Monday 16 December 2013

Encounter: George Clark Part 2

In the last post, I mentioned that George Clark found himself more aware of the sin in his life after his conversion experience. This experience of feeling more sinful after conversion is something I resonate with. I had a season of feeling so much like a failure as I became more and more aware of the brokenness in relationships and my own selfish motives in those relationships. I know that relationships can be hard (in this case it was college roommate relationships, a unique set of challenges) but I think there was more going on in my spirit. And I can't help but wonder if I would have been less distressed by my struggles if I had been warned that sin after conversion is to be expected. Particularly those sins that are internal and connected to motivation as much as behaviour.

John Wesley wrote a sermon on this topic, called appropriately, "On Sin In Believers." In it he argues for the existence of sin in believers, from the biblical evidence that there is provision for forgiveness. Further to the provision for forgiveness, there is hope for progress. Welsey encourages believers by untangling the assumption that once we are holy at all, we must be holy altogether. As we push in on that, it seems absurd to expect spiritual progress to be all or nothing, but I know my experience is to despair of any goodness in myself when I see even the slightest unholy internal motivation.

Even though my experience with interior sin has been hard, in hindsight, I know it has been good for me to learn more about myself and learn more about God. And the good news is that God does not want us to remain in this place, in the constant awareness of our own failure and neediness.

In the face of his struggle with the inward sinful motivations, George Clark experienced a transformation when he encountered God in a particularly immediate way on Pentecost Sunday, 1762. Here is his journal entry for that day:

This morning I thought much of the descent of the Holy Ghost on the Apostles, and prayed that He might rest upon me. But I found little answer till the singing of the first hymn, when his Spirit made me deeply sensible of his presence. I then pleaded with him, and that with many tears, to make me a partaker of his sanctifying love, by removing forever the bitter root of pride, self-will and unbelief. All this time my heart was broken before the Lord, and my face covered with tears: and I found nothing left but a fear lest the Spirit should depart, before he had purified me from inbred sin. While I was thus agonizing with God in prayer, the power of the Lord came upon me, so that my whole body trembled under it. But I kept my spirit still, and continually cried, “My heart, Lord! work within! work within!” In that instant I felt the Spirit of God enter into my heart with mighty power, and as it were literally accomplish that promise, I will take away the heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh: the old heart seeming to be taken away, and God himself taking possession of my soul in the fulness of love: and all the time of the service, I enjoyed such a heaven of love as I never before experienced. All the day I watched every motion of my heart, to see if the evils I before felt were there or not: but I found none: I could find nothing there, but solid joy and heart-felt peace. (Arminian Magazine (1783) 244-245) 
One thing I find so inspiring about this narrative of an experience is that God met Mr. Clark with such a tangible sense of His real presence in the midst of his struggle. And the presence of God crowded out all those fears and feelings of inadequacy, replacing them with love and peace. In the face of my awareness of sin, I long for God's love to be the antidote.

Part 3: Transformation and Controversy

Saturday 7 December 2013

The Story of Mr. George Clark

I do want to provide some definitions to provide a framework for what I will share from my historic friends, the early Methodists. But instead of starting with theology, I want to start with biography. So, here is part of the story of George Clark, a small group leader in London, in the eighteenth century.

George Clark (1710-1797) was the last of my four thesis-friends that I discovered. I had trouble finding a narrative for my research from a lay, non-preaching man in this time period. I have a fondness for George Clark because of the earnestness I found in his diary. And in this earnestness he was honest about his struggles, and transparent in his transformation.

George Clark lived in London, working hard to support himself and his family. He was first introduced to the Methodists through his mother, who had begun attending Methodist preaching. His first impression was to reform his lifestyle to live like he was inspired to live, by the example of the Methodists. But when he tried to do this on his own strength he had limited success. Then during a Methodist service, he encountered God in a way that was sensory and immediate, not described by others, but experienced for himself. This encounter made a difference in his effort to reform his life, actually it made all the difference. He left behind the lifestyle he had been slipping back into and sought after God.

Clark matured in his faith, and became a leader in the community. Yet, he soon discovered that in seeking God, he found more of himself, and he didn't like what he found. When faced with the love of God, he found selfishness in his heart. When faced with the sin of others, he found anger toward them, not forgiveness. When faced with the humility of Christ, he saw only pride and stubbornness in himself. By taking away the outward actions of sinfulness (the drinking and carousing) he soon discovered that there was more to sin than what you did with you time and money. Sin was found in the attitudes of his heart, sin was found in the reaction he had to his friends and family, sin was found in the choices he was making everyday. For example, this journal entry: 

Sunday, Sept 10 [1756]. Inexpressible has ben the painful emptiness I have found for several days past. I try my heart and my ways by the word of God, with fervent prayer, and find nothing of actual sin. But it is pride that tears me. When I have much love, I am lifted up above what I ought to be. And when I am made to possess my own iniquity, my spirit frets against God. Yet this day has been a sabbath of rest, in which I have enjoyed much love: but I know not how to keep it.

Part of what I find so compelling about George Clark is that I identify with his honest struggles (if not always with the intensity that he expresses them). We all struggle with ongoing sin in our life. And, even as I identify with him, I long for him to experience more freedom from his sin.

And the good news about the discovery of more of our sin as we seek out God, is that God is big enough, wise enough and loving enough to deal with the sin that is discovered. God doesn't just want you to know you are prideful and angry, He wants to pour out His overwhelming love to the point where it fills your heart and crowds out the sin. Even more, God wants to fill you until His love overflows in your life to the people around you. That the character of God would flow from you, not as effort, but as a flood of gratitude.

George Clark experienced this, and it transformed his life. But I’ll post more about that transforming experience in another blog post.

Part 2: Encounter
Part 3: Transformation and Controversy