is no paradox to assert, that the loss of blessings may itself prove a blessing, that the maladies of the body may prove medicines of the mind. Though that complacency, which is described as the attendant of a healthful and vigorous constitution, may be the maximum of corporeal enjoyment, yet we may venture to assert, without a play upon words, that such uniform freedom from the infirmities of humanity may gradually generate a selfish complacency and confidence in health, which are nearly allied to ignorance of our own frailty, and insensibility to the pains and sorrows of others. The man, who has never yet bowed to the power of disease, nor felt the restless and unmitigated irritations of pain, has not entered an important school of religious discipline, nor exercised himself in the ample field of passive virtues. Could he but know his moral wants, he would even lament the absence of those personal trials, which are adapted to call forth the highest excellencies of the christian character. What then ! Do we say that
he, whom God has blessed with the temperate luxury of uninterrupted health, has not reason for perpetual gratitude ? By no means. We say only, that in the assemblage of graces, which compose the character of the christian, there are some which affliction may improve and sickness invigorate. We say only, that adversity must be mingled with prosperity, to form the most perfect character; not only in the view of
(xod, but in the estimation of society. We say only, (hat for the present indeed, though no chastisement appeareth joyous but grievous, nevertheless it yieldeth afterwards the peaceable fruits of righteousness to tii em, who have been exercised thereby. Therefore, my brethren, lift up the hands that hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees, if such there be among us, and let us see if we cannot discover some roses on the cheek of disease, some intelligence in the languid eye of decaying health, and hear a voice of instruction even from the still chamber of the sick.
1. In the first place, then, the secret and sudden at-
tacks, especially of those acute diseases, whose approaches human foresight cannot discern, and whose immediate causes human wisdom cannot assign, call the attention directly and forcibly to God. Wherever we can discover second causes, to them we confine our reasonings with a kind of atheistical short-sightedness. This calamity we attribute to our own imprudence ; and that to the negligence of others. In one instance we fatter ourselves, that our affliction comes forth from the dust ; in another, that our trouble springs out of the ground. Here, we think, precaution w ould have secured us ; and there retreat would have effectually removed us from danger. But w hen we are called to look in vain for the origin of illness, when even the physician pauses and hesitates to assign a reason, w hen the malady which walks in darkness enters silent and noiseless, and the hand of pain strikes unseen a staggering blow — then it is, that ex-
perience gives no consolation, philosophy is confound-
ed, art is baffled, presumption is abashed, security is alarmed, thoughtlessness awakes and ponders — then it is recollected, that there is a God in the earth, and the sufferer casts himself at the feet of Almighty power, saying, it is the Lord, let him do what seemeth him good.
Hence, whenever we can discover the immediate instrument, the proximate cause of any event, on this the mind, occupied about material things, reposes with unthinking satisfaction, while the universal and Almighty agent is virtually degraded into a sluggish and Epicurean deity. From this slumber of the reflections, which is apt to creep at times upon the most pious and devout, it is the office of violent and sudden disease to awaken us ; and if we could trace no further than this the advantages of occasional suffering, we should be warranted in concluding, that it is good for man to be thus afflicted.
But the immediate agency of God in whatever befals us, is only one of many truths, which severe affliction revives and reimpresses.
2. A second benefit of sickness is, that by it we are reminded of the uncertainty of temporal enjoyments,
and the consequent folly of indulging confident expectations, of framing magnificent plans, of uttering sanguine promises and cherishing extravagant desires. But this uncertainty, you will say, no man is so absurd as to deny : there needs no messenger of wrath to tell us this. But, believe, me. there is a wide differ-
ence between believing, or even assenting to a truth in philosophy or morals, and being the subject of the experiment, which proves it ; between gathering instruction, at leisure, from the disappointments of others, and learning it, at a blow, from the calamities which fall upon ourselves. It is one thing to rise above the attractions of the world, in our chambers, by the aid of moralists and maxims, meditation and prayer ; and another to be disciplined, by personal suffering, till we learn to look at its pleasures with an undazzled eye, and hear its promises with an incredulous ear.
