The word crisis is attached to many things and events these days. It signals alarm and urgency and often a perceived lack of leadership. Crisis is originally a Greek word that speaks of using one’s judgment to make a decision at a particular turning point. We have been placed in a particular generation with particular advantages and challenges. It is pointless wishing it was any different, we need to understand our times to serve our generation (Acts 13:36). In our time of crisis, we need those with wisdom to discern our time (Ecclesiastes 8:5-6) and avoid its particular pitfalls (Ecclesiastes 8:12). We need those like the men of Issachar “who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). Taking the pulse of the times helps us remain watchful to take proactive or evasive action as we discern their impact and influence on the Church.
Robert Fleming said that it is possible to take the pulse of the times just as you can monitor the body’s heart rate, it makes us aware of the current condition of the Church and how it is responding to health threats. He was particularly concerned with the dangers that any particular time may present. We can have a blind spot for either the unique advantages or threats for the Church at a particular moment in time. It is important not to lose sight of the opportunities and reasons for encouragement and we hope return to this another time, but sometimes the threats of our times are less obvious so we need to know how to discern them. Fleming gives his counsel as to how to identify particular snares for the Church in the following updated and abridged extract.
1. When Suffering is Unavoidable
Each time has its unique diseases and dangers accompanied with special power and prevalence. The godly must observe this watchfully. The temptations of the time go along with the diseases that reveal themselves either by a hot boiling fever or a deadening lethargy. The temptations follow the diseases that are in that time most contagious. These are those which carry away the multitude and are incubated under the warm favour of those who are influential. Yet their greatest assault is on the godly. The danger lies in the evils which promise some outward advantage and security from trouble when the choice is between sin and suffering. This is where the present snare lies. The godly have a special duty to keep their distance from acceding to it in the least way. Next to the salvation of their soul, they must be solicitous to have their garments kept from the smallest stain and spot. A touch, a small defilement from a publicly prevailing evil can impact more deeply on the conscience and be more difficult to escape than that of many other personal failings.
2. When Truths are Questioned
There is some aspect of the truth of God in each period of the Church, that is more questioned and debated than at other times. This helps us know with greater clarity where the danger lies. Error will direct its aim at the godly man to assault and entangle them in his duty to contend for the truth. If one keeps their eye well on their present duty, they will find out more easily where the particular snare of the time is and how it seeks to obstruct them from doing that duty.
3. When Duties are Questioned
We may also discern a danger that is prevailing and gaining ground by the increasing tendency in a day of testing, to question and make new investigations about duties that were once clear and unquestionable. They were not questioned in the past because their opinions were not influenced by any outward pressure. This questioning suggests they are looking for a sad reason to be rid of their conscience. Seldom do any take this course without succeeding all too visibly in it to their further ruin. Balaam tried this and was successful in it. Hesitation and fainting in the heart due to lack of resolution to suffer for the truth will not long lack a doubt in the head to begin a debate about. It is then easy for a snare to enter. How tenderly we should guard the light of truth; it is like the apple of the eye which may be hurt by the least thing and not easily healed. People easily find the previous strong impressions about matters of duty without realising. Before they are aware have their judgment by a judicial stroke determined in that, which was before their desire. Those who are not jealous concerning a change of convictions in an hour of testing know little of the depth of the heart. The natural tendency is to spare ourselves at such a time.
4. When the Godly are Divided
We may also discern a snare by the way the adversary uses it to his advantage to divide the godly. It is easy to enter through such a division and throw the bait into such muddy waters. It is far too obvious how far a snare can prevail where jealousy and bitter strife and quarrelling between individuals take their eyes off the public danger. It also blunts the edge of contending for the truth in their smiting one another. There may often be a necessity for the godly to withstand their friends to their face. It may even need to be done to the most eminent in the Church such as Peter (Galatians 2:11) when the truth is concerned. But this should be done with the greatest caution and tenderness to avoid a division or quarrel which is like a flood (Proverbs 17:14).
The adversary is watching and waiting to get his advantage at such a time. It is all too sadly known, how a small wedge driven in with this tendency makes way for a further snare to come in (see 1 Corinthians 11:16-19). What a sad connection there is between a time of division in the Church and a further departure from the truth. But we must always take heed, that we pursue union among ourselves in such a way that Christ and His cause are not left alone [i.e. we do not abandon His truth].
