This morning we come to our third reading in Richard Sibbes’ The Bruised Reed. Though we’re still early in the book, already I’m seeing so much evidence as to why Sibbes was known as a physician of the soul or, to use the title given to him in his day, “The Heavenly Doctor Sibbes.” I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book that is more comforting, more pastoral in its tone. Sibbes has an amazing ability to bring comfort and hope through carefully crafted words.
Our reading this week included two chapters, the first of which is titled “Christ Will Not Quench the Smoking Flax.” Here he speaks more of the term “the smoking flax” by which he refers to that spark of faith that exists in those who have been newly saved. He assures the reader that Christ will never extinguish such beginnings of faith for two reasons: “First, because this spark is from heaven: it is his own, it is kindled by his own Spirit. And secondly, it tends to the glory of his powerful grace in his children that he preserves light in the midst of darkness, a spark in the midst of the swelling waters of corruption.”
He writes about how even the least spark of grace is precious in the eyes of God and, therefore, ought to be precious to us as well. “Man for a little smoke will quench the light. Christ, we see, ever cherishes even the least beginnings.” He encourages us to follow Christ’s example saying “How careful was our blessed Saviour of little ones, that they might not be offended! How he defends his disciples from malicious imputations of the Pharisees! How careful not to put new wine into old vessels (Matt. 9:17), not to alienate new beginners with the austerities of religion (as some do indiscreetly).” He warns “It is not the best way, to assail young beginners with minor matters, but to show them a more excellent way and train them in fundamental points. Then other things will not gain credence with them.”
Continuing to encourage Christians to be tender with other believers, and especially these “smoking flax” believers, he says “It is no great matter how dull the scholar be when Christ takes upon him to be the teacher, who, as he prescribes what to understand, so he gives understanding itself, even to the simplest.”
Chapter 5 is titled “The Spirit of Mercy Should Move Us” and here he offers warnings particularly to preachers that they minister in simplicity and humility. He begins by saying “Preachers need to take heed therefore how they deal with young believers. Let them be careful not to pitch matters too high, making things necessary evidences of grace which agree not to the experience of many a good Christian, and laying salvation and damnation upon things that are not fit to bear so great a weight.” That sounds for all the world like a warning against fundamentalism! He warns as well that preachers need to speak at the level of the listener, not clouding their words in language that cannot be readily understood. “Preachers should take heed likewise that they hide not their meaning in dark speeches, speaking in the clouds. Truth fears nothing so much as concealment, and desires nothing so much as clearly to be laid open to the view of all. When it is most unadorned, it is most lovely and powerful.”
Looking to the contemporary context Sibbes says “If we look to the general temper of these times, rousing and waking Scriptures are fittest; yet there are many broken spirits who need soft and comforting words. Even in the worst time the prophets mingled sweet comfort for the hidden remnant of faithful people. God has comfort. The prophet is told, ‘Comfort ye my people’ (Isa. 40:1), as well as, ‘Lift up thy voice as a trumpet’ (Isa. 58:1).” After calling for sound judgment he speaks of how those in positions of authority should act, warning that authorities may be liable to abuse authority. He warns “not to mingle bitterness and passion with authority derived from God. Authority is a beam of God’s majesty, and prevails most where there is least mixture of that which is man’s. It requires more than ordinary wisdom to manage it aright.”
He wraps up by saying that we are all debtors to the weak and offers several ways in which this is true. At one point he says “The Holy Ghost is content to dwell in smoky, offensive souls. Oh, that that Spirit would breathe into our spirits the same merciful disposition!” And he shows that the church is exactly the place we would expect to find those who are imperfect and offensive. “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.”
As is always the case with Puritan writers, Sibbes offers all kinds of pithy and powerful quotes. Here are just a few of these—the kind of quotes that ought to be filed away in some kind of a quote database:
“It would be a good contest amongst Christians, one to labour to give no offence, and the other to labour to take none.”
“The best men are severe to themselves, tender over others.”
“The weakest are most ready to think themselves despised; therefore we should be most careful to give them satisfaction.”
“That great physician, as he had a quick eye and a healing tongue, so had he a gentle hand, and a tender heart.”
For next Thursday please read chapters 6 and 7.
The purpose of this program is to read classics together. So if there are things that stood out to you in this chapter, if there are questions you had, this is the time and place to have your say. Feel free to post a comment below or to link to your blog if you’ve chosen to write about this on your own site.