Sunday, 20 March 2016
So far in this letter we have seen that Paul mentions several blessings of the work of the Spirit. He mentioned in 1:13-14 that all believers have been sealed by the Spirit – he is the divine seal of ownership – and he works in them as the earnest in order to provide foretastes of the experience of the eternal world.
Paul then mentioned three ways in which they knew those foretastes. First, he has given his people permanent access to the presence of God, which is a great privilege that they enjoy because of Jesus. Second, Paul prayed that they would know the resurrection power of the Spirit in order to become like Jesus, and realise the hope to which they were called – we could say that this refers to their sanctification. Third, Paul prayed that they would be strengthened by the Spirit in order to grow in their intellectual and experimental awareness of the amazing love of Jesus, which the apostle explained by using the four dimensions of length, breadth, depth and height.
It is well-known that Paul in chapter 4 moves from a doctrinal emphasis to a practical emphasis. He will refer to the Spirit several times in the practical section of his letter and we will consider those details in future sermons. In this sermon, I want us to think about the aspect of the work of the Spirit that he mentions in verse 3, that his readers should be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
As we look at what he says in verses 1-6, we can see two accompanying details for maintaining the unity of the Spirit. The first detail is the manner of life that makes it possible to maintain the unity and it is described in verses 1 and 2; the second detail is the motives for maintaining the unity of they are listed in verses 4-6.
Before we consider these details, we should remind ourselves of a crucial fact, which is that we cannot know the unity of the Spirit until we believe in Jesus, until we come to him in repentance and faith, confessing our sins and depending upon him as the only way to experience salvation.
Manner of life
We can see that it is a manner of life because of the word picture that Paul uses when he likens the Christian life to a walk they are all engaged in. Some congregations engage in a literal walk together, but here Paul is describing the authentic church walk. Of course, we can easily see that the literal church walk would not be very pleasant if those participating in it were arguing with one another or engaging in activities that tripped one another up.
So what do the walkers in an authentic church walk look like? Paul mentions three beautiful features. The first is humility. What is humility? Humility is not the same as humiliation. Humiliation is what someone else does to us whereas humility is something we choose to be. A person who engages in humility chooses to act below his status and is glad to do so. The obvious example of humility is Jesus. He is the eternal God who chose to make himself of no reputation. This does not mean that he hid himself and did nothing. Instead he made himself nothing in order to be a servant of those he met. If I am not prepared to do something that would help a needy saint, then I am not like Jesus and I am not living in a manner that maintains the unity of the Spirit. If I imagine that something is below my imagined status, I then I forgotten two priorities, which are be like Jesus and focus on the unity of the Spirit.
The second feature is gentleness. Gentleness is not being soft. Instead it is a spiritual muscle that has been developed by spending time with our heavenly Teacher. Jesus described himself as gentle and humble and invited weary sinners to learn from him. Gentleness does not mean that a person cannot be straightforward in his or her speech, but it does mean that there is no venom in their words. The Holy Spirit is not like a hawk, instead he is like a gentle dove.
The third feature is patience or persistence. This outlook can be expressed in all kinds of situations. When we go through times of trial, we do so with patience and not with fretting. Yet the main area for exercising patience is by bearing with one another in love. There will be times when we will come across Christians who are not what they should be and it would be easy to grumble about them. But that is not an expression of bearing with one another in love. If I cannot cope with their immaturity or with their sinful mannerisms, there is something wrong with my love. All we have to do is consider the patience of Jesus with the disciples as they showed repeatedly how immature they were. But he bore with them in love. And each Christian today knows that Jesus bears with him in love. Since that is the case, he should be able to bear with his fellow believers.
What enables them to have these features of humility, gentleness and patience? Two things, perhaps. We have already thought about one of them, brotherly love. Pride, roughness and impatience are the opposites of what Paul says about believers and they are never expressions of brotherly love. The other detail is the amazing future experience that Paul has in mind when he refers to the calling that believers share. They have been called to live together until the day comes when they will be together in glory. What thoughts will it bring to your mind in heaven when you meet one there with whom you squabbled with on earth, about whom you said things that were inappropriate? Because we will remember that we did so.
