Outward means and occasions of such thoughts of spiritual things as do not prove men to be spiritually minded — Preaching of the word — Exercise of gifts — Prayer — How we may know whether our thoughts of spiritual things in prayer are truly spiritual thoughts, proving us to be spiritually minded.
1. Such a means is the preaching of the word itself.
It is observed concerning many in the gospel, that they heard it willingly, received it with joy, and did many things gladly, upon the preaching of it; and we see the same thing exemplified in multitudes every day. But none of these things can be without many thoughts in the minds of such persons about the spiritual things of the word; for they are the effects of such thoughts, and, being wrought in the minds of men, will produce more of the same nature: yet were they all hypocrites concerning whom these things are spoken, and were never spiritually minded.
The cause of this miscarriage is given us by our Saviour: “He that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while” (Matt 13:20,21). The good thoughts they have proceed not from any principle in themselves. Neither their affections nor their thoughts of these things have any internal root whereon they should grow.
So is it with many who live under the present dispensation of the gospel. They have thoughts of spiritual things continually suggested unto them, and they do abide with them more or less, according as they are affected: for I speak not of them who are either despisers of what they hear, or wayside hearers, who understand nothing of what they hear, and immediately lose all sense of it, all thoughts about it; but I speak of them who attend with some diligence, and receive the word with some joy. These insensibly grow in knowledge and understanding, and therefore cannot be without some thoughts of spiritual things.
Howbeit for the most part they are, as was said, but like unto waters that run after a shower of rain. They pour out themselves, as if they proceeded from some strong, living spring, whereas indeed they have none at all. When once the waters of the shower are spent, their channel is dry, there is nothing in it but stones and dirt. When the doctrine of the word falls on such persons as showers of rain, it gives a course, sometimes greater, sometimes less, unto their thoughts towards spiritual things; but they have not a well of water in them springing up into everlasting life. Wherefore, after a while their minds are dried up from such thoughts; nothing remains in them but earth, and that perhaps foul and dirty.
It must be observed, that tbe best of men, the most holy and spiritually minded, may have, nay, ought to have, their thoughts of spiritual things excited, multiplied, and confirmed, by the preaching of the word. It is one end of its dispensation, one principal use of it in them by whom it is received. And it hath this effect two ways:
(1.) As it is the spiritual food of the soul, whereby its principle of life and grace is maintained and strengthened. The more this is done, the more shall we thrive in being spiritually minded.
(2.) As it administereth occasion unto the exercise of grace; for, proposing the proper object of faith, love, fear, trust, reverence, unto the soul, it draws forth all those graces into exercise.
Wherefore, although the vigorous actings of spiritual thoughts be occasional from the word, be more under and after the preaching of it than at other times, it is no more but what ariseth from the nature and use of the ordinance by God’s own appointment, nor is it any evidence that those with whom it is so are not spiritually minded, but, on the contrary, that they are.
Yet where men have no other thoughts of this matter but what are occasioned by the outward dispensation of the word, such thoughts do not prove them to be spiritually minded. Their endeavours in them are like those of men in a dream. Under some oppression of their spirits, their imagination fixeth on some thing or other that is most earnestly to be desired or avoided. Herein they seem to themselves to strive with all their might, to endeavour to go, run, or contend; but all in vain every thing fails them, and they are not relieved until they are awaked. So, such persons, in impressions they receive from the word, seem to strive and contend in their thoughts and resolutions to comply with what is proposed unto them; but their strength fails, they find no success for want of a principle of spiritual life, and after a time give over their endeavours until they are occasionally renewed again.
Now, the thoughts which, in the dispensation of the word, do proceed from an inward principle of grace, excited unto its due exercise, are distinguishable from them which are only occasionally suggested unto the mind by the word outwardly preached; for:
(1.) They are especial actings of faith and love towards the things themselves that are preached. They belong unto our receiving the truth in the love thereof; and love respects the goodness of the things themselves, and not merely the truth of the propositions wherein they are expressed. The other thoughts are only the sense of the mind as affected with light and truth, without any cordial love unto the things themselves.
(2.) They are accompanied with complacency of soul, arising from love, and experience, more or less, of the power of them, and their suitableness unto the new nature or principle of grace in them; for when our minds find that so indeed it is in us as it is in the word, that this is that which we would be more conformable unto, it gives a secret complacency, with satisfaction, unto the soul. The other thoughts, which are only occasional, have none of these concomitants or effects, but are dry and barren, unless it be in a few words or transient discourse.
