He Kissed the Rose and Felt the Thorn: Living and Dying in the Morning of Life
Meditations on the Life of Robert Murray McCheyne
Desiring God 2011 Conference for Pastors
The most important example in all of history of someone who did not publish any books and died young, and yet made an impact on the world all out of proportion to his short life, was Jesus Christ. He was about 33 years old when he was crucified. Today 1.3 billion people call themselves Christian because of his life and death and resurrection.
The key to this impact is two things, not just one. It's always two things. First, and most important, is who he was—the sheer truth and power and beauty of the God-man. Being who he was created a movement in the world that is irrepressible. It was not his writing. He did not write. It was his Person, his spoken words, and his actions. His presence in the world was inescapable and unendingly powerful. That's the first key to his impact on history.
The second—and there must be a second—is that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude portrayed his Person and work in writing. They did write. And by means of those writings, the reality and truth and power and beauty of the Son of God can be known today. If there had been no Person, there would have been no books. And if there had been no books, we would not know the Person. And we would be lost.
God ordained that he himself be known in history through the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, and through the written word about the incarnate Word, the Bible. We worship the God we know in the person Jesus Christ. But we know the God we worship only because those who knew him preserved what they knew in a book.
O how precious is that Book.
And it seems that God has ordained that this perfect original be a pattern in church history—a powerful life, captured with truth and beauty in a book, and preserved for the enduring good of the church—this has been God's providence for centuries. If there had been no books, there would be virtually no Church History. And all the treasures of thought and life for the past 2,000 years would be reduced to a tiny fragment, namely, what might have been passed along orally.
But God has ordained that it be otherwise. And I am deeply thankful. He has ordained that some of his followers make such a powerful, personal impact that someone is provoked to write a book about it. And that personal impact, together with that book, go on instructing, inspiring, and strengthening the church for centuries.
It is amazing to me how God has raised up extraordinary young people with great impact and then cut them off in their youth, and then has preserved their impact with a book for decades to come, and centuries.
Elliot, Brainerd, and Martyn
For example, Jim Elliot, who never published a book during his life, was 28 years old when he was killed in 1956. But his wife Elisabeth Elliot captured his life and mission in Through Gages of Splendor and Shadow of the Almighty which were published within two years of his death, and are still in print today shaping the mission and history of the church.
Then there is David Brainerd, the missionary to the American Indians in the 1740s. He never published anything and died when he was 29 in 1747. He would have quickly passed out of human consciousness, since hardly anyone knew him, except that two years later Jonathan Edwards captured his life and diaries in The Life of David Brainerd, which has become one of the three most influential books in the history of modern missions.
Then there is Henry Martyn, the missionary to India and Persia who died in 1812 at the age of 31. No one would know of him today except that four years later, John Sargent wrote a record of his life and rescued his journals in Memoir of the Rev. Henry Martyn, B.D. And so generations of students, especially in Britain, were inspired to take up the challenge of missionary work.
McCheyne's Precious Friend
And now we come to Robert Murray McCheyne, not a missionary this time, but a local pastor in Dundee, Scotland, who died in 1843 at the age of 29. Perhaps of all the young saints that I have mentioned, he is the least likely to have been remembered. He wasn't crucified like Jesus. He wasn't speared to death in the jungles of Ecuador like Jim Elliot. He didn't suffer in the wild woods of early America like Brainerd. He didn't die alone in Turkey and cut off from his fiancé like Henry Martyn. He was local pastor who served his church for six years and then died of Typhus fever and was buried in his own church yard.
But he had a very precious friend, Andrew Bonar, a nearby pastor; and within two years Andrew had published Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray McCheyne. It is still in print, and here we are 168 years after McCheyne's death encouraged and inspired by his life.
How does that happen? Two things: A life with great force, and a friend to capture it in a book for the centuries. We probably should ask if that is a good thing. Books about sinful men can deflect our attention from the main book about the sinless man. So is the writing and reading of such books a good thing?
