by Mike McHugh
It may have been genuinely difficult, and perhaps even embarrassing, for Alonzo to have had family prayer that first night in his new home. At the same time, however, if he had actually been grateful to Almighty God for His many acts of kindness, instead of merely thinking that he ought to be so, he would have sought to do his duty even if it involved significant hardship.
It will come as no surprise to learn that Alonzo found it harder and harder to begin acting as the spiritual head of his home the longer he postponed it. A month passed away, and the duty continued to be neglected. It was his intention to read the Bible every day, but it seemed rather awkward to sit down before his wife and read, so he soon began to neglect that as well. At night as he went to bed he commonly offered a brief prayer, which was a sort of compromise with his conscience to let him rest in peace. He did not, however, enjoy any real peace or joy in this mode of life. Uneasiness and anxiety seemed to settle over him like a cloud.
One evening, after Alonzo heard a plain and heartfelt sermon from his minister, he heard him announce that a special meeting would be held at his home the following evening. In New England, these gatherings were known as inquiry meetings. The purpose for such gatherings was to provide those in the congregation who desired to study the Bible in a more personal and informal setting the opportunity to come together for study and fellowship.
Alonzo and his wife both resolved to go, and early in the evening they took their seats with twenty others around their pastor’s fireside. Such a meeting is one of great interest and solemnity. It is understood that all in attendance feel a direct personal interest in respect to their own relationship with God, and therefore, exhibit an unusual degree of excitement and expectation as they join together.
The evening opened with some special music and refreshments, but before long the pastor made his way over to the side of the fire and asked for the crowd’s attention. He began by reading a short hymn; it was not sung. Then he read a few verses of Scripture, and offered a simple prayer, asking that God the Holy Spirit would enable those in attendance to comprehend the truths they were about to consider. The pastor then addressed the little assembly with these remarks:
“The most important question that you can ask about yourselves is, ‘Am I the friend or the enemy of my Maker?’ Now, there is probably not one here who really feels that he is his Maker’s enemy, and yet, it is very possible that there is at least some here who are truly God’s enemies.
“God justly requires us all to love Him; that is, to feel a personal affection for Him and to act under the influence of it. They who do not, He considers as not belonging to His spiritual family. They are His enemies. Not that they are always directly or intentionally engaged in acts to oppose Him --- they make perhaps few demonstrations of actual hostility --- but in heart they dislike Him. To determine, therefore, whether we are the friends or enemies of God, we must ascertain whether our secret hearts are in a state of love or of hatred towards Him.
“Perhaps some of you are saying to yourselves while I make these remarks, ‘I am sure I love God in some degree, though I know I do not love Him as much as I should. I pray to Him. I try in some things to do my duty. I am to a certain degree, grateful to Him for His goodness such that I cannot perceive in myself any evidence of a feeling of hatred or hostility.’”
The pastor was right, at least in one instance, for these were the exact thoughts that were passing through Alonzo’s mind as he considered these opening remarks.
“Now, it is a difficult thing to tell,” continued the speaker, “what the state of our hearts is; or rather, it is a very common thing to be deceived about it. I will tell you some of the reasons for the difficulty.
“First, we mistake approbation for love. We cannot help approving God’s character. We cannot deny His excellence of justice, mercy, and holiness, any more than we can the directness of a straight line that we look upon. Approbation is the decision of the intellect or of the moral sense, which is entirely independent from the convictions of the heart. I once asked a young man whether he thought he loved God. ‘O yes,’ he said, ‘I certainly think our Maker is worthy of praise and honor.’ He was completely blind to the distinction, you see. He thought his Maker was worthy. Of course, he could not help thinking so. The question is not whether God is worthy of love and honor, but whether we really render these feelings in our hearts. Now, it is very possible that if you look honestly into your hearts, you will find that all your supposed love for God is only a cold, intellectual admission of the excellence of His character. Those who merely fear and respect God, apart from any personal feelings of affection towards Him, are not God’s children for even the demons acknowledge the Lord and fear Him.
“The second delusion is similar. We pray and we make an effort to confine our attention to our prayers, or as we term it, to think of what we are saying. This we mistake for really feeling the desires which we express. I do not doubt that many of you are in the habit of prayer, and that you often strive to confine your mind to what you are saying. Now, it is possible to do this without having in your heart any real desire for the forgiveness and fellowship that God offers in His Word to those who ask for it. In fact, the very effort that you feel obliged to make in order to confine your mind to your prayers proves, or indicates very strongly, that your heart is somewhere else; for the mind goes easily where the heart is inclined, and stays there with very little effort.
“There is another delusion, similar to the previous one,” continued the pastor, “that is, thanking God without genuine gratitude. We recognize that He is our benefactor and that He deserves our praise and thanks. We say this and feel satisfied with it, never recognizing that this is a very different thing from actually possessing heart felt gratitude.
“For instance, we may rise in the morning, look out upon the pleasant landscape before us, and rejoice in our comfortable home, our friends, and all our means of happiness. We feel a kind of satisfaction in them which, connected with our knowing that they come from God, we mistake for gratitude. We often, therefore, think we are grateful, when the only feeling is a pleasant recognition of the good enjoyed. The difference is shown in this, that this latter feeling has no effect upon the conduct, whereas real gratitude will lead us to take pleasure in doing our Benefactor’s will. Even a painful duty will become a pleasant one, for we always love to make a sacrifice for one who has been kind to us, if we are truly grateful to him.”
