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Inspiration in isolation: Learning from the letters of Samuel Rutherford

October 2020 | by Ros Bayes

(c) University of St Andrews; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
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For many years now my go-to author in times of difficulty has been Samuel Rutherford. My thoughts have been turning to him again recently because almost 400 years ago he experienced exile under house arrest – confined indoors and allowed no contact with his loved ones. This was all long before the days of social media, Skype, and Zoom conferences – he truly was cut off from people.

When I began writing this, my disabled daughter was confined to her bedroom in a residential care home. She had a mystery illness which didn’t appear to be Covid-19 but no doctor could diagnose it. I wanted to rush over and embrace her, but of course I couldn’t.

What did Rutherford experience when he was removed from his community and confined indoors? Initially he struggled with depression and feared that God was punishing him. He wrote, ‘That day that my mouth was most unjustly and cruelly closed, the bloom fell off my branches and my joy did cast its flower.’

He feared for those he had left behind: ‘My day-thoughts and my night-thoughts are of you; while ye sleep I am afraid of your souls.’

He spoke of the one thing that, next to Christ himself, had been his greatest joy: preaching the gospel. ‘It was to me like the poor man’s one eye; and they have put out that eye.’

As we have felt during the lockdown, Rutherford sensed the privations of confinement and separation keenly. But as time went on, he discovered a wonderful secret. He realised that although pain and grief are part of daily life, wallowing in them need not be. ‘What folly is it to sit down and weep upon a decree of God… It were better to make windows in our prison, and to look out to God and our country, heaven.’

Amid loneliness and isolation, he found the tender friendship of Christ all the sweeter: ‘My extremity hath sharpened the edge of his love and kindness. I would desire… daily renewed feasts of love with Christ, and liberty now and then to feed my hunger with a kiss of that fairest face… I find that it is possible to find young glory and a young green paradise of joy, even here.’

A few months into his confinement he wrote: ‘Oh what a fair one, what an only one, what an excellent, lovely, ravishing one is Jesus! Put the beauty of ten thousand worlds of paradises, like the garden of Eden, in one… and yet it would be less than that fair and dearest well-beloved, Christ.’

He had sombre counsel for those to whom he wrote: ‘Remember, when the race is ended, and the play either won or lost, and ye are in the utmost circle and border of time, and shall put your foot within the march of eternity, and all your good things of this short night-dream shall seem to you like the ashes of a bleeze of thorns or straw, and your poor soul shall be crying, Lodging, lodging, for God’s sake! then shall your soul be more glad at one of your Lord’s lovely and homely smiles than if ye had the charters of three worlds for all eternity.’

Rutherford learned to live in the presence of Jesus even while imprisoned: ‘He will be a confined prisoner with me…. when I weep, he suffereth with me.’

What can we learn from this man who has long been a hero of the faith? We can learn that we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves if we feel depressed or anxious about the restrictions confinement has brought. We can also learn not to wallow in these feelings, but to turn our eyes upon Jesus and to pray for those from whom we are separated.

Experience tells me that if I take time to focus on Jesus then I too will find the joy of his presence, just as Samuel Rutherford did. If our hearts are soft and teachable, we can learn amid adverse circumstances, as Rutherford did: ‘Our soft nature would be borne through the troubles of this life in Christ’s arms; and it is his wisdom, who knoweth our mould, that his bairns go wet-shod and cold-footed to heaven…. Time will eat away and root out our woes and sorrow. Our heaven is in the bud, and growing up to an harvest.’

At the end of his life, Rutherford wrote to a minister whose congregation was unable to meet together (sounds familiar?) and urged them to gather in small groups in homes on different days and do the work of fervent prayer. He wrote, ‘Though the same particular day be not observed, yet, where many are on work, some salvation from the Lord’s arm is to be expected.’

Eventually, Rutherford’s restless nights of anxiety over absent loved ones gave way to a peace that enabled him to sleep undisturbed in God’s presence: ‘Christ will have joy and sorrow halvers [i.e. dividers] of the lives of the saints, and that each of them should have a share of our days… But if sorrow be the greedier halver of our days here, I know that joy’s day shall dawn.’

My prayer for all as we adjust to a coronavirus world is that we will discover, as Rutherford did, that we can be open about our doubts and anxieties – that we can give them to Jesus, and we can use this time to grow ever closer and more familiar with him, and that we will emerge from this time with a new depth of passion in our love for Jesus that will redirect our lives from here on, into a new path of intimacy with him.

Ros Bayes is training resources developer at Through the Roof.