|The moment I
realized that God existed, I knew I could not do
otherwise than to live for Him alone.
(Charles de Foucauld)
CHRISTIAN WRITERS AND
PREACHERS through the ages have compared the journey of the
soul to a pilgrimage. Whether the imagery is of passing from
darkness to light, or from imperfection to a greater degree
of perfection, many have found that the Lord takes us
through different stages on our journey to eternity.
Some years ago we went as a family for a wonderful walk in
the Lake District. The path led beside a river that sparkled
in the morning sunshine. The fragrant smells of a
particularly fine spring brought joy to the heart, even
though there were some perilous moments as we scrambled over
outcrops of rock above the fast-flowing river. To all
intents and purposes, however, we were walking beside a
River of Delights.
A mile or so later, the path we were following turned away
from the river and headed steeply uphill. Now the way was
narrow, hemmed in by the mountains. Several times our
youngest child tripped and fell. This stage of our walk was
hard and tedious: a real Ascent of Toil.
Eventually, and not without wondering if we would ever make
it, we reached the Broad Open Spaces, high above the
tree-line. Here we were rewarded by that special sense of
exhilaration one enjoys on the fell tops, the silence that
is so complete and yet so invigorating, crisp fresh air and
endless panoramas stretching out in all directions.
We can view these different
stages of our walk as a parable of the inner life. The River
of Delights, the Ascent of Toil and the Broad Open Spaces
correspond broadly to the three main phases of our
pilgrimage: firstly the Promise, then the Preparation (or
Proving) and finally the place of Provision (or Fulfilment).
These stages depict the phases of our pilgrimage so aptly
that I have used them as a starting point around which to
base much of the teaching in this book. They are not
watertight or static stages, of course, such as Childhood,
Adolescence and Adulthood, but are cyclical. As we are
faithful with one commission, so the Lord leads us on to new
and higher callings. These in turn entail further Ascents of
Toil, before unfurling into a place of yet greater
When we first come to know Him, many of us experience an
outpouring of God’s love. Even though there may be a spate
of racing water and alarming situations to negotiate, this
flood-tide of initial grace can be likened to a River of
Delights. It is a season of special grace and favour, a
glorious introduction to the riches of intimacy with God. We
shall share much about the pace of life we must set
ourselves if we are to experience more of the Lord’s
presence, and consider the process of spiritual reflection
itself. All this runs counter to the prevailing spirit of
the world, not least the final emphasis, which explores the
particular benefits we will experience through entering the
silence where God is to be found.
Since we serve a holy God, who is at least as much concerned
with our attitudes as with our actions, it should come as no
surprise if we then find ourselves passing through an
infinitely more demanding Ascent of Toil. Has it not been
the consistent testimony of the saints through the centuries
that God uses times of trial to deepen our life of devotion?
Nevertheless, many feel disorientated when the blue skies
recede and the honeymoon by the River of Delight comes to an
end. We should not be unduly dismayed if we find ourselves
passing through deeply unsettling periods, in which nothing
flows as smoothly as we had expected, and everything we had
been led to believe and hope for appears to be taken from
us. When the Lord is about to accomplish something special,
He allows us to see the difficulties first. But when He is
about to do something magnificent, it usually appears
The onset of an Ascent of Toil, does not necessarily herald
years of drudgery ahead. In retrospect, we will look back
with gratitude, and realize how much the Lord has
accomplished during these difficult periods – provided only
that we do not turn back when the going becomes rough.
Such experiences provide us with an ideal starting point for
exploring God’s purposes in permitting us to go through
times of spiritual darkness and confusion. I have lingered
long on these downside times, because we are sure to
experience at least some of the ferocious and conflicting
emotions that assail the soul when it feels bereft of God’s
These particular themes will make more sense to those who
have already experienced something of God’s dealings with
them. For all who are passing through such unnerving times,
I pray these chapters may bring both reassurance and fresh
insight. For those at an earlier stage of their journey, I
pray they may be wholesome preparation for the steeper climb
that lies ahead!
Beyond the Ascent of Toil, and beckoning to us, lie the
Broad Open Spaces. This is the moment when the reasons for
God’s hidden dealings with us become clearer, when His
promises to us are fulfilled, and the time when we gain
great victories of faith. We find ourselves operating with a
degree of spiritual freedom and authority we once could only
have marvelled at. Even a taste of such anointing refreshes
our soul, just as a few hours in the bright sunshine on the
fell tops can banish the backlog of long winter days and
ease the weight of too many stresses and strains.
