Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Tough Roots of Habitual Tenderness V

Newton's Realism about the Limits of This Life
Few things will tend to make you more tender than to be much in the presence of suffering and death. "My course of study," Newton said, "like that of a surgeon, has principally consisted in walking the hospital." His biblical assessment of the misery that he saw was that some, but not much, of it can be removed in this life. He would give his life to bring as much relief and peace for time and eternity as he could. But he would not be made hard and cynical by the irremediable miseries like Cowper's mental illness. "I endeavor to walk through the world as a physician goes through Bedlam [the famous insane asylum]: the patients make a noise, pester him with impertinence, and hinder him in his business; but he does the best he can, and so gets through." In other words, his tender patience and persistence in caring for difficult people came, in part, from a very sober and realistic view of what to expect from this world.
Just as we saw at the beginning there are no perfect ministers, so there are no perfect lay people. This must not discourage us, but only make us patient as we wait for the day when all things will be new. Newton gives beautiful, concrete expression to this conviction as he watches the dawn outside his window.
The day is now breaking: how beautiful its appearance! how welcome the expectation of the approaching sun! It is this thought makes the dawn agreeable, that it is the presage of a brighter light; otherwise, if we expect no more day than it is this minute, we should rather complain of darkness, than rejoice in the early beauties of the morning. Thus the Life of grace is the dawn of immortality: beautiful beyond expression, if compared with the night and thick darkness which formerly covered us; yet faint, indistinct, and unsatisfying, in comparison of the glory which shall be revealed.
This sober realism about what we can expect from this fallen world is a crucial root of habitual tenderness in the life of John Newton.
Newton's All-Pervasive Humility and Gratitude at Having Been Saved
This he comes back to more than anything as the source of tenderness. Till the day he died he never ceased to be amazed that, as he says at age 72, "such a wretch should not only be spared and pardoned, but reserved to the honour of preaching thy Gospel, which he had blasphemed and renounced . . . this is wonderful indeed! The more thou hast exalted me, the more I ought to abase myself."
The effect of this amazement is tenderness toward others. "[The 'wretch' who has been saved by grace] believes and feels his own weakness and unworthiness, and lives upon the grace and pardoning love of his Lord. This gives him an habitual tenderness and gentleness Spirit. Humble under a sense of much forgiveness to himself, he finds it easy to forgive others."

He puts it in a picture:
A company of travellers fall into a pit: one of them gets a passenger to draw him out. Now he should not be angry with the rest for falling in; nor because they are not yet out, as he is. He did not pull himself out: instead, therefore, of reproaching them, he should shew them pity. . . . A man, truly illuminated, will no more despise others, than Bartimaeus, after his own eyes were opened, would take a stick, and beat every blind man he met. 
Glad-hearted, grateful lowliness and brokenness as a saved "wretch" was probably the most prominent root of Newton's habitual tenderness with people.

Newton's Peaceful Confidence in the Pervasive, Loving Providence of God
In order to maintain love and tenderness that thinks more about the other person's need than your own comforts, you must have an unshakable hope that the sadness of your life will work for your everlasting good. Otherwise you will give in, turn a deaf ear to need and say, "Let us eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." Newton found this peace and confidence in the all-governing providence of God over good and evil. He describes his own experience when he describes the believer:
And his faith upholds him under all trials, by assuring him, that every dispensation is under the direction of his Lord; that chastisements are a token of his love; that the season, measure, and continuance of his sufferings, are appointed by Infinite Wisdom, and designed to work for his everlasting good; and that grace and strength shall be afforded him, according to his day.
This keeps him from being overwhelmed with anger and bitterness and resentment when he is assaulted with pressures and disappointments. It is as practical as pastoral interruptions: "When I hear a knock at my study door, I hear a message from God. It may be a lesson of instruction; perhaps a lesson of patience: but, since it is his message, it must be interesting." He knew that even his temptations were ordered by the sovereign goodness of God and that not to have any was dangerous for the soul. He approved of Samuel Rutherford's comment, that "there is no temptation like being without temptation."
And this same faith in God's gracious providence to help him profit from the painful things in life, also spares from the pleasant things in life that would deceive him that they are best and choke off the superior pleasures he has in God. If the world triumphs in this way, we will lose our joy in Christ and his mercy, and that will be the end of all Christ-exalting tenderness. So it is a crucial root of his habitual tenderness when he says, "By faith [the believer] triumphs over [the world's] smiles and enticements: he sees that all that is in the world, suited to gratify the desires of the flesh or the eye, is not only to be avoided as sinful, but as incompatible with his best pleasures."
John Newton's habitual tenderness is rooted in the sober realism of the limits of redemption in this fallen world where "we groan awaiting the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23); the all-pervasive humility and gratitude for having been a blasphemer of the gospel and now being a heaven-bound preacher of it; and the unshakable confidence that the all-governing providence of God will make every experience turn for his good so that he doesn't spend his life murmuring, "My carriage is broken, my carriage is broken," but sings, "Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home."

(The fifth and final excerpt from a lecture for pastors by John Piper; the full text and audio can be found here.)

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