Every so often, I come across a hymn which gets the Christian life with all its joys and mourning. The following hymn was written by John Newton and is a beautiful testament to the Lord's purpose in sending us difficulties and afflictions:
It seems an unprofitable activity, to review one of the worst books I’ve read, but actually the very reason why the book in question was bad is also, at the same time, a healthy challenge. I should probably add that I don’t read a lot of biographies and autobiographies, while I’m sure there are some great ones out there then I’ve never really been particularly interested them. Perhaps it’s an extension of an inherent self-centeredness on my part : why read about someone else when my life is more interesting? Hopefully, that’s only a small part of it.
Anyway, I picked up Comfy Glasgow: An Expression of Thanks by George Mitchell because it had been resting unread on my bookshelf for a number of years (I think around five) and it looked like it could be an interesting account of a Christian living in a deprived area (I based this on the logic that all of Glasgow is more or less a deprived area). It also had a series of good reviews on the back including one by Derek Prime whose name I recognised and generally approved of.
As you may have guessed from the understated title; the book was somewhat of a disappointment. But let’s deal with the positives first: it’s well written and it’s very much about an ‘ordinary’ Christian, not someone who is a big deal, well known or had a Damascus Road conversion. Mr Mitchell lived your bog standard life, if it can be reduced so.
Therein, does not lie the problem. Just because his life was ordinary does not mean it could not have been interesting. In fact, I hoped this would make it better: seeing the trials and struggles of the average Christian. Regrettably, this wasn’t so. Mr Mitchell’s account of growing up is, as a review on the back says: “historically, culturally and socially excellent, doing justice to the great City of Glasgow.” But the issue in question is that the book is not spiritually excellent.
Recently, I decided to add a new test to my error detection system: if anyone ever says or implies holiness can be easy then they are flat out, automatically, without fail, speaking complete and utter rubbish. Thus does Keller's "if only we could be self-forgetful" and the other one "you just need to surrender to Jesus" fall by the way side, welcome victims to the keen blade of truth!
To be completely honest, I want holiness to be easy, in fact, often I like to think that increasing in holiness is some sort of magic trick - I say a prayer to God asking to be more holy and abracadabra, holiness is mine. Oh what foolishness my mind comes up with!
Fortunately, the Bible is very clear with us about holiness - "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling," (Philippians 2v12) Notice the use of the word: "work." I looked up this word in the dictionary and it told me: "Activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result." It made me a little glum because in my head I like to translate the verse: "Do very little and hope that things will come together for your own salvation with fear and trembling."
A couple of months ago I was reading a Puritan, maybe Ryle, and the author was talking about how holiness is hard work and he pointed out that what good thing in life isn't hard work? His point struck home, if I want to have a good meal then it involves effort, if I want to have good friendships, they involve effort, if I want to become good at a musical instrument or skill then I must work. Why then should holiness be any different? Why do we expect it to be so?
This is the second part of my post on reflections of three years in the School of Christ. You can read the first part here. Let’s jump right back in there…
Read the Puritans (especially when things go wrong)
This may sound a bit of an odd one but only if you have never read the Puritans! They have been my companions through many a difficultly. Richard Sibbes (called the heavenly doctor – you soon realize why!) has helped me when I was in darkness and sitting in the silence of God with The Bruised Reed and Martyn Llyod-Jones (yes, technically not a Puritan but kind of is…) gave me comfort through The Causes and Cures of Spiritual Depression; then Sibbes came to the rescue again when I went through a relationship breakup with The Love of Christ and he was joined with John Flavel and The Mystery of Providence – one helped me when I was ever feeling unloved by riveting my attention back on Christ’s love for me and the other when I was feeling grumpy by casting my mind to higher issues and all that God does through the hardships of life. Or what about All Things for Good by Thomas Watson, Charity and its Fruits by Edwards or Communion with God by John Owen? What heavenly medicine they bring! In comparison most modern authors are mere children compared to the depth of God-given wisdom these men had along with such a pastoral concern for the souls of their fellow brothers and sisters. It is easy to tell, when reading the Puritans, that here were men who walked closely with the Lord.
You can keep your Pipers, Driscolls, Kellers and Chesters; they ain’t got nothing on the Puritans!
The Christian Union weekend away has come and gone and it gives me pause for thought and reflection as it marks the anniversary of my conversion three years ago. In 2009 then God took the question: “Are you living a distinctive life for Christ?” and used it to open my eyes to the truth that I wasn’t and that I should be. That evening I came to Christ, aware for the first time of the hopelessness of my condition without him and that in him lay the only way to salvation.
It’s been quite a ride since then, time has flown by and it feels like I’ve lived a lifetime as a Christian not just one thousand and ninety six days. It’s a misconception to think that conversation is the be all and end all of the Christian experience. Far from it! Conversion grants us immediate and compulsory enrollment in year 1 of the School of Christ with a set of courses and lessons perfectly tailored to our weaknesses and needs. For God is not unconcerned with his people, he loves us too much for that and he sets about completing the good work he has started.
This School has one main goal for all its students: holiness, being like Christ and growing in love for both God and man. The only graduation students see is the graduation of moving from this life to the next. It is without question the best and hardest school in all the world.
I should probably add that though I can highlight a lot of lessons I’ve learnt they are in the same breath a lot of lessons I am still learning. After all, the first rule of the School of Christ is that there is no end to the School of Christ!