(3.) The former are means of spiritual growth. So some say the natural growth of vegetables is not by insensible motion, but by gusts and sensible eruptions of increase. These are both in spiritual growth, and the latter consists much in those thoughts which the principle of the new nature is excited unto by the word in the latter.
2. The duty of prayer is another means of the like nature.
One principal end of it is to excite, stir up, and draw forth, the principle of grace, of faith and love in the heart, unto a due exercise in holy thoughts of God and spiritual things, with affections suitable unto them. Those who design not this end in prayer know not at all what it is to pray. Now, all sorts of persons have frequent occasion to join with others in prayer, and many are under the conviction that it is their own duty to pray every day, it may be, in their families and otherwise. And it is hard to conceive how men can constantly join with others in prayer, much more how they can pray themselves, but that they must have thoughts of spiritual things every day; howbeit, it is possible that they may have no root or living spring of them in themselves, but they are only occasional impressions on their minds from the outward performance of the duty. I shall give some instances of the grounds hereof, which, on many reasons, require our diligent consideration:
(1.) Spiritual thoughts may be raised in a person in his own duty, by the exercise of his gifts, when there is no acting of grace in them at all; for they lead and guide the mind unto such things as are the matter of prayer — that is, spiritual things. Gifts are nothing but a spiritual improvement of our natural faculties or abilities; and a man cannot speak or utter any thing but what proceeds from his rational faculties, by invention or memory, or both, managed in and by his thoughts, unless he speak by rote and that which is not rational. What, therefore, proceeds from a man’s rational faculty in and by the exercise of his gifts, that his thoughts must be exercised about.
A man may read a long prayer that expresseth spiritual things, and yet never have one spiritual thought arise in his mind about them; for there is no exercise of any faculty of his mind required unto such reading, but only to attend unto the words that are to be read. This I say may be so; I do not say that it is always so, or that it must be so. But, as was said, in the exercise of gifts, it is impossible but there must be an exercise of reason, by invention, judgment, and memory, and consequently thoughts of spiritual things; yet may they all be merely occasional, from the present external performance of the duty, without any living spring or exercise of grace. In such a course may men of tolerable gifts continue all their days, unto the satisfaction of themselves and others, deceiving both them and their own souls.
This being evident from the Scripture and experience, an inquiry may be made thereon as unto our own concernment in these things, especially of those who have received spiritual gifts of their own, and of them also in some degree who usually enjoy the gifts of others in this duty; for it may be asked how we shall know whether the thoughts which we have of spiritual things in and upon prayer do arise from gifts only, those of our own or other men’s, giving occasion unto them, or are influenced from a living principle and spring of grace in our hearts. A case this is (however by some it may be apprehended) of great importance, and which would require much time fully to resolve; for there is nothing whereby the refined sort of hypocrites do more deceive themselves and others, nothing whereby some men do give themselves more countenance in an indulgence unto their lusts, than by this part of the form of godliness, when they deny the power thereof.
And, besides, it is that wherein the best of believers ought to keep a diligent watch over themselves in every particular instance of the performance of this duty. With respect hereunto, in an especial manner, are they to watch unto prayer. If they are at any time negligent herein, they may rest in a bare exercise of gifts, when, on a due examination and trial, they have no evidence of the acting of grace in what they have done. I shall, therefore, with what brevity I can, give a resolution unto this inquiry; and to this end observe:
It is an ancient complaint, that spiritual things are filled with great obscurity and difficulty; and it is true.
Not that there is any such thing in themselves, for they all come forth from the Father of lights, and are full of light, order, beauty, and wisdom; and light and order are the only means whereby any thing makes a discovery of itself. But the ground of all darkness and difficulty in these things lies in ourselves. We can more clearly and steadily see and behold the moon and the stars than we can the sun when it shines in its greatest lustre. It is not because there is more light in the moon and stars than in the sun, but because the light of the sun is greater than our visive faculty can directly bear and behold. So we can more clearly discover the truth and distinct nature of things moral and natural, than we can of things that are heavenly and spiritual. See John 3:12. Not that there is more substance or reality in them, but because the ability of our understanding is more suited unto the comprehension of them; the others are above us.
We know but in part, and our minds are liable to be hindered and disordered in their apprehension of things heavenly and spiritual by ignorance, temptations, and prejudices of all sorts. In nothing are men more subject unto mistakes than in the application of things unto themselves, and a judgment of their interest in them. Fear, self-love, with the prevalency of temptations and corruptions, do all engage their powers to darken the light of the mind and to pervert its judgment. In no case doth the deceitfulness of the heart, or of sin (which is all one), more act itself. Hence multitudes say “Peace” to themselves to whom God doth not speak peace; and some who are children of light do yet walk in darkness. Hence is that fervent prayer of the apostle for help in this case, Eph 1:15-19.