Motives for maintaining the unity
Paul mentions seven motives for his readers to consider and a great deal could be said about each of them. The first is the church, which he describes here as one body. We can understand how a literal body would have a problem functioning if its members were not united, if its feet wanted to go in different directions, if its hands struggled with one another rather than helping one another. If we saw saw such a person, we would be astonished, but we would also be very sad. Yet it is the case that often such behaviour does mark the body of Christ when a congregation forgets that it should be united. I suspect the heavenly audience is astonished and sad when such happens. Instead the body of Christ should serve together and receive together the power of the Spirit.
The second motive is the fact that there is only one Spirit. Every believer shares the priceless blessing of the indwelling Spirit. He is in each of them as the living Water, he is in each of them as the Comforter promised by Jesus, he is in them as the sign that they belong to the heavenly family. He wants to produce in each of them an ongoing and an increasing conformity to the likeness of Jesus.
The third motive is the one hope that believers all have. This hope is connected to what Jesus will yet do when he returns and brings into existence the new heavens and new earth. He is going to create a perfect, peaceful environment in which all his family will dwell together forever. They are going to share glory. And since that is going to be the case, surely they can live together now.
The fourth motive is that they have one Lord, which is a reference to their relationship with Jesus. How did he become their Lord? The path that he had to follow took him to the cross where he paid the penalty for their sins, including the times when they might not maintain the unity of the Spirit. Then he ascended to heaven, to the throne of God, and at the moment he is there as the advocate of all his people. He is Lord because of his triumph on the cross and he is Lord now for the benefit of his body, the church, which means that he is constantly concerned about what is happening to each member. Since Jesus loves to help them all, surely we should want to be at peace with them all.
The fifth motive is that there is one faith, and by this expression Paul means the various doctrines that Christians confess. This does not mean that they agree on every detail, but it does mean that they are committed to the fundamental doctrines of the faith. The doctrines of the faith are not opinions; instead they are descriptions of divine realities and the people of God rejoice in finding out as much as they can about each of them. Their fellowship is connected to these doctrines; if they share other things, it is not fellowship.
The sixth motive is one baptism, which is a reference to the outward sign by which confession is made to the world. Although subsequent developments have dimmed the message of baptism, we should remind ourselves that it does create a separation between Christians and the world. The one thing it was never meant to do was to create divisions between believers. Other Christians have the name of the Trinity on them, and this should be a motive for maintaining the unity of the Spirit.
The seventh motive is God the Father. We should observe how Paul uses the little word ‘all’ four times with regard to the Father and obviously he is stressing something that he regarded as very important. What does he mean by this fourfold usage? The Father loves all the children in his family, the Father protects all the children in his family, the Father is working through all the members of his family, and the Father lives in all the members of his family. If I choose to think negatively of a child of God, I should remind myself of this fourfold relationship that the Heavenly Father has to that individual.
Those seven motives are very powerful ones for maintaining the unity. We have to remember that they are not merely Paul’s selection of motives. In a far higher sense, they are the Holy Spirit’s choice of motives. If they do not move us to maintain the unity, then we are not listening to the voice of the Spirit. And if we persist in not listening to him, we have to question if we are genuine Christians.
Maintaining the unity
It is worth noting that we are not asked to make the unity. The unity that Paul has in mind here is not formed by humans. Instead it is a divine activity, although it is obvious from Paul’s words that humans can mar this divine working. Nevertheless, the believers have a great responsibility to maintain the unity.
What kind of church unity does Paul have in mind here? He cannot mean the unity of the church in the sense that it is united to Jesus – that is an eternal union which humans cannot affect. Nor does he mean the external union that an outsider might see if he visited the church and in Ephesus and observed them singing and praying together. Instead, he must mean an edifying union in which they build one another up, and this is confirmed by him going on to speak about the use of spiritual gifts.
The first detail that we can note is that maintaining the unity of the Spirit has to be a priority for them. We can see this emphasis in the word translate ‘eager’. This word was used to describe the way a traveller would make an important journey – he would prepare diligently and want to make it as trouble free as possible.
Secondly, they have to recognise the reality of peace which Paul says is the bond of their unity. When Paul wrote this letter, he was in bonds to a guard and he may have used that circumstance as the basis of saying that his readers were joined together by a different kind of cord or chain.
