Duty and Doubt

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:13, 1 Peter 5:5-6, James 1:22

And when we heard these things, both we, and they of that place, besought him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.
~ Acts 21:12-13

I poured out my complaint before him; I shewed before him my trouble. When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, then thou knewest my path. In the way wherein I walked have they privily laid a snare for me. Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance. The LORD is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him. The LORD is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him. It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD.
~ Psalm 142:2-3, Psalm 42:5, Lamentations 3:24-26

Duties and Discouragements, by Richard Sibbes. 1630. This is Chapter Eight from his work, “The Bruised Reed”.

We should persist in duties — Overcoming discouragements — The source of discouragements — Some scruples removed — What are sins of infirmity?

From what has been said, it will not be difficult, with a little further discussion, to resolve that question which some require help in: namely, whether we ought to perform duties when our hearts are completely averse to them? To be satisfied on this point, we must take account of certain things.

We Should Persist In Duties

1. Our hearts of themselves are reluctant to give up their liberty, and only with difficulty are they brought under the yoke of duty. The more spiritual the duty is, the more reluctance there is. Corruption gains ground, for the most part, in every neglect. It is like rowing against the tide: one neglected stroke is not regained by three; and therefore it is good to keep our hearts close to duty, and not to listen to the excuses they are ready to frame.

2. As we set about our duty, God strengthens the influence that he has in us. We find a warmness of heart and an increase in strength; the Spirit goes along with us and raises us up by degrees until he leaves us, as it were, in heaven. God often delights to take advantage of our averseness, so that he may manifest his work more clearly, and so that all the glory of the work may be his, just as all the strength is his.

3. Obedience is most direct when there is nothing else to sweeten the action. Although the sacrifice is imperfect, yet the obedience with which it is offered is accepted.

4. What is won as a spoil from our corruptions, will comfort us as much afterwards as it obstructs us presently. An emotional and spirited release is often reserved until our duty is discharged; reward follows work. In and after our duty, we experience God’s presence in a way that, without obedience, we may long await but never enjoy. This does not hinder the Spirit’s freedom to blow when he pleases upon our souls (John 3:8); we are speaking only of a soul that has no wind for its sails and must row, as it were, against the stream. As in sailing, the hand must be on the helm, and the eye on the star. Likewise, here we must apply what little strength we have to our duty and look up for assistance, which the Spirit will freely and seasonably afford us.

Yet in those duties that require the body as well as the soul, our duties may cease until our strength is restored. Whetting a tool does not hinder its work, but prepares it. In sudden passions too, there should be a time to compose and calm the soul, and to tune the strings. The prophet asked for a minstrel to bring his soul into that frame (2 Kings 3:15).

Overcoming Discouragements

Suffering brings discouragement because of our impatience. “Alas!” we lament, “I shall never get through such a trial.” But if God brings us into the trial, he will be with us in the trial, and at length he will bring us out of it, more refined. We shall lose nothing but dross (Zech. 13:9). From our own strength we cannot bear the least trouble; but by the Spirit’s assistance we can bear the greatest. The Spirit will add his shoulders to help us bear our infirmities. The Lord will give his hand to lift us up (Psa. 37:24). “You have heard of the patience of job,” says James (James 5:11). We have heard of his impatience too, but it pleased God to mercifully overlook that. When we find ourselves in desolate conditions such as contagious sickness, times in which we are more immediately under God’s hand, it is a comfort to us to know that Christ has a throne of mercy at our bedside, and that he numbers our tears and our groans. We now come to the matter of the Sacrament, which was not ordained for angels, but for men; and not for perfect men, but for weak men; and not for Christ, who is truth itself, in order to bind him, but because we are ready, by reason of our guilty and unbelieving hearts, to call truth itself into question.

Therefore, it was not enough for his goodness to leave us many precious promises; but he gives us confirming tokens to strengthen us. And even if we are not as prepared as we should be, let us still pray as Hezekiah did: “The good LORD pardon everyone who prepares his heart to seek God, the LORD God of his fathers, even though he is not cleansed according to the purification of the sanctuary” (2Chr. 30:18,19). Then we may come comfortably to this holy sacrament, and with much fruit. This should carry us through all our duties cheerfully: that if we hate our corruptions, and strive against them, they will not be counted against us. “It is no more I that do it,” says Paul, “but sin that dwells in me” (Rom. 7:17). For what displeases us shall never hurt us, and we shall be esteemed by God to be what we love, and desire, and labor to be. What we desire to be, we shall be; and what we truly desire to conquer, we shall conquer; for God will fulfil the desires of those who fear him (Psa. 145:19). The desire is a pledge of the thing desired. How little encouragement is needed to support us in the affairs of this life! And yet all the helps God offers will hardly persuade our backward natures.

