Sundry things tendered unto such as complain that, they know not how, they are not able to abide in holy thoughts of God and spiritual or heavenly things, for their relief, instruction, and direction — Rules concerning stated spiritual meditation.
Some will say, yea, on many occasions do say, that there is not any thing in all their duty towards God wherein they are more at a loss than they are in this one, of fixing or exercising their thoughts or meditations on things heavenly or spiritual. They acknowledge it a duty; they see an excellency in it, with inexpressible usefulness: but although they often try and attempt it, they cannot attain unto any thing but what makes them ashamed both of it and themselves. Their minds, they find, are unsteady, apt to rove and wander, or give entertainment unto other things, and not to abide on the object which they design their meditation towards. Their abilities are small, their invention barren, their memories frail, and their judgments, to dispose of things into right order, weak and unable. They know not what to think on, for the most part; and when they fix on any thing, they are immediately at a loss as to any progress, and so give over. Hence other thoughts, or thoughts of other things, take advantage to impose themselves on them, and what began in spiritual meditation ends in carnal vanity.
On these considerations ofttimes they are discouraged to enter on the duty, ofttimes give it over so soon as it is begun, and are glad if they come off without being losers by their endeavours, which often befalls them. With respect unto other duties it is not so with them. To such as are really concerned in these things, unto whom their want and defect is a burden, who mourn under it, and desire to be freed from it or refreshed in their conflict with it, I shall offer the things that ensue:
First, That sense of the vanity of our minds, which this consideration duly attended unto will give us, ought greatly to humble and abase our souls.
Whence is it thus with us, that we cannot abide in thoughts and meditations of things spiritual and heavenly? Is it because they are such things as we have no great concernment in? It may be they are things worthless and unprofitable, so that it is to no purpose to spend our thoughts about them. The truth is, they alone are worthy, useful, and desirable; all other things in comparison of them are but “loss and dung.
Or is it because the faculties and powers of our souls were not originally suited unto the contemplation of them and delight in them? This also is otherwise; they were all given unto us, all created of God for this end, all fitted with inclinations and power to abide with God in all things, without aversation or weariness. Nothing was so natural, easy, and pleasant unto them, as steadiness in the contemplation of God and his works.
The cause, therefore, of all this evil lies at our own doors. All this, therefore, and all other evils, came upon us by the entrance of sin. And therefore Solomon, in his inquiry after all the causes and effects of vanity, brings it under this head, “Lo, this only have I found, that God made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions” (Eccles 7:29): for hereby our minds, that were created in a state of blessed adherence unto God, were wholly turned off from him, and not only so, but filled with enmity against him.
In this state, that vanity which is prevalent in them, is both their sin and their punishment: their sin, in a perpetual inclination unto things vain, foolish, sensual and wicked – so the apostle describes it at large in Eph 4:17-19 and Titus 3:3; and their punishment, in that, being turned off from the chiefest good, wherein alone rest is to be found, they are filled with darkness, confusion, and disquietment, being “like the troubled sea that cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.”
By grace our minds are renewed — that is, changed and delivered from this frame; but they are so partially only. The principle of vanity is no longer predominant in us, to alienate us from the life of God, or to keep us in enmity against him. Those who are so renewed do not “walk in the vanity of their minds,” as others do (Eph 4:17). They go up and down, in all their ways and occasions, with a stream of vain thoughts in their minds. But the remainders of it are effectually operative in us, in all the actings of our minds towards God, affecting them with uncertainty and instability: as he who hath received a great wound in any principal part of his body, though it may be so cured as that death shall not immediately ensue thereon, yet it may make him go weak and lame all his days, and hinder him in the exercise of all the powers of life.
The vanity of our minds is so cured as to deliver us from spiritual death; but yet such a wound, such a weakness doth remain, as both weakens and hinders us in all the operations of spiritual life. Hence those who have made any progress in grace are sensible of their vanity as the greatest burden of their souls, and do groan after such a complete renovation of their minds as whereby they may be perfectly freed from it. This is that which they principally regard in that complaining desire, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24). Yea, they groan under a sense of it every day, nor is any thing such a trouble unto them, observing how it defeats them in their designs to contemplate on heavenly things, how it frustrates their best resolutions to abide in the spiritual actings of faith and love, how they are imposed on by it with thoughts of things which, either in themselves or in their consequences, they most abhor. Nothing are they so afraid of, nothing is so grievous and burdensome unto them, nothing do they more groan for deliverance from.
