Back to Basics: A Book on Suffering and Bereavement

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Before my video interview with Dr. Packer last May, the two of us sat in a room at Regent discussing one of the passions which we both share - no, not bashing chinless upper class English schoolboys but rather our appreciation of the English Puritans - in relation to recent and contemporary evangelical history.  We had a fair few disagreements over numerous matters during that short time and at one point the good doctor looked me straight in the eye and declared, with perhaps just a hint of exasperation, "You, Carl, are a sectarian.  I always think of you as today's equivalent of John Owen."  "Well, Dr Packer," I replied, "You are too catholic in spirit. I always think of you as Richard Baxter!"   Looking back, I think being called an Owen-like sectarian has to be one of the most flattering criticisms I could ever receive. Judging by his smile, I suspect Dr Packer may have felt the same about the insult I fired at him. 

There are numerous points of contrast between these two giants of post-1662 non-conformity.   Owen saw the need for a relatively elaborate confessional basis for the church; Baxter preferred a more minimal creed.  Baxter's fear of antinomianism led him to develop a very distinctive doctrine of justification; Owen preferred to run the risk of being accused of being an antinomian rather than take the chance of introducing any hint of works righteousness.  And Owen was an intensely private man while Baxter was much more public about his private life (by the relatively subdued standards of the seventeenth century, that is; it is hard to see him using Facebook or tweeting every time he had coffee in an airport).

In the seventeenth century, if life was not always short then it was almost always nasty and brutish at some level.  It was, after all, a time before analgesics and antibiotics.   This is one of the reasons why attitudes to suffering seem to have been different among many Christians then.  Today, suffering is a problem: whether we are thinking of a massive crime against humanity, such as the Holocaust, or the stillbirth of a single child, suffering tends to provoke the question, 'Why?'   Looking at Owen and Baxter, it does not seem to have had quite the same effect.

Owen rarely mentions it.  It is not that he did not know suffering.  He had eleven children, ten of whom died in infancy and all of whom predeceased him.  It beggars belief to think that this did not take a heavy emotional toll on him; yet he never mentions any of these losses in his voluminous works.  I suspect he simply regarded grief as a private matter and of no public interest.  

Baxter too knew suffering.   In particular, the loss of his beloved wife Margaret devastated him.  She was much younger than him but utterly devoted to her husband.  Indeed, when Baxter was imprisoned, she took her bed into the prison and joined him in his suffering.  When she died, he fully expected (hoped?)  to follow her swiftly to the grave.  He did not, outliving her by a long, lonely decade.

After she died, Baxter wrote an account of her faith and piety, Breviate of the Life of Mrs Margaret Baxter.   It is a moving work, containing both her own writings and Baxter's reflections on her.  It drips love and devotion from every page.  What is perhaps most stunning is that there is not a hint of self-pity or of challenge to God in the whole text.  The great modern questions, "Why me?" and "How can a God of love.....?"  -- you know, the kind of questions you and I even dare to ask when we lock our keys in the car or hit our thumbs with a hammer -- do not feature anywhere.   While Baxter grieved more publicly than Owen, one suspects that both men regarded suffering as something to be expected in this fallen world and thus to be treated as such.

One of the literary jewels Dr. Packer has given the church is his edition the Breviate where he intersperses his own wise commentary and thoughts.  It is still available from Crossway as A Grief Sanctified and is, I believe, the single best book on Christian suffering available.  I keep a copy on my bedside table and dip into it regularly.  So much wisdom packed into so few pages.  And as we all know, even the most devoted marriage ultimately ends in tragedy.  Baxter's bereavement awaits the marriages of us all.

Recently, I gave it to a much older Christian friend who had just lost his beloved wife of many years after a long and painful illness.  Last week, I received a brief note of thanks from him: 'It was just what I needed,' he wrote, 'and I will recommend it to others.'  There can be no higher praise or greater vote of confidence for a book on bereavement than that.

Posted July 11, 2012 @ 7:12 PM by Carl Trueman
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