There is also a great similitude between temporary faith and that which is saving and durable, and between gifts and graces in their operations; which is that that is under present consideration. It is acknowledged, therefore, that without the especial light and conduct of the Spirit of God, no man can make such a judgment of his state and his actions as shall be a stable foundation of giving glory to God and of obtaining peace unto his own soul; and therefore the greatest part of mankind do constantly deceive themselves in these things.
But, ordinarily, under this blessed conduct in the search of ourselves and the concernments of our duty, we may come unto a satisfaction whether they are influenced by faith and have grace exercised in them, especially this duty of prayer, or whether it derive from the power of our natural faculties, raised by light and spiritual gifts only; and so whether our spiritual thoughts therein do spring from a vital principle of grace, or whether they come from occasional impressions on the mind by the performance of the duty itself.
If men are willing to deceive themselves, or to hide themselves from themselves, to walk with God at all peradventures, to leave all things at hazard, to put off all trials unto that at the last day, and so never call themselves unto an account as unto the nature of their duties in any particular instance, it is no wonder if they neither do nor can make any distinction in this matter as unto the true nature of their thoughts in spiritual duties. Two things are required hereunto:
[1.] That we impartially and severely examine and try the frames and actings of our minds in holy duties by the word of truth, and thereon be not afraid to speak that plainly unto our souls which the word speaks unto us.
This diligent search ought to respect our principles, aims, ends, actings, with the whole deportment of our souls in every duty. See 2 Cor 13:5. If a man receive much money, and look only on the outward form and superscription, when he supposeth that he hath great store of current coin in gold and silver, he may have only heaps of lead or copper by him; but he that trades in it as the comfort and support of his natural life and condition, he will try what he receives both by the balance and the touchstone, as the occasion requires, especially if it be in a time when much adulterated coin is passant in the world.
And if a man reckon on his duties by tale and number, he may be utterly deceived, and be spiritually poor and a bankrupt, when he esteems himself rich, increased in goods, and wanting nothing. Some duties may appearingly hold in the balance as to weight, which will not hold it at the touchstone as to worth. Both means are to be used, if we would not be mistaken in our accounts. Thus God himself, in the midst of a multitude of duties, calls the people to try and examine themselves whether or no they are such as have faith and grace in them, and so like to have acceptance with him (Isa 58:2-7).
[2.] Add we must unto our own diligent inquiry fervent prayers unto God that he would search and try us as unto our sincerity, and discover unto us the true frame of our hearts.
Hereof we have an express example,: “Search me, God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps 139:23-24). This is the only way whereby we may have the Spirit of God witnessing unto our sincerity with our own spirits. There is need of calling in divine assistance in this matter, both from the importance of it and from its difficulty, God alone knowing fully and perfectly what is in the hearts of men.
I no way doubt but that, in the impartial use of these means, a man may come to assured satisfaction in his own mind, such as wherein he shall not be deceived, whether he doth animate and quicken his thoughts of spiritual things in duties with inward vital grace, or whether they are impressions on his mind by the occasion of the duty.
A duty this is of great importance and necessity, now hypocrisy hath made so great an inroad on profession, and gifts have defloured grace in its principal operations. No persons are in greater danger of walking at hazard with God than those who live in the exercise of spiritual gifts in duties unto their own satisfaction and [that of] others; for they may countenance themselves with an appearance of every thing that should be in them in reality and power, when there is nothing of it in them. And so it hath fallen out. We have seen many earnest in the exercise of this gift who have turned vile and debauched apostates. Some have been known to live in sin and in indulgence of their lusts, and yet to abide constant in their duties (Isa 1:10-15).
And we may hear prayers sometimes that openly discover themselves unto spiritual sense to be the labour of the brain, by the help of gifts in memory and invention, without an evidence of any mixture of humility, reverence, or godly fear, without any acting of faith and love. They flow as wine, yet smell and taste of the unsavoury cask from whence they proceed. It is necessary, therefore, that we should put ourselves on the severest trial, lest we should be found not to be spiritually minded in spiritual duties.
