In April, 1831, Charles Simeon was 71 years old. He had been the pastor of Trinity Church, Cambridge, England, for 49 years. He was asked one afternoon by his friend, Joseph Gurney, how he had surmounted persecution and outlasted all the great prejudice against him in his 49-year ministry. He said to Gurney:
My dear brother, we must not mind a little suffering for Christ’s sake. When I am getting through a hedge, if my head and shoulders are safely through, I can bear the pricking of my legs. Let us rejoice in the remembrance that our holy Head has surmounted all His suffering and triumphed over death. Let us follow Him patiently; we shall soon be partakers of His victory” (H.C.G. Moule, Charles Simeon, London: InterVarsity, 1948, 155f.).
Patience in Tribulation
So I have entitled this message, “Brothers, We Must Not Mind a Little Suffering.” I have a very definite biblical aim in choosing this theme and this man for our meditation. I want to encourage you all to obey Romans 12:12: “Be patient in tribulation.” I want you to see persecution and opposition and slander and misunderstanding and disappointment and self-recrimination and weakness and danger as the normal portion of faithful pastoral ministry. But I want you to see this in the life of a man who was a sinner like you and me, who was a pastor, and who, year after year, in his trials, “grew downward” in humility and upward in his adoration of Christ, and who did not yield to bitterness or to the temptation to leave his charge — for 54 years.
Escaping Emotional Fragility
What I have found — and this is what I want to be true for you as well — is that in my pastoral disappointments and discouragements there is a great power for perseverance in keeping before me the life of a man who surmounted great obstacles in obedience to God’s call by the power of God’s grace. I need very much this inspiration from another age, because I know that I am, in great measure, a child of my times. And one of the pervasive marks of our times is emotional fragility. I feel it as though it hung in the air we breathe. We are easily hurt. We pout and mope easily. We break easily. Our marriages break easily. Our faith breaks easily. Our happiness breaks easily. And our commitment to the church breaks easily. We are easily disheartened, and it seems we have little capacity for surviving and thriving in the face of criticism and opposition.
A typical emotional response to trouble in the church is to think, “If that’s the way they feel about me, then they can find themselves another pastor.” We see very few models today whose lives spell out in flesh and blood the rugged words, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you fall into various trials” (James 1:3). When historians list the character traits of the last third of twentieth century America, commitment, constancy, tenacity, endurance, patience, resolve and perseverance will not be on the list. The list will begin with an all-consuming interest in self-esteem. It will be followed by the subheadings of self-assertiveness, and self-enhancement, and self-realization. And if you think that you are not at all a child of your times just test yourself to see how you respond in the ministry when people reject your ideas.
We need help here. When you are surrounded by a society of emotionally fragile quitters, and when you see a good bit of this ethos in yourself, you need to spend time with people — whether dead of alive — whose lives prove there is another way to live. Scripture says, “Be imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:12). So I want to hold up for you the faith and the patience of Charles Simeon for your inspiration and imitation.
Simeon’s Life and Times
Let me orient you with some facts about his life and times. When Simeon was born in 1759, Jonathan Edwards had just died the year before. The Wesleys and Whitefield were still alive, and so the Methodist awakening was in full swing. Simeon would live for 77 years, from 1758 to 1836. So he lived through the American Revolution, the French Revolution and not quite into the decade of the telegraph and the railroad.
His father was a wealthy attorney, but no believer. We know nothing of his mother. She probably died early, so that he never knew her. At seven, he went to England’s premier boarding school, The Royal College of Eton. He was there for 12 years, and was known as a homely, fancy-dressing, athletic show off. The atmosphere was irreligious and degenerate in many ways. Looking back late in life, he said that he would be tempted to take the life of his son than to let him see the vice he had seen at Eton.
He said later he only knew one religious book besides the Bible in those twelve years, namely The Whole Duty of Man, a devotional book of the 17th century. Whitefield thought that book was so bad that once, when he caught an orphan with a copy of it in Georgia, he made him throw it in the fire. William Cowper said it was a “repository of self-righteous and pharisaical lumber.” That, in fact, would be a good description of Simeon’s life to that point.
How God Saved Him
At nineteen he went to Cambridge. And in the first four months God brought him from darkness to light. The amazing thing about this is that God did it against the remarkable odds of having no other Christian around. Cambridge was so destitute of evangelical faith that, even after he was converted, Simeon did not meet one other believer on campus for almost three years.
