OSWALD CHAMBERS, WATCHMAN NEE AND THE "HIGHER SPIRITUAL LIFE"?
A critical consideration of their writings
Original version 2 April 2003. Updated 8 April 2003. Reconsidered 14 August 2003
Many years ago, my wife was given Oswald Chambers' "My Utmost for His Highest". I found reading it very frustrating, and whilst I could see what he was speaking about, I had great difficulty in seeing just how it could be put into practice and soon put it to one side. Years later (January 2003), I briefly looked at the book again, and had precisely the same reaction - high though his spiritual aims were, they never seemed to be rooted in real life. I had the strange feeling of trying to get through a mass of cloying, sickly treacle; there was nothing solid that I could hold on to, to get any bearings or formulate a practical lifestyle.
Not long after (March 2003), I was given a copy of Watchman Nee's "The Breaking of the Outer Man and the Release of the Spirit". Going through this, I had exactly the same reaction to his writing that I had to Oswald Chambers'. Nee repeated time and time again about how important for the "outer man to be broken" so that "the inner man could be free". Again, there was little direction on how this could be achieved by ordinary Christians.
I began to wonder if there was something missing. Was it in me - or was it in the very high spiritual calls they made upon the Christian in his search to be ever closer to Christ and God?
In April 2003 I wrote the first version of this article and placed it on my website to be quickly followed by further information. Subsequently, a correspondent made a number of observations -
(i) He said that Oswald Chambers was critical of the "Higher Christian Life" movement and referred to the volume of his Complete Works (2000).
(ii) He claimed "My Utmost for His Highest" was compiled by his wife ten years after he died. He said it was "deliberately tailored for the Keswick market. Chambers followed Wesley not Keswick. The editor of My Utmost was probably Rev. David W. Lambert, a Methodist minister who was greatly involved in the Holiness movement."
(iii) Wesley did not teach Christian perfection, but his successors, like Fletcher, did.
(iv) Packer thinks highly of him and compares him with C.S. Lewis.
I obtained a copy of his Complete Works and read various sections of his own writings to compare them with "My Utmost...". My first impression was that Chambers had some good points when speaking on pride, etc. I then read all his 12 references to the "Higher Christian Life" [HCL]. I took this to mean the same as the "Higher Spiritual Life" although this is not defined by either him or the editor, who merely says in footnotes that they "emphasised sanctification and personal holiness".
Chambers contends that the HCL emphasises not "the regenerating power of the grace of God, but on individual consecration, individual fasting and prayer, individual devotion to God." [p.97], "Insubordination ... it is spiritual anarchy based upon my intuitions, my experiences, while refusing to submit to the words of the Lord Jesus." [pp.389-390], "The Cross... is apt to be ignored..." [p.433]. Many other scathing criticisms are made, such that one begins to wonder what sort of Higher Spiritual/Christian Life he is talking about. Indeed, he says it "leads us merely to pietistic experiences" [p.475] and "apt to fizzle off into abstractions" [p1103] - the very thing that I feel he also does.
Unfortunately, as I continued to read several of the works he had penned, I found the same vagueness and impracticality that I had found in "My Utmost.." - a sense of spiritual suffocation and a failure to find concrete facts and proposals as I had before.
To give one example of his confused thinking; "The spirit that comes in is not that of doing anything for Jesus, but of being a perfect delight to Him.", but he later says "The only way to prove spiritual truth is by experiment. Are we prepared to act according to what we think?" [p.696].
I could quote many examples of his mystical writing and I had a strong feeling that he could make any statement that sounded very pious and "spiritual" but was frankly not far removed from nonsense. I give one example - "Christian perfection is the perfection of a relationship to God which shows itself in the total irrelevancy of human life"!
I also felt at times that his strong criticisms of the HSL/HCL movement was because it was so very close to his own mystical version of HSL that he wanted to promote!
