In 1843, John Williamson Nevin wrote a book simply entitled The Anxious Bench. He was writing during the time when Charles Finney’s revivalism was sweeping american churches. These revivals downplayed substantive Christian teaching of any kind, and instead heightened the experience of a salvific moment in one’s life. Knowing the Bible, being catechized, having a sound understanding of who Christ is and what he has done for his people, a real understanding of what kind of obedience was required in the Christian life – all of these things were downplayed so long as a person could point to a moment in their life where they “accepted Christ.” Getting the greatest number of conversions was the new endgame of Christian ministry. No longer did pastors need to invest in long term pastoral care, affective Christian preaching, or learning sound doctrine. Instead, they began to use what would soon be called the “new measures.” These “new measures” were essentially any method, by any means necessary, where a preacher would manipulate a person into making a Christian confession.
One such method was known as the “anxious bench.” Think of modern day methods of “everyone close your eyes and bow your heads but raise your hand if you want to become a Christian,” except more intense. Essentially there was a bench at the front of a church where a preacher would force people at the end of a service to come up to the bench, and would not allow them to leave until they made a public profession of faith. Capitalizing on people’s anxiety of being put up in front of a church, this method was hailed as the greatest sign of spirituality and revival in a church.
Writing against the “anxious bench” and the “new measures,” Nevin came down hard on this method and its widespread use. This was for multiple reasons:
1) It gave people a false assurance of their salvation. Just because you had this experience where you gave in to pressure and your anxieties doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit actually did anything in your heart.
2) Man cannot control the movement of the Holy Spirit.
3) Professing Christians no longer had any idea of what the Scriptures taught (since catechesis and sound preaching were thrown out the window), and therefore had no idea how to live the Christian life.
4) Any sort of Christian knowledge is perceived as “cold” and “dead” – antithetical to the “spirituality” of a conversion experience.
5) Pastors and preachers no longer had any sort of inward spiritual strength, but instead relied on their own talent and skill to manipulate others into a “Christian” profession.
Writing specifically on this last point, Nevin says this:
“The man who had no power to make himself felt in the catechetical class (that is, teaching), is deceived most assuredly and deceives others, when he seems to be strong in the use of the anxious bench. Old forms must needs be dull and spiritless, in his hands. His sermons have neither edge nor point. The services of the sanctuary are lean and barren. He can throw no interest into the catechism. He has no heart for family visitation, and no skill to make it of any account. Still he desires to be doing something in his spiritual vocation, to convince others, and to satisfy himself, that he is not without strength. What then is to be done? He must resort to quackery; not with clear consciousness, of course; but instinctively, as it were, by the pressure of inward want. he will seek to do by the flesh, what he finds himself too weak to effect by the spirit. Thus it becomes possible for him to make himself felt. New measures fall in exactly with his taste, and are turned to fruitful account by his zeal. He becomes theatrical; has recourse to solemn tricks; cries aloud; takes strange attitudes; tells exciting stories; calls out the anxious, etc. In this way possibly he comes to be known as a revivalist, and is counted among those who preach the gospel “with the demonstration of the Spirit and with power.” And yet when all is done, he remains as before without true spiritual strength. New measures are the refuge of weakness.
The system of New Measures then is to be deprecated, as furnishing a refuge for weakness and sloth in the work of ministry, and in this way holding out a temptation, which, so far as it prevails, leads ministers to undervalue and neglect the cultivation of that true and inward strength, without which no measures can be at last of much account. This is a great evil.
A man may be mighty in the use of new measures, preaching every day if need be for three weeks to crowded congregations, excited all the time; he may have the anxious bench filled at the close of each service, and the whole house thrown into disorder; he may have groaning, shouting, clapping, screaming, a very bedlam of passion, all around the alter; and as the result of all, he may be able to report a hundred converts or more, translated by the process, according to this own account, from darkness into God’s marvelous light. A man may so distinguish himself, and yet have no power to study, think or teach. He may be crude, chaotic, without cultivation or discipline. He may be too lazy to read or write. There may be no power whatever in his ordinary walk or conversation, to enforce the claims of religion. Meet him in common secular connections, and you find him in a great measure unfelt, in the stream of worldliness with which he is surrounded. Often he is covetous; often vain; often without a particle of humility or meekness. The truth is, he has no capacity, no inward sufficiency, for the ordinary processes of evangelical labor. Much is required to be a faithful minister of the New Testament; while small resources in comparison are needed for that resemblance of power, to which a man may attain by the successful use of the system now in view.”
