When I Am Weak
Thomas Boston (1676-1732) was a man of melancholic disposition allied to a fearless spirit when it came to defending biblical truth. He was the only one to stand up in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to dissent from their leniency in dealing with a Professor accused of teaching Arminian and Arian tenets. Yet he was open to entreaty, and the following day allowed his statement not to be officially minuted in order to prevent a possible split in the church.
One of his continuing trials was from the church system of presbyteries and patrons he was serving. He was himself coerced rather than called to a church. At Simprin, his first charge, the manse was in ruins, so he settled in an old house. This was in such a bad state of repair, that in a storm he had to leave his own bed and sleep with his father “lest the house should have fallen on me.” Likewise, the manse at Ettrick, his other charge, was in a ruinous state. While it was rebuilt, his family had to live in the stable and barn. It was there that his son Ebenezer was born – who died soon after. In fact, he buried six of his ten children.
When he first met his wife, he says that he “discerned the sparkles of grace in her.” Twenty years later, aged forty-six, his wife was afflicted with schizophrenia, which lasted the remainder of their married life. It confined her to bed and was often accompanied by fevers; once she was tempted to suicide.
Boston’s physical health was a sore trial. He ate little as a student in order to eke out his father’s small resources, and he often fainted and appeared to be dying. His condition, probably exacerbated by a diet lacking in Vitamin C, was so severe that his teeth blackened and gradually dropped out. This lack of teeth occasioned him much pain and embarrassed him with some difficulty in pronunciation.
Boston reluctantly agreed to the publication of some of his sermons and writings, but these suffered many setbacks with delays, lost manuscripts, and on one occasion he “was greatly confounded to see the book pitifully mangled, being full of typographical errors, and besides, Mr Wightman had so altered it in many places, that he had quite marred it.”
The congregation of Ettrick was also a trial to him. They often deserted his ministry, neglected worship, and despised the message he preached, so he could say,
The crown is fallen from my head, and I am brought very low! The approaching Sabbath, that sometimes was my delight, is now a terror to me.”
Growth in grace
It was a difficult path for Boston to new life in Christ. There was no sudden conversion; he had to shed himself of legalistic attitudes and he rarely encountered gospel preaching. Like Jonathan Edwards, he met to pray with friends while a young teenager, and vowed to pray three times a day, a vow he later regretted. His early preaching at the age of twenty-one was much on the wrath of God, so much so that a minister advised him, “(I)f you were entered on preaching of Christ, you would find it very pleasant.” He afterwards remembered this counsel as “the first hint given me by the good hand of my God towards the doctrine of the gospel.” It was not until he was ordained and settled at Simprin that Boston enjoyed a “more clear up-taking of the doctrine of the gospel” and a vision of “Christ’s fullness, his being ‘all and in all.’” He resembled the Welsh preacher Daniel Rowland in this transformation.
Boston was hampered by a lack of commentaries and other books, and was deeply hurt when a visiting minister smiled condescendingly at seeing his little library. At times throughout his life he would spend hours in prayer and fasting, searching his heart for unrepented sins in order to confess them, and then would draw up a fresh covenant with God. He could say two years before he died,
I have a measure of confidence, that I will get complete life and salvation.
Praying and preaching
What were Boston’s great strengths? He was filled with a sense both of the majesty and grace of God, and he held the Scripture in great esteem. He therefore applied himself to its study, often in the original languages. He likewise disciplined himself to seek God’s face in prayer, with certain days appointed for personal, family, and church fasting, and also spent the time between services in prayer and meditation. He would never preach on a text until he had assurance on the subject, which could be obtained with “more wasting and weakening to me, than the study of my sermon thereon.” Boston timed himself with a pulpit hourglass. On one occasion, he had a job to stretch his sermon to the hour, but at another time he forgot how many times he had turned the glass over. He records that at one Lord’s Supper,
The sermon was more than two hours, which I think was too much. A certain gentleman said, it was above his capacity ... I resolved to be shorter.
At a subsequent communion he preached for an hour and a half, but being “in much weakness, was at length exhausted.”
Boston was extremely sensitive in ascribing all events to the sovereign providence of God. Occasionally, he should have also seen a lack of common sense as the human cause of a misfortune. For example, on one occasion after saddling his horse he was told that “it was all swelled in the counter and side.” However, he still rode it to a communion at Penpont. There the blacksmith came to see it and advised that “it was more swelled than before; and told me, if the swelling in its progress was as quick downwards as it had been hitherto, he was gone.” In reflecting, he says,
Let the Lord do what seemeth him good. I was obliged to leave my horse behind me at Penpont under care, and he died.
Not only that, but he himself was unwell, so an elder accompanied him, who subsequently died at Penpont, to his great grief.
Yet his other afflictions, especially his wife’s mental illness, were unavoidable.
He wrote, “I think I have thereby obtained some soul-advantage; more heavenliness in the frame of my heart, more contempt of the world, as the widow that is desolate trusteth in God ... more carefulness to walk with God, and to get evidence for heaven; more resolution for the Lord’s work, over the belly of difficulties.”
Boston records that his “stipend was small” but that “some students continued with us at times; so that we ate not our morsel alone.” His salary was subsidized with income from a house he rented and from his office as synod-clerk, so that “things honest in the sight of men were readily, by the kind disposal of Providence, laid to hand.” On receipt of his stipend, he would lay aside certain amounts, and he kept these in a box in his left-side pocket to give out for benevolences and Sabbath offerings. In addition, he fed the poor who called at his house, but the wool he gave them was bought with money from his fund as he had no money of his own. In all his ministry, he used to pray that he “might attain to habitual cheerfulness in the Lord.”
The man and his guide
Like his Lord, Boston had “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” Yet he would say, “If we suffer with Him, we shall reign with Him.” He often reflected on Jacob and Job, how Providence seemed to run them aground and break them in pieces, yet the Lord’s final purposes were quite otherwise. To Boston, the Lord was the Great Leader, and the Sovereign Manager; and of His Word he writes,
(A)ll is comprehended in the word, Prov. 3:6; both the promise and the precept take in all. You are neither to look for impressions, nor anything else of that kind, whatever indulgence the Lord makes to some of His people in some circumstances, and ... set yourself as a Christian man to perceive what in the circumstances appears reasonable to be done.
He was careful that he “might not make a fortune-book of the Bible,” dipping into it at random for guidance, rather he resolved to read it systematically and “though my case should not be touched there, I would wait on God.” Thus he was safely, if not easily, led to his eternal rest.
How soft we are! How easily we grumble at the slightest difficulty or affront which we encounter! Did our Lord meet with less? Are we going to leave the church in a huff over some disagreement in a church meeting? What about the unity of the church? Do we feel overburdened with duties and family pressures and hardships? Are we going to stay at home on the Lord’s Day because of a headache? Would we rather read a devotional book at home than attend the prayer meeting? Shortly before his death, in much pain and lame and so very weak he could not go to church, Boston still opened the manse window and declared the glorious gospel of Christ.
Do you have problems? Ask God to grant you to experience: “When I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).