Whatever the specific ministries the Lord has entrusted us
with – and His commissions are as varied as His people – God
wants to share His heart with us, and for us to give Him the
love of our hearts. To pursue the ways of eternity and to
live in quest of an ever-deepening intimacy with the Lord is
an exciting and challenging call: one that will require at
least as much courage and determination as we need to fulfil
our more secular ambitions. May the Lord give us grace to
persevere through our particular Ascents of Toil, so that we
may live and move in the power of His Spirit on the Broad
Open Spaces of faith, anointing and a yielded heart.
Praise You, Lord, that You are longing to draw us
closer to Yourself.
Thank You for the River of Delights when Your
presence is so close.
Give us courage and freedom from fear when You lead
us up the Ascent of Toil.
Bring us safely through each testing time until we
reach the Broad Open Spaces,
where we can sense Your presence and live more fully
in the power of Your Spirit
and see Your promises fulfilled.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Longing for Intimacy
|How lovely is
Your dwelling place O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns,
even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and
my flesh cry out for the living God — Better is one
day in Your courts than a thousand elsewhere —
Blessed is the man You choose and bring near to live
in Your courts.
(Psalm 84:1-2, 10; Psalm 65:4)
FROM THE BEGINNING OF TIME
the Lord has longed to share the riches of eternity with
mankind. We see this so beautifully illustrated in the
Garden of Eden. Because we could not be acceptable to Him
after the Fall, the Lord took the initiative to restore the
broken relationship by sending His only Son to Earth to
suffer and to die on our behalf.
As His children and heirs we are called to share something
of the same depth of intimacy which the Father enjoys with
the Son. There is no quota of spiritual encounters we can
ever exhaust; no limit to how close we can draw near to Him.
It will take us the rest of our lives to appreciate how
wonderful He is, and how precious we are to Him. Listen to
what the Lord Jesus has promised:
loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I too will
love him and show Myself to him.
If anyone loves Me he will obey My teaching.
My Father will love him,
and we will come to him and make our home with him.
All I have is Yours, and all You have is Mine.
I have given them the glory that You gave Me,
that they may be one as we are one.
Father, I want those You have given Me to be with Me
where I am and to see my glory.
I have made You known to them,
and will continue to make You known.
How wonderfully the Lord is
continuing to make Himself known! If the gift of such
intimate friendship had been bestowed in Old Testament days
only on a few chosen ones, now it is available for all who
will offer themselves unreservedly to His service.
For myself, I am privileged to be able to look back on one
specific moment when the largely unrecognized hunger in my
heart was transformed into a living friendship with the Lord
Jesus. It happened on the final morning of a university
I had squeezed into a crowded service at a predominantly
student-based church, crouched behind a pillar, and was
listening with amazement to the fervent singing of a
thousand people worshipping the Lord. This was quite unlike
anything I had heard before!
I could not actually see the man who stood up to preach, but
his words brought me face to face with the reality of a
Kingdom of whose existence I had previously been unaware.
The love of God was reaching out to me, convicting me of the
lack of any eternal perspective to my life.
I returned from that church meeting convinced I had found
the One I had always secretly been looking for – but equally
determined to say nothing about it to my utterly unchurched
flatmate. I was about to meet the God of surprises. As I
popped into his room that evening to say good night, I found
him earnestly defending Christianity to an atheist friend.
He had begun attending a different church that week, and had
also committed his life to the Lord.
When God draws one person to Himself, He often draws others
nearby at the same time. My flatmate and I had the joy of
learning to pray together: stumbling, ungrammatical
utterances offered up late at night, perhaps in the
curiously naive assumption that God might have more time to
listen to us during off-peak hours! We had everything to
learn. What we did discover, almost from day one, was that
the Lord was hearing our clumsy efforts to seek Him. We were
soon beginning our times of prayer with great thanksgiving
for all the answers we were already experiencing. We had
embarked on the River of Delights!
God’s Desire for Friendship
|God has two
dwellings, one in heaven, and the other in a meek
and thankful heart.
Life on earth is a doomed and
futile quest for meaning and for permanence, until we find
and are found by the Saviour of the world. After all, 99.9%
of our life (and more) lies ahead of us in eternity! That is
where our ultimate home will be.
All the things that have deeply possessed your soul have
been but hints – tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite
fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your
ear . . . If I find in myself a desire which no experience
in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is
that I was made for another world . . . Probably earthly
pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse
it, to suggest the real thing.
