The Bruised Reed: A Review
Today at long last we will take a look at Richard Sibbes’ work, The Bruised Reed.
The Bruised Reed seems to be primarily a work of pastoral care. The book is based off of Isaiah 42:1-3 — “1Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. 2He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street. 3A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth. (KJV, emphasis mine)” This passage is applied to the work of Christ, and Sibbes believes it involves two things: first, the calling of Christ to his office; and second, the manner in which he carries it out.
Christ, who is called “God’s servant,” is a chosen and choice servant. His service, Sibbes says, was to do and suffer all by the Father’s will. For this reason God counts the work of our salvation by Christ to be his greatest treasure, for it shows God’s love to us. Because of this, Christ is the only safe place towards which we can look when temptation comes. Our natural inclination is to turn inward, focusing on our troubles, but Christ alone has the special power of comforting the soul, for God’s authority and love are in him. Our comfort as believers is wholly based on being “in Christ,” therefore our faith must be built on the Savior and nothing else. Remember, Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6a).” He seeks bruised reeds and smoking flaxes, the sick rather than the healthy.
What is a “bruised reed?” A bruised reed, Sibbes states, is a person in some misery. Misery brings this person to see sin as the cause of it, and he sees no help in himself. Therefore he seeks relief elsewhere, and he mourns and hopes for mercy. Sibbes says this bruising is necessary before we can be saved, for it allows the Spirit to make way for himself, brings low all proud thoughts, and brings us to understand what we are by nature — that is, that we are sinners. Bruising also makes us set a high price on Christ. This allows the gospel to truly be the gospel, which makes us more thankful, more fruitful, and more firmly sets us in God’s ways. Bruising further reminds us that we are reeds, not oaks; that is, we are small and weak, not large and mighty. We live by the mercy of God alone. As such, Sibbes contends we must not be too hard on ourselves or others when we experience bruising, for by this bruising we are being conformed to Christ, who was “bruised for us (Isaiah 53:5).”
What is a “smoking flax?” From reading the book, I believe Sibbes considers a smoking flax to be a new Christian. He states, “In smoking flax there is but a little light, and that weak, as being unable to flame, and that little mixed with smoke. The observations from this are that, in God’s children, especially in their first conversion, there is but a little measure of grace, and that little mixed with much corruption, which, as smoke, is offensive; but that Christ will not quench this smoking flax (p. 16).”
So it seems pretty obvious that new believers are those whom have “but a little light, and that weak, as being unable to flame, and that little mixed with smoke.” They are like firestarters for a campfire — they are only able to take a spark at the moment. If they were put to a flame, they would be immediately consumed. If they were smothered or drenched, they would immediately be put out. New Christians are delicate things that must be treated with the utmost care, just as a firestarter.
New Christians are still affected by their old man, and Sibbes recognizes this by stating the flax have “but a little measure of grace, and that little mixed with much corruption, which, as smoke, is offensive.” So we humans are dead flax which cannot be of any use until we take spark through Christ. Only as Christ builds us up into a flame is the corruption removed and a strong, lasting fire takes its place. “Weak Christians are like glasses which are hurt with the least violent usage, but if gently handled will continue a long time (p. 24).” As such we should not hold back new Christians or seek to smother them, but be gentle and merciful with them, and build them up into maturity, just as Christ does. We should not look down on new believers because they are not mature. You yourself did not get to be a bonfire in a day, did you not? Also, we must encourage new believers not to become jealous or discouraged of the maturity of others, for it is not yet their time. Teach the smoking flax in your midst the value of patience and discipleship.
Building on these definitions and properties, Sibbes lays out what seems to be not only truly biblical “self-help,” as it were, but a subtantive theology of counseling. Pastors should take care in dealing with these, he says, lest they needlessly cast someone down or too soon raise up someone. The entirety of chapter 5 is spent instructing pastors and church leaders how to deal with the bruised and smoking in their midst, and he charges them to be a tool of edification, not destruction. Indeed, the church is to be “a common hospital, wherein all are in some measure sick of some spiritual disease or other, so all have occasion to exercise the spirit of wisdom and meekness (p. 34).” As such, pastors must act as if it were they themselves in the condition they find such lowly members, since they have already experienced, or may soon experience, the conditions of those towards whom they minister.
