by James W. Alexander
"Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened,
The true rest of the soul is God, and towards this it is perpetually tending, even when it knows it not, which gives us the reason why so many, indeed the people of the world at large, are constantly wandering from pleasure to pleasure, unsatisfied with any. They have not yet found their true center, even though they may be gravitating towards it. Anything which deserves the name of rest they have not yet attained. And yet, by an instinct of nature, men seek for rest, and include it in every idea which they ever entertain of consummate happiness. The philosophers who, without revelation, tried to discover truth, avowed it as their object to arrive at the supreme good; and this always comprised tranquility and ease. But they knew not how to reach it; their end was right—but they had no means. They stood gazing at a prize upon the summit of an inaccessible mountain. They knew that what they wanted was repose—but how to attain this they knew not. It was reserved for Scriptural revelation to make known the great mystery.
Deeply impressed with belief that many of those who will read these pages are wandering from the true rest, I would here call on them to return, by setting before them a genuine repose, which the world cannot prevent or effectually interrupt. Christianity affords true consolation. It is to find this, to catch its lineaments, and to present its portrait, that I now ask attention. Many there are who feel that the world has disquieted them, who long for something better—but know not where to look. "Come unto me," says Christ, "I will give you rest." Not the rest of stupidity, or apathy, or inaction; but that which arises from the absence of all disturbing causes. It belongs to true Christians; no others can lay claim to it. There is no way to attain it but by the Cross. It is altogether different from the world's peace, yet it is real and unspeakably delightful, and thousands in earth and heaven have possessed it. No treasure of gold suddenly discovered could so enrich you as to come to the possession of this secret of happiness.
I therefore claim your attention when I endeavor to set forth that rest or Christian repose in God to which you are invited to return. May God enable us, while we meditate, to understand and to attain it! I propose, first, to show what Christian tranquility or spiritual rest is, in several particulars; and, secondly, to distinguish it from some counterfeits which bear its name. If, in conclusion, the reader shall be urged to seek it, let me bespeak his earnest attention. Spiritual Quiet of soul is founded on knowledge of God, faith in Christ, a tranquillized conscience, a weakening of the sinful principle, submission to God, trust in his promises, and holy contemplation of the supreme excellence, as offered for the communion of our spirits. It is the more important to say this, because the perversion of a great truth has led some into error on this very point, and a Quietism has been proposed, in various ages of the church, which is as inconsistent with man's mental constitution as with the provisions of grace.
I. What Christian tranquility or spiritual rest is.
1. Spiritual Quiet is founded on knowledge of God.It is a quality of sublime objects to bring the soul into repose. Deep waters are still. It is little things which agitate and excite us. There is something soothing in what is grand and soul-absorbing. In the presence of the ocean, the cataract, the volcano, or the starry heavens, we feel subdued and are silent. Thus also the thought of GOD, the sublimest of all ideas, instead of driving us to frenzy, calms the mind. Even on the sick-bed, when the irritable and too sensitive texture can scarcely bear anything that is awakening, the thought of God rises upon the soul, as dewy morning rises on the earth, after a night of clouds. It brings refreshment and repose. We never reach any place wherein to lie down in safety, until we come to God. This is the terra-firma. All other resorts are but as shifting sands. If men did but know it, they would give heed to that inward tendency which perpetually leans towards the abiding, the infinite, the absolute—that is God.
Every day worldly men live, they find the ground slipping from under their feet; every day their hold on this world becomes less; as the sands in their glass are fewer, they learn that their pleasures are so likewise; they are as far as ever from that resting-place on the summit of the mountain to which they looked forward. The truth is, the habit of seeking pleasure in excitement has become too strong for them—they cannot live in any other element. Hence we daily see men of business disappointed—they retire from the active concerns of life; they go into the country; they seek repose among friends and books. Ah! they have not discovered that the rest which they seek must be within. Nothing earthly can give them rest.