The question that arises here concerns what Paul means by peace. Probably the minds of his readers would go back to what he had said about peace in chapter 2. The Father, in sending Jesus, had created a situation of peace between his people and God as well as a state of peace between Jews and Gentiles. So the bond is connected to the doctrine of justification which expresses the peace that sinners have with the Judge, it is connected to the doctrine of reconciliation, it is connected to the work of the Holy Spirit because it is part of the fruit of the Spirit.
Where do believers show forth this twofold unity brought about by peace? One obvious place is the Lord’s Table where they meet together to recall that they have been saved by Jesus and brought together by Jesus. What is needed in order for unity to be realised at the Table? There should be repentance towards God for wrong thoughts, words and actions towards one another if they have taken place; there should be apologies made and confession of sin if that is required; there should be prayer for one another that each would have assurance of salvation. If I have created a barrier between myself and another Christian, I have also erected a barrier between myself and the blessing of God that could be conveyed to me by the Holy Spirit.
Sunday, 13 March 2016
The obvious deduction that we can make from this prayer is that we cannot judge the profundity of a prayer by its length. We see from Paul’s words that a short prayer can be very profound. Moreover, we can see that a real prayer need not have many petitions – this prayer has two, one beginning in verse 16 and the other towards the end of verse 17. Further, each petition has a desired answer. The first petition is ‘that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being’, and the answer he wants is ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’. The second petition is ‘that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge’, and the desired answer is ‘that you may be filled with all the fullness of God’.
Paul tells us that he had a reason for making this prayer. The reason is in the preceding set of verses and I would suggest that his reason contains at least three details: first, there are the benefits that have come to Gentile believers: ‘This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel’ (v. 6); second, there is the information that is given to the heavenly authorities (angels good or bad), that they would discover aspects of the wisdom of God through what happens in and through his people on earth; and, third, there are the experiences connected to the boldness and the access that believers have been given even in this life. I would say that if we remember those three realities we will make profound prayers, whether they are shorter or longer.
Then we should remind ourselves about whom Paul is praying here. He is praying for those who already love Jesus because of their conversions. It is impossible to be a Christian and not love Jesus to some extent. Yet it is also the case that no Christian, even the most dedicated, loves Jesus as he or she should or even yet will in this life. Paul knows these facts as he prays here for his readers. So he is praying for progression in the lives of believers whom he knows well because he was involved in the founding of the church there.
Adoration of the Father
Although the prayer is short and contains two petitions, it also expresses adoration of the Father. It is the case that, in the main, prayer should be addressed to the Father – Jesus in the Gospels and the other writers of the New Testament make that very clear. As Jesus did when giving what we call the Lord’s Prayer, Paul here adds something about the Father in order to express adoration. After all, it is possible to use the word ‘Father’ in such a way that avoids expressing adoration or admiration and may just be flippant. Adoration requires some mental preparation, and it does not have to be lengthy. Perhaps Paul wondered to himself, ‘What can I say about the Father when I express my adoration of him?’
On this occasion, Paul decided to mention that the heavenly Father is the origin of all other families, whether in heaven or on earth. I suppose he is referring to the family composed of angels and to the families composed of humans, whether the family of nations or people groups or the basic family unit. Of course, it is a basic outlook that family life is the central feature of society. Where did the idea of family come from? It came from God the Father, the one who planned to have his own family composed of adopted sons. It is a simple, straightforward truth about the Father, and Paul uses it to express his adoration verbally.
The apostle also expresses adoration by his bodily posture – he kneels. He probably did this in order to show that he was the servant of a great sovereign. There are two things about his posture that we can notice: the first is that he used it in secret prayer and the second is that he tells us that he used it. Paul is not expressing pride when he describes his posture for us. Instead he is reminding us that a person is what he is when he is alone with God. It is possible to be one thing in public and another in private. Paul was God’s servant wherever he was, even when engaging in one of the greatest privileges of being a son of God, which is to pray to the Father in secret.
Paul wants his readers to have a very rich experience, one that comes from the heavenly storehouse, and which involves the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification. He knows that there is a problem preventing the fulfilment of his petition in the lives of his readers and we can work out the problem by analysing the petition. The problem is not that they are sinful, although sin may have caused aspects of the problem. Instead the problem is that they are not strong enough to experience what he wants them to receive from God.
