Chapter 4 - The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes
There is no better introduction to the Puritans than the writings of “Richard Sibbes” – Of him Spurgeon said, “Sibbes never wastes the student’s time; he scatters pearls and diamonds with both hands.” Richard Sibbes was born in Suffolk, England, in 1577. . . attended St. John’s College at Cambridge, granted a Doctorate in Divinity in 1627, and thereafter was frequently referred to as “the heavenly Doctor Sibbes” on account of both the matter and the manner of his preaching. Of him Izaak Walton later wrote, “Of this blest man, let this just praise be given: heaven was in him, before he was in heaven.” For his boldness, Sibbes was forced into exile in Holland or New England in 1632. His book,“The Bruised Reed,” has been remarkably fruitful as a source of spiritual help and comfort to millions of believers down through the years.
Isaiah 42:3 – “A bruised reed He shall not break, and a smoking flax He shall not quench.” The condition of those with whom God deals are “bruised reeds” – not “big trees.” The Church is compared to “weak things;” to a dove amongst the fowls; to a sheep amongst the beasts; to a woman (the weaker vessel). The bruised reed is a man that for the most part is in some misery; he is brought to see “sin” as the cause of it; thus, he is sensible to sin, seeing no help in himself. Affliction in the life of the believer has a healing and purging power. As believers we need bruising so that reeds may know themselves to be reeds, and not oaks. . . and by reason of the remainder of pride in our nature, to let us see that we live by mercy. Peter was bruised when he wept bitterly (Mt 26:75) – “though all forsake Thee, I will not” (Mt 26:33). David was bruised until he fully confessed (Ps 32:3-5); Hezekiah complained that God had “broken his bones” (Is 38:13); Paul needed the messenger of Satan to buffet him lest he should be lifted up above measure (2 Cor 12:7). Hence, we learn that we must not pass too harsh judgment upon ourselves or others when God exercises us with bruising upon bruising. There must be a conformity to Christ, who “was bruised for us” (Is 53:5). God is doing a wonderful work of grace in “broken-hearted Christians.”
Christ will not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax; but will cherish those with whom He so deals. Physicians, though they put their patients to much pain, will not destroy them; a mother who has a sick and self-willed child will not cast him away. Shall we think there is more mercy in ourselves than in God, who plants the affection of mercy in us? The ministry of Jesus is to “bind up the broken-hearted” (Is 61:1). Oh how His heart yearned when He saw His people “as sheep without a shepherd”? (Mt 9:36). He shed tears for those who shed His blood! And now He makes intercession in heaven for “weak Christians.” He has a heart of mercy and compassion. Shall our sins discourage us, when He appears before God’s throne only for sinners? Never fear to go to God – “rejoice in the Lord always!” (Phil 4:4). Satan sets upon us when we are weakest. . . Christ most mercifully inclines to the weakest. Likewise, He puts an instinct into the weakest things to rely upon something stronger than themselves for support. The bruised are brought to see their sin, which bruises most of all. . . and he that is bruised will be content with nothing but mercy from Him who has bruised him. When God humbles us, we should know that all His dealings with us are for the purpose of turning us back to Him. We must lay siege to the hardness of our own hearts, and cry out for mercy. We should desire that God bring a clear and strong light into all the corners of our souls. By the way, there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us.
