The Dancing Puritan

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Though Surrounded by Darkness, Cling to the Promises of God

Charles Spurgeon's body slumped beneath the cruel pain of gout and kidney disease. He was downcast in the dark valley of depression. And, he was embroiled in the last great theological battle of his life, the Down-Grade Controversy (1887-1890). During that time, he picked up his Bible to mediate deeply on the promises of God contained therein. It was then that he began writing his devotional work, The Cheque Book of the Bank of Faith.

I commenced these daily portions when I was wading in the surf of controversy. Since then I have been cast into 'waters to swim in,' which, but for God's upholding hand, would have proved waters to drown in. I have endured tribulation from many flails. Sharp bodily pain succeeded mental depression, and this was accompanied both by bereavement, and affliction in the person of one dear as life [Susannah]. The waters rolled in continually, wave upon wave. I do not mention this to exact sympathy, but simply to let the reader see that I am no dry-land sailor. I have traversed those oceans which are not Pacific full many a time: I know the roll of the billows, and the rush of the winds. Never were the promises of Jehovah so precious to me as at this hour. Some of them I never understood till now; I had not reached the date at which they matured, for I was not myself mature enough to perceive their meaning.

Spurgeon was 53 years old when he wrote those words. He died four years later.

Spurgeon writes for Christians who are tossed about in threatening waters of trouble. For Spurgeon it was theological controversy, physical illness, mental depression, and the grief that he felt over the afflictions that wracked his dear Susannah's body. It is interesting that he makes the connection between mental depression and physical pain. It is well-known now that either one can produce the other in an individual suffering from either a sad spirit or bodily illness.

Similarily, Susannah wrote: "Depression of spirit is frequently the outcome of oppression of the flesh." She warned that it is during those times that "Satan, ever on the alert to vex, if he cannot harm us, takes advantage of our sad condition to insinuate doubts and fears which we should not tolerate when in vigorous health."

Both Charles and Susannah were ahead of their times in their understanding of the connection between mental health, physical pain, and spiritual challenges. Both encouraged their readers to fight spiritual temptations, resulting from such difficulties, by prayer and by embracing the promises of God.

Spurgeon's experience offers a couple of helpful observations for the poor soul who is cast into the dangerous waters of trial.

1. Spurgeon found, in the "wave upon wave" that battered him, that the promises of God were especially precious. It was during the Down-Grade Controversy that he truly understood some of God's promises for the first time. The suffering Christian is looking for hope when swimming in the treacherous ocean of suffering. Spurgegon found such hope in the promises of God.

2. While enduring "tribulation from many flails," Spurgeon's appreciation for the Bible grew. He asserted:
How much more wonderful is the Bible to me now than it was a few months ago! In obeying the Lord, and bearing his reproach outside the camp, I have not received new promises; but the result to me is much the same as if I had done so, for the old ones have opened up to me with richer stores.
Along with the decline of Spurgeon's health, and his sadness of heart, Spurgeon lost a number of friends during the controversy. Sounding the warning about theological declension was an alarm that was not appreciated by those whose first priority was unity. Spurgeon too desired unity, but not at the cost of Biblical truth. As we stand back these 127 years and reflect on the Down-Grade Controversy, it is difficult for us to understand the depth of Spurgeon's pain. Susannah felt that it was this last great theological battle that ultimately cost Spurgeon his life.

Perhaps you are presently facing the "roll of the billows, and the rush of the winds." If so, Spurgeon's counsel is medicinal for you. He offers these words:

1. God is good! He declared that it was his desire to "comfort some of my Master's servants!" "I would say to them in their trials--My brethren, God is good."

2. God will not forsake you.  Because God is good, he will never abandon his people. Spurgeon encouraged his readers that God "will bear you through."

3. God awaits your prayers of faith. "There is a promise prepared for your present emergencies; and if you will believe and plead it at the mercy-seat through Jesus Christ, you shall see the hand of God stretched out to help you."

