Book Review: In Trouble and In Joy

In trouble and in joy_dpThe first part of the title of In Trouble and In Joy: Four Women Who Lived for God by Sharon James comes from a line in a hymn by Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady:

Through all the changing scenes of life,
In trouble and in joy,
The praises of my God shall still
My heart and tongue employ.

The four women Sharon James writes about in this book exemplify that truth: in varying degrees of trouble and joy, they lived for God.

Margaret Baxter was a rebellious, glamorous, well-to-do teen-ager who became a Christian under the preaching of her Puritan pastor, Richard Baxter. Though he was twice her age, Margaret fell in love with him, and in time her feelings were reciprocated, and they married. The union was a step down for Margaret financially (Richard took care to arrange their finances in such a way that he did not have access to her money so it would not be thought he married her for her money) and socially, but  she had found her purpose in life and blossomed. This was a time when “Non-conformists” were persecuted, and when Richard was imprisoned for a while, Margaret voluntarily joined him. Both were, like all the rest of us, very human. Margaret was known for being generous, cheerful (Mrs. James notes, “It is simply not true that the Puritans went around looking miserable. Indeed, Richard Baxter wrote, “Keep company with the more cheerful sort of the godly; there is no mirth like the mirth of believers'” [p. 49]), industrious, competent, capable, patient, supportive — and anxious, fearful, perfectionist, and over-zealous. Yet she was aware of and grieved by her faults, and it was her desire to live a holy life for God.

Sarah Edwards had eleven children as the wife of Jonathan Edwards in the early 1700s. The Edwards were known for their “uncommon union,” their great love and respect for each other, and Sarah’s hospitality. Sarah thrived as a wife and mother, but the Edwards’ faced their share of difficulty as well when Jonathan was dismissed from the church where he pastored and some of their children died.

Anne Steele lived in a small English village in the 1700s, never married, suffered from poor health most of her life (with what is thought now to have been malaria), published two volumes of hymns and poems, and was known for her cheerfulness and faith. It was expected at that time that young women would marry and have a family, and there is some correspondence of teasing between Anne and her sister about Anne’s unmarried state even though the sister admitted her life was not all rosy.

Frances Ridley Havergal lived in the Victorian 1800s and is best known as the writer of hymns such as “Take My Life and Let It Be” and “Like a River Glorious.” Her father was a pastor and she was very active in the ministry of the church, thriving in personal work, one-on-one discussions with others about the gospel and spiritual truth. When her father died, her step-mother made unusual demands and seemed to even be mentally unstable, but Frances did her best to honor her. She did travel a lot and kept running, amusing accounts of her experiences: letters from her travels to Switzerland were gathered together in a book titled Swiss Letters.  She turned down several proposals of marriage, though she “once wrote of the sense of ‘general heart-loneliness and need of a one and special love…and the belief that my life is to be a lonely one in that respect…I do so long for the love of Jesus to be poured in, as a real and satisfying compensation'” (pp. 193-194). She was a prolific writer of hymns and books. She “loved life, enjoyed people, revelled in nature, and laughed a lot” (p. 200).

The book deals with each woman individually, detailing her historical setting, the story of her life, her character and significance, and excerpts from her writing. Mrs. James’ style of writing is somewhat academic, more like teaching a class than telling a story: that’s not a bad thing, but I had picked up this book because I had read and enjoyed her earlier one, My Heart In His Hands about Ann Judson, and I don’t remember it being quite that way, though it has been years since I read it.

I didn’t agree with all of Mrs. James’ conclusions about why the women did what they did or the few things for which she criticized them: for example, she faults some of the women for not being more socially active. She wrote of Frances: “Although she was always ready to give benevolent help on an individual level, there is little evidence that Frances had strong feelings about the blatant social and political inequalities of that time” (p. 201). Some of us feel that dealing with individual hearts, resulting in a true heart change, will take care of the larger issues, and that Christians are called to share the gospel and make disciples, not necessarily battle the culture itself (though it’s not wrong to fight social ills). Mrs. James does go on to say of Frances, “And yet the ‘limiting’ of her vision to gospel issues meant that she was extraordinarily focused. Her mental and spiritual energies were not diffused into many different areas,” allowing a greater concentration on vital issues of “salvation, consecration, and worship” (p. 201). These women had their hands full enough with what they did do to warrant criticism for what they didn’t do.

I did appreciate Mrs. James research, insight, and masterful compilation of the details of these women’s lives. There is much about each woman’s  life to instruct Christian women. To give just one example, one of Frances’s letters tells of the hostility and “appalling service” she received at an inn in Switzerland. Where most of us would be fuming and calling for the manager, Frances reacted patiently and finally said to the angry, spiteful woman, “You are not happy. I know that you’re not.” the woman was startled, “tamed…made a desperate effort not to cry” and listened while Frances spoke to her “quite plainly and solemnly about Jesus.” She received a tract, promised to read it, and thanked Frances over and over. Frances concluded, “Was it not worth getting out of the groove of one’s usual comforts and civilities?” (pp. 250-251). I have to confess that was a rebuke to me: I rarely think of such situations as a means of service to others.

Mrs. James concludes:

They had different personalities and varied situations, but each of these four women lived focused lives, wanting to praise God through days of trouble as well as joy. As is true of many women, they had to juggle all sorts of responsibilities. Pursuing holiness did not mean running away from these responsibilities: it involved living every day wholeheartedly for God (p. 253).

(This review will be linked to Semicolon’s Saturday Review of books and Callapidder Days’ Spring Reading Thing Reviews.)

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: In Trouble and In Joy

  1. I hope I didn’t make it sound uninteresting, Sally. If you like biographies (and I do) you’d like it.

    Sorry about the length. 🙂 Believe it or not, I didn’t even say everything I had in mind.

  2. this sounds like a fascinating book… i really love reading about the saints that have come before, as we can learn so much from them! i especially liked this quote that you cited:
    “Richard Baxter wrote, “Keep company with the more cheerful sort of the godly; there is no mirth like the mirth of believers’”

    i may actually use that on my own blog, if you don’t mind☺

  3. I’ve been looking forward to this review. What an ambitious book — 4 biographies combined.

    I can’t help thinking of Gary Thomas’s ‘Sacred Pathways’ when you discuss the author’s complaint about lack of social activism. “Aha,” I say to myself, “The author must be an ‘activist’ temperament!” 🙂 We do have that reflex to judge others according to our own most natural way of knowing God.

  4. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: June 6, 2009 at Semicolon

  5. Pingback: Spring Reading Thing 2009 Wrap-Up « Stray Thoughts

  6. Pingback: Semicolon » Blog Archive » Hymn #62: Take My Life and Let It Be

  7. Pingback: 31 Days of Inspirational Biography: Frances Ridley Havergal’s Response to a Rude Waitress | Stray Thoughts

  8. Pingback: 31 Days of Inspirational Biography: Margaret Baxter, Puritan Wife Of Like Passions As We Are | Stray Thoughts

  9. Pingback: 31 Days of Inspirational Biography: A Short List of Several | Stray Thoughts

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