Thoughts on Religious Experience

Archibald Alexander, 1844

The spiritual conflict—Satan's temptations—Evil thoughts

We have spoken of the Christian's enemies, in the general; it is now intended to enter into a more particular view of the conflict which is experienced by the pilgrim to Zion.

Swarms of vain thoughts may be reckoned among the first and most constant enemies of the servant of God. The mind of man is like a fountain which is continually sending forth streams. There is not a moment of our waking time when the rational soul is entirely quiescent. How it may be in our sleeping hours, this is not the place to inquire—as we are not in that state engaged in this warfare. Perhaps this is saying too much. I believe that sin may be committed in sleep; for there is often a deliberate choice of evil, after a struggle between a sense of duty and an inclination to sin. And often the same vain and impure thoughts, which were too much indulged in waking hours, infest us when asleep, and may find much readier entertainment than when we have all our senses about us. It is difficult, indeed, to say when moral agency is suspended, so as to render the person inculpable for his volitions; and many know that they consent to temptations in sleep, when they abhor the evil as soon as they are awake. And, in other cases, inclination is indulged, where there is not the least sense of the moral turpitude of the act. But, in some cases, people in sleep consent to sin with a clear apprehension of the evil of the thing to which they consent. Here there must be some guilt, for if there was not an evil nature, prone to iniquity—such volitions would not take place.

Two things are in our power, and these we should do: first, to avoid evil thoughts and such pampering of the body as has a tendency to pollute our dreams; and, secondly, to pray to God to preserve us from evil thoughts even in sleep. Particularly, we should pray to be delivered from the influence of Satan during our sleeping hours. Andrew Baxter, in his Enquiry into the Nature of the Human Soul, is of opinion that dreams can in no way be accounted for—but by the agency of other spirits acting on ours. While I do not adopt this theory of dreaming, I am inclined to believe that, somehow or other, both good and evil spirits have access to our minds in sleep. They actually seem to hold conversation with us, and suggest things of which we had never thought before.

To return from this digression—it may be safely asserted that no human mind in this world is free from the incursion of vain thoughts. The proportion of such thoughts depends on the circumstances of the individual and the degree of spirituality and self-government to which he has attained. The question very naturally arises here, Is the mere occurrence of vain or wicked thoughts sinful? This is a good question, and should not be answered inconsiderately. It is said in Scripture, "the thought of foolishness is sin"; (Prov 24:9) but by thought in this place we should probably understand "intention". The wise man would teach that sin may be committed in the mind without any external act, a doctrine abundantly taught in other parts of Holy Writ. Or we may understand it to mean that when thoughts of evil are entertained and cherished in the mind, there is sin. But as our thoughts are often entirely involuntary, arising from we know not what causes, it cannot be that every conception of a wrong thing, is itself sinful. If I conceive of another person stealing, or murdering, or committing adultery, if my mind abhors the deed, the mind is not thereby polluted. Thoughts may not in themselves be sinful, and yet they may become so, if they fill and occupy the mind to the exclusion of better thoughts. Ideas of present scenes and passing transactions are not in themselves sinful, because necessary, and often required by the duties which we have to perform; but if the current of these thoughts is so continuous that they leave no room for spiritual meditations, they become sinful by their excess.

Again, every Christian has set times for prayer and other devotional exercises; but if the mind on such occasions wanders off from the contemplation of those objects which should occupy it, such forgetfulness of God's presence, and vain wandering of the thoughts, are evidently sinful. And here is an arena on which many a severe conflict has been undergone, and where, alas! many overthrows have been experienced by the sincere worshiper of God. How our 'perfectionists' dispose of this matter, and what their professed experience is, I know not. I suppose, however, that they are at best no more exempt from wandering thoughts than other Christians; and if so, they must practice a double hypocrisy, first, in persuading themselves that there is no sin in all this; and, secondly, in denying, or concealing from others, their real experience on this subject. But is it not true, that from the very laws of association of ideas there will often be an involuntary wandering of the thoughts? This is admitted; and it is conceded also that it may be impossible in all cases to determine with precision which of our straying thoughts contracts guilt, and how much blame attaches to us, when our thoughts suddenly start aside from the mark, like a deceitful bow.

