Dearly beloved brother, in the grace of Jesus;
I have before me your favor of the 9th of March, in which you desire further explanation, regarding something I said in my last. You refer to that passage, where I say, “Looking solely unto God in Christ, and not regarding but forgetting ourselves, produces every virtue: this has, however, its gradations.” These gradations you desire to be made acquainted with, as though you did not know them as well as myself. I will however, simply state, what occurs to me on the subject; although I do not remember how I viewed the matter at the time.
I am now able to say, that we must look chiefly unto God, and forget ourselves in a sevenfold manner, and experience teaches every time, although with a remarkable difference, how every virtue and every good is produced by it. We do so,
1. In a way of seeking.
2. In a way of feeling.
4. In simplicity.
5. By contemplation.
6. By resignation.
7. Essentially; according to every one’s particular state, and the divine guidance; for everyone must act according to his state, and the manner in which he is led, without being concerned whether his state be high or low; because that state, to which God destines us, is for us the most perfect.
I. In the state of repentance, be it at the commencement or subsequently, whenever the soul feels her sinfulness, distress, anxiety, and alarm in the conscience, from a presentiment of divine justice, with reference to which, she sees nothing before her, but darkness, death, and perdition: in this state, I say, there is no better, yea no other remedy or refuge for the soul, than looking, not at herself, but unto God in Christ alone, in order that her wound may be healed, and every virtue be wrought in her. It is only like daubing with untempered mortar, to look around upon some supposed good work, or to try to help and tranquillize ourselves by duties, well-meant exercises, self-made promises, and resolutions of amendment. By the works of the law, shall no man be justified before God. The law is too holy, and the flesh too weak to render due obedience to it. Conscience cannot be pacified in this manner, but the man sinks ever deeper into it, and after he has received his misery long enough, and done his best, he finds himself at last, at the end of the seventh chapter of Romans, exclaiming, “O wretched man that I am!” etc. But if the soul gives God the glory, and cordially assents to her demerit, misery, and nothingness, and then looks away from herself, in order to look unto God in Christ, who graciously receives and heals the sinner, she will certainly be saved, though burdened with mountains of sins, and though the heart were the residence of seven devils. The soul, whilst sincerely confessing her wretchedness, ought to turn away her eyes from it, and look unto God in Christ, who is able and willing, through the blood of Christ, to forgive and blot out all our sins ; and though her sinfulness and misery continually present themselves to her view, and though it appear to her, as if she were unable to look unto God in Christ, or as if he would not regard the soul, yet she ought only steadfastly to continue in Jesus name, to look away from herself unto Christ, who will never forsake her, nor suffer her to be put to shame, but at length embrace her with infinite compassion, It is thus we forget ourselves, and look unto God in Christ in a way of seeking ; just as a sick and pining infant looks up to its mother, or like those, who were bitten by the poisonous serpents in the wilderness, who looked not at their wounds, but at the brazen serpent, and were healed. And thus, whosoever believeth on the Son of God shall not perish, but have everlasting life.
II. In the state of enjoyment; be it that the Lord graciously suffers the soul to see and taste the riches of his mercy, in the forgiveness of all her sins, or that he imparts to her other perceptible gifts of grace, joy, light, pleasure, comfort, or the like. Here the soul ought to be particularly careful not to regard, but to forget herself, in order that the gifts of God may not be polluted by presumption and self-complacency. She ought rather to shut her eyes, both against herself, and the gifts of God, (after having thanked God for them,) that she may not wish to possess any of them herself, but again divest herself of them, in order that she may solely behold God in Christ, and take no delight in herself, but in God, the giver and source of every good gift, and who is alone good and lovely. This forgetting ourselves, and the blessings we have received in ourselves; this stripping ourselves, and closing our eyes against ourselves, and all created things, that we may not be desirous of possessing or beholding anything in them for ourselves, but look unto God alone, appears irrational to the carnal mind, and reason may think, “Of what use is it to me, if I receive and possess this or that particular blessing from God, if I must again forget it, and retain nothing of it for myself?” But sense and reason are blind with respect to the kingdom of God. Experience teaches, that the more we divest ourselves of every blessing, and the less we are desirous of selfishly possessing them, the more nobly we possess them in reality; and when we also again divest ourselves of that, which is noble in our possession of them, that we may regard nothing but God, our bliss and blessings again increase. For the more sincere our self-contempt and self-renunciation are, the more virtue, peace, and substantial blessedness does the soul possess. But because many, alas ! selfishly regard and retain the good they receive from God, they continue deprived of that which is better, and even the good they have is lost and spoiled. And thus the soul in this situation, in a way of feeling, must forget and disregard herself, but look unto God alone in Christ, who worketh every good: and though the Beloved at this agreeable period, adorns the bride with one ornament after another, and then says, “Behold thou art fair, my love, etc.” she does not look at herself, but replies, “Behold thou art fair, my Beloved!” (Sol. Song 1: 15, 16.)
