Finney: The Agony & the Ecstasy

I’ve often remarked how I wish I didn’t have to come across as someone who’s always pointing out the sins and errors in the world, especially that part of the world connected with government. It can get old, and it’s easy to tire of being the Jeremiah. Yet, as I was reading some of Charles Finney’s Revival Lectures, I came across something quite pertinent to my situation, and it gave me a measure of encouragement:

Prayer-FerventIf you have the Spirit of God, you must expect to feel great distress in view of the condition of the Church and of the world. Some spiritual epicures ask for the Spirit because they think He will make them so perfectly happy.

Some people think that spiritual Christians are always free from sorrow. There never was a greater mistake. Read your Bibles, and see how the prophets and apostles were always groaning and distressed, in view of the state of the Church and of the world.

The apostle Paul says he was “always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus.” . . . You will know what it is to sympathize with the Lord Jesus Christ and be baptized with the baptism that He was baptized with. . . . The more you have of His spirit, the more clearly will you see the state of sinners, and the more deeply you will be distressed about them.

The other side of the proverbial coin is the joy of the Lord, but it always coexists with a profound anguish over the devastating effects of sin all around us. We need to be familiar with both the agony and the ecstasy of seeing things through God’s eyes.

Finney: Allow God to Search Our Hearts

Revival LecturesWe’re very good at wanting other people to know about their sins, but not quite as enthusiastic about hearing of our own. Charles Finney nails it in his Revival Lectures:

Perhaps you have resisted the Spirit of God. Perhaps you are in the habit of resisting the Spirit. You resist conviction. In preaching, when something has been said that reached your case, your heart has risen up against it.

Many are willing to hear plain and searching preaching, so long as they can apply it all to other people; a misanthropic spirit makes them take a satisfaction in hearing others searched and rebuked; but if the truth touches them, they directly cry out that the preaching is “personal” and “abusive.”

We all need to allow God to lay open the intent of our hearts. We should welcome the “searching.” Anything that pulls us away from sin and toward righteousness is a blessing, even if we don’t always recognize it as such.

We need to keep in mind the plea of the psalmist David:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.

Lewis: Hell’s Operating Principles

Screwtape LettersFor many, their first encounter with C. S. Lewis’s marvelous works is The Screwtape Letters. This witty little book, which consists of letters from a superior devil, Screwtape, to a junior devil, Wormwood, continues to be a bestseller. Why? I think it’s because it captures so well the essence of the sinful heart as it displays not only Screwtape’s advice on how to lead a person into hell, but also the manner in which the inhabitants of hell treat one another—the fact that it is a place where all the deviousness and self-centeredness of sin is in full play.

Lewis explains in his introduction the nature of the hellish operation:

[Hell is] an official society held together entirely by fear and greed. On the surface, manners are normally suave. Rudeness to one’s superiors would obviously be suicidal; rudeness to one’s equals might put them on their guard before you were ready to spring your mine. For of course “Dog eat dog” is the principle of the whole organisation.

Everyone wishes everyone else’s discrediting, demotion, and ruin; everyone is an expert in the confidential report, the pretended alliance, the stab in the back. Over all this their good manners, their expressions of grave respect, their “tributes” to one another’s invaluable services form a thin crust. Every now and then it gets punctured, and the scalding lava of their hatred spurts out.

In other words, hell is merely the logical extension of the evil one sees in men every day, except infinitely worse.

If you haven’t yet read The Screwtape Letters, you should. And if you happen to see yourself in any of Lewis’s depictions, you can thank God you’re still on this side of eternity, and that there’s still time walk away from the deceptions of sin and enter into His righteousness.

Lewis: The Self-Centeredness of Hell

C. S. Lewis 4Modern man doesn’t like to talk much about hell, unless it’s in some fanciful movie creation where one doesn’t have to worry about its reality. The reason we avoid thinking about the possibility of hell can be traced back to our similar reluctance to consider seriously our sinfulness. And what bothers us the most, I believe, about the idea of sin is that we know the root of it is our self-centeredness. We like being self-focused; we feel justified in rationalizing our selfishness. So hell, sin, and selfishness are a package. C. S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, deals with this package:

Though our Lord often speaks of Hell as a sentence inflicted by a tribunal, He also says elsewhere that the judgment consists in the very fact that men prefer darkness to light, and that not He, but His “word,” judges men.

We are therefore at liberty—since the two conceptions, in the long run, mean the same thing—to think of this bad man’s perdition not as a sentence imposed on him but as the mere fact of being what he is. The characteristic of lost souls is “their rejection of everything that is not simply themselves.”

HellWhatever we are in this life—our character, reactions, etc.—won’t be magically changed in the next. If we are unreconstructed sinners, devoted to our selfish ambitions, that trait will only be magnified once we are forever separated from any hope of the Divine. Lewis, in his preface to The Screwtape Letters, tells us how he perceives it:

We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.

Perhaps hell is only a constantly burning fire, but Lewis’s description captures what will accompany that eternal fire. There will be no repentance, no tears of remorse, but only a deeper degree of the selfishness that never was dealt with in this life. That, in itself, would truly be a hell.

Finney: On Being Direct

Charles Finney spends quite a bit of time in his autobiography pointing out the differences between him and other ministers of the Gospel in the manner in which they communicate the message. He says he never really preaches; he just talks to the people. Other ministers, trained as they were at the colleges of the nineteenth century, would always “preach,” but never really connect with the people to whom they were preaching.

Finney's MemoirsFinney also relates his impressions of how ministers typically would avoid getting too personal, afraid they might offend people. He says that’s doing them a disservice:

Ministers generally avoid preaching what the people before them will understand as addressed particularly to them. They will preach to them about other people, and the sins of other people, instead of addressing them and saying, “You are guilty of these sins;” and “The Lord requires this of you.”