Although this was written in 1843, Nevin’s critiques of the “new measures” in his time almost mirror the same phenomena we see happening in our churches today. Perhaps we have a resurgence of “new measures” happening in American Evangelicalism that even supersede what Nevin saw in his own day.
This desire Christians have to set knowledge against experience – substance against zeal – is the cause for all of our evangelical shallowness today. Our shallow preaching which all to often relies on lights, sounds and theatrics instead of convicting exposition of the Scriptures; exalting “ministers” who are all zeal but no knowledge – as if you can have true love without deep truth; “Christian” books that cater to some sort of weird pseudo-Christian mystical felt-needs rather than teaching that resembles anything like what Christians have believed for the last 2,000 years.
When will we learn that little substance and little knowledge is not the answer to an emphasis on mere knowledge and mere substance? When will we learn that to have a sustainable witness in this world we must have churches that engage both mind and heart? When will we learn that our own experience does not dictate how the Bible is supposed to be read? When will we learn that we need to grow in discernment over what we read, how we worship and what we participate in?
Friends, let us grow in worshipping and following Christ in both Spirit and in truth.
To read this article as a PDF, click here.
We’ve all felt it.
That pain in our soul that lies somewhere in between that ache in our chest we felt when we first experienced grief and loss, and the cold sweats we have in the evening before a big presentation at the office. The exhaustion that comes from spinning thoughts in our heads over and over. It’s the inexpressible confusion that can only be summarized by the question, “Oh God, why is this happening to me?”
This is the question we all ask when suffering hits and we do not know how to process it. We swing back and forth between emotions like a grandfather clock gone haywire. Our cultural influences tell us to react in one of two ways. On the one hand, we are told to rise above our suffering and our circumstances in order to remove ourselves from the situation. The other tendency, which is perhaps more dominate in Western culture, is to suppress and avoid suffering altogether. This view could best be summarized by the last great Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius who said, “Indeed in the case of most pains let this remark of Epicurus aid you, that pain is neither intolerable nor everlasting if you bear in mind that it has its limits…When then you are discontented about any of these things (pain), say to yourself that you are yielding to pain.”
While the cultural norms instruct us to believe that purpose is found above or away from suffering, the Bible teaches that hope and purpose is found in the midst of our suffering. The best way for us to understand this is first by briefly looking at a Christian theology of suffering. We will then be able to see God’s purpose for us in the midst of our afflictions.
A Theology of Pain and Suffering
It is impossible to avoid suffering in this life. From the moment of conception to the day we are laid to rest, we are subject to pain and sorrow in this life. There is a popular misconception that individuals turn to Christianity in order to have suffering alleviated or altogether removed. But this is entirely antithetical to the message our God gives to us.
Did you know that there are more Psalms of lament than any other genre? Surely this gives us a clue to how common the experience of pain and suffering is going to be in this life. Jesus promised us in John 15 and 16 that we will suffer for following him. The entire letter of 1 Peter is written to a group of Christians who are facing trials and suffering for the sake of the gospel. Paul tells us in Romans 8:17 that we are children of God if we suffer with Christ. Again he says in 2 Timothy 3:12 that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” The author of Hebrews reminds us that those who are not disciplined by God are illegitimate children (12:8). Many Christians today are taught that suffering occurs as a lack of our own faith. It is a sobering thought to examine just how much we’ve bought into this lie in light of the Bible’s cohesive teaching on the subject.
The message is clear: Christ-followers will suffer in this life. But what does it mean to experience pain and affliction as the Bible teaches us? I think most of us are led to believe that these passages speak to some unique form of Christian persecution which comes from publicly following Christ. While this aspect of suffering is certainly included, these passages are not speaking of only this kind of suffering. Dr. Richard Gaffin summarizes Christian suffering well: “Christian suffering, then, is everything in our lives in this present order, borne for Christ and done in his service. Suffering with Christ includes not only monumental and traumatic crises, martyrdom and overt persecution, but it is to be a daily affair – the mundane frustrations and unspectacular difficulties of our everyday lives, when they are endured for his sake.” Any and all suffering and affliction we endure in this live – when we endure them for Christ’s sake – are uniquely Christians sufferings.
You might be asking, “How can this be the case?” After all, don’t Christians experience many of the same that non-Christians do? Cancer isn’t uniquely Christian, so why is it that if a Christian is diagnosed with cancer it becomes Christian suffering? The answer lies in the fact that as children of God who have placed their faith in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, our suffering is redeemed. God uses the very things that are intended to destroy us to mature his children and make them more like Christ (1 Peter 1:3-9).
