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The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul
THE CASE OF SPIRITUAL DECAY AND LANGUOR IN RELIGION
—1. Declension in religion, and relapses into sin, with their sorrowful consequences, are in the general too probable. —2. The ease of declension and languor in religion described, negatively. —3. And positively. —4. As discovering itself by a failure in the duties of the closet. —5. By a neglect of social worship. —6. By want of love to our fellow Christians. —7. By an undue attachment to sensual pleasures or secular cares. —8. By prejudices against some important principles in religion. —9 and 10. A symptom peculiarly sad and dangerous. —11. Directions for recovery. —12. Immediately to be pursued. A prayer for one under spiritual decays.
1. If I am so happy as to prevail upon you in the exhortations and cautions I have given, you will probably go on with pleasure and comfort in religion, and your path will generally be “like the morning light, which shineth more and more until the perfect day,” (Prov. 4:18). Yet I dare not flatter myself with an expectation of such success as shall carry you above those varieties of temper, conduct, and state, which have been more or less the complaint of the best of men. Much do I fear, that, how warmly soever your heart may now be impressed with the representation I have been making, though the great objects of your faith and hope continue unchangeable, your temper towards them will be changed. Much do I fear that you will feel your mind languish and tire in the good ways of God; nay, that you may be prevailed upon to take some step out of them, and may thus fall a prey to some of those temptations which you now look upon with a holy scorn. The probable consequence of this will be, that God will hide his face from you; that he will stretch forth his afflicting hand against you, and that you still will see your sorrowful moments, how cheerfully soever you now “be rejoicing in the Lord, and joying in the God of your salvation,” (Hab. 3:18). I hope, therefore, it may be of some service, if this too probable event should happen, to consider these cases a little more particularly; and I heartily pray, that God would make what I shall say concerning them the means of restoring, comforting, and strengthening your soul, if he ever suffers you in any degree to deviate from him.
2. We will first consider the case of Spiritual Declensions and Languor in religion. And here I desire, that, before I proceed any farther, you would observe that I do not comprehend under this head all abatements of that fervor which a young convert may find when he first becomes experimentally acquainted with divine things. Our natures are so framed, that the novelty of objects strikes them in something of a peculiar manner: not to urge how much more easily our passions are impressed in the earlier years of life, than when we are more advanced in the journey of it. This, perhaps, is not sufficiently considered. Too great a stress is commonly laid on the flow of affections; and for want or this, a Christian, who is ripened in grace, and greatly advanced in his preparation for glory, may sometimes be led to lament imaginary rather than real decays, and to say, without any just foundation, “O that it were with me as in months past!” (Job 29:2). Therefore, you can hardly be too frequently told, that religion consists chiefly “in the ‘resolution of the will for God,’ and in a constant care to avoid whatever we are persuaded he would disapprove, to despatch the work he has assigned us in life, and to promote his glory in the happiness of mankind.” To this we are chiefly to attend, looking in all to the simplicity and purity of those motives from which we act, which we know are chiefly regarded by that God who searches the heart; humbling ourselves before him at the same time under a sense of our many imperfections, and flying to the blood of Christ and the grace of the Gospel.
3. Having given this precaution, I will now a little more particularly describe the case, which I call the state of a Christian who is declining in religion; so far as it does not fall in with those which I shall consider in the following chapters. And I must observe that it chiefly consists “in a forgetfulness of divine objects, and remissness in those various duties to which we stand engaged by that solemn surrender which we have made of ourselves to the service of God.” There will be a variety of symptoms, according to the different circumstances and relations in which the Christian is placed; but some will be of a more universal kind. It will be peculiarly proper to touch on these; and so much the rather, as these declensions are often unobserved, like the gray hairs which were upon Ephraim, when he knew it not, (Hosea 7:9).
