The first case of severe illness among the converts in the village brought a new challenge to Mr. Howells. It was the woman with the burnt bread. She developed consumption. The doctor had given her up, and she was expected to die, when one evening she revived remarkably, and announced to her friends that the Great Physician had told her she was to be healed.
In the morning she sent for Mr. Howells and questioned him as to whether the Lord had revealed anything to him; but he said He had not, for up to that time the Holy Spirit had never given him any prayers for healing. It was the same for the next three nights, but he comforted her by saying that he would pray about it.
The next night, as he waited before the Lord, the Spirit told him that he could take up the prayer for her, and gave him Moses’ supplication in Numbers 12:13, “Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee”, as well as the word he had so often been given before, in John 15:7, “If ye abide in Me… ye shall ask what ye will…” It was a great encouragement to the woman when she knew the Lord’s word had come, and there was a sensation through the village, when they heard that this was to be the next challenge of faith.
Although he was ready to go deeper with God, Mr. Howells confessed that there was some fear as he entered this time of “abiding”. The obedience already had been so costly, that he was afraid of what might come now in gaining this new position. He was not told at the outset how long it would take, but actually he was in this prayer for six months. And, as he put it, “there was a daily obedience, a daily abiding, and a daily going through.”
As the prayer continued, there were two things that were taking hold of him in ever-increasing measure. In the first place, he was arrested by that Scripture, He “Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses” (Matt. 8:17), and realized for the first time that, through His atoning sacrifice, the Saviour had provided, not only for the forgiveness of our sins, but for a full redemption from all the effects of sin and the fall. Since He was “made a curse for us”, why should these sufferers continue to bear the effects of that curse?
Because he believed that Christ “bare our sins in His own body on the Tree”, Mr. Howells always offered to sinners, not only freedom from the guilt and penalty of sin, but also from the power and domination of sin. “But,” he reasoned, “if He also ‘bare our sicknesses’, why do I not offer healing in His Name just as freely? Why should there not be freedom from the power and dominion of sickness?” Anything less than this he felt was not giving to the Saviour the glory He deserved, and he resolved to pay any price to prove that this power was in the atonement.
In the second place, during the “abiding” of those months, he learnt much more than ever before of the Holy Ghost as a divine Intercessor. It is part of His ministry on earth to “make intercession for the saints according to the will of God… with groanings that cannot be uttered” (Rom. 8:26, 27). The great truth that was coming to His servant with ever-increasing clearness was that the Holy Ghost can only make intercession through those human temples He indwells; also that He can never intercede in any arbitrary way, but only just as far as His channel can become one with Him in so doing.
Mr. Howells had already known something of the groanings of the Spirit in him for the needy and afflicted in the village, for Will Battery and the tramps, and the obediences that were called for. But what would it mean to intercede for a consumptive? As an intercessor, he must enter into the sufferings and take the place of the one prayed for. He knew that a bedridden consumptive could have no normal home life, was confined to one room, and was cut off from everything that once comprised the interests and pleasures of life. So during this time of “abiding” the Holy Spirit went much deeper in identifying him with the suffering of others. And as He did so, it was not just this one woman, but the consumptives and sufferers of the world whose burden came upon him.
Mr. Howells had not gone very far on this path before the conviction took definite hold of him that, before he was through, the Lord would literally let this disease come upon him, and that only as an actual consumptive would he fully be able to intercede for consumptives. That this was not a foolish imagination, but a practical possibility, will be seen later in his life when, after taking great personal risks to care for a consumptive, it looked as though he had contracted the disease. Moreover, in all the earlier intercessions he had literally had to take the place of, and live like, the ones prayed for.
He faced up to what this would mean, and found grace to be willing for it, if thereby the Lord could restore this mother to her family of children; and he had great joy in thinking that, after the victory in one case, the Lord might then release many more.
During the months that the Lord was speaking to him like this, He was also, helping the woman in a marvelous way. They were very poor, and could not afford to buy all the kinds of food she would like to have, but if there was anything she fancied, some person would be sure to walk in with that very thing. Every evening Mr. Howells and the others would come to hear her answers to prayer, and “laugh as merrily as children”. All the district came to know that they were praying for her, and the doctor said she was not living on her lungs — so “she was living on prayer”.
The crisis came on the evening before Good Friday. That night she told her friends that she was sinking and felt she was going to die. Mr. Howells could not take it, and urged her not to lose faith after all these months of intercession. The whole district had been told that she was going to be healed, and he could not think of taking failure now. But she persisted that she was dying. As he left to go home, the full realization of what she had said came to him. It was a dark moment. “Dark outside,” he said, “but darker inside.” He sought to examine the position. Was anything wrong with his abiding? No, he had lived it “day by day, hour by hour”, and the Spirit bore witness to that. “Then she is not to die,” he said to the Lord. But the answer he received was unexpected. “The intercession you made was for a consumptive. Now death has come. If she is to be delivered, accept death in her place tonight.”
In all sincerity he had offered himself to be a consumptive in her stead; but he had not faced the fact that the end of consumption is an early death. The Lord was only asking him to do what he had said all along that he would be willing to do — to take the place of this woman that she might be delivered. But now that would mean death in a matter of hours. He had often felt there was a glow upon the Saviour’s words, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, but now there was no glow — only darkness.
It was not that fleshly ties held him to this world, but there was the work of the mission, the souls he loved there, and the future he believed the Holy Ghost had planned for him. To leave it all then and there, and to face in cold blood that separation of soul and body, was more than he could be willing for.