His conversion happened like this. Three days after he arrived at Cambridge on January 29, 1779, the Provost, William Cooke, announced that Simeon had to attend the Lord’s Supper. And Simeon was terrified. We can see, in retrospect, that this was the work of God in his life. He knew enough to know that it was very dangerous to eat the Lord’s Supper unworthily.
So he began desperately to read and to try to repent and make himself better. He began with The Whole Duty of Man but got no help. He passed through that first communion unchanged. But knew it wasn’t the last. He turned to a book by a Bishop Wilson on the Lord’s Supper. As Easter Sunday approached a wonderful thing happened.
Keep in mind that this young man had almost no preparation of the kind we count so important. He had no mother to nurture him. His father was an unbeliever. His boarding school was a godless and corrupt place. And his university was destitute of other evangelical believers, as far as he knew. He is nineteen years old, sitting in his dormitory room as Passion Week begins at the end of March, 1779.
Here is his own account of what happened.
In Passion Week, as I was reading Bishop Wilson on the Lord’s Supper, I met with an expression to this effect — “That the Jews knew what they did, when they transferred their sin to the head of their offering.” The thought came into my mind, What, may I transfer all my guilt to another? Has God provided an Offering for me, that I may lay my sins on His head? Then, God willing, I will not bear them on my own soul one moment longer. Accordingly I sought to lay my sins upon the sacred head of Jesus; and on the Wednesday began to have a hope of mercy; on the Thursday that hope increased; on the Friday and Saturday it became more strong; and on the Sunday morning, Easter-day, April 4, I awoke early with those words upon my heart and lips, ‘Jesus Christ is risen to-day! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’ From that hour peace flowed in rich abundance into my soul; and at the Lord’s Table in our Chapel I had the sweetest access to God through my blessed Saviour. (Moule, 25f)
Bearing Fruit Worthy of Repentance
The effect was immediate and dramatic. His well-known extravagance gave way to a life of simplicity. All the rest of his life he lived in simple rooms on the university campus, moving only once to larger quarters so that he could have more students for his conversation gatherings. When his brother left him a fortune, he turned it down and channeled all his extra income to religious and charitable goals. He began at once to teach his college servant girl his new biblical faith. When he went home for holidays he called the family together for devotions. His father never came, but his two brothers were both eventually converted. And in his private life he began to practice what in those days was known as “methodism” — strict discipline in prayer and meditation.
You can catch a glimpse of his zeal from this anecdote about his early rising for Bible study and prayer.
Early rising did not appeal to his natural tendency to self-indulgence, however, especially on dark winter mornings. . . . On several occasions he overslept, to his considerable chagrin. So he determined that if ever he did it again, he would pay a fine of half a crown to his “bedmaker” (college servant). A few days later, as he lay comfortably in his warm bed, he found himself reflecting that the good woman was poor and could probably do with half a crown. So, to overcome such rationalizations, he vowed that next time he would throw a guinea into the river. This [the story goes] he duly did, but only once, for guineas were scarce; he could not afford to use them to pave the river bed with gold. (Moule, 66)
The Call to Trinity Church, Cambridge
In spite of this disciplined approach to spiritual growth, Simeon’s native pride and impetuousness did not disappear overnight. We will see shortly that this was one of the thorns he would be plucking at for some time.
After three years, in January, 1782, Simeon received a fellowship at the university. This gave him a stipend and certain rights in the university. For example, over the next fifty years he was three times dean for a total of nine years, and once vice provost. But that was not his main calling. In May that year he was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church, and after a summer preaching interim in St. Edwards’ Church in Cambridge he was called to Trinity Church as vicar, or pastor. He preached his first sermon there November 10, 1782. And there he stayed for fifty-four years until his death November 13, 1836.
Simeon never married. I have found only one sentence about this fact. H.C.G. Moule said he “had deliberately and resolutely chosen the then necessary celibacy of a Fellowship that he might the better work for God at Cambridge” (Moule, 111). This too requires a special kind of endurance. Not many have it, and it is a beautiful thing when one finds it. Who knows how many men and women Simeon inspired with the possibility of celibacy and chastity because of his lifelong commitment to Christ and his church as an unmarried man.
I find it interesting that John Stott, who is also an evangelical Anglican and Cambridge grad, and long-time pastor and celibate, has a great admiration for Simeon and wrote the introduction for Multnomah Press’s collection of Simeon’s Sermons. Stott is a latter-day Simeon in other ways as well — for example, his social concern and his involvement in world evangelization through the Lausanne movement.
