Affliction, Anne Bradstreet, Biblical Counseling, David Clarkson, Depression, God’s End in Sending Calamities and Afflictions on His People, How to Bear Afflictions, John Bunyan, lament psalms, Pilgrim's Progress, Poems, Poetry, Praise, praise, Prayer, Psalm 32, Psalms, Puritan, Puritan Poetry, Puritans, Self-denial, Self-Examination, Spiritual Disciplines, William Bates
(The entire poem may be found here:
Beclouded was my soul with fear
Of thy displeasure sore
Nor could I read my evidence
Which oft I read before.
Hide not thy face from me, I cried,
From burnings keep my soul;
Thou know’st my heart and hast me tried;
I on they mercy’s roll.
She writes from a place of fear: She fears that her illness is the result of some wrong on her part. This draws an additional correspondence between her poem and the Psalms, particularly Psalm 32:
3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah 5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah Psalm 32:3–5 (ESV)
An unconfessed sin on the part of David results in physical illness and distress on the part of David. Bradstreet is afraid not merely of her physical ailment, but more so that God may be distressed with her:
Beclouded was my soul with fear
Of thy displeasure sore
The reference to ‘evidence’ is as to her assurance. John Bunyan depicts this concept of sin leading to a loss of assurance in the picture of Christian losing his scroll after he falls asleep in shelter. He awakes from a sleep of laziness and begins to rush up the hill without his scroll, his assurance. In that condition, he runs into Timorous and Mistrust warning him of the lion:
Christian: Then said Christian, You make me afraid; but whither shall I fly to be safe? If I go back to mine own country, that is prepared for fire and brimstone, and I shall certainly perish there; if I can get to the celestial city, I am sure to be in safety there: I must venture. To go back is nothing but death: to go forward is fear of death, and life everlasting beyond it: I will yet go forward. So Mistrust and Timorous ran down the hill, and Christian went on his way. But thinking again of what he had heard from the men, he felt in his bosom for his roll, that he might read therein and be comforted; but he felt, and found it not. Then was Christian in great distress, and knew not what to do; for he wanted that which used to relieve him, and that which should have been his pass into the celestial city. Here, therefore, he began to be much perplexed, and knew not what to do. At last he bethought himself that he had slept in the arbor that is on the side of the hill; and falling down upon his knees, he asked God forgiveness for that foolish act, and then went back to look for his roll. But all the way he went back, who can sufficiently set forth the sorrow of Christian’s heart? Sometimes he sighed, sometimes he wept, and oftentimes he chid himself for being so foolish to fall asleep in that place, which was erected only for a little refreshment from his weariness. Thus, therefore, he went back, carefully looking on this side and on that, all the way as he went, if happily he might find his roll, that had been his comfort so many times in his journey. He went thus till he came again in sight of the arbor where he sat and slept; but that sight renewed his sorrow the more, by bringing again, even afresh, his evil of sleeping unto his mind. Rev. 2:4; 1 Thess. 5:6-8. Thus, therefore, he now went on, bewailing his sinful sleep, saying, O wretched man that I am, that I should sleep in the daytime! that I should sleep in the midst of difficulty! that I should so indulge the flesh as to use that rest for ease to my flesh which the Lord of the hill hath erected only for the relief of the spirits of pilgrims! How many steps have I taken in vain! Thus it happened to Israel; for their sin they were sent back again by the way of the Red Sea; and I am made to tread those steps with sorrow, which I might have trod with delight, had it not been for this sinful sleep. How far might I have been on my way by this time! I am made to tread those steps thrice over, which I needed not to have trod but once: yea, now also I am like to be benighted, for the day is almost spent. O that I had not slept!
Now by this time he was come to the arbor again, where for a while he sat down and wept; but at last, (as Providence would have it,) looking sorrowfully down under the settle, there he espied his roll, the which he with trembling and haste catched up, and put it into his bosom. But who can tell how joyful this man was when he had gotten his roll again? For this roll was the assurance of his life, and acceptance at the desired haven. Therefore he laid it up in his bosom, gave thanks to God for directing his eye to the place where it lay, and with joy and tears betook himself again to his journey. But O how nimbly did he go up the rest of the hill! Yet before he got up, the sun went down upon Christian; and this made him again recall the vanity of his sleeping to his remembrance; and thus he again began to condole with himself: Oh thou sinful sleep! how for thy sake am I like to be benighted in my journey! I must walk without the sun, darkness must cover the path of my feet, and I must hear the noise of the doleful creatures, because of my sinful sleep! Now also he remembered the story that Mistrust and Timorous told him of, how they were frighted with the sight of the lions. Then said Christian to himself again, These beasts range in the night for their prey; and if they should meet with me in the dark, how should I shift them? how should I escape being by them torn in pieces? Thus he went on his way. But while he was bewailing his unhappy miscarriage, he lift up his eyes, and behold there was a very stately palace before him, the name of which was Beautiful, and it stood by the highway-side.
