"The Obscurations of Spiritual Life"

"Until the shadows flee away." -Solomon's Song 4:6

Shadow is as essential as light to the beauty of a landscape, or the perfection of a painting. Either, destitute of shading- the darker hues heightening the effect of the more brilliant coloring, and throwing into bolder relief the objects of nature, and the studies of the pencil- would lose more than half their expression and grandeur. Thus is it with the spiritual life of the soul. Light and shade are closely and artistically blended with the picture of the Christian's life. Drawn by a Divine Artist, all its parts- however inartistic and incoherent they may appear to the superficial eye, or even to the more tutored eye of the Christian himself- are essential to the completeness of the work, and are the production of Him who is "excellent in counsel, and great in beauty."
  Let it be once admitted that God is a Great Artist, and that the Divine Image restored to the human soul is the masterpiece of His productions, and all mystery vanishes touching the necessity, wisdom, and perfection of blended light and shade in the daily walk of the believer. Our present subject, then, is of the SHADOWS of spiritual life. The words which suggest it are replete with instruction and beauty. They are, if we correctly interpret them, the language of the Church. "Until the day break, and the SHADOWS flee away, I will get to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense." The truth embodied in the first part of this passage has already received our attention. And yet we cannot too frequently or too emphatically remind the reader of the strong tendency there exists of overlooking the "day of small things" in the history of divine grace in the soul.
  Living in an age of rapid thought, and of yet more rapid action- an age in which even religion has caught the spirit of the times, and immediate conversion would seem to be the popular idea of the day- and against this idea we are loath to breathe a word of dissent, seeing that the Holy Spirit is a Sovereign, and that, instant grace may be as real; and as frequent, as instant glory- may there not exist the danger of overlooking the mere faint and progressive process in which, perhaps, the majority of cases, divine grace dawns and grows in the regenerate soul?
  But our present chapter proposes to delineate, not the lights which illumine, but the shadows which darken, the path of spiritual life in its course to that 'perfect day' of glory, that 'morning without clouds,' to which it is destined eventually and surely to arrive. In the absence of those shadows, which we now proceed to notice, how much of the beauty and completeness of the Christian character would be lacking! The landscape would be too light, the picture too brilliant. Both would lack that soul-subdued and chastened tone which the varied and somber hues of the Christian life impart. Let us, then, briefly trace a few of the clouds which thus shade the spiritual life of the believer.
  The first we adduce is, the shadow of spiritual ignorance, which, more or less deeply, rests upon every pious mind. The spiritual education of the believer is, in its most advanced stage, but initiative and progressive. Compared with what he may yet attain, he has learned but the alphabet of divine knowledge. The Bible, with all his profound knowledge and research, is still but as the kindergarten book in his spiritual training; and the more advanced his attainments, the profounder and more humbling is his conviction how little he knows in comparison with what he yet may know.
  Such was the experience and such the testimony of Paul, who, writing to the Philippian Church, thus expressed himself. "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus." "That I may know Him." He knew Christ as few knew Him; but, placing no limit to his attainments, and thirsting for yet higher ones, praying to know more and still more of the Divinest, loveliest, and most wonderful Being in the universe, he was willing to forget- not ignore- 'the things which were behind' -the ground he had traversed- pressing forward and upward to higher rounds in his heavenly ascent, 'apprehending' or taking hold of that for which he was also 'apprehended' -or taken hold of by Christ Jesus.
  Oh for more of this Christ-longing spirit of the Apostle! The grand secret of growth in grace, of planting our feet higher in the steep of holiness and love and heavenliness, of rising above earth and its sins and sorrows, is in knowing more of Christ. Realizing more our resurrection and ascension with Christ, it will be moral lever lifting the soul into a higher region of love and purity and communion, even where Christ sits at the right hand of God. Nor was the Apostle alone in this aspiration after the increase of spiritual knowledge. Listen to the prayer of Elihu: "That which I see not, teach me." Here is the humble acknowledgment of conscious ignorance.
