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Beyond Humiliation: The Way of the Cross
Beauty for Ashes
Look not for a true living strength, in the life of the Me and the I,
With nothing to love but its self-hood, and fearing to suffer and die,
As thou seekest the fruit from the seed-planted grain,
Seek life that is living, from life that is slain.
Then hasten to give it its death-blow, by nailing the I to the Cross;
And thou shalt ﬁnd inﬁnite treasure in what seemed nothing but loss;
For where, if the seed is not laid in the ground,
Shall the germ of the new resurrection be found.
The soul is the Lord’s little garden, the I is the seed that is there;
And he watches it while it is dying, and hath joy in the fruits it doth bear,
In the seed that is buried is hidden the power
Of the life-birth immortal, of fruit, and of ﬂower.
‘Tis hidden, and yet it is true; ‘tis mystic, and yet it is plain!
A lesson, which none ever knew, but souls that are inwardly slain;
That God, from thy death, by his Spirit shall call
The life ever-living, the life ALL IN ALL. — Professor T. C. Upham
Some years ago, on engineering a malarious district in South America, so many of the men were stricken down with sickness, that the engineer resolved to destroy the luxuriant undergrowth of weeds, ﬂowers, ferns, mosses, and lichens, by ﬁre. The result was six months of continued burning and smoldering, until, to all appearance, the life-principle was eradicated from soil and sub-soil. After two years of desolation and sterility, a little plant appeared, developing in due time a ﬂower so rich in its loveliness, and so rare in its beauty, as to ﬁll the beholder with amazement and admiration. It was submitted to ﬂoral experts for classiﬁcation, but they knew of no class to which it belonged. They had never seen anything like it, and they were obliged to let it stand alone in its unique loveliness.
This aptly illustrates the spiritual desolation which precedes our deliverance from the life of nature, and from the subtleties of our selfhood, to which we must come ere we know the risen life of Jesus in all its fullness and fruitfulness. To human eyes the life is rich in foliage, here are lovely mosses, there are wonderful lichens; but human eyes cannot detect the malaria of selﬁshness which God sees. It is no longer selﬁshness in its repulsive forms, but in its most deceitful and attractive dress. It may be described as consecrated selﬁshness, or selﬁshness for God.
Now it takes the form of impulsive and intense earnestness. Work is undertaken because it seems to be of God, but the will of God has not been sought, nor has His strength been put on, hence creaturely energy takes the place of Divine power. Now it takes the form of jealousy for God’s glory, and a position of antagonism is taken to some project, which position says in unmistakable language: “Come and see my zeal for God;” but bitter criticisms are indulged, and uncharitable thoughts are cherished, which reveal only too clearly the malaria of a strong and subtle selfhood.
Or it takes the form of a craving for spiritual enjoyment. The ﬁnger is ever on the pulse of the emotions, and the soul is constantly inquiring “how do I feel?” So long as this emotional pulse beats strongly all is well, but if it grows faint and feeble, the soul is immediately plunged into the Slough of Despondency. This is particularly manifest in work for God. The guidance of the Spirit is honestly sought, and the spirit is cast upon Him for aid. If, however, after the work has been done, there should be an utter divestiture of emotional experience, the temptation of going back upon the guidance of the Spirit is indulged, and hours of anguish follow, because the tempter’s lie is believed, that the wrong course was taken and the wrong message given. This anguish is greatly aggravated if some prized human opinion is adverse to what has been said or done; and the victim of these experiences not infrequently threatens, because self-love has been thus wounded, to abandon work for God altogether.
The purpose of God is to deliver His children from this life, which is still a mixed life, and full of vicissitudes and variations, and give in its place a life ﬁxed and permanent, where the spirit, delivered from selﬁshness in every form, and in full union with the Divine will, rests solidly upon the great Center, and upon that alone. Do not let it be for a moment thought that we are minimizing or deprecating the experience that has been already attained. The soul has true life, but not full or perfect life; God is not yet that “all in all” which He longs to be, and He cannot and will not let us rest in any good which is outside Himself.
This experience of reluctance to abandon self is a very painful one. It is nothing less than the losing (so that faith being sustained, it will never be found again) of the life of nature, and the being ﬁlled with the life and fullness which is of God. (Note how, in the following passages, Christ insists on this — Matt. xvi. 25-27; Mark viii. 35; Luke ix. 24; xiv. 25-35; John xii. 25.)
In the Life of Madame Guyon there is a striking description of her passage through this experience. In the year 1674, she entered into what she terms her state of privation or desolation, and continued in it, with but slight variations, for more than six years. Protracted and painful though her experience was, few have been better able than she to say: “So then death worketh in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. iv. 12), for while she lived, and all through these two hundred years since she slept in Jesus, her personal knowledge of spiritual desolation and death has brought light and life to multitudes.
