A Classic Study by Richard Baxter (1615Ė1691)
Under Poverty and Want
Another case that needeth obedient patience is poverty and want; either through losses, which come by the afflicting providence of God, or by robbery, or by oppression of unjust men, by violence or injurious suits at law, or by the failing of our trade or calling, or by multitudes of children, or by sickness, lameness, and disability to work, or by the unhappiness or miscarriages and debts of parents, or by rash suretyship, or any other way.
Poverty hath its temptations, and they may and will be felt, but must not be over-felt. It is some trial to want food and necessary clothing and habitation; it is more to be put to beg it of others, or be beholden to them, especially who give it grudgingly: but yet to a single man these are comparatively small. Hard fare and scant, with patched or ragged garments, may be consistent with health, when fulness causeth mortal diseases to the rich. But it is far harder to bear the wants of an impatient wife, and crying of children; to have many to provide for, and to have nothing for them: and it is yet harder to be in debt, and bear the importunity, frowns, and threatenings of creditors. What should the poor do in this distressed case, and how should it be patiently endured?
I will first premise this counsel, for prevention of such necessity and distress, and then tell you how to bear it patiently.
1. Let not your own sin bring you into poverty, and then if it be by the trying providence of God, without your guilt, it is the more easily borne. Some run themselves into want by idleness, refusing diligent labour in their calling; some come to poverty by base and brutish sensuality, by pampering the flesh in meats and drinks, their appetites must be pleased till necessity displease them; some by covetous gaming, losing their own while they gaped after anotherís; some by foolish pride, living above their estates, in worldly pomp, in houses, furniture, apparel, and retinue; some by rash bargains, and covetous venturousness; some by rash, imprudent marriage; some by filthy, beastly lusts; and many by unadvised suretyship: willfulness and guilt are the sting and shame of poverty.
2. If you have little, live accordingly, and suit your diet and garb according to your condition, with a contented mind. Nature is content with little, but pride and appetite are hardly satisfied. Coarse diet and usage are as sweet and safe to a contented mind, as daily feasting to the voluptuous and rich.
3. If your labour will not get you necessaries for life and health, beg rather than borrow, when you know you are unable and unlike to pay. It is far easier begging before you are in debt than after: two such burdens are heavier than one. Such borrowing, if you conceal your disability to pay, is one of the worst sorts of thievery, and a great addition to your misery.
4. Draw not others by suretyship or partnership, or unfaithful trading, into suffering with you. Be not guilty of the sufferings of others: it is more innocent, and more easy, to suffer alone.
5. Therefore marry not till you have a rational probability that you may maintain a wife and children. The case of absolute necessity to the lustful, is commonly excepted; and so it ought when it is but harder living that a woman is by such a man put upon, and she knowingly consenteth to the suffering. But I know not how any such manís necessity can warrant him to make wife and children miserable, and that by fraud, and without her knowing consent. Nor do I think, that any man can be under such necessity, which may not be cured by lawful means: it is a shame that any should need such a remedy; but I think Christ intimateth a better than such a wrong to others, if no less would serve (see Matt. 19:20; 18:9).
II. But what is to be done for obedient patience when poverty (however) is upon us.
Answer. 1. Find out all your sin that caused it, and repent of that, and see that you are much more grieved for that than your poverty: and presently fly to Christ by faith, till your conscience have the peace and comfort of forgiveness.
2. Remember that whatever were the means or second causes, Godís will and providence is the overruling cause, and hath chosen this condition for you, whether it be by way of trial (as to Job and the apostles), or by way of punishing correction. Therefore consider whose hand you are in, and with whom it is that you have to do; and apply yourselves first and principally to God, for reconciliation, and pardon of the punishment, and for grace to stand in all your trials. Behave yourselves in all your wants, as a child to a father, as if you heard God say, "It is I that do it; it is I that corrects thee, or that tries thee, or that chooses thy diet and medicine according to thy need, and for thy good."
3. Think of all those texts of Scripture, from the mouth of Christ and His apostles, which speak of the temptation and dangerousness of riches, and the difficulty of the salvation of the rich, and how commonly they prove worldly, sensual brutes, and enemies, and persecutors of the faithful (see Matt. 19:23,24; James 4, 5).