He said, “It was an awful night, for I had lost the face of God. That was the first night I ever went to bed without prayer, and I made up my mind not to go any further in this life of intercession, nor to show anyone about this point of failure. All that night I blamed myself that I ever started it. It would have been better, I thought, if I had gone on in a life of faith and not touched this question of healing.
“I got up the next morning, not intending to go to work, but I did not go on my knees — I could not face the Holy Ghost; I felt that He was a stranger to me. I went to see my friend who was also praying for her, and the first question, as always, was, ‘How is she?’ Then, ‘What is the last place of abiding?’ I burst into tears and told him that I had failed, and could not go through. It was worse than Egyptian darkness.
“That evening the Holy Ghost spoke to me again. I shall never forget it. How sweet His voice was to me. He said, ‘You didn’t realize it was a privilege I offered you yesterday.’ ‘A privilege?’ ‘Yes, you were offered a place among the martyrs.’ In a moment the scales fell from my eyes, and I saw that glorious army of martyrs in the heavenly City, and the Saviour looking for a thousand years on those who had done for Him what He did for them. A martyr is one who has voluntarily shortened his life down here for the Saviour’s sake, not merely one who dies in the course of duty; and the Lord showed me that I was to be among that number. I was afraid at first that I had forfeited my chance through my unwillingness the night before. I begged the Lord to forgive me, and I would gladly do what He asked me. I stepped into death — but there was no death there! I found that the Saviour had drunk every drop of that cup for us. ‘That bitter cup, love drank it up; Now blessing’s draught for me.’ In a moment I found I was on ‘the other side’.”
Caught up by the glory of what he had seen, Mr. Howells ran two miles to the sick woman’s house to tell her what had happened. He called them all to pray that the Lord would make the transaction then and there-that He would heal her and take him to glory that night. He felt it could not be chance that it was Good Friday; and surely it was the Lord’s will to accept his life on the day the Saviour had been “obedient unto death”. Many were in tears, and the woman herself refused to pray.
When he visited her the next evening, he saw at once that something had happened. Her face was radiant as an angel’s and she was wanting everybody to come to her bedroom and hear about it. As she had meditated upon what Mr. Howells had told her, she was not willing for it, for he had been more than a father to her and to so many in the village; so she went on her knees in her bed and prayed, “Lord, I don’t want to be healed. Don’t allow any to pray for this illness to be put on him; he is more useful to You than I am, and I don’t want to be delivered at his expense.” The moment she prayed that, she too was caught up into His presence, and lost herself in praising her Saviour. The room was filled with His glory and she went on praising all night.
“The weeks that followed were nothing less than heaven upon earth,” said Mr. Howells. “We didn’t pray; there was no need for prayer, we only waited for God to do His will. There was far more attraction in being called to fill the gap and go right to glory, than to be allowed to remain down here and do a little mission work. Every day for three months I expected my life to be taken, and the Lord allowed it to be like that, so that I should not be doing it under the influence of the moment. I longed to be with God. There was such reality in that song, ‘The streets I am told are all paved with pure gold. And the sun it shall never go down’.”
Then after three months, the Lord called her home suddenly. On a Saturday morning when Mr. Howells was at his work, the message came that he was wanted at once. But before he arrived, she had passed away. As he sat in the house, the Lord dealt with him for over an hour. “Although there were other people in the room,” he said, “I was alone with God. He told me that although He had accepted my intercession, He was not going to take my life now; but He wanted to use me as a ‘living martyr’. I had never heard such an expression before, but He made me understand that if I ever claimed any right to my life more than a dead man has, I should forfeit my position.
“So far as the case of healing was concerned, I was to walk it as a failure, and not make a word of defense. All the district knew I was praying for this woman’s healing, and now I had failed openly, it was such a reaction, instead of the glory we had anticipated. Just as I came through to being willing for this, one of the converts came in. She said that before our dear sister passed away, she had left a message for me. ‘Tell Rees and the others that I can’t wait for them. The Saviour has come for me, and I want to go with Him. Tell them I will come back to meet them’ (1 Thess. 4:14). Then she had said good-bye, shaken hands all round, and had gone to be with the Lord.
“That glorious testimony of the first of the mission to sleep in Jesus made this ‘failure’ the sweetest thing in the world. The first test came in the funeral. Hundreds of people had gathered, because they had heard so much about her, and especially about the healing. The minister who was to officiate was not in sympathy with the ò work at that time. He opened his Bible at Job 13:1-5, and read, ‘Lo, mine eye hath seen all this, mine ear hath heard and understood it… But ye are forgers of lies, ye are all physicians of no value. Oh that ye would altogether hold your peace! and it should be your wisdom.’ He was on one side of. the grave and I on the other, and that in more senses than one! I heard what he said, but was unmoved as though I hadn’t heard. The Lord then led me to make a few remarks on the life she lived before we went to the village, and the transformed life afterwards. The proof of it was in the triumph she had over death, for death was swallowed up in victory. I told how she had said the Lord had come to fetch her, how she wanted to go, and had said good-bye to those around her. I said, ‘Have you ever heard of a person who is dying, shaking hands with everyone, as though she was going on a journey?’ The people started to sing as in a revival. The heavens opened and the victory was such that they all started waving their handkerchiefs — even the mourners had to join in. I never pitied a man as I pitied the minister. The sad grave was turned to be the gate of heaven, and from that funeral we had the beginning of resurrection life in the mission.
It was after that the Holy Ghost revealed why it had been necessary to take this case — ‘that no flesh should glory in His presence.’ In a great position like this, God would not be free to use it through a person who had not first ‘died’ to it. It is death first and then resurrection. As the first-born and the first-fruits were to be given back to the Lord, so the first case of healing, the firstfruits of this intercession, belonged to the Lord and had to go to the altar.”