You can see it and feel it. Some call it a post-Covid spiritual malaise in the Church: weariness and an exclusive focus on maintenance that leads to inertia. No doubt we feel some of it personally too. How much energy do we have for God and holiness? We don’t want to be superficial in our enthusiasm or activity, but when we look deeper inside us, how much liveliness can we see in our faith these days? Admittedly these are difficult times to be a believer. There are so many things that leave us perplexed and disheartened, and we have so many sins in our own lives to confess. God can seem so distant, as if he is putting us off when we try to approach Him, or turning away from us. But we can hope even in this kind of situation. There is a remedy for our spiritual lethargy.
According to Hugh Binning, challenging times when everything seems so much of a struggle are exactly the circumstances where faith should be prompted to be most active. “At such a time there ought to be all the more exercise of faith, and laying hold of the grounds of consolation in God.”
Challenges in a strange way can even strengthen faith, and certainly they give us ample motivation to keep seeking God until we know we have got through to him. How can we get out of our spiritual inertia? In this updated extract from a sermon on Isaiah 64, Binning tackles the question, When and how are we stirred up to spiritual activity?
1. Difficulties call for strong faith
As difficulties grow, faith should fortify itself against them so much the more. The greater the storm, the quicker faith should flee into the chambers.
Faith in a calm day gets no trial. Faith gets lazy when it does not have much to do. But without fresh and new supplies of grace, faith cannot hold out in a temptation. It is a singular sign of a noble and divine faith that it can lay hold on God and keep him when he makes to go away—that can recognise the kindness of Jesus even when he acts as if he does not know us —that can stand on the ground of the promises when there is not a foot-breadth of a hopeful sign in the circumstances to build on.
2. Difficulties demand a sure faith
The most pressing time for making sure of your part in God is a time when there is no external advantage to beguile you, a time when the only happiness is to be one with God. Therefore, anyone who, in time of calamities and judgments, is not awakened to put their eternal estate out of question, is in a dangerous position.
3. Difficulties call out a focused faith
The Lord loves faith in a difficulty best. Then it is the most single-hearted and focused, and the cleanest. That is the kind which honours him most, and which most glorifies his truth and faithfulness, and sufficiency and mercy. In this way it is most purely elevated above created things, and pitches most fully on God. It is when people say, ‘No help for my soul, but thou art my portion.’ God is most commended when he is set alone. Prosperity brings him down among the creatures, and undisturbed, complacent faith makes little distinction. But awakening faith grips strongly and singly, and puts God alone.
4. Difficulties require special seeking
Often, when God is departing, “none stirreth up himself to lay hold on him.” Although there may be plenty praying, and doing many duties, yet it is nothing beyond the ordinary. The varieties and combinations of new reasons for supplications results neither in greater frequency nor more fervency in our appeals to God.
5. Seek with diligence
There is very little diligence in seeking God, even when God seems to be saying farewell to the land, and going away. Still nobody comes in as an intercessor. They keep on in their old way of praying, and never add to it, come what may. Does anyone rise above their ordinary ways, however high the tide of God’s dispensation rises?
Instead the impression made by God’s change of countenance should make an effect that would be visibly seen on how his people behave. There should be such a distance between your ordinary and such times as between sleeping and waking, that whatever access to God you normally have, you would stir up and go beyond it according as matters call.
Will God count your public fasts a performance of this duty? Unfortunately, we fast sleeping, and no one stirs himself up to these things! Is there any difference between your days of humiliation and any other sabbath? And is there any difference between a sabbath and a weekday, save the external duty?
Is not this palpably our case? Is there any wakening among us? No, complacency is the universal disease and complaint. Do any of you pray more in private than you used to? Or what edge is on your prayers? Alas! It seems like the Lord would readily get leave to go away from us. I am afraid that we would give Christ a testimonial to go away overseas. Hold him, hold him! Many would be gladly quit of him. They cannot abide his yoke, his work is a burden, his word is a torment, his discipline is bands and cords, and what heart can they have to keep Christ? What will you do to him to hold him still? All your entreaties may be fair compliments, but they would never rend his garment.