The Lord knows our frame, and is mindful that we are nothing but “dust” (Ps 103:14); that our strength is not the strength of steel. None are fitter for comfort than those that think themselves furthest off. A holy despair in ourselves is the ground of true hope. In God the fatherless find mercy (Hos 14:3). The God who dwells in the highest heavens dwells likewise in the “lowest souls” (Is 57:15). Christ’s sheep are “weak sheep.” His tenderest care is over the weakest. The lambs He carries in His bosom (Is 40:11). He said to Peter, “Feed my lambs” (Jn 21:15). Christ was most familiar and open to “troubled souls.” How careful He was that Peter and the rest of the apostles should not be too much dejected after His resurrection. “Go your way, tell His disciples and Peter” (Mk 16:7). Christ knew that the guilt of their unkindness in abandoning Him had dejected their spirits. How gently did He endure the unbelief of Thomas and stooped so far unto his weakness, as to suffer him to thrust his hand into His side. (1-15)
Christ will not quench the “smoking flax,” but will blow it up till it flames. In smoking flax (smoldering wick) there is but a weak little light – and that is mixed with smoke. Faith may be as a “grain of mustard seed” (Mt 17:20). Things of greatest perfection are longest in coming to their growth; it comes to perfection little by little. We see in nature that a mighty oak rises from a small little acorn. In the small seeds of plants lie hidden both bulk and branches, bud and fruit. Christ values us by what we shall be…what we are elected unto…and what He will make us. Nothing in the world is of so good use as the least grain of grace – the grace is not only little, but it is mingled with corruption; therefore a Christian is said to be “smoking flax.” So we see that grace does not do away with corruption all at once, but some is left for believers to fight with. “O wretched man that I am!” said Paul, with a sense of his corruption. In the seven churches of Revelation (Rev 2-3), are called the “seven golden candlesticks” for their light; yet most of them had much smoke with their light. The reason for this mixture is that we carry about us a double principle – grace and nature. When the people of God look upon the remaining corruption within them, they frequently think they have no grace at all. (16-19)
Christ will not quench the “smoking flax” – this spark is from heaven, kindled by His own Spirit. We see how Christ bore with Thomas in his doubting (Jn 20:27); and how He did not quench the smothered light in Peter, when he denied Him with cursing (Lk 22:61). Conversely, we see how Christ cherished the “seven churches” of Revelation, and cherished anything that was good in them. Because the disciples slept due to infirmity, Christ frames a comfortable excuse for them – “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41). How He bore with the many imperfections of His poor disciples. He uses moderation, tenderness and care, “lest the spirit should fail before Him, and the souls which He hath made” (Is 57:16). The principle is even applied to the stronger believer – “We that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak” (Rom 15:1).
Many are “lost” in this world for want of encouragement. How careful was our Savior of little children, that they might not be offended. Christ plants in young beginners a love which we call their “first love” (Rev 2:4) – He does not expose them to “crosses” before they have gathered strength; as we bring on young plants and fence them from the weather until they be rooted. The best men are “severe” with themselves, but “tender” with others. Christ refuses none for weakness, that none should be discouraged; conversely, He accepts none for greatness, that they should be lifted up. Hypocrites need stronger conviction than gross sinners, because their will is bad; as such, their conversion is usually violent – the wounds of secure sinners will not be healed with sweet words. I speak with “mildness” toward those who are weak and sensible to it; these we must bring on gently, and drive softly, as Jacob did his cattle (Gen 33:14), according to their pace. Weak Christians are like fragile glassware – it is easily damaged with least violent usage – but if gently handled will continue a long time. We are to respond gently when confronting weaker vessels (1 Pet 3:7), by which we shall both preserve them and likewise make them useful to the church and ourselves. (20-25)
The ambassadors of so gentle a Savior should not be overbearing, setting up themselves in the hearts of people where Christ alone should sit. Too much respect to man was one of the inlets of popery. Christ chose those to preach mercy who had felt most mercy – like Peter and Paul – that they might be examples of what they taught. Paul became all things to all men (1 Cor 9:22), stooping unto them for their good. Shall we not come down from our high conceits to do any poor soul good? Shall man be proud after God has been humble? The brains of men are most often hotter than their hearts. It is more suitable to the spirit of Christ to incline to the milder part, and not to kill a fly on the forehead with a mallet. The power that is given to the church is given for edification, not destruction. There are many broken spirits who need soft and comforting words. The prophet is told, “Comfort ye My people” (Is 40:1). The Holy Spirit is content to dwell in smoky, offensive souls; Oh, that that Spirit would breathe into our spirits the same merciful disposition. 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. (26-34)
The marks of a “Smoking Flax” – Those that are given to quarrelling with themselves are prone to feed on that disease which troubles them; they delight to look on the dark side of the cloud only. We must not judge ourselves always according to “present feeling,” for in temptations we shall see nothing but smoke of distrustful thoughts. Life in winter is hidden in the “root.” We must look to grace in the spark as well as in the flame – a “few grapes” will show that the plant is a vine, and not a thorn. It is one thing to be deficient in grace, and another thing to lack grace altogether. What is the gospel but Christ’s obedience being esteemed ours, and our sins being laid upon Him – we are brought to heaven under the covenant of grace by way of love and mercy. Under the covenant of grace “sincerity” is perfection. A troubled soul is like troubled water; it is full of objections against itself, yet for the most part we may discern some “smothered sparks” of the hidden life. There is no mere darkness in the state of grace. Reflect with me for a moment on the presence of heavenly fire –
1. If there be any holy fire in us, it is kindled from heaven by the Father of lights. In every converted man, God puts a light into the eye of his soul in proportion to the light of truths revealed to him.
