On Holding Loved Ones Loosely
In late November, 1860, the valley of Risca in South Wales was visited by a terrible calamity when hundreds of lives were suddenly lost following an explosion in one of the region's mines. The entire valley was thrust into a state of consternation and grief. Two weeks later, one of church history's greatest preachers, would step to the front of Exeter Hall in Strand, London, England to address a solemn congregation still in mourning for these miners and their families.
Charles Spurgeon, the "prince of preachers", who throughout his life had so passionately exposited and defended biblical truth from the pulpit in his home church of New Park Street Chapel in London, was on this day called upon by God to communicate a hopeful reminder of His unending love through the gospel of Jesus Christ before the gathering at Exeter Hall at a time of heartbreak and emotional distress. It was an exceptionally emotional moment for him because he had, on prior occasion, been accustomed to spending a few days in the valley for rest and relaxation. Spurgeon knew these Welsh miners and their families, and he had spent time with many of them. Many were, in fact, a faithful group of believers and his Christian brethren. Spurgeon was, therefore, deeply affected by this tragic event that had transpired some 150 miles away. He carried a heavy burden with him as he stepped forward to preach, but he would afterwards refer to his sermon as specially blessed by God to those souls. His text for that morning came from the words of the prophet Jeremiah.
Suddenly are my tents spoiled, and my curtains in a moment (Jeremiah 4:20b, KJV).
Spurgeon began his sermon by recalling the strong faith of his friends in Risca and the tragedy that had occurred in the preceding days.
Well doth my soul remember one night, which I shall never forget in time or in eternity, when, crowded together in the place of worship, hearty Welsh miners responded to every word of Christ's minister… encouraging me to preach the gospel, and crying "Glory to God" while the message was proclaimed. I remember how they constrained me, and kept me well nigh to midnight, preaching three sermons, one after another, almost without rest, for they loved to listen to the gospel. God was present with us, and many a time has the baptismal pool been stirred since then by the fruit of that night's labour. Nor shall I ever forget when standing in the open air beneath God's blue sky, I addressed a mighty gathering within a short distance of that spot; when the Spirit of God was poured upon us, and men and women were swayed to and fro under the heavenly message, as the corn is moved in waves by the summer winds. Great was our joy that day when the people met together in thousands, and with songs and praises separated to their homes, talking of what they had heard. But now our visitation of that neighbourhood must ever be mingled with sorrow. How hath God been pleased to smite down strong men, and to take away the young men upon a sudden! "How suddenly are my tents spoiled, and my curtains in a moment." Oh! vale of Risca, I take up a lamentation for thee: the Lord hath dealt sorely with thee. Behold, and see if there be sorrow in any valley like unto thy sorrow which is done unto thee. The angel of death has emptied out his quiver upon thee; the awful reaper hath gathered to himself full sheaves from thy beautiful valley.
You all know the story; it scarce needs that I should tell it to you. Last Saturday week some two hundred or more miners descended in health and strength to their usual work in the bowels of the earth. They had not been working long, their wives and their children had risen, and their little ones had gone to their schools, when suddenly there was heard a noise at the mouth of the pit;--it was an explosion,--all knew what it meant. Men's hearts failed them, for well they prophesied the horror which would soon reveal itself. They wait awhile, the foul gas must first be scattered, brave men with their lives in their hands descend into the pit, and when they are able to see with the dim miner's lamp, the light falls upon corpse after corpse. A few, a handful are brought up alive, and scarce alive, but yet, thank God, with enough of the vital spark remaining to be again kindled to a flame; but the great mass of those strong men have felt the grip of death. Some of them were brought up to the top with their faces burned and scarred, with their bodies disfigured by the fire; but many are discovered whose faces looked as if they sweetly slept, so that it was scarcely possible to believe that they really could be dead, so quietly had the spirit quitted the habitation of clay.
What burden must have been laid upon the hearts of the families of those poor Welsh miners. In an instant the wives, children and parents of those men were left widowed, fatherless and childless. The picture of a father, one evening tucking his small child into bed and the next being entirely and eternally absent from the home stirs up deep and somber feelings. The thought of a faithful and beloved wife in one moment enjoying the gentle company of her husband, but in the next learning of the terrible fate that had befallen him is much to bear. In an instant the realization of those family members who are still physically alive is that their family's rock and foundation will not walk through that front door tonight--nor on any other night. For those children, the soothing presence of fatherly love will no longer reside at the dinner table. There will be no more bedtime stories. No more weekend play time in the yard. No more kisses or hugs. He has passed into eternity, and only emptiness remains in his stead.
