Dealing with Our Deadness
When one calls to mind the greatness of our privilege as Christians and the abundance of God's grace, it is marvellous how dead we normally are. While with our heads we subscribe to a large list of doctrines, we appear to pass most of our time under the power and influence of none of them. The problem appears to be that we are, in some manner hard to explain, unable to rise to an exhilaration of mind and soul appropriate to our privileges. Only now and then, so it would seem, do we meet with a Christian who works out his salvation in a way which strikes us as consistent in point of ardour and spiritual fervency: a Paul, an Augustine, a Luther, a Knox, a Whitefield, a M'Cheyne, a Billy Bray. We feel a guilty consciousness in the presence of such men (at least, so far as their lives come down to us in writing) because we are aware in them, and in men and women like them, that their hearts burned continually with holy fire. Ours, on the other hand, do so only feebly and intermittently.
But is it right that we should feel guilty for not experiencing more warmth of heart and affection towards God than we generally do? Is it not too much to ask of ourselves that we should be ever ardent in our feelings and in our attitude towards heavenly things? We do not think so, and that for several reasons.
First, we are to remember that the 'first and greatest commandment' includes the obligation to love God 'with all the heart and with all the soul' (Deuteronomy 6:5). This duty cannot possibly be carried out without our having lively and active feelings towards God. Indeed, if we were to begin to keep this commandment as we should, then we would need to reach the point at which we direct the energies of our soul towards our Creator with a constant flow and, as it were, in an unfailing stream. The fact that we do not do so ought to be a burden to us which drives us to pray that more divine fire and life may be poured upon the altar of our heart.
A second reason why we cannot excuse ourselves for our habitual spiritual dullness is that Jesus Christ, who is our model man, had none of it. Our blessed Saviour was a burning and a flaming torch of zeal towards God. He was always alive to God his Father, always zealous of God's law and jealous of God's honour. He was ever vibrant in his preaching and witness, ever searching in his judgment of men and their motives, ever fervent for the gospel and ever compassionate towards the lost. Anything like deadness of soul is absent from Christ. The Gospels carry no record of it because they mean us to believe that it was uniquely absent from his perfect character. The kingdom of God was everything to Christ. For its sake he came into the world, fulfilled all righteousness, wrought miracles of every sort, entered at last into death and the grave and then triumphantly ascended to the right hand of God.
To be a follower of Christ must mean that we not only take the blessings of his kingdom gratefully but that we also walk in the footsteps of his zeal for God. This we shall do very largely in the measure in which we are ourselves filled with the Spirit of life and heavenliness. We need to be controlled by the same love for God, even if in lesser degree, which he had and still has. The fact that our own souls are immeasurably less full of heavenly zeal and life than his was while on earth must be a matter of constant sorrow to us. Here, alas, the true explanation for our unfruitfulness is to be found. It is painful to face up to but most necessary, if we are to make any improvement.
A third reason why we must feel consciously guilty of our spiritual dullness and stagnation is that it is a contradiction of all that we profess to believe. Every word of God is instinct with 'spirit' and 'life' (John 6:63). All the doctrines of Scripture therefore tend to excite holy affections and to kindle fire on the heart. It is folly and brutishness in us when truth comes cold to us or when we go away cold from it. The unwelcome fact, in all such cases, is that we have not 'listened' to the truths which we have heard and that we do not fully believe what we believe.
O if only we might receive fresh power to appreciate all that we already know! O that we might know what we know in a way that we clearly do not yet know! O that the meaning of what we profess would dawn upon our spirits with sevenfold greater force and influence! The real reason, one fears, why so many Christians today clamour for new revelations and new prophecies is that their hearts — and perhaps ours too — have never been gripped by the grand old truths of the Bible. Those who like Bunyan and Spurgeon have found the doctrines of grace to be a treasure-house of interest and delight will never wander off into the by-paths of human speculation or pretended prophesying.
It is a healthy exercise to examine ourselves as to the spiritual vigour of our souls. No true Christian, of course, is wholly dead to God. But the degree of our liveliness differs greatly from Christian to Christian. It also differs in the same Christian from time to time. We offer the following two tests which we might profitably use for this purpose of examining the measure in which our spiritual life is in exercise.
