By H. Forbes Witherby.
16. Longings after God.
God gives desires — christian desire — Christ himself the object of the christian's heart — decadence.
The new nature which God has given His children yearns after Himself, its Origin, its Strength, its Joy. In God's presence, delighting in His light and love, unclogged by worldly burdens, free from all hindrances to the full consciousness of who and what God is, the new nature has perfect pleasure. In creation, the happiness of the creature depends upon its life being in freedom, and vigorous. Certainly such is the case with the children of God. "The life of God," which they have, distinguishes their place in the new creation; and according to their freedom, in the presence of God their Father, is their joy. Life, under restraint, is ever burdensome: a child of God weighted with worldly cares, or half choked with worldly pleasures, is a contradiction of his new nature, and a denial of its yearnings.
The child of God, in the normal, right state of his affections, looks on to the future, when all hindrance shall be abolished, and when he, spirit, soul, and body, shall be like the Lord in the liberty of the glory. He also yearns after the conscious favor of his God's presence day by day, and longs to know more of Christ, and to live in His enjoyed communion until the glory comes. This, though varying in intensity, and though interrupted by the influences of the world, is true of everyone who has divine life, for, as the waters of one fountain, so do the desires of this life spring from God, their source. The measure of the desires may differ, and does differ, according to the practical godliness of each child; but the eternal life itself, as acted upon by the indwelling Spirit, rises up to the Father and the Son.
God gives desires after Himself to His people. The eternal life which He has communicated to His children is unlike natural life, for that goes on independently of our parents from whom we derived it. Each human being has his own natural life in his own individuality; but the eternal life, while the possession of each believer, is immediately connected with its source and origin, God; it is not ours in ourselves apart from its source, but it is in the Son. "This is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in His Son." (1 John 5:11.)
New affections, new motives, new longings pertain to this life, and all of these God sustains by His Spirit. The wanderings, the turnings aside, the world-borderings of the child of God, however dishonoring to the Father, and however sad in their results to the child of God himself, must not be confounded with the unchangeable truth of his having eternal life in Christ.
We turn to the book of Psalms, the Old Testament treasury of longings after God, and see, as it were, inscribed upon its golden walls, that the nature, God communicates to His people cannot be satisfied save in the conscious presence of God. God Himself — according to the measure of the divine revelation of what He is — is the delight of His children; fellowship with God, whom fallen human nature shuns, is even in this world rest and joy for all who are His; in eternity the rest and the joy of the children of God will be unbroken fellowship with the Father and the Son in glory.
The measure of rejoicing in God experienced by the psalmists was according to the revelation of Himself given to them by God. We are not referring to the spirit of prophecy, for the Holy Ghost moved holy men of old to express words, the meaning of which they longed to comprehend (1 Peter 1:11), but we are considering divinely wrought desires and the Spirit stirring up the heart towards God. The Spirit had touched the chief musician's affections when he sang, "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after Thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God." (Ps. 42:1, 2.) And most blessed desires are these, the uprising of the affections of the new nature to God their source, their end. Again, when David said, "My soul, wait thou only upon God" (Ps. 62:5), he spoke out of the depths of a heart that knew God, as his rock, his salvation, and his defence. Ht was the result of having dealt with God and of God having dealt with him; of deep and real searchings of soul, and of deep and real trusting in God. Indeed, such was David's confidence in God, that he was called the man after God's own heart! Such also was Abraham, the friend of God. The divine nature being communicated to these men, the Spirit led them to trust in, to delight in, and to walk with God.
No bars can imprison desires; and though the day of liberty had not dawned in the times of these songs, which are so frequently intermingled with lamentations and fear, the affections implanted within those souls of His people rose up to God.
Desires after God all God's people assuredly have; but until God be known in the person of His Son, the affections of the nature which He has given His children are restrained, and the believer is barred from fully delighting in the light of the full revelation of God. Right desires after God are such as are in accordance with God's revelation of Himself; and the child of God cannot be really happy save as he is longing after God in the spirit of that revelation, and save as God is satisfying those longings. Thus, it is of the utmost practical importance for the joy of the believer, and for the glorifying of God, that his desires should flow in the channels made by his God and Father; and this ever leads to His own word, and teaches us to submit our hearts to the instruction of His Spirit, that we may recognise what are the divinely-made channels.
Coming to the New Testament, we open upon those pages of the word of God which give us the yearnings of the child of God in some of their highest forms. We find that the most intense desires are after the Son of God in heaven, in and by whom God has now revealed. Himself, and to whose image in glory His people shall be conformed. Here we find a character of longings such as those which the psalmists never expressed, and a freedom in the presence of God of which they never sang. The channels made by God in His children are of a heavenly character. Our Lord, a Man in heaven, Jesus in glory, object for the affections, rest for the heart, known and delighted in through the Spirit, forms in the heart these channels for the flowing of christian longings.
True christian desire may be summed up in these few words: "That I may know Him" (Phil. 3:10), words which are the expression of the apostle's panting after the Son of God. David longed after Jehovah in the sanctuary: Paul longed after Jesus in the glory. He strained forward after Him. For Him Paul had cast aside all things, eager, as a racer, to "win Christ," his prize. He had seen Him in the glory; he knew Jesus in heaven; and his soul bounded forward in divinely-given energy to reach the goal of the Christian's affections. When this goal shall be reached by all, the realized hope of eternal life will be the rejoicing of the children of God.