Purpose in Suffering
But why does God allow us to suffer? It is impossible to know the exact reasons for what we are going through: it might be a result of the general state of the world and natural forces, it might be a result of someone else’s or our own sins, or it could be from a host of many other reasons. However, the important question to ask is not “Why is this happening to me?” More often than not, we will not be able to answer this question. Instead, we should be asking “What is God’s purpose for me in the midst of my suffering?”
In today’s Christian subculture, we love to make signs, posters and desktop backgrounds with “inspirational” Bible verses (Philippians 4:13, 1 Corinthians 13, and 1 John 3 all come to mind). Unfortunately, one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible is often skipped on these signs. That passage is 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. The Apostle Paul writes:
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.
This is one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible. Paul teaches us that God is the source of all mercy and comfort, even in the affliction we cannot see or feel him working in. We are told that although we share in Christ’s sufferings, we will also share abundantly in comfort as well. God comforts us in our affliction so that we will be able to comfort others in their affliction.
So what does this passage teach us about the purpose of suffering in the Christian community? Our suffering is meant to create an army of Christian counselors who become uniquely equipped to comfort others in their suffering. This is a part of God’s glorious and beautiful outworking of redemption in his people! While the world around us tells us to flee suffering, God instead equips us to live out the second greatest commandment (Mark 12:31). For this reason, we agree with Charles Spurgeon who wrote, “I am almost persuaded that those of God’s servants who have been most highly favoured have suffered more times of darkness than others.” It doesn’t matter whether your suffering is depression or cancer, God’s purpose for you is to receive his comfort and then take it to others who are suffering. As we suffer, our churches are collectively strengthened. In this way, the church is to be marked by Christians who faithfully provide godly counsel to one another – even in the midst of their own pains and afflictions.
You could be tempted to doubt that this is the purpose for all Christians in the midst of their suffering. Perhaps you think that you can provide no comfort to anyone else because you’re barely hanging on. However, don’t underestimate your ability to comfort and provide counsel to someone who has already thrown in the towel.
Recently I’ve been weighed down by an immense fear over the future – job, finances, family, children, etc. In moments where my fear is especially strong I become overwhelmed with the temptation to just give up and pursue a new vocation with more stability and predictability. During one of those moments this week, a friend of mine emailed me telling me that he would be experiencing a job change soon. He asked me to pray that he would remain faithful during his transition. Even though he didn’t know it, he provided so much encouragement to me! Just when I was tempted to despair, a friend was able to motivate me to keep going simply by a demonstration of his faithfulness.
Friend, don’t underestimate what God is doing for his people in the midst of your suffering and affliction. God’s purpose for your suffering is to be a benefit not only to you as he makes you more like Christ, but also to bless and benefit his other children who are suffering. The counsel you bring to others as they experience pain and affliction will have a ripple effect in your Christian community that you will likely never see. It is a beautiful thing when we all play our part in the household of faith!
 Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 54.
 Richard Gaffin, “The Last Adam, the Life-Giving Spirit” in The Forgotten Christ, 231.
 Charles Spurgeon, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, The Journal of Biblical Counseling Number 3, Spring 2000.
What are the marks of the poor in spirit?
- They are humble at the sight of their graces. Carnal hearts are puffed up, but a gracious heart sees enough in its graces to make it humble.
- The poor in spirit think it a small thing if others receive more respect and honor. They have no cause for envy or to be troubled. It is rather a wonder what they do have. They trust God’s providence.
- They admire every little good they receive, considering it much. They wonder at every affliction that it is not more, and are thankful for every mercy. The world is troubled that their afflictions are great and their mercies so little. The poor in spirit do not murmur and repine, but wonder that God lays his hand so tenderly upon them as he does.
- The poor in spirit are praying men. They cannot live without prayer, and must go day after day to seek God.
- They are admirers and great extollers of free grace. Whatever they have, they look upon as undeserved.
- The poor in spirit are emptied of self. Whatever they have in themselves, or whatever they do, they do not rest upon it for their eternal good; they are sensible of their own poverty.
- They are willing for God to choose their condition. Their comforts, abilities, worth, and wages can be safely left wholly to God: “Here I am, let God do with me as he wills. I lie at his mercy.”
- They do not look upon the rich and honorable as the most excellent, but those who have the highest grace; “O how happy would I be if I could so walk with God and overcome my corruptions!” This is a poverty of spirit indeed.
- The poor in spirit are willing to wait. Though God does not come according to their desires, they are content to wait upon God.
- They are struck with reverence for the greatness of God and the authority of his Word, and they yield their spirit to it.
