X. The time of doubting and of spiritual darkness constitutes another season when it is very difficult to keep the heart. When the light and comfort of the divine presence is withdrawn; when the believer, from the prevalence of indwelling sin in one form or other, is ready to renounce his hopes, to infer desperate conclusions with respect to himself, to regard his former comforts as vain delusions, and his professions as hypocrisy; at such a time much diligence is necessary to keep the heart from despondency. The Christian's distress arises from his apprehension of his spiritual state, and in general he argues against his possessing true religion, either from his having relapsed into the same sins from which he had formerly been recovered with shame and sorrow; or from the sensible declining of his affections from God; or from the strength of his affections toward creature enjoyments; or from his enlargement in public, while he is often confined and barren in private duties; or from some horrible suggestions of Satan, with which his soul is greatly perplexed; or, lastly, from God's silence and seeming denial of his long depending prayers. Now in order to the establishment and support of the heart under these circumstances, it is necessary that you be acquainted with some general truths which have a tendency to calm the trembling and doubting soul; and that you be rightly instructed with regard to the above-mentioned causes of disquiet. Let me direct your attention to the following general truths:
1. Every appearance of hypocrisy does not prove the person who manifests it to be a hypocrite. You should carefully distinguish between the appearance and the predominance of hypocrisy. There are remains of deceitfulness in the best hearts; this was exemplified in David and Peter; but the prevailing frame of their hearts being upright, they were not denominated hypocrites for their conduct.
2. We ought to regard what can be said in our favor, as well as what may be said against us. It is the sin of upright persons sometimes, to exercise an unreasonable severity against themselves. They do not impartially consider the state of their souls. To make their state appear better than it really is, indeed is the damning sin of self-flattering hypocrites; and to make their state appear worse than it really is, is the sin and folly of some good persons. But why should you be such an enemy of your own peace? Why read over the evidences of God's love to your soul, as a man does a book which he intends to confute? Why do you study evasions, and turn off those comforts which are due to you?
3. Everything which may be an occasion of grief to the people of god, is not a sufficient ground for their questioning the reality of their religion. Many things may trouble, which ought not to stumble you. If upon every occasion you should call in question all that had ever been wrought upon you, your life would be made up of doubtings and fears, and you could never attain that settled inward peace, and live that life of praise and thankfulness which the Gospel requires.
4. The soul is not at all times in a suitable state to pass a right judgment upon itself. It is peculiarly unqualified for this in the hour of desertion or temptation. Such seasons must be improved rather for watching and resisting, than for judging and determining.
5. Whatever be the ground of one's distress, it should drive him to, not from God. Suppose you have sinned thus and so, or that you have been thus long and sadly deserted, yet you have no right to infer that you ought to be discouraged, as if there was no help for you in God.
When you have well digested these truths, if your doubts and distress remain, consider what is now to be offered:
1. Are you ready to conclude that you have no part in the favor of God, because you are visited with some extraordinary affliction? If so, do you then rightly conclude that great trials are tokens of God's hatred? Does the Scripture teach this? And dare you infer the dame with respect to all who have been as much or more afflicted than yourself? If the argument is good in your case, it is good in application to theirs, and more conclusive with respect to them, in proportion as their trials were greater than yours. Wo then to David, Job, Paul, and all who have been afflicted as they were! But had you passed along in quietness and prosperity; had God withheld those chastisements with which he ordinarily visits his people, would you not have had far more reason for doubts and distress than you now have?
2. Do you rashly infer that the Lord has no love to you, because he has withdrawn the light of his countenance? Do you imagine your state to be hopeless, because it is dark and uncomfortable? Be not hasty in forming this conclusion. If any of the dispensations of God to his people will bear a favorable as well as a harsh construction, why should they not be construed in the best sense? And may not God have a design of love rather than of hatred in the dispensation under which you mourn? May he not depart for a season, without departing for ever? You are not the first that have mistaken the design of God in withdrawing himself. "Zion said, the Lord hath forsaken me, my Lord hath forgotten me.? But was it so? What saith the answer of God? "Can a woman forget her sucking child?" &c.
But do you sink down under the apprehension that the evidences of a total and final desertion are discoverable in your experience? Have you then lost your conscientious tenderness with regard to sin? and are you inclined to forsake God? If so, you have reason indeed to be alarmed. But if your conscience is tenderly alive; if you are resolved to cleave to the Lord; if the language of your heart is, I cannot forsake God, I cannot live without his presence; though he slay me, yet will I trust him: then you have reason to hope that he will visit you again. It is by these exercises that he still maintains his interest in you.
