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The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul
Some More Particular Directions For Maintaining Continual Communion With God or Being in His Fear all the Day Long
—1. A letter to a pious friend on this subject introduced here. —2. General plan of directions. —3. For the beginning of the day. —4. Lifting up the heart to God at our first awakening. —5 through 10. Setting ourselves to the secret devotions of the morning, with respect to which particular advice is given. —11. For the progress of the day. —12. Directions are given concerning seriousness in devotion. —13. Diligence in business. —14. Prudence in recreations. —15. Observations of Providence. —16. Watchfulness against temptations. —17. Dependence on divine influence. —18. Government of the thoughts when in solitude. —19. Management of Discourse in company. —20. For the conclusion of the day. —21. With the secret devotions of the evening. —22 & 23. Directions for self-examination at large. —24. Lying down with a proper temper. —25. Conclusion of the letter. —26. And of the chapter. With a serious view of death, proper to be taken at the close of the day.
1. I would hope, that upon serious consideration, self-examination, and prayer, the reader has given himself up to God; and that his concern flow is to inquire, how he may act according to the vows of God which are upon him. Now, for his farther assistance here, besides the general view I have already given of the Christian temper and character, I will propose some more particular directions relating to maintaining that devout, spiritual, and heavenly character, which may, in the language of Scripture, be called “a daily walking with God, or being in his fear all the day long,” (Prov. 23:17). And I know not how I can express the idea and plan which I have formed of this, in a more clear and distinct manner than I did in a letter which I wrote many years ago [the year of 1727] to a young person of eminent piety, with whom I had then an intimate friendship; and who, to the great grief of all that knew him, died a few months after he received it. Yet I hope he lived long enough to reduce the directions to practice, which I wish and pray that every reader may do, so far as they may properly suit his capacities and circumstances in life, considering it as if addressed to himself. I say, and desire it may be observed, that I wish my reader may act on these directions so far as they may properly suit his capacity and circumstances in life; for I would be far from laying down the following particulars as universal rules for all, or for any one person in the world, at all times. Let them be practiced by those that are able, and when they have leisure; and when you cannot reach them all, come as near the most important of them as you conveniently can. With this precaution I proceed to the letter, which I would hope, after this previous care to guard against the danger of mistaking it, will not discourage any, the weakest Christian. Let us humbly and cheerfully do what we can, and rejoice that we have so gracious a Father, who knows all our infirmities, and so compassionate a High Priest, to recommend to divine acceptance the feeblest efforts of sincere duty and love!
My dear Friend,
Since you desire my thoughts in writing, and at large, on the subject of our late conversation, viz. “By what particular methods, in our daily conduct, devotion and usefulness may be most happily maintained and secured” —I set myself with cheerfulness to recollect and digest the hints which I then gave you; hoping it may be of some service to you in your most important interests; and may also fix on my own mind a deeper sense of my obligations to govern my own life by the rules I offer to others. I esteem attempts of this kind among the pleasantest fruits, and the surest cements of friendship; and as I hope ours will last forever, I am persuaded a mutual care to cherish sentiments of this kind will add everlasting endearments to it.
2. The directions you will expect from me on this occasion naturally divide themselves into three heads: How we are to regard God in the beginning; the progress; and the close of the day. I will open my heart freely to you with regard to each, and will leave you to judge how far these hints may suit your circumstances; aiming at least to keep between the extremes of a superstitions strictness in trifles, and an indolent remissness, which, if admitted in little things, may draw after it criminal neglects, and at length more criminal indulgences.
3. In the beginning of the day: It should certainly be our care to lift up our heads to God as soon as we wake, and while we are rising; and then, to set ourselves seriously and immediately to the secret devotions of the morning.
