Renewal after a time of spiritual dullness
From Religious Cases of Conscience (1755), by Samuel Pike and Samuel Hayward, ministers at London, England.
What methods must a Christian, in declining circumstances, take to recover a healthful and vigorous frame of soul, so as to be able to maintain real and close communion with God, amidst the hurries and businesses of this world?
This question is formed from the following letter: "I have, through a great multiplicity of worldly affairs, and a deep engagement to them, lost that savour and relish for divine things I once experienced, and am become a sad stranger to that real communion with God, which was heretofore my chief joy; and I am so greatly declined in the Christian life, that I can sometimes omit the duties of secret prayer and meditation, and at other times I perform them with formality and coldness, and yet am no ways suitably affected with my sad defections. Indeed, sometimes I have been helped to bemoan my sad case before God, and to plead with the blessed Jesus, the great and good physician, to heal and help me. But alas! things remain with me as before; and if there be any alteration in my case, I really think it is for the worse."
This is a question, which, I doubt not, is suitable to the cases of many of God's people in the present dark and degenerate day, when there are so many temptations and difficulties to cool their zeal, damp their joy, and fill them with formality and indifferency of spirit, in the service of the Redeemer. It is not with us as it was with our forefathers. We have not their zeal, their faith, their love. We are not humble as they were, nor so watchful as they against the temptations and sins to which we are exposed. We discover not that acquaintance with the power of religion which they had. We walk not so close with God as they. In fine, we have the name, the form, but we have not so much of the life, the spirit, the power of godliness, as our forefathers had, who are now in glory. We are more worldly, more selfish, more proud, and haughty, more careless and negligent of our frames and our conversation, and have, in all respects, more of the appearance of almost-Christians, than they. Yet blessed be God, this is not the case with every individual. There are a few who desire to honour God, by a lively faith, a becoming zeal, and a close and humble walk; a few, whose concern it is to make the greatest advances in grace, and to maintain daily communion with God, amidst the various hurries of life. They cannot live long without God. They are never easy but when they are feeling his animating and quickening presence with them; and their souls, in consequence of it, warmed, enlivened, and breathing out desires after him. This seems to be the case with the person who sent in the above question. You know something of the excellency of communion with God, my dear friend; you have found what it is to have a sweet relish for divine things; and now you are full of uneasiness at the sad loss you have sustained through the hurries and enjoyments of this life, and desirous of having your former experience revived, and to find your soul again in a lively, healthful, and vigorous condition. Herein you are not singular. Many, I am persuaded, speak the same language you do, feel the same things, have the same desires, and are equally at a loss what to do. It is a case of some importance. May the Spirit of God enable me to answer it in such a manner as may, through a divine blessing, be effectual to bring your soul, and the souls of others, nearer to God, and quicken you to the pursuit of that, which has a tendency to promote your growth in grace, and make you flourishing and lively Christians! -- But, before I directly answer the question, I would make two or three observations upon it, that may give encouragement to persons in such circumstances, as well as be a caution to them in their pursuit of this world -- And,
1. It is a peculiar mercy, when we find our souls in a declining condition, to be immediately alarmed at it, and sensible of it. When God is about to bestow the blessing of salvation, he first makes the sinner sensible of his need of them; so, when he is about to revive his work in the soul that has been running astray from him, he gives him first a sense of his decline, shows him from whence he has fallen, what a stranger he is to the life of religion, what ingratitude he has been guilty of, how much he has lost of the pleasures of the divine life, and how much he has dishonored that God, who called him out of darkness into his marvelous light. To lie asleep, as David did after his adultery and murder, is awful. Oh! sin is of an hardening nature. The Christian is often stupefied and benumbed with it. It shuts his eyes, and it hardens his heart. He has lost in some measure his zeal and liveliness. His graces are withering. His duties are cold and formal, nay, he can oftentimes omit them. He has not that communion with God he once enjoyed; and yet he appears to be contented. Melancholy case! Bless God that this is not your case. You appear to be sensible of the unhealthy condition your soul is in. You see it is no with you as in months past. Bless God, Christians, if you are sensible of any decays, if your eyes are open, and your souls are impressed with a deep sense of the loss of communion with God, the neglect of duty, or formality in it.
