The Church's Widowhood
Adapted from a Sermon by Horatius Bonar, 1867
And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ Luke 18:3
Without going into a deep exposition of this parable, in either of its aspects, practical or prophetical, we may say this much: that it sets before us, under the figure of a widow—a feeble and injured widow—the true character and standing of the Church of God on earth, during the present age.
In numbers she is few—a mere election, a gathering out, no more.
In power, she is weak.
In honour, she is little esteemed.
In alliances, she is sought very little—or more commonly she is entirely shunned.
In position, she is unfit to influence the world's direction.
In political and social influence—except as the salt of the earth—she is incapable of what man calls great achievements, seeing that she is scattered and divided among all kingdoms; and that, not like some vast network encompassing the globe, and capable to act with simultaneous force upon the nations—but only like the separate dew-drops, which, though many and pure, and well suited to refresh the blossom on which they rest, have no power to turn the rock into a garden, or to turn the wilderness into a vineyard.
That such is the case, and more, that such must be the case, appears from such things as these—
(1.) The Father's purpose concerning her.
That purpose has great things in store for her—in the ages to come. But at present time her lot is to be weakness, poverty, hardship, and the endurance of wrong. Through much tribulation she must enter the kingdom. It is not the purpose of God that she should be numerous, or powerful, or honourable; but, like her Head, disesteemed, rejected, despised, treated oftentimes as the rejects of all things. Her success is not to be measured by the extent to which she has been able to overawe, or to attract, or to dazzle the world—to disarm its hatred, or to purchase its friendship; but simply, and only, by the manner in which she has been enabled to fulfill the Father's will; to manifest her sympathies with the Father's purpose; to be faithful to her calling and character; to testify for him whose blood has bought her, and to be separate from the evil that is in "the present evil age." (Gal 1:4)
That the church is accurately represented as a feeble and injured widow appears, in the second place in
(2.) Her conformity to her Lord.
He is her pattern, not merely as to character—but as to the whole course of life. In him she learns what her lot on earth is to be. He was the rejected one, even among his own, she must be rejected too. He was the hated one, she must be hated too. Better treatment than he met with, she is not entitled to expect; nor should she wish to have. Union with him in eternal glory is her hope; union with him in suffering is her experience here. Conformity to him in holy glory hereafter is what she looks for; conformity to him in shame and sorrow now, is what she knows to be her lot. She feels that she could not be the true Bride of a suffering Bridegroom—if her path below were one of all smiles and sunshine.
It also appears in the third place in
(3.) Her standing by faith.
It is the world's unbelief that so specially makes it the world; so it is the Church's faith that makes her what she is, the Church. All that she can say for herself is what the apostle said for himself and the saints of his day, "we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us." (1 John 4:16) Her connection with the testimony of God, with him of whom it speaks, and with the glory to which it points, is one simply of faith.
It was faith in that record which first drew her out of the world, and which still keeps her separate from it. As one believing in a kingdom yet to come, she shakes herself free from the entanglements of time. She becomes a stranger here, having no continuing city —but satisfied with the tent of the desert, until she reach the city of her home. The faith which realizes the unseen and the eternal, displaces, both in her vision and in her heart, the things seen and temporal.
It appears in the fourth place in
(4.) The condition of the world out of which she is called.
It is an evil world. It lies in wickedness; and her calling is to come out from it, and, like Noah, to condemn it. All belonging to that world is evil, and what has she to do with it? Satan is its prince and god, and what has she to do with him? It crucified her Lord, what can she have to do with it? Her mission is not to transform the world into the Church—but to be God's instrument in taking out of it a people for his glory. In such a world, how can she be anything but a stranger? In its cities, how can she anything but a sojourner? She has nothing in common with it. All is incompatible, inhospitable, unfriendly.
Lastly, that the church is accurately represented as a feeble and injured widow appears in
(5.) Her prospects.
