V. The fifth season, requiring diligence in keeping the heart, is the time of outward wants. Although at such times we should complain to God, not of God, (the throne of grace being erected for a "time of need,") yet when the waters of relief run low, and want begins to press, how prone are the best hearts to distrust the fountain! When the meal in the barrel and the oil in the cruse are almost spent, our faith and patience too are almost spent. It is now difficult to keep the proud and unbelieving heart in a holy quietude and sweet submission at the foot of God. It is an easy thing to talk of trusting God for daily bread, while we have a full barn or purse; but to say as the prophet, "Though the fig-tree should not blossom, neither fruit be in the vine, &c. yet will I rejoice in the Lord:" surely this is not easy.
Would you know then how a Christian may keep his heart from distrusting God, or repining against him, when outward wants are either felt or feared?The case deserves to be seriously considered, especially now, since it seems to be the design of Providence to empty the people of God of their creature fullness, and acquaint them with those difficulties to which hitherto they have been altogether strangers. To secure the heart from the dangers attending this condition, these considerations may, through the blessing of the Spirit, prove effectual:
1. If God reduces you to necessities, he therein deals no otherwise with you than he has done with some of the holiest men that ever lived. Your condition is not singular; though you have hitherto been a stranger to want, other saints have been familiarly acquainted with it. Hear what Paul says, not of himself only, but in the name of other saints reduced to like exigencies: "Even to the present hour, we both hunger and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling-place." To see such a man as Paul going up and down in the world naked, and hungry, and houseless; one that was so far above thee in grace and holiness; one that did more service for God in a day than perhaps thou hast done in all thy days may well put an end to your pining. Have you forgotten how much even a David has suffered? How great were his difficulties! "Give, I pray thee," says he to Nabal, "whatsoever cometh to thy hand, to thy servants, and to thy son David." But why speak I of these? Behold a greater than any of them, even the Son of God, who is the heir of all things, and by whom the worlds were made, sometimes would have been glad of any thing, having nothing to eat. "And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry; and seeing a fig-tree afar off, having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon."
Hereby then God has set no mark of hatred upon you, neither can you infer want of love from want of bread. When thy repining heart puts the question, 'Was there ever sorrow like unto mine?' ask these worthies, and they will tell thee that though they did not complain as thou dost, yet their condition was as necessitous as thine is.
2. If God leave you not in this condition without a promise, you have no reason to repine or despond under it. That is a sad condition indeed to which no promise belongs. Calvin in his comment on Isaiah, 9:1, explains in what sense the darkness of the captivity was not so great as that of the lesser incursions made by Tiglath Pileser. In the captivity, the city was destroyed and the temple burnt with fire: there was no comparison in the affliction. yet the darkness was not so great, because, says he, "there was a certain promise made in this case, but none in the other." it is better to be as low as hell with a promise, than to be in paradise without one. Even the darkness of hell itself would be no darkness comparatively at all, were there but a promise to enlighten it. Now, God has left many sweet promises for the faith of his poor people to live upon in this condition; such as these: "O fear the Lord, ye his saints, for there is no want to them that fear him; the lions do lack and suffer hunger, but they that fear the Lord shall not want any good thing." "The eye of the Lord is upon the righteous to keep them alive in famine." "No good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly." "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" "When the poor and the needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them." Here you see their extreme wants, water being put for their necessaries of life; and their certain relief, "I the Lord will hear them;" in which it is supposed that they cry unto him in their distress, and he hears their cry. Having therefore these promises, why should not your distrustful heart conclude like David's, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.?"
'But these promises imply conditions: if they were absolute, they would afford more satisfaction.' What are those tacit conditions of which you speak but these, that he will either supply or sanctify your wants; that you shall have so much as God sees fit for you? And does this trouble you? Would you have the mercy, whether sanctified or not? whether God sees it fit for you or not? The appetites of saints after earthly things should not be so ravenous as to seize greedily upon any enjoyment without regarding circumstances.
'But when wants press, and I see not whence supplies should come, my faith in the promise shakes, and I, like murmuring Israel, cry, "He gave bread, can he give water also?" O unbelieving heart! when did his promises fail? who ever trusted them and was ashamed? May not God upbraid thee with thine unreasonable infidelity, as in Jer. 2:31, "Have I been a wilderness unto you?" or as Christ said to his disciples, "Since I was with you, lacked ye any thing?" Yea, may you not upbraid yourself; may you not say with good old Polycarp, "These many years I have served Christ, and found him a good Master?"
