Theology matters. Since God is love, the study of God produces a correct understanding of the source and nature of love (1 John 4:8; KJV). Many Christians avoid answering the nagging question asked by nonbelievers and believers alike regarding why a loving God allows afflictions if he is indeed sovereign and could stop all pain and suffering. A proper answer to this monumental subject is critical to godly living in Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 3:12).
Six years ago, my sixteen-year-old son Benjamin died in a skiing accident. Following were the seemingly endless days of grief beyond imagination along with questioning how God could allow such a horrible thing to happen to our family. While I had weathered the deaths of my father when I was ten years old and my mother and stepfather within a year of each other in my early twenties, my son's death left me with no desire to live. I could hardly bear to read the Bible as its promises seemed to be empty. Was God sovereign over all or only partly so? Was he merely my comforter, as one Christian counselor suggested, and not Lord of all? How could God love my family and allow my son to die?
Wandering over to my bookshelves in search of encouragement to trust God and keep on living in the months following the accident, I came upon my old copy of Thomas Boston's Human Nature in Its Fourfold State, a summary of Christian doctrine written in 1720 and revised in 1729. It was reprinted more often than any other Scottish book of the eighteenth century with over a hundred editions. Rereading Boston's treatise regarding the "states of creation, fall, grace, and glory," made me curious to learn more about the author. (1)
Thomas Boston (1676–1732) was a minister and theologian in the Church of Scotland. Boston's reputation as a staunch Scottish Presbyterian willing to stand against popular opinion in order to uphold Reformed doctrine was cemented by three incidences: his refusal to sign the Oath of Abjuration in 1712 or its later altered version; his stand in the Marrow controversy in 1721 against the necessity of repentance preceding faith; and his lone call at the Assembly of 1729 for the disposal of Glasgow professor John Simson for teaching the doctrine of Arianism. (2) A graduate of Edinburgh University, Boston saw himself primarily as a preacher throughout his career, being ordained at Simprin in 1699 and translated to Ettrick in 1707 where he remained for the rest of his life, delivering his final sermons from his deathbed with his devoted parishioners listening outside his window. Boston's extensive writings on Christian doctrine, including his unique contributions to covenant theology and memoirs, were mostly published after his death. (3)
I discovered that Boston had grieved over the death of not just one child but six of his ten children. I came across his sermon series titled The Crook in the Lot. (4) Boston wrote this treatise on the providence of God in 1737 to address the issue of life's afflictions, called "crooks" in light of the Bible verse: "Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight which he has made crooked?" (Eccles. 7:13). (5)
Boston begins his treatise with the observation that crooks exist in everyone's lot and they are of God's making (Boston, The Crook in the Lot, 14). He states that crooks are in the world because of sin, and they can occur in a physical state such as deformities and disease, slights regarding what is rightfully due us, our stations in life, or in our relationships (16–28). God brings them about and has appointed the whole of them (30–31). There are pure sinless crooks such as the poverty of Lazarus and the barrenness of Rachel, and impure sinful crooks such as Tamar's defiling and the attack on Job by the Sabeans and Chaldeans (32). Boston states,
Now, the crooks of this kind are not of God's making, in the same latitude as those of the former; for he neither puts evil in the heart of any, nor stirreth up to it: "He cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man." (James 1:13) But they are of his making, by his holy permission of them; powerful bounding of them, and wise overruling of them to some good end. (33)
A crook may be a "trial of one's state," regarding whether people are truly Christians or not (36–37). It may stir us to our duty to wean ourselves from this world and fix our sights on the other world to come (39). Crooks can convict us of sin, be a correction or punishment of sin, or help us to avoid sin (40–44). Crooks in the lot, with the willing participation of the believer, exercise grace in God's children (44–45). According to Boston, "The truth is, the crook in the lot is the great engine of Providence for making men appear in their true colours, discovering both their ill and their good; and if the grace of God be in them, it will bring it out, and cause it to display itself" (45). Boston consoles the believer that, since we know the crook is from God, we should "look upon it kindly" and remind ourselves that the Lord made it and can straighten it (51–52). Thus we are exhorted by Boston to be reconciled to it and not be angry at the creature by which it is brought about, but instead realize that God is the principal party (51–54). While no one desires a crook, its design is to make us fit for heaven, and we have a Christian duty to submit to God's will in our afflictions (55).
The reader is reminded by Boston that "God keeps the choice of every one's crook to Himself; and therein He exerts His sovereignty. (Matt. 20:15)" (57). God's making of a crook cannot be mended by man until God allows it to be so. When men fight against the yoke of the crook due to the unwillingness to tame their spirits and submit to God's will, they make themselves more miserable. Furthermore, while earnest means to remove afflictions from our lives are not sinful if lawful, we must ultimately rest in absolute dependence on God and apply to him for the making even of the crook in his timing (58–60). God, who "loves to be employed in the evening of crooks and calls on us to employ him that way (Ps. 1:15)," made and mended notable crooks in some of his most favored children, such as Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. Samson and John the Baptist were both born of formerly barren women (63–64).
In Part II, Boston explains that while the manner of a crook in our lot and the timing of its removal are under God's sovereign rule, we can control our behavior and mind-set during times of affliction by praying for the removal of the crook, humbling ourselves under it, and waiting patiently for the Lord (65–66).