Happy are they, who, at this stage of their experience, are led to think of GOD. This is the grand idea which fills and satisfies the soul. This reaches cravings, which everything else does but tantalize. To learn to know God, in his true scriptural character, is to gain a secret of mental repose, which transforms the whole character. But here an obstacle arises in the way—I am a sinner. How can a sinner approach to God? Which leads me to observe—
2. Spiritual Quiet is founded on Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.The more our knowledge of God in his absolute glory, the greater must be our dread, and the wider the gulf of separation, until we are made acquainted with the mediatorial door of access. Though God is, in his nature, the true rest of the rational creature, there is no returning to him as our rest—but by the Lord Jesus Christ. By faith we come to him, and by faith we abide. The first actings of faith are more like resting, than anything else—the word well expresses the recumbency of the soul on God. A sinner who has long been wearying himself with every kind of self-righteous labor, at length gives up in despair, ceases from his own works, abandons his own righteousness, and receives and rests upon Jesus Christ, as he is offered in the gospel. He throws himself into those open arms. Immediately there ensues a tranquility never known before. Being justified by faith, he has peace with God.
Some would judge of the reality of conversion, by the amount of bustling activity, and disposition to stir and labor. I would rather, at this stage, look for repose of soul, and quiet acquiescence in the plan of salvation, as one which renders every effort at self-justification superfluous. The first believing tends to calmness of spirit, and in every subsequent period of the Christian life, it is believing that must restore this calm, after interruptions. Relying on God's pardoning mercy must tend, if anything can, to bring the heart into a state of rest. It removes at once the grand source of perturbation, namely, dread of God as an avenging Lawgiver. To say that a man believes in the Lord Jesus Christ, is to say, that he consents to be saved freely by the Savior's righteousness—and he who does so, needs look no further—but dwells secure as in a citadel—"He that believes shall not make haste." He has found his home—he rests.
3. Spiritual Quiet proceeds from Peace of conscience.If your conscience has not been seared, you know the agitation produced by remorse; and if you have had much conviction of sin, you know that there can be no settled quiet, while this internal enemy rages. Only carry these agitations to their highest degree, and you produce the anguish of the damned. How can a man be at peace, with an evil conscience? Even amidst his pleasures, it utters its penetrating cry—and all within him asserts his guilt and condemnation. There is but one cure for this malady, and that is the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ sprinkled upon the conscience.
The figure is derived from the Levitical ordinance; where the offender, after offering sacrifice was sprinkled with the blood, and went home satisfied that his guilt was taken away. "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean—wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." When faith has approached the altar, and laid its hand on the head of the expiatory lamb, the Holy Spirit of God performs a work on the soul, which in sacrificial language is called the sprinkling of Christ's blood. It is such an inward application of the work of Christ, as convinces and persuades the soul, that its justification is complete, that guilt is removed, and that God's anger is taken away. And this persuasion tends to gentle repose. As when on a bed of sickness, the patient is suddenly relieved from parching fever, with its heat, its thirst, its watchings, its indescribable restlessness (apt image of a sinful state), and finds himself bedewed with the restorative tokens of healing—even though feeble, he delights in the change, and lies still in the consciousness of peace, willing like an infant to yield himself to the almost gentle calm—so the sinner, when first he feels the security of being reconciled, leans on the bosom of his Lord, and returns to his rest.
