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BY REV. RUFUS ANDERSON, D. D.
ONE OF THE SECRETARIES OF THE AMERICAN BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS FOR FOREIGN MISSIONS.
RELIGIOUS DISCIPLINE OF THE THOUGHTS.
"Bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ."-2 Cor. x: 5.
PIOUS people often are wanting in control over their religious affections. They seem not to have the power of fixing them long on any object. Hence their religious feelings seldom rise into an elevated devotional frame.
Now if the nature of the difficulty in this case is not well understood, mistaken remedies may be applied, and disappointment be the consequence. The chief difficulty generally is in a want of due control over the thoughts; for the thoughts and affections are most intimately connected. The heart is able to love only such objects as it sees; and it can look at them only through the medium of the understanding. That is, feeling is awakened, modified, influenced by means of thought. Had the pious man more power over his thoughts, he would have more power over his affections. Could he fix the one on the proper objects of holy love, he would succeed better in fixing the other on the same objects. These objects he loves no more ardently and steadily, because he has them so little in sight. The inquiry suggested by the text, is therefore of great importance, viz:
How we may succeed in bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ; in other words, how we may acquire a religious control over our thoughts.
And the inquiry is in the highest degree practical, because every one is more or less a thinking being, and has thoughts for which he is accountable, and which it is infinitely important for him to regulate by christian principles.
I propose to illustrate,
I. The nature of this discipline or government of the thoughts.
III. The manner of acquiring it.
I. Let us first consider the nature of this discipline. This will be made best to appear by some familiar illustrations.
We will, then, suppose a pious man, but wanting in control over his thoughts, to be reading in the scriptures. He is really desirous of understanding what he reads, and, of course, makes an effort to read with attention; and for a short time his attention is fixed. But this is for a short time only; for soon his mind is invaded and his thoughts are diverted by another train of ideas foreign from the chapter before him, until, at length, he is startled at perceiving how much he has read that has failed to awaken in his mind so much as a single idea.
The same man enters his closet for prayer. He assumes a reverent posture, and commences his petitions in an audible voice, as helping the attention. Meanwhile he discovers another train of ideas, or, more probably, successive, broken trains. His endeavors to expel them do but increase their number, and distract his attention the more. Were his prayer written out, and the intrusive thoughts interlined as they actually rise in his mind, we should have a painful illustration how his attention is divided while he is addressing the Most High.
So in public prayer, in the house of God. One person leads in the prayer, and all in the congregation profess to offer up the same petitions. But suppose the heart-searching God were to put forth his finger, and write the prayer upon the wall; and that he were to write also, in parallel columns to it, the actual thoughts, meanwhile, of each professed worshipper. What a fearful exhibition there would be of thoughts foreign to the occasion ;-about business! about dress! about worldly pleasures, past, present, or anticipated! And were it possible for these thoughts all to speak out at the same time, what a confusion of sounds. should we hear! Yet something like this, too often, must our public prayers be, as God hears them. For to the ear of God, every thought has a voice.
And so entirely wanting in religious discipline are the thoughts of many persons, that even the mere allusions in the prayer of him who leads the devotions, are enough to keep their thoughts wandering. Thus the minister prays for those, who "go down to the sea in ships, and do business on the great waters." This sends off their thoughts to their own ships, or their foreign investments, or the state of the markets, and their prospects of loss or gain. The minister prays for rain in a time of drought, or for fruitful seasons, or he gives thanks for an abundant harvest. This sets them thinking of their crops, and of the influence the drought, or rain, or harvest, will have on the price of some one or more of the products of the earth. The minister prays for our rulers; and in how many minds does this excite thoughts of the latest intelligence, or else of political schemes, prospects, or results.
Similar remarks might be made concerning other exercises of the house of God. Indeed, who of us would be willing to have the mere intellectual history of the hour he spends in this holy place (i. e. of his thoughts merely,) written, by the omniscient God, for the perusal of his most intimate friend? I believe, not one.