There are, however, some plain PRINCIPLES which sound reason can establish. If, when the thoughts thus start aside, they are not immediately recalled—then it is sinful. For the mind has this power over its thoughts, and when it is not exercised it argues negligence, or something worse. Again, if this deviation of our thoughts would have been prevented by a solemn sense of the divine presence and omniscience, then it is sinful; for such impressions should accompany us to the throne of grace. And, finally, if the true reason of these erratic trains of thought at such seasons is owing to a secret aversion to spiritual things, and a preference, at the moment, to some carnal or selfish indulgence—then, indeed, there is not only sin—but sin of enormous guilt. It is the direct acting of enmity against God.

There are many, it is to be feared, who take little or no account of their thoughts; and who, if they run through the external round of duties, feel satisfied. Multitudes are willing to be religious and even punctilious in duty, if no demand is made upon them for fixedness of attention, and fervency and elevation of affection. The carnal mind hates nothing so much as a spiritual approach to God, and the remainders of this enmity in the pious are the very "law in their members, which wars against the law of the mind". (Rom 7:23) This is the very core of their inbred sin, from which all evil thoughts proceed, on account of which they need to be humbled in the dust every day that they live.

There is much reason to fear, however, that many who appear to be serious Christians are not at all in the habit of watching their thoughts, and ascertaining the evil that is in them. I knew a person, nearly half a century ago, who, being greatly troubled with wandering thoughts in times of devotion, was solicitous to know whether any other person was troubled in the same way, and to the same degree, with such swarms of vain thoughts. He carefully wrote down what he experienced in this way, and then took it to two serious professors, of whose piety he had a good opinion, and, without intimating that it was his own experience, inquired whether they were acquainted with anything like this. They both acknowledged that they were often interrupted with wandering thoughts in prayer; but in the degree described in the paper, they were not, and could not believe that any real Christian was. There may be, and no doubt is, a constitutional difference among men in regard to this matter. In some minds the links of association are so strong that, when a particular idea is suggested, the whole train must come along, and thus the object previously before the mind is lost sight of, and will not be recovered without a resolute effort.

An old writer says, "What busy flies were to the sacrifices on the altar, such are vain thoughts to our holy services; their continued buzzing disturbs the mind and distracts its devotions". Bernard complained much of these crowds of vain thoughts. He said—"they pass and repass, come in and go out, and will not be controlled. I would fain remove them—but cannot." This is in perfect accordance with Paul's experience, "When I would do good, evil is present with me". (Rom 7:21) And Chrysostom says, "that nothing is more dreadful to the godly than sin. This is death—this is hell". Therefore, though nothing amiss be discerned by man, yet is he afflicted, deeply afflicted on account of his rebellious thoughts, which being in the secret closet of the heart, can only appear unto God.

The same old writer introduces a struggling soul, mourning on this account. "O the perplexing trouble of my distracting thoughts! How do they continually disturb the quiet of my mind, and make my holy duties become a weariness of my soul! They cool the heart, they dampen the vigor, they deaden the comfort of my devotions. Even when I pray God to forgive my sins, I then sin while I am praying for forgiveness; yes, whether it be in the church or in the secret place, so frequently and so violently do these thoughts withdraw my heart from God's service, that I cannot have confidence He hears my plea, because I know by experience I do not hear myself. Surely therefore God must needs be far off from my prayer while my heart is so far out of His presence, hurried away with a crowd of vain imaginations."

To this troubled soul he then applies the following consolations:

"1. These vain thoughts, being your burden, shall not be your ruin; and though they do take from the sweetness, they shall not take from the sincerity of your devotions.

2. It is no little glory which we give to God in the acknowledgment of His omnipresence and omniscience, that we acknowledge Him to be privy to the first risings of our most inward thoughts.

3. It is much the experience of God's children, even the devoutest saints, that their thoughts of God and of Christ, of heaven and holiness, are very unsteady and fleeting. Like the sight of a star through a telescope which is held by a palsied hand, such is our view of divine objects.

4. Know you have the gracious mediation of an all-sufficient Savior to supply your defects, and procure an acceptance of your sincere though imperfect devotions.

5. As you have the gracious mediation of an all-sufficient Savior to supply your defects, so have you the strengthening power of His Holy Spirit to help your infirmities; which strength is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor 12:9) When you are emptied it shall fill you; when you are stumbled, it shall raise you. The experience of God's saints will tell you that they have long languished under this vexation of vain thoughts: yet, after long conflict, have obtained a joyful conquest, and from mourning doves have become mounting eagles."

