Surviving in a mad, bad world
We live in a mad, as well as a bad, world. The pace of life is simply frenetic, and shows few if any signs of slowing down. One danger facing the Christian in this mad, bad world is that we become swept along in the rush and never really take, and make, the time to be still before God. Consequently, the rhythm of our lives lacks any poise, far less peace. We are never off the treadmill long enough to savour the surpassing joy and blessedness of being a Christian. And yet, are we not told that ‘those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength’? (Isa. 40:31); or do we imagine that we can leave off waiting on the Lord and still maintain a vibrant, godly, Christian life? How spiritually deranged Christians can become!
Two spiritual blessings and disciplines are especially neglected among professing Christians today: the keeping and sanctifying of the Lord’s day and the diligent practice of daily Bible reading and prayer. It seems to me there is an obvious and inevitable relationship between the neglect of these gospel privileges and the low level of Christian living that abounds within professing evangelical Christianity.
I am conscious that both the Lord’s day and the ‘quiet time’ are considered by some Christians either passé or unnecessary in the life of the new covenant people of God. ‘All of life is worship’, we are told. And so it is. But both the Lord’s day and the daily ‘quiet time’ give a healthy, disciplined, and focused shape to the all-of-life-is-worship reality that has always (not just in the new covenant) been the atmosphere of the life of faith. This, it seems to me, is one of the great lessons Jesus teaches in Matthew 6:1-18. The disciples could have assumed as they listened to Jesus that the ‘righteousness [that] exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees’ (Matt. 5:20) was a wholly inward righteousness. What matters is the heart. But in Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus impresses on His disciples the great importance of self-discipline in the righteous life. Jesus expects His followers to give, to pray, to fast. He expects us to make these spiritual disciplines an essential part of our righteousness. He even tells us to go into our own room, shut the door and pray to our Father. Personal, intimate, even private, daily devotion is considered by our Lord to be a sine qua non of the righteous life.
The Lord’s day
In His great goodness, the Lord has anticipated our need for rest, recreation, and spiritual nourishment in providing for His people a Sabbath day. In the fourth commandment, our kindly Lord has so structured the weekly rhythm of His creatures that we have a day in which to draw breath, re-order our wearied minds, renew our tired bodies, and engage in soul-refreshing worship. The Sabbath day is not only a day set apart for the Lord, it is a day set apart for the good of His creatures: ‘the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27). Today, however, many Christians give the impression they are wiser than God. Too often the blessing of the Sabbath day is neglected, and lost, because we use it to catch up on work or studies, most often left undone by poor planning in the previous days of the week. Not only do we dishonour the Lord when we misuse His day, we rob ourselves of the renewing blessings of a life that has waited on the Lord with His people (see Isa. 58:13-14).
The Sabbath day is woven into the moral framework of God’s creation (the fourth commandment simply codifies an existing creation ordinance). Our Maker, who is also our Husband, knows our needs; He never forgets that we are dust. If Adam in his innocence needed a Sabbath day, how much more do we need God’s day of rest to renew our wearied bodies and tired minds?
The Sabbath is God’s weekly, and so very gracious, provision for His people. But you are not to imagine that you have to wait a whole week before you ‘wait upon the Lord’. The example of our Lord Jesus is instructive. Luke tells us that ‘Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed’. Quiet times were basic to the rhythm of the Saviour’s life. He needed time alone with His Father. He needed to wait upon the Lord to renew His strength. His humanity was no charade; He felt the strain of constant service. Are we holier than our Saviour? If He needed to spend time often alone with His Father, do we not need to do the same? A daily quiet time is not a luxury, it is a necessity.
It is sadly fashionable in some Reformed circles to pour scorn on the quiet time, as if it were a pietistic cop-out from the rigours of serving Christ. I must confess that I am all for more piety. John Calvin again and again commended the grace of ‘pietas’. He was not, of course, advocating any kind of spiritual retreat from the godless world. Christians are to be light and salt in the very midst of this godless world. But how are we to maintain our saltiness and the clarity of our light-bearing? Certainly not by neglecting the means of grace. The daily reading and meditating on God’s word and personal, scripture focused prayer, will buttress the worship, prayers, and ministry of God’s word that are our staple diet every Lord’s day. Bishop Ryle often commended the grace of ‘holy habits’.
Isn’t this legalistic?
To some, no doubt, this may sound ‘legalistic’. I fear, however, that if this is your reaction, you have no real understanding of grace or law. It is a false piety that neglects a daily waiting on the Lord. It is this neglect that, certainly in part, is responsible for the tragic ignorance of the Bible that is found among professing evangelical Christians today.
Of course, any spiritual discipline can descend into legalism. Satan is always seeking to pervert the good. A hurried five minute glance at God’s word and a few muttered prayers will do little to make any Christian more like Christ. In my now over forty years as a Christian, and thirty as a pastor, I have yet to meet a Christian who has made any mark for God in this world (and in my own life) who has neglected day-by-day to draw near to God, in His word and in prayer.
The more truly pious a man or woman is, the more they will, like their Saviour, feel the need to set time aside to draw near to God. In His presence our minds are re-ordered, our souls are refreshed, even our bodies are strengthened.
We live in a mad, bad world. Equip yourself to face it and not be overwhelmed by it, by honouring the Sabbath day, and by imitating the example of the Saviour, who ‘often withdrew to lonely places and prayed’. He needed to, and He did. We need to and we must.
Ian Hamilton is the minister of Cambridge Presbyterian Church.