Boston encourages us that if an affliction cannot be removed due to the natural workings of the world, such as is the case in the death of my son Ben, then we can ask God for relief from the pain until we are cured when we pass from earth to heaven (66). When God removes some earthly thing that is dear to us through a crook, he wants to replace it with some heavenly thing, while the devil seeks to bend and break our spirits through our crooks. God can supply us with "streams running full where the crook has dried them" (66–70). We should bear the things we cannot fix with patience and Christian fortitude, looking for spiritual profit in our trials (70). Boston poses the question:
Where is our conformity to Christ, while we cannot submit to the crook? We cannot evidence ourselves Christians, without conformity to Christ. "He that saith he abides in Him, ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked." (1 John 2:6) There was a continued crook in Christ's lot, but He submitted to it. (Phil. 2:8) "And being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." (Rom. 15:3) "For even Christ pleased not himself," &c. And so must we, if we will prove ourselves Christians indeed. (Matt. 11:29); (2 Tim. 2:11–12). (74)
The most important work of a crook in the lot, according to Boston, is the subduing of pride in our hearts (88). Those of lowly disposition are usually accustomed to affliction and see themselves as sinful and filled with imperfection rather than think well of themselves as is encouraged by proponents of the health-and-wealth gospel movement (91). They magnify God for his mercies given to them via crooks in their lot, submitting themselves to God's will and resting in him (92–95).
The proud too have afflictions due to sin in the world, but their reigning pride makes them unable to bear God's yoke (95–96). "The proud heart and will, unable to submit to the cross, or to bear to be controlled, rises up against it, and fights for the mastery, with its whole force of unmortified passions. The design is to remove the cross, even the crook, and bring the thing to their own mind" (97–98). The proud person is more concerned with getting his way than submitting to God's will, and at times God gives him over to his lusts and passions with "Holy providence yielding to the man's unmortified self-will, and letting it go according to his mind," and the man wins the day to his destruction with the removal of the cross and yoke (99). Christians should seek humility as it is part of the image of God, whereas pride is the image of the devil (100). Boston rightly concludes:
The subduing of our own passions is more excellent than to have the whole world subdued to our will: for then we are masters of ourselves, according to that. (Luke 21:19) Whereas, in the other case, we are still slaves to the worst of masters. (Rom.6:16) In the one case we are safe, blow what storm will; in the other we lie exposed to thousands of dangers. "He that has no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls." (Prov. 25:28). (105)
Boston states that it is better to yield to Providence than fight it out and win for the time being such as when God gave Israel over to their lusts (106; Ps. 81:11–12). It is far more important for us to bend our hearts toward a suitable humbling of our spirits than to have an affliction removed before its sanctifying work is completed in our lives (108).
In Part III of his treatise, Boston gives guidance on how to humble ourselves to the glory of God. We should take notice of God's mighty hand, sense our own worthlessness and guilt, silently submit under his hand, magnify his mercies, and hold "a holy and silent admiration of the ways and counsels of God, as to us unsearchable" (118–20). This life is the time of humiliation; there is no humbling after this, for in the next life "there the proud will be broken in pieces, but not softened; their lot and condition will be brought to the lowest pass, but the unhumbleness of their spirits will still remain, whence they will be in eternal agonies through the opposition betwixt their spirits and lot. (Rev. 26:21)" (124). Boston exhorts, "They that are so wise as to fall in humiliation under the mighty hand, be they ever so low, the same hand will raise them up again. (James 4:10) In a word, be the proud ever so high, God will bring them down: be the humble ever so low, God will raise them up" (126).
Christ is ready in all his offices to help us in our humiliation: as our Priest, Prophet, and King (136–37). While Christians may receive only a partial lifting up or none at all from afflictions in this life, believers are assured of a total lifting up upon death (141). We will have not only a "heart-satisfying answer to our prayers" that may have seemed to go unanswered, but also "full satisfaction, as to the conduct of Providence, in all the steps of the humbling circumstances, and the delay of the lifting up, however perplexing these were before. (Rev. 15:3) Standing on the shore, and looking back to what they have passed through, they will be made to say, 'He has done all things well'" (161–62; Mark 7:37).
Boston's rock-solid theology and thoughtful exegesis of the Scriptures gave me a firm foundation upon which I could trust God, as contrasted with the well-meaning but empty platitudes so frequently offered up to grieving parents such as "time heals" and "God must have needed another angel."
Boston practiced what he preached, seeking and struggling to grow in grace through great suffering in his life. Consumed by the battle between his conscience and the call to subscribe to the Oath of Abjuration in 1712 that upheld Episcopacy, Boston lamented on May 27 of that same year regarding his two-year-old son's recent death, "The disorder of my own spirit woefully marred the kindly good effect it might have had. Satan watches to prevent the good of afflictions; much need there is to watch against him." (6)
I carried The Crook in the Lot treatise with me wherever I went in the first year after my son's death. Reading Scripture included in Boston's sermons helped me to read the Bible again. I might not ever know the "why" of afflictions in this life, but I can completely rest in God's sovereignty and perfect will. I can also trust God with my son's soul. Because of Thomas Boston's faithful service to the Lord, I have a clearer understanding of how God's love is manifested in humbling afflictions with the purpose of bringing him glory and preparing his children for heaven. I shall always be indebted to Mr. Boston for guiding me through the darkest of hours and building my Christian faith
when I felt I would surely sink from despair.
No bio information available for this author.
Issue: "No Girls Allowed" May/June 2012 Vol. 21 No. 3 Page number(s): 21-25
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