Do differences unite or separate? In a fallen world we struggle to see goodness in God-ordained diversity, and the unfortunate outcome is often conflict. However, God’s design is that the church, a glimpse of light in a dark world, should display a blueprint for unity in diversity.
The thrust of chapter 5 is that we should reciprocate to others the same mercy we’ve received. Experiencing compassion lends itself to being compassionate, but that requires we understand at the front just how gracious Christ has been to us. Richard Sibbes demonstrates his pastoral heart multiple times in this book. You read him and get the sense he lived and talked among his people in their need and weakness, so much so that he gets people.
Chapter 5 opens with another caution to pastors in particular, but it applies to all of Christ’s body. We should be careful not to make things “necessary evidences of grace which agree not to the experience of many a good Christian” (26). That is not quite the same thing as saying there will be no evidences of grace or fruit whatsoever in the life of a believer. Many have pressed undue weights upon struggling saints and thereby have crushed their spirits. Some need an exhortation and the strong teeth of Scripture but others need encouragement and the gentle touch of Scripture. Be wise in what truths you give because some truths are “unseasonable truths” when given at the wrong time or to the wrong person. Spiritual discernment might not be the easy way but it’s how we know whether to choose affirmation or rebuke. There are certainly those without any fruit who should be warned, but the focus of this book are the many burdened Christians who need encouragement for the evidences of grace they do have not discouragement for the evidences they don’t have. Sibbes says we are in fact “debtors to the weak” and should labor alongside as the crawl towards Christ. “We must supply out of our love and mercy that which we see wanting in them. The church of Christ is a common hospital, wherein all are in some measure sick of some spiritual disease or other, so all have occasion to exercise the spirit of wisdom and meekness” (34). If the church were to read and embrace the heart and content of this chapter, the spirit of unity, peace, and gentleness in the church would surely be multiplied.
In the next chapter, the author begins with a description of the smoking flax. Sibbes tells us we must have two eyes, one to see the sin in us that remains but another to see the good in us from God’s Spirit. Most of us can clearly see the former but often have a closed eye to the latter; and therein lies reason for why so many Christians feel discouraged. This chapter-like the book as a whole-proves to be a wonderful help to Christians lacking assurance. “Those who are given to quarreling with themselves always lack comfort, and through their infirmities they are prone to feed on such things as will most nourish that disease which troubles them…We must not judge of ourselves always according to present feeling” (35). Sibbes encourages us throughout this chapter not to base assurance on our feelings but on truth, and any work of the Spirit-however small-is in truth an evidence of grace. When we dismiss God’s work in us or others we rob God of his glory and assist Satan the Accuser. Instead of joining the Accuser in condemnation we should look to Christ our Advocate and to what his Spirit has in truth done in our lives.
With the remainder of the chapter, Sibbes continues with the thoughts expressed above as he sets out to argue that God doesn’t require grace in a measure, but that “a spark of fire is still fire.” “There is no mere [complete] darkness in the state of grace, but some beam of light whereby the kingdom of darkness does not wholly prevail” (38). He expands upon this with ten points, or rules, to understand why we should see and encourage the smallest spark instead of pouring water on it because it’s not a flame. Just in case this sounds like Sibbes is doing his best to lower the bar for conversion, he’s not. Instead, he’s reminding them not to base their justification on their sanctification while also pointing to the difference between no light and a beam of light. On one side, he cautions us against over analyzing our lives for fruit since we are prone to condemn ourselves and miss what God’s Spirit has done in us. But, at the same time, he does make clear that even though a believer might be in sin there will always be a contrary principle in them making them uneasy with it. God does not give up on his work of sanctifying us because of the sin that remains in us. He is not pleased by sin in us but he is still pleased with us. Our sin doesn’t negate Christ in us and a genuine work of the Spirit, and thus God continues to work in us so we might mature in our faith and experience a greater degree of evidences of grace.
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.