In his fifty-four years at Trinity Church, Simeon became a powerful force for evangelicalism in the Anglican church. His position at the university, with his constant influence on students preparing for the ministry, made him a great recruiter of young evangelicals for pulpits around the land. But not only around the land. He became the trusted advisor of the East India Company, and recommended most of the men who went out as chaplains, which is the way Anglicans could be missionaries to the East in those days.
Simeon had a great heart for missions. He was the spiritual father of the great Henry Martyn. He was the key spiritual influence in the founding of the Church Missionary Society, and was zealous in his labors for the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. In fact, on his death bed he was dictating a message to be given to the Society about his deep humiliation that the church has not done more to gather in the Jewish people.
A Preacher Without Labels
Probably most of all, Simeon exerted his influence through sustained biblical preaching year after year. This was the central labor of his life. He lived to place into the hands of King William the Fourth in 1833 the completed 21 volumes of his collected sermons.
This is the best place to go for researching Simeon’s theology. You can find his views on almost every key text in the Bible.
He did not want to be labeled a Calvinist or an Arminian. He wanted to be biblical through and through and give every text its due proportion, whether it sounded Arminian as it stands or Calvinistic. But he was known as an evangelical Calvinist, and rightly so. As I have read portions of his sermons on texts concerning election and effectual calling and perseverance he is uninhibited in his affirmation of what we would call the doctrines of grace. In fact he uses that phrase approvingly in his sermon on Romans 9:19–24 (Horae Homileticae, Vol. 15, p. 358).
But he had little sympathy for uncharitable Calvinists. In a sermon on Romans 9:16, he said,
Many there are who cannot see these truths [the doctrines of God’s sovereignty], who yet are in a state truly pleasing to God; yea many, at whose feet the best of us may be glad to be found in heaven. It is a great evil, when these doctrines are made a ground of separation one from another, and when the advocates of different systems anathematize each other. . . . In reference to truths which are involved in so much obscurity as those which relate to the sovereignty of God mutual kindness and concession are far better than vehement argumentation and uncharitable discussion (Horae Homileticae, Vol. 15, p. 357).
A Conversation with John Wesley
An example of how he lived out this counsel is seen in the way he conversed with the elderly John Wesley. He tells the story himself:
Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions. Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?
Yes, I do indeed.
And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?
Yes, solely through Christ.
But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?
No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.
Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?
What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?
And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?
Yes, I have no hope but in Him.
Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree. (Moule, 79–80)
But don’t take this to mean that Simeon pulled any punches when expounding biblical texts. He is very forthright in teaching what the Bible teaches and calling error by its real name. But he is jealous of not getting things out of balance.
He said that his invariable rule was “to endeavor to give to every portion of the word of God its full and proper force, without considering what scheme it favours, or whose system it is likely to advance” (Moule, 79). “My endeavor is to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there. I have a great jealousy on this head; never to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding” (Moule, 77).
He makes an observation that is true enough to sting every person who has ever been tempted to adjust Scripture to fit a system.
Of this he [speaking of himself in the third person] is sure, that there is not a decided Calvinist or Arminian in the world who equally approves of the whole of Scripture . . . who, if he had been in the company of St. Paul whilst he was writing his Epistles, would not have recommended him to alter one or other of his expressions.
But the author would not wish one of them altered; he finds as much satisfaction in one class of passages as another; and employs the one, he believes, as freely as the other. Where the inspired Writers speak in unqualified terms, he thinks himself at liberty to do the same; judging that they needed no instruction from him how to propagate the truth. He is content to sit as a learner at the feet of the holy Apostles and has no ambition to teach them how they ought to have spoken. (Moule, 79)
With that remarkable devotion to Scripture, Simeon preached in the same pulpit for fifty-four years. What drew me to him was his endurance — not just because of the length of time, and not just because it was in the same place for all that time, but also because it was through extraordinary opposition and trials.
The Unripe Self
That is what I want to turn to now. First his trials, and then finally, the resources that enabled him to press on to the end and not give up. How was he able to be “patient in tribulation”?
The most fundamental trial that Simeon had —and that we all have — was himself. He had a somewhat harsh and self-assertive air about him. One day, early in Simeon’s ministry, he was visiting Henry Venn, who was pastor 12 miles from Cambridge at Yelling. When he left to go home Venn’s daughters complained to their father about his manner. Venn took the girls to the back yard and said, “Pick me one of those peaches.” But it was early summer, and “the time of peaches was not yet.” They asked why he would want the green, unripe fruit. Venn replied, “Well, my dears, it is green now, and we must wait; but a little more sun, and a few more showers, and the peach will be ripe and sweet. So it is with Mr. Simeon.”
