How to perform serious meditation
From Religious Cases of Conscience (1755), by Samuel Pike and Samuel Hayward, ministers at London, England.
How may a Christian attain to perform the duty of serious meditation in a right manner?
This question is grounded upon the following letter:
"Sir, I am by profession a follower of the blessed Redeemer, and hope I can appeal to the searcher of all hearts, that it is my desire to walk in all the statutes and ordinances of the Lord blameless. Holy, serious meditation is, I am persuaded, a duty which every Christian ought to exercise himself in. It is a duty in which I once took great pleasure and delight: not a day was suffered to pass in the neglect of it for a considerable time. But, alas! To my shame may I speak it, an alluring world, a tempting devil, and a still viler traitor within, conspired against the welfare of my precious and immortal soul. I began to perform it in a slight, indifferent manner, and at last was prevailed upon to neglect it. Now, I feel the awful effects thereof, in a dark understanding, a hard heart, and cold affections. I endeavor to set about the duty; but, oh! the Spirit is withdrawn, I have lost my God; and I, whither shall I go? My thoughts are immediately gone after some trifling vanity: I endeavor to rally them, but they are soon gone again: I command them in the name of the Lord to attend, for I have a great work to do; but all is of no avail.
"I should be greatly obliged to you, Sir, if you would take my case under your notice, and give me some directions at the lecture concerning the right performance of this so important a duty."
I shall aim at an answer to the various particulars contained in this serious case, by laying down the following propositions:
1. There is a great difference between speculative study, and spiritual meditation. This observation is of the greatest importance to direct us what we are to aim at, when we are striving to perform this duty. Our friend, in the letter, seems to have a very clear notion of the nature of this duty, and the difference between it and mere study, from his own experience. But yet it is needful to say a few words to make this distinction clear; for though there be in appearance a near affinity between study and meditation, yet in reality they are as different from one another, as the sun shining in the heavens, and a sign of the sun painted. It is to be feared, that many persons are apt to imagine, that meditation is nothing else but thinking over, looking and inquiring into the doctrines and duties of the word of God. But it is plain, a person may employ himself much in this way, and yet be a stranger to true meditation. The difference lies here: study is the looking into divine things in order to understand them; but meditation is the ruminating upon them in order to apply them to your cases and consciences, and to rise our affections toward spiritual things. Study is, as I may say, the thoughts of the head, while meditation consists in the thoughts of the heart. By study concerning God, for instance, a person inquires into the evidences for his existence, and for a notional acquaintance with his perfections and glories: but by meditation he contemplates those glories in order to affect his own heart with them, and to see his own concern in relation to them. The same difference may be observed between these two with regard to any of the doctrines or duties of law or gospel. If therefore you would attain to perform this duty in a proper manner, it is highly necessary you should know what it is when you set about it, and should keep up this important distinction, lest you should cheat yourselves with bare speculative study in the room of holy meditation.
2. That the chief part of the experience of religion is included and contained in a right performance of this great duty. It is in holy meditation that we feel all the experiences of a spiritual life, and exercise all the graces of the Spirit. What is the exercise of faith, but realizing thoughts upon divine and spiritual truths? What is holy desire, but a realizing view of the desirableness of God in covenant, so as to draw forth our longings after him? What is the exercise of the grace of hope, but serious meditation upon the promises and blessings promised, with suitable affection? Wherein consists the exercise of the grace of love, but in endearing thoughts and views of God in Christ? And what is the grace of humility, but the having low and abasing thoughts of ourselves? So that I may venture to affirm, that true grace is no farther exercised by us, than as our thoughts are employed by holy meditation, in viewing and realizing spiritual things in a spiritual, heart affecting manner. And this duty of meditation is of such a nature, that it is included in all other spiritual duties, so far as they have anything of the exercise of grace in them. For instance, in prayer we have no exercise of grace, but so far as our souls take notice of our own wants, and of Christ's grace and fullness. In reading, we have no exercise of grace, any farther than as we understand, realize, and apply to ourselves what we read. The same may be said concerning singing the divine praises, hearing the divine word, confessing our sins, and the like. So far then as there is anything of the power of religion in our souls, so far the thoughts of our very hearts are engaged in, and employed about, the spiritual things we are conversant with. And thus, when any grace is exercised, there is some spiritual meditation, let the duty engaged in be what it will. But sometimes this duty of holy meditation is performed alone as a separate duty, namely, when the soul is enabled to look with a spiritual eye, and in an affectionate, realizing manner, upon the things which are not seen, and are eternal; when we set ourselves designedly to think on spiritual subjects, have thoughts flowing in upon us, and have the doctrines, promises, or precepts of the word brought to our minds, and we receive them to ourselves, and apply them to our own cases. But whether meditation be performed by itself, or in any other duty, remember, that if it be rightly performed, is always includes in it the exercise of grace, and the exercise of grace includes meditation. From what has been said concerning this duty, it immediately follows, that none but the lively Christian can daily perform it in a right manner; and this seems to have been the happy case of the person who wrote this letter.
