God's Will and the Duration of Our Work
The following words written by a friend, the Rev. William Ham, which I saw a few weeks ago, set me thinking:
Recently I have been reading with great profit The Puritans, Their Origins and Successors by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, which consists of a number of addresses delivered at the Puritan and Westminster Conferences (1959-1978). I couldn't help noticing that when the first of these addresses was given in 1959, Dr Lloyd-Jones was on the eve of his sixtieth birthday! And then these addresses were delivered over a period of almost twenty years, a period during which, and continuing to the present day, Dr Lloyd-Jones' writings have been published and read widely around the world.
The providence of God which governs the duration of our lives and of our work is worthy of more thought than we sometimes give to it. There are those, such as Robert Murray M'Cheyne who died at twenty-nine, who accomplish their work without ever seeing the noon-time years of middle age. Then there are not a few eminent Christians who have died in their fifties — John Calvin at fifty-four, George Whitefield, John Knox and C. H. Spurgeon all around the age of fifty-seven — and yet others are past those years before they even enter upon the work for which they are best remembered by posterity. Like Moses, they are 'late' in beginning their public work in God's cause. That was not, of course, true of Dr Lloyd-Jones — although he was fifty-nine before his first major book appeared (The Sermon on the Mount). But it was true of his contemporary, S. M. Houghton, who entered upon his main work as an editor only on retiring from schoolmastering. (We would note in passing how much Mr. Houghton's little autobiography, My Life and Books, published by the Trust in 1988, has been appreciated by all who have read it.)
Church history gives us abundant illustration of men and women whose most enduring work was done when they were no longer young. The Apostle John is commonly thought to have been approaching ninety years of age when he wrote the Gospel to which we attach his name. Robert Haldane was fifty-three before he reached Geneva in 1817 and what was to be the most important episode of his life. He was turned seventy before the first volume of his Exposition of the Romans was published. Another of the best of authors of the last century was David Brown. His commentary on the Four Gospels has to be one of the most valuable of the Trust's reprints. When his book, The Apocalypse: Its Structure and Primary Predictions was published in 1891, he could write these notable words in his preface:
I have not written a line on the subject of prophecy since, nearly fifty years ago, I published a book on the Second Advent ... oversights may probably be found here and there; but when one is nearly eighty-eight years of age, while his feeble eyesight can receive no aid from artificial light, such things will be pardoned.
The most remarkable example known to me personally of men and women coming to their greatest usefulness in their later years is recorded in the second volume of the Life of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. It was his judgment that the Evangelical Library was used of God to 'make a massive contribution' to the recovery of historic Christianity in the 'fifties and 'sixties of this century. But who carried the main burden of its work at that period? Who was chiefly responsible for its vision and the energy with which its policy was promoted? The answer is a band of Christians who were well on in years. Geoffrey Williams, the Founder and Librarian, was still vigorous and at work in 1971 when he was eighty-five. It was only in that year that his secretary, Marjorie Denby, had to give up after a quarter of a century in that role and working usually six days a week on its behalf. She was eighty-one. At that same date other workers were not so young as this! Mr. W. Gurden was in his nineties and remained 'a most energetic and valued helper of the Library'!
At the present time one does not have to think long before instances of this same Caleb-spirit come to mind. It was not only in Australia that a number of us were inspired a year or two ago by the decision of one of Sydney's 'senior citizens' to launch into a new work as the Principal of the George Whitefield College at Kalk Bay in South Africa. Dr David Broughton Knox, born in 1916, was active in the Inter-Varsity Fellowship in England during some of its formative years, served as naval chaplain in World War Two, and for twenty-six years was Principal of Moore College, Sydney (Australia's premier evangelical college). That he should put the need for training men for the ministry in South Africa before what is often termed a 'well-earned retirement' is not something which a non-Christian could well understand. We think also in this same connection of the latest 'News Items' from the Rev. John Graham, leader of the Christian Witness to Israel work in Australia. He reports the addition of two workers, Gertrude Stargatt and Leah Black. But 'new, I must promptly add, only as members of CWI', for Miss Black has been engaged in evangelistic outreach among Jewish people in Sydney since 1946 and Miss Stargatt since 1931! 'These two ladies,' says Mr. Graham, 'have been a source of encouragement to us since we arrived here in 1979.' We are not surprised.
How different from all this are the sentiments of the poet, John Collins, who knew only this world. The opening lines of his verses on 'Tomorrow' set the theme for all that follows:
In the downhill of life, when I find I'm declining,
May my fate no less fortunate be
Than a snug elbow-chair will afford for reclining,
And a cot that o'erlooks the wide sea.
The elderly Christian does not spend his or her days waiting amidst nostalgia and reminiscences for the end. On the contrary, there is a cheerfulness and a thankfulness which, under God, may well be one means in the lengthening of a Christian's life. There are, of course, many Christians in advancing years whose health prevents their engagement in public work. But such persons often set an example to others in the punctuality and eagerness of their attendance at public worship, and in private their prayers may have a far larger connection with advances in the cause of Christ than they can presently understand.
Finally, let it be said, what matters is not the length of life but our doing the will of God. With Richard Baxter we must say:
If life be long, I will be glad
That I may long obey;
If short, yet why should I be sad
To soar to endless day?
One of C. H. Spurgeon's finest sermons was first published immediately after his death, with the title, given to it by his wife, 'His Own Funeral Sermon'. Quoting the words of his text, Spurgeon said:
David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep.' The day's work is done; the worker is weary; he falls on sleep: what can he do better? It was all 'by the will of God'. To what part of the sentence do you think that clause belongs? Did David serve his generation by the will of God; or did he fall asleep by the will of God? Both. Guided by the will of God, he did his work on earth; and calmly resigned to the will of God, he prepared to die.
So may it be with us all.