In this Plough Weekly series, we read Scripture together with Blumhardt (1842–1919), a theologian, evangelist, and pastor who inspired Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Moltmann.
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. (Isaiah 49:13 NRSV)
This is one of the verses that speaks of the great comfort for the people, which the prophets so often foretold. This comfort goes very deep, and when comfort penetrates so deeply, its effects can also be felt physically; bodily ills disappear. In such times of comfort the greatest miracles take place, readily and naturally. The physical side of life emerges as a secondary matter, which is automatically brought in order when the higher, inner being is comforted and restored.
Outward comfort is a natural consequence of inner restoration
Such times of comfort have already taken place and give us a foretaste of those things the prophets promise in depicting the last times, when this comfort will encompass the whole world. The time of Jesus was a very special foretaste of the final great time of comfort for all peoples. The Spirit of God was so powerfully at work in Jesus in the comforting of souls that the physical condition of people around him was affected to the strongest degree. These are the miracles of Jesus.
These miracles often give rise to some misconception. If a person reads about them without understanding, he might think that the Savior was demonstrating parlor tricks and might compare them to the illusions of a conjurer, which can also look like miracles. But the Savior’s miracles were of a completely different nature. They were a part of his very being and the spirit that he radiated, and were in keeping with the fervent expectancy that vibrated in the soul of the people at that time. The person of Jesus and the preparatory work of John the Baptist had uplifted the mood of almost the entire populace. So it seemed quite natural and did not attract much attention when people’s physical bodies rejoiced too. For this reason Jesus’ miracles were not so much noticed by unbelievers as we might think. It is not only that the miracles of the Savior, miracles of the almighty God, only take place where there is a corresponding inner comfort – that is, where people recognize such miracles based on their own experience as something natural. It is simply something tremendous when God restores souls and creates a new spirit: then the physical body is also quickly restored and a miracle takes place.
Similar things have happened in recent times; I have experienced them myself. But even now many people do not understand it – least of all those who draw the conclusion that prayer can be used as a medical cure. It is completely backwards to try to comfort the body in order to bring joy to the soul. That is putting the cart before the horse. According to the Bible, God cares for the soul; then the body rejoices in the healing that comes as a consequence. If we turn this around, we will always be disappointed. In the same way, creation will not be renewed by first curing the outward ills of the world, but rather vice versa: through receiving inward comfort in its soul, so to speak, the creation will also be restored outwardly (Rom. 8:19–21).
The great mistake made by many unhappy people who groan under all kinds of burdens is that they always look to the evil and believe that if it were lifted, they would feel better. But they should remember that if nothing more than physical healing happened, they would still not be comforted. The Savior often does things to make us realize that outward help makes little difference to us inwardly. On the other hand, when, in spite of afflictions, God’s comfort penetrates the soul, things improve outwardly, and should a miracle take place, it will be understood rightly and will be a light for the rest of our life.
But here people are divided into two categories. The first look only at the outward or material aspect and want to tackle everything from that side. The efforts of the world are directed toward improving outward conditions in the hope that people will then be inwardly more content. But what is achieved by all this striving? Does it lead to true comfort, to the soul’s rejoicing? For those who have not grasped the essence of human nature, it is obvious but strange that however much is done for miserable and down-and-out people, they find no lasting joy. And how much is done for such people nowadays! There has perhaps never been a time in which such great efforts have been made, with such sincerity, to remedy the universal distress and misery. Still people are not satisfied, and they often take advantage of their benefactors. On the other hand, if in a small way we succeed in bringing the comfort of God into a soul, everything will be right. People will be content even in tough times, and the smallest kindness will be received with great joy because inwardly they stand right.
