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SORROW FOR THE
DEATH OF FRIENDS
By John Angell James, on the death of his wife (1848)
"Naked I came from my
mother's womb, and naked I will leave this life. The Lord gives, and the Lord
takes away. Praise the name of the Lord! (Job 1:21)
"See, I am the only God! There are no others. I kill, and I make alive! I wound, and I heal, and no one can rescue you from My power!" Deuteronomy 32:39
I hope I shall not be thought by any to be indelicately obtruding my personal sorrows upon public attention. I allude to the situation in which I am placed by a mysterious but all-wise Providence. If I refer to the event that has now befallen me, it is not to move your sympathy, for this has already flowed towards me in full tide, and in every variety of soothing attentions, both before and since the stroke of separation; and for which I thus publicly return you my sincere gratitude—but it is for a still higher and holier purpose, to promote your spiritual welfare. If the ordinary afflictions of life should be improved by us for our good, surely the deeper sorrows of the grave should be eminently conducive to our soul's present and eternal welfare. When it is not possible for us to derive any further benefit from the life of our friends, we should be tremblingly solicitous to receive it from their death. When their own vital selves are no longer before us in all the beautiful form and activity of a holy example, and nothing remains of them but their tomb and their memory—we should render these precious remains subservient to our spiritual improvement. This is the best, the only compensation for their loss.
When a holy and beloved object of our affection is removed by death, we ought to sorrow. Humanity demands it, and Christianity, in the person of the weeping Jesus, allows it. The man without a tear, is a savage or a Stoic—but not a Christian. God intends when he bestows his gifts—that they should be received with smiles of gratitude; and when he recalls them—that they should be surrendered with "drops of sacred grief." Sorrow is an affection implanted by the Creator in the soul, for wise and beneficent purposes; and it ought not to be ruthlessly torn up by the roots—but directed in its exercise by reason and piety. The work of grace, though it is above nature—is not against it. The man who tells me not to weep at the grave, insults me, mocks me, and wishes to degrade me. I do weep. I must weep. I cannot help it. God requires me to do so—and has opened a fountain of tears in my nature for that purpose. And it is the silent, pure, unsophisticated testimony of my heart to the excellence of the gift he gave in mercy; and in mercy, no doubt, as well as judgment, has recalled.
Without sorrow we would not improve by his correcting hand; chastened grief is like the gentle shower, falling first upon the earth to prepare it for the seed, and then upon the seed to cause it to germinate. Wild, clamorous, passionate sorrow is like the thunder shower of inundation—which carries away soil and seed together. Can we lose the company of one whose presence was the light and charm of our dwelling, whose society was the source of our most valuable and most highly valued earthly comfort; whose love, ever new and fresh, was presented daily to us in full cup by her own hand; who cheered us with her conversation; bore with our infirmities; solved our doubts; disclosed to us in difficulty the path of duty; and quickened us by her example—is it possible, I say, to lose such a friend—and not sorrow?
But, then, though we mourn—we must not murmur. We may sorrow—but not with the passionate and uncontrolled grief of one who have no hope. Our sorrow must flow, deep as we like, but noiseless and still—in the channels of submission. It must be a sorrow so quiet, as to hear all the words of consolation which our heavenly Father utters amidst the gentle strokes of his rod. It must be a sorrow so reverential, as to adore him for the exercise of his prerogative in taking away what and whom he pleases. It must be a sorrow so composed, as to prepare us for doing his will as well as bearing it. It must be a sorrow so meek and gentle, as to justify him in his dispensations. It must be a sorrow so confiding, as to be assured that there is as much love in taking the mercy away—as there was in bestowing it. It must be a sorrow so grateful, as to be thankful for the mercies left, as well as afflicted for the mercies lost. It must be a sorrow so trustful, as to look forward to the future with hope, as well as back upon the past with distress. It must be a sorrow so patient, as to bear all the aggravations that accompany or follow the bereavement with unruffled acquiescence. It must be a sorrow so holy, as to lift the prayer of faith for Divine grace to sanctify the stroke. It must be a sorrow so lasting, as to preserve through all the coming years of life the benefit of that event, which in one solemn moment changed the whole aspect of our earthly existence.