4. Should you, my reader, fall into this state, it will probably first discover itself by a failure in the duties of the closet. Not that I suppose they will at first, or certainly conclude that they will at all, be wholly omitted, but they will be run over in a cold and formal manner. Sloth, or some of those other snares which I cautioned you against in the former chapter, will so far prevail upon you, that though perhaps you know and recollect that the proper season of retirement is come, you will sometimes indulge yourself upon your bed in the morning, sometimes in conversation or business in the evening, so as not to have convenient time for it. Or perhaps, when you come into your closet at that season, some favorite book you are desirous to read, some correspondence that you choose to carry on, or some other amusement, will present itself, and plead to be dispatched first. This will probably take up more time than you imagined; and then secret prayer will be hurried over, and perhaps reading the Scriptures quite neglected. You will plead, perhaps, that it is but for once; but the same allowance will be made a second and a third time; and it will grow more easy and familiar to you each time than it was the last. And thus God will be mocked, and your own soul will be defrauded of its spiritual meals, if I may be allowed the expression; the word of God will be slighted, and self-examination quite disused; and secret prayer itself wilt grow a burden rather than a delight; a trifling ceremony, rather than a devout homage, fit for the acceptance of “our Father who is in heaven.”
5. If immediate and resolute measures be not taken for your recovery from these declensions, they will spread farther, and reach the acts of social worship. You will feel the effects in your family and in public ordinances. And if you do not feel them, the symptoms will be so much the worse. Wandering thoughts will, as it were, eat out the very heart of these duties. It is not, I believe, the privilege of the most eminent Christians to be entirely free from them; but probably in these circumstances you will find but few intervals of strict attention, or of anything which wears the appearance of inward devotion. And when these heartless duties are concluded, there will scarce be a reflection made, how little God hath been enjoyed in them, how little he hath been honored by them. Perhaps the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, being so admirably adapted to fix the attention of the soul, and to excite its warmest exercise of holy affections, may be the last ordinance in which these declensions will be felt. And yet, who can say that the sacred table is a privileged place? Having been unnecessarily straitened in your preparations, you will attend with less fixedness and enlargement of heart than usual. And perhaps a dissatisfaction in the review, when there has been a remarkable alienation or insensibility of mind, may occasion a disposition to forsake your place and your duty there. And when your spiritual enemies have once gained this point upon you, it is probable you will fall by swifter degrees than ever, and your resistance to their attempts will grow weaker and weaker.
6. When your love to God our Father and to the Lord Jesus Christ fails, your fervor of Christian affection to your brethren in Christ will proportionally decline; and your concern for usefulness in life abate, especially where anything is to be done for spiritual edification. You will find some excuse or another for the neglect of religious discourse, perhaps not only among neighbors and Christian friends, when very convenient opportunities offer; but even with regard to those who are members of your own families, and to those who, if you are fixed in the superior relations of life, are committed to your care.
7. With this remissness, an attachment either to sensual pleasures or to worldly business will increase. For the soul must have something to employ it, and something to delight itself in; and as it turns to the one or the other of these, temptations of one sort or another will present themselves. In some instances, perhaps the strictest bonds of temperance, and the regular appointments or life, may be broken in upon, through a fondness for company, and the entertainments which often attend it. In other instances, the interests of life appearing greater than they did before, and taking up more of the mind, contrary interests of other persons may throw you into disquietude, or plunge you in debate and contention, in which it is extremely difficult to preserve either the serenity or the innocence of the soul. And perhaps, if ministers and other Christian friends observe this, and endeavor in a plain and faithful way to reduce you from your wandering, a false delicacy of mind, often contracted in such a state as this, will render these attempts extremely disagreeable. The ulcer of the soul, if I may be allowed the expression, will not bear being touched when it most needs it; and one of the most generous and self-denying instances of Christian friendship shall be turned into an occasion of coldness and distaste, yea, perhaps of enmity.
8. And possibly, to sum up all, this disordered state of mind may lead you into some prejudices against those very principles which might be most effectual for your recovery; and your great enemy may succeed so far in his attempts against you, as to persuade you that you have lost nothing in religion, when you have almost lost all. He may very probably lead you to conclude that your former devotional frames were mere fits of enthusiasm, and that the holy regularity of your walk before God was an unnecessary strictness and scrupulosity. Nay, you may think it a great improvement in understanding, that you have learnt from some new masters, that, if a man treat his fellow creatures with humanity and good nature, judging and reviling only those who would disturb others by the narrowness of their notions, (for these are generally exempted from other objects of the most universal and disinterested benevolence so often boasted of) he must necessarily be in a very good state, though he pretend not to converse much with God, provided that he think respectfully of him, and do not provoke him by any gross immoralities.