Simeon came to know himself and his sin very deeply. He described his maturing in the ministry as a growing downward. We will come back to this as the key to his great perseverance and success.
The Unwanted Vicar
The vicar of Trinity Church died in October, 1782, just as Charles Simeon was about to leave the university to live in his father’s home. Simeon had often walked by the church, he tells us, and said to himself, “How should I rejoice if God were to give me that church, that I might preach the Gospel there and be a herald for Him in the University” (Moule, 37). His dream came true when Bishop Yorke appointed him “curate-in-charge” (being only ordained a deacon at the time). His wealthy father had nudged the Bishop and the pastor at St. Edwards, where Simeon preached that summer, gave him an endorsement. He preached his first sermon there November 10, 1782.
But the parishioners did not want Simeon. They wanted the assistant curate Mr. Hammond. Simeon was willing to step out, but then the Bishop told him that even if he did decline the appointment he would not appoint Hammond. So Simeon stayed — for fifty-four years! And gradually — very gradually — overcame the opposition.
The first thing the congregation did in rebellion against Simeon was to refuse to let him be the Sunday afternoon lecturer. This was in their charge. It was like a second Sunday service. For five years they assigned the lecture to Mr. Hammond. Then when he left, instead of turning it over to their pastor of five years they gave it to another independent man for seven more years! Finally, in 1794, Simeon was chosen lecturer. Imagine serving for 12 years a church who were so resistant to your leadership they would not let you preach Sunday evenings, but hired as assistant to keep you out.
Simeon tried to start a later Sunday evening service and many townspeople came. But the churchwardens locked the doors while the people stood waiting in the street. Once Simeon had the doors opened by a locksmith, but when it happened again he pulled back and dropped the service.
The second thing the church did was to lock the pew doors on Sunday mornings. The pewholders refused to come and refused to let others sit in their personal pews. Simeon set up seats in the aisles and nooks and corners at his own expense. But the churchwardens took them out and threw them in the churchyard. When he tried to visit from house to house, hardly a door would open to him. This situation lasted at least ten years. The records show that in 1792 Simeon got a legal decision that the pewholders could not lock their pews and stay away indefinitely. But he didn’t use it. He let his steady, relentless ministry of the word and prayer and community witness gradually overcome the resistance.
But I mustn’t give the impression that all the troubles were over after the first 12 years. After years of peace, in 1812 (after he had been there 30 years!) there were again opponents in the congregation making the waters rough. He wrote to a friend, “I used to sail in the Pacific; I am now learning to navigate the Red Sea that is full of shoals and rocks.” Who of us would not have immediately concluded at age 53, after thirty years in one church that an upsurge of opposition is a sure sign to move on? But again he endured patiently and in 1816 he writes that peace had come and the church is better attended than ever.
Despised in His Own University
As the students made their way to Trinity Church, they were prejudiced against the pastor by the hostile congregation, and for years he was slandered with all kinds of rumors. Basically his enemies said that he was a bad man with a front of piety.
The students at Cambridge held Simeon in derision for his biblical preaching and his uncompromising stand as an evangelical. They repeatedly disrupted his services and caused a tumult in the streets. One observer wrote from personal experience, “For many years Trinity Church and the streets leading to it were the scenes of the most disgraceful tumults” (Moule, 58).
On one occasion a band of undergraduates determined to assault Simeon personally as he left the church after service. They waited by the usual exit for him, but providentially he took another way home that day.
Students who were converted and wakened by Simeon’s preaching were soon ostracized and ridiculed. They were called “Sims” — a term that lasted all the way to the 1860’s and their way of thinking was called derisively “Simeonism.”
But harder to bear than the insults of the students was the ostracism and coldness of his peers in the university. One of the Fellows scheduled Greek classes on Sunday night to prevent students from going to Simeon’s service. In another instance one of the students who looked up to Simeon was denied an academic prize because of his “Simeonism.”
Sometimes Simeon felt utterly alone at the university where he lived. He looked back on those early years and wrote, “I remember the time that I was quite surprised that a Fellow of my own College ventured to walk with me for a quarter of an hour on the grass-plot before Clare Hall; and for many years after I began my ministry I was ‘as a man wondered at,’ by reason of the paucity of those who showed any regard for true religion” (Moule, 59).
