Pursuing a Passion for God Through Spiritual Disciplines: Learning from Jonathan Edwards
Desiring God 2003 National Conference
A God-Entranced Vision of All Things
This message appears as a chapter in A God-Entranced Vision of All Things.
Jonathan Edwards is a spiritual hero to many Christians, and rightly so. Probably the main reason you’re reading this is because he’s a spiritual hero of yours. The Bible commands us to have the right kind of spiritual heroes. In Hebrews 13:7 we’re told, “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (All Scripture references in this chapter are from the NASB).
We acknowledge, of course, that even the holiest human heroes are inconsistent ones. All our heroes are imperfect and sinful. As the next verse in this passage reminds us, only the perfect and sinless Hero, only “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (verse 8). Nevertheless, the right kind of heroes, because they were devoted followers of Christ and people of his Word, will guide and protect us far more than they will mislead us.
Jonathan Edwards is just such a spiritual hero. Like those whom the first recipients of the letter to the Hebrews were to follow, Edwards is one “who spoke the word of God” to us through his life and works. As such, he is a hero whose life we should “remember,” “consider,” and “imitate” after the fashion of Hebrews 13:7. The purpose of this chapter is to help us remember, consider, and imitate Edwards’s example of pursuing a passion for God through spiritual disciplines.
What Are These Spiritual Disciplines Through Which Edwards Pursued His Passion for God?
The spiritual disciplines are the practical ways whereby we obey the command of 1 Timothy 4:7: “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” The goal of every spiritual discipline is — as this verse teaches — godliness. Godliness is another way of describing holiness, sanctification, and Christlikeness. To put it in other terms, the purpose of the spiritual disciplines is intimacy with Christ and conformity (both internal and external) to Christ.
To further clarify what spiritual disciplines are, think of them as:
Practices. A spiritual discipline is something you do, not something you are. Disciplines should not be confused with graces, character qualities, or the fruit of the Spirit. Prayer, for example, is a spiritual discipline, while joy, strictly speaking, is not. As practices, the spiritual disciplines are first about doing, then about being. The spiritual disciplines are right doing that leads to right being. That is, the purpose of doing the practices known as spiritual disciplines is the state of being described in 1 Timothy 4:7 as “godliness.” Thus the discipline of prayer, rightly practiced, should result in godly joy. So while they should not be separated from each other, it is important to distinguish the practices known as the spiritual disciplines from the fruit that should result from them.
Biblical practices. We may not properly call just anything we do a spiritual discipline. Regardless of the benefit we may derive from a given activity, it is best to reserve the biblical term “discipline” for practices taught by precept or example in the Bible. Otherwise, anything and everything will eventually be called a spiritual discipline. Someone could claim that washing dishes — which, admittedly, ought to be done in the presence of and to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31) — is as spiritually beneficial to themselves as prayer is to others. But if we allow this, what basis for disagreement over what is and what isn’t a spiritual discipline will exist except personal experience and preference?
Sufficient for godliness. Despite the spiritual help — real and perceived — that we may gain by practices not found in Scripture, the spiritual disciplines taught or modeled in the Bible are sufficient “for the purpose of godliness.” Only the spiritual disciplines found in Scripture are “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). And “every good work” for which Scripture makes us “adequate” and “equipped” would certainly include “the purpose of godliness.”
Means to godliness, not ends. A person is not automatically godly just because he or she practices the spiritual disciplines. This was the error of the Pharisees, for although they prayed, memorized Scripture, fasted, and practiced other disciplines, Jesus pointed to them as the epitome of ungodliness. Godliness is the result of God’s Spirit changing us into Christlikeness through the means of the disciplines. Apart from faith and the right motives when practicing them, the disciplines can be dead works. The purpose for practicing the spiritual disciplines is not to see how many chapters of the Bible we can read or how long we can pray, nor is it found in anything else that can be counted or measured. We’re not necessarily more godly because we engage in these biblical practices. Instead, these biblical practices should be the means that result in true godliness — that is, intimacy with and conformity to Christ.
Personal and interpersonal. Some spiritual disciplines are practiced alone; some are practiced with others. For instance, the Bible instructs us to pray in private, but it also teaches us to pray with the church. Some disciplines, like silence and solitude, are almost exclusively practiced in isolation from people. Yet some, like fellowship and communion, cannot be experienced alone. Our individual personalities incline each of us toward the disciplines of privacy or the disciplines of society. However, both personal and interpersonal disciplines are necessary for a balanced Christlikeness, for Jesus practiced both the disciplines of withdrawal and the disciplines of engagement.