Having made this digression, I regret that my further reading only confirms what I had previously written. I therefore stand by my original criticisms of Chambers and Nee. I have also continued to criticise "My Utmost..." as if it was written by Chambers. His wife, Biddy, was a stenographer and recorded what he said in many of his talks at the Bible Training College. She combined this with quotations from other works. That it may have been "tailored" for Keswick we have noted in (ii) above.
MB- 14 August 2003 - Herewith the rest of the original article.
I mentioned Chambers to a friend who replied that he was a "mystic". This intrigued me and I found the following definition of the word;
"One who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain union with or absorption into the Deity, or who believes in spiritual apprehension of truths beyond the understanding."
I would suggest that both these definitions apply to these writers.
In reading these works, I had a very strong sense that the writer was trying to force the reader to a level of spiritual awareness that was virtually unobtainable - in this life at least.
In contrast to this continual urging to achieve this "higher life", there was virtually no attempts to guide the reader in how this "higher life" could be achieved - what series of steps he could take in order to reach this goal. This was particularly frustrating, for it was like seeing a beautiful landscape on the other side of a thick pane of glass, and no directions to where a door could be found that would allow access to this wonderful land they described so vividly!
I am well aware that there are many sound Christians who have received much blessing from the reading of their works, and I have no wish to denigrate this in any way. What follows is a very personal view of writings such as these and they may well apply to no other person. Whether the reader will then judge me as being "unspiritual" or "unimaginative" (actually I have a vivid imagination) or any similar critical assessment, I can only leave that to them. My sole reason for writing this paper is that there may be another who has had a similar difficulty in reading these works, to assure him that he is not alone (that would then make two of us at least!) and to show him that such a reaction is not "lacking in spirituality" but has sound Christian rationality behind it. Actually, there are many commentators who have been very critical of the "higher life" writers.
I will simply make the following observations, not necessarily in any order of importance.
(1) Lack of guidance in achieving the goal.
I could not find a series of practical steps in any of these two works that can be taken by the ordinary Christian who is seeking to rise to the great spiritual heights the writer is urging them to scale. This is surely a most serious inadequacy in such books. The question must be asked "Why do they not give such steps? What is the flaw in their thesis that such obvious steps are not given?"
Two possible answers to this question are -
(a) Impractical goal.
There simply are no practical steps that will result in such a state of higher spiritual life being achieved. This may be due to -
(i) any such practical steps cannot be guaranteed to reach the desired end.
When we are dealing with spiritual aims, we are not dealing with a mechanical system; if you move this lever, then the machine will automatically respond in a predictable way - every time. It cannot do otherwise. Human endeavour is very different. Each person starts from a different position, has different attributes and abilities, and for many, Christian "high philosophy" of any kind in such books is well beyond their understanding (as this writer also admits to). Is this to say that such levels are denied to the ordinary Christian? Is this an area only open to certain "spiritual" Christians?
Dare I suggest at this stage that it is not the ordinary Christian who is lacking in ability or is wrong, but the unachievable goal he is urged to rise to.
(ii) Any such practical steps are ineffective because the goal is not achievable by purely human endeavour; it is a work of the Holy Spirit.
Here we come to the possibility of receiving this as a special work of God. But this would then become precisely like the charismatic "baptism in the Holy Spirit" that they claim can come upon Christians AFTER they have experienced salvation. This is a most dubious claim, not that many Christians do have some form of experience, but whether this is truly a SECOND blessing that Christians should DELIBERATELY seek to receive from God.
There is no hint in the books that this "higher life" is a special blessing, but all readers are urged to achieve it as being the highest plane in the Christian life that all may reach if they really desire to.
(b) Undesirable goal
Such a high spiritual plane cannot be reached here upon the earth, because God does not intend that we should reach it. It is beyond human achievement. It will only be achieved in heaven.
This is surely a not unreasonable conclusion that could be made. If they can provide no practical steps, then they may not be available at all. Deep students of the Bible they most certainly were, but where is their basis for not giving such advice? The Bible is full of practical advice on handling many situations, but none for achieving the very high spiritual plane that these writers urge their readers to achieve. We will see later that a high level of spiritual life is required in the Bible, but it is not of the form that they are pressing for.
