Read Mark 10:17-22

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 17:21)

Players in the third league, the Premiere League, train hard and play hard. They are willing to suffer the pain that it takes to gain in ability. They have been chosen by their coaches to join elite teams. And yet most are not completely dedicated to soccer alone. There are aspects of their lives apart from soccer into which they put time and effort. Good things. There are friends and activities. There is schoolwork. They aren’t willing to give entire weekends to travel all over the country for games and tournaments, to spend all the money that it takes, to give all of their lives over to soccer. But there are some who do want to go all in, and if they are chosen, they join a team in the National League.

Tested, mature Christians who have taken up the cross may still not have given all to Christ. They retain control over their wills. If God gives a command, there is another step that must take place before it is done: they decide whether they will obey. They think about where they would like to go and what they would like to do rather than what God would have them do. They think about how they would like to serve God rather than how God would have them serve. They think first about their own needs and desires rather than God’s. “I think I would like a bowl of ice cream” vs “What should I eat in order to serve God best?” It is this deep root of self-will that must now go.

In the fourth conversion, Jesus asks us to sell all and follow him. Some will turn away in sorrow. Others intend to surrender themselves entirely to God. Of course, it takes much more than a one-time decision to pull out self-will by the root. It is something that only God can accomplish. It takes much training and suffering. But they give God permission, even more, they beg God to help them die to self and live for him.

These have entered the National League. They are still youth—still beginners—but they are all in. They have given the coach the green light to do whatever it takes to make them excel. They follow implicitly. They are always training. They make obvious, rapid progress.

In this fourth league, God often starts to show himself more overtly. He starts to act in more obvious ways, ways that leave little room for doubt that it is he. He teaches and inspires. According to St. Teresa of Avila, the fourth mansions are the beginning of “supernatural” prayer.[1] According to Thomas Merton, “God is the principal agent who infuses [this prayer] into the soul and who, by this means, takes possession of the soul’s faculties and moves them directly according to his will.”[2]

To this point, prayer involved activity. Perhaps it was reading a good book or a passage from the Bible, thinking how it applies to me and my life, and loving God. Perhaps it was thinking about the life of Christ, how he lived and served and obeyed and died and rose, the beauty of his life, and loving God. Perhaps it was thinking about the needs of others, and praying for them, and loving them, and serving them, and loving God. Perhaps it was dealing with some great life crisis, struggling with God, fighting with him over the outcome, and coming to love him. In any case, it involved actively turning toward God in the mind, thinking about God, and engaging the will, loving God, with God’s hidden help.

In this fourth league, God himself breathes into the spirit. He himself moves the will, filling it with love, or sorrow and weeping for sin, or peace that passes understanding, or joy and elation, or burning desire, or fear of failing him, or wonder at his wisdom and his works. Some of these sound like emotions, but they are not first of all that. God is at the center of the soul, and his work originates there and moves outward. These are deep inspirations of the will that may be so strong that they boil over into the mind, or into emotions such as weeping, or jumping for joy, or utter humiliation, or an overwhelming feeling of love. These are gifts of life and of truth and of love, gifts that Satan cannot and would not imitate.

He starts to answer prayer in an obvious way. Oh! You had better be careful what you ask for! He starts to teach the soul things it has no natural way of knowing, knowledge that seems to spring up out of love rather than reason. He starts to give gifts of the Spirit, gifts of wisdom, or knowledge, or healing, or miracles, or prophecy, or discernment, or tongues.

Many are not led by this path, and that’s fine—it is not required of all Christians. There are other paths. Perhaps they are temperamentally not suited for this path. Maybe the demands of life don’t leave enough time for solitude and prayer. Perhaps they will do better in serving others, showing compassion, raising a family. Activity can also lead to sanctity, perhaps even greater sanctity. St. Teresa of Calcutta, who dedicated her life to serving the poorest of the poor, in the last several decades of her life felt an almost complete absence of God. Yet she served with her whole life, founded religious orders, and changed the world. There is time enough after death for seeing Christ.

Of course, these gifts are not given purely for the enjoyment of the recipient. They equip and strengthen for service. As love of God grows, so does love of neighbor. As service to God grows, so does service to neighbor. Following Christ means following his life of service and suffering, and death, and resurrection. And fruit. And glorification—treasure in heaven. A river keeps flowing until it rejoins the ocean.

[1] The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 2, Tr. K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez, Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1980, p. 316f.
[2] What is Contemplation, Thomas Merton, Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1981, p. 25.

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of and