Handling Trials; Rebuking Pride

Dear Timothy,

The Puritans show us how to handle trials in a Christian manner. Consider the Scottish brothers, Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine. In addition to the religious controversies that dampened their joy in ministry for twenty-five years, they endured much domestic grief. Ebenezer Erskine buried his first wife when she was thirty-nine; his second wife, three years before his own death. He also lost six of fifteen children. Ralph Erskine buried his first wife when she was thirty-two and nine of thirteen children. The three sons who reached maturity all entered the ministry, but one helped to depose his own father.

The Erskines well understood that God has “only one Son without sin but none without affliction,” as one Puritan put it. Their diaries, so typical of the Puritans, are filled with Christ-centered submission in the midst of affliction. When his first wife was on her deathbed and he had just buried several children, Ebenezer Erskine wrote:

I have had the rod of God laying upon my family by the great distress of a dear wife, on whom the Lord hath laid his hand, and on whom his hand doth still lie heavy. But O that I could proclaim the praises of his free grace, which has paid me a new and undeserved visit this day. He has been with me both in secret and public. I found the sweet smells of the Rose of Sharon, and my soul was refreshed with a new sight of him in the excellency of his person as Immanuel, and in the sufficiency of his everlasting righteousness. My sinking hopes are revived by the sight of him. My bonds are loosed, and my burdens of affliction made light, when he appears…. “Here am I, let him do to me as seemeth good unto him.” If he call me to go down to the swellings of Jordan, why not, if it be his holy will? Only be with me, Lord, and let thy rod and staff comfort me, and then I shall not fear to go through the valley of trouble, yea, through the valley of the shadow of death.[1]

We can learn from the Puritans that we need affliction to humble us (Deut. 8:2), to teach us what sin is (Zeph. 1:12), and to bring us to God (Hosea 5:15). “Affliction is the diamond dust that heaven polishes its jewels with,” wrote Robert Leighton. Timothy, view God’s rod of affliction as His means to write Christ’s image more fully upon you, so that you may be a partaker of His righteousness and holiness (Heb. 12:10-11). Let your hardships move you to walk by faith, and wean you from the world. As Thomas Watson wrote, “God would have the world hang as a loose tooth which, being easily twitched away, doth not much trouble us.” Strive for grace to allow affliction to elevate your soul to heaven and pave your way to glory (2 Cor. 4:7).

If you are presently undergoing profound trials, learn from the Puritans not to overestimate those trials. Read William Bridge’s A Lifting Up for the Downcast, Thomas Brooks’s A Mute Christian Under the Rod, and Richard Sibbes’s A Bruised Reed. Remember that life is short and eternity is forever. You are young, but even so think more of your coming crown and your eternal communion with the Triune God, saints, and angels than of temporal tribulations. As John Trapp wrote, “He that rides to be crowned need not think much of a rainy day.”

You are merely a renter here; a mansion awaits you in glory. Don’t despair. The Shepherd’s rod is held by a fatherly hand of love, not a punitive hand of judgment. Consider Christ in your afflictions—were they not much more than yours, and was not He not wholly innocent? Consider how He perseveres for you, how He prays for you, how He helps you toward the goals He has for you. In the end, He will be glorified through your afflictions. As John Bunyan quaintly said, “God’s people are like bells; the harder they are hit, the better they sound.”

God will use your trials to make you a better preacher, too, just as He did the Puritans. George Whitefield wrote:

Ministers never write or preach so well as when under the cross; the Spirit of Christ and of glory then rests upon them. It was this, no doubt, that made the Puritans . . .  such burning and shining lights. When cast out by the black Bartholomew-act [the 1662 Act of Uniformity] and driven from their respective charges to preach in barns and fields, in the highways and hedges, they in an especial manner wrote and preached as men having authority. Though dead, by their writings they yet speak; a peculiar unction attends them to this very hour.[2]

That “peculiar unction” Whitefield refers to is an experimental, Christ-centered unction that derives from learning the art of contentment in the school of affliction. Under affliction, the Puritans experienced rich spiritual contentment and consolations in Christ. So must we, Timothy. Read The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs. He’ll teach you how to turn trial into contentment. Then, the next time you’re buffeted in the ministry by others, Satan, or your own conscience, instead of complaining, carry those buffetings to Christ and ask Him, by His Spirit, to sanctify them so that you may model spiritual contentment for your flock.

Trials should be humbling experiences, which brings us to another point that the Puritans emphasized: the mortification of pride in the ministry.

God hates pride (Prov. 6:16-17). He hates the proud with His heart, curses them with His mouth, and punishes them with His hand (Ps. 119:21; Is. 2:12, 23:9). Pride was God’s first enemy. It was the first sin in paradise and the last we will shed in death. “Pride is the shirt of the soul, put on first and put off last,” writes George Swinnock.[3]

As a sin, pride is unique. Most sins turn us away from God, but pride is a direct attack upon God. It lifts our hearts above God and against God, as Henry Smith said. Pride seeks to dethrone God and enthrone self. 

The Puritans did not consider themselves immune to this sin. Twenty years after his conversion, Jonathan Edwards groaned about the “bottomless, infinite depths of pride” left in his heart. And pride spoils our work. As Richard Baxter says,

“When pride has written the sermon, it goes with us to the pulpit. It forms our tone, it animates our delivery, it takes us off from that which may be displeasing to the people. It sets us in pursuit of vain applause from our hearers. It makes men seek themselves and their own glory.”[4]

Pride is complex. Jonathan Edwards said that it takes many forms and shapes and encompasses the heart like the layers of an onion—when you pull off one layer, there is another underneath.