When grief impairs the health and preys upon the constitution, it is "the sorrow of the world which works death;" when it closes the ear to the words of consolation, and the eye to mercies left; when it paralyzes the energies, and benumbs and stupefies the soul, so that incumbent duties, personal and relative, domestic and social, civil and sacred, are neglected, and the soul does nothing but lie down upon the sepulcher to weep; when it refuses to be comforted, even with all the consolation of the gospel—then it is a sorrow unworthy of the honorable name which the Christian bears.
But it is not against too long and too deep a sorrow that some need to be admonished, but against a too short and too superficial sorrow. Nothing promises more, and, too generally, yields less improvement and benefit, than the death of friends. At their decease life loses its charm; society, occupation, and favorite tastes, give up their attraction; the pall that covers their dear remains extends its dark folds over all other things; and every hope is entombed in their grave. Temporal things fade, and are lost amidst the glory and grandeur of eternal things. Invisible realities displace from imagination the vain shows and shadows of the visible world! The tie that binds us to earth is cut, and our spirit seems set loose to rise to heaven and glory. For a while we hear the voice which comes from the tomb. The edifying and exemplary life; the triumphant death; the kind and pious counsels, and the tender or affectionate farewell of a beloved companion—for some days or weeks employ our thoughts or engross our conversation. We can talk and think of nothing else, as long as our sorrow remains.
But, by degrees, the world which seemed dead, corrupted, and loathsome—recovers its life, its health, its attractions, and its power. Time abates the violence of grief; "by degrees new associations are formed, new projects are devised, new pleasures are pursued; the stream of reflection is diverted into other and far different channels; the heart plunges as deeply as ever into worldly hopes and fears; the fondness for what was lately pronounced vanity and vexation of spirit, is revived. Thus the tears shed for departed friends have been shed in vain, and they who were stricken by God and afflicted, hearken no longer to the voice of the rod, and reap no lasting fruit from correction.
It is wisely ordered, I know, that the poignancy of sorrow should be abated by the lapse of time, and that the mind by its elastic power should rise from beneath the first pressure of overwhelming calamity—or else death would smite with paralysis the whole framework of society. Still it must be confessed and lamented, that in too many cases the grief of the mourner is too evanescent, either for a just tribute to the memory of 'departed excellence', or for his own spiritual improvement. If departed spirits could be spectators of what is going on upon earth, and were susceptible of the frailties of their mortal sojourn, it would surprise and grieve them, in some cases, to see how soon the grass grows around their sepulcher, and the foot turns from it into another path! It would check our vanity and curb our expectations of posthumous honor and affection—to think how soon our names will be pronounced without a tear, and our history be forgotten amidst the new objects that rise to occupy our place!
But it is now time to
consider the LESSONS to be learned by the
death of Christian friends.
1. From the death of our friends, we learn how important it is to discharge well our duty to those who remain. Perhaps no one ever yet committed to the tomb an object of his dear affection, without some reproach for not having duly appreciated its value while the blessing was possessed—or for not having treated it with sufficient tenderness and attention. The magnitude of our mercies seems to be best seen by the shadows they cast behind them as they retire from us! And our obligations to promote the happiness of our friends are never so well understood—as when the opportunity for discharging them is forever gone. The most sincere, ardent, and unvarying affection, when its object is removed, finds out how much more could have been done for its happiness than was done.
Many and sad are the regrets which we pour out at the sepulcher of our friends—for unrequited proofs of regard, which at the time made little or no impression upon us; for acts of unselfish and devoted service which were received with too much coldness or ingratitude; for duties neglected, which might have been performed; for opportunities to give pleasure, which were allowed to pass by unimproved; for words too sharply spoken, or unkind feelings too hastily indulged. Such injuries, often more imaginary than real, though sometimes true, can never be repaired—and it is the sting of sorrow that they cannot; for the grave has closed over the subject of them. That grave, however, sends forth a warning voice—Go perform every duty in love, in season, and in measure to the friends that remain! Do now what you will certainly wish you had done, when the time for acting is at an end! Perform every office of benevolence, discharge every duty of affection, while it can be performed! Beware of being guilty of that neglect, or of doing that hurt to another, which his death may make it impossible for you to redress. Whatever your hand finds to do for the good of your friend—do it speedily with your might! For your friend may die, and there is no work nor action in the grave. Your tears of regret, your confession of unkindness, your wishes for reparation—will not reach him there!