3. There is a necessity for the spiritual operations of the Spirit of God, in order to a right spiritual performance of this duty. Let us contemplate as well as we can upon what we read, hear, or know; yet unless we are favored with the presence and influences of the divine Spirit, we shall find ourselves incapable of true meditation. Without him all our contemplations will be dry study, speculative thought, and laborious attempt, without success. But if the divine Spirit takes of the things of Christ, and shows them to our souls, then we can see them, then we can realize them, then we can feel them, and apply them to ourselves, and can think upon them with spiritual affection. As a proof of all this, I may appeal to the experience of all God's people; and may say, as Job does in another case, "If it be not so now, who will make me a liar, or make my speech nothing worth?"
4. That the Holy Spirit is a gracious, just, and sovereign agent. We must acknowledge that he is sovereign; for he, like the wind, blows where he listeth, John 3:8. But let us not forget, that he is likewise a wise and just agent. He is, I say, a just agent; for when he is quenched or grieved, he resents the indignity, and justly withdraws. If therefore we grow negligent in any duty, or give way to any sin, we have reason to expect that he will withdraw from us; and when he is gone, there is an end, as I may say, for the present, to all the right performance of holy meditation. Farther, it is plain that the Spirit acts as a wise agent; he knows best when to favor us with his influences, or when to suspend them.
5. Though we have not the influences of the Spirit at our command, yet there are many things that may be done by us, which may drive him away, and many means may be made use of to obtain his gracious return. As to the former of these, I will not tell you how to drive him away. This is what I hope you dread and detest as the sorest evil. But when he is withdrawn, the great question is, What means must be made use of for his return, that thereby our souls may be fitted for the spiritual exercise of holy meditation? This is what I apprehend our friend desires particularly to know. He wants direction for the right performance of the duty, now he finds he has lost his capacity for it. But I hope he does not imagine, that any directions can answer this end without the Spirit's return. So that the first chief concern is not, How I may set abut this work so as to attain the delightful performance of it? But, What method must I take to have the former influences and assistances of the Spirit restored to me? For then, and not till then, will this duty be rightly performed. Give me leave here to lay before you a few plain directions as follow:
1. Is the Spirit withdrawn? Endeavor to maintain a sensibility of his absence. For it is a good sign that he is not totally withdrawn, while there is left in our souls a distressing, humbling sense of his absence. But if we grow careless and indifferent about his presence and influence, and now think to recover ourselves by virtue of the use of means in our power, we have missed the way, and can never attain to what we want, until our souls are led out after his gracious influences.
2. Inquire into the particular cause or occasion of the Spirit's withdrawment; and when you have found out the sin or sins which have occasioned it, then go and humbly confess before God, loathe yourselves for them, and bring them unto the cross of Christ to be pardoned and crucified.
3. Never omit spending some time in secret, daily to converse with God, with his word, and with your own souls. Keep steady to closet-religion, and endeavor to make the best of it. By no means neglect the duty itself, under a pretense that you cannot perform it aright without the Spirit. It is indeed very unpleasant and discouraging, when we find, from day to day, that the wheels of devotion drive on heavily. But however unpleasant it be, yet you ought still to keep to it, in order to maintain a sense of, and an humble frame of spirit under, divine withdrawments. But if you should be prevailed upon to neglect these regular exercises, you can have no reason to expect, that the life of religion should be maintained, or the comforts and pleasures of it restored to your souls.
4. Take advantage from what you feel in yourselves to promote the work of meditation. Are you in a dark, declining, and deserted frame? It is true, you cannot at present meditate as you would upon the glories of God in Christ with sweetness and delight; and all your endeavors to realize and impress these glorious subjects upon your mind will be found abortive, while you remain in this declining frame. But remember, that in this dark season you are called upon to another sort of meditation; namely, to meditate upon the sinfulness of sin, the deceitfulness of your own hearts, the corruption of your natures, and the sad effects produced by the working of corruptions within you. And, if you can contemplate seriously upon these awful, humbling subjects, this may be a happy means of remembering Christ and his grace the more precious and desirable to your souls. Though in your present frame you cannot find in your hearts to dwell upon glorious and delightful subjects; yet you may find matter enough in your present condition to fill your thoughts with subjects of a self-abasing and penitential nature. And when you are employed in this sort of meditation, turn it into confession and humble supplication.