When there is war in any place, it behoveth them that are concerned to have an eye and regard unto all their enemies and their attempts against them; but if they are vigilant and diligent in their opposition unto those that are without that visibly contend with them, and in the meantime neglect such as traitorously act within among themselves, betraying their counsels and weakening their strength, they will be undoubtedly ruined. Wise men do first take care of what is within, as knowing if they are there betrayed, all they do against their open enemies is to no purpose.
In the warfare wherein we are engaged, we have enemies of all sorts that openly and visibly, in various temptations, fight against our souls. These it is our duty to watch against, to conflict with, and to seek a conquest over. But it is this internal vanity of mind that endeavours in all things to betray us, to weaken us in all our graces, or to hinder their due operation, and to open the doors of our hearts unto our cursed enemies. If our principal endeavour be not to discover, suppress, and destroy this traitor, we shall not succeed in our spiritual warfare.
This, therefore, being the original cause of all that disability of mind, as unto steadiness in holy thoughts and meditations, whereof you do complain, when you are affected therewith turn unto the consideration of that from whence it doth proceed. Labour to be humbled greatly, and to walk humbly, under a sense of the remainders of this vanity of mind. So some wholesome fruit may be taken from this bitter root, and meat may come out of this eater. If, when you cannot abide in holy thoughts of God and your relation unto him, you reflect on this cause of it, to your farther humiliation and self-abasement, your good design and purpose are not lost.
Let such a one say, “I began to think of God, of his love and grace in Christ Jesus, of my duty towards him; and where now, in a few minutes, do I find myself? I am got unto the ends of the earth, into things useless and earthly; or am at such a loss as that I have no mind to proceed in the work wherein I was engaged. ‘O wretched man that I am!’ what a cursed enemy have I within me! I am ashamed of myself, weary of myself, I loathe myself. ‘Who shall deliver me from this body of death?'” Such thoughts may be as useful unto him as those which he first designed.
True it is, we can never be freed absolutely from all the effects of this vanity and instability of mind in this world. Unchangeable cleaving unto God always, in all the powers and affections of our minds, is reserved for heaven. But yet great degrees may be attained in the conquest and expulsion of it, such as I fear few have experience of, yet ought all to labour after. If we apply ourselves as we ought to the increase of spiritual light and grace; if we labour diligently to abide and abound in thoughts of spiritual things, and that in love to them and delight in them; if we watch against the entertainment and approbation of such thoughts and things in our minds as whereby this vain frame is pleased and confirmed – there is, though not an absolute perfection, yet a blessed degree of heavenly mindedness to be attained, and therein the nearest approach unto glory that in this world we are capable of.
If a man cannot attain an athletic constitution of health, or a strength like that of Samson, yet, if he be wise, he will not omit the use of such means as may make him to be useful in the ordinary duties of life; and although we cannot attain perfection in this matter — which yet is our duty to be continually pressing after — yet, if we are wise, we will be endeavouring such a cure of this spiritual distemper as that we may be able to discharge all the duties of the life of God.
But if men in all other things feed the vanity of their own minds; if they permit them to rove continually after things foolish, sensual, and earthly; if they wilfully supply them with objects unto that end, and labour not by all means for the mortification of this evil frame — in vain shall they desire or expect to bring them at any time, on any occasion, to be steady in the thoughts of heavenly things. If it be thus with any, as it is to be feared it is with many, it is their duty to mind the words of our Lord Jesus Christ in the first place, “Make the tree good, and the fruit will be good,” and not before. When the power of sanctifying grace hath made the mind habitually spiritual and heavenly, thoughts of such things will be natural unto it, and accompanied with delight; but they will not be so until the God of peace have sanctified us in our whole spirits, souls, and bodies, whereby we may be preserved blameless unto the coming of Jesus Christ.