“The spiritual disciplines are right doing that leads to right being.” Tweet
As Edwards was not only a minister himself but grew up in a minister’s home, his involvement with the interpersonal (congregational) disciplines is taken for granted. Instead of those corporate practices, this chapter is concerned with the role that the personal spiritual disciplines played in Edwards’s life.
These timeless and universal disciplines are not mere biblical responsibilities; rather they are the God-given means of experiencing God. Because of the presence of the Holy Spirit within, Christians can experience God everywhere and in all circumstances. But there are certain means God has revealed in Scripture — the spiritual disciplines — that he has ordained especially for the purpose of seeking and savoring him. And it was through these God-given means that Jonathan Edwards pursued his passion for God.
God indeed was a passion and delight for Edwards from the first daybreak of God’s grace upon his soul in the spring of 1721. Years afterward he wrote about that divine daybreak, a spiritual sunrise that occurred when he was in his late teens:
The first instance that I remember of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things, that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words, 1 Timothy 1:17, “Now unto the King, eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever, Amen.” As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before. Never any words of Scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up to him in heaven; and be as it were swallowed up in him forever! I kept saying, and as it were singing, over these words of Scripture to myself; and went to pray to God that I might enjoy him; and prayed in a manner quite different from what I used to do, with a new sort of affection. (Sereno E. Dwight, “Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, [Banner of Truth, 1974], 1:xiii)
Notice that it was through the means of Scripture reading, prayer, singing, and worship — biblical spiritual disciplines — that Edwards experienced his enjoyment of God. From the biographies, and especially the pages of his own pen, we learn more of the specific details of . . .
How Jonathan Edwards Pursued a Passion for God Through the Spiritual Disciplines
All forms of encountering Scripture are gathered under the heading of “Bible Intake.” This includes hearing, reading, studying, and memorizing God’s Word. Although there is evidence that Edwards engaged in each of these, I want to focus in particular on how Edwards models what is arguably the best way of experiencing the sweetness of Scripture — meditation. While there is no one ideal method of meditating on the Bible, essentially it involves thinking in a prolonged and focused way about something found in the text while hearing, reading, studying, or memorizing it.
Meditation on Scripture was Edwards’s practice from his first days as a disciple of Jesus. Later, describing the time soon after his conversion, he wrote, “I seemed often to see so much light exhibited by every sentence, and such a refreshing food communicated, that I could not get along in reading; often dwelling long on one sentence to see the wonders contained in it, and yet almost every sentence seemed to be full of wonders” (Ibid., xiv).
Edwards seemed particularly fond of meditating on Scripture while walking in solitude or while on horseback, whether riding for relaxation or on a journey. What is most important, of course, is the result of this practice. In his Personal Narrative, Edwards wrote of the impact of meditation on Scripture on his soul:
Sometimes, only mentioning a single word caused my heart to burn within me; or only seeing the name of Christ, or the name of some attribute of God. . . . The sweetest joys and delights I have experienced, have not been those that have arisen from a hope of my own good estate, but in a direct view of the glorious things of the gospel.
Once, as I rode out into the woods for my health, in 1737, having alighted from my horse in a retired place, as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer, I had a view that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God, as Mediator between God and man, and his wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension. This grace that appeared so calm and sweet, appeared also great above the heavens. The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception — which continued, as near as I can judge, about an hour; which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood of tears and weeping aloud. I felt an ardency of soul to be, what I know not otherwise how to express, emptied and annihilated; to lie in the dust, and to be full of Christ alone; to love Him with a holy and pure love; to trust in Him; to live upon Him; to serve and follow Him; and to be perfectly sanctified and made pure, with a divine and heavenly purity. I have, several other times, had views very much of the same nature, and which have had the same effects. (Ibid., xlvi-xlvii)
Like Edwards, we feel most deeply about things when we think most deeply about them. Why is it that we can read a passage of Scripture at home, and it may affect us very little, but then our pastor can preach on that same passage and we are deeply stirred? It’s because when we read it at home, our eyes pass over the words in a few seconds, we close the Bible, and the words immediately leak out of our minds. But when we sit under a preacher who focuses our attention on that same passage for several minutes — pointing out details of the text, comparing it with other passages, illustrating and applying it — our emotions are kindled, and we begin to feel more deeply about what God says in that section of Scripture.