4. God's Word will not fail you. "Everything else will fail, but his word never will."

5. God is supremely trustworthy. Spurgeon offers a personal testimony: "He has been to me so faithful in countless instances that I must encourage you to trust him. I should be ungrateful to God and unkind to you if I did not do so." He further said: "God is glorified when his servants trust him implicitly."

6. God's power is necessary. "I know that, without his divine power, all that I can say will be of no avail; but, under his quickening influence, even the humblest testimony will confirm feeble knees, and strengthen weak hands."

7. God is a loving heavenly Father. "Our young ones ask no question about our will or our power, but having once received a promise from father, they rejoice in the prospect of its fulfillment, never doubting that it is as sure as the sun." Spurgeon wanted his readers to "discover the duty and delight of such child-like trust in God" as they read The Cheque Book of the Bank of Faith.

Susannah echoed her beloved husband's words as she described how Christians can best face trials.

Our souls are like frightened children in a dark room, we tremble and are afraid; but we can cry out, as they do; and far more surely than 'Mother' would run to hush and comfort her little ones, will our blessed Lord hasten at our call to deliver us from our fears, and from 'the power of darkness.'

What must we do with God's promises? Spurgeon taught that the believer is "to take the promise, and endorse it with his own name by personally receiving it as true. He is by faith to accept it as his own. He sets to his seal that God is true, as true as to this particular word of promise."

Do you believe that God is trustworthy? Spurgeon declared, "God has given no pledge which he will not redeem, and encouraged no hope which he will not fulfill." Like Spurgeon did in the heat of battle, run to your Bible, rediscover the promises of God, and trust him who has made such gracious pledges to his dear children.

Ray Rhodes is a conference speaker, author, and pastor. He is presently writing a biography of Susannah Spurgeon. Contact him for speaking engagements here.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Lost Sermons of C.H. Spurgeon

A Review by Ray Rhodes, Jr.

It is rare for a book to be aesthetically satisfying, profoundly academic, and yet eminently readable. The Lost Sermons of C.H. Spurgeon Vol. 1 is all of the above and more. Spurgeon scholar, Christian T. George is the editor of Lost Sermons, which can only be described as a masterpiece of prodigious proportion. Spurgeon enthusiasts, whether from a popular or scholarly perspective, have already welcomed this landmark work and all readers will be much enriched by it. Along with the opening of The Spurgeon Library at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the publication of Lost Sermons has reinvigorated Spurgeon scholarship with a vision that is certain to advance appreciation for the life and ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon for at least the next 100 years, likely much longer.

At a time when perhaps many teenagers in mid-1800’s England were trying to find their way in life, Charles Spurgeon, at age 16, was preaching his first sermon. By seventeen, he was pastoring the Waterbeach Chapel near Cambridge, and at nineteen he was called as pastor of the historic New Park Street Chapel. The church changed locations in March of 1861 and was then renamed The Metropolitan Tabernacle. Spurgeon remained as pastor of the Tabernacle until his death in 1892.

Christian George brings Spurgeon’s earliest (1851–1854) and previously unpublished sermons under the microscope of impeccable scholarship in the first volume of Lost Sermons. When the 12 volume set is complete, George will have examined, and provided critical analysis of all 400 of the sermons of Spurgeon’s youth. As George notes, “The Lost Sermons of C.H. Spurgeon constitutes the first critical edition of any of his works and adds approximately 10 percent more material to the total sum of his sermons.” Spurgeon, using a dip pen, first wrote down these 400 sermons in notebooks. In 1857, Spurgeon had planned to publish “his earliest sermons” but was hindered due to the demands of his busy London ministry.

Along with George’s expert analysis of Lost Sermons, I especially appreciated the 1800–1910 timeline that he provided, the front matter containing a foreword by David Bebbington and the “Editor’s Preface” and “Introduction” both by George.  Both Bebbington and George offer a compelling overview of Spurgeon’s life and ministry in the context of Victorian England. George offers Spurgeon’s literary habits in the “Sermon Analysis” section and includes such unexpected extras as a graph of the distance that Spurgeon travelled in his itinerant ministry, the percentage of sermons that Spurgeon preached from both the Old and New Testaments, and a “Word Cloud” displaying the frequency of words that Spurgeon prominently used in his sermons such as “God,” “Man,” “Jesus,” “Love,” and “Sin.” Following the analysis of all 77 sermons, the book provides further details about the sermons, the editor, and the project. Included are both Scripture and Subject indexes that any researcher will value.

