Admitting that, when you first go to mingle with worldly scenes, you may intend not to be seduced from the path of duty; admitting that you at first possess sincerity, firmness, and courage; you will soon deviate from them. Those ideas of zeal and firmness against vice with which you enter into the world will soon grow weaker; intimacy with the world will soon make them appear to you unsocial and erroneous; to them will succeed ideas more pleasant, more agreeable to man, more according to the common manner of thinking; what appeared zeal and duty you will regard as excessive and imprudent severity; and what appeared virtue and ministerial prudence you will consider as unnecessary singularity. Nothing enervates that firmness becoming the ministerial character like associating freely with men of the world.
Jean Baptiste Massillon1
Last summer I had an enjoyable dinner with Dr. Harold Rawlings in Cincinnati, Ohio. He used the phrase, “the wilderness encroaches” as we were talking in the context of being constant and vigilant in the ministry. Having grown up around farms in the Midwest (Landmark Baptist Temple is my home church) I recall the blackberry and raspberry bushes growing along the fence rows. If they were not mowed back every summer, they would encroach into the yard and take as much space as they were allowed to have. I am sure that Adam noticed the same thing not long after God said to him, “Cursed is the ground for thy sake . . . Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee” (Gen 3:17-18). Dr. Rawlings did not elaborate on the phrase, but I have thought about its use in many ways. Here are three of those ways.
The wilderness encroaches upon our manners.
The manners that a civil society insists upon, is a middle ground of free self-control, existing between an encroaching totalitarianism on the one hand, and antinomianism on the other. Douglas Groothuis wrote, “Restraint is the price of civilization, and we are casting off restraint.”2 To the extent a people can maintain personal manners, they can maintain their freedom.
We all feel the encroaching wilderness that takes its toll on our manners: every time we let our wife open the car door herself; every time we walk inside with our ball cap still on; and every time we interrupt, fail to say “please” and are too lazy to say “thank-you.” Manners are never against the law, only against the conscience.
In a more chivalrous age Blaise Pascal wrote, “Some fancy makes me dislike people who croak or who puff while eating. Fancy carries a lot of weight. What good will that do us? That we indulge it because it is natural? No, rather we resist it.”3 It is our nature to let down in this area of manners, especially when those who stood over us to make us be polite are gone and we are our only enforcers. Our age is not an age of self-control. Modern man is what philosophers have called “the Noble Savage” and Kenneth Myers wrote, “If the Noble Savage is the highest form of man, you can hardly protest if his table manners are deplorable.”4 Let’s mow back the wilderness with self-imposed manners!
The wilderness encroaches upon our morality.
Our age is an age without moral restraint; an age that no longer believes in a moral absolute. The whole yard of right and wrong has been overgrown by the wilderness of permissiveness. Os Guinness said, “‘Just say no’ has become America’s most urgent slogan when ‘why not?’ has become America’s most publicly unanswerable question.”5 We must be vigilant to stop the onslaught by crushing even the smallest weed of immorality.
God has a Moral Law that exists in our world. Because man is made in God’s image, he is intuitively aware of moral right and wrong and, being a sinner, is justly condemned for his failure to keep it. It is our duty as believers to be moral people for the sinner’s sake. A contemporary writer put it, “Moral behavior presupposes a transcendent absolute.”6 If we let the wilderness of moral permissiveness creep into our lives, we convey the message to the sinner that we are not responsible for the Moral Law. Ironically, it is in the smallest matters of morality where the sinner sees our inconsistency the most. He hears our little lies; he sees our fits of anger; he watches where we go, what we look at, how we respond to the smallest situations. By acquiescing in small matters we forfeit a voice in larger ones as well.
The wilderness encroaches upon our ministry.
Considering all that the Apostle Paul said about setting our affections on things above (Col 3:2), I do not believe it is possible to be too heavenly minded to be any earthly good. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best. Those who love Man less than God do most for Man.”7 But after Paul’s heavenly vision of 2 Corinthians 12, he was given a thorn in the flesh to remind him to not let the worldly cares overrun his higher calling. The wilderness of worldly cares can cause us to be cumbered about with much serving and yet miss the part that is most needful.
Savonarola once said, “In the primitive church the chalices were of wood and the prelates were of gold; today the prelates are of wood and the chalices are of gold.”8 In our day of symbolism over substance and emotion without meaning, the love of this present world creeps in too easily. Paul was ready to depart and to be with Christ while Demas had departed to be with the world. J. Sidlow Baxter wrote, “Holiness is not only a reclamation of the garden from weeds, but a filling of it with fragrant flowers.”9 The best way to fight the wilderness is to “manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place” (2 Cor 2:14).
Notes: 1. Jean Baptiste Massillon, “On the Spirit of the Ministry” Orations, 4 (New York: Collier, 1902) 1719. 2. Douglas Groothuis, The Soul In Cyberspace (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997) 91. 3. Blaise Pascal, Pensees (New York: Penquin, 1966) 196 (86) p. 88. 4. Kenneth Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Wheaton: Crossway, 1989) 142. 5. Quoted by Ravi Zacharias, Deliver Us From Evil (Dallas: Word, 1996) 134. 6. Kenneth Boa, “What is Behind Morality?”, Vital Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1994) 20. 7. C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns (New York: HB&J, 1986) 80. 8. Savonarola, “On the Degeneration of the Church” , Orations, 3 (New York: Collier, 1902) 1281. 9. J. Sidlow Baxter, Christian Holiness (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977) 162.