Secondly, Be always sensible of your own insufficiency to raise in your minds or to manage spiritual thoughts, or thoughts of things spiritual and heavenly, in a due manner.
But in this case men are apt to suppose that as they may so they can think of what they please. Thoughts are their own, and therefore, be they of what sort they will, they need no assistance for them. They cannot think as they ought, they can do nothing at all; and nothing will convince them of their folly until they are burdened with an experience of the contrary, as unto spiritual things.
But the advice given is expressly laid down by the apostle, in the instance of himself: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God” (2 Cor 3:5). He speaks principally of ministers of the gospel, and that of such as were most eminently furnished with spiritual gifts and graces, as he declares in 2 Cor 3:6. And if it be so with them, and that with respect unto the work and duties of their calling, how much more is it so with others who have not their graces nor their office!
Wherefore if men, without regard unto the present actual grace of God and the supplies of his Spirit, do suppose that they can of themselves exercise their minds in spiritual thoughts, and so only fret at themselves when they fall into disappointment, not knowing what is the matter with them, they will live in a lifeless, barren frame all their days.
By the strength of their natural abilities, men may frame thoughts of God and heavenly things in their minds, according unto the knowledge they have of them. They may methodize them by rules of art, and express them elegantly unto others. But even while they do so, they may be far enough from being spiritually minded; for there may be in their thoughts no actings of faith, love, or holy delight in God, nor any grace at all. But such alone are things which we inquire after; they are such only as wherein the graces of the Spirit are in their proper exercise. With respect unto them we have no sufficiency in ourselves; all our sufficiency must be of God. There is no truth, among persons of light and knowledge, more generally granted in the notion of it than this, that of ourselves we can do nothing, and none more neglected in daily practice. Men profess they can do nothing of themselves, and yet go about their duties as if they could do all things.
Thirdly, Remember that I have not at present treated of solemn stated meditation, concerning which other rules and instructions ought to be given.
By solemn or stated meditation, I intend the thoughts of some subject spiritual and divine, with the fixing, forcing, and ordering our thoughts about it, with a design to affect our own hearts and souls with the matter of it, or the things contained in it. By this design it is distinguished from the study of the word, wherein our principal aim is to learn the truth, or to declare it unto others; and so also from prayer, whereof God himself is the immediate object. But in meditation it is the affecting of our own hearts and minds with love, delight, and humiliation.
At present, I have only showed what it is to be spiritually minded, and that in this instance of our thoughts as they proceed from the habitual frame of our hearts and affections, or of what sort the constant course of our thoughts ought to be with respect unto all the occasions of the life of God. This persons may be in a readiness for who are yet unskilful in and unable for stated meditation; for there is required thereunto such an exercise of our natural faculties and abilities as some, through their weakness and ignorance, are incapable of.
But as unto what we have hitherto insisted on, it is not unattainable by any in whom is the Spirit of faith and love; for it is but the frequent actings of them that I intend. Wherefore, do your hearts and affections lead you unto many thoughts of God and spiritual things? do they spring up in you as water in a well of living waters? are you ready on all occasions to entertain such thoughts, and to be conversant with them as opportunity doth offer itself? do you labour to have in a readiness what is useful for you with respect unto temptations and duties? is God in Christ, and the things of the gospel, the ordinary retreat of your souls? —though you should not be able to carry on an orderly, stated meditation in your minds, yet you may be spiritually minded.
A man may not have a capacity and ability to carry on a great trade of merchandise in the world — the knowledge of all sorts of commodities and seasons of the world and nations of it, with those contrivances and accounts which belong unto such trade, may be above his comprehension, and he may quickly ruin himself in undertaking such an employment — yet may the abilities of this man serve him well enough to carry on a retail trade in a private shop, wherein perhaps he may thrive as well and get as good an estate as any of those whose greater capacities lead them forth unto more large and hazardous employments. So it may be with some in this case. The natural faculties of their minds are not sufficient to enable them unto stated meditation; they cannot cast things into that method and order which is required thereunto, nor frame the conceptions of their minds into words significant and expressive: yet as unto frequency of thoughts of God, and a disposition of mind thereunto, they may thrive and be skilful beyond most others of greater natural abilities. Howbeit, because even stated meditation is a necessary duty, yea, the principal way whereby our spiritual thoughts do profitably act themselves, I shall have regard thereunto in the following direction. Wherefore:
Fourthly, Whatever principle of grace we have in our minds, we cannot attain unto a ready exercise of it, in a way of spiritual meditation, or otherwise, without great diligence, nor without great difficulty.
