“There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”
Jesus told the parable of the soils (Matthew 13) –
18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
I know the truth of this parable personally. I’m a minister, you see. I do soul work. In fact, I work in these “heart soils” every week, all week, and after more than 40 years of doing so, what I can tell you is that it all still mystifies me. I mean I just never know whose heart is going to be receptive, and whose heart is going to be resistant. In fact, I’m frequently surprised by the ones whose hearts prove fruitful, and by the ones whose hearts turn out to be barren. I think that I could easily become a Calvinist at this point. I see why they have concluded that it takes a sovereign work of the Spirit of God on a human heart – “regeneration” – to make it responsive at all to the good seed of the Word that gets sown. “Breaking up the fallow soil” (Jeremiah 4:3-4; Hosea 10:12) is how the preparation of the heart for the reception of the Word is sometimes described in Scripture, and to see this as the interior work of the Holy Spirit in conviction (John 16:8) makes more sense to me than any of the other explanations that I’ve heard. Where I would want to quibble with my Calvinist friends on this is at the point of the extent of this inner work of the Holy Spirit and its resistibility — and so, I guess I am a Calvinist in the same way that Arminius was a Calvinist!
In my reading along the way I came across two “clues” about how this inner work of the Holy Spirit’s conviction on a human heart might work. In the early 1980’s I heard George Hunter make a presentation at a denominational Evangelism Conference I was attending. I picked up a copy of his book – The Contagious Congregation (Abingdon 1979). This remains as helpful a book on the evangelistic ministry of a local church as any I know. In the last chapter where Dr. Hunter “puts it all together,” he told churches to “deploy teams for ministry and witness to persons in transition” (139). He explained –
There is abundant evidence that people in transition are more receptive than people in stability… During and shortly after significant life changes, people tend to be fairly receptive to religious ministry and truth claims. (139)
Among the “transitions” that Dr. Hunter named as having the capacity to make us spiritually receptive were adolescence, going to college or into the military, the first job, getting married, moving, the birth of a child, a separation, getting fired, a significant health issue, a divorce, a financial reversal, the last child leaving home, the death of a loved one, menopause, retirement, and becoming terminally ill. In other words, all of the changes and losses that fill our lives are moments of spiritual potential, experiences that can awaken us to the reality of God and our core need for Him.
A second “clue” about how the light gets in came from Sinclair Ferguson’s essay on “The Reformed View” of Christian Spirituality in the IVP book (1988) on Five Views of Sanctification: Reformed, Lutheran, Wesleyan, Pentecostal & Contemplative (ed. Donald Alexander). In his discussion of the “Means of Sanctification,” Dr. Ferguson noted –
Reformed teaching on sanctification has focused attention on four areas in which the grace and duties of sanctification coincide. Together, these constitute “means of grace.” (67) …The Word of God is the principal means. …God’s Word is the instrument of both the initial cleansing which takes place in regeneration and the sanctification which continues through the whole Christian life. (68) …The Sacraments also play an important role in sanctification… as communicative signs. They point us away from ourselves to Christ; but they also are a visible, tangible means by which he communicates with us and we with him. They display his grace and our union and communion with him in it. (73) …The Fellowship of the Church is the context in which sanctification matures, and in this sense is also a means for its development. …The love which is the heart of imitation of Christ cannot be isolationist; the death of inordinate love of self is tested therefore in fellowship. (72) …The Providences of God , not least of which are severe trials and afflictions, are also ordained for the purpose of sanctification. “These afflictions,” wrote John Flavel, with the quaintness of a 17th century divine, “have the same use and end to our souls, that frosty weather hath upon those clothes that are laid and bleaching, they alter the hue and make them white.” (71)
The first time I read these words it was “the Providences of God” that got my attention. You see, I was already familiar with the way that Scripture, the Sacraments and the Church functioned in my life and in the lives of others as means of grace. This was familiar enough terrain. In fact, I had long urged the people who trusted me with their souls to read their Bibles, take Communion and go to Church. The problem was that many of those who actually heeded my counsel to do these things in the interest of their souls did so without any apparent spiritual benefit. The Bible just confused them. Communion was an empty ritual, just a little bite of bread and a sip of juice. And church was largely boring and irrelevant to them, more of a “have-to” than a “want-to.”
As I thought about the differences between the people who were telling me this about their experience with the Word, the Sacraments and the Church, and those who were reading the very same Bible, taking the very same Communion, and going to the very same Church and who were deriving great spiritual strength and comfort from doing so, the big variable seemed to me to be the Providences. The Word, the Sacraments and the Church were more often than not “means of grace” for people who had a felt need for grace, and it’s the Providences that tear the roofs off of our lives and leave us exposed in our hurts and needs, desperate for grace.
In recent years I have found myself reading more Puritan authors on the spiritual life than anyone else. J.I. Packer argued that contrary to the widespread popular impression of the Puritans being spiritually sour and severe, that they were in fact the grand masters of the spiritual life with a highly developed understanding of how the Holy Spirit works in the human heart, and I have found this to be true. I have learned so much about myself and the ways of God from reading them. One of my Puritan teachers has been William Perkins (1558-1602). Writing about how the light gets in, he observed –
God gives man the outward means of salvation, especially the ministry of the Word, and with it he sends some outward or inward cross to break and subdue the stubbornness of our nature that it may be made pliable to the will of God…
In other words, the Providences of life break up the fallow ground of the human heart where the good seed of the Word can then find room to take hold and grow. Now, I know that this flies directly in the face of the kind of popular Christianity these days that promotes itself as the quickest way to personal gain. The Prosperity Gospel promises its practitioners instant happiness and success, a sure-fire way to health, wealth and popularity. But the way of the Crucified One would seem to be on an entirely different trajectory. As Paul put it –
To keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh… Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12: 7-10)
I take this to mean that the troubles that we try so desperately to avoid and the trials that we work so hard to escape could very well be part of the Providences that God intends to use to open up our hearts to Himself. They just might be how the light finally gets in. The “outward or inward crosses” that we have to bear, instead of being problems for our spiritual lives, could be the experiences that empower our engagement with the Word, our reception of the Sacraments and our participation in the life of the Church. It could be that as the Providences of God expose our deep need for God’s grace that the Word, the Sacraments and the Church actually become the means of grace that God established them to be for us.