Saturday, 9 July 2016

Known and Felt by Stuart Olyott (Evangelical Press, 2014)

Earlier this week, I read a short book
(150 pages) which deals with a crucial aspect of Christian living, but an aspect that one does not hear much about today. It is the author's conviction that the gospel and its benefits affect our feelings as much as they do our understanding and our behaviour.

The book contains seven chapters, preceded by a short autobiographical introduction in which the author recounts personal experiences with God, including individual and church occasions when the Lord made his presence known. Reading this account took me back to times when this was regarded as normal Christianity.

The first chapter focuses on what the Bible says about emotions in the Christian life. Olyott points out the obvious, which is that repeatedly the Bible depicts believers as having powerful emotional experiences, whether it is awareness of sin in their hearts or the joy of forgiveness by God or in answered prayer. The psalms, for example, are full of such cases.

In the second chapter, Olyott explains the role of the Holy Spirit in giving life to those who are spiritually dead. The Spirit comes alongside the Word of God and brings sinners into a relationship with Jesus. Thereafter, the Spirit will work in us.

The topic of chapter three is assurance. Some believers don't have it. This can be because of wrong teachings about assurance, it can be because of sinful attitudes and practices, and it can be because of a stereotyped view of conversion that imagines each one is the same. The author then describes how one can get true assurance. It is given to those who have faith in Jesus, who are troubled by their inward sins, who persist in loving their fellow Christians, and who experience the strengthening activity of the Holy Spirit as he keeps those three outlooks alive in their hearts.

Olyott makes the valid point that such assurance is needed by Christians who suffer for the faith (apparently, a believer is martyred every eleven minutes today, which means a couple have been killed since you started reading this review). He also points out that assurance is needed by the Christian teenager who is derided in school for her faith, by the Christian soldier facing problems in the barracks, and by the Christian wife living with an unconverted husband who attempts to cool her love for the Lord. The truth is, we all need assurance.

Chapter four deals with the matter of the felt presence of Jesus. It does not mean that a person has a vision of Jesus or sees an unusual phenomenon such as a bright light (or similar). Instead it is grasping with delight who Jesus is, and appreciating what he has done and is doing for his people, which is a reminder that the Spirit works through our minds into our emotions. The person who experiences this thinks very little of himself and thinks very highly of Jesus. Like the two on the way to Emmaus, whose hearts burned within them after Jesus explained biblical passages about himself to them, believers find their hearts moved.

Guidance is the theme of the fifth chapter. The Bible says some things are right and others are wrong. Even on things that the Bible does not mention specifically, it provides principles as to whether or not a Christian should do them. The main area in which Christians have difficulty is in discovering their vocation. According to the author, the way to obtain guidance is by engaging in prayer according to the Bible, aware that God will be gracious to us and has given us many promises to use. In providing guidance, the Lord may bring Bible verses to mind, interject new thoughts, create inward compulsions, bring about providential interventions and use unexpected ways - he may also use a combination of them.

The next chapter is about having confidence that our prayers have been answered by God. His comments are based on John's statement that if we pray according to God's will we will have the assurance that we have been heard, even if the answer is not experienced for a while. The author argues that a kind of supernatural conviction is given by God that such prayers will be answered. He gives examples from his own life and from Christian biography about this aspect of Christian experience. Of course, he is aware that some may confuse a passing impression with a Spirit-given persuasion, and advises that when we think we have such assurance we should keep quiet about it and just wait for the answer(s). The basic point to note is that such awareness is given only to those who spend time in communion with God.

The final chapter is concerned with waiting about God. Our age is marked by two wrong outlooks - immediacy and activity, both of which are not helpful for waiting upon God. Many blessings come to those who wait upon God, and the author suggests that they can be gathered together under the thought of 'quietness of soul'. Waiting on God requires time in which we speak to him about all our concerns and usually it ends with an awareness of his peace. The consequences of this experience enables them to live differently. They enjoy God's company whether they are alone or with others, and they love to pray.

The author writes in a straightforward manner and explains his ideas in understandable English. It would not take long to read this book - a few hours would be sufficient, and the effects could be life-changing.

Why should we read this book? Maybe our emotions are not what they should be. Perhaps we want to participate in the next Lord Supper with strong love for Jesus and his people in our hearts. Or maybe we sense that we have left our first love. Is our prayer life patchy, even non-existent? How many answers to prayer are we expecting?

Reading the book in itself will not provide warmth for our affections, but it does show us how to get them. And for that, we thank the author, and may he and us know increasingly what he describes.

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