“I seemed to myself,” she says, “cast down as it were from a throne of enjoyment, like Nebuchadnezzar to live among beasts, — a very trying and deplorable state, when regarded independently of its relations, and yet exceedingly proﬁtable to me in the end, in consequence of the use which Divine wisdom made of it.” All sensible consolation vanished. God set in motion a train of circumstances which seemed to add fuel to the ﬁre, until that to which she had clung with such tenacity, and delighted in with such exceeding delight, was nothing but a heap of ashes. But, as her biographer says, “God designed to make her His own, in the highest and fullest sense; He wished her to possess the true life, the life unmingled with any element which is not true; in other words, a life which ﬂows directly and unceasingly from the Divine nature. And in order to do this, it became with Him, if we may so express it, a matter of necessity that He should take from her every inward support, separate and distinct from that of unmixed naked faith. She could love God’s will, trying though it often was to her natural sensibilities, when it was sweetened with consolations; but the question now proposed to her was, whether she could love God’s will when developing itself as the agent and minister of Divine providences which were to be received, endured, and rejoiced in, in all their bitterness, simply because they were from God?”
Describing this season of aridity and inward deprivation, she says: “Confused, like a criminal that dares not lift up his eyes, I looked upon the virtue of others with respect. I could see more or less of goodness in those around me, but in the obscurity and sorrow of my mind, I could seem to see nothing good, nothing favorable in myself. When others spoke a word of kindness, and especially if they happened to praise me, it gave a severe shock to my feelings, and I said in myself they little know my miseries; they little know the state from which I have fallen. And, on the contrary, when they spoke in terms of reproof and condemnation, I agreed to it as right and just.”
Then she tells how nature sought to free herself from this abject condition, but could not ﬁnd any way of escape. She was like the slain that lie in the grave; to all appearance cut off from God’s hand and laid in the lowest pit, in dark places in the deeps. Shut up, she could not come forth, and she cried in her anguish: “Wilt thou show wonders to the dead? Shall they that are deceased arise and praise Thee? Shall Thy loving-kindness be declared in the grave? or Thy faithfulness in destruction? Shall Thy wonders be known in the dark? and Thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? But unto Thee, O Lord, have I cried” (Psalm lxxxviii., R.V.).
After nearly seven years of inward and outward desolation the darkness passed away, and the light of eternal glory settled upon her soul. Out of the ashes of the abandoned selfhood God brought forth a life so novel and beautiful, that the Christians of the day in which she lived failed to classify it. It was so unlike anything they had ever experienced, heard, or read of, that they put her in prison for possessing it.
She learned to look back upon these years as the darkness of the grave that precedes the resurrection glory; the consuming to ashes that precedes the growth of never-fading ﬂowers; the night of mourning that comes before the morning of joy; the spirit of heaviness that is worn before the garment of praise.
“It was on the 22nd of July, 1680, that happy day,” says Madame Guyon, “that my soul was delivered from all its pains. On this day I was restored, as it were, to perfect life, and set wholly at liberty. I was no longer depressed, no longer borne down under the burden of sorrow. I had thought God lost, and lost for ever; but I found Him again. And He returned to me with unspeakable magniﬁcence and purity. In a wonderful manner, difﬁcult to explain, all that which had been taken from me was not only restored, but restored with increase and new advantages. In Thee, O my God, I found it all, and more than all! The peace which I now possessed was all holy, heavenly, inexpressible. What I had possessed some years before, in the period of my spiritual enjoyment, was consolation, peace — the gift of God rather than the Giver; but now, I was brought into such harmony with the will of God, whether that will was consoling or otherwise, that I might now be said to possess not merely consolation, but the God of consolation; not merely peace, but the God of peace. One day of this happiness, which consisted in simple rest or harmony with God’s will, whatever that will might be, was sufﬁcient to counterbalance years of suffering. Certainly it was not I, myself, who had fastened my soul to the Cross, and under the operations of a providence, just but inexorable, had drained, if I may so express it, the blood of the life of nature to the last drop. I did not understand it then; but I understood it now. It was the Lord that did it. It was God that destroyed me, that He might give me the true life.”
Two observations will perhaps prevent misconception at this stage. First, the phrase, “the life of nature,” is used of the natural life without the restoring and purifying grace of full sanctiﬁcation. The life of nature is the opposite of the life of faith. The one is always seeking its own will and acting in independence of God, while the other seeks the will of God and makes Him the foundation of every action. The one looks to man’s wisdom and man’s strength, the other rejects all methods and instrumentalities which are dissociated from God. Augustine wisely says: “God is never the destroyer of nature, but He ordereth it and maketh it perfect.”
It will be wise, in the second place, to say that this deep work of the Spirit need not be protracted over years, as in Madame Guyon’s case. If utterly abandoned to God — determined to shrink from no discovery, however humbling, and no purging, however severe — the soul will only “reach forth” to the things that are before, ever “pressing towards the mark”; God will very speedily show forth the quickening power of His Spirit.