Gifts are gracious vouchsafements of Christ to make grace useful unto ourselves and others; yea, they may make them useful unto the grace of others who have no grace in themselves. But as unto our own souls, they are of no other advantage or benefit but to stir up grace unto its proper exercise, and to be a vehicle to carry it on in its proper use. If we do not always regard this in their exercise, we had better be without them. If instead hereof they once begin to impose themselves practically upon us, so as that we rest in spiritual light acting our inventions, memories, and judgments, with a ready utterance, or such as it is, there is no form of prayer can be more prejudicial unto our souls.
As wine, if taken moderately and seasonably, helps the stomach in digestion, and quickens the natural spirits, enabling the powers of nature unto their duty, [and] is useful and helpful unto it; but if it be taken in excess it doth not help nature, but oppress it, and takes on itself to do what nature should be assisted unto, it fills men’s carcasses with diseases as well as their souls with sin: so whilst spiritual gifts are used and employed only to excite, aid, and assist grace in its operations, they are unutterably useful; but if they put themselves in the room thereof, to do all that grace should do, they are hurtful and pernicious. We have need, therefore, to be very diligent in this inquiry whether our spiritual thoughts, even in our prayers, be not rather occasioned from the duty than spring from a gracious principle in our hearts, or are the actings of real saving grace.
(2.) Where thoughts of spiritual things in prayer are occasional only, in the way before described, such prayers will not be a means of spiritual growth unto the soul.
They will not make the soul humble, holy, watchful, and diligent in universal obedience. Grace will not thrive under the greatest constancy in such duties. It is an astonishing thing to see how, under frequency of prayer and a seeming fervency therein, many of us are at a stand as to visible thriving in the fruits of grace, and it is to be feared without any increase of strength in the root of it. “The Lord’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save, nor his ear heavy that it cannot hear.” He is the same as in the days of old, when our fathers cried unto him and were delivered, when they trusted in him and were not confounded. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever.” Prayer is the same that it was, and shall lose nothing of its prevalency whilst this world endureth.
Whence is it, then, that there is so much prayer amongst us, and so little success? I speak not with respect unto the outward dispensations of divine providence, in afflictions or persecutions, wherein God always acts in a way of sovereignty, and ofttimes gives the most useful answer unto our prayers by denying our requests; I intend that only whereof the psalmist giveth us his experience: “In the day when I cried thou answeredst me, and strengthenedst me with strength in my soul” (Ps 138:3).
Where prayers are effectual, they will bring in spiritual strength. But the prayers of many seem to be very spiritual, and to express all conceivable supplies of grace, and they are persisted in with constancy — and God forbid we should judge them to be hypocritical and wholly insincere — yet there is a defect somewhere, which should be inquired after, for they are not so answered as that they who pray them are strengthened with strength in their souls. There is not that spiritual thriving, that growth in grace, which might be expected to accompany such supplications.
I know that a man may pray often, pray sincerely and frequently, for an especial mercy, grace, or deliverance from a particular temptation, and yet no spiritual supply of strength unto his own experience come in thereby. So Paul prayed thrice for the removal of his temptation, and yet had the exercise of it continued. In such a case there may be no defect in prayer, and yet the grace in particular aimed at may not be attained; for God hath other holy ends to accomplish hereby on the soul. But how persons should continue in prayer in general according to the mind of God, so far as can be outwardly discovered, and yet thrive not at all as unto spiritual strength in their souls, is hard to be understood.
And, which is yet more astonishable, men abide in the duty of prayer, and that with constancy, in their families and otherwise, and yet live in known sins. Whatever spiritual thoughts such men have in and by their prayers, they are not spiritually minded. Shall we now say that all such persons are gross hypocrites, such as know they do but mock God and man — know that they have not desires nor aims after the things which they mention in their own prayers, but do these things either for some corrupt end or at best to satisfy their convictions?
Could we thus resolve, the whole difficulty of the case were taken off; for such “double-minded men” have no reason to “think that they shall receive any thing of the Lord,” as James speaks (James 1:7). Indeed they do not — they never act faith with reference unto their own prayers. But it is not so with all of this sort. Some judge themselves sincere and in good earnest in their prayers — not without some hopes and expectations of success. I will not say of all such persons that they are among the number of them concerning whom the Wisdom of God says, “Because I called, and they refused; they shall call upon me, hut I will not answer; they shall seek me early, hut they shall not find me” (Prov 1:24-25).
And although we may say unto such a person in general, “Either leave your sinning or leave your praying,” from Ps 50:16-17, and that with respect unto present scandal and certain miscarriage in the end if both be continued in, yet in particular I would not advise any such person to leave off his praying until he had left his sin. This were to advise a sick man to use no remedies until he were well cured. Who knows but that the Holy Spirit, who works when and how he pleaseth, may take a time to animate these lifeless prayers, and make them a means of deliverance from the power of this sin?
