Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,
says Yahweh of Hosts. Zechariah 4:6
Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors,
That the King of Glory may come in! Who is this King of Glory?
Yahweh of Hosts: He is the King of Glory. Psalm 24:9-10
"I hate vain thoughts, but I love your law."
Love was originally created for God and his law; hatred for sin. But the fall of man has reversed everything. Now man loves what he ought to hate and hates what he ought to love. It is the work of Divine grace to restore these affections to their original purpose--hating vain thoughts and loving God's law.
There are few who think of taking responsibility for their thoughts. It is as if their thoughts were too trifling to be held to any solemn account. The enlightened soul, however, learns to make his thoughts a matter of conscientious examination, for they are the seminal principle of sin. "Then Yahweh saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5). How can a radical remedy be applied?
Vain thoughts are the natural product of the unrenewed heart, and of the yet-unrenewed part of the believer's heart. Knowing all that a spiritual walk entails yet aware of the plague of our own heart, is there one among us who does not constantly complain of the poisonous influence of vain thoughts? The child of God longs that his every thought would be brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. Yet, like the Apostle Paul, he finds that there is another law "warring against the law of his mind," so that when he desires to do good, evil is present with him. How often do we come before the Lord in sacred pursuits with a mind free of distraction, only to find our thoughts wandering off--and often many times! Sin seems to enter into every pore of our soul, and a cloud of vain thoughts darkens every avenue to communion with God. We would gladly say, "My heart is steadfast," but instead we find our affections wandering. It is as if there were no object of Divine attraction to our soul. But do we hear the worldly man, or indeed the servant of God in his worldly employments, complaining of this burden? No! To these deep, important and anxious concerns of the world he can bring all the intensity and singleness of attention required. Indeed, the wily adversary would rather assist than hinder this concentration of mind in order to divert the soul from the far more momentous and interesting subjects of eternity. Never do the "sons of God come to present themselves before the Lord" except "Satan comes also among them" (Job 1:6).
Vain thoughts are the never-ending hindrances to our spiritual communion with God. Are we aware of the subtlety, and therefore the peculiar danger, of this temptation? We instinctively recoil from an enticement to open transgression. The incursion of defiling or blasphemous thoughts would be such a burden that we would "have no rest in our spirit" while they remained undisturbed within us. But neither of these temptations are so formidable, perhaps, as the crowd of thoughts of every kind that incessantly run to and fro in the mind. Although these vain thoughts may not be actually sinful in themselves, yet the indulgence of them just as effectually restrains the soul from communion with God as the most hateful and defiling ones. They are "the little foxes that spoil the tender grapes." They can be even spiritual in their nature yet vain in their propensity, because the mind is diverted by them from some positive duty. Satan, the great enemy, has carefully planned and, indeed, intended that they should do so.
Who has not experienced the intrusion of a random thought, albeit serious, at an inopportune time? It may consequently become a vain thought, for it is able to divide one's attention between two activities so that neither of them are wholly done, partially done, or done at all. We may all profit by Greenham's advice for dealing with distractions: If they brought any past sin to mind for his humiliation, or any comfort to excite his thankfulness, or any instruction suitable to the present moment, then he took them to be of God. But if they drew his mind away from his present duty to wander after other subjects, then he suspected their source and girded himself to prayer for increasing steadiness in applying himself to the task at hand. Being asked to account for distractions in holy meditations, he said they were due either to a lack of preparing and sanctifying the heart by prayer before setting upon so holy an exercise (and therefore a rebuke from the Lord for "presumption in being bold to work upon holy matters in our own strength"), or else a dependence upon a general purpose of thinking good or restraining evil without seriously fastening our mind upon the objective (leaving part of the mind void for other matters). When any complained to him of blasphemous thoughts, he would say, "Do not fear them, but abhor them." If at any time "iniquity has been regarded in the heart," if the world in any of its thousand forms has regained a temporary ascendancy, or if lusting imaginations are not constantly held in as with bit and bridle, these vain thoughts, ever ready to force their entrance, will at such times take advantage of us. Restless in their workings they keep no sabbaths and can only be successfully opposed by a watchful and unceasing warfare.
In the midst of this continual trial, it may indeed be sometimes difficult to maintain a clear sense of our adoption in Christ. But here is the distinctive mark of Christian sincerity: Do we have a heartfelt hatred for vain thoughts, seeing them as exceedingly sinful in the sight of God, hurtful to our own souls, and contrary to our new nature? If we cannot altogether prevent their entrance, are we careful not to invite them in and entertain them? Are we diligent in preventing them from taking up residence? If so, this active hatred is then a satisfactory proof that vain thoughts are not so much the natural suggestion of the heart as they are the arrows of the enemy of our peace. Since they are directly opposed to our better will and new nature, we may say with the Apostle Paul, "Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me" (Rom. 7:20). Our affliction and battle with vain thoughts prove that they dwell with us not as welcome guests or a member of the family, but as thieves and robbers. What constitutes our sin is their indulgence; their indwelling may be considered only our temptation.