It was showed at the entrance of this discourse that there is a difference in this grace, between the essence, substance, or reality of it, which we would not exclude men from under many failings or infirmities, and the useful degrees of it, wherein it hath its principal exercise; as there is a difference in life natural and its actings in a weak, diseased, sickly body, and in that which is of a good constitution and in a vigorous health. Supposing the first, the reality of this grace, be wrought in us or implanted in our minds by the Holy Ghost, as a principal part of that new nature which is the workmanship of God, created in Christ Jesus unto good works; yet unto the growth and improvement of it, as of all other graces, our own diligent care, watchfulness, and spiritual striving in all holy duties, are required.
Unless the most fruitful ground be manured, it will not bring forth a useful crop. Let not any think that this frame of a spiritual mind, wherein there is a disposition unto and a readiness for all holy thoughts of God, of Christ, of spiritual and heavenly things, at all times and on all occasions, will befall him and continue with him he knows not how. As good it is for a poor man to expect to be rich in this world without industry, or for a weak man to be strong and healthy without food and exercise, as to be spiritually minded without an earnest endeavour after it.
It may be inquired what is requisite thereunto; and we may name some of those things without which such a holy frame will not be attained: as:
1. A continual watch is to be kept in and on the soul against the incursions of vain thoughts and imaginations, especially in such seasons wherein they are apt to obtain advantage. If they are suffered to make an inroad into the mind, if we accustom ourselves to give them entertainment, if they are wont to lodge within, in vain shall we hope or desire to be spiritually minded.
Herein consists a principal part of that duty which our Saviour so frequently, so emphatically chargeth on us all, namely, to “watch,” (Mark 13:37). Unless we keep a strict watch herein, we shall be betrayed into the hands of our spiritual enemies; for all such thoughts are but making provision for the flesh, to fulfil its desires in the lusts thereof, however they may be disappointed as unto actual sin. This is the substance of the advice given us in charge, “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (Prov 4:23).
2. Careful avoidance of all societies and businesses of this life which are apt, under various pretences, to draw and seduce the mind unto an earthly or sensual frame. If men will venture on those things which they have found by experience, or may find by their observation, seduce and draw off their minds from a heavenly frame unto that which is contrary thereto, and will not watch unto their avoidance, they will be filled with the fruit of their own ways.
Indeed, the common converse of professors among themselves and others, walking, talking, and behaving themselves like other men, being as full of the world as the world is of itself, hath lost the grace of being spiritually minded within, and stained the glory of profession without. The rule observed by David will manifest how careful we ought to be herein: “I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me. I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred. My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue” (Ps 39:1-3), which place was spoken unto before.
3. A holy constraint put on the mind to abide in the duty of spiritual thoughts and meditations, pressing it continually with the consideration of their necessity and usefulness. The mind will be apt of itself to start aside from duties purely spiritual, through the mixture of the flesh abiding in it. The more inward and purely spiritual any duty is which hath no outward advantages, the more prone will the mind be to decline from it. It will be so more from private prayer than public, more from meditation than prayer. And other things will be apt to draw it aside, by objects without, and various stirrings of the affections within. A holy constraint is to be put upon it, with a sudden rejection of what rises up to its diversion or disturbance. Wherefore, we are to call in all constraining motives, such as the consideration of the love of Christ (2 Cor 5:14), to keep the mind steady unto its duty.
4. Diligent use of means to furnish the soul with that light and knowledge of heavenly things which may administer continual matter of holy thoughts and meditations from within ourselves.
