The time of doubting and of spiritual darkness constitutes another season when it is very difficult to keep the heart. When the light and comfort of the divine presence is withdrawn; when the believer, from the prevalence of indwelling sin in one form or other, is ready to renounce his hopes, to infer desperate conclusions with respect to himself, to regard his former comforts as vain delusions, and his professions as hypocrisy; at such a time much diligence is necessary to keep the heart from despondency. The Christian’s distress arises from his apprehension of his spiritual state, and in general he argues against his possessing true religion, either from his having relapsed into the same sins from which he had formerly been recovered with shame and sorrow; or from the sensible declining of his affections from God; or from the strength of his affections toward creature enjoyments; or from his enlargement in public, while he is often confined and barren in private duties; or from some horrible suggestions of Satan, with which his soul is greatly perplexed; or, lastly, from God’s silence and seeming denial of his long depending prayers. Now in order to the establishment and support of the heart under these circumstances, it is necessary that you be acquainted with some general truths which have a tendency to calm the trembling and doubting soul; and that you be rightly instructed with regard to the above-mentioned causes of disquiet. Let me direct your attention to the following general truths:
1 Every appearance of hypocrisy does not prove the person who manifests it to be a hypocrite. You should carefully distinguish between the appearance and the predominance of hypocrisy. There are remains of deceitfulness in the best hearts; this was exemplified in David and Peter; but the prevailing frame of their hearts being upright, they were not denominated hypocrites for their conduct.
2 We ought to regard what can be said in our favor, as well as what may be said against us. It is the sin of upright persons sometimes, to exercise an unreasonable severity against themselves. They do not impartially consider the state of their souls. To make their state appear butter than it really is, indeed is the damning sin of self-flattering hypocrites; and to make their state appear worse than it really is, is the sin and folly of some good persons. But why should you be such an enemy to your own peace? Why read over the evidences of God’s love to your soul, as a man does a book which he intends to confute? Why do you study evasions, and turn off those comforts which are due to you?
3 Every thing which may be an occasion of grief to the people of God, is not a sufficient ground for their questioning the reality of their religion. Many things may trouble, which ought not to stumble you. If upon every occasion you should call in question all that had ever been wrought upon you, your life would be made up of doubtings and fears, and you could never attain that settled inward peace, and live that life of praise and thankfulness which the Gospel requires.
4 The soul is not at all times in a suitable state to pass a right judgment upon itself. It is peculiarly unqualified for this in the hour of desertion or temptation. Such seasons must be improved rather for watching and resisting, than for judging and determining.
5 Whatever be the ground of one’s distress, it should drive him to, not from God. Suppose you have sinned thus and so, or that you have been thus long and sadly deserted, yet you have no right to infer that you ought to be discouraged, as if there was no help for you in God. When you have well digested these truths, if your doubts and distress remain, consider what is now to be offered:
a Are you ready to conclude that you have no part in the favor of God, because you are visited with some extraordinary affliction? If so, do you then rightly conclude that great trials are tokens of God’s hatred? Does the Scripture teach this? And dare you infer the same with respect to all who have been as much or more afflicted than yourself? If the argument is good in your case, it is good in application to theirs, and more conclusive with respect to them, in proportion as their trials were greater than yours. Wo then to David, Job, Paul, and all who have been afflicted as they were! But had you passed along in quietness and prosperity; had God withheld those chastisements with which he ordinarily visits his people, would you not have had far more reason for doubts and distress than you now have?
b Do you rashly infer that the Lord has no love to you, because he has withdrawn the light of his countenance? Do you imagine your state to be hopeless, because it is dark and uncomfortable? Be not hasty in forming this conclusion. If any of the dispensations of God to his people will bear a favorable as well as a harsh construction, why should they not be construed in the best sense? And may not God have a design of love rather than of hatred in the dispensation under which you mourn? May he not depart for a season, without departing for ever? You are not the first that have mistaken the design of God in withdrawing himself. “Zion said, the Lord hath forsaken me, my Lord hath forgotten me.” But was it so? What saith the answer of God? “Can a woman forget her sucking child?”
But do you sink down under the apprehension that the evidences of a total and final desertion are discoverable in your experience? Have you then lost your conscientious tenderness with regard to sin? and are you inclined to forsake God? If so, you have reason indeed to be alarmed. But if your conscience is tenderly alive; if you are resolved to cleave to the Lord; if the language of your heart is, I cannot forsake God, I cannot live without his presence; though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: then you have reason to hope that he will visit you again. It is by these exercises that he still maintains his interest in you.
Once more. Are sense and feelings suitable to judge of the dispensations of God by? Can their testimony be safely relied on? Is it safe to argue thus: ‘If God had any love for my soul, I should feel it now as well as in former times; but I cannot feel it, therefore it is gone?’ May you not as well conclude, when the sun is invisible to you, that he has ceased to exist? Read Isaiah 1:10.
