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John Flavel :: Tenth Season - How a Christian May Keep His Heart from Desperate Conclusions

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A Saint Indeed by John Flavel

Twelve Particular Seasons, which Especially Call for this Diligence in Keeping the Heart

Tenth Season - How a Christian May Keep His Heart from Desperate Conclusions


“The tenth special season to keep the heart with all diligence, is the time of spiritual darkness and doubting, when it is with the soul, as it was with Paul in his dangerous voyage, neither sun, nor moon, nor star appeared for many days; when by reason of the hidings of God’s face, the prevalency of corruption, and the inevidence of grace, the soul is even ready to give up all its hopes and comforts for lost; to draw sad and desperate conclusions upon itself; to call its former comforts vain delusions; its grace hypocrisy. When the serene and clear heavens are overcast with dark clouds, yea, filled with thunders, and horrible tempests; when the poor pensive soul sits down and weeps forth this sad lamentation, My hope is perished from the Lord? Now to keep the heart from sinking in such a day as this, to enable it to maintain its own sincerity, is a matter of great difficulty.”
The tenth case then will be this.

Case 10. How the people of God, in dark and doubting seasons, may keep their hearts from entertaining such sad conclusions about their estates, as destroy their peace, and unfit them for their duty.

There are two general heads, to which the grounds of doubting our sincerity may be reduced. (1) God’s carriage towards the soul, either in the time of some extraordinary affliction, or of some long and sad desertion. Or, (2) The soul’s carriage towards God. And here it usually argues against the truth of its own graces either: (1) From its relapses into the same sins, from which it hath formerly risen with shame and sorrow. Or, (2) From the sensible declining of its affections from God. Or, (3) From the excess of the affections towards creature-comforts and enjoyments. Or, (4) From its enlargements in public and often straitnings in private duties. Or, (5) From some horrid injections of Satan, with which the soul is greatly perplexed. Or, Lastly, from God’s silence, and seeming denial of its long depending suits and prayers.

These are the common grounds of those sad conclusions: now in order to the establishment and support of the heart in this condition, it will be necessary,

1. That you be acquainted with some general truths, which have a tendency to the settlement of a trembling and doubting soul.

2. That you be rightly instructed about the 'forementioned particulars, which are the grounds of your doubting.

The general truths requisite for poor doubting souls to be acquainted with, are these:

1. That every working and appearance of hypocrisy doth not presently prove the person in whom it is, to be an hypocrite. You must carefully distinguish between the presence and predominancy of hypocrisy: there are remains of deceitfulness in the best hearts; David and Peter had sad experience of it; yet the standing frame and general bent of the heart being upright, it did not denominate them hypocrites.

2. That we ought as well to hear what can be said for us, as against us: it is the sin of upright hearts, sometimes to use an over-rigid and merciless severity against themselves: they do not indifferently consider the case of their own souls: it is in this case, as Solomon speaks in another, There is that maketh himself rich, and yet hath nothing; and there is that maketh himself poor, and yet hath great riches, Proverbs 13:7. It is the damning sin of the self-flattering hypocrite, to make his condition better than it is: and it is the sin and folly of some upright ones to make their condition worse than indeed it is. Why should you be such enemies to your own peace, to read over the evidences of God’s love to your souls, as a man doth a book, which he intends to confute? Why do you study to find evasions to turn off those comforts which are due to you? It is said of Joseph, that he was minded to put away his espoused Mary, not knowing that that holy thing which was conceived in her, was by the Holy Ghost; and this may be your case. A third truth is this,

3. That many a saint hath charged and condemned himself for that, which God will never charge him with, nor condemn him for. Why hast thou hardened our hearts from thy fear? Isaiah 63:17, saith the church, and yet the verse before manifests, that their hearts were not so hardened: Godly Bradford wrote himself an hypocrite, a painted sepulchre; yet doubtless God acquitted him of that charge.

4. Every thing which is a ground of grief to the people of God, is not a sufficient ground of questioning their sincerity. There are many more things to trouble you, than there is to stumble you; if upon every slip and failing through infirmity, you should question all that ever was wrought upon you, your life must be made up of doubtings and fears; you can never attain a settled peace, nor live that life of praise and thankfulness the gospel calls for.