This hath been spoken unto at large before. And the want hereof is that which keeps many from the least proficiency in these duties: as a man may have some skill or ability for a trade, yet if he have no materials to work upon, he must sit still, and let his trade alone. And so must men do as unto the work of holy meditation. Whatever be the ability of the natural faculties, their inventions or memories, if they are not furnished with knowledge of things spiritual and heavenly, which are the subject-matter of such meditations, they must let their work alone. Hence the apostle prays for the Colossians, that “the word of Christ might dwell in them richly in all wisdom” (Col 3:16); that is, that they might abound in the knowledge of the mind of Christ, without which we shall be unfit for this duty.
5. Unweariedness in our conflict with Satan, who, by various artifices and the injection of fiery darts, labours continually to divert us from these duties.
He is seldom or never wanting unto this occasion. He who is furnished in any measure with spiritual wisdom and understanding may find him more sensibly at work in his craft and opposition with respect unto this duty than any other way. When we stand thus before the Lord, he is always at our right hand to resist us, and ofttimes his strength is great. Hence, as was observed, ofttimes men design really to exercise themselves in holy thoughts, but end in vain imaginations, and rather take up with trifles than continue in this duty. Steadiness in the resistance of him on these occasions is one great part of our spiritual warfare. And we may know that he is at work by his engines and methods; for they consist in his suggestions of vain, foolish, or corrupt imaginations. When they begin to rise in our minds at such times as we would engage them in spiritual meditation, we may know assuredly from whence they are.
6. Continual watchful care that no root of bitterness spring up and defile us, that no lust or corruption be predominant in us.
When it is so, if persons, in compliance with their convictions, do endeavour sometimes to be exercised in these duties, they shall labour in the very fire, where all their endeavours will be immediately consumed.
7. Mortification unto the world in our affections and desires, with moderation in our endeavours after the needful things of it, are also necessary hereunto, yea, to that degree that without them no man can in any sense be said to be spiritually minded; for otherwise our affections cannot be so preserved unto the power of grace as that spiritual things may be always savoury unto us.
Some, it may be, will say, that if all these things are required thereunto, it will take up a man’s whole life and time to be spiritually minded. They hope they may attain it at an easier rate, and not forgo all other advantages and sweetnesses of life, which a strict observation of these things would cast them upon.
I answer, that however it may prove a hard saying unto some, yet I must say it, and my heart would reproach me if I should not say, that if the principal part of our time be not spent about these things, whatever we suppose, we have indeed neither life nor peace. The first-fruits of all were to be offered unto God; and in sacrifices he required the blood and the fat of the inwards. If the best be not his, he will have nothing. It is so as to our time. Tell me, I pray you, how you can spend your time and your lives better, or to better purpose, and I shall say, Go on and prosper. I am sure some spend so much of their time so much worse as it is a shame to see it. Do you think you came into this world to spend your whole time and strength in your employments, your trades, your pleasures, unto the satisfaction of the “wills of the flesh and of the mind?”
Have you time enough to eat, to drink, to sleep, to talk unprofitably, it may be corruptly, in all sorts of unnecessary societies, but have not enough to live unto God in the very essentials of that life which consists in these things? Alas! you came into the world under this law, “It is appointed to men once to die, and after this the judgment” (Heb 9:27); and the end why your life here is granted unto you is that you may be prepared for that judgment. If this be neglected, if the principal part of your time be not improved with respect unto this end, you will fall under the sentence of it unto eternity.
But men are apt to mistake in this matter. They may think that these things tend to take them off from their lawful employments and recreations, which they are generally afraid of, and unwilling to purchase any frame of mind at so dear a rate. They may suppose that to have men spiritually minded, we would make them mopes, and to disregard all the lawful occasions of life.
But let not any be mistaken; I am not upon a design that will be easily, or, it may be, honestly defeated. Men are able to defend themselves in their callings and enjoyments, and to satisfy their consciences against any persuasions to the contrary: yet there is a season, wherein we are obliged to part with all we have, and to give up ourselves wholly to follow Christ in all things (Matt 9:21); and if we neglect or refuse it in that season, it is an evidence that we are hypocrites.