I mentioned at the beginning of the book that when people in
the past felt the Lord drawing them towards such intimacy,
they often withdrew into monasteries and convents. The pull
of God’s love is so strong that virtually everyone who
experiences it will long to seek a more explicitly
God-centred existence. To think in terms of monasteries
would, for most of us, be a misunderstanding of the nature
of the call, which is less to escape from this world than to
advance courageously towards another.
In other words, what this book is describing is more an
inner drawing towards God than to the cloistered life. The
number of people who are called to devote themselves to the
monastic life is small. Those who are thus set apart serve
as a powerhouse of prayer on behalf of the whole Church.
Their task is a difficult as well as a privileged one. Most
of us must learn to develop Mary’s heart of devotion, even
while the practical necessities of life oblige us to embrace
Martha’s serving role in the world.2
The usual word that people use to describe this deepening
awareness that God is drawing them closer to Himself is
contemplation. When I first came across this word, I had
very little idea of what it meant. I was not greatly
enlightened to read that ‘contemplation is a steady and
quiet infusing of the love of God.’ I think I was left
wondering whether it had something to do with brewing tea!
I have come, by stages, to appreciate more of what it
signifies. To be able to look to the Lord, and receive His
love, will prove more beneficial for the well-being of our
soul than the sudden ecstasies and experiences that pass so
quickly, and which can leave us feeling so flat in their
Contemplation is the quiet fruit of a devotion which
persists in the face of the inevitable tides and currents of
life, all of which make our awareness of God so different
from one day to the next. It is the regular seeking after
Him that enables us to bring His presence to those we meet
in our daily lives.
I still hesitate to use the term ‘contemplation,’ however,
because for many of us it conjures up images of mindless
navel-gazing, or Buddhist mantras. Because of the enemy’s
subtle counterfeits, it is worth stressing that what I am
describing in this book has nothing to do with some
mind-emptying Nirvana-like pursuit of selfish, illusory
bliss.3 The truth is that the soul is far from idle when it
is reflecting on God; it is about its Master’s business.
There is nothing more precious we can give to our Lord than
our time, our availability and our love.
The saints through the centuries testify to the reality of a
state of grace that can be reached through such
contemplation. What I am seeking to do is to make this
accessible to all, by unbolting the doors that have kept us
from the riches of these other streams of the faith.
What I do not want to do is to raise any false expectations
that life should consist of an endless sequence of glorious
visions and ecstasies. Neither am I advocating such a
‘pally’ attitude to the Lord that we forget that He is our
judge as well as our friend. If we are to be sure of God’s
approval and protection in the sometimes perilous world of
spiritual experiences, we need to soak ourselves in the
Bible. The Word of God must be the bedrock and the yardstick
by which we judge all Christian doctrine and experience.
As a deliberate generalization, we might claim that the
evangelicals have reminded the whole Church that the Lord
Jesus is the Saviour of the world, and that the Word of God
must be central to our faith. The Pentecostals and the
charismatics have rightly stressed the importance of the
Holy Spirit, and restored anointed worship and the
appropriate use of spiritual gifts to the life of the
Church. But the Lord is longing for His people to know Him
too as Father. It is this contemplative strand of encounter
which complements and completes the evangelical and
charismatic emphases. It enriches every part of our
ministry, and, in turn, makes us more able to minister to
others in the power of the Spirit.
Hungry for God
|Though we cannot
know God, we can love Him: by love He may be touched
and embraced . . . In anticipation of this eternal
glory, God will sometimes inflame the senses of His
devout friends with unspeakable delight and
consolation even here in this life. And not just
once or twice, but perhaps very often as He judges
best. This delight, however does not originate
outside the person, entering through the windows of
the faculties, but wells up from an excess of joy
and true devotion of spirit . . . Some people
experience a measure of consolation almost always,
while others only rarely. But God in His great
wisdom determines what is best for each one.
(The Cloud of Unknowing)
There was a time when I would
have thought it a luxury to dwell on the need to deepen my
devotional life when there were such crying needs all
around. In my early days of faith, I considered that nothing
mattered if it did not serve to reach the unchurched. My
longing for the lost was a genuine passion – and it is an
emphasis which many of us perhaps need to recover. I have
come to realize, however, that the Lord Jesus desires
friends as well as labourers; those who will devote to Him
not only what they do, but also the love of their hearts.
Have you noticed that the psalmist prayed Bless the Lord, O
my soul! (Psalm 103:1) rather than ‘Bless my soul, O Lord’?
