In April 1831 Charles Simeon, was asked by his friend Joseph Gurney, how he had outlasted all the prejudice against and throughout his ministry. He had already served 49 years in Trinity Church in Cambridge and would go on to serve another six before his death at age 77.
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; for we shall soon be partakers of His victory” (H.C.G. Moule, Charles Simeon, London: InterVarsity, 1948, 155f.).
Charles Simeon had every human reason to be a bitter man. He spent 54 years as the minister at Trinity Church at Cambridge, but for the first 10 years of his tenure, his congregation locked the pews and sometimes even the church, to keep him out and to keep him from preaching.
The pew-holders 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.
In 1812 (after he had been there 30 years!) there were still opponents in the congregation making the waters rough.
Who of us would not have concluded at age 53 and after thirty years in one church that such opposition was a sure sign to move on?
He was never married. Was maligned, accused, disappointed – not to mention frustrated at his own persistent sins.
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 stirred the people in the streets to create chaos. Students who were converted by Simeon’s preaching were soon ostracised and ridiculed. They were called “Sims” and accused of “Simeonism.”
Unsurprisingly, Charles felt utterly alone at the university where he lived.
But perhaps the most fundamental trial that Simeon had, one that we all experience, was himself. He had a bad temper and was known for his violent and aggressive outbursts.
One day, early in Simeon’s ministry, he was visiting Henry Venn, who was pastor 12 miles from Cambridge at Yelling.
When Simeon left to go home, Venn’s daughters complained to their father about his manner. Venn took the girls to the backyard 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; yet a little more sun, and a few more showers, and the peach will be ripe and sweet. So it is with Mr Simeon.”
And, so it is with each of us.
Simeon had to endure years of rejection and a lifetime of suspicious looks. He had to endure false accusation, isolation, and most of all, his own sinful nature.
As an old man, Charles looked back on those 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 lawn before Clare Hall.” (Moule, 59).
How would we fair, after 10, 20 or 30 years of ministry – or marriage, or work, and be able – without bitterness – to remember that day when we enjoyed 15 minutes of pleasant conversation? Who would not be bitter?
But, by His grace, God kept Simeon from bitterness.
What was the key? Many of his friends believed it was his contrition. His deep sense of sinfulness and humiliation.
Simeon once said,
“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.”
There are shades of Ezekiel in his statement.
Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign Lord. (Ezekiel 16:63)
Some have an aversion to self-loathing. Some feel that the best way to deal with their weakness is to say and do nothing – or else – transform their weakness into an opportunity for sympathising victimhood; “I am this way because of the people and circumstances around me.”
Simeon had no fear of turning up every sin in his life and looking upon it with great grief and hatred because he had such a vision of Christ’s sufficiency that this would always result in greater purity, grace and adoration.
Repentance is in every view so desirable, so necessary, so suited to honour 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, 133f)
For Simeon, the more he saw, confessed and experienced humiliation for his sin, the brighter, the more beautiful and the more necessary was the assurance of God’s grace.
And so it is with us. Our growth in grace is often paved, not with sunshine and buttercups, but with suffering, persecution and a growing awareness of our own sin.
But where sin and suffering abound, there God’s grace abounds all the more.