Articles, Tracts and Letters

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The Afflicted Man's Companion (4)

by Rev. John Willison

How is the Christian to confront sickness, and to make preparation for death in the face of illness? Rev John Willison deals here with such practical subjects as the Christian making a will.

First published in the Presbyterian Standard, Issue 24, October-December 2001.


Containing General Directions To All Families and Persons Visited With Sickness

DIRECTION IV. - Be not anxious for recovery of health; but leave the issue of the present sickness to the will and pleasure of the infinitely wise God .

Remember, O man, thou art the clay and God is the potter; he is absolute Lord of thy life and times; therefore learn to adore his sovereignty over thee and all thy enjoyments. David doth so, when he says, "Lord, my times are in thy hand," Psal. xxxi. 15. And indeed they are only best in his hand, for he best knows how to dispose of them. The prophet saith, Isa. xxx 18. "The Lord is a God of judgement, blessed are all they that wait for him." Judgement there signifies wisdom: the Lord is a God of wisdom and will order and time all things well: and therefore it becomes us quietly to wait for his pleasure, saying, : "The will of the Lord be done."

It is taken notice of, as great sin in the Israelites, that they waited not for his counsel, but limited the Holy One of Israel. Ps. lxxviii.41. What unaccountable folly and presumption is it, for worms of the earth to seek to stint and limit the Sovereign of heaven to their measures! It becomes us at all times, and especially in sickness and afflictions, to have low submissive thoughts of ourselves, and high exalted thoughts of God's sovereignty, such as Nebuchadnezzar had, Dan.iv.35. "And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, what doest thou?" We should therefore refer all to his wise determination, and be willing to die or live, as he shall be pleased to appoint.

I remember I have read of a godly woman, who in her sickness, being asked by one, whether she was most desirous to die or live, she answered, "I have no choice in that matter, but refer myself to the will of God." But, said the other, "suppose God should refer it unto you, whether to die or to live, which of them would you choose?" "If God," replied she "should refer it to me, I would even refer it back again to him." It becomes thee, O man, to be entirely resigned to the will of thy Maker, and to stand like a centinel in thy station, ready to move as thy great general and commander shall give orders concerning thee. It would be pleasant and acceptable to God, to see thee more desirous to be delivered from sin than from sickness. O but sin is a far worse disease than any sickness in the world! Beg importunately, that the great Physician may cure this woeful soul disease, and let him do with the body what he pleaseth. This was David's practice in his affliction, Ps.xxv.18. "Look upon my affliction and my pain, and forgive all my sins." As for his pains and afflictions, he asks no more but that God would regard them, and look upon them, and do with them as he thought fit; but, as for his sins, no less will satisfy him than a pardon, and blotting them entirely out, so as they might be remembered no more.

DIRECTION V. – Bind yourselves with holy purposes and resolutions, in Christ's strength, to be more watchful against sin, more diligent in duty, and to improve the time of health better, if God shall be pleased to restore it again to you.

When God is visiting your iniquities with rods, and pleading a controversy with you for your omissions and slackness in duty, he expects that you will return from your backslidings, and set about a serious reformation and change of life, Hos. v. 15. "I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face; in their affliction they will seek me early." See then that you open your ear to discipline: study to answer God's call and expectation, and in his strength resolve to enter upon a new life. "Surely now it is meet to be said unto God, I have borne chastisement. I will not offend any more. That which I see not, teach thou me: if I have done iniquity, I will do so no more." Job xxxiv. 31, 32. Now is the season, you should say with Ephraim, Hos. xiv. 8. "What have I to do any more with idols?"

Having duly examined yourselves, and searched out your sins, you ought to put a bill of divorce into each of their hands. Deliberately resolve against all your sins, whether secret or open; and especially resolve against your darling and beloved sins, those sins which do most easily beset you. Resolve also against all temptations to sin, and particularly against the snares of bad company, whereby you have been forme1y enticed; say now with David, Ps. cxix. 115. "Depart from me, ye evil doers, for I will keep the commandments of my God."

You must not only purpose to forsake all sin, but also to mind every known duty; that you will make religion your one thing needful: the pleasing of God the chief business of your life; that you will set the Lord always before you, give him your heart in all duties, aim at nearness and communion with God in every one of them, and still press forward to the full enjoyment of God in heaven through eternity.

Resolve, also, through grace, that you will, in a special manner, mind secret duties, which the eyes of men do not observe, and those duties which conscience doth most challenge you for neglecting. And you that are heads of families, resolve to make more conscience of family religion, of worshipping God with your families both morning and evening, instructing your children and servants in the knowledge of Christ, and recommending religion and godliness to all round about you, whether relations or strangers.