(2) Difficulty of practical application in real life.
Just to check on whether Chambers was practical, I opened his book at random, and on three pages in sequence found the following;
(a) May 30th "Supposing God tells you to do something which is an enormous test to your common sense. What are you going to do? Hang back?"
The first and most important question is "How can you be certain that it truly was God who spoke to you?" How can you be absolutely certain that it was not your subconscious mind operating which you have interpreted as being a "voice from God"?
Let me explain briefly. People with so-called "mental illnesses" sometimes say they "hear voices" telling them to do bizarre things. In the brain, Broca's area deals with external words spoken by others. Wernicke's area deals with thoughts that we speak internally. When BOTH are operating, what the person is thinking he will interpret as external voices he is hearing. Thus, the "voices" are actually his own thoughts. Something similar may well be acting in the mind of a person who "hears God speaking to him". It would be impossible for him or her to prove otherwise.
The second question is whether God would do anything blatantly against common sense. Chambers places no limit on just how contrary to common sense any such order might be. Supposing someone thought that God had told him to stand in the path of a speeding bus to demonstrate to the world that he has the protection of God because the bus would not then hurt him. (It is not impossible that more than one person has had this thought!) Should he resist this urge? Of course he should, but there is no suggestion by Chambers to prevent this happening. Indeed, he continues by saying ".. Jesus Christ demands that you risk everything you hold by common sense and leap into what he says.."
I leave the reader to imagine just what the effect of such a passage might be upon the mind of an emotional young convert wanting to "please God" by some extreme act. The results are likely to be not only catastrophic but even physically dangerous to them. Remember, the only stories of amazing events that receive great publicity in Christian circles are those that turn out well. How many similar stories have you heard of that ended in disaster? Understandably, they get little publicity.
(b) May 28th. "You have come to the place of entire reliance on the resurrection life of Jesus which brings you into perfect contact with the purpose of God. Are you living that life now? If not, why shouldn't you?"
Does "entire reliance on the resurrection life of Jesus" (which should be the normal situation of all Christians) really "bring us into PERFECT contact with the purpose of God?" Does every Christian know the exact purpose of God every moment of their lives, for this is clearly implied? This is stretching the spiritual dimensions of the Christian life far beyond what is justifiable from the Bible.
(c) May 6th "We are not asked to believe the Bible, but the to believe the One whom the Bible reveals."
How can we know the truth about Jesus unless we FIRST believe what the Bible tells us about Him? As always, Chambers gets so carried away with his "higher spiritualisation" that he begins to make serious errors of both logic and doctrine.
.. and these were the first three pages chosen at random!
Example of the impracticality of the HSL?
Imagine a man with a small family being made redundant. Here is a problem he has to deal with. If we take the HSL teaching at face value, he should retire in prayer and seek for the Lord to deal with his pressing problem. Is this the correct Christian way to handle it? Surely not. As well as prayer, he MUST make every EFFORT to find another job.
One is hesitant to say it, for we are dealing with deep spiritual values, and they are not to be minimised, but I cannot help thinking of the old jibe of someone "who is so heavenly minded that he is no earthly use!" HSL proponents are ultimately quite impractical if their directives are take to their logical conclusion.
(3) Does the Bible support this attitude to the Christian faith?
It does not take much reading to see that the Bible is extremely practical in its teachings. It tells us about the spiritual aspects of the faith (heaven, hell, salvation etc.) but it is very clear on the basic practical aspects of how the Christian should live this life. There is little need to elaborate on this.
There are passages that seem to support the views of Chambers;
"When I am weak, then am I strong", "He who keeps his life loses it, but he who loses his life shall save it", "We are alive to Christ but dead to sin" - and many more.