And there was a time when superstition had so much power on the minds of men, that multitudes were persuaded to forsake, to give up, all their interest in relations, callings, goods, possessions, and betake themselves unto tedious pilgrimages, yea, hard services in war, to comply with that superstition; and it is not to the glory of our profession that we have so few instances of men parting with all, and giving up themselves unto heavenly retirement. But I am at present on no such design; I aim not to take men out of their lawful earthly occasions, but to bring spiritual affections and thoughts into the management of them all. The things mentioned will deprive you of no time you can lay a claim unto, but sanctify it all.
I confess he must be a great proficient in spirituality who dares venture on an absolute retirement, and he must be well satisfied that he is not called unto a usefulness among men inconsistent therewith: unto them it may prove a disadvantage. Yet this also is attainable, if other circumstances do concur. Men under the due exercise of grace and the improvement of it may attain unto that fixedness in heavenly mindedness, that unconcernment in all things here below, as to give themselves up entirely and continually unto heavenly meditation, unto a blessed advancement of all grace, and a near approach unto glory.
And I would hope it was so with many of them in ancient times who renounced the world, with all circumstances of relations, state, inheritances, and betook themselves unto retirement in wildernesses, to abide always in divine contemplation. But afterward, when multitudes, whose minds were not so prepared by a real growth in all grace and mortification unto the world as they were, betook themselves under the same pretences unto a monastical retirement, the devil, the world, sensual lusts, superstition, and all manner of evils, pursued them, found them out, possessed them, unto the unspeakable damage and scandal of religion.
This, therefore, is not that which I invite the common sort of believers unto. Let them that are able and free receive it. The generality of Christians have lawful callings, employments, and businesses, which ordinarily they ought to abide in. That they also may live unto God in their occasions, they may do well to consider two things:
(1.) Industry in men’s callings is a thing in itself very commendable.
If in nothing else, it hath an advantage herein, that it is a means to preserve men from those excesses in lust and riot which otherwise they are apt to run into. And if you consider the two sorts of men whereinto the generality of mankind are distributed — namely, of them who are industrious in their affairs, and those who spend their time, so far as they are able, in idleness and pleasure — the former sort are far more amiable and desirable.
Howbeit it is capable of being greatly abused. Earthly mindedness, covetousness, devouring things holy as to times and seasons of duty, uselessness, and the like pernicious vices, do invade and possess the minds of men.
There is no lawful calling that doth absolutely exclude this grace of being spiritually minded in them that are engaged in it, nor any that doth include it. Men may be in the meanest of lawful callings and be so, and men may be in the best and highest and not be so.
Consider the calling of the ministry: The work and duty of it calls on those that are employed in it to have their minds and thoughts conversant about spiritual and heavenly things. They are to study about them, to meditate on them, to commit them to memory, to speak them out unto others. It will be said, “Surely such men must needs be spiritually minded.” If they go no farther than what is mentioned, I say they must needs be so as printers must needs be learned, who are continually conversant about letters. A man may with great industry engage himself about these things, and yet his mind be most remote from being spiritual. The event doth declare that it may be so.
And the reasons of it are manifest. It requires as much if not more watchfulness, more care, more humility, for a minister to be spiritually minded in the discharge of his calling, than for any other sort of men in theirs; and that, as for other reasons, so because the commonness of the exercise of such thoughts, with their design upon others in their expression, will take off their power and efficacy. And he will have little benefit by his own ministry who endeavours not in the first place an experience in his own heart of the power of the truths which he doth teach unto others. And there is evidently as great a failing herein among us as among any other sort of Christians, as every occasion of trial doth demonstrate.
(2.) Although industry in any honest calling be allowable, yet unless men labour to be spiritually minded in the exercise of that industry, they have neither life nor peace.
Hereunto all the things before mentioned are necessary; I know not how any of them can be abated; yea, more is required than is expressed in them. If you burn this roll, another must be written, and many like things must be added unto it. And the objection from the expense of time in the observance of them is of no force; for a man may do as much work whilst he is spiritually minded as whilst he is carnal. Spiritual thoughts will no more hinder you in your callings than those that are vain and earthly, which all sorts of men can find leisure for in the midst of their employments.
If you have filled a vessel with chaff, yet you may pour into it a great deal of water, which will be contained in the same space and vessel; and if it be necessary that you should take in much of the chaff of the world into your minds, yet are they capable of such measures of grace as shall preserve them sincere unto God.