5. The soul is not at all times fit to pass judgment upon its own condition: to be sure in the dark day of desertion, when the soul is benighted; and in the stormy day of temptation, when the soul is in a hurry, it is utterly unfit to judge its estate: Examine your hearts upon your beds, and be still, Psalms 4:4. This is rather a season for watching and resisting, than for judging and determining.

6. That every breach of peace with God, is not a breach of covenant with God. The wife hath many weaknesses and failings, often grieves and displeases her husband; yet in the main is faithful, and truly loves him: these failings may cause him to alter his carriage, but not to withdraw his love, or deny his relation. Return, O backsliding Israel, for I am married unto you.

7. Lastly, Whatever our sin, or trouble be, it should rather drive us to God, than from God. Pardon my sin; for it is great, Psalms 25:11, suppose it be true, that thou hast so and so sinned, that thou art thus long and sadly deserted: Yet it is a false inference, that therefore thou shouldst be discouraged, as if there were no help for thee in thy God. When you have well digested these seven established truths, if still the doubt remain, then consider what may be replied to the particular grounds of those doubts. As,

1. You doubt, and are ready to conclude, the Lord hath no regard or love for your souls, because of some extraordinary affliction which is come upon you: but I would not have thy soul so to conclude, till thou be able satisfactorily to answer these three questions.

Question 1. If great troubles and afflictions be marks of God’s hatred, why should not impunity and constant prosperity be tokens of his love? For contraiorum contraria est ratio et consequentia? of contrary things there is a contrary reason and consequence; but is this so indeed? or saith not the scripture quite otherwise? Proverbs 1:32. The prosperity of fools destroys them. So, Psalms 73:3-5.

Question 2. Dare I draw the same conclusion upon all others that have been as much, yea more afflicted than myself? If this argument conclude against thee, then so it doth against every one in thy condition; yea, the greater the affliction of any child of God hath been, the more strongly the argument still concludes; and then woe to David, Job, Heman, Paul, and all that have been afflicted as they were.

Question 3. Had God exempted you only from those troubles which all other his people feel, would not that have been a greater ground of doubting to you than this? Especially since the scripture saith, If ye be without chastenings, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons, Hebrews 7:8.

Oh how is our Father put to it by froward children! If he afflicts, then one cries, he loves me not: if he exempt from affliction, others question his love upon that ground. Surely you have other work to do under the rod, than this.

2. Or do you rashly infer the Lord has no love for you, because he hides his face from you; that your condition is miserable, because dark and uncomfortable? Before you draw such rash conclusions, see what answer you can give to these four following queries.

Query 1. If any action of God towards his people will bear a favourable, as well as a harsh and severe construction, why should not his people interpret it in the best sense? And is not this such? May he not have a design of love, as well as of hatred, in this dispensation? May he not depart for a season, and not for ever; yea, that he might not depart for ever? You are not the first that have mistaken God’s ends in desertion, Isaiah 49:14. Zion said, the Lord hath forsaken me, my God hath forgotten me: Was it so indeed? Nothing less. Isaiah 49:15, Can a woman forget?…

Query 2. Do you find the marks of an absolute, total and final desertion upon your own spirits, that you are so apt to conclude yours to be such? Do you find your heart inclined to forsake God? Have you lost your conscientious tenderness in point of sin? If so, sad characters appear upon you indeed; but if, in this dark hour, you are as tender of sin as ever, as much resolved to cleave to God as ever, I cannot, I will not forsake God, let him do what he will with me: Oh no, I cannot. If your hearts work thus, it can be but a partial, limited, and temporary desertion; by this he still keeps his interest in your hearts, a sure sign he will return and visit you again.

Query 3. Is sense and feeling a competent judge of God’s actions and designs? Or may a man safely rely upon its testimony after so many discoveries of the infallibility of it? is this a sound argument? If God had any love for my soul, if it were not quite gone I should feel it now as well as in former times; but I cannot feel it: therefore it is quite gone. Do not you know the sun still keeps on his course in the heavens, even in foul and close weather, when you cannot see it? and may it not be so with the love of God? Read Isaiah 1:10. May not I as well conclude in winter, when the flowers have hid their beautiful heads under ground, they are quite dead and gone, because I cannot find them in December where I saw them in May?

Query 4. Think you the Lord cares not to break his children’s hearts, and his own promise too! Hath he no more regard to either? If he return no more, these must be the consequences, Isaiah 57:16-17; Hebrews 13:5.

