Monday, June 23, 2014

Journaling The God of All Comfort #2

God of All Comfort. Hannah Whitall Smith. 1953. Moody Publishers. 256 pages. [Source: Bought]

Hannah Whitall Smith (1832-1911) is the author of God of All Comfort and The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life. Both books are available through theChristian Classics Ethereal Library. (Though print editions are also available. I've owned these two in print for decades.)

Why journal? Why not journal?! I like to take my time reading Christian classics, and by journaling, I get to share some good quotes while they are fresh to me. Sometimes books ask some really good questions that make me think as well. I'd like to share those with you as well. I'd love to hear your thoughts as well.

Journaling #1

Today I'll be covering THREE chapters: "The God of All Comfort," "The Lord Our Shepherd," and "He Spake to Them of the Father."
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. 2 Corinthians 1:3-7, ESV
These verses from 2 Corinthians inspired the title of Hannah Whitall Smith's book and the title of this chapter. In this chapter ultimately she addresses what the comfort of God actually looks like.

First, she goes back to the premise: her observation that most Christians aren't all that comfortable and joyful and hopeful looking. That by all appearances, many Christians are miserable-looking. That is looking from the outside--not particularly judging the inward life--most Christians aren't showing that the Christian life is happy.
Such Christians, although they profess to be the followers of the God of all comfort, spread gloom and discomfort around them wherever they go; and it is out of the question for them to hope that they can induce anyone else to believe that this beautiful name, by which He has announced Himself, is anything more than a pious phrase, which in reality means nothing at all. And the manifestly uncomfortable religious lives of so many Christians is, I am very much afraid, responsible for a large part of the unbelief of the world.
The apostle says that we are to be living epistles known and read of all men; and the question as to what men read in us is of far more vital importance to the spread of Christ’s kingdom than we half the time realize. It is not what we say that tells, but what we are. It is easy enough to say a great many beautiful things about God being the God of all comfort; but unless we know what it is to be really and truly comforted ourselves, we might as well talk to the winds. People must read in our lives what they hear in our words, or all our preaching is worse than useless. It would be well for us to ask ourselves what they are reading in us. Is it comfort or discomfort that voices itself in our daily walk and life?    
Whether you agree with her conclusion or not, I think the key here is this: "The apostle says that we are to be living epistles known and read of all men; and the question as to what men read in us is of far more vital importance to the spread of Christ’s kingdom than we half the time realize. It is not what we say that tells, but what we are...People must read in our lives what they hear in our words, or all our preaching is worse than useless. It would be well for us to ask ourselves what they are reading in us."

Doesn't that give us food for thought?! I'll repeat it once more: People must read in our lives what they hear in our words, or all our preaching is worse than useless. How we live matters. It does. Our faith is to be lived out day by day, year by year. What we believe matters. It is important to believe rightly. It matters how we live. It does. I know it's not popular. The idea of sanctification, of holy living, is not popular in any century--not really. But living rightly matters just as much as believing rightly. Believers can't be lazy in either.
Comfort, whether human or divine, is pure and simple comfort, and is nothing else.
She then argues that people don't believe that God is a God of all comfort because they are so focused on God as judge. I just have to add that Hannah Whitall Smith's conclusions are a bit off or incomplete in certain areas. I'll share what she said and then add my observations.
Have we not rather been inclined to look upon Him as a stern, unbending Judge, holding us at a distance, and demanding our respectful homage, and critical of our slightest faults? Is it any wonder that our religion, instead of making us comfortable, has made us thoroughly uncomfortable? Who could help being uncomfortable in the presence of such a Judge?
But I rejoice to say that that stern Judge is not there. He does not exist. The God who does exist is a God who is like a mother, a God who says to us as plainly as words can say it, “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.”
Over and over again He declares this. “I, even I, am he that comforteth you,” He says to the poor, frightened children of Israel. And then He reproaches them with not being comforted. “Why,” He says, “should you let anything make you afraid when here is the Lord, your Maker, ready and longing to comfort you. You have feared continually every day the ‘fury of the oppressor,’ and have forgotten me who have stretched forth the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth? Where is the fury of the oppressor when I am by?”
The God who exists is the God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who so loved the world that He sent His Son, not to judge the world, but to save it. He is the God who “anointed” the Lord Jesus Christ to bind up the brokenhearted, and to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound, and to comfort all that mourn. Please notice that all. Not a few select ones only, but all. Every captive of sin, every prisoner in infirmity, every mourning heart throughout the whole world must be included in this “all.” It would not be “all” if there should be a single one left out, no matter how insignificant, or unworthy, or even how feeble-minded that one might be. I have always been thankful that the feeble-minded are especially mentioned by Paul in his exhortations to the Thessalonian Christians, when he is urging them to comfort one another. In effect he says, Do not scold the feeble-minded, but comfort them. The very ones who need comfort most are the ones that our God, who is like a mother, wants to comfort—not the strong-minded ones, but the feeble-minded.    
It is not that God is not Judge. It is not that "the stern Judge is not there. He does not exist." For believers, and ONLY for believers, one has stood in our place, accepted our punishment, paid the ultimate price for our sins. We have been pardoned because he was condemned. Because another took our punishment, because God's wrath has been satisfied, a wrath that God was fully just and good and righteous in having, I might add, we can approach God and ultimately find comfort in God. The one who was our substitute, the one who has acted as our mediator, is Jesus Christ, God's own Son.

