Intimacy and EternityTowards and Life of Reflection
Part One, Chapter Three
The greatest thing a human soul ever does in the world
is to ‘see’ something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.
Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think,
but thousands can think for one who can see.
To see clearly is poetry, prophecy
and religion, all in one.
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
Towards a Life of Reflection
ROSALIND AND I found ourselves praying for many people as we walked along beside the river. This often happens when we take time out to be with the Lord. He uses many of the places we visit, and the sights we see, to remind us of people in need of prayer support.
At the heart of Marcel Proust’s monumental work A la Recherche du Temps Perdu1 is the discovery of what he termed ‘les associations.’ Proust observed how a particular smell, sight, or touch could trigger an association with some long-gone experience. For Proust, this led him inexorably backwards into the perceived security of childhood.2
By the River of Delights, the Holy Spirit works in our hearts in a similar, though altogether richer way. The difference is that when the Lord shows us something it leads not to nostalgia but to inspired understanding. He too may use sights, smells, and other associations to remind us of someone who is in need of our prayers. Equally, He may bring some past experience to mind as a means of supplying us with the key to a particular problem.
This is the value of adjusting the pace of our lives. The Lord uses this process of reflection to direct our spirits towards issues that are on His heart. ‘The real prophets of our day,’ wrote Richard Foster, in his excellent book Freedom of Simplicity, ‘are those who can perceive what is happening in modern society, see where it will lead us, and give a value judgement upon it . . . We should not just absorb facts, but think about their significance.’3
Reflection enables us to trace and discern patterns where others see only isolated events.
It is especially reassuring when the Lord alerts us to difficulties that only He could have known about.
The other night, for example, I felt a prompting to lay aside the book I was reading and to pray. The thought came immediately: ‘Ring so-and-so and tell her to stop tormenting herself on account of such-and-such.’ This simple word served to release the person concerned from a severe internal agitation.
It is wonderful how the Lord alerts His people at times when we ourselves are in special need of help. Times without number we have felt like whales stranded on the shore, when someone has got in contact and ‘floated’ us off again through their prayers. May the Lord make us more open to such promptings!
Cultivating the Life of Reflection
The Lord is training us first to recognize and then to act on His leadings. In practice, this may be a two stage process. There is a risk of becoming so excited because God is speaking to us that we inadvertently curtail a time of intimacy that might have yielded further insights had we remained a while longer in prayer. Then we have to decide what to do with what we have received. Should we visit the person who came to mind, or pray for them?
Whilst it would be ludicrous to identify all unexpected thoughts as coming from God, it would be equally as foolish not to be open to the possibility that some, at least, are the result of a true spiritual prompting. With practice, we become more skilled at recognizing that the gentle nudges and reminders which come our way are often the Lord’s way of alerting us to do something, or to pray for someone.
There are times when these nudges come so thick and fast that, like aeroplanes coming in to land at a busy airport, I need to ‘stack’ them until I can give them my full attention. I have been playing the piano in a moment’s break from writing these lines, letting my spirit improvise. The music takes now one turn, now another, and people begin to stand before me in prayer: a couple who have just had their first child; a friend who is about to preach for the first time; a woman who is struggling with being single; the Church in Nepal where believers are divided in the aftermath of persecution. Where did all these thoughts come from? It was by taking time out to reflect in the Lord’s presence that the Spirit led me in the paths of intercession.
Sometimes I drive through a town or a region and find myself identifying with some of the people who live there; perhaps remembering times we have shared together in the past. These people are watchmen for their region. It is a blessing to know that they are there. Their prayers live on and it is a joy to pray for them.
The Lord has other, more esoteric, ways of alerting us to pray. I went up to greet someone once in a park, mistaking him for someone else. Rather than feeling embarrassed by my mistake, I put it to good use by praying for the person I had been reminded of. It was a simple matter to check back and discover that the person I thought I had seen had indeed needed prayer at that particular moment.
Many similar experiences have taught me to recognize that God uses ‘look-alikes’ as one of His many ways to call me to pray. It may only be a fleeting resemblance in a certain profile, but it is enough to alert my spirit. I have known other occasions when a certain make or colour of car has been drawn to my attention, again to remind me of someone I know who drives a similar model.