Indeed he may deny what your wantonness, but not what your want calls for. He will not regard the cry of your lusts, nor yet despise the cry of your faith: though he will not indulge your wanton appetites, yet he will not violate his own faithful promises. These promises are your best security for eternal life; and it is strange they should not satisfy you for daily bread. Remember the words of the Lord, and solace your heart with them amidst all your wants. It is said of Epicurus, that in dreadful paroxysms of the cholic he often refreshed himself by calling to mind his inventions in philosophy; and of Possodonius the philosopher, that in an acute disorder he solaced himself with discourses on moral virtue; and when distressed, he would say, "O pain, thou dost nothing; though thou art a little troublesome, I will never confess thee to be evil." If upon such grounds as these they could support themselves under such racking pains, and even deluded their diseases by them; how much rather should the promises of God, and the sweet experiences which have gone along step by step with them, make you forget all your wants, and comfort you in every difficulty?
3. If it is bad now, it might have been worse. Has God denied thee the comforts of this life? He might have denied thee Christ, peace, and pardon also; and then thy case had been woeful indeed.
You know God has done so to millions. How many such wretched objects may your eyes behold every day, that have no comfort in hand, nor yet in hope; that are miserable here, and will be so to eternity; that have a bitter cup, and nothing to sweeten itno, not so much as any hope that it will be better. but it is not so with you: though you be poor in this world, yet you are "rich in faith, and an heir of the kingdom which God has promised." Learn to set spiritual riches over against temporal poverty. Balance all your present troubles with your spiritual privileges. Indeed if God has denied your soul the robe of righteousness to clothe it, the hidden manna to feed it, the heavenly mansion to receive it, you might well be pensive; but the consideration that he has not may administer comfort under any outward distress. When Luther began to be pressed by want, he said, "Let us be contented with our hard fare; for do not we feast upon Christ, the bread of life?" "Blessed be God (said Paul) who hath abounded to us in all spiritual blessings."
4. Though this affliction be great, God has far greater, with which he chastises the dearly beloved of his soul in this world. Should he remove this and inflict those, you would account your present state a very comfortable one, and bless God to be as you now are. Should God remove your present troubles, supply all your outward wants, give you the desire of your heart in creature-comforts; but hide his face from you, shoot his arrows into your soul, and cause the venom of them to drink up your spirit; should he leave you but a few days to the buffetings of Satan: should he hold your eyes but a few nights waking with horrors of conscience, tossing to and fro until the dawning of the day: should he lead you through the chambers of death, show you the visions of darkness, and make his terrors set themselves in array against you: then tell me if you would not think if a great mercy to be back in your former necessitous condition, with peace of conscience; and account bread and water, with God's favor, a happy state? O then take heed of repining. Say not that God deals hardly with you, lest you provoke him to convince you by your own sense that he has worse rods than these for unsubmissive and froward children.
5. If it be bad now, it will be better shortly. Keep thy heart by this consideration, 'the meal in the barrel is almost spent; well, be it so, why should that trouble me, if I am almost beyond the need and use of these things?' The traveler has spent almost all his money; 'well,' say he, 'though my money be almost spent, my journey is almost finished too: I am near home, and shall soon be fully supplied.' If there be no candles in the house, it is a comfort to think that it is almost day, and then there will be no need of therm. I am afraid, Christian, you misreckon when you think your provision is almost spent, and you have a great way to travel, many years to live and nothing to live upon; it may be not half so many as you suppose. In this be confident, if your provision be spent, either fresh supplies are coming, though you see not whence, or you are nearer your journey's end than you reckon yourself to be. Desponding soul, does it become a man traveling upon the road to that heavenly city, and almost arrived there, within a few days' journey of his Father's house, where all his wants shall be supplied, to be so anxious about a little meat, or drink, or clothes, which he fears he shall want by the way? It was nobly said by the forty martyrs when turned out naked in a frosty night to be starved to death, "The winder indeed is sharp and cold, but heaven is warm and comfortable; here we shiver for cold, but Abraham's bosom will make amends for all."
'But,' say the desponding soul, 'I may die for want.' Who ever did so? When were the righteous forsaken? If indeed it be so, your journey is ended, and you fully supplied.