Even after he had won the respect of many, there could be grave mistreatment. For example, even as late as 1816 (34 years into his ministry) he wrote to a missionary friend, “Such conduct is observed towards me at this very hour by one of the Fellows of the College as, if practised by me, would set not the College only but the whole town and University in a flame” (Moule, 127).
Broken and Restored for Ministry in Old Age
In 1807, after twenty-five years of ministry, his health failed suddenly. His voice gave way so that preaching was very difficult and at times he could only speak in a whisper. After a sermon he would feel “more like one dead than alive.” This broken condition lasted for thirteen years, till he was sixty years old. In all this time Simeon pressed on in his work.
The way this weakness came to an end is remarkable and shows the amazing hand of God on this man’s life. He tells the story that in 1819 he was on his last visit to Scotland. As he crossed the border he says he was “almost as perceptibly revived in strength as the woman was after she had touched the hem of our Lord’s garment.” His interpretation of God’s providence in this begins back before his weakness. Up till then he had promised himself a very active life up to age sixty, and then a Sabbath evening. Now he seemed to hear his Master saying:
I laid you aside, because you entertained with satisfaction the thought of resting from your labour; but that now you have arrived at the very period when you had promised yourself that satisfaction, and have determined instead to spend your strength for me to the latest hour of your life, I have doubled, trebled, quadrupled your strength, that you may execute your desire on a more extended plan. (Moule, 127)
So at sixty years of age, Simeon renewed his commitment to his pulpit and the mission of the church and preached vigorously for 17 more years, until two months before his death.
The Roots of His Endurance
How did Simeon endure these trials without giving up or being driven out of his church? I will mention some of the many fruits of Simeon’s life that I think gave him such endurance and staying power. Then we will conclude by looking at Simeon’s inner life and its deepest root in the atoning work of Jesus on the cross.
Simeon had a strong sense of his accountability before God for the souls of his flock, whether they liked him or not.
In his first year in the pulpit he preached a sermon on this and said to the people standing in the aisles,
Remember the nature of my office, and the care incumbent on me for the welfare of your immortal souls. . . . Consider whatever may appear in my discourses harsh, earnest or alarming, not as the effects of enthusiasm, but as the rational dictates of a heart impressed with a sense both of the value of the soul and the importance of eternity. . . . By recollecting the awful consequences of my neglect, you will be more inclined to receive favorably any well-meant admonitions. (Moule, 46)
Fifteen years later he preached on the subject again. Years after this sermon, one of his friends told of how its power was still being felt. He said the pastor is like the keeper of a lighthouse. And he painted a vivid picture of a rocky coast strewn with dead and mangled bodies with the wailing of widows and orphans. He pictured the delinquent keeper being brought out and at last the answer given: Asleep. “Asleep!” The way he made this word burst on the ears of the hearers never let at least one of them ever forget what is at stake in the pastoral ministry.
It did not matter that his people were often against him. He was not commissioned by them, but by the Lord. And they were his responsibility. He believed Hebrews 13:17 — that he would one day have to give an account for the souls of his church.
Free from the Scolding Tone Even Through Controversy
How many times have we heard a pastor’s wounded pride or his personal anger at parishioners coming though his preaching! This is deadly for the ministry. Moule said of Simeon that his style of address in those early years of intense opposition was “totally free from that easy but fatal mistake of troubled pastors, the scolding accent” (Moule, 46).
Years after his conversion he said that his security in God gave him the capacity to be hopeful in the presence of other people even when burdened within: “With this sweet hope of ultimate acceptance with God, I have always enjoyed much cheerfulness before men; but I have at the same time laboured incessantly to cultivate the deepest humiliation before God” (William Carus, Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Charles Simeon, 1846, 519).
Joseph Gurney saw the same thing in Simeon for years and wrote, that in spite of Simeon’s private weeping, “it was one of his grand principles of action, to endeavor at all times to honor his Master by maintaining a cheerful happy demeanor in the presence of his friends” (Moule, 157).
He had learned the lesson of Matthew 6:17–18, “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret.”
Simeon was no rumor-tracker.
Not a Rumor-Tracker
He was like Charles Spurgeon who gave a lecture to his students entitles “The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear.” The pastor must have one blind eye and one deaf ear, and turn that eye and that ear to the rumors that would incense him.