It must be remembered than these words were addressed to people living in the cruel, decadent and pagan Roman world, and they had no concept of the Christian faith and the life-changing effect that it should have upon ordinary people. To emphasise just how great this change is, they were given these very sharply contrasting images of the previous state of the person to what he is now as a Christian. However, this vivid change was not to be taken to an extreme position out of context with the general teaching of the rest of the Bible. Basically, Paul is saying that now they are new children of God, they must adopt new ways of living that will enable them to lead an increasingly sanctified life.
Taken to the extreme, the new Christian would wait for God to tell him exactly what he should do next and not do anything until he received his "orders". This is the basis of the "higher spiritual life" that Chambers and Nee urge on Christians, and such an approach to the Christian faith is seen today in the "Let go and let God" movement. It is also in those movements that teach a "crisis" experience ("Baptism in the Holy Spirit"), following which the receiver of this special blessing will now have his life controlled by God and he can leave it all to Him; he can now rest from all his strivings against the enemy because God has taken over the course of his life. Such an attitude is unsupported by the general teaching of the Bible.
There are many clear statements in the Bible noting that all Christians will face an ongoing battle even after their conversion. Indeed, the battle is likely to become fiercer, but the enemy is now clearly recognisable. We are urged to actively deal with all such problems in many passages. Examples are -
Heb. 5:13 "For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. (14) But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil."
This is an important verse as it shows that we grow in Christian experience and discernment.
Phil. 2:12 "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; (13) for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure." Note that God is working through the body of the Christian; He does not take full control, turning the person into a robot. He is still expected to think things through and act according to the precepts in the Bible and the new Spirit within him.
Very many more could be quoted.
Looking at the Acts and letters, not once is there an instruction or clear implication that, when faced with a problem, we should "wait for God's instruction", or "let God deal with it." Always, there is a Godly yet practical way that it should be dealt with, and this is often spelled out in some detail. Obviously, if it is something well out of our control, then the response should be to leave the outcome in God's hands, but for the vast majority of times, there is usually SOMETHING that we can and should do to alleviate the situation.
(4) The dangers of pursuing this "higher life".
There are some very great dangers in trying to achieve this "higher life".
There is much claim to "letting God take over the running if my life", as though all decisions could now be left to HIM. Yet despite this claim, far from "handing life over", many adherents are continually talking about THEIR spiritual life, how THEIR battles are going, and always testing themselves against the impossibly high standards that have been set before them. The result is that they are in a continual state of anxiety in trying to achieve these high goals. I am reminded of the person who was always digging up his seeds "to see if they were growing" - and then wondering why they never seemed to flourish!
I know of one devotee of Chambers who consistently prayed for this higher life, and became very worried and badly depressed when they failed to achieve it. Alternatively, (or subsequently, if they become spiritually exhausted), a person may become withdrawn into a spiritual world of their own thinking and give an appearance of detachment from life.
In either case, such introspection is contrary to the true Christian life. This should be one of outgoing friendship, cheerfulness and maturity that is attractive to others.
(b) The high aim - and the resulting crash.
I would maintain that the spiritual levels that the "higher life" proponents are setting are actually both impractical, impossible and even dangerous for Christians to even attempt. What can so easily happen is that after much spiritual wrestling, the Christian eventually becomes completely disheartened by his continual failure, and concludes that the must be a very poor Christian indeed. The end result, after a long period of stress and introspective self-questioning, could well be a "nervous breakdown". This is hardly a commendable result of living the Christian life!
(c) Spiritual pride.
Along with the introspection that is often involved, there can be a secret spiritual pride generated in aiming at this "higher life" when others are scrabbling around in a seeming continual mess of problems. To say that you are seeking this purer life - even if admitting how badly you fail - is still drawing attention to yourself and the "high" aim you have in your life; the very thing that the mature Christian should not do. Tozer pointed out -
"Self derogation is bad, for the self must be there to derogate. Self, whether swaggering or grovelling, can never be but hateful to God... Boasting is evidence that we are pleased with self; belittling that we are disappointed with self. Either way, we have a high opinion of ourselves."
I will not dwell on this but leave it as a strong possibility that such a state can be so easily slipped into.
