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“ Bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of
Christ.” 2 Corinthians x. 5.
1. But will God so “bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ,” that no wandering thought will find a place in the mind, even while we remain in the body ? So some have vehemently maintained ; yea, have affirmed that none are perfected in love unless they are so far perfected in understanding, that all wandering thoughts are done away ; unless not only every affection and temper be holy and just and good, but every individual thought which , arises in the mind be wise and regular.
2. This is a question of no small importance. For how many of those who fear God, yea, and love him, perhaps with all their heart, have been greatly distressed on this account ! How many, by not understanding it right, have not only been distressed, but greatly hurt in their souls ;-cast into unprofitable, yea, mischievous reasonings, such as slackened their motion towards God, and weakened them in running the race set before them! Nay, many, through misapprehensions of this very thing, have cast away the precious gift of God. They have been induced, first to doubt of, and then to deny, the work God had wrought in their souls ; and hereby have grieved the Spirit of God, till he withdrew and left them in utter darkness !
3. How is it then, that amidst the abundance of books which have been lately published almost on all subjects, we should have none upon wandering thoughts ? at least none that will at all satisfy a calm and serious mind ? In order to do this in some degree, I purpose to inquire,
I. What are the several sorts of wandering thoughts ?
IV. Which of them we may expect and pray to be delivered from?
I. 1. I purpose to inquire, First, What are the several sorts of wandering thoughts ? The particular sorts are innumerable ; but, in general, they are of two sorts: Thoughts that wander from God; and thoughts that wander from the particular point we have in hand.
2. With regard to the former, all our thoughts are naturally of this kind : For they are continually wandering from God: We think nothing about him : God is not in all our thoughts : We are, one and all, as the Apostle observes, “ without God in the world.” We think of what we love; but we do not love God; therefore, we think not of him. Or, if we are now and then constrained to think of him for a time, yet as we have no pleasure therein, nay, rather, as these thoughts are not only insipid, but distasteful and irksome to us, we drive them out as soon as we can, and return to what we love to think of. So that the world, and the things of the world, what we shall eat, what we shall drink, what we shall put on,---what we shall see, what we shall hear, what we shall gain,--how we shall please our senses or our imagination,—takes up all our time, and engrosses all our thought. So long, therefore, as we love the world ; that is, so long as we are in our natural state ; all our thoughts, from morning to evening, and from evening to morning, are no other than wandering thoughts.
3. But many times we are not only " without God in the world,” but also fighting against him; as there is in every man by nature a "carnal mind which is enmity against God:” No wonder, therefore, that men abound with unbelieving thoughts ; either saying in their hearts, " There is no God," or questioning, if not denying, his power or wisdom, his mercy, or justice, or holiness. No wonder, that they so often doubt of his providence, at least, of its extending to all events; or that, even though they allow it, they still entertain murmuring or repining thoughts. Nearly related to these, and frequently connected with them, are proud and vain imaginations. Again : Sometimes they are taken up with angry, malicious, or revengeful thoughts ; at other times, with airy scenes of pleasure, whether of sense or imagination; whereby the earthy, sensual mind becomes more earthy and sensual still. Now by all these they make flat war with God : These are wandering thoughts of the highest kind. 4. Widely different from these are the other sort of wandering thoughts ; in which the heart does not wander from God, but the understanding wanders from the particular point it had then in view. For instance: I sit down to consider those words in the verse preceding the text: “ The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God.” I think, “ This ought to be the case with all that are called Christians. . But how far is it otherwise! Look round into almost every part of what is termed the Christian world. What manner of weapons are these using ? In what kind of warfare are they engaged ;
i While men, like fiends, each other tear,
In all the hellish rage of war ? See how these Christians love one another! Wherein are they preferable to Turks and Pagans ? What abomination can be found among Mahometans or Heathens which is not found among Christians also ?” And thus my mind runs off, before I am aware, from one circumstance to another. Now, all these are, in some sense, wandering thoughts: For although they do not wander from God, much less fight against him, yet they do wander from the particular point I had in view.
II. Such is the nature, such are the sorts (to speak rather usefully than philosophically) of wandering thoughts. But what are the general occasions of them ? This we are, in the Second place, to consider.
