"The Lord went before them by night in a pillar of fire."
"My grace is sufficient for you; for My strength is made perfect in weakness."—2 Cor. 12:9.
"And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work."—2 Cor. 9:8.
What could we do, in the midst of the thick darkness of trial, but for the sustaining grace of Christ? Like the great Apostle, who tells his experience in our first motto-verse, we plead with God for the removal of some affliction—"the thorn in the flesh sent to buffet us" (12:7). The prayer is answered, the support is given; but not in the way we asked for, or expected. The lacerating spur is still left—the trial or bereavement, whatever it be, is permitted to continue. The God, however, who sent the trial—yes, who sent the trial—for observe the special word of the Apostle, "there was given me a thorn in the flesh" (v. 7)—He who appointed the trial and still retains it, bestows what HE deems preferable. He imparts compensating grace enabling us to endure the thorn.
To borrow an illustration from the name of our volume; the Israelites, soon after the commencement of the desert march, gave vent to bitter complaint. Their cry was to be delivered from a prolonged wilderness journey, to terminate days of scorching heat and nights of chill and darkness. 'Remove the thorn. Take us back, either to the waters and palm-groves of Egypt; or else, by some easier and shorter route, conduct us to the Land of Promise.' God answers their prayer; but not as they would have desired. He continues the long, lonely, dreary road for the space of forty years. But He bestows the better equivalent, not for their good only, but to be a spiritual lesson for His Church in all coming ages. He gives the symbol and pledge of His own immediate presence. He spreads over their camp a canopy of cloud by day. He lights up a pillar of fire by night. He would teach them the far higher truth of realizing their dependence on Him. Weak, wavering, helpless in themselves, at the mercy of a thousand hostile forces and influences, (inhospitable nature combined with the assaults of desert foes,)—"He led forth His own people like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock. He commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven. He rained down manna upon them to eat, and gave them of the bread of heaven. …Man did eat angels' food" (Psalm 78:52, 23, 24, 25, R.V.). In other words, the answer to their importunate pleadings was given in the language of our New Testament assurance, "My grace is sufficient for you: for My strength is made perfect in weakness."
All this is suggestive, also, of severest affliction. The Apostle's emblem points to trial in its acutest form. Those who have traveled in Eastern lands know what "the thorn" is. Paul could fetch his figure from early memories by the banks of the Cydnus river, and the Tarsus Valley, as well as from many subsequent scenes of travel where the same tree was abundant. Very different is it from what is familiar to us at home. The spikes, at once larger and stronger, always recalled to the present writer what must have been the anguish of that thorny crown which circled the brow of the Man of Sorrows. Indeed the original word may, according to some, imply the intenser form of suffering which points to those stakes or iron prongs employed at times by barbarous conquerors to mangle the bodies of the vanquished (R.V. margin).
Afflicted one, your present trial may in no figurative, but very real sense, be one of exceptional severity: the iron may have entered into your soul. God's method of dealing is still the same as with Paul. The Shepherd of Israel, who "led Joseph like a flock," has some great end in view in the sending and continuance of the lacerating thorn. He designs life to be a scene and season of discipline. The word more than once translated in the Epistles "judgment" really means "training," "education." He is educating you in His school, as He did Israel under the sheen of the Pillar. His dealings—the acutest and most mysterious, are not arbitrary—not capricious. He knows what is best. "The sufferings from which He could not deliver us He has transfigured for us. They are no longer penal, but remedial and penitential. Pain has become the chastisement of a Father who loves us: and Death the passage into His very presence" (Lyttleton).
The thorn which you would sincerely remove He sees fit to continue; the somber cloud in which He enfolds you, He delays or refuses to rim with the silver lining. "I will give you," says He, "better than the removal of either thorn or cloud: 'Strengthen those who have tired hands, and encourage those who have weak knees. Say to those who are afraid, "Be strong, and do not fear, for your God is coming to destroy your enemies. He is coming to save you. The lame will leap like a deer, and those who cannot speak will shout and sing! Springs will gush forth in the wilderness, and streams will water the desert. The parched ground will become a pool, and springs of water will satisfy the thirsty land. Marsh grass and reeds and rushes will flourish where desert jackals once lived.' (Isaiah 35:3, 4, 6, 7).
He knows you too well, He loves you too well, to give the nest without the thorn. That very discipline begets trust. Like Alpine travelers we grope our way tremulously along the yawning crevasse and rugged terrain, and through the misty darkness. But His purpose and design is that we may be led to cling only more unfalteringly to the hand of the wise, unerring Guide, and to feel that He is equal to all emergencies. The wilderness is dark: but the darkness only brings into brighter contrast the beacon-glory of the Pillar. The good poet, lately departed, seems, in his "Light to be felt," to write under its gleam—
"We older children grope our way
From dark behind to dark before:
And only when our hands we lay,
Dear Lord, in Yours, the night is day,
And there is darkness nevermore.