Fix Your Eyes on Those Who Walk
I have often turned to Hebrews 11 as a biblical warrant for loving and reading biography. But more recently I have been more struck by Philippians 3:17 where Paul says, "Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us." This is very striking.
Paul himself is one step removed from Jesus, the great example. And yet he calls us to "join in imitating me." Then he says: Keep your eyes on, or fix your gaze on, those who walk according to the example you have in us. These people are now two steps removed from Jesus. Paul follows Jesus, these people walk according to Paul's example, and then we are told to imitate them. So we are three steps from Jesus.
But the wording is even more striking. It says, fix your eyes (Greek skopeite) on them. Watch them closely. Don't lose sight of them. It seems to me that this is one of the most powerful warrants in the Bible for fixing our attention on the saints who have lived lives that are so exemplary—flawed, but still exemplary.
What Is It about McCheyne?
So for McCheyne, as for Elliot and Brainerd and Martyn, there was a very short, but powerful life and a friend to capture it in a book. What was it about McCheyne's short, and in many ways ordinary, life that gave it the force which created the book (and now books) that preserves his legacy to our day?
The title that I have chosen is intended to point to an answer to that question. I've tried to sift through the details and find the aspects of McCheyne's life and character that explain the power. People don't go on reading and thinking about a life, no matter how good the biography, if there is no unusual power in the person behind it. So what was it about McCheyne—that he could die at 29, and minister in his church only six years, and be worthy of fixing our ees on him in obedience to Philippians 3:17?
He Kissed the Rose
The title is: "He Kissed the Rose and Felt the Thorn: Living and Dying in the Morning of Life." The main part of the title, "He Kissed the Rose and Felt the Thorn," is taken from McCheyne's description of his teenage years when he was careless, worldly, and unconverted. He said, "I kissed the Rose nor thought about the thorn." I am turning the meaning of this statement on its head, because that's what happened to McCheyne's life.
He meant by it: "I indulged in all the amusing and beautiful pleasures of the world, and didn't give a thought to sickness and suffering and death." That's what he meant when he said, "I kissed the Rose nor thought about the thorn." But after his conversion, he spoke often of Jesus as his Rose of Sharon, and he lived in almost constant awareness of the thorn of his sickness and that his time might be short. He said in one of his sermons,
Set not your heart on the flowers of this world; for they have all a canker in them. Prize the Rose of Sharon . . . more than all; for he changeth not. Live nearer to Christ than to the saints, so that when they are taken from you, you may have him to lean on still.
So the meaning of the title, "He Kissed the Rose and Felt the Thorn," is that there was a double-sided key to McCheyne's power: the preciousness of Christ and the painful shortness of life—or the nearness of eternity.
In Only the Morning of His Life
The point of the subtitle ("Living and Dying in the Morning of Life") is to underline the second part of this title. He lived only the morning of his life. Most of us live a morning, a noon, and an evening of life. But McCheyne died before he was 30. My argument is that his effectiveness was not frustrated by this fact but empowered by it. Because of his tuberculosis, he lived with the strong sense that he would die early. This was a huge factor in his powerful usefulness.
So the double key to his life is the preciousness of Jesus, the Rose, intensified by the pain of the thorn, the sickness and the shortness of his life.
McCheyne was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, May 21, 1813. His parents would have been called Moderates in the Church of Scotland, not evangelical. The Moderates were the group that glorified reason and virtue and a kind of moralistic preaching that minimized the central gospel truths of the cross and the new birth and the power of the Spirit.
McCheyne grew up in this atmosphere with high moral standards, but was, by his own testimony, "devoid of God." When he went to the University of Edinburgh at the age of 14, he studied classics. His father said that "he turned his attention to . . . poetry and the pleasures of society rather more perhaps than was altogether consistent with prudence." And the professor of Moral Philosophy, Thomas Chalmers, who would later become McCheyne's most influential mentor, said that McCheyne was "a fine specimen of the natural man." He was kissing the rose of classical learning, and ignoring the thorn of suffering and death.