6. Seek with faith
What the Lord Jesus is doing warns us that it is now high time to stir up faith and lay hold on him. Will conjectures carry you through difficulties? The multitude think they have plenty faith, but any temptation proves their mistake. The most part of Scotland would deny God and his Son Jesus Christ, if they were put to it. This is not a time to linger outside of your stronghold. It is only faith that unites you to Christ, so if you would want to be kept safe in any trial, stir up faith.
7. Seek with prayer
Faith expresses itself in prayer. Consideration of God, and the grounds of confidence in him, must both make prayer acceptable, and carry the stamp of Christ’s name on it. Also it must make much prayer, for when a soul has pitched on God as its only blessedness, and made choice of him, it finds in him all-sufficiency – all things for all things. There is no need, but faith finds a supply in God’s fulness for it, and therefore faith sends us to the fountain, to draw out of the wells of salvation. Nothing can be so sweet and refreshing as for such a soul to pour out itself every day in him, to talk with him face to face. Faith engages the heart to come to God with all things, whereas the complacent soul or the unsettled heart would have gone for help in as many different ways as there are different difficulties. Faith lays hold on God, Faith knows but one God, and brings all problems here.
And again, how can prayer be acceptable as long as faith is not its principle? It is only like an animal groaning under a burden. Laying hold on God himself makes our duties acceptable, because we speak and ask believing that we shall receive. We trust God and do not tempt him. The oil of the wheels is affection, or heart-activity, but if lively faith is not entertained there cannot be much affection. In bitterness of spirit there may be much vehemence, but that is not a pure flame of divine love that burns upward to him. It is soon extinguished, and lasts no longer than a fleeting emotion, and then the soul grows harder, like iron that has been in the fire.
When there is not much prayer, faith cannot be strong and violent, for prayer is the exercise of faith. If your prayers wear out, faith will go rusty. There may be much quietness with little prayer, but there cannot be much, with strong and lively faith, for where faith does not get continual employment it flags.
Prayer is a special point of holding God fast, and keeping him. Therefore join prayer with diligence and faith, if you want to thrive in any one of them. Your unbelieving complaints are not prayers and calling on his name, because they are not mixed with faith.
8. Seek to lay hold of God
If it seems that God is angry, then we must lay hold on him. We ought to hold on to a departing Lord, by wrestling with him in supplication, and not let him depart till he blesses. The prophet Hosea makes this application of Jacob’s victory over the angel: “Turn ye to the Lord, and wait on him,” (Hosea 12:3-6).
When the circumstances seem to tell us, “The Lord has gone,” and when our condition seems to say, “He is gone, or going,” then we ought to wrestle against it. Let there be no submission to such a departing! I mean, no submission that sits down content with it, and does not care how things will turn out.
If only you would realise that the Lord is only seeking employment, and if you would only deal with him, you would turn both the present calamities and future calamities to good opportunity.
It is God himself who should be your principal target. Praying should be laying hold on God – it should meet with himself. Most of the time, when things are going well, we are not able to meet with God solely, because we have so much to do with created things. We are so punctual in our dealings with created things that we cannot keep close to God. We have so many things in our affections and thoughts, that God cannot get a place. In the throng of our busyness God cannot get us at leisure. So we lose God by catching at shadows.
Well then, we are called in a time of difficulty to come in to God himself, to draw aside the veil of ordinances so that we may have communion with God himself. And this is right praying, when the soul gets such direct access to God, as it were, to handle him, and see him, and taste him, to exercise its senses on him.
Ordinances have been for a long time covering his face, as he does not now much unveil himself in the sanctuary, to let us see his glory. God has departed from preaching and praying, so that we do not meet with God. Instead we lay hold on the shadow of an outward ordinance, but not on God himself. Therefore, Christians, take advantage of this time! You cannot count on always having the ordinances. Lay hold therefore on himself who is the substance and marrow of them. You may be denuded of outward comforts and accommodation here. Lay hold therefore on himself in much prayer. If affliction would only blow away the cloud over his face, or scatter our idols from us, and make us single alone with God, as Jacob was, it would be worth it.
Take hold on God by faith. If you want to make peace with God, be much in direct acts of grasping hold of God himself in Jesus Christ. Travel continually between your own need and something in God that corresponds to it.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but if God is warning us that he is leaving us, that itself is a hopeful sign, because it means there is still opportunity for us to hold on to him and hold him back. “He made as though he would have gone further. But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us… And he went in to tarry with them” (Luke 24:28-29).
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