It was at this point in the talk that Alonzo recollected the evening when he took possession of his new home, thinking that he was grateful to God for it, while yet refusing to do what he knew was God’s will.
“In a word,” said the speaker, “we mistake the sterile actions of our intellect for a genuine conviction within our hearts. The former may be all right, so far as it goes, while our hearts remain cold and unaffected. I will now tell you some of the indications that a person dislikes God in his heart, even if he can bring himself to acknowledge and understand the superb nature of His character and benevolence. When a person dislikes God, his thoughts and feelings do not go forth spontaneously and pleasantly towards Him. A parent once said to his child, ‘Have you not sometimes felt, when thinking of some loved one who was far away, as if your heart went out to that person, and, as a result, it seemed as if the distance between you was lessened, though it was not in reality? On the other hand, when you think about a person whom you do not like, does your heart not seem to draw back and shrink coldly from him?’ Now, I would ask each of you to tell me in which of these ways is your heart affected when you think of God?”
Alonzo recollected how readily, when he was at work on the farm or in the distant forest, his thoughts and affections would roam away to his wife and his home, and hover there. He saw clearly that his heart never once sought God in this manner.
“Another evidence of our disliking God is when we escape from His presence as soon as we can,” continued the pastor. We cut short our prayers, and our thoughts come back with a spring to our business or our pleasures as if we had kept them on God for a few minutes by force. Also, when the Sabbath is a weariness, and secret communion with God is a hassle.”
Alonzo felt that the man of God was describing his feelings exactly.
“Also, a dislike of God is evidenced when we refuse to come to Him in simple childlike faith, trusting in the way He has established for the salvation of His people and the administration of the world He has made, without complaining or grumbling. A heart that hates God will inevitably stumble at the point of embracing the Word of God, and the person and work of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ.”
The speaker paused for several moments, looked around the audience, and then asked, “Now, do you, when examined by these tests, love God or hate Him?
It was plain from the reaction of the assembly that they felt convicted and condemned. The pastor perceived that they had pleaded guilty. He closed his remarks by stating, “You ought to love God. He commands you to do it. You should have loved Him all of your lives. You ought to love Him now. He will grant you forgiveness for all of your sins --- past, present, and future through trusting in the work of Christ on the cross. Turn your hearts to the Savior who bled and died in order that you might be reconciled to God. Seek peace with your Maker without delay.”
“I will do it,” thought Alonzo, as each person in the assembly began to bow in anticipation of the parting prayer. The pastor uttered expressions of penitence, gratitude, and affection but Alonzo soon recognized that his heart did not follow. The more he tried to force himself to love God, the more clearly he perceived the distinctions that the pastor had been drawing, and the more painfully evident it was to him that he had no heart for God. He rose from his knees with a thought, born out of impatience and despair: “I do not love the Lord, and I cannot love Him. What shall I do?”
For several weeks, Alonzo remained quite discouraged and distressed. He saw more and more clearly that he did not love God, and that he never had loved Him. The fact that he was willing to take an honest look at himself, did not keep his conscience from continuing to scold him, and he seldom had peace. Yet, in spite of all these burdens, Alonzo would not come and yield his heart to the Lord Jesus Christ. He sometimes felt like he wished to do it, as if it were possible for a person to wish to love, without loving. He struggled, but struggling did no good. Alonzo could not understand that what God commands us to do is to love Him, not to strive in our own strength against our hatred of Him. Nevertheless, this young husband could not think of any plan to quite his conscience other than to re-double his efforts to improve his conduct. He labored, therefore, to be more regular in his prayers, more attentive to the reading of Scripture, and to attendance upon the services of God’s house. In spite of all this effort, however, Alonzo remained a defeated, and now exhausted, man. His heart was still alienated from God, and it seemed to him to become more so with the passage of time.
There were three great difficulties that burdened his mind on a regular basis. First, it really seemed to Alonzo that he could not change his heart. This perspective caused him to question the fairness of his situation, for how can someone force himself to love God or repent of sin? In a similar respect, Alonzo felt like he could not help the wicked feelings that would occasionally impose themselves upon his heart, during periods of peculiar temptation. Although theologians sometimes disagree on this subject, it really seemed to Alonzo that his wicked heart was too strong for him. This reasoning, however, did not provide him with the peace he was seeking. In fact, his conscience upbraided him the more for being in such a state of heart before God.
Second, the more he considered the subject, and the more he tried to fit himself for heaven, the more hollow and superficial he found all his supposed goodness to be. Every time he was confronted by the Law of God, he felt as though it was intentionally written in order to expose each one of his sins. He was alive without the Law, but as he became aware of the claims and standards of God’s Word, his heart became convicted to the point of death. A new standard was now before his eyes, and he saw all of the supposed virtues on which he had prided himself, dissolve themselves into elements of corruption or hypocrisy under the powerful analysis of the Holy Spirit.
Third, in trying to correct his sinful habits, his progress in discovering the extent of his sins went far in advance of his success in purifying himself from their effects. For this reason, as he continued his efforts to reform his heart, he was continually alarmed at new and unexpected areas of corruption that began to be exposed to view. As oil upon the surface of fresh variegated wood brings out the dark stains which had before been invisible, so the Law of God permitted Alonzo to see sins in his heart that had been slumbering there. His heart sunk within him as he began to come to grips with his true spiritual condition, and in the process discover that he was the helpless slave of sin.
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