2. The least divine light has heat with it in some measure. Light in the understanding produces the heat of love in the affections. Weak light produces weak inclinations; strong light, strong inclinations. In the godly, gracious men have a spiritual palate as well as a spiritual eye – grace alters the spiritual taste.
3. Where this heavenly light is kindled, it directs in the right way. We must walk by His light, not the blaze of our own fire. God must light our candle or else we will abide in darkness. A little holy light will enable us to keep Christ’s Word, and not betray Him.
4. Where this fire is, it will sever things of diverse natures, and show a difference between such things as gold and dross. It will sever between flesh and spirit, and show that this is of nature, and this of grace. All is not ill in a bad action, nor is all good in a good action. There is gold in ore, which God and His Spirit in us can distinguish.
5. So far as a man is spiritual, so far is light delightful to him. He truly hates ill and loves good. If he goes against the light discovered, he will soon be reclaimed, because light has a friendly presence within him; as such, he is soon open to counsel.
6. Fire, where it is present, is in some degree active. The least measure of grace“works”–itsprings from the Spirit of God. Even in sins, when there seems nothing active but corruption, there is a contrary principle, which breaks the force of sin, so that it is not boundlessly sinful.
7. Fire makes metals pliable and malleable. Grace makes the heart pliable and ready to receive all good impressions.
8. Fire, as much as it can, sets everything on fire. Grace labors to produce a gracious impression in others, and make as many good as it can.
9. Sparks by nature fly upwards. Where the aim and bent of the soul is towards God, there is grace. The least measure of it is seen in holy desires, springing from faith and love.
10. Fire, if it has any matter to feed on, enlarges itself and mounts higher and higher, and the higher it rises, the purer is the flame. So where true grace is, it grows in measure and purity. A smok-ing flax will grow into a flame. As fire gives more light, it gives less smoke. God will never take His hand from His work, until He has taken away sin from our natures. The same Spirit that purified His holy human nature cleanses us by degrees – He labors to further His end of abolishing sin out of our natures.
Much comfort may be brought to the souls of the “weakest” if they will meditate on the following: Sibbes here strives to help the weakened soul overcome those “ordinary objections” and “secret thoughts” that have lodged in their inner man to keep them low. Here are temptations which hinder comfort –
1. Some think they have no faith at all because they have “no full assurance” – It is important to remember that even the fairest fire will have “some smoke;” the best actions will smell of smoke; and all of our actions will savor something of the old man.
2. In weakness of body some think “grace dies,” because their performances are feeble, their spirits are weakened. They do not consider that God regards the hidden sighs of those that lack abilities to express them outwardly. He that pronounces those blessed that consider the poor will have a merciful consideration of such himself.
3. Some are haunted with vile and “unworthy thoughts” of God, of Christ, of the Word, which disquiet and molest their peace. Shall every sin and blasphemy of man be forgiven, and not these blasphemous thoughts, which have the devil for their father? Christ Himself was molested in this way, but Satan had nothing of his own in Christ – Satan’s temptations of Christ were only suggestions on Satan’s part. To apprehend ill suggested by another is not ill. Christ yielded Himself to be tempted, that He might both pity us in our conflicts, and train us up to manage our spiritual weapons as He did. When Satan comes to us, however, he finds something of his own in us; there is the same enmity in our nature to God, in some degree, that is in Satan himself. By the way, these thoughts, if the soul dwell on them, leave a more heavy guilt upon the soul, hinder our communion with God, interrupt our peace, and put a contrary relish into the soul, disposing it to greater sins. All scandalous actions are only thoughts initially – thoughts are seeds of actions. Ill thoughts arise from our sin natures. Some are tempted to think “no one has such a loathsome nature as I have.” This springs from “ignorance” of the spreading of original sin, for what can come from an unclean thing but that which is unclean? Remember Paul’s cry, “Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom 7:24). Nothing more abases the spirits of holy men than these unclean issues of spirit that are most contrary to God; they produce in us the necessity of daily purging and pardoning grace. Our chief comfort is that our blessed Savior will command Satan to be gone from us, and bring all the thoughts of the inner man into subjection to Himself.