But all that changed in 1831 when he was 18 years old. Robert was the youngest of four children. His sister Isabella had died before he was born. His two brothers were David and William. His sister Elizabeth would later live with him and keep house for him during his six years in the pastorate.
David was the oldest brother, and Robert loved him. But David was neither spiritually nor physically well. In the summer of 1831, he sank into a deep depression and died on July 8. Suddenly the thorn of the rose stabbed McCheyne through the heart. All the beauty of the rose he was living for wilted. And by God's grace, he saw another Rose in what happened to David.
In the days leading up to his death, David found a profound peace through the blood of Jesus. Bonar said that "joy from the face of a fully reconciled Father above lighted up [David's dying] face." McCheyne saw it, and everything began to change. He had seen a rose other than classical learning. And he saw it as beautiful, not in spite of the thorn, but because of it. The thorn pierced him awake.
McCheyne marked the anniversary of his brother's death the rest of his life—twelve more years. One year later he said, "On this morning last year came the first overwhelming blow to my worldliness; how blessed to me, Thou O God, only knowest, who hast made it so." Eleven years later on the anniversary, he wrote, "This day, eleven years ago, I lost my loved and loving brother, and began to seek a Brother who cannot die."
The word "began" is important. The decisive change in his heart seemed to come a few months later in March of 1832 when McCheyne was reading the book The Sum of Saving Knowledge. He called it "the work which I think first of all wrought a saving change in me."
Conversion Captured in a Poem
There are some important glimpses here into McCheyne's heart and mind. What was being converted was a poetic lover of the classics. He was being converted through an emotionally heart-wrenching death and through a book on Reformed doctrine. It is not a surprise—and it reveals a lot about McCheyne and his way of seeing and savoring life—that the best account we have of his conversion is a poem—his best known poem. Not an essay. Not a journal entry. Not a sermon. But a poem.
McCheyne was not a great poet. I'm not sure I would even call him a good poet. But what was good, and even great, is that he saw the world with a poet's eyes. He had a poet's heart. That is, he was moved by what he saw, and he sought to find words that would help others be moved.
Poems are scattered through the early part of the Memoir. Later they are fewer. But that's because, as time goes by, he applies his poetic gift less to poetry and more to preaching. When you read his sermons, you are struck over and over at the provocative and awakening and pleasing and powerful way he says things. This is why McCheyne is so endlessly quotable. He didn't bury his poetic gift when he became a preacher.
So when this poetic lover of the classics was converted by the death of his brother and by book on Reformed doctrine, the result was a doctrine-laden poem recounting the process. The poem is called "Jehovah Tsidkenu." The words are a transliteration of the last two Hebrew words of Jeremiah 23:6, "And this is the name by which he will be called: 'The LORD our righteousness.'" McCheyne cherished the phrase as a summary of the doctrine of justification—his own justification. So here is the story of his conversion as he told it in the poem. And one of the most moving things about it is that the last verse proves amazingly prophetic because of the way he died of Typhus fever.
"The Lord Our Righteousness"
The watchword of the Reformers—
I once was a stranger to grace and to God,
I knew not my danger, and felt not my load;
Though friends spoke in rapture of Christ on the tree,
Jehovah Tsidkenu was nothing to me.
I oft read with pleasure, to soothe or engage,
Isaiah's wild measure and John's simple page;
But e'en when they pictured the blood-sprinkled tree
Jehovah Tsidkenu seemed nothing to me.
Like tears from the daughters of Zion that roll,
I wept when the waters went over His soul;
Yet thought not that my sins had nailed to the tree
Jehovah Tsidkenu—'twas nothing to me.
When free grace awoke me, by light from on high,
Then legal fears shook me, I trembled to die;
No refuge, no safety in self could I see—
Jehovah Tsidkenu my Savior must be.
My terrors all vanished before the sweet name;
My guilty fears banished, with boldness I came
To drink at the fountain, life-giving and free—
Jehovah Tsidkenu is all things to me.