4. Spiritual Quiet is promoted by the Mortification of Sin.Sin is the sole cause of all the discord, perturbation, and misery that there is in the universe. The Holy Spirit begins at regeneration a work which is to end in extirpation of all sin—but it is not accomplished in a moment. Regeneration is the beginning of sanctification; and sanctification consists in some good measure, in the gradual destruction of evil principles, which in Scripture is compared to the putting to death (mortification) of a human body, by a violent and painful process, like that of crucifixion. In carrying on this process, the sanctifying Spirit is by the same means promoting purity and promoting peace. It was sin that produced the disorderly commotion; it was sin that tore the heart; it was sin that let loose all the fierce winds of passion to howl tempestuously over the unregenerate mind. If you catalogue the causes of your discontent, your restlessness, your unhappiness, your feverish fretfulness, you will find the names to be such as these—Pride, Hatred, Envy, Revenge, Anger, Lust, Covetousness, Fear, Worldliness. Until these caged wild beasts are driven out of the soul, there can be no quietness—sanctification drives them out. Therefore, the more a man advances in piety, the more his inward tranquility ought to increase. The day grows calmer, as the sun draws near its setting—hence the sweet radiance which we sometimes behold playing about the cottage of a godly believer; where the gentle breezes that open a way for themselves among the autumn-clusters, in the cool of the day, betoken the peace that is within. "Therefore, put to death whatever in you is worldly: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry." (Colossians 3:5)
5. Spiritual Quiet is favored by Submission.The first law of true religion is submission—"May Your will be done;" and where it does not exist, there is no piety, and just as truly there is no tranquility. What a hideous sight to see a human creature in full rebellion against God's providence; repining at his allotments; fighting against his dispensations, and cursing his judgments! But it is not more sinful than it is wretched; and hell is not only wickedness—but woe—the wickedness makes the woe, or rather is the woe. The true recipe for miserable existence is this—Quarrel with Providence. Even in the smaller measures of this temper there is enough to prevent tranquility. And hence, when God means to make us happy, he teaches us submission—a resignation of everything into his hands, and an acknowledgment that whatever He does is wisest and best. O how sweetly even afflictions fall, when there is such a temper to receive them! "Shall we receive good at the hands of the Lord, and shall we not receive evil?" "Why should a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins?" Such dispositions tend to stillness of soul; and even amidst chastisement there is internal quiet.
6. Spiritual Quiet is furthered by Trust in God.How large a portion of our anxious perturbations arise from forebodings of future evils! Could we expel 'sinful fear' from our souls, we would be happy. But who can destroy this monster? God alone! And he graciously accomplishes it by shedding trustfulness over the mind, like oil over the waves. This is altogether different from the blind, unfounded, presumptuous assurance of the future which characterizes many people of optimistic temperament. It is a covenant blessing. Trust is belief of God's promises. Those who wander about in the world, without any reliance on divine promise, are orphans, and call for our pity. The believer has assurances for a great while yet to come. His filial relation to God makes him look on the future with new eyes. Whatever may befall him, one thing is certain, nothing can come but what God ordains. "All things work together for good to those who love God." His life is insured. In proportion to his strength of trust is he raised above all those vexatious apprehensions which men of the world experience. In his happier hours he is enabled to put in practice his Lord's direction, and to cease worrying about the future. We would all be more composed if we could do so. Unbelief and worry are destructive of all peace, and of much usefulness. And if we would reach the higher attainments in piety, we must make up our minds to banish forever the habit of musing on future and possible evils. How serene and balanced is the soul which has so fixed itself on God as to feel satisfied that all his dispensations are part of a matchless plan for its good!
7. Spiritual Quietness consists, in a great degree, in holy Contemplation and Communion with God.I know how strange a dialect this must seem to the children of this world; but we stand not before their tribunal. As we believe the delights of paradise consisted not so much in tilling the garden, which was the vocation and outward business of man, as in the viewing the Creator in all his works, and in gazing up into his face of love—and as, in the renewed Eden of heaven we know that the blessedness of saints will be much in the beatific vision of Divinity. Just so here, also, in our journey to Canaan, we are persuaded that a leading part of our Christianity consists in the contemplation of God's excellencies, and in fellowship with the Father and with the Son, through the influences of the Holy Spirit. We were made for this fellowship, and there is no higher exercise of human faculties. Moses knew this, when he made it his great request—"Show me your glory!"
But what it chiefly behooves me to observe is, that this exercise of soul—so high, so hallowed, so acceptable to God—is far from being stormy and impetuous—but is transacted in the profoundest depths of the soul's silence. It is when the hum of life has ceased, is shut out, or is forsaken—at midnight, beside the ocean, on the mountain top; on our knees, or prostrate on our faces—that we yield to those sublime and unutterable thoughts. In the lives of Augustine, Edwards, and Brainerd, you will learn more than I can teach of this wisdom. It does not strive, nor cry, nor lift up its voice in the streets. It is bent not so much on public works, however useful, as on the hidden work of the heart, which none can see but God. It seeks retirement, and even solitude, though not to the neglect of incumbent duties.
