The superhero film genre shows no signs of slowing down. Every month a new DC or Marvel film tries to quench our thirst for heroes. We were made for heroes. We need them. The problem is we lack authentic, relatable, real-life heroes who show us what a life of passion, love, virtue, courage looks like in a flesh-and-blood human being. Superman and Wonder Woman might leave us looking for someone to save us, but they are so fundamentally unlike us that they fail to provide fallen human heroes we can emulate. Continue reading Steal Away Home
Ecclesiastes 12:12 says, “Of making many books there is no end.” Today, we might add, “Of the year-end list-making for books there is no end.” All such lists are faulty because they’re limited to both the list-makers preferences and the works they read (and didn’t read) in a given year. Nevertheless, I find such lists helpful in for pointing me to books I might have missed but might want to add to my ever-growing Amazon wishlist.
Below are a few of my favorites I read in 2017 (not necessarily published this year).
If you’re at all familiar with the idea of “love languages” (how a person communicates or receives love), then you should know that my love language is Books—and possibly sarcasm. I love books. I could wander through Half-Price Books for hours and not get bored. I like hearing about what others are reading, recommending or giving books that I think someone might enjoy, and I—of course—love reading books.
I’ve been blogging my way through The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. It’s only a couple of chapters a week and I’m now halfway through the short book. Books are like movies in that it’s hard not to make your most recent favorite your all-time favorite. The temptation to overstate things notwithstanding, this is quickly becoming one of my favorite books. Sibbes was known as “the sweet dropper” and throughout this book the sweetness of the gospel is thick. He wrote against the Catholic (“popish”) remains in religion such as a reliance upon external behaviors without consideration of the sincerity of the heart and ritualistic forms of penance instead of genuine repentance. Later Puritans outside a heavy Catholic context would write with other issues at the forefront.
In Chapter 7 of The Bruised Reed, Sibbes addresses two main concerns. First, he investigates some things that might hinder comfort, and secondly, he answers the question whether our weaknesses should keep us from our Christian duties. In the first section, he addresses four ways our comfort and assurance might be hindered in the person who is a “smoking flax.” Whither those hindrances come from Satan or from within the answer is the same: fly to Jesus and open up your complaints to him. As he mentions earlier in the book when discussing the bruised reed, Sibbes here mentions that remaining sin and a struggle of comfort can be an opportunity to be honest about our helpless estate and lean harder upon the mercy and supply of Christ. The realization of the weakness of the flesh can lead to a more steadfast watching and purging of the flesh, and a thirst for pardoning grace from God. The bright compassion and grace of Christ can be seen more clearly against the backdrop of our dark hearts. Furthermore, the fact that there is in us a discontent with our weak state of grace and an unhappiness to remain might conflict us in the moment but it gives comfort by its evidence that we are not happy in our sin. Such is a mark of the work of the Spirit in us.
In the second section of chapter 7 he encourages believers to keep performing their duties even when they don’t feel like it. Though their faith might be weak and they struggle to believe anything they do might actually change the situation or be pleasing to God, don’t let feelings trump the truth. Having seen the compassion of Christ to a bruised reed and smoking flax throughout the whole book, “it should encourage us to duty that Christ will not quench the smoking flax, but blow on it till it flames” (50). The image their is striking. Though there is but a spark of grace in us, Christ will stir this spark into flame by gently breathing into it. Sibbes gives the example of prayer. Although our efforts in prayer might be weak and our thoughts unclear and confused as we pray, this should not keep us from praying. Weakness in prayer is always better than not praying, and the same is true in all Christian duties. “Christ looks more at the good in them which he means to cherish than the ill in them which he means to abolish…Christ loves to taste of the good fruits that come from us, even though they will always savour of our old nature” (50). Going back to the example of prayer, Sibbes preached these words to his congregation: “There is never a holy sigh, never a tear we shed, which is lost. And as every grace increases by exercise of itself, so does the grace of prayer. By prayer we learn to pray” (51).
In chapter 8 Sibbes asks where these discouragements come from. From what he’s already said about God he reasons with us that these discouragements cannot come from the Father, the Son, or the Spirit. They cannot come from the Father because he will “pity us as a father pities his children (Psa. 103:13)” (56). They cannot come from Christ. “We see how Christ bestows the best fruits of his love on persons who are mean in condition, weak in abilities, and offensive for infirmities” (56). And finally, they cannot come from the Spirit because he is our comforter (Rom. 8:26; John 14:16). “If he convinces of sin, and so humbles us, it is that he may make way for his office of comforting us” (57). That conviction is quite different from the discouragement the author has in mind. So, if they do not come from God then what is the source? “Discouragements, then, must come from ourselves and from Satan” (57).