Jehovah Tsidkenu! my treasure and boast,
Jehovah Tsidkenu! I ne'er can be lost;
In thee I shall conquer by flood and by field—
My cable, my anchor, my breastplate and shield!
Even treading the valley, the shadow of death,
This "watchword" shall rally my faltering breath;
For while from life's fever my God sets me free,
Jehovah Tsidkenu my death-song shall be.
There is so much about this poem that makes it a window onto his life. The fact that it is a poem, and McCheyne was a poet to the end; the fact that its refrain is in Hebrew, a language and a people that he loved so deeply; the fact that it bears the subheading "the watchword of the Reformers," a legacy that he cherished; the fact that it celebrates free grace, and he offered it so relentlessly to others in all his preaching; the fact that it embraces death with confidence, and for him this came so soon—all of this reveals profound things about McCheyne's life and power.
Call to Ministry and Thomas Chalmers
God knew that McCheyne would live only 29 years. Perhaps that's why he ordained that his call to faith and his call to the ministry were virtually simultaneous. Four months after the death of his brother, McCheyne enrolled in the Divinity Hall of Edinburgh University, November, 1831. And like so many of us, I suppose—at least it was true for me—he met the man who would have the greatest influence on his life and ministry, Thomas Chalmers.
Chalmers had been converted while serving as a pastor in 1811, and was called to teach Moral Philosophy in the University of St. Andrews in 1823 and then to Edinburgh in 1828. He was the main human force in the revitalizing of the Scottish Church and overcoming the deadening effects of Moderatism.
A Growing Passion for Holiness
He embodied the warm-hearted, devotional, evangelistic Calvinism that shaped McCheyne's life and ministry. You may have heard of a sermon called, "The Expulsive Power of a New Affection." That was my first introduction to Thomas Chalmers, and I loved it. You could call it "Christian Hedonism Scottish Style." It typified the practical, heart-felt urgency for holiness that marked the Reformed pastoral ministry that McCheyne embodied.
Chalmers pressed all of his great learning into the service of holiness and evangelism. He warned McCheyne and the other students of "the white devil" and "the black devil"—the black devil leading to "fleshly sins" of the world, and the white devil to "spiritual sins" of self-righteousness. And he made the gospel of Christ-crucified for sinners the central power for this holiness.
A Growing Passion for Evangelism
And Chalmers was deeply burdened about the poverty in the slums of Edinburgh and how little gospel witness there was there. He established the Visiting Society, and recruited McCheyne and his friends to join. This threw McCheyne into a world he had never seen as an upper-middle-class university student.
It awakened in him a sense of urgency for those cut off from the gospel. On March 3, 1834, two and a half years into his divinity studies, he wrote:
Such scenes I never before dreamed of. Why am I such a stranger to the poor of my native town? I have passed their doors thousands of times; I have admired the huge black piles of buildings, with their lofty chimneys breaking the sun's rays. Why have I never ventured within? How dwelleth the love of God in me?
How cordial is the welcome even of the poorest and most loathsome to the voice of Christian sympathy! What embedded masses of human beings are huddled together, unvisited by friend or minister! 'No man careth for our souls' is written over every forehead. Awake, my soul! Why should I give the hours and days any longer to the vain world, when there is such a world of misery at the very door? Lord, put thine own strength in me; confirm every good resolution; forgive my past long life of uselessness and folly.
So McCheyne would take away from his time in divinity school a passion for holiness and a passion for evangelism. These would never leave him and would become defining impulses of his life—all of it motivated by the beauty of the Rose and all of it intensified by the thorn of suffering.
I feel constrained to make a side comment here concerning time spent in theological education and the shortness of time and the urgency of reaching lost people. Many young men feel the urgency of the task of ministry at age 19 or 20 and the thought of four years of college and three or four years of theological training seems almost like a diversion from the task at hand. Immediate fulltime ministry vs. two or four or eight (or in my case ten) years of school.
