Oratio, meditatio, tentatio

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. (Psalm 119:67)

I have recently finished reading John Piper’s short and superb little biography, Martin Luther: Lessons from His Life and Labour (free to download here). Piper focuses on the significance of Scripture to Luther’s life and ministry, drawing out certain lessons to exhort those in gospel ministry.

Many of the points from the Luther story are largely expected — the importance of keen study of the Scriptures; original languages as the key to understanding the text; the necessity of prayer and utter dependency on God; and so on.

But the bit which caught me off guard, and which left the deepest impression on me, is what Luther called the “touchstone” of understanding Scripture: trials.

Reflecting on Psalm 119, Luther said:

I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method myself […] The method of which I am speaking is the one which the holy king David teaches in Psalm 119 […] Here you will find three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout the psalm and run thus: Oratio, meditatio, tentatio (prayer, meditation, trial).

Oratio, meditatio, tentatio. Prayer, meditation, trial.

And trials Luther called the “touchstone”, for they

teach you not only to know and understand but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s word is: it is wisdom supreme.

And Luther again, reflecting on his own experiences, said:

For as soon as God’s Word becomes known through you, the devil will afflict you and will make a real doctor of you, and will teach you by his temptations to seek and to love God’s Word. For I myself […] owe my papists many thanks for so beating, pressing, and frightening me through the devil’s raging that they should have turned me into a fairly good theologian, driving me to a goal I should never have reached.

The language of “trials” or “afflictions” feels so foreign to many of us who live in the developed world. More so if we are in our 20s and 30s. Most of us have yet to encounter any real suffering; many of us still view ourselves as invincible.

And so it is for me, someone who lives a relatively comfortable life in 21st century London.

Lately, though, I’ve been going through quite a difficult period. I’ve been forced to strip away many things I held dear and placed my hope in. It’s been humbling and painful.

But in each painful instance, Jesus has welcomed me with outstretched arms, saying, “I’m enough for you; if you have me, you have everything“.

Much like when Eustace is “undragoned” by Aslan in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, this pain is the necessary restorative work of turning me back to my loving Saviour. Or much like Luther (above), this trial is teaching me to know my Lord Jesus more deeply. Indeed, I am becoming a better theologian.

By no means am I holding myself out to be an expert or “holier than thou”. I don’t even think I’ve fully come out of this trial as yet. And in any case, my pain does not even begin to compare to the ordeals some of my brothers and sisters in Christ have endured, let alone to the anguish my Saviour suffered.

But I can testify that in my state, His Words bring me great comfort. They are sweeter, truer, lovelier. He is the living water who truly satisfies my deepest thirst; he is the bread of life who truly satisfies my deepest hunger; he is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear?

His grace is sufficient for me, for his power is made perfect in my weakness.

He has a plan; He is sovereign and will bring it to pass; He who promised is faithful, He will surely do it.

Dear brother or sister, if you are going through a similarly difficult situation, don’t neglect the tentatio which God will no doubt use to deepen your knowledge of Him. May this fiery trial bring you closer to Him and fill you with inexpressible joy.

Let me find Your grace in the valley
Let me find Your life in my death
Let me find Your joy in my sorrow
Your wealth in my need
That You’re near with every breath
In the valley

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The gospel is so foolish (according to my natural wisdom), so scandalous (according to my conscience), and so incredible (according to my timid heart), that it is a daily battle to believe the full scope of it as I should. There is simply no other way to compete with the forebodings of my conscience, the condemnings of my heart, and the lies of the world and the Devil than to overwhelm such things with daily rehearsings of the gospel.

– Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer for Christians (cited in Tim Chester’s You Can Change)