God makes distinctions, and, to some degree so must we. There are believers and unbelievers. There are the lost, the unsaved, and the found, the saved. There are those bound for heaven, and those bound for hell. To say that "the stern Judge is not there. He does not exist" is only partially true. For believers, for those whose sins have been covered by the Lamb of God, God is certainly ready and able to comfort us. For unbelievers, however, God is still JUDGE. A day of judgment is still coming. Hebrews says: It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:31)

Christians must realize that it is not a good thing to comfort unbelievers with words of comfort and peace. It is in fact a bad thing. Unbelievers should feel uncomfortable when presented with the truth, the reality. It is an opportunity, God can use discomfort and doubt and fear to work salvation.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13, ESV)
Back to Hannah Whitall Smith:
You may object, perhaps, because you are not worthy of His comforts. I do not suppose you are. No one ever is. But you need His comforting, and because you are not worthy you need it all the more. Christ came into the world to save sinners, not good people, and your unworthiness is your greatest claim for His salvation.
The avenue to the comfortings of the divine Comforter lies through the need of comfort.
Here is where I think she gets it right:
Divine comfort does not come to us in any mysterious or arbitrary way. It comes as the result of a divine method. The indwelling Comforter “brings to our remembrance” comforting things concerning our Lord, and, if we believe them, we are comforted by them. A text is brought to our remembrance, perhaps, or the verse of a hymn, or some thought concerning the love of Christ and His tender care for us. If we receive the suggestion in simple faith, we cannot help being comforted. But if we refuse to listen to the voice of our Comforter, and insist instead on listening to the voice of discouragement or despair, no comfort can by any possibility reach our souls.
I love this: The indwelling Comforter “brings to our remembrance” comforting things concerning our Lord, and, if we believe them, we are comforted by them. She goes on to say: "For to be comforted by comforting words it is absolutely necessary for us to believe these words."
The apostle tells us that whatsoever things are written in the Scriptures are for our learning, in order that we “through patience and comfort of the Scriptures may have hope.” But if we are to be comforted by the Scriptures, we must first believe them. Nothing that God has said can possibly comfort a person who does not believe it to be really true. When the captain of a vessel tells us that his vessel is safe, we must first believe him to be telling the truth, before we can feel comfortable on board that vessel. When the conductor on a railway tells us we are on the right train, before we can settle down comfortably in our seats, we must trust his word. This is all so self-evident that it might seem folly to call attention to it. But in religious matters it often happens that the self-evident truths are the very ones most easily overlooked; and I have actually known people who insisted on realizing God’s comfort while still doubting His words of comfort; and who even thought they could not believe His comforting words at all, until they had first felt the comfort in their own souls! As well might the passenger on the railway insist on having a feeling of comfortable assurance that he is on the right train, before he could make up his mind to believe the word of the conductor. Always and in everything comfort must follow faith, and can never precede it.
In this matter of comfort it is exactly as it is in every other experience in the religious life. God says, “Believe, and then you can feel.” We say, “Feel, and then we can believe.” God’s order is not arbitrary, it exists in the very nature of things; and in all earthly matters we recognize this, and are never so foolish as to expect to feel we have anything until we first believe that it is in our possession.
As much as I question the author in other places, I have to say that some points she makes are true. But if we are to be comforted by the Scriptures, we must first believe them. Nothing that God has said can possibly comfort a person who does not believe it to be really true. This is of itself a gift of God, by the way.
It is pure and simple unbelief that is at the bottom of all our lack of comfort, and absolutely nothing else. God comforts us on every side, but we simply do not believe His words of comfort.
She concludes this first chapter with a word to preachers.
One word I must add in conclusion. If any of my readers are preachers of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, I would like to ask them what they are commissioned to preach.
The true commission in my opinion is to be found in Isaiah 40:1-2: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” “Comfort ye my people” is the divine command; do not scold them. If it is the Gospel you feel called to preach, then see to it that you do really preach Christ’s Gospel and not man’s. Christ comforts, man scolds. Christ’s Gospel is always good news, and never bad news. Man’s gospel is generally a mixture of a little good news and a great deal of bad news; and even where it tries to be good news, it is so hampered with “ifs” and “buts,” and with all sorts of man-made conditions, that it utterly fails to bring any lasting joy or comfort.
The only Gospel that, to my thinking, can rightly be called the Gospel is that one proclaimed by the angel to the frightened shepherds, who were in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night: “Fear not,” said the angel, “for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour which is Christ the Lord.”
Never were more comfortable words preached to any congregation. And if only all the preachers in all the pulpits would speak the same comfortable words to the people; and if all the congregations, who hear these words, would believe them, and would take the comfort of them, there would be no more uncomfortable Christians left anywhere. And over the whole land would be fulfilled the apostle’s prayer for the Thessalonians: “Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts, and stablish you in every good word and work.”
There are so many things I could say in response to that. So many. I'll start by focusing in on this: If it is the Gospel you feel called to preach, then see to it that you do really preach Christ’s Gospel and not man’s. Christ comforts, man scolds. Christ’s Gospel is always good news, and never bad news. Man’s gospel is generally a mixture of a little good news and a great deal of bad news; and even where it tries to be good news, it is so hampered with “ifs” and “buts,” and with all sorts of man-made conditions, that it utterly fails to bring any lasting joy or comfort.

