The Persistent Quest
“By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not. I will arise now, and go about the city in the streets, and in the broad ways I will seek him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not. The watchmen that go about the city found me: to whom I said, Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?” (Song of Solomon 3:1-3).
John Calvin and many of his day believed and taught that all religions except Judaism and Christianity were of the devil. They believed the other religions originated with the devil, as ours did with God, and that they were in direct contrast with revealed religion. But later and more sympathetic studies in such matters have convinced students that religion, like the race of man, had a common origin, and that the religions of the heathen are just deteriorated forms of that worship which Adam and his sons performed at the gates of the garden of Eden.
Man has sometimes been defined as “a religious animal.” Perhaps we do not like the word animal in such connection, but man is an animal, although he is also more than an animal, and at times it is proper to say in being more than an animal, he is worse than an animal. Isaiah put man in poor light in comparison to the animals, when he said, “The ox knoweth his owner; and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider” (Isaiah 1:3). Here the complaint is against man’s sense of gratitude. The ox and the ass serve their master because he cares for them and feeds them, but people accept God’s bounty all their days and never turn back to either serve or praise. Evangelist Sam Jones said, “The horse nickers his thanks, the cow moos her thanks, and even the sow grunts her thanks, but there are men who sit down to three square meals every day in the year and never so much as lift their eyes in recognition of the God who feeds them and keeps them alive.” But on this subject of religion: it is more nearly correct to class all men as religious, some truly religious, and some falsely religious, rather than as religious and irreligious.
The prophets of Israel divided people simply into worshipers of Jehovah and worshipers of idols, and this division is still valid, only we must widen the conception and definition of idols somewhat. Then idols were images of the gods the nations acknowledged, and idols today still include these; but idols include every thing that men allow as substitutes for God. Paul said that covetousness is idolatry, and John asked his “little children” to keep themselves from idols. If we were listing idols today we would have to include desire for popularity, love of praise, love of money, pride of position, and every thing which men allow to usurp the place that rightfully belongs to God as supreme.
Solomon is one of the most checkered men whose name appears in the annals of history. Ordinarily we speak of him as the symbol of wisdom, but we know also he was guilty of some of the most consummate acts of folly that are recorded of any man. As an example, think of his domestic estate — seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines! And then remember that while he has given his name to the most remarkable religious house that has ever been built on the earth, he also led his people into the worship of false gods and lavished treasures in lifting altars to the religious relics of his apostate women companions.
But just now our thoughts are turned to the persistent woman in Solomon’s Song. This woman must surely stand for the Church, the Bride of Christ, and in her persistence, for the individual who qualifies for membership in that Church. Her quest was long and earnest, and her search we find from following the story, was rewarded.
Years ago a southern city was visited with a genuine and far-reaching revival. There was in that city a group of blatant skeptics who could not take passively so faith-inspiring an affair as this. So one of the group, urged on by his godless companions, prepared and distributed a tract attacking the revival, and holding its leaders up to ridicule. Doubters have never been very original — theirs is but a philosophy of negations. This man lifted out an expression he had frequently heard in the revival, and used it for the title of his tract. And there appeared an infidel tract under the title, “Praying Through.” But the substance of the tract, and all that the skeptic could actually do, was a confession on the part of the skeptic that he had never prayed through, and that he did not believe anyone had done so. This instrument was confusing to the unthinking, but had no force with the thinking people. It has no more validity than an argument regarding some geographical position on the earth which I might argue does not exist and I can prove it does not exist by reason of the fact that I have never been there. Let us say the place is Singapore. I have never been there, so I say it does not exist or at least I do not believe it exists. But before my argument is valid I must be able to say that I have been right to the point of longitude and latitude where the place is supposed to be, and that I did not find any such place. Even then, my evidence would be lacking, for, first of all, my veracity is at stake; I must prove that I have actually been there. Then, even then, my evidence is not convincing, for it is possible to produce thousands who can also prove that they have been there, and their testimony is that the place is there all right. Then, if I, under these circumstances, assume the role of the persecuted, and claim that I am the victim of my intellectual honesty, and that these other witnesses are all prejudiced, I will not likely find a lot of sympathy. Then why not apply these same challenges in the matter of religion?
But the evidence of salvation is of necessity of a personal and private nature. In a general way, the conditions required are known to many. But we ourselves are the only ones who know whether we have met those conditions or not, and we know only when we receive from God the response that gives assurance. Observers may form opinions as to our sincerity or insincerity, but they cannot surely know by any tokens whatsoever.
