Intimacy and EternityThe River of Delights
Part One, Chapter One
The moment I realized that God existed,
I knew I could not do otherwise
than to live for Him alone.
(Charles de Foucauld)
Part One: The River of Delights
The Pace of Life
Towards a Life of Reflection
The Trysting Place
Part Two: The Ascent of Toil
The Dark Night of the Soul
The Principle of Suffer-Reign
The Grace of Yielding
The River of Delights
CHRISTIAN WRITERS AND PREACHERS through the ages have compared the journey of the soul to a pilgrimage. Whether the imagery is of passing from darkness to light, or from imperfection to a greater degree of perfection, many have found that the Lord takes us through different stages on our journey to eternity.
Some years ago we went as a family for a wonderful walk in the Lake District. The path led beside a river that sparkled in the morning sunshine. The fragrant smells of a particularly fine spring brought joy to the heart, even though there were some perilous moments as we scrambled over outcrops of rock above the fast-flowing river. To all intents and purposes, however, we were walking beside a River of Delights.
A mile or so later, the path we were following turned away from the river and headed steeply uphill. Now the way was narrow, hemmed in by the mountains. Several times our youngest child tripped and fell. This stage of our walk was hard and tedious: a real Ascent of Toil.
Eventually, and not without wondering if we would ever make it, we reached the Broad Open Spaces, high above the tree-line. Here we were rewarded by that special sense of exhilaration one enjoys on the fell tops, the silence that is so complete and yet so invigorating, crisp fresh air and endless panoramas stretching out in all directions.
We can view these different stages of our walk as a parable of the inner life. The River of Delights, the Ascent of Toil and the Broad Open Spaces correspond broadly to the three main phases of our pilgrimage: firstly the Promise, then the Preparation (or Proving) and finally the place of Provision (or Fulfilment).
These stages depict the phases of our pilgrimage so aptly that I have used them as a starting point around which to base much of the teaching in this book. They are not watertight or static stages, of course, such as Childhood, Adolescence and Adulthood, but are cyclical. As we are faithful with one commission, so the Lord leads us on to new and higher callings. These in turn entail further Ascents of Toil, before unfurling into a place of yet greater fruitfulness.
When we first come to know Him, many of us experience an outpouring of God’s love. Even though there may be a spate of racing water and alarming situations to negotiate, this flood-tide of initial grace can be likened to a River of Delights. It is a season of special grace and favour, a glorious introduction to the riches of intimacy with God. We shall share much about the pace of life we must set ourselves if we are to experience more of the Lord’s presence, and consider the process of spiritual reflection itself. All this runs counter to the prevailing spirit of the world, not least the final emphasis, which explores the particular benefits we will experience through entering the silence where God is to be found.
Since we serve a holy God, who is at least as much concerned with our attitudes as with our actions, it should come as no surprise if we then find ourselves passing through an infinitely more demanding Ascent of Toil. Has it not been the consistent testimony of the saints through the centuries that God uses times of trial to deepen our life of devotion?
Nevertheless, many feel disorientated when the blue skies recede and the honeymoon by the River of Delight comes to an end. We should not be unduly dismayed if we find ourselves passing through deeply unsettling periods, in which nothing flows as smoothly as we had expected, and everything we had been led to believe and hope for appears to be taken from us. When the Lord is about to accomplish something special, He allows us to see the difficulties first. But when He is about to do something magnificent, it usually appears completely impossible!
The onset of an Ascent of Toil, does not necessarily herald years of drudgery ahead. In retrospect, we will look back with gratitude, and realize how much the Lord has accomplished during these difficult periods – provided only that we do not turn back when the going becomes rough.
Such experiences provide us with an ideal starting point for exploring God’s purposes in permitting us to go through times of spiritual darkness and confusion. I have lingered long on these downside times, because we are sure to experience at least some of the ferocious and conflicting emotions that assail the soul when it feels bereft of God’s presence.
These particular themes will make more sense to those who have already experienced something of God’s dealings with them. For all who are passing through such unnerving times, I pray these chapters may bring both reassurance and fresh insight. For those at an earlier stage of their journey, I pray they may be wholesome preparation for the steeper climb that lies ahead!