4. Some think, when they become more troubled with the “smoke of corruption” than they were before, that they are worse than they were. The more sin is seen, the more it is hated. Dust particles are in a room before the sun shines, but they only visually appear when a beam of light enters. Furthermore, none are so aware of corruption as those whose souls are most alive. Let such know that if the smoke be once offensive to them, it is a sign that there is light. A little fire is fire, though it smokes. Let us not be cruel to ourselves when Christ is thus gracious. (45-52)
Suffering brings “discouragements,” because of our impatience. “Alas!” we lament, “I shall never get through this trial.” But if God brings us into the trial He will be with us in the trial, and at length bring us out, more refined. We shall lose nothing but dross (Zech 13:9). “You have heard of the “patience of Job”? (Jam 5:11). Yes, but we have also heard of his impatience. If we hate our corruptions and strive against them, they shall not be counted ours – “It is no longer I that do it,” says Paul, “but sin that dwells in me” (Rom 7:17). We shall be esteemed by God to be what we love and desire and labor to be. Discouragements do not come from God (the Encourager); therefore they must come from ourselves and from Satan, who labors to fasten on us a loathing of duty. (53-57)
Weaknesses do not “break covenant” with God, anymore than they break covenant between a husband and wife. Weaknesses do not debar us from mercy; rather they incline God to us the more (Ps 78:39). Christ betroths her to Him “in mercy” (Hos 2:19). If Christ should not be merciful to our weaknesses, He should not have a people to serve Him. Let us not give way to despairing thoughts; we have a merciful Savior. Weaknesses are to be reckoned either imperfections cleaving to our best actions, or actions proceeding from immaturity in Christ. We feel our infirmity and grieve for it. . . and in our striving and labor to reform we make incremental progress against our corruption. Our weaknesses, although they are a matter of humiliation, are the object of our daily mortification.
God’s children never sin with “full will,” because there is a contrary law in their minds by which the dominion of sin is broken, and which always has some secret working against the law of sin. Nevertheless there may be “so much will” in a sinful action as may destroy our comfort to a remarkable degree afterwards and keep us long on the rack of a disquieted conscience. To the extent that we give way to our will in sinning, to that extent we set ourselves at a distance from comfort. Sin against conscience spoils our joy and weakens our strength; therefore willful breaches in sanctification will much hinder the sense of our justification. (58-60)
When we are troubled in “conscience” for our sins, Satan’s manner is then to present Christ to the afflicted soul as a most “severe judge” armed with justice against us. Let us present Him to our souls as holding out a “scepter of mercy” and spreading His arms to receive us. Though we are weak, we are His… though we are deformed, yet we carry His image upon us. Christ sees His own nature in us. Who neglects his own members because they are sick or weak? Let us therefore abhor all suspicious thoughts as the product of that “damned spirit,” whose daily work is to create division between us and the Son by breeding “false opinions” in us of Christ. It was Satan’s craft from the beginning to discredit God with man, by calling God’s love into question. Yet for all this, many of us still feel “God’s just displeasure.” Satan not only slanders Christ to us, but he also slanders us to ourselves. Cast yourself into the arms of Christ that you might find Him merciful; He will not put us off when we earnestly seek His hand. He goes before us by kindling holy desires in us – when the prodigal set himself to return to his father, his father did not wait for him, but met him in the way. When He prepares the heart to seek, He causes His ear to hear (Ps 10:17). He cannot find in His heart to hide Himself long from us. We can never be in such a condition that there will be just cause of “utter despair” – therefore let us do as the mariners do, cast anchor in the dark. Christ knows how to pity us in the case. God sees fit that we should taste of that cup of which His Son drank so deep, that we might feel a little what sin is, and what His Son’s love was. Our comfort is that Christ drank the dregs of the cup for us, that our spirits may not utterly fail under that little taste of His displeasure which we may feel. He became a curse and man of sorrows “for us.” The lower Christ comes down to us, the higher let us lift Him up in our hearts. (61-66)
We are made partakers of the “divine nature;” as such, we are easily induced and led by Christ’s Spirit to spiritual duties. Christ’s government in His children is a wise and well-ordered government of grace. Christ subdues the heart by His Spirit to obedience. . . He set up His throne in the heart and alters its direction, so making His subjects good. Other princes can make good laws, but they cannot write them in their people’s hearts (Jer 31:33). This is Christ’s prerogative – He infuses into His subjects His own Spirit. The knowledge which we have of Him from Himself is a transforming knowledge (2 Cor 3:18). The same Spirit who enlightens the mind inspires gracious inclinations into the will and affections, and infuses strength into the whole man. Without Christ’s Spirit the soul is in a state of utter confusion, but when Christ enters the human heart He establishes a government all His own. (82-90)