We ministers, always in the public eye, are particularly prone to the sin of pride. As Richard Greenham writes,

“The more godly a man is, and the more graces and blessings of God are upon him, the more need he hath to pray because Satan is busiest against him, and because he is readiest to be puffed up with a conceited holiness.”[5]

Pride feeds off nearly anything: a fair measure of ability and wisdom, a single compliment, a season of remarkable prosperity, a call to serve God in a position of prestige—even the honor of suffering for the truth. “It is hard starving this sin, when it can live almost upon anything,” writes Richard Mayo.[6]

If we think we are immune to the sin of pride, we should ask ourselves: How dependent are we on the praise of others? Are we caring more about a reputation for godliness than about godliness itself? What do gifts and rewards from others say to us about our ministry? How do we respond to criticism from people in our congregation?

A godly minister fights against pride, whereas a worldly one feeds pride. Cotton Mather confessed that when pride filled him with bitterness and confusion before the Lord,

“I endeavoured to take a view of my pride as the very image of the Devil, contrary to the image and grace of Christ; as an offense against God, and grieving of His Spirit; as the most unreasonable folly and madness for one who had nothing singularly excellent and who had a nature so corrupt.”[7]

Thomas Shepard also fought pride. In his diary entry for November 10, 1642, Shepard wrote, “I kept a private fast for light to see the full glory of the Gospel… and for the conquest of all my remaining pride of heart.”[8]

Can you identify with these Puritan pastors in your struggle against pride? Do you care enough about your brothers in the ministry to admonish them about this sin? When John Eliot, the Puritan missionary, noticed that a colleague thought of himself too highly, he would say to him, “Study mortification, brother; study mortification.”[9]

How do we fight against pride? Do we understand how deeply rooted it is in us—and how dangerous it is to our ministry? Do we ever remonstrate ourselves like the Puritan Richard Mayo:

“Should that man be proud that has sinned as thou hast sinned, and lived as thou hast lived, and wasted so much time, and abused so much mercy, and omitted so many duties, and neglected so great means?—that hath so grieved the Spirit of God, so violated the law of God, so dishonoured the name of God? Should that man be proud, who hath such a heart as thou hast?”[10]

Timothy, if you would kill worldly pride and live in godly humility, look at your Savior, whose life, as Calvin says, “was naught but a series of sufferings.” Nowhere is humility so cultivated than at Gethsemane and Calvary. When pride threatens you, consider the contrast between a proud minister and our humble Savior. Sing with Isaac Watts:

When I survey the wondrous cross,

On which the Prince of glory died;

My richest gain I count but loss,

And pour contempt on all my pride.

Here are some other ways to subdue pride, learned from the Puritans and their successors:

  • View each day as an opportunity to forget yourself and serve others. As Abraham Booth writes, “Forget not, that the whole of your work is ministerial; not legislative—that you are not a lord in the church, but a servant.”[11] The act of service is innately humbling.
  • Seek a deeper knowledge of God, His attributes, and His glory. Job and Isaiah teach us that nothing is so humbling as knowing God (Job 42; Is. 6).
  • Read the biographies of great saints, such as Whitefield’s Journals, The Life of David Brainerd, and Spurgeon’s Early Years. As Dr. Lloyd-Jones says, “If that does not bring you to earth, then I pronounce that you are just a professional and beyond hope.”[12]
  • Remember daily that “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).
  • Pray for humility. Remember how Augustine answered the question, “What three graces does a minister need most?” by saying, “Humility. Humility. Humility.”
  • Meditate much on the solemnity of death, the certainty of Judgment Day, and the vastness of eternity.

Previous articles in the "Learn from the Puritans" series:


Joel Beeke (@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.


Related Links

"John Bunyan on Prayer" by Amy Mantravadi [ Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3 ]

"Patience and Maturity" by Gabriel Williams

Solitude Improved by Divine Meditationavailable in paperback through Soli Deo Gloria Publications

The Valley of Vision [ Leather-Bound  |  Paperback ]

Reformed Preaching by Joel Beeke

Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson


Notes

[1] Donald Fraser, The Life and Diary of the Reverend Ebenezer Erskine (Edinburgh: William Oliphant, 1831), chap. 6. 

[2] Works (London: for Edward and Charles Dilly, 1771), 4:306-307.

[3] Thomas, Puritan Quotations, p. 224.

[4] The Reformed Pastor (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860), pp.  212-26.

[5] The Works of the Reverend and faithfull servant of Iesus Christ M. Richard Greenham (London: Felix Kingston, 1599), p. 62.

[6] Cf. Puritan Sermons 1659-1689, 3:378-93.

[7] Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry (1830 reprint London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1959), p. 152.

[8] God’s Plot: Puritan Spirituality in Thomas Shepard’s Cambridge, ed. Michael McGiffert (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), pp. 116-17. 

[9] Cited in Bridges, The Christian Ministry, p. 128. 

[10] Puritan Sermons 1659-1689, 3:390.

[11] “Pastoral Cautions,” in The Christian Pastor’s Manual, ed. John Brown (reprint Pittsburgh, Penn.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1990), p. 66.

[12] Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), p. 256.