Well then, from God’s carriage towards you, either in affliction or desertion, no such discouraging, heart-sinking conclusions can be inferred. Next, let us see whether they may not be inferred from our carriage towards God; and here the principal grounds of doubting are such as these:

1. I have fallen again into the same sin from which I have formerly risen, with repentance and resolution; therefore my sinning is customary sinning; a spot that is not the spot of God’s children. Hence the upright soul trembles; upon this it is ready to affirm, that all its former humiliations for, and oppositions unto sin, were but acts of hypocrisy. But stay, poor trembling heart.

Query 1. If this be so, how comes it to pass that Christ puts such a favourable construction upon the disciples sleeping the third time, when he had as often reproved them for it? Matthew 26:40-41; and how is it that we find in scripture so many promises made to God’s people, not only upon their first sins, but upon their backslidings also? Jeremiah 3:22; Hosea 14:4.

Query 2. Is not your repentance and care renewed as often as your guilt is renewed? Yea, the oftener you sin, the more you are troubled; it is not so in customary sinning, the rise whereof Bernard excellently discovers. (1) Saith he, When a man accustomed to good, sinneth grievously, it seems insupportable, yea, he seems to descend alive into hell. (2) In process of time it seems not insupportable, but heavy; and betwixt insupportable and heavy, there is no small descent. (3) Next it becomes light, his conscience smites but faintly, and he feels not the stripes of it. (4) Then there is not only a total insensibleness of it, but that which was bitter and displeasing, is now become sweet and pleasing in some degree. (5) Then it is turned into custom, and not only pleases, but daily pleases. Lastly, custom is turned into nature; he cannot be pulled away from it, but defends and pleads for it. This is customary sinning, this is the way of the wicked; but the quite contrary is our condition.

Query 3. Are you sure from scripture grounds, that a good man may not relapse again and again into the same sin? It is true, as for gross sins, they do not use to relapse into them: David committed adultery no more; Paul persecuted the church no more; Peter denied Christ no more: but I speak of ordinary infirmities. Job’s friends were good men, yet, saith he, Job 19:3, These ten times have ye reproached me. So then, no such conclusions follow from this first ground of doubting.

2. The second ground is, the declining and withering of our affections to spiritual things. O! saith the upright soul, if ever I had been planted a right seed, I should have been as a green olive-tree in the house of my God; but my branches wither: therefore my root is naught. But stay,

Query 1. May you not be mistaken about the decay of grace, and fading of your affections? What if they are not so quick and ravishing as at first, may not that be recompensed in the spirituality and solidity of them now? I pray God your love may abound more and more in all judgment: Philippians 1:9. It may be more solid, though not so ferverous; or do you not mistake, by looking forward to what you would be, rather than backward to what once you were? It is a good note of Ames, that we discern the growth of grace, as the growth of plants, which we perceive rather Grevisse quam crescere, to have grown, than to grow.

Query 2. But grant it be so indeed as you affirm, must it needs follow, that the root of the matter is not in you? David’s last ways are distinguished from his first, 2 Chronicles 17:3 and yet both first and last a holy man. The Church of Ephesus is charged by Christ for leaving her first love, and yet a golden candlestick, many precious saints in that church, Revelation 2:2-4.

3. A third ground of those sad conclusions is the excess of our affections to some creature enjoyments. I fear I love the creature more than God; and if so, my love is but hypocritical: I sometimes feel stronger and more sensible motions of my heart to earthly comforts, than I do to heavenly objects: therefore my soul is not upright in me. But stay, O soul.

Query 1. May not a man love God more solidly and strongly than the creature, and yet his affections to the creature be sometimes moved more violently and sensibly than towards God? As rooted malice argues a stronger hatred, than a sudden, though more violent passion, so we must measure our love, not by a violent motion of it now and then, but by the depth of the root, and constancy of its actings. Because David was so passionately moved for Absalom, Joab concludes, that if he had lived, and all the people died, it would have pleased him well, 2 Samuel 19:7, but that was argued more like a soldier, than a logician.

Query 2. If you indeed love the creature for itself, if you make it your end, and religion but a means, then the conclusion is rightly drawn upon you. But, if you love the creature in reference to God, and see nothing in it separated from him, though sometimes your affections offend in the excess; this is consistent with sincere love to God. To love the creature inordinately, to put it in God’s room, and make it a man’s end; this is the love of a carnal heart; to love it immoderately, that is, to let out more affection to it than we ought, is sometimes the sin of the best hearts.