Now if there is nothing in the divine dealings with you which is a reasonable ground of your despondency and distress, let us inquire what there is in your own conduct for which you should be so cast down:
1 Have you committed sins from which you were formerly recovered with shame and sorrow? And do you thence conclude that you sin allowedly and habitually, and that your oppositions to sin were hypocritical? But do not too hastily give up all for lost. Is not your repentance and care renewed as often as you commit sin? Is it not the sin itself which troubles you, and is it not true, that the oftener you sin the more you are distressed? It is not so in customary sinning; of which Bernard excellently discourses thus: “When a man accustomed to restrain, sins grievously, it seems insupportable to him, yea he seems to descend alive into hell. In process of time it seems not insupportable, but heavy, and between insupportable and heavy there is no small descent. Next, such sinning becomes light, his conscience smites but faintly, and he regards not her rebukes. Then he is not only insensible to his guilt, but that which was bitter and displeasing has become in some degree sweet and pleasant. Now it is made a custom, and not only pleases, but pleases habitually. At length custom becomes nature; he cannot be dissuaded from it, but defends and pleads for it.” This is allowed and customary sinning, this is the way of the wicked. But is not your way the contrary of this?
2 Do you apprehend a decline of your affections from God and from spiritual subjects? This may be your case, and yet there may be hope. But possibly you are mistaken with regard to this. There are many things to be learnt in Christian experience; it has relation to a great variety of subjects. You may now be learning what it is very necessary for you to know as a Christian. Now, what if you are not sensible of so lively affections, of such ravishing views as you had at first; may not your piety be growing more solid and consistent, and better adapted to practical purposes? Does it follow from your not always being in the same frame of mind, or from the fact that the same objects do not at all times excite the same feelings, that you have no true religion? Perhaps you deceive yourself by looking forward to what you would be, rather than contemplating what you are, compared with what you once were.
3 If the strength of your love to creature-enjoyments is the ground of desperate conclusions respecting yourself, perhaps you argue thus: “I fear that I love the creature more than God, if so, I have not true love to God. I sometimes feel stronger affections toward earthly comforts than I do toward heavenly objects, therefore my soul is not upright within me.” If, indeed, you love the creature for itself, if you make it your end, and religion but a means, then you conclude rightly; for this is incompatible with supreme love to God. But may not a man love God more ardently and unchangeably than he does any thing, or all things else, and yet, when God is not the direct object of his thoughts, may he not be sensible of more violent affection for the creature than he has at that time for God? As rooted malice indicates a stronger hatred than sudden though inure violent passion; so we must judge of our love, not by a violent motion of it now and then, but by the depth of its root and the constancy of its exercise. Perhaps your difficulty results from bringing your love to some foreign and improper test. Many persons have feared that when brought to some eminent trial they should renounce Christ and cleave to the creature; but when the trial came, Christ was every thing, and the world as nothing in their esteem. Such were the fears of some martyrs whose victory was complete. But you may expect divine assistance only at the time of, and in proportion to your necessity. If you would try your love, see whether you are willing to forsake Christ now.
4 Is the want of that enlargement in private which you find in public exercises an occasion of doubts and fears? Consider then whether there are not some circumstances attending public duties which are peculiarly calculated to excite your feelings and elevate your mind, and which cannot affect you in private. If so, your exercises in secret, if performed faithfully and in a suitable manner, may he profitable, though they have not all the characteristics of those in public. If you imagine that you have spiritual enlargement and enjoyment in public exercises while you neglect private duties, doubtless you deceive yourself. Indeed if you live in the neglect of secret duties, or are careless about them, you have great reason to fear. But if you regularly and faithfully perform them, it does not follow that they are vain and worthless, or that they are not of great value, because they are not attended with so much enlargement as you sometimes find in public. And what if the Spirit is pleased more highly to favor you with his gracious influence in one place and at one time than another, should this be a reason for murmuring and unbelief, or for thankfulness?
5 The vile or blasphemous suggestions of Satan sometimes occasion great perplexity and distress. — They seem to lay open an abyss of corruption in the heart, and to say there can be no grace here. But there may be grace in the heart where such thoughts are injected, though not, in the heart which consents to and cherishes them. Do you then abhor and oppose them? do you utterly refuse to give up yourself to their influence, and strive to keep holy and reverend thoughts of God, and of all religious objects? If so, such suggestions are involuntary, and no evidence against your piety.
6 Is the seeming denial of your prayers an occasion of despondency? Are you disposed to say, “If God had any regard for my soul he would have heard my petitions before now; but I have no answer from him, and therefore no interest in him?” But stay: though God’s abhorring and finally rejecting prayer is an evidence that he rejects the person who prays, yet, dare you conclude that he has rejected you, because an answer to your prayers is delayed, or because you do not discover it if granted? “May not God bear long with his own elect, that cry unto him day and night?”
Others have stumbled upon the same ground with you: “I said in my haste, I am cut off from before thine eyes: nevertheless thou heardst the voice of my supplication.” Now are there not some things in your experience which indicate that your prayers are not rejected, though answer to them is deferred? Are you not disposed to continue praying though you do not discover an answer? Are you not disposed still to ascribe righteousness to God, while you consider the cause of his silence as being in yourself? Thus did David: “O my God, I cry in the day time, and thou hearest not; and in the night, and am not silent: but thou art holy.” Does not the delay of an answer to your prayers excite you to examine your own heart and try your ways, that you may find and remove the difficulty? If so, you may have reason for humiliation, but not for despair.
Thus I have shown you how to keep your heart in dark and doubting seasons. God forbid that any false heart should encourage itself from these things. It is lamentable, that when we give saints and sinners their proper portions, each is so prone to take up the other’s part.