She is an heir of God, and a joint heir with Christ Jesus. An everlasting kingdom, an unfading crown, an eternal weight of glory—these are her prospects. What has she then to do with a world where all these are not only not recognized but despised or disowned? As the Bride of Christ, what sympathy can there be in her heart, with the vanities of a world so vain as this? It does not yet, indeed, appear what she shall be; but she knows that, when he will appear, she will be like him, for she will see him as he is; and having this hope in him, she purifies herself, even as he is pure. (1 John 3:3)
The Church then, is necessarily, a widow. Therefore, while the Spirit of God uses various figures to describe her, they all, more or less, point to some such sad and helpless condition. Whether she is spoken of as a pilgrim, or a stranger, or an orphan, or a little flock, or a lily among thorns, still the main thought is the same. In her orphanage, or alienness, or widowhood, she still moves before us as the separated, rejected, lonely one, in the midst of an unfriendly world, that far outnumbers her, and that feels itself strangely distressed and made uncomfortable in the midst of all the precious and pleasurable things of earth—having her eye and her heart fixed upon something more glorious, of which the world knows nothing.
It is by acting out her character, fully and consistently, that she honors God, and bears witness to Christ, and condemns the world, and testifies to the glory of the promised kingdom. It is in this way, too, that she wins the eye of the careless worldling, pointing upwards to the incorruptible crown, and calling men to set their affection on things above, and seek their treasure and their joy in heaven “where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matt 6:20)
It is her widowhood, which is her testimony. It is her widow's garments, with which she dare not part, that make known beyond mistake, and yet without a voice, what she thinks of the world and the world's ways; how she has no esteem for the world and the world's joys; how thoroughly she has broken off from the world and the world's companionships, and taken the true measure of its fascinating amusements; how wide in her esteem is the difference between herself and the children of time; how steadfastly she has set her face towards the kingdom; and how completely the King in his beauty has absorbed her soul, and displaced the poor objects of admiration or affection with which the world would seek to win her steps back to itself, and recover her heart to the dreams of creature-love and creature-beauty.
How solemnly does her widow's cry, "Give me justice against my adversary!" "How long, O Lord ... how long!" (Ps 13:1)— proclaim to the world a truth which it seems to have forgotten, that its King and Lord is absent; and so reminding it of the shade which that absence has thrown over creation, by telling of the void which it has left in her own heart, even though she knows that she is his, and that he is hers.
If, then, the Church forsakes this position, and gives up this character, she abandons her calling, she lowers her testimony, she destroys her usefulness, she becomes unfaithful to Christ, and, instead of preserving her purity, she becomes the mother of a false race of Christians, who are neither Christ's nor the world's; who think it possible to make the best of both worlds; in whose features one can find few traces of resemblance to the great Exemple; in whose constitution and habits one can discover none of those elements of power, and hardness, and endurance, which were evident in early days; in whose doings, or efforts, or sacrifices, one can detect nothing of that zeal, and self-denial, and decision, which led one of older days to say, "I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course ... to testify to the gospel of the grace of God." (Acts 20:24)
A widow's proper clothing, as well as her true ornaments, are her widow’s garments. Jewelry—gold, and silver, and precious stones, she has taken off. They are the symbols of amusement, and gaiety, and triumph; and what has she to do with these, in the absence of her Lord, and in the midst of a world which disowns him? It is in her widow's garments that she passes along the world's highway, as one who has little in common with it, whose sympathies have all gone upwards to One whom, having not seen, she loves. They speak of an absent Husband. They tell of faithful affection and constancy, as well as of indifference to all love—except that of him whose memory she cherishes, and whose absence she mourns. They are expressive of indifference to the attractive scenes and objects of earth —not merely because of their un-friendliness—but because they cannot be truly enjoyed while separated from the Beloved One.
One who is "truly a widow " is described in this way by the apostle—"She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day " (1 Tim. 5:5). But a mere widow in name is one who "lives in pleasure," and is therefore "dead while she lives." The true Church of God is the former; the false church, the harlot-bride of Satan, is the latter; for she openly repudiates the name of widow, while she lays aside the things of widowhood, saying, "I sit as a queen, I am no widow, and mourning I shall never see," decking herself all the while in “gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth." (Rev. 18:7, 12).