Again: one great reason why so little time is spent by christians in solitary meditation on eternal things is, that they find these meditations so difficult and unprofitable, for want of command over their thoughts. I venture to affirm, that no pious man can pursue a continuous train of private religious meditation for half an hour, without experiencing great delight, or at least receiving much benefit. But let the man, I have supposed, sit down to meditate. In his private meditation, his mind is even more wandering and ungovernable than in his secret prayer. He then gave utterance to his thoughts audibly in words, which had a tendency to fix the attention. But he meditates in silence. Look at him for a moment, in this act of an intelligent moral being. He has determined to meditate, we will suppose, on the Savior's last sufferings. No subject is so well fitted to seize fast hold on the mind. His first endeavor is, to form a distinct conception of the scene. Having done this, he proposes to realize who the person is, that hangs upon the accursed tree. This is the precise object of his meditation. Seated in his closet, or in walking to and fro in some retired place, he runs his thoughts over the history of the Savior, in search of the proofs that he was truly the Son of God. Thus far all is well. But he soon gets into difficulty. His mind will not dwell on any one thing; it hurries rapidly over every thing, giving no one thing an opportunity to make an impression; until at length the continuity of his thoughts is broken, the unity of their object is destroyed, and the power of attention lost. He has failed utterly; and such failures, being repeated, discourage him from repeating the attempt at religious meditation.
One more illustration of the want of a religious government of the thoughts. It is, or should be, a grand question with every true christian, how he shall ensure the recurrence of religious thoughts in the intervals of his secular business, during the day. Now it is not only right, but it is duty, provided our business be lawful, so to give our thoughts to it as to perform it well; and many kinds of business require, for the time, an undivided attention. In such cases, every thing else may properly be excluded from the mind. Now the man of undisciplined mind, whom we have taken for our illustrations, resolves in the morning to think of God often during the day, in the short intervals of his business. So far as resolution is concerned, all is well; and he also prays that he may frequently revert to the great and good Author of all his mercies during the day, and expects to secure the result by the mere force of his morning resolutions and prayers. Vain expectation! And it is so, because God will no more exert a miraculous influence on the mind, in answer to prayer, than he will upon the body. As well might we expect that mere prayer would make the cripple walk, as make his undisciplined mind operate as if it were disciplined. Divine agency, if it were not put forth in accordance with the laws or nature of the mind, (as it always is,) would be miraculous. Now the man has overlooked this fact, in preparing for his daily vocation; and no sooner do his thoughts
get into the tide of business, than they yield to the influence of habit and circumstances, and are swept entirely away, notwithstanding his resolutions, prayers, and expectations to the contrary.
The difficulty is not that this man performs his business without any reference to God's will; for we have supposed him to be a pious man, and no doubt there are many such pious men. His duty to God may have been the motive which led him forth to his business. But he has so long been accustomed to give his mind exclusively to thoughts of worldly things during the business hours of the day, and there is such a lamentable want of intellectual discipline with respect to religious subjects, that nothing he can do in the morning, will, of itself, be sufficient to remedy the evil. It is necessary that he should train and accustom his thoughts to rise to God at noon, and in the short intervals of business, as he has taught them to do in the morning before the business of the day commences, and in the evening after it is finished. What I mean, is substantially illustrated in the father of a family engaged in business in a foreign land. He does not think of the objects of his fond affection, now far away, merely morning and evening, but his thoughts revert to them whenever they can be spared from the business which called him away. And so it should be with the christian, in respect to the objects and scenes of his heavenly home.
Nothing more need be said to show the nature of the intellectual discipline we are recommending. It appears to be the power of fixing our thoughts steadily, and at pleasure, on religious subjects. In secret prayer, it is the power of thinking of nothing beside the subjects of our petitions. In public prayer, it is the power of making the petitions of him who leads the devotions our own, and of excluding all other thoughts. In praise, it is the power of throwing the whole soul into this delightful exercise. In hearing the preached word, it is the power of giving a fixed, wakeful, undisturbed attention to the preacher. In meditation, it is the power of pursuing one single train of religious thought, and shutting out all others. Amid the secular occupations of the day, it is the power of sending up the thoughts to God in the frequent intervals of business.
Having considered the nature of this discipline, let us direct our attention, secondly, to its importance.
And first, its importance in the daily reading of the Scriptures. Evidently we cannot expect the enlightening influences of the Holy Spirit on the thoughtless reading of the Scriptures. How vain to expect it! That infinitely intelligent Being always knows where our thoughts are while we read his word, and cannot be deceived by mere words on a thoughtless tongue. Therefore, if you would enjoy those aids, without which even the thoughtful reading of the Scriptures will be of little use, you must read them with a fixed and serious attention. You must be successful in confining your thoughts to the portion you are reading, and must be in earnest to understand it. In the sight of God, the mind is the man. In his sight, moreover, thought and feeling