Well, consider McCheyne. Nobody burned with a greater zeal for the lost than McCheyne. A servant girl once described him as "deein' to hae folk converted." He wrote one time that we need a ministry that will "go to seek the people. We need men with the compassion of Christ who will leave home, friends, comforts all behind and go into the haunts of profligacy, the dens of the Cowgate, and with the love and life of Jesus persuade them to turn and not die." As Van Valen says, "The unquenchable fire of burning love towards sinners remained with McCheyne until he was consumed by that same love."
His Worthwhile Investment in Theological Training
But he did not cut his university training short. He took the full course of theological studies and mastered his Greek and Hebrew. And then served only seven years of full-time ministry. And I think he made the right choice. I don't think he would have been more fruitful in soul-winning if he had rushed into ministry. I don't think he would have had greater impact on the church of Scotland. And I don't think he would be inspiring people 168 years later.
I don't mean you have to have formal theological training to be fruitful in ministry. What I mean is: You need not have less fruitfulness if you take the time to get that training, and like McCheyne, you may have more. Fruitfulness in this life is not quantifiable in years. He only had seven years left when he was done with school. But with everything he had learned form Chalmers and with immersion in the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament and with a radical commitment to holiness and evangelism, and with a band of friends, those seven years were worth seven decades.
He took away something else from his university days that made a tremendous difference—deep friendships, especially with Andrew Bonar and Alexander Somerville. They used to study together and pray and sing and evangelize together. The reason this has to be mentioned is that without this friendship with Bonar, the Memoir would never have been written and we would probably never have heard of Robert Murray McCheyne.
But it seems that these friendships were something more than usual. They seemed to have intensified everything that was happening in those days. It's as though the spiritual effect of an experience on the three of them was more than the sum of one plus one plus one. It seems that effect of experiencing things together was exponential—as though a bolt of electricity vertically from the Lord was supercharged when it connected horizontally among McCheyne and Bonar and Sommerville.
Supercharged Friendships with Bonar and Sommerville
Bonar described it like this:
I sometimes think that we three at that time were like the three disciples you read of—Peter, James, and John before the day of Pentecost. . . . Christ took these three into the chamber of Jairus' daughter, and taught them how to raise dead souls. He taught us from the very first to put no stress upon human appliances, but to keep to the gospel word. He took us to the Transfiguration hill, and showed us His person from time to time. He taught us to delight in His person, and to behold in a glass the glory of the Lord, and be changed into the same image. He took us to Gethsemane at communion times, and showed us the cup that the father gave him to drink, and which he drank, leaving no dregs behind.
From 1838—the last five years of McCheyne's life—Bonar ministered in the town of Collace just a few miles from where McCheyne ministered. When McCheyne died in 1843, the church at Dundee turned to Bonar for comfort, and he preached from Romans 8 in the two Sunday services following McCheyne's death. He said, "There was no friend whom I loved like him."
One of my prayers in these days of theological reformation and church revitalization is that thousands of young pastors will find this kind of camaraderie in the ministry. I am jealous for you to experience this in part because it was so rare when I was just starting 30 years ago. In those days the structures of fellowship were not mainly theological but organizational. And it felt so weak and shallow.
It was hard to find gatherings of pastors where they cared to talk about a biblical, Reformed vision of Christ and his work and the sovereignty of God in ruling the world and saving sinners. But today, the structures of relationships built around deep, clear, Reformed theological truths are everywhere. And now, at age 65, I have close friends, deep friends close and far, that are built on something so much greater and deeper and more wonderful than the pragmatics of church talk. I linger over this aspect of McCheyne's life because I I want you to experience it.
Your impact in the world will be exponentially increased through these kinds of friendships. Van Valen captured this exponential effect of McCheyne's band of brothers like this:
McCheyne's 'school' tended to be more spiritual than theological. Their influence was evident not so much in the college halls or the study rooms of the theological students; they distinguished themselves not in controversy, when it concerned the fight against error, but their contribution was more effective in spreading the classical teaching on grace to the general public. Their task was especially focused on evangelization and revivals and didn't exist to give substance to theological structures. Hence their strength lay in their preaching, which distinguished itself from the preaching of others "in demonstration of the Spirit and of power".