The conflict with vain and wandering thoughts is common to all Christians and is the subject of their frequent and deep lamentations: but there are other conflicts which seem to be peculiar to some of God's children, or are experienced in a much greater degree by some than others. These arise from horribly wicked thoughts, blasphemous, atheistical, or abominably impure, which are injected with a power which the soul cannot resist, and sometimes continue to rise in such thick succession that the mind can scarcely be said to be ever entirely free from them. I have known people of consistent piety and sound intellect who have been infested with the continual incursion of such thoughts for weeks and months together: so that they had no rest during their waking hours; and even their sleep was disturbed with frightful dreams. While thus harassed, they had no composure to attend on religious duties. When they attempted to pray, Satan was present with his terrible suggestions, and when they presented themselves with God's people in His house, they found no comfort there, for the thought was continually introduced into their minds that there was no truth in the Bible, or in any of its doctrines.

And it is astonishing what new and unthought of forms of blasphemy and infidelity do, in such cases, arise; so that the ideas which occupy their minds are often inexpressible, and indeed not fit to be expressed in words. These may emphatically be called "the fiery darts of the wicked one". (Eph 6:16) They may be compared to balls or brands of fire cast into a house full of combustibles. The object of the enemy by such assaults is to perplex and harass the child of God, and to drive him to despair; and as many who are thus tempted are ignorant of Satan's devices, and of the "depths" of his subtlety, and charge upon themselves the fault of all these wicked thoughts, the effect aimed at does actually take place. The tempted, harassed soul is not only distressed above measure—but for a season is actually cast down to the borders of despair. We know of no affliction in this life which is more intolerable than such a state of temptation when continued long.

No doubt it is true, that there are certain states of the physical system which favor the effect of these temptations—but this does not prove that these thoughts do not proceed from Satan. This arch-fiend is deeply versed in the make-up of human nature, and wherever he discovers a weak point, there he makes his assault. The melancholic, and people wasted and weakened with excessive grief, are peculiarly susceptible of injury from such temptations; as is that class of doubting, mourning Christians who are forever disposed to look on the dark side of the picture, and who are accustomed "to write bitter things against themselves". (Job 13:26) On uninstructed minds, the effect often is to induce the belief that they have sinned the sin unto death by blaspheming the Holy Spirit; or that they have sinned beyond the reach of mercy, and that God has abandoned them to be a prey to sin and Satan. But it is not upon ignorant, weak, and diseased people only that these furious assaults are made. Such a man as Luther was in frequent conflicts of this kind; and he was so persuaded that these were the temptations of the devil, that he speaks of his presence with as much confidence as if he had seen him by his side.

A friend of the writer was for months so harassed by these fiery darts of the wicked one, that I never saw any human being in a more pitiable condition of extreme suffering; and although there was no intermission during his waking hours, there were seasons when these blasphemous suggestions were injected with peculiar and terrifying violence. Knowing this person to be discreet as well as pious, I requested, by letter, some account of this dreadful state of mind, if there was a freedom to make the communication. In answer I received recently a letter, from which the following is an extract: "I feel a singular reluctance to speak of my religious experience. I have felt that my case was a very remarkable one. I have thought at times that no one could recount a similar experience. It has appeared to me so uncommon, that I have refrained from disclosing the peculiar exercises of my mind to the most intimate friend. I know not that I ever opened to you my case, with the exception of that distressing point to which you refer, and even then I think I was not very particular. That was a season far more distressing than any I ever experienced—'I well remember my afflictions and my misery; the wormwood and the gall.' (Lam 3:19) My deliverance from it was an unspeakable mercy. I have no doubt that the state of my health had some connection with the mental sufferings I then endured. My constitution, which had always been feeble, had given to my disposition a proneness to melancholy; and in my bereaved and desolate state I was peculiarly susceptible of gloomy impressions. My nervous system was deeply affected. Sleep at one time forsook my pillow for successive nights. It was under these circumstances that I sunk into the darkness and distress which you witnessed. In all this there was nothing very remarkable. I think very many can record a similar experience.

"It was not the fact that in a feeble state of health I was dark and comfortless in spirit, that has so much tried me—but the peculiarity of my case seemed to consist in the nature of my spiritual conflicts. You may perhaps recollect that I stated to you that my chief distress arose from blasphemous suggestions—unnatural, monstrous, and horrid—which seemed to fill my mind, and hurry away my thoughts with a force as irresistible as a whirlwind. I strove against them—I prayed against them; but it was all in vain. The more I strove, the more they prevailed. The very effort to banish them appeared to detain them. My soul all this while was wrapped in midnight darkness, and tossed like the ocean in a storm. It seemed to me as if I was delivered over to the powers of darkness, and that to aggravate my wretchedness, some strange and awfully impious association would be suggested by almost every object that met my eye.