III. In the way of sanctification, the soul must have a sole regard to God in Christ, and not look at herself, and this must take place in a practical manner. Many well-meaning people, who have felt a little of the grace of God in Christ, have a hearty and earnest desire to live to the glory of God, and to follow after holiness; but it is to be regretted that this is generally undertaken in such an improper manner. These individuals seek out their enemies, so to speak: they try and examine their life and conduct; they strenuously resist that which is evil, and are diligent in the exercise of virtue, and make themselves appear as pious as they possibly can; but the result is either a self-created external form and hypocritical appearance, without root or foundation; or they torment themselves by despondency and unbelief: or else they quite lose all courage, because they find so many imperfections, and know of no means of making themselves as holy, as they perceive they ought to be; for the soul goes to work in its own strength, and without God. The easiest and most proper way of attaining to holiness is, to look unto God in Christ, and to forget ourselves and our miseries as much as possible. “Let us run the race set before us,” says Paul; (Heb. : 7) but in what manner? “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” This is that beautiful exercise of occupying ourselves with God, and his beatifying presence, of which it is said, in Psalm 16, “I have set the Lord constantly before me.” This filial view of faith, this collectedness, and occupation of the heart with the omnipresent God of love, and with his divine perfections, is a real stratagem in the inward conflict; by which the soul, instead of openly facing the enemy, acts as a child, that flies to its mother at the sight of a dog, instead of fighting with it, and hides itself, with confidence, in her lap. By this looking unto God, and this occupation of the heart with him, and with his divine perfections, the soul becomes wonderfully enlightened, strengthened, satisfied, and sanctified, as though whilst asleep, and that in a real and radical manner, because the impression of the presence, majesty, all-sufficiency, and perfections of God, gradually penetrate, wean her from everything, and make everything that is not God, little and trifling in her estimation.
IV. If the soul be steadfast and faithful in this exercise, God blesses her endeavors, prevents her in it, and meets her with his attractive influence, in the center of the heart, and with the secret impression of his intimate nearness, love, all-sufficiency, and divine perfections. She finds herself no longer adequate to the contemplation of God, and to the discrimination of his perfections, in succession, by the efforts of her understanding; nor is she able to employ herself in this manner; yet when she keeps near her heart in simplicity, she there finds a general and secret impression of the nearness, majesty, love, and all-sufficiency of God, which although it appears, as already observed, to be entirely hidden and almost imperceptible, is nevertheless accompanied by a latent power, by which the soul is exceedingly drawn off from, and disinclined to all created and transitory things, in order that she may unite herself with God, and keep near unto him. The soul has therefore nothing else to do in this state, but to follow, in simplicity, this inward drawing and central inclination, and cleave by it unto God, seek to continue collected in his presence, and with a meek and simple believing eye, look only unto him, and not at herself: and thus, by means of this simple state of inward collectedness, the soul will be best preserved from all evil, become the recipient of radical virtues, and be made capable of a real union with God, and of receiving innumerable blessings. But if the soul will not act here with simplicity, but regard herself, and follow her own imagination, she will only confuse herself, and impede her progress : for her former external, sensible, and mental meditations and exercises, no longer afford the mind any nourishment or pleasure; it accommodates itself to them with difficulty : as it regards the senses, the soul is in a weak and barren state, and occasionally her thoughts easily wander, and the more she tries to help herself, by the exertion of her rational and mental powers, the worse she makes the matter. It is only when forgetting everything else, and abiding near the heart, or to speak more correctly, near to God, that the soul is in some measure aware of the attraction and impression above-mentioned, in which she finds herself at ease, so that she has even a secret presentiment, that she has nothing more to do or desire. The individual, nevertheless, finds it difficult, at the commencement, to be satisfied with it, on account of his inexperience, and the simplicity of the exercise; and the soul not infrequently returns to herself and the view of herself, instead of remaining calmly with Mary at the feet of Jesus; because this is the “one thing needful” for her, and brings with it greater blessings, than others attain by being careful about many things. But I find I am writing too much at length, and will therefore express myself more briefly.