The next chapter-“Believe Christ, Not Satan”-will continue on with this line of thought. In his last sentence Sibbes exhorts us to flee from our Accuser and run to our Advocate. “In time of temptation, believe Christ rather than the devil. Believe truth from truth itself. Hearken not to a liar, an enemy and a murderer” (61).
This week, I’ll combine my summary of chapters 3-4 of The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. In these two small chapters the author begins to explain what is meant by the second metaphor of the book, “the smoking flax.” To review, the book is based upon the messianic description of Jesus from Matthew 18:21.
18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
19 He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
20 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
21 and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (ESV)
The ESV says, “a smoldering wick he will not quench,” but Sibbes goes with the wording as “the smoking flax he will not quench.” Sibbes sees this phrase as referring to those who experiencing a “little measure of grace, and that little mixed with much corruption” (16). Or, you might think of it as the smoldering wick/smoking flax are whose faith is present but the flame is just flickering. This might be a season or it might be where they are after conversion, but Sibbes seems to be referring to those whose faith isn’t yet where they would like it to be. He then uses paragraph after paragraph to demonstrate the compassion of Christ in how he loves, cares for, and fans into flame the smallest sparks of grace in us.
In fact, Sibbes reminds all of us that there is always a mixture of grace and corruption in us (this side of heaven). Just like earlier he said God bruises us so that reeds might know they are reeds and not oaks, here also he reminds us that corruption is not taken away at conversion so we might continually see our need for Christ. “The purest actions of the purest men need Christ to perfume them” (18). We are indeed being refined, “but not so exactly as that no dross remains…Perfect refining is for another world, for the world of the souls of perfect men” (25).
Unfortunately, remaining sin robs many believers from the assurance God desires for them. In Chapter 3 Sibbes shepherds us with the caution not to look to our sanctification but to our justification to know that we are secure in Christ. Subsequently in chapter 4 he offers two reasons why Christ will not quench the smoking flax:
1) The spark is his own; kindled by the Spirit.
2) It leads to his glory in how he preserves light in the midst of darkness.
Several examples are given of how Jesus patiently loved and even sought out those with but a little spark: Thomas in his doubt, the two wavering disciples on Emmaus, Peter in his denials, and the churches in Revelation. Using the example in Matthew 15:32, he writes, “Christ’s heart yearned…when he saw the people without meat, ‘lest they faint in the way;’ much more will have regard for the preventing of our spiritual fainting” (21). Sibbes knows the heart of man all too well and admits we do not often treat others with such grace, and in fact our natural tendency is to quench the smoldering wick. It should not be so, which is why he sets for the example of Jesus and calls us to mirror him our grace and kindness to Christians in their weaknesses. This proves difficult, because some are need of the rod, but we must be careful not to give the rod to those who need us coming in meekness.
Sibbes doesn’t simply move from the perceived “problem” of a smoking wick to the “solution” of a strong flame. Many of us, like me, are too quick to see sin as a problem needing fixed and the ultimate goal being our maturity as disciples. While sin does need eradicated and we do need to grow like “oaks in righteousness”, it is even more important that we meet Christ in our sin as the one who draws near and helps us out. Richard Sibbes tells us in plain words that even our sin must not be missed as an opportunity to experience our need for Christ and his unrivaled sufficiency. “Where Christ shows his great power in weakness, he does it by letting men understand themselves so far as to breed humility, and magnify God’s love to such as they are” (23). Later he echoes the sentiment that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. “Christ refuses none for weakness of parts, that none should be discouraged, but accepts none for greatness, that none should be lifted up with that which is of so little reckoning with God” (23). In all four chapters this theme has been sounded loud and clear. God is not impressed and attracted to us when we think we’ve performed well, nor is he disappointed and driven away when we think we’ve been utter failures. Our greatest problem remains our sin, and yet when we confess our sin to God it can be used as our greatest comfort, God’s grace. “Nothing in the world is of so good use as the least grain of grace” (18).
Chapter 1 of The Bruised Reed was short and sweet. It stated that commission or calling Jesus received (Servant-Messiah) and the manner in which he carried that calling out (i.e., so as not to break a bruised reed). It also briefly outlined two foundational points: (1) we are reeds (and not oaks), and (2) bruising has many good intended effects.
Chapter 2 is titled “Christ Will Not Break the Bruised Reed.” Whole paragraphs deserve quoting so my challenge here is what to leave out. Some have complained about the weightiness of Puritan writings. If your goal is to simply finish books quickly then yeah, you should probably stick with 21st century writings. But, one of the things I appreciate about Puritan Paperbacks (or Puritans in general) is that every page contains weighty ideas that stretch the mind and stir the heart. You can pick up the book and read one or two pages and then put it down and just mull over what you’ve just read. My advice would be to read Puritan Paperbacks like this, not like a story where you read long narratives at a time and not like most contemporary Christian literature where you need to dig through whole chapters to find a gem.
