Christian ‘Highs’ and ‘Lows’
The Christian life is full of extraordinary ‘highs’ and unsettling ‘lows’. This is something young Christians are often unprepared for. And yet God’s Word could not be clearer that our spiritual good requires that the Lord lead us through dark valleys as well as lifting us up to expansive mountain tops. This is why reading constantly in the Psalms is such a healthy and sobering experience for the child of God. There we encounter faith at its purest, most ardent, most perplexed, most humbled and most exhilarating.
My point in saying this is to remind you that the life of faith is erratic and irregular, not even and unhindered. John Owen, the great English Puritan divine, makes this point powerfully in his magisterial treatment of sanctification in Volume 3 of his Works (Banner of Truth Trust). He writes, just as ‘the growth of plants is not by a constant insensible progress . . . but . . . by sudden gusts and motions . . .’, so ‘the growth of believers consists principally in some intense vigorous actings of grace on great occasions . . .’ (397). It has pleased the Lord not to give us steady, uninterrupted growth in grace; rather, he is pleased to have us cry to him, wait on him, seek his face, often in the midst of trials, before he grants us to grow in likeness to the Saviour – if nothing else, to humble us, and keep us dependent on him. If our Lord Jesus is the proto-typical man of faith, and he is, then the pattern of his life will be the essential pattern of our lives. What the Spirit first produced in him he comes to re-produce in us. And what was the pattern of the Saviour’s earthly life? Was it even and untroubled? No. He was brought by his Father through dark valleys, where, the writer to the Hebrews tells us, he ‘learned obedience through what he suffered’ (Heb. 5:8).
In the light of this, Owen anticipates a pressing pastoral question: ‘I do not see much, if any, growth in grace in my life: am I therefore devoid of the root of holiness?’ Owen’s response is measured, searching and pastorally reassuring. He says, ‘every one in whom is a principle of spiritual life, who is born of God, in whom the work of sanctification is begun, if it be not gradually carried on in him, if he thrive not in grace and holiness, if he go not from strength to strength, it is ordinarily from his own sinful negligence . . .’ (400). Owen urges us then to search our hearts if we appear to be regressing in holiness, and to cast off the sin that so easily besets us. Self-examination, in the light of God’s great grace to us in Christ, is a necessity. Without it we can so easily drift into spiritual presumption and self-deception.
But Owen proceeds quickly to balance what he has just said. It is one thing for holiness to be present and another for the believer to be conscious of it. Indeed, continues Owen, ‘there may be seasons wherein sincere, humble believers may be obliged to believe the increase and growth of (holiness) in them when they perceive it not, so as to be sensible of it.’ (401). Owen never forgets he is a pastor, writing for Christ’s lambs. He is quick to reassure struggling saints: ‘What shall we say, then? Is there no sincere holiness where . . . decays are found? God forbid’ (401). Progress is erratic and ‘horticultural’, not even and ‘mechanical’.
Owen is not soft-peddling sin in the believer. He is not condoning lack of godly resolve. He is, however, recognizing that the life of faith is inherently erratic, ‘horticultural’ in its growth and development and not ‘mechanical’.
My main concern in writing this is to encourage you to do one thing – read the Psalms. Read them daily. Be constantly refreshed, humbled, and reassured by them. Learn the shape of the life of faith, not least to guard you from being beguiled by the temptation to seek shortcuts to holiness. I can assure you of one thing (hopefully): reading the Psalms will not leave you content with the state of your Christian life. They will unsettle you, as well as encourage you. They will lift you into the heights, but at times draw you into the depths. John Calvin wisely said of the Psalms, ‘They are an anatomy of all the parts of the soul’. See yourself in the Psalms. But more importantly, see Christ there, leading you onwards and upwards – though the ‘upwards’ may at times be discovered in the ‘downwards’. Does that make sense to you?
Ian Hamilton is Pastor of the Cambridge Presbyterian Church, now worshipping God on Sunday mornings in All Saints’ Church, Jesus Lane, Cambridge and in the Lutheran Church, Huntingdon Road, on Sunday evenings.
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