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  Part two

Intimacy and Eternity.  by Robert Weston

The Ascent of Toil

My son, if thou come to serve the Lord, prepare thy soul for testing.
(Ecclesiasticus 2:1)

HOW WILL THE LORD reveal Himself to me? How best can He show His love? If I were still living in Old Testament days, or were unduly influenced by the world’s ways of measuring success, then I might be tempted to suppose that it would be by showering me with riches, fame and honour. Unless, that is, I were a real Old Testament scholar, in which case I might notice how deeply the Lord ‘forged’ the character of His greatest saints.

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey Your Word . . .
It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn Your decrees.
(Psalm 119:67,71)

God reveals Himself to eager young Christians as the God of Challenge and Vision, but just as He comes to battle-weary ones as the God of all Comfort, so He plunges more seasoned warriors into the Refiner’s Fire. Although we love those times when we are strongly aware of His presence, hindsight reveals that it is often the difficult times which make us more single-minded in seeking the Kingdom of God.

After the honeymoon period by the River of Delights when we first come to know the Lord, we may well find that our path is now heading up a steep and arduous Ascent of Toil. It is easy to suppose the apparent withdrawal of God’s grace must have come as the result of our sin. In part this may be true. When our minds are filled with self-conceit, God allows humbling experiences to come our way – even times when He puts us, like Nebuchadnezzar, out to ‘eat grass’ for a season – in order to straighten out our priorities. There are many other reasons, however, why we experience dryness and confusion.

When the Lord has a work of maturing to do in our lives, He may sometimes lead us away from the River of Delights, just as the path we were following turned away from the water’s edge. It was narrow, rugged, and alarmingly steep. We suddenly found ourselves on The Ascent of Toil!

  Spiritually, this is a time when we lose much of the pleasure we have been accustomed to enjoy in our relationship with the Lord. Our previously unshakeable awareness of eternity dips underground, leaving a mass of tangled emotions to sort out.

Listening to some preachers might lead us to suppose that constant intimacy with God is available to anyone who is prepared to receive it, any place, any time. Attractive though it may sound, such teaching is often a recipe for frustration, and little comfort at those times when our minds are overwrought and our thoughts and actions unpredictable. Genuine intimacy with God is perfectly possible, but we may need a radical rethink of what it will mean in practice. The ways by which the Lord fulfils His promises to us are very different from our original expectations.

This is not easy for the flesh. Like Gideon’s army, we are often too strong in ourselves. The Lord sometimes has to expose our weaknesses in order to keep us from taking undue pride in our strengths and achievements. Great souls become great through being fashioned in God’s forge.

The Ascent of Toil is the proving point beyond which the half-hearted cannot proceed; a necessary preparation for the Broad Open Spaces. Just as ships do not set sail without first undergoing extensive tests, so the Lord tests us to find out what is in our hearts. The Lord is looking to see whether we are willing to seek Him even when there appears to be little benefit in doing so.

If you are currently experiencing such severe shakings that it feels as though your original calling has been shattered into a thousand pieces, then do not take offence, no matter how strange the path by which you are being led. The Lord will not fail you. Even in the midst of great confusion and loss there will be many ‘treasures of darkness.’

In this second part we shall explore some of the ways by which the Lord deepens and refines us. We shall ponder why He allows us to go through times of wilderness and suffering, and look at how we can overcome two of the greatest enemies of intimacy with God – condemnation and striving.

The Ascent of Toil draws to a simple conclusion: the more yielded we are to the Lord, the more easily He can lead us.

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