How does one begin to survive, let alone cope with such an event, and how can one prepare one's own heart for such future events? Spurgeon provides an intriguing explanation as in his sermon. The answer, he reveals, lies in holding our loved ones loosely, for they are dying things.
We have not a single relative who may not become to us within the next moment a fountain of grief. All that are dear and precious to us are only here by God's good pleasure. What should we be today if it were not for those whom we love, and who love us? What were our house without its little prattlers? What were our habitation without the wife of our bosom? What were our daily business without our associates and friends to cheer us in our trials? Ah! This were a sad world indeed, if the ties of kindred, of affection, and of friendship all be snapped; and yet it is such a world that they must be sundered, and may be divided at any moment.
From the fact that sudden bereavements are possible--not only to miners and to women whose husbands are upon the sea, but to us also--I would that we would learn profitable lessons. And first let us learn to set loose by our dearest friends that we have on earth. Let us love them--love them we may, love them we should--but let us always learn to love them as dying things. Oh, build not thy nest on any of these trees, for they are all marked for the axe. [emphasis added]
In today's modern age, Spurgeon's words could easily be chided as seeming insensitive in a time of mourning. But were Spurgeon's words really unfeeling or devoid of any relative sense of familial love and affection in this moment? No. In fact, they could not be, for he loved his own wife and children deeply. Could Spurgeon have simply been naïve in that he had never undergone a personal tragedy of his own? No, this also was not the case. In fact, the opposite was true. In October, 1856, tragedy stuck Charles Spurgeon personally as he was preaching to his congregation at the Surrey Gardens Music Hall for the first time. This new venue had come out of necessity for his church's corporate gatherings because his popularity had swelled in London at that time due to newspaper publicity, as well as controversy. Surrey's three galleries were filled from floor to ceiling to hear Spurgeon that morning. Hundreds were coming to Christ in those days, and Spurgeon found himself in the midst of revival. Yet, as the service began and Spurgeon was engaged in prayer, someone in the crowd yelled, "Fire!". This was soon followed by other exclamations of impending danger from around the hall and people panicked. The ensuing stampede left several dead and Spurgeon emotionally devastated. Following the hysteria, it was determined that there was, in actuality, no fire at all. It was presumed that Spurgeon's critics had concocted the rouse in an attempt to interrupt and distract from the preaching of the gospel. The event brought about a sobering influence on Spurgeon's life, and for years he struggled against depression and spoke of being moved to tears for no reason known to himself.
Since Spurgeon was familiar with the deep bonds of love that existed within his own family, and since he was not naïve with respect to personal tragedy, what could he have meant by learning "to set loose" our dear ones in view of this new tragedy in Risca? His continuation develops the thought further.
"Set not thine affections on things on earth," for the things of earth must leave thee, and then what wilt thou do when thy joy is emptied, and the golden bowl which held thy mirth shall be dashed to pieces? Love first and foremost Christ; and when thou lovest others, still love them not as though they were immortal. Love not clay as though it were undying--love not dust as though it were eternal. So hold thy friend that thou shalt not wonder when he vanishes from thee; so view the partakers of thy life that thou wilt not be amazed when they glide into the land of spirits. See thou the disease of mortality on every cheek, and write not Eternal upon the creature of an hour.
Spurgeon's exhortation both to the residents of Risca and to us today is to hold our loved ones with a loose embrace here on earth. In all honesty, these words were painful to my heart upon first reading this sermon. My immediate reaction was perhaps, a normal one for a husband and a father who is deeply in love with his wife and children. It is heartbreak. Why would I hold my dear ones with a loose embrace when I am so fond of them and so very much in love with them? I rejoice in holding them close to my heart--their smiles, hugs, kisses, and the wonderful times we share together. How or why would I or anyone else ever want to hold such dear ones loosely?
Taking a step back to examine some of Jesus' words in Luke's Gospel may help to improve our understanding of the premise that underpins Spurgeon's message here.
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26, ESV).