2. We should imitate their virtues. It is a lovely propensity of our nature, which leads us to forget the failings of departed friends, and hold fast their excellences. And those whom we were perhaps but too apt to censure while they lived, we are willing to canonize when they are dead. Their decease has invested their character with new beauty; and their virtues appear to us, even as they are presented to us by memory, to have caught and to reflect some of the light of heaven, to which they have ascended. And, indeed, this in many cases is the fact, for we see such a maturity of spiritual graces, such a measure of the beauties of holiness in their last days, as plainly shows that the rays of the excellent glory have fallen upon them before they have emerged from the dark valley. Oh let us follow their footsteps!
When the first tears of
sorrow are wiped away from our eyes, through which it is difficult to see
anything clearly, and the stupor or the tumult of the mind has subsided into the
reflective silence of acquiescence—let us set their pattern before us, and
learn what we ought to be, and what we ought to do. Let us, while the
recollection of them is fresh, and before the tints of their picture are faded
upon the memory—copy into our character all the excellences of their character.
Let ours not only be a sorrowing, but an imitating love; assured that no
remembrance of them is so honorable to their character, or would please them so
well—if they could know it in their celestial sphere—as an attempt to resemble
them, in all that is worthy of imitation.
3. Let us learn the duty of sending our hearts after our friends—to heaven. If their removal has impoverished earth, it has enriched heaven! And though the presence of Christ is the sun of the celestial world, and the Lamb is the glory thereof—yet the apostle speaks with joy of our gathering together unto Jesus, of our coming to the spirits of just men made perfect, and of the joy and crown of rejoicing which our friends will be to us on the day of our Lord. Surely, it will be no small joy to meet those in heaven, whom we loved on earth! And though Christ is the great magnet that draws all holy hearts to paradise, yet even our blessed and glorified friends are not without a certain and legitimate, though inferior influence of the same kind.
4. Let us comply with their holy wishes, and their devout requests. One wish there was, not only cherished in the heart, but expressed with the dying accents of that dear saint who has recently departed from the midst of us, and that was, that her decease might be a dispensation of love to us, in the way of increasing our spiritual attainments. "Give my love to the church—that church I so much love. Tell them to be a pattern and example of holiness to all the churches around." How often, in the privacy and fellowship of grief and prayer in her sick chamber, have I wrestled for this. Amidst what tears and sobs have I implored that her approaching death, might be as life to the church. Shall it not be? Ought we to let so much spiritual wealth be taken from us, without endeavoring to make up the loss by an increase of our own piety? Members of my church, sheep of my flock, souls committed by the Holy Spirit to my spiritual oversight, let us all seek to have the dispensation sanctified for our spiritual good. Let the sepulcher of your pastor's wife unite with his pulpit, to give emphasis to the admonition, "Be holy in every detail of your lives!" You loved her, and you still honor her; gratify her dying wishes. The last wishes of dying friends, you know, and especially such wishes, of such a friend, are sacred—fulfill her parting request, and be a holy people. Let us seek a revival of true piety among us. Let each of us purpose to have the affliction eminently blessed to our own souls. Look regularly at her grave, from which she being dead yet speaks, and says, "Be a pattern of holiness to all the churches around." Be every heart her monument, and this her epitaph.
