Thursday, September 1, 2011

Anne Steele: True Happiness

What would it take for you to be happy? A New car? A husband? Plenty of money? 3 kids and a mortgage? No kids and no mortgage?

How about this?

The Westminster Confession (1640s) said the “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”.
John Piper said “the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever” (note the nuance)
C.S. Lewis said “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”
Anne Steele (18th century English hymn-writer) said
“The mind was formed to mount sublime,
Beyond the narrow bounds of time,
To everlasting things;
But earthly vapours cloud her sight,
And hang with cold oppressive weight
Upon her drooping wings."[1]

Christian joy!
This is Christian hedonism (a term coined by Piper in his 1986 book Desiring God) and Anne Steele understood this full well. Among her contemporaries were Jonathan Edwards (hubby of Sarah, who we discussed last week), and Jonathan himself spoke eloquently of this idea with these words,

“God created man for nothing else but happiness… for he created them that He might glorify Himself in this way, by making them blessed and communicate his goodness to them. [2]

It’s not a new idea that true joy comes from glorifying God. But it’s so hard to remember it, isn’t it? We will not be glad until we glorify God. No amount of chasing after comfort, pleasure, experience will provide true joy!

Anne Steele’s joy, contentment and peace came as she reflected on God’s grace, goodness and power. She lived in almost constant pain, being ill with malaria for most of her life. She became famous because of her prolific hymn writing and these hymns (which you have probably sung) testify to her great faith in God’s providence, sovereignty and mercy, shown especially in Christ. Many of her hymns and letters are recorded in Sharon James’ book, and they are wonderfully encouraging.

Joy in suffering
I was especially encouraged by Anne’s attitude to illness. She demonstrated that “even in suffering, a Christian can experience true happiness and contentment.” [3]

"Perhaps if our path were always smooth and easy and we met with no cold storms or distressing accidents we should be ready to sit down or at least loiter by the way, and be forgetful of our journey’s end” [4]

She exemplified a verse that my bible study looked at just this morning …
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”(2 Corinthians 1:4).

Anne saw her sufferings as an opportunity to sharpen her focus on heaven and she used her experiences to compose many hymns about suffering in the Christian life.

Joy in Singleness
The extracts of her written communication with her half-sister were a testimony to her love of singleness! She was more than content with her circumstances and felt that “… wives give up their freedom in one fatal day” She enjoyed the freedom that her singleness afforded her, freedom to express her gift of writing (in hymns and literature) in an age where married women would not have been able.

This attitude and her attitude to many other things, challenged me to be more content with my circumstances. She was content with what God had given her, not looking at the greener grass in someone else’s pasture!

Joy in Him
Surely this contentment came from knowing that her ‘chief end was to glorify God and enjoy Him forever’ and she was zealous that others know this also! She wrote to her niece one New Year’s Eve …

My Dear Polly,
… I wish for you, my dear, a happy Eternity! The only way to it is by the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, as you read in your Bible, ‘Whom to know is Life Eternal’. O that your mind may be early improved by divine Grace with a sense of your need of this almighty Saviour and that you may be enabled to believe in him and obey him …
Your truly affectionate aunt”[5]

[1] Quoted by Sharon James, p.161
[2] The works of Jonathan Edwards, vol 14,ed. Kenneth P. Minkema (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 146
[3] James, p. 148
[4] Quoted in James, In Trouble and In Joy, p. 140.
[5] Quoted in James, In Trouble and in Joy, p. 164

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