: Devotional Life

The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards, part 2

Part one can be read here.

The principal means by which Jonathan Edwards expressed the “true and gracious longings after holiness” of which he spoke in Religious Affections was through the practice of the spiritual disciplines he found in Scripture. Edwards’s God, he believed, was self-revealed in the Bible, and that “the Scriptures are the word and work of a divine mind.” Thus the Bible was the centerpiece of his devotional piety.

But Edwards did not merely read Scripture, rather he meditated on and prayerfully studied it by the hour. This is plainly evidenced by the abundant fruit of these practices represented in the works cited previously. Throughout his life, the Bible was the supreme means by which Edwards sought to know and experience God and to pursue conformity to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Edwards’s devotional meditation on Scripture was inevitably intermingled with prayer, especially in the late afternoon when it was his habit to “walk for divine contemplation and prayer.” But Edwards also prayed alone in his study, as well as with his children and with Sarah, as noted in the previous post. He did the same with church members who came seeking his counsel or with young ministers living as interns in his home. Samuel Hopkins, an early biographer of Edwards who was one of those pastoral interns, indicates that sometimes Edwards devoted entire days to prayer.

Next to a hunger for the Bible, Edwards believed that the most important indicator of a person’s relationship to God or, conversely, the absence thereof, was prayer. This is revealed in his sermon, “Hypocrites Deficient in the Duty of Prayer.” In Edwards’s personal piety, prayer was planned, but it was also informal; it was scheduled, yet it was also spontaneous—all on a daily basis. In terms of method, Edwards spoke of prayer mostly as propositional communication, that is, addressing God with rational thought.

Beyond the essential elements of meditation on Scripture and prayer, Edwards’s piety was frequently characterized by worshipful song. Especially when walking alone late in the day he found that “it always seemed natural . . . to sing or chant forth my meditations.”

Much of Edwards’ devotional life was somehow connected with writing. Whether in his “Diary,” “Miscellanies,” “Notes on Scripture,” or “Blank Bible,” Edwards frequently recorded insights that occurred to him as he meditated on Scripture, creation, or God’s providence. Today such practices would sometimes be designated a type of “journaling.”

Another aspect of Edwards’s devotional piety was fasting, that is, abstaining from one or more meals for spiritual purposes. Hopkins observed that Edwards frequently fasted, and Edwards himself wrote, “fasting is a part of Christian worship.” Occasionally he declared “fast days” for the Northampton congregation.

All the aforementioned disciplines practiced by Edwards—reading and meditating on Scripture, praying, worshipful singing, spiritual diary and devotional writing, and fasting—occurred in the context of his discipline of God-focused solitude. It may be that Edwards’s pastoral ministry suffered due to his preference for solitude, nevertheless he steadfastly maintained, “It is the nature of true grace, that however it loves Christian society in its place, yet it in a peculiar manner delights in retirement, and secret converse with God.”

Though little has been written of it, Edwards’ devotional piety extended to his immediate family. As previously mentioned, he read Scripture with his wife and children each morning and prayed with them more than once daily. By this means he practiced in his home what he preached from his pulpit: “A Christian family is as it were a little church.”

Edwards was persuaded that God had most clearly revealed himself—his nature, attributes, and will—in Scripture, and that to know God in an increasingly intimate way necessitated a biblically-saturated piety. He never appeared to question the methods of spirituality located in the biblical text, nor did he seem to find them unsatisfying or ineffective in his pursuit of God. To be sure, he did not limit his encounters with God’s presence to the pages of the Bible, for Edwards constantly looked to see and savor the revelation of God in creation as per Romans 1:20. And yet, as often and as deeply as he rejoiced in the glory of God in creation, Edwards never allowed this to take precedence in his piety over the specific revelation of God found in Scripture.

Edwards’s piety was a manifestation of his view that this life should be lived in preparation for eternity. He believed passionately in the existence of heaven and hell as taught in the Bible, that true and everlasting joy was found only in the presence of God in heaven, and that life on earth should be spent in the pursuit of and preparation for happiness in the coming world. For Edwards, the primary means of experiencing God in this life, and the wisest way to use his time, and the best method of preparing for eternity was to devote as much time as possible to biblical piety.

 

Original artwork by Caffy Whitney

For more about Jonathan Edwards and his spirituality:

god_entranced_vision

A God-Entranced Vision of All Things—The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. Don’s contribution to this book is the chapter on “Pursuing a Passion for God Through Spiritual Disciplines: Learning from Jonathan Edwards.”