Fifthly, This frame will never be preserved, nor the duties mentioned be ever performed in a due manner, unless we dedicate some part of our time peculiarly unto them.
I speak unto them only concerning whom I suppose that they do daily set apart some portion of time unto holy duties, as prayer and reading of the word, and they find, by experience that it succeeds well with them. For the most part, if they lose their seasons they lose their duties; for some have complained that the urgency of business and multiplicity of occasions driving them at first from the fixed time of their duties, hath brought them into a course of neglecting duty itself. Wherefore it is our wisdom to set apart constantly some part of our time unto the exercise of our thoughts about spiritual things in the way of meditation.
And I shall close this discourse with some directions in this particular, to them who complain of their disability for the discharge of this duty.
1. Choose and separate a fit time or season, a time of freedom from other occasions and diversions.
And because it is our duty to redeem time with respect unto holy duties, such a season may be the more useful the more the purchase of it stands us in. We are not at any time to serve God with what costs us nought, nor with any time that comes within the same rule. If we will allow only the refuse of our time unto this duty, when we have nothing else to do, and, it may be, through weariness of occasions are fit for nothing else, we are not to expect any great success in it. This is one pregnant reason why men are so cold and formal, so lifeless in spiritual duties – namely, the times and seasons which they allot unto them. When the body is wearied with the labours and occasions of the day, and, it may be, the mind in its natural faculties indisposed, even by the means of necessary refreshment, men think themselves meet to treat with God about the great concernments of his glory and their own souls! This is that which God condemneth by his prophet: “If you offer the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? and if ye offer the lame and sick, is it not evil? offer it now unto thy governor; will he be pleased with thee, or accept thy person?” (Mal 1:8).
Both the law of nature and all the laws of holy institutions do require that we should serve God with the best that we have, as all the fat of the inwards was to be offered in sacrifice; and shall we think to offer that time unto God wherein we are unmeet to appear before an earthly ruler? Yet such, in my account, are the seasons, especially the evening seasons, that most men choose for the duties of their holy worship. And you may do well to consider beyond the day and time which he hath taken unto himself by an everlasting law, how little of the choice of your time you have offered unto God as a free-will offering, that you may be excited to future diligence.
If, therefore, you seriously intend this duty, choose the seasons for it wherein you are the most fit, when even the natural vigour of your spirits is most free and active. Possibly some will say this may be such a time as when the occasions of the world call most earnestly for your attendance unto them. I say that is the season I would recommend; and if you can conquer your minds to redeem it for God at any rate, your endeavours in it will be prosperous. However, trust not to times that will offer themselves. Take them not up at hazard. Let the time itself be a free-will offering to God, taken from the top of the heap, or the choicest part of your useful time.
2. Preparation of mind unto a due reverence of God and spiritual things is required previously hereunto.
When we go about this duty, if we rush into thoughts of heavenly things without a due reverential preparation, we shall quickly find ourselves at a loss. See the rule, Eccles 5:1,2. “Grace to serve God with reverence and godly fear” is required in all things wherein we have to do with him, as in this duty we have in an immediate and especial manner. Endeavour, therefore, in the first place, to get your hearts deeply affected with an awful reverence of God, and a holy regard unto the heavenly nature of the things you would meditate upon.
Hereby your minds will be composed, and the roots of other thoughts, be they vain or earthly, which are apt to arise and divert you from this duty, will be cast out. The principles of these contrary thoughts are like Jacob and Esau; they struggle in the same womb, and oftentimes Esau will come first forth, and for a while seem to carry the birthright. If various thoughts do conflict in our minds, some for this world and some for another, those for this world may carry it for a season; but where a due reverence of God hath “cast out the bond woman and her children,” the workings of the flesh in its vain thoughts and imaginations, the mind will be at liberty to exercise itself on spiritual things.