It is well that we should be exacting of our own heart’s sentiments. Newton proposed that this is a good test. He said, “I have observed that when men are getting religion, they are inclined to be hard on themselves and easy on other people. But when they are losing religion or are already backslidden they are inclined to be easy on themselves and hard on other people.” The father of the afflicted child, brought to Jesus for healing, finding that faith was required of him, cried out, partly in confidence and partly in fear, “Lord, I believe! Help thou my unbelief!” But must we live and die without really knowing whether we truly repent and believe unto salvation? No, thank God we need not do so. The proof that the conditions are met is in the results obtained. We know we are children of God when His Spirit comes to bear witness with our spirits that it is so.
There are, it may be, a few over-conscientious souls who utterly refuse to believe, even after all legitimate hindrances have been removed. These need to be directly encouraged to put their instant trust in the Lord. But more commonly men’s reluctance to believe is but the fruit of their reluctance to repent and to obey. There are those who have been dubbed “chronic seekers,” who never seem to reach the point where faith lays hold. For these we have the deepest sympathy, and would do anything in our power to help them. But for the great majority, doubt springs from the taproot of unconfessed sin or hidden reservations. And for all there is a way through. At the risk of our being helpful to the few whose morbidity has become a chronic disease, we insist that there is just one way to get through, and that is to persist in the quest until the quest is rewarded.
Mr. Till, a tall, lanky frontiersman, came frequently to the altar seeking God. As the meeting neared its conclusion, I sought a private conference with him. He told me that he had “been a seeker after religion for thirty years,” but had never been saved. At the very last service of the meeting he came again. As I held on to his hand, I made him this proposition, “You have been an unsuccessful seeker after God for thirty years. It has come to the place where your case is desperate for you, and where you are a stumbling block to other people. It is evident that you have either never sought God in real earnest or else God is delinquent in not coming to your rescue. Let’s find out what the trouble is and have it settled before we leave this place. I am due in another place to open a meeting this coming Wednesday night, but I will have some one to wire them that I will be indefinitely late. Then you will kneel on your side of the altar, and I will . kneel on this side, and we will pray and wait before God until either He saves you or one or the other of us dies of starvation and weariness.” The old man gripped my hand and said, “I’ve got you this time, preacher, I’ll never get up from this altar until I’m religious.” The prayer meeting was long, but not so long as our challenge had suggested. For at midnight the old man stood up high on his knees and said, “Oh, Lord, this is the best I can do. You will have to take me as I am or turn me down, I cannot do any better or any more.” Someone had started to sing, “Look and live, my brother, live: look to Jesus, now, and live.” The old man caught up the words, and said, “Oh, Lord, I look.” Then he arose hastily to his feet and said, “And thank God, I live.” Now there may have been other times along that long road when that man could have been caused to “profess,” but this was evidently the first time he ever did actually seek until he found. Physical demonstration is not the test, but it can always be said that “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.”
We cannot justly leave this subject of persistence until we have observed that the initial answer or introduction is not the end of the theme. George Mueller of Bristol said that during a period of fifty-five years he found it possible to “gain audience with God every day without a single exception. Commenting on his prayer habits, he said it was his custom to select the time of the day when he could be most likely to have a period free from interference, and then he went alone with God, spending the time praying aloud, praying inaudibly, and reading his Bible. In these daily searchings for audience with God, he ordinarily read his Bible through three times a year. This he did not list as Bible study, and he did not use it as an occasion for finding texts for preaching. He read simply to seek God’s message for himself, and he prayed, not so much in petition for things, but in the preparation of his own heart for the presence of the King. And every day, sometimes within a short space of time, sometimes after a longer period of preparation, the Lord brought him into His presence. Mueller, during this long period, recorded a thousand definite answers to prayer every year. But he said he did not spend much time making requests. His time was spent getting into God’s presence. Once in that presence, he quietly and simply made his petitions and left everything with the Lord.
George Payne was brought back from spiritual delinquency and backsliding to a good experience with God, and was wonderfully baptized with the Holy Ghost. He lived in Pelham Cove in Tennessee, where I used to go with more or less regularity once or twice a year for special meetings. George Payne was a modest man, and always gave his testimony with diffidence and talked of religious matters in a shy manner. But one day he said to me, “Not so long ago I dreamed about you, saw you very clearly in my dream ,and talked with you. But you had an obsession. Pretty quickly after our greeting, you said, ‘Brother Payne, how long since you really prayed through?’ I told you that I prayed through in the meeting that you held here several years ago. But you were not content with that. You asked again, ‘But, Brother Payne, you have prayed through a good many times since that. What I want to know is, How long has it been since you really prayed through until your assurance with God was all made clear right up to date?’ Then I asked you, ‘How often should one pray through in that sense?’ You replied, ‘We should do it every day.’ That dream was so vivid it made an impression on me, and I have been trying to live up to the standard you set by praying every day until God blesses my soul.”
This is not a dream. But let us ask ourselves, How long has it been since you prayed through? And let us set for ourselves the blessed goal of making it the daily practice of our lives to pray through until God blesses our hearts.