Edwards_Solitude

Finding God in Solitude: The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and It’s Influence on His Pastoral Ministry. This is a popularization of Don’s Ph.D. dissertation. It is so expensive because it was published by an academic press and with a small print run.

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[1] Namely his “Diary,” “Miscellanies,” and “Notes on Scripture.” We can also conjecture about Edwards’s own devotional habits from the commendation he gives to the missionary’s piety in The Life of David Brainerd, the counsel provided in his letter to Deborah Hatheway, the content of various sermons, the notes in his “Blank Bible,” and especially from the testimony in his Personal Narrative—the single best autobiographical resource on Edwards’s piety.

 


The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards, part 1

Broadly defined, “piety” refers to the aggregate of a person’s distinctly Christian beliefs and actions. Here Jonathan Edwards’s piety is considered in the more narrow sense of devotional piety, that is, those private practices intended to focus the heart and mind of the individual believer upon God and to develop authentic Christian beliefs, motives, and actions.

Although Edwards’s general Christian piety was exemplary, his personal devotional piety was exceptional, both in breadth and depth. It was grounded in Scripture, influenced by the patterns of his father Timothy and grandfather Solomon Stoddard—both of whom were pastors—and consistent with that of the ministers in Puritan England and New England through whom Edwards traced his theological lineage.

Even as a child Edwards sometimes manifested unusual inclinations toward devotional habits. Although he’d not yet experienced the converting influence of the “Divine and Supernatural Light” he would famously preach about in 1733, as a boy there was a period of months when he would “pray five times a day in secret,” often in a booth built for the purpose in a swamp.

After his conversion (1721) at age 17 his devotional duties became delights. He reported that now he “went to prayer, 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.” He also began to experience “the greatest delight in the holy Scriptures, of any book whatsoever.” In the Bible he “seemed often to see so much light, exhibited by every sentence, and such a refreshing ravishing food communicated.”

Within months Edwards “solemnly vowed to take God for my whole portion and felicity; looking on nothing else as any part of my happiness, nor acting as if it were.” He built his life around disciplines that helped him pursue the enjoyment of God and cultivate happiness in him.

At 18, for example, he began the lifelong practice where he “very frequently used to retire into a solitary place, . . . for contemplation on divine things, and secret converse with God; and had many sweet hours there.” About the same time (no later than 1722) Edwards began his “Diary,” the volume containing his “Resolutions.”

In terms of daily routine, Edwards’s piety began each morning between four or five when by candlelight he would read the Bible and pray. Marsden says that afterward Edwards would lead his family in prayer and that “each meal was accompanied by household devotions.” At the close of each day, Sarah and Jonathan would pray together in his study.

Most every day of Edwards’s life was spent at home, and most of that time he worked in his study. A legendary line from Samuel Hopkins, who as a first-hand observer wrote of Edwards, “He commonly spent thirteen hours every day in his study.”

While the specific details and processes of Edwards’s devotional methods remain hidden behind his study door, we can draw the general contours of his personal spirituality from resources produced there such as his “Diary,” “Miscellanies,” and “Notes on Scripture.” We can also conjecture about Edwards’s own devotional habits from the commendation he gives to the missionary’s piety in The Life of David Brainerd, the counsel provided in his letter to Deborah Hatheway, the content of various sermons, the notes in his “Blank Bible,” and especially from the testimony in his Personal Narrative—the single best autobiographical resource on Edwards’s piety.

To read Edwards’s own account of his private spirituality, read his Personal Narrative. Believed to be a response to an inquiry about his testimony of his walk with God by his son-in-law, Aaron Burr, Sr. (president of Princeton University and father of Aaron Burr, Jr., who is best known for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel) it is by far my personal favorite among Edwards’s writings. It’s less than thirteen pages of volume 16 in the Yale edition of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, a collection of seventy-three volumes found in their entirety and fully searchable at edwards.yale.edu.

Part two is found in the next post.

 

Original artwork by Caffy Whitney

For more about Jonathan Edwards and his spirituality:

god_entranced_vision

A God-Entranced Vision of All Things—The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. My contribution to this book is the chapter on “Pursuing a Passion for God Through Spiritual Disciplines: Learning from Jonathan Edwards.”

