The Crook in the Lot
Thomas Boston is no longer a household name even in Scotland’s Christian families, and even those who have heard of him will know him only as the author of one book called The Fourfold State, which could once have been found in the home of every cottar and crofter in Scotland. It is a tribute to our forebears that they could relish such a rich theological volume (still in print, courtesy of the Banner of Truth), covering the whole range of Christian doctrine.
But Boston wrote much else, including a little gem called The Crook in the Lot, based on the words of Ecclesiastes 7:13, ‘Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight which he hath made crooked?’ (KJV). Its starting-point is that, under the sovereignty of God, a certain course of events falls to every human being, and in that course there are always, to one degree or another, ‘crooks’: humiliating or frustrating adversities that cut across the grain of our natural hopes and dispositions. Our will goes one way; the dispensation another, and no one, saint or sinner, is exempt. Our neighbour’s lot, seen from a distance, may seem perfectly adjusted to their wishes, ‘but that is a false verdict; there is no lot out of heaven, without a crook’; and what is true of men and women in general is particularly true of those whom Boston calls God’s ‘darling ones.’ They usually have the greatest crooks in their lot, and the reason for this is clear: ‘There is no coming to the promised land, according to the settled method of grace, but through the wilderness’; and there is no escaping from this wilderness, as he highlights in one of his most memorable sentences, ‘This world is a wilderness, in which we may indeed have our station changed; but the remove will be out of one wilderness station to another.’ Yet Boston is careful to maintain a balance: even in the wilderness, where Israel had ‘many mourning times,’ they also had some singing ones. No one’s lot in this world is wholly crooked.
Boston knows from his pastoral experience that our experience of the Crook can vary widely from temperament to temperament. What might be a Crook to one might not be a Crook to another. He also knows, too, that the Crook can come in a wide variety of forms, and he cites some curious instances. He raises our eyebrows when he suggests that one of these might be our appearance, but he restores equilibrium when he illustrates this from the example of the Apostle Paul, who thought his appearance and his diction made him contemptible (2 Cor: 10:10). For others, including Boston himself, whose wife suffered from a crippling life-long illness, the Crook might be their domestic circumstances. For yet others the Crook would lie in their vocational or professional lives. A minister, for example, might have a difficult and disorderly congregation (but then, in case this might look like an instance of clerical self-pity, he quickly adds that sometimes a congregation might have to suffer an unedifying ministry; in which case the Minister becomes the Crook in the Lot!).
And sometimes, Boston warns us, the Crook in the Lot may be permanent. Indeed, this was the message of his text. If every Crook is ‘the doing of God’, as Boston firmly believed, ‘who can make straight what He hath made crooked?’ This, of course, was his own experience: his wife never recovered from her illness. But it also reflected St. Paul’s experience of the thorn in his flesh (2 Cor.12:7-10). The Lord made plain to him that he had to live with it. And it is true, too, of countless others who have had to come to terms with some form of mental illness, physical disability or other life-limiting factor. Some lives have been irreparably damaged by the actions of others; and what is even more distressing, our lives may be damaged by actions of our own: ‘The thing may fall out in a moment, under which the party may go halting to the grave.’
There is no Crook but may be made perfectly straight
Yet, at the risk of appearing inconsistent, Boston also writes, ‘There is no crook but what may be remedied by God, and made perfectly straight.’
What can he mean? He is certainly not saying that we are bound to submit passively to every Crook in our Lot. Though we cannot ‘even’ them, we should apply to God and ask him to remove any Crook ‘that in the settled order of things may be removed.’ The qualification is important. There are some situations that in ‘the settled order of things’ cannot be removed: some genetic conditions, for example. But there are others within the ‘settled order of things’ which God can remedy, and since ‘he loves to be employed in straightening crooks’, he calls us ‘to employ him in that way’ even when, humanly speaking, there is no hope. It is his prerogative, after all, to work wonders. The surest and shortest way is to go straight to God with the Crook.
This will not, however, comfort every sufferer. Some, as Boston recalls, will say, ‘Yes, I know this crook could be mended, but it never will, because it is plainly God’s will that it should remain, and prayer for its removal is hopeless.’ But this, he replies, is the language of unbelieving haste. Abraham and Sarah faced what they thought was a hopeless situation, yet it was remedied. Nothing can make it pointless to apply to God even in an apparently hopeless case.
Or another may object, ‘But I’ve applied to Him again and again for it, yet it is never mended.’ But here again Boston is ready with an answer: ‘Delays are not denials,’ and we shouldn’t let the application drop from our prayers out of despondency. Sometimes, indeed, the trouble continues, and so we conclude that our prayers have not been accepted. But this is a mistake. Our prayers are accepted immediately, even when not answered immediately: ‘The Lord does with them as a father with the letters coming thick from his son abroad, reads them one by one with pleasure, and carefully lays them up to be answered at his convenience. And when the answer comes, the son will know how acceptable they were to his father.’
What then? There are Crooks that cannot be straightened, and Crooks that God could straighten, but doesn’t. Boston’s answer is uncompromising and un-original: we must recognise that the Crook is the work of God and having done so we must submit to it as his will. His sovereignty should silence us, and his wisdom should satisfy us, even though we cannot see.
This is not some asylum of ignorance forced upon is by a problem of our own making: the doctrine of predestination. We find such submission on the lips of our Lord himself on at least two occasions: first, when he contemplates the mystery that his gospel is hidden from the wise and learned, but revealed to babes, and exclaims, ‘Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in your sight’ (Mt 11:25); and, secondly, in the Garden of Gethsemane, where, well-nigh overwhelmed by the prospect of the cross, he cries, ‘Not my will, but thine, be done’ (Lk. 22:42).
It was this same sentiment that Horatius Bonar expressed in his great hymn, ‘Thy Way, Not Mine’:
Thy way, not mine, O Lord,
However dark it be
Lead me by thine own hand,
Choose out the path for me.
Not mine, not mine the choice,
In things or great or small;
Be thou my guide, my strength,
My wisdom and my all!
The greatest Crook in the Lot, writes Boston, conforms to God’s will, and his will never deviates from its great central preoccupation: God’s love for his people, and his determination to conform them to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:28-29). Sometimes we can see how the Crooks work for our good, perhaps by drawing our attention to some false step we have taken, or to some dangerous course we are pursuing. But other times we have no option but to betake ourselves to the words of Jesus, ‘What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.’ (Jn. 13:7, KJV); or to the words of William Cowper:
Deep in unfathomable mines
of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs
and works His sovereign will.
But one thing Boston never does: he never romanticises suffering as if in itself it always tends to our moral and spiritual good. ‘There is nothing,' he writes, ‘that gives temptation more easy access than the crook in the lot’; and again, ‘Satan’s work is by the crook in the lot either to bend or break people’s spirit, and oftentimes by bending to break them’. The danger of sinking under discouragement and immoderate grief is ever-present, leaving us unfit for both the common affairs of life and the duties of religion.
There, one suspects, is the voice of experience, and it echoes the sentiment of Hebrews 12:5, ‘My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him’ (italics added).