Beyond the Ascent of Toil, and beckoning to us, lie the Broad Open Spaces. This is the moment when the reasons for God’s hidden dealings with us become clearer, when His promises to us are fulfilled, and the time when we gain great victories of faith. We find ourselves operating with a degree of spiritual freedom and authority we once could only have marvelled at. Even a taste of such anointing refreshes our soul, just as a few hours in the bright sunshine on the fell tops can banish the backlog of long winter days and ease the weight of too many stresses and strains.
Whatever the specific ministries the Lord has entrusted us with – and His commissions are as varied as His people – God wants to share His heart with us, and for us to give Him the love of our hearts. To pursue the ways of eternity and to live in quest of an ever-deepening intimacy with the Lord is an exciting and challenging call: one that will require at least as much courage and determination as we need to fulfil our more secular ambitions. May the Lord give us grace to persevere through our particular Ascents of Toil, so that we may live and move in the power of His Spirit on the Broad Open Spaces of faith, anointing and a yielded heart.
Praise You, Lord, that You are longing to draw us closer to Yourself.
Thank You for the River of Delights when Your presence is so close.
Give us courage and freedom from fear when You lead us up the Ascent of Toil.
Bring us safely through each testing time until we reach the Broad Open Spaces,
where we can sense Your presence and live more fully in the power of Your Spirit
and see Your promises fulfilled.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
The Longing for Intimacy
How lovely is Your dwelling place O Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
Better is one day in Your courts than a thousand elsewhere.
Blessed is the man You choose and bring near to live in Your courts.
(Psalm 84:1-2, 10; Psalm 65:4)
FROM THE BEGINNING OF TIME the Lord has longed to share the riches of eternity with mankind. We see this so beautifully illustrated in the Garden of Eden. Because we could not be acceptable to Him after the Fall, the Lord took the initiative to restore the broken relationship by sending His only Son to Earth to suffer and to die on our behalf.
As His children and heirs we are called to share something of the same depth of intimacy which the Father enjoys with the Son. There is no quota of spiritual encounters we can ever exhaust; no limit to how close we can draw near to Him. It will take us the rest of our lives to appreciate how wonderful He is, and how precious we are to Him. Listen to what the Lord Jesus has promised:
He who loves Me will be loved by My Father,
and I too will love him and show Myself to him.
If anyone loves Me he will obey My teaching.
My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
All I have is Yours, and all You have is Mine.
I have given them the glory that You gave Me, that they may be one as we are one.
Father, I want those You have given Me to be with Me where I am and to see my glory.
I have made You known to them, and will continue to make You known.
How wonderfully the Lord is continuing to make Himself known! If the gift of such intimate friendship had been bestowed in Old Testament days only on a few chosen ones, now it is available for all who will offer themselves unreservedly to His service.
For myself, I am privileged to be able to look back on one specific moment when the largely unrecognized hunger in my heart was transformed into a living friendship with the Lord Jesus. It happened on the final morning of a university mission.
I had squeezed into a crowded service at a predominantly student-based church, crouched behind a pillar, and was listening with amazement to the fervent singing of a thousand people worshipping the Lord. This was quite unlike anything I had heard before!
I could not actually see the man who stood up to preach, but his words brought me face to face with the reality of a Kingdom of whose existence I had previously been unaware. The love of God was reaching out to me, convicting me of the lack of any eternal perspective to my life.
I returned from that church meeting convinced I had found the One I had always secretly been looking for – but equally determined to say nothing about it to my utterly unchurched flatmate. I was about to meet the God of surprises. As I popped into his room that evening to say good night, I found him earnestly defending Christianity to an atheist friend. He had begun attending a different church that week, and had also committed his life to the Lord.
When God draws one person to Himself, He often draws others nearby at the same time. My flatmate and I had the joy of learning to pray together: stumbling, ungrammatical utterances offered up late at night, perhaps in the curiously naive assumption that God might have more time to listen to us during off-peak hours! We had everything to learn. What we did discover, almost from day one, was that the Lord was hearing our clumsy efforts to seek Him. We were soon beginning our times of prayer with great thanksgiving for all the answers we were already experiencing. We had embarked on the River of Delights!
God’s Desire for Friendship
God has two dwellings, one in heaven, and the other in a meek and thankful heart. (Izaak Walton)
Life on earth is a doomed and futile quest for meaning and for permanence, until we find and are found by the Saviour of the world. After all, 99.9% of our life (and more) lies ahead of us in eternity! That is where our ultimate home will be.