The tendency of most Christians in our hurried, overburdened times is to close the Bible as soon as we’ve read it and turn to the next thing on our to-do list. If pressed, we’d usually have to admit — immediately after closing the Bible — that we don’t remember a thing we’ve read. Reading alone will seldom give us the encounter with God, the spiritual nourishment, that our souls need.
Reading is the exposure to Scripture — and that’s the starting place — but meditation is the absorption of Scripture. And it is the absorption of Scripture that causes the water of the Word of God to percolate deeply into the parched soil of the soul and refresh it.
Edwards was so devoted to prayer that it is hard to find a daily routine for him that wasn’t permeated with it. He prayed alone when he arose, then had family prayer before breakfast. Prayer was a part of each meal, and he prayed again with the family in the evening. He prayed over his studies, and he prayed as he walked in the evenings. Prayer was both a discipline and a part of his leisure.
Biographer George Marsden draws a similar portrait of Edwards’s life of prayer:
He began the day with private prayers followed by family prayers, by candlelight in the winter. Each meal was accompanied by household devotions, and at the end of each day Sarah joined him in his study for prayers. Jonathan kept secret the rest of his daily devotional routine, following Jesus’ command to pray in secret. Throughout the day, his goal was to remain constantly with a sense of living in the presence of God, as difficult as that might be. Often he added secret days of fasting and additional prayers. (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life [Yale University Press, 2003], 133)
Prayer, then, for Edwards was both planned and informal, scheduled and spontaneous, on a daily basis. From the time when his teenage soul first began to experience what he called “that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things,” it was as though Edwards could not think long of God without speaking or singing to him. “Prayer seemed natural to me,” he wrote of the change in his life, “as the breath by which the inward burnings of my heart had vent” (Dwight, “Memoirs,” xiii).
Prayer was so essential to Edwards’s Christianity that the idea of a Christian who did not pray was preposterous. Some of the most sobering words he ever spoke were directed toward those who claimed to be followers of Jesus but who never prayed in private. In his sermon on “Hypocrites Deficient in the Duty of Prayer,” Edwards solemnly declared:
I would exhort those who have entertained a hope of their being true converts — and who since their supposed conversion have left off the duty of secret prayer, and ordinarily allow themselves in the omission of it — to throw away their hope. If you have left off calling upon God, it is time for you to leave off hoping and flattering yourselves with an imagination that you are children of God. (Edwards, “Hypocrites Deficient in the Duty of Prayer,” in Works, 2:74)
It was inconceivable that anyone could know the God he knew and not be compelled by the sweetness, love, and satisfaction found in God to pray. It seemed contrary to Edwards’s understanding of Scripture that anyone could be indwelled by the Spirit who causes God’s children to “cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15; compare with Galatians 4:6) and yet not cry out to the Father in regular private prayer. Edwards testifies that when a person has a passion for God, he prays.
Here I want to concentrate on Edwards’s habit of singing in his private worship of God. Just as most Christians could not imagine public worship without singing, apparently Edwards could not conceive of private worship without it. But he did not sing praises to God when alone merely because he felt obligated to do so. Rather, Edwards spoke of his private, spontaneous songs to God as that which “seemed natural” and flowed from the sweetness of his contemplations of God.
“Reading is the exposure to Scripture but meditation is the absorption of Scripture.” Tweet
He writes of this in his Personal Narrative as he describes the early years of his Christian life:
I often used to sit and view the moon for a long time; and in the day, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things; in the mean time, singing forth, with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer. And scarce any thing, among all the works of nature, was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning; formerly nothing had been so terrible to me. Before, I used to be uncommonly terrified with thunder, and to be struck with terror when I saw a thunderstorm rising; but now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me. I felt God, if I may so to speak, at the first appearance of a thunderstorm; and used to take the opportunity, at such times, to fix myself in order to view the clouds and see the lightnings play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God’s thunder, which oftentimes was exceedingly entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God. While thus engaged, it always seemed natural to me to sing or chant forth my meditations; or, to speak my thoughts in soliloquies with a singing voice. (Dwight, “Memoirs,” xiii)
As he matured in his relationship with God, Edwards continued singing in his frequent times of private worship. In his Personal Narrative he continues to describe his experience “year after year; often walking alone in the woods, and solitary places, for meditation, soliloquy, and prayer, and converse with God; and it was always my manner, at such times, to sing forth my contemplations” (Ibid.).
