A Holy Dissatisfaction

“Happiness is found not in receiving something from God but in enjoying the presence of God” ~ Robert Louis Wilken[1]

“May I love you most ardently, may I cling to you with all my heart” ~ Augustine[2]

 Spiritual Growth during the Already/Not Yet

If you’re a believer in Jesus Christ, I take it that you want to grow in your spiritual walk. I assume that you long to see a greater level of obedience in your life. I presume that you have a hunger for God’s Word and you desire to grow in your knowledge of his will and ways (Ps. 25:4; 86:11). At the core of your being, you long to be transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ. The prayer of St. Augustine above is your prayer.

Although you earnestly desire to grow, do you constantly live with the sense that you’re not growing? Or, despite the fact that you may see some growth taking place, do you still find yourself dissatisfied with where you’re at? If you’re a believer I take it that this is your experience.

So, my question is: What do we do with this tension we feel? How do we reconcile these overwhelming desires for growth with the persistent sense of dissatisfaction we feel in our everyday lives? What follows are some thoughts that have been on my mind recently.

 Table in the Wilderness

First, remember that we live in “the dim mirror age, not the face-to-face age” (1 Cor. 13:12), to borrow from Jon Bloom. Paul’s words there help me see that in this life I’ll always be somewhat discontent with where I’m at spiritually. If we feel we’ve arrived, then clearly we’ve got problems. So let it settle in your mind that you’re not in heaven yet. You will continue to experience holy aches and pains while you’re making your pilgrimage to the Celestial City.

Of course you’re going to desire more of God, he’s given you an appetite for him now! Your spiritual taste buds have been quickened. And “When the soul glimpses the beauty of God, it yearns to see more.”[3] The longings, shortcomings, and sin that remain in our lives, are the inevitable outworking of “a glorious redemption already inaugurated but not yet consummated.”[4]

Second, guard against the “Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience.”[5] This is done when we attempt to experience God apart from the means he has ordained; and according to church historian Scott Clark it’s “one of the most ancient impulses in Christian theology.”[6] To be sure, one can see this impulse in the rise of the mystics during the fourteenth century,[7] and later in American history with the rise of Pentecostalism.[8] But of course, this leads to the next question: What are the means God has ordained for us to know him and experience him? Allow me to answer this question very briefly:

When I talk about “means,” I’m referencing what theologians of the past referred to as the “means of grace.” For those who may be reading this thinking all this talk about means of grace is more Reformed/Presbyterian, think again. The Baptist Catechism linked to the 1689 London Baptist Confession, question 93 asks: “What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?” (emphasis mine). The answer reads: “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are His ordinances, especially the Word, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer; all which means are made effectual to the elect for salvation.”

The Means of Grace Explained

The means of grace are the “resources”[9] God has given his people to further our spiritual growth, strengthen us in our spiritual walk, and increase our sanctification. So what are the means? Let’s look at them.

The Word of God. The Bible is to be hidden in our hearts (Ps. 119:11); it is to be meditated upon (v. 15), and delighted in (v. 16). It is the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17); it is “living and active” (Heb. 4:12); and it “is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). If we are to live in a way that glorifies God then we must know his Word.

Believers should read, meditate, pray, and hear the Word of God preached (1 Tim. 4:13). Due to the central role of the Word of God, Christians place a high priority on preaching in public worship. For this reason, ministers should be expected to devote themselves to expository preaching, that is, giving an explanation and application of a text from Scripture.

The Sacraments/Ordinances. Christ ordained two sacraments or ordinances: He told us to baptize and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. These ordinances—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—are “visible words,” as the reformers use to call them; they make the gospel visible to us. John Frame says, “They symbolize the gospel and teach us authoritatively what the gospel is. They teach us not by words but by pictures, by actions.”[10] He notes that there are three aspects to a sacrament: they are signs, divine actions, and means of divine presence. How so? First, they are signs in that, as already stated, they make the gospel visible to us. In baptism we see the gospel portrayed as it is depicted before our eyes. In the Lord’s Supper we not only hear about Jesus’ body being broken for us, we see it as the minister breaks the bread before our eyes. Secondly, the ordinances are divine actions in that, God works through them on our behalf. They show us what God has done for us. This is why we say that they are seals; they seal to us the promises of God. As Paul says about Abraham in Romans 4:11, “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness . . .” Note how Paul says circumcision was a sign and a seal. John Frame says that baptism and the Lord’s Supper seal us like the government puts a seal on a birth certificate which makes our citizenship official.

Prayer. Prayer is a means of grace because by it we commune with our Triune God. We call upon our God because in and of ourselves we are utterly inadequate and cannot face all of life’s hardships. John Calvin put it this way: “we clearly see how destitute and devoid of all good things man is, and how he lacks all aids to salvation. Therefore, if he seeks resources to succor him in his need, he must go outside himself and get them elsewhere.”[11] I don’t think any Christian would deny the importance of prayer. We all sense a great need to spend much time on our knees; yet we are often lazy in this area of our lives. I am guilty of this as well. While there are a variety of Scriptures that could be cited at this point, let me just say this: Believers pray because God commands it (1 Thess. 5:17), and because it is the means by which we communicate with our Heavenly Father (Lk. 11:9-13; cf. Matt. 6:9-13).

Going Forward

Given what we’ve read, consider the following: In Michael Horton’s book A Better Way, he asks this thought-provoking question: “If one were to ask you to list the top two instruments of spiritual growth in your life, what would you answer?” Think deeply about this question for your own life. Horton goes on to point out that for most Christians, they would say such things like quiet time, personal Bible study, some type of accountability, etc.[12] Added to this, some would go on to talk about “receiving a word from the Lord,” or talk about some emotionally charged youth meeting, or worship experience. If you go to your average Christian bookstore you’re likely to find a dozen books trying to convince you that there is some secret, some technique, or some prayer that is missing from your spiritual life.

In contrast to those books and methods, I would encourage God’s people to embrace and be amazed with the means God has given us to commune with him. If we find ourselves longing for more of God, thank him that he’s given you that desire, but realize that the best is yet to come.

In the words of Fredrick William Faber:

Yes, pine for thy God, fainting soul! Ever pine;

Oh languish mid all that life brings thee of mirth;

Famished, thirsty, restless—let such life be thine—

For what sight is to heaven, desire is to earth.

[1] The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 293.

[2] The Confessions of St. Augustine (trans. John K. Ryan; NY: Doubleday, 1960), 1. 15. 24.

[3] Wilken, Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 300.

[4] Sinclair Ferguson, “The Reformed View,” in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, ed. Donald L. Alexander (Downers Grove: IVP, 1988), 63.

[5] The language here is taken from R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Philipsburg: P&R, 2008), 71-116.

[6] Ibid., 71.

[7] Peter A. Lillback, “Into the Mystic,” Tabletalk 38:7 (2014): 25-27.

[8] See, e.g., Edith L. Blumhoffer, Restoring the Faith: The Assemblies of God, Pentecostalism, and American Culture (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1993). Speaking on Pentecostalism’s beginnings, Blumhoffer writes, “many coveted a ‘higher’ or ‘deeper’ life of more intense spirituality than they observed around them” (25).

[9] This is the word John Frame uses. See his Salvation Belongs to the Lord: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Philipsburg: P&R, 2006), 261.

[10] Ibid., 275.

[11] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed., John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press., 1960), 3. 20. 1., emphasis mine.

[12] Michael Horton, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 45.


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