Like Jesus, Charles Spurgeon did not call for a substantial change in the amount of love or the type of relationship we already enjoy with our loved ones. In fact, we are never instructed to love them less. Rather, the idea is to grow so strongly in our affections for Christ that it seems as though we are relaxing our heart's earthly grip on our friends and family. In the same way Christ demanded the hearts of his disciples to be so devoted to Him that, by comparison, it could be construed as hatred for one's own family. Certainly, genuine believers do not harbor hatred for their families. We love them. But by comparison, our affections for Christ must be far and away greater than those for any other being. Indeed, we are able to hold our loved ones dear while at the same time holding them loosely in their earthly state. As believers in Jesus Christ, we must ask ourselves where our heart's greatest affection lies. Is it with God in heaven looking forward to eternal life, or is it here on earth, where life is a vapor and all is passing away? Is our grip on our earthly relationships tight and strained, or is it relaxed and loose? May God continually transform our hearts and minds to love and enjoy our dearest friends and families within the scope of God's ultimate and eternal goal for His family--union with Him in heaven. Rejoice! For His kingdom awaits, as does the eternal presence of Christ our lovely Savior.
Spurgeon's gentle words to those grieving the loss of these miners reflect God's heart that is revealed in Scripture. He encourages them to reflect upon the eternality of heaven and recall the fleeting nature of this life that withers like grass in its due season. We can, today, ask God to increase our faith and hope in the coming day of the Lord.
We can, in this very moment, ask Him to strengthen our longing for Christ and grow our anticipation for the moment in which we will enter into an eternal, firsthand experience with our supreme, glorious, triune, loving Lord. Truly, there is only one way we can ever hold our precious loved ones loosely here on earth. Our affections for Christ and for His past and future grace must so far outweigh our love for anything or anyone else on earth, that in drawing nearer to Him we are able to let our loved ones pass from us--albeit with passionate grief, some level of emotional devastation, and deep mourning, but without being utterly destroyed or wrecked by ceaseless calamity. We know Christ is our King, our deepest love, and His eternal presence in heaven our ultimate destination. [emphasis added]
Take care that thou puttest all thy dear ones into God's hand. Thou hast put thy soul there, put them there. Thou canst trust him for temporals for thyself, trust thy jewels with him. Feel that they are not thine own, but that they are God's loans to thee; loans which may be recalled at any moment... Your possessions are never so safe as when you are willing to resign them, and you are never so rich as when you put all you have into the hand of God. You shall find it greatly mitigate the sorrow of bereavements, if before bereavement you shall have learned to surrender every day all the things that are dearest to you into the keeping of your gracious God.
Indeed, we must draw nearer to Christ, and in doing so we must trust Him. Spurgeon exhorts his listeners to not delay in cultivating a heart of surrender to God. It is a complete surrender of everything and of everyone in our lives--even our dearest and most treasured jewels. We can begin doing this by offering daily praise to Him for blessing us with the cherished ones we call family and friends. We can offer a renewed confession of trust in Him. We can sing songs of praise to God for the time we have already been afforded with our loved ones, and we can begin living in relationship with one another as though we might die tomorrow--hearts ever focused on Christ and eternity with Him.
This is especially true for those of us with unbelieving family and friends. We must be filled with urgency to share the message of life that is found only in Christ. We must overcome the temporary discomfort of having an uncomfortable conversation, trading our silence for a refreshing discussion about the significance of a bloody cross and an empty tomb. We must live out the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must tell our loved ones who are devoid of genuine, life-changing faith in Jesus of the forgiveness of sins and the glorious, eternal life that are found in Christ alone. In agreement with this assertion, the always gospel-centered and urgent-minded Spurgeon delivered these famous lines to the ears of his listeners,
Oh, my brothers and sisters in Christ, if sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay, and not madly to destroy themselves. If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.
Truly, it is only by justification through the blood of Jesus Christ that we may, with Christ, taunt death, crying out,
O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:55-57, ESV).
May we rely ultimately and fully on our Lord, God, increasing in faith and love. May we confess our sins quickly and regularly, knowing that He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. May we remind ourselves that all we possess is on loan from the great triune God of the universe, and that He, in His sovereign will, may choose to call our dearest ones from us at anytime. Since that is the case, let us draw nearer to Christ and surrender our will daily, allowing Him to replace our worried and anxious thoughts with thoughts of His undying love and continual grace. Oh, how difficult it might seem to hold our dear ones loosely, but in holding Christ tightly, we are able. He drew us to Himself out of sin and death. How much more powerful and faithful is He, then, to also draw the troubled Christian nearer to Him in times of woe and anguish? May the Lord now increase our joy and our affections for what is most valuable and most precious in all this world--Himself.
1 C. H. Spurgeon, "The Wailing at Risca," in Spurgeon's Sermons, Vol. 7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, 2007), 328-343.
2 Iain Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1966), 249.