We have endeavored to set before our reader, in some of our previous chapters, truths which free the spirit from legalism and self effort, and establish the believer in Christ. These delivering truths may be termed chiefly positional, relating as they do to what the believer is in Christ, which position is not affected by the practical condition of the soul. But if freed by the truth, the need is great, that the soul he stirred up to the things which relate to the believer's condition day by day on earth. With this in view, we place the desires of the heart first, for the head follows the heart, and the whole being goes where the heart leads. The actual condition of each soul is brought to the test by the Lord's own question, "What think ye of Christ?" (Matt. 22:42.) Personal intercourse with Him makes each believer what he really is; we do not say what he may seem to be.
Various theories are often submitted to the believer, in order to enable him the better to live a godly life. The apostle, in the treasury of christian longings referred to, gives the only true principle in this one word, "To me to live is Christ." (Phil. 1:21.) Christ is our life, and the believer desires to live Christ. God the Father gives the power to do this, by strengthening the affections, by His Spirit, in such a way that Christ may be their continual occupation. "Strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith." (Eph. 3:16, 17.) In proportion as Christ abides in our hearts, by faith, our hearts are truly taken up with Him as their object; and thus Christ becomes the principle of christian living. If the many things of sight are filling our hearts, the world is the object we have in view; and when such is the case, the christian, at the best, speaking practically, is like a heavily burdened man trying to run a race.
Christ Himself and not even truth about Christ, must be filling our hearts, if we wish to thrive. This is no unnecessary caution in a day when knowledge of the most sacred truths may be intellectually attained by so small an effort. It is a happy thing to understand the word of God, but, with that word treasured, the aim of the Christian's affections should be, "That I may know Him." Desires after Christ, desires to live Him on earth, and to live with Him in heaven, make the christian separate from the world, and separate him to the Lord. Practise flows from affection. If the heart sleep, the christian, like a locomotive without fire or water, is at a standstill; he is a name only for speed and strength. The once ardent Ephesians slept to their first love of Christ, and from the centre of lukewarm affections spiritual decay spread, till at length their privilege of light-giving for Christ was removed.
Christ died for us, and rose again; it is for us, not to live to ourselves but to Him. His love awakens ours; His love is the motive power of ours, our lamps are lighted by the flame of His love to us. "For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: and that He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him which died for them, and rose again." (2 Cor. 5:14, 15.)
Truly, to reckon oneself to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God in Christ (Rom. 6:11); to set the affection on things above, as risen with Christ (Col. 3:1, 2), and to live Christ on earth (Phil. 1:21), who is in us the hope of glory (Col. 1:27), should be the high ambition of the child of God. Let other things stream out from this freedom, let service, walk, motives, be governed by Christ's love to us!
Decadence is, alas, so common to all, that at the very outset of our thoughts upon things practical we cannot omit to speak of it. There are children of God, who once were absorbed in overwhelming desires for rest of conscience; they were burdened by the sense of sin and fettered by legality; they yearned after and wept for, the knowledge of divine favor in Christ to them personally; yes, with greater intensity than ever slave longed for liberty. God, in grace, gave them the knowledge of pardon and of deliverance, and gave them to rejoice in His freedom, and for a short time they ran well. What has hindered them, and where are they now? Sleeping among the dead!
At one time it seemed almost impossible that these eager seekers after God should ever be found in the ranks of commonplace christians, hardly distinguishable from the world which crucified Christ, and which is under God's judgment. Truth took the place in the mind which Christ should occupy in the heart. The facts of life and liberty were accepted; going on in heart with the Lord was deficient; there was not walking in Christ Jesus the Lord as He was received. Hence the lamps of these believers have dwindled into sparks, and they shine not as bright lights in the world.
Life and liberty may be known, nay, there is not a truth in the scriptures that may not be known, and yet the soul sink down into a state of supineness. Unless Christ be dwelling in the heart by faith, the practical outgoings of the christian life are at a standstill; and to return to our illustration of the locomotive, there is nothing more damaging to delicate machinery than the rust of idleness; and no idleness is so disastrous to the christian as that which proceeds from languor of the affections.
As with a nation, so with an individual, peace and liberty not infrequently induce ease and carelessness; and solemn, indeed, as it is to express it, many a believer forsook his earnestness shortly after having been delivered from doubts and fears as to his salvation. "Ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh." (Gal. 5:13.) So long as the believer was occupied with his own deliverance, lie was like a caged bird beating against its prison bars, he could not settle down; the liberty being given, it is his privilege to fulfil its law in loving bonds to Christ. The bird flies from twig to twig and sings its songs in liberty; it does this in the fulfilment of its nature's pleasures. The loving child delights to run its parent's errand, and the parent bids it run the errand — the service is liberty. The bondsman of Christ rejoices in the will of his Lord, he obeys His word, and so fulfils the law of liberty.
It is not too much to say, that with many it seems easier to come to the Lord as a Saviour at the first, and to die trusting Him as a Friend at the end, than to keep plodding on, day by day, in dependence upon Him. The beginning and the ending of many a Christian's course are brighter than the middle. Is it because at the extremes there is such felt nothingness in self that Christ is necessarily all?
We are not automatons, or pieces of machinery wound up upon the day of our conversion, to move like the hands of a clock till we leave this world. We are responsible to Him who loves us; and the only way to live the daily life of a true christian is to do so by living by the day, by walking by faith, and keeping on going to God moment by moment, even as we breathe the air moment by moment.
What Christ's work has effected may be understood, yet Christ Himself not be laid hold of by the heart. To know all that Christ has done for us is not sufficient; we must have Him dwelling in our hearts by faith. May it be true of each of us, as said the apostle, "To me to live is Christ!"