Simeon was deeply wronged in 1821. We are not given the details. But when he was asked about his response (which had, evidently been non-retaliatory) he said, “My rule is — never to hear, or see, or know, what if heard, or seen, or known, would call for animadversion from me. Hence it is that I dwell in peace in the midst of lions” (Moule, 191).
We would do well not to be curious about what others are saying. Nothing makes me want to tune someone out more quickly than when they begin a sentence, “A lot of people are saying . . .”
Dealing with Opponents in a Forthright, Face-to-Face Way
In 1810, a man named Edward Pearson accused Simeon of setting too high a standard of holiness in his preaching. This criticism was made public in pamphlets. Simeon wrote to Pearson and said,
Persons who have the same general design, but differ in some particular modes of carrying it into execution, often stand more aloof from each other than they do from persons whose principles and conduct they entirely disapprove. Hence prejudice arises and a tendency to mutual crimination; whereas, if they occasionally conversed for half an hour with each other, they would soon rectify their mutual misapprehensions, and concur in aiding, rather than undermining, the efforts of each other for the public good. (Moule, 126–127)
It is remarkable, as Simeon said, how much evil can be averted by doing things face to face. We attempt far too much fence-mending by letter and even by phone. There is something mysteriously powerful about the peacemaking potentials of personal face-to-face conversation. It did not spare Simeon years of criticism, but it was surely one of the means God used to overcome the opposition in the long run.
Receiving Rebuke and Growing from It
This is utterly essential to survive and thrive in the ministry — the ability to absorb and profit from criticism. From the Lord and from man. You recall how he interpreted his 13-year weakness from age 47 to 60 as a rebuke from the Lord for his intention to retire at sixty. He took it well, and gave himself with all his might to the work till he died. At seventy-six he wrote, “Through mercy I am, for ministerial service, stronger than I have been at any time this thirty years . . . preaching at seventy-six with all the exuberance of youth . . . but looking for my dismission [i.e. death] daily” (Moule, 162). He was not embittered by a thirteen-year rebuke. He was impelled by it.
It was the same with rebukes from men. If these rebukes came from his enemies, his sentiment was the sentiment of James 1:2. He said, “If I suffer with a becoming spirit, my enemies, though unwittingly, must of necessity do me good” (Moule, 39).
But his friends rebuked him as well. For example, he had the bad habit of speaking as if he were very angry about mere trifles. One day at a Mr. Hankinson’s house he became so irritated at how the servant was stoking the fire that he gave him a swat on the back to get him to stop. Then when he was leaving, the servant got a bridle mixed up, and Simeon’s temper broke out violently against the man.
Well, Mr. Hankinson wrote a letter as if from his servant and put it in Simeon’s bag to be found later. In it he said that he did not see how a man who preached and prayed so well could be in such a passion about nothing and wear no bridle on his tongue. He signed it “John Softly.”
Simeon responded (on April 12, 1804) directly to the servant with the words, “To John Softly, from Charles, Proud and Irritable: I most cordially thank your, my dear friend for your kind and seasonable reproof.” Then he wrote to his friend, Mr. Hankinson, “I hope, my dearest brother, that when you find your soul nigh to God, you will remember one who so greatly needs all the help he can get” (Moule, 147).
We will see the root of this willingness to be humbled in just a moment.
Unimpeachable in His Finances with No Love of Money
In other words, he gave his enemies no foothold when it came to lifestyle and wealth. He lived as a single man simply in his rooms at the university and gave all his excess income to the poor of the community. He turned down the inheritance of his rich brother. Moule said he had “a noble indifference to money.” And his active involvement with the relief for the poor in the area went a long way to overcoming the prejudices against him. It is hard to be the enemy of a person who is full of practical good deeds. “It is God’s will that by doing good you put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Peter 2:15).
Seeing Discouraging Things Hopefully
When the members of his congregation locked their pews and kept them locked for over ten years, Simeon said,
In this state of things I saw no remedy but faith and patience. The passage of Scripture which subdued and controlled my mind was this, ‘The servant of the Lord must not strive.’ It was painful indeed to see the church, with the exception of the aisles, almost forsaken; but I thought that if God would only give a double blessing to the congregation that did attend, there would on the whole be as much good done as if the congregation were doubled and the blessing limited to only half the amount. This comforted me many, many times, when, without such a reflection, I should have sunk under my burden. (Moule, 39)
One illustration of the truth of Simeon’s confidence is the story of one of his preaching trips to Scotland. He happened to visit the home of a minister named Stewart who was not truly converted and was quite miserable. Through the personal life and witness of Simeon Mr. Stewart was transformed and for 15 years afterward was powerful for the gospel.
