If there is any encouragement in Christ. . . .
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts his finger on an unfortunate paradox among Christians, in one of his sermons comprising the book, Spiritual Depression. He laments that those in whom the joy of the Lord has most reason to be present are actually those in whom it is less likely to be found. Those raised in the fold of Mother Church, he argues, tend to demonstrate a greater consternation about themselves than those converted to Christ out of an unchurched background. The former are familiar with the notion of the peace that passes understanding, but so few experience it—and their notice of its absence only compounds the distress.
Lloyd-Jones attributes the phenomenon to a familiarity with the gospel that never blossomed into an intimacy with it. As a result of simply having heard the message so frequently, those raised in the church are tempted to assume they’ve internalized its essence. To be able to repeat John 3:16 or mouth that “God forgave my sins in Christ” is too often equated with a deep sense of their implications. A familiarity with the gospel that in time leaves one unimpressed with it is no familiarity at all; it betrays a profoundly wrong understanding of the gospel. And as R. Michael Allen put it recently, “Wrong thoughts about the right God may be more threatening than thoughts about the wrong God.” (Reformed Theology, 14)
Paul was aware of the presence of turmoil within the church at Philippi. To stave off disunity, he admonished them to remember the deep encouragement to be had in Christ. Remembering what they have in Him undercuts the potential for the Body to become embroiled in divisive but ultimately insignificant matters, as Mark explained Sunday. But whether it’s turmoil within the church or within one’s own soul, the solution is the same: earnestly seek clarity as to why Christ is of the utmost encouragement. “There are certain things about which we must be perfectly clear before we can really hope to have peace, and to enjoy the Christian life,” says Lloyd-Jones (Spiritual Depression, 27). He boils down that pursuit of clarity under two heads.
The first task of obtaining deep encouragement is to become “miserable” about one’s true condition. Though we may lament a given sin, even a besetting transgression against the will of God, Lloyd-Jones insists that such are mere symptoms of our fundamental flaw: we do not love the Lord our God with all that we are. A flippant word hurled at your wife, a subtle omission of an income source on your tax-return, a brooding contempt for a colleague—these are slight matters by comparison to what ultimately motivates them: a contempt for the goodness of God. It is that contempt—whether or not we recognize it as such—that verifies our identity as sinners. If the glory of God is not our utmost concern, we prove our alienation from Him with every attempt at self-glorification. And for that indifference to His majesty we are cut off from His joy and would be eternally condemned.
Our encouragement in Christ will only be as deep as our sense of our alienation apart from His work on our behalf. That is why Lloyd-Jones’ second admonition is to recognize how Christ’s work is the only sufficient remedy to our alienation. He points to the story of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who lived for years sacrificing himself believing it would establish his acceptance with God. It was only when he saw his best efforts as but filthy rags (Is 64:6) and that Christ alone was sufficient to forgive his sins and declare him acceptable to God, did Wesley’s heart burn with clarity that “a man is justified by faith without deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28). How often do you and I find ourselves striving to find a measure of acceptance—either from God or others—which He has already secured for us in Christ? How many of our efforts are at bottom an attempt to outrun fears we cannot escape, or, in our pride, to fulfill expectations we can never satisfy? In either case our unstated worry is always, “Am I good enough?” “The essence of Christian salvation,” says Lloyd-Jones, “is that [Christ] is good enough and I am in Him.”
When’s the last time you sought to remember why there is deep encouragement for you in Christ? Rehearsing the basis of our encouragement may at first seem childish—like rote memorization, but consider: you re-read stories; you stare at paintings whose contours you’ve beheld before; you let familiar symphonies wash over your brain again and again. Why do you return to them? To remember what they say to you about truth and beauty. Why not take the time to ask the Lord to turn your familiarity with the gospel into an intimacy that brings peace and, in turn, the love that unifies both church and soul?