Although I wasn’t able to watch last night’s Democratic Debate live, I was able to catch up on all the clips, highlights and most tweetable moments from the debate. As I was deciphering all of the #damnEmails tweets and poor-taste comments about someone’s Labrador for real information, I couldn’t help but feel a certain conflict in me. For while there were some things I disagreed with that the political candidates were saying, there were also many issues that I did agree with. This reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from New York pastor Tim Keller:
The new, fast-spreading multi-ethnic orthodox Christianity in the cities is much more concerned about the poor and social justice than Republicans have been, and at the same time much more concerned about upholding classic Christian moral and sexual ethics than Democrats have been.
It seems to me that there is a revolution happening in young Christian circles, of which I consider myself a part. For many generations, there has been a culture in our churches where you were pitched one of two choices: either you’re a Christian fundamentalist who always voted on the Right; or you were a progressive Christian who always voted on the Left. During the last election, many of my conservative Christian friends told me I wasn’t really a Christian if I voted for a Democrat; my more liberal Christian friends said I couldn’t truly obey the commands of Jesus if I voted Republican. In the end, it’s the same accusation coming from two opposite ends of the spectrum. This has given way to the impression in our society that we are mindless, one-issue voters. I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a better way.
When I talk with Christian millenials, there is a general attitude of being fed up with today’s political system. Keller hits the nail on the head when he describes the conflict in many of today’s young Christians. For too long individual churches and whole denominations have sponsored political functions and endorsed candidates by bringing them to speak at church gatherings. We’ve witnessed the results of what has often been blind, mindless, and careless adherence to political systems and ideologies. We struggle to be squeezed into any one political mold or model. Conservative and liberal are quickly becoming adjectives that are far too simplistic. Whereas political figures used to be able to rally entire populations around their agenda, millennial Christians are quickly realizing that the loudest voices in public discourse rarely speak for us.
I want to avoid the accusation of chronological snobbery, but isn’t this the way it should be? Can kingdom-minded people be squeezed into the political categories of men? Rather than being the most one-sided voices in political discourse, shouldn’t we be the most thoughtful? If we take the charge to steward the full council and wisdom of God seriously, then it is our responsibility to bring order, thoughtfulness, reason, and genuine empathy to the political table.
This means that it is going to be impossible for Christians to be blind, strict adherents to any one political system or party. We should not be a people who make character attacks, cheap shots on social media, or treat issues lightly. We should be a people who seriously think through each and every issue before coming to an informed decision. We should wrestle the convictions of our twisted and sinful hearts with the truths of all of Scripture – not just the easy verses. We should genuinely desire to listen to those we disagree with and understand them, seeking to interact with the best of their arguments – not the weakest. Christian leaders should flee from any action that will teach their people to be one-issue voters. Perhaps most importantly, we should understand that each decision impacts and changes the lives of real people – not just numbers in a news column.
Perhaps I’m too idealistic, but I long to see a thoughtful and educated culture amongst our churches. I long for a day when we realize that casting our vote for any one candidate means we will be giving up good qualities and positions from other candidates. I desire a time where I don’t sign on to social media and see Christians posting cheap shot memes, jokes, articles and comments about political officers rather than taking up the command to earnestly pray for them.
One of my favorite authors and commentators on this subject is Professor Carl Trueman from Westminster Theological Seminary. In his book Republocrat, he closes with the following argument which summarizes my thoughts on this issue far better than I could. He writes:
Christians are to be good citizens, to take their civic responsibilities seriously, and to respect the civil magistrates appointed over us. We also need to acknowledge that the world is a lot more complicated than the pundits of Fox News (or MSNBC) tell us…. Christian politics, so often associated now with loudmouthed aggression, needs rather to be an example of thoughtful, informed engagement with the issues and appropriate involvement with the democratic process. And that requires a culture change. We need to read and watch more widely, be as critical of our own favored pundits and narratives as we are of those cherished by our opponents, and seek to be good stewards of the world and of the opportunities therein that God has given us.
It is my belief that the identification of Christianity, in its practical essence, with very conservative politics will, if left unchallenged and unchecked, drive away a generation of people who are concerned for the poor, for the environment, for foreign-policy issues…. We need to… [realize] the limits of politics and the legitimacy of Christians, disagreeing on a host of actual policies, and [earn] a reputation for thoughtful, informed, and measured political involvement. A good reputation with outsiders is, after all, a basic New Testament requirement of church leadership, and that general principle should surely shape the attitude of all Christians in whatever sphere they find themselves. Indeed, I look forward to the day when intelligence and civility, not tiresome cliches, character assassinations, and Manichean noise, are the hallmarks of Christians as they engage the political process. (pg. 108-110)
As we head into the next political cycle, this is the culture change and climate I’ll be praying for. Will you join me?