The blessing that he wants them (and us) to have is for Jesus to live in their and our hearts. We might say, ‘I thought that Jesus came to live with us when we are converted.’ He did, in a sense, although he can come in greater glory afterwards. Paul is saying that we need to become more capable of encountering the presence of God than we have been before. I don’t think there is much difference between what he says here and what other biblical writers say when they mention that Christians need to move on from drinking milk and proceed to eat strong meat. The apostle is praying that the Christians would become strong in the Lord in order to have the Lord come to them in a deeper manner than before.
This means that we cannot assume that Jesus will arrive suddenly at the door of our hearts. We can see that he comes after the Spirit has made us capable of receiving him. It is important to note that Paul expects this to be a possible experience for all the saints in Ephesus and his words do not indicate that it can only be experienced by select believers, by those who have somehow left other Christians far behind. Instead he is saying that this kind of living encounter with Jesus in our hearts is possible for all and should be desired by all.
It is also the case that we can assume that Jesus wants to meet with his people in this way. After all, the Father is not going to send the Spirit to prepare our hearts for a visit from Jesus that he does not want to make. Such a suggestion is absurd and if made seriously would be blasphemy. So here we have Paul the apostle praying that the Trinity would work together to give all believers this amazing experience of having Jesus present in them in a deeper way.
How do we know that we have been strengthened by the Spirit? The answer is that our faith grows in its expectations and then in its experiences of Jesus. Paul is not describing a physical encounter, nor is he suggesting a form of goose bumps that people experience when they meet someone who bowls them over. Instead, he is praying for increased experience of Jesus in what he can give to us spiritually and cause to happen in us and through us. And the apostle enlarges on this possibility in his second petition.
Before we move on to consider it, we can ask, how do we know that Jesus has come to dwell in a deeper way in our hearts? Imagine a man called Joe came to stay with you last week. I meet you and ask you what it was like to have Joe in your house. You shrug your shoulders and say it made no difference. Or you might say that Joe was no bother, which is probably the same as one would say of a person living next door rather than in your house. But what if you said that Joe brought such a sense of peace everywhere, whatever the time of day. And there was the joy that he created by what he said and did. And the sense of love that he gave. In fact, you now want Joe to stay for ever. What is it like to have Jesus dwelling with us? His presence will be known and we can’t pretend we have it if we don’t.
Paul says that the effect of having Jesus in the heart brings an atmosphere of love that makes believers like a well-rooted tree or like a building with a proper foundation. Of course, such a tree would withstand powerful storms and such a building would remain standing in an earthquake, although it is not the ability to withstand a storm or an earthquake that Paul has in mind. Instead he says that an awareness of divine love makes it possible to know something greater than a storm or an earthquake – he knows we can know more about the love of Christ and therefore he prays for it in confidence.
When he speaks about being rooted and grounded in love, he may have in mind their previous love for God the Father or for Jesus or he may intend their love for one another within the family of God. Both emphases could be there, and both are the product of the Spirit. In both possibilities, what better way to be strengthened for experiencing love than by being in love? It is the case that a failure to love other Christians will prevent us experiencing more of Christ’s love.
Paul also distinguishes between an intellectual appreciation of the love of Christ and an experiential appreciation of it, although he is not suggesting we can have one without the other. Yet he wants his readers to recognise the difference. The intellectual is described in his use of the dimensions of length, breadth, depth and height, and he states that this intellectual appreciation should mark all the saints. In other words, Paul is describing what a Spirit-renewed mind should normally think about.
The length of Christ’s love is a reminder that it is eternal, without beginning or end; the breadth of Christ’s love extends to all of his people, whoever they are and wherever they are; the depth of Christ’s love includes the descent to earth, the humiliation of the cross as well as where he had to descend in order to rescue his people at their conversions; and the height of Christ’s love is the level to which he will raise his people through his amazing salvation, aspects of which they receive from him in this life.
Obviously Paul wanted believers to know more about the love of Christ, otherwise he would not have prayed that they would do so. Paul wanted his readers to think about those dimensions of the love of Jesus because it was the evidence that they wanted to experience more of his love in their souls. To enable us to think of the love of Christ in this way is the work of the Spirit and he does not lead us to it through complicated arguments. Instead he shows us its reality, its clarity, and its suitability for us always. After all, is it hard to ask God to enable us to think about the length, breadth, depth and height of the love of Jesus? Is it difficult to set aside fifteen minutes each day and spend them thinking of those four dimensions of his love, especially since the Holy Spirit is delighted to reveal them to us?
