God Withholds

Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.
~ Isaiah 6:10

Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word.
~ Psalm 119:67

O God, why hast thou cast us off for ever? why doth thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture? Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old; the rod of thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed; this mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt. Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vine; Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.
~ Psalm 74:1-2, Psalm 80:14, Psalm 90:13

Then the angel of the LORD answered and said, O LORD of hosts, how long wilt thou not have mercy on Jerusalem and on the cities of Judah, against which thou hast had indignation these threescore and ten years?
~ Zechariah 1:12

Awake, why sleepest thou, O Lord? arise, cast us not off for ever.
~ Psalm 44:23

Desertions and God Withholding Grace, by Joseph Symonds. The following contains Chapters Three and Four from his work, “The Case and Cure Of A Deserted Soul”.

Chapter Three

Four other considerations about desertions.

Having premised these things in general, I shall now come to the particulars, to speak of these desertions in their several kinds, and first as they befall the godly.

Desertions, as they befall the godly, are of two sorts, the withdrawing of influence of grace, and the withdrawing of comfort, inward or outward.

All the complaints which the saints do make of God’s hiding and withdrawing of himself arise from one or more of these three grounds:

1. That God does not carry on their spiritual life as he was in the habit of doing.

2. That he gives not that peace, joy, comfort, and assurance as he had in the past.

3. That he brings them into outward straits, and does not deliver them.

Before I come to speak directly and particularly of these, I will propose four brief observations about them:

1. A man may miss much of God’s external presence in the sweet and comfortable way of his providences, providing, protecting, and ordering all occurents to contentment, yet may enjoy inward communion with him, so that his soul may be most abundantly animated and quickened with the Spirit when he has many discouragements around him. Yea, God usually gives most of himself when he gives least in the world. His people seldom have much of the fatness below and the springs above at once, as the sun and the stars appear not together. But when he shuts up all doors of hope and help in the world, then he sets open the doors of heaven. So St. Stephen, when he saw nothing but death in the world, “then saw heaven opened, and Christ sitting at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). Such mercy found Jacob when he was a poor pilgrim in a strange land; then he saw that heavenly ladder, “and the angels ascending and descending,” as a pledge of God’s care, and their readiness for his good (Genesis 28:12). The abundance of the Spirit, both of grace and peace, is usually poured forth in a day of sorrow, as when the dough which the Israelites brought from Egypt was spent, God gave them bread from heaven.

And there are two causes of it:

a.) God’s tender love is such that he will not add affliction to his people’s sorrow. When therefore he is pleased in his wisdom to pour a cup of affliction into their hands, he usually gives them also the cup of consolation. When he casts them into outward straits, he recompenses it with inward enlargements. The Church had never such full predictions of Christ, and precious promises of great mercy, as when the most dreadful evils hung over her head. This appears in the prophecies of all the prophets. The faithful usually find their worst days to be their best days, and when they meet with troubles, they find most peace. This the apostle witnesses, “As the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:4). “And though the outward man perish, yet our inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).

b.) The capacity of the soul is widened and enlarged in affliction. Heavenly communion with God is sweetest in an evil day, for in it the soul longs after God, that in him it may find all needs supplied which it lacks in the world. Now the more God stirs up desires of himself, the more the soul is prepared to communion with him, and the more it desires of him. The hungry man eats most, and he that is most thirsty drinks most. When the life of nature and sense is cut off, the soul seeks life in God, and is much in all endeavours of enjoying God. Now she seeks him in prayer, she enquires for him in the Word, and by all means reaches hard after him. So David, when he is in the wilderness, pants and breathes after God; he prays, he cries, his thoughts are with God all the day, yea, in the night he meditates upon him, and (saith he) “My soul followeth hard after thee” (Psalm 63:8).

2. One may lack inward comfort, yet not be deserted in respect of the influence of grace. The tenor of grace and peace is not the same; a man may lose the sense of grace and yet retain the life of it. Though he that has grace and peace may be more happy, yet he that has grace without peace may be as holy. Yea, and as the clouded summer’s sun yields more comfort to the earth than a bright shining winter’s sun, so when the soul is most clouded, it may be most quickened when the light of God’s favour is hidden, and in that time the quickening heat of the Spirit may abound most.

