Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Importance of Spiritual Comfort

As indicated in a previous blog, I am reading John Colquhoun's book on Spiritual Comfort and have completed his second chapter which considered the importance of spiritual comfort.

Colquhoun gives twelve reasons to confirm the importance of believers enjoying spiritual comfort. First, there is the desire of God. The Father, out of his great love, sent his Son into the world to purchase at great cost comfort for them, and then highly exalted him with the purpose of dispensing it to them. The Father and the Son also send the Spirit to apply comfort to the souls of believers. Each of the divine persons has a name that includes comfort: the Father is the God of all comfort (Rom. 15:5), the Son is the consolation of Israel (Luke 2:25) and the Spirit is the Comforter (John 16:7). The Lord commands his servants to comfort his people (Isa. 35:3-4).

Second, since fullness of comfort and joy is an essential aspect of eternal life in heaven, so it is present in less degree in the same eternal life begun on earth. Such ‘holy consolation is a commodity of heaven, that distant country, not to be imported but by faith and prayer.’ A third reason that shows the importance of spiritual comfort is that it is part of the pure delight believers share with angels because it is connected to communion with God, especially of the enjoyment known in the presence of God and the Lamb.

Fourth, every part of the Bible is intended to promote spiritual comfort (Rom. 15:4), whether ‘types and prophecies, histories and examples, laws and doctrines’. Fifth, God in his providence, even in those aspects that seem adversarial, is working all things together to produce spiritual comfort. An example is the promise to bring his people into a wilderness where he may speak comfortably to them (Hos. 2:14). If any comforts are taken from them, it is because the Saviour’s design is to give them better ones.

Sixth, spiritual comforts, to a very high degree, heighten and sweeten all temporal comforts that a believer has: ‘when a man is enabled cordially to trust that the Lord Jesus loves and saves him, and that He will perfect that which concerns him, his joy and peace in believing cannot fail to impart a heavenly sweetness to all his earthly joys.’ Seventh, spiritual comfort also alleviates all their calamities. Believers in earlier times took joyfully the spoiling of their goods because they had received from Jesus spiritual comfort. He gives them peace even when the world gives them trouble (John 16:33), and they can rejoice even in times of tribulation (Rom. 5:3).

Eighth, spiritual comfort is the only way of dealing effectively with troubled spirits. Ninth, such comfort overbalances the strong difficulties that come on the path of following Jesus (such as repentance for personal sin, mortification of indwelling sin, self-denial, fighting spiritual enemies), so making the path sweet and easy. Tenth, in proportion to how much of it is given, spiritual comfort removes the terror of death and judgement by the promises of heaven and resurrection, and enables the believer to fall asleep ‘in the arms of their dear Redeemer’.

Eleventh, the importance of spiritual comfort will be seen when it is contrasted with worldly joy. The latter never lives up to the claims made about it whereas the fullness of the former cannot be imagined. Further, worldly joy demeans the human soul but heavenly joy honours it. Those who have tried both know which is best.

The twelfth, and most important, reason for the importance of spiritual comfort is that it promotes holiness in every area of life. Comfort stimulates obedience, love for Jesus, hatred of sin, and desire for perfection. ‘It is the “oil of gladness” that makes the wheels of their voluntary obedience move forward with ease and speed.’ Further, spiritual comfort ‘so exhilarates and so constrains him as to make all his affection run out to the Lord Jesus, and all his strength run out for Him.’

Since these twelve reasons are true, we can deduce (1) that no other joy can compare to the joy of salvation, (2) that heaven’s fullness of joy must be inexpressibly glorious since what is experienced on earth is so wonderful, (3) that we are bound to love Jesus for procuring and providing such comfort, (4) that the more communion we have with Jesus and the more conformity to him, the more comfort we will enjoy, (5) that we should use diligently the appointed means of obtaining such comfort, and (6) that the loss of such comfort will be grievous.

Having read Colquhoun’s comments, I wonder what I have been doing throughout my Christian life. But I know what I hope I will doing throughout the remainder of it.

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.