Contemporary Presbyterians don’t think much about the Puritans. The caricatures are negative. Puritans are prudes, legalistic, killjoys. The famous sentiment of H.L. Mencken comes to mind: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
But English and American Puritans are part of our Presbyterian and Reformed theological tradition. They still have much to teach us about theology and the spiritual life.
I recently reviewed a book by Lesley A. Rowe, “The Life and Times of Arthur Hildersham: Prince Among Puritans.” Hildersham (1563-1632) was a non-conforming English Puritan, meaning that he resisted various requirements of the Church of England, especially in regard to worship and liturgy practices. At times, Hildersham lost his license to preach and was jailed, depending on politics and the powers that be. But he was regarded as a strong preacher, Reformed in theology. One of his two major books was his 108 lectures (sermons) on the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, begun in 1609 (yes, 108 sermons on just one chapter!).
I dipped into Hildersham’s book and found three insights that are helpful for our Christian lives today.
God gives any success.
If we believe in God’s providence, God’s providing for us in all things, we should not “disquiet” ourselves “with care of the success of things.” Some people, said
Hildersham, “have no heart to do good duties” to which God calls them “because they can see no likelihood of good success.” They “vex themselves with care and fear” of that which “may fall out hereafter.” But if we are truly persuaded of God’s providence, we are “free from this care.” If we do our duty and commend a matter to “God by prayer” with “a quiet and cheerful heart,” we can cast our “care for the success wholly upon God, to whom only it belongs.” Then Hildersham quotes Philippians 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:7.
Theologically, we know that we are not called to be “successful,” but “faithful” in doing what God wants of us. We can be free from concern for any “good success” when we entrust all things to God. A pragmatic realism often pervades our lives; and our ministries. We want “results” that are measurable. But committing ministries and ourselves to God’s providence and doing our duty means looking for the outcomes God provides.Good “success” is what God gives, not what we achieve. Leave it to God. We cast our cares, even for “success,” on the God who cares for us. That’s liberating!
Blessing after afflictions.
Afflictions are part of the Christian life. They come in many forms. But God gets us through them. The Psalmist said, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all” (Psalm 34:19). At the end of an affliction, said Hildersham, God “has never been wont to depart without leaving a blessing” behind, as God did when Jacob wrestled with God at Peniel (Genesis 32:28, 29). Jacob was blessed with a new name. Those who have borne the “bitterest crosses,” said Hildersham, “have received the sweetest comforts.”
A friend, reflecting on the life of faith, remarked that after difficulties, “there was always a pick-up.” Hildersham’s insight that blessing comes after afflictions illuminates this comment. Paul’s prayers for removal of his thorn in the flesh were met with God’s answer: “My grace is sufficient for you, for [my] power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). Most of all: Jesus, after enduring the greatest affliction in his death on the cross was raised by the power of God in his resurrection. Blessing comes after afflictions: for Paul, for Jesus, for us.
The Spirit in our prayers.
We pray to God in many ways and for many things. Yet, we recognize that “we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26). We may worry we are not praying in the correct way, with the right words to say so our requests will be heard. But Hildersham assures us that “the Lord in granting our requests, respects not so much our words, as the meaning of his spirit in our prayers.” We do not have to have the right formulas. We can trust God’s Spirit who “intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” to interpret what is in our hearts and present our intercessions to God who “searches the heart” and who “knows what is the mind of the Spirit” (Romans 8:27).
What comfort! Our prayers are heard and answered, not according to our “getting it right” in presenting petitions to God. The Spirit knows us and what we mean as we stumble through our prayers. God searches our hearts; and by the Spirit who intercedes, our requests are made known to God (Philippians 4:6).
Trust God’s providence; blessings follow affliction; the Spirit is in our prayers. These highlights from Arthur Hildersham can strengthen and nurture our faith, every day.
Rev. Dr. Don McKim is executive editor for theology and reference at Westminister John Knox Press and editor of These Days. He is a Presbyterian minister who has been a seminary theology professor and a seminary academic dean. He is the editor or author of over thirty books, including The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms and Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers.