Book Review: The Crook in the Lot, by Thomas Boston
Thomas Boston, The Crook in the Lot: What to Believe When Our Lot in Life Is Not Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Banner of Truth, 2017. 168 pps, $8.00.
As pastors, we see the universal nature of suffering up-close. In the last few years, members in our congregation have experienced the sudden death of loved ones, protracted health challenges, deep bouts of depression, broken marriages, and financial poverty. The reality is that if you’re caring for Christ’s sheep in a world so deeply marred by sin, you’ll necessarily see pain and brokenness.
Yet afflictions aren’t new to our age. Puritans such as Thomas Boston knew great suffering. For example, he spent time as a child laying in prison to keep his father from loneliness while his father served a sentence for holding fast to Puritan principles. As an adult, he buried six of his ten children and saw his wife suffer with mental illness. While some of his comments about affliction and God’s sovereignty amidst pain will inevitably be difficult for some to swallow, no one can accuse Boston of being aloof. He writes about suffering not with the abstract theories of an academic, but as a man who knew both hardship and his God firsthand.
The title The Crook in the Lot likely doesn’t make sense to modern readers. As Ian Hamilton’s forward helpfully makes clear, “By ‘lot,’ Boston means our ‘lot in life,’ the shape of our lives as they are styled by God’s many provinces. By ‘crook,’ he means those unforeseen troubles (‘thorns’) that afflict, unsettle, or disturb us in any way” (viii). In Boston’s words, “The crook in the lot is adversity, continued for shorter or longer time” (6). In essence, Boston is writing as a pastor about the purposes and plans of God through hardships in our lives.
The book is divided into three different expositions. First, Boston exposits Ecclesiastes 7:13: “Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?” Within this first exposition, Boston puts forward three sub-points of doctrine: (i) Whatsoever crook there is in one’s lot, it is of God’s making; (ii) What God sees fit to mar, one will not be able to mend his lot; (iii) The considering of the crook in the lot, as the work of God, or of his making, is a proper means to bring one to a Christian deportment under it.
Second, Boston exposits Proverbs 16:19: “Better it is to be of a humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.” Boston’s doctrinal statement for this verse is as follows: “There is a generation of lowly afflicted ones, having their spirit lowered and brought down to their lot, whose case, in that respect, is better than that of the proud getting their will, and carrying all to their mind.”
Third, Boston unpacks 1 Peter 5:6: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.” Within this exposition, Boston outlines a few points of doctrine: (i) The bent of one’s heart in humbling circumstances should lie toward a suitable humbling of the spirit, as under God’s mighty hand placing us in them; (ii) There is a due time, wherein those that now humble themselves under the mighty hand of God will certainly be lifted up.
LESSONS FOR PASTORS TODAY
1. Preach God’s Sovereignty
In an effort to make God seem more palatable, some ministers excuse God from any connection to our suffering. While an extreme version of this is open theism, a more moderate and common version pits man’s freedom against God’s sovereignty. Yet Boston, reflecting Scripture, is emphatic that God is sovereign even over the suffering we face: “It is evident, from the Scripture’s doctrine of divine providence, that God brings about every man’s lot, and all the parts thereof. He sits at the helm of human affairs, and turns them about whithersoever he lists” (16).
God not only brings about the circumstances of mankind; his will cannot be changed: “God hath, by an eternal decree, immovable as mountains of brass (Zech. 6:1), appointed the whole of everyone’s lot, the crooked parts thereof, as well as the straight” (17). And yet, just as Boston is forcefully preaching God’s complete sovereignty over all that occurs, like a good preacher he anticipates the objection that this teaching somehow makes God responsible for sin. Boston forcefully rejects this: “For there is a holy and wise providence that governs the sinful and the heedless actions of men, as a rider does a lame horse, of whose halting, not he, but the horse’s lameness, is the true and proper cause” (17). If God created the universe, conquered death, and defeated sin, then he does not need us to defend him. He is perfectly capable of winning the hearts of those he pursues. When we shy away from Scripture’s message about God’s sovereignty in an effort to make God more palatable, we break the first commandment by creating a false god.
2. Teach About Ways God Uses Suffering.
God isn’t just sovereign over trials; he’s also at work in them. While much of the book is dedicated to unpacking the many ways God works through hardships, Boston provides seven specific examples of how God uses suffering (22–30). They are as follows:
(1) The trial of one’s state. God uses trials to help show whether someone is a Christian or not. If a man cannot ultimately submit to God and the crook God allowed in his lot, then it calls into question his conversion.
(2) Excitation to duty. Trials push us to abandon ultimate hope in this life, press into sanctification, and trust in God. As Boston said in a subsequent section, “He may easily perceive the general design thereof to be to wean him from this world, and move him to seek and take up his heart’s rest in God” (34).
(3) Conviction of Sin. Later, Boston said, “There are many now in heaven, who are blessing God for the crook they had in their lot here” (38–39).
(4) Correction or punishment for sin.
(5) Preventing of sin. Trials can show us how empty and vain sin is, thereby reducing our affection for sin.
(6) Discovery of latent corruption. “The crook in the lot raises up from the bottom, and brings out such corruption as otherwise one could hardly imagine to be within” (28).
(7) The exercise of grace in the children of God.
It’s so important for pastors to teach their people how God works in suffering. Little else will help to reorient our perspective of it. So, brother pastor, in your teaching, praying, and discipleship, do you present God as so sovereign over suffering that he is working even amidst life’s painful circumstances? Do you present godliness as of greater value than an absence of suffering? Or do you feel the need to apologize for God that people’s circumstances are not as they wish?
3. Teach about Humility.
Humility is a virtue much talked about yet little sought after, but Boston argues it is more valuable than prosperity: “It is of far greater concern for us to get our spirits brought down than our outward condition raised” (83). As I read this statement, I thought to myself “nobody believes this today.” Boston, as a pastor aware of the human condition, followed these words with this question: “But who believes this?” (83) He proceeds to teach what faithful pastors today should teach, that is, exactly how humility grows out of a proper view of ourselves in light of God. This requires seeing the ways the law shows us our sin and utterly crushes us: “Viewing themselves in the glass of the divine law and perfection, they see themselves as a mass of imperfection and sinfulness (Job 42:5, 6)” (70). This sense of sin coupled with a sight of God’s greatness helps cultivate a Christian humility: “Be much in the thoughts of God’s infinite greatness; consider his holiness and majesty, fit to awe you into deepest humiliation” (103).
Boston also highlights how humility endures trials and vindicates God. Even amidst suffering, he notes that the humble “justify God, and condemn themselves” (71). In contrast, “The proud heart and will, unable to submit to the cross, or to bear to be controlled, rises up against it, and fights for the mastery, with its whole force of unmortified passions” (75). Even though it goes against everything our sinful hearts desire and our Western culture exalts, pastors should teach and model a trust in God that surpasses a desire to experience prosperity.
4. Teach about the Universality of Suffering.
The Bible isn’t simplistic when it comes to suffering. Boston, echoing its nuanced understanding, points out that there are many types of suffering and many causes of suffering. Moreover, he emphasizes that hardship is universal and there is no escaping it in this world. This is an important message for pastors to sound because of the way the human heart can imagine that someone else’s lot is free from suffering. Boston writes, “Everybody’s lot in this world has some crook in it. Complainers are apt to make odious comparisons: they look about, and taking a distant view of the condition of others, can discern nothing in it but what is straight, and just to one’s wish; so they pronounce their neighbour’s lot wholly straight. But that is a false verdict; there is no perfection here; no lot out of heaven without a crook” (4).
Pastors, consider asking brothers and sisters whose lives seem free from trials to share about the ways hardship mars their existence. Likewise, model asking for prayer to persevere through trials, especially those that might not be obvious. Since all of life involves suffering, we will never escape it. Our congregation needs to be reminded of this over and over again. We’ll always be waiting for deliverance from the crook in our lot: “The whole life of a Christian is such a praying, waiting life, to encourage whereunto all temporal deliverances are given as pledges” (126).
5. Know Your Old Testament.
Boston’s extensive knowledge of the Old Testament is one of the most striking and convicting parts of his book. After finishing, I could not help but marvel at the number of references to this part of Scripture that’s often overlooked. As I flipped to random pages in the book, I often found between four to six Old Testament references.
TWO BRIEF CRITIQUES
One of the sadder aspects of pastoring is seeing people suffer under abuses of authority. Adding insult to injury, some who experience these deleterious effects wrongly blame themselves and do not take the appropriate steps to remove themselves from the suffering. In short, Boston’s emphasis on bearing under trials needed a category for abuse or wrongs that should not be endured. For example, if a wife is in an abusive marriage, the God-honoring and right thing for the wife to do is to seek help to extricate herself from the situation along with ensuring the appropriate authorities take action against her husband.
Another critique of Boston’s work is that in seeking to comfort those suffering, Boston makes minimal reference to the God-ordained affliction of Christ on the cross (e.g., 103). In my own life and in counseling others, I find that underscoring the Father’s wise sovereignty over the Son’s suffering on the cross to be immensely comforting. Likewise, remembering the disciples confusion, pain, and bewilderment upon seeing their Messiah crucified reminds me that in my own confusion, pain, and bewilderment, the final plan of God is not yet visible. Just as the disciples saw the resurrected Christ and the hand of God in suffering became clear to them (c.f., Lk 24), so one day when we see the risen Christ we will understand more of God’s purposes in our own lives.