In 1677, twenty-seven-year-old Henry Scougal wrote this to a friend: “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love” (The Life of God in the Soul of Man, 20). It is among the most penetrating sentences in the English language (or any language).
It is a devastating sentence. It lays us bare. For, as John Piper says,
The soul is measured by its flights,
Some low and others high,
The heart is known by its delights,
And pleasures never lie. (The Pleasures of God, 4)
Pleasures never lie. We can fool ourselves and others in many ways, but pleasure is the whistle-blower of the heart, because pleasure is the measure of our treasure. We know that what we truly treasure is what we truly love because Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). So it’s “not what we dutifully will but what we passionately want [that] reveals our excellence or evil” (The Pleasures of God, 4). Pleasure is the joy we experience over a treasure we love that makes us willing to sell everything else to have it (Matthew 13:44).
Henry Scougal was wonderfully, devastatingly, biblically right: the object of our love, the treasure we passionately want, measures the worth and excellency of our souls.
Search Me, O God
If we agree with Scougal, his penetrating sentence forces us to do some soul-searching. What do our pleasures really tell us about what we love? What do our loves tell us about the condition of our souls? What do we passionately want?
These are necessary questions, but the truth is, our own introspection and self-evaluation are typically not enough. We are usually poor physicians for our own souls, often failing to see the root causes or symptoms clearly. We swing from thinking far too highly of ourselves one moment to beating ourselves down with condemnation the next.
What we really need is to allow — to invite — Jesus to search our souls. We need the diagnosis and treatment of the Great Physician. We need to come to him and say with David,
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23–24)
What Jesus Asks of Us
Jesus is the master soul-searcher. It’s what he did with Peter after their post-resurrection seaside breakfast (John 21:15–19). Just days before, Peter had tragically failed to love Jesus, denying that he even knew Jesus three times. And so that morning, after lovingly serving him a meal on the beach, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” He asked this question three times.
Jesus accomplishes so much in this brief, but life-altering conversation. We watch him beautifully restore, commission, and prophesy over Peter. But we also see him expose Peter. Peter’s denials were real and horrible failures. Jesus repeating his question three times wasn’t merely to allow Peter to affirm his love for every denial. He was also probing deep into Peter’s soul, into the painful place of shame, and calling forth a love stronger than before, one that would endure the future opportunity for Peter to fulfill his pledge to lay his life down for Jesus (John 13:37). I think Peter’s grief after the third question is evidence that Jesus was hitting home (John 21:17).
Have We Lost Our First Love?
And we, like Peter, have also failed to love Jesus. Perhaps we have denied him publicly at times. We certainly have denied him thousands of times privately, choosing to pursue other treasures because we believed they held greater pleasures. These failures are real and horrible — worse than we might realize.
The question is, how true is this now? Are we living in failure, allowing the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of sin to choke out our love for Jesus (Matthew 13:22; Hebrews 3:13)? Have we grown accustomed to talking abstractly and dutifully about loving Jesus while passionately wanting and pursuing other things? Have we given ourselves permission to consider our lack of love for Jesus to be normal because lots of other Christians seem content living this way?
If so, if our pleasures are blowing the whistle that our hearts are not enthralled with Jesus, that we don’t love him supremely, it’s time to come to him and repent and invite him to search our hearts and ask us his probing question, “Do you love me?”
Whatever It Takes, Lord
The wonderful thing is that we don’t need to be afraid, for Jesus knows exactly where we’re at, just like he knew where Peter was at. He knows our failures to love him. He knows that they are sin. But he also knows his death and resurrection purchased the full forgiveness of those sins and the power for us to be changed from lukewarm to white-hot lovers of God. And he wants this for us — he’s eager to give it to us!
Our Lord Jesus,
We confess our horrible failures to love you. Our pleasures have not lied, and they reveal how we have not pursued the triune God as our greatest treasure. We don’t want another day to pass allowing our love for you to languish in a tepid place in our hearts.
So we ask you, Great Physician, to come search our souls and know our hearts. We present them to you; address every grievous way in us. Ask your probing questions. We will hold nothing from you. Do whatever it takes to revive our love for you! We do not want to give our souls rest until you are our first love (Revelation 2:4).
We want this more than anything: to love the triune God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength (Matthew 22:37). We believe the greatest affection is love, and we believe you are the greatest object of our love (1 Corinthians 13:13). And we believe we’ll never be happier and the excellence and worth of our souls will never be greater than when we love you supremely. For you are the wellspring of all that is truly life (1 Timothy 6:19; John 14:6).
So we ask you to revive our love for you, O Lord, whatever it takes. And we ask it in your name, Jesus, and for your glory, Amen.