One of the couples who said later that they “owed their own selves” to the new preaching of Mr. Stewart were the parents of Alexander Duff. They brought up their son in the full faith of the gospel and with a special sense of dedication to the service of Christ. Duff, in turn, became one of the great Scottish missionaries to India for over fifty years. So it is true that you never know when the Lord may give a double blessing on your ministry to a small number and multiply it thirty- sixty- or a hundredfold even after you are dead and gone. This confidence kept Simeon going more than once.
Suffering as a Privilege of Bearing the Cross with Christ.
One striking witness to this was during a time when the university was especially cold and hostile to him. He reflected on his own name “Simeon” which is the same as Simon who was compelled to bear the cross for Jesus. And he exclaimed about that text: “What a word of instruction was here — what a blessed hint for my encouragement! To have the cross laid upon me, that I might bear it after Jesus — what a privilege! It was enough. Now I could leap and sing for joy as one whom Jesus was honoring with a participation of His sufferings.” (Moule, 59–60)
We recall his words when he was 71 and Joseph Gurney asked him how he had surmounted his persecution for 49 years. He said, “My dear brother, we must not mind a little suffering for Christ’s sake.”
The Deepest Root of Simeon’s Endurance
But where now did this remarkable power and fruit come from? This is not an ordinary way of seeing things. This is not an ordinary way of life. What was the root of all this fruit. We get a step closer to it when we notice that . . .
A friend of Simeon’s named Housman lived with him for a few months and tells us about this discipline. “Simeon invariably arose every morning, though it was the winter season, at four o’clock; and, after lighting his fire, he devoted the first four hours of the day to private prayer and the devotional study of the Scriptures . . . . Here was the secret of his great grace and spiritual strength. Deriving instruction from such a source, and seeking it with such diligence, he was comforted in all his trials and prepared for every duty” (Moule, p. 66).
Yes it was the secret of his strength. But it was not the deepest secret. What Simeon experienced in the word was remarkable. And it is so utterly different from the counsel that we receive today that it is worth looking at, in conclusion.
Growing Downward in Humiliation Before God, Upward in Adoration of Christ
Handley Moule captures the essence of Simeon’s secret of longevity in this sentence: “‘Before honor is humility,’ and he had been ‘growing downwards’ year by year under the stern discipline of difficulty met in the right way, the way of close and adoring communion with God” (Moule, 64). Those two things were the heartbeat of Simeon’s inner life: growing downward in humility and growing upward in adoring communion with God.
But the remarkable thing about humiliation and adoration in the heart of Charles Simeon is that they were inseparable. Simeon was utterly unlike most of us today who think that we should get rid once and for all of feelings of vileness and unworthiness as soon as we can. For him, adoration only grew in the freshly plowed soil of humiliation for sin. So he actually labored to know his true sinfulness and his remaining corruption as a Christian.
I have continually had such a sense of my sinfulness as would sink me into utter despair, if I had not an assured view of the sufficiency and willingness of Christ to save me to the uttermost. And at the same time I had such a sense of my acceptance through Christ as would overset my little bark, if I had not ballast at the bottom sufficient to sink a vessel of no ordinary size. (Moule 134)
The Ballast of Humiliation
He never lost sight of the need for the heavy ballast of his own humiliation. After he had been a Christian forty years he wrote,
With this sweet hope of ultimate acceptance with God, I have always enjoyed much cheerfulness before men; but I have at the same time laboured incessantly to cultivate the deepest humiliation before God. I have never thought that the circumstance of God’s having forgiven me was any reason why I should forgive myself; on the contrary, I have always judged it better to loathe myself the more, in proportion as I was assured that God was pacified towards me (Ezekiel 16:63). . . . There are but two objects that I have ever desired for these forty years to behold; the one is my own vileness; and the other is, the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ: and I have always thought that they should be viewed together; just as Aaron confessed all the sins of all Israel whilst he put them on the head of the scapegoat. The disease did not keep him from applying to the remedy, nor did the remedy keep him from feeling the disease. By this I seek to be, not only humble and thankful, but humbled in thankfulness, before my God and Saviour continually. (Carus, 303–304.)
If Simeon is right, vast portions of contemporary Christianity are wrong. And I can’t help wondering whether one of the reasons we are emotionally capsized so easily today — so vulnerable to winds of criticism or opposition — is that in the name of forgiveness and grace, we have thrown the ballast overboard.