5. We should
curb the selfishness of our sorrow, by rejoicing in the PRESENT FELICITY of our
departed friends—and thus make their decease a means of promoting the virtue of
unselfish benevolence. They are with
the Lord, where they longed to be, and are fully blessed in the enjoyment of his
love! Have we not love enough for them, to choose that they should remain in
that blissful place where they now are? They have looked on the beauties of the
New Jerusalem! They have fallen in humble adoration and ecstatic joy before the
throne of God! They have seen the glory of the Lamb! They have eaten the fruit
of the tree of life, and drunk from the crystal stream that flows from the
living fountains of waters! They are perfect in holiness, happiness, and
knowledge! Would we pluck them from such bliss, and imprison them again in our
world and in the flesh, merely to solace us, to wipe away the tears from our
eyes, and to weep with us when we weep? Let us better discipline our hearts.
Let us go up in faith and in imagination to rejoice with them—since they
cannot come down to weep with us. This is cultivating the generous,
unselfish, and benevolent affections. It is high and difficult virtue; the last
triumph of affection; and the profoundest exercise of love!
6. The death of Christian friends should impress us with, even as it shows us—the vanity of the WORLD. All that poetry ever wrote—even the most mournful, beautiful, and pensive of its strains—all that philosophy ever argued—all that morality ever taught, conveys no such view, and is calculated to produce no such impressions, of the emptiness of the world—as the desolate chamber, the vacant place, the deserted chair, the picture of some dear object of our heart's affection. It is at the tomb of that loved, lost friend, the world stands stripped of its false disguise, and is presented to us as a shadow! Gloom now covers everything. Scenes that once pleased, please no more. Favorite walks are shunned, or re-trodden only to remind us of the dear companion that once shared their beauties with us. Seasons return, but not to bring with them the delights with which the presence of one beloved object associates them. We go about in the bitterness of our spirit, crying, "Vanity of vanity—all is vanity and vexation of spirit!" We are ready to sigh for death to relieve us from the tedium of existence, and the sense of emptiness!
Be it so! It is all true! The world is empty—and it was intended by God that it should be! The world contains no satisfying bliss! It is a cistern, a broken cistern, which can hold no water. God told us so, but we would not learn this by His word—so now we must learn it by painful experience! If we cannot be taught by 'faith', since we must learn—we are in mercy taught by feeling it to be empty! Oh let us go to the fountain that is full, flowing, open! Let us go to the fountain of living waters! If there is emptiness, nothingness, in the world—there is fullness in God. He makes angels happy; he makes perfect spirits happy; he makes Christ's human nature happy; he makes himself happy—and cannot he make us happy? Is there enough in Him to satisfy millions of millions, and not enough to satisfy us? Let us crucify the world—there is more happiness in a crucified world, than in an idolized one.
How, then, we should die
to the world! I know that faith is the consecrated means of gaining this
victory. I know that it is amidst the glory of the cross and of heaven—that all
the twinkling and artificial lights of this world, like the gaudy luster of an
candle, expiring as the sun rises in splendor upon the earth, should fade away
and become invisible. I know that one clear, impressive, heart-satisfying view
of a crucified and glorified Christ, does more to wean our affections from seen
and temporal things, than the bleakest and dreariest aspect of this sublunary
scene. But still, it is well to press everything into the work and service of
our mortification to seen and temporal things. It is well to feel how much less
there is on earth to love. It is well to feel how impoverished and disfigured
and unattractive it has become by the removal of that which constituted its
loveliest charm; and, therefore, how much less worthy it is of our regard than
it was. If our hearts cannot die to the world anywhere else—let them be
crucified at the tomb of those we love.
7. How dreadful is the nature of SIN! Sin is the parent of death; and death the first-born of sin. What must be the parent—when so hideous and so dreadful is the offspring? Who can have watched the harbingers of death—"the groans, the pains, the dying strife," and have seen all this in the dying Christian too, without being struck with the fearful nature of man's revolt from God? True, "the mortal paleness on the cheek" is associated, almost irradiated, with "a glory from the soul," just as the rays of the sun, falling upon a base and even unsightly object, may conceal its deformity from an observer at a little distance. But death in itself, and by itself—is horrid and revolting! To see all this inflicted, I repeat, upon a Christian, a saint, a child of God, an heir of glory; to see no way even to the kingdom of God, to the realms of immortality—but this dark valley of corruption, earth, and worms—this gives us a most impressive idea of the dreadful nature of sin!
Grace triumphs, I admit.