4. For the first of these it seems exceedingly natural. There are so many things that may suggest a great variety of pious reflections and ejaculations which are so obvious that one would think a serious mind could hardly miss them. The ease and cheerfulness of our minds on our first awaking; the refreshment we find from sleep; the security we have enjoyed in that defenseless state; the provision of warm and decent apparel; the cheerful light of the returning sun; or even (which is not unfit to mention to you) the contrivances of art, taught and furnished by the great Author of all our conveniences, to supply us with many useful hours of life in the absence of the sun; the hope of returning to the dear society of our friends; the prospect of spending another day in the service of God and the improvement of our own minds; and above all, the lively hope of a joyful resurrection to an eternal day of happiness and glory: any of these particulars, and many more which I do not mention, may furnish it with matter of pleasing reflection and cheerful praise while we are rising. And for our farther assistance, when we are alone at this time, it may not be improper to speak sometimes to ourselves, and sometimes to our heavenly Father, in the natural expressions of joy and thankfulness. Permit me, Sir, to add, that, if we find our hearts in such a frame at our first awaking, even that is just matter of praise, and the rather, as perhaps it is an answer to the prayer with which we lay down.
5. For the exercise of secret devotion in the morning, which I hope will generally be our first work, I cannot prescribe an exact method to another. You must, my dear friend, consult your own taste in some measure. The constituent parts of the service are, in the general, plain. Were I to propose a particular model for those who have half or three quarters of an hour at command, which, with prudent conduct, I suppose most may have, it should be this:
6. To begin the stated devotions of the day with a solemn act of praise, offered to God on our knees, and generally with a low, yet distinct voice; acknowledging the mercies we have been reflecting on while rising, never forgetting to mention Christ as the great foundation of all our enjoyments and our hopes, or to return thanks for the influences of the blessed Spirit which have led our hearts to God, or are then engaging us to seek him. This, as well as other offices of devotion afterwards mentioned, must be done attentively and sincerely; for not to offer our praises heartily, is, in the sight of God, not to praise him at all. This address of praise may properly be concluded with an express renewal of our dedication to God, declaring our continued repeated resolution of being devoted to him, and particularly of living to his glory the ensuing day.
7. It may be proper, after this, to take a prospect of the day before us, so far as we can probably foresee, in the general, where and how it may be spent; and seriously to reflect, “How shall I employ myself for God this day? What business is to be done, and in what order? What opportunities may I expect, either of doing or of receiving good? What temptations am I likely to be assaulted with, in any place, company, or circumstances, which may probably occur? In what instance have I lately failed? And how shall I be safest now?”
8. After this review it will be proper to offer up a short prayer, begging that God would quicken us to each of these foreseen duties; that he would fortify us against each of these apprehended dangers; that he would grant us success in such or such a business undertaken for his glory; and also that he would help us to discover and improve unforeseen opportunities to resist unexpected temptations, and to bear patiently, and religiously, any afflictions which may surprise us in the day on which we are entering.
9. I would advise you after this to read some portion of Scripture: not a great deal, nor the whole Bible in its course; but some select portions out of its most useful parts, perhaps ten or twelve verses, not troubling yourself much about the exact connection, or other critical niceties which may occur, though at other times I would recommend them to your inquiry, as you have ability and opportunity, but considering them merely in a devotional and practical view. Here take such instructions as readily present themselves to your thoughts, repeat them over to your own conscience, and charge your heart religiously to observe them, and act upon them, under a sense of the divine authority which attends them. And if you pray over the substance of this Scripture with your Bible open before you, it may impress your memory and your heart yet more deeply, and may form you to a copiousness and variety, both of thought and expression, in prayer.
10. It might be proper to close these devotions with a psalm or hymn; and I rejoice with you, that through the pious care of our sacred poets, we are provided with so rich a variety for the assistance of the closet and family on these occasions, as well as for the service of the sanctuary.
11. The most material directions which have occurred to me relating to the progress of the day, are these: That we be serious in the devotions of the day; that we be diligent in the business of it, that is, in the prosecution of our worldly callings; that we be temperate and prudent in the recreations of it; that we carefully mark the providences of the day; that we cautiously guard against the temptations of it; that we keep up a lively and humble dependence upon the divine influence, suitable to every emergency of it; that we govern our thoughts well in the solitude of the day, and our discourses well in the conversations of it. These, Sir, were the heads of a sermon which you have lately heard me preach, and to which I know you referred in that request which I am now endeavoring to answer. I will therefore touch upon the most material hints which fall under each of these particulars.