Yet Paul reveals that there is more to this experience than increasing in our mental knowledge of it. In addition, there is an experiential aspect, and the fact that we need strength for having it indicates that the sense of the love of Jesus will become so strong that we can be overwhelmed by it as we experience the indescribable. In trying to understand this, we need to remember that we have the firstfruits of the Holy Spirit – in heaven, we will know the love of Jesus in great measure, so we should anticipate knowing something of that love in this life.
What will it be like to have this spiritual benefit? It will be connected to where we are spiritually at the time we are engaged in it. For example, if we have fallen to a temptation, the love of Jesus will be expressed in a sense of his forgiveness. If we are in a state of uncertainty, his love will often be expressed in giving a sense of his security. If we are engaged in doing something for him, his love will usually be expressed by the sense of his strengthening presence. The possibility of knowing the love of Jesus is a reminder of the passion that Jesus has for his people, because Paul’s petition indicates that the love of Jesus comes copiously.
Although Paul does not give a technique here that can be used to manipulate God, he does explain the normal process for believers enjoying the love of Christ. And when we look at what he says we see that it is straightforward to grasp. First, we pray for the power of the Spirit; second, we become marked by deep, strong love for God and for one another; third, we think about the love of Jesus in its length, breadth, depth and height; and fourth, we keep on experiencing the love of Jesus in relevant ways.
This is what it means to know God, to be filled with all the fullness of God. We don’t have contact with the other persons of the Trinity apart from Jesus. We don’t have contact with Jesus separate from his love, which is also connected to the love of the Father and the love of the Spirit. We don’t have spiritual contact with one another apart from Jesus and his love.
Paul is here praying primarily for real communion between believers in the things of Christ. What would the church in Ephesus have become like should the Lord answer the prayers of the apostle in this regard? Obviously, it would be Jesus-centred. But what would that look like? Here are some suggestions. First, it would a heavenly-minded congregation, because that is the mind of Jesus for his people. Second, it would be a humble congregation, because that is the effect of Jesus on his people. Third, it would be a holy congregation, because that is the desire of Jesus for them. Fourth, it would be a healing congregation – it would not wound one another or imagine that wounding would be useful. Fifth, it would be a happy congregation, because the joy of the Lord would be known by them.
What does a church look like without ongoing love? Sadly, a biblical example is the church in Ephesus as it is described in Revelation 2. Thirty years later, those who belonged to the church in Ephesus are described as those who have left their first love. I suspect that we would not have noticed that it had lost its love. And Jesus, the lover of our souls, threatens to cease its activities unless they repent of their lovelessness. It is likely that the original copy of the letter to the Ephesians would have been somewhere in the church that lost its first love. Receiving this letter did not guarantee that they would live in love, experiencing the love of Jesus.
Yet in God’s mercy, the same possibility of knowing Jesus is given to us. May we follow the process mapped out by the apostle, no doubt from his own experience, and discover the dimensions of Christ’s love and so grow in our knowledge of God.
The word translated restoration here can be rendered in different ways, which means it can have a variety of meanings. Apparently, the word was used to describe the recovery that is connected to repentance and it was often even used to describe a sinner’s initial conversion. The believer’s initial repentance is not the meaning in the psalm, yet that possible translation is a reminder that the Christian life usually begins with repentance, and thereafter becomes a life of repentance.
Repentance for our sins is often assumed to be a sign of weakness whereas in reality it is a sign of wisdom. It reveals that something precious has taken place in a person’s heart, which is that the God of grace has shown the individual his or her spiritual condition. But he has revealed the sin in such a manner that makes the individual focus on the Shepherd. Repentance takes place in the light of the cross. Although it was a dark place when Jesus literally suffered there, it is a place of great brightness when we go there to repent of our sins and mourn over the One who was pierced for them.
Repentance is a reminder that Christianity is a religion that moves our feelings. I have heard some people say that we should ignore our feelings, and that advice is good if it is concerned with feelings that are contrary to the gospel. But it is not good advice if it waters down feelings that are appropriate to the gospel. It is very appropriate for repentance to come from a broken heart. In fact, it is the only kind of heart where it can be found.