It is difficult to find words sufficient to describe the sheer beauty of this project and the substantial contribution to the body of work by and about Spurgeon. Though Lost Sermons will be especially appealing to scholars, all lovers of Spurgeon will find that this is a “must have” volume (along with the eleven scheduled to follow) to add to their Spurgeon collection. It is the sort of work that anyone would want to pass down to their posterity.

George, Christian T. The Lost sermons of C.H. Spurgeon: His earliest outlines and sermons between 1851 and 1854. Vol. 1. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016.

Ray Rhodes, Jr. is a conference speaker, pastor, and author. He is presently writing a biography of Susannah Spurgeon. To schedule Ray to speak for your next event or to interview him, please email him at

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Son's Testimony to His Mother's Love

After Susannah Spurgeon's death, her son Thomas wrote lovingly of his dear mother. He described her as

A most tender and loving character

A true helpmeet as proved by my dear father's repeated testimony to her worth, by word of mouth and by the fact that he set it down in black and white, again and again.

Thomas further recalled:

She read to Charles on Saturday evenings, as he directed, from various commentaries on the morrows theme.

On Sunday evenings, when Charles was weary from the Lord's Day activities, she read George Herbert and Richard Baxter to him.

In the early years of their marriage, while her health allowed, she attended to and exhorted female candidates for baptism. One lady remembered, "She led me to the baptismal pool, you know, and I shall never forget her loving words to me."

Thomas asserted: "Difficult to say, what she did not do for her husband during their early years." 


 Consoled him in his sorrow and disappointments.

Encouraged him "as an angel of God" when he was spoken against by opponents.

Nursed him in his sicknesses.

Entertained his guests.

Accompanied him on his foreign travels (while she was physically able).

She even once transcribed a sermon that he preached in his sleep.

Regarding Susannah as a mother and wife, Thomas recalled:

She lived and labored for her boys and her husband.

At home she was a wife and mother and a model of what each should be.

She taught the Bible to her sons and pleaded with them to turn to Christ. Thomas traced his early conversion to her pleading and her example.

She taught her boys to sing

"I do believe, I will believe,
That Jesus died for me;
That, on the cross, He shed His blood
from sin to set me free."

Charles Spurgeon loved his "doubly dear Susie." He frequently wrote love letters to her; thoughtfully purchased gifts for her, tenderly cared for her in her affliction, and openly praised her by word and in print. He did everything that he could to comfort her through her many trials. He patiently taught her God's Word and he faithfully prayed for her.  

Charles and Susie loved one another. Trials did not wedge them apart, sickness did not damper their affection for one another, and opposition to Charles's ministry did not cause them to doubt God's goodness. 

Charles died in 1892, Susannah in 1903. Their love story lives on.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Devotional Method of Susannah Spurgeon

My favorite picture of Susannah Spurgeon

When Susannah Spurgeon touched pen to paper, beautiful and practical sentences flowed forth. Though she displayed variety in her writings, she is best known as an author of devotional literature. Contained within her works are glimpses into her own devotional method. Consider one of her readings, "The Light of Life" from her book A Cluster of Camphire.

1. She was Marinated in Scripture.  "The Light of Life" reading contains at least 13 Scripture references: 10 from the Old Testament and 3 from the New Testament. Each reading underscores a point of Susannah's concern and is employed for practical application to her life. Susannah grieves that the Lord's face is hidden from her (Psalm 31:16). She recognizes that one reason God may have hidden His face is due to her sin. Therefore, she confesses her transgressions by recalling Isaiah 59:2, Job 42:6, and Psalm 6:2. Susannah almost effortlessly weaves through Scripture in her devotion. She engages with the Bible so freely because it is hidden in her heart through memorization and meditation.

