Spontaneity And Regularity In Life And Service
And they continued stedfastly in the apostle: doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. . . . Now Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour (Acts 2:42, 3:1)
That prayer meeting in the upper room at Jerusalem which eventuated in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the infant Church was the most remarkable prayer meeting ever held on earth. There was the prayer of Samuel which brought lightning, thunder and rain in harvest time to assure Israel in the face of the threatenings of the Philistines. There was the prayer of the prophet that turned the sun back ten degrees on the sundial of Ahaz, and the prayer of Joshua that made both the sun and moon to stand still. But that prayer meeting in Jerusalem brought changes in the hearts of men and in the world of mankind that were more revolutionary and permanent than any changes that ever occurred before.
It need be no reflection of either preceding or succeeding ages for us to say that the Day of Pentecost was a spiritual climax. In the atmosphere of that occasion miracles were normal. The bodies and minds of men were healed and blessed, as well as their souls were delivered and cleansed from sin. That day of power was the subject of many prophecies in the centuries which preceded it, and it has been the standard by which hopes in succeeding centuries have been measured. No better word has yet been found to describe a time of spiritual blessing than to say it was a veritable Pentecost.” The highest claim a church can make is to call itself a “Pentecostal church.”
Of course there was much preparation. Immediate preparation for that blessed day commenced when two of John’s disciples saw their teacher point to Jesus and heard him cry, “Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world!” The preparation continued and intensified as additional disciples came and the college of apostles was completed. On down through the days of Christ’s own preaching men learned from Him that there was to be an outpouring and an infilling that would make the Day of Pentecost a better day than even the one in which the Lord in bodily form moved about among His people. After His resurrection from the dead our Lord inflamed expectation by setting the date for the Spirit’s coming as “not many days hence.”
But when Pentecost actually came it took on the aspect of spontaneity. The divine was so manifest that the plodding human did not seem important. God was so among His people that there must have been a temptation to neglect even food and sleep. Why should anyone worry about petty and passing duties? The great day of God’s power was on hand. Shouting aloud, praise of the noisiest sort, liberality unparalleled, joy unspeakable! Pentecost! One such day could easily justify a lifetime of monotony, but it was likely to give one the feeling that thereafter monotony and the commonplace had no more place at all.
But on the background of this glorious day of spontaneity is painted for us the picture of two men quietly and unobtrusively going to the regular prayer meeting — on time. It was the ninth hour and just God’s “common” children were going to the temple as was their wont. Surely Peter and John can stay out today and say, “What’s the use? Nothing will happen up there any way. And all that will ever happen will at best be no more than a shadow or repetition of what has already happened. This prayer meeting will be formal. They will be dry and regular up there. We have had part in a prayer meeting that really counted. We shall not bother with the ordinary any more.”
But, no, these men did not say that. They did not allow spontaneity to become a substitute for regularity. They allowed no substitutes at all. Their new gains were to be net, for they were to do all they used to do and all others did, and have their new advantages besides. They were to use their Pentecostal wine to season the old corn of known duty. They were to be good Jews as well as good Christians.
It is a good thing to do well when it is pleasant to do so, but one cannot depend on pleasure as a guide. Kingsley said we should be glad every morning when we wake up that there are some things that must be done which we do not like to do; for these disagreeable things furnish the discipline that we need. Good habits are a help, especially in times when feelings fail us. When we feel like doing good, we should by all means do good. But when doing good is in the nature of an effort, we do well to fall back upon principle and go on doing good anyway. It is a fine thing to visit unsettled parts of the country where we can “take the course we desire and go the short way to our destination. But for the most part, we shall find it necessary to go by way of chosen highways, where curves and turns are marked, and where familiar numbers keep us assured that we are going to the city of our choice. We should welcome spontaneity when we have it, and we should keep on with regularity both in season and out of season. “Does thee plan to speak, if the Spirit moves thee, John?” asked the anxious Quaker. John Wesley answered, “I plan to speak that the Spirit may move me.”
