Thursday, 14 April 2011

Spiritual Comfort

I have begun to read Spiritual Comfort, a volume written by John Colquhoun in 1813, an eighteenth/nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian minister (1748-1827). He wrote his book to help Christians struggling with an awareness of indwelling sin and who frequently allowed themselves to become dejected because of it. Such dejection often leads to despondency, to doubting, and to an inability to perform Christian duties. Colquhoun’s remedy for such was to administer spiritual comfort to them because he realised a threefold responsibility: (1) it was one of the main purposes of the Bible, (2) it is an aspect of fellowship between Christians, and (3) it is a duty of pastors towards their people. So even as I read his foreword I sensed dejection because I fail in each of these three areas. But I was not despondent because Sinclair Ferguson assures readers in the foreword to the book that Colquhoun’s insights are very helpful for dealing with this important area of sanctification.

Colquhoun begins by considering spiritual comfort in general. He distinguishes it from natural comfort (things we enjoy in everyday life) and sinful comfort (pleasure from what is forbidden by God). In contrast, spiritual comfort is ‘that inward solace or satisfaction which supports, strengthens, and exhilarates holy souls, and which they have in and from the Lord Jesus, their Covenant-Head, by the exercise of faith, hope, love, and other graces of the Holy Spirit’. That sounds marvellous, especially as Colquhoun also says that spiritual comfort is ‘that spiritual delight, that holy joy, which cheers and invigorates the hearts of believers under all their inward and outward troubles’. I have read many descriptions of how Christians should benefit from their union with Jesus, but can’t recall at this moment one that betters Colquhoun’s assertion. In passing, who said that Scottish Presbyterian ministers were dull? Right away, Colquhoun has distinguished between the shallow and the sublime.

Believers need comfort when in trouble or when facing a difficult situation (I suppose that summarises life). The qualification for receiving it is humility – ‘indeed, the oil of spiritual joy is such that no vessel but a contrite heart can hold it.’ Further, there are degrees of spiritual comfort – ‘the lowest is peace of conscience, the next is joy, and the highest is triumph.’ Looking at them, I would say that the first is straightforward in that Christians generally go to God for pardon and are comforted by knowing he keeps his promises of forgiveness. But I suspect that few proceed to ascend to the second step, perhaps because we ignore Colquhoun’s insight that joy comes from ‘feasting upon Christ in the offers and promises of the gospel’. And the third step, well ….

Spiritual comfort comes from each of the divine persons of the Trinity as the consequence of their commitments arranged in the covenant of grace. I suppose that it is both intriguing and enjoyable to experience this. To do so, says Colquhoun, is to enter into the meaning of eternal life, to have samples now of the future fullness that each believer will receive from God. Yet Colquhoun makes it clear that believers should focus mainly on what Jesus does, without forgetting the benefits given by the Father and by the Spirit.

It is their duty and privilege to find spiritual comfort: duty because God requires that they do so, and privilege because he keeps his promise to provide it. This means that the seed of spiritual comfort has been sown within them, even when a sense of it is absent. Occasions of experiencing spiritual comfort vary, including following spiritual desertion, preceding a heavy trial, during times of hostility to the gospel, opposing indwelling sin, or when meditating deeply on ‘the adorable Saviour and His glorious grace’.

In whatever situation spiritual comfort is needed, it always comes in the most suitable way. Because the comfort is divine, it will always prove stronger than the cause of unease. Yet it is administered through faith; ‘it is the office of faith to take and to hand comfort to the soul, to bring peace into the conscience, and joy into the heart.’ Faith in action means going direct to Christ the fountain and receiving fresh supplies of comfort. This is better than discovering marks of grace: ‘Although the sight of His evidences of grace is indeed pleasant to a holy man, yet the sight of Christ in the offer and promise should be much more delightful to him.’

Of course, there is a counterfeit comfort. Colquhoun provides some evidences of the real thing: it is accompanied by godly sorrow for sin, it encourages holy living, it humbles the recipient, it renders all sins hateful, it promotes impartial self-examination. Spiritual comfort, with its features of love to and rejoicing in God, leads to loving submission to God’s law: ‘the more he is refreshed by the holy consolations of the gospel, or enabled to rejoice in Christ Jesus and His great salvation, so much the more does he delight in evangelical obedience to His will, and in holy activity for His glory.’

According to Colquhoun, God in this life does not usually allow a Christian to become too depressed or too elated. He prevent depression by giving comfort and he prevents elation by allowing distress, as Paul discovered with the thorn in the flesh that was allowed by God.

Because Christ is the primary ground for spiritual comfort, it means that spiritual failure should not cause despondency because such failure should not prevent us trusting in Christ. Instead believers should resolve at all times to trust in Jesus.

I found this explanation of spiritual comfort challenging for my personal experiences and my pastoral work. Where do I go for spiritual comfort and where do I direct others to go? Colquhoun has helped me see the centrality of Jesus in finding true comfort. So you may think that I have found the book very helpful. So far, I have only read the first chapter, but if the remaining ones are as full of spiritual wisdom as the first, then I will enjoy it.

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