'But I am not sure of that; were I sure of heaven, it would be another matter.' Are you not sure of that? then you have other matters to trouble yourself about than these; methinks these should be the least of all your cares. I do not find that souls perplexed about the want of Christ, pardon of sin, &c. are usually very solicitous about these things. He that seriously puts such questions as these, 'What shall I do to be saved? how shall I know my sin is pardoned?' does not trouble himself with, "What shall I eat, what shall I drink, or wherewithal shall I be clothed?"
6. Does it become the children of such a Father to distrust his all-sufficiency, or repine at any of his dispensations? Do you well to question his care and love upon every new exigency? Say, have you not formerly been ashamed of this? Has not your Father's seasonable provision for you in former difficulties put you to the blush, and made you resolve never more to question his love and care? And yet will you again renew your unworthy suspicions of him? Disingenuous child! reason thus with yourself: "If I perish for want of what is good and needful for me, it must be either because my Father knows not my wants, or has not wherewith to supply them, or regards not what becomes of me. Which of these shall I charge upon him? Not the first: for my Father knows what I have need of. Not the second: for the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof; his name is God All-sufficient. Not the last: for as a Father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him; the Lord is exceeding pitiful and of tender mercy; he hears the young ravens when they cry: and will he not hear me? Consider, says Christ, the fowls of the air; not the fowls at the door, that are fed every day by hand, but the fowls of the air that have none to provide for them. Does he feed and clothe his enemies, and will he forget his children? he heard even the cry of Ishmael in distress. O my unbelieving heart, dost thou yet doubt?"
7. Your poverty is not your sin, but your affliction. If you have not by sinful means brought it upon yourself, and if it be but an affliction, it may the more easily be borne. It is hard indeed to bear an affliction coming upon us as the fruit and punishment of sin. When men are under trouble upon that account; they say, 'O if it were but a single affliction, coming from the hand of God by way of trial, I could bear it; but I have brought it upon myself by sin, it comes as the punishment of sin; the marks of God's displeasure are upon it: it is the guilt within that troubles and galls more than the want without.' But it is not so here; therefore you have not reason to be cast down under it.
'But though there be no sting of guilt, yet this condition wants not other stings: as, for instance, the discredit of religion. I cannot comply with my engagements in the world, and thereby religion is likely to suffer.' It is well you have a heart to discharge every duty; yet if God disable you by providence, it is no discredit to your profession that you do not that which you cannot do, so long as it is your desire and endeavor to do what you can and ought to do; and in this case God's will is, that lenity and forbearance be exercised toward you.
'But it grieves me to behold the necessities of others, whom I was wont to relieve and refresh, but now cannot.' If you cannot, it ceases to be your duty, and God accepts the drawing out of your soul to the hungry in compassion and desire to help them, though you cannot draw forth a full purse to relieve and supply them.
'But I find such a condition full of temptations, a great hinderance in the way of heaven.' Every condition in the world had its hinderances and attending temptations; and were you in a prosperous condition, you might there meet with more temptations and fewer advantages than you now have; for though I confess poverty as well as prosperity has its temptations, yet I am confident prosperity has not those advantages that poverty has. Here you have an opportunity to discover the sincerity of your love to God, when you can live upon him, find enough in him, and constantly follow him, even when all external inducements and motives fail.
Thus I have shown you how to keep your heart from the temptations and dangers attending a low condition in the world. When want oppresses and the heart begins to sink, then improve, and bless God for these helps to keep it.
VI. The sixth season requiring this diligence in keeping the heart, is the season of duty. Our hearts must be closely watched and kept when we draw nigh to God in public, private, or secret duties; for the vanity of the heart seldom discovers itself more than at such times. How often does the poor soul cry out, 'O Lord, how gladly would I serve thee, but vain thoughts will not let me: I come to open my heart to thee, to delight my soul in communion with thee, but my corruptions oppose me: Lord, call off these vain thoughts, and suffer them not to estrange the soul that is espoused to thee.'