This contrast between these two not only shows us the right standing of the one church, and the false and faithless character of the other—but it implies this, that one of the church's most subtle temptations will be to lose sight of, if not to disown, her widowhood, and to live, and act, and speak, as if she were well content with the world as it is, and had no consciousness of any separation from the Beloved One.
The world does not love the faithful widow, and would gladly seduce her to a second marriage—a marriage with itself. Decked in costly array—it would admire her, and give her its willing fellowship. But dressed only in the widow's mournful clolthes, it cannot tolerate her. Her faithfulness to her Lord condemns it. Her seclusion and separation rebuke it. Her continuing in supplication and prayers night and day it cannot tolerate. Her longing eye, glancing eagerly upwards, as if to see the Unseen, and greet the absent One, is a continual reproof. The widow's cry severely disturbs the world's peace, and, ringing nightly through its glittering halls of pleasure, turns all its music into discord.
Nor less does Satan dislike the widow's dress and the widow's cry. For they remind him that his day is short—and that he who is to bind him in chains, and cast him out of his dominions—will soon be here. They torment him before his time. They proclaim the doom of his harlot-spouse, who sits now as queen, in that "single hour" (Rev. 18:19) when desolation will overwhelm her. They point to the glory of the now widowed church, in that day, when, instead of her attire of sackcloth, she will be arrayed in "fine linen, clean and white," (Rev 19:8) and, with her long-parted Husband restored to her side, she shall be exalted to the sovereignty of that very world where she has been treated as " the refuse of all things.” (1 Cor 4:13)
The hostility of the world and its prince, to the Church of God, is not new. It is the ancient warfare between the two "seeds" (Gen. 3:15) of Genesis chapter 3, which, in successive forms, and with varying intensity, each age has evolved. Compromise or inconsistency may modify this warfare; but it cannot be ended — except in the extinction of the one seed or the other. The world hopes to absorb the Church, and so to end the conflict; but this absorption is what the true Church so greatly dreads, for by it she loses—and her rival gains— everything. It is an absorption, the root of which is unbelief, and the development of which is, at the best, the form of godliness without its power.
Satan has been relentless in seeking, age after age, to silence the widowed Church's cry, to muffle her voice, to seduce her into unfaithfulness, and to persuade her to part with her garments of widowhood. That he has never wholly succeeded we know; for a remnant, at least, has always been found who remained faithful, though sometimes clothed in sackcloth, in addition to the widow's clothing; and sometimes with that sackcloth stained with blood. Yet too frequently he has succeeded in part— to an extent which may well alarm us, and lead to self-questionings of the most searching kind. He succeeded in a measure with the church of Ephesus, so that her Lord was constrained to address her as one who had left her first love. He succeeded still more with Sardis, until only a few names were left which had not defiled their garments. Even more sadly, did he succeed with Laodicea; bringing her into such a condition of evil that she was on the very edge of entire rejection; elating her with such thoughts of self-sufficiency and wealth as to make her wholly lose sight of her estate of lowly widowhood; decking her with the world's cheery attire, and leading her to exchange the widow's cry for the world's song, "I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing." (Rev 3:17)
But witness the final outcome of Satan's success as seen in the Roman Catholic church. In her, seduction has been triumphant, and not a vestige either of the widow's garments or of the widow's cry can be found in her. The temptation which proved so unsuccessful in the Lord has succeeded in her—the offer of the world's kingdoms. With these, Satan has bewitched and beguiled her. For these, she has forsaken her Lord, and united herself to the god of this world, who fills her to her heart's content with the carnal abundance of his kingdom, so that she is no longer a widow—but a queen; no longer desolate—but "she glorified herself and lived in luxury" no longer poorly or plainly clothed—but decked in purple, and pearls, and gold; no longer crying, in her helplessness, "give me justice against my adversary," but historically ruling over the nations, more than that, giving them to drink of the golden cup of her uncleanness; even more, seducing even the kings of the earth to pay her tribute and service, intoxicating them with the pleasures of her unlawful love.