When a Christian is “conquered” by some sins, he gets victory over others more dangerous, such as spiritual pride and security. Christ’s work in the hearts of His children often goes backward so that it may go forward better. As seed rots in the ground in the winter time, after it comes up better; and the harder the winter the more flourishing the spring, so we learn to stand by falls, and get strength by discovering our weaknesses. Let us assure ourselves that God’s grace, even in this imperfect state, is stronger than man’s free will in the state of original perfection. Consciousness of our infirmities drives us out of ourselves to Him in whom our strength lies. Many waters cannot quench a spark from heaven – no affliction without or corruption within can quench it. In the morn-ing, we often see clouds gather about the sun as if they would hide it, but the sun overcomes them little by little, till it comes to its full strength. Every one that is “born of God” overcomes the world” (1 Jn 5:4). (91-100)
We must know that, though Christ has undertaken this victory, yet He accomplishes it by training us up to “fight His battles.” He overcomes in us by making us wise unto salvation (2 Tim 3:15); and in the measure that we believe Christ will conquer, in that measure we will endeavor by His grace that we may conquer, for faith is an obedient and a wise grace. When we find our souls declining, it is best to raise them up by some awakening meditations of the presence of God. . . of the infinite love of God in Christ. . . of the excellency of a Christian’s calling. . . of the short and uncertain time of this life. . . and of how little good all those things that steal away our hearts will do us in the long run. The more we make way for such considerations to sink into our hearts, the more we shall rise nearer to that state of soul which we shall enjoy in heaven. When we grow careless of keeping our souls, then God recovers our taste of good things again by “sharp crosses” – the taste of good things is much easier kept than recovered (cf. the recoveries of David, Solomon, Samson). Of all persons, a man guided by Christ is the best; a man guided merely by will and affection is worst. The happiness of “weaker things” stands in being ruled by stronger. It is best for a “blind man” to be guided by him that has sight; it is best for “sheep” to be guided by man; and it is best for “man” to be guided by Christ. Grace, as the seed in the parable, grows, we know not how; yet at length, when God sees fittest, we shall see that all our endeavors have not been in vain. The tree falls upon the last stroke, yet all the strokes help the work forward. (101-108)
Christ conquers and achieves His own ends, but He does so to some extent “invisibly.” His enemies in us and outside us seem to prevail, but He will ultimately bring forth victory in full view of everyone. In that day He will declare to all the world what He is, and then there shall be no glory but that of Christ and His spouse. Truth shall no longer be called heresy. . . wickedness shall no longer go masked and disguised. . . goodness shall appear in its true luster. . . and those that are as “smoking flax” now shall then shine as the noonday sun (Mt 13:43). As Christ shall not quench the “least spark” kindled by Himself, so will He damp the “fairest blaze” of goodly appearances which are not from above; those that have been ruled by their own deceitful hearts and a spirit of error shall be brought forth to disgrace. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil” (Is 5:20). We often fail in “lesser conflicts” and stand firm in “greater ones,” because in the lesser we rest more in ourselves; in the greater we fly to the rock of our salvation (Ps 61:2). Hence also it is that we are stronger after defeats, because hidden corruption, undiscerned before, is now discovered – hence we are brought to make use of pardoning mercy. (109-117)
There can be no victory where there is “no combat” – prevailing will not be without fighting. Where God’s government is in truth, it will be opposed. Nothing is so opposed as Christ and His government are – both within us and outside us. Though corruption does not prevail so far as to make void the powerful work of grace, yet there is not only a possibility of opposing, but a proneness to oppose. It takes much trouble to bring Christ into the heart – there is an army of lusts in mutiny against Him. The utmost strength of most men’s endeavors and abilities is directed to keeping Christ from ruling in the soul – the flesh still labors to maintain its own government. Can we be so naive as to think that corruption and Satan will yield possession quietly? When Christ was born in Bethlehem, there was trouble. . . so when Christ is born in any man, the soul will fight against it. Wherever Christ comes He brings division. Once Christ sets up His government in the soul, He maintains His own government in us and sets in motion a battle plan against our corrup-tions. Christ will not leave us till He has made us like Himself, and presented us blameless before His Father (Phil 1:6; 1 Th 5:24; Jude 24). No creature can hinder the course of the sun, nor stop the influence of heaven, much less hinder the prevailing power of divine truth, until Christ has brought all under one head, and then He will present all to His Father. What a comfort this is in our conflicts with our unruly hearts, that it shall not always be thus! Let us strive a little while, and we shall be happy forever. (118-128)