Sibbes then turns to principles of self-diagnosis and self-remedy. It is obvious from these chapters that Sibbes believed strongly that we believers should “work our our salvation (Phil. 2:12)” in order that Christ might be glorified in us. Chapters 6-10 focus on the qualities of bruised reeds and smoking flax, and how to tell which you are. They also focus on what one must do upon discovering one’s state. He lists temptations to avoid (ch. 7), encourages us to continue in our duties rather than allow sin and temptation to cause us to shirk (ch. 8), to believe Christ rather than Satan (ch. 9), and to beware of falling into reed-breaking, flax-quenching falsehoods about the mercy of Christ (ch. 10).
The remaining chapters (11-16) focus primarily on Christ’s judgment and victory and how these are worked out in hurting and weak Christians. Following the last part of the foundational text, Christ’s care of these is designed to bring about judgment and victory (Matt. 12:20). Judgment in the believer is not the same as condemnation; rather judgment is a means by which corruption in us is consumed. “The spirit of judgment will be a spirit of burning (Isa. 4:4) to consume whatever opposed corruption eats into the soul like rust. If God’s builders fall into errors and build stubble on a good foundation, God’s Spirit, as a spiritual fire, will reveal this in time (1 Cor. 3:13), and destroy it. The builders shall, by a spirit of judgment, condemn their own errors and courses (p. 78, emphasis mine).” Christ causes us as believers to seek out error in ourselves, condemn it, and by doing so further fan the flame of grace in our hearts. He does this by the Spirit that dwells in us. The intended result is that Christians, and the church in general, experience victory over every sin and temptation that faces us.
Chapter 13 contains an extremely helpful section that answers the question of why we still experience sin and temptation, though we have been freed from sin. Sibbes gives four very succinct answers: 1) God’s children usually, in their troubles, overcome by suffering; 2) victory is by degrees, not immediate; 3) “God often works by contraries: when he means to give victory, he will allow us to be foiled at first; when he means to comfort, he will terrify first; when he means to justify, he will condemn us first; when he means to make us glorious, he will abase us first (p. 95);” and 4) Christ’s work, both in the church and in the hearts of Christians, often goes backward so that it may go forward better. If we did not still experience sin and temptation, we would not be able to experience the healing work of Christ nor the sanctifying work of the Spirit in our lives. We would not learn to treasure the Savior nor to not grieve the Spirit. We, like Christ, are learning obedience; though we learn this through trials of sin and temptation unlike Christ, who obeyed perfectly.
Sibbes closes the book by exhorting us to expect opposition to this healing and sanctifying work of Christ in us, opposition from within and from without. We must remember that victory is certain, for Christ has won it and cannot be denied. We must treasure the grace that has been given to us, and always trust that the faith in Christ that God has given us will prevail.
I wish I had this book 5 years ago. I might have saved myself a lot of grief. A book like this could have gotten me in a proper frame of mind and driven me back to Scripture and Christ. I might have avoided burnout altogether. Indeed, I was surely a “bruised reed,” facing the first real challenge to my spiritual health. And I had no real idea where to turn! Instead, I bottled myself up and allowed myself to be dragged deeper into the mire of discouragement. I found myself smiling ruefully as I recognized myself in Sibbes’ many descriptors of the reed and the flax, and oftentimes I found myself on the verge of tears as I realized how cheaply I had treated the Great Healer during this time! Concepts that I had only recently begun to grasp suddenly became clear to me as I meditated on Sibbes’ words and the Scriptures he pointed me toward. Problems I faced with counselees suddenly came into clear relief as I saw in Sibbes markers I had totally missed or did not understand. Solutions presented themselves to me, some so obvious that I was left smacking myself for being such a doofus. A challenge was laid to me as a pastor, and I found myself encouraged to take that challenge up!