There are some truths, whose force seems to be diminished by the very multitude and variety of the
facts, by which they are proved. Thus the collected experience of successive generations, the observation of every living man, and the solemn and multiplied declarations of scripture have been conspiring, ever since the world was made, to show the precariousness of human enjoyments. The truth is so evident, that we admit and forget it in the same moment. We want some objection to awaken our consideration, some difficulty to call out our attention. Wearied by their repetition, and bewildered by their multitude, we feel not the force of such innumerable proofs. But when God in his mercy interposes, and blasts at once the confidence of our expectations, when a sickly wind is permitted to pass over our luxuriant hopes, and they are gone — then the sinews of our presumptuousness are cut in a moment, and the proud heart,
which said, " I shall never be moved/' drops with all its purposes and plans, promises and hopes ; and what volumes failed to teach, what instructers repeat-
ed, and example exhibited in vain, is enstamped forever on the mind by one short, probing lesson of personal suffering.
3. But sickness teaches not only the uncertain tenure, but discovers, thirdly, the utter vanity and unsatisfactoriness of the dearest objects of human pursuit. Introduce into the chamber of a sick and dying man the whole pantheon of idols, which he has vainly worshipped — fame, wealth, pleasure, beauty, power. What miserable comforters are they all ! Bind that wreath of laurel round his brow, and see if it will assuage his aching temples. Spread before him the deeds and instruments, which prove him the lord of innumerable possessions, and see if you can beguile him of a moment's anguish ; see if he will not give you up those barren parchments for one drop of cool water, one draught of pure air. Go, tell him, when a fever rages through his veins, that his table smokes with luxuries, and that the wine moveth itself aright and giveth its colour in the cup, and see if this will calm his throbbing pulse. Tell him, as he lies prostrate, helpless and sinking with debility, that the song and dance are ready to begin, and that all without him is life, alacrity and joy. Nay more, place in his motionless hand che sceptre of a mighty empire, and see
if he will be eager to grasp it. The eye of Caesar
could not gain its lustre by the recollection, that its 7
'•'bend could awe the world," nor his shaking limbs be quieted by remembering, that his nod had commanded obedience from millions of slaves. This, my friends, this is the school, in which our desires must be disciplined, and our judgment corrected. The man, who from such dispensations learns nothing but perverseness, must be fearfully insensible. Let us then remember, that every man, at what he supposes his best estate, is altogether vanity. God grant that we may understand it, before others are called to learn it from our graves, or to read it upon our tombstones.
But if sickness puts to the proof these worthless objects of our confidence, it ought also to direct us to that staff which cannot be broken. Till we learn to
lean on an Almighty arm, and to support a mind vigorous with trust, and warm with devotion, in the midst of a racked and decaying frame, the work of sickness is but half completed. To learn the emptiness of the w orld, is to learn but a lesson of misanthropy, if it do not generate and awaken that confidence, which gladly casts itself on God alone. When affliction has had her perfect work, we shall involuntarily adopt this language of a pious sufferer, be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me, for my soul trusteth in thee : yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast. I will commit my soul unto thee, as unto a faithful Creator.
4. Violent diseases show us also our dependence upon one another. Man, unaided by his fellow man, is the most weak and helpless of animals. Placed
beyond the reach of the kind, watchful., and sympathetiek aid of others, his first malady would be his last ; and the lord of this lower world would sink under the first blow, which should strike his brittle
tenement. Take the most proud and fiery spirit, which ever animated a muscular and gigantick frame, one who disdains to be obliged, and spurns alike the control and the assistance of others. Stretch him on the bed of sickness, languishing, faint and motionless. Where now is that surly independence, that irritable haughtiness of soul ? Nay, where now is that resistless strength of limb, that mighty bone and lofty step ? Has it come to this ? — that a child may lead so untraceable a spirit ; that a child may contend with that withered arm ?