Why not follow Edwards’s example? Sing to God in private worship for the same reasons you sing to him in public worship. “It is good to sing praises to our God” (Psalm 147:1). Like Edwards, enjoy the goodness of singing praises to God every day, not just on Sunday.
It is no secret that Edwards was a private man and accused of being too withdrawn from society. Some of his habits for seclusion are understandable when we realize that his study, writing, and sermon preparation had to be done in the same house with a wife, eleven children, servants, and frequent guests. But even as a single man, Jonathan Edwards sought solitude, not merely to be more productive, but in order to meet with God.
During his twentieth year, when he was in New York and in his first pastoral ministry, he often abandoned the bustle of the city and the attractions it might have had for an eligible bachelor so far from home. Writing of that time, Edwards recalls, “I very frequently used to retire into a solitary place, on the banks of Hudson’s river, at some distance from the city, for contemplation on divine things and secret converse with God; and had many sweet hours there” (Ibid., xiv).
Apparently this was a discipline by which he experienced much spiritual pleasure throughout his life. It seems to have been his daily habit — weather permitting — to ride the few blocks south from his house to the primary intersection in Northampton, there turn right on Main Street, go past the meetinghouse, and ride west of town two or three miles. On his way out and back he would pray, think, and sing.
Typically he found a secluded spot to walk alone with God in the woods or along hillsides. He speaks of this as his regular practice in the Personal Narrative, which he wrote when he was thirty-five. As he begins the description of an experience two years earlier, he writes, “I rode out into the woods for my health . . . having alighted from my horse in a retired place, as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer” (Ibid., xlvi).
While Edwards doubtless would have acknowledged his own propensity to privacy, he maintained that true grace inclined every Christian to be much alone with God:
Some are greatly affected when in company; but have nothing that bears any manner of proportion to it in secret, in close meditation, prayer and conversing with God when alone, and separated from the world. A true Christian doubtless delights in religious fellowship and Christian conversation, and finds much to affect his heart in it; but he also delights at times to retire from all mankind, to converse with God in solitude. And this also has peculiar advantages for fixing his heart, and engaging his affections. True religion disposes persons to be much alone in solitary places for holy meditation and prayer. . . . It is the nature of true grace, however it loves Christian society in its place, in a peculiar manner to delight in retirement, and secret converse with God. (Edwards, Religious Affections, in Works, 1:311-312)
Whatever may be said about Edwards’s individual preferences for solitude, we cannot deny that Jesus himself frequently sought to be alone with the Father. Texts such as Matthew 14:23 and Luke 4:42 are similar to what we read in Mark 1:35: “In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there.” Seeking God-focused solitude is a Christlike habit. Like Edwards, when we rightly practice the spiritual discipline of solitude, we not only conform to Christ’s example, we encounter him.
The frequency of references to the discipline of fasting in the literature by and about Jonathan Edwards may surprise those contemporary Christians who have seldom heard fasting mentioned in their own churches. He often referred to or called for congregational fasts, and for events as varied as military campaigns, epidemic sickness, and revival. Eight months before he was fired, Edwards received the cooperation of the church in Northampton when he called for a Fast Day on October 26, 1749, “to pray to God that he would have mercy on this church . . . that he would forgive the sins of both minister and people” (As quoted in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, 319).
But these congregational fasts had a counterpart in Edwards’s private spirituality. Samuel Hopkins tells us this, writing from the perspective of one who spent eight months in the Northampton pastor’s home in the early 1740s. While noting that much of Edwards’s personal devotional life is shrouded in secrecy, he writes confidently that Edwards frequently fasted:
Mr. Edwards made a secret of his private devotion, and therefore it cannot be particularly known: though there is much evidence, that he was punctual, constant and frequent in secret prayer, and often kept days of fasting and prayer in secret; and set apart time for serious, devout meditations on spiritual and eternal things, as part of his religious exercise in secret. (Hopkins, The Life and Character of the Late Reverend Mr. Jonathan Edwards)
Edwards thought that ministers, in particular, should discipline themselves to fast. In Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival, he said, “I should think ministers, above all persons, ought to be much in secret prayer and fasting, and also much in praying and fasting with one another” (Edwards, “Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival,” 507). But he certainly did not think that the blessings of fasting should be enjoyed only by the clergy, as his calls for congregational fasts demonstrate.