It almost leaves me speechless by how bad it might be theologically speaking. Yes might be. There is the chance that she didn't mean what it looks like she meant. The gospel. What gospel are we to preach? It is a very serious subject. It matters to God what kind of gospel we preach. It is not something to be taken lightly.

Here's the thing. For the good news to be THE GOOD NEWS. For it move beyond "news" or "interesting news" or "who-cares news" it needs perspective. It is absolutely crucial that the BAD NEWS comes first. If people are never presented with the truth, the so-called "bad news," if the starting point is not grounded in reality, THEN, the good news will never be life-changing, mind-and-soul transforming GOOD NEWS. Grace only becomes amazing, if, people realize the depths of their lost-ness. If people never realize their sinfulness, if the ugliness of their sin never comes to light, if sin remains a non-issue, if it's completely skipped over, then it's an incomplete presentation of the gospel. Jesus came to save. He offers salvation. Very very true. But salvation from what? What do we need saving from? We need saving from ourselves, from our sins. We are sinners. We may never grasp--even after salvation--just how awful and despicable and unworthy we were in our sinful state. Though the more we learn of God, the more we know God, the more we come to realize just how GREAT grace is. The more we love God, the more we hate sin. That is the truth. Sin is the reality. It is. Christians may not want to talk about sin. Christians may want to stay as far away as possible from the subject of sin. Christians may think that sin is the very last thing to talk about with an unbeliever, a seeker. But sin is too important of a subject in the Bible to sweep away.
Although the need to believe is urgent, we cannot put pressure on people to be converted until they are ready. We must present the gospel and let God do what we cannot. Luther, with perhaps a bit of exaggeration, said that we must descend into hell before we can ascend into heaven. That was his way of saying that we should not get people saved until we get them lost. (Erwin Lutzer, How You Can Be Sure You Will Spend Eternity with God, 83) 
Men will never come to Jesus, and stay with Jesus, and live for Jesus — unless they really know why they are to come, and what is their need. Those whom the Spirit draws to Jesus — are those whom the Spirit has convinced of sin. Without thorough conviction of sin, men may seem to come to Jesus and follow Him for a season; but they will soon fall away and return to the world. ~ J.C. Ryle, Holiness
Unless we see ourselves as deserving of the verdict that Pilate gave to Jesus, unless we see ourselves a worthy of hell, we will never understand the Cross. Someone has said that it is difficult for us to embrace the cross in a day when personal enjoyment is king. ~ Erwin Lutzer, Cries from the Cross
Either Jesus bears our sin, or we do. If the Father turned His face away from His beloved Son when He was regarded as a sinner, we can be sure that the Father will turn away from every sinner who stands before the Judgment Bar on his own merits. We are either saved by His rejection, or we must bear our own rejection for all of eternity. (Erwin Lutzer, Cries from the Cross, 103) 
It is the bad news that makes the good news of the gospel so relevant. (Sam Storms, Introduction, Note To Self, 27)
If facing the facts is to be called a pessimist, I am willing to be called a pessimist. If in order to be an optimist, one must shut his eyes and call black white, and error truth, and sin righteousness, and death life, I don't want to be called an optimist. But I am an optimist all the same. Pointing out the real condition will lead to a better condition. (R.A. Torrey, How to Pray, 69)
The gospel has to present the bad news first. It does. It has to start off where we are, where we all were.  No, I am not advocating a do religion: a do this, this, this religion or a don't do this, don't do that religion. The gospel is grounded in grace through and through. It is focused on what Christ has done, what Christ has accomplished, what Christ has finished. But what Christ has done for us will have an impact on what we do. We are not saved by what we do, we are saved by our faith in what Christ has done. But living for Christ is what every Christian should want to do.

