How far may a person judge of the strength or weakness of his faith by the brightness or darkness of his frames?
From Religious Cases of Conscience (1755)
The growth of grace in the heart of a true believer is a very mysterious thing; and there is scarcely any particular whereby Christians in general are more puzzled, and wherein they are more frequently mistaken, than in judging of the strength and weakness of their graces. It is very common for those to judge themselves declining in spiritual experience, who are really growing apace in the divine life; and for those to esteem themselves improving, who are in reality decaying and withering. I cannot but apprehend that the foundation of these mistakes lies in their not properly distinguishing between faith and frames. We are apt to judge of the former by the latter; accounting our faith and other graces to be strong, when are frames are comfortable and lively: and thinking that faith must certainly be weak, when these our frames are very dark and distressing. But, were this rule just and valid, there would be no manner of difficulty in measuring the degree of grace in us; because no believer can be at a loss to know whether he is in a comfortable or uncomfortable frame. But that this is an improper standard to measure the degrees of grace by, is very evident; because nothing is more variable than our frames, as they are continually waxing and waning eternally. In this respect we are scarce a day at a stand; yea, an hour often makes a great alteration herein: whereas it cannot be supposed that grace itself is so very changeable; for the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day, Prov. 4:18.
This case is taken under consideration in consequence of two distinct letters transmitted to me; the one regarding comfortable frames, and the other uncomfortable ones. These two letters contain several experimental queries and difficulties, all of which center in, and may be solved by, a proper answer to the single question above specified. The letters themselves you will find hereafter inserted in their proper places, where a distinct answer is given to them.
Be pleased therefore to attend seriously to the following observations relating to faith and frames.
1. A strong faith tends to produce and promote a bright and comfortable frame. This must be granted, from the nature of saving faith, and from the express declarations of the divine word. Nothing tends more to take away our doubts, to clear up our evidences, and to comfort our hearts, than the strong and lively exercises of a living faith in the Lord Jesus, as a free and complete Saviour. Faith is often set in opposition to distressing fears. I will trust, says the church, and not be afraid, Isa. 12:2. We read likewise of the joy of faith, and the assurance of faith; of being filled with all joy and peace in believing, and of rejoicing by faith in Christ with joy unspeakable and full of glory. These scripture phrases sufficiently testify, that there is no better way of having our evidences clear, and our comforts strong, than by exercising our faith, trust, and dependence upon a free and glorious Saviour. If then we would be truly comfortable, let us desire and endeavour to live by faith on Christ, and aim at direct acts of recumbency upon him; for the more we can, by the realizing and appropriating acts of faith, see of the freeness and fullness of divine grace in Christ, the more experience we shall have of evangelical supports and consolations. On the contrary, we must observe, that,
2. The weakness of faith tends to promote and produce dark and uncomfortable frames. For since fear and faith are set in direct opposition to each other, therefore, as faith declines, so in proportion fears prevail. The declining of faith in its strength and activity gives way for our corruptions to work, for temptations to assault and overpower us, for distressing fears to arise: and then the light of God’s countenance withdraws, and our evidences for heaven are darkened and clouded. As soon as ever we begin to distrust the power of Christ, the faithfulness of the promises, or the absolute freeness of grace, we are sinking. Thus Peter, when walking upon the water at Christ’s command, and in Christ’s strength, is upheld, as if walking upon firm ground, so long as his faith in Christ’s power and kindness is maintained; but no sooner does he attend to the boisterousness of the wind, and withdraw his dependence from Christ, but he begins to sink; his heart to sink within him, and his body to sink in the waves. And mark what a tender and instructive rebuke Christ gives him upon that occasion, Matt. 14:31. O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? Much doubting argues little faith. Nothing can be more prejudicial both to our comfort and holiness, than to suspect the almighty power and free grace of Christ.
These two observations being made and proved, some may be ready to imagine, it necessarily follows, that we are to judge of the strength or weakness of our faith, in all cases, by the brightness or darkness of our frames. And the conclusion would be just, were it not for the two following observations. For, notwithstanding all that has been said and allowed, yet,
3. A believer may be in a dark, uncomfortable frame, and yet be strong in faith; and that not only in the grace of faith, but in its exercise too. I acknowledge, that this at first view may seem mysterious, and contradictory to what has been declared. And it is this one thing which perplexes and stumbles our friend, who wrote one of the letters, when he asks, ‘Are not light and peace the peculiar privileges and effects of faith?’ This consideration, my friend, is perplexing not to you only, but to many others. Let me therefore attempt to show you, in a plain and evident manner, how this case really stands. Are light and peace the peculiar effects of faith? I answer, yes; but not in such a way as supposes that all our distress and darkness must arise from the want or weakness of faith. A few scriptural instances will make this appear abundantly evident. What think you of the condition of the church, as expressed in Micah 7:8? The church was at that time in great darkness, and under heavy complaints, and yet was strong, very strong, in faith; as appears by the language there used. Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy! When I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me.
