The sixth season requiring this diligence in keeping the heart, is the season of duty. Our hearts must be closely watched and kept when we draw nigh to God in public, private, or secret duties; for the vanity of the heart seldom discovers itself more than at such times. How often does the poor soul cry out, ‘O Lord, how gladly would I serve thee, but vain thoughts will not let me: I come to open my heart to thee, to delight my soul in communion with thee, but my corruptions oppose me: Lord, call off these vain thoughts, and suffer them not to estrange the soul that is espoused to thee.’
The question then is this: How may the heart be kept from distractions by vain thoughts in time of duty? There is a two-fold distraction, or wandering of the heart in duty: First, voluntary and habitual, They set not their hearts aright, and their spirit was not steadfast with God. This is the case of formalists, and it proceeds from the want of a holy inclination of the heart to God; their hearts are under the power of their lusts, and therefore it is no wonder that they go after their lusts, even when they are about holy things. Secondly, involuntary and lamented distractions: “I find then a law, that when I would do good, evil is present with me; O wretched man that I am”. This proceeds not from the want of a holy inclination or aim, but from the weakness of grace and the want of vigilance in opposing indwelling sin. But it is not my business to show you how these distractions come into the heart but rather how to get them out, and prevent their future admission:
1 Sequester yourself from all earthly employments, and set apart some time for solemn preparation to meet God in duty. You cannot come directly from the world into God’s presence without finding a savor of the world in your duties. It is with the heart (a few minutes since plunged in the world, now in the presence of God) as it is with the sea after a storm, which still continues working, muddy and disquiet, though the wind be laid and the storm be over. Your heart must have some time to settle. Few musicians can take an instrument and play upon it without some time and labor to tune it; few Christians can say with David, “My heart is fixed, O God, it is fixed.” When you go to God in any duty, take your heart aside and say, ‘O my soul, I am now engaged in the greatest work that a creature was ever employed about; I am going into the awful presence of God upon business of everlasting moment. O my soul, leave trifling now; be composed, be watchful, be serious; this is no common work, it is soul-work; it is work for eternity; it is work which will bring forth fruit to life or death in the world to come.’ Pause awhile and consider your sins, your wants, your troubles; keep your thoughts awhile on these before you address yourself to duty. David first mused, and then spake with his tongue.
2 Having composed your heart by previous meditation, immediately set a guard upon your senses. How often are Christians in danger of losing the eyes of their mind by those of their body! Against this David prayed, “Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity, and quicken thou me in thy way.” This may serve to expound the Arabian proverb: “Shut the windows that the house may be light.” It were well if you could say in the commencement, as a holy man once said when he came from the performance of duty: “Be shut, O my eyes, be shut; for it is impossible that you should ever discern such beauty and glory in any creature as I have now seen in God.” You must avoid all occasions of distraction from without, and imbibe that intenseness of spirit in the work of God which locks up the eye and ear against vanity.
3 Beg of God a mortified fancy. A working fancy, (saith one,) how much soever it be extolled among men, is a great snare to the soul, except it work in fellowship with right reason and a sanctified heart. The fancy is a power of the soul, placed between the senses and the understanding; it is that which first stirs itself in the soul, and by its motions the other powers of the soul are brought into exercise; it is that in which thoughts are first formed, and as that is, so are they. If imaginations be not first cast down, it is impossible that every thought of the heart should be brought into obedience to Christ. The fancy is naturally the wildest and most untameable power of the soul. Some Christians have much to do with it; and the more spiritual the heart is, the more does a wild and vain fancy disturb and perplex it. It is a sad thing that one’s imagination should call off the soul from attending on God, when it is engaged in communion with him. Pray earnestly and perseveringly that your fancy may be chastened and sanctified, and when this is accomplished your thoughts will be regular and fixed.
4 If you would keep your heart from vain excursions when engaged in duties, realize to yourself, by faith, the holy and awful presence of God. If the presence of a grave man would compose you to seriousness, how much more should the presence of a holy God? Do you think that you would dare to be gay and light if you realized the presence and inspection of the Divine Being? Remember where you are when engaged in religious duty, and act as if you believed in the omniscience of God. “All things are naked and open to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” Realize his infinite holiness, his purity, his spirituality.
