Taking the advice of C. S. Lewis, we want to help our readers “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” which, as he argued, “can be done only by reading old books.” Continuing our Rediscovering Forgotten Classics series we want to survey some forgotten Christian classics that remain relevant and serve the church today.
Open to nearly any page of Andrew Murray’s (1828–1917) slim volume Abide in Christ: 31 Days to Intimacy with Jesus and you’ll almost certainly discover stirring depictions of life with God.
In fact, let us try. [Grabs volume, flips open page.] Ah, page 95. I’d call it a favorite, except it’s hard to pick favorites in this little treatise. We find the following:
And even as the Father, with each new morning, meets you with the promise of just sufficient manna for the day for yourself and those who have to partake with you, meet him with the bright and loving renewal of your acceptance of the position he has given you in his beloved Son. Accustom yourself to look upon this as one of the reasons for the appointment of day and night. God thought of our weakness, and sought to provide for it.
It’s tempting to repeat the process, which would serve my purpose of demonstrating the richness of Murray’s prose. The reality is that few devotional writers have the kind of facility and ease navigating the spiritual life that Murray exudes. He writes as though he cannot but breathe the air of the things of God. Such air is his native atmosphere.
Which happens to be Murray’s point in Abide in Christ: that the life God offers us in Jesus can be ours, and ours abundantly through abiding in the power of the Spirit. If that sounds theologically rich, well, it is. Murray was a Dutch Reformed pastor in South Africa who knew his way around the theological landscape. I’ve sometimes read Abide in Christ as a meditative interpretation of Book III of John Calvin’s Institutes, which opens with a lovely exposition of the union we have in Christ and the two graces of justification and sanctification. Only Abide in Christ isn’t that—not explicitly. Instead, it’s a 30-day study of the exhortation to “abide” (John 15:4) that’ll leave you wondering why the yoke of the Christian life never seemed quite this light before. That length is, of course, intentional: the only way one can “abide” is over time, and the steady, day-by-day saturation of the Christian’s life with the gospel is one of Murray’s chief ends.
Abide in Christ is explicitly addressed to those who are frustrated and despondent in their Christian lives, who have a vague but pervasive sense they’re missing out on the abundance of life Christ promised us. The desire for a constant feeling of enthusiasm about the Christian life can be exhausting—and when that enthusiasm is disconnected from the institutions meant to sustain it, it can become positively destructive. Much of the saccharine, mawkish prose of many of our contemporary devotional stylists hinges upon just such degradations: having largely left the church behind, all they have left are feelings. And constantly having to whip up the fervor of passion simply does not make for good prose.
Though Murray is affective in his approach to the spiritual life, he never writes as though he’s removed his hands from the controls. His 19th-century sensibilities mean his emotive ways aren’t our ways: there’s a fervently beating heart at the center of Murray’s style, but it’s constrained within a theologically formed and decidedly restrained Victorian body. The combination works wonders; rarely stilted or unaccessible, the writing marries passion with elegance in a way English prose has long since lost.
But, as I say, Murray’s interest in abiding is for the disaffected Christian. His diagnosis is direct: “You wandered from him.” His pointed use of the second-person is jarring, but effective. Indeed, the direct address holds Murray’s devotional style together. He writes as one who has caught a glimpse of glory and bids us to join him, and offers us no relief:
By every motive that had induced you to come, did he beseech you to abide. . . . You did well to come; you do better to abide.
It’s as though you are seated in his study while he implores you to seek the things above.
Real Union, Real Blessings
Such seeking is, for Murray, our active responsibility and joy. But such effort lies in a rather paradoxical and animating relationship with the reality of Christ’s work in us: “It is when the soul becomes utterly passive,” Murray writes, “looking and resting on what Christ is to do, that its energies are stirred to their highest activity, that we work most effectually because we know that he works in us.” Murray was a prominent member of the Keswick theologians, who have been critiqued by Reformed thinkers for a variety of reasons, including their emphasis on passivity, and not activity.
But Murray’s “passivity” is a strangely energetic sort; it’s as though Murray wishes us to say our prayers in the morning and then get about our day. “How clearly we are taught,” he will exclaim, “the place which good works are to occupy in the life of the believer.” In coming to Christ, the gospel sounds “not of works.” But “once in Christ, lest the flesh should abuse the word, ‘Not of works,’ the gospel lifts its voice as loud: ‘Created in Christ Jesus unto good works.’” At the center of all this is the real union we have in Christ, which is—and hear the echoes of Calvin—a “real vital union in heart and life.” Similarly, Murray’s vision may be on the individual’s renewal, but the emphasis is accompanied by an affirmation of the indispensable necessity of the church community.
At its worst, Keswick theology created a two-tier approach to the faith; but at its best, as in Abide in Christ, it offered a sharp and challenging reminder that there are far more blessings to abiding in Christ—including, Murray will hasten to add, in affliction and trial—than we dream of in most of our poor visions of the world. We repeat incessantly C. S. Lewis’s line that we’re merely playing with our mud pies instead of enjoying a holiday at sea: Murray could have written much the same.
Living by the Law
Andrew Murray doesn’t have to be perfect to become a staple of the discerning reader’s ongoing study. Abide in Christ is the place to start, but With Christ in the School of Prayer and The Ministry of Intercession will make clear just how deeply Murray grasped the internal dynamics of the Christian life.
“Increase or growth is the law of all created life,” he writes elsewhere, a law that doubtlessly leaves ample room for winters and pruning and pain. But that law pulsed through Murray’s spiritual life and, thankfully for us, his prose.