Bands of brothers—comrades in a great cause—are more than the sum of their parts. May God link your arms theologically, spiritually, personally for the sake of this exponential effect.
The last day of McCheyne's divinity lectures was March 29, 1835. He was just shy of being 22 years old. And that fall he was called to be the assistant minister in the double parish of Larbert and Dunipace in November, 1835. He served there as an assistant until the call came from St. Peter's Church in Dundee on August, 1836. There McCheyne served as the pastor until his death six and a half years later.
That's the simple sum of his professional life: A student till he was 22, an assistant pastor for a year, and a senior pastor for six years. And as far as any unusual events in that six-year pastorate are concerned, only two would stand out. He made an eight-month trip to Israel in 1838, and his church experienced an extraordinary awakening while he was away, which lasted in some measure until McCheyne died four and a half years later. David Robertson, who is the pastor of McCheyne's church today, writes, "The rest of his life [after his return from Israel in November, 1838] was spent in a time of revival awakening and renewal."
So as I have tried to think through what makes such an uneventful life so useful even 168 years after his death, it isn't any extraordinary event in his life. Rather, it is his extraordinary passion for Christ—for the Rose—and for holiness and for lost people, all intensified by his friendships and his daily sense of the shortness of life—the thorn. And all this passion preserved in powerful, picturesque language. He is still influencing us because of the words that came out of his mouth, not the events of his life.
His Memorable, Inspiring Words
The words, of course, would be empty without the passion for Christ and the pursuit of holiness and the cry for conversion. But all that passion would be formless and ineffectual today without his words. It's the words of McCheyne that give him abiding influence today. I would guess that not one person in ten, who can quote McCheyne, could tell you any event in his life that has inspired them. It is his words.
So let's listen to him concerning the pursuit of holiness, and concerning his communion with God through the word and prayer. We won't focus on his preaching, but we should know that the two things we are focusing on, holiness and communion with God, were the keys to his power in preaching.
Isabella Dickson, who became Andrew Bonar's wife, heard McCheyne preach when she was still an unbeliever and wrote,
There was something singularly attractive about Mr. McCheyne's holiness. . . . It was not his matter nor his manner either that struck me; it was just the living epistle of Christ—a picture so lovely, I felt I would have given all the world to be as he was, but knew all the time I was dead in sins.
The Key to His Power in Preaching
The man himself, for her, was the sermon. It is what God made of him in private that became his power in public. People sensed that, like Moses, he had just come down the mountain because his face still shone with the glory of Christ. One who heard him preach wrote, "What a joy it is to come under the quickening and refreshing influence of a living creature, a true man of God, whose face, like the face of Moses, shines as if fresh from the holy Mount!"
The reason he could commend Christ and the gospel with so much power is that these things were becoming more and more precious to him. He wrote to his mother, "Forgiveness of sins and acceptance with God become every day in my view more unspeakably precious." Christ was his life, and so Christ filled his preaching: "It is strange," he said, "how sweet and precious it is to preach directly about Christ, compared with all other objects of preaching." He was speaking from his own communion with Christ when he said to his people, "Unfathomable oceans of grace are in Christ for you. Dive and dive again, you will never come to the bottom of these depths."
So the key to his power in preaching was his personal holiness and his communion with Christ in the word and prayer. That's what we will focus on.
God had given McCheyne the gospel key to pursuing personal holiness. He received it through the teaching of Thomas Chalmers. Chalmers was very concerned about excessive introspection in the pursuit of holiness. He knew that a believer cannot make progress in holiness without basing it on the assurance of salvation. And yet the effort to look into our sinful hearts for some evidences of grace usually backfires.
