I am currently in the process of finishing J.I. Packer’s book, A Grief Sanctified. The subject of Packer’s writing is Richard Baxter. Baxter was a pastor and author during the days of the Puritans. He had a wife named Margaret to whom he was married for 19 years before she died of illness. Shortly after her death, Richard Baxter “produced a lover’s tribute to his mate and a pastor’s celebration of God’s grace.” In A Grief Sanctified, Packer collects the memoir of Baxter during this time and reflects on his grief and example.
When reflecting on why he wrote the Breviate, Baxter outlined the many lessons he learned from the life of his wife that may bring hope and encouragement to others. One lesson “that Richard aimed to enforce from Margaret’s story was also a large one, namely that struggles, temptations, and constant imperfect performance mark the lives of all God’s saints.” Read Baxter’s own words as he reflects on this point:
Take heed of expecting too much from so frail and bad a thing as man….They that come near us find more faults and badness in us than others at a distance know….It is too common an error with honest souls to think that a hard heart lieth most in want of sorrow and tears, when as it lieth most in want of a tractable compliance and yielding to the commands and will of God,…and to think that a new and tender heart is principally a heart that can weep and mourn, when it is chiefly a heart that easily receiveth all the impressions of God’s commands and promises and threats, and easily yieldeth to his known will.
…Fear and avoid self-willedness….We must learn to follow and not to lead, and to say: The will of the Lord be done; not mine, Lord, but thine, and in every estate to be content. There is no rest but in God’s will.
…God’s service lieth more in deeds than in words. My dear wife was faulty indeed in talking so little of religion in company….But her religion lay in doing more than talk. Yet her example tells us that it is one of Satan’s wiles to draw us to one sin to avoid another…and leave much undone for fear of doing it amiss….
…It is not God’s or our enemies’ afflicting us in worldly losses or sufferings (especially when we suffer for righteousness’ sake) which is half so painful as our own inward infirmities….My poor wife made nothing of prisons, distrainings, reproaches, and such crosses, but her burden was most inward, from her own tenderness, and next from those whom she over-loved. And for mine own part, all that ever either enemies or friends have done against me is but a flea-biting to me in comparison of the daily burden of a pained body and the weakness of my soul in faith, hope, love, and heavenly desires and delights.
The nature of true religion, holiness, obedience, and all duty to God and man was printed in her conceptions, in so clear and distinct a character as made her…look at greater exactness than I and such as I could reach….And in this respect she was the meetest helper that I could have had;…for I was apt to be overcareless in my speech and too backward to my duty, and she was always endeavoring to bring me to greater wariness and strictness in both. If I spoke rashly or sharply, it offended her; if I behaved (as I was apt) with too much neglect of ceremony or humble compliment to any, she would modestly tell me of it; if my very looks seemed not pleasant, she would have me amend them (which my weak pained state of body undisposed me to do); if I forgot any week to catechize my servants and familiarly instruct them personally (besides my ordinary family duties, she was troubled at my remissness.
I have gleaned much from Baxter’s reflections on his wife, his marriage, and his faith in the midst of grieving. Churches and pastors should keep numerous copies of this book in preparation for those who are and will deal with the loss of a spouse or loved one. May we all find encouragement in the words of Richard Baxter to the glory of God.