"How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily?" - Psalm xiii. 2.
WE have, in a former discourse, considered the importance of looking into our own hearts; but that counsel is not applicable in all cases. There is such a thing as to pore on our guilt and wretchedness, to the overlooking of our highest mercies. Though it be proper to know our own hearts, for the purpose of conviction, yet if we expect consolation from this quarter, we shall find ourselves sadly disappointed.
Such, for a time, appears to have been the case of David. He seems to have been in great distress; and, as is common in such cases, his thoughts turned inward, casting in his mind what he should do, and what would be the end of things. While thus exercised, he had "sorrow in his heart daily:" but, betaking himself to God for relief, he succeeded; trusting in his mercy, "his heart rejoiced in his salvation."
There are many persons who, when in trouble, imitate David in the former part of this experience: I wish we may imitate him in the latter. In discoursing on the subject, I shall first notice the disconsolate situation of the psalmist, with the remedy to which he repaired under it; and then inquire to what cases it is applicable among us, and whether the same remedy be not equally adapted to our relief as to his.
I. Let us notice THE DISCONSOLATE SITUATION OF THE PSALMIST, WITH THE REMEDY TO WHICH HE REPAIRED UNDER IT. The Psalm is probably one of those mournful songs which he composed during his persecution by Saul; but, like most others, though it begins in complaint, it ends in triumph. We may be certain he was pressed with great difficulties; for we do not take counsel with ourselves or others, but in such cases. The particulars of his situation may be collected from the different parts of the Psalm.
1. He was sorely persecuted. This was a mysterious providence. God had anointed him to the throne, and brought him into public life; it might have been expected, therefore, that he would have made his way plain before him: yet, in following what must to him manifestly appear the leading of the Divine guide, he brings upon himself a flood of evils. Though nothing was further from his intention than to use any means to dethrone his sovereign; yet Saul is jealous, and his dependants are stirred up, by envy and malice, to compass the ruin of the innocent. Let not those who are candidates for an immortal crown be surprised, if their path to glory be covered with snares and pits: it is through much tribulation we must enter the kingdom.
2. The Lord seemed to prosper his persecutors, and not him: his enemy was exalted over him. This seems more mysterious still. Is the God of Israel then a man, that he should lie; or the son of man, that he should repent? Does he use lightness? Or the things which he purposes, does he purpose according to the flesh; that with him there should be yea, yea, and nay, nay? Far be it from him. Yet if we were to judge by appearances, we might, at times, be tempted to draw such conclusions.
3. His most intimate acquaintance seems to have forsaken him. In cases of difficulty, we usually advise with our friends, if we have any. If we are driven to take counsel with ourselves, therefore, it may be presumed that we are bereft of that consolation. A sympathizing, wise, and faithful friend, in a time of difficulty, is a great blessing. In times of prosperity, many will profess a regard to us; but if persecution for Christ's sake should overtake us, we may expect some to stand aloof, who now court our acquaintance. This has been the lot of men of whom the world was not worthy; and it was no small part of their affliction that they had to suffer by themselves. Let us not complain of such things, however. Our Lord himself was forsaken by lover and friend. He took three of his most beloved disciples to accompany him in the hour of his sufferings; but they fell asleep, and left him to agonize alone.
4. To these temporal distresses were added others of a spiritual nature; the Lord hid his face from him; and, to him, it appeared as though be had forgotten him. If under his outward troubles he could have enjoyed inward peace; if he could have poured out his heart with freedom in secret; if though banished from the sanctuary, yet looking towards that house, and calling upon the Lord, he had heard him from heaven his dwelling-place, his load had been supportable; but to have to say with Job, "Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him; on the left hand where he doth work, but I cannot behold him; he hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see him!" this gives a double weight to the affliction. But here also we have no reason to complain. David has been before us; and, what is more, David's Lord. Jesus was persecuted; his enemies were exalted over him; his friends were scattered from him; and, to fill up the bitter cup, his God forsook him. This was the sorrow of sorrows. He speaks as one that could have borne any thing else: "My God, my God . . . why hast thou forsaken me?"