2. She Prays as She Considers Scripture. Her primary method of prayer is to pray as she goes rather than having a time for Scripture reading and a later time for prayer (though she did that as well). For example, she quotes Psalm 31: 16 "Make Thy face to shine upon Thy servant." (KJV) She then cries out to God:
 As a night without stars, so is my soul, O Lord, if Thou hidest Thy face from me! My feet falter, my steps are uncertain, my hands grope as at midnight, my heart is oppressed by an unspeakable fear and dread. O blessed Light of my life, what has caused Thee to withdraw Thyself? Why art Thou hidden behind these thick clouds, so that I cannot rejoice in Thee?
Reading Scripture pulled out from within her heart longings for God that produced prayer. This pattern is found throughout the "The Light of Life."

3. She Applies Scripture as She Reads and Prays. Again, she does not compartmentalize her daily disciplines, but they are woven together into a multicolored tapestry. Susannah is concerned about God's face being hidden. She prays and even asks God why He had covered His face. She concludes that His face was concealed due to her sin. She quotes Isaiah 59:2 in defense of her conclusion. She writes of having acknowledged her sins and repented of them. She asserts that she "hates the sin which so constantly surges up within me, defiles my holiest service, and dares intrude even into my prayers." She then cries out to God for healing.  For Susannah, knowing Scripture demanded that she apply Scripture to her life.

4. She Employs Christian Authors Who Help Her to Think Deeply About God. Both Charles and Susannah were conversant with Christian thinkers from a variety of theological stripes and they were quite willing to glean helps from them whether they fully agreed with them or not. In "The Light of Life," Susannah looks to Andrew Murray. She quotes him: "The true victory over sin is this; -if the light comes in, the darkness is expelled." She applies his words: "Yes, just as the mists and shadows roll away from the sky when the sun is risen upon the earth, so do sins, and griefs, and fears flee before the brightness of the uplifted face of a pardoning God." Murray helped her to think more deeply on God's grace.

5. She Had Hymns in her Heart and on Her Lips. When Charles Spurgeon was but a boy, his grandmother gave him money for every hymn that he memorized. I challenge you to find even one sermon by Spurgeon that does not include at least one quote from a hymn. Susannah writes similiarly. She takes the following verse from Horatius Bonar's hymn: "O Light of Light, Shine In!"

O Light, all light excelling,

Make my heart Thy dwelling;

O joy, all grief dispelling,--

To this poor heart, come in!  

What Can We Learn From Susannah Spurgeon's Devotional Practices?

1. The Value of Marinating in Scripture. Wouldn't you like to have a ready grasp of both the Old and the New Testaments? Jesus, referring to Deuteronomy 8:3, taught that: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." He quoted this passage as he was being tempted by the devil. Do you want to know God and learn how to live skillfully in this devilish world?  Then get to know "every word that comes from the mouth of God." What will be your plan for marinating in Scripture? Marinating requires not only reading the Bible but also letting it soak in via meditation and memorization. 

2. The Importance of Allowing Scripture to Stir us up to Pray and Obey.  Susannah quotes a passage of Scripture and then almost immediately she is crying out to God in prayer. Learn to read the Bible in a soul-convicting manner by considering several questions in reference to your reading: A. Is there a command to obey? B. Is there a warning to heed? C. Is there a promise to embrace?  D. Is there a principle to apply? Use those and other such questions. Pray while reading: "LORD, help me, from this passage, to know you and to know how to better live for you." The passage that you read will itself lend ideas on how to pray, what to pray for, what sins to confess, and what comforts to receive. Remember that those who are blessed do not merely hear or read the Bible, they obey God (James 1:22).

3. Confess Your Confidence in God and in His Word. Susannah believed that she was praying to God and that He really heard her and that He would answer her prayers. Where does this sort of faith come from? "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17) 

4. Employ Godly Christian Literature as a Part of Your Regular Schedule. Have you read Augustine's Confessions? What about Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress? Are you familiar with Packer's Knowing God? Have you heard of Spurgeon's Morning and Evening? Even though Andrew Murray is problematic in some areas, a discerning Christian can benefit from his writings. Start with an author who is well known historically as one who will help you to think more deeply about Christ and the Gospel. One reason that I love both Charles and Susannah Spurgeon is that they constantly point me to Christ. 