Once more. Are sense and feelings suitable to judge the dispensations of God by? Can their testimony be safely relied on? Is it safe to argue thus: 'If God had any love for my soul, I should feel it now as well as in former times; but I cannot feel it, therefore it is gone?' may you not as well conclude, when the sun is invisible to you, that he has cease to exist? Read Isaiah 1:10.
Now if there is nothing in the divine dealings with you which is a reasonable ground of your despondency and distress, let us inquire what there is in your own conduct for which you should be so cast down:
1. Have you committed sins from which you were formerly recovered with shame and sorrow? And do you thence conclude that you sin allowedly and habitually, and that your oppositions to sin were hypocritical? But do not too hastily give up all for lost. Is not your repentance and care renewed as often as you commit sin? Is it not the sin itself which troubles you, and is it not true, that the oftener you sin the more you are distressed? It is not so in customary sinning; of which Bernard excellently discourses thus: "When a man accustomed to restrain, sins grievously, it seems insupportable to him, yea he seems to descend alive into hell. In process of time it seems not insupportable, but heavy, and between insupportable and heavy there is no small descent. Next, such sinning becomes light, his conscience smites but faintly, and he regards not her rebukes. Then he is not only insensible to his guilt, but that which was bitter and displeasing has become in some degree sweet and pleasant. Now it is made a custom, and not only pleases, but pleases habitually. At length custom becomes nature; he cannot be dissuaded from it, but defends and pleads for it." This is allowed and customary sinning, this is the way of the wicked. But is not your way contrary to this?
2. Do you apprehend a decline of your affections from God and from spiritual subjects? This may be your ease, and yet there may be hope. But possibly you are mistaken with regard to this. There are many things to be learnt in Christian experience; it has relation to a great variety of subjects. You may now be learning what it is very necessary for you to know as a Christian. Now, what if you are not sensible of so lively affections, of such ravishing views as you had at first; may not your piety be growing more solid and consistent, and better adapted to practical purposes? Does it follow from your not always being in the same frame of mind, or from the fact that the same objects do not at all times excite the same feelings, that you have no true religion? Perhaps you deceive yourself by looking forward to what you would be, rather than contemplating what you are, compared with what you once were.
3. If the strength of your love to creature-enjoyments is the ground of desperate conclusions respecting yourself, perhaps you argue thus: "I fear that I love the creature more than God, if so, I have not true love to God. I sometimes feel stronger affections toward earthly comforts than I do toward heavenly objects, therefore my soul is not upright within me." If, indeed, you love the creature for itself, if you make it your end, and religion but a means, you then conclude rightly; for this in incompatible with supreme love to God. But may not a man love God more ardently and unchangeably than he does any thing, or all things else, and yet, when God is not the direct object of his thoughts, may he not be sensible of more violent affection for the creature than he has at that time for God? As rooted malice indicates a stronger hatred than sudden though more violent passion; so we must judge of our love, not be a violent motion of it now and then, but by the depth of its root and the constancy of its exercise. Perhaps your difficulty results from bringing your love to some foreign and improper test. Many persons have feared that when brought to some eminent trial they should renounce Christ and cleave to the creature; but when the trial came, Christ was every thing, and the world as nothing in their esteem. Such were the fears of some martyrs whose victory was complete. But you may expect divine assistance only at the time of, and in proportion to your necessity. if you would try your love, see whether you are willing to forsake Christ now.
4. Is the want of that enlargement in private which you find in public exercises an occasion of doubts and fears? Consider then whether there are not some circumstances attending public duties which are peculiarly calculated to excite your feelings and elevate your mind, and which cannot affect you in private. If so, your exercises in sec, if performed faithfully and in a suitable manner, may be profitable, though they have not all the characteristics of those in public. If you imagine that you have spiritual enlargement and enjoyment in public exercises while you neglect private duties, doubtless you deceive yourself. Indeed if you live in the neglect of secret duties, or are careless about them, you have great reason to fear. But if you regularly and faithfully perform them, it does not follow that they are in vain and worthless, or that they are not of great value, because they are not attended with so much enlargement as you sometimes find in public. And what if the Spirit is pleased more highly to favor you with his gracious influence in one place and at one time than another, should this be a reason for murmuring and unbelief, or for thankfulness?
5. The vile or blasphemous suggestions of Satan sometimes occasion great perplexity and distress.They seem to lay open an abyss of corruption in the heart, and to say there can be no grace here. But there may be grace in the heart where such thoughts are injected, though no in the heart which consents to and cherishes them. Do you then abhor and oppose them? do you utterly refuse to give up yourself to their influence, and strive to keep holy and reverend thoughts of God, and of all religious objects? If so, such suggestions are involuntary, and no evidence against your piety.