In the meantime, the fault and guilt is wholly their own, who have effected a consistency between a way in sinning and a course in praying; and it ariseth from hence, that they have never laboured to fill up their requests with grace. What there hath been of earnestness or diligence in them hath been from a force put upon them by their convictions and fears; for no man was ever absolutely prevailed on by sin who prayed for deliverance according to the mind of God. Every praying man that perisheth was a hypocrite. The faithfulness of God in his promises will not allow us to judge otherwise. Wherefore, the thoughts that such persons have of spiritual things, even in their duties, do not arise from within nor are a natural emanation of the frames of their hearts and affections.
(3.) Earnestness and appearing fervency in prayer, as unto the outward delivery of the words of it, yea, though the mind be so affected as to contribute much thereunto, will not of themselves prove that the thoughts of men therein do arise from an internal spring of grace.
There is a fervency of spirit in prayer that is one of the best properties of it, being an earnest acting of love, faith, and desire; but there is a fervency wherewith the mind itself may be affected that may arise from other causes:
[1.] It may do so from the engagement of natural affections unto the objects of their prayer, or the things prayed for. Men may be mighty earnest and intent in their minds in praying for a dear relation or for deliverance from eminent troubles or imminent dangers, and yet all this fervour may arise from the vehement actings of natural affections about the things prayed for, excited in an especial manner by the present duty. Hence God calls the earnest cries of some for temporal things, not a “crying unto him,” but a “howling” (Hos 7:14); that is, the cry of hungry, ravenous beasts, that would be satisfied.
[2.] Sometimes it ariseth from the sharpness of convictions, which will make men even roar in their prayers for disquietment of heart. And this may be where there is no true grace as yet received, nor, it may be, ever will be so; for the perplexing work of conviction goes before real conversion. And as it produceth many other effects and changes in the mind, so it may do this of great fervency in vocal prayers, especially if it be accompanied with outward afflictions, pains, or troubles (Ps 78:34-35).
[3.] Ofttimes the mind and affections are very little concerned in that fervour and earnestness which appear in the outward performance of the duty; but in the exercise of gifts, and through their own utterance, men put their natural affections into such an agitation as shall carry them out into a great vehemency in their expressions. It hath been so with sundry persons, who have been discovered to be rotten hypocrites, and have afterward turned cursed apostates. Wherefore, all these things may be where there is no gracious spring or vital principle acting itself from within in spiritual thoughts.
Some, it may be, will design an advantage by these conceptions, unto the interest of profaneness and scoffing; for if there may be these evils under the exercise of the gift of prayer, both in constancy and with fervency — if there may be a total want of the exercise of all true grace with it and under it — then, it may be, all that is pretended of this gift and its use is but hypocrisy and talk. But I say,
(1.) It may be as well pretended that because the sun shining on a dunghill doth occasion offensive and noisome steams, therefore all that is said of its influence on spices and flowers, causing them to give out their fragrancy, is utterly false. No man ever thought that spiritual gifts did change or renew the minds and natures of men; where they are alone, they only help and assist unto the useful exercise of natural faculties and powers. And therefore, where the heart is not savingly renewed, no gifts can stir up a saving exercise of faith; but where it is so, they are a means to cause the savour of it to flow forth.
(2.) Be it so that there may be some evils found under the exercise of the gift of prayer, what remedy for them may be proposed? Is it that men should renounce their use of it, and betake themselves unto the reading of prayers only?
[1.] The same may be said of all spiritual gifts whatever, for they are all of them liable unto abuse. And shall we reject all the powers of the world to come, the whole complex of gospel gifts, for the communication whereof the Lord Christ hath promised to continue his Spirit with his church unto the end of the world, because by some they are abused?
[2.] Not only the same, but far greater evils, may be found in and under the reading of prayers; which needs no farther demonstration than what it gives of itself every day.
[3.] It is hard to understand how any benefit at all ran accrue unto any by this relief, when the advantages of the other way are evident.