Let us consider the place of both spontaneity and regularity in some of the ordinary instances of life and service:
First, let us think of them with reference to the development of our own subjective lives. Let us think of them as they relate to prayer, Bible reading and meditation. We all know there are times when prayer is easy, when the Bible is as a burning and shining light, and when it is a delight to think on the ways of God. These times we appreciate and we shall pray that their return may be more and more frequent.
But we cannot escape the fact that it is sometimes an effort to sing “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” and that sometimes the Bible does not seem to hold a message for us, and that our meditations are like “wandering sheep” which seem not to hear their master’s voice. What shall we do then? Shall we leave off prayer until praying comes easy? Shall we neglect the Bible until its light breaks forth anew upon our souls? Shall we just allow our minds to drift until weary with wanderings they come at last to dwell upon thoughts of God? No, this is not the way. In times of dryness we must pray that we may pray, we must dig in the Bible until the mine yields up its treasure, we must bring our thoughts to time repeatedly until they learn to delight in the law of God. We must hammer away with regularity until spontaneity returns.
I used to read and hear of the persistence of praying men like Luther, Wesley and Mueller, who were reported to have prayed two, three or more hours a day. I thought they prayed on their knees in continual repetition, and I marveled that they were able to hold themselves to their tasks so long. But I find this was not their method. Luther and Wesley both obtained help from written prayers. These prayers they read slowly and thoughtfully, using their carefully chosen words to express their own feelings and desires. Often they would ponder long upon a given word or sentence, and would seek in much searching of their hearts, to bring themselves to the place where their own sentiments were in line with the words and sentences of the written prayers of good and great men.
Mueller describes his own method in some detail. He said that in the beginning he used to try to spend his whole time on his knees and in audible prayer. But he found he did better if he mixed prayer with reading of the Bible. His method was to read the Bible straight through from beginning to end. Beginning with the first chapter of Genesis he would read that day until he sensed that he had the message God would give him for that day. Sometimes a few verses sufficed, sometimes a good many chapters were required. The next day he took up where he left off the morning before and read on in the same manner and to the same purpose. In this way, during a period of years, he read the Bible through one hundred and fifty times. When he came to anything in his reading that suggested it, he would stop to pray, to search his own heart and to think further on the message given to his spirit. And in a prayer life of more than fifty years, Mueller testified humbly that he had not failed for one single day to “get audience with God.” He suggested that it was somewhat like getting audience with a great man on earth. In such a case one would not rush without preparation right into the presence of the great one and there begin with breathless haste to ask favors and seek blessings. Rather, one would follow all the usual routine rules for “getting audience.” There might be instances in which there would be many hindrances and considerable time would be occupied before you could stand in the immediate presence of the great one. At other times there would be little delay. But in every case the big job is getting audience. Once you are in the great one’s presence you can soon state your business and get an answer. Prayer is like that. No doubt we all spend much time in reciting prayers that are heard by no one but ourselves, for we have not taken time and gone to the trouble of securing audience. Perhaps we have not realized that the effort to pray is so often a preparation for prayer, and we have thought we might get the results without attending to the causes.
We have spoken of Bible reading only as a means of grace and assistance in devotion. But we all know it is necessary to study the Bible, as well as to read for devotional purposes. We have seen men get what amounted to an inspiration in the understanding of the Bible; perhaps we have had lucid moments ourselves, and we have thought this so much better than study that we have neglected books and lectures and hard work somewhat on the theory that some time we will understand as by revelation. But those times of lucidity come better in connection with study and application than by indifferent waiting. When we have done our best to find out, we have sometimes had the assistance of revelation. Thank God for all the upper room spontaneity that comes our way, but let us not forget when the prayer hour comes. There is no substitute for the grind of regularity, and no super-religion can invalidate the ministry of the commonplace.
Then there is the matter of Christian stewardship on money, influence, talent, etc. Some would pass the question of money, lest they be charged of having money for their motive. But we should not forget that our Master said more about money than any other one thing. He warned against the dangers of covetousness and the evil of hoarding. He magnified the advantages of liberality, and gave content and meaning to giving that was entirely new.
