“I went all the way back”

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Written by:Ray Ortlund

“Later on in my ministry I faced another crisis that equally influenced the writing of my books.  It came after I had already been a pastor for ten years in the U.S. and a missionary to Europe for five years.  Throughout this period one thing was dinned into my thinking: ‘Why,’ I asked, ‘is there so little reality among orthodox evangelical Christians?  Why is there so little beauty in the way Christians deal with one another?’

This led to doubt about the reality of spiritual things in my own life.  I realized that although I had been studying for years and although I had been active in Christian ministry and although I was becoming more and more known in certain Christian circles, the reality of my own spiritual life was diminished.  Somehow I had lost what I had when I first became a Christian.

For about two months I walked out in the Swiss mountains.  When it rained, I walked in the old hayloft above our chalet.  And as I prayed, I went all the way back to my agnosticism.  With as much honesty as I could, I asked myself, ‘Was I right in becoming a Christian as a young man?’  The unreality I had found in the Christian world, the ugliness I saw in Christian relationships, the fact that Christians were not able to talk to twentieth-century people — all these made me ask, ‘Was I right?’”

Francis A. Schaeffer, “Why and how I write my books,” Eternity Magazine, March 1973.

We are grateful for Christian history.  It shows us we are not alone, as we see how God has helped others.  They make our own path today a little less dark.

Some years ago I faced a crisis similar to Schaeffer’s.  For the first time in my life I had to wonder, “Maybe I’ve been wrong all along.  I thought God loved me.  But maybe the truth is, God hates my guts.  After all, look at the facts.”  Certain experiences confronted me with realities so opposite to everything I had always believed that I had to rethink at a foundational level.  I had to account, especially, for two things.  One, Why isn’t God more real to me and others?  Why isn’t he more satisfying, more captivating to us?  Why does the living God make so little difference to us, the very ones who claim to stand for God in a godless world?  Two, Why is there so little beauty in how we treat one another?  Why is there so much ugliness, even brutality, toward one another?

I came to see that these two problems are interrelated.  There is a reason why people who believe God is love (1 John 4:7-8) treat one another with unlove.  The reason is not a lack of theological orthodoxy about God.  The reason is a lack of personal reality with God.  A theoretical God of love can be defended as a doctrinal concept, even while being denied as a practical reality.  But unreality with God inevitably shows: “And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God” (Isaiah 8:21).

If our hearts are not filled with the love of God, mere orthodoxy about God cannot suffice.  Indeed, our orthodoxy about God only intensifies our frustration and rage, because we are experiencing less than we ourselves profess is real.  But if our spiritual starvation diet goes undiagnosed and unremedied, we inevitably reveal our soul-deprivation toward God as we mistreat one another.  That is when a believer can become as brutal as an atheist.  But our orthodoxy conceals it, even justifies it.

Reality with God and beauty with one another — these two dynamics always go together.  When our churches lose real experience of God in his grace and glory, we will lash out against one another — and find a way to rationalize it.

The only remedy is to go back.  In humility and honesty, we must retrace our steps and figure out how we departed from the Lord and how we have wronged others.  We cannot hope for blessing in the future until we seek God’s forgiveness for the past, reengaging with him and reconciling with others, setting our feet back on the path of an honest walk with God, according to the gospel, moment-by-moment.  Then we are free to face the future with glad expectancy.

The vertical and the horizontal are always inseparable.  God himself has made it so.

This post was originally published on The Gospel Coalition

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