The Source Of Discouragements

Where, then, do these discouragements come from?

1. No discouragements come from the Father, for he has bound himself in covenant to pity us, just as a father pities his children (Psa. 103:13), and to accept us, just as a father accepts our weak endeavours. What we lack in strength of duty, he allows us to make up in his gracious indulgence. In this way, we will honour that grace in which he delights as much as he delights in more perfect performances. Possibilitas tua mensura tua (What is possible for you, is what you will be measured by).

2. No discouragements come from Christ, for in his office he will not quench the smoking flax. We see how Christ bestows the best fruits of his love on people who are poor in condition, weak in abilities, and offensive for their infirmities — no, for their more conspicuous falls. And he does this, first, because it pleases him to confound the pride of the flesh which usually measures God’s love by some outward excellence; and secondly, because he delights to show the freedom of his grace, confirming his royal prerogative that “one who glories” must “glory in the Lord” (1Cor. 1:31).

A marginal note in early editions reads, ‘This was preached at the Sacrament’. In the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, among that cloud of witnesses, we see Rahab, Gideon, and Samson ranked with Abraham, the father of the faithful (Heb. 11:31,32). Our blessed Savior, just as he was the image of his Father, so he was of the same mind as his Father, glorifying him for revealing the mystery of the gospel to simple men, and neglecting those with a reputation of being wise in the world (Matt. 11:25, 26).

It is worth noting what Augustine said of a simple man in his time that was almost entirely destitute of reason. He was most patient with any insults to himself, but because of his reverence for religion, he would not endure any injury done to the name of Christ. His reverence was so great, that he would cast stones at those who blasphemed, not sparing even his own governors. This shows that no one has abilities too meagre to be beneath the gracious regard of Christ. Where it pleases him to make his choice, and to exalt his mercy, he overlooks no degree of understanding, however simple.

3. Nor do discouragements come from the Spirit. He helps our infirmities, and his office is that of a comforter (Rom. 8:26; John 14:16). If he convicts us of sin, and humbles us, it is so that he may open a way for his office of comforting.

Discouragements, then, must come from ourselves, and from Satan who labours to fasten on us a loathing of duty.

Some Misgivings Removed

Among other causes of discouragement, some are greatly aggravated by doubts, even about the best performance of their duties; partly this is from physical disease, helped by Satan’s malice in throwing dust in their eyes on their way to heaven; and partly from some remainder of ignorance which, like darkness, breeds fear — this ignorance is especially of Christ’s merciful disposition. If they could only be persuaded of his mercy, it would easily banish any false fears. But they think of him as someone watching for anything to hold against them; in doing so, they wrong not only themselves, but his goodness. This scrupulousness, for the most part, is a sign of a godly soul, just as some weeds are a sign of good soil. Therefore they are all the more to be pitied, for it is a heavy affliction. The ground of it, mostly, is not so much a troubled conscience as a disordered imagination. The purpose of Christ’s coming was to free us from all such groundless fears. Some believers are still so ignorant of the comfortable condition we are in under the covenant of grace, that they are greatly discouraged. Therefore we must understand that:

1. Weaknesses do not break our covenant with God, for they do not break the covenant between husband and wife; and shall we make ourselves more pitied than Christ, who is a pattern of love for all other husbands?

2. Weaknesses do not preclude us from mercy; rather they incline God toward us all the more (Psa. 78:39). Mercy is part of the church’s marriage inheritance. Christ betroths the Church to himself “in mercy” (Hos. 2:19). The husband is bound to bear with the wife as being the “weaker vessel” (1Pet. 3:7); do we think Christ will exempt himself from his own rule, and not bear with his weaker spouse?

3. If Christ were not merciful toward our weaknesses, he would not have a people to serve him. Suppose therefore we are very weak; so long as we are not numbered with malicious opponents and those who undermine God’s truth, let us not give way to despairing thoughts; we have a merciful Saviour.

But lest we flatter ourselves without good grounds, we must know that weaknesses are to be considered either imperfections which cling to our best actions, or actions which proceed from our immaturity in Christ while we are babes; or they are the effects of lack of strength, where our ability is small; or they are sudden unintended outbreaks that are contrary to our general bent and purpose; they occur while our judgment is overcast with the cloud of a sudden temptation — afterward, however, we sense our infirmity, and grieve for it; and from our grief, we complain; and with our complaining, we strive and labor to reform; and finally, in labouring to reform, we make some progress against our corruption.

