“What our civilization continues to forget is that we have souls, and when souls are not fed, they distort and warp themselves. And souls today go largely unfed. Every day they must soak up the desolation of the contemporary landscape” – Edward Oakes.
Lay aside for the moment all the theological arguments about the human soul and consider what this man had to say. He uses the word “soul” in the sense of what the Apostle Paul might call, “The inner man.” Edward Oakes was writing in the Journal “First Things” about the decline in art. If you want an illustration of what he means by the “desolation of the contemporary landscape,” just consider the state of popular music. Music, or what passes for music, is in decline on every front. Rap music is not music at all. Country music has lost it’s heart and is turning out stuff that all sounds the same. The romantic ballad has been replaced by utter vulgarity. It is almost as though the artists have set out to ridicule art, to bring us to the place where we will applaud what the artist knows to be nothing but trash.
Part of the reason for the decline is that children are buying most of the music. They have the money and they buy the CDs. But no one has taught them anything about music. No one has taught them what art really means. All they can do is follow one another to decide what is good and what is bad. The same problem exists in movies and television. Money drives everything (the American people spent 84 billion dollars on entertainment last year) and most of the discretionary money that is being spent on the arts is being spent by children. Nowadays, the inner man is subsisting on junk food.
The article itself was not that important, but it made me think about something we often neglect–the care and feeding of the inner man. I sometimes hear from people who talk about “being fed” spiritually, and they are quite specific about it. They speak of going to church to be fed, yet often coming away empty, dissatisfied.
As one who is supposed to be doing some of the feeding, I take this very seriously. I recall an occasion many years ago when I was about to speak to an audience of something over 12,000 people. I was sitting in my room preparing and it came to me that I could very easily waste 12,000 man hours with one half baked and ill prepared sermon. That could amount to nearly 6 years of one man’s labor. Speaking to that many people at once is a tremendous responsibility and it marvelously focuses the mind. On this day, it brought to mind a private talk between Jesus and Peter.
In the few days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, He appeared to his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. They were fishing, and Jesus had prepared a meal for them along the shore. After they had eaten, Jesus took Peter for a walk along the shore. “Simon, son of Jonah,” Jesus asked, “do you love me more than these?” Peter was a little surprised by the question, and he responded, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” As they continued to walk, Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Three times on this walk, Jesus challenged Peter on his love and urged him to “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-22).
I can’t help wondering what Peter thought Jesus meant by this. Jesus was using a well known metaphor, so Peter must have understood the pastoral theme of spiritually feeding the people of God. Later, Paul would develop the concept more directly in a letter to Timothy. “Till I come,” he said, “give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to teaching. Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all. Take heed unto thyself, and unto the teaching; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (1 Timothy 4:12-16).
There is no mistaking what Paul is telling Timothy. Prepare diligently and present effectively. He was to teach, to exhort, and in the process save not only those who heard him, but himself as well. This is what feeding the sheep means.
But for a long time, people have been finding church inadequate or even irrelevant. It doesn’t mean they don’t believe, only that they see no reason to go to church. Forty percent of Americans belong to no church, but the vast majority of that group consider themselves religious or spiritual on the personal level. The reasons why these people are unchurched vary widely, but the most common reason is that they do not feel fulfilled by church. When people no longer want to listen to a sermon or a homily, there is no point in blaming the people. What they are telling me is that they are forsaking their church because they “aren’t being fed.”
And there is another side to this. When Paul was on his way back to Jerusalem, he called a meeting of the elders of the Ephesian church. He didn’t call the whole church together, just the leadership. After a rather long preamble, he told them that this would probably be his last visit with them. He had done all he could for them, and he had one last warning and commission for them. The warning was this: “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.”
The only preventative Paul could offer them was the same one he urged upon Timothy: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
Paul’s chief concern was the feeding of the inner man. A concern also shared by Peter who had it burned into his consciousness by Jesus. He wrote: “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-3).