9. I mention this in the last stage of religious declension, because I apprehend that to be its proper place; and I fear it will be found, by experience, to stand upon the very confines of that gross apostasy into deliberate and presumptuous sin, which wilt claim our consideration under the next head. And because, too, religious declension it is that symptom which most effectually tends to prevent the success, and even the use, of any proper remedies, in consequence of a fond and fatal apprehension that they are needless. It is, if I may borrow the simile, like those fits of lethargic drowsiness which often precede apoplexies and death.
10. It is by no means my design at this time to reckon up, much less to consider at large, those dangerous principles which are now ready to possess the mind, and to lay the foundation of a false and treacherous peace. Indeed they are in different instances various, and sometimes run into opposite extremes. But if God awaken you to read your Bible with attention, and give you to feel the spirit with which it is written, almost every page will flash conviction upon the mind, and spread a light to scatter and disperse these shades of darkness.
11. What I chiefly intend in this address, is to engage you, if possible, as soon as you perceive the first symptoms of these declensions, to be upon your guard, and to endeavor, as speedily as possible, to recover yourself from them. And I would remind you, that the remedy must begin where the first cause or complaint prevailed, I mean, in the closet, Take some time for recollection, and ask your own conscience, seriously, how matters stand between the blessed God and your soul? Whether they are as they once were, and as you could wish them to be, if you saw your life just drawing to a period, and were to pass immediately into the eternal state? One serious thought of eternity shames a thousand vain excuses, with which, in the forgetfulness of it, we are ready to delude our own souls. And when you feel that secret misgiving of heart which will naturally arise on this occasion, do not endeavor to palliate the matter, and to find out slight and artful coverings for what you cannot forbear secretly condemning, but honestly fall under the conviction, and be humbled for it. Pour out your heart before God, and seek the renewed influences of his Spirit and grace. Return with more exactness to secret devotion, and to self-examination. Read the Scripture with yet greater diligence, and especially the more devotional and spiritual parts of it. Labor to ground it in your heart, and to feel what you have reason to believe the sacred penmen felt when they wrote, so far as circumstances may agree. Open your soul, with all simplicity; to every lesson which the word of God would teach you; and guard against those things which you perceive to alienate your mind from inward religion, though there be nothing criminal in the things themselves. They may perhaps in the general be lawful; to some possibly they may be expedient; but if they produce such an effect as was mentioned above, it is certain they are not convenient for you in these circumstances, above all, seek the converse of those Christians whose progress in religion seems most remarkable, and who adorn their profession in the most amiable manner. Labor to obtain their temper and sentiments, and lay open your case and your heart to them, with all the freedom which prudence will permit. Employ yourself, at seasons of leisure, in reading practical and devotional books, in which the mind and heart of the pious author is transfused into the work, and in which you can, as it were, taste the genuine spirit of Christianity. And to conclude, take the first opportunity that presents, of making an approach to the table of the Lord, and spare neither time nor pains in the most serious preparation for it. There renew your covenant with God; put your soul anew into the hands of Christ, and endeavor to view the wonders of his dying love, in such a manner as may rekindle the languishing flame, and quicken you to more vigorous resolution than ever, “to live unto him who died for you,” (2 Cor. 5:15). And watch over your own heart, that the good impressions you then felt may continue. Rest not, till you have obtained as confirmed a state of religion as you ever knew. Rest not, till you have made a greater progress than before; for it is only by a zeal to go forward, that you can be secure from the danger of going backward, and revolting more and more.
12. I only add, that it is necessary to take these precautions as soon as possible, or you will probably find a much swifter progress than you are aware in the downhill road; and you may possibly be left of God, to fall into some gross and aggravated sin, so as to fill your conscience with an agony and horror which the pain of “broken bones,” (Ps. 51:8), can but imperfectly express.
A Prayer for one under Spiritual Decays.
“Eternal and unchangeable Jehovah! thy perfections and glories are, like thy being, immutable. Jesus thy Son is ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever,’ (Heb. 13:8). The eternal world, to which I am hastening, is always equally important, and presses upon the attentive mind for a more fixed and solemn regard, in proportion to the degree in which it comes nearer and nearer. But, alas! my views, and my affections, and my best resolutions, are continually varying, like this poor body, which goes through daily and hourly alterations in its state and circumstances. Whence, O Lord! whence this sad change which I now experience in the frame and temper of my mind toward thee? Whence this alienation of my soul from thee? Why can I not come to thee with all the endearments of filial lover as I once could? Why is thy service so remissly attended, if attended at all? And why are the exercises of it, which were once my greatest pleasure, become a burden to me? Where, O God! is the blessedness I once spake of, (Gal. 4:15) when my joy in thee as my Heavenly Father was so conspicuous that strangers might have observed it, and when my heart did so overflow with love to thee, and with zeal for thy service, that it was a matter of self-denial to me, to limit and restrain the genuine expressions of those strong emotions of my soul, even where prudence and duty required it?
