What a pity that so much pastoral correspondence now takes place through texts, emails, phonecalls, and won’t be preserved for the encouragement of future generations!
When life gets tough, I often find myself turning to the letters of Samuel Rutherford. No matter what difficulties I may be facing, they pale into insignificance beside all that he went through. Yet he learned to trust adversity and make a friend of it, because every trial he went through served only to make him lean all the harder on Jesus, and there he always discovered some new facet of His glory which made all the suffering worthwhile.
He was born in 1600, and as a very small child he fell into a deep well. The children he was playing with ran to fetch his father, who arrived to find little Samuel sitting dripping on the side of the well. He told his father that “a bonny white man came and drew me out”. A very bright scholar, Rutherford graduated with a master’s degree at the age of 21, and at 24 he first surrendered his life to Jesus.
During his lifetime he endured much sorrow. His 2 little children died, and then his wife died also after a painful illness and many nights of torment which Rutherford could hardly bear to watch. All this made him a very tender and loving pastor who understood the troubles that his people faced. He became minister of the small Scottish parish of Anwoth, and as a truly Christlike pastor he had a deep love for his flock. He was unafraid to speak out against political wrongs in the nation or heresies in the national church, resulting in his exile to Aberdeen and ban from preaching. This was a source of almost unbearable grief to him. Since the death of his wife and children, caring for his beloved flock and preaching Christ to them had been his one great joy. Of this time he wrote “Next to Christ I had but one joy, the apple of the eye of my delights, to preach Christ my Lord; and they have violently plucked that away from me.”
During his banishment he at first struggled with dejection and a sense of abandonment; and yet as time passed he began to discover that in his isolation he could enjoy the most wonderful “love-feasts” with the One whom he sometimes referred to in his letters as his “only, only Lord Jesus”. His great love for his congregation at Anwoth led him to fear that during his absence wolves would come in among his flock. And so he wrote them letters to encourage them in the Lord. Two centuries later some 200 of these letters were collected together and published by Andrew Bonar.
Lady Kenmure was one of his parishioners, and she and her husband were very dear to him. She lost three little daughters in early infancy – a sorrow which he could well understand from his own experiences. When she was 7 months pregnant with a son, her husband also died, and finally the boy died at the age of four, leaving her alone in the world. Rutherford was astonished that God had allowed this last, greatest sorrow to befall her, and he wrote to her with the utmost empathy and tenderness, acknowledging that her grief “will have its own violent incursions in your soul: and I think it will not be in your power to help it.” But he also wrote these words, which have carried many a suffering Christian through earthly hardships – and I count myself among them: “I shall believe for my part that He mindeth to distil heaven out of this loss, and all others the like; for wisdom devised it, and love laid it on, and Christ owneth it as His own, and putteth your shoulder beneath only a piece of it.”
Eventually Rutherford was able to return to Anwoth, but he was only there a year before the church authorities appointed him professor of divinity at St Andrews and once again he had to leave Anwoth. He continued to write his letters from there.
To a dying man who had lived a worldly life and was afraid of death, he wrote these words: “I find this world, when I have looked upon it on both sides, within and without, and when I have seen even the laughing and lovely side of it, to be but a fool’s idol, a clay prison….I recommend Christ and His love to you, let Him have the flower of your heart.”
Eventually Rutherford remarried, and over time he and his wife buried 6 of their 7 children in infancy. Even then he could write, “Why should I start at the plough of my Lord, that maketh deep furrows on my soul? I know that He is no idle husbandman, He purposeth a crop.” The secret of this confidence, this ability to hold fast to his faith in God through the hardest of trials, stemmed from the intimacy with Jesus which he had learned to cultivate during his time of exile.
I think this is why I so often turn to Rutherford in difficult times; it’s not that he is simply a role model, nor that his words are comforting; he’s not a leaning post but a signpost, pointing me always to Jesus, the true Comforter: “There are curtains to be drawn by in Christ, that we never saw, and new foldings of love in Him. I despair that ever I shall win to the far end of that love, there are so many plies in it….His love surroundeth and surchargeth me. I am burdened with it; but oh, how sweet and lovely is that burden!” “Oh, what a fair One, what an only One, what an excellent, lovely, ravishing One, is Jesus! Put the beauty of ten thousand thousand worlds of paradises, like the Garden of Eden, in one….And yet it would be less to me than that fair and dearest well-beloved, Christ.” Of his sufferings he wrote, “O sweet, sweet is His yoke! Christ’s chains are of pure gold; sufferings for Him are perfumed. I would not give my weeping for the laughing of all fourteen prelates; I would not exchange my sadness with the world’s joy. O lovely, lovely Jesus, how sweet must Thy kisses be, when Thy cross smelleth so sweetly!”
Finally, Rutherford lay on his deathbed, calling for a harp to join in with the music of heaven which he could already hear. His wife had died before him, and at his side was his 1 precious remaining child, an 11 year old girl named Agnes, who was about to be orphaned by his death. But he knew that the Jesus who had brought him through all the storms of life would also take care of her, and so he simply said, “I have left her upon the Lord.”
Ultimately, the hope that sustained him was the same hope that we share, but we’re almost 400 years closer to it than he was: “Christ will be upon us in haste; watch but a little, and ere long the skies will rive and that fair lovely person, Jesus, shall come in the clouds, freighted and loaded with glory.”