5. When Enemies Change Tactics
Present danger may be seen by the sudden change of known adversaries and the friendly insinuations of those who previously threatened. There is an ambush in this, it is merely a change of weapons for advantage. This should be grounds for fear and caution and being much alone with God to know the voice of the shepherd, lest they follow after a stranger. It is more usual to be swept off our feet in calm weather than blown down by a storm. It is hard to stand before the flatteries of men where that sweeter peace with God is not maintained in the soul. It is a special means of making the ear deaf to the most charming voice of the enchanter. It is often obvious that adder’s poison is under their lips, while wrath is boiling in their heart (Psalm 140:3-5). The cruel man can change his demeanour when it is convenient to lay a snare, and like Joab embrace those in their arms whom they intend to smite under the fifth rib.
6. When Fear of Man Prevails
A snare can be discerned by the degree to which the fear of man prevails in that time. It has an unusual command at particular times over the spirits of even those whose former zeal and resolution for the truth have been prominent in other times of testing. There is cause for watching at such times for there is a snare in the fear of man (Proverbs 29:25) which will take its advantage when it finds people now fleeing men. The godly have a breastplate, but no piece of armour for their back when their turn their face from resisting. It is sad when the adversary is taught to pursue us by our fainting. It is sad also when the spirit that seems to be on the ascendant in the world prevails even over the spirits of the godly. It then makes them debased and contemptible in the eyes of those enemies whose hearts would have previously trembled at the authority of God evident on them. This becomes too obvious in a time when the Church is humbled and tried until the hour of her trial has passed.
7. When Sin Succeeds
A snare is to be feared and watched against when success accompanies a sinful course; especially when this lasts for some time. New queries will then be raised and strange reports spread undermining the Lord’s way with great subtlety and seeking to make the godly question it. The Psalmist found it was not easy to stand before this. It made him begin to debate his principles and the benefits of his convictions (Psalm 73:13). The adversary knows how to assault the followers of the truth and attack them at their weakest at such a time. The scandal of the cross causes many to offend. It is hard for those to suffer who do not know the fellowship of the cross of Christ which is part of the greatest and closest fellowship with Him on earth. The Church may endure more danger from some of her friends than from the professed adversary at such times. It is often in this way that a prevailing snare is assisted. It cannot but be a searching and dangerous time when many are turning aside. Even some who have understanding may be permitted to fall and be ready to press their sin on others as their duty. Such seldom fall away without being more active to engage others in the same course. Sometimes they are more energetic in this than they were in holding their former integrity to the truth. We have seen this and it happens, let us, therefore, hear this and be aware of it for our good.
8. When the Church is Harmed
A snare of the times may be discerned by its tendency to produce corruption in the Church. It still produces the same effects, whatever people pretend, when it manifests itself by the hands of Esau though it has the voice of Jacob. Does not the ruin of many who have been dashed on such a rock, put a sad marker on it? Scripture and observing the Church’s experience show us warning beacons that (unless we shut our eyes to it) will make any snare obvious. We can see clearly what a sad tendency had for making shipwreck of faith and a good conscience. It is also clear how hard it is to dance about the fire and not be burned or to stand in the way and counsels of ungodly men and not be ensnared.
9. When Circumstances Alter
A snare seems to be threatened when people enquire about the duty of the times without considering it in the light of present circumstances. A snare can be in things that are at other times indifferent, yet in other circumstances neglecting them may mean abandoning duty. Or by the same token doing something indifferent which is lawful in other circumstances may be morally wrong in other contexts. Something indifferent in itself which is merely around sacred things and the worship of God may be required by civil government by virtue of their sole command. This may bring the godly into subjection in things in which they are not to be subject and harm the separate jurisdiction of the church. To enquire into this as a general principle without making particular application to the present complex situation is dangerous.
It may be said a snare is entering when the prophet’s consideration “Is this a time for such a thing?” (see 2 Kings 5:26) is not regarded much in the present questions. It was innocent in itself for the disciples to refresh themselves with sleep, but that they could not watch at that one hour with their Master in His sufferings must of necessity alter the situation since it was in that case deserting Him.
10. When Spirituality Declines
Is it not evidence of a snare getting an advantage when private concerns and outward interests have a prevailing influence on our spirits? A snare does not come in without an opportunity and its greatest strength and advantage is within us. Conformity to the world together with an unperceived decline in tenderness of soul too often breeds a tendency to conform to an evil course in a downhill motion. The snare will follow in after this worldly conformity that has the mastery over them. How many in embracing the world have fallen from the truth at the next step? No weapon has ruined more and has been more made use of against the Church. Where other snares have killed their thousands, this has slain its ten thousands. Where this appears at a time of testing for the Church it is like the appearance of grey hairs. It is not easy for any to stand, resist or keep their feet from a snare when they gone backward so far that the truth has ceased to have command over their heart.
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