2. We should esteem it a mercy, if, when under a decline, we are earnestly desirous of a revival. This appears to be the case with you, my friend. Methinks, I see you viewing former seasons of communion, falling down before God, and under a deep sense of your declining circumstances, hear you humbly addressing him in the following manner: -- "Lord show me what thou wouldst have me to do. I would acknowledge my many omissions of duty, my great carelessness and negligence, and would be deeply sensible of the loss I have sustained. Oh! revive thy work in my soul, and let me not lie at this languishing rate! Lord, quicken, quicken this slothful heart, enkindle the sacred spark afresh, and let me be all alive for thee!" How happy is it, when we are enabled to speak such language, and find our souls in such a frame as this! But, on the other hand, to be careless and unconcerned, to be easy and contented in such circumstances, is an awful sign that religion is languishing in our souls, and that there is no present appearance of an alteration. David, when awake, was not only sensible of the dangerous condition he had been in, but was desirous of a revival of the work of God in his soul, that he might again enjoy communion with him, and flourish and prosper in the divine life. Therefore he earnestly prayed, that God would graciously look upon him, and return to him, Ps. 51:7.
3. It is a difficult thing to have much to do with the world, and to grow in grace. Through the degeneracy of our hearts, the world is become an enemy to our souls, an hindrance in our way to heaven. Many, like the young man, keep their enjoyments, to the loss of their souls. The Christian himself, who has found the emptiness of the world, and its insufficiency to satisfy an immortal desire, is notwithstanding ready to be too fond of it, and finds it a sad clog and hindrance to him at times. He would often leave it behind him, when he goes to worship God: But it will follow him from duty to duty, interrupt his communion with God, lead his heart aside, and damp the exercise of every grace. How ready is the Christian to swell with pride, on account of his flourishing enjoyments? We have need of great grace to keep us humble in prosperous circumstances, either of soul or body. -- Is the Christian immersed in cares? here he is in danger of being filled with too much anxiety, and of employing too much of his time in the world, to the neglect of some important duties of religion, in the suitable discharge of which the divine life is kept up in the soul. Thus it is difficult for those who have much to do with the world, to grow in grace. I mention this, to quicken the Christian diligently to attend to those means, that are necessary for his keeping up a lively sense of the things of God in his soul; and to keep him for being discouraged, if at any time he sees he has lost his frame, through his many anxious cares, or through the temptations arising from this world. I doubt not but this is the case with many. Many of you, my dear friends, have known what it is to lose communion with God, through the hurries of life; what to have your souls out of tune; what to be tempted to the omission of duties. I would bring in myself with you, and lay my hand upon my mouth, crying out, guilty, guilty. What then shall we do in such unpleasing circumstances? This leads me directly to answer the case; viz. What methods we must take to recover a healthful and vigorous frame of soul, so as to be able to maintain real and close communion with God amidst the hurries of life? -- It requires a person of great experience to give a suitable answer to so important a question. Sensible of my own weakness here, I hope I have earnestly entreated the assistance of the Spirit of God; in consequence of which my mind I trust has been directed to the following things, which I would now humbly suggest to you as necessary in this case --
1. Examine carefully into the occasion of your decline. That God brings some afflictions upon his people, in a way of sovereignty, is plain, if we look into his word; but, when he withholds the special influences of his Spirit from us, the consequences of which, are loss of communion with him, the withering of our graces, and a decline with regard to the life of religion in our souls, we may immediately conclude, that we have dishonoured God in some instance or other, and provoked him thus partly to leave us. It is necessary then to inquire into the occasions of God's withdrawment, not only for our present, but for our future guidance. Was Job anxious to know why God contended with him in a way of affliction, and shall not we be solicitous to examine into the reasons of our present decline? To lose spiritual enjoyments is much more melancholy, than to be under temporal afflictions. Come then, my soul; and come, my Christian friends; and particularly, come you, my dear friend, who sent in the above case, and are desirous of a revival; come, and let us examine, wherein we have provoked God to withdraw. What has been the reason of our late coldness and formality? How came we to lose any of our zeal for Christ? How is it we have been led to omit spiritual duties of prayer, meditation, etc.? Why is it we have not experienced the presence of the Spirit in ordinances, drawing our souls after Jesus, and shedding abroad his love in our hearts? Oh! why is it, that it is not with us, as in months past, when we sat under the shadow of the Lord, and his presence filled our souls with unspeakable joy? We have reason to be jealous of our wicked hearts, and to fear that they have led us aside, and so we have grieved the Holy Spirit, and he has discovered his displeasure -- Let us make the inquiry --
Perhaps we have been too much elated with pride. Pride is a great enemy to the divine life. It has often provoked the Spirit to withdraw his presence, that, being in some measure left to ourselves, we might be humbled, and not think of ourselves beyond what we ought. It was pride that provoked God to leave Peter; and see how shameful he fell, Luke 22:33, 57-60. The apostle Paul was like to be carried away with pride, even under those high enjoyments he was favored with; therefore he had a messenger of Satan sent to buffet him, II Cor. 12:1-7. Some are proud of the world. They grow in riches; and their hearts are lifted up, as if they were more amiable, or had more interest in God, than others. Is this your case, my friends? examine; have not temporal or spiritual enjoyments lifted you up too much? Have not these vain hearts been flattering you, as persons of some peculiar worth? and have you not been ready to swell with the thought, and, from such an apprehension, to look with an unchristian air upon others?