It is a common remark, that death is the universal leveller. The same is true, in its degree, of sickness. When we are reduced to such weakness that we cannot help ourselves, we find that many, whom we despised, can essentially help us. We find, that the meanest of our species can lay us under obligations, which we can never discharge. We find, ourselves at the mercy of those, on whom, if we have ever bestowed a thought, Ave have been accustomed to look down with pity or contempt. But, from a sick bed, it is impossible to look down on any one. On the contrary, I appeal to you who have ever suffered, whether you have not sometimes gazed with grateful admiration at the patient, condescending, untired offi-
ces of affectionate fidelity and tender watchfulness,
which have at once ennobled in your esteem and endeared to your affections the humblest of your species.
But it is the tendency of sickness not only to reduce our extravagant self estimation, by exhibiting our solitary helplessness, but, by leading our friends to perform for us innumerable and nameless offices of affection, it confirms and fastens forever those tender ties, which bind us to each other. Often, indeed, has a severe and tedious confinement added new strength to the attachments of consanguinity, and new delicacy to the bonds of friendship. Often, in the chamber of the sick, a stern temper has been melted to forgiveness, indifference has ripened into love, aversion has changed into regard, and regard mellowed into attachment.
5. It is the tendency of sickness to intenerate and soften the heart. It is impossible properly to commiserate afflictions, which we have never experienced, and cannot therefore estimate. Of course, every variety of suffering aids the general groAvth of compassion. A new affliction strings a new chord in the
heart, which responds to some new note of complaint within the wide scale of human woe. Since the pains and weaknesses of the body constitute so large a portion of the afflictions, which besiege the path of human life, who of you is unwilling to acquire, even by personal suffering, a sympathy for the exercise of which your intercourse with mankind will present innumerable opportunities. Mark the delight, with which the afflicted communicate to each other the circumstances of their common woes. It is an enviable
eloquence, which they only feel and understand. Hce with what facility and advantage one, who has endured pain, will anticipate the wants of a sick companion, and administer relief or whisper cheering consolations, while another is standing by, who, if not insensible, is at least dumb and useless, unable to comfort, because he knows not how to commiserate. Whatever he, who has grown callous through uninterrupted prosperity, and presumptuous by perpetual
health, may think of his immunity from pain, there is a satisfaction, a luxury in being able to exclaim with Paul, that sympathetick apostle, who is weak and I am not weak, who is offended and I burn not.
6. Our sixth remark on the benefit of sickness, though the most common yet not the most unimportant, is, that sickness is sometimes necessary to teach us the value of health. In the present state of refined and luxurious society, there are two large and increasing descriptions of men, to whom it is of no little importance to understand the real value of health. The first is the numerous class of imaginary invalids, who, though subject only to the unavoidable infirmities of mortality, create to themselves a host of fancied ills, and waste a really healthful life in perpetual apprehensions, ungrateful complaints, idle precautions, and uninterrupted discontent. It is well known, that such men never felt the severity of serious and painful illness. A single rude and violent attack of real disorder would soon shake off this cluster of uneasinesses, and put to flight the cowardly tribe of imaginary- woes.
It would be good for these men, to be afflicted indeed. There is, however, a precisely opposite class, composed of the presumptuous, thoughtless and adventurous ; men, whom age has not yet made cautious, nor adversity wise. Ignorant of the value of a blessing, which to youth is so common, they delight rashly to expose it, and insensibly to waste it away. After experience has counselled, friendship intreated, and authority commanded in vain, disease comes at last and closes the presumptuous game, and teaches them, that health, strength and life, though they may be possessed without gratitude, cannot be sported with without loss, or won .back again by dexterity or courage.
It is the distinguishing mark of habitual piety to be grateful for the most common and ordinary blessings. There is no man so insensible and vile, as not to feel a glow of thankfulness for distinguishing favours or wonderful interpositions. But sickness discovers the value of the usual and customary degree of health, and reminds the convalescent, that he has scarcely thanked God for a blessing, in the place of which
nothing can be substituted, and for whose recovery every thing but innocence may justly be surrendered.