The best place to express our repentance is in the presence of the Shepherd. Is this not what the woman who was a sinner did when she wept at his feet and wiped them with her hair? The description ‘a woman who was a sinner’ is very apt because she is not a sinner now. Instead she is in heaven, having being made perfect in holiness. Yet her journey there commenced when she wept at the feet of Jesus. And that is where we should often want to be.
Repentance is not confined to the start of the pathway, nor is conversion limited to the first moment of faith. Remember what Jesus said to Peter when he warned him of his imminent fall: ‘And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers’ (Luke 22:32). When did Peter’s turning again commence? We know the story about how he had denied Jesus three times, and how the Lord turned and looked at Peter when he did so. There were many people in that room at that time, but Jesus was looking only at one person. What was the effect? Peter went away and wept bitterly.
What is going to make us repent as Christians? It does not really happen until we realise that the Lord is looking at us. We can try and get the opinions of others in order to water down our perception of the sinfulness of our actions, but that response is of no spiritual value. We may even resort to some kind of resolution in which we imagine that we can avoid repeating the wrong action on the future. But there is no restoration in a spiritual sense until we sense that the eyes of Jesus are on us, that he is looking at us committing our sins, and when we recall that is the case we will weep for our sins because our hard hearts will be melted.
Other reasons for restoration
One of the problems of modern life is that some people are unwilling to face up to their problems and pretend that they do not have any. The outcome of that attitude is that those who adopt don’t experience the remedies that are available. We have all heard of individuals who imagined they did not have a disease, so instead of experiencing a cure they suffered from their disease. Something similar can happen in the spiritual life as well. It is obvious that David did not share that outlook because he delights to affirm that he was experiencing restoration, which means that he recognised that he had need of it.
The question arises, ‘In what circumstances would a follower of the Shepherd need restoration?’ In a literal sense, a sheep could experience several circumstances when it would require restoration by its shepherd. There would be times of tiredness after walking about all day; there would be times of tension within the flock when one or more of them were intent on butting the others; there would be times when it would be terrified because wild animals were in the vicinity, perhaps making loud noises that indicated their presence; there would be times when it might experience being torn in a minor way by those animals; there would be times when it would become thin if it had not received enough provision, and there would be times when the best grass would be tasteless because the sheep was not well. We can use those suggested situations to think about how we can find ourselves in need of restoration, because they are very common spiritually.
Tiredness is a normal Christian experience, and it can be caused by good activities and by pointless activities. In fact, if we do not experience spiritual tiredness, it is an indication that we are not engaged in spiritual activities. For example, prayer is a tough discipline if persisted in, as is any ongoing act of service for the Lord. Jesus recognised that his disciples were tired physically after they had returned from a mission trip walking around Palestine. We can read in the psalms what many of the authors felt as they went through experiences that drained them spiritually. Those are good kinds of activities that cause tiredness. In contrast, we can exhaust ourselves doing things that are of no benefit spiritually. They could be anything, they could be quite varied, and often they are not necessarily wrong in themselves. But constant involvement in neutral activities will bring about spiritual tiredness because we are not feeding our souls with what they really need.
Tension in a close knit community can result in disappointments. When we lived in Harris, there was a flock of sheep feeding round the manse and watching them made me realise that nice and gentle were not always accurate descriptions of them. Often one or two of them would head butt one another or whichever sheep were nearby, and while it was not possible to discover why they did it, there did not seem to be an obvious reason. In the end, I assumed that they were narky, disagreeable sheep. The inevitable result was uncertainty and restlessness among the other sheep. Something worse happens when members of the flock of Christ engage in such antics. Tension is the inevitable consequence of such behaviour. And both those disputing with one another and the others they affect need to be restored.
Fear of predators obviously causes a sense of trepidation among sheep, probably because they sense that there is not much they can do about it. Peter reminds his readers that the devil goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. Of course, Peter was speaking from experience. Why does a lion make a noise? To petrify the victim and make it aware of its weakness and inabilities. It cannot even run away properly. The devil roars at us with threats of persecution and with temptations to sin. As we endure such things, spiritual exhaustion comes along and we find ourselves without strength and almost about to give up.
Tastelessness is a serious sign as far as a sheep of Christ is concerned. When a believer loses relish for the Word of God, there is something wrong with his appetite. The Bible is mainly about salvation and about communion with the Lord. It is not a history book to be compared with other ancient texts, that is a spiritually useless activity. Instead it has been provided by God as the source of our nourishment and our use of it is a clear indicator of our spiritual health. When did we last find a place where we could go to be alone with Jesus in his Word? Or have we become in need of refreshment?
