Neglected and ill, a young man still in his mid-twenties lay in his small rented room. Gerhard Tersteegen had deliberately cut himself off from his family and friends. He had done so in the mistaken belief that by living a solitary existence, far from the religious confusion of his day, he might find God.
A ribbon-weaver by trade, he subsisted on the most meagre of diets – flour, water and a little milk. He gave every scrap of his remaining earnings to the needy of Mühlheim-on-the-Ruhr, the German city where he lived.
But now he was ill. For weeks he had suffered violent headaches, fainting fits, high fevers and coughing. Lying on the floor of his dingy room he would long for someone to bring him even a drink of water to alleviate his thirst.
But though the tenants in the other apartments knew of Tersteegen’s condition, they rarely concerned themselves about him.
Born over 300 years ago, in 1697, Gerhard was the youngest in a family of six boys, and was only six years old when his father died. His mother, Cornelia, struggled to bring up her sons alone.
Realising that her youngest child was highly gifted academically, she did her best to provide him with an education. For nine years the boy studied hard, achieving a working knowledge of French, Hebrew, Latin and classical literature.
But when he was fifteen, Cornelia came to the reluctant conclusion that she could not afford a university education for Gerhard. He must learn a trade. Leaving his home town, he therefore went to Mühlheim to stay with his brother and work as his apprentice.
At that very time the city was witnessing a remarkable spiritual awakening. Religious gatherings known as ‘conventicles’ took place nearly every night, and during the day hymns of praise to God could be heard from almost every home and workshop.
Gerhard, a quiet dreamy boy, found himself attracted to the conventicles, but although he heard numerous gospel sermons, his mind remained confused and his heart untouched. Not until 1717, at the age of twenty, did he begin to find an inner longing to know and please God.
But, like many today, Gerhard Tersteegen had little understanding of the gospel of Christ and the grace of God. He tried diligently to find a way of making himself acceptable to God by his upright life.
Renting a room in an apartment block, he devoted all the time he could spare from his ribbon-weaving to reading, praying and performing works of kindness for the less fortunate.
But the books he was reading confused him still further. A Lutheran pastor had lent him the works of Jakob Boehme – a mystic – and as he read, the gloom surrounding Gerhard’s troubled soul intensified and his sense of sin deepened.
Unable to bear the burden of his spiritual anxiety any longer, and undermined by his ascetic lifestyle, his health crumbled.
Uncared for and alone
For many weeks Tersteegen lay ill, uncared for and alone. In his own words, he was ‘like one far away on a great sea when in the stormy skies neither sun nor stars appear’. Yet he could add, ‘but my hope is that my Jesus has his hand upon the helm’.
In later years he put into verse some of the emotions that distressed him during this time – as he began to realise that he must stop relying on his good deeds to save him, and yield instead to the call of God’s free grace in Christ:
God calls me yet: alas this stubborn heart!
I feared his yoke, shrank from the nobler part;
God and my soul how oft have I betrayed!
He draws me still: rise, heart, be not afraid.
When he was well enough to leave his room, he set out on a business journey to a nearby town, possibly in an attempt to sell his work. His route lay through a wood and as he walked he was suddenly taken violently ill again.
‘Perhaps I am dying,’ he thought in panic. Falling to the ground he begged God to remove the intense pain and give him time to prepare for eternity. Quite suddenly the pain eased. God had heard his cry.
There and then, Gerhard cast himself on the mercy of God, imploring him to forgive his sins and accept his soul for Christ’s sake. He realised at last that no good works of his own could earn God’s favour – nor did God set standards that he must reach before he could merit salvation. He must trust in Christ alone.
The next day, back in his room, Tersteegen was sitting on his bed when quite unexpectedly his soul was flooded with love to Christ. It was as though a light had been turned on in his innermost being.
That April morning in 1724 was one he would never forget. Already he had begun to express his thoughts in verse, and now he wrote a poem to convey his wonder at knowing that his sins were forgiven:
Forgotten every stain and spot,
Their memory past and gone,
For me, O God, thou seest not,
But lookest on thy Son.
No more my countless sins shall rise
To fill me with dismay –
That precious blood before his eyes,
Has put them all away.
It was the Thursday of Easter week, and as he thought of the cross of Calvary, the Saviour’s redeeming work took on new dimensions for the young man. Using his own blood as his ink, Tersteegen wrote burning words of self-dedication and thanksgiving:
‘My Jesus, I own myself to be yours; my only Saviour and Bridegroom, Christ Jesus, I am yours, wholly and eternally… From this evening onward my heart and all my love are offered up to you in eternal thankfulness. Command and rule and reign over me. I yield myself up without reserve.’
Christ as a friend
Tersteegen had found in Christ a friend who would never forsake or forget him. Against all previous expectations, and now twenty-seven years old, he was about to embark on a life of extraordinary usefulness and influence for the kingdom of God – not only among his own countrymen but far down the generations of the Christian church.
This he accomplished firstly by the poems that he wrote. Freed from spiritual bondage, he set down his thoughts and aspirations in words of exquisite beauty – words which have been translated into eloquent and moving English, expressing a Christian’s deepest longings:
Each moment draw from earth away
My heart that lowly waits thy call;
Speak to my inmost soul and say,
‘I am thy Saviour God, thy All!’
To feel thy power, to hear thy voice,
To taste thy love, be all my choice.
Not long after his conversion there was a further spiritual awakening in the area where the young man lived.
A preacher named Hoffmann was being greatly used by God at this time, but he was quite unable to deal with all the calls on his time and strength. He persuaded Gerhard to assist him in preaching.
Concern for others
It soon became clear that God had given Tersteegen a remarkable gift as a preacher. Crowds flocked from outlying districts to hear him and to join in the prayer meetings.
More than this, Gerhard’s concern for others made him a wise and able counsellor. Gone was his privacy, as anxious people found their way to his small cottage to seek his advice.
Remembering earlier days, when he had lain in his dismal apartment in thirst and pain, Gerhard now spent all his energy in guiding others to that source of spiritual satisfaction that he himself had found:
Name of Jesus! living tide!
Days of drought for me are past;
How much more than satisfied
Are the thirsty lips at last!
Only Jesus! fairest Name!
Life and rest and peace and bliss,
Jesus evermore the same,
He is mine and I am his.
The kiss of heaven
Although Tersteegen suffered from poor health throughout life, at times of illness he was now surrounded by those who loved and cared for him. And with such attention, his years were prolonged.
In March 1769, however, when he was seventy-two, the end came. Suffering from a lung disorder, he was obliged to remain seated in his chair night and day. Tersteegen slept most of the time, but in his waking moments was heard to whisper constantly, ‘O Jesus! O beloved Jesus!’
One who was present wrote, ‘Then it was as if the kiss of heavenly love released the imprisoned spirit’.