7. Lastly, the attacks of violent disease will teach us, if we are not absolutely insensible, a most solemn and salutary lesson, which, if not early acquired, may be useless, because the next experiment may be fatal. We shall then find, that the hours of torturing pain and languishing confinement are not the
hours most favourable to quiet reflection and pious thoughts. We shall find, that the mind will sympathize so much with the anguish and debility of the body, that it will be too feeble to expatiate, or too distracted to fix itself in meditation. lieligious contemplations and celestial visions do not necessarily throng around the pillow, which supports an aching head. In one word, confinement will not afford you that leisure, which you want and which you expect, to think at last of your future destination, to learn the truths
you have neglected, to revive those you have forgotten, and to prepare for that world which now seems nearer to you than ever. The lessons, which affliction imparts, she leaves to be considered, when health is returning, and to be practised, when it is established. To have been afflicted, is of little importance, if no time remains for the confirmation of our dispositions and the establishment of better habits. When the psalmist observes, it is good for me, that I have been afflicted, he does not mean, that the mere suffering of pain made him instantaneously better, that debility and distress prepared him immediately to leave the world, that affliction led him necessarily and directly to God. Suppose, what is not improbable, that during his distresses he was exercised with remorse, and melted with contrition. Still, unless his penitence had been so deep, that, if he had lived, it would have exhibited a permanent influence by confirming his piety into habit, and leading him to a sincere relinquishment of his former sins, the anguish of his
mind would have been morally worth little more than the tortures of his body ; and the royal criminal, if he had then been summoned from the world, would have rushed tarnished and impure into the presence of his God, though he might have gone thither from a bed of sickness, and even with the language of contrition and confession on his lips.
We heseech you, then, do not mistake us. When we discourse to you of the beneficial fruits of affliction, we talk of no secret and magical power, which sickness possesses, to make you necessarily and immediately wise and good ; but we speak of fruits, which must form, and swell, and ripen — fruits, which time must mature and watchfulness preserve. We represent affliction as a discipline, which you must live to improve ; a medicine, whose operation cannot be ascertained, if the patient dies in the experiment. O, defer not, then, I beseech you, defer not to the frantick hours of pain, to the feverish hours of disease, to the languishing hours of confinement — defer not an attention to the things which concern your everlasting peace. You think, they will be hours of leisure. Believe me, it will be the leisure of distraction or of insensibility — it may be the leisure of death.
I have thus attempted to direct your attention to some of the numerous benefits, which follow from affliction ; benefits, which may at least light up a smile on the pale and gloomy countenance of disease, if they cannot invest it with beauty and grace. Permit me
now to surest a few reflections naturally connected with the subject.
1. In the first place, then, if all the natural evils of life, pain, sickness, losses, soitoavs, dangers and disappointments, are disciplinary and remedial, it follows, that nothing is really and ultimately calamitous but sin. Moral evil alone mars the intellectual works of God. While this remains, pain will wave over us her scourge in triumph, and disease will call exulttingly upon her train of woes, and let them loose to prey on fallen man. And shall we willingly harbour this monster of the rational world ? Shall we throw
open our hearts, to give a hospitable shelter to this polluted and polluting tenant ? Shall we roll this poison as a sweet morsel under our tongue, and then complain of the salutary sufferings, which are necessary to expel it from our system ?
2. If the tendency of affliction is so beneficial, a stronger motive cannot be suggested to encourage us to support pain with fortitude and patience, and all kinds of suffering with resignation to the will of heaven. Other considerations indeed there are, which may have their weight on other minds, but I know of none at once so intelligible, so rational and so pious as these : by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better ; and our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. There may, indeed, be found minds so well disciplined in piety, and so far
advanced in the career of holiness, as to acquiesce 8
humbly in every dispensation, from the simple consideration, that it proceeds from the hand of an Almighty disposer. But I conceive, that this temper of unalloyed suhmission must he grounded on a conviction, that this disposer is merciful, that his chastisements are parental, and his designs exclusively benevolent and pure ; so that the perfection of resignation is nothing more than a principle ripened into a habit ; a principle, which was originally suggested by an attention to the established tendency of affliction, and by conclusions thence formed of the character of the corrector, that he does not afflict willingly, nor for sorrow's sake alone grieve the children of men.