How can we apply this to ministry? The biggest help I took from this book was to remember that others are not as mature as you, nor are you yourself yet as mature as those from whom you learn. It is extremely easy for pastors to become frustrated at the maturity of our members. Indeed, “Joe Blow in the Pew” matures about as quickly as a planet orbits the sun, that is, too slow to be measured easily! We must be willing to invest our time and energy in our churches instead of looking for the “best opportunity available.” We must be willing to spend the rest of our lives nurturing a congregation to maturity. As well, we cannot grow frustrated at our own lack of maturity compared to our “heroes” in ministry. I would love to have half the theological acumen of Bruce Ware and a tenth of the passion for Christ that John Piper has, and I’d setttle for a cup of the preaching ability of Hershael York or Russell Moore and a thimbleful of the charisma of Mark Driscoll. But I have to remember that God has grown these things in them, and they have developed them diligently over time, whereas I have barely begun to grow in these areas!
We must also take heed of the delicate state of those who come to us for counseling. We cannot be heavy-handed with our hurting and struggling believers. Nor can we coddle them so that the flame in them never takes light. We must be willing to fan the flame of Christ in them, and we do this through the Gospel, reminding them what Christ is doing in them as they struggle. We must be willing to pour the necessary salt of the Gospel into their wounds that they might spark with repentance, and then pour the fuel of Christ’s sanctifying work on them that they might become a flame that removes the corruption within them.
We must remind the bruised and smoking that they are worthless without Christ; and since Christ has seen fit to take spark to them — a spark which he will fan into a purifying flame — they should rejoice! We must encourage them to be patient and to diligently keep adding fuel to the fire — keep reading Scripture, keep reading good Christian books, listen diligently when your pastor preaches, seek the fellowship and encouragement of other believers; and just like a fire that moves from splintered kindling to a roaring bonfire, when the time is right Christ will create in us a roaring flame that consumes the worthlessness in us and gives us perseverance in the face of trials and temptation!
A Brief Devotional
What are you? Are you a bruised reed? Come to Christ, and he will give you rest. Are you a smoking flax? Come to Christ, and he shall fan you into an all-consuming fire. He covers you with his healing hands and molds you through your struggles into his own image. He will not leave you nor forsake you (Heb. 13:5b). “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness (James 1:2-3, ESV).”
Know that your sufferings, your struggles in the faith, are but for a season. Keep the fear of the Lord foremost in your minds and hearts. Then shall Christ be triumphant in you; bringing about judgment on those temptations that left you in despair, putting to death those sins that hindered you, bringing understanding and ability where before you could only flounder in confusion and inability.
Yes, my brothers and sisters, Christ will not break the bruised reed, nor shall he quench the smoking flax! In this we can take great comfort, being assured of victory, which we will consummate in Heaven at the marriage supper of the Lamb!
To conclude what is quite possibly the longest post ever recorded on The Silent Holocron, let me just say that I find myself in full agreement with Martin Lloyd-Jones. What he said about The Bruised Reed bears repeating:
“I shall never cease to be grateful to Richard Sibbes who was balm to my soul at a period in my life when I was overworked and badly overtired, and therefore subject in an unusual manner to the onslaughts of the devil….I found at that time that Richard Sibbes, who was known in London in the early seventeenth century as the ‘Heavenly Doctor Sibbes’ was an unfailing remedy….The Bruised Reed quieted, soothed, comforted, encouraged and healed me.”
Should I ever again find myself in a time of serious spiritual challenge, I will turn directly to Scripture and to this book. I encourage every believer to take up this book and read!
Please click on the “Join the 2008 Puritan Reading Challenge!” button in the sidebar or click this link to purchase this book as well as all the other 11 books of this year’s Puritan Reading Challenge. Challenge yourself this year to read real “Christian Living” books instead of the junk out there and see yourself grow spiritually! Join us today!