Happiness in the Christian Ministry
We learn from Jonathan Edwards that the inner spiritual life of the minister is the most important part of his life.
The scriptural proof of this statement is plain. It is found, for instance, in our Lord’s examination of Simon Peter before the disciple is commissioned again to serve Christ: ‘Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?’ Love to the Saviour is to precede all service in his name, and the first duty for Peter was stated in the three words, ‘You follow me’ (John 21:22). The same truth is contained in the words of Jesus to all the disciples on their praying to the Father, when he says that what is hidden in our personal communion with God is what ultimately determines the usefulness of our public service among men (Matt. 6:6). Personal devotion to Christ was the main-spring of the Apostle Paul’s life, and it is the personal that he puts first in his charge to Timothy, ‘Take heed to yourself, and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you’ (1 Tim. 4:16).
Edwards often dwelt on this truth when he was addressing fellow pastors and preachers. Speaking of Paul as an example of personal communion with God, he said:
Though we cannot expect to be honoured with intimacy with heaven in just the same way, yet if we in good earnest apply ourselves, we may have greater and greater intimacy, so that we may come with boldness, and converse with God as a friend. This would be the way to make us great blessings in the world. Wherever the apostle went there went a blessing with him … And if we should imitate the apostle in such a spirit and behaviour, the undoubted consequences would be that we also should be made great blessings in the world; we should not live in vain, but should carry a blessing with us wherever we went (2:865).
Now it is one thing to accept that our usefulness is directly related to the state of our inner life, to recognise it as a principle, but another to live up to it in our own experience. When we look at our inner spiritual life we are confronted by much variation, weakness and cause for disappointment. Our attainment has been far short of our desire. Is there anything potentially more disappointing to us as ministers than the poverty of our spiritual lives? It was George Whitefield who, just a few years before his death, said, ‘Let me begin, to begin to be a Christian.’ Edwards could have said the same. It may be helpful, therefore, in this connexion to look at something of Edwards’s own spiritual experience.
To aid us in doing this there are some four sources: his diary, which has survived for the period from December 1722 to 1735, his Personal Narrative, which summarised his spiritual experience over the twenty years from his conversion to about the year 1741, his sermons, and his letters. The inclusion of his sermons as a source for his spiritual experience needs explanation. Many manuscript sermons of Edwards survive and of these maybe a few hundred are in print. Among all these sermons, I do not need to tell you, there is probably not a single one in which he speaks about himself or his own experience. Yet it has to be true to say that in all preaching there is always something of the man himself; sermons do not originate merely from at a desk and from a man’s mind.
Let me illustrate this from Edwards’ earliest sermons which he preached soon after his conversion in 1721. Most of these he composed during his short but important New York pastorate in 1722 and 1723. The scriptural balance and maturity of these sermons, preached when he was only nineteen, is remarkable; no less remarkable is the tone and emphasis which prevails in these early sermons. There is an overflowing sense of the joy and happiness of the Christian life. Happiness is the theme of the first printed sermon from this period. He speaks of
the pleasures of trusting in Jesus Christ, in contemplating his beauties, excellencies and glories; in contemplating his love to mankind and to us … the pleasures of the communion of the Holy Ghost in conversing with God, the maker and governor of the world.
Godliness, he asserts, is able to ‘maintain always a clear sunshine of joy and comfort’ in a Christian. The experience of the love of Christ
sweetens every thought and makes every meditation pleasant … All the world smiles upon such a soul as loves Christ: the sun, moon, and stars, fields and trees, do seem to salute him. Such a mind is like a little heaven upon earth.
Communion with God ‘is the highest kind of pleasure that can possibly be enjoyed by a creature.’
Sentiments such as these are pervasive in the early sermons. When we turn from them to his Personal Narrative we find something of what lay behind the spoken words; he was preaching out of the abundance of his heart. Spiritual happiness clearly dominated his experience at this time and the harmony between sermons and his inner life is unmistakeably clear. Certainly he was preaching the Bible, but he did so as a man personally enjoying what he made known to others. He was living on the high plane of delight often given to a young Christian. He writes of that time:
The heaven I desired was a heaven of holiness; to be with God, and to spend my eternity in divine love, and holy communion with Christ …Heaven appeared to me exceeding delightful as a world of love. It appeared to me, that all happiness consisted in living in pure, humble, divine love.
