Spiritual Things Must Be Spiritually Discerned #AWTOZER

Spiritual Things Must Be Spiritually Discerned #AWTOZER
THEY WHO THINK ON HEAVENLY THINGS are forced by their psychological structure to use mental raw material borrowed from the earth. And this is certain to show up in their thinking. Even the Bible, to be understood by its readers, must condescend to tell of eternal things in the language of time. It must explain the celestial by means of the mundane. So we find in the Scriptures birds and kings and sheep and soldiers acting as interpreters for Almighty God. Grapes and lilies, gold and stubble, corn and cattle, rain and stars all are used by the Holy Spirit to carry our minds across the vast chasm that separates the spiritual from the material. Doubtless the constant use of figures drawn from our familiar world to express religious ideas leaves a residuum at the bottom of our minds which in some measure gives color if not form to our theology. We struggle to understand spiritual things by comparing them to natural ones; then little by little those natural things become identified with the spiritual completely and the spiritual suffers greatly as a consequence. One task of the illuminated Christian teacher is to internalize worship and raise the religious concepts of church people above the figures and allegories that enabled them to grasp those concepts in the first place. The figure is the box in which the shining jewel is carried; but it is surprisingly easy to mistake the box for the jewel and look for nothing more. Christianity is the religion of the heart. It searches for and finds the man under his wrappings. The gospel reaches the man far in where there is nothing to distinguish him from any other man. Whether he is dark or red or white matters not at all; whether he is a Stone Age aborigine in a grass hut or a civilized white man in an air-conditioned office he is the same man underneath, and it is for that man that the Spirit keeps up His persistent search. It would appear obvious enough once we think of it that the image of natural objects treasured in the mind tends to impede the flight of our souls upward into God. Illustrations which, by their very definition, should let in light, if used often and objectified by the artist’s brush, become opaque at last and actually shut out the light they were intended to admit. A familiar example may help me to make my point. The psalmist David, in the most beautiful hymn in the world, teaches us to think of Christ as our Shepherd. The Lord Jesus carried the idea further and talked tenderly of His sheep and of Himself as the Shepherd who should lay down His life for them. The artists took up the idea and depicted Christ as a real shepherd and their work has become so fixed in the minds of Christians that when our Lord returns many of them will be secretly disappointed if He is not carrying a crook in His hand and a woolly lamb under His arm. In this instance what is intended to assist our understanding, to lift our imagination, to put poetry and music into our hearts, has by our blindness become instead a positive hindrance to our knowledge of Christ. Worse, it has given us not only an inadequate but an erroneous picture of Him. We try to visualize Him and the only image that projects onto the screen is that of an idealized shepherd of the Near East, an image which I am certain Paul and John would never recognize. Paul declared that he knew Christ after the flesh no more, and the same John who had recorded the words of Christ concerning the sheep and the shepherd, when he saw Him as He now is fell at His feet as dead. Always the Church has been tempted to think of God by the use of images and forms, and always when she has so done she has fallen into externalism and spiritual decay. Some of the greatest books apart from the inspired Scriptures have been written to call the church back to a purer view of God. Miguel de Molinos, in his Spiritual Guide, insists that prayer is “an ascent or elevation of the mind to God.” “God is above all creatures,” he says further, “and the soul cannot see Him nor converse with Him if she raise not herself above them all.” The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing says, “Look the loath to think on aught but Himself. So that naught work in thy wit or in thy will, but only Himself. And do that in thee is to forget all creatures that God ever made and the works of them… let them be and take no heed of them. This is the work that most pleaseth God.” I think it may be said with a fair degree of accuracy that all the great devotional theologians of the centuries taught the futility of trying to visualize the Godhead. Molinos warned against every effort of the intellect to image God forth. “She ought to go forward with her love,” he says of the Christian’s soul, “leaving all her understanding behind. Let her love God as He is and not as her understanding says He is, and pictures Him.” The teaching of the New Testament is that God and spiritual things can be known finally only by a direct work of God within the soul. However theological knowledge may be aided by figures and analogies, the pure understanding of God must be by personal spiritual awareness. The Holy Spirit is indispensable. (See John 14:1 to 16:33 and First Corinthians 1:18 to 2:16.)

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