5. Get Good Hymns Down Deep in Your Heart. Susannah (and Charles) was especially fond of Frances Ridley Havergale's poetry and hymns. Of course you should know Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts and their hymns. As many churches jettison hymns for other songs, and many parents do not teach the hymns to their children, the next generation will lose a great treasure of hymnody unless we are able to turn the tide. Learn hymns, use them in your daily devotional times, teach them to your children, and encourage your church to include great hymns into each Sunday's congregational worship.

Today's post is a good example of how to profitably read a book. Reading Susannah Spurgeon's A Cluster of Camphire helped me to think about my devotional practices. Perhaps "devotions with Susannah" can help you as well.

Ray Rhodes is a conference speaker, pastor, and the author of several books. He is presently writing a biography of Susannah Spurgeon. If you would like to invite Ray to speak for your next event, his contact information can be found here.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Follow Spurgeon's Example and Read

What did Spurgeon read? He read all sorts of books. He read the Bible, the newspaper, Christian classics, history, biography, and fiction. He averaged reading six substantive books each week. Most of those books were weighty Puritan works. John Piper writes:

I think one of the reasons Spurgeon was so rich in language and full in doctrinal substance and strong in the spirit, in spite of his despondency and his physical oppression and his embattlements, is that he was always immersed in a great book—six a week. We cannot match that number. But we can always be walking with some great “see-er” of God. I walked with Owen most of the year on and off little by little and felt myself strengthened by a great grasp of God’s reality. 

 A primary reason that Spurgeon was such a great writer was due to his reading habits. W.Y. Fullerton in C.H. Spurgeon: A Biography recounts,

The whole Spurgeon Library, therefore, taking no count of tractates, consists of no less than 135 volumes in all, or, including the reprints, 176! If we add the albums and the pamphlets, we get an output of 200 books!

 Fullerton says of Spurgeon’s personal library: “At the time of his death there were 12,000 volumes in Mr. Spurgeon’s library, in addition to those that he had sent to furnish the well-filled shelves of the library at the College.”

12,000 volumes provided the foundation of his library but, as Fullerton indicates, Spurgeon had even more books.

Spurgeon wrote, read, reviewed, distributed, and treasured books. Fullerton asserts, “To listen to his talk on books one would think that he had done nothing but read in the library all his life, and to mark his publications would fancy that he had done nothing but write.”

Yet we know that Spurgeon did much more than read and write. He was a pastor; he was an itinerant preacher, he lead numerous institutions, and his services were constantly in demand.

We can distill down from Spurgeon's reading habits several helps that we can employ.

1. Find Good Books. In Spurgeon’s library there were many used books that he found in the catalogues of second-hand-bookstores. Whether used or new, find good books. Especially find hardback books that will last through the years and can be passed on to your children.

2. Read Good Books. Books look beautiful lined across oak shelves. However, books are meant to be read. Spurgeon exhorted: “Give yourself unto reading. The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own.”

3. Read a Variety of Books. It is assumed that you will regularly feast on the Bible. Beyond that, read history, biography, hymns, classics, and good fiction. Spurgeon asserted:
We are quite persuaded that the very best way for you to be spending your leisure time, is to be either reading or praying. You may get much instruction from books which afterwards you may use as a true weapon in your Lord and Master’s service. Paul cries, ‘Bring the books’ — join in the cry. 

4. Read as Much as You Can. Spurgeon was a uniquely gifted man. You are not Spurgeon, but it is likely you can read more books than you are presently reading. Start somewhere. Attempt  two pages per day. In a month you will have read 60 pages and in three months you will finish your book. Start somewhere and then grow in your reading.