All the things that have deeply possessed your soul have been but hints – tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear . . . If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world . . . Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.
I mentioned at the beginning of the book that when people in the past felt the Lord drawing them towards such intimacy, they often withdrew into monasteries and convents. The pull of God’s love is so strong that virtually everyone who experiences it will long to seek a more explicitly God-centred existence. To think in terms of monasteries would, for most of us, be a misunderstanding of the nature of the call, which is less to escape from this world than to advance courageously towards another.
In other words, what this book is describing is more an inner drawing towards God than to the cloistered life. The number of people who are called to devote themselves to the monastic life is small. Those who are thus set apart serve as a powerhouse of prayer on behalf of the whole Church. Their task is a difficult as well as a privileged one. Most of us must learn to develop Mary’s heart of devotion, even while the practical necessities of life oblige us to embrace Martha’s serving role in the world.2
The usual word that people use to describe this deepening awareness that God is drawing them closer to Himself is contemplation. When I first came across this word, I had very little idea of what it meant. I was not greatly enlightened to read that ‘contemplation is a steady and quiet infusing of the love of God.’ I think I was left wondering whether it had something to do with brewing tea!
I have come, by stages, to appreciate more of what it signifies. To be able to look to the Lord, and receive His love, will prove more beneficial for the well-being of our soul than the sudden ecstasies and experiences that pass so quickly, and which can leave us feeling so flat in their aftermath.
Contemplation is the quiet fruit of a devotion which persists in the face of the inevitable tides and currents of life, all of which make our awareness of God so different from one day to the next. It is the regular seeking after Him that enables us to bring His presence to those we meet in our daily lives.
I still hesitate to use the term ‘contemplation,’ however, because for many of us it conjures up images of mindless navel-gazing, or Buddhist mantras. Because of the enemy’s subtle counterfeits, it is worth stressing that what I am describing in this book has nothing to do with some mind-emptying Nirvana-like pursuit of selfish, illusory bliss.3 The truth is that the soul is far from idle when it is reflecting on God; it is about its Master’s business. There is nothing more precious we can give to our Lord than our time, our availability and our love.
The saints through the centuries testify to the reality of a state of grace that can be reached through such contemplation. What I am seeking to do is to make this accessible to all, by unbolting the doors that have kept us from the riches of these other streams of the faith.
What I do not want to do is to raise any false expectations that life should consist of an endless sequence of glorious visions and ecstasies. Neither am I advocating such a ‘pally’ attitude to the Lord that we forget that He is our judge as well as our friend. If we are to be sure of God’s approval and protection in the sometimes perilous world of spiritual experiences, we need to soak ourselves in the Bible. The Word of God must be the bedrock and the yardstick by which we judge all Christian doctrine and experience.
As a deliberate generalization, we might claim that the evangelicals have reminded the whole Church that the Lord Jesus is the Saviour of the world, and that the Word of God must be central to our faith. The Pentecostals and the charismatics have rightly stressed the importance of the Holy Spirit, and restored anointed worship and the appropriate use of spiritual gifts to the life of the Church. But the Lord is longing for His people to know Him too as Father. It is this contemplative strand of encounter which complements and completes the evangelical and charismatic emphases. It enriches every part of our ministry, and, in turn, makes us more able to minister to others in the power of the Spirit.
Hungry for God
Though we cannot know God, we can love Him: by love He may be touched and embraced . . . In anticipation of this eternal glory, God will sometimes inflame the senses of His devout friends with unspeakable delight and consolation even here in this life. And not just once or twice, but perhaps very often as He judges best. This delight, however does not originate outside the person, entering through the windows of the faculties, but wells up from an excess of joy and true devotion of spirit . . . Some people experience a measure of consolation almost always, while others only rarely. But God in His great wisdom determines what is best for each one.
(The Cloud of Unknowing)
There was a time when I would have thought it a luxury to dwell on the need to deepen my devotional life when there were such crying needs all around. In my early days of faith, I considered that nothing mattered if it did not serve to reach the unchurched. My longing for the lost was a genuine passion – and it is an emphasis which many of us perhaps need to recover. I have come to realize, however, that the Lord Jesus desires friends as well as labourers; those who will devote to Him not only what they do, but also the love of their hearts.