Query 3. Have not many souls feared as you do, that, when Christ and creatures should stand as competitors in some eminent trial, they should forsake Christ rather than the creature; and yet when brought to that dilemma, have been able to cast all the world at their heels for Christ? Many of the martyrs had such fears, and thus they were satisfied; the prevalency of love is best seen at parting; there may be more love to Christ in thy soul, than thou art now aware of; and if God bring thee to such a pinch, thou mayest see it.

4. A fourth ground of these sad conclusions is from hence, that we find our hearts sometimes more straitened in private, than in public duties. O! if my soul were sincere, its actings in duty would be uniform; I fear I am but a Pharisee upon this ground. It is sad indeed we should at any time find our hearts straitened in private. But,

Query 1. Do not all thine enlargements in duty, whether public or private, depend upon the Spirit, who is the Lord of influences; and according as he gives out, or holds back those influences, so art thou enlarged or straitened? And what if sometimes he pleases to give that in a public, which he withholds in a private duty? As long as thy soul is satisfied with neither, without communion with God, and the straitness of thy heart is indeed its burden? Doth that argue thee to be an hypocrite?

Query 2. Dost thou not make conscience of private duties, and set thyself as before the Lord in them? Indeed, if thou live in the constant neglect or careless performance of them; if thou art curious about public, and careless about private duties, that would be a sad sign: but when you have conscientiously performed, and often met with God in them, it will not follow that you are insincere, because that communion is sometimes interrupted. Besides,

Query 3. May there not be something at sometimes in a public, which is wanting in a private duty, to raise and advantage thine affections? God may sometimes make use of the melting affections of them with whom thou hearest or prayest, as petty instruments to move thy affections; this advantage is wanting in private: therefore from hence (the case so standing) no such inference can be drawn.

5. Another ground is from those horrid injections of Satan, with which the soul is greatly perplexed; by these I may see what an heart I have: can grace be where these are?

Yes, grace may be where such thoughts are, though not where they are lodged and consented to. Dost thou cry out under the burden, enter thy protest in heaven against them, strive to keep up holy and reverend thoughts of God? Then it is violence, not a voluntary prostitution.

6. The last ground of these sad conclusions, is the Lord’s long silence, and seeming denial of our long depending suits and prayers. O if God had any regard to my soul, he would have heard my cries before now! But I have no answer from him, therefore no interest in him. But stay, doubting soul,

Query 1. Have not many saints stumbled upon this stone before thee? Psalms 31:22. I said in my haste, I am cut off from before thine eyes: nevertheless thou heardest the voice of my supplication. So the church, Lamentations 3:44. “Thou coverest thyself with a cloud, that our prayers should not pass through.” Jonah 2:4. “Then said I, I am cast out of thy sight.” And may not you be mistaken in this matter as well as they?

Query 2. Though God’s abhorring, and final rejecting prayer, be an argument of his abhorring the person that prays; yet dare we conclude so from a mere suspension of the answer? God may bear long with his own elect, that cry unto him day and night. Luke 18:7.

Query 3. Can you deny but that there are some signs appearing in your souls, even whilst God suspends his answer, that argue your prayers are not rejected by him? As, (1) Though no answer come, yet you are still resolved to wait: you dare not say as that profane wretch did, This evil is of the Lord, why should I wait for him any longer? 2 Kings 6:33. (2) You can clear and justify God still, and lay the reason and cause of his silence upon yourselves. So did David, Psalms 22:2-3, 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…. (3) The suspension of God’s answer makes you inquisitive into your own hearts, what evils are there that obstruct your prayers; so the church, Lamentations 3:8, He shutteth out my prayer: and how doth he this work? You may see, Lamentations 3:40. Let us search and try our ways. Well then, neither from hence may you conclude that God hath no love for your souls.

Caution. And thus I have shewn you how to keep your hearts in a dark and doubting season from those desperate conclusions of unbelief. God forbid any false heart should encourage itself from these things; it is our unhappiness that when we give saints and sinners their proper portions, that each of them are so prone to take up the other’s part.

Ninth Season - How a Christian May Keep His Heart from Yielding to Sin ← Prior Section
Eleventh Season - How a Christian May Keep His Heart from Relapsing Under Sufferings Next Section →
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The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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