12. For seriousness in devotion, whether public or domestic, let us take a few moments before we enter upon such solemnities, to pause, and reflect on the perfections of the God we are addressing, on the importance of the business we are coming about, on the pleasure and advantage of a regular and devout attendance, and on the guilt and folly of an hypocritical formality. When engaged, let us maintain a strict watchfulness over our own spirits and check the first wanderings of thought. And when the duty is over, let us immediately reflect on the manner in which it has been performed, and ask our own consciences whether we have reason to conclude that we are accepted of God in it? For there is a certain manner of going through these offices, which our own hearts will immediately tell us “it is impossible for God to approve;” and if we have inadvertently fallen into it, we ought to be deeply humbled before God for it, lest “our very prayer become sin,” (Ps. 109:7).
13. As for the hours of worldly business, whether it is that of the hands, or the labor of a learned life not immediately relating to religious matters, let us set to the prosecution of it with a sense of God’s authority, and with a regard to his glory. Let us avoid a dreaming, sluggish, indolent temper, which nods over its work, and does only the business of one hour in two or three. In opposition to this, which runs through the life of some people, who yet think they are never idle, let us endeavor to dispatch as much as we well can in a little time; considering that it is but a little we have in all. And let us be habitually sensible of the need we have or the divine blessing to make our labors successful.
14. For seasons of diversion, let us take care that our recreations be well chosen; that they be pursued with a good intention, to fit us for a renewed application to the labors of life; and thus that they be only used in subordination to the honor of God, the great end of all our actions. Let us take heed, that our hearts be not estranged from God by them; and that they do not take up too much of our time; always remembering that the facilities of human nature, and the advantages of the Christian revelation, were not given us in vain; but that we are always to be in pursuit of some great and honorable end, and to indulge ourselves in amusements and diversions no farther than as they make a part in a scheme of rational and manly, benevolent and pious conduct.
15. For the observation of Providence, it will be useful to regard the divine interposition in our comforts and in our afflictions. In our comforts, whether more common or extraordinary: that we find ourselves in continued health; that we are furnished with food for support and pleasure; that we have so many agreeable ways of employing our time; that we have so many friends, and those so good, and so happy; that our business goes on so prosperously; that we go out and come in safely; and that we enjoy composure and cheerfulness of spirit, without which nothing else could be enjoyed: all these should be regarded as providential favors, and due acknowledgments should be made to God on these accounts, as we pass through such agreeable scenes. On the other hand, Providence is to be regarded in every disappointment, in every loss, in every pain, in every instance of unkindness from those who have professed friendship; and we should endeavor to argue ourselves into a patient submission, from this consideration, that the hand of God is always mediately, if not immediately, in each of them; and that, if they are not properly the work of Providence, they are at least under his direction. It is a reflection which we should particularly make with relation to those little cross accidents, (as we are ready to call them) and those infirmities and follies in the temper and conduct of our intimate friends, which may else be ready to discompose us. And it is the more necessary to guard our minds here, as wise and good men often lose the command of themselves on these comparatively little occasions; who, calling lip reason and religion to their assistance, stand the shock of great calamities with fortitude and resolution.
16. For watchfulness against temptations, it is necessary, when changing our place, or our employment, to reflect, “What snares attended me here?” And as this should be our habitual care, so we should especially guard against those snares which in the morning we foresaw. And when we are entering on those circumstances in which we expected the assault, we should reflect, especially if it be a matter of great importance, “Now the combat is going to begin: now God and the blessed angels are observing what constancy, what fortitude there is in my soul, and how far the divine authority, and the remembrance of my own prayers and resolutions, will weigh with me when it comes to a trial.”