Edwards_Solitude

Finding God in Solitude: The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and It’s Influence on His Pastoral Ministry. This is a popularization of my Ph.D. dissertation. It is so expensive because it was published by an academic press and with a small print run.

 

The 1-and-1 Count in the Devotional Life

As a lifelong baseball fan and a player from Little League through college, I love “inside baseball.” I’m captivated by the minutiae, strategy, and nuances of the game that are a bit too esoteric for most people’s interests.

So I really enjoyed a Sports Illustrated[1] article that contained an intriguing take on a particular statistic. I found it so interesting that it prompted me to think of a parallel in the Christian life.

The article centered on one of the most successful pitchers in baseball, Max Scherzer, formerly with the Detroit Tigers and now the Opening Day starter for the Washington Nationals.

Whenever a pitcher and hitter face each other, there are twelve possible ball-strike counts in any given at bat. For example, if the first pitch is a strike, the count is 0-1, that is, no balls and one strike. If the next pitch is a ball, then the count is 1-1, or one ball and one strike. The highest possible count is 3-2, or a “full” count.

Conventional baseball wisdom has long maintained that the first pitch is the most important. In other words, to throw a first pitch strike is the single most determinative thing a pitcher can do to tip the balance in his favor.

But Scherzer became fascinated in college by data from his coaches who challenged the long-held assumptions and maintained that the 1-1 count was more decisive. They persuaded him that throwing a strike on a 1-1 count is statistically more likely to lead to an out than a first pitch strike.

That doesn’t mean that a pitcher should try to get to a 1-1 count then throw a strike. Indeed, Scherzer wants to throw as many first pitch strikes as possible. Rather, whenever the ball/strike count does get to 1-1, Scherzer believes the next pitch is the most important one in that particular at-bat and he focuses all the more on throwing a strike.

In 2013, Scherzer threw strikes 74.3% of the time on 1-1 counts, highest in the majors. Coincidentally, he won the 2013 Cy Young Award honoring him as the best pitcher in the American League.[2]

Assuming you aren’t a major league pitcher, what’s the 1-and-1 count in what you do? Though you want to do many things with excellence (Scherzer wants every pitch to go where he wants), what’s the most determinative moment—perhaps one that occurs many times daily—in your everyday routines when things will most likely tip in your favor or against you?

How about in your personal spirituality? What’s the difference-maker? For me, it’s meditation on Scripture. If I merely read or listen to the Bible, but do not intentionally take at least five minutes to meditate on Scripture, I usually profit very little from my devotional exercises. But if I can “throw a strike” at that juncture and meditate on a text of Scripture without distraction for five minutes or more, I am much more likely to sense the presence of God through the Scripture, to be edified through the passage, and remember that text throughout the day.

When I meditate on Scripture I am also much more consistent in prayer—meaningful, heartfelt prayer. Meditation on a passage of Scripture tends to eventually turn into praying the passage, talking to God about what He says in His Word. This makes every prayer time fresh and unique, and usually warms the natural coldness of my heart in prayer.

May the Lord give me the resolve and consistency with meditation on Scripture in my daily devotional life that Max Scherzer has for throwing strikes in a 1-and-1 count.

 

 

For more on the biblical basis of meditation on Scripture and how to do it, see pages 46-69 in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life as well as pages 62-73 in Simplify Your Spiritual Life.

 

[1] Albert Chen, “Mad Max,” Sports Illustrated, April 29, 2014, 28-32.

[2] Scherzer was with the Detroit Tigers at the time. He signed with the Nationals as a free agent after the 2014 season.

Bible Reading Record

Jesus often asked questions about people’s understanding of the Scriptures, sometimes beginning with the words, “Have you not read . . . ?” He assumed that those claiming to be the people of God would have read the Word of God. And a case can be made that this question implies a familiarity with the entire Word of God.

When Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4), surely He intended at the very least for us to read “every word,” for how can we “live . . . by every word that comes from the mouth of God” if we’ve never even read “every word that comes from the mouth of God”?

Since “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), shouldn’t we read it?[1]

Below you’ll find a link to a tool to help you do just that. The Bible Reading Record is formatted for front and back of a 5.5 x 8.5 inch page, which means it can be used as a bulletin insert, or hole-punched to fit into many daily planners, journals, notebooks, etc.