The question then is this: How may the heart be kept from distractions by vain thoughts in time of duty? There is a two-fold distraction, or wandering of the heart in duty: First, voluntary and habitual, "They set not their hearts aright, and their spirit was not steadfast with God." This is the case of formalists, and it proceeds from the want of a holy inclination of the heart to God; their hearts were under the power of their lusts, and therefore it is no wonder that they go after their lusts, even when they are about holy things. Secondly, involuntary and lamented distractions: "I find then a law, that when I would do good, evil is present with me; O wretched man that I am," &c. This proceeds not from the want of a holy inclination or aim, but from the weakness of grace and the want of vigilance in opposing in-dwelling sin. But it is not my business to show you how these distractions come into the heart, but rather how to get them out, and prevent their future admission:
1. Sequester yourself from all earthly employments, and set apart some time for solemn preparation to meet God in duty. You cannot come directly from the world into God's presence without finding a savor of the world in your duties. It is with the heart (a few minutes since plunged in the world, now in the presence of God) as it is with the sea after a storm, which still continues working, muddy and disquiet, though the wind be laid and the storm be over. Your heart must have some time to settle. Few musicians can take an instrument and play upon it without some time and labor to tune it; few Christians can say with David, "My heart is fixed, O God, it is fixed." When you go to God in any duty, take your heart aside and say, 'O my soul, I am now engaged in the greatest work that a creature was ever employed about; I am going into the awful presence of God upon business of everlasting moment. O my soul, leave trifling now; be composed, be watchful, be serious; this is no common work, it is soul-work; it is work for eternity; it is work which will bring forth fruit to life or death in the world to come.' Pause awhile and consider your sins, your wants, your troubles; keep your thoughts awhile on these before you address yourself to duty. David first mused, and then spake with his tongue.
2. Having composed your heart by previous meditation, immediately set a guard upon your senses. How often are Christians in danger of losing the eyes of their mind by those of their body! Against this David prayed, "Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity, and quicken thou me in thy way." This may serve to expound the Arabian proverb: "Shut the windows that the house may be light." It were well if you could say in the commencement, as a holy man once said when he came from the performance of duty: "Be shut, O my eyes, be shut; for it is impossible that you should ever discern such beauty and glory in any creature as I have now seen in God." You must avoid all occasions of distraction from without, and imbibe that intenseness of spirit in the work of God which locks up the eye and ear against vanity.
3. Beg of God a mortified fancy. A working fancy, (saith one,) how much so ever it be extolled among men, is a great snare to the soul, except it work in fellowship with right reason and a sanctified heart. The fancy is a power of the soul, placed between the senses and the understanding; it is that which first stirs itself in the soul, and by its motions the other powers of the soul are brought into exercise; it is that in which thoughts are first formed, and as that is, so are they. If imaginations be not first cast down, it is impossible that every thought of the heart should be brought into obedience to Christ. The fancy is naturally the wildest and most untameable power of the soul. Some Christians have much to do with it; and the more spiritual the heart is, the more does a wild and vain fancy disturb and perplex it. It is a sad thing that one's imagination should call off the soul from attending on God, when it is engaged in communion with him. Pray earnestly and perseveringly that your fancy may be chastened and sanctified, and when this is accomplished your thoughts will be regular and fixed.
4. If you would keep your heart from vain excursions when engaged in duties, realize to yourself, by faith, the holy and awful presence of God. If the presence of a grave man would compose you to seriousness, how much more should the presence of a holy God? Do you think that you would dare to be gay and light if you realized the presence and inspection of the Divine Being? Remember where you are when engaged in religious duty, and act as if you believed in the omniscience of God. "All things are naked and open to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do." Realize his infinite holiness, his purity, his spirituality.
Strive to obtain such apprehensions of the greatness of God as shall suitably affect your heart; and remember his jealousy over his worship. "This is that the Lord spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified." "A man that is praying (says Bernard) should behave himself as if he were entering into the court of heaven, where he sees the Lord upon his throne, surrounded with ten thousand of his angels and saints ministering unto him." When you come from an exercise in which your heart has been wandering and listless, what can you say? Suppose all the vanities and impertinences which have passed through your mind during a devotional exercise were written down and interlined with your petitions, could you have the face to present them to God? Should your tongue utter all the thoughts of your heart when attending the worship of God, would not men abhor you? Yet your thoughts are perfectly known to God. O think upon this scripture: "God is greatly to be feared in the assemblies of his saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are round about him." Why did the Lord descend in thunderings and lightnings and dark clouds upon Sinai? why did the mountains smoke under him, the people quake and tremble round about him, Moses himself not excepted? but to teach the people this great truth: "Let us have grace, whereby we may serve Him acceptably, with reverence and godly fear; for our God is a consuming fire." Such apprehensions of the character and presence of God will quickly reduce a heart inclined to vanity to a more serious frame.
