Preparing for Advent — Peter Toon: Stir up our wills, today!

Note: Advent 2008 begins tomorrow, November 30. Lent & Beyond will be posting Advent devotionals and links to many online Advent resources. You can find all our Advent entries here.

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We originally posted the following entry from the Rev. Dr. Peter Toon back in 2006. Dr. Toon’s words resonate with me as I look ahead to Advent and consider the spiritual disciplines that might be fruitful. As a procrastinator, this post has much to speak to my life

Note: In the traditional lectionary, the collect for the final Sunday before Advent is the following. I love that as a prayer PRIOR to beginning Advent, for all the reasons Peter Toon cites.

STIR up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

May this coming Advent season be a season of abundant fruitfulness in our lives, churches and ministries.

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From the Rev. Dr. Peter Toon

Stir up our wills, O LORD — Today please, not in the far distant future!

Have you ever been comfortably seated watching TV, or reading a good book, and yet also been aware of (a) various necessary jobs to be done in the kitchen or elsewhere, and (b) a lack of will power to get up and do what has to be done?

It is common for human beings to experience in their moral and spiritual lives what Luther called in a famous book, “the bondage of the will,” a seeming absence or lack of power to do what is clearly known to be a duty and requirement. In the soul, as it were, there is not always a smooth gear change between what the mind through the conscience declares to be right and what the will alone can set in motion.

The weakness of the will of baptized believers in the Christian life of obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ was well recognized by the apostles (see Romans 7-8) and by the bishops and teachers in the Early Church. This is why they called upon all to use the means of grace provided by the Gospel and to pursue sanctification before God. He who knows his own heart well knows that it is prone to lethargy; that it seems always ready to relapse into slumber as if it were satisfied with present attainments in the moral sphere. It needs constantly to be re-charged as it were by heavenly power and prompted to godly action. In fact, at times it needs to be released from servitude to selfish motivation.

Regrettably in much modern forms of Christianity, this truth and practical experience are not taken seriously (because there is such a low doctrine of human sinfulness and a strong belief in the freedom of the will) and it is assumed that people are actually and always free to do what is right if they so wish (see the Catechism or Outline of Faith in the ECUSA 1979 Prayer Book, page 825 for such teaching, which we may call Pelagianism if we want to give it an ancient title.)

The Collect [set prayer] for the last Sunday of the Christian Year in the ancient Gregorian Sacramentary [service book] and in the medieval Sarum Use [service book used in medieval England] and in The Book of Common Prayer (1549 and later editions) took this bondage of the human will to sin for granted as a reality experienced bu the faithful during the past year and prayed for the empowerment of the will by the Holy Spirit for the coming year. In its English form, as translated by Archbishop Cranmer, it prays:

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The will is stirred up whenever by the presence and influence of the Holy Spirit (directly or indirectly through the means of grace) the internal affections of reverence before God, hope in God and love for God are set in motion so as to give strength and motivation to the will. Yet, it remains within our power even when our wills are set in motion not to follow the lead of these (aroused) godly affections; that is, we may resist and avoid their direction. The lethargic will, aroused by grace, can, as it were, turn over on its side and try to back to sleep. When this happens there is regression in the Christian life.

But Christ calls his disciples to follow him, to love God and the neighbor, to fulfill the great commission to evangelize and teach, and thus they ought, as and when aroused, to follow the direction of the Spirit and in his power do whatever duty is set before them, with joy and thanksgiving, bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit in practical Christian living. And a constant duty and vocation is to abound in good works for the benefit of men and the glory of God. [We recall that Dorcas is commended as having been “full of good works and alms-deeds which she did” (Acts 9:36); that Paul declared that we are “created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10) and we are to be “a peculiar people zealous of good works” (Titus 2:4).]

I would not work my soul to save for that my Lord has done;
But I would work like any slave for love of God’s dear Son.

In the new Christian Year about to begin, let us allow the Holy Spirit to stir up our wills and to inspire us to follow His lead into the production of the fruit of the Spirit & into good works to the glory of the Father.

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