Ray Rhodes, Jr. is president of Nourished in the Word Ministries. He is a conference speaker, author, and pastor.  To schedule Ray for an interview or a teaching engagement contact him here.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Susannah Spurgeon's Words of Comfort to Sick and Sorrowful Souls

A Cluster of Camphire: Susannah Spurgeon

Though Susannah Spurgeon was not as prolific an author as her husband Charles was, her writing had a poetic and yet practical quality about it that was similar to his.

Susannah wrote three devotional books, two books about the "Book Fund" that she managed, and was a major contributor to and co-editor of the massive four volume Autobiography of C.H. Spurgeon. Beyond that, she was a regular contributor to Spurgeon's monthly missive "The Sword and the Trowel" as well as the author of numerous tracts.

Today, I offer a few thoughts from "Soul Comfort" which is a chapter in Susannah's book A Cluster of Camphire: Or, Words of Cheer & Comfort For Sick and Sorrowful Souls. Susannah wrote this book after Charles Spurgeon died in 1892. It is not a stretch to imagine that this book was written as an expression of her own grief over the death of husband and the comfort that she found in Christ. There are 19 devotional readings in the book. Here are my thoughts about the book in general and "Soul Comfort" in particular.

1. She opens with Scripture (as she does in each day's reading). The first Scripture reading is Psalm 94:19, "In the multitude of my thoughts within me Thy comforts delight my soul." (KJV) Out of 19 readings in the book, six of them are from The Psalms, six from the Gospels, three from the Prophets, one from Exodus, one from Deuteronomy, one from 2 Corinthians, and one from Hebrews. There are eleven readings from the Old Testament and eight from the New Testament in A Cluster of Camphire. Susannah favors The Psalms and The Gospels

2. She prays Scripture. Like her beloved husband, Susannah starts with a passage but quickly turns to other texts in support of her theme. She seamlessly moves from Scripture to prayer to her own comments on the text. She prays for God to give her grace to "eat and drink abundantly" from "Thy table." She requests that God help her to speak of the "dainties" that his "love has provided." She requests of God that His truth will not only benefit her personally but, through her writing, that "the souls of others may enjoy the Heavenly manna, and be filled with the mingled and spiced wine of remembrance and expectation." She then prays that God will help her and her readers to better understand the Bible.

3. She Employs Scripture Throughout. In "Soul Comfort" she starts with Psalm 94:19, moves to The Song of Solomon, and then to 2 Corinthians chapter one. Along the way she picks flowers of Scriptural thought from both the Old and the New Testaments and places them in her devotional basket. It is obvious that she is very familiar with the whole of Scripture and is able to skillfully interact with various passages under her one theme of comfort. In this, she is very much like Charles.
Susannah Spurgeon picked flowers of Scriptural thought from the Old and the New Testaments and placed them in her devotional basket.
4. She is Conversant with Theology. In "Soul Comfort" she finds encouragement in God's grace. She writes of the doctrines of God's sovereign election, preservation, providential care, omniscience, and love. Mrs. Spurgeon not only knew the Bible, she understood how the parts of Scripture fitted into the whole of Scripture. For Susannah, deep theology was not first the trade of the professional theologian but was needed by and belonged to every Christian.

5. She Writes With a Practical Aim. She wants her readers to find comfort in the truths of God's election, preservation, providence, omniscience, and love. She sees Biblical language as food to nourish one's soul and wine to cheer one's heart. Susannah was a Calvinist. She believed, embraced, and found comfort in the doctrines of God's sovereign grace. For her, the doctrine of election was not first a subject for debate but a truth designed to "comfort our hearts" and to give us "good hope through grace." When meditating on the doctrine of God's preserving grace, Susannah declares: "If we would trust Him for the keeping as we do for the saving, our lives would be far holier and happier than they are." She argues that Christians miss much comfort by not pondering deeply God's preserving grace. When describing God's providential care, Susannah concludes: "Yes, truly, God's care for us is one of the sweetest comforts of our mortal life." She continues with a practical aim as she considers the doctrines of God's omniscience and of his love. For Susannah, the place for biblical theology was not the ivory tower of academia, but the heart, hands, and feet of the child of God.