1. And it is easy to observe, that the occasion of the former sort of thoughts, which oppose or wander from God, are, in general, sinful tempers. For instance: Why is not God in all the thoughts, in any of the thoughts, of a natural man ? For a plain reason: Be he rich or poor, learned or unlearned, he is an Atheist; (though not vulgarly so called ;) he neither knows nor loves God. Why are his thoughts continually wandering after the world? Because he is an idolater. He does not indeed worship an image, or bow down to the stock of a tree; yet is he sunk into equally damnable idolatry: He loves, that is, worships, the world. He seeks happiness in the things that are seen, in the pleasures that perish in the using. Why is it that his thoughts are perpetually wandering from the very end of his being, the knowledge of God in Christ? Because he is an unbeliever; because he has no faith ; or, at least, no more than a devil. So all these wandering thoughts easily and naturally spring from that evil root of unbelief.
2. The case is the same in other instances : Pride, anger, revenge, vanity, lust, covetousness, every one of them occasions thoughts suitable to its own nature. And so does every sinful temper of which the human mind is capable. The particulars it is hardly possible, nor is it needful, to enumerate: It suffices to observe, that as many evil tempers as find a place in any soul, so many ways that soul will depart from God, by the worst kind of wandering thoughts.
3. The occasions of the latter kind of wandering thoughts are exceeding various. Multitudes of them are occasioned by the natural union between the soul and body. How immediately and how deeply is the understanding affected by a diseased body! Let but the blood move irregularly in the brain, and all regular thinking is at an end. Raging madness ensues; and then farewell to all evenness of thought. Yea, let only the spirits be hurried or agitated to a certain degree, and a temporary madness, a delirium, prevents all settled thought. And is not the same irregularity of thought, in a measure, occasioned by every nervous disorder ? So does “ the corruptible body press down the soul, and cause it to muse about many things."
4. But does it only cause this in the time of sickness or preternatural disorder ? Nay, but more or less, at all times, even in a state of perfect health. Let a man be ever so healthy, he will be more or less delirious every four-and-twenty hours. For does he not sleep? And while he sleeps, is he not liable to dream? And who then is master of his own thoughts, or able to preserve the order and consistency of them? Who can then keep them fixed to any one point, or prevent their wandering from pole to pole ?
5. But suppose we are awake, are we always so awake that we can steadily govern our thoughts ? Are we not unavoidably exposed to contrary extremes, by the very nature of this machine, the body ? Sometimes we are too heavy, too dull and languid, to pursue any chain of thought. Sometimes, on the other hand, we are too lively. The imagination, without leave, starts to and fro, and carries us away hither and thither, whether we will or no; and all this from the merely natural motion of the spirits, or vibration of the nervęs.
6. Farther: How many wanderings of thought may arise from those various associations of our ideas which are made entirely without our knowledge, and independently on our
choice? How these connexions are formed, we cannot tell; but they are formed in a thousand different manners. Nor is it in the power of the wisest or holiest of men to break those associations, or prevent what is the necessary consequence of them, and matter of daily observation. Let the fire but touch one end of the train, and it immediately runs on to the other.
7. Once more: Let us fix our attention as studiously as we are able on any subject, yet let either pleasure or pain arise, especially if it be intense, and it will demand our immediate attention, and attach our thought to itself. It will interrupt the steadiest contemplation, and divert the mind from its favourite subject.
8. These occasions of wandering thoughts lie within, are wrought into our very nature. But they will likewise naturally and necessarily arise from the various impulse of outward objects. Whatever strikes upon the organ of sense, the eye or ear, will raise a perception in the mind. And, accordingly, whatever we see or hear will break in upon our former train of thought. Every man, therefore, that does anything in our sight, or speaks anything in our hearing, occasions our mind to wander, more or less, from the point it was thinking of before.
9. And there is no question but those evil spirits who are continually seeking whom they may devour make use of all the foregoing occasions to hurry and distract our minds. Sometimes by one, sometimes by another, of these means, they will harass and perplex us, and, so far as God permits, interrupt our thoughts, particularly when they are engaged on the best subjects. Nor is this at all strange: They well understand the very springs of thought; and know on which of the bodily organs the imagination, the understanding, and every other faculty of the mind more immediately depends. And hereby they know how, by affecting those organs, to affect the operations dependent on them. Add to this, that they can inject a thousand thoughts, without any of the preceding means; it being as natural for spirit to act upon spirit, as for matter to act upon matter. These things being considered, we cannot admire that our thought so often wanders from any point which we have in view.
III. 1. What kind of wandering thoughts are sinful, and what not, is the Third thing to be inquired into. And, First, all those thoughts which wander from God, which leave him no room in our minds, are undoubtedly sinful. For all these imply