6. Is the seeming denial of your prayers an occasion of despondency? Are you disposed to say, "If God had any regard for my soul he would have heard my petitions before now; but I have no answer from him, and therefore in interest in him?" But stay: though God's abhorring and finally rejecting prayer is an evidence that he rejects the person who prays, yet, dare you conclude that he has rejected you, because an answer to your prayers is delayed, or because you do not discover it if granted? "May not God bear long with his own elect, that cry unto him day and night?"
Others have stumbled upon the same ground with you: "I said in my haste, I am cut off from before thine eyes: nevertheless thou heardst the voice of my supplication." Now are there not some things in your experience which indicate that your prayers are not rejected, though answer to them is deferred? Are you not disposed to continue praying though you do not discover an answer? Are you not disposed still to ascribe righteousness to God, while you consider the cause of his silence as being in yourself? Thus did David: "O my God, I cry in the day time, and thou hearest not; and in the night, and am not silent: but thou art holy," &c. Does not the delay of an answer to your prayers excite you to examine your own heart and try your ways, that you may find and remove the difficulty? If so, you may have reason for humiliation, but not for despair.
Thus I have shown you how to keep your heart in dark and doubting seasons. God forbid that any false heart should encourage itself from these things. It is lamentable, that when we give saints and sinners their proper portions, each is so prone to take up the other's part.
XI. Another season, wherein the heart must be kept with all diligence, is when sufferings for religion are laid upon us. Blessed is the man who in such a season is not offended in Christ. Now, whatever may be the kind or degree of your sufferings, if they are sufferings for Christ's sake and the Gospel's, spare no diligence to keep your heart. If you are tempted to shrink or waver under them, let what follows help you to repel and to surmount the instigation:
1. What reproach would you cast upon the Redeemer and his religion by deserting him at such a time as this! You would proclaim to the world, that how much soever you have boasted of the promises, when you are put to the proof you dare hazard nothing upon your faith in them; and this will give the enemies of Christ an occasion to blaspheme. And will you thus furnish the triumphs of the uncircumcised? Ah, if you did but value the name of Christ as much as many wicked men value their names, you could never endure that his should be exposed to contempt. Will proud dust and ashes hazard death or hell rather than have their names disgraced, and will you endure nothing to maintain the honor of Christ?
2. Dare you violate your conscience out of complaisance to flesh and blood? Who will comfort you when your conscience accuses and condemns you? What happiness can there be in life, liberty or friends, when inward peace is taken away? Consider well what you do.
3. Is not the public interest of Christ and his cause infinitely more important than any interest of your own, and should you not prefer his glory and the welfare of his kingdom before every thing else? Should any temporary suffering, or any sacrifice which you can be called to make, be suffered to come into competition with the honor of his name?
4. Did the Redeemer neglect your interest and think lightly of you, when for your sake he endured sufferings between which and yours there can be no comparison? Did he hesitate and shrink back? No: "He endured the cross, despising the shame." And did he with unbroken patience and constancy endure so much for you; and will you flinch from momentary suffering in his cause?
5. Can you so easily cast off the society and the privileges of the saints and go over to the enemy's side? Are you willing to withhold your support from those who are determined to persevere, and to throw your influence in the scale against them? Rather let your body and soul be rent asunder. "If any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him."
6. How can you stand before Christ in the day of judgment, if you desert him now? "He that is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." Yet a little while, and the Son of man will come in the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory, to judge the world. He will sit upon the throne of judgment, while all the nations are brought before him. Imagine yourself now to be witnessing the transactions of that day. Behold the wicked; behold the apostates; and hear the consuming sentence which is pronounced upon them, and see them sinking in the gulf of infinite and everlasting wo! And will you desert Christ now, will you forsake his cause to save a little suffering, or to protract an unprofitable life on earth, and thus expose yourself to the doom of the apostate? Remember, that if you can silence the remonstrances of conscience now, you cannot hinder the sentence of the Judge then. By these means keep your heart, that it depart not from the living God.
XII. The last season which I shall mention, in which the heart must be kept with all diligence, is when we are warned by sickness that our dissolution is at hand. When the child of God draws nigh to eternity, the adversary makes his last effort; and as he cannot win the soul from God, as he cannot dissolve the bond which unites the soul to Christ, his great design is to awaken fears of death, to fill the mind with aversion and horror at the thoughts of dissolution from the body. Hence, what shrinking from a separation, what fear to grasp death's cold hand, and unwillingness to depart, may sometimes be observed in the people of God. But we ought to die, as well as live, like saints.