Further evidence of his view that private fasting was a discipline for all Christians is seen in his letter to eighteen-year-old Deborah Hatheway, penned on June 3, 1741, in response to her request for spiritual counsel. Edwards advised her in a way consistent with his own practice: “Under special difficulties, or when in great need of, or great longings after, any particular mercy for yourself or others, set apart a day for secret prayer and fasting for yourself alone” (Edwards, “To Deborah Hatheway,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Letters and Personal Writings, [Yale University Press, 1998], 94).
True grace inclines every Christian to be much alone with God. Tweet
In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus taught his disciples about fasting and began the instructions with, “Whenever you fast . . .” Edwards understood these directions to apply to every Christian in every generation, including himself. His example in this discipline, like the Book upon which he based the discipline, is still valid.
The diary (a term used synonymously here with “journal”) of Jonathan Edwards opens with an entry on December 18, 1722, when he was nineteen. It begins so abruptly that Sereno Edwards Dwight, a descendant of Edwards who published in 1830 the first edition of his ancestor’s works, conjectures that there was an earlier section that may have reached back to Jonathan’s days of theological study at Yale (17201722) (Dwight, “Memoirs,” xxiii). For all practical purposes, Edwards’s diary concludes with an entry on November 16, 1725. Inexplicably, there are but six brief entries made over the next ten years.
Dwight is certain that Edwards never meant for his diary to be preserved and read by others. “Had it been with him at the close of his life,” Dwight suggests, “it is not unlikely it might have been destroyed” (Ibid.). We may be grateful to God that it was not.
The volume certainly qualifies as a spiritual journal, for it is far more than the kind of diary that is a mere record of events. Yes, “it consists of facts,” observes Dwight, as a diary of details and experiences would do. But it’s also comprised of
solid thought, dictated by deep religious feelings. . . . It is an exhibition of the simple thinking, feeling, and acting of a man, who is unconscious how he appears, except to himself and to God; and not the remarks of one, who is desirous of being thought humble, respecting his own humility. If we suppose a man of Christian simplicity and godly sincerity to bring all the secret movements of his own soul under the clear, strong light of heaven, and there to survey them with a piercing and an honest eye, and a contrite heart, in order to humble himself, and make himself better; it is just the account which such a man would write. (Ibid., xxiii-xxiv)
Sometimes he’d begin an entry with a single word, and then write a paragraph explaining his spiritual condition. For example:
Wednesday, Jan. 2 . Dull. Wednesday, Jan. 9. At night. Decayed.
Thursday, Jan. 10. About noon. Recovering. (Ibid., xxiv)
He rebuked himself. “Saturday night, March 31. This week I have been too careless about eating” (Ibid., xxvii).
He rejoiced. “Saturday night, April 14. I could pray more heartily this night for the forgiveness of my enemies, than ever before” (Ibid.).
He could be mundane. “Wednesday night, Aug. 28. Remember, as soon as I can get to a piece of slate or something, whereon I can make short memorandums while traveling” (Ibid., xxxi). And again, “Sabbath morning, Sept. 8. I have been much to blame, for expressing so much impatience for delays in journeys, and the like” (Ibid.).
He could be sublime. “Wednesday, March 6. Near sunset. Regarded the doctrines of election, free grace, our inability to do anything without the grace of God, and that holiness is entirely, throughout, the work of the Spirit of God, with greater pleasure than before” (Ibid., xxvii).
Although Edwards apparently left off this diary, for the most part, by age twenty-two, his entries merely changed forms, and he remained to the end of his life an example to us of the discipline of journaling. For in the same year that he started his diary, the nineteen-year-old Edwards made his initial entry into what would become his “Miscellanies.” These were typically paragraph or page-long meditations on biblical and theological subjects. And while these were not the places where he expressed his feelings or spoke of experiences, these journals stretched to 1,400 entries and 1,700 hundred pages. Before the end of the following year (1723), Edwards would start three more notebooks: “Notes on the Apocalypse,” “The Mind,” and “Notes on Scripture.” He wrote in the latter volume until the end of his life, and it would eventually contain more than five hundred entries.