5. All this was not for a few days only; but for a long time. "How long wilt thou forget me? How long wilt thou hide thy face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul?" The intenseness of the affliction renders it trying to our fortitude; but it is by the continuance of it that patience is put to the test. It is not under the sharpest, but the longest trials, that we are most in danger of fainting. In the former case, the soul collects all its strength, and feels in earnest to call in help from above; but in the latter, the mind relaxes and sinks into despondency. When Job was accosted with evil tidings, in quick succession, he bore it with becoming fortitude; but when he could see no end to his troubles, he sunk under them.
These were some of the particulars which made up the load of David; and under which he is said to have taken counsel in his soul. The phrase seems to be expressive of great restlessness of spirit, a poring over his misery, a casting in his mind what he should do, and what would be the end of these things. Perhaps, if we had been secreted near him, we should have seen him walking by himself, now looking upwards, then downwards, weeping as he went, or sighing under a load that would not suffer him to weep; sometimes sinking into torpid silence, and sometimes interrogating himself on his future conduct: What shall I do? Which way shall I take? Shall I go backward, or forward; or shall I stand still? Shall I try any other means; or shall I despair?
From this tumult of the mind, we are certain he obtained relief; for, towards the close of the Psalm, he deals in the language of triumph: "I will sing unto the Lord, because he hath dealt bountifully with me." Nor are we left to guess in what manner his soul was delivered from this state of dejection: "I have trusted," says he, "in thy mercy; my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation." Hence we may gather that the way in which he obtained relief was by ceasing to take counsel in his soul, and by looking out of himself, and trusting in the mercy of God.
This remedy was competent to the removal of all his complaints. What is it that mercy, Divine mercy, mercy through a Mediator, mercy connected with omnipotence and veracity, cannot effect? Was he persecuted? By trusting in this, he would cease to fear what man could do unto him. Was the hand of Providence apparently against him? That might be, and yet all in the end work together for good. Did his friends forsake him? The compassion of his best Friend would more than make up this loss. But did he also hide his face from him? Still he could do no better than apply to the mercy-seat, and supplicate his return. Finally, was all this complicated load of trials of long continuance? After waiting patiently for the Lord, he would hear him, would bring him out of the horrible pit, set his feet upon a rock, establish his goings, and put a new song into his mouth. Such, indeed, was the issue of his present trials, which is recorded for the encouragement of others, who shall be in like circumstances.
II. Let us inquire TO WHAT CASES THE SUBJECT IS APPLICABLE AMONG US, AND WHETHER THE SAME REMEDY BE NOT EQUALLY ADAPTED TO OUR RELIEF AS TO THAT OF DAVID. The Holy Spirit has drawn the likeness of man in all situations, that we might find our case, and learn instruction. If we barely read the Scriptures as a description of the concerns of persons who lived a long time ago, and make no application of them to ourselves, we shall miss the great end for which they were given us. The case of the psalmist appears to me to correspond with that of three descriptions of people.
1. Persons who sink into despondency under the adverse providences of God. God has poured a portion of sorrow into the cup of human life. Property, connexions, friends, children, and every other avenue of natural enjoyment, become, at one time or other, inlets to grief; and if, in these seasons of adversity, the attention be turned inward, rather than directed to the Father of mercies, we shall be in danger of sinking under them.
We have seen men who, under the smiles of providence, have been cheerful and amiable, when disappointments and losses have overtaken them, sink into sullen dejection, and never more lift up their heads. In some instances, it has issued in suicide. It is a dangerous thing to take counsel in our souls, to the neglect of the counsel of God. We have seen others wretched beyond expression, owing to unhappy connexions. In the formation of them, religion has been overlooked, and even genuine affection, for the sake of advantages of a worldly nature. The consequence has been, on the one side, neglect, dislike, strife, cruelty, and infidelity; on the other, disappointment, jealousy, unavailing reflection, a broken spirit, a fixed melancholy, and every thing but absolute despair. Oh with what desire could I draw off the attention of such broken hearts from things below to things above; from taking counsel in their souls, to trusting in the mercy of God. in Christ Jesus! Many a wounded spirit has, by this means, been healed, and rendered happy for life; besides being prevented from plunging, in the agony of desperation, into the gulf of eternal ruin.