3. He that loses God’s quickening presence also loses his comforting presence. Though a man may have grace living and stirring without peace, yet he cannot have peace without the life of grace. Peace and comfort are fruits of the sanctifying Spirit, and as there may be a root without fruit, there cannot be fruit without the root. Though there may be the Spirit quickening and sanctifying without comfort, yet there cannot be true comfort without the quickening of the Spirit.

One of these two evils befalls a man from whom God is departed, and to whom the workings of the power of God is denied:

a.) He falls into a spiritual lethargy. He is as one asleep, whose spirits and senses are bound up, so that he is in a shadow of death, neither hearing, nor feeling, nor tasting the things of God, and so is bereft of all spiritual joys and comfort. When a man is in a state of deadness, he is dead to all things that are spiritual, and they also are as dead things to him. The promises, which are fountains of life to a living man, are as dry and empty cisterns to him. Yea Christ, heaven, and the love of God, though they are the food, strength, and life of a man in a healthful state, yet they are to the languishing soul as meat to a sick stomach. The glorious things of the gospel are to him as a withered flower, or as a sealed book-he has no use for them.

b.) He falls into a spiritual frenzy. In the day of estrangedness of God, a man is often much disquieted. The remembrance of his former blessed days torments his soul with grief. The fears of utter apostasy and irrecoverable declination from God do vex it with fears and horrors. Yea, conscience may pronounce sad judgment upon him, and he may conclude himself to be a hypocrite, an apostate, and one under wrath. In this way, either through insensibleness or unquietness of spirit, he that does not have his former vivacity and vigour of grace cannot have comfort in such a state.

4. All these may possibly befall a man at once. He may have outward straits and inward troubles at the same time, and this is the lowest pitch of misery that a believer can fall into.

Chapter Four

The withholding of God’s assisting grace.

The first sort of desertion is in regard of spiritual life and grace, and it is either real (chapters 4-29), or in appearance only (chapters 30-32).

Concerning this malady and sickness of the soul as it is real, I will treat in this order, handling first, the state of the deserted soul (chapter 41; secondly, the symptoms and consequences (chapters 5-13); thirdly, the causes (chapters 14-17); and fourthly, the cure (chapters 18-29).

First of the state, which may be thus described. We are deserted by God when he suspends or withholds the arbitrary and usual influence of the Spirit of grace.
That I may more perspicuously express the thing, I will take this description in pieces, and explain it in the parts of it. In the description are two things that require opening: the act and the object.

1. The act is God’s suspending. It is a negative act, a non-giving, or putting forth that which was wont to be. It is not the taking of any thing from a man which was inherent, but the denying of something that was assistant; it was not a taking out, but also not a putting in. As when a spigot is stopped or turned, there is no diminution of water in the vessel under it, but only no addition, the vessel is not made emptier, but not fuller. Or, as a child, when he is set down out of his father’s arms is weaker, yet not by any loss of his personal strength, but by the withdrawing of his father’s help. The father does not take away any of the child’s ability, but denies his own aid. So God, when he deserts his servants, withdraws himself and his Spirit, yet so as that we must conceive it not to be a spoiling of what he had planted in them, but a not conferring of that assisting grace which he was in the habit of giving. This will be a little more clear in the next thing.

2. The next thing in the description is the object, or the thing which is withheld from a man in this case, which is the arbitrary or usual influence of the Spirit of grace. Here are three things in the object to be observed:

a.) It is the influence of the Spirit of grace. The presence of the Spirit is one thing, and the influence is another; there may be the former without the latter. The influence may be abated, but the presence never fails. As the soul in the body is ever equal in her habitation, but not in operation, her power not acting, yet her presence continuing.

b.) It is the arbitrary influence of the Spirit which is suspended. There is a two-fold influence of the Spirit, first, necessary and constant; second, arbitrary and inconstant. The necessary influence of the Spirit is never denied; and it is that which God affords his people to life, and so to growth:

(1.) God is ever-present to uphold his saints in life, though diseases may molest them, “yet their feet shall not be moved, they shall not sink” (Psalm 66:9). As that hand of power which wrought in the creation, works still in the preservation of all things (John 5:17), so the Spirit works still, and by a divine power supports the new creature so that it shall not fall back into its first nothing. David found this hand of God staying him in the midst of all his weakness, “Nevertheless, I am continually with thee, thou hast holden me by my right hand” (Psalm 73:23; 17:5).