For Susannah, the place for biblical theology was not the ivory tower of academia, but the heart, hands, and feet of the child of God.
6. She Writes Beautifully. There is no virtue in extolling the attributes of God in a vehicle of dull language. Susannah is captivated by God's grace and poetry springs from her heart, to her lips, through the nib of her pen, and then to her paper. Her lovely language is obvious throughout A Cluster of Camphire. One example is from her musing on the love of God. She asserts: "This truth has been running through the fields of previous thought, as a silver streamlet glides through the meadows;––here, it should deepen and expand to a broad and fathomless ocean, had I the power to speak of its height, and depth, and length, and breadth, and to tell of the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge." Susannah could have simply written that God's love was obvious in all of the other doctrines that she had expounded in her chapter. However, she chose to write of truth as a "silver streamlet" that "glides through the meadows" and ultimately into the "fathomless ocean." Even with such descriptive language, Susannah felt that her pen was wholly inadequate to describe the love of God.

Susannah Spurgeon's A Cluster of Camphire is marinated in Scripture and practical in application. It is poetic, descriptive, and beautiful in its presentation of Christ as the Christian's comfort. Read it to challenge your mind, warm your heart, and change your life.

Monday, March 6, 2017

A Declaration of Faith From the Depths of Despair

"Hello, darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping

And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence."
Paul Simon

Some people seem to have a view of life that leaves little room for sorrow, depression, and agony. There is a tendency, even in Christian culture, to  tie a nice ribbon around really bad things and "think the best." And, many of us are prone to just want to fix things, sweep away the pain, or at least numb it. And though all things work out for our good and God's glory (Romans 8:28), not all things work out "happily ever after" on this earth. Some problems remain unresolved.

"Some Problems remain unresolved"

Enter Psalm 88 and its concluding sentence: You have taken from me friend and neighbor, darkness is my closest friend. What is striking about this Psalm is that a devoted follower of God writes it. The poetry of Psalm 88 is not the defiant declaration of an arrogant atheist. This Song was written by one described as "HEMAN THE EZRAHITE.  You will note the inscription refers to this Psalm as "A SONG" and that it is  "TO THE CHOIRMASTER." The inscription is an instructive reminder that the song was designed for congregational worship. Can you imagine singing such a song at your church? The perspective often offered by some worship leaders is one of all smiles, all joy, and all happiness. And, if a lament were chosen for a congregational worship service, it certainly would not end by declaring, darkness is my closest friend. 

But, what if the worshipper feels as if their closest companion is darkness? What if some worshippers on a given Lord's Day are experiencing, to borrow the words of the Spanish Mystic St. John of the Cross, a Dark Night of the Soul. Perhaps the "Dark Night" has been going on for months, or even years? What then?

"This dark Psalm is also a bold declaration of faith."

Make no mistake; Psalm 88 is dark, very dark. However, it is also a bold declaration of faith in God. Note Heman's faith in the following ways:

1. His Strong Declaration of Faith. 
For a man living in "the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep" you may imagine that he is faithless. Just the opposite is true. Read his opening words: "O LORD, God of my salvation; I cry out day and night before you." He cries out to Yahweh, the eternal, uncreated, self-sustaining, omnipotent God. Not only is he praying to God, he calls him the "God of my salvation." He knows God intimately.

2. The Situation is Dark but Heman is Praying. 
This strikes me as a description, not of a faithless man, but of a man of great faith. Though he is "overwhelmed," "shunned," "full of troubles," and like a dead man, he keeps praying. Note: "I cry out day and night before you." (1) "Every day I call upon you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you." (9) "But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you." (13)  If this isn't faith, I don't know what faith is. He is suffering unspeakable terrors and he is isolated from friends and family, but he keeps knocking on heaven's door, seeking the God of his salvation.

In the midst of great darkness, he prays!