3. Earnest desires after a renewed sense and relish of spiritual things are required hereunto.
If we engage into this duty merely on a conviction of the necessity of it, or set ourselves about it because we think we ought to do so, and it will not be well done utterly to neglect it, we may not expect to be successful in it; but when the soul hath at any time tasted that the Lord is gracious, when its meditations on him have been sweet, when spiritual things have had a savour and relish in the mind and affections, and hereon it comes to this duty with earnest desires to have the like tastes, the like experience, yea, to have them increased, then is it in the way of a hopeful progress. And this also will make us persevere in our endeavours to go through with what we undertake – namely, when we do know by former experience what is to be attained by it, if we dig and search for it as for a treasure.
If you shall think that the right discharge of this duty may be otherwise attained, if you suppose that it deserves not all this cost and charge about it, judge by what is past whether it be not advisable to give it over and let it alone. As good lie quietly on the ground as continually attempt to rise and never once effect it. Remember how many successless attempts you have made upon it, and all have come to nothing, or that which is as bad as nothing. I cannot say that in this way you shall always succeed; but I fear you will never have success in this duty without such things as are of the same nature and use with it.
When, after this preparation, you find yourselves yet perplexed and entangled, not able comfortably to persist in spiritual thoughts unto your refreshment, take these two directions for your relief:
1. Cry and sigh to God for help and relief. Bewail the darkness, weakness, and instability of your minds, so as to groan within yourselves for deliverance. And if your designed meditations do issue only in a renewed gracious sense of your own weakness and insufficiency, with application unto God for supplies of strength, they are by no means lost as unto a spiritual account.
The thoughts of Hezekiah in his meditations did not seem to have any great order or consistency when he so expressed them: “Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter: I did mourn as a dove: mine eyes fail with looking upward: O Lord, I am oppressed; undertake for me” (Isa 38:14). When the soul labours sincerely for communion with God, but sinks into broken, confused thoughts under the weight of its own weakness, yet if he look to God for relief, his chattering and mourning will be accepted with God and profitable unto himself.
2. Supply the brokenness of your thoughts with ejaculatory prayers, according as either the matter of them or your defect in the management of them doth require.
So was it with Hezekiah in the instance before mentioned. When his own meditations were weak and broken, he cries out in the midst of them, “O Lord, I am oppressed; undertake for me.” And meditation is properly a mixture of spiritual apprehension of God and heavenly things in the thoughts and conceptions of the mind, with desires and supplications thereon.
It is good and profitable to have some special designed subject of meditation in our thoughts. I have at large declared before what things are the proper objects of the thoughts of them that are spiritually minded; but they may be more peculiarly considered as the matter of designed meditation. And they may be taken out of some especial spiritual experience that we have lately had, or some warnings we have received of God, or something wherewith we have been peculiarly affected in the reading or preaching of the word, or what we find the present posture and frame of our minds and souls to require, or that which supplies all most frequently – the person and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. If any thing of this nature be peculiarly designed antecedently unto this duty, and a season be sought for it with respect thereunto, the mind will be fixed and kept from wandering after a variety of subjects, wherein it is apt to lose itself and bring nothing to perfection.
Lastly, Be not discouraged with an apprehension that all that you can attain unto in the discharge of this duty is so little, so contemptible, as that it is to no purpose to persist in it; nor be wearied with the difficulties you meet withal in its performance.
You have to do with Him only in this matter who “will not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax,” whose will it is that none should “despise the day of small things.” And “if there be” in this duty “a ready mind, it is accepted according to what a man hath, and not according to what he hath not.” He that can bring into this treasury only the mites of broken desires and ejaculatory prayers, so they be his best, shall not come behind them who cast into it out of their greater abundance in ability and skill.
To faint and give out because we cannot arise unto such a height as we aim at is a fruit of pride and unbelief. He who finds himself to gain nothing by continual endeavours after holy, fixed meditations, but only a living, active sense of his own vileness and unworthiness, is a sufficient gainer by all his pains, cost, and charge. But ordinarily it shall not be so; constancy in the duty will give ability for it. Those who conscientiously abide in its performance shall increase in light, wisdom, and experience, until they are able to manage it with great success.
These few plain directions may possibly be of some use unto the weaker sort of Christians, when they find a disability in themselves unto the discharge of this duty, wherein those who are spiritually minded ought to be peculiarly exercised.