"Reach downwards to the sunless days,
Where human guides are blind as we,
And faith is small and hope delays;
O Take the hands of prayer we raise,
And let us feel the Light of Thee!"
Bunyan's Pilgrim trembled as he passed with dripping garments through the Slough of Despond. But why his plight? It was because he saw not, or, for the moment refused to see and to use the stepping stones close by, provided by the King of the Way. So are we guilty too often of disregarding the stepping stones of God's Promises. We plunge, in our despondency, into "the miry clay," when He would set our feet upon the solid Rock.
Then, further, ponder our companion motto-verse with its wealth of provision and promise—"all grace"—"abounding"—"all-sufficiency"—"sufficiency in all things." "What an illimitable balance," to use an old writer's comment on the words, "have we here, in the bank of heaven!" What a sure pledge that, as the Shepherd of Israel, He will keep sleepless "watch over the flock by night"—never leave the shorn lamb to the untempered winds of trial, or allow His faithfulness to fail. He afflicts "in measure": not imposing on His people burdens too heavy to carry. "But remember that the temptations that come into your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will keep the temptation from becoming so strong that you can't stand up against it. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you will not give in to it." (1 Cor. 10:13, R.V.). "For myself," says one whose saintliness has stirred the pulses of the century, "now, at the end of a long life, I say from a full heart that God has never failed me; never disappointed me; has ever turned evil into good for me…and what He has been to me who have deserved His love so little, such He will be, I believe and know, to every one who does not repel Him, and turn from His pleadings."
Do not misinterpret or misunderstand the way in which the promised grace is given. It does not come with a torrent, in rain-floods or water-floods. Submission is evolved gradually. As with the prophet of old, we often cannot all at once recognize spiritual helps and supports, or we refuse to do so. The evening star glimmers at first imperceptibly in the twilight. Our fields, at first, only show patches of struggling verdure. So also with resignation, the pre-eminent grace in trial, "Nevertheless, afterward," (Heb. 12:11), like the after-glow of Egypt with which the Israelites were so familiar, is God's principle and method. Not all at once, with impetuous rush, is the stranded vessel moved. But as wave after wave comes rolling in, the inert mass seems to wake up to the sound of many waters. Gradually the conquest is made; and in due time, with white wings outspread, she is once more buoyant on summer seas. Thus is it with the wave of God's love in a time of affliction. The agitated, shattered, stranded heart is gradually swayed by an influence above. In this, as in other things, "he that believes shall not make haste."
Reader, God, in His infinite, mysterious wisdom, has seen fit to touch you in your tenderest part. The world is changed to you. You have, indeed, the same old environments. You feel yourself plodding on in the old mechanical way: life and its exacting duties cannot be evaded. But, Ichabod! its glory has departed. Yes, true, and yet not true. If your sun has gone down in the darkness of bereavement and death, that is the time for the lighting of the Pillar and for the bright unfoldings of grace.
"I lay, with heaven's cold night above,
Upon a couch of stone;
I said, 'O Lord, if You are love
Why am I left alone?'
And there I heard the answer fall,
'My love itself is all in all.'"—Sacred Songs.
His end is surely a noble and elevated one, "if so be that we suffer with Him, that we may be also glorified together" (Rom. 8:17). "For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." "Works." The great Workman with the tools of affliction sifts the quartz and debris and dross, in order to get the grains of gold which are subsequently fashioned into "the crown of glory that fades not away." Trial is the golden rod measuring the wall of the New Jerusalem. Trial is the golden gate leading into its eternal Temple. Trial is the means—the chief means—employed in assimilating the soul to God, and imprinting on it the Divine lineaments. "This honor have all His saints" (Psalm 149:9). "Most gladly, therefore," says Paul (2 Cor. 12:9), speaking of his unremoved thorn, and borrowing also a metaphor from the desert Pillar with its cloudy curtain-canopy—"will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may (literally) spread its tabernacle over me" (R.V. margin).
"To be made with You one in spirit,
Is the boon that I lingering ask;
To have no bar 'twixt my soul and Thine;
My thoughts to echo Your will Divine:
Myself Your servant for any task."—L. Larcom.
"When He has tried me I shall come forth as gold" (Job 23:10).
"But the god of all grace, who has called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that you have suffered a while, make you perfect, establish, strengthen, settle you " (1 Peter 5:10).