Moving on to the chapter "The Lord Our Shepherd"

Essentially, in this chapter Hannah Whitall Smith explores the Shepherd imagery in the Bible. (Mainly Psalm 23 and John 10).
A dear Christian, who had just discovered what it meant to have known that that was what He was called, but it meant nothing to me; and I believe I read the Twenty-third Psalm as though it was written, ‘The Lord is the sheep, and I am the shepherd, and, if I do not keep a tight hold on Him, He will run away.’ When dark days came I never for a moment thought that He would stick by me, and when my soul was starving and cried out for food, I never dreamed He would feed me. I see now that I never looked upon Him as a faithful Shepherd at all. But now all is different. I myself am not one bit better or stronger, but I have discovered that I have a good Shepherd, and that is all I need. I see now that it really is true that the Lord is my Shepherd, and that I shall not want.”
Dear fellow Christian, I pray you to look this matter fairly in the face. Are you like the Christian I have quoted above? You have said, I know, hundreds of times, “The Lord is my shepherd,” but have you ever really believed it to be an actual fact? Have you felt safe and happy and free from care, as a sheep must feel when under the care of a good shepherd, or have you felt yourself to be like a poor forlorn sheep without a shepherd, or with an unfaithful, inefficient shepherd, who does not supply your needs, and who leaves you in times of danger and darkness?
I beg of you to answer this question honestly in your own soul. Have you had a comfortable religious life or an uncomfortable one? If the latter has been your condition, how can you reconcile it with the statement that the Lord is your Shepherd, and therefore you shall not want? You say He is your Shepherd, and yet you complain that you do want. Who has made the mistake? You or the Lord?
But here, perhaps, you will meet me with the words, “Oh, no, I do not blame the Lord, but I am so weak and so foolish, and so ignorant, that I am not worthy of His care.” But do you not know that sheep are always weak, and helpless, and silly; and that the very reason they are compelled to have a shepherd to care for them is just because they are so unable to take care of themselves? Their welfare and their safety, therefore, do not in the least depend upon their own strength, nor upon their own wisdom, nor upon anything in themselves, but wholly and entirely upon the care of their shepherd. And, if you are a sheep, your self also must depend altogether upon your Shepherd, and not at all upon yourself.
This chapter is much better than the last chapter. I like all the sheep talk.
But you may ask me, if all this is true of the Shepherd, what is the part of the sheep? The part of the sheep is very simple. It is only to trust and to follow. The Shepherd does all the rest. He leads the sheep by the right way. He chooses their paths for them and sees that those paths are paths where the sheep can walk in safety. When He putteth forth His sheep, He goeth before them. The sheep have none of the planning to do, none of the decisions to make, none of the forethought or wisdom to exercise; they have absolutely nothing to do but to trust themselves entirely to the care of the good Shepherd, and to follow Him whithersoever He leads.  
The last chapter I'll be discussing today is "He Spake To Them of the Father."
All the discomfort and unrest of the religious life of so many of God’s children come, I feel sure, from this very thing, that they do not understand that God is actually and truly their Father. They think of Him as a stern Judge, or a severe Taskmaster, or at the best as an unapproachable dignitary, seated on a far-off throne, dispensing exacting laws for a frightened and trembling world; and in their terror lest they should fail to meet His requirements they hardly know which way to turn. But of a God who is a Father, tender, and loving, and full of compassion, a God who, like a father, will be on their side against the whole universe they have no conception.
I am not afraid to say that discomfort and unrest are impossible to the souls that come to know that God is their real and actual Father.
Again, I just want to point out the distinction between the lost and the found, the saved and the unsaved. God is father, true, father to believers. (John 1:12-13; 1 John 3:1-3) But the notion that God is the father of all humanity and that God is father and not judge of all humanity, that we are all brothers and sisters is a false one. God is Creator. God is Judge. Unbelievers are not in a parent-child relationship with God. But God has adopted believers and welcomed them into his family. (Ephesians 1:5, Romans 8:15)
But you may say what about the other names of God, do they not convey other and more terrifying ideas? They only do so because this blessed name of Father is not added to them. This name must underlie every other name by which He has ever been known. Has He been called a Judge? Yes, but He is a Father Judge, one who judges as a loving father would. Is He a King? Yes, but He is a King who is at the same time the Father of His subjects, and who rules them with a father’s tenderness. Is He a Lawgiver? Yes, but He is a Lawgiver who gives laws as a father would, remembering the weakness and ignorance of his helpless children. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.” It is not “as a judge judges, so the Lord judges”; not “as a taskmaster controls, so the Lord controls”; not “as a lawgiver imposes laws, so the Lord imposes laws”; but, “as a father pitieth, so the Lord pitieth.”
Never, never must we think of God in any other way than as “our Father.” All other attributes with which we endow Him in our conceptions must be based upon and limited by this one of “our Father.” What a good father could not do, God, who is our Father, cannot do either; and what a good father ought to do, God, who is our Father, is absolutely sure to do.
I thought her wording a bit strange. In the right context, addressing believers and only believers, it is true that God is our Father and that we now have access to Him in a way we did not have before the cross, before the ministry of Christ's intercession. Pulled out of context, however, these words are a mess.

