We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread, And long to feast upon Thee still; We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead, And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.1
It is my conviction that a very large part of mankind’s ills and of the world’s misery is due to the rampant practice of trying to feed the soul with the body’s food. Jesus in His confrontation with Satan reminded us for all time of Moses’ proper distinction: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Job had also made the distinction: “I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my daily bread” (Job 23:12b).
In addressing the gluttony of his day, Clement of Alexandria said, “The right food is thanksgiving.” He perceived that in the yearning for food and drink we mingled the deeper yearnings of the soul. In Paul’s day the mingled yearnings disgraced the Lord’s Supper in Corinth, and he counseled the Christians there to eat and drink to the glory of God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins by stating that “man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” But if man misses the enjoyment of God, he seeks substitute enjoyments. And there lies the mischief. From this lamentable substitution the church is not immune. Nor are her leaders.
The verse at the head of this article comes to us out of the Middle Ages from “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts,” attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux. The first verse declares: “From the best bliss that earth imparts We turn unfilled to Thee again.”
But if the pressures of God’s work delude the church worker into believing he does not have adequate time to “turn unfilled to Thee again” for the nurture of his soul, we then are given the grievous spectacle of ethical failures and moral falls in the ministry—the soul often succumbing to illegitimate satisfaction of bodily needs for compensation.
Abraham Kuyper calls us to meditation on “the soul’s nearness unto God,” which tends to “draw the soul away from the abstract in doctrine and life . . . back to the living Fountain itself, from whence these waters flow.” He warns:
Stress in creedal confession, without drinking of these waters, runs dry in barren orthodoxy, just as truly as spiritual emotion, without clearness in confessional standards, makes one sink in the bog of sickly mysticism.
Only he who feels, perceives and knows that he stands in personal fellowship with the living God, and who continually tests his spiritual experience by the Word is safe.
Another theologian has flatly declared that one who takes theology courses is spiritually sick unless he reads the Bible uncommonly often.
The foundational importance of Scripture for spiritual nurture is a given among evangelicals. But what of the devotional classics, such as Kuyper’s To Be Near unto God? It seems that for most, they are buried treasure. If ministers are using them for themselves, it would appear that very few are passing along the riches to their congregations. Nurture of the soul is provided by biblical preaching (as well as by the sacraments, worship, fellowship, and other means of grace). But how many pastors are there who actively promote or offer study guidelines to the classics? My own informal surveys and other sources suggest very few, even though dedicated pastors are eager to build up the spiritual life of their church members. And inasmuch as the classics generally are manifestations of biblical truth, the testimonies of those who pursue them—whether lay or clerical readers—are most often vibrant in telling of needs met. This is a plea for putting to use works like Augustine’s Confessions, à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, Calvin’s Golden Booklet, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Grace Abounding, Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, and the list goes on. Frank Gaebelein once told the writer that while condensing Rutherford’s golden Letters, he could only work on it for short periods—it was so rich he got spiritual indigestion when taking it in large gulps. Would there were more such cases of that kind of indigestion.
In line with Mc Cheyne’s maxim of taking ten looks at Christ for every look at ourselves, there should be continuous reading of classics on His life, death, and resurrection.
The classics merit not only reading but rereading. Spurgeon testified to reading Pilgrim’s Progress 100 times.
The classics elevate our prayer times, so essential to our spiritual nurture. Far from letting ministry pressures limit their time for prayer, Luther and Calvin rose earlier on their busiest days so as to allow an undergirding of four or five hours of prayer to face their challenges. This sounds strange for our hectic times, and our practices in this area are as varied as our personalities. But it is safe to say, as we view the moral and spiritual wreckage all around us, that to be careless about our devotional time is to play fast and loose with our own souls.
- Bernard of Clairvaux, trans. Ray Palmer, “Jesus, Thou joy of loving hearts!”↩