Strive to obtain such apprehensions of the greatness of God as shall suitably affect your heart; and remember his jealousy over his worship. “This is that the Lord spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified.” “A man that is praying (says Bernard) should behave himself as if he were entering into the court of heaven, where he sees the Lord upon his throne, surrounded with ten thousand of his angels and saints ministering unto him.” — When you come from an exercise in which your heart has been wandering and listless, what can you say? Suppose all the vanities and impertinences which have passed through your mind during a devotional exercise were written down and interlined with your petitions, could you have the face to present them to God? Should your tongue utter all the thoughts of your heart when at tending the worship of God, would not men abhor you? Yet your thoughts are perfectly known to God. O think upon this scripture: “God is greatly to be feared in the assemblies of his saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are round about him.” Why did the Lord descend in thunderings and lightnings and dark clouds upon Sinai? why did the mountains smoke under him, the people quake and tremble round about him, Moses himself not excepted? but to teach the people this great truth: “Let us have grace, whereby we may serve Him acceptably, with reverence and godly fear; for our God is a consuming fire.” Such apprehensions of the character and presence of God will quickly reduce a heart inclined to vanity to a more serious frame.
5 Maintain a prayerful frame of heart in the intervals of duty. What reason can be assigned why our hearts are so dull, so careless, so wandering, when we hear or pray, but that there have been long intermissions in our communion with God? If that divine unction, that spiritual fervor, and those holy impressions, which we obtain from God while engaged in the performance of one duty, were preserved to enliven and engage us in the performance of another, they would be of incalculable service to keep our hearts serious and devout. For this purpose, frequent ejaculations between stated and solemn duties are of most excellent use: they not only preserve the mind in a composed and pious frame, but they connect one stated duty, as it were, with another, and keep the attention of the soul alive to all its interests and obligations.
6 If you would have the distraction of your thoughts prevented, endeavor to raise your affections to God, and to engage them warmly in your duty. When the soul is intent upon any work, it gathers in its strength and bends all its thoughts to that work; and when it is deeply affected, it will pursue its object with intenseness, the affections will gain, an ascendancy over the thoughts and guide them. But deadness causes distraction, and distraction increases deadness. Could you but regard your duties as the medium in which you might walk in communion with God in which your soul might be filled with those ravishing and matchless delights which his presence affords, you might have no inclination to neglect them. But if you would prevent the recurrence of distracting thoughts, if you would find your happiness in the performance of duty, you must not only be careful that you engage in what is your duty, bat labor with patient and persevering exertion to interest your feelings in it. Why is your heart so inconstant, especially in secret duties; why are you ready to be gone, almost as soon as you are come into the presence of God, but because your affections are not engaged?
7 When you are disturbed by vain thoughts, humble yourself before God, and call in assistance from Heaven. When the messenger of Satan buffeted St. Paul by wicked suggestions, (as is supposed) he mourned before God on account of it. Never slight wandering thoughts in duty as small matters; follow every such thought with a deep regret. Turn to God with such words as these: ‘Lord, I came hither to commune with thee, and here a busy adversary and a vain heart, conspiring together, have opposed me. O my God what a heart have I! shall I never wait upon thee without distraction? when shall I enjoy an hour of free communion with thee? Grant me thy assistance at this time; discover thy glory to me, and my heart will quickly be recovered. I came hither to enjoy thee, and shall I go away without thee? Behold my distress, and help me!’ — Could you but sufficiently be wail your distractions, and repair to God for deliverance from them, you would gain relief.
8 Look upon the success and the comfort of your duties, as depending very much upon the keeping of your heart close with God in them. These two things, the success of duty and the inward comfort arising from the performance of it, are unspeakably dear to the Christian; but both of these will be lost if the heart be in a listless state. “Surely God heareth not vanity, nor doth the Almighty regard it.” The promise is made to a heart engaged: “Then shall ye seek for me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your hearts.” When you find your heart under the power of deadness and distraction, say to yourself, ‘O what do I lose by a careless heart now! My praying seasons , are the most valuable portions of my life: could I but raise my heart to God, I might now obtain such mercies as would be matter of praise to all eternity.’
9 Regard your carefulness or carelessness in this matter as a great evidence of your sincerity, or hypocrisy. Nothing will alarm an upright heart more than this. ‘What shall I give way to a customary wandering of the heart from God? Shall the spot of the hypocrite appear upon my soul? Hypocrites, indeed, can drudge on in the round of duty, never regarding the frame of their hearts; but shall I do so? Never — never let me be satisfied with empty duties. Never let me take my leave of a duty until my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.’
10 It will be of special use to keep your heart with God in duty, to consider what influence all your duties will have upon your eternity. Your religious seasons are your seed times, and in another world you must reap the fruits of what you sow in your duties here, If you sow to the flesh, you will reap corruption; if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap life everlasting. Answer seriously these questions: Are you willing to reap the fruit of vanity in the world to come? Dare you say, when your thoughts are roving to the ends of the earth in duty, when you scarce mind what you say or hear, ‘Now, Lord, I am sowing to the Spirit; now I am providing and laying up for eternity; now I am seeking for glory, honor and immortality; now I am striving to enter in at the strait gate; now I am taking the kingdom of heaven by holy violence!’ Such reflections are well calculated to dissipate vain thoughts.