  How much there is in our spiritual education for heaven which we do not see! "We know in part." Let the range of study be as wide, and the spiritual eye as strong as it can be, the confession of the most advanced Christian will still be, "I see through a glass darkly- I know in part." Take, for example, our knowledge of sin. We do, indeed, know something of its blackness just enough to impel us to the Open Fountain; but our views are shallow, our conceptions cloudy, and our contrition imperfect. There is a depth in sin we have not sounded, a mystery we have not unraveled, and a turpitude we have not felt. "Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults." The error of the judgement, the error of the will, the error of the affections. Hence, the necessity and wisdom of David's prayer- "Cleanse me from secret faults."
  The secret faults against which he prayed were not sins committed in secret and veiled from every eye; but those faults which in themselves were secret, of which he himself knew nothing, nor even suspected- sins of the mind, sins of the affections, sins of nature, and "the iniquity of our holy things." "Cleanse me from secret faults." What a needed prayer for Christian men of business! The vast commercial transactions of the day, the opening fields of enterprise, the thirst for wealth, the ease with which it is acquired, the temptations to deviate from the strict line of integrity and uprightness, must, necessarily, involve a tendency to many 'secret faults,' against which the religious professor, borne on upon the rapid current of the age, has need vigilantly to watch and pray. Oh when will the mercantile men of our nation, imitating the example of the devout Thornton, that true Christian merchant of his day- erect an oratory side by side with the counting-house, to which, in 'all times of their wealth,' and in all times of their adversity, anxiety, and temptation, they may resort, and receive grace and strength and soothing, where alone it is found in holy, confidential communion with God!
  Closely allied with the cloud of spiritual ignorance of sin, is the passing shadow of guilt upon the soul. Perhaps no shadow of the spiritual life is so darkening and depressing as this. It may, indeed, be but as a vapor- some known duty neglected- an opportunity of usefulness lost- an unkind word spoken- a hasty spirit betrayed some Christian principle faltering- still, it is a passing shadow; and the mirror of the conscience, which should ever be kept in the highest polish, is in a moment dimmed, and the soul is affected thereby.
  And is there no remedy for this temporary obscuration of spiritual life no dissolving of this passing cloud? Oh yes! The blood of Jesus applied, effaces in a moment the sense of guilt, leaving not the shadow of a shade upon the conscience.
  And what a chill shadow is the temporary obscuration of the Divine presence- the veiling of the light of God's countenance- the momentary hiding of Jesus from the soul. The vicissitudes through which spiritual life passes- its ebb and flow-its partial or its total eclipse- are, more or less, the experience of every believer. Oh, there is no sorrow like spiritual sorrow: no cloud so dark, no shadow so cold, no sky so rayless as that which intervenes between God and the living soul. It is a solemn and instructive thought, that He who is our spiritual life, Himself traveled through this stage of its history. "My God, my God! why have You forsaken Me?" It was the total eclipse of the "Sun of Righteousness," of which the natural sun, now clothed in sackcloth and in sympathy with its Creator, was a type.
  Are you walking in soul-darkness, beloved? Is God hiding His face? Has Jesus suspended His sensible presence? and is this shadow, deep and dark, resting upon your spirit? Cheer up! It is not the darkness of unregeneracy, but the passing shadow of Christian life, and before long it will dissolve and vanish. Listen to the language of your covenant God and Father: "For a small moment have I forsaken you; but with great mercies will I gather you. In a little wrath I hid my face from you for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on you, says the Lord." The 'small moment' will before long pass, and the shadow will disappear- and the joyous language of your soul will be, "O God! You were angry with me; but Your anger is turned away, and You comfort me."
  With the shadow of adversity, in some one or more of its protean forms, all true believers are familiar. "The Lord tries the righteous," and He tries them because they are righteous. Not more essential the knife that prunes the branch- not more necessary the fire that refines the gold-  not more needful the storm that rarifies the atmosphere- than is adversity to the growth of the spiritual life of the soul. Is not the experience of every believer in harmony with that of the Psalmist? "Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept Your word." "It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn Your statutes." To no discipline is the divine life of the soul under greater obligation than that which thus prunes and refines, and which thus fructifies and purifies.