(2.) So that life being wrought by the Spirit of life never dies, and as the Spirit always works to the conservation of spiritual life, so it is ever working to the growth of grace. A Christian is ever growing; he grows when he seems to himself and others to stand still, or even to decline, yet in reality he is always growing, though not apparently, nor equally. As there are seasons in nature, so in grace. Grace has her springs and autumns, but as nature is ever tending to perfection, so grace is ever ripening and increasing. Even in temptations and desertions, when God seems to leave his people, he is about the work, perfecting the new man. As in the pruning of a tree, there seems to be a kind of diminution and destruction, yet the end and issue of it is better growth; and as the weakening of the body by physick seems to tend to death, yet it produces better health and more strength. And as the ball by falling downward rises upward, and water in pipes descends to ascend, so the new man when he seems to decay is still carried on by the hidden methods of God to increase. The plants are as well profited by the nipping blasts of winter which cause not only the fruits but the leaves to fall, as by the warm beams of sun in summer. A Christian is a member of a thriving body, in which there is no atrophy, but a continual issuing of spirits from the Head (Ephesians 4:16, Colossians 2:19), every part supplied by the effectual working of the Spirit of Christ, so that the influence that tends to life and growth is necessary and certain.

But there is another influence of the Spirit which I call arbitrary, which is given and withheld according to the pleasure of God.

This is assisting grace, or God’s gracious concourse with that habitual grace which he has wrought in his people. I call it arbitrary because, though all grace depends upon and flows from his good pleasure, yet, in this God is free; he has more absolutely promised to conserve and increase holiness than to quicken, actuate, and excite that principle of life. This he does with great variations according to his good pleasure, being more mightily present by the working and actual aid of his Spirit to some than to others, yea, more to the same man at some times, and in some conditions, than in others. Sometimes the same Christian is as a burning and shining light, sometimes as a smoking flax, “the Spirit bloweth where it liketh” (John 3:8). Sometimes he fills the soul with fuller gales, and at other times she is becalmed. A man has more at one time than at another.
This assisting grace is to actuate, regulate, and corroborate:

1. Actuating assistance is that by which God carries his people to action and fruitfulness, causing that inward seed which he has sown to bud and bear.

God works this first by exciting and blowing up that latent spark of grace in the heart. Grace is an active thing, yet needs to be excited, because of the indisposedness of the subject in which it is. As fire, though it is apt to burn, and is very active, yet when it is in wet wood it needs blowing up, because it meets with strong opposition in the subject. Wetness of the wood gives check unto the active spirit of the fire. And besides this contrariety in us, in whom the flesh lusts against the Spirit, so that without assistance we cannot do the good that we would (Galatians 5:17), there is an external impediment, Satan assaulting with all possible quench-coals, that he may cast a damp upon the soul.

Therefore we need to be quickened by a continual influence; and this God is pleased to give to his servants. Jeremiah found this working of the Spirit to quicken and stir up his graces which began to flag. Impatience and passion began to stifle his zeal and readiness in his ministry, but God came in to help him, and blew up the spark; so says he, “It was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forebearing, as I could not stay” (Jeremiah 20:9). When this is denied, there is much deadness, dullness, and slumber in the soul, that a man shall see it is not with him as in former days, when the Lord was more graciously present, and assistant to him.