And if you would have your resolutions effectual, see that they be accompanied with a deep sense of our insufficiency to perform them in your own strength. Bear always in mind the corruption and deceitfulness of your own heart, and make all your resolutions in a humble dependence on the sufficiency of Jesus Christ, your Surety. Observe the apostle Paul's advice to his son Timothy, 2 Tim. ii. 1. "Be strong in the grace that is in Jesus Christ. All your stock, O believer, is in his hand, so that without him you can do nothing; but, through Christ strengthening you, you are able to do all things.

DIRECTION VI. – Set your house in order, by making your latter wills, and settling your domestic and secular affairs, while you have freedom and capacity for doing it.

After the heart is set in order, the next work is to set your house in order, according to God's counsel to Hezekiah, Isa. xxxviii. 1. It is recorded of the patriarch Abraham, that he was careful to settle the affairs of his family before his death, Gen. xxv. 5, 6. He disposed of his estate to Isaac, and legacies to the sons of his concubines. It is too general a fault that men delay and put off making their wills, as they do their repentance, to the very last, and so too frequently never make them at all. Consider the evil of deferring or neglecting this necessary affair: For if you, upon whom God hath bestowed means, should die intestate, your estate may descend otherwise than you intended: much of it may be spent in tedious or expensive law-suits; such differences may fall out among relations that should live in friendship and mutual affection, as cannot be healed: some of them may be reduced to extreme want, when a small legacy might have put them in a way of living; and many such inconveniences may follow. Well then, if your neglect should bring on these evils and involve your posterity in endless strifes and contentions, may you not justly fear, that the guilt thereof will pursue you into another world, whose wretched carelessness was the occasion of all that mischief?

Pray, what is the reason that men put off this affair? Is it not, because they do not incline to think so seriously on death, as this will occasion them to do? Doth not this smell of abominable earthlymindedness, and speak as if a man desired his portion in this life, and cared not for a better? and that he is so far from preparing for death, that he cannot endure to think of it? Alas! that this worldly disposition should so far prevail amongst us. But surely there is no wise man will say, that the putting off the thoughts of death, will keep death at a greater distance; or that preparing for death, or making our wills, will bring on death the sooner.

It were surely best to order our affairs timeously: yea, do it in time of health, rather than to delay unto a sick-bed or a death-bed; for either you may be snatched off suddenly, and have no time for it, or you may be taken with such a distemper as shall seize your tongue, so as you cannot express your mind; or seize your understanding, so as you cannot rationally dispose of your effects. And though none of these should happen, yet certainly it proves a great disturbance to a dying man, to be casting up, ordering and settling the affairs of his family, when he should be securing a heavenly mansion for his soul, and clearing up his evidences thereunto. It is great wisdom to put this affair by hand, that you have as little to do with the world as may be, and all occasions of distractions to your immortal soul may be prevented, when it is near to its flitting into an eternal and unchangeable state.

Moreover, in settling your secular affairs, observe these following advices:

1st. Make your wills cheerfully, and freely lay down whatever you enjoy, when God calls you to it. Praise God that you had these things while you needed them; and when you have no longer use for them, leave them without repining, to those that come after you. Look not back to Egypt, when you are upon your march to Canaan.

2dly, See that you deal justly, in providing for your family, paying all your just debts, and making restitution, if you have wronged any. Abhor all designs of defrauding any of your lawful creditors; for, if your last act should be unjust, you leave a blot upon your name here; and since you cannot repent of this wickedness, it being among your last deeds, you expose yourselves to a fearful doom in the world whither you are going.

3dly, In settling your estates, see that God and good uses be not forgot nor left out. When you are leaving the world, and can glorify God no longer here by your word or actions, see to honour the Lord with your substance, by leaving some part thereof to a pious and charitable use. I know it is a work of charity, to give for maintaining the bodies of the poor; and especially the poor of God's people, who belong to his family. But it is much more pious and charitable, to leave somewhat for propagating christian knowledge in dark places, for educating poor children to read the Scriptures, and instructing ignorant souls in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. It is much to be lamented, that so many rich men among us die and leave nothing to such pious uses. The liberality of papists on their death-bed, may give a sharp challenge to many professed protestants. O what a shame it is to the professors of the doctrines of grace, that the false doctrines of merit and purgatory should produce so many donations and mortifications among the papists, and the faith of Christ's most glorious gospel should not do the like among true believers! Shall the proud conceit of merit, and the imaginary fear of purgatory, prompt men to do more this way, than the certain persuasion of the love of God in Christ, and the well-grounded hope of eternal life through the alone merits of Jesus Christ? O what a reproach is this to our holy religion!

4thly, It might be much to the glory of God and good of souls, that a great part of our testaments and latter wills should consist of solemn charges, exhortations and blessings to our children, or those to whom we bequeath any legacy; so as they can never open our testaments, or look into them, but they might hear something that may make impressions on their souls for their spiritual edification, and for quickening them to the diligent practice of both family and personal godliness.

(To be continued, D.V.)