Wherefore the inquiry remains, How we may know unto our own satisfaction that the thoughts we have of spiritual things in the duty of prayer are from an internal fountain of grace, and so are an evidence that we are spiritually minded, whereunto all these things do tend. Some few things I shall offer towards satisfaction herein:
(1.) I take it for granted, on the evidence before given, that persons who have any spiritual light, and will diligently examine and try their own hearts, will he able to discern what real actings of faith, of love, and delight in God, there are in their duties, and, consequently, what is the spring of their spiritual thoughts. In general we are assured that “he that believeth hath the witness in himself” (1 John 5:10). Sincere faith will be its own evidence; and where there are sincere actings of faith, they will evidence themselves, if we try all things impartially by the word. But if men do, as for the most part they do, content themselves with the performance of any duty, without an examination of their principles, frames, and actings of grace in it, it is no wonder if they walk in all uncertainty.
(2.) When the soul finds a sweet spiritual complacency in and after its duties, it is an evidence that grace hath been acted in its spiritual thoughts and desires. In Jeremiah 31, the prophet receiveth a long gracious message from God, filled up with excellent promises and pathetical exhortations unto the church. The whole is, as it were, summed up in the close of it: “For I have satiated the weary soul, and I have replenished every sorrowful soul” (Jer 31:25). Whereon the prophet adds, “Upon this I awaked, and beheld; and my sleep was sweet unto me” (Jer 31:26). God’s gracious message had so composed his spirit and freed his mind from trouble as that he was at quiet repose in himself, like a man asleep.
But after the end of it, he stirs up himself unto a review and consideration of what had been spoken unto him: “I awaked, and beheld,” or, “I stirred up myself, and considered what had been delivered unto me;” “and,” saith he, “my sleep was sweet unto me” — “I found a gracious complacency in and refreshment unto my soul from what I had heard and received.” So is it ofttimes with a soul that hath had real communion with God in the duty of prayer. It finds itself, both in it and afterward when it is awakened unto the consideration of it, spiritually refreshed; it is sweet unto him.
This holy complacency, this rest and sweet repose of mind, is the foundation of the delight of believers in this duty. They do not pray only because it is their duty so to do, nor yet because they stand in need of it, so as that they cannot live without it, but they have delight in it; and to keep them from it is all one as to keep them from their daily food and refreshment. Now, we can have no delight in any thing but what we have found some sweetness, rest, and complacency in. Without any such experience we may do or use any thing, but cannot do it with delight. And it ariseth:
[1.] From the approach that is made unto God therein. It is in its own nature an access unto God on a throne of grace (Eph 2:18, Heb 10:19-20); and when this access is animated by the actings of grace, the soul hath a spiritual experience of a nearness in that approach.
Now, God is the fountain and centre of all spiritual refreshment, rest, and complacency; and in such an access unto him there is a refreshing taste of them communicated unto the soul: “How excellent is thy loving-kindness, O God! therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of thy wings. They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of thy house; and thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures. For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light” (Ps 36:7-9). God is proposed in the excellency of his loving-kindness, which is comprehensive of his goodness, grace, and mercy; and so he is also as the spring of life and light, all spiritual powers and joys. Those that believe are described by putting their “trust under the shadow of his wings”. In his worship, the “fatness of his house,” they make their approaches unto him. And the fruit hereof is, that he makes them to “drink of the river of his pleasures,” the satisfying, refreshing streams of his grace and goodness. They approach unto him as unto the “fountain of life,” so as to drink of that fountain in renewed communications of life and grace, and in the “light of God,” the light of his countenance, to “see light” in satisfying joy. In these things doth consist, and from them doth arise, that spiritual complacency which the souls of believers do find in their duties.
[2.] From the due exercise of faith, love, and delight, the graces wherein the life of the new creature doth principally consist. There is a suitableness unto our natural constitution, and a secret complacency of our natures, in the proper actings of life natural for its own preservation and increase. There is so in our spiritual constitution, in the proper actings of the powers of our spiritual life unto its preservation and increase. These graces, in their due exercise, do compose and refresh the mind, as those which are perfective of its state, and which quell and cast out whatever troubles it. Thence a blessed satisfaction and complacency befall the soul. Herein “he that believeth hath the witness in himself.” Besides, faith and love are never really acted on Christ, but they prepare and make meet the soul to receive communications of love and grace from him; which it never faileth of, although it be not always sensible thereof.
[3.] From the testimony of conscience, bearing witness unto our sincerity, both in aims, ends, and performances of the duty. Hence a gracious repose of mind and great satisfactoriness do ensue.
If we have no experience of these things, it is evident that we walk at random in the best of our duties; for they are among the principal things that we do or ought to pray for. And if we have not experience of the effects of our prayers in our hearts, we neither have advantage by them nor give glory unto God in them.