Again, Perhaps you have been led by your enjoyments to indulge a security and carelessness of spirit. Through the sad wickedness of our hearts, we have often been guilty here, and so have suffered an unspeakable loss. It has often been suggested to us after spiritual enjoyments, that our state is safe and secure; there is no depriving us of the promised inheritance; God has given us an evident token of his everlasting love to our souls; therefore we need not be so much in duty, but may indulge a little liberty, and enjoy a few of the pleasures and comforts of the present life, and all this consistent with our hopes of a better. These thoughts perhaps we have too eagerly sucked in, from their having a plausible appearance; and they have proved poison to our souls: For, whilst we have been taking this innocent liberty, we have insensibly grown careless and secure, and have lost our spiritual joy. This may be the case also as to temporal enjoyments. Inquire, therefore; have not these led you to a carelessness and security of spirit? God has perhaps increased your substance, and given you every thing richly to enjoy. You are like many of the world, you abound with comforts; and you must be like them too in frame and spirit. Oh, there is great danger here! They apprehend themselves to be too rich to be religious, that God will pay a deference to them on account of their station. And has not this been a temptation to you at times, and so you have sunk in your zeal, and in close communion and converse with God?
And, Perhaps you have loved this world too much. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not him, I John 2:15. Though you may not love the world in the sense of the apostle; yet your affections may be so much set upon it, as to make a jealous God withdraw the special tokens of his love from you. It is every way unsuitable to our profession of love to God, to be so fond of present things. It is offering the greatest affronts to our adorable Emmanuel; as if there were more excellency in the world than in him, or as if he was not a sufficient portion for us. O Christians, inquire; inquire, my friend, how your heart stands as to the world. Have you been slighting your Lord, your husband, your best of friends, by valuing the world too much?
Again, Perhaps, through a multitude of engagements, you have been tempted to neglect those duties, in which Christians meet with God, and by which they find their souls enlivened. Every duty is beautiful in its season. There is a time to mind the world, and a time to attend to the affairs of the soul. To be diligent in our calling is doubtless a duty. A Christian who is careless and slothful in his worldly affairs, is no honour to religion. I would not throw one reflection upon industry in the pursuit of our lawful business, but rather applaud it. But then we should remember, that the world has not a right to all our time. Martha was encumbered about making provision for our Lord, when she ought to have been at his feet, hearing his doctrine, Luke 10:38-42. So the Christian is often in the world, when he should be in his family, or in his closet. Perhaps your engagements are great; you are obliged to be much in company. This is a temptation to you to neglect some important duties; duties that have been made sweet and pleasant to your souls. You will permit me, my dear friends, to be quite free. The case under consideration gives me an opportunity for it; and the prosperity of our souls is a matter of such importance, that it requires it. -- I cannot but be inclined to think, that evening clubs, so frequent even amongst professors, are injurious to the Christian life. Let me here explain myself, for fear of a mistake. I mean not, that we are to avoid all company and conversation in an evening. Christian conversation is necessary, and greatly useful. Nay, whilst we are engaged in the affairs of this life, it will be often necessary for a Christian to mix with those that perhaps are not so. But, when so much time is spent in evening visits, clubs, etc. as interferes with, and often sets aside the duties of the family and the closet, or leaves but little time for these things, no wonder we then lose ground in the divine life, especially if this is too much our practice. We should remember, that real religion lies not in much talking, but in a secret converse with God, and in an experience of his quickening presence and grace. Christian conversation, indeed, has an excellent tendency to promote this: and oh that it was more found amongst us! But there is a great beauty, and a good deal of Christian skill lies in timing of things. One