Chalmers said that glimpses into the dark room of the heart alone give no good prospect. Instead, he said we should
take help from the windows. Open the shutters and admit the sun. So if you wish to look well inwardly, look well out. . . . This is the very way to quicken it. Throw widely open the portals of faith and in this, every light will be admitted into the chambers of experience. The true way to facilitate self-examination is to look believingly outwardly.
Ten Looks to Jesus for Every One Look at Self
McCheyne had written that down in a class and underlined the last sentence. So it is not surprising to hear him give his own counsel in similar terms: "Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely . . . . Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in his beams. Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love. And repose in his almighty arms."
This was the basic strategy in the pursuit of holiness. And he knew that the battle would have to be waged all the way to the end. He said to his people, "When a soul comes to . . . Christ, it is not made perfectly holy all at once. 'The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day [Proverbs 4:18].'" He was often distressed by his own lack of holiness. But he knew that the battle would be won only in the gospel way of looking ten times to Jesus and "being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another" (2 Corinthians 3:18).
So when McCheyne spoke what are probably his most famous words, "The greatest need of my people is my own holiness," he meant not only that they need a pastor who is morally upright, but that they need a pastor who is walking in constant communion with Christ, and being changed into Christ's likeness by that constant fellowship.
Which brings us now finally to the way he cultivated that constant communion with Christ.
He has much to say about the disciplines of meditating on God's word and praying. But we need to realize from the outset that all of these disciplines were designed to cultivate not occasional, but constant, communion with Christ. He did not think of his morning devotions as "laying up a stock of grace for the rest of the day, for manna will corrupt if laid by—but rather with the view of 'giving the eye the habit of looking upward all the day, and drawing down gleams from the reconciled countenance.'"
In other words, all of McCheyne's scheduled disciplines aimed at fixing the habit in his heart of living in constant communion with Christ. He had formed the habit of rising early to read the Scriptures and pray, and he tried to maintain this to the end of his life. He loved to meet Jesus early. He journaled, "Rose early to seek God and found him whom my soul loveth. Who would not rise early to meet such company?" He wrote to a student, "Never see the face of man till you have seen his face who is our life, our all." Or in another place, he said, "I cannot begin my work for I have not seen the face of God."
The Key to His Constant Communion with Jesus
And when he spoke of seeing the face of God, he had in mind seeing God in the word of God, the Bible. He wrote to Horatius Bonar, Andrew's brother, "I love the word of God, and find it the sweetest nourishment to my soul." Many of us know that McCheyne developed a Bible reading plan, that many still use today, that takes you through the Old Testament in a year and through the New Testament and Psalms twice. But not as many know that he also developed a plan for reading the whole Bible in a month, because he so much believed that constant communion with Christ depended so heavily on these focused and set apart times of disciplined communion.
And he had also learned through much experience with the living Christ that you can read the Bible and not commune with him. It is not automatic.
You may read your Bible, and pray over it till you die; you may wait on the preached Word every Sabbath-day, . . . [But] if you are not brought to cleave to him, to look to him, to believe in him, to cry out with inward adoration: "My Lord, and my God"—"How great is his goodness! How great is his beauty!"—then the outward observance of the ordinances is all in vain to you.
So the key to his holiness and his preaching was not merely stated times of meditation on God's word. It was pressing into Christ through the word. The written word became the window through which he gazed on the glories of Christ—the beauties of the Rose. This was the key to his constant communion with Jesus, which was the key to his holiness and preaching.
But communion goes both ways, and prayer was essential to McCheyne's power. Both the word of God read and the word of God preached depend on prayer for their power.
We are often for preaching to awaken others; but we should be more upon praying for it. Prayer is more powerful than preaching. It is prayer that gives preaching all its power. . . . Why, the very hands of Moses would have fallen down, had they not been held up by his faithful people. Come, then, ye wrestlers with God—ye that climb Jacob's ladder—ye that wrestle Jacob's wrestling—strive you with God, that he may fulfill his word.
