The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Blessings with hindsight

with 4 comments

I distinctly remember it. I was sitting among a group of young people, some of whom were professing Christianity, some of whom were wrestling with God, and some of whom were neither. We were, most of us, in our mid-teens, and many of us had come from homes in which we heard and saw the gospel more or less clearly, more or less often. I cannot remember how the conversation turned as it did, but at one point a clear consensus quickly arose. Pretty much everyone who had been brought up under some degree of genuine Christian influence was wishing that they had lived utterly apart from God. A lot of this had to do with assurance: I think that the feeling was that when you have lived under a degree of restraint, knowing the truth by intellectual instruction if not by spiritual apprehension, there was a felt reduction in the degree of conviction of sin and a corresponding difficulty in discerning the transition from darkness to light. So far, so fascinating (perhaps).

I have learned some things, I hope, over the years since. Among them is the fact that outward restraint is no measure of heart sin, and that there is more than enough iniquity in the heart of the child trained up in a Christian home under the gospel to breed more than enough conviction of sin. The person who thinks otherwise merely needs a more accurate, Spirit-wrought sense of sin: the problem here is not so much reality as perception. I have also learned that the reason why some of us were confused is because not all of us who spoke were genuinely converted: some of those present were discussing the validity and reality of what they had never actually experienced or still needed to experience, as subsequent history has revealed.

But the point I wish to make runs along a different track. There we were, possessed of the incalculable blessings of growing up with parents who sought to teach us of Christ, who trained us and restrained us, holding back some of the worst excesses of our unregenerate hearts, who sat week by week under the faithful preaching of the gospel of Christ Jesus, who had pastors and other mature saints who taught and demonstrated the truth as it is in Jesus . . . and we were complaining that we wished we had been utterly destitute of any such influences, allowed to run in our own way absolutely, given over to sin.

Honestly, I understand the wish, but it is misguided. As I say, there is no need for us to live an outwardly, utterly Godless life in order to know ourselves sinners. Furthermore, I now thank God for the fact that I was so restrained, that my personal history is not more littered with extravagant external sins (there are more than enough), that the Lord removed at various times either the inclination or the opportunity, and laid upon my heart some of those constraints which – though substantially external in themselves – nevertheless were the means of keeping me from greater wickedness.

Then, another, more recent and positive memory: as I read books and blogs and watch videos and attend conferences and so on, I am sometimes struck by the apparent simplicity of a point being made (and subsequently applauded as profound), by the apparent confusion that reigns about points of doctrine which seem to me to be obvious, by the sense of novelty that surrounds material that I consider to be eminently familiar. Error may be no less enticing and engaging, but at least the truth is already in place by means of which to identify and expose the errors. These benefits hit me forcibly a few weeks ago, for example, during a discussion on the Trinity. It was not that it seemed ‘old hat’ to me; rather, as the speaker progressed, I had the sense of being on ground both common and familiar, and – when the time for discussion came – I found myself slightly ahead of the game, my point of departure different from at least some of the others participating. Or, more recently, I was left staggered at the theological naïveté of some of those participating in conversations to do with the Elephant Room. Were the issues not clear? Was the truth not known?

Does this mean that I am unusually brilliant? Am I blowing my own trumpet? Should I thank God that I am not like other men? Not a bit of it. I wish, rather, to record my gratitude to God for three particular blessings which were a means of laying such a foundation, and to encourage others to value and extend them.

The first is the blessing of godly parents. The value of the instruction and example of godly parents is too easily overlooked by those who are growing up under that influence, and who are often inclined to kick against the goads. Parental government may feel oppressive, aggressive, restrictive, excessive. Family worship, reading the Bible, prayer, catechesis, responsibilities required and restraints imposed, facing sin and resolving tensions – all may seem utterly burdensome and unnecessary. Nevertheless, if the Lord God is pleased to work salvation and apply the blood of Christ to the heart of such a child, the perspective ought to shift. All of a sudden, that framework of knowledge is imbued with a genuine (though incomplete) understanding. Those heavy chains of restraint are perceived in time to be God’s gracious means of keeping us from wickedness and even death. That drip-drip-drip of accurate and faithful instruction has laid a foundation all unnoticed, and provided a basis for further study and deeper appreciation which is hard to replicate except by the most eager latecomers to the gospel (sadly, there are many such who quickly outstrip those whose privileges ought to provide for their fast and straight progress in godliness, both doctrinal and practical).

The second is the blessing of faithful churches. Notice that they are not perfect churches. How I used to buck at some of the hypocrisy and shallowness that I saw growing up in a faithful church! How I used to wonder at the gravitas some people assumed in public and around “grown-ups”! Those people would often forget a child was watching and listening, and could see what they were really like in the attitudes, actions, antics and allowed life of their homes (I still know people whose boast of high standards of conviction and behaviour practiced in their homes, when I remember something very different, is grievous). But such – although they provide much fuel to the cynical fires of jaded youth – are not all that the church is. Again, we should not underestimate what is taking place as the Word of God is faithfully expounded Lord’s day by Lord’s day, morning and evening, in a particular place; as truehearted believers welcome children into their homes and hearts, and love them and care for them and teach them; as various workers labour to communicate something of Christ’s saving excellence to those under their care. Again, that inheritance – which may lie fallow for years or even decades – provides a phenomenal head-start if the Lord God is pleased to bring it to life by his Spirit. A bedrock is in place upon which future building can immediately take place.

