So much of the labor of ministry is pastoral correspondence. Charles Spurgeon once wrote, “I am immersed to the chin in letters.” Under the load of correspondence he would say, “I am only a poor clerk, driving the pen hour after hour; here is another whole morning gone, and nothing done but letters! letters! letters! “I am so pressed that I can only give a brief space to one person, and a rigid economy of time can alone allow even of this.” Without the benefit of technology, this was a time-consuming and exhausting aspect of Spurgeon’s already full ministry.
And yet out of this toil, came the sweet fruit of pastoral wisdom and biblical reflection. I’m grateful for those who have worked to bring together collections of Spurgeon’s letters. I commend these to you for your spiritual encouragement.
Inspired by Spurgeon’s example, I find myself often with the opportunity to respond to emails with theological questions, spiritual challenges, etc… and I see these as an important part of my ministry. I plan to share some of that correspondence here in the hope that this might prove useful for others.
Not too long ago, I received an email asking about the challenge of reading the Bible out of guilt and how it often doesn’t seem to speak to the specific challenges that we’re facing. Here was my response (edited to preserve anonymity):
Sorry for taking so long to respond to this. It’s been sitting in my inbox and I wanted to make sure I devoted enough time for it.
I have several thoughts, but let me try to summarize. I’d be glad for us to grab lunch again sometime and discuss these things in more detail.
- I agree with guilt-motivated Bible reading is seldom fruitful. If we’re trying to please God out of duty, we’ve misunderstood who God is. It’s not as if he needs our duty or is somehow beholden to us if we read our Bibles.
- At the same time, God’s Word is powerful, and in spite of our messed up motivations, He can still work through His Word (thank God!)
- As far as your question: “Does the Bible really teach you how to cope with life or just give you guidelines to follow?” – The Bible does give us guidelines to follow, but you’re right that we are often powerless to follow those guidelines, those laws. Whether it’s the desire to lie, or turning to TV for emotional support, or whatever, we are surrounded by temptations and so often, we feel powerless to live out what we see in Scripture. What we desperately need is transformation. This is why God gives us His Spirit. By His Spirit, God has begun a work in you. He has caused you to repent of your sins, to place your faith in Christ as your only Savior… this is not of yourself! This is a gift of God. And we need that continuing, sanctifying work in our lives.But here’s where God’s Word comes into play. The Spirit always works in concert with the Word, as it works in our lives. I think of Paul’s words in Romans 12:
1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Our goal is not so much to follow rules that are laid out in the Bible, but rather, to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Wouldn’t be wonderful if Kathy was so transformed by the Spirit that she began to see for herself the foolishness of gossip? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were so transformed in the renewing of our minds that we no longer wanted to turn to worldly things for emotional support, but looked to Christ first? It is as we are sanctified from the inside that we are able to test and approve God’s perfect will for our lives. And this transforming work happens by God’s Spirit, particularly as we give ourselves to knowing the will of God in His Word.
- Which means that reading God’s Word is not primarily about knowing the guidelines God has given us. Nor is it approaching God’s Word like a charm book, hoping that our problems are solved. Rather, we realize that in the Word, we commune with the living God. It is through the Word that we fellowship with God and relate with Him and get to know Him. I was struck by that as I listened to these recent sermons in Ezekiel. I was struck by the thought, “This fierce, jealous, wrathful God is what God is like… and yet, He is the same God who also holds out hope for those who turn to Him. This is the God I worship.” We read with a heart of faith, personalizing our reading of God’s Word, understanding that this is the God, the Christ, who has given Himself for me.
- That doesn’t mean all of our problems are immediately solved. But as we encounter God in His Word, we bring those struggles to him. We ask for His help. We walk day by day, relying on His grace. Brother, I’m not saying that if you do this, you will immediately overcome your struggles. You might have to wrestle with this for the rest of your life. We will struggle with some sins until the day Christ makes us new. But as we walk with God in His Word, He will allow us to live in dependence on Him, and we will know His grace anew.
These are just a few brief thoughts. Like I said, I’d be glad to talk more in person. But I hope this encourages you to approach God’s Word once again with hope, that perhaps God might be so kind as to reveal Himself to you and give you greater knowledge of Him. That is far more precious than any earthly consequence we might hope for.