While in New York, Edwards, at times, felt that he had already one foot in heaven. He even uses the word ‘ecstasy’. But the delight of these early days was not permanent. When he reflects on them in his Narrative of twenty years later, he says:
My experience had not then taught me, as it has done since, my extreme feebleness and impotence, every manner of way; and the innumerable and bottomless depths of secret corruption and deceit, that there was in my heart.
He had to learn the truth that he once passed on to his daughter, ‘Perpetual sunshine is not usual in this world, even to God’s true saints.’
So Edwards had to face the question that we all face: how do we cope with the ups and downs, the struggles and the poor progress of our inner lives? Is there anything that can be so disappointing to a minister as his own life? How then did Edwards face this?
We are not to seek spiritual consolation by looking back to the joy and comfort we knew in times past. Edwards believed that there are temporary conversions as well as real ones, and that the temporary may be attended with high emotion and joy. From these new experiences the supposed convert assumes he is a Christian, but, he writes,
with many, after the newness of things is over, it is again with them very much as it used to be before their supposed conversion … with respect to any present thirstings for God, or ardent outgoings of their souls after divine objects: but only now and then they have a comfortable reflection on past things, and are somewhat affected with them: and so rest easy, supposing all is well.
The difference between a supposed convert and a real one, does not lie ‘in high flights of passing affection; but a change of nature, a change of the abiding habit and temper of the mind.’ The essence of this change lies in a ‘relish’ for holiness, which Edwards defines as ‘conformity to God, living to God, and glorifying him’ (2:449). So true Christian experience consists in an abiding and an increasing God-centredness. Edwards says this in his account of David Brainerd’s spiritual experience, and there is no doubt that behind this account is Edwards’ own understanding. Happy feelings, he says, were not what Brainerd aimed at,
his longings were not so much after joyful discoveries of God’s love … as after more of present holiness, greater spirituality, a heart engaged for God, to love, and exalt, and depend on him. His longings were to serve God better, to do more for his glory, and to do all that he did with more of a regard to Christ as his righteousness and strength; and after the enlargement and advancement of Christ’s kingdom in the earth.
This means that while the spiritual life of the minister is the most important part of his life, his own spiritual experience is not the object for which he lives. ‘Love does not seek its own’ (1 Cor. 13:5). Glorifying God, Edwards says of Brainerd, ‘was the ocean to which all the streams of his religious affections tended; this was the object that engaged his eager thirsting desires’. Yet glorifying God is not to be seen as something apart from the happiness of enjoying God: the two things are bound up together. Edwards demonstrates this from the life of Paul,
What a happy life the apostle lived; what peace of conscience, and joy in the Holy Ghost, he possessed … How did he abound with comfort and joy, even in the midst of the greatest afflictions … We are ourselves the occasion of our own wounds and troubles. We bring darkness on our own souls. Professing Christians, by indulging their sloth, seek their own ease and comfort; but they defeat their own aim. The most laborious and the most self-denying Christians are the most happy.
So Edwards would say that while spiritual enjoyment is not to be our first pursuit, to be content without it is not to live as a Christian. It is the Christian’s very need for that enjoyment that constitutes a vital part of his desire for heaven. Even at the age of twenty he was noting that heaven will be the state where believers will ‘enjoy this sight of God and communion with him, without continually sinning against and disobeying him, and doing that which he above all things abhors.’ ‘God created man to communicate his excellency and happiness to him,’ he writes.
I cannot believe …that God created man for such communion with him for forty or fifty years, which is so exceedingly defective, poor and miserable, and wherein man is continually mixing sin with his communion.
The final key for us in our present so imperfect Christian lives is to keep our eye upon the faithfulness of Christ to finish what he has begun.
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