Between the state of backsliding Ephesus and that of an apostate Church, there is a mighty difference; and yet what is revealed is but different degrees of the same evil. Ephesus represents the beginning, the Roman Catholic church is a picture of the end of the downward course, between which extremities there exist many stages and grades; but the type of evil is, to a certain extent, the same in all. In every one of them we see Satan laying snares for the Church, beguiling her out of her widow's seclusion, making her dissatisfied with her poverty and weakness, persuading her to put off her widows garments, and conform to the cheery attire of the multitude around.
This, then, is one of the Church's special dangers. Such is Satan's goal in assailing her. Such the small beginnings of apostasy, and such the fatal end! In ways most subtle, by degrees quite imperceptible, she is persuaded to leave her first love; and then, having done that, she is ready for any amount of backsliding.
And has Satan not largely succeeded in spreading his fascinations for the Church in our day? He would gladly draw her out of her seclusion into the cheery whirl of earth. He spares nothing to tempt her to act inconsistently with her widow's character, and to become unfaithful to her widow's vow. His object is to bring her down from her high standing as the Church of God, holy and beloved, separated unto Christ, and set on high by his redeeming power; to draw her off from that consecrated ground which her Lord had intended her to occupy, that she may mingle with the bustling crowds of the world's highway, or take her place in its assemblies of pleasure and revelry.
In carrying on his seductions, he makes use of various devices. He begins with objects which are in themselves lawful; he goes on with those which are suspicious and questionable; and he ends with those which are positively sinful and destructive.
He approaches the Church subtly and with fair words, as an angel of light. How excellent and noble is science—how fitted to exalt the soul, and to feed its immortal longings! Most true. Nor ought we ever to say one word to the disparagement or depreciation of science. But may it not be too absorbing? May it not displace higher things? May it not lead to a too exclusive cultivation of the understanding, and so nourish intellectual pride, and seduce the soul into the mere wisdom of this world? The Church is to be on her guard; not against science—but against the way in which science has been used to dazzle or bewilder the Church's eye, and so withdraw her affection and her gaze away from the things above.
Or, again, he comes to her applauding the world's literature, and exhibiting it to her in all the fascinations of poetry and romance. Let us not discredit literature, or treat it all as alike unprofitable. But let us beware of its enchantments. Let us see that, even in its lawful parts, it does not come between us and the vision of the eternal kingdom, or lead us astray with the enticing words of man's wisdom. And as to those parts of it that appeal to the sentiment, or the passions, or the lusts of our nature, which are mere gratifications of our love of pleasure, such as the novel, or the idle song, or the loose opera—how can we touch, or taste, or handle these vanities? What has a heaven-born soul to do with earthly vanities like these? What has the widowed spouse of Christ, mourning her Lord's absence, and longing for his return—to do with scenes and sounds such as these, which feed the flesh, which eat out the very core of faith, which rekindle fires that should be forever quenched, and refasten links that should be forever broken?
Or, further, he comes to her with the more direct enticements of pleasure as his snares. "What sin, what harm is there in the dance, or the movies or the merry party?" And how often is he at once responded to—"Yes, what sin, what harm in these? May a man not be a Christian and yet enjoy these?" This would we say in reply. In primitive days no man would have thought of claiming the name of Christian who enjoyed them; and if a man can think himself a Christian while enjoying these, he must have misunderstood the character of a follower of Christ; he must have forgotten the Lord's own solemn words—"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me;" (Matt 16:24) and he must have set aside the apostle's solemn exhortation, "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." (1 John 2:15) If anyone says, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" (John 6:60) We answer—Is it harder than that, "she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives." (1 Tim 5:6) Is it harder than that, the "friendship with the world is enmity with God?" (James 4:4) Is it harder than that, "go out from their midst, and be separate from them, ... and touch no unclean thing;" (2 Cor 6:17) Is it harder than that, "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons." (1 Cor 10:21)
Or further still, he leads here astray with heresies, subtly twisting the Scriptures to lead her into dangerous byways. Beware of any understanding of Scripture, or of religious obedience which leads away from the widows garments; away from the longing for her beloved and towards the love and enjoyment and contentment of this world.
