Saturday, June 6, 2020

On Improving the Soul

During the American Revolution, the colonial militias would often run out of supplies. Yankee ingenuity was born when they learned to quickly adapt. One adaptation is manifested in the following story: A certain militia was running out of musket wadding. Forced into retreat, they passed by a sympathizing churchman who inquired of their plight. The captain proclaimed with groaning dismay that they were out of barrel packing and therefore in need of some cloth. The creative cleric rejoined, “Let them use Watts!”

“Watts” was the familiar name for the Psalter/hymnal used in early American church life. The parson was offering the paper pages of those valued books to further a cause he deemed important.

Many know of Isaac Watts as an Englishman and hymn writer. He had other facets to his career. One little-known interest of Watts was education. He penned a very thoughtful work entitled On Improving the Mind. In this work he identifies five ways in which people are likely to learn. They are: 1) observation; 2) reading; 3) listening; 4) interaction with others; and 5) meditation. These principles can be brought into any learning environment with measurable success.

Let’s see if we can apply Watts’ five principles toward “improving our souls” as we look at some biblical passages.

1) Observation

“This is what the LORD says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls …” (Jeremiah 6:16). Throughout the Bible, the people of God are told to consider, or observe, what God has said and what God has done—His Words and His ways, precept and providence. This discipline takes time and thought. There are insights all around us to find rest for our belabored souls. Remember to consider the old directions; they are abundantly relevant for today.

2) Reading

It was during a time of illiteracy among God’s ancient people that Israel had forsaken her covenanting God. But God caused the Book of the Covenant to be found by His beloved ones. King Josiah was so effected that “he went up to the temple of the LORD with the men of Judah, the people of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets—all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the LORD” (2 Kings 23:2). This action and the renewal of the covenant that followed reformed Israel’s practices and beliefs, raising them out of despair to a new level of hope in Yahweh. Because Israel heard the reading of the book, probably Deuteronomy, their souls were refreshed through godly repentance.

3) Listening to the Spoken Word

In that most comforting section of Isaiah’s writing, he issues an invitation for soul satisfaction: “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare” (Isaiah 55:2). God’s special message to man was spoken. It was the means of instruction for Israel in the wilderness, under the judges and prophets, in Christ’s earthly ministry, and in the apostolic church. God has ordained this means for a reason. Let us be quick to hear His gifted messengers as we feed our souls through His gifts to the church.

4) Interaction with Others

In a short book penned by the apostle John to his dear friend Gaius, he writes, “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well” (3 John 2). John continued by declaring that he had no greater joy than to hear that his spiritual offspring under Gaius’ care were “walking in the truth.” For John’s beloved individually and collectively, it was of the utmost importance that they depend upon one another in community. Christians stand alone before God accountable for their sin and the well-being of their soul. They also, however, stand inseparably together in Christian nurture and discipline as Christ’s church.

5) Meditation

Throughout the Psalms there is language which evokes the imagery of shepherding. One such meditative passage reads, “My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises” (Psalm 119:148). The end for which the psalmist stayed awake during the darkest hours was to mull over the promises made to him by his LORD. Oh how things have changed. To speak of meditating in today’s evangelical milieu is to be associated with New Age thinking. Contemplative reflection upon God’s words and ways is an age-old practice. Without pen and paper, the church of God in bygone ages had to depend upon their meditating minds to continually feed their souls.

The people of God have never been afraid to look at their souls and its true needs. Purpose with me to recover the lost art of improving our souls.