Vain thoughts supply continual matter for watchfulness, humiliation, and resistance. Yet so long as they are abhorred and resisted we may regard them as our infirmities rather than our iniquities, and they therefore leave no stain of actual guilt upon the conscience. An increasing awareness of the sinfulness of sin and the extent of Christian duty will indeed result in deeper aggravations of vain thoughts and require more persevering opposition. Still, however, even while we groan under their defiling and distracting influence, we may in our best services to God be confident that he will spare us "as a man spares his own son who serves him" (Mal. 3:17). God will gather up the broken parts of our prayers with merciful acceptance.
Even though we are secure from the condemnation of vain thoughts, the subjugation of this evil is a matter of deepest concern. Forget not--oh, may the impression be indelible!--that it was for such vain thoughts that the Savior was nailed to the cross. Therein lies the ground for self-loathing and the quickening principle for battle. Let the heart, the seat of this evil disease, be continually washed in the cleansing blood of Calvary. Until the corrupt fountain is cleansed, it must ever send forth bitter waters. Let our hearts be diligently kept and carefully filled so that they may be a good treasure bringing forth good things. Let us maintain a continuous watch together with an unflinching adherence to plain and obvious duty. When our efforts seem so polluted that they appear rather to mock God than to worship him, we may be tempted to abandon them for a time. But this temptation must be met and defeated at the very start. Once entertained, Satan will work to keep us from any approach back to God.
Christian reader, if we cannot advance as we could wish, let us advance as we can. When vain thoughts intrude, let us not surrender but change our path of resistance. Let us substitute sighs, desires, tears and groanings for words, casting ourselves upon God in the simple confidence of faith: "Lord, all my desire is before you, and my sighing is not hidden from you" (Ps. 38:9.) "You number my wanderings. Put my tears into your bottle; are they not in your book?" It is far better to wander in duty than from it. For if any duty be neglected on account of the defilement that is mingled with it, then we must neglect every other duty for the same reason. The final consequence would be the abolishment of the worship of God from the earth.
Much of our successful warfare depends upon an accurate and well-digested acquaintance with our own hearts, upon a discovery of the bias of the mind in our unoccupied moments, and upon a knowledge of the peculiar times and circumstances that issue in the strongest temptation. Once this is known, set a double watch against those doors by which the enemy has been accustomed to find his most convenient and unobstructed entrance.
But we must not forget the effective means suggested by David's experience--the love of God's law. This is where we find our native enmity against God; not against God as the Creator but as the Law-giver, and therefore against his law as the dictate of his will. What is the power of grace that subdues this enmity? That I not only fear, and therefore through fear keep God's law, but that I love God's law. And he who loves a holy law cannot but hate a vain thought. For if the law be the transcript of the image of God, the thoughts affectionately drawn out towards him must naturally fix the image of the beloved friend upon the mind, and by a sweet constraint fasten down the thoughts to Divine contemplation. Do we soar with an elevating love for the Savior? Do we find our hearts recoiling from their worldly employments by frequent glances and flights toward the object of our desire? Will not this communion of love gradually mold the soul into a fixed delight, arousing our hatred for vain thoughts and strengthening our resistance to every sinful affection? As surely as love to the law stirs up the powers of the renewed man, so shall spiritual wickedness be abhorred, contested, and overcome.
These defilements will remain with us, only to die with the last breathings of the old man. Though crucified indeed and expiring, the old nature struggles with fearful strength and unabated enmity to the end. Let these defilements serve only as humbling mementos of our unclean nature, "shapen in iniquity, and conceived in sin," as well as invigorating anticipations of that blessed place where nothing "shall in no wise enter that defiles." There vain thoughts and whatever else that separates us from our God will be unknown forever. Meanwhile, let them endear to us the free justification of the Gospel. Let them lead us daily and hourly to the fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness. Let them magnify in our view that heavenly intercession which provides for the perfect cleansing and accepting of services even such as ours.
Blessed contemplation! Jesus prays for us, but not as we do for ourselves. His intercession is without distraction, without interruption! If we are so dead that we cannot pray, so guilty that we dare not pray, so wandering in our vain thoughts that our prayers appear to be scattered to the winds instead of ascending to heaven, then remember that Jesus is always there to speak for us. Let us be encouraged by the Father's testimony, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." With such hopes, motives, and encouragements, let us "continue instant in prayer," supplicating our Lord with restless importunity that his omnipotent love would take hold of these hearts which every moment sin and Satan seem ready to seize. At the same time, conscious of our hatred of every interruption to his service and of the simplicity of our affection to his holy law, let us hold fast that confidence before him which will issue in perfect peace and established consolation.
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