And then think of all those texts that tell you, that Christ Himself was poor, that He might make many rich, and that the apostles were poor, and that Christ rich, and that the apostles were poor, and that Christ tried the rich man, whether he was sound, by bidding him, "Sell all, and give to the poor" and follow Him (see Matt. 19:21), and trieth all His disciples by taking up the cross and forsaking all. He showed what the spirit of Christianity is, when He caused all the first believers to sell all, and to live in common: and He blesseth His poor, that are poor in spirit, because that "theirs is the kingdom of heaven," (Matt. 5).
4. Study well the great advantages of poverty, and the particular danger of riches. The damnation of souls cometh from the love of this world, and fleshly prosperity and pleasures, better than God, and holiness, and heaven. And what stronger temptation to this can there be, than to have all fullness and pleasure, which the flesh desireth? Though it was not for being rich that Dives (see Luke 16) was damned, nor for being poor that Lazarus was saved; yet it was riches which furnished Dives with that pomp and pleasure, which drew his heart from God and heaven; and poverty kept Lazarus from those temptations. Doth not reason and experience tell you, that it is very much harder for a man to be weaned from the love of this world, and to seek first a better, who liveth in all plenty and delight, than a man that is in continual affliction, and hath nothing in the world to allure him to overlove it? Oh what a help is it to drive us to look homeward for a better habitation, and to save us from the deceitful flatteries of the world, and the lusts of brutish flesh, to be still wearied with one cross or other, and pinched with wants, that even the flesh itself may consent to die, or not be importunate with the soul to serve it any longer. A man in miserable poverty is most unexcusable if his heart be not in heaven.
5. To be over-much troubled at poverty is a sin of dangerous signification. It showeth that you overlove the flesh and the world, and do not sufficiently take God and heavenly felicity for your portion. No man is much troubled for the want of anything but that which he loveth: and to overlove the world is a sin, which, if it prevail against the greater love of God and glory, it is certainly damning. And he that taketh not Godís kingdom and righteousness as better than the world, and seeketh it not first, cannot obtain it. If God and heaven seem not enough for you, unless you be free from bodily want, you trust not God aright.
6. Doth it not properly belong to God, to diet his family, and give to every one what He seeth best? If He had made you worms, or dogs, or serpents, you could find no fault with Him. May He not diversify His creatures as He please? Shall every fly and vermin murmur that he is not a man? And may he not as freely diversify the provision of His creatures, as their natures? Must all be masters, and yet none be servants? Must the rich be bound to relieve the poor, and must there be no poor to be relieved? "The poor you have always with you," saith Christ (see Matt. 26:11). How shall men be rewarded at last, as they clothed them, fed them, visited them, etc., if there were none that stood in need thereof? Is not God wiser than we, to know what is best for us? And can He not give us all that we desire if He saw it best? And do you think, that He wanteth so much love to His children as to feed and clothe them? Were it for want of love, He would not give them the far greater gifts, even His Son, and Spirit, and life everlasting: if this were the trial of His love, you might say that He most loveth the worst of men, who more abound in riches than the most cruel and persecuting tyrants, the most wicked, sensual, profligate monsters? Were riches any special treasure, God would not give them to such flagitious enemies, and deny them to humble, faithful persons. It is no small sin to murmur at God for maintaining and governing His family according to His wisdom and will, and for not being ruled by the desires of our flesh.
7. Do you not see that riches bring more trouble to them that have them, than poverty doth to contented persons? They that have much, have much to do with it, and many to deal with, many tenants, servants, and others, that will all put them to some degree of trouble: they have more law-suits, losses, crosses, and frustrations than the poor. Their food and rest is not so sweet to them, as to poor labouring men. Their bodies are usually fuller of diseases. Thieves rob them, when he is fearless that hath nothing which other men desire. He that hath little hath a light burden to carry, and little to care for.
8. And do you think that a man will die ever the more willingly or comfortably for being rich? No; the more they love the world, the more it teareth their hearts to leave it! Oh what a horror it is for a guilty, miserable soul, to be forced to quit forever all that he flattered his soul in as his felicity, and all that for which he neglected and sold his God and his salvation! No man till it comes can fully conceive the dismal case of a dying worldling.