duty should not justle out, or prevent the discharge of another. Let me appeal to your conscience, O professor, and ask you a few questions. Is it your usual practice to spend your evenings abroad? What is the consequence? Do you find your family in a suitable disposition to attend to social worship at your coming home? Rather, are they not wearied with the hurries of the day, and wishing for rest? The duty is oftentimes in such a circumstance sadly curtailed, if not totally neglected. And how is it with the closet? That has seldom an evening visit. You have no time to look into your soul, to mourn over the sins of the day, or to call over its mercies; no time for reading or meditation. One neglect of this kind makes way for another; and the professor can content himself with it. Oh! Christians, has this been the case with any of you? Has this been the case with you, my friend? Has the multiplicity of your affairs, or have your engagements, prevented your often being in your closet? What have you lost? But, alas! you are contented, and think that none can blame you, so long as you have been in company with some of the friends of Jesus. Go on so, and see what will be the consequences. You will gradually lose a relish for the power and pleasures of religion, and your zeal will too much degenerate into controversy. You may talk much of God; but you will walk but little with him. Pardon my freedom, my dear friends: I bring no charge against you, but what I would bring against myself; and would therefore put myself upon the inquiry, as well as you.
Thus examine into the occasions of your decline -- I have given you some instances of direct and help your inquiries. But stop not here, but carefully examine every thing by which you have provoked God to withdraw his special presence from you.
II. When you have found the occasions of your decline, humble yourselves before the Lord, guard carefully against them for the future, get your hearts sensibly affected with your loss, and earnestly pray that the Spirit may not depart from you, but graciously return unto you. This was the case with David, of whom we have already spoken. When he was brought to a sense of his sins, how humble! He fell down prostrate before God, acknowledged and bewailed his backslidings. He was jealous, lest he should have provoked God entirely to withdraw his presence and Spirit from him: therefore he expostulated with him for the return of his favour, and that he would restore those divine consolations, which he had before experienced, but had lately lost, Ps. 51:11-12. Though we may not have been provoking God to withhold from us his special presence by the commission of such open and public sins as David, yet have we been too closely attached to the world? Have we neglected some of the great and important duties of the Christian life? Have we been too proud, too careless and secure in our frame, our walk and behaviour? Have we been trifling with God? It certainly becomes us to humble ourselves before him, if we expect his return unto us. We should draw near to him with weeping and lamentation; should be often endeavouring to impress our hearts with a sense of our ingratitude; should be often mourning before the Lord; and should set a mark upon those things that have been the occasions of our decline, that we may watch against them for the future. Be often reflecting upon the loss you have had. Consider the sickly condition your souls have been in, whilst the Spirit was withdrawn from you. Consider how justly God might have left you, had be been strict to mark your backslidings: and oh! admire his infinite patience, and earnestly pray for his Spirit to return and breathe upon your dry bones. Let it be your daily concern to beg of God, that he would keep your hearts, your affections, quicken your souls, and not leave you to coldness and formality. When Israel were exhorted to return unto the Lord, after they had sinned, they are directed to return by prayer, and instructed how to pray, or what to say, Hosea 14:2-3. Take you words, and turn to the Lord. Say unto him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously; so will we render thee the calves of our lips, etc. Prayer suits all cases, and is never to be neglected. Is any afflicted? let him pray, James 5:13. So, has any fallen, grieved the Spirit, and lost, in some measure, that liveliness and vigour of soul he once experienced? let him return to God by prayer. Take with you words, even those words which God has furnished you with, and come to him; take a promise in your hand, and come and plead it with God for the return of his presence and Spirit.