  Sweet are the uses of adversity; and never so sweet as when most bitter! "Out of the eater comes forth meat, and out of the strong comes forth sweetness;" and from an adversity that looked so consuming- from an event that threatened, as with lion-strength, to crush every fair prospect of life- there has issued some of the costliest blessings in the believer's history.
  God fashions graciously the hearts of all His children alike; "for what son is he whom the Father chastens not?" All are tried. The family provisions are "the bread and the water of affliction." "Humble and scanty fare this!" exclaims the worldling; nevertheless, lowly and distasteful as it may be to those who are living upon 'husks'- that which they call food- there is in it an element of sweetness, and a power of nourishment and growth, which the living soul only knows and fully tests. "The full soul loaths a honeycomb; but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet."
  Affliction times are fruit promoting times to God's "trees of righteousness." Afflictions deepen the roots, and clothe the boughs with the foliage and fruit of righteousness. Oh, who can fully estimate the real advance of the spiritual life of the soul in one hallowed trial, through one sanctified sorrow? The slumbering spirit of prayer is roused- the truant heart is recalled- trembling faith is strengthened- and the spirit shaded with sorrow and the soul bowed with calamity, turns to Jesus, and finds in the wounded and wounding hand of the Savior, the balm and the succor which 'heals the broken in heart, and binds up their wounds.'
  There are some believers who only become fruitful in trial, who make no headway in their spiritual voyage but in a storm! Their language is the echo of the sweet poet of Olney; "More the treacherous calm I dread, Than tempests bursting over my head." And does not this shadow pass away? Oh, yes! When, like a faithful servant, it has discharged its errand; when its heaven-sent mission is fully accomplished, it will dissolve into the light of joy, and issue in a new song of praise. "The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will He keep His anger forever." "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning."
  In the literal night, when suffering, nervousness, or mental depression, banish sleep from the pillow, life's shadows- its responsibilities, cares, and anxieties- gather thick and dark around the soul. Every object assumes an exaggerated form of terror, and is clothed with a deeper hue of gloom. But all is not shadow to the Christian then. One remembrance of God, one glimpse of Jesus, one thought of heaven, one moment's realization of eternity, and the clouds dispel, the shadows flee, and the melody of the song- never so sweet as at night, floats like angel's chimes around the pillow.
  "I have remembered Your name in the night" -Your name as Father, Your name as Jesus. "In the night His song shall be with me." "When I awake" -as from a troubled dream, from those darkling shadows which drape my bed- "I am still with You," and find myself reposing upon Your paternal bosom. Oh what a mercy to wake in the morning and feel ourselves with Jesus!
  So it will be when we fall asleep in death! We shall awake in Heaven, and find ourselves still and forever with the Lord!

"In silence or the middle night,
I awake to be with Thee;
And through the shadows as the light
Your mercy smiles on me.
"I talk with You upon my bed,
In meditation blest,
And sweetly pillow there my head,
Upon my Savior's breast.
"I think of Him who knelt and prayed
At midnight on the hill;
Then walked the sea, His friends to aid,
And bid the storm be still.
"I think of Him who took the cup,
In dark Gethsemane,
And, gathering strength from prayer, rose up
To die for such as me.
"I think of heaven, where never more
The weary ask for night,
But ever freshening glories pour
New raptures on the sight.
"So do I learn a parable,
That in my darkest day,
When waves of sorrow round me swell,
The storm shall pass away.
"Nor will I turn my head aside,
Though bitter griefs be mine;
But say with Him, the Crucified,
Father, my will is Thine.
"Thus shall I praise You while I've breath,
To sing Your love to me,
And welcome even the night of death,
To wake and be with Thee."
  The shadow of temptation, be it from Satan, from the world, or from his own heart is, to many Christians, the most severe and terrible of all that fall upon the soul. Our Lord passed through this fearful ordeal as none other ever did, or ever can. "Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. "And during forty days and nights He fought single-handed with the foe, assailed by him with every form of weapon, yet foiling him at every point, and quenching the flaming dart with the Divine shield of the Word- "It is written." Long and dark was the conflict, but He came out of it- as every tempted believer will- more than conqueror, even triumphant; as Daniel from the lions' den, unwounded; as the three Hebrews from the fiery furnace, unscathed.