5. Maintain a prayerful frame of heart in the intervals of duty. What reason can be assigned why our hearts are so dull, so careless, so wandering, when we hear or pray, but that there have been long intermissions in our communion with God? If that divine unction, that spiritual fervor, and those holy impressions, which we obtain from God while engaged in the performance of one duty, were preserved to enliven and engage us in the performance of another, they would be of incalculable service to keep our hearts serious and devout. For this purpose, frequent ejaculations between stated and solemn duties are of most excellent use: they not only preserve the mind in a composed and pious frame, but they connect one stated duty, as it were, with another, and keep the attention of the soul alive to all its interests and obligations.
6. If you would have the distraction of your thoughts prevented, endeavor to raise your affections to God, and to engage them warmly in your duty. When the soul is intent upon any work, it gathers in its strength and bends all its thoughts to that work; and when it is deeply affected, it will pursue its object with intenseness, the affections will gain an ascendancy over the thoughts and guide them. But deadness causes distraction, and distraction increases deadness. Could you but regard your duties as the medium in which you might walk in communion with God in which your soul might be filled with those ravishing and matchless delights which his presence affords, you might have no inclination to neglect them. But if you would prevent the recurrence of distracting thoughts, if you would find your happiness in the performance of duty, you must not only be careful that you engage in what is your duty, but labor with patient and persevering exertion to interest your feelings in it. Why is your heart so inconstant, especially in secret duties; why are you ready to be gone, almost as soon as you are come into the presence of God, but because your affections are not engaged?
7. When you are disturbed by fain thoughts, humble yourself before God, and call in assistance from Heaven. When the messenger of Satan buffeted St. Paul by wicked suggestions, (as is supposed) he mourned before God on account of it. Never slight wandering thoughts in duty as small matters; follow every such thought with a deep regret. Turn to God with such words as these: 'Lord, I came hither to commune with thee, and here a busy adversary and a vain heart, conspiring together, have opposed me. O my God! what a heart have I! shall I never wait upon thee without distraction? when shall I enjoy an hour of free communion with thee? Grant me thy assistance at this time; discover thy glory to me, and my heart will quickly be recovered. I came hither to enjoy thee, and shall I go away without thee? Behold my distress, and help me!' Could you but sufficiently bewail your distractions, and repair to God for deliverance from them, you would gain relief.
8. Look upon the success and the comfort of your duties, as depending very much upon the keeping of your heart close with God in them. These two things, the success of duty and the inward comfort arising from the performance of it, are unspeakably dear to the Christian; but both of these will be lost if the heart be in a listless state. "Surely God heareth not vanity, nor doth the Almighty regard it." The promise is made to a heart engaged: "Then shall ye seek for me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your hearts." When you find your heart under the power of deadness and distraction, say to yourself, 'O what do I lose by a careless heart now! My praying seasons are the most valuable portions of my life: could I but raise my heart to God, I might now obtain such mercies as would be matter of praise to all eternity.'
9. Regard your carefulness or carelessness in this matter as a great evidence of your sincerity, or hypocrisy. Nothing will alarm an upright heart more than this. 'What! shall I give way to a customary wandering of the heart from God? Shall the spot of the hypocrite appear upon my soul? Hypocrites, indeed, can drudge on in the round of duty, never regarding the frame of their hearts; but shall I do so? Nevernever let me be satisfied with empty duties. Never let me take my leave of a duty until my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.'
10. It will be of special use to keep your heart with God in duty, to consider what influence all your duties will have upon your eternity. Your religious seasons are the seed times, and in another world you need reap the fruits of what you sow in your duties here. If you sow to the flesh, you will reap corruption; if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap life everlasting. Answer seriously these questions: Are you willing to reap the fruit of vanity in the world to come? Dare you say, when your thoughts are roving to the ends of the earth in duty, when you scarce mind what you say or hear, 'Now, Lord, I am sowing to the Spirit; now I am providing and laying up for eternity; now I am seeking for glory, honor and immortality; now I am striving to enter in at the strait gate; now I am taking the kingdom of heaven by holy violence!' Such reflections are well calculated to dissipate vain thoughts.
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