This chapter opens with an encouragement to “see” the grace of Christ in the following:
1) The “comfortable relationships” Jesus has taken upon himself: husband, shepherd, brother.
2) The gentle names used to describe himself: lamb, hen, dove, savior.
3) The gracious way he executes his offices: inviting the poor in spirit, asking us to cast our cares on him, interceding for us with tears, and a meek king.
This is not to say that Jesus is only meek and mild, since he most assuredly possesses incomparable strength and dignity, but it is to say “he will not show his strength against those who prostrate themselves before him” (9).
In the next section he provides three points (one paragraph each) of what we should learn from this.
1) Come boldly to the throne of grace. Do not hide or shy away, as if God is harsh to bruised reeds, but come knowing God is full of gentleness and grace to the humble. “Are you bruised? Be of good comfort, he calls you. Conceal not your wounds, open all before him and take not Satan’s counsel” (9, emphasis mine). That phrase has echoed in my mind, “conceal not your wounds, open all before him.”
2) Take support in this when bruised: “Christ’s way is first to wound, then to heal” (10). We can take comfort not only in the promise that we will not be broken in our bruising, but we can also rejoice that “according to my trials will be my graces and comforts” (10). Almost none of us would choose to walk through that door were the choice left to us but God does have good effects planned for the hard circumstances we enter upon.
3) Notice the different dispositions and intent between Christ and Satan. Satan sets upon us in our weakest to attach and destroy, whereas Christ comes to bind up the broken-hearted.
The remainder of the chapter falls under the heading “Who are the bruised reeds?” It’s here that Sibbes enters into the typical Puritan style of raising perceived questions and then offering answers. It’s a straight-forward and helpful approach to thinking through tough issues. Here are three nuggets of wisdom. First, Christians are quite different and so we must be careful not to treat all bruised reeds the same. To say it differently, Sibbes insists some people are of such sensitive consciences or have a temperament where they are prone to being crushed under condemnation, whereas others are prone to excusing themselves and might be pressed with more force. “It is dangerous, I confess, in some cases, with some spirits, to press too much and too long this bruising, because they may die under the wound and burden before they be raised up again. Therefore it is good in mixed assemblies to mingle comfort that every soul may have its due portion.” (12). Second, the physical and emotional affect the spiritual, and vice versa, because we are both physical and spiritual beings.”Sometimes our grief from outward grievances may lie heavier upon the soul than grief for God’s displeasure, because, in such cases, the grief works upon the whole man, both outward and inward…especially bodily sicknesses which, by reason of the sympathy between the soul and the body, work upon the soul so far as to hinder not only the spiritual, but often the natural acts” (13). Third, we should be gracious with those in the midst of suffering by giving them some freedom in how they deal with their emotions through their words. “And therefore we ought to judge charitably of the complaints of God’s people which are wrung from them in some cases” (14). He uses Job as an example of someone who vented with God in a way that might make us feel uncomfortable, and yet the Bible says he remained blameless. Good advice indeed so we are careful not to always fact-check those who are speaking out of their pain.
Since sets of three have been the pattern for this post, here are three short quotes that should always stay in our mind.
1) “There is more mercy in Christ than sin in us” (13). Rehearse this to yourself over and over.
2) “…let all know that none are fitter for comfort than those that think themselves furthest off” (14).
3) “Christ’s sheep are weak sheep, and lacking in something or other; he therefore applies himself to the necessities of every sheep” (14). Not as quotable as the other two, but if we ourselves as weak sheep in need than we might better grasp the goodness of Jesus as a gracious and sufficient Shepherd.
I’m part of a group who meet weekly with one of our pastors to discuss a number of things related to our lives and ministries. A part of that time each week goes to discussing a book we slowly read together. The book on deck is the The Bruised Reed by the Puritan Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). Despite an occasional moment of guilt for reading an abridged book and not the original, these small Puritan Paperbacks are gems.
Maybe it’s a me problem, but I often read books–sometimes even marking the thing up–but I don’t digest and notate the book well enough. I thought I’d remedy this in part by employing this blog for something more noble than witty comments and enticing food pics. So, my goal as I read this book will be to summarize the main points of each chapter alongside some of the tastiest quotes I come across.
Chapter 1 “The Reed and the Bruising”
The title and message of the book come from two biblical texts, the prophetic word in Isaiah 42:1-3 and its noted fulfillment in the person of Jesus in Matthew 12:18-21. In Isaiah 42 God promises the coming Servant, the Spirit-filled Messiah who will be the hope of all nations. After one of Jesus’ many moments of compassion on the people, Matthew locates the fulfillment of Isaiah 42 in the person of Jesus. Both passages provide the following description of the Servant: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench.”
