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Religion’s Bitter Waters Or God’s Living Waters?

By Mick Cupples

    Sounding brass! This is the descriptive metaphor used by biographer John Pollock of the preaching of Dwight L. Moody when the great evangelist felt the loss of God’s power in his ministry. Moody reportedly was in such torment that he fell from his chair and rolled on the floor, crying to God for power. The heavens, however, remained shut to his cry.

    The cause of Moody’s struggle with powerlessness was not a lack of biblical knowledge or a waning commitment to the Lord’s work. Moody excelled in both. The issue was his refusal to surrender to God’s call to take the gospel beyond the boundaries of Chicago. Unfortunately, the work in that city had become more important to Moody than the call of his Savior to take his evangelistic ministries to the world.

    Not until the tabernacle lay in the smoldering embers of the tragic Chicago fire did the chains of Moody’s bondage finally break. When he surrendered completely to God’s call, an overpowering sense of God’s presence flooded his soul.

Ablaze with God

    He immediately locked himself in a room to be alone. According to Moody, the room seemed ablaze with God, and the preacher dropped to the floor and lay there, bathing his soul in the Divine.

    Moody said of the experience, "God revealed Himself to me, and I had such an experience of His love that I had to ask Him to stay His hand." Later, looking back upon this experience, Moody concluded, "I was all the time struggling and carrying water. But now I have a river that carries me" (J. C. Pollock, Moody: A Biographical Portrait, pp. 85-91).

    An increasing number of Christians today long for Moody’s experience of the "river that carries." They have grown tired of an empty religion that mandates the burdensome hauling and bitter drinking of stale waters.

    Jeremiah the prophet tells us the origin of religion’s bitter waters:

    "For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water" (Jeremiah 2:13, NASB).

    Forsaking God is to turn our back on the presence of Him who dwells in our midst and who desires above all to fellowship with us. Drinking from God as a "Fountain of living waters" describes the experience wherein our spirits commune with His Spirit.

His Glorious Presence

    Many people are not really persuaded that God dwells in their midst. Others have little conviction that God’s greatest priority for them as His children is to commune with His glorious presence. Still others are content with only an intellectual assent to God’s presence and scoff at or are fearful of entering by faith into mystical communion with Him.

    The church in our land is making little impact upon its society because too few believers know what it means to experience God’s living presence. The "joy of the Lord" and "burden for the lost" are only clichés for many Christians because they do not drink deeply from the Fountain of living waters.

    The believer who does not drink from the true Fountain will seek "other" waters. These waters come from "broken cisterns" and are the believer’s idolatrous substitutes for the joy and experience of God’s presence. Several broken cisterns are quite common in the church today.

    The first broken cistern is sensationalism. Some Christians find their joy and peace in experiences in which the power of God is viewed as a mystic energy flowing from the sphere of their emotions. Such believers manufacture a sense of God’s presence through the stirring of their emotions.

    Experiencing God’s presence will certainly touch our emotions, but the substitution of emotionalism is idolatry. Whether such practices take place in the worship service, in the use of certain spiritual gifts or in the prayer closet, the emotions in these exercises essentially become an idol to which we are enslaved.

The Written Letter

    A second broken cistern is the substitution of the written letter of Scripture for God’s presence. While Scripture is foundational for knowing God, its primary purpose is to point us to the reality of His presence. God never meant for the revelation of Himself in the Bible to become an end in itself.

    The believer whose joy and peace before God are anchored primarily in his ability to memorize, analyze and systematize the written revelation of God’s truth has made the paper and ink of Scripture his god. Such idolatry blinds us from experiencing God’s living presence. The seriousness of substituting Scripture for God’s presence is seen in the indictment given by Jesus to the Pharisees:

    "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life" (John 5:39-40).

    A third broken cistern is closely connected with making an idol of the Bible. It is the substitution of righteousness for God’s presence.

    The Christian who worships the written letter of Scripture usually makes his obedience to the Scriptures the final basis for his peace with God. Good works, whether in church ministry or in personal holiness, then become the basis of his assurance that God both loves and accepts him.

    Note Paul’s rebuke to the Galatians who substituted the false peace of their good works for the assurance that can only come from the experience of God’s presence:

    "Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (Galatians 3:3).

Material Possessions

    A fourth broken cistern used as a substitute for the living waters of God’s presence is security in material possessions.

    This cistern is especially common in the church of North America. With all the material benefits included in God’s rich blessings upon us, many believers have become guilty of the same sin as Ephraim:

    "As they had their pasture, they became satisfied, and being satisfied, their heart became proud; therefore, they forgot Me" (Hosea 13:6).

    Material possessions in themselves are not evil, but when our joy and security is rooted in them rather than in the treasured presence of Him who indwells us, we in effect have forgotten God.

Sensual Pleasures

    A fifth cistern found in the church is pleasure. A material-oriented society is a society obsessed with sensual pleasure. The Christian who clings to material riches will likewise be obsessed with pleasure.

    Note Paul’s statement to Timothy concerning the spiritual state of many in the last days:

    "But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be...lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God" (2 Timothy 3:1-2,4).

    The Israelites give us a picture of those who are lovers of pleasure:

    "And do not be idolaters as some of them were, as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play’" (1 Corinthians 10:7).

    The bulk of our advertising promises us happiness by what we eat and drink and how we play. Pleasure anchored primarily in recreation and entertainment rather than in the exhilarating experience of God’s presence is nothing less than idolatry.

No Substitutes

    There are no genuine substitutes for the experience of God’s presence. Neither sensationalism, intellectualism, materialism or works of righteousness will fill us with the refreshing waters of His presence. Our mind, body, will and emotions are nourished and transformed by His presence. Indescribable joy will be our strength when we abide in Him.

    Spiritual renewal for God’s people cannot and will not occur until we are satisfied with nothing less than the living waters that come from God. May we seek His presence with the same intensity of Moses: "Then he [Moses] said to Him, If Thy Presence go not with me, carry us not up hence" (Exodus 33:15).

   – Used with permission from Alliance Life, the official publication of The Christian and Missionary Alliance, November 22, 1989.  Mick Cupples is senior pastor of San Vicente Community Church in Ramona, California.