December 30, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
In our sermons on the Psalms of late we have noted that the Psalter features poems and hymns of different types. We have considered so far, a psalm of praise – in particular for God’s wonderful world – a psalm describing a believing man’s struggle with doubt, and a psalm of confidence in God in the midst of trial and trouble. Each of these psalms was representative of a group of such psalms in the Psalter. But among the various types of psalms there are also typical features found in many of them, features that are characteristic of biblical faith and life. This morning I want to consider one such feature which I will call the “mystical element.”
Now that term and its related forms – mystical, mysticism – mean very different things to different people, so I want to make clear what I mean by the term as I use it. I am using the term “mystical” in its approved sense as referring to spiritual reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor subject to the intellect, especially in relationship to one’s communion with God. “Mystical” refers to the nature or personal experience of communion with God or communications from God that transcends human calculation and comprehension. The word refers to that which is unseen, mysterious in its origin and influence. In Christian usage it also refers to those experiences of communion with God that produce deep emotion.
v.3 Once again we hear familiar strains. The reality of life’s difficulties and his confidence that the Lord will deliver him.
v.4 What David is expressing is the desire to be always with the Lord. As the following verses indicate, the Lord’s presence felt in the soul is the answer to all his troubles and calms all his fears.
v.7 The expression of triumph just described in vv. 5-6 is still in the future. Meanwhile there is little outward sign of God’s favor and so David prays for it.
v.13 One more expression of confidence in God before a final exhortation to himself and to anyone else in similar circumstances.
Now, it is true and needs to be said, as much in our day as in any other, that emotion and strong feelings, pure and simple, are evidence of virtually nothing but that human beings have emotions and that they are easily stirred. There is a long tradition of warning against emotionalism in the wise sort of Christian preaching and teaching. Emotionalism is any view that rests one’s conviction of truth and reality on the experience and the strength of one’s feelings. In our day especially, emotionalism has become a standard of truth in both the secular culture and the church. It used to be thought by some that reason had escaped the effects of the fall; nowadays this is more often thought about the emotions. In one way or another, many say today, whether advocates of sexual liberation in its various modern forms or evangelical Christians talking about divine guidance: what I feel is and must be true and therefore no one else is permitted to doubt the authority of my feelings.
But the Bible, and for that matter life itself, often bear witness to the unreliability of emotions, of the failure of feelings or inward experiences as a reliable indicator of reality. Emotions are as likely to serve the interests of error as of truth, of evil as of good. Think of Jacob’s deep despair; he was inconsolable when sending Benjamin to Egypt with his brothers, believing everything to be against him, mourning the catastrophe of his life, when, in fact, he was soon to have all his sorrows wiped away. Martin Luther is supposed to have prayed, “God give us the experience of being freed from experience.” [In M. Barker, in Pulpit and People, 95] Luther meant that in his day too many people were attaching too much authority to the feelings of the heart or the impression of the mind. And Lloyd Jones, the great London preacher of the middle of the 20th Century, said, even more emphatically:
“Emotionalism is ever the most real, because the most subtle, enemy of evangelicalism.” “Tears are a poor criterion for faith, being carried away in a meeting by eloquence or singing or excitement is not the same as committing oneself to Christ.” [In Murray, Lloyd-Jones, i, 211]
And Philip Doddridge, in his immortal book, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, is careful to distinguish between the emotions that may accompany a commitment to Christ and the commitment itself. “…religion consists chiefly in the resolution of the will for God.”
Remember the Lord’s parable of the sower and the various soils. The seed sown in the rocky soil represents people who hear the gospel and receive it with joy. But they don’t last. They fall away when reality begins to bite. Their joy was no demonstration that their lives had permanently changed. And we have seen that ourselves, a powerful emotional experience that seemed to us to portend spiritual change and the presence of Christ in a life, only to see the commitment wither over time. What is more, we have seen very powerful emotions lead real Christians to do unwise and harmful things. This is one of the stark lessons of George Marsden’s fine biography of Jonathan Edwards. I had not realized until reading Marsden, how decidedly Edwards himself had come to the conclusion that the emotionalism that accompanied the Great Awakening had largely killed the revival and nullified much of its influence in the New England of his day.
“Many among us have been ready to think, that all high raptures are divine, but experience plainly shows, that it is not the degree of rapture and ecstasy (although it should be to the third heavens), but the nature and kind that must determine us in their favor.” 
