A Challenge to Devotion (from the life of Charles Simeon)

I’ve been reading an interesting biography by Handley Moule and a biographical sketch (which I’ve read once before) by John Piper on the life of a pastor of old, Charles Simeon (1759-1836). Simeon served Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge and Cambridge University for 54 years, and had a long a fruitful ministry. His years there were not without trial however.

John Piper, writing of Simeon’s life and ministry in a mini-bio titled Brothers, We Must Not Mind a Little Suffering, observes how, when Simeon began his tenure at Holy Trinity Church, “…the parishioners did not want Simeon. They wanted the assistant curate Mr. Hammond. Simeon was willing to step out, but then the Bishop told him that even if he did decline the appointment he would not appoint Hammond. So Simeon stayed…” 

His choice to remain despite not being wanted set into motion open opposition, of a significant kind. Piper continues, ” The first thing the congregation did in rebellion against Simeon was to refuse to let him be the Sunday afternoon lecturer. This was in their charge. It was like a second Sunday service. For five years they assigned the lecture to Mr. Hammond. Then when he left, instead of turning it over to their pastor of five years they gave it to another independent man for seven more years! Finally, in 1794, Simeon was chosen lecturer.”  This initial resistance had lasted 12 years.

In the midst of this long trial, “Simeon tried to start a later Sunday evening service and many townspeople came. But the churchwardens locked the doors while the people stood waiting in the street. Once Simeon had the doors opened by a locksmith, but when it happened again he pulled back and dropped the service. This was not all, however. “The second thing the church did was to lock the pew doors on Sunday mornings. The pew holders refused to come and refused to let others sit in their personal pews. Simeon set up seats in the aisles and nooks and corners at his own expense. But the churchwardens took them out and threw them in the churchyard. When he tried to visit from house to house, hardly a door would open to him. This situation lasted at least ten years (emphasis mine).

Eventually, Simeon over came the opposition. How did he do it? Again, Piper writes, “The records show that in 1792 Simeon got a legal decision that the pewholders could not lock their pews and stay away indefinitely. But he didn’t use it. He let his steady, relentless ministry of the word and prayer and community witness gradually overcome the resistance.” 

As I considered this amazing story of persistent, significant and focused resistance to Simeon’s preaching and pastoral ministry, met with persistent, significant and focused perseverance in ministry, I asked myself what Simeon’s secret for bearing up under these trials was. How did he keep on keeping on, in the face of such open and unfeigned hostility? Moule provides insight:

Behind all that was busy and public in his life he had striven from the first to ‘labour in secret prayer’…..Simeon invariably arose every morning, even though it was the winter season, at four o’clock; and after lighting his fire, he devoted the first four hours of the day to private prayer and the devotional study of the Scriptures. He would then ring his bell and calling his friend with his servant, engage with them in what he termed his family prayer. Here was the secret of his great grace and spiritual strength. Deriving instruction from such a source, and seeking it with such diligence, he was comforted in all his trials and prepared for every duty.” (emphasis added)

Considering these things, I’m challenged to devotion in several ways. First, though all pastoral ministry has it’s difficulties (and my time of service is no exception) the type difficulty I have faced is almost unworthy of mention compared to the trials Simeon faced-not for a few months only but for years on end. Reflecting on this aspect of Simeon’s life, I’m forced to shut my mouth, repent of the many times I’ve complained about my own light afflictions and how difficult it is to continue in ministry, and rejoice in the ease by which my own pastoral labors have unfolded.

Second, I’m challenged toward more purposed diligence in secret prayer. Now, my focus here is not so much on the time Simeon arose each day. That in itself is quite the challenge. Rather, the way he spent the first four hours of his days in secret prayer and devotional study of the Scriptures is greatly convicting. This man learned to live upon God-and his devotional practice reveals how he didn’t just preach Jesus as Lord, but actually lived as though Jesus was Lord in his private life. Knowing Jesus-being with God-praying in the Spirit-shaped his life, as he subordinated even sleep to his pursuit of the trinitarian God. It is no wonder he was empowered to persevere; and no wonder my small trials seem so large and tend to undo me. Frankly, I barely pray and I play at devotional study, compared to this man’s daily practice-and the results positively in his life and negatively in mine bear out our devotional differences.

Now, some might say that Simeon practiced this level of devotion because he was a cut above the average pastor or Christian. But to this, I must object. Simeon didn’t practice this level of devotion because he was some super saint as compared to all of us. Rather, Moule observes, “This early rising did not come naturally to him; it was a habit resolutely fought for and acquired.”  It was battle for him, a battle he fought with his comfort desiring flesh and won. And as he was enabled to win this battle, so might we be, by the same resolve and in the same grace, for the same cause-of knowing God, dwelling with Him and beholding His beauty, even here on earth, in the secret place.

To Charles Simeon, secret prayer for protracted periods per day, and the best hours of the day, was obviously not considered lost time. For many of us, the opposite is true. Is it any wonder that history attests to the power and long lasting impact of his life and ministry, while our impact is often so small?

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