Do such coincidences really come from God? I have found from checking back that in perhaps three-quarters of the cases these people were in obvious need of prayer. Sometimes I was going ahead in the Spirit to open up some new area of service for them or to keep them from some danger. In any case, how can anything but good come from lifting people before the throne of grace? It is precious just to bathe the person who has come to mind in loving prayer, whether or not they are facing any particularly pressing needs.
To pray in this way is to become aware of the deeper workings of the Holy Spirit within our soul. It enables us to share in what God is doing now, today, and tomorrow. It is about healing old hurts, opening new doors, and shaping the future: something which is incalculably richer than the empty nostalgia Proust experienced. Nostalgia reflects man’s weary search for permanence in a ceaselessly changing world. We need not share the world’s anxiety over the passing of time, for time will soon merge into eternity, and our heavenly home is even now being prepared.
Taking Time to Reflect
Dr Pierson, the son-in-law of George Mueller, founder of the Bristol orphanages, once visited a minister who had been in hospital for six long months. The doctor ventured to suggest that God may have permitted this illness as the only means by which He could cause this busy man to listen more to Him. He had hardly left the hospital before the Lord spoke to him: ‘You too have been too active for Me, and have not taken enough time to be occupied with Me!’ Dr Pierson wrote of this experience:
I resolved to practise what I preached. At the close of each day, I sit for one hour in the quiet of my study, not to speak to the Lord, but to listen to what He has to say to me, and to lay the day’s life and work open to the Lord’s penetrating gaze and appraisal.4
Many of us, like Dr Pierson, will find the end of the day the best time for doing this. Often I am too tired or emotionally jangled, but the great benefit of attempting such a review is that it gives us a second chance to ponder the events of the day and the nudges that the Lord has sent our way. We can ‘replay’ them, almost as if we were watching them pass before our eyes on a video. Then, as we are reminded of opportunities we have missed, or unkind words that we have uttered, we can ‘press the pause button’, and deal with the issue God has highlighted.
As we make time to reflect, things that people have said to us return to our consciousness. Words of encouragement that confirm we are on the right path; or words of warning and correction that save us from error – half-warnings even, that we might have missed had we been too engrossed in our own affairs. Apart from anything else, this practice helps us to face painful issues we might otherwise have been inclined to bury.
Keeping a spiritual journal of God’s dealings with us can also aid this process of reflection. Rather than merely recording the outward events of the day, we will find it more valuable to record the things the Lord has shown us. Writing down the concerns that are uppermost in our hearts (perhaps in the form of a prayer) crystallizes our thinking and helps us in the future when we face similar situations.5
Parables from Nature
The Lord Jesus drew powerfully on the world around Him in His teaching, using spiritual parallels and parables from everyday life: the sower and the seed, the woman who lost a coin, the missing sheep, the unjust judge – these were images that came from a world with which his contemporaries were entirely familiar. We need to be alert to hear what the Spirit may be saying to us. Not infrequently, the Lord will speak to us from the world about us.
Often it will not be new knowledge He conveys to us, so much as the practical application of some known truth, or reassurance about a specific course of action. For example, on our first trip to the Lake District we were intrigued to see a stream whose waters had vanished into the ground, leaving a waterless bed ahead of it. Some distance downstream the waters reappeared. This phenomenon is known by geographers as a swallow-hole, but to us it spoke about the way in which our spiritual awareness of God often appears to go temporarily underground. There is no need to panic: the bed is all ready and waiting for the water to return further downstream.
The following day provided us with a further example, when we were descending Haystacks, one of our favourite mountains.6 Although there was a discernible track to follow through the rocks, we could only see that portion of it which was immediately in front of us. Whenever we tried to look further ahead we could see no sign of it amongst the crags and boulders. It was another parable of the way in which the Lord leads us: one step at a time along a path that only He can see.
All this is a pointer to the fact that meaning and purpose undergird every part of our life, and that one episode dovetails intricately with others.
It is the opposite of the postmodernist concepts of relativity and accident. As we shall be considering in the chapter ‘Whispers of His Love’, we seek to listen so that we can discern more of the heart and ways of our Lord.
Like a skilful investigator we may sometimes have to piece together what God is saying over a particular issue until we feel comfortable to implement a plan, or to pray a certain prayer.