Have you noticed that the psalmist prayed ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul! (Psalm 103:1) rather than ‘Bless my soul, O Lord’? Such is the difference between those who would seek to ‘use’ God to fulfil their own needs, and those who simply desire to make themselves available to Him. Such a desire is a sign that we are moving from merely believing in Him to knowing Him, and from knowing Him to truly loving Him.
For those brought up on a strong work-ethic, be reassured: this call to a life of devotion is not an excuse for idleness. When men and women truly meet with God, action of one kind or another will always follow – but it will be inspired action rather than uncommanded works. There need be no false dichotomy between those who pray and those who do. History testifies that it has been those who have prayed most who also accomplish most.4 The Lord will send us out again and again into unexpected areas of service, to share such love and understanding as we ourselves have received. The destiny of many others is bound up in the work we do and in the prayers we pray.
Before the Lord Jesus sent the disciples out to minister for Him, He appointed them first to be with Him.5 Although the Lord longs to make us effective ambassadors for His Kingdom, He would also have us rediscover the ability just ‘to be’ in His presence.
David Watson, the preacher who helped me find the Lord during the service I mentioned earlier, is a case in point. David had taken over a church in York that was on the verge of closure, but, through prayer and faithful preaching, transformed it into one of the most thriving congregations in the country. He was an immensely gifted evangelist.
When he was dying from the last stages of an advanced cancer, the Lord spoke to him, not as a rebuke but as a reminder of His priorities: ‘All your writing and all your preaching are as nothing compared to your relationship with Me.’6 This is a challenge to us all. If it is indeed our relationship with the Lord that is the most important thing, then let’s not wait until we are on our death beds before we take it seriously!
By God’s mercy we are the successors to an unnamed but glorious company of people through the ages who have embraced intimacy with their Creator, and experienced in this life the reality of His eternity. We will experience this intimacy more fully as we take the truths of Scripture into our hearts. We shall encounter it in the love and care that people lavish on us, discern it on the faces of those who love to be in God’s presence, perceive it in the beauties of His creation, delight in it through the words of the glorious hymns of faith, and rejoice in it as the Spirit transforms our meetings into encounters with the living God. May the quest for such intimacy be our lifelong passion!
As we begin to explore what it means to be close to the Lord, think for a moment of people you have met whose lives reflect their love for the Lord. Each of us will know at least some of these saints, in our locality, if not within our own family. However much their career may or may not amount to in the world’s eyes, their inner being reveals a living awareness of eternity that makes us hunger for more of God’s presence in our own lives.
You might find it helpful to write a prayer to the Lord, asking Him to fill you with that same single-minded love. Tell Him where you feel you are in your relationship with Him, both in relation to where you used to be, and to where you would like to be.
Thank You, Lord, for putting this longing in my heart to know You better.
Thank You for calling me to be Your friend and for including me in Your eternal purposes.
Help me to seek You when nobody else can see me just as much as when I am in the great congregation.
I love You more than words could ever say, and I welcome You at the outset of this day.
I give You all my wounds and hurts, all feelings of inferiority and stumbling stones of pride.
I want my heart and home to be a garden wherein You walk,
and a furnace of love for those who are in need.
So come afresh with Your cleansing power,
to disperse the clouds of doubt and gloom
and release the fragrance of Your love.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Harper Collins Fount). Used with permission.
2. Luke 10:38-42.
3. It is not wrong to embark on this path with caution. Contemplation must be practised within a safe, secure and accountable environment, where all is firmly based on the Word of God. This is important, since a terrible deception has infiltrated a sizeable section of the contemporary Christian contemplative scene. Mystical influences from Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism (an Islamic offshoot) have become popular, promoting a universalist viewpoint that is at complete variance with the teaching of Scripture. Please do not think that I am tarring all such institutions with the same brush, but this is a tremendously serious situation. Souls are being led far from the true focus of their faith by calling on deities that are, in reality, dark and dangerous powers. See ‘The Challenging Counterfeit’ in my book Ravens and the Prophet (New Wine Press).
4. Martin Luther declared he was so busy that he dared not pray for less than three hours a day concerning his many activities. John Wesley likewise lived what he preached by rising early each morning in order to spend quality time seeking God. So too did the Lord Jesus!
5. Mark 3:14-15. The word ‘appointed’ in Greek means ‘to make someone into something.’
6. David Watson, Fear No Evil (Hodder and Stoughton).