The great show of emotion and censoriousness toward those who did not experience these flights of ecstasy repelled many who should have been the revival’s friends and convinced many others that it was not from God. The fact that a large number who had such powerful experiences of rapture or weeping during the revival did not maintain a faithful Christian life afterward only brought the awakening into further disrepute. More than anything else, Edwards would later write, an uncritical encouragement of emotional displays, a celebration of inner experiences, did the revival in and lessened its long-term effect.
With those cautions given, however, all of those same writers – Luther, Doddridge, Edwards, and Lloyd-Jones – were emphatic in saying that living faith in Christ should and will produce real and deep emotion. How can it help doing so when true faith expresses itself in mourning for sin, in rejoicing over the love of God, and in thrilling to the prospects of the future? Look, if Werner Heisenberg should have experienced “deep alarm” when he came upon quantum mechanics and Albert Einstein “joyous excitement” for several days after verification of his general theory of relativity [In Philip Rhoades, Making of the Atomic Bomb, 152] – these after all are discoveries about nature – how much more should Christians experience deep and pure emotion upon coming to know God, the Maker of nature, upon the contemplation of his marvelous and supernatural works, and at the prospect of the mysterious but utterly and indescribably marvelous world that he is preparing for those who love him!
So, if emotion, deep feeling, and powerful inner experience has its dangers, it also very definitely has its place in the Christian life. It bears its powerful witness to the reality of unseen things, and it produces happy and important effects in the Christian life, effects that last very often throughout the whole course of a believer’s life. References to such experiences of communion with God, experiences that produce profound emotion, abound in the Psalter and famous reference is made to such experiences here in Psalm 27: “the Lord is my light”; “to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord…”; “to seek him in his temple…”; “to seek his face…”; and “he will lift me high.”
Clearly David is talking about “intimate spiritual [communion] with…God” [Delitzsch, 357] and the mystical power of that in his soul. I could have cited innumerable other examples of the same way of speaking. “I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and glory.” [Ps.63:2] “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.” “…as for me, it is good to be near God.” [Ps. 73:23, 28] In other places, the psalmist is conscious of the Lord’s distance from him and longs to be brought near to the Lord again. “Why have you forgotten me? … Send forth your light…” [Ps. 42:9; 43:3] A man prays that prayer only because he has at other times seen and felt that light.
When communion with the invisible God is described in terms of “seeing” the Lord, when the psalmist speaks of beholding the glory or the power of the Lord, every reader of the Bible understands that he is speaking of a spiritual experience, a mystical experience of heightened sensitivity, emotion, and realization. The only adequate way we have to speak about such experiences is to put them in terms of the physical senses. Obviously, David never saw God’s face, for God doesn’t have a face and no one can see the glory of God and live, as God told Moses when the great man asked to see God’s glory. To speak as David does is to speak analogically. It is, in other words, as if we saw the Lord; it is as if we heard his voice; it is as if we were overwhelmed by the brightness of his glory. It is a glorious realization in our hearts, but its power is like that of sight and sound. It is the more ordinary and proletarian form of those visions of God that the prophets and apostles enjoyed; it is that joy, peace, and comfort that the Lord Jesus received when angels came from heaven to minister to him, but now in that lesser form granted to all of God’s people. It is that high and holy emotion that we experience in our horizontal relationships of life, the tears of love and joy that are shed for the love of children, parents, husbands, and wives, but now raised to the higher level of our relationship with God.
The Bible bears witness to this reality in the experience of God’s people in many different ways. Paul was only using a different way of speaking when he spoke of that spiritual confidence that springs from the Holy Spirit’s bearing witness with our spirits that we are the children of God. And we are given many pictures of saints in the thrall of such deep and beautiful experience such as David leaping and dancing before the ark or the author of Psalm 73 leaving worship in the temple six inches off the ground, or Jeremiah rejoicing over the Word of God. But it is especially in the Psalms that this becomes a regular feature of their description of believing experience.
Now, it should come as no surprise that there should be this element to our knowledge of God. We have been given these capacities, these powers – to have hearts filled with joy, to have peace and contentment flood our souls, and to shed tears of love – so it is inevitable that these human powers should be brought to bear and exercised in the service of our communion with God. And so they are. But these are experiences to some degree ineffable. We can describe them to others only by analogy; only by using language that is not literally true: we saw the Lord or saw his glory; we heard his voice; he drew near to us, took hold of us, and so on. More than that, as with such powerful experiences of emotion in our relationships with others, so these profound experiences of God, his love, his presence, his peace, and so on, come and go. They are not at our beck and call. If only they were! What husband and wife does not wish that they always felt about one another, that they always rejoiced in one another the way they have sometimes done? But it is not to be, and nor is it to be in our relationship with God. If it were, we would not be required to live by faith; we would, in effect, be living by sight. These mystical experiences are not the ordinary stuff of life. The writers of the psalms are more likely to be mourning the lack of such experiences than describing their ecstasies, raptures, or powerful sense of peace. David was asking for them in Psalm 27. He was asking for them because he had experienced them before, but he was not experiencing such experiences at the moment he was writing the psalm.