(5) Why is it so attractive?
(a) The "instant" solution to problems.
The HSL teaching holds out the promise of a blanket solution to all life's problems. Let God take over and you can sit in the back seat and enjoy a "happy life". This is totally unscriptural. Putting on the armour of Ephesians 6:12f shows the Christian is engaged in a CONTINUAL BATTLE.
(b) A "self help salvation?"
Basically, it can only be adopted by Arminians. "I chose to follow Christ and then I chose to be sanctified." i.e. I had an active part in my salvation (with the implication "Therefore I am a good person.")
That THEY actually had no choice because they were "chosen before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4-5) is unwelcome because it removes the last shred that allows them to make such a claim. Is this desire to have SOME part in their salvation one of the deeper reasons why the Calvinist views are so strongly resisted by many Christians?
(6) The biblical way to this "higher spiritual life"?
Christians are always well aware that their spiritual life is not what it should be. It is all too easy for preachers to produce guilt feelings by pointing to such weaknesses, particularly lack of prayer. Is there a better, deeper level of ordinary Christian life that can be reached by the average Christian? I would suggest that what Chambers and Nee have set before their readers as something to be striven for is only a distorted and exaggerated application of perfectly normal Christian principles that have been known ever since the time of Christ - as we shall now consider.
As we said at the start, all Christians realise that they fail to achieve the level of spiritual life the Bible points them to. Christ said "Be ye perfect, as my heavenly Father is perfect." How can they work towards this goal?
I would suggest that this comes down to the simple basic principle of sincere Christian humility.
When I say this, I mean of course true humility - which is not as easy to achieve as might be thought. Indeed, it is one of several strange "paradoxes" of the Christian life that if it is deliberately aimed for, it will not be obtained. Rather like wanting people to love you, and then "acting" (a word chosen deliberately) in a way to get them to "like" you, will ultimately put people off you, for they will see that you are wanting to gain their attention and you are effectively "buying" their love with your slightly excessive attentions.
As ever, C.S. Lewis put this admirably in "Mere Christianity" at the end of the chapter "The Great Sin" (Pride) -
"Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call "humble" nowadays: he will not be the sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is a nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed to be a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what YOU said to HIM. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all."
By far the best way to seek true humility is to simply stop thinking about ourselves (the introspection we discussed above), and truly love all others as our high priority. Sharing SINCERELY in the joys and sorrows of others will soon disperse depression and introspection. Our true love for them will quickly show through, and they will reciprocate this love back. An active outgoing Christian life will give much quiet satisfaction and joy to those who follow this path.
There is no need to strive for this "higher spiritual life"; it should come in following the ordinary precepts and directives so clearly set out for us all in the Bible.
MB April 2003.
ADDENDUM I - Some additional points.
Having written the above, I read four lectures on the subject by Peter Masters and Paul Brown given at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1981. These talks were very similar to this paper but were a fuller examination of the "Higher Spiritual Life" (HSL). I give a summary of certain additional points they made.
1. They claimed that the verses in the Bible the proponents of the HSL refer to as supporting their views ("I died with Christ, Christ lives in me" etc.) are really speaking NOT about SANCTIFICATION but about JUSTIFICATION - the once only act of acceptance of a person who becomes thereafter a Christian.
SANCTIFICATION is NOT retiring from the combat of life and letting Christ take over, but engaging in the many battles with the enemy. The HSL view misinterprets them by carrying over the correct interpretation of these passages (we can do nothing to achieve justification) to an incorrect interpretation (we should do nothing in our own strength in this life). The result is chaos in the teaching;
"..'entire sanctification' is not so entire after all. Enormous areas of holiness and obedience are omitted."
"These teachers create definitions of spiritual experience which are unbiblical, highly emotional and romantic."
2. Although there were no steps given in Watchman Nee's book that I read, he does give four steps towards the HSL in another book - "The Normal Christian Life". These are - knowing, reckoning, presenting ourselves to God, walking in the Spirit. But the basis of his ideas is that at every stage we have to substitute Christ acting instead of ourselves. "We are taken right out of the picture, and it is Christ who lives out His life in us." This is a long way from orthodox doctrine.