17. As for dependence on divine grace and influence, it must be universal; and since we always need it, we must never forget that necessity. A moment spent in humble fervent breathings after the communications of the divine assistance, may do more good than many minutes spent in mere reasonings; and though indeed this should not be neglected, since the light of reason is a kind of divine illumination, yet still it ought to be pursued in a due sense of our dependence on the Father of Lights, or where we think ourselves wisest, we may “become vain in our imaginations,” (Rom. 1:21,22). Let us therefore always call upon God, and say, for instance, when we are going to pray, “Lord, fix my attention! Awaken my holy affections, and pour out upon me the spirit of grace and of supplication!” (Zech. 12:10). When taking up a Bible or any other good book, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law! (Ps. 119:18). Enlighten my understanding! Warm my heart! May my good resolutions be confirmed, and all the course of my life be in a proper manner regulated!” When addressing ourselves to any worldly business, “Lord, prosper thou the work of mine hands upon me, (Ps. 90:17) and give thy blessing to my honest endeavors!” When going to any kind of recreation, “Lord, bless my refreshments! Let me not forget thee in them, but still keep thy glory in view!” When coming into company, “Lord, may I do, and get good! Let no corrupt communication proceed out of my mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace to the hearers!” (Eph. 4:29). When entering upon difficulties, “Lord, give me that wisdom which is profitable to direct!” (Eccl. 10:10). “Teach me thy way, and lead me in a plain path!” (Ps. 27:11). When encountering with temptations, “Let thy strength, O gracious Redeemer, be made perfect in my weakness!” (2 Cor. 12:9). These instances may illustrate the design of this direction, though they may be far from a complete enumeration of all the circumstances in which it is to be regarded.
18. For the government of our thoughts in solitude: let us accustom ourselves, on all occasions, to exercise a due command over our thoughts. Let us take care of those entanglements of passion, or those attachments to any present interest in view, which would deprive us of our power over them. Let us set before us some profitable subject of thought; such as the perfection of the blessed God, the love of Christ, the value of time, the certainty and importance of death and judgment, and the eternity of happiness or misery which is to follow. Let us also, at such intervals, reflect on what we have observed as to the state of our own souls, with regard to the advance or decline of religion; or on the last sermon we have heard or the last portion of Scripture we have read. You may perhaps, in this connection, Sir, recollect what I have, if I remember right, proposed to you in conversation; that it might be very useful to select some one verse of Scripture which we have met with in the morning, and to treasure it up in our mind, resolving to think of that at any time when we are at a loss for matter of pious reflection, in any intervals of leisure for entering upon it. This will often be as a spring from whence many profitable and delightful thoughts may rise which perhaps we did not before see in that connection and force. Or if it should not be so, yet I am persuaded it will be much better to repeat the same scripture in our mind a hundred times in a day, with some pious ejaculation formed upon it, than to leave our thoughts at the mercy of all those various trifles which may otherwise intrude upon us, the variety of which will be far from making amends for their vanity.
19. Lastly, for the government of our discourse in company. We should take great care that nothing may escape us which can expose us, or our Christian profession, to censure and reproach; nothing injurious to those that are absent, or those that are present; nothing malignant, nothing insincere, nothing which may corrupt, nothing which may provoke, nothing which may mislead those about us. Nor should we by any means be content that what we say is innocent: it should be our desire that it may be edifying to ourselves and others. In this view, we should endeavor to have some subject of useful discourse always ready; in which we may be assisted by the hints given about furniture for thought, under the former head. We should watch for decent opportunities of introducing useful reflections; and if a pious friend attempt to do it, we should endeavor to second it immediately. When the conversation does not turn directly on religious subjects, we should endeavor to make it improving some other way; we should reflect on the character and capacities of our company, that we may lead them to talk of what they understand best; for their discourses on those subjects will probably be most pleasant to themselves, as well as most useful to us. And in pauses of discourse, it may not be improper to lift up a holy ejaculation to God that his grace may assist us and our friends in our endeavors to do good to each other; that all we say or do may be worthy the character of reasonable creatures and of Christians.
20. The directions for a religious closing or the day which I shall here mention, are only two: let us see to it, that the secret duties of the evening be well performed; and let us lie down on our beds in a pious frame.
