It is a characteristic of human nature to swing from one extreme to another like the proverbial pendulum. Preachers seem especially adept at it. To take one example, there was a time when Christians were encouraged to face death with courage knowing that their spirits or souls would be with Christ in heaven when they died. The tendency now is to concentrate on the future prospect of resurrection bodies occupying a renewed earth. Both are true of course, but one must not be downplayed in favour of the other. The Bible declares that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord which is far better, and what a blessing it is to know that! But the Bible also points us to the grand consummation when Christians will have glorified bodies within a new creation where there is no more curse.
Another pendulum swing is the move from individual expressions of devotion to God to communal acts of worship. Those concerned to be personally challenged by God can often be unkindly dismissed in favour of the need for corporate church responses. Pitting private devotion against communal and vice versa must be strongly discouraged for the good of the spiritual life of both the individual believer and the church. Our Lord encourages us to engage in secret prayer to God both by his own example of spending nights alone with his Father and by his teaching on personal prayer but he also suggests the importance of communal prayer as he indicated by the pattern he gave his disciples: ‘Our Father’ not ‘My Father’; ‘Give us’ and ‘Forgive us’ not ‘Give me’ and Forgive me’.
While there are legitimate concerns over a self-centred individualism among Christians, there are also disturbing trends that seek to emphasise the importance of Christian togetherness at the expense of the individual believer’s ongoing and expansive relationship with the Lord. A person should not be censured for asking God to bless the preached Word to his or her own soul, neither should such requests be dismissed as expressive of an individualism that mirrors the spirit of the age.
Experience of God
As has been observed by Stuart Olyott in his book, Something must be known and felt, recently published by Bryntirion Press, there seems to be little interest in much western Reformed Christianity in stressing the importance of the individual believer’s experience of God. We give thanks for those churches that emphasise the importance of God’s revealed truth in the Bible and that preach it and pray that it would be believed and practised. But what about the truth being felt? What about experiencing God? What about being overwhelmed by the presence of God? Is it wrong to seek personal blessing? Certainly the Calvinistic Methodist leaders in the 18th century like Harris, Whitefield, Rowland and William Williams Pantycelyn laid great emphasis on the experiential nature of Christianity. In this they were following the Puritan tradition to which they were greatly indebted.
Now some will immediately throw up their hands in horror and sigh, ‘There these people go again hankering after revival experiences instead of getting on with the task of evangelism and being faithful and satisfied with what God has given us!’ At this point another pendulum swing is detected between revival and evangelism or between a more active and a more passive Christianity. But surely, it is not a case of either/or but both/and – a happy balance as we see in the life of our Lord and then in the lives of his apostles.
Meeting with God
I am always concerned when anyone decries personal desires for God and hymns that testify to a personal attachment to the Lord such as ‘Mine, mine, mine, I know Thou art mine…’. Yes, we must emphasise the importance of communal worship and the fellowship of God’s people. The ‘means of grace’ associated with church, such as the reading of the Scriptures, public prayer, singing, the preached Word and the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are to be greatly valued. In this way local church members are built up and grow together in the knowledge of God our Saviour. But this must not be so stressed as to prevent, hinder or discourage each individual believer in his or her personal dealings with God. As Christians we are to appreciate all the means of grace that God has given us but they are ‘means’ not ends in themselves. What about experiencing the ‘grace’ of the means? Do we know anything about that ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory’? Have we been gripped by the Word as it has come to us? Has the gospel message ever moved us to tears and made us more committed in our service of the Lord?
Both Old and New Testament believers can speak in the most intimate terms of their relationship to God. David confesses that the Lord is ‘my shepherd’ and Paul speaks of the Son of God ‘who loved me and gave himself for me’. Every time Paul thought and wrote about God’s grace in Christ he was moved to the depths of his being and it often resulted in doxology. The whole of the Psalm collection is brought to a climactic conclusion with a flurry of hallelujah choruses. Of course individualism must be shunned and a healthy church life will free us from such a state. But individual personal dealings with the living God need to be fostered and appreciated for this benefits the whole church. When individuals – who have met with the living God on their own, have felt his presence and experienced his love, who love the Lord and his family, and delight to know him better – meet together in fellowship it cannot help but be to the blessing and fruitfulness of the whole church. Our Lord’s letter of censure to the Laodicean church as a body of people closes with a call to the individual believer to hear the Saviour’s voice and open the door in order that personal fellowship might be enjoyed (Rev. 3:20).