The third is the blessing of good books. You do not need to be a great reader to benefit from the availability of the rich resources of good Christian publishing. Recognising that not everything is good, and that a sifting and selecting process has gone on even in providing that which is good, nevertheless the wealth of instruction and admonition and exhortation and correction to be obtained in reading is unimaginable. The man or woman who reads – and particularly who reads faithful old books – has an advantage, for there is nothing new under the sun, and the experience and understanding of those who have gone before is made readily available to anyone with the inclination to find or make the time and expend the energy on obtaining it. Why learn all your own lessons all over again when you can take a shortcut and learn them from wise men who walked the same paths in previous generations? This is not an argument for unthinking assimilation, but for aggressive engagement and interaction with the best of the past as a way of understanding and navigating the present. As Samuel Davies said, “I have a peaceful study, as a refuge from the hurries and noise of the world around me; the venerable dead are waiting in my library to entertain me, and relieve me from the nonsense of surviving mortals.” To have walked these ways in the company of faithful guides equips the saint today to serve God with a readiness and insight not available to those who have been deprived of the riches of a library.

Are there dangers here? To be sure. It is all too easy to be like a crown prince who has become accustomed by long exposure to the beauties and glories of the palace royal, but who has thereby lost his appreciation of the excellence of its galleries and the effectiveness of its armouries, and has so failed to value them accordingly. When he comes of age, he is all too inclined to cast away what his forefathers won with blood, sweat and tears. This is a travesty. We ought to be appreciative inheritors, not losing our sense of joy and the stimulating freshness of discoveries of fresh depth, but neither confusing that with an obsession with novelty.

But are there lessons here? I hope so! First, to parents: invest in your children. Do not make them little Pharisees, by any means, but model God’s grace in Christ and pour into them those truths and train them in that conduct which, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, will equip them for godly life in a fallen world. Second, to churches: keep preaching and teaching. Do not fall prey to all the fads and fashions that sweep the evangelical world, but go on drip-feeding and praying for those who may, under God, provide the future membership and leadership of faithful churches. Hammer home saving and sanctifying truth week by week and day by day: never underestimate the deposit that is being built up in the hearts even of your youngest hearers. Thirdly, to all: get some good books and read them. Read them in family devotions, at the bedside, in an armchair. Read them in the mornings and evenings, alongside and with your Bible to illuminate and explain and apply. Read them on the train. Read them (carefully) in the bath. Provide them and recommend them to others. Start libraries. Lend them and give them. Read them together and alone. Read them with pencil in hand. Read them actively: engage and argue with them, and learn from them. Mine the past in order to provide for the present.

These are not, for the most part, blessings which we get for ourselves. We do not appoint the families into which we are born, the churches in which we might grow up, or the books made available to us in our youth. We only realise in later life the blessings that our heavenly Father intended for us. That is why we cannot boast: “For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1Cor 4.7).

So, we cannot get them for ourselves, and we do not merit them by our own efforts, but we can give them, and we can – with hindsight – learn to appreciate what we ourselves were given before, and how to pass them on to others.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 10 February 2012 at 13:36

Posted in Christian living

Tagged with , ,

4 Responses

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  1. Amen. As you say, there was more than enough sin in my past without the restraints, such as they were, being lifted.

    Jonathan Hunt

    Friday 10 February 2012 at 13:55

  2. Interesting and thought provoking post.
    Christian parents are a great blessing. I am very thankful for mine. The task of Christian parenting is enormous and certainly brings frequent reminders of our own indwelling sin. Looking back over almost two decades of parenting there are many things that I would wish to have done in a different way or with a different attitude.
    Having a good library at home is invaluable but for most people, excluding those in full time Christian service, there is little time to read. I am grateful for the hours I had to to read as a late teenager and student. Perhaps a series on books for the home Christian library would be useful- concentrating on books accessible to the young and older people for who reading time will only be a few minutes a day?


    Friday 10 February 2012 at 18:20

  3. […] The Jeremy on the benefits of the profound being familiar […]

    two interesting things « ninetysix and ten

    Saturday 11 February 2012 at 23:20

  4. It’s a very attractive idea – all these Victorian stories of godless, clueless people stumbling across some startling truth and – zap – converted. So easy! so uncomplicated! why couldn’t it be like that with meeee? But so fascinating because so rare (i finally decided). And such gross ingratitude to think that you’re somehow more difficult to save (?!) because of somehow knowing too much truth, or not having behaved scandalously enough.


    Saturday 11 February 2012 at 23:22

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