21. For the secret devotion in the evening, I would propose a method something different from that in the morning; but still, as then, with due allowances for circumstances which may make unthought-of alterations proper. I should advise to read a portion of Scripture in the first place, with suitable reflections and prayer, as above; then to read a hymn, or psalm; after this to enter on self-examination, to be followed by a longer prayer than that which followed reading, to be formed on this review of the day. In this address to the throne of grace, it will be highly proper to entreat that God would pardon the omissions and offences of the day; to praise him for mercies temporal and spiritual; to recommend ourselves to his protection for the ensuing night; with proper petitions for others, whom we ought to bear on our hearts before him; and particularly for those friends with whom we have conversed or corresponded in the preceding day. Many other concerns will occur, both in morning and evening prayer, which I have not here hinted at; but I did not apprehend that a full enumeration of these things belonged, by any means, to our present purpose.
22. Before I quit this head I must take the liberty to remind you, that self-examination is so important a duty, that it will be worth our while to spend a few words upon it. And this branch of it is so easy, that, when we have proper questions before us, any person of a common understanding may hope to go through it with advantage, under a divine blessing. I offer you therefore the following queries, which I hope you will, with such alterations as you may judge requisite, keep near you for daily use.— “Did I awake as with God this morning, and rise with a grateful sense of his goodness? How were the secret devotions of the morning performed? Did I offer my solemn praises, and renew the dedication of myself to God with becoming attention and suitable affections? Did I lay my scheme for the business of the day wisely and well? How did I read the Scriptures, and any other devotional or practical piece which I afterwards found it convenient to review? Did it do my heart good, or was it a mere amusement? How have the other stated devotions of the day been attended, whether in the family or in public? Have I pursued the common business of the day with diligence and spirituality, doing everything in season, and with all convenient dispatch, and as unto the Lord? What time have I lost this day, in the morning, or the forenoon, in the afternoon, or the evening?” (for these divisions will assist your recollection) “and what has occasioned the loss of it? With what temper, and under what regulations have the recreations of this day been pursued? Have I seen the hand of God in my mercies, health, cheerfulness, food, clothing, books, preservation in journeys, success of business, conversation, and kindness of friends, &c.? Have I seen it in afflictions, and particularly in little things, which had a tendency to vex and disquiet me? Have I received my comforts thankfully, and my afflictions submissively? How have I guarded against the temptations of the day, particularly against this or that temptation which I foresaw in the morning? Have I maintained a dependence on divine influence? Have I lived by faith on the Son of God, and regarded Christ this day as my teacher and governor, my atonement and intercessor, my example and guardian, my strength and forerunner? Have I been looking forward to death and eternity this day, and considered myself as a probationer for heaven, and, through grace, an expectant of it? Have I governed my thoughts well, especially in such or such an interval of solitude? How was my subject of thought this day chosen, and how was it regarded? Have I governed my discourses well, in such and such company? Did I say nothing passionate, mischievous, slanderous, imprudent, impertinent? Has my heart this day been full of love to God, and to all mankind? and have I sought, and found, and improved, opportunities of doing and of getting good? With what attention and improvement have I read the Scripture this evening? How was self-examination performed the last night? and how have I profited this day by any remarks I then made on former negligence’s and mistakes? With what temper did I then lie down, and compose myself to sleep?”
23. You will easily see, Sir, that these questions are so adjusted as to be an abridgment of the most material advice I have given in this letter; and I believe I need not, to a person of your understanding, say anything as to the usefulness of such inquiries. Conscience will answer them in a few minutes; but if you think them too large and particular, you may make still a shorter abstract for daily use, and reserve these, with such obvious alteration as will then be necessary for seasons of more than ordinary exactness in review, which I hope will occur at least once a week. Secret devotion being thus performed, before drowsiness render us unfit for it, the interval between that and our going to rest must be conducted by the rules mentioned under the next head. And nothing will farther remain to be considered here, but,
24. The sentiments with which we should lie down and compose ourselves to sleep. Now here it is obviously suitable to think of the divine goodness, in adding another day, and the mercies of it, to the former days and mercies of our life; to take notice of the indulgence of Providence in giving us commodious habitations and easy beds, and continuing to us such health of body that we can lay ourselves down at ease upon them, and such serenity of mind as leaves us any room to hope for refreshing sleep; a refreshment to be sought, not merely as an indulgence to animal nature, but as what our wise Creator, in order to keep us humble in the midst of so many infirmities, has been pleased to make necessary to our being able to pursue his service with renewed alacrity. Thus may our sleeping, as well as our waking hours, be in some sense devoted to God. And when we are just going to resign ourselves to the image of death, to what one of the ancients beautifully calls “its lesser mysteries,” it is also evidently proper to think seriously of that end of all the living, and to renew those actings of repentance and faith which we should judge necessary if we were to wake no more here. You have once, Sir, seen a meditation of that kind in my hand: I will transcribe it for you in the postscript; and therefore shall add no more to this head, but here put a close to the directions you desired.