What is it that Excites Our Minds?
The believer knows by experience that he often reads his Bible and prays out of a sense of duty, but then attends to worldly things with relish and even excitement. If we were more alive to God it is certain that this would not be so. What excites the mind most must surely be what we most love. Why do we not find as great excitement in heavenly things as in earthly ones, except that our souls are slow to the one and find the other congenial and therefore preferable? Few who love sport have to drive themselves to the practice-field or to the match. But many who love Christ have to drive themselves to their knees and to their closets. Earthly pleasures come easy and spiritual ones come hard. But a wise man will take steps to chide himself for this and he will bend his soul towards correcting this disgraceful infirmity as long as he lives.
The problem we have whenever we face our spiritual duties is that they are holy and, except in a small degree, we are not. Consequently we have a wall of apathy to climb over before we can bring ourselves to do what belongs to the kingdom of God. The more honest with ourselves we are, the more we shall see this in ourselves and admit it. The New England Puritan Thomas Shepard confessed that often he would rather die than pray. Is it not so with us all? Praying, preaching, hearing sermons, keeping holy the Lord's Day, preparing for the Lord's Supper, visiting the sick and the dying with profitable conversation — all these things are unexplainably difficult to our fallen human natures. Men find it easier by far to opt rather for the church choir or the church social evening.
But it is just here that our soul is either made or else marred. If we are to rise above the dreadful mediocrity which prevails and which goes by the name of the normal Christian life, we must act on a new principle in the things we opt to do.
Among the first rules we need in order to deal with our deadness is this. We must school ourselves to do as a routine those things which are best for our souls. These duties are easy to recognise. They are invariably the things which we find hardest to do and from which we most recoil: the hearing of awakening preaching, the cultivation of the most spiritual persons as our bosom friends and acquaintance with God's presence by secret communion.
Do We Feel Most Concern for what Most Concerns God?
There are Christians who, alas, give the impression of themselves that they are 'little men'. They have faith no doubt, but they are evidently interested in only that tiny fragment of God's cause which concerns themselves and in which they themselves play a part. They are large fish in a small pond. With the wider ocean of divine affairs they have little to do and they are in some cases jealous of their place and position within the sphere of their service.
The danger of such parochialism is that it has a very weak resistance to the virus of complacency. In process of time it generally results in a small-church mentality whose conceit is to fancy itself better than others, whoever the others may be. This is a pity and it is a great loss. It is deadness coming into the soul unobserved and on tip-toe.
It is no bad thing for us to cast about in our minds and to consider where God is most at work. God is not most where men suppose. His sovereign pleasure is to work in ways past finding out. But his presence is always to be detected by certain marks.
God is to be found in that church and in that society where there is most holy talk, most sense of sin, most tears of repentance, most dependence on Christ and most secret prayer. Conversely, God is least present in those churches where there is most vainglory, most worldliness, most carnal confidence, most contempt of others and most ecclesiastical bombast or pomposity.
It is another great rule for dealing with our deadness that we ought to love most those churches and persons where God most clearly is. The danger of all artificial church affiliations and denominations is that those who belong to them may love only those within their own group, or else love those of their own group best. But this leads to deadness if those of other groups and denominations are really more spiritual and more godly than those of our own. The antidote to complacency and decline is to love men, not because they 'belong to us' or are 'one of us' (as politicians speak) but because they are rich towards God. Much mischief follows when we love men in proportion to their loyalty to 'our cause' rather than to Jesus Christ's. Great is our deadness when we love those who pronounce our shibboleths and when we shun those who challenge our prejudices or else expose our complacency!
There is no dealing with the deadness of others till we start to deal with our own. And there is no dealing with the deadness of churches till we deal with the deadness of our own souls. When the axe of repentance is laid to the root of our natural self-love, we shall be at the place where we may expect to see God's gracious visitation to help us both at the personal and at the church level. But the task is no easy one if for no other reason than that deadness is intensely widespread and deep-seated. More ever, few are apparently ready to deal with it as a matter of urgency.