He probably had himself in mind when said,
Since the intellectual part of the discourse is not that which is most likely to be an arrow in the conscience, those pastors who are intellectual men must bestow tenfold more prayerfulness on their work, if they would have either their own or their people's souls affected under their word. If we are ever to preach with compassion for the perishing, we must ourselves be moved by those same views of sin and righteousness which moved the human soul of Jesus.
Prayer was so crucial to his power in preaching that he was jealous to discern quickly any hindrance to prayer. One of the measures that McCheyne used to discern if he was too much in love with the world was by noticing the effect it had on his prayer and Bible reading: “Brethren, if you are ever so much taken up with any enjoyment that it takes away your love for prayer or for your Bible. . . . then you are abusing this world. Oh! Sit loose to this world’s joy: ‘the time is short.’”
Of course, he didn't always live up to his own goals. Near the end of his life he was writing notes on "Reformation in Secret Prayer." In them he says,
I ought to pray before seeing any one [in the morning]. Often when I sleep long, or meet with others early, and then have family prayer, and breakfast, and forenoon callers, often it is eleven or twelve o'clock before I begin secret prayer. This is a wretched system. . . . Family prayer loses much of its power and sweetness; and I can do no good to those who come to seek from me. The conscience feels guilty, the soul unfed, the lamp not trimmed. Then, when secret prayer comes, the soul is often out of tune. . . .
It is far better to begin with God—to see his face first—to get my soul near Him before it is near another. "When I awake I am still with Thee." If I have slept too long, or am going on an early journey, or my time is in any way shortened, it is best to dress hurriedly, and have a few minutes alone with God, than to give it up for lost. But in general, it is best to have at least one hour alone with God, before engaging in anything else. . . .
I ought to spend the best hours of the day in communion with God. It is my noblest and most fruitful employment, and is not to be thrust into any corner. The morning hours, from six to eight, are the most uninterrupted, and should be thus employed, if I can prevent drowsiness. A little time after breakfast might be given to intercession. After tea is my best hour, and that should be solemnly dedicated to God, if possible. . . . [And] when I awake in the night, I ought to rise and pray, as David and as John Welsh did.
By this means of word and prayer, the Rose of Sharon became more and more beautiful and precious to McCheyne. And all the while, these acts of devotion were being intensified by the thorn of his suffering and the shortness of his life. The week he finished his university studies he wrote, "Life itself is vanishing fast. Make haste for eternity."
It wasn't long before the evidences of tuberculosis were unmistakable. He wrote to his mother in 1838, five years before he died, "My cough is turned into a loose kind of grumble, like the falling down of a shower of stones in a quarry." Early in 1839, he wrote, "My sickly frame makes me feel every day that my time may be very short." And to his own congregation, he said early in 1843, "I do not expect to live long. I expect a sudden call someday, perhaps soon, and therefore I speak very plainly."
All of this suffering and expectation of death produced a focused simplicity and intensity that gave increased power to everything else McCheyne did. He saw it as a merciful way that God lifted the veil from eternity. He said in 1839, "I always feel it a blessed thing when the Savior takes me aside from the crowd, as he took the blind out of the town; removes the veil and clears away obscuring mists, and by his Word and Spirit leads to deeper peace and a holier walk."
He believed his sufferings and shortness of life were all for his holiness. "I have been too anxious to do great things. The lust of praise has ever been my besetting sin; and what more befitting school could be found for me than that suffering alone, away from the eyes and ears man?"
If we will not pray in the strength God gives us, the life—the very short life—of McCheyne teaches us that God has ways to make us pray and seek his face. McCheyne learned this through suffering. "Paul never prayed more earnestly, "McCheyne said, "than when he had the thorn in his flesh. The thorn in the flesh makes us pant after God."
A Rose More Cherished Because of the Thorn
So I conclude that in living and dying in the morning of life, McCheyne kissed the Rose and felt the thorn. His supreme joy was to know Christ. He lived in fellowship with Jesus through the word and prayer. And the thorn of his suffering intensified and purified that fellowship so that we are still being inspired by it 168 years later.