25. I am persuaded the most important of them have, in one form or another, been long regarded by you, and made governing maxims of your life. I shall greatly rejoice if the review of these, and the examination and trial of the rest, may be the means of leading you into more intimate communion with God, and so of rendering your life more pleasant and useful, and your eternity, whenever that is to commence, more glorious. There is not a human creature upon earth whom I should not delight to serve in these important interests; but I can faithfully assure you, that I am, with particular respect,
Your very affectionate friend and servant.
26. This, reader, with the alteration of a very few words, is the letter I wrote to a worthy friend (now, I doubt not with, God) about sixteen years ago; and I can assuredly say, that the experience of each of these years has confirmed me in these views, and established me in the persuasion, that one day thus spent is far preferable to whole years of sensuality, and the neglect of religion. I chose to insert the letter as it is, because I thought the freedom and particularity of the advice I had given in it would appear most natural in its original form; and as I propose to enforce these counsels in the next chapter, I shall conclude this with that meditation which I promised my friend as a postscript, and which I could wish you to make so familiar to yourself as that you may be able to recollect the substance of it whenever you compose yourself to sleep.
A serious view of death, proper to be taken as we lie dawn on our beds.
“O my soul! look forward a little with seriousness and attention, and learn wisdom by the consideration of thy latter end, (Deut. 22:29). Another of thy mortal days is now numbered and finished; and as I have put off my clothes, and laid myself upon my bed for the repose of the night; so will the day of life quickly come to its period, so must the body itself be put off and laid to its repose in a bed of dust. There let it rest; for it will be no more regarded by me than the clothes which I have now laid aside. I have another far more important concern to attend. Think, O my soul! when death comes, thou art to enter upon the eternal world, and to be fixed either in heaven or in hell. All the schemes and cares, the hopes and fears, the pleasures and sorrows of life, will come to their period, and the world of spirits will open upon thee. And oh! how soon may it open! Perhaps before the returning sun bring on the light of another day. Tomorrow’s sun may not enlighten my eyes, but only shine round a senseless corpse which may lie in the place of this animated body. At least the death of many in the flower of their age, and many who were superior to me in capacity, piety, and the prospects of usefulness, may loudly warn me not to depend on a long life, and engage me rather to wonder that I am continued here so many years, than to be surprised if I am speedily removed
“And now, O my soul! answer as in the sight of God, Art thou ready? Art thou ready? Is there no sin unforsaken, and so unrepented of to fill me with anguish in my departing moments, and to make me tremble on the brink of eternity? Dread to remain under the guilt of it, and this moment renew thy most earnest applications to the mercy of God, and the blood of a Redeemer, for deliverance from it.
“But if the great account be already adjusted, if thou hast cordially repented of thy numerous offences? if thou hast sincerely committed thyself, by faith, into the hands of the blessed Jesus, and hast not renounced thy covenant with him, by turning to the allowed practice of sin, then start not at the thought of a separation; it is not in the power of death to hurt a soul devoted to God, and united to the great Redeemer. It may take from me my worldly comforts; it may disconcert and break my schemes for service on earth; but, O my soul, diviner entertainments and nobler services ‘wait thee beyond the grave!’ For ever blessed be the name of God and the love of Jesus, for these quieting, encouraging joyful views! I will now lay me down in peace, and sleep, (Ps. 4:8) free from the fears of what shall be the issue of this night, whether life or death be appointed for me. Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit, (Luke, 23:46) for thou hast redeemed me, O God of truth! (Ps. 31:5) and therefore I can cheerfully refer it to thy choice, whether I shall wake in this world or another.”
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