Something about the celebrations, sentimentality, and resolution-making of Christmas and New Years often leads us to reflect on the general trajectory of our lives. Most of us are aware that those who have recently lost a loved one will have a particularly difficult December, but I think that many of us tend to deal with feelings of sadness and loss during this season, especially about that one life problem that doesn’t seem to go away. We ask questions like, “why can’t I fix this problem when everyone else around me seems to be able to fix the same problem in their lives?” “why do I even have this problem in the first place?” and “how am going to get through another year with this problem?” Answering these types of life questions that seem too hopeless or complicated to give hopeful or clear answers to is what the Puritans specialized in, so it’s no surprise that there is a whole book written by Thomas Boston (a successor of Puritanism) called The Crook in the Lot: The Sovereignty and Wisdom of God in the Afflictions of Men Displayed. In it, Boston does what the Puritans as soul doctors did best—diagnose a painful life experience that is common to many and prescribe the most effective remedies. Like receiving any diagnosis or remedy, you may feel shocked, confused, or put off when you hear Boston’s list of clinical notes, but the only way to start healing an illness is to look at all of the factors and apply the best remedy to each part.
A: The Diagnosis
You know you have a crook in your lot if you feel that in the course of your life events (i.e., your lot), something has fallen off track and made a cross in your path (i.e., a crook). A crook is a difficult and ongoing problem. It goes against what you want, makes you vulnerable to temptation, and is something you get easily worked up about. A crook most often falls in the place in your life that you feel you can bear it the least, thus making it an especially difficult burden. It may fall on your health (e.g., you have a chronic illness), reputation (e.g., shame has been brought on your name), work (e.g., you haven’t been financially or economically successful even though you work hard), or relationships (e.g., you had a falling out with someone you love or your loved one died). The more you expect to get comfort from the area that your crook falls in, the more you feel the crookedness of it. If you have a crook in your lot that has occupied your thoughts and desires, I’m sure that it has quickly come to your mind while reading this paragraph.
B: The Remedy
Overall, the most effective ways to deal with a crook is to know in your heart that:
- This crook is from God (Ecclesiastes 7:13)
- The life of the humble is better than that of the proud (Proverbs 16:19)
- Those who humble themselves will surely be lifted up by God (1 Peter 5:6)
B. 1. First, know that your crook is from God. Crooks that are not the direct result of sin are directly from God, and those caused by sin are still ruled over by God. Though you may object, saying your crook is primarily caused by someone else, Boston argues that that person is only the immediate cause that God uses for his purposes. Boston explains that God makes a crook in our lives according to his good purposes—he sees where we would turn from him and prevents us from doing so.
Boston counsels that since crooks are from God, the only skillful way to straighten a crook is to go to God to:
- Remove the crook: It is inevitable that we want more than anything to be rid of our crook, and thus the best thing to do is to go to God with that desire. It is not wrong to want to get rid of your crook, but it is wrong (and ineffective) to try and remove it without depending on God. Not only can God straighten the crook (and you can’t), but you will always receive blessing from waiting on God. Though you may object, saying you’ve prayed over and over and the crook is still there, God’s will is for you to continue to pray, and it may just take longer than you want. Though our natural reaction is to be impatient and hopeless, we must discipline ourselves to wait in hope
- Get relief if the crook can’t be removed: If your crook can’t be evened in this world by its own nature (like indwelling sin, which we won’t be completely rid of until after death), go to God for relief. Boston gives many good suggestions for how to do this. My favorite is: “take God in Christ for, and instead of, that thing, the withholding or taking away of which from you makes the crook in your lot” (p. 48). In other words, accept the gift of communion with Christ himself in lieu of accepting the gift of a straightened crook. We should also go to God for patience and strength to bear up under our crook with a proper posture and thus make the burden easier to bear, rather than complaining or being unreasonably discouraged, which makes the burden harder to bear. You know that you are not bearing up properly if your crook interrupts your daily life. You know that you are bearing up properly if you are getting benefits from your crook. Boston helps us make a paradigm shift in our minds by exhorting us to “see…the crook as a special trial God has chosen out for you to take your measure by” (p. 52). In other words, God has given you the task of bearing this burden, so go to God, and get the strength to do it! Boston shows his skill in penetrating the human heart when says if you feel like you can’t make your heart submit to this, remember that it is normal to struggle in practicing submission, and if you actually want to submit and wish you could, you are already practicing submission.
