December 8, 2019

Jesus, Our Only Joy

A Christ-centered faith must be like Jesus, gentle.

Bill Knott

Jesus, the very thought of Thee,
With sweetness fills my breast;
But sweeter far Thy face to see,
And in Thy presence rest.

It’s one of the oldest Christian hymns sung by Seventh-day Adventists, appearing in hymnals since the beginning of this movement. Each of the church’s last three hymnbooks (1985, 1908, and 1886) attribute it to Bernard of Clairvaux, a twelfth-century poet and pastor.

But it was the way that it appeared on the lips of one seminary professor that made me come to love the hymn, to draw it deep into my life, and make it mine.

He would stand before a group of bleary-eyed seminarians each day as though he was addressing distinguished colleagues, speaking to us with the precision of what was then still called “the King’s English,” albeit with a soft South African accent. In the darkness of snowy Michigan mornings or in the dreaded after-lunch seminars, he seemed unflappably the same: gentle, thoughtful, eager, sometimes passionate.

His lectures on the varieties of spiritual experience ranged across all continents and faiths. His stories included examples from Christian and non-Christian religions, showing us how for at least six millennia, men and women have responded to the reality of God in language, theology, music, and art.

A Christ-centered faith must be like Jesus, gentle.

But at least once in every class, he would summon the words to Bernard’s ancient hymn. His eyes would fasten on some far-off place; his eyelids would quietly close; and he would recite the words we knew were closest to his heart:

“Jesus, the very thought of Thee,

With sweetness fills my breast.”

You couldn’t doubt that his faith was Christ-centered, for everything that could be congruent with the words he recited was apparent as he spoke. This was recitation, yes; this was a fragment of medieval devotion, yes; this was an artifact from the history of Christian faith. But it was also his own—fully his own—in a manner so convincing that I have never been able to sing the hymn without thinking of him, remembering how deeply the words seemed anchored in his soul.

Jesus was at the center of his faith, and because of his quiet witness, my faith increasingly put Jesus at the center of it all.

It is temptingly easy to declare that our personal or corporate faith is “Christ-centered” because we can connect the theological dots between our understanding of Jesus and what Scripture teaches about the Sabbath, the sanctuary, the Second Coming, and the state of the dead. In a similar way, I can show how the writings of Henry David Thoreau, the iconoclastic nineteenth-century philosopher and author, influenced the thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu. Each of them would own their debt to a man whose essay on “Civil Disobedience” helped launch movements that freed tens of millions of people.

But to accurately describe any faith—yours, mine, or my seminary professor’s—as “Christ-centered” is to say something about more than just an organizing principle or person. It is to assert that the joy and light of the gospel permeates all the ideas and the structures that are actually developed from it. A Christ-centered faith must be like Jesus, gentle. A Christ-centered faith must seek healing and reconciliation when all about are warring. A Christ-centered faith has to carry in its preaching the chain-breaking, soul-liberating message of justification by faith. It must call us all to serve each other—and the world—on bended knee, not from thrones or pulpits. And it must move us—urge us—on to holiness through the power of His Spirit.

“Christ-centered” means that Jesus must be as fully met in the margins of my faith as at its core—in its structures and its institutions, as well as in its preaching and its practice.

That’s why the church I want to belong to is “Christ-centered.”