Actuating assistance is also that which enables us to act. It is not enough that God has given habitual grace, or that we are excited and come to the bud and blossom of holy desires, dispositions, and resolutions, but we still need the help of his power, that these blossoms fail not, so that we may bring forth the fruit of action; as in a tree, there is seminal virtue of bearing, yet except it be helped by the influence of the heavens, it cannot bring forth fruit. “It is God that giveth not only to will, but to do” (Philippians 2:13). There is a “power of God which worketh in those that believe” (Ephesians 1:19; Colossians 1:18), and a Christian’s fruitfulness is according to the working of this power. When God is pleased to put forth his hand to take hold of him, draw him, and enable him, he runs with joy and speed in the ways of God; his affections are inflamed, his heart is prepared, and he is apt to do good and receive good, and walks with delight with God. But when God shuts in his usual mercy, then he walks heavily, and now his soul is full of complaints, ‘l would, but I cannot.’ There are desires and good inclinations, but they do not come to perfection. The soul conceives, and travails with purposes and faith, ‘l will look to my ways that I offend not; I will pray more, and mourn more, and do more,’ but it lacks the strength to bring forth. Therefore the godly cry for help —which they would not need if they had a sufficiency in themselves.

2. Assisting grace regulates and orders a man in doing good. This is necessary, for often there is much readiness and life and aptness to do good, but yet much failing in the manner of it. Therefore the same Spirit that directs us in what we should do also teaches us how to do it. How often are the godly in that case, that they would eagerly humble their souls and afflict themselves, yet know not how to do it? How often bent to other duties, yet know not how to do them in a spiritual manner? What the apostle says of one duty is true of all, “We know not how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26). Therefore the Spirit “helpeth our infirmities,” and by a gracious conduct leads us, that we walk aright. As the master guides the hand of a young writer to write according to his copy, and as the father, in leading his child, draws him because he is unwilling, helps him because he is weak, and guides him because he is apt to lose his way, so God is said not only to draw (Song of Solomon 1:4; John 6:44), and to help (Romans 8:26), but to order and direct his people (Psalm 37:23, 119:133; 2 Thessalonians 3:5). A ship may be rigged and have a fitness to sail, but it may still lack a wind to move it, and a pilot to guide it.

3. Assisting grace will often corroborate and fortify in some eminent difficulty. Suppose a man is mightily assaulted by some strong lust, being presented with the occasion, opportunity, and Satan’s strong power. In such a case God is wont to underprop and shore up the soul with strong aid. How could a bruised reed otherwise stand against such a blast? A father, when he sees his child is likely to be devoured by some ravenous creature, makes supply of the child’s weakness by his own strength.

The apostle St. Paul was in some great temptation; Satan had shot some arrow at him, but God suffered him not to fall, but held him up, that his grace should be sufficient for him (2 Corinthians 12:9). At another time Satan took up other weapons, assaulting him with the terrors of troubles and of death. He brought in an emperor against him whose power and majesty he thought might have destroyed him, but God was a pillar of strength to render him not moved. All men left him, but God did not leave him, “The Lord stood by me, and strengthened me” (2 Timothy 4:17).

In afflictions and hard sorrows this assistance is also wont to be afforded. The same apostle also found God here. He was put to many a hard shift for his living, having passed through nakedness, hunger, thirst, and want which were able to have broken the heart of man, but the apostle says, “I am able to do all things through Christ that strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13).

Thus God is wont to stand by his servants in hard brunts. But when he comes not with supplies and aid, they fail and faint; temptations overcome them, distresses overwhelm them, difficulties daunt them.

Thus we see what that arbitrary influence of the Spirit is. But there is another thing to be observed, that desertion is a suspension of the arbitrary influence which we were wont to enjoy. For note, there is a twofold influence, or assistance: first, extraordinary; secondly, ordinary.

First. The extraordinary is, when in some extraordinary case God comes in with more abundant help, leading the soul in triumph over all assaults, mightily corroborating, not only valiantly to withstand them, but also gloriously to conquer them. This, as it comes upon extraordinary occasion, so it usually ceases with it, and the ceasing of it is not desertion.