By such means as these God may be served worthily, and
even gloriously, by the infirm man and the aged decrepit woman, who cannot
so much as stir out of their chamber, or who, perhaps, never leave their
beds. For it is a work of silence and tranquility. It shuns the glare of
day, and the observation of men; and even this very feeble account of it
suffers from being made amidst a world to which it stands so much in
contrast. For nothing can be more uncongenial with the peace of God than
the busy, hurrying, loquacious, self-seeking spirit of earthly excitements.
I fear not to say this, as believing that there can be no danger, in any
infusion of contemplative religion which we can possibly make, into the
habits of our age and country. Between the slavish toil of business, the
ardent fever of covetousness, the madness of ambition, and the foolery of
fashionable amusements, which has at length descended to the toys of
buffoons, and the provocatives of the licentious dance; among all these
causes of excitement there is not much danger of an over-attention to inward
and spiritual work. A few there will still be who, in remote spots, will
commune with God, and antedate the enjoyments of heaven.
II. Counterfeits of Spiritual Rest.
Having dwelt thus far on some of the sources of spiritual quiet, I would now, in order to rescue it from misapprehension, point out some notes of discrimination, with a passing view to certain counterfeits—for, like all that is precious, it has not failed to have its imitations.
1. The calmness of the Christian is not stupid ignorance.Men may be quiet for lack of knowledge; as we frequently see exemplified in the case of the vulgar and illiterate, and more particularly in the savage, who, after the gratification of his appetites, subsides into a state like that of the cattle reposing in the pasture. Phlegmatic temperaments readily give way to such tranquility, which is slumber rather than calm. But we must not mistake. The blessing of Christian peace which Christ confers on his disciples, is not a negative condition; still less is it to be ascribed to dullness or emptiness. It increases with knowledge—the more truth, the more quietness. Knowledge of the truth is its very foundation.
2. True spiritual rest is compatible with high mental activity.This is the more important to be said, because there have been some, chiefly in the Church of Rome—but with imitators among Protestants, who have placed the highest spiritual exercises in such a rest of soul, as excludes all intellectual exertion. The soul so rests in God, as no longer to think. It forgets all things, and turning inwards is absorbed in one pervading idea of rest in God. This is what has been called Quietism. But this is delusion, against which one can hardly protest with too much earnestness.
God has never meant the glory of man—his reason—to be excluded from the noblest exercises of religion. The quietude pretended, in which all mental activities are swallowed up, would be less like the sublime condition of an intellectual being, than the ignorance of childhood or the imbecility of age. It might be accepted as relief from pain—but could not be chosen as the means of happiness. That state in which the soul neither thinks nor wills, is not a heavenly state. In true spiritual quiet, the mind chooses to be at rest. It is not the calm of stupor, as when one lies in a lethargic sleep—but the rest of the wearied laborer in his beloved home. The rest of a soul in God, though infinitely removed from the agitations of the world, and its conflicting and distressing reasonings, is, nevertheless, a state in which the thoughts are active—seeking after God, apprehending him, appropriating and enjoying him.
The seraphs that adore and burn with worship, are intellectual creatures; and we conceive of the saints in heaven as knowing, learning, and putting forth those mental exertions, which tend to the perpetual advancement and expansion of their powers. A heaven in which there is no intellectual activity would be no heaven for a rational creature; and it is a gross, though common abuse of the term REST, to apply it to a drowsy, listless, unimproving eternity. Though heaven is a rest, it is neither a dream nor a sleep.
3. The rest of a pious soul in God is not inconsistent with active service.Even in heaven, as we read, "his servants shall serve him." They shall have fit employments there, and labor without weariness. The best we can do in this present world, is to imitate their activity. The controversy between the 'contemplative' and the 'active' life has been very earnestly waged; and able arguments have been urged on both sides. One party has been for spending the whole life in angelic meditation—the other has made all piety consist in going about and doing good. The tendency of the middle ages was to the contemplative, of this our nineteenth century to the active life; and each in extremes. The days of hermits and recluses, of monks, and nuns, pretending or endeavoring to mortify the flesh, and live in continual silence and grief, have passed away.