We have seen even religious characters inordinately depressed with troubles. The loss of some darling object, the confounding of some favourite scheme, or the rising of some apparently insurmountable difficulty, has overwhelmed the heart. In such circumstances the mind is apt to nurse its melancholy, trying to live, as it were, on dying elements; but it is not thus that we shall either glorify God or gain relief. Jesus hath said, "Let not your heart be troubled; ye believe in God, believe also in me." From troubles of some kind there is no exemption in the present state; but it does not become the followers of Christ to indulge in heart troubles for little things; and such are all our worldly sorrows, "light afflictions which are but for a moment." The true Christian life is, to be inordinately "careful for nothing; but in every thing, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let our requests be made known unto God." It is thus that "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." It is by ceasing to take counsel in our souls, and trusting in God's mercy, that our sorrow, like that of David, will be turned into joy and triumph. Our way may be covered with darkness, so much so that we cannot see where the next step will place us; but we have a Leader who sees through all, and who has promised to guide us with his eye. Things may so work as to confound our calculations; but if all work together for good, this is sufficient. What are our afflictions, too, in comparison of the glory that awaits us? Paul had his afflictions, as well as we, far greater indeed than ours have been; and he also took counsel under them; but not with himself: he took into his account the hope that was set before him: "I reckon," says he, "that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us." It is while we thus "look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen," that our "afflictions" appear "light" and "momentary," and "work for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory."
2. The case of the psalmist corresponds with that of persons who, at the outset of their religious concern, are encompassed with darkness and long-continued dejection. There are some who are no sooner brought to entertain a just sense of the nature and demerits of sin than they are led to embrace the gospel way of salvation, and find rest to their souls; but it is not so with all. Some are known to continue, for a long time, in a state of dark suspense. They have too deep a sense of sin to be able to enjoy the pleasures of this world; and are too much in the dark concerning its forgiveness to be able to imbibe the joys of another. Hence their days are spent in solitude and dejection: they search for peace, but it is far from them they take counsel in their soul, and have sorrow in their hearts daily.
Various things contribute to promote this state of mind. In some it may be owing to circumstances without them. Perhaps, like David, they had no friend to whom they could open their minds; or if they had, it might have been to persons who were either total strangers to these things, or who were unskilful in the word of righteousness. Such also may have been the kind of preaching they have heard that nothing suitable to their case has been ordinarily, if ever, delivered. If the preacher be of such a description as to content himself with moral harangues; if, instead of exhibiting the Saviour of sinners, he have nothing to say to a wounded spirit, unless it be to advise him to forsake his vices, and be better; or if his object be rather to improve the manners of men, and render them decent members of society, than to renew their hearts; the tendency of his preaching will be either to establish the hearer in Pharisaical presumption, or sink him into despondency.
Or should the preacher be of another description - should he hold forth a kind of Mahometan predestination, be averse from the free invitations of the gospel to sinners as sinners, and employ himself in persuading his hearers that no one has any warrant to come to Jesus for eternal life but the regenerate - the effects will be much the same. The awakened sinner will either take up with some enthusiastic impression, imagine himself a favourite of Heaven, trusting that he is righteous, and despising others; or, having no consciousness that he is regenerate, be deterred from approaching the Saviour, and so sink into despondency.
Could I gain access to such a character, I would proclaim in his ear the MERCY of God to sinners, the all-sufficiency and willingness of Jesus to save all that are willing to be saved by him, and the free invitations of the gospel, as a sufficient warrant for him, or any other sinner, to trust his immortal interests in his hands. O ye that labour and are heavy laden, come to Jesus, "and ye shall find rest unto your souls!" Do not dream of first ascertaining your election, or regeneration, and of approaching the Saviour as a favourite of Heaven; it is only by believing in him, as a perishing sinner, that you can obtain an evidence of these things. It is by the gospel coming to us, not in word only, but in power, that our election of God is known, and our regeneration ascertained.
