All things being equal, experiencing the love, mercy, and grace of God should be the daily experience of the healthy soul. In this, our second article on assurance, I want to delve into the experiential elements of soul health. What is it? Where can it be found? And how it can be cultivated?
The poet John Oxenham once observed:
To every man there opens a way, and ways, and a way.
And the high soul climbs the high way,
And the low soul gropes the low,
And, in between, on the misty flats, the rest drift to and fro.
Borrowing this metaphor for a moment, true assurance won’t be found aimlessly groping around on the low road, and it will never thrive in the misty flats betwixt and between. True assurance is a rare jewel. And while freely available to all God’s children, we will not find it strewn carelessly along the path of least resistance. More precious than all the world, God tends to keep this treasure for those who know its worth.
We must discipline ourselves, therefore, not only to imitate God but also to experience and enjoy Him. Wasn’t this the hope Paul laid out for the hardworking, faithful deacon? “For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 3:13). This is, you understand, the description not of a super-Christian but simply a healthy one. What each deacon must be, every Christian should be.
Healthy, assured souls share at least three fundamental characteristics: they understand and embrace the gracious nature of the gospel, they give themselves to a life of repentance, and, the subject of this article, they delight in communing with God in Holy Scripture.
No passage in the Bible illustrates this principle better than Psalm 1. Its position at the beginning of the Bible’s songbook has long intrigued me. You might have expected the Psalter to start with a hallelujah chorus such as Psalm 113, or perhaps a resounding call to worship like the Old Hundredth. But it doesn’t. Here’s a song that quite literally extends beyond our lips and our hearts to our lives. It stands like a sentinel at the beginning of the collection, almost as if to say, “Before you sing the songs of faith, you must first live the life of faith. And such a life starts right here with the delightful, disciplined, daily diet of Holy Writ.”
Here is worship 101. Miss this lesson, and you can sing “Lord, Lord” with your lips until the cows come home, but you will never know what it means to live “Lord, Lord” in your life—the only kind of worship destined to last forever. Jesus Himself said as much (Matt. 7:21–23).
This blessed man (Ps. 1:1) lives a life full of verities and certainties. With assured conviction, he knows to whom he should listen (v. 2), and those to whom he must pay no heed (v. 1). As a result, his soul is full of sap and very green (Ps. 92:14), bursting with fruit, and vital in leaf (1:3). Consequently, this man has no doubts when it comes to the future. He has not lived the lifestyle of the wicked, and he will not share their doom (vv. 4–5). The eternal God knows him (v. 6), and I rather suspect this knowledge is no one-way street, don’t you?
The message is clear: if you want to look and feel like this man, you must learn to think and live like him as well.
We must begin, therefore, by avoiding spiritual poison (v. 1). Notice the verbs: walk, stand, sit. They tell the story of a soul progressively bogged down, stuck in sin. We hear the counsel of the wicked everywhere in the world—a place where lust is in control, God is on the edges, and man (pride) holds the center (1 John 2:15–17). Don’t go there. If you listen to the wicked, you will soon find yourself living like them, laughing with them, and sitting (the posture of a teacher) in the seat of a scoffer—a terminal fool, for whom folly sounds wise, and the gospel sounds silly (Prov. 9:7–8). When it comes to heeding the enemies of God, the old adage has never been truer: “Garbage in, garbage out.”
Keeping your distance from poison, however, is not enough. We must also fill our soul with spiritual food (Deut. 8:3). “But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:2). The Torah/Law represents God’s fatherly instruction. In Proverbs 3:1, a father’s teaching is a father’s Torah. Think living room, therefore, not courtroom.
When I was a lad, and my father was preparing counsel he knew I would not enjoy, he would often preface his words with, “Son, what do you want me to say: what you want to hear, or what I really think?” Hearing this, my heart often sank, but I was in no doubt which of the two I needed.
To be sure, there will be days (many of them) when we will have to drag ourselves to this delight. But we take this trouble, despite our lethargy, firm in the conviction that this is not only the right course of action but also the best.
Turning to Scripture isn’t the occasional act of a man who is really up against things; it is the day-in, day-out habit of a soul determined to walk with God. “Day and night” is a merism—a figure of speech, common in Hebrew poetry, in which two opposites are all inclusive. We use them regularly in English: “I cleaned the house from top to bottom” doesn’t just mean I cleaned the top and the bottom of the house; it includes everything in between as well.
The Hebrew verb translated “meditate” literally means to mutter about something under your breath. There is immense practical wisdom here. For the mouth is both the gateway to and the exhaust pipe from the heart. The connection between the two is direct and effectual: what fills the one will certainly fill, consume, and control the other.
So, when God commissioned Joshua as Moses’ replacement, He told him to “meditate on [the Torah] day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Josh. 1:8, emphasis added; see also Ps. 1:3).
Many times the thoughtful soul may come to this habitual meditation as dry as a pretzel, but he will not stay that way for long. For this book brings him to the water of life. Water is an interesting metaphor in Scripture, describing both a gift from God and our experience of Him. Knowing God is like water to a dust-dry soul (Ps. 42:1–2). Notice that the psalmist is thirsty for God Himself. Each member of the Trinity is associated with this water imagery. We see it connected with the beautiful abode of God the Father (Ps. 46:4), the broken body of God the Son (John 19:34; 1 Cor. 10:4), and the bountiful presence of God the Spirit (John 7:37–39).
To be in the presence of God is to have your thirst satisfied. To be cut off from this life-giving presence is death itself, likened by Scripture to a raging thirst (Ps. 84:1–2; John 19:28). The best place to find this presence is in the Word He has given. Sola Scriptura isn’t just the rule of our faith; it is audiovisual rehydration therapy for our souls.
This is always where I go when dealing with someone lacking assurance. After I make sure they understand and believe the gospel, and after I make sure they are not gorging themselves with the poison of presumptuous sin (Ps. 19:13), I always like to inquire about their intake of Scripture. In particular, are they hiding its truth in their hearts? Are you?
Many claim they are too old to start this habit. But I know several older Christians whose testimony refutes this old canard. One lady in particular, who is at least ten years older than I, took up this challenge two years ago and has since memorized almost all of the gospel of John and the book of Romans (she left out the lists of names at the end of chapter 16), and as I write this today, she is currently well on her way through the book of James. Her soul is thriving through this habit. Might I encourage you to give it a try yourself?
Aim to memorize a section of Scripture, perhaps a whole chapter or even one of the shorter books like Titus or Ephesians. This helps get the logic of God—His train of thought—right down into the soul. Also, use a real printed page of paper. Tablets and their inconsistent pagination can be quite confusing to brains designed to memorize the structure of things. Seeing the same words in the same place on the same page greatly aids the memory.
It would be remiss of me not to conclude this study by reminding you that the Psalms are the hymnbook of the gathered church (e.g., Pss. 95; 100).They were meant to be sung together in the sanctuary with the assembly. Prolonged absence from the church tends to make us thirsty—at least, it ought to (Pss. 63; 84). If you want to know for sure that God is with you, go to the place He has promised to be (Matt. 18:20). We may doubt many things, but we can be certain of this.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on assurance and was originally published on December 6, 2019. Previous post.