All HSL writers seem to expect some "crisis" experience AFTER becoming a Christian, in exactly the same way that charismatics and pentecostals do. The very SUBJECTIVE nature ("I" at the centre) of all these teachings is very obvious and a deadly poison that can damage the life of the Christian.
Hannah Pearsall Smith teaches we should receive Christ for our sanctification, but then admits there will be "difficulties". As each one is dealt with, a new one arises, but they all have to be dealt with by "surrendering" ourselves - in a never ending sequence. (See the last paragraph of this essay!)
3. Several other HSL writers are examined or mentioned, such as -
John Wesley (his doctrine of Christian Perfection), Andrew Murray, Hannah Pearsall Smith ("The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life"), Maynard James ("I believe in the Holy Ghost"), Dennis and Rita Bennett ("The Holy Spirit and You").
Surprisingly, Oswald Chambers is only given a "box" which has an extract from his "What is the Higher Life System?" This relates the great crisis he underwent before he entered into this "higher life".
ADDENDUM II - A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE "HIGHER SPIRITUAL LIFE" MOVEMENT
1738 John Wesley had his "heart-warming" experience at Aldersgate Street. He considered this to be his "sanctification" experience - i.e. a second "experience" from which he developed his "Christian Perfection" doctrine. [To many, this was really his CONVERSION experience].
Wesley sent Asbury and Coke to America and they took this doctrine of perfection with them. From them developed the huge "Frontier Camp Meetings" that took place mainly in the West and a line can be traced to the "second blessing" of the Pentecostal movement of later years. Religious fervour took hold of much of America and great emphasis was placed upon the Second Coming. From this period arose the Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and others.
In the 1820-30's Finney preached the Arminian doctrine that man could decide to become a Christian, and used emotional means with alter calls etc. to make "converts". However, he later admitted that they "soon relapsed again into their former state" and disappeared "like the morning cloud and the early dew." He decided the reason for this wholesale failure was that, after accepting justification by faith, they should then have been taught to accept "sanctification by faith."
With Asa Mahan, this "two stage" steps to true faith and "entire sanctification" (i.e. perfection) were developed and preached widely.
From this teaching W.E. Boardman wrote "The Higher Christian Life" and urged the very good looking Robert Pearsall Smith and his domineering wife Hannah to preach this to meetings. Smith and his wife came to England, and from their meetings arose the Keswick Movement with it "Let go and let God" teaching, which started in 1875. In that same year, his wife wrote "The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life" which sold millions of copies and is still selling well today. In her original preface she admitted that she had no knowledge of doctrine and said it was unimportant. Her preface was omitted in a recent edition.
This "Higher life" movement is still widely taught and held to today with Oswald Chambers' and Watchman Nee's books and others still being printed in large numbers.
We can only warn the reader about the great dangers of this deceptive teaching.
The lives of Robert and Hannah Pearsall Smith - a clear warning
How effective and successful is this "Higher Life"? We have pointed out the dangers of attempting to reach this "higher life" - spiritual pride, depression, etc., but some seem to live more normal lives. However, if the lives of Robert and Hannah Pearsall Smith are examined, the answer must be "a complete disaster". He suddenly withdrew from public life, and the reason given was illness. In fact, he had a "liaison" with another woman and left public life to avoid a scandal. He later became a Buddhist. His wife died in misery.
Thus, for these highly regarded exponents of the "Higher Life", the whole process was a complete sham which nevertheless gave them enormous fame, prestige and financial gain. They presented to the public a highly spiritualised "face" for their consumption only, that neither they nor anyone else could possibly achieve. These facts receive little publicity but are surely a loud and clear warning to all followers of the "higher life" that this teaching is a gross deception of sincere Christians that will lead them into endless problems and very great stress.
TO THE INDEX PAGE
TO ESSAY ON CHORUSES.