"You ask me to describe my deliverance. It was gradual. A return of domestic comforts, a restoration of health, and an occupation of the mind with duty, were the means which God was pleased to bless to the removal of this distressing experience. For twelve or thirteen years I have had no return of this state of mind, except to a partial extent. Yet I have at times been greatly harassed with these fiery darts of the wicked one, which I can truly say are my sorest affliction. I have always noticed that these painful exercises of mind have attended seasons of special examination and prayer. When I have thought most of my obligation to God, and endeavored to meditate most on divine things, then it has been that my mind has suffered most from the intrusion of thoughts at which my soul is filled with anguish, and from which I desire deliverance more than from death. This fact is mysterious to me. I cannot but think I love God. I am sure I do desire an entire consecration to Christ. It is my daily prayer to attain holiness. I esteem the way of salvation glorious, and justification through the alone righteousness of Christ is a precious doctrine. But did ever any Christian experience such trials, is a question which I am ready often to ask. I know of no uninspired writers that have come nearer a description of what I have experienced than John Bunyan and John Newton. The hymn of the latter, commencing with 'I asked the Lord that I might grow', contains many thoughts remarkably accordant with my experience.

"You see I have nothing to relate that is instructive or cheering—and yet I sometimes feel thankful for the terrible conflicts which I endure, for there is nothing which so constantly drives me to a throne of grace—nothing that strips me so entirely of self-dependence, and creates within me such longing after holiness. I am much inclined to think that Satan is far less dangerous when he comes as 'a roaring lion', (1 Pet 5:8) and frightens the soul with his horrid blasphemies, than when 'he transforms himself into an angel of light', (2 Cor 11:14) and seduces our affections gradually and secretly away from God, and attaches them sinfully to the world.

"P.S.—The most discouraging fact in all my experience has been, what I have already alluded to—the rushing in of a tide of unutterably impious thoughts or imaginations, at a time when I have sought the most elevated and glorious views of God, breaking up my peace and comfort when I have tried to fix my mind most intently on spiritual objects. Is the onset of the enemy to drive one from a close communion with God? or is it to be traced to a law of association recalling past experiences?

"If I had more confidence in my religious experience I think I could suggest many thoughts that might be useful to Christians under temptation, and especially when suffering under certain physical disorders. One thing I am free to say—useful occupation is essential to the restoration and peace of some minds."

Many other eminent servants of God have experienced in various forms the same conflicts with the great adversary: and when we describe these temptations as frequent in the experience of the children of God, we do not speak without authority. Paul says, "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood—but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." (Eph 6:12) From this passage it is evident that our spiritual foes are numerous and powerful, and that the believer's conflict with them is violent: it is a "wrestling", or a contention which requires them to put forth all their strength, and to exercise all their skill. Therefore it was, that the apostle, who was himself engaged in this conflict, urges it upon Christians to put on the armor of God. Against such enemies, armor, offensive and defensive, is requisite. And blessed be God, there is an armory from which such armor may be drawn. Hear Paul's enumeration of the several parts of this panoply: "The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, sandals of gospel peace, the shield of faith (this he places highest, as being an indispensable defense against 'the fiery darts of the wicked'), the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." (Eph 6:14-17) To all which must be added prayer and watchfulness.

As one of God's methods of comforting and strengthening His mourning children is by good books, I embrace this opportunity of recommending to those engaged in the spiritual warfare, William Gurnall's Christian in Complete Armor. In such cases there is almost a necessity of referring to old authors; for somehow or other our modern sermons and tracts touch but seldom on these things, which filled so many of the pages of our fathers.