Jonathan Edwards believed in the value of preserving the insights given him by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. What he learned from Scripture or about Scripture, he did not want to lose. And even with his great mind, he knew that unless he recorded his thoughts, he wasn’t likely to remember many of them.
Tracing Edwards’s practice of the spiritual disciplines illustrates how it’s common to engage in several of the spiritual disciplines simultaneously. Sometimes an objection to the enjoyment of the disciplines arises that there are too many for an ordinary person to practice. However, while we can isolate specific disciplines for the purpose of studying them, typically most are practiced in conjunction with other disciplines. We’ve already observed that almost daily Edwards withdrew to solitude where he would pray, meditate on Scripture, and sing in worship to God. In addition to these disciplines, he might be fasting all the while. So in the same experience he — and we — could be practicing no fewer than five different spiritual disciplines.
Another place where it’s often difficult to separate one discipline from another in Edwards’s life is his marriage of the disciplines of journaling and learning. Perhaps the majority of his pen work — sermon preparation, correspondence, and the completing of manuscripts for publication — would be termed simply “writing,” not journaling. Still, as we noted in the previous section, Edwards was constantly writing notes, observations, and meditations about things he was learning in a journal of one type or another.
The two practices of journaling and learning began to intertwine in Jonathan’s earliest days. Dwight remarks:
Even while a boy, he began to study with his pen in his hand; not for the purpose of copying off the thoughts of others, but for the purpose of writing down, and preserving, the thought suggested to his own mind from the course of study he was pursuing. This most useful practice he commenced in several branches of study very early; and he steadily pursued it in all his studies through life. His pen appears to have been in a sense always in his hand. (Ibid., xviii)
As evidence of this as a lifelong habit, Hopkins tells us again that “[Edwards] would commonly, unless diverted by company, ride two or three miles after dinner, to some lonely grove, where he would dismount and walk awhile — at such times, he generally carried his pen and ink with him, to note any thought that might be suggested” (Ibid., xxxviii).
In the Beineke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale is another fascinating pen-and-ink manifestation of Edwards’s passion for God. In Folder 1251 of Edwards’s manuscripts is a little notebook he called “Subjects of Enquiry.” Paper was often scarce in places close to the frontier, but so zealous was Edwards to learn and retain his learning that he stitched scraps of dress patterns into a booklet no larger than a man’s hand. It consists of twenty-two odd and irregularly shaped pieces folded in half to make forty-four pages.
He also included what appear to be notes — perhaps in Sarah’s hand — of announcements to be read in church, so he could write on the back of each small page. The first line in the volume explains that it is a place to record “Things to be particularly inquired into & written upon.” Some of these were: “In reading the Old Testament observing its harmony with the new,” and “Complete my enquiry about justification,” and “Read Taylor on Romans,” and “Compute the number of Christ’s miracles.”
Regarding Edwards’s discipline of learning, Hopkins observed firsthand that:
[Edwards] had an uncommon thirst for knowledge, in the pursuit of which, he spared no cost nor pains. He read all the books, especially books of divinity, that he could come at, from which he could hope to get any help in his pursuit of knowledge. . . . He applied himself with all his might to find out the truth: he searched for understanding and knowledge, as for silver, and dug for it, as for his treasures. Every thought on any subject . . . he pursued, as far as he then could, with his pen in his hand. (Hopkins, The Life and Character of the Late Reverend Mr. Jonathan Edwards)
Jonathan Edwards was blessed with one of the most formidable intellects in American history. But he sought to use it in obedience to the greatest commandment (Mark 12:28-30), as a means of pursuing and loving God. Edwards had an insatiably hungry mind, and he enjoyed all manner of learning, but he disciplined himself to give his best thoughts to the best of subjects — the pursuit and enjoyment of God.
Stewardship of Time
At the root of all discipline is the disciplined use of time. Without this one, there are no other disciplines. Edwards recognized this early on, and thus three of the very first of his famous Resolutions — in this case, numbers 5-7 — were on the stewardship of time:
Resolved, never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can.
Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.
Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life. (Dwight, “Memoirs,” xx)
One of Edwards’s best-known and most soul-searching sermons is on this very subject. In December 1734 he preached on “The Preciousness of Time and the Importance of Redeeming It” (Edwards, “The Preciousness of Time,” in Works, 2:233-236). Taking the words “redeeming the time” from Ephesians 5:16 as his text, Edwards reminded his listeners that time is the only brief preparation we have for all eternity. This time is short, it is passing, the remaining amount of it is uncertain, and whatever time is lost can never be regained. We will give an account to God of how we use our time, Edwards noted, and our precious time is so easily lost. In the most solemn section of the sermon, Edwards called his hearers to consider how people on their deathbed, and especially those in hell, long to have the time that we have at this moment, and how we ought to use our time as they would, if they had the opportunity.
“At the root of all discipline is the disciplined use of time.” Tweet
Only one illustration is necessary to show how Edwards tried to live in light of the preciousness of time. Apparently Hopkins saw this on multiple occasions, and it demonstrates the diligence Edwards applied in every situation to improve the time.
In solitary rides of considerable length, he adopted a kind of artificial memory. Having pursued a given subject of thought to its proper results, he would pin a small piece of paper on a given spot in his coat, and charge his mind to associate the subject and the piece of paper. He would then repeat the same process with a second subject of thought, fastening the token in a different place, and then a third, and a fourth, as the time might permit. From a ride of several days, he would usually bring home a considerable number of these remembrancers; and, on going to his study, would take them off, one by one, in regular order, and write down the train of thought of which each was intended to remind him. (Dwight, “Memoirs,” xxxviii)
Although he sought to redeem every precious moment of time in ways such as this, none of Edwards’s biographers ever presents him as a hurried, breathless man, crashing through the day, always behind schedule. Moreover, we know he frequently took long rides with Sarah or alone and that he spent time with his eleven children and knew how to laugh with them. He lived this way because he believed it was Christlike to do so.
Jesus frequently ministered for long hours and under great demands. But he, too, would often get alone with the Father, as well as spend time developing his relationship with those closest to him. He never misused a minute. We never read of him acting rushed. Jesus lived every moment for the glory of God and in the presence of God. And though Edwards did so imperfectly, he wanted to do the same. He found God worth seeking in every possible moment of life and by every God-given means — regardless of the cost. And there is much we can learn from him about this.
Lessons from Jonathan Edwards on Pursuing a Passion for God Through the Spiritual Disciplines
First, we need a lesson about lessons from Jonathan Edwards. In one sense, it’s foolish to try to imitate Edwards. He was a genius. Moreover, let’s make it clear that there are some things about Edwards that we shouldn’t imitate, for he was a sinner too. But even though we cannot imitate his unique, God-given gifts and intellect, we can imitate his use and development of them.
Edwards teaches us to pursue a passion for God through the full range of the biblical spiritual disciplines.
He wanted to experience and enjoy God through as many God-ordained channels as possible. He didn’t just read a chapter or two from the Bible and whisper a brief prayer of thanks, engaging in as few of the disciplines as possible without feeling guilty. Edwards viewed all the biblical spiritual disciplines as the divinely appointed means of experiencing the holy God he found so addictive to his soul. He took advantage of every possible way, in the words of his sermon on Song of Solomon 5:1, to lay his soul “in the way of allurement” (Edwards, “Sacrament Sermon on Canticles 5:1,” sermon manuscript , Beinecke Library, Yale University).
Listen to these words of Edwards from his sermon “The Christian Pilgrim” about the allurement he found in God:
The enjoyment of him is our highest happiness, and is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here: better than fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of any or all earthly friends. These are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops; but God is the ocean. (Edwards, “The Christian Pilgrim,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses, 1730-1733, [Yale University Press, 1999], 437-438)
All those indwelled by the Holy Spirit have desires that can be satisfied only in God himself. But how shall we satisfy these ever-thirsty longings for the ocean of God? The highways built by God to the ocean of himself are the spiritual disciplines.
If I wanted to go to the Pacific and enjoy its beauty and immerse myself in it, what should I do? I could stay in my house all my life and express my longings to experience the ocean but never feel its water on my skin. I must get on the highways that will take me to the ocean.