In others, such dejection may be owing to something within them. It may arise from a kind of propensity to think on things which are against them, rather than on those which are in their favour; viewing only the dark side of the cloud; dwelling on the magnitude of their guilt, their unworthiness of mercy, and the little success they have had in praying and striving to enter in. This propensity is often fed by an idea that it would be presumption, in such sinners as they are, to admit the consolation of the gospel; and that it is abundantly more becoming them to stand aloof in darkness and misery. But this is not Christian humility. It is a spurious kind of modesty, the principle of which is nearly akin to that voluntary humility and self-denial that induces men to abstain from that which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving. Notwithstanding the modest and humble appearance which these objections assume, they will be found to be no better than a species of self-righteous pride, opposed to the humiliating gospel of Christ. When you object, for instance, that you are unworthy of such great and unspeakable blessings as the gospel reveals, and, therefore, that it would be presumption in you to accept of them; what is this but saying that, before you can have any warrant to receive these blessings, you must be worthy of them, at least somewhat more so than you are at present! And, probably, you hope in time to become so. But this is the very essence of self-righteousness, and directly opposite to the gospel of Christ. Christ came into the world to seek and save them that are lost. He came into the world to save sinners, even the chief of sinners. He has no mercy to bestow on sinners, but as undeserving. If any man think himself deserving of his grace, his answer is, "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." The very meaning of the word grace, of which the Scriptures speak so largely, is FREE FAVOUR TO THE UNWORTHY: unworthiness, therefore, can be no ground of objection. If there be any bar in your way, it is your conceit of some kind of worthiness being necessary to recommend you to the grace of the Saviour; and take heed lest you perish under this delusion, after the example of apostate Israel, "who followed after the law of righteousness, but never attained it: and wherefore! Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law: for they stumbled at that stumbling-stone."
If such should not be the end of things with you, yet, to say the least, so long as this self-righteous spirit possesses you, you will be a miserable creature, and never be able to find rest unto your soul; and it certainly behoves you to take heed lest this should not be the worst. The question is not whether the blessings of pardon, justification, and eternal life be too great for our deserts. Are they beyond our wants! Can we do with less! If they are not too great for our necessities, nor too great for the ever-blessed God, through the mediation of his Son, to bestow, who are we that we should hesitate to accept of them? If he present to us the cup of salvation, shall we not drink it! True humility, instead of making objections, would answer, "Be it unto thy servant according to thy word."
We are assured, by him that cannot lie, that if we "inquire for the good old way," the way in which all the faithful have gone from age to age, "and walk in it, we shall find rest unto our souls." We know, also, who it was that applied the walking in this good old way to faith in his name, obedience to his authority, and conformity to his example; saying, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Hence we may certainly conclude, that if we do not find rest unto our souls, it must be owing to our not coming to him as a Saviour, or not yielding to his authority as a King, or not learning to copy after his example; and if we comply not with the first, in vain do we flatter ourselves with conformity to the last. We shall never "work the works of God," till we "believe in him whom he hath sent."
An unwillingness to be saved, ruled, and modelled according to the mind of Christ, is generally the last thing of which sinners are apt to suspect themselves. They think they are willing and even desirous to be saved in his way, and to become his people; and that the only question is, whether Christ be willing to save them; whereas all such thoughts are founded in error. "We are not straitened in him, but in our own bowels." If we can so believe in him as to relinquish every false system of religion, and every false ground of hope, falling into the arms of free mercy, as the chief of sinners; and if we can so yield ourselves up to him as to be willing to have our ear bored as it were to the door-posts of his house, and to serve him for ever; there is no obstruction in heaven or in earth to our salvation.