But yet here, as in most other spiritual things, one of the worst of vices is ready to impose itself in the room and place of the best of our graces; and this is self-pleasing in the performance of the duty. This, instead of a grace steeped in humility, as all true grace is, is a vile effect of spiritual pride, or the offering of a sacrifice unto our own net and drag. It is a glorying in the flesh; for whatever of self any doth glory in, it is but flesh. When men have had enlargements in their expressions, and especially when they apprehend that others are satisfied or affected therewith, they are apt to have a secret self-pleasing in what they have done; which, before they are aware, turns into pride and a noxious elation of mind. The same may befall men in their most secret duties, performed outwardly by the aid of spiritual gifts. But this is most remote from and contrary unto that spiritual complacency in duty which we speak of, which yet it will pretend unto until it be diligently examined.
The language of spiritual complacency is, “I will go in the strength of the Lord God; I will make mention of thy righteousness, of thine only” (Ps 71:16) — that of spiritual pride is, “God, I thank thee that I have done thus and thus;” as it was expressed by the Pharisee. That is in God alone; this is in self. That draws forth the savour of all graces; this immediately covereth and buries them all, if there be any in the soul. That fills the soul eminently with humility and self-abasement; this with a lifting up of the mind and proud self-conceit. That casts out all remembrance of what we have done ourselves, retaining only a sense of what we have received from God, of the impressions of his love and grace; this blots out all remembrance of what we have freely received from God, and retains only what we have done ourselves. Wherever it is, there is no due sense either of the greatness or goodness of God.
Some, it may be, will say that if it be so, they for their parts are cut off. They have no experience of any such spiritual rest and complacency in God in or after their prayers. At the best, they begin them with tears and end them with sorrow; and sometimes they know not what is become of them, but fear that God is not glorified by them nor their own souls bettered.
[1.] There is great spiritual refreshment in that godly sorrow which is at work in our prayers. Where the Holy Ghost is a Spirit of grace and supplication, he causeth mourning, and in that mourning there is joy.
[2.] The secret encouragement which we receive, by praying, to adhere unto God constantly in prayer ariseth from some experience of this holy complacency, though we have not a sensible evidence of it.
[3.] Perhaps some of them who make this complaint, if they would awaken and consider, will find that their souls, at least sometimes, have been thus refreshed and brought unto a holy rest in God.
[4.] Then shall ye know the Lord, if ye follow on to know him. Abide in seeking after this complacency and satisfaction in God, and ye shall attain it.
(3.) It is a sure evidence that our thoughts of spiritual things in our supplications are from an internal spring of grace, and are not merely occasioned by the duty itself, when we find the daily fruit and advantage of them, especially in the preservation of our souls in a holy, humble, watchful frame.
Innumerable are the advantages, benefits, and effects of prayer, which are commonly spoken unto. Growth in grace and consolation is the substance of them. Where there is continuance in prayer, there will be spiritual growth in some proportion. For men to be earnest in prayer and thriftless in grace is a certain indication of prevalent corruptions, and want of being spiritually minded in prayer itself. If a man eat his daily food, let him eat never so much or so often, if he be not nourished by it, his body is under the power of prevalent distempers; and so is his spiritual constitution who thriveth not in the use of the food of the new creature.
But that which I fix upon, with respect unto the present inquiry, is the frame that it preserves the soul in. It will keep it humble and upon a diligent watch as unto its dispositions and actings. He who prays as he ought will endeavour to live as he prays. This none can do who doth not with diligence keep his heart unto the things he hath prayed about. To pray earnestly and live carelessly is to proclaim that a man is not spiritually minded in his prayer.
Hereby, then, we shall know what is the spring of those spiritual thoughts which our minds are exercised withal in our supplications. If they are influenced unto a constant, daily watch for the preservation of that frame of spirit, those dispositions and inclinations unto spiritual things, which we pray for, they are from an internal spring of grace. If there be generally an unsuitableness in our minds unto what we seem to contend for in our prayers, the gift may be in exercise, but the grace is wanting. If a man be every day on the exchange, and there talketh diligently and earnestly about merchandise and the affairs of trade, but when he comes home thinks no more of them, because, indeed, he hath nothing to do, no interest in them, he may be a very poor man notwithstanding his pretences; and he may be spiritually very poor who is on occasions fervent in prayer, if, when he retires into himself, he is not careful and diligent about the matter of it.