This matter of crying to find God appears throughout the Psalms, such as in Psalm 13:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? Psalm 13:1 (ESV)
The Puritans (of whom Bradstreet is numbered), wrote about God’s frowns, which could arise from sinful conduct on the part of his people:
[3.] Thirdly, There is the eye of fury and indignation. God’s looks can speak his anger, as well as his blows. His fury is visible by his frowns. ‘Mine eyes shall be upon them for evil.’ God’s sight can wound as deeply as his sword. ‘He sharpeneth his eyes upon me,’ saith Job, chap. 16:9. Wild beasts, when they fight, whet their eyes as well as their teeth. ‘He sharpeneth his eyes upon me,’ as if he would stab me to the heart with a glance of his eye. He that waits on God irreverently, or worships him carelessly, or that profaneth his day, either by corporal labour or spiritual idleness, may well expect an eye of fury to be fixed upon him, Jer. 17:27; Ezek. 22:26, 31.
Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, Volume 6, “London’s Lamentations on the Late Fiery Dispensation”, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1867), 294.
It must also be understood that a tender conscience and a quick response to God’s displeasure was not the sign of a disturbed person. Our modern speed to medicate away all depression would have seemed foolish. Consider the following direction from William Bates:
2. Insensibility of heart is an eminent degree of despising the Lord’s chastenings.—A pensive feeling of judgments is very congruous, whether we consider them in genere physico or morali, “either materially as afflictive to nature, or as the signs of divine displeasure:” for the affections were planted in the human nature by the hand of God himself, and are duly exercised in proportion to the quality of their objects; and when grace comes, it softens the breast, and gives a quick and tender sense of God’s frown. An eminent instance we have in David; though of heroical courage, yet, in his sad ascent to mount Olivet, he went up weeping, with his head covered and his feet bare, to testify his humble and submissive sense of God’s anger against him. (2 Sam. 15:30.) Now when men are insensible of judgments, either considered as natural or penal evils; if, when they suffer the loss of relations or other troubles, they presently fly to the comforts of the Heathens, that we are all mortal, and what cannot be helped must be endured, without the sense humanity requires; that calm is like that of the Dead Sea,—a real curse: or suppose natural affection works a little, yet there is no apprehension and concernment for God’s displeasure, (which should be infinitely more affecting than any outward trouble how sharp soever,) no serious deep humiliation under his hand, no yielding up ourselves to his management; this most justly provokes him. Of this temper were those described by Jeremiah: “Thou hast stricken them, but they have not grieved; thou hast consumed them, but they have refused to receive correction.” (Jer. 5:3.)
James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, Volume 2 , “How to Bear Afflictions”, (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 589.
The stanza ends with assurance that she is covered by the mercy of God, she is one the record (roll) of God’s mercy.
Biblical Counseling application: A few points of practical application:
First, unconfessed sin can result in a loss of assurance. While a subjective sensation of assurance is not necessary for salvation, and while it is not always maintained, it can be a source of great joy. For the one who has lost such an understanding the lack of “evidence” can be quite painful. When responding to a loss of subjective assurance, a turning to God in repentance is appropriate.
In fact, when a brother or sister seems distressed and the reason does not seem immediately clear, unconfessed sin may be at the root. The distress need not be merely a matter of emotion or thought, it may entail physical problems, such as described in Psalm 32.
Second, a troubled conscience is not necessarily the worst the thing. Struggle, doubt and even some depression are not the end of the world. Our immediate response that all unhappiness is bad comes at the cost of a more profound understanding of God. One who is too quick to push down conscience and troubled thoughts limits spiritual growth. Some-things are best to struggle through rather than around. While the Christian life is not all one of sorrow, we must not neglect sorrow and struggle as a means of good.
Third, as David Clarkson explains, fear of falling into God’s displeasure can act as restraint upon sin:
If you fear the withdrawing of his presence or the sense of his favour, this will lead you to mortify sin. For it is sin that makes him depart and leave you; it is sin makes him hide his face, and frown on you, Isa. 59:2.
David Clarkson, The Works of David Clarkson, Volume II, “God’s End in Sending Calamities and Afflictions on His People” (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1864), 233.