5. And lastly, Do not think that the duty of holy meditation must be confined to itself, but bring in other spiritual duties to its assistance. It is not very often we can perform this duty in a right manner separated from other duties. It is indeed a happy thing, if a person can regularly and daily to form his mind to it, and find his frame fitted for it, whenever he sets about it designedly. But I believe that, generally speaking, this is a privilege that is not very common. For when we apply our minds to it professedly, and attempt to pursue a spiritual subject in a way of contemplation, the vanity of the mind either prevents us from entering upon any regular chain of thought, or soon breaks in upon it; and when we are thus disappointed, the more we strive against the stream, the more embarrassed and perplexed we shall be. It would be proper therefore to turn this attempt for meditation into mental prayer, or else take the word of God, or some spiritual author in hand, with a view to direct our thoughts, and apply what is read to our own case and circumstance. And if we can have our thoughts seriously employed, either in repeating any portion of scripture from our memories, or in reading it, or in lifting up our hearts to God in ejaculatory prayer; this is as real meditation, as if it were performed in a separate duty. Upon the whole, if you are inclined to attend to such rules as these, you may hope that, ere you are aware, your souls will make you as the chariots of a willing people, Canticles 6:12.
I shall conclude the whole with a few remarks upon this experimental case for the benefit of all.
1. How gradually does sin make its entry into our souls! We perhaps at first only begin to perform a duty in a slight manner, then we proceed to an occasional neglect of it, then to an almost total neglect; whereby the door is set open for sin and Satan to enter, and our hearts grow more and more hard, our thoughts more vain, and our souls weak to withstand any temptation, or engage in any duty.
2. How sad are the consequences of grieving the Spirit! It must be acknowledged, that he is very often grieved by us; but, blessed be his name, he does not always take the advantage against us; does not always resent the affronts we cast upon his gracious or comforting influences, by undervaluing or overvaluing them. If he did, the people of God would be perpetually in a deserted, uncomfortable condition. But when he is once provoked to such a degree as actually to withdraw, O what sad effects follow! Now the graces of the Spirit seem to lie dead, now nothing but sin and corruption seem to reign, now we are exposed to fall a ready prey to our spiritual enemies, and we may be obliged to pray and wait a long time before there be any comfortable return. Let us therefore be very cautious and watchful, lest we dishonor and offend him; for when we begin to fall, we know not how low we may fall, or how dismal our case may be, before he returns, and we are revived.
3. How ungovernable are our thoughts and affections? It is evident to a demonstration, that we have them not at our command. They are like an army of undisciplined and disaffected soldiers. The will is, as it were, the general of the army; he commands them to act, but they stir not; he sees them running away, and commands them to rally, but to no purpose. To will is present with us, but to perform that which is good we find not. See how necessary it is that we should be under a superior influence to that of our own hearts.
4. How ignorant are they of the nature of true religion, who think it at their option to be pious, holy, and spiritual at pleasure! They who think so, betray their weakness, ignorance and unbelief. For, if the spiritual Christian, a person that has tasted of divine grace, finds his corruptions so untameable, his affections so irregular, and his thoughts so ungovernable; how can it be, that unbelievers should have any strength so much as to think a truly good thought?
Lastly, What a plain rule may we collect from this subject to judge of the progress or declension of spiritual grace in our soul! We may easily judge how things go with us, only by observing how strong or how weak, how frequent or how seldom the meditations of our hearts are upon spiritual subjects. The more advanced a Christian is in the spiritual life, the more his heart can dwell upon divine subjects with pleasure and self application, and the more natural it is to him really to meditate in the midst of the duties both of life and religion. But if we from day to day find our thoughts vain, our meditations barren, our hearts dry and unsuited to devout contemplation; it is a sign that religion is at a low ebb with us. Be therefore frequently asking yourselves such questions as these: whether the very thoughts of your hearts are employed upon divine subjects? Whether you can truly meditate when you are reading, can meditate when you are hearing, can meditate when you are praying? And according to the answer your consciences give to these questions, so you may determine concerning the growth or declension of true religion in your souls. Happy are they, whose thoughts and hearts are daily taken up with spiritual things; and how much happier still are they, who are advanced to glory, where they are employed without intermission, and without end, in nothing else but holy contemplation upon heavenly things in heavenly places!