And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you are much mightier than we.” So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the Valley of Gerar and settled there. And Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, which the Philistines had stopped after the death of Abraham. And he gave them the names that his father had given them. – Genesis 26:16-1
In Genesis 26, Isaac faced a matter of life and death. The Philistine King had exiled him and Isaac found himself in the Valley of Gerar, in the Negev desert. There were no functioning wells and no running water in this part of the Negev desert. Human beings can survive for weeks without food, but not without water. Without water, life is not possible.
This story from the life of Isaac is useful as a metaphor for the present state of the Christian Church in our post-Christian, secular milieu. The Western church today faces its own existential challenge. We need spiritual water, we need God Himself. His presence, his power, his infusion of divine life…or we will waste away as Isaac surely would have in the Negev.
In our state of existential threat, we are often tempted to look for a novel solution (e.g. a new strategy, technology, or approach that will somehow reverse the snowballing decline of the church in our current moment. A silver bullet that will change things. Is it a better website? Is it cooler sneakers for the preacher? Do we need more smoke machines during worship?)
But notice how Isaac responds to his own crisis with great wisdom. He does not look for a novel solution. He doesn’t send for prospectors. He doesn’t send for water diviners. He doesn’t seek out a new location to dig a well. As Martyn Lloyd Jones said, “the man who innovates in a crisis is a fool.” What Isaac did was go back to the wells his father had dug before. Isaac recalled that his father had been in this same country before and knew to dig wells and find water. So he went back to Abraham’s wells which had sustained his people in the previous generation and he redug them.
In our current moment, this is what we must do. The church has rediscovered spiritual water before in past seasons of decline. This is not the first time the church has found herself in a spiritual drought, in danger of dehydration and death. We have been here many times before. In the late 1700s, for example, at the pinnacle of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire predicted that Christianity would be extinct in 100 years. All signs pointed to him being correct. But within a decade of his pronouncement, the 2nd Great Awakening began in North America and in Europe. In America, it lasted all the way until the Civil War. The church was renewed by the presence and power of God.
In Providence, Rhode Island for example, one wave of the awakening was a revival in the year 1820. Somewhere between 5 and 10% of the city’s population joined the church in that one year. Today, if we consider the population of the metro area today, this would be equivalent to somewhere between 75,000 and 150,000 men, women, and children joining the church. In a year. Can you even imagine? But this is what happens when the church finds water.
We need to go back to the wells of the past. But consider what happens when we do. When Isaac goes back to those old wells, what does he find? He doesn’t find water. He finds the wells, but he can’t get to the water. Why? It is because the Philistines, in their envy and antagonism towards the people of God, took revenge on Isaac by “throwing dirt and debris into all the wells that his father’s servants had dug.” The wells are now clogged and useless. Isaac knows the water is down there somewhere…but it is hidden beneath all the rubbish of the Philistines. It is the same for the church today.
As Martyn Lloyd Jones notes in his book Revival. The ‘Philistines’ have been very busy not just in Isaac’s time, but in ours as well. Our need is the same as it was 200 and 300 years ago. God is the same as He was 200 and 300 years ago. The gospel is the same as it was 200 and 300 years ago, just as relevant now as it was then. The same water is in the wells, but when we go back to these wells, we find them clogged. What has happened? Over the past generations, since New England experienced successive awakenings and waves of revivals, the enemy has thrown dirt and debris and rubbish in the wells of revival. It is the work of the Philistines.
It is important for us to go back to these ancient wells. To look there for the same power and life of God that has renewed God’s people in the past. But we have work to do as well. We must also clear away the ‘work of the Philistines.’
What is the work of the Philistines? We must unearth false ideas about God that we have unwittingly embraced. Popular beliefs that contradict the gospel but which dominate the spirit of the age. We must also recover cardinal truths and doctrines of the faith that have been lost, forgotten, or merely paid lip service to. And then there are sins, and patterns of sin that are contradictory to the gospel that we have agreed with and participated in. As we continue to pray for revival, a large part of that work involves repenting, renouncing, breaking agreement with these sins. Similarly, there are habits, patterns, practices, and ways of life that sustained the spiritual vitality of the church in ages past, but that we have lost and must recover. All of these activities fall under the heading of “redigging” or “unstopping the wells of revival.” And this is essential, vital work for the church in preparing herself for renewal.
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