But we have fallen on days in which there is such a bounty on haste, energy, and fruitful toil, that avarice robs God of his sabbath, drives its gainful wheels seven days in the week, and busy mortals can scarcely find time to read and pray, or to bless their families. But the 'active' and the 'contemplative' coincide in the religion of the gospel. Its divine founder spent whole nights in prayer to God, in deserts and mountains; but his days were active—"he went about doing good." The rest, to which you are invited, is not the mere absence of bodily motion. It is a more refined idea. It is even consistent with active labor, of any virtuous kind. The pious soul is never more at rest, than when most busily engaged in appropriate holy duties. True Christianity does not cut off such duties—this was the error of times when thousands of thriftless people forsook the plough and the loom, and thronged in pilgrimages and into cloisters. Spiritual quiet of soul coexists with lawful activity, and sanctifies it. No man has therefore any right to make his religion a cloak for idleness, whether in church or state.
4. What is still more surprising, Christian rest may be maintained amidst trials and suffering.Here it distinguishes itself from anything which the world calls by its name. Worldly people have their enjoyments; but they are dependent on worldly things, and when these are broken or removed, the tranquility ceases. It is the glory of true religion, that it can be calm and serene amidst storms of change. In days of prosperity, when all things smile, it is easy to maintain quiet of soul—but when skies grow dark, when friends are few, when health fails, when losses and bereavements and old age come on, and misfortunes thicken every hour—to be tranquil then—to feel that all is safe—that the real portion has not been touched—that God is still the same, and that he is ours; this is what cannot be comprehended by the man of the world, or by the formal professor.
And yet it is true, and is exemplified in a thousand cases of distress and consolation. Were it not so, such songs as the forty-sixth psalm had long since been blotted out of the psalter, as containing idle falsehood—whereas, generation after generation in the church for nearly three thousand years has been singing with experience and triumph—"God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found in times of trouble. Therefore we will not be afraid, though the earth trembles and the mountains topple into the depths of the seas, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with its turmoil." (Psalms 46:1-3)
If you would see the true victory over the world, visit the experienced Christian amidst his trials. At the first he may indeed be shaken for a little season in order that he may the better feel the solid foundation under his feet—but at length he finds his footing on the Rock of Ages, and can cry, "Lo! this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us—this is the Lord; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation." Seeing, therefore, that such causes of agitation will and must come, it will be the part of wisdom to prepare ourselves with the means of inward quiet—and what means are these—but that which our subject points out?
The lesson of rest and contentment is not to be learned at once, nor without some severe discipline—our trials are intended to teach it. The moment is a joyful one, when it is acquired. The Psalmist seems to have been thus led to the utterances of the hundred and sixteenth psalm. It was the performing of his vow and the expression of his thankfulness. He had been in no common adversities; he had felt the need of rest—"The sorrows of death compassed me, the pains of hell got hold upon me, I found trouble and sorrow." But in his affliction he cried to God, and with success. "The Lord preserves the simple; I was brought low and he helped me—Return unto your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you!" It was the sense of God's mercy to him in affliction, which led him to return to God as his rest. That is blessed affliction, which has this result.
One of the effects of trials, is that they show men where their refuge is. If in hours of sadness, we lean on an arm of flesh, or seek comfort from earthly gains, diversions and excitements, it proves us to be carnal. If, on the contrary, every cloud of trouble only makes us more determinately seek our heaven in God's nature and promises; and if we never love and prize his covenant of redemption, more than when we are smarting under his rod, it affords us good reason to think that we have been renewed in the spirit of our minds. But even true believers have much yet to learn, and often need to be exhorted to return to God. In proportion as they wander, they lose their tranquility of mind; though for a time they may not know the reason; they only know that they are disquieted. At length, some heavy, sudden blow awakens them from their worldly dream, and they look around in wild alarm for the God and Father whom they have neglected. Then they begin to discover that the soul has no rest but in God, and feel their need of returning to this.