Don’t focus on your troubles
This brings up something else we often experience. Sometimes people will say, “I have a severe illness (or, I have difficult circumstances to cope with; or, dark temptations beset me). I have prayed about it for many years, more and more intensely, but it seems that the more I pray, the worse it gets.” Here we stand before a mystery. I will just say one thing: prayer can be superficial, looking for inner help to come through outer change. That is backwards. On the other hand, when prayer is spiritual, seeking comfort of the soul from God, then things will improve. If someone always cries about his personal troubles when he prays and only has his own need in mind, then the evil that besets him will sink deeper into his soul and spirit, in spite of prayer. It is possible to rise up from prayer in a darker frame of mind than beforehand. Selfish and unreasonable prayer can even lead to spiritual derangement. Another person goes into his room and says, “I will not allow my troubles to come in here with me; I want to be alone with my Savior. Dear Savior, now I come to you; speak to me of something other than my affliction!” Something of heaven enters a person who prays like this. When he comes out of his room he feels a power, and even if the affliction has not diminished, it cannot gain the upper hand. If heavenly powers fill us, trouble and death cannot drag us down. And so, in prayer, I can either attract or repel evil things. Mark this well, all you who would pray because of the ills that beset you! Do not bring all manner of evil into your souls!
This is why the Savior, who knows us foolish people, says, “Do not prattle so much when you pray! Must you babble like the heathen?” Matt. 6:7) But the Savior can say what he wants; people simply will not listen to him. When someone prays for an hour without ceasing, he thinks he will have a special reward in heaven!
We could also think about this when we come to prayer meetings. The main issue is not to think of all the evil of the world in order to pray about it. It is more important to think of heavenly things so that, strengthened by the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, we can face all ills. We must remain in the Spirit; then Jesus will have means enough to comfort us, to free us, and also to make us well, if he so desires. Yes, someone who remains in the Spirit and seeks comfort of soul through the Savior will very soon find things easier physically as well.
Look at the big picture
Whoever experiences and understands this will also understand the prophets, who go even further. They hardly consider comfort for the individual, but promise comfort for the people as a whole. Just read the Old Testament: promises are made to individuals only in relation to the whole. We can use the Bible very wrongly if we apply all the texts to ourselves in a self-centered way. In the Bible the comfort of all the promises is directed to the whole, and you may also reckon yourself to be a part of this whole. All prophecy amounts to this great thought of God: “I will comfort my people, comfort the wretched, comfort all people; all the world shall behold the glory of God!” Isa. 40:1–5) This must take place through the Spirit of God, which shall sustain all people. They shall be given new hearts and a new spirit. By this we can see that God desires the restoration of the soul of humankind as a whole, and linked to this is the renewal of bodies, even to the extent of resurrection. New hearts, a new spirit, and the Spirit of God shall be given; then all things will be restored (Ezek. 36:26). That will be a real comfort! We see something of this already in the deeds of the Savior. When Jesus acts, it is always for more than just one individual. He can never belong just to you; you must always include others, also in your thoughts, otherwise you might lose him altogether. The comfort of the gospel falls today on the great community of nations, and the final, decisive comfort will one day be showered on them all.
Already today we can feel the powers of this comfort at work, awakening hope that a time of great grace will come upon all people and that the gospel will be preached to all nations. How else can redemption come about? Think how many righteous hearts are oppressed by the wretched conditions of this sinful world. They will not be freed except by an express deed of the almighty God. And this deed will not fail to appear. If some individuals find complete comfort already now, how could our merciful God allow others, who are no worse, to remain in eternal misery? He will not do that! The Savior is moved to pity and he wants to gather his people as his sheep. The last times will bring this great grace. Then the earth will rejoice. Even the trees will break forth into singing and the mountains will exult (Isa. 44:23). The curse will be broken and nature will be made new.
And so the renewal of creation depends upon the coming of the kingdom of God, and the freedom of all the other creatures depends on the freedom of the children of God. We cannot imagine what it will be like when the universe sings for joy once more because humankind has become free. At present everything lies under a continuous oppression. People do not flourish as they should; no animal, no plant, is what it could be. Seen and unseen decay affects all human bodies – it even strikes the grasses and all plants and animals – so that everything lives in perpetual fear. But when the burden of the word “You shall die” is removed (Gen. 2:17), everything will rejoice, for life will be full and complete.
This is what the Savior wants to bring about. From within the secret chambers of the human soul he fights sin, drives it away, destroys it, and brings a new creation into being. The great moment will come when we can say: The old has passed away, every individual and the whole world have been newly created (Rev 21:4–5).
From Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, Jesus ist Sieger!: 1880 – 1888 (Zurich: Rotapfel Verlag, 1937), no. 64, trans. Jörg Barth and Renate Barth, © 2013 The Plough Publishing House.
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