There are not lacking here and there signs that good Christians are suffering from a kind of spiritual mental fatigue. In our fellowships, iron rarely sharpens iron any longer. Much preaching that is orthodox lacks that ring of conviction which is needed to thrust it home into sinners’ consciences. A guilty tameness smothers our zeal. Prayers are hum-drum and predictable. The apostolic fire has died down and looks like dying away. The gospel, even where it is preached at all, is clothed with the impeding garments of excessive politeness and respectability. Our sermons are frequently no more than a gentle homily or a quiet talk about good religious ideas. Slowly and imperceptibly evangelical people are coming to terms, emotionally and intellectually, with the spirit of the age. Though we should not care to say so, we nonetheless betray our inner despair of ever seeing revival, or even a reversal of the present trend downwards.
This weariness of soul is not difficult to explain. A deep-seated disappointment has paralysed many Christian people in our day. Both preachers and hearers are disheartened. The recovery of the doctrines of purer orthodoxy some thirty years ago has not yet been matched by a recovery of spiritual power or influence in society. The world passes by the doors of many excellent churches with as much unconcern today as it did when the old theological liberalism reigned in them, and before new and biblical ministries began in them. Preachers who deserve to be listened to by a thousand have to be content with less than fifty hearers.

The vision which many had only a few years ago has not been realised. The mirage has not yet become a pool of water. The promises of God are seemingly at variance with his providences. A bewilderment and a confusion has come upon us. There is a widespread feeling that something has gone wrong. Meanwhile we all grow older. There is an unspoken agreement that the fight is too hard for us. When shall we be able to withdraw from the scene of battle with at least some semblance of honour?

Spiritual drowsiness is very catching. The air soon becomes heavy with it. Active life and movement, once so noticeable, gradually dies down as one after another succumbs to the spirit of drowsiness. As the voices of young children in a nursery die down one by one at their rest time, so the once active testimonies of God’s people become gradually silent in a sleepy time.

The Bible portrays for us times when the people of God enter into a period of collective sleepiness. The age in which Moses was born was such a time. Israel had settled down in Egypt. Even their hard servitude did not take from them a love of the Egyptian life-style. They were very loath to follow Moses out into the wilderness. They had dreamed too many this-worldly dreams to want to give up the leeks, the onions and the garlic for the uncertain prospect of receiving their ‘Promised land’. Four hundred years in Egypt had sent Israel fast asleep.

The days of the Judges were another period in which the church of God was largely asleep. It is amazing to us as we read the Old Testament to see how flagrantly Israel was disobeying God’s Word at the period of the Judges. They appear to have been blind to the plainest teachings given so recently by God through Moses. Even some of the Judges themselves had serious blemishes in their faith and conduct. ‘Every man did that which was right in his own eyes’. If we require an explanation for the state of life at that time, we must surely put it down to a widespread and almost universal soul-sleep.

One might have hoped better of the church in New Testament times. But it was not to be so. For a thousand years, till Luther woke up with a start in Germany, the European church slept soundly while Bible, gospel and grace lay hidden out of popular sight. Only here and there was there a warning cry from some remote Italian valley or passing Lollard preacher. Europe, however, as a whole slept on. Dark night covered the one continent of mankind which ought to have carried the torch of gospel truth to every corner of the globe.

It is solemn, too, to recall the words of Christ which inform us, evidently, that the very last period of world history will again be characterised by widespread spiritual sleepiness: ‘They all slumbered and slept’ (Matt. 25:5). Not only the nominal church, represented by the five foolish virgins, will be asleep when the Bridegroom returns; but also the true church herself, though certainly prepared, will have sunk down with weariness and drowsiness just before the wedding day dawns.

The above instances – not the only ones we could cite – are evidence enough to remind us that a blanket of sleep may fall across large parts of the visible church in some ages. This is a sheer fact of history and one which the Word of God presents to us for our warning. No doubt there are many who sleep in the best ages of the gospel and under the liveliest of preaching. No doubt society is at best little more than half-awake at any time to the moral and spiritual duties of God’s Word. Nevertheless, it would seem to be a clear lesson of Scripture that some ages are marked by a sleep that is well-nigh universal.

– to be continued

Maurice Roberts