Weaknesses considered in this way, though matters of humiliation, and the object of our daily mortification, may yet be consistent with boldness with God. Good works are not extinguished or tainted by them so as to lose all acceptance with God. But to justify an infirmity is more than an infirmity; to overlook our weaknesses is more than a weakness. The defence of evil shuts our mouths, so that the soul cannot call God “Father” with childlike liberty, or enjoy sweet communion with him, until peace is made by shaming ourselves, and renewing our faith. Those who have ever been bruised for sin, if they fall, are soon recovered. Peter was recovered with a gracious look of Christ, and David by Abigail’s words. If you tell a thief or a vagrant that he is out of the way, he pays no heed, because his aim is not to walk in any particular way, except as it suits his purpose.

What are sins of infirmity?

To clarify this further, we must understand that:

1. Wherever sins of infirmity are found in a person, the life of grace must have begun. There can be no weakness where there is no life.

2. There must be a sincere and general bent toward the best things. Though a godly man may suddenly be drawn or driven aside in some particulars, yet, because of that interest the Spirit of Christ has in him, and because his aims are mainly right, he will either recover by himself, or he will yield to the counsel of others.

3. There must be a right judgment, allowing for the best ways; otherwise, the heart is rotten. If so, it will infuse corruption into the whole conduct of life, so that all men’s actions become infected at the fountainhead. Then they justify their own looseness, and they condemn God’s ways as too strict. The principles by which they live are not good.

4. There must be a conjugal love toward Christ, so that there are no terms on which they will change their Lord and husband, and absolutely yield themselves to be ruled by their own lusts, or the lusts of others.

A Christian’s behaviour towards Christ may be very offensive in many things, and cause some alienation; yet he will own Christ, and Christ will own him; he will not resolve to take any path in which he knows he must break with Christ. Where the heart is thus qualified in these respects, there we must know this: that Christ counts it his honour to overlook many infirmities — no, to perfect his strength in our infirmities. There are some almost invincible infirmities, such as forgetfulness, depression, or sudden passions and fears which, though natural, are for the most part tainted with sin. If the life of Christ is in us, we are weary of these, and we would willingly shake them off, as a sick man would be rid of his fever; otherwise it should not be considered weakness so much as willfulness — and the more will there is, the more sin. And little sins, when God awakens the conscience and “sets them in order” before us (Psa. 50:21), will prove great burdens; they will not only bruise a reed, but shake a cedar. Yet God’s children never sin with full will, because there is a contrary law in their minds by which the dominion of sin is broken; it always works secretly against the law of sin (Gal. 5:17). Nevertheless, there may be so much will in a sinful action, that it may destroy our comfort to a remarkable degree afterwards. It will keep us on the rack of a disquieted conscience for a long time: God in his fatherly dispensation suspends the sense of his love. To the extent that we surrender to our will in sinning, we distance ourselves from comfort. Sin against conscience is like a thief in the candle, which spoils our joy, and thereby weakens our strength. We must know, therefore, that wilful breaches in our sanctification will greatly hinder the sense of our justification.

What course can such people take to recover their peace? They must condemn themselves sharply, and yet they must throw themselves upon God’s mercy in Christ, just as they did at their conversion. Now they must embrace Christ all the more firmly, as they see more need in themselves. And let them remember the mildness of Christ here, that he will not quench the smoking flax. Often we see that, after a deep humiliation, Christ speaks more peace than before, to witness to the truth of this reconciliation, because he knows Satan’s enterprise to pull them down even lower. They are most abased in themselves, and they are ashamed to look Christ in the face because of their ingratitude.

We see that God not only pardoned David but, after much bruising, he gave him wise Solomon to succeed him in the kingdom. We see in Song of Solomon 6:4 that, after the church has been humbled for slighting Christ, he sweetly entertains her again, and begins to commend her beauty.9 We must know for our comfort that Christ was not anointed to this great work of being our Mediator only for lesser sins, but for the greatest of them, if we just have a spark of true faith to lay hold of him. Therefore, if there is anyone who is a bruised reed, let him not make an exception of himself when Christ does not make an exception of him. “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden” (Matt. 11:28). Why should we not make use of so gracious a disposition? We are only poor for this reason: that we do not know our riches in Christ. In time of temptation, believe Christ rather than the devil. Believe truth from truth itself. Do not listen to a liar, an enemy, and a murderer.

Why believe the devil instead of believing God? Rise up and realize the truth about yourself – that all the past has gone, and you are one with Christ, and all your sins have been blotted out once and for ever. O let us remember that it is sin to doubt God’s Word. It is sin to allow the past, which God has dealt with, to rob us of our joy and our usefulness in the present and in the future. — D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Gospel Governed.