Others, however, submit unrepiningly to evils, merely because they are inevitable. This is a spirit, which is often dignified with the name of philosophical submission. But, Avhatever it may possess of philosophy, it has little of piety, for it is at best a spurious kind of resignation, a doubtful virtue, which might be recommended with equal propriety, and from the same considerations, under the government of a malignant as of a good being ; and would, indeed, be peculiarly accommodated to the inhabitants of a
world, if such there were, whose affairs were subject to the fluctuations of a blind chance, or bound down by an invincible and physical fatality.
But, my christian friends, in the. enjoyment of that pure light, which our religion throws upon the character of God, we should be ashamed to recommend to you this Stoical principle. Leave such cold-blooded
virtue to that chilling system of philosophy, which sees in the universe no design, in adversity no tendency to good, in futurity no gleams of hope, and in heaven no creator, benefactor, father or judge.
From the view of affliction, which we have attempted to give yon, what duties result ? Consideration. In the day of adversity consider. Prayer. Is any among you afflicted, let him pray : In the day of my trouble I will call upon thee, O God, for thou wilt answer me. Fortitude. If thou faint in the day of ad-
versity, thy strength is small. Patience. Patient in your tribulation, possess ye your souls, and let patience have her perfect work. And, to comprise all these virtues in a single word, resignation. The cup, which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it ? Not my will, O God, but thine be done.
The reflection, that if our affliction does not make us better, it will assuredly make us worse, is, to those who have recovered, solemn, and full of awful thought. To grow worse under the discipline of Providence, is the most deplorable and desperate state, into which a moral being can sink. In the time of his distress did he trespass yet more against the Lord : this is that king Ahaz. Believe me, this is no chimerical danger. The fire, which does not melt, will harden ; the stain, which is not purified by the furnace, will be more deeply engrained. If sickness, for instance, have not taught us the vanity of some of our dearest pleasures, we shall only return to them with appetites sharpened by abstinence, and desires rendered more ungov-
ernable by temporary restraint. If it has not impressed upon us also the uncertainty of health, and prepared us better for the loss of life, it has probably increased our presumptuousness, and induced us to hope, that disease has now discharged his quiver of arrows, and that, as soon as our wounds are healed, we have little more to fear from this dreaded enemy in our passage through the troubled path of life. If we have not learned resignation, it is probable we have become more impatient, discontented and irritable. If we have learned no humility, we have probably learned perverseness, and — what is still more to be lamented, what we can hardly contemplate without horrour — it will require a harder blow to make us feel hereafter, a severer chastisement to make us submit. And who shall say, whether the next chastisement shall be inflicted in this world, or in another? Who will be so hardy as to assure us, whether it shall be part of the discipline of this state of probation, or a portion of the sufferings in a state of punishment ?
4. Lastly, if there is any one, who, despairing of the return of health and strength, labours under the gradual advances of an incurable disease, to such an one I would say, it may be good even for you, to be afflicted. There are advantages even in the long con-
tinuance of confinement, and in the prospect of inevitable and slowly approaching death. To him who knows, that he must soon close his eyes on this pleasant scene, it is no small preparation, that every morning's sun rises upon his sight with daily diminishing
lustre, luxuries pall gradually upon his taste, sounds die away gently upon his ear, and the ties, which bind him to earth, weaken by degrees, and at last the silver cord is loosed with gentle hands, without painful or perceptible disruption.
Long confinement, also, brings with it the advantages of drawing us off from those partialities, which bind us to society in general ; and, though it may strengthen our attachment to those, who watch immediately around our bed, and are the inmates of our decaying hours, yet even here the energy of the affections wastes with the energy of the body, and tne dissolution of the ties of love and friendship is, by
the kindness of Heaven, rendered as gentle as the dissolution of the soul and body. Lengthened illness,^ too, not only draws off our attention gradually from a world we must leave, but it seems to usher into view, by a similar and solemn gradation, the world which we are about to enter. It places us in an extended and narrow vista, in which the various objects on each side are excluded, and eternity, that vast object at the termination of the view, seems to enlarge, as we approach it, till it fills at last, and engrosses the conceptions*
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