O disconsolate and desponding sinner! thou hast been reading, thinking, hearing, praying, striving, and yet thou art never the nearer; no peace, no rest to thy soul, nor ascendency over thy sins. Like the beast in the mire, all thy striving serves but to sink thee deeper. Let me ask thee a few questions: Understandest thou what thou readest! The disciples were as dark and as sorrowful as thou art till they understood the Scriptures. Do thy thoughts accord with God's thoughts as they are revealed in the Scriptures! God's thoughts are as much above those of man as the heavens are higher than the earth. Let me entreat thee particularly to consider whether thy prayers have been offered up in the name of Jesus, or with an eye to his mediation! Perhaps hitherto thou hast "asked nothing in his name; ask, and thou shalt receive, that thy joy may be full." Remember this, too, it is he himself who invites thee to do so. "The captive exile hasteneth that he may be loosed, and that he should not die in the pit;" follow his example. Here, in the gospel of free grace, in exchange for thy horrible situation, is a rock for thy feet, and a new song for thy mouth. It is vain for thee to think of overcoming thy sins, any more than of obtaining forgiveness in any other way. "Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?" Cease then from taking counsel in thy soul, trust in the mercy of God through a Mediator, and thy heart shall rejoice in his salvation.
3. The case of the psalmist is applicable to persons who during the greater part of their religious profession live under habitual fear lest they should not at last prove real Christians. This description of professing Christians, of which there is a considerable number among us, seems to have been scarcely known in the primitive ages. In those times they appear to have been generally conscious of being what they professed to be - believers in the Son of God; and knowing that such had the promise of eternal life, they did not ordinarily doubt upon the subject. It was possible, however, at that time as well as this, for the mind to be in doubt of its own sincerity. They had hypocrites and self-deceivers as well as we; hence, in describing the graces of the Spirit, the sacred writer speaks of "faith unfeigned," and of "love without dissimulation." And as the denouncing of a hypocrite among the apostles caused each one to inquire, "Lord, is it I?" so, doubtless, the most upright character would be subject to occasional fears, lest he should be found deceiving his soul. This seems to be the kind of fear which the apostle describes as cast out by perfect love; and as the love of the primitive Christians greatly abounded, their fears and doubts with regard to their own sincerity were consequently but few.
One great cause, I apprehend, of the prevalence of such fears in sincere people of the present age, is the great degree in which the attention is turned inward, and the small degree in which it is directed to the things of God as revealed in the Scriptures; or, to use the language of the text, the taking counsel in their souls.
I do not mean to discourage all remembrance of past experiences. The members of the church of Sardis are admonished to remember "how they had received and heard;" and David, under great dejection of mind, resolved to "remember the Lord from the land of Jordan, and of the Hermonites from the hill Mizar." Much less do I mean to countenance the notions of such writers and preachers as cry down all evidences of grace, all marks and signs of internal Christianity, taken from the work of sanctification in the soul. Far be this from me. I am persuaded that, for any man to reject evidences of personal religion drawn from this quarter, he must fall very little short of rejecting his Bible. But though sanctification is the evidence of an interest in spiritual blessings, yet it is not so much by remembering our past religious experience that we shall obtain satisfaction as by renewed exercises of grace. The apostle in the forecited passages, when describing the means by which we are to come at the knowledge of our personal religion, makes no mention of things past, but of things present, of which the mind is supposed to be conscious at the time. "Hereby," saith he, "we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments." - "Whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him." - "We know that we have passed from death unto life," not because we have loved, but "because we love the brethren." And if satisfaction be attainable only by the renewed exercises of grace, our object is to ascertain the method best adapted to promote such exercises, which I am persuaded will be found to be a looking out of ourselves to the truths and consolations revealed in the Scriptures.