(4.) When spiritual affections and due preparation of heart unto the duty do excite and animate the gift of prayer, and not the gift make impressions on the affections, then are we spiritually minded therein. Gifts are servants, not rulers, in the mind —are bestowed on us to be serviceable unto grace; not to lead, but to follow it, and to be ready with their assistance on its exercise. For the most part, where they lead all, they are all alone. This is the natural order of these things: grace habitually inclineth and disposeth the heart unto this duty; providence and rule give the occasions for its exercise; sense of duty calls for preparation. Grace coming into actual exercise, gifts come in with their assistance. If they lead, all, all is out of order.
It may be otherwise sometimes. A person indisposed and lifeless, engaging unto prayer in a way of obedience, upon conviction of duty, may, in and by the gift, have his affections excited and grace engaged unto its proper work. It may be so, I say, but let men take heed how they trust unto this order and method; for where it is so, there may be little or nothing of the exercise of true grace in all their fervour and commotion of affections. But when the genuine actings of faith, love, holy reverence, and gracious desires, do stir up the gift unto its exercise, calling in its assistance unto the expression of themselves, then are the heart and mind in their proper order.
(5.) It is so when other duties of religion are equally regarded and attended unto with prayer itself. He whose religion lies all in prayer and hearing, hath none at all. God hath an equal respect unto all other duties, and so must we have also. So is it expressed as unto the instance of alms (Acts 10:31); and James placeth all religion herein, because there is none without it (James 1:27). I shall not value his prayers at all, be he never so earnest and frequent in them, who gives not alms according to his ability. And this in an especial manner is required of us who are ministers, that we be not like a hand set up in cross-ways, directing others which way to go, but staying behind itself.
This digression about the rise and spring of spiritual thoughts in prayer, I judged not unnecessary in such a time and season, wherein we ought to be very jealous lest gifts impose themselves in the room of grace, and be careful that they are employed only unto their proper end, wdiich is, to be serviceable unto grace in its exercise, and not otherwise.
3. There is another occasion of thoughts of spiritual things, when they do not spring from a living principle within, and so are no evidence of being spiritually minded; and this is the discourse of others.
“They that fear the Lord will be speaking one to another” of the things wherein his glory is concerned (Mal 3:16). To declare the righteousness, the glory of God, is the delight of his saints: “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; and his greatness is unsearchable. One generation shall praise thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts. I will speak of the glorious honour of thy majesty, and of thy wondrous works. And men shall speak of the might of thy terrible acts: and I will declare thy greatness. They shall abundantly utter the memory of thy great goodness, and shall sing of thy righteousness. The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy” (Ps 145:3-8).
And accordingly there are some who are ready on all occasions to be speaking or making mention of things divine, spiritual, and holy; and it is to be wished that there were more of them. All the flagitious sins that the world is filled withal are not a greater evidence of the degeneracy of the Christian religion than this is, that it is grown unusual, yea, a shame or scorn, for men to speak together of the things of God. It was not so when religion was in its primitive power and glory, nor is it so with them who really fear God and are sensible of their duty. Some, I say, there are who embrace all occasions of spiritual communication.
Those with whom they do converse, if they are not profligate, if they have any spiritual light, cannot but so far comply with what they say as to think of the things spoken, which are spiritual. Ofttimes the track and course of men’s thoughts lie so out of the way, are so contrary unto such things, that they seem strange unto them, they give them no entertainment. You do but cross their way with such discourses, whereon they stand still a little, and so pass on.
Even the countenances of some men will change hereon, and they betake themselves unto an unsatisfied silence until they can divert unto other things. Some will make such replies of empty words as shall evidence their hearts to be far enough estranged from the things proposed unto them.
But with others, such occasional discourses will make such impressions on their minds as to stir up present thoughts of spiritual things. But though frequent occasions hereof may be renewed, yet will such thoughts give no evidence that any man is spiritually minded; for they are not genuine, from an internal spring of grace.
From these causes it is that the thoughts of spiritual things are with many as guests that come into an inn, and not like children that dwell in the house. They enter occasionally, and then there is a great stir about them, to provide meet entertainment for them. Within a while they are disposed of, and so depart unto their own occasions, being neither looked nor inquired after any more. Things of another nature are attended unto; new occasions bring in new guests for a season. Children are owned in the house, are missed if they are out of the way, and have their daily provision constantly made for them.
So is it with these occasional thoughts about spiritual things. By one means or other they enter into the mind, and there are entertained for a season; on a sudden they depart, and men hear of them no more. But those that are natural and genuine, arising from a living spring of grace in the heart, disposing the mind unto them, are as the children of the house. They are expected in their places and at their seasons. If they are missing, they are inquired after. The heart calls itself unto an account whence it is that it hath been so long without them, and calls them over into its wonted converse with them.