3.  His Painful Honesty Before God. 
He cries out to God and tells him of the depths of his troubles, of his physical weakness, of his afflictions. He believes that he is near death (5). The picture is graphic and painful. He says that he is "Like those whom you [God] remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand." (5) The word "like" is a word of hope. He is not cut off from God, but he feels like he is. He knows the truth but he feels forsaken. "Like" is a word of comfort, if you are a suffering follower of God. You may feel as if you are "like the slain that lie in the grave" but you are not in reality for you, as a Christian, are not abandoned. Heman's painful honesty is a reminder to us to believe the truth, regardless of what we may feel at the moment. We can and should be honest with God about our feelings. He is our loving Father, and we can trust our darkest thoughts to him. However, our feelings must not dictate the reality of our faith.

4. He Recognizes that His Troubles Are From God.
This also is a bold statement of faith. He declares: "You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep" (6, see also 7,8, 14,16,18).  Though theologians have often debated about what God actually causes verses what he allows, the point in Psalm 88 is that God is in control of everything that happens to us. Since he is omnipotent and impeccable, he can cause trouble to come into our lives while maintaining his integrity. And since he is omnipotent he could certainly stop trouble from assailing us, if he so willed. Heman saw his troubles as coming from the hand of God. Such truth is actually very comforting based on what the Bible teaches us concerning the Father's love for His children. Psalm 23 is an encouraging reminder that he will not forsake his people, even in the "valley of the shadow of death." If God were not sovereign over our troubles, then we would have every reason to fall into ultimate despair.

"If God were not sovereign over our troubles, then we would have every reason to fall into despair."

5. He has a Passionate Desire for God's Glory.
Heman rightly accesses that he has one life to live and, therefore, one opportunity, on earth, to declare the love and greatness of God (9-12). He wants to live so that he can praise, declare, and make known the power, love, and faithfulness of God. Yes, Heman is in a dark and difficult place, but he has a right perspective. He knows of the preciousness, brevity, and the purpose of life. For a Christian, "to die is gain" and yet Christians should desire to live, while they do live, for God's glory. The here-and-now is where we dwell and we should not seek a way out of our troubles via suicide, nor should we seek to "check-out" on life through drugs, alcohol, or some other escape mechanism. For now, we must fight through hard times with a desire to live for God's glory.

Knowing the five points above, we have every reason to be hopeful when we come to verse 18: You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness. Heman lands on verse 18 having declared his faith, via constant prayer to the God of his salvation, and with painful honesty (indicating trust) before God. He lands on vs. 18 after recognizing that all of his troubles are inseparably connected to the sovereignty of God, and with a desire for God's glory.

And yet, he still concludes his song with "darkness is my closest friend." (NIV)  He doesn't paint a rosy picture. His song is honest. His song is raw. His song reeks with the aroma of deep pain and brokenness. However, it is a song that is a declaration of faith from the depths of despair.

"His song is raw. His song reeks with the aroma of deep pain and brokenness. However, it is a song that is a declaration of faith from the depths of despair."

Do you see yourself in Psalm 88? If so, don't give up. Declare your faith. Keep seeking God in prayer. Be honest with God about how you feel. Though you feel like you are "like those" whom God has "cut off" you must remember the truth. Though God may remove a sense of his presence, He will never abandon you. Learn all that you can about God' sovereignty and find comfort in his absolute control over your life. And, whatever your situation, make it your aim to live! But not just live. Make it your aim to live for his glory.

A word for the reader: Don't read this Psalm is isolation from the rest of the Psalms. The Psalms do not typically end as Psalm 88 does. Though, every sadness, every emotion, every positive and negative experience is characterized in the Psalms, most of them conclude with a message of hope. I have argued that Psalm 88 is also a psalm, not only of lament, but also of faith.

A word for pastors: Don't be dismissive of your hurting people. Don't imagine that if they express such sentiments as those found in Psalm 88 that they are not really Christians, or they are certainly not very spiritual. Though there is a time for all professors of faith to examine the reality of their faith, this Psalm argues that true believers, of deep faith, can also suffer dark and despairing times. 

A word for music leaders. Do you have a place, on occasion, for a Psalm of Lament in your music selection? If not, why not?

Ray Rhodes, Jr. is President of Nourished in the Word Ministries. Ray leads conferences, retreats, and other events in churches across the nation. To schedule Ray for your next event, contact him HERE.