“Alas, Lord! whither am I fallen? Thine eye sees me still; but, oh! how unlike what it once saw me! Cold and insensible as I am, I must blush on the reflection. Thou ‘seest me in secret,’ (Matt. 6:6) and seest me, perhaps often amusing myself with trifles, in those seasons which I used solemnly to devote to thine immediate service. Thou seest me coming into thy presence as by constraint; and when I am before thee, so straitened in my spirit, that I hardly know what to say to thee, though thou art the God with whom I have to do; and though the keeping up a humble and dutiful correspondence with thee is, beyond all comparison, the most important business in my daily life, And even when I am speaking to thee, with how much coldness and formality is it! It is perhaps the work of imagination, the labor of the lips; but where are those ardent designs, those intense breathings after God, which I once felt? Where is that pleasing repose in thee, which I once was conscious of, as being near my divine rest, as being happy in that nearness, and resolving that, if possible, I would no more be removed from it? But, oh! how far am I now removed? When these short devotions, if they may be called devotions, are over, in what long intervals do I forget thee, and appear so little animated with thy love, so little devoted to thy service, that a stranger might converse with me a considerable time, without knowing that I had ever formed any acquaintance with thee, without discovering that I had so much as known or heard anything of God? Thou callest me to thine house, O Lord! on thine own day: but how heartless are my services there! I present thee no more than my body: my thoughts and affections are engrossed with other objects, while I ‘draw near thee with my mouth, and honor thee with my lips,’ (Isa. 29:13). Thou callest me to thy table; but my heart is so frozen, that it hardly melts even at the foot of the cross, hardly feels any efficacy in the blood of Jesus. O wretched creature that I am! Unworthy of being called thine! Unworthy of a place among thy children, or of the meanest situation in thy family: rather worthy to be case out, to be forsaken, yea, to be utterly destroyed!
“Is this, Lord, the service which I once promised, and which thou hast so many thousand reasons to expect? Are these the returns I am making for thy daily providential care, for the sacrifice of thy Son, for the communications of thy Spirit, for the pardon of my numberless aggravated sins, for the hopes, the undeserved and so often forfeited hopes of eternal glory! Lord, I am ashamed to stand or to kneel before thee. But pity me, I beseech thee, and help me; for I am a pitiable object indeed; my soul cleaveth unto the dust, and lays itself as in the dust before thee; but, O quicken me according to thy word! (Ps. 119:25). Let me trifle no longer, for I am upon the brink of a precipice! I am thinking of my ways. O give me grace to turn my feet unto thy testimonies, to make haste without any farther delay, that I may keep thy commandments! (Ps. 119: 59-60). Search me, O Lord! and try me, (Ps. 139:23). Go to the first root of this distemper, which spreads itself over my soul, and recover me from it! Represent sin unto me, O Lord! I beseech thee, that I may see it with abhorrence! and represent the Lord Jesus Christ to me in such a light that I may look upon him and mourn, (Zech. 12:10) that I may look upon him and love! May I awaken from this stupid lethargy into which I am sinking, and may Christ give me more abundant degrees of spiritual life and activity than I have ever yet received! and may I be so quickened and animated by him, that I may more than recover the ground I have lost, and may make a more speedy and exemplary progress than in my best days I have ever yet done! Send down upon me, O Lord! in a more rich and abundant effusion, thy good Spirit. May he dwell in me as a temple which he has consecrated to himself! (1 Cor. 3:16) and while all the service is directed and governed by him, may holy and acceptable sacrifices be continually offered! (Rom. 12:1). May the incense be constant, and may it be fragrant! May the sacred fire burn and blaze perpetually! (Lev. 6:13). And may none of its vessels ever be profaned, by being employed to an unholy or forbidden use! Amen.”
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