From these words, Sibbes sees two things put forward: “first, the calling of Christ to his office; secondly, the manner in which he carries it out” (1).
In this brief first section, Sibbes highlights the commission the Son receives from the Father. He notes the joint agreement all three persons of the Trinity enter into: “the Father gives a commission to Christ; the Spirit furnishes and sanctifies to it, and Christ himself executes the office of a Mediator” (2). Like a good Puritan, Sibbes makes it clear that where one person of the Trinity is mentioned all are present and active. In one of the subtle but significant emphases of this section, Sibbes pushes us to not only see the beauty of Jesus in taking the commission, but also to “see the sweet love of God [the Father] to us,” in commissioning his Son for the work of our salvation. In chapter 1 it’s already clear the author wrote this book to be a soothing salve to the wearied reader. “This saving object [Jesus] has a special influence of comfort to the soul, especially if we look not only on Christ, but upon the Father’s authority and love in him” (2). Right away there’s a lesson to be learned. We lift our eyes away from ourselves and up to Jesus, the Servant who takes our sin. And, as we look to Jesus we find not only relief from our guilt but we see the love of a Father, graciously bringing us back to himself. The Father doesn’t get stuck with us because we believed in his Son; the Father actually pursues us at the cost of his Son because he loves us. The application for us: “Let us therefore, embrace Christ, and in him God’s love, and build our faith safely on such a Saviour that is furnished with so high a commission” (2).
As a reader, I’m already getting a gospel soaking from wave after wave of sweet truths…and I’m only on page 2. This bodes well for the rest of the book!
Having seen the calling Christ takes as the Servant, the author moves to how Christ actually fulfills this commission. The rest of the chapter largely deals with what the metaphor “bruised reed’ conveys. In the previously mentioned texts from Isaiah and Matthew, Sibbes notes the condition of those the Servant deals with: weakness. This is true both prior to conversion, as the awareness of sin and insufficiency to atone for it lead to seeking out Jesus for his help, but it remains true in part after conversion. One thing I found interesting was that he suggests the degree to which people might be “bruised reeds” varies, depending on not only what God sees fit but also varying based upon “differences with regard to temperament, gifts and manner of life” (3). We’ll see this again shortly, but it’s worth noting here that those crusty ole’ Puritans might not have been as myopic as some suggest. Sibbes recognizes differences in temperament, circumstances, and providence might all affect the degree and consistency with which some might be more “bruised” than others.
Anyways, back to clarifying what a bruised reed might actually mean. “The bruised reed is a man [or woman] that for the most part is in some misery,” and this misery brought about sin–whether personal or otherwise–leads to brokenness or despair. In other words, “a bruised reed and a smoking flax, make up the state of a poor distressed man” (4). Sibbes quickly moves to the good effects of this bruising, namely, that it leads us to find our supply in Christ. “This bruising makes us set a high price upon Christ. Then the gospel becomes the gospel indeed; then the fig-leaves of morality will do us no good” (4). You might want to read that quote one more time, nice and slow. He continues: “And it makes us more thankful, and, from thankfulness, more fruitful in our lives” (4). The formula seems to be: bruising –> gospel –> gratitude –> fruitfulness.
Not only can bruising lead to gratitude and fruitfulness, but it’s necessary for Christians because of the way we gravitate towards pride and self-sufficiency. When things are going well, most of us coast in life. This often leads to a couple false conclusions slowly creeping into our minds. First, we start to think this world is our home and things are so good now who needs a restored kingdom. Second, we assume things are good because we’re pretty good, and because we got ourselves here. “After conversion, we need bruising so that reeds may know themselves to be reeds, and not oaks. Even reeds need bruising, by reason of the remainder of pride in our nature, and to let us see that we live by mercy” (5).
This isn’t to say that bruising always comes becomes of pride, but it is to say that the cultivation of brokenness and humility comes through bruising. This then leads Sibbes to close chapter 1 with a caution not to wrongly judge or pass harsh judgment on others experiencing bruising. There might be any number of reasons why someone is in the state they are, and we honestly don’t know the causes or purposes of God. Often, foolish people assume all Christians must always be happy Christians. This explains why Sunday mornings are full of people doing their best to put on their crispest clothes and shiniest smiles. But, thankfully, there is a time for brokenness and often the bruised reeds are not those farthest from God, but those being drawn to him. “Ungodly spirits [people], ignorant of God’s ways in bringing his children to heaven, censure broken-hearted Christians as miserable persons, whereas God is going a gracious, good work with them” (6). That last sentence resonates with me and I’d love to unpack it more, but I’ll let it speak for itself and simply ask the extroverted, overly-happy majority not to assume bubbliness is next to godliness.