They often preach about the Gospel instead of preaching the Gospel. They often preach about sinners instead of preaching to them. They studiously avoid being personal, in the sense of making the impression on any one present that he is the man.

Now I have thought it my duty to pursue a different course; and I always have pursued a different course. I have often said, “Do not think I am talking about anybody else; but I mean you, and you, and you.”

Ministers told me at first that people would never endure this; but would get up and go out, and never come to hear me again. But this is all a mistake. Very much, in this as in everything else, depends on the spirit in which it is said. If the people see that it is said in the spirit of love, with a yearning desire to do them good; if they cannot call it an ebullition of personal animosity, but if they see, and cannot deny that it is telling the truth in love; that it is coming right home to them to save them individually, there are very few that will continue to resent it.

If at the time they feel pointed at and rebuked, nevertheless the conviction is upon them that they needed it, and it will surely ultimately do them great good.

The key in that passage is Finney’s caution that any pointing out of sin must be done in love, and that people need to understand the great desire is to help them eternally. What was true in Finney’s time is still true today.

Finney: No “Little” Sins

Revival LecturesIs there any such thing as an inconsequential sin? A sin that doesn’t really matter all that much? Charles Finney didn’t think so, and here’s his rationale in his Revival Lectures:

There are multitudes of such things by which the Spirit of God is grieved. People call them “little” sins, but God will not call them little.

I was struck with this thought when I saw a little notice in The Evangelist. The publishers stated that they had many thousands of dollars in the hands of subscribers, which sums were justly due, but that it would cost them as much as it was worth to send an agent to collect the money. I suppose it is so with other religious papers, that subscribers either put the publisher to the trouble and expense of sending an agent to collect his due, or else they cheat him out of it.

There is, doubtless, a large amount of money held back in this way by professors of religion, just because it is in such small sums, or because they are so far off that they cannot be sued. And yet these people will pray, and appear very pious, and wonder why they do not “enjoy” religion, and have the Spirit of God!

It is this looseness of moral principle, this want of conscience about little matters, that grieves away the Holy Ghost.

The world is watching the Christians. What do they see? Each of us will have to give an account before God for the faithfulness of our testimony. Hypocrisy is never a small thing.

Reflections As We Begin a New Year

New Year's EveWelcome to 2014. As a historian, I see significance in the passage of time, but for practical day-to-day living, the distinction between one year and the next is artificial. What really changes from December 31 to January 1? Oh, yes, some new laws go into effect, but it’s all part of the continuum of time.

I watch the revelers on New Year’s Eve and see mostly drunks and people who could easily lay claim to an award for brainless activity and superficial happiness. Of course, those are the ones focused on by the media, as they attempt to portray “joy” in the worldly sense of the term. I realize there are those who soberly and with gratitude to God for another year, give thanks for their blessings. Yet that kind of recognition for the grace of God pales in the public mind when compared to the temporary rejoicing in Times Square. The latter takes priority.

Do I sound like a downer today? I’m not trying to be the Scrooge of New Year’s, but my frame of vision differs quite a bit from the norm. I’m not alone, or at least I hope I’m not. All genuine Christians should stand apart in their perception of reality. They should have a distinct perspective on sin, mercy, and grace, and they should be about their Father’s business in displaying it to the world.

That’s what inspired me back in August 2008 to begin this ongoing commentary on life. From the start, I wanted it to be set apart somehow from the onslaught of the multitude of bloggers, particularly those who offer little more than shrill screeds, lashing out with intemperate words toward everything they despise.

I decided to call this daily commentary Pondering Principles because I want the basic truths God has given us to be the basis for everything I write. While I don’t intend to stir up controversy for the sake of controversy, I also realize that those things I call basic truths are rejected by a good part of our age. To write in favor of God’s law—righteousness across the board in morality—now makes one controversial whether one desires it or not.

There are times I tire of writing. What atrocity do I have to talk about today? Which sin needs to be illuminated? What new stupidity has the human race discovered now? That’s why I try to make sure I balance those types of posts with the message of God’s love and His heart for salvaging as many broken examples of humanity as possible. It’s why I include a large number of cartoons to add some humor to the unfolding of our societal foolishness. It’s why I devote weekend posts to insights from C. S. Lewis and Charles Finney, hoping to escape the daily grind of political folly for at least a few days.

JeremiahI never intended to be another Jeremiah, the Weeping Prophet of the Old Testament. But neither did I anticipate the rapid decline in our national morality that has occurred since I began this blog in 2008. Jeremiah had a strong message, speaking, in this passage, for God:

For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

He got tired of delivering his message, too, and all the reproach he received from those who rejected what he said. At one point, he cried out in anguish,

But if I say, “I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name,” then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it.

He remained faithful. He felt compelled to complete his mission.

I am in no way a replica of Jeremiah. I’ve not suffered major derision or persecution personally for sharing my views. Yet I can empathize with his emotion. Sometimes, I just want to walk away from writing anything more. I find myself thinking that all these words I write accomplish very little. Why submit to the inner drive to continue? Life would be easier and much more pleasant if I didn’t have to think of something to say every day. Some days I’m dry; there’s nothing worth saying. Or at least that’s how I feel.

Yet whenever I think of stopping this commentary, I find that same burning within that Jeremiah described.

I don’t really know what I’m accomplishing with Pondering Principles. Perhaps far less than I hope. Yet I also know, deep in my heart, that God merely calls us to be faithful, and we’re to leave the results with Him. Therefore, I will be like Jeremiah in at least one respect: I will remain faithful to what God has called me to do.

Those are some of my reflections at the beginning of a new year. May we all reflect regularly on God’s calling and our commitment to Him.