III. Often make use of your covenant relation to God, in pleading with him, and with your own souls. The person that sent in the case under consideration does not appear to doubt of his being a Christian. The very form, in which the question stands, suppose it; and, upon this supposition, I proceed to give you this necessary direction. Some indeed may say, they cannot plead a covenant relation; for they are greatly in the dark about it, and are therefore afraid to do it. -- In answer to this, in general, observe -- So long as you find your viewing and your pleading your covenant relation quickens you, humbles you, sets you against all sin, and tends to fill you with love to Jesus and his service, look upon this as an evidence of your interest in the covenant. Plead therefore, my friends, this covenant relation to God, if you would have it better with your souls, and be in such a frame as to maintain communion with God.
1. Plead it with God. A sense of it tends greatly to give you faith and fervency in prayer, and to fill you with hopes of the divine presence and favour. Here is a glorious argument to make use of with God: rejoice in it, my dear friend, and make frequent use of it. Often throw yourself at the footstool of God's throne, and address him in such language as this: -- viz. "Lord, am I not thine? Didst thou not, O Father, choose me from eternity, and determine to bestow salvation upon me? Didst thou not, O mighty God, undertake for me, agree to put my name in the book of life, and, in consequence of this, come and suffer and die in my stead? And hast thou not renewed me, O eternal Spirit, and set the broad seal of heaven upon my soul? If I am not thine, Lord, what mean such instances of communion with thee? What means this love to Jesus, these desires after a conformity to his image? Are not these as so many evidences of thine everlasting love? And, oh! wilt thou leave me to wither and languish, to grow cold and formal? Wilt thou not come and kindle this sacred spark afresh, and carry on thy work with an almighty efficacy? I acknowledge, Lord, I am unworthy of thy favour: I have sinned, and deserve thy everlasting displeasure. But did it not please thee, of thine infinite grace, to enroll my name amongst thy chosen ones in the volume of eternity! And wilt thou leave me? Lord, it was thine own act, thy free act; and I would humbly plead it. Therefore, come and visit my soul, shed abroad thy love in my heart, pardon my backslidings, and may I be enabled to rejoice in thy covenant love, and walk and act as one who has a real interest in it." -- Thus plead with God, and follow the example of the Psalmist, who in all difficulties, temporal and spiritual, addressed God as his God. Oh! the sweetness, the happiness, that is couched in these two words, My God!
2. Often make use of the same argument, and plead this covenant relation with your souls. When you find your souls in danger through sin; when you have lost your frame, and feel a coldness and formality, and the hurries of the world tempting you to a carelessness in and a negligence of duty; plead with your souls in some such manner as this: -- "O my soul! am I acting like an heir of glory, to be thus encumbered, thus anxious, and thus careless? What, did the Father love me from eternity, and give me to his Son? Did Jesus suffer and die for me? And has the Spirit actually renewed me? In consequence of all this, is heaven my portion? Am I born to glory? Oh! and what, so cold, so formal? I will not leave thee, O my soul, in this withering condition. I will plead with thee the Father's everlasting kindness: I will beseech thee by the tender compassions of the Son of God, who gave himself for thee: I will press upon thee the infinite love of the Spirit, who said unto thee, live. I will not leave thee, till I find things better with thee. May not the Father justly complain of thee? Hear, O my soul, what he says, What, did I look upon thee from everlasting with infinite kindness, and are these the returns thou art making? Is this like one of my chosen vessels? Did I pass by thousands, and look upon thee? and is this all the sense thou hast of thy obligations to me? -- Hear Jesus gently chiding thee, O my slothful soul; saying, What, did I love thee so as to die for thee? Was the day of thy redemption upon my heart from everlasting? and shall my cause, my glory, lie so little upon thine? Behold my wounded soul, see my bitter agonies, and all to rescue thee from everlasting death: and wilt thou not love me more? -- Hear the Spirit bringing in his charge against thee, and expostulating with thee -- Have I not, in consequence of the Father's everlasting love, and the Mediator's purchase, come and brought thee out of darkness into light? What evidences have I given thee of covenant love? How have I calmed thy troubled conscience, shed abroad a Saviour's love in thy heart, been a Spirit of grace and supplication in thee, and a Spirit of adoption too? And what, art thou so ungrateful, so cold, and secure? Thus may God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost upbraid and chide thee, O my soul: And shalt not this move thee? Lord, my heart begins to melt; it softens, it yields to so much love! Oh, come and do with me what thou pleasest! May I hate sin; may I love thee with greater fervency, and view every earthly enjoyment with indifference, and use all to thy glory." -- Thus plead your covenant relation to God, and all the consequences of it, with your souls. Do it frequently, and you will find it, through the divine blessing, a happy means of enabling you to live above this world, whilst you are in it; of humbling you for sin; of quickening you under all decays; and of bringing you into a spiritual and heavenly frame, so as to maintain some communion with God, amidst the hurries of life.