The front page is for the Old Testament, the back is for the New. Each book of the Bible is listed. Beside each is a set of numbers which corresponds to the number of chapters for that book.  For example, since there are fifty chapters in Genesis, beside the word “Genesis” you’ll find “1 2 3 4 5 . . . 50.” As you read each chapter, mark through it on the Bible Reading Record.

Another option is to copy-and-paste the file to your phone (to the “Notes” app, for example), tablet, or computer and delete the numbers representing chapters of the Bible as you read them. So after you read Genesis chapters 1 and 2, you delete the numbers 1 and 2 after the word “Genesis.” On your next reading, the first number you see in Genesis is 3, which tells you that you’re to begin reading at Genesis 3. If you don’t want to delete the numbers, you could italicize them. This will help you keep track of your progress.

I recommend reading through the entire Bible once each year, and perhaps the New Testament a second time. You can read all sixty-six books of God’s Word in twelve months merely by reading three chapters each day and five on the Lord’s Day. You can read the New Testament in less than three months at this pace.

My favorite plan involves reading in five places each day. I begin in Genesis (the Law), Joshua (History), Job (Poetry), Isaiah (the Prophets), and Matthew (the New Testament) and read an equal number of chapters in each section. A variation of this plan is to read in three places daily starting in Genesis, Job, and Matthew, respectively. The three sections are roughly the same in length, so you will finish them all about the same time.

The real advantage of such a design is in its variety. Many who intend to read straight through the Bible become confused in Leviticus, discouraged in Numbers, and give up completely by Deuteronomy. But when you are reading in more than one place each day, it’s easier to keep up the momentum.[2]

Regardless of the plan you use or how long it takes you to read through the Bible, I hope you’ll find this tool helpful for maintaining consistency in daily Scripture reading.

You can download the Bible Reading Record from the Center for Biblical Spirituality here.

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[1] Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Revised and Updated edition (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014), 27.

[2] Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 29-30.

 

Go to the Scriptures for Endurance, Encouragement, & Hope

On most mornings I turn to the Scriptures as much out of a good, lifelong habit as anything else. On some mornings I approach God’s Word with a more keen sense of purpose. And sometimes I come with a real desire to meet God.

But on many occasions—often outside my daily routine of Bible intake—I turn to the Word of God out of an acute awareness of need. The world’s increasing complexity may have tensed my anxiety and frustration levels close to the snapping point. Or suffering, finances, or circumstances may have drained all my courage, endurance, or heart.

At such times we should go to the Bible and ask the Lord to give us patience, comfort, and hope through His Word.

We can do so with confidence, because the Bible expressly says, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that we through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).

When the apostle Paul spoke of things “written in former days” he was referring to what we now call the Old Testament. Today we can affirm that “whatever was written in former days” applies to the New Testament as well. The whole Bible was written “for our instruction,” that is, to instruct us—chiefly about God and His glory, and His work through Jesus Christ. And through these Scriptures, God gives real “endurance and . . . encouragement . . . [and] hope.”

Every now and then my heart is so broken, or my grief so deep, or my burden so heavy that I drop down in my desk chair, open the Bible, put my head in my hands and cry out, “Father, please encourage me through Your Word.” Or, “Lord, I’m so discouraged. I don’t know if I can go on. Give me hope!”

How does He answer? Sometimes it’s through promises, such as, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). Or He answers through the assurances of doctrinal passages like Romans 8:18: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth  comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.” Or He may reply through the comfort of psalms penned by writers with the same passions coursing through my soul: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 42:5).

Overall, I think God means for us to draw endurance, encouragement, and hope from the Scriptures by seeing there how He has always accomplished His purposes throughout the world and at all times, and then believing that He will accomplish them in our lives. I can read the Old Testament, and then see how God fulfilled it later in Jesus Christ and the church. I can read in the New Testament of both the power of Christ and His tender mercies toward His own. Then I encounter the repeated promises that Jesus will return for His people and take us to an eternal home of joy more glorious than all the sunsets in the history of the world combined.

Through these holy, historic, and living words God grants endurance  regarding His timing and providence in my life. Through these God-breathed lines I experience the encouragement of His presence and precious promises. And in the pages of Scripture He gives me the hope of a better world that is one day closer.

In His mercy, the Lord encourages us through people, circumstances, and countless other ways. But there’s no simpler, purer, or more direct means of receiving endurance, encouragement, or hope than by going to His Word and asking for it.

 

This material originally appeared in Donald S. Whitney, Simplify Your Spiritual Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2003), 52-53.