So we have established that the leadership of the church has a responsibility to feed the flock, to nourish the inner man. But that is not all there is to it, not by a long shot. Paul wrote to the Ephesians telling them that he prayed, “That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God” (Ephesians 3:13).
Is this something that just happens automatically? Or does it happen from living a life with the Bible open in front of us? Paul wrote elsewhere of the continual struggle he had to promote the Gospel, saying, “Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).
So for those of us to teach the Gospel, it is your “inward man” that concerns us, and I would think it concerns you as well. What do you feed your inward man? Or do you give it any thought?
Meditation is a lost art, it seems, and yet thought is essential to feeding the inner man. We unconsciously develop certain mental habits that control the way we think and interact with the world. Changing this is not easy, but it can be done. It is a matter of directed meditation.
“Rejoice in the Lord always,” said Paul and emphasized it with repetition, “again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4) I know, it is awfully close to “Don’t worry, be happy,” but it is a matter of taking thought about what God is doing and where he is going. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near” he continued. Cultivate a kindness in your dealing with people. The habitual exercise of kindness is a part of what we feed the inner man.
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Yes, I know, that is easier said than done. But it is a habit to be cultivated.
“Finally, beloved,” Paul concluded, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Meditation is almost a lost art, yet it is crucial to feeding the inward man. It isn’t that meditation is difficult. We just don’t do it. As an exercise in meditation, find a comfortable chair, open the Bible to the eighth Psalm and read the first verse: “O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens.” What does that short passage imply?
It should be plain that the name of God is not merely an arrangement of four Hebrew letters or a phonetic sound with meaning in only one language. The biblical concept of naming was rooted in the ancient world’s understanding that a name expressed essence. To know the name of a person was to know that person’s total character and nature. It was not merely a phonetic sound as are names today. A person’s name in the Old Testament was his reputation, his character, it was not merely an appellation, but a description of who he was.
Now consider where the Psalmist takes us from here: “O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger. When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained. . .”
It is at this point that I would get up from my chair and go get my National Geographic atlas with its magnificent map of the universe. I never tire of studying this star chart. The distances are so vast and the objects so overpowering. Everyone knows that light travels 186,000 miles per second. And nearly everyone knows that the nearest star to our sun is some four light years away. Do the math sometime and see how far that is. It is hard to use ordinary miles to describe it. But at the speed of light, it would take four years to get to the nearest star. But at the speeds we currently manage with space craft, it would take nearly 12 million years to reach the nearest star. That is only four light years away.
Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is 100 million light years across. And God only knows how far it is to the edge of the Universe. The best guesses range from 12 to 18 billion light years from here to the edge. There may be life out there, but we are quarantined from one another by the staggering distance of space.
Then the Psalmist makes his point: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained, What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet. . .O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!”
The Kingdom of God
I can’t help thinking how poorly we have fed the inner man when young people dread the coming of the Kingdom of God, when they would really rather this world go on a little longer so they can have a life. What they are really hoping for is to postpone real life.
Science fiction is very popular with the younger generations. But so much of it is just cowboys and Indians in outer space. But then there is a better genre of science fiction that really explores the idea of boldly going where no man has gone before. I am persuaded that there is life out there, life created by God, and perhaps more diverse than we can imagine. Which of us, if we could go there, would not want to go?
The desire to know God, the desire to participate in His plan, these things are the mark of a nourished soul. David wrote, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalm 23:1-3).
The Hebrew word for soul is nephesh, life, and God surely restored David’s life. But I can’t help thinking that David meant more than that. That it was the inner man that God restored. David went on to say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”
The things that feed your inner man are well known. The Bible, prayer, good books, good sermons (the letters of Paul are as much a sermon as any you will ever hear), meditation, good music, great art, great literature. The things that destroy the inner man, that dry it up and dessicate the spirit are equally well known.
Which of these things are you feeding your “inward man”?