Such is the difference between those who would seek to ‘use’
God to fulfil their own needs, and those who simply desire
to make themselves available to Him. Such a desire is a sign
that we are moving from merely believing in Him to knowing
Him, and from knowing Him to truly loving Him.
For those brought up on a strong work-ethic, be reassured:
this call to a life of devotion is not an excuse for
idleness. When men and women truly meet with God, action of
one kind or another will always follow – but it will be
inspired action rather than uncommanded works. There need be
no false dichotomy between those who pray and those who do.
History testifies that it has been those who have prayed
most who also accomplish most.4 The Lord will send us out
again and again into unexpected areas of service, to share
such love and understanding as we ourselves have received.
The destiny of many others is bound up in the work we do and
in the prayers we pray.
Before the Lord Jesus sent the disciples out to minister for
Him, He appointed them first to be with Him.5 Although the
Lord longs to make us effective ambassadors for His Kingdom,
He would also have us rediscover the ability just ‘to be’ in
David Watson, the preacher who helped me find the Lord
during the service I mentioned earlier, is a case in point.
David had taken over a church in York that was on the verge
of closure, but, through prayer and faithful preaching,
transformed it into one of the most thriving congregations
in the country. He was an immensely gifted evangelist.
When he was dying from the last stages of an advanced
cancer, the Lord spoke to him, not as a rebuke but as a
reminder of His priorities: ‘All your writing and all your
preaching are as nothing compared to your relationship with
Me.’6 This is a challenge to us all. If it is indeed our
relationship with the Lord that is the most important thing,
then let’s not wait until we are on our death beds before we
take it seriously!
By God’s mercy we are the successors to an unnamed but
glorious company of people through the ages who have
embraced intimacy with their Creator, and experienced in
this life the reality of His eternity. We will experience
this intimacy more fully as we take the truths of Scripture
into our hearts. We shall encounter it in the love and care
that people lavish on us, discern it on the faces of those
who love to be in God’s presence, perceive it in the
beauties of His creation, delight in it through the words of
the glorious hymns of faith, and rejoice in it as the Spirit
transforms our meetings into encounters with the living God.
May the quest for such intimacy be our lifelong passion!
As we begin to explore what it means to be close to the
Lord, think for a moment of people you have met whose lives
reflect their love for the Lord. Each of us will know at
least some of these saints, in our locality, if not within
our own family. However much their career may or may not
amount to in the world’s eyes, their inner being reveals a
living awareness of eternity that makes us hunger for more
of God’s presence in our own lives.
You might find it helpful to write a prayer to the Lord,
asking Him to fill you with that same single-minded love.
Tell Him where you feel you are in your relationship with
Him, both in relation to where you used to be, and to where
you would like to be.
Thank You, Lord, for putting this longing in my
heart to know You better.
Thank You for calling me to be Your friend and for
including me in Your eternal purposes.
Help me to seek You when nobody else can see me just
as much as when I am in the great congregation.
I love You more than words could ever say, and I
welcome You at the outset of this day.
I give You all my wounds and hurts, all feelings of
inferiority and stumbling stones of pride.
I want my heart and home to be a garden wherein You
walk, and a furnace of love for those who are in
So come afresh with Your cleansing power,
to disperse the clouds of doubt and gloom
and release the fragrance of Your love.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Harper Collins Fount).
Used with permission.
2. Luke 10:38-42.
3. It is not wrong to embark on this path with caution.
Contemplation must be practised within a safe, secure and
accountable environment, where all is firmly based on the
Word of God. This is important, since a terrible deception
has infiltrated a sizeable section of the contemporary
Christian contemplative scene. Mystical influences from
Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism (an Islamic offshoot) have
become popular, promoting a universalist viewpoint that is
at complete variance with the teaching of Scripture. Please
do not think that I am tarring all such institutions with
the same brush, but this is a tremendously serious
situation. Souls are being led far from the true focus of
their faith by calling on deities that are, in reality, dark
and dangerous powers. See ‘The Challenging Counterfeit’ in
my book Ravens and the Prophet (New Wine Press).
4. Martin Luther declared he was so busy that he dared not
pray for less than three hours a day concerning his many
activities. John Wesley likewise lived what he preached by
rising early each morning in order to spend quality time
seeking God. So too did the Lord Jesus!
5. Mark 3:14-15. The word ‘appointed’ in Greek means ‘to
make someone into something.’
6. David Watson, Fear No Evil (Hodder and Stoughton).