Oft-times we feel we should like to point a finger at the people of the world, and tell them something about the aimlessness of their lives; that they are chasing after things which they cannot take with them when they die; or that they are living a life of sheer illusion. Truly our magnificent Good News is veiled among those who are getting lost, in whom the god of this age blinds their minds (2. Cor. 4:3-4) by things soulish and material and visible. But the pity is, that they know not that they are lost; their lives are so unreal.
Yet is it not very true that those who are spiritually minded also feel often that their own lives seem very unreal? We can see through the utter hollowness of a life which is likened to a vapour or a "wasting taper," or to grass. But we fail to enter sufficiently into the grand reality of our own spiritual inheritance, because we only see as in a glass, darkly.
Worldlings are almost inexplicably blind to future realities. When they think they have at long last attained "peace and security," then, unawares, a terrible cutting-off, a most disagreeable discomfiture, will be in grim reality standing by them; and escape they will not (1. Thess. 5:3).
We, who do not love the world and its vanities, because our whole outlook has been altered, can we boast that we are as eager and diligent concerning God's new world, as worldly people are concerning the present state of affairs?
God has called us, set His own mark upon us by giving us His own spirit and causing us in some measure to think His thoughts, altered our entire future prospects and outlook, set us upon a new and living track, given us new interests and destroyed old interests, yet in spite of all, is it not all too true, that it is God who is knowing us, rather than that we are getting to know Him? (Gal. 4:9). Yet this verse is a profound comfort. I am most glad Paul wrote it.
Our present object is to discover why things in our spiritual life do not seem as real as they ought to be. There is sufficient, surely, in the scriptures to make our life very real. Why is God-in-Christ not as close and real to us as our next door neighbours, or our nearest relatives?
I once knew a man, over forty years ago, who was totally wrapped up in the spirit. It was quite useless to talk to him about the weather, or about food, or anything material. He seemed to be full of the spirit, full of Christ. Since then I have never seen another so absorbed in the spirit. Why are there not more such?
I suggest that the more we obey the rules laid down for our good in the scriptures, the more real will the spiritual life become. It is not enough that we fear God; we must render Him befitting reverence and fear. But we must also "trust and obey." Because we turned to the Living God it does not automatically follow that we immediately obey Him in everything. We must not wait for a mysterious power which we think is "grace" to fall upon us before we accomplish what we have been told to do. That is not obedience. The Lord became the Causer (Gk: aitios) of eonian salvation, to all who, are obeying Him (Heb. 5:9). Paul commences and ends his Roman epistle with the requirement of faith-obedience from the Gentiles (1:5; 16:26). Obedience means compliance, and infers dependence. God is not going to shower His best gifts or His grace upon us unless we on our part are obeying His instructions. To wait for grace to come upon us to do something we have been told to do, is simply to wait until we; are in the mood for it. But we must not live in moods.
Before we can thrive spiritually, we must grow and strive. There ought to be a conscious effort on our part, a deliberate choosing, so that we may attain, here and now, to that great mystic reality, the resurrection life of Phil. 3. That ought to be our ideal and real life for the meantime, in the midst of a very unreal world.
In his famous book, "Natural Law in the Spiritual World," Henry Drummond made himself very unpopular with the Churches because he thoroughly and cleverly exposed the parasitism which exists in them. Congregations and meetings are spoon-fed. They imbibe what their minister or speaker has laboured to dish up to them. In Paul's day any member of the ecclesia could take part, and was expected to do so. Paul did not wish parasites in the Body of Christ. There is no gain without pains. Everyone must think out things for himself. A congregation is literally a "flock" (grex) that comes together. But we must not be like sheep or cattle. To live the real spiritual life, we must act as individuals, and do our own thinking.
You would like the Lord's face to shine upon you? Then would you feel the spiritual life much more real. But why not, if you are trusting and obeying, simply believe first—believe in His kindly goodwill or friendliness, what we commonly call grace, believe that it is utterly unchangeable, that it is always available for the meanest of sinners. If you can believe that, you will find that it means His face is ever shining on you and on all who love Him. Only then can you feel that His face is shining upon you. But the faith must come first, before the feelings.
Sometimes it is good for faith if we think backwards. Telegraph poles form a good object lesson. Many a time have I walked highways from town to town. Occasionally to while away the time when there was not much to see, I have counted the numbers on the poles, say about twenty-five to the mile. One can thus judge the distance to any town at which the numbers commence. My point is that these poles all lead some whither, to a definite starting point. So does the history of the Christian Church. It goes back without a break to the Lord's life and death on this earth. No man on earth could argue now that Christ never lived in Palestine. The Cross ought to seem to us as though it happened yesterday. The Lord's presence is still just as much with His people as it was with His disciples then, if we would only believe it. We cannot and ought not to feel that presence; we must believe that it is ours.