We will need to be free from prejudice, however, if we are to discover what the Lord is saying in a given situation. Although all that God does will be in line with His revealed will in Scripture, our understanding of His Word may be blinkered by our upbringing or by our own desires.7
Occasionally, the Lord may give us the special ability to ‘know’ what needs to be prayed for – much as the prophet Elisha was often aware of things that were happening far away. Elisha was not psychic; he was simply in touch with the Lord who loves (and sometimes needs) to communicate with His children. Elisha used his special knowledge of the enemy commander’s plans to save Israel from many enemy forays. Likewise, he knew at once when his servant had fallen into temptation.8
I feel the need to add a disclaimer. By placing so great an emphasis on our need to reflect and to listen, I am in no way encouraging us to disregard the minds that the Lord has given us. He is actually extremely concerned to develop our powers of understanding. Nevertheless, in our overly rationalistic age, it is important to pray that the Spirit should inform our mind, rather than to allow our mind to quench and hinder our faith.
I came across a lovely epitaph the other day. It began, ‘Remember with Joy.’ It is strengthening to remember godly people, as well as those wonderful moments when we have experienced the powers of the age to come breaking through. Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of ‘a perfume compounded of the remembered benefits of God’.
Rather than taking God’s blessings for granted, let the fragrance of all that Christ has done for you come to mind. Spend some time first recalling, and then writing down, ways by which the Lord has helped and provided for you over the years.
Think back not only to major crises, when God has intervened to open or shut doors on your behalf, but also to the smaller steering touches which have made such a difference in your life. Let a goodly number of such examples come to mind and then use these recollections of how good God has been to you as a springboard of faith from which to face the future.
To help us cultivate a life of reflection, and to become more sensitive to the whispers that flow from God’s heart, it is good to consider the day’s events in the Lord’s presence.
Have I really sought You this day, Lord?
Have I withstood temptation?
Have I been concerned for the well-being of those I came into contact with?
Have I anything to repent of in the words I have uttered, the thoughts I have entertained, and the things I have done?
Have I missed any nudges or burdens that You have sent my way?
Train me in the ways of reflection,
that Your Spirit can flow more freely through me.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Gems and Treasures
We Christians must simplify our lives or lose untold treasures on earth and in eternity. Modern civilization is so complex as to make the devotional life all but impossible. The need for solitude and quietness was never greater than it is today.
(A. W. Tozer)
We sometimes fear to bring our troubles to God, because they must seem small to Him who sits on the circle of the earth. But if they are large enough to vex and endanger our welfare, they are large enough to touch His heart of love. For love does not measure by a merchant’s scales, nor with a surveyor’s chain. It has a delicacy unknown in any handling of material substance.
(R. A. Torrey)
Lift up your heart to Him,
sometimes even at your meals,
and when you are in company;
the least little remembrance will always be acceptable to Him.
You need not cry very loud;
He is nearer to us than we are aware of . . .
We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God,
who regards not the greatness of the work,
but the love with which it is performed.
1. Translated in English either as The Remembrance of Times Past or In Search of Times Past.
2. Perhaps authors return so often to the comfortingly familiar world of their childhood, because their sensory perceptions were stronger then, and life was an adventure to be lived rather than an obstacle course to negotiate.
3. Richard Foster, The Freedom of Simplicity (Triangle).
4. Dr Pierson, George Mueller (Now out of print).
5. Jennifer Rees Larcombe writes helpfully on this subject in Keeping a Spiritual Journal (Hodder and Stoughton).
6. The celebrated fell walker, Wainwright, suggested that the only advice to give a novice who gets lost in the mist on this particular mountain, is to kneel down and pray for safe deliverance! He also wrote, ‘For a man who is trying to get a persistent worry out of his mind, the top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure.’
7. The Lord had to work hard to convince Peter, against all his instincts, that it was really His will for him to preach the gospel to Gentiles (Acts 10:9-28,34-36). See also my chapters on listening to the Lord in Ravens and the Prophet and Living for the Lord.
8. 2 Kings 6:8-12; 5:20-27. It is interesting to notice how often the words ‘Elisha’ and ‘king’ appear in the same verse. In other words, we are to share the insights the Lord gives us appropriately.