I shall offer several considerations calculated to help the people of God in time of sickness, to keep their hearts loose from all earthly objects, and cheerfully willing to die:
1. Death is harmless to the people of God; its shafts live no sting in them. Why then are you afraid that your sickness may be unto death? If you were to die in your sins; if death were to reign over you as a tyrant, to feed upon you as a lion doth upon his prey; if death to you were to be the precursor of hell, then you might reasonably startle and shrink back from it with horror and dismay. But if your sins are blotted out; if Christ has vanquished death in your behalf, so that you have nothing to encounter but bodily pain, and possibly not even that; if death will be to you the harbinger of heaven, why should you be afraid? why not bid it welcome? It cannot hurt you; it is easy and harmless; it is like putting off your clothes, or taking rest.
2. It may keep your heart from shrinking back, to consider that death is necessary to fit you for the full enjoyment of God. Whether you are willing to die or not, there certainly is no other way to complete the happiness of your soul. Death must do you the kind office to remove this veil of flesh, this animal life which separates you from God, before you can see and enjoy him fully. "Whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord." And who would not be willing to die for the perfect enjoyment of God? Methinks one should look and sigh, like a prisoner, through the grates of this mortality: "O that I had wings like a dove, then would I fly away and be at rest." Indeed most men need patience to die; but a saint, who understands what death will introduce him to, rather needs patience to live. On his death-bed he should often look out and listen to his Lord's coming; and when he perceives his dissolution to be near, he should say, "The voice of my beloved; behold he cometh, leaping over the mountains, skipping over the hills."
3. Consider that the happiness of heaven commences immediately after death. That happiness will not be deferred till the resurrection; but as soon as death has passed upon you, your soul will be swallowed up in life. When you have once loosed from this shore, you shall be quickly wafted to the shore of a glorious eternity. And can you not say, I desire to be dissolved, and to be with Christ? Did the soul and body die together, or did they sleep till the resurrection, as some have fancied, it would have been folly for Paul to desire a dissolution for the enjoyment of Christ; because he would have enjoyed more in the body than he could have enjoyed out of it.
The Scripture speaks of but two ways in which the soul can properly live: viz. by faith and vision. These two comprehend its present and future existence. Now, if when faith fails, sight should not immediately succeed, what would become of the soul? But the truth on this subject is clearly revealed in Scripture. See Luke 23:3; John 14:3, &c. What a blessed change then will death make in your condition! Rouse up, dying saint, and rejoice; let death do his work, that the angels may conduct your soul to the world of light.
4. It may increase your willingness to die, to reflect that by death God often removes his people out of the way of great troubles and temptations. When some extraordinary calamity is coming upon the world, God sometimes removes his saints out of the way of the evil. Thus Methuselah died the year before the flood; Augustine a little before the sacking of Hippo; Pareus just before the taking of Heidelburg. Luther observes that all the apostles died before the destruction of Jerusalem; and Luther himself died before the wars broke out in Germany. Now it may be that by death you will escape some grievous trial, which you could not and need not endure. But if no extraordinary trouble would come upon you in case your life were prolonged, yet God designs by death to relieve you from innumerable evils and burdens which are inseparable from the present state. Thus you will be delivered from indwelling sin, which is the greatest trouble; from all temptations from whatever source; from bodily tempers and embarrassments; and from all the afflictions and sorrows of this life. The days of your mourning will be ended, and God will wipe away all tears from your eyes. Why then should you not hasten to depart?
5. If you still linger, like Lot in Sodom, what are your pleas and pretences for a longer life? Why are you unwilling to die? Are you concerned for the welfare of your relations? If so, are you anxious for their temporal support? Then let the word of God satisfy you: "Leave thy fatherless children to me, I will keep them alive, and let thy widows trust in me." Luther says, in his last will, "Lord, thou hast given me a wife and children, I have nothing to leave them, but I commit them unto thee. O Father of the fatherless and Judge of widows, nourish, keep and teach them."
But are you concerned for the spiritual welfare of your relations? Remember that you cannot convert them, if you should live; and God can make your prayers and counsels effectual when you are dead.
Perhaps you desire to serve God longer in this world. But if he has nothing further for you to do here, why not say with David, "Here am I, let him do what seemeth him good." He is calling you to higher service in heaven, and can accomplish by other hands what you desire to do further here.Do you feel to imperfect to go to heaven? Consider that you must be imperfect until you die; your sanctification cannot be complete until you get to heaven.
'But,' you say, 'I want assurance; if I had that I could die easily.' Consider, then, that a hearty willingness to leave all the world to be freed from sin, and to be with God, is the direct way to that desired assurance; no carnal person was ever willing to die upon this ground.
Thus I have shown how the people of God, in the most difficult seasons, may keep their hearts with all diligence.
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