Church history and Christian biography tell us a number of things about such experiences. Some Christians have more of them than others. In certain times and periods of the life of the church they are given to believers more or less often by the Holy Spirit. For example, in a time when fewer people are becoming Christians it is an observation of the faithful that fewer Christians are granted powerful experiences of God’s nearness. If the Holy Spirit is present and working powerfully, people will be coming to Christ and believers will be feeling the glory of their salvation more, not less. What becomes clear from the Bible and the history of Christian life in the world is that believers are not in control of such experiences – they cannot be summoned at will; the effort to do so inevitably produces sham experience – nor does the depth of such mystical experiences or the frequency of them have any bearing on the faithfulness of a Christian’s life.
I’m going to mention Samuel Rutherford, because I don’t know of anyone in the church’s past who spoke more often, more helpfully or inspiringly of such experiences of the nearness of God than the great 17th century Scot divine. One of Samuel Rutherford’s correspondents was the Scottish noblewoman, Lady Boyd. Her first husband, who died in 1616 left her with two children. She subsequently married Sir Robert Boyd and seven more children were born to them before Sir Robert’s death after eleven years of marriage. Lady Boyd was a devout Christian and used her wealth and station to further the cause of the Reformation in her homeland. She was a friend of most of the eminent ministers of her day: Robert Bruce, Robert Blair and Samuel Rutherford among them. Lady Boyd was an unusually thoughtful and observant Christian. She used to write down every night an account of the state of her soul as she had observed it through the day and what she had observed of the Lord’s dealing with her. That diary has been lost, but we have ten letters written by Samuel Rutherford to her, answering her questions and comforting her in her sorrows and confusions. She was, for example, a woman who took seriously her own continuing sinfulness as a Christian and was deeply troubled by it. Rutherford, ever the wise pastor, and understanding her penchant for self-condemnation, wrote to her, in his own inimitable prose,
“Now, Madam, for your Ladyship’s case. Fear not, Christ will not cast water upon your smoking coal… [Christ] lay with you in your mother’s womb, and was as early friends with you as the breath of life. Be sorry at corruption, and be not [complacent],” [but Christ] delight[s] to take up fallen bairns [children], and to mend broken brows. Binding up of wounds is His office… His bairns must often have the frosty cold side of the hill, and set down both their bare feet among thorns. Our pride must have winter weather to rot it. But I know that Christ and [you] will not be [separated]. The sea-sick passenger shall come to land; Christ will be the first to meet you on the shore.” [Letter CVII]
Lady Boyd was often troubled by the fact that she experienced so little of what was then called “the felt presence of Christ.” Much as she longed for the Lord to draw near to her and for her to “see his face” and “behold his beauty”, divine visits to her soul were rare and then only fleeting. In another letter Rutherford confides to her that it is often so with him.
“I have not now, of a long time, found such high spring-tides as formerly. The sea is out, the wind of His Spirit calm…”
And he goes on to tell her:
“And for Christ’s joyful coming and going, which your Ladyship speak[s] of…Christ will have joy and sorrow [sharers] of the life of the saints… But if sorrow be the greedier [sharer] of our days here, I know that joy’s day shall dawn.” [Letter CCXLV]
I know from much reading and from a great many conversations that many Christians have enjoyed only a few mystical experiences of such power that they left a mark on the soul and were indelibly fixed in the memory. I don’t mean that we never get a better sight of God or feel the force of his love and truth. We often get just that in Lord’s Day worship and we are glad for it. That is why David says in v. 4 that he wishes he could always be at worship in the temple; that is where he more regularly felt the reality of God’s presence. But of the stronger more memorable mystical experiences, there are always fewer of those and for some only one or two. Indeed, I don’t hesitate to say that one of the principal arguments for the sovereignty of God in salvation is that so many Christians remain loyal to God and Christ without the encouragement of many powerful experiences of the divine glory and presence. What keeps them going but the Holy Spirit holding them fast! But their rarity only makes them more significant in a believer’s life.