Simeon’s boat drew a lot of water. But it was steady and on course and the mastheads were higher and the sails bigger and more full of the Spirit than most people’s today who talk continuously about self-esteem.
Ballast Below, Full Sails Above — at the Same Time
Simeon’s missionary friend Thomason writes about a time in 1794 when a friend of Simeon’s named Marsden entered his room and found Simeon “so absorbed in the contemplation of the Son of God, and so overpowered with a display of His mercy to his soul, that he was incapable of pronouncing a single word,” till at length, he exclaimed, “Glory, glory.” But a few days later Thomason himself found Simeon at the hour of the private lecture on Sunday scarcely able to speak, “from a deep humiliation and contrition.”
Moule comments that these two experiences are not the alternating excesses of an ill-balanced mind. Rather they are “the two poles of a sphere of profound experience” (Moule, 135). For Simeon, adoration of God grew best in the plowed soil of his own contrition.
Simeon had no fear of turning up every sin in his life and looking upon with great grief and hatred, because he had such a vision of Christ’s sufficiency that this would always result in deeper cleansing and adoration.
Humiliation and adoration were inseparable. He wrote to Mary Elliott, the sister of the writer of the hymn “Just as I Am,”
I would have the whole of my experience one continued sense — first, of my nothingness, and dependence on God; second, of my guiltiness and desert before Him; third, of my obligations to redeeming love, as utterly overwhelming me with its incomprehensible extent and grandeur. Now I do not see why any one of these should swallow up another. (Moule, 160–161.)
As an old man he said, “I have had deep and abundant cause for humiliation, [but] I have never ceased to wash in that fountain that was opened for sin and uncleanness, or to cast myself upon the tender mercy of my reconciled God” (Carus, 518f).
He was convinced that biblical doctrines “at once most abase and most gladden the soul” (Moule, 67). He spoke once to the Duchess de Broglie when he made a visit to the continent. He comments later “[I] opened to her my views of the Scripture system . . . and showed her that brokenness of heart is the key to the whole” (Moule, 96).
“My Proper Place”
He actually fled for refuge to the place which we today try so hard to escape.
Repentance is in every view so desirable, so necessary, so suited to honor God, that I seek that above all. The tender heart, the broken and contrite spirit, are to me far above all the joys that I could ever hope for in this vale of tears. I long to be in my proper place, my hand on my mouth, and my mouth in the dust. . . . I feel this to be safe ground. Here I cannot err. . . . I am sure that whatever God may despise . . . He will not despise the broken and contrite heart. (Moule, 133) When he was old and could look on much success, he wrote to a friend on the fiftieth anniversary of his work, “But I love the valley of humiliation. I there feel that I am in my proper place” (Moule, 159).
In the last months of his life he wrote, “In truth, I love to see the creature annihilated in the apprehension, and swallowed up in God; I am then safe, happy, triumphant” (Moule, 162).
Why? Why is this evangelical humiliation a place of happiness for Simeon? Listen to the benefits he sees in this kind of experience:
By constantly meditating on the goodness of God and on our great deliverance from that punishment which our sins have deserved, we are brought to feel our vileness and utter unworthiness; and while we continue in this spirit of self-degradation, everything else will go on easily. We shall find ourselves advancing in our course; we shall feel the presence of God; we shall experience His love; we shall live in the enjoyment of His favour and in the hope of His glory. . . . You often feel that your prayers scarcely reach the ceiling; but, oh, get into this humble spirit by considering how good the Lord is, and how evil you all are, and then prayer will mount on wings of faith to heaven. The sigh, the groan of a broken heart, will soon go through the ceiling up to heaven, aye, into the very bosom of God. (Moule, 137)
Enjoy the Cross
So my conclusion is that the secret of Charles Simeon’s perseverance was that he never threw overboard the heavy ballast of his own humiliation for sin and that this helped keep his masts erect and his sails full of the spirit of adoration.
I love simplicity; I love contrition. . . . I love the religion of heaven; to fall on our faces while we adore the Lamb is the kind of religion which my soul affects. (Moule, 83)
As he lay dying in October of 1836, a friend sat by his bed and asked what he was thinking of just then. He answered, “I don’t think now; I am enjoying.”
He grew downward in the pain of contrition and he grew upward in the joy of adoration. And the weaving together of these two experiences into one is the achievement of the cross of Christ and the deepest secret of Simeon’s great perseverance.