At times when believers are put under pressure because of their biblical convictions, it is both stabilising and comforting to realise that God’s normal way of working is to use troubles to bring His people into greater holiness and usefulness. It’s in the wisdom of God that the pathway of growth in grace which leads to glory deliberately includes more struggles for us than self-indulgences. This was realised individually by Rev John Livingstone and Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross. These two were close friends. They were both involved in the remarkable revival at Shotts in June 1630. Elizabeth Melville spent three hours praying ahead of the service at which John Livingstone preached, when it was estimated that 500 were converted. However, that wonderful time of spiritual prosperity was quickly followed by a time of severe testing. John Livingstone was deposed from the ministry for nonconformity in late 1631. The correspondence between these friends around this time includes the following updated and abridged letter, where Elizabeth Melville intersperses hearty exhortations with gentle encouragements and includes some of her own spiritual experiences to reinforce them.
My very worthy and dear brother,
I received your letter, and had no time to answer you as I’d have liked. I thank the Lord who upholds you in all your trials and temptations. It is good for you to be kept in exercise, otherwise I would suspect that all was not well with you. God is faithful, as you find by experience, and will not test you above your strength. Courage, dear brother. All is in love, all works together for the best. You must be hewn and hammered down, and dressed, and prepared, before you are a “living stone” fit for His building!
God’s way of working
And if He is minded to make you fit to help repair the ruins of His house, you must still expect other kinds of blows than you have felt so far. You must feel your own weakness so that you may be humbled and cast down before Him, and so that you may pity poor weak ones who are borne down with infirmities. And when you are laid low, and made vile in your own eyes, then He will raise you up, and refresh you with some glimpses of His favourable countenance, so that you may be able to comfort others with the consolations with which you have been comforted by Him. This you know by some experience (blessed be God), and as strength and grace increase, look for stronger trials, fightings without and fears within, the devil and his instruments against you, and your Lord hiding His face, and deep and almost overwhelming troubles and terrors.
Yet out of all this misery, He is working some gracious work of mercy for the glory of His great name, the salvation and sanctification of your own soul, and the comfort of His distressed children here or there, or both, as pleases Him.
Our way of persevering
Take heart, then, and prepare for the battle. Put on the whole armour of God. Though you are weak, you have a strong Captain, whose power is made perfect in weakness, and whose grace is sufficient for you. What you lack in yourself you have in Him, for He is given to you by God to be your wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, your treasure and your treasurer, who keeps everything in store for you. The capital stock and the interest are both in His own hand, and He drops down drop and drop as you have need, and when you go without for a long time, you will get a double profit, and in the end the whole sum, so that you shall be rich for ever.
Since He has put His work in your weak hands, don’t expect ease here for long. You must feel the weight of that worthy calling, and be weighed down by the sense of your own weakness, so that He may show His strength in due time. A weak man, and a strong God. He will not fail nor forsake you, but will equip you with strength, and gifts, and grace, according to the employment that He puts into your hands. The pain is but for a moment – the pleasure is everlasting. The battle is short, your captain fights for you, therefore victory is certain, and the reward glorious. A crown and a kingdom is worth the fighting for, blessed be His name who fights all our battles and works all our works for us! Since all is in Christ, and He is ours, what do we want to have more of but thankful hearts, and grace to honour in life and death Him who is our advantage in life and death, who guides with His counsel, and will bring us to His glory? To Him be all honour, power, and praise, for now and for ever, amen.
Our escape from the labyrinth of crosses and comforts
Now, I have stolen this time from my sleep. I have no time to tell you my situation. Cross upon cross – the end of one is only the beginning of another. But guiltiness in me and mine is my greatest cross. Many times I’m about to faint and fall down, but my Lord puts His hand under me, and sustains and upholds me by His secret strength, and often He is closest when He seems to be furthest away, and sometimes He seasons bitterness with some sweetness. No creature has more cause to complain when I look to myself. No one is so unworthy, no one has such great cause to rejoice and be thankful.
For when I look at His crosses and comforts – and what He has done, is doing, and will do – and the least persuasion of His unchangeable love – and how He takes such pains to drive me out of myself, out of all creatures and means under the sun. Many times He seems to drive me away from Himself, but when He pushes me back by appearance, He is still drawing me forward – when He strikes with one hand, He sustains with the other. The greater misery I find in myself, the greater mercy in him, and the greater mercy, the greater guiltiness when it is abused. Then when sin and misery abound, there grace and mercy superabound! So I am in a labyrinth. How can I get out? Only this is my comfort, that mercy shall prevail. Our sins are finite, but His grace is infinite. Our guiltiness is great, but His goodness is greater, and exceeds. The rage and malice of our enemy is cruel, yet it is bounded, but the love of Jesus passes bounds, is incomprehensible, overcomes everything. To conclude, our miseries will end shortly, but His mercy endures for ever.
God’s spiritual gold worth working for
When I begin, I cannot end! […] O watch and pray that you do not fall into temptation. Seek early, and you will find better than gold, pearls and precious stones – the gold is better won early than late. If you make a habit of getting a penny when you should rest, and sleep when you should rise early to your work, the gaining of that penny may lose you a pound. Therefore, sleep at the right time, and wake at the right time, and set to work in due season, and you shall find by experience the truth of His precious promises. Therefore strive against sluggishness, I charge you. It’s just a habit. Work early, and you shall get enough to make you rich. Assume that He has arranged to meet you, read the Proverbs, and you shall find that He calls you instantly and earnestly to seek Him early and you shall find.
Tell me to do as I say! Alas, I fear I have let the moment slip, but yet I would try to do better next time. Lord, help, and draw us with the cords of love, and make good the new covenant, and do all things for us when we can do nothing, and accept our weak endeavours in the merits of Him in whom only Thou art well pleased!
Now I have forgotten myself. I fear I’m losing my sleep and the gold also. Send me something therefore with the first reliable carrier to recompense the loss. Write something on some good subject – the last verses of Isaiah 40, which you taught in Culross, or the Song of Zachariah, or anything you like. Now laugh at my short writing! Help me and mine earnestly with prayer and praises. Never such need. Give my hearty greetings to all our dear friends. Especially remember my love to Mr Robert Blair, and his kind wife. Remember me heartily to Mr Robert Cunningham, Mr Josiah Welsh, Mr George Dunbar, Mr Edward Bryce, and to all the rest of the pastors, and to all their wives.
The powerful presence and blessed Spirit of Jesus Christ be with you all, and comfort and encourage you as He knows your need. Now, I leave you in His arms.
Yours ever in Christ,
At midnight, 10th December, 1631
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