Another cause of the need of refreshment is connected to how we use our ability to talk to the Lord. It is not so much about what we do say, but about what we do not say. One of the kindest things that the Holy Spirit can do for us is point out aspects of our lives where we are sinning. We recognise that he has shown us, but what do we do with that knowledge? Do we leave it as unconfessed sin? There are times when we have to confess sins to another person if we have sinned against him or her, and if we refuse to do so, there will be no progress. Keeping silent when we should speak is not a spiritual response. Even when we have no reason to confess our sins to another person, we always have to confess our sins to God, especially when he has convicted us of them. The author of this psalm knew by sad experience what happened when he did not confess his sins to God, and we can read about that period in his life in Psalm 32.
No doubt, there are other reasons for finding ourselves in need of restoration. But we can reflect briefly on how the refreshment comes and what are its effects.
The Shepherd’s refreshment
The great blessing is that there is a restorer of the soul. This is one of the Saviour’s activities. We have already mentioned what he did for Peter when he was backsliding. In addition to Peter, there is the way Jesus interacted with all the disciples when he met them after his resurrection after they had failed him when he was arrested. Or we can even consider the ways he spoke to the members of the seven churches of Asia who had turned away from him (Rev. 2-3).
It is obvious that when the Lord restores one of his people, he uses providence and his means of grace to bring about spiritual recovery. Providence covers all of life and it may mean that God will let the person become hard in a spiritual sense, which is what he did with the author of this psalm when he committed adultery and followed it with murder. The fact that David seemed to get away with his plans initially was not proof that he was in a right state with God.
If I choose to wander away from God, I should not imagine he will not work in providence to bring me back. This experience may be very costly because he might remove the means by which I am departing from him. For example, if I am using my income to practice sinful behaviour, I may lose my work. Sometimes he may use illness. At other times, he may bring various disappointments. My plans may be disrupted. After all, everything is in his hands for him to use to restore the souls of his people. The fact is, as Jesus said to the church in Laodicea, ‘Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent’ (Rev. 3:19).
Of course, as we noticed, not all causes of dryness are connected to personal sinfulness. In such situations, the Lord can use a whole range of providences to help restore his people. It may be an unexpected message from Christian friend whom we have not seen for years. It could be through reading a book. It could be through taking a break and spending time with God in a different situation. The Lord may remove the cause of the problem through prayer; for example, if it is persecution that was bringing about the problem, the source of it may be sent elsewhere.
When it comes to restoration from backsliding as a wandering sheep, God will use the means of grace to restore his people in that condition. With David, he used Nathan, one of his servants, to point out to David privately where he had gone wrong. With Peter, Jesus restored him personally in Jerusalem on the resurrection day and restored him to his role a few days later in Galilee in the presence of other disciples. One of the best places for restoration is the company of Christians. Often a backslider feels ashamed and imagines it is better to be away from them, but that is wrong, and is likely a suggestion of the devil.
A believer under church discipline may be affected by witnessing the Lord’s Supper taking place and he cannot participate. He recalls previous occasions when his soul was fed and he repents of his folly in putting his heart into the cold condition it now is in.
Of course, we have to remember that not all backsliding is visible backsliding. Some backslide without doing or saying anything wrong, even although their hearts are at a distance from God. Whatever the circumstances in which the Lord does it, the process always involves repentance. It is impossible to be restored from a backsliding state without repenting of the relevant sins.
Sometimes we may consider the activity of repentance as undesirable in case it opens for us wounds that we would rather keep closed. Yet the fact is that the One to whom we repent is the heavenly physician who has promised to heal his people from their spiritual diseases. This is the point of spiritual recovery. It means returning to the place where we are on good spiritual terms with the Shepherd.
Spurgeon in a sermon on this verse mentions a rather startling but accurate spiritual statistic: ‘Child of God, as numerous as your sins have been, so numerous have His restorations been.’ In stating why he thought Jesus did this, Spurgeon’s conclusion was that ‘It is the way of Him; it is the habit of His love.’ This is a reminder that we should go direct to the Shepherd immediately and ask him to restore our souls.