A feminine focus
Pressing on to Maturity with the Help of Our Friends Sally Davey
Sometimes I ask myself why it is we often find ourselves jogging along in the Christian life; satisfied with day-to-day activities and our own familiar habits of personal devotion to God. Too often, unknown to ourselves, we are on a downward slide of increasing worldliness, less love for God, and almost none for the lost and perishing around us. True, it is our own sinful hearts that lead us into this sloth; and it takes something out of the ordinary to wake us up. What wakes you up, usually? A particularly good sermon; a sudden trial, reminding you of your need of God; an unexpected conversation with a friend who has noticed your slackening zeal? For me, all these have had this effect: the Lord knows, I need them all from time to time.
The Example of Others
But when I look back over the past years, I realise that two factors stand out as the means God has most often used to arouse me out of spiritual torpor. First, the example of others. Sometimes He puts a person unexpectedly across my path, usually someone I meet for the first time, and recognition of her Christian graces instantly warms me. There is something so delightful in seeing Christ's life lived out in another woman's spiritual loveliness. It makes me think: “Yes, I would love to be your friend, to know you and learn from you. I am inspired by you to be more like Him whom we both love. Just having met you inspires me to new zeal.” I am sure that has happened to you, too, because that is the way God has made us. We are to help one another in our personal quest for godliness; and that is what Paul meant when he urged us to stir one another up to love and good works. Our examples are to be catalysts to set others alight in service to Him.
But having said that, we can only energise others to the point of our own spiritual maturity; and we need to press on in the path of discipleship if we are to be an increasing help to our sisters in the faith. Above all, we need wisdom in addition to love and the other “warm” attributes of Christ. Paul's prayers for the early churches give many clues to the place wisdom should take in our lives. We should picture ourselves, and our church, in the place of those Paul was praying for. What was he asking that God would do for these early Christians? How did Paul want them to develop in the faith? Here's what he told the Philippians he was asking the Lord to do for them:
…this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ - to the glory and praise of God.
It is obvious that knowledge, depth of insight and discernment are things that take effort to attain: they do not arrive by a sudden inspiration. How, then, do we acquire them? The answer leads me to the second factor that arouses me when I'm inclined to slip into spiritual dullness. Good books. Yes, well-written, helpful and instructive books. You could say that books, and reading, come under the general heading of Christian teaching; of which sermons and good conversations with wise people are other sub-branches. But the thing about books is that they are portable - and not bound by constraints of time and place when it comes to their ability to help us. We can use them any time, any place, and for as long as we want, on our own, whenever we want to learn. People can't do that in person, but their books can. We can even benefit from the lives and teaching ministries of Christians who lived centuries ago, when we read what they wrote back then. It's amazing: God has extended their usefulness, to us, living long after they have gone to be with Him. Looking at it this way, I've gained good friends in America, Britain, Europe, this century, last century, and over the last five centuries by becoming intimate with their thoughts and examples; and by benefiting from what they have taught me. I give thanks to God for what wisdom and discernment and knowledge they have been able to pass on to me through their books.
But why is it that so often women do not take advantage of this blessing so freely available to them? Why do many of us not read good books? For some of us, it's sheer busyness. Perhaps a large family, and a husband who's away a lot for work. Perhaps we have to work long hours ourselves. For others, books seem daunting. We never enjoyed school, study is a bore; and a book for us needs to be a relaxing novel. Heavier, instructive books about the faith seem unrelated to our Christian experience - so why bother? Let's get onto something practical, we'd say. Theology and church history might be all very fine for preachers and academics, but leave me out! I'm into ordinary, everyday Christian living. I need practical tips to help me survive a difficult marriage or three pre-school children or a rebellious teenager. But - as one of my book-writing friends has written: “There is nothing more practical than knowing God. We must know Him as Creator and Redeemer in order to reflect his goodness in every relationship and situation. The practical without the theological will be form without substance, and it will be paper thin.” (Susan Hunt, Your Home: A Place of Grace, p.67 - italics mine) Likewise, if we have to consider time, what is a better use of precious time than a short spell with a vitally important piece of truth?
Storing Up Wisdom
There are other, and very practical reasons for giving time and effort to books. No-one would argue, surely, that we women all need wisdom for our home lives. It is we who usually give more time to bringing up children. So we need to ask - how are we going to answer the questions they bring home from school about life's challenges to their morality, to their trust in the Scriptures? Remember fourth-century Monica, Augustine's mother. She was, certainly, a woman of prayer who pleaded with God for her wayward son and unfaithful husband. But - she also made sure she was sufficiently well-read to keep discussions going with her son and his friends, when they were dabbling in all manner of off-beat philosophies. And they respected her. Will your wandering, tempted children respect you when you want to warn them about ideas that don't seem quite right? Will you even know why they aren't right? You won't, unless you store up some wisdom in the years to come.
Do you want to share the faith with others? Perhaps you feel somewhat hesitant, perhaps ill-prepared. Perhaps your neighbour or workmate will have questions you don't think you'll be able to answer….? Does this kind of thing stop you from telling this lost person about Christ? Well, there are plenty of helpful books that gently, conversationally and instructively give us answers to the commonly-asked questions and commonly-raised objections to the faith. Many of them are not hard to read, they're even fun. Of course we will want to give this kind of book a bit of time and energy if we want to help others into the kingdom.
And what about private difficulties and struggles in life? I'm sure we all are most conscious of our fears, our disappointments, our griefs - those things that are with us most often in our thoughts. How are we to deal with them? In my experience, the most satisfying and lasting way is to know God better. Too often we think that what we want is some discussion on love or encouragement; or some tips on how to feel good about ourselves or about our situation. Have you ever considered that the answer to anxiety might be a proper appreciation of God's sovereignty? Dwelling on His control over all events, on His goodness and His mercy really is the antidote to worry. What about reading something on God's character and storing this knowledge up in your minds? You'll find that Philippians 4:4-9 becomes really true in a most practical way!
When We Don't Do It
But what are the consequences of not reading, of not working at storing up wisdom and knowledge and insight for these situations? Let's think about that. For one thing, Christians who neglect to do this tend to be vulnerable to error, and to falling by the wayside when difficulties come. That's what is described in Scripture as being “tossed around” by the waves like a rudderless ship in a storm. Light novels and popular non-Christian psychology aren't a lot of help to steady us when terminal illness strikes, for example. For another thing, lack of wisdom means lack of discernment in some quite important matters. What job should we choose? How should we spend our money? Even - what should we sing in church? All these choices are determined by our wisdom in the Word or our lack of it. And finally, think about the example we set by our failure to pursue knowledge and insight. We all expect our children to take catechism classes seriously, for instance. But how can we reasonably expect them to, if we spend every night in front of the television ourselves? Think about it…
Reading good books is like making a solid investment in our spiritual futures. It's not laziness, in my view, to sit down for an hour or so with someone (a good author) who is going to teach us how to cope when the storms of life come. We don't have to be educated - start with a simpler, shorter book, one with stand-alone chapters or sections, and chew off a smallish piece at a time, digesting it slowly. Discuss it with a friend who's also read it - ask her to help you understand it, and to apply it to your life. Then progress over time to more challenging books. There are many good books with which we can begin. Over the next few months, it is my plan to introduce you to a few of my favourite useful and helpful ones. By introducing not only the book, but its author as well, I'm hoping that these few gems, some of which may be unfamiliar to you, will become your friends as well as mine.