V. The soul looks unto God alone, and not at herself, in a way of contemplation, when it pleases God to reveal himself to her inwardly in reality, (John 14: 21) and to presence himself with her. In this state, the eye of the soul is opened, and inclined, by a delightful effect of divine power, to the enjoyment of this present and all-sufficient good, and to regard and cleave unto him, solely and steadfastly, and this is called the state of contemplation. It is here not very necessary to remind the soul not to look at herself, because she is already sufficiently instructed therein, by the unction imparted to her, and because she is easily drawn unto God, by the impelling and attracting power of his presence. Paul, amongst others, tells us how much good the steadfast contemplation of God in this state produces, “Whilst beholding the glory of the Lord, we are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2Cor. 3: 18)
VI. We must look solely unto God in Christ, in a way of resignation and mortification; and not regard, but forget ourselves, in the various and important states of inward suffering, privation, and purification. This truth is then supremely needful to the soul; yea, the more extreme and severe the trials are, the more needful is the recollection of this. In the more elevated paths of mortification and purification, the soul can neither find light, nor consolation, nor grace, nor God; whilst on the contrary, everything appears against her. She beholds and experiences her poverty, darkness, weakness, and the indescribable depth of her wretchedness, in the most bitter manner. All her former gifts and communications seem as though they were lost, and lost, she thinks, by her own fault. All her exercises, efforts, mental elevation, recollection, etc. or by whatever means she was wont to help, preserve, or unite herself with God, are of no further benefit to her. What is to be done? Nothing. What is to be suffered? Much, but apparently without hope of deliverance. But what has the wretched creature left, and what advice is to be given him? He has nothing left but his great wretchedness and pure nothingness; and all the advice that can be given him is this, that he sincerely and truly acquiesce in his wretchedness and nothingness, and resign himself to the pure grace of God in Christ, in this character, without seeking anything further in himself, or expecting anything from himself, or hoping aught for himself, but justify God, and let him do with him, as seemeth him good, in time and eternity. This God must work, and the man suffer; it is then that he departs out of himself, that he forsakes himself, that he dies to himself, and learns what it is, to look alone unto God in Christ, in a way of resignation and mortification, and not look at himself, but forget himself in a high degree; by which means, not only much good is produced, but we also become filled with the self-existent good.
VII. This takes place also essentially, in the state of divine unity and transformation, of which Jesus speaks in John 17 and of which other saints have testified, both in the Holy Scriptures and elsewhere, but of which I can say nothing from experience. The Lord give us grace to feel and know what is well-pleasing in his sight!
This, my brother, is what I have written you in haste, in answer to your questions, during continual interruption. You will know how to derive benefit from it all, and to distinguish the mistakes which are mingled with it, from that which is divine truth. I have, however, no great opinion of persons being much acquainted with the different degrees of the Christian life, for self-love delights in exalting itself, and forming itself into something, to which God has not hitherto conducted the soul. Nor do I wish this letter to be viewed in such a manner, as though one degree ought always to follow the other. It is true, there is something in it, but the case is not the same with every soul, neither do they always follow so regularly and distinctly; besides which the different temperament and deportment of the soul, causes a perceptible difference in the manner of its guidance. God has also not the same intentions with regard to all.
Let us, in the spirit of children, abide with God for the time being, and resign ourselves wholly to him, according to the full extent of his grace in us, and with all our faithfulness, and in every trial expect nothing from ourselves, but everything from his infinite goodness. Amen. May he himself perform it!
Remember me as
Your weak brother.