Many people are sufficiently persuaded of the world's unsatisfactoriness to give true rest and happiness—but have taken no steps towards the supply of their great want. You are the very people to whom true religion ought to be welcome. It is the very repose you need. In vain do you weary yourselves, to procure rest by any other means. It is not in the creature. You were made to repose in God. You deny your souls their chief blessing, while you remain alienated from him. And how strange is the illusion which prompts your delay! Your procrastination is a putting off of the happiness which you might be beginning to enjoy, and which would be always the greater during your whole existence, for your having begun now.
Are there not moments when you are almost disgusted with life? when your pleasures have no longer any zest? when remorse more than neutralizes your joys? when, in a word, you feel your need of God? Though there is nothing necessarily holy in these sentiments, they bring you nearer the borders of a pious life; they should be seized on, as so many promptings to fulfill your grand obligation. Do you ask me what I would have you to do? The answer is easy, and it is momentous. Return to your rest. Return, return! O wanderer, you are in the wrong path! Every step takes you further away. Never can you supply these cravings, or quell these perturbations—but by coming to Him, who is the Infinite Portion and the Everlasting Rest. That wearied, vexed, and pained head requires a pillow. Is it not time to rest? Have you not pursued long enough the vanities of the world? Are you willing to be forever repeating the old experiment, with the same resulting disappointment? Shall not the increasing cares of life teach you to seek consolation? When you were younger, you thought, perhaps, that wealth would give you tranquility—now that you have attained it, you find the care of wealth, as perplexing as the acquisition of it. Or if still in the turmoil of worldly business, you need but an hour of serious reflection to make you sure that neither this, nor anything like this, can insure your peace. The voice still cries, "Return." The Father whom you have abandoned in your sin and folly is still willing to receive you—to see you at a distance—to fall upon your neck and kiss you. The way of return you know, for you know Him who says, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." In this view, how can we ever be thankful enough for the truth, that Jesus Christ is the most accessible being in the universe! He is ever standing, within his door of mercy, ready to throw it wide at the first and feeblest knock. He does not wait for us to ask permission to enter—but says to us—Ask! Seek! Knock! It is his province to give the weary rest, and to conduct to the Father for that purpose. There is no other way to true rest and happiness, and if you are seeking others, you are wasting your time, and laying up disappointment.
What shall you do to gain this desired repose? Let me hasten to tell you. Dismiss all other concerns, which you can leave off without sin, and devote yourself to this. What would you do, if your estate were balancing on a point—if your life were in jeopardy? You would forsake all, for this one thing. Is anything more precious than your soul? Is anything longer than eternity—or greater than God? The charge which we have to bring against the children of this world is, that in respect to true religion, they turn their backs on all the maxims which regulate their actions in lesser things. If a man's property is endangered—if his investments are insecure—if his house is dilapidated—if his business is unproductive—if his family is diseased—these, or any one of these secular troubles engrosses his attention. He turns his mind upon this single point as his great study. He is not content to consider it now and then, at intervals of business, when other people speak of it—when some friend urges it upon him—I mean to say he does not treat this great worldly topic as you are habitually treating the salvation of your soul. No! He broods over it. He sets apart time for it. He takes counsel concerning it. It becomes his fixed idea, in his house and by the way; it retires with him; it awakens him in the night; it rises with him; it hangs over him as a cloud, and darkens all his prospect. The feast is no longer joyful; the cup no longer exhilarates; the music has no melody, and day no sunshine—until this importunate, haunting anxiety is satisfied and dismissed. And let me assure my readers, just so, just so, will you be affected, if at any time the care of your soul shall become an object of pursuit as really as your earthly interest now is.
You have possibly seen a man so unsettled, as to let his business, health, and family go to destruction, while in his infatuation, he has left all to chance, and thrown himself away. Precisely thus you are doing with your soul. Is it not so? Do you ever bestow on this transcendent interest one hour of sober planning? And yet you complain that you cannot attain to rest! Pursuing your present course, it is certain you never will. O be persuaded to consider and to return! When shall you begin? Now! This moment! The path, though infinitely important—is, in respect to time, short.