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:
The title for this piece is one of my favourite hymn lines, a lovely description of the Christian life and one of the easiest truths to forget. The verse springs to mind because Wednesday evening is my church's prayer meeting and as has often been the case of late God was with us and I realised afresh the bountiful joy of the Christian life. For context here's the verse the hymn line is in:
"Fading are the worldlings’ pleasures,
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?
Before I dig into this there’s probably a few qualifiers I should say: first, please do listen to the sermon I’ve uploaded below by Mr. Keller, particularly if you’re going through a dark time it’s a lot better than anything I can say. Secondly, my experience of sorrow is a blip on the scale of human suffering and in writing this I feel like I’m grasping concepts I don’t fully understand. Finally, the comfort of Christ is reserved only for his people, if you are not a Christian then his comfort grants you nothing.
When sorrow, hardship, trails, grief, persecution and suffering come our way then our first refuge should be the comfort that is to be found in Christ. It is not our first instinct to do this. It is easy to search for comfort in other things: family, friends, escapism through drink, computer games, drugs, fantasy, relationships, keeping busy, anything that distracts from the pain. Most of these are perfectly valid and good things in part but they can’t comfort us on our profoundest level, the spiritual level, for that we need the love and comfort of Christ. It is often not an easy comfort to grasp for it allows us no illusions or delusions about our situation, it confronts us with the reality of this sinful world we live in and our sinful selves, it tells us that we should not be surprised by our sorrow for as Jesus promised: “In the world you will have tribulation.” (John 16v33). I used to think that if I did a good job of walking with God I would be spared hardship and sorrow; not true, Job lived blamelessly before God and suffered much, Jesus lived perfectly before God and suffered to the point of death. The comfort of Christ is not in denying sorrow yet nor is it wallowing in self pity or giving way to despair. As I said, it can be a hard comfort to grasp but it is the only comfort that will provide peace and solace for the troubled heart. The comfort of Christ is rich and can comfort the most weary and grief stricken soul.
The Arab Spring, the Euro-crisis, the US debt problem, the European debt problem, the terrorist attack in Norway, the riots in England, the world seems increasingly instable of late. All that was thought certain and secure is being rendered worthless. We built our lives on the ‘certainty’ of economic growth, on the ‘security’ of our house prices but the god of money now lies in ruin. Who would have expected a year ago that Norway would have been the victim of terror? But one of the countries with the highest Human Development Index rating is now no stranger to the evil of terrorism. Riots happen in Greece, Spain or France, in foreign places, not London, not in our own backyard, so we thought. The US was unassailable in its economic position; it would never lose its credit rating, this we knew for sure.
But no, in the last six months much or we thought or wanted to think is now revealed to be wrong. Greed, hatred, looting, corruption, lying, violence and sexual immorality have come to light in every circle of society. Those in power, those not in power, we see that all are guilty of evil. This should be a profoundly humbling experience for us as we watch the world around us. It has not been.
Last Christmas was one of those rare perfect days that crop up every so often. There were just the six of us from my family and a guy from church and his girlfriend but it was a time of happiness, laughter, presents, good food and my brother failing to be good at yet another board game. It was one of those memories that are worth treasuring away.
It stands out in particular because in the months that followed I went through some pretty dark times as God and I had a few difficulties to sort out. By that I naturally mean that all the difficulties lay with me and I have quite a number of memories of days when continuing the Christian walk just seemed so pointless, days when I reached out for God and couldn’t find him, dark days, painful days because it felt like my God had forsaken me.
It struck me that this pretty much sums up life. There is so much happiness to be had in this world and so much grief as well. It is hard to meet anyone who is a stranger to suffering, it is hard to meet anyone who has not known times when they hurt more than they thought possible. So we have this dichotomy that runs throughout a man’s life and his very being: such more good, so much evil and pain.