A New Yearning Among Evangelicals
Within the hearts of a growing number of evangelicals (and born again-Catholics) in recent days has arisen a new yearning after an above-average spiritual experience. Yet the greater number still shy away from it and raise objections that evidence misunderstanding or fear or plain unbelief (brackets mine). They point to the neurotic, the psychotic, the pseudo-Christian cultist and the intemperate fanatic, and lump them all together without discriminations as followers of the “deeper life.” While this is of course completely preposterous, the fact that such confusion exists obliges those who advocate the Spirit-filled life to define their terms and explain their position. Just what, then, do we mean? And what are we advocating?
For myself, I am reverently concerned that I teach nothing but Christ crucified. For me to accept a teaching or even an emphasis, I must be persuaded that it is scriptural and altogether apostolic in spirit and temper. And it must be in full harmony with the best in the historic church and in the tradition marked by the finest devotional works, the sweetest and most radiant hymnody and the loftiest experiences revealed in Christian biography. It must live within the pattern of truth that gave us such saintly souls as Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross, Molinos, Nicholas of Cusa, John Fletcher, David Brainerd, Reginal Heber, Evan Roberts, General Booth and a host of other like souls who, while they were less gifted and lesser known, constitute what Dr. Paul S. Rees (in another context) calls “the seed of survival.” And his term is apt, for it was such extraordinary Christians as these who saved Christianity from collapsing under the sheer weight of the spiritual mediocrity it was compelled to carry.
To speak of the “deeper life” is not to speak of anything deeper than simple New Testament religion. Rather it is to insist that believers explore the depths of the Christian evangel for those riches it surely contains but which we are as surely missing. The “deeper life” is deeper only because the average Christian life is tragically shallow. They who advocate the deeper life today might compare unfavorably with almost any of the Christians that surrounded Paul or Peter in early times. While they may not as yet have made much progress, their faces are toward the light and they are beckoning us on. It is hard to see how we can justify our refusal to heed their call.
What the deeper life advocates are telling us is that we should press on to enjoy in personal inward experience the exalted privileges that are ours in Christ Jesus; that we should insist upon tasting the sweetness of internal worship in spirit as well as in truth; that to reach this ideal we should if necessary push beyond our contented brethren and bring upon ourselves whatever opposition may follow as a result. The author of the celebrated devotional work, The Cloud of Unknowing, begins his little book with a prayer that expresses the spirit of the deeper life teaching:
“God, unto whom all hearts be open … and unto whom no secret thing is hid, I ask You so to cleanse the intent of my heart with the unspeakable gift of Your grace, that I may perfectly love You and worthily praise You. Amen.”
Who that is truly born of the Spirit, unless he has been prejudiced by wrong teaching, can object to such a thorough cleansing of the heart as will enable him perfectly to love God and worthily to praise Him? Yet this is exactly what we mean when we speak about the “deeper life” experience. Only we mean that it should be literally fulfilled within the heart, not merely accepted by the head. Nicephorus, the father of the Eastern Church, in a little treatise on the Spirit-filled life, begins with a call that sounds strange to us only because we have been for so long accustomed to following Jesus afar off and to living among a people that follow Him afar off.
“You, who desire to capture the wondrous divine illumination of our Saviour Jesus Christ
–who seek to feel the divine fire in your heart
–who strive to sense and experience the feeling of reconciliation with God
–who, in order to unearth the treasure buried in the field of your heart and to gain possession of it, have renounced everything worldly
–who desire the candles of your souls to burn brightly even now, and who for this purpose have renounced all the world
–who wish by conscious experience to know and to receive the kingdom of heaven existing with you come and I will impart to you the science of eternal heavenly life.”
Such quotations as these might easily be multiplied till they filled half a dozen volumes. This yearning after God has never completely died in any generation. Always there were some who scorned the low paths and insisted upon walking the high road of spiritual perfection. Yet, strangely enough, that word perfection never meant a spiritual terminal point nor a state of purity that made watchfulness and prayer unnecessary. Exactly the opposite was true.
Hearing But Not Obeying
It has been the unanimous testimony of the greatest Christian souls that the nearer they drew to God the more acute became their consciousness of sin and their sense of personal unworthiness. The purest souls never knew how pure they were and the greatest saints never guessed that they were great. The very thought that they were good or great would have been rejected by them as a temptation of the devil. They were so engrossed with gazing upon the face of God that they spent scarce a moment looking at themselves. They were suspended in that sweet paradox of spiritual awareness where they knew that they were clean through the blood of the Lamb and yet felt that they deserved only death and hell as their just reward.
This feeling is strong in the writings of Paul and is found also in almost all devotional books and among the greatest and most loved hymns. The quality of evangelical Christianity must be greatly improved if the present unusual interest in religion is not to leave the church worse off than she was before the phenomenon emerged. If we listen I believe we will hear the Lord say to us what He once said to Joshua,
“Arise, go over this Jordan, thou and all this people, unto the land which I do give to them, even to the children of Israel” [Josh. 1:2].
Or we will hear the writer to the Hebrews say,
“Therefore, leaving the first principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection” [Heb. 6:1a].
And surely we will hear Paul exhort us to “be filled with the Spirit” [Eph. 5:18]. If we are alert enough to hear God’s voice we must not content ourselves with merely “believing” it. How can any man believe a command? Commands are to be obeyed, and until we have obeyed them we have done exactly nothing at all about them. And to have heard them and not obeyed them is infinitely worse than never to have heard them at all, especially in the light of Christ’s soon return and the judgment to come.