Second. The ordinary assistance is that which usually a man has in the course of his life; when this is abated and withdrawn, then a man is deserted. A man in this condition is not what he was wont; not so cheerful, ready, conversant in doing good, when he does not, nor can do as he was wont, as time has been when he lived more with God. Now his heart is fallen from the heavenly communion with him. He could formerly mourn bitterly in the remembrance of his sins, but now the heart is frozen and cannot relent. He could have prayed with much affection and holy boldness, but now the heart is cooled, weakened, straitened, indisposed, and so forth. When it fares thus with man, he is deserted.

But here I will add a few advertisements to guide the judgment in this point of God’s withdrawing his assistance.

1. God never denies it wholly to a faithful soul. Though some degrees of divine help may be denied so that the soul languishes in a sort, sinking into a state of deadness and dullness, yet even there is life, and that both habitual and actual. God’s clock never stands still, there is no such deliquium gratiae, no such swoon of the new man in which all acts do cease. It may be so ill with a Christian that he may fall from his first love (in the acts of it) in a great measure (Revelation 2:4-5). He may be much impaired, that there may seem to be but the remains of what was before, and these remains also may be ready to die (Revelation 3:1-2). But God will not quite depart; he will keep the root, and the seed of God shall remain in him (1 John 3:9). Yea, and the husband-man is ever in some measure dressing, and pruning, and watering the branches of his vine (John 15:2, Isaiah 27:3), so that though they may bear less fruit sometimes, yet at all times they bear some. A Christian may do less, but still he does something, for though he may lose some help from God, yet not all.

If he cannot believe with the fullness of assurance and joy as before, yet he can pray; or if he cannot pray as he has done, yet he can sigh, and groan, and mourn. As a spring underground, if it is stopped in one place, breaks up in another, so the Spirit of grace, if it is stopped in some parts, yet it shows itself in others. Though the sun yield not an equal comfort to the plants, yet a constant comfort; it retires sometimes in part, but never wholly. Yea God often withholds his quickening virtue from some grace for the perfecting and quickening of another. He sometimes leaves faith in a poor estate, much darkened and clouded with unbelief and atheism, in order to raise up fear, awaken to watchfulness, or enrich with spiritual poverty, so that the soul may mourn more seriously and seek more earnestly after God. Sometimes he takes off his hand that held down some present lust, and permits it to show itself in monstrous shape and rage, so as to pull down pride and advance humility, and put the soul more to see to be strong in God.

2. It is not every degree of suspension of assisting grace that lays a man in this former estate as one forsaken of God. But desertion is an eminent abatement of it, so that there is an eminent decay of affection and fruitfulness, and an eminent increase of darkness and lust. A child cannot be said to be forsaken by his father when he lessens somewhat the height and fullness of his maintenance, but when he keeps him from necessary things, allowing him to wander up and down, to go ragged and torn, pinched and wasted with hunger and cold, and does not relieve him, though the son sue and entreat him to pity him. You may say that God has deserted you when he leaves you under the pressures of unbelief, and the power of corruption, and even though you cry and call, supplies are restrained, and you are permitted to walk “in the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4).

3. Desertion is not to be judged by a partial indisposedness and deadness, but when it is universal. Not all suspension of grace makes this mournful state, for as I have shown, sometimes God hides himself from one part for the quickening of another, and may be most abundantly present where he seems in great measure departed, as I shall show hereafter. But when a man is overgrown with deadness which spreads over the whole man, so that he is now less in affection, less in action, yea unmeet, unwilling, unapt to all good, and the means of good, being abated in all his former life and lustre, then he is deserted. There may be indisposedness to some duties, from sundry causes, but when a man is less in all, then he is in this woeful state.

4. Not every interruption of communion with God, nor every present distemper and indisposedness, argues God to have withdrawn himself. There may be cold blasts, stormy weather, troubled air, and dark clouds in the spring, yea even in the summer season. A man cannot conclude from some present chilliness, or benummedness of spirit, or from some storms of impetuous lusts, that he is deserted. The deadness of a deserted soul is not transient, but an abiding deadness, not a slumber, but a sleep; not a fit, but a state of spiritual benummedness. As a mother is not said to forsake her child that goes away and returns quickly, so desertion is not a present short abatement of God’s quickening presence, but a continued cessation for some space of time. It may be long.