In And He Dwelt Among Us, A.W. Tozer writes about Jesus Christ:
God has given Him authority to judge mankind so that He is both the judge and the Savior of man. That makes me both love Him and fear Him; love Him because He is my Savior, and fear Him because He is my judge. Unfortunately, the ten-cent-store Jesus being preached now by many men is not the Jesus that will come to judge the world. This plastic, painted Christ who has no spine and no justice, but is a soft and pliant friend to everybody, if He is the only Christ, then we might as well close our books, bar our doors and make a bakery or garage out of our church buildings. The popular Christ being preached now is not the Christ of God nor the Christ of the Bible nor the Christ we must deal with finally. For the Christ that we deal with has eyes as a flame of fire. And His feet are like burnished brass; and out of His mouth cometh a sharp two-edged sword (see Rev. 1:14-16). He will be the judge of humanity. You can leave your loved ones in His hands knowing that He Himself suffered, knowing that He knows all, no mistakes can be made, there can be no miscarriage of justice, because He knows all that can be known. It was said one time as an afterthought that Jesus need not that any should testify of man, for He knew what was in man. “Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation” (John 5:28-29). This coming out of the grave will be at the invitation of the Son of God Himself. Like an army file officer, He will command and they will stand on their feet, a great army to receive judgment, and the judgment will be based strangely enough upon the kind of life they lived in this world. That is another forgotten doctrine, but it is here. They that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. And this is the judge of all. Jesus Christ our Lord, the judge with the flaming eyes, is the one with whom we must deal. We cannot escape it. They can shrug Him off and drive away in a cloud of fumes, but everyone must come back and deal with Him finally. Be sure of one thing, He will either be Savior now or judge then. And the tenderness and sympathy of the Savior now will be laid aside while the justice and severity of the judge comes to the front. Without canceling out one, He will exercise both. So that Jesus Christ is both the Lord and the judge of men as well as the Savior of men.
Which is He going to be for you: Savior or Judge? He will be one or the other. If He is the first, He will not be the second. But if He is not the Savior, He will be the Judge. I, for my part, cannot afford to face Him as my Judge. I must have His protecting blood and face Him as my Savior now. He knows too much about me for me to brazenly barge into His presence and let Him judge me.
Back to Hannah Whitall Smith:
The remedy, therefore, for your discomfort and unrest is to be found in becoming acquainted with the Father.   
© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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