Perhaps you, like me, aren’t terribly familiar with the 19th century minister named Robert Lewis Dabney. Southern Presbyterians might recognize him as one of the most influential theologians of their tradition. Civil War buffs may be familiar with him as he was a chaplain in the war and, according to Wikipedia, the chief biographer of Stonewall Jackson. Duck Dynasty fans might recognize him as the pioneer that gave birth to Uncle Si’s sense of style.
In Dabney’s later years he suffered from a variety of ailments including the loss his eyesight and extremely painful kidney stones. His biography refers to them as urinary calculus, but for the best I can tell he had kidney stones stuck in his ureter. His doctor tried to pulverize the stones, but with technology as it was in the 19th century, this ultimately caused irreparable damage to his prostrate. Dabney describes his own pain in a letter, saying
Soon after I got through with it, the leading surgeons began to notice that lithotrity was followed in too many cases by hypertrophy of the prostate glands, resulting from the bruising, a permanent and incurable evil. It was precisely so in my case. The evil grew gradually for five years, causing increasing anguish, at times beyond description. Now, indeed, this constriction caused me ‘cystitis’ in good earnest This became worse and worse, until in January, 1890, it brought me to death’s door. One of the physicians gave me over to die at once. In the old States my death was reported, and my obituaries written and published.
The event apparently caused some fear in him because he wrote a letter to a friend named, Clement Read Vaughn. From what I can gather, Dabney’s letter expressed some fear that he would lose faith as he faced his impending death.
Vaughn’s response shows deep theological understanding and pastoral wisdom. It is the most profound, yet surprisingly simple, recipe for developing faith that I know of. I trust that as you and I find our faith assailed by the sufferings of this world, we will return to this sage advice and find refreshment for our souls.
… Do you remember, in the stress of your trial, how faith comes? Let me remind you, although you know it. You know we are sanctified through the truth. Sanctification is just the growth of the particular graces of the spirit, of which faith is one. Just here is where Christians make a great mistake. When they want more faith, or want to know whether the faith they have is the right sort of faith, instead of looking at the things to be believed, they turn their eyes inward and scrutinize their faith. They want to see something in their faith to trust in, something that will certify their faith. Of course, self-examination is all right, but not when it practically substitutes faith for our Lord, grace and righteousness. Even a great theological thinker is as apt to make that mistake when he has come into the practical stress of this awful world as a common Christian.
Now, suppose a traveler comes to a bridge, and he is in doubt about trusting himself to it What does he do to breed confidence in the bridge? He looks at the bridge; he gets down and examines it. He don’t stand at the bridge-head and turn his thoughts curiously in on his own mind to see if he has confidence in the bridge. If his examination of the bridge gives him a certain amount of confidence, and yet he wants more, how does he make his faith grow? Why, in the same way; he still continues to examine the bridge.
Now, my dear old man, let your faith take care of itself for awhile, and you just think of what you are allowed to trust in. Think of the Master’s power, think of his love; think how he is interested in the soul that searches for him, and will not be comforted until he finds him. Think of what he has done, his work. That blood of his is mightier than all the sins of all the sinners that ever lived. Don’t you think it will master yours? Think of his great righteousness; will it not avail for all you hope to gain? That great work is enough; it needs not to be supplemented; it meets every demand. It warrants you to come into the King’s very presence, assured of welcome, because you can come in the name of the King’s Son. That work of Christ is like a bankrupt for ten thousand dollars allowed to draw on the revenues of an empire to pay out. Think of the Master when you want your faith to grow.
Now, dear old friend, I have done to you just what I would want you to do to me if I were lying in your place. The great theologian, after all, is just like any other one of God’s children, and the simple gospel talked simply to him is just as essential to his comfort as it is to a milk-maid or to a plow-boy. May God giye you grace, not to lay too much stress on your faith, but to grasp the great ground of confidence, Christ, and all his work and all his personal fitness to be a sinner’s refuge. Faith is only an eye to see him. I have been praying that God would quiet your pains as you advance, and enable you to see the gladness of the gospel at every step. Good-bye. God be with you as he will. Think of the Bridge!Your brother, C R. V.
* For more on Dabney you can read The Life and Letters of R. L. Dabney as a .pdf. You will find this letter on page 479, (512 of the .pdf file)