There are times when we “feel that God wants us to give,” and at such times it is a great joy to do what we very much want to do. But shall we withhold until liberality becomes a force within to compel? Nay, the tithing Christian knows it is his duty and privilege to support the whole program of the whole church and he puts his tithe into the treasury of the church without waiting to feel like doing so. Covetousness is a great temptation and money has a way of clinging to us, once it gets into our hands. It is for our protection that God has arranged that the tithe of our income should be claimed for His spiritual kingdom without the trouble of our asking, “What is to be done with this money?” The tithe goes right into the treasury of the local church to pay fuel bills, janitor’s service, foreign missions, pastor’s salary, and any and every bill that has to do with maintaining the church and its program in the world. Giving money is for the layman what preaching and active ministry is to the minister, and should be taken in the same serious spirit and done with the same unvarying regularity.
It has been frequently observed that a tithing Christian, after his tithing plan is well adopted, will in addition to his tithing be quite as liberal a giver as other Christians. That is to say, his regularity does not hinder his spontaneity. Rather, his regularity encourages his spontaneity. The solid peace which results from systematic tithing encourages him to seek the ecstatic joy which results from spontaneous giving also, and again, spontaneity does not become a substitute for regularity. In the atmosphere of Pentecost, the Spirit-filled Christian still goes to prayer meeting on time.
But the principle applies to testimony, preaching, and to every phase of Christian life and service. It is a wonderful thing when the Spirit of the Lord comes upon a Christian and moves him as He did Samson in the camp of Dan, and what a delight it is to speak when the Lord puts the words in our mouths. But the Bible Christian turns right back to his books and study from his mount of inspiration, for he realizes that if God can bless ignorance, He can bless knowledge so much more. Speaking personally, I have come to the preaching hour without time or opportunity for preparation of mind and heart, and I have been blessed beyond my expectation on such occasions. But I have steadfastly resisted the temptation to depend on such a plan for the time to come. Rather, in thankfulness that God did not fail me in my extremity, I have turned back to harder study and more earnest prayer, lest coming to another such a crisis because of willful or careless neglect I should be unable to have faith for a blessing which I had so little right to claim.
It is a wonderful thing to be well situated in church life, and to have leadership of your own choosing, and a program of service that fully appeals to you. It is easy to work when you are happy. But shall we quit when a pastor is called that we do not like? or when a Sunday school superintendent is chosen for whom we did not vote? or when the missionary president is a bore? or when the young people’s leader is not spiritual? or when the members of the church are wanting in hospitality? or when the service program of the church is too drawn out? No, in times like that we should remember how our Lord went to the synagogue in His home town, “as his custom was.” If Jesus could attain a reputation for regularity in the uninteresting service of the synagogue at Nazareth, surely I can find grace to follow His example in attending to the means of grace in a regular manner, even when there is want of interest and spontaneity.
Excessive attention to form tends toward formalism. Too great fondness for liberty tends toward unbridled license. The golden mean is a more difficult way than either extreme. It is more difficult to keep your car just where it belongs on the road than it is to run it into the ditch on the right or over into the oncoming traffic lane to the left.
Dr. H. C. Morrison, in the dramatic manner which is his wont, says he once visited the devil’s house, and the devil asked him to be seated. But when he cast about for a place to sit, he found on the one hand a cake of ice, and on the other a red-hot stove. The ice stands for formality, the stove for fanaticism. But we must not choose between such extremes. Rather we must find that way which gives sufficient attention to forms to get the assistance for reverence and the encouragement to order that we need, and then we must keep alive and vital in experience and service, but must not disregard causes and conditions. Following the thought of our scripture lesson, we would say we must be thankful for Pentecost, but we must not be late to prayer meeting. We must delight in the “times of refreshing” that come from the presence of the Lord, but we must be faithful, even when the power of good and proper habit must be drawn upon to furnish momentum to get us by the place of drought. We are glad when the meetings are interesting, but when they are not, we will follow the rule of not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together. We are glad when the resurrected Lord appears in the midst of the group, but we will go every time so we shall be there at the right time. Spontaneity if we may, but regularity in any case: this is the rule of the Bible Christian.