  Look up, tempted one! Your spiritual life needs this discipline. It is but a passing shadow, obscuring for a moment its luster and beauty. And yet how little of Christ as tempted in all points like as we are, and as succouring those who are tempted, should we experimentally know but for this shadow falling upon our spirit!
  It is a pleasant thought, that the shadow of temptation, however severe, leaves no trace of guilt upon the conscience, except only when we voluntarily yield to its power. The mere assault of a temptation involves no sin, and leaves no taint. And this reflection should go far to lighten the dark shadow with which this subtle and malignant foe of the Christian seeks to overwhelm the soul.
  "The Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptation," and He will deliver you. When He has tried you, you shall come forth as gold, your spiritual life all the purer, and your Christian character all the brighter, for the fiery temptation through which your loyalty to Christ and truth and conscience has passed.
  But all is shadow here! The world is a shadow- and it passes away! The creature is a shadow- and the loveliest and the fondest may be the first to die! Health is a shadow- fading, and in a moment gone! Wealth is a shadow- today upon the summit of affluence, tomorrow at its base, plunged into poverty and dependence! Human friendships and creature affections are but shadows- sweet and pleasant while they last, but, with a worm feeding at the root of all created good, the sheltering gourd soon withers, exposing us to the sun's burning heat by day, and to the frost's cold chill by night! Oh, yes! 'Passing away' is indelibly inscribed upon everything out of and below, God; yet how slow are we to realize the solemn lesson it teaches- "What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue!"
  In this point of light our subject addresses itself pointedly and solemnly to the unconverted reader. What is your life but a vapor that passes away? and what its pursuits but shadows- unreal, unsatisfying, evanescent? Your rank, your wealth, your honors, your pleasures, are but phantoms which appear but for a little while, and then are lost in the deeper shadow of the grave, and the still deeper and longer shadow of eternity! Oh, turn from these dreams and hallucinations, and, as a rational, accountable, immortal being, on your way to the judgment-seat of Christ, fix your mind upon the solemn, endless future! You are going to die! And, oh, when that dread hour comes- viewed from a stand-point so real and appalling- how will your past life appear?
  While penning this chapter, the writer was requested to visit a gentleman approaching the solemn hour of death. Casting his eye upon the rich gems of art which crowded the walls of his room, he pointed to them, and solemnly exclaimed, "What can all these shadows do for me now?" And such will be your exclamation when you come to die! Oh flee to Jesus! Believe in Christ! Embrace the Savior, who rejects no poor penitent sinner who comes to Him! "What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
  "But there is a Shadow- which yet is not a shadow- beneath which we may recline and find perfect refreshment and repose. It is CHRIST, the "Shadow of a Great Rock in a weary land." He is a "Shadow from the heat," when the sun of affliction scorches us; "the Rock that is higher than we," when the heart is overwhelmed with the billows of grief. All other shadows will dissolve, but "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and forever," and "knows not the shadow of a turning."
  Soon the last cold shadow will fall upon us, and then all will be glorious and endless reality. Shrink not from death, O believer in Jesus! for, through Christ, it is but a shadow. Jesus, by dying and rising again, has annihilated the substance of death, transforming it into a phantom, a shadow, a sleep, an unsubstantial thing; through which the ransomed soul passes, and finds itself in a moment encircled by the realities, the splendor, and the music of Heaven- "absent from the body, present with the Lord."
  "Yes, though I walk through the valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil: for You are with me." Until then- "Until the shadows flee away, I will go to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense," -I will go to Christ, and give myself to prayer.
"The clouds hang heavy round my way,
 I cannot see;
But through the darkness I believe,
 God leadeth me.
'It is sweet to keep my hand in His,
 While all is dim,
To close my weary, aching eyes,
 And follow Him.
"Through many a thorny path He leads,
  My tired feet;
Through many a path of tears I go;
 But tis sweet
To know that He is close to me
 My God, my Guide;
He leadeth me, and so I walk
 Quite satisfied."