To attempt to ascertain the reality of our religion by a remembrance of past experiences of grace, is attempting what in most cases must needs be, to say the least, extremely difficult, and, if accomplished, would be of no use. The mind is not formed for such a remembrance of its own ideas and sensations as this would require. It is true those impressions which are singularly striking will often be remembered at a distant period, but not in that clear and lively manner in which they are felt at the time. It is only a general recollection of things that is ordinarily retained; to be employed, therefore, in raking over our past feelings, in order to discover whether we be real Christians, is almost a hopeless undertaking. If it were otherwise, and we could clearly gain the object of our research, still it has no tendency to glorify God. The way to glorify him is to "bring forth much fruit," and not merely to remember that we did bring forth fruit some twenty or thirty years ago. Those examples which the Scriptures afford of persons recurring to past experiences were not for the purpose of ascertaining their own sincerity, but for the regaining of those sensations which at former periods they had possessed. The reason why the churches of Ephesus and Sardis were admonished to remember their first love was that they might recover it; and the object of David, in his recollection of past times, was not so much that he might determine what was the nature of his experiences at those times, as that he might regain his confidence in God. "I will remember thee," saith he, "from the land of Jordan, and of the Hermonites from the hill Mizar." God was the object he sought; and the remembrance of what he had formerly experienced of his goodness and faithfulness was the means he used to find him. Allowing, therefore, that the remembrance of past sensations may afford us satisfaction as to the reality of our personal religion, yet it is no otherwise than as reviving those sensations, by which they become renewed exercises of grace. If we can recollect those things which at a former period endeared the Lord Jesus Christ and his religion to us, and so recover our affection towards them, such a recollection will be profitable, and will serve to strengthen our evidences of interest in them. But if we think of gaining satisfaction on this subject by a mere remembrance of past affections, without any consciousness of present ones, we shall be disappointed, or, which is worse, if we imagine that we have gained our object, it will prove in the end that "a deceived heart hath turned us aside."
If we would wish to discover whether there were any particles of steel in a large quantity of rubbish, it would not be the wisest way to search for them, and especially in the dark, but to hold a large and efficacious magnet over it. And this, if it be there, is the way to discover true religion in our souls. The truths and promises of God are to a principle of religion in the mind that which the magnet is to the steel; if there be any in us, the proper exhibition of the gospel will ordinarily draw it forth.
If it be a matter of doubt with you whether you be truly converted, far be it from me to endeavour to persuade you that you are so. Your doubts may be well-founded, for aught I can tell; and, supposing they should be so, the door of mercy is still open. If you have obtained mercy, the same way is open for your obtaining it again; and if not, there is no reason why you should not obtain it now. The consolations I have to recommend are addressed to you, not as converted, nor as unconverted; not as elect, nor as non-elect; but as sinners: and this character, I suppose, you have no doubt of sustaining. All the blessings of the gospel are freely presented for acceptance to sinners. Sinners, whatever may have been their character, have a complete warrant to receive them; yea, it is their duty to do so, and their great sin if they do not. Nothing but ignorance, unbelief, self-righteous pride, or some such evil state of mind, prevents it. The gospel supper is provided; all things are ready; and the king's servants are commissioned to persuade, and, as it were, compel them to come in. If you accept this invitation, all are yours. I ask not whether you he willing to be saved in God's way, in order to determine your right to accept spiritual blessings - the message sent you in the gospel determines this - but in order to ascertain your interest in them. If you cordially believe the gospel, you have the promise of eternal life. If its blessings suit your desires, they are all your own. If, for example, it does not offend you, but accords with your very heart, to sue for mercy as the chief of sinners; if you be willing to occupy that place which the gospel assigns you, which is the dust; and to ascribe to Jesus that which God has assigned to him, "power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing;" if you can unreluctantly give up all claim to life on the footing of your own worthiness, and desire nothing so much as to be found in Christ, not having your own righteousness; if the salvation you seek be a deliverance from the dominion of sin, as well as from its damning power; finally, if the heaven you desire be that which the Scriptures reveal, a state of pure and holy enjoyment; there can be no just cause to doubt of your interest in these things. To imagine that you believe all that God has revealed concerning his Son, and that "with all your heart, receiving the love of the truth that you may be saved," and yet that something else is wanting to denominate you believers, is to imagine that believing is not believing.
Read the Holy Scriptures, pray to the Fountain of light for understanding, attend the preaching of the word; and all this not with the immediate view of determining what you are, but what Christ is; and if you find in him that in which your whole soul acquiesces, this, without your searching after it, will determine the question as to your personal interest in him.
[From Joseph Belcher, The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, Volume I, 1845; reprint 1988, pp. 228-236. Document provided by David Oldfield, Post Falls, ID. - Formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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