Again, was not Job in a very dark frame, and under great agony of spirit, when he says, Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him, Job. 13:15.
And what shall we say concerning the poor woman of Canaan, mentioned Matt. 15:21-28, who renewed her petition, and would not be driven away by the seeming repulses she met with from the Lord Jesus? Was not her agony great, her soul in deep distress, when she heard her Lord say, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to the dogs? But it is indubitably clear that her faith was real; yea, that it was very strong, vehement, and skillful in its exercise, under this distress, when she replied, Truth, Lord; yet the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. Such instances, which I have here adduced, are frequently brought as proofs of real faith, though attended with weakness, doubts, and fears. But in reality these are specimens of faith in its strongest efforts and acts.
You may therefore well ask, how can these things be? If the strength of faith tends to a bright frame, and the weakness of faith to a dark frame, how is it possible that faith should be so lively and strong, and yet the experience of the soul so distressed and complaining? I shall endeavour to explain this paradox by a familiar simile. Compare spiritual things with natural, and let the strength of faith be represented by bodily strength. A person may be very strong in his body, yea, and exercise that strength to the utmost, when under a very heavy burden, and not be so easy or comfortable in himself, as one who has not half his strength, and has no burden, or but a light one, to carry. We are not to judge a person to be weak, merely because he faints, and pants, and labours; nor to judge a person to be strong, merely because he seems lively and active. We must take in the burdens a person has to bear, or the difficulties he has to encounter with, in order to pass a right judgment upon his ability. Now apply this to the case similar to in spiritual affairs. If a person strong in faith is tried, has many great duties to perform, or many and heavy trials to struggle with, or many weighty burdens upon him; these things may so put his strong faith to a stand or difficulty, as to make him ready to sink and fail. They may take away or suppress all the sensible pleasure and joy of faith, and may make him complain as under distress and darkness. Thus you see faith may be very strong in its exercise too, and yet yield no sensible pleasure or exultation, by reason of the great things it has to conflict with and fight against. These thoughts may likewise help our conceptions in the last observation, which is, that,
4. A person may be very weak in faith, and yet his frames be bright and comfortable. This is a case not at all uncommon among Christians. Observe, the newly converted person, who is just brought out of darkness into light, has the principle of grace newly implanted: we cannot suppose that such an one in common is strong in faith, when the seed is but just sown in his heart, or but just sprung up. And yet we find this new-born babe in Christ is frequently favoured with peculiar joys and consolations. And it is very clear, that this newly regenerate person has not his faith as yet strengthened or established, notwithstanding all his exultations and spiritual delights: for, if there be but a little withdrawment of the light of God’s countenance, or if he be assaulted by but a small temptation, we find his faith appears then to be exceeding weak or unskillful, not able to stand the shock of the temptation, or not sufficiently skillful to expound the meaning of the spiritual withdrawment. A very little change in experience often stumbles the faith, shakes the hope, and discourages the heart of him who is newly convinced and confirmed. This surely is an infallible indication that his faith is weak, although he may be favoured with much spiritual sweetness and delight. A little child may as well imagine that he is a strong man, because he is dandled upon his father’s knee, and enjoys his father’s smiles, as a newly converted person conclude his faith is firm, because his spiritual comforts are enlarged. Neither should we confine this remark to the new-born babe in Christ; because there are many, who have had some standing in the grace of Christ, and yet remain very weak in knowledge, and very feeble in their faith: and these we find are sometimes favoured with great spiritual enjoyments. Their corruptions are suppressed, their evidences clear, by the Spirit shining upon his own work; and for that reason they cannot but be comfortable and joyful in their frames for a season. Now their souls are saying, My mountain stands strong, and I shall never be moved. Yet, no sooner does God hide his face, or permit a corruption to arise, but their souls are affrighted, and their hearts discouraged. This is a plain token that their faith is really weak, at the very time when their comforts are strong. And thus it comes to pass, that those, who are weak in faith, are sometimes the most comfortable; and those, who are strong in faith, often have less of these spiritual enjoyments.