The soul rises superior to its situation, sees the glimpses of glory in that
low, dark situation, and echoes amidst the groans of expiring nature the song of
the redeemed. Yes, but then this is the victory of faith over death; this is
grace triumphing over sin. Take away what grace does—and all that pertains to
death itself, is as awful in the most eminent believer, as in the most confirmed
and blaspheming infidel. Death, as to its physical effects, cannot change
its nature, though, in the death of the Christian, sin and grace, in their
effects, are often presented in wondrous conflict and in glorious contrast. How
such scenes should enlarge our views of the malignity of sin, and embitter our
hearts against it! O sin, sin—what have you done!
8. But what a glorious view does the death of Christians give us of the work of our Lord JESUS Christ, as the great peace-maker with God through the blood of his cross; as the destroyer of death; the Prince of life; the restorer of immortality; the compassionate High Priest of his people; their companion and helper in the mortal conflict; and their conductor to celestial glory! There it is—his mediatorial office; his redeeming work; his soul-saving power; his abounding mercy; not in a sermon, not in a book, no, not even in a verse or page of the New Testament—but in the glorious result and reality, embodied in that dying saint, set forth in that dissolving yet imperishable believer.
Hear the comfortable words that fall from the lips of the departing Christian, as his voice, almost lost in death, still praises God, and sends forth expressions which seem more like the first sounds of the cherubim's song than the last words of mortal man. See the peace which spreads over the countenance, and the sparkle which lights up with joy the eye that is growing dim in death. What is it all? How does this come to pass? Why that tranquility on the verge of the grave—that confidence in the near prospect of meeting a holy God—that voluntary surrender of life—that fearless tread down into the dark valley—that resolute plunge into the vast abyss of eternity—that act of the soul herself in loosening all the ties which bound her to earth, and laying hold of a hand that is lifting her up to the heavens? Why that that longing after holiness, as if the atmosphere, not only of the world but of the church, was not pure enough for her to breathe—that reaching after the presence of a glorified Savior—that sweet spirit of ineffable charity, which casts back its smiles on the world it is leaving, and which covets to be in a world of pure unmixed love?
I say, what is this? "O Redeemer of our lost, and sinful, and miserable world—this is your love's redeeming work—the glory of your cross—the fruit of your agonies—the travail of your soul!" Yes, this is true religion—it is faith, hope, love! It is a scene that presents the work of grace on earth, and as much of the work of glory as can be seen on earth. Does it not prove the reality of religion? Is it not an evidence of the truth of the Bible? Is there anything like it, can there be anything like it, in the region of imposture? Is it not—too holy for falsehood; too elevated for delusion; too sober for mere enthusiasm? What a view does it give us of the excellence and power of religion! Never does true piety shine brighter than in such a dark scene as this! Never does it appear stronger than in this scene of weakness! Never does piety appear more beautiful, than when thus surrounded with all that is repulsive in disease and death! Next to a seraph spirit before us in the robes of light and immortality—the dying believer, triumphing by faith and hope over the last enemy—is the brightest specimen of our holy religion!
My dear friends, do not be afraid to die! Trust the Conqueror of death with your soul—not only for 'living duties' but for 'dying agonies'. Seek more and more of that piety for your living scenes, which you saw putting forth its power and beauties amidst the dying scenes of your friends. It is a mistake, and a dangerous error, to suppose that God intentionally reserves the joy and peace of believing, for a death bed. He is willing to give us grace to enjoy all this peace now. It is our own fault that we are not thus blessed as Christians, while engaged in the affairs of life. If faith, and hope, and love—which can do all this for dying saints—and they can do the same things for living ones.
And this is one use we
should make of such scenes—to quicken our graces, to shame us for our
lukewarmness, to cure us of our worldly-mindedness! Dying saints are
patterns, not only for other dying saints, but for living ones. Our exclamation,
on witnessing such, should not only be, "Let me die thus," but—"Let me
live thus." "Let me be thus holy, thus heavenly now. I cannot wait
until I die for this grace—I want it now! I will seek for it now! I must have it
now!" And you may.
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