- Bear up under the crook instead of fighting against God: Bear up under your crook by viewing it as God’s means of bringing about his good will. To do this, think about God instead of the crook, the good results (i.e., it convicts you of sin, weans you from the world, and makes you fit for heaven) instead of the bad results of the crook, and the help you can expect from the Holy Spirit instead of the weakness you feel now. The more often you look to God’s good purposes and the Spirit’s help, the less you will ache because of your crook.
B. 2. Second, know that it is better to be humble than proud. The proud get what they want and the humble do not. However, this is only a surface level evaluation. If you look deeper, you’ll see that the proud get what they want at the cost of having a peace of mind, but the humble don’t get what they want and develop a strong character, which leads to a fruitful life. The humble get the better deal because their gain is eternal; the proud only gain something temporary that could be lost any minute. Boston turns the tables on our carnal way of thinking by saying that it is not always good for us to get what we want, and it is sometimes very good to not get what we want.
B. 3. Third, know that if you humble yourself before God, you will be lifted up by God. You might say that if you humble yourself, you’ll be a doormat for other people to walk all over or you’ll never be lifted up unless you do it yourself, but the opposite is true. Humility gives you control of yourself but pride puts you under the control of others, and only God can lift you. Boston argues that to be lifted up by God, you would have had to humble yourself first. Some ideas Boston gives to humble yourself are to admire God’s providence as something mysterious that should be adored not rejected, decide now that the only way to move forward is to humble yourself and that there will never be a situation in which you cannot humble yourself, and remember that your time on earth is a trial for heaven and if you endure you will be rewarded but if you do not you will be proven a reprobate. Finally, think about how God’s lifting is beautiful because it’s timely. When the time is right for your lifting up, God will not put it off a moment longer! Though you may not receive a partial lifting up now, you will certainly receive a total lifting up after death, and a bad situation often looks hopeless right before you are lifted up (e.g., Christ’s death and resurrection) in order to make you rely more fully on God.
Perhaps you’re thinking this all sounds very colonial and oppressive, as if Boston is saying, “accept your station in life and don’t try to fix your problems, just over-spiritualize them.” However, this is a shallow interpretation. Boston is not talking about things we have the power to change and should change (e.g., when you are sick and should go to the doctor to get medicine that will heal you), but rather that one big problem that is out of your control, like Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Paul was not an inactive, unambitious person, but when it came to this thorn, he saw that it was out of his control and may be something he would have to deal with for the rest of his earthly life. Furthermore, Boston is not saying do nothing—he is saying do what is actually effective. To sinful human beings, humility and submission seem like the way to move backwards instead of forwards; we have to change our minds to see that this is the right course of action when done in relation to an all-good and all-powerful ruler, God.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we know exactly what Boston is talking about because we have all had a crook in our own lives that, no matter how hard we try and how hard we pray, we can’t get rid of by our own strength. If you have a serious, ongoing condition, you need more than the over-the-counter, no-name brand pills. You need to take more serious and concrete steps towards health. Don’t go through another year of life making the pain worse by not treating your illness properly. Use the remedies of going to God for removal of the crook and relief from the crook, focusing on God and his good purposes, believing that it is better to be humble than proud, and living however many days with your crook that you have to, knowing that at the right time God will lift you up.
If you think about your crook often, I recommend reading Boston’s book because he gives a lot of practical advice that I haven’t listed here. Go to Books at a Glance to see my full summary of the book, as well as links to where you can purchase affordable copies of the book.