IV. If you would keep up communion with God, whilst you are engaged in the affairs of the world, take care and watch over your frame, your ends, and views. -- You may lawfully follow the world with diligence; but take care that you pursue those measures, that are necessary to keep your hearts at a proper distance from the world, lest they should be too much carried away with it, and entangled in it. Improve what time you can for God. Particularly take care of your frame, before you actually enter upon your secular affairs. Be concerned that the world does not creep into your hearts, when you rise in the morning. Your morning frames are of great importance. Labour to throw aside the world; and do not enter upon business, till you have earnestly sought the presence and blessing of God with and upon you. Consider well over, in your closets, the affairs of the day, the temptations you are like to be exposed to; and be earnest with God for his special presence to keep you: and oh! endeavour to get your hearts impressed with the love of Jesus, and you will be in less danger of being carried away by the temptations of the day. You read in the life of Col. Gardiner, that that great man had always his two hours with God in a morning. If his regiment was to march at four, he would be up at two. I doubt not but that frame he had in his closet often went with him through the day. I would not intimate by this, that it is the duty of every one of you, my friends, to spend two hours in your closets every morning: but I am satisfied, that if no care is taken to set apart some time to God, that person can never be in a flourishing condition as to his soul. Let me tell you, early rising is not only good for the health of the body, but for the health of the soul too, provided some time is spent with God, and communing with our own hearts. O my friends, strive, wrestle with God in your morning hours for his presence in the day, and labour to get love to Jesus enkindled in your breasts, before you go out of your closets, and watch over your frame in the day. Examine your ends and views, the principles and springs from whence you act. Watch over your deceitful hearts. Walk as in the presence of God. In fine, let the glory of Christ lie near your hearts, and be afraid of any thing that may dishonour God, and provoke his Spirit to withdraw from you. -- Thus, in endeavouring to cultivate a spiritual frame and temper, and to walk with humility and circumspection, you will give evidence of your being Christians indeed; may expect the presence of God with you; and I doubt not but, through his divine blessing, you will find your souls in a thriving condition. I would now close these few hints with two remarks.
1. Hence we find, that it is not an easy thing to be a flourishing Christian. We must live much in the exercise of faith; we must be much upon our guard against sin; we must be much in our closets, seeking God by prayer, examining ourselves, and keeping a strict watch over our hearts, lest they should deceive us. A careless Christian cannot be a flourishing one. If you would grow up like tall cedars, and flourish as trees of righteousness, you must not be cold and lifeless, careless as to your frames and conversation. Like sentinels, you must be ever upon your watch; like persons running a race, you must be pressing towards the mark with all your might; and like soldiers, you must be prepared for the battle, and enter the field with your armour on, that you may get daily advantages over your spiritual enemies, and may go from strength to strength, from one degree of grace unto another. To be lively Christians, such as glorify God in every circumstance of life, requires grace to be much in exercise, much of the presence of God, and constant supplies out of our Redeemer's inexhaustible fullness.
2. We should be each concerned to inquire how it is with our souls, and, if we are upon the decline, to attend unto the directions that have been given. Put off a matter of such vast importance no longer; but examine whether you are Christians indeed, or not, and in what circumstances, whether thriving or declining; and if you are upon the decline, let me entreat you to consider what has been said upon this subject, and think it high time to awake out of sleep. Oh! if you have any concern for the honour of Christ, any concern for the peace and welfare of your precious souls, labour to have things better with you. Let your loins be girt, and your lights burning; and may none of us be under the least alarm, when death approaches, but then, through grace, be enabled to say, We fought the good fight, we have finished our course; we have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for us a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give us at that day, and not to us only, but also to all those that love his appearing.