Besides, what enjoyment can one whose characteristic is that of widowhood, and orphanage, and estrangement, find in such scenes as these? Laughter and revelling are for the whole-hearted and the sorrow-less. How can they suit the widow's garments and the widow's cry? If the Church of God would mingle in such scenes, she must first renounce her widowhood! For how strange, how out of place, would be the entrance of widowhood, and the reality of grief, as well as the outward attire of mourning—into such haunts of hollow amusements, as the merry world presents! How startling—no, how displeasing and disturbing—would be the sombre color of the widow's clothing in a blazing hall of midnight, where that dazzling mass of artificial light shows all things—but nothing as they are.
Into such disagreeable things, how is it possible for the Church of God to enter? With contradictions and inconsistencies like these, she can have no sympathy. If she understands her own character and calling, she must see that she has a peculiar path to pursue—a path which cannot allow any such compromise between the things of heaven and the things of earth.
She, like her Lord, is from above! The world, like its prince, is from beneath! How can there be an alliance between parties—whose interests, sympathies, hopes, joys—are so completely opposite? How can the Church of God descend from the high eminence to which she has been lifted up, and tread again that enchanted ground which she professes to have forsaken forever? Can she lose sight of her calling? Can she forget her widowhood? Can she see no crime in being unfaithful to her absent Lord, and unjust to the memory of one who has loved her so well? Can she think of imitating (even in spirit, or for a day) the apostate Church, Satan's harlot bride, and saying, "I sit as a queen, I am no widow, and mourning I shall never see?" (Rev 18:7)
Satan, the god of this world is doing his utmost, in these last days, to ensnare the Church, to seduce her into worldliness, to draw down her eye from the heavenly glory, to silence her cry, to induce her to drop her widow's clothing—and if not altogether to identify herself with the world—at least to be less peculiar, less singular in her walk, less solemn in her testimony against the "fashion of this world," (1 Cor 7:31 KJV) the "things that all perish as they are used," (Col 2:22) " the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life." (1 John 2:16)
Will he succeed? Will his deceit carry the day? Will his appeals to all that is best in the natural man be met with consent on the part of the saints of God? Will his arguments and devious flatteries, addressed so skilfully to our love of natural beauty, wisdom, goodness, truth—be yielded to—so that we will give up our distinctiveness as the called of God, and the heirs of his kingdom? Will he persuade us to be less strict, less holy, less heavenly—with less of the sorrowing widow in our behaviour—and more of the crowned queen?
Will we resist—or will we yield? Will we hold fast our profession—or will we fling it aside? Will we try to seize a portion in this world—or will we be content to wait in faith, until the Lord returns?
Surely this is a question for this age—a question for the Church of God—a question for every child of the kingdom. It is a question, too, for those who are still wholly of the earth—"Will you cling to the earth; and what will that earth to which you cling to do for you?" It is a question for those who think it possible to be both lovers of God and lovers of pleasure—"Will you try to reconcile what is irreconcilable? Is not God enough without the world—is not Christ enough without worldly pleasures?"
It is a question for the sincere hearer of these words—"Will you not decide—will you waver, will you hesitate, will you try something less than an entire surrender of your whole self to God?"
It is a question for the Christian —"Will you be less than your name implies—less than a child of heaven, less than an heir of God, and a joint heir with Christ?" It is by faith that you stand. It was the belief of God's free love, as manifested in the cross of his Son, that made you what you are; and if that faith has any meaning, it means that you are no longer of the world, that your treasure is above, that your inheritance is not here; and that you are waiting, in patient love and hope, amid weariness and abuse and trouble, for the grace which is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.