This week I am focusing on various aspects of prayer. I will offer theological, historical and practical perspectives on prayer. I hope this week (the first week of Pentecost on the traditional church calendar) will encourage you to enter into prayer both for a personal renewal and a renewal and growth of the Christian faith worldwide. Join me throughout the week for various thoughts and resources on prayer and living a more prayerful life. Check out the other posts from this week: Monday – Unanswered Prayer; Tuesday – Praying the Psalms; Wednesday – Augustine and Prayer.
Richard Sibbes was born in 1577 at Tostock, Suffolk. From an early age he was found with his nose buried in a book. His love of books and book-buying so distressed his father that he tried to offer him tools for wheel making instead (a not so subtle hint), but young Sibbes was not dissuaded. He entered St. John’s College in Cambridge, receiving a bachelors and masters of arts. He would later receive a bachelor of divinity as well as a doctor of divinity from Cambridge. He was known as the “heavenly doctor” based on his preaching and godliness. Izaac Walton once said of Sibbes, “Of this blest man, let this just praise be given, Heaven was in him, before he was in heaven.” One interested person once wrote, “No writings in practical theology seem to have been so much read in the mid-seventeenth century among the pious English middle classes as those of Sibbes.” Of Sibbes’s sermons William Haler states, “[They were] the most brilliant and popular of all the utterances of the Puritan church militant.”
In Sibbes’s renowned Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax, readers are treated to a warm and uplifting offering of pastoral motivation. Such encouragement comes rooted in the sovereignty of God and the love of Christ, yet also offers readers a practical spirituality. For those in the midst of doubting or disturbance in their faith, Sibbes offers readers a firm yet gentle pastoral reply. Bruised Reed focuses on the sustaining love of the triune God while inviting readers to “pray…hear…strive…[and] do as we are able, according to the measure of grace received” (Sibbes, Works 1:66). In his preface to the text Sibbes says, “His main government is not for his own pleasure, but for our good. We are saved by a way of love, that love might be kindled by this way in us to God again; because this affection melteth the soul, and mouldeth it to all duty and acceptable manner of duty. It is love in duties that God regards, more than duties themselves” (Sibbes, Works 1:40). Sibbes launches his pastoral project from this foundation of God’s love for man in Christ. The bruised reed, as Sibbes explains, is the “man that for the most part is in some misery…and by misery is brought to see sin the cause of it” (Sibbes, Works 1:43). Though fears and doubts may be present due to corruption, this hope makes one a “smoking flax” in which Christ has come to fan the flame, not quench.
Christ is a gentle savior who did not come to break the backs of the weak, as “popery” tends to do, but rather carries the believer along though there may be pain and strife. Sibbes asserts, “[Christ] is a physician good at all diseases, especially at the binding up of a broken heart; he died that he might heal our souls with a plaster of his own blood, and by that death save us, which we were the procurers of ourselves, by our own sins” (Sibbes, Works 1:45) Christ, like a physician, make need to cut and perform surgery. In this way he may wound, but he also heals. Sibbes provides readers with a list of signs to discern one’s bruising. First, the bruised recognizes the nature of their sin. From here man must see sin as “the greatest evil, and the favour of God the greatest good” (Sibbes, Works 1:47) From here man is brought exceedingly low and humbled by the word of God. Lastly, a broken heart guides that one to “all sanctified means to convey comfort” (Sibbes, Works 1:47). The smoking flax is the believer who needs the divine fanning to ignite the flame. Sibbes encourages readers to interpret the smoke as a sign of divine favor—any spark producing smoke is from God. However small the grace of the spark may seem, it is entirely from God and he will tend to it. Sibbes encourages readers to understand that though God will fan the flame, any such fire in this life will ultimately be mixed with smoke.
It is the duty of pastors to help fan the flame, not extinguish the spark. Ministers of the gospel are to look evidences of eternity in a person, not damnation. Sibbes states, “Some think it strength of grace to endure nothing in the weaker, wheras the strongest are readiest to bear with the infirmities of the weak” (Sibbes, Works 1:57). Though Christ cares for even the weakest of believers, Sibbes propels readers to action. He states, “[We] should take heed of a spirit of discouragement in all other holy duties, since we have so gracious a Saviour. Pray as we are able, hear as we are able, strive as we are able, do as we are able, according to the measure of grace received. God in Christ will cast a gracious yet upon that which is his own” (Sibbes, Works 1:66). Though discouragement may be present, believers must continue in the exercise of means, that is, drawing near to God through godly action. According to Sibbes, grace propels believers to seek after more grace. Even the faintest smoky flax will wish to do so.
So what about prayer? What does Sibbes’s words have to do with the life of prayer? Simply put, the presupposition for Sibbes is prayer. A bruised reed comes to God in humble prayer, recognizing his or her need for God. The nurturing love of God should lead believers to continual prayer, thanking him for his comfort and grace. We are also called to fan the of flame of faith through prayer. Even the smallest hint of smoke shows that there is a spark of grace and God will fan it; we must prayerfully come to him expecting him to do so. We need to be praying for others who are weak and discouraged, and we must persist in prayer despite any discouragement we may encounter. Sibbes reminds us that God will tenderly care for his own, yet we must persevere in prayer as he tends to the flame which he has sparked in us.