The soul struggling with the intrusion of wicked thoughts may be supposed to express its feelings in language like the following: "O my wretchedly wicked heart, which is the fountain from which proceed such streams of abominable thoughts! Surely, if I had ever been washed in the fountain of Christ's blood, or at all purified by His Spirit, so foul a corruption could never cleave unto my soul. Woe is me! for so far am I from being a holy temple of the Lord, that my heart rather seems to be the cage of every unclean bird, and even a den of devils. The flames of hell seem to flash in my face, and the amazing terrors of cursed blasphemies torture my soul and wound my conscience even unto death. I would rather choose to die ten thousand deaths than undergo the fears, and frights, and bitter pangs of my horrid thoughts and dreadful imaginations. In every place, in every action—in the church and in my own room—in my meditations and in my prayers, these abominable and tormenting thoughts follow and harass me, so that I loathe myself and am a burden to myself. O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death! (Rom 7:24) Alas! I perish! While ashamed to speak what I abhor to think, I must needs despair of a cure, not knowing how to lay open my sore."

To a complaint of this kind, the pious Robert Mossom, once Bishop of Londonderry, addresses the following grounds of consolation:

I. "The horrid blasphemies which affright your soul, though they are your thoughts, yet are they Satan's suggestions; and not having the consent of your will, they bring no guilt upon your conscience. It is agreeable to the truth of God's Word, and the judgment of all divines, ancient and modern, that where the will yields no consent, there the soul may suffer temptation—but act no sin. The importunity and frequency of these suggestions which weary the soul, resisting, shall bring a greater crown of glory in its overcoming. True it is that 'We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him'. (1 John 5:18) Is it meant of wicked temptations? No, surely—but of willful transgressions. He touches him not so as to leave the impress of sin and guilt upon the soul. It is no sin to be tempted; for Christ our Lord and Savior was tempted, 'but without sin'. (Heb 4:15) To admit the temptation with allowance or delight, that is sin.

2. "That these foul and frightful suggestions have not the consent of your will appears by this, that you have a loathing and abhorring of them; which speaks the greatest aversion, and so is far from a consenting of the will. What is forcibly cast into the mind cannot be said to be received with our consent. It is out of our power to prevent Satan from suggesting evil thoughts. These arise not from your own corrupt nature; they are brats laid at your door, not your own lawful children. There are the buffetings of Satan. Paul had 'a messenger of Satan to buffet him', (2 Cor 12:7) which was as a 'thorn in his flesh', constantly pricking and keeping him uneasy, and tempting him to impatience. He prayed earnestly and repeatedly to be delivered from this cross—but his request was not granted; yet he received an answer more gracious and beneficial than the removal of the thorn would have been, for the Lord said unto him, 'My grace is sufficient for you.'" (2 Cor 12:9)

The heart assailed by Satan is like a city besieged, within which there lie concealed many traitors who, as far as they dare, will give encouragement and aid to the enemy outside. And this creates the chief difficulty in the case of many temptations; for although there is not a full consent or a prevailing willingness, yet there is something which too much concurs with the temptation; except in shocking blasphemies which fill the soul with terror. The soul afflicted with these temptations is apt to think its case singular. It is ready to exclaim, "Never were any of God's children in this condition. It must be some strange corruption which induces the enemy thus to assault me, and some awful displeasure of God towards me, which makes Him permit such a temptation." To which it may be replied, "Afflictions of this kind are no new thing, and that with the real children of God. Such cases are not uncommon in every age, and occur in the pastoral experience of every faithful minister. Some people have for years been so afflicted with these temptations, that they have pined away and have been brought near the gates of death; and these, too, people of no ordinary piety."

Take then the following directions:

1. Learn to discriminate between the temptations and the sin.

2. Examine with care what transgressions may have occasioned this sore affliction.

3. Humble yourself before God with fasting and prayer, and supplicate the throne of grace to obtain the mercy of God through the merits of your Savior, for the full and free pardon of whatever sin has occasioned these temptations. Beseech God to rebuke Satan, and then make an unreserved resignation of yourself into the hands of Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the flock, that He may keep you as a tender lamb from the paw and teeth of the roaring lion.

4. If still these thoughts intrude, turn your mind quickly away from them; they are most effectually subdued by neglect.

5. "O you afflicted, tossed with tempest and not comforted", (Isa 54:11) act as children do with their parents when they see anything frightful: they cling closer and hold faster. So do you with your God and Savior. Satan's aim is to drive you from God into some desperate conclusions, or into some ruinous act. But you may disappoint this subtle adversary by running to Christ as your refuge, and cleaving to Him with humble, believing confidence; and when Satan sees this, he will soon cease from the violence of his temptations. And when the devil has left you, angels will come and minister unto you; especially the angel of the covenant—Christ Jesus. He shall rejoice your soul with the quickening graces and cheering comforts of His Spirit.