Some have been troubled because the very best and oldest of our MSS. of the Greek Scriptures shew so many variations. Most of these are of very small account. Yet it is just these differences in MSS. that point backwards to the lost originals. They all prove that there is something older and more exact. And they indicate, by means of their differences, that the originals must have been written in the first century A.D., and at no other time.
Let us once more think backwards. We have, it is hoped, renounced the world and its aimless trivialities and vanities. But why? Because a new spirit came into us. Whence? Surely from God and the Scriptures. Into some of us this change came suddenly and very vividly. I myself was dazed for three weeks by the startling simplicity of salvation. One evening, at the age of twenty, when the others in the family had gone to a nightly evangelical service in the village hall, I would not go, as I had been delayed, and hated to enter a meeting after the service had commenced. Restless and uneasy, I looked at some books in a wall-press, and picked out one called "Grace and Truth" by W. P. MacKay. Scanning the pages, it seemed very dry. But no; here was a chapter on "Do you feel your sins forgiven?" This appealed to me and I read on, until I discovered that one could never FEEL his sins forgiven, but anybody could BELIEVE they were forgiven. Such simplicity stupefied me.
No one can never forget such landmarks in life. Who would wish to turn back to a life in which there was "no God"?
If then, the foundation of our new spiritual life was laid and well and truly laid, let us continue building up that life, edifying not only ourselves but others. One can get a tremendous amount of solid satisfaction from helping others, and without such service, the spiritual life will never be as real as it ought to be.
You love to study the Scriptures and you prefer the company of like minded people to people of the world. Surely that is proof enough that you are spiritually minded, and that God's spirit is within you.
Let us once more think backwards. Why is it that we long for the perfect unity of all those who belong to Christ? Why do we long for the perfection of the entire universe? Why are we so dissatisfied with present mundane affairs and conditions? Why is it that we hunger and thirst, so passionately, for righteousness?
These tendencies and aspirations prove that the spiritual life is real to us, and shew that we possess God's spirit and are on His highway.
Perhaps the chief cause of unreality in the spiritual pilgrimage is the difficulty, felt by everyone, of contemplating and realizing God. Our greatest theologians and teachers are afflicted by this difficulty as much as the simplest believer, if not much more. We are willing to admit there is a God, there must be a God, even though the very thought is staggering. We are willing even, to believe something far more staggering that He is discovered to be, not a hideous monster, an ugly giant, not a cruel demon, but One full of, not only vast might and knowledge, but superabounding in divine-human graciousness and love and humility.
But He does not seem to us concrete enough, simply for the reason that we will not seek Him alone in His Son. We want to find a God outside of His Son, and of course, fail completely.
We look over the shoulders of the Son, expecting to behold one more like an "Ancient of Days," when we ought to gaze upon that Son, and in Him, see God, in all His loveliness, perfection, and majesty.
It is Christ that has made God real to us.
Another cause of unreality is the long-continued reiteration of mechanical prayers. It is better to break off such prayers for a season and later revert to the subject.
Sometimes do we not feel that certain of the grand statements and promises made in the Scriptures are somewhat exaggerated, or perhaps that they may be true of very saintly people, but not of ourselves? Here lies a very subtle form of unbelief. We accept the Sacred Writings as being absolutely correct as a whole, but when we come to individual statements, they do not seem to ring true. We are quite positive that God loves the world, and everybody in the world, but we are at times not so sure His love for us individually is always the same.
But just look at Paul's argument in 1. Cor. 8 regarding knowledge and love. "We are aware that 'we all have knowledge.' That knowledge is puffing up, yet love is edifying. If anyone is presuming to have got to know anything, not as yet does he know as he ought to know. Yet if anyone is going on loving God, this one has become known by Him."
Says Paul, "The Lord is near" (Phil. 4:5). How can we know that? James tells us (4:8), "Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you."
If you want to know God, experimentally, go on loving Him, positively and actively, and you will come to realize His love. Does not John say, "He who is not loving, knows not God, seeing that God IS love" (1. John 4:8).
How easy it is to cease loving friends, neighbours, relatives, and brethren. And it is just as easy to pretend that we are still loving them, even though we say unkind things about them. This is a vice which can make the spiritual life very unreal and unsatisfactory. We must cultivate love for others, actively and deliberately, for we cannot love God if we look down on others.
Only thus can we hope to attain to that acme of the spiritual life, the "out-resurrection" life here and now on earth, of Phil. 3.
A.T. Last updated 23.3.2006