In my last post, I referenced a quote from Samuel Rutherford on the importance of the affections in the Christian life. That quote read as follows:
The affections are like the needle, the rest of the soul like the thread; and as the needle makes way and draws the thread, so holy affections pull forward and draw all to Jesus. The affections are the ground and lower part of the soul, and when they are filled they set all the soul on work; when there is any love in the affections, it sets all the rest of the faculties of the soul on work to duty, and when there is any corruption in the affections, it stagnates the soul, will, mind, and conscience. Affections are the feet of the soul, and the wheels whereupon the conscience runs. When a man is off his feet he cannot run or walk; so when the affections are lame, the soul moves on crutches.
Rutherford’s point here is one that I want to expound upon further, principally because I find it to be so practical for the Christian life.
If we are honest with ourselves, we will probably all acknowledge that, for much of our experience as Christians, it has felt like our souls have been “moving on crutches.” I know that it is certainly true for me. I have been a Christian now for almost 30 years, and even after all this time, I still find myself struggling with many of the same sins that I struggled with when I was first converted. My own experience of growth in the Christian life has been incremental, so much so that it has often seemed like I have been making little progress indeed or, to borrow Rutherford’s language, that my soul has been moving on crutches. And my guess is that most Christians will feel exactly the same.
Why is that? Why does growth in the Christian life seem to be so slow? Why does sanctification seem to be almost imperceptible? I think part of the reason is because growth in the Christian life is always a growth downwards. God shows us only the tip of the iceberg of our sin when we first come to faith in Christ. It is enough to reveal to us that we are sinners in need of mercy and to move us to embrace Christ by faith. The rest of the Christian life, then, is about God lowering the water table further. He exposes more and more of the iceberg of our sin to the light. We didn’t see it before because it was “hidden” beneath the surface of the water, so to speak. But, as we grow, God lowers that water table, and we see what we did not see at the beginning.
We see something of this downward trajectory in the apostle Paul’s life. Paul goes from referring to himself as the “least of the apostles” in 1 Corinthians 15:9, which was written around 55AD, to calling himself the “very least of all the saints” about 6 or 7 years later in Ephesians 3:8, to describing himself as the least of all sinners (the foremost sinner) 3 or 4 years after that in 1 Timothy 1:15. The water table was being lowered, and Paul was seeing more and more of his sin.
This is precisely what we would expect as we grow closer to the One whom the Bible calls perfect light (see, e.g., 1 John 1:5; James 1:17). We would expect to see more and more of our sin the closer we get to the light. When I lived in Jackson, MS, my house was an older home that did not have an overhead light in the living room. We had to place lamps around the perimeter of the room to illumine the space. But even with all the lamps turned on, it was still rather dark. So much so that when I looked at my reflection in the living room mirror, my face looked good. I couldn’t see any defects or blemishes in my skin. But the master bathroom had this old mirror that literally had lights on every side. When I looked into that mirror, I saw a completely different image of my face. I looked washed out, pale even, and I could see every blemish conceivable in my skin. As long as I stayed away from the light of the bathroom, I thought I looked good. But as soon as I got near the bright lights, I could see defects and blemishes that I never imagined were there.
The same is true in the Christian life. The farther we are from the Lord, the better we will think we look; and the closer we get to Him, the worse we will look to ourselves. The light will reveal more defects and blemishes than we ever realized were there. This means that our perception of our own growth in the Christian life will oftentimes appear slow and almost imperceptible, because we are growing closer to the light and seeing more of our sin. It means that our perception of our own Christian experience will oftentimes be that our soul is moving on crutches, when in actuality the exact opposite is the case.
But growth in the Christian life can also appear imperceptibly slow because we are not keeping in step with the Spirit (Gal. 5:25). We are not maintaining what Rutherford calls “holy affections.” We are toying with sin and playing with it rather than seeking to kill it as soon as it raises its ugly head. We all do that from time to time with certain sins that seem to fit us better than others. We will talk more about this idea in my next post. Until then, stay close to the light, my friends, despite what blemishes we may perceive in our lives because of it.