These things being premised, we may from thence gather a true answer to the questions proposed in the two letters that occasioned this discourse: which may be thus disposed.
1. How shall we know whether the darkness of our frames arises from the weakness of our faith? This query in substance seems to be aimed at in one of the letters, which runs thus:
‘Sir, — I am one, who, through rich grace, have been taught to know and feel myself a sinner, and have been favoured with a clear manifestation of the love of God in Christi Jesus by the teachings and witnessings of the Spirit; but yet I do sometimes walk in darkness. May I humbly beg leave to propose the following questions to you? What is the cause of this darkness? Doth it not proceed from corruptions within, from temptations from without, or from the omission of duty, or the commission of sin? How may I be able to judge of the cause, when under a dark experience and clouded evidences, so that I cannot see him whom my soul loveth? Are not light and peace the peculiar privileges and effects of faith? O sir! I am often apt to distress my soul, lest I have sinned, and caused the Lord to hide away his face from me.’
In answer to these affecting queries, I must say,
If you, my friend, are conscious to yourself of the commission of any particular sin, or of the omission of any particular known duty, this consciousness will certainly enfeeble your confidence in God, and will cause you to walk in darkness and distress; and you can never arrive at true comfort again, until you have been enabled frankly to confess your sin with humble shame and self-abhorrence, and to make a fresh application for, and a fresh application of, the atoning blood of Christ by a living faith. Witness the holy Psalmist, in Ps. 32:3-5.
While he kept silence, and would not, through shame, or fear, or pride, ingenuously own before the Lord his guilt and sin, his distress increased, and he could gain no ease or relief: but, when his heart was opened, and he said, I will confess my transgression to the Lord, then he received a sweet sense of free pardon.
Contracted guilt is a very sufficient cause of darkness; and you can expect no other, but that God should frown upon your soul, or hide his face from you, and leave you to sorrow and anguish of spirit. Your conscience should therefore seriously inquire into this matter: and if, upon inquiry, it be found that something done or neglected lies at the bottom of the spiritual complaint; you can receive no true consolation, until you have, with humble shame, and by a humble faith, cast your burden upon the Lord. And let me entreat you to beware of any consolation that does not come in at this door.
With regard to corruptions from within, or temptations from without, these likewise may be the cause of the darkness in your frames, and cast a cloud over your evidences. But in this case, it does not presently follow, that your faith is weak. If these corruptions be unallowed and lamented, and these temptations opposed and resisted, there may be great grace and strong faith in these circumstances. It is true, that such corruptions and temptations will necessarily rob you of your comfort, and hinder you of a free and delightful enjoyment of God, so long as they are permitted to assault and perplex you. But, if these disagreeable trials and experiences do not sink you into discouragement, and do only quicken and excite you to fight against the temptations, and to mortify the corruptions, in the strength of Christ; your faith is strong, though your soul is disquieted. While faith is acting under these disadvantages, it is incapable of filling you with joy and consolation, until it has gained some conquest over these enemies of your peace; but yet it may be vigorous in its exercise to withstand these temptations, and to plead the promises for deliverance from the power of these rising corruptions.
By the foregoing thoughts you may judge, whether the darkness of your frames arises from the weakness of your faith, or no. If under these complaints your heart sinks, your spirits are discouraged, so that you are ready to lay down the weapons of opposition, and to quit the field of battle; this is a sign that faith is weak. But if, when a veil is cast over your evidences, you are enabled to exercise direct acts of reliance and recumbency upon Christ; if, when corruption arises, or temptation assaults, you are not sunk, but only humbled hereby, and quickened to fly to Christ for strength to mortify sin and overcome temptation, and are determined still to fight and pray, to pray and fight against these spiritual enemies; then the darkness of your soul does not arise from the weakness of your faith, but should be looked upon as only a trial and a proof of its strength.
2. How shall we know whether the brightness of our frames arises from the strength of our faith? Some believers have little or no notion of any comfort or spiritual satisfaction, but what arises from reflection or self-examination; and therefore bend their whole course this way, in order to attain bright frames and comfortable evidences; and are ready to look upon the satisfaction they obtain in this manner as the assurance of faith, and as almost the only proof of the strength of this excellent grace: while others are paying such a regard to the comfort arising from direct acts of faith upon Christ, that they are tempted to despise or neglect the great duty of self-examination. But it is highly necessary to keep a proper medium between these two extremes, in order to know whether the degree of our consolation and satisfaction proceeds from the growth and exercise of this noble principle.