I remember a telephone conversation some years ago with a candidate for a faculty position at Covenant College. A dear woman with a sturdy and beautiful faith. She had had her share of troubles: twice betrayed by husbands, twice divorced; the single mother of two children. She was a Christian from her youth, the daughter of a principled Christian mother, who loved the Word of God and who prayed faithfully for her children. But, she told us, her faith and her Christian life were weak and unfocused until she was 30 years of age. Going through a time of real difficulty, the death of her father, tensions in her marriage, she disclosed her troubles to a Christian friend and the result of that conversation was a powerful, life-changing sight of the love of God. For the first time in her life she was overwhelmed by a sense of the Lord’s love for her, individually and personally, not simply collectively as a member of the family or the church of God. She saw him dying on the cross for her, she felt for the first time that love, realizing that were she the only person in the world he would have suffered terribly just for her. The powerful internal experience of the Lord’s particular and personal love for her in that moment had been a sustaining memory ever since.
Some of you can remember the extraordinarily powerful realization of God’s greatness and his love when you first came to faith in him. Many of the rest of you can remember times since when, as the poet has it,
…all the distant and the near,
Stands forth in sunny outline, brave and clear.
And so, it is not difficult for you to understand what David meant when he spoke of gazing at the beauty of God or seeing his face or the Lord drawing near to him. You know what he meant because you have seen and felt the same things. And you would have to describe it in a similar way because there is no other way to describe the impressions of the divine glory and presence upon a soul except with the terms of physical life. So it is when the Bible describes the life of the soul in heaven after death and before the resurrection. It can only use the language that we understand, it can only use analogy and comparison, because the communion of the invisible Lord with the soul is finally ineffable, beyond description.
The witness born to these experiences, these surpassingly wonderful and mystical experiences, the witness so often born in the Psalms, should have an effect on us. We should seek them as the Psalmists do. We should pray for them and ask God for them. We should ask him to draw near to us, to show himself to us, to reveal his glory to us, to permit us to see his face. We should ask for this daily or often. To see God’s beauty is a very great thing, one of the greatest gifts that can ever be given to a human being in this world. It is also a gift with marvelous and wonderful effects that last a lifetime. We find in the Psalms the poets talking about such mystical experiences all the time. There is no guarantee that God will give such experiences to you, certainly not whenever you please. But that is no reason not to seek them from his heart and hand.
Here is a memorable testimony from Alexander Whyte preached in one of his tremendous sermons on prayer, the more appropriate this morning since he preached the sermon soon after returning from his Christmas holiday. I have often remembered this and done it myself in hopes of a similar outcome.
Last week I became very miserable as I saw my time slipping away, and my vow not performed. I therefore one afternoon stole into my coat and hat, and took my staff, and slipped out of the house in secret. For two hours, for an hour and three-quarters, I walked alone and prayed: but pray as I would, I got not one step nearer God all these seven or eight cold miles. My guilty conscience mocked me to my face, and said to me: Is it any wonder that God has cast off a minister and a father like thee? For two hours I struggled on, forsaken of God, and met neither God nor man all that chill afternoon. When, at last, standing still, and looking at Schiehallion – a mountain in central Scotland — clothed in white from top to bottom, this of David shot up into my heart: ‘Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow!’ In a moment I was with God. Or, rather, God, as I believe, was with me. Till I walked home under the rising moon with my head waters and with my heart in a flame of prayer…. Two hours is a long time to steal away from one’s books and companions to swing one’s walking stick, and to utter unavailing [utterances] to one’s self in a wintry glen: but then, my two hours look to me now – as they tasted to me then – the best strength and the best sweetness of all my Christmas holiday.” [Lord Teach us to Pray, 233-234]
Seek the same sight of God and the glory of his love for yourself, but do not be disheartened if those experiences do not come to you as often or as powerfully as you wish. And don’t be dissatisfied with the glory of God that always shines from the Word of God and can always be seen in his worship, if not as powerfully as you might wish. If you must wait, well then, this is something worth the waiting for. Samuel Rutherford wrote to the daughter of Lady Boyd, after her mother’s death in 1646:
“She is now above the winter, with a little change of place, not of a Saviour; only she enjoy[s] Him now without messages, and in His own immediate presence, from whom she heard by letters and messengers before… Ye may easily judge, Madam, what a large recompense is made to all her service, her walking with God, and her sorrows, with the first cast of the soul’s eye upon the shining and admirably beautiful face of the Lamb.” [Letter CCCXXI]