In 1636 Samuel Rutherford, pastor of the Scottish church of Anwoth, was removed from his pulpit during a time of religious persecution. Sent into exile into Aberdeen, Rutherford, at first despondent, found grace that gave him a seldom-equaled walk with the Lord. During his exile, Rutherford ministered to many of his church members through his correspondence, much of which has been preserved in The Letters of Samuel Rutherford. In one of his letters, written to a Mr. Carletoun, Rutherford shares five distinct lessons he had learned during his time in exile in Aberdeen. As the Lord in His purposes leads each of us into similar times of difficulty, we may learn from one who has gone before us. Following is Rutherford’s introduction, and then excerpts from each of the five lessons contained in his letter:
“It hath pleased His holy Majesty to take me from the pulpit, and teach me many things in my exile and prison that were mysteries to me before, as:
1) “I see His bottomless and boundless love and kindness, and my jealousies and ravings, which, at my first entry into this furnace, were so foolish and bold as to say to Christ, who is Truth itself, in His face, ‘Thou liest.’ … My faith was dim, and hope frozen and cold … Alas, I knew not before what good skill my Intercessor and Advocate, Christ, hath in pleading, and pardoning me such follies …And now, what want I on earth that Christ can give a poor prisoner? Oh how sweet and lovely He is now!”
2) “I am now brought to some measure of submission, and I now resolve to wait till I see what my Lord Jesus will do with me … I see providence runneth not on broken wheels; but I, like a fool, carved a providence for mine own ease, to die in my nest, and to sleep still, till my grey hairs; and to lie on the sunny side of the mountain, in my ministry at Anwoth; but now I have nothing to say against a borrowed fireside, and another man’s house, nor Kedar’s tents, where I live, being removed from my acquaintances, my lovers and my friends. I see God hath the world on His wheels, and casteth it as a potter doth a vessel on the wheel. I dare not say that there is any inordinate or irregular motion in providence; the Lord hath done it; I will not go to law with Christ, for I should gain nothing of it.”
3) “I have learned some greater mortification, and not to mourn after or seek the world. Nay, my Lord hath filled me with such dainties that I am like a full banqueter, who is not for common cheer. What have I to do to fall down upon my knees and worship mankind’s great idol, the world? I have a better God than any clay god … I know (the world) is not my home, nor my Father’s house; it is but His footstool …”
4) “I find it most true, that the greatest temptation out of hell is to live without temptations; if my waters would stand, they would rot. Faith is the better for the free air and the sharp winter-storm in its face; grace withereth without adversity. The devil is but God’s master-fencer, to teach us to handle our weapons.”
5) “I never knew how weak I was till now, when He hideth Himself, and when I have Him to seek seven times a day. I am a dry and withered branch, and a piece of dead carcass, dry bones and not able to step over a straw … You see how short I would shoot of the prize if His grace were not sufficient for me.”
What marvelous lessons! The first is surely the most important; as we were all made to “enjoy Him forever” (Westminster Confession), and if in our adversity we can get past accusing the Lord – as Rutherford at first did – then we may find a sweeter fellowship with Him than we knew before.
Rutherford’s second lesson is very convicting. How many of us would admit that we actually desire what he described as “(carving) a providence for mine own ease, to die in my nest, and to sleep still, till my grey hairs; and to lie on the sunny side of the mountain, in my ministry at Anwoth”? We might hope for ourselves a life on “the sunny side” with no cares or troubles. But God usually has other plans for us, whether we understand them fully or not; for our good, and His glory.
His third lesson is one that many in our materialistic society would benefit from: caring less for this world. In our prosperity, we feel as if this world were truly our home, and all of its pleasures our greatest friends. Time in the “furnace” reminds us that this is not so; it scours us clean of a love for this world, and gives us a greater love and anticipation for the next, where our home truly is.
I personally think that Rutherford’s fourth lesson may be his most insightful. Our desire is for “peace and safety”, but the truth is, with no adversity, we become weak and listless. We need a challenge; we need to keep our weapons sharp. Our Heavenly Father knows this, and He gives us what we really need, even if it is the affliction of a fiery furnace!
And finally, one of the most important lessons we can learn is just how weak we really are. The fundamental lesson of the Kingdom is found in the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” – the Kingdom comes to who realize their need and ask for help. Nothing brings us to this admission – and the grace which follows its cry for aid — faster than adversity.
Samuel Rutherford did not waste his years in exile; God in His Providence used them to fashion him into the man He was preparing him to be for His purposes. Those purposes undoubtedly include the passing of some of his lessons on down to us. May God give each of us the grace to do more than just endure our times in the “fiery furnaces” of life, but to learn and grow through them. Rutherford’s five lessons provide us with a great starting place as we prayerfully seek God’s purpose for our trials. Thank God that through The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, “by faith, though he is dead, he still speaks.”