God has built highways by which those he has made alive can come and be satisfied with the ocean of himself. All of these highways (as I try to accommodate my imperfect analogy to perfect biblical truth) converge at Jesus Christ, the one bridge to the ocean of God the Father. These highways are the personal and interpersonal practices revealed in the Bible by which we may find and enjoy God. The highways do not exist for themselves. Our souls do not find satisfaction in the highways, but only in the ocean to which they take us.
It is God who makes us alive. It is God who has graciously built these highways to himself. It is God who gives us the ongoing thirst that this crystal-clear ocean alone can satisfy. It is God who entreats us with the invitations to come to him on these royal highways. It is God who gives us a spiritual affinity and enjoyment for the highways that take us to him. But we must get on the highways.
That’s what Edwards disciplined himself to do, and in doing so became an example for us in how to pursue a passion for God.
Edwards teaches us concerning the need to pursue a passion for God through the spiritual disciplines regardless of our intellect or abilities.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Edwards is that he was disciplined. Because of his educational and intellectual advantages, he could have lowered the standards of his spiritual disciplines dramatically and still have been a capable pastor and admired spiritual leader. And no doubt this thought crossed his mind on occasion, for he had very little external accountability to maintain a spiritually disciplined life. He was by far the most brilliant and educated man at any gathering. How easy and excusable it would have been to coast intellectually and spiritually. This was especially true in those latter years in the backwoods outpost at Stockbridge. Despite all these temptations, Edwards never flagged in his discipline. In fact, he disciplined himself to do his best writing while at Stockbridge.
“The highways built by God to the ocean of himself are the spiritual disciplines.” Tweet
We’ve not been given Edwards’s gifts. It’s useless to encourage anyone to imitate Edwards’s mental ability. We can, however, regardless of our intellectual capacity, imitate his discipline. We do not have to possess Edwards’s intelligence to adopt his diligence. Regardless of how great or small our gifts or talents, our responsibility for 1 Timothy 4:7 remains: “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” The spiritual disciplines are the means God has given to all of us as the way to pursue God and to experience the joys and pleasures of godliness.
Edwards teaches us to pursue a passion for God equally with head and heart through the spiritual disciplines.
If we seek for an explanation for the extraordinary blessing of God upon the ministry of Jonathan Edwards, I think we must do so in a way that shows that God was true to his own Word in 1 Timothy 4:16: “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” Edwards epitomizes the pursuit of the spiritual proportionality found in this command. He always sought to “pay close attention” equally to both sides of this spiritual equation — that is, to both devotion and doctrine, piety and theology, heart and head, heat and light, spirit and truth. His passion for God burned with a clear flame that was fueled by the pure truth of God. And just as God promised in this verse to bless the ministries of those who “persevere in these things,” he has remarkably blessed the life and work of Jonathan Edwards with much enduring fruit.
In contrast to Edwards’s example, most people seem to lean one way or the other, favoring devotion or doctrine, piety or theology. But strong piety will not excuse us from the study of theology, nor will a strong theology compensate for a lack of piety. Edwards models the fact that a real understanding of the truth of God will set the heart on fire, and that the heart set on fire by God will burn with a love for learning his truth. As it was with Edwards, sometimes the things of God should appear so beautiful to our minds that we can’t help but study and meditate on them and so ravish our hearts that we want to weep or sing. What in all the world should delight our minds and ignite our hearts more than the things of God?
Historian George Marsden, in his 2003 biography, begins chapter 30 with a summary of Edwards’s pursuit of a passion for God through a spiritually disciplined life:
Edwards worked constantly to cultivate gratitude, praise, worship, and dependence on his Savior. Whatever his failings, he attempted every day to see Christ’s love in all things, to walk according to God’s precepts, and to give up attachments to worldly pleasures in anticipation of that closer spiritual union that death would bring. (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 490)
This is why Jonathan Edwards is worthy of being added to the list of spiritual heroes about whom we can say, “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).
But as Edwards himself would remind us, ultimately his example as a spiritual leader has value only to the degree that he points us to his God. Merely human heroes often fail us, but there is One who never does, for the perfect and holy “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). In him alone is endless fascination, satisfaction, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life.
More Messages from Desiring God 2003 National Conference
Jonathan Edwards: The Life, the Man, and the Legacy (Iain Murray)
Sarah Edwards: Jonathan’s Home and Haven (Noël Piper)
The Glory of God and the Reviving of Religion (J.I. Packer)
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