The experiences of the heart occupy a large place in the thoughts of Christians. It is nevertheless important always to judge them by the word of God. These experiences are the expression of the inward state of the heart, and of our relations with others, as well as of the sentiments which our conduct, in these same relations, produces in our hearts and in our consciences.
It is not necessary here to speak of the experience of an unconverted person, although such a one is nevertheless not without experiences. It is true, that he does not know God; but, in a certain sense, he enjoys His goodness in nature; his conscience can blame him—he can be weary of sin, and alarmed at the thought of judgment. He can even forget the latter in the enjoyment of his family and society in a life naturally amiable; but he can do no more.
Nevertheless there is a great variety in the experiences of men in whom the Spirit of God is working. This difference arises, on the one hand, from the relations in which we stand to God, and, on the other, from our conduct in the same relations. It is true that God has not put us under the law; nevertheless an awakened conscience is, as regards its relationship to God, either under the law or under grace. The Spirit of God, who has awakened it, has caused the light to enter, and produces there the feeling of its responsibility. I am under the law as long as I make my acceptance with God to depend on my faithfulness to God, that is, on the fulfilment of my duties. If, on the other hand, the love of God and His work in Christ are, for my conscience, the only and perfect ground of my acceptance, then am I under grace. The Holy Spirit will not weaken the responsibility; but He will reveal to me that God has saved my soul, which was lost because my life did not answer this responsibility.
As long as the awakened soul remains under the law, it has sad experiences; it feels that it is guilty according to the law, and that it has no power to keep it. It is well aware that the law is good; but, in spite of all its efforts, it does not attain its object, which is obedience. The experiences of souls in such a state are the experiences of their sin—of their weakness and of the power of sin. Even supposing such a soul should not be as yet altogether brought to despair by the expectation of the just judgment of God, because it experiences in a slight degree the love of God, and because it hopes in the work of Christ, there will not be less uncertainty as to its relations with God; and this gives place to alternations of peace and trouble.
In the latter case, the soul has indeed been drawn by grace; but the conscience has not been purified, and the heart not set at liberty. These experiences are useful, in order to convince us of sin and weakness, and to destroy all confidence in ourselves. It is necessary that we should feel ourselves condemned before God, and that we should know, that henceforth all depends on His unmerited grace.
It is otherwise when our conscience is purged, and we have understood our position before God in Christ. Condemned in the presence of God, we understand that God has loved us, and that He justifies us by the work of His Son; we understand that sin is taken away, and our conscience is made perfect. We have no longer conscience of sins before God, because He Himself has taken them away for ever by the blood of Christ, and that blood is always before His eyes; we know, that being united with Christ, who has fully glorified God in that which concerns our sins, we have been made the righteousness of God in Him. So the heart is free to enjoy His love in the presence of God.
Thenceforth we are under grace. Our relations with God depend thenceforth on God’s nature, and the righteousness which Christ is become for us. Our relations with God do not depend on what we are before Him as responsible beings. Our experiences thenceforth ever return to this: that God is love, that Christ is our righteousness, and God is our Father. We have communion with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. We enjoy all the privileges of that relation. Nevertheless the use which we make of our privileges affects that enjoyment. These relations remain constantly the same, as well as the perception which we have of them; but the enjoyment of what God is in that relation depends on our conduct in such a position.
The experiences are always founded on my relations with God. Am I sad? It is because the communion with God— communion which answers to my relations to Him—is interrupted. I feel that I do not enjoy the blessed communion to which I have attained, and it is this that causes my sadness; but this does not arise from uncertainty as to the communion itself. The flesh has no relations with God; and the flesh is ever in us. And “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us,” Rom. 5:5. By the Spirit we have communion with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3); and we are called on to walk in the light, as God Himself is in the light; 1 John 1:7. Our communion with God depends on our walking in the light, although, when we have lost it, God can visit us by His grace, and restore communion. But God is faithful, and does not permit sin in His children. If they do not walk with Him in the light, He will cause them to pass through all the trials and all the conflicts necessary to bring them to the knowledge of themselves, that they may remain in the light, and that their communion may be true and pure.
It is true that these trials and conflicts do not affect our relations with God, because they depend on what God is in Christ, according to His grace and righteousness; but the suspension of communion with God, a suspension which puts us outside of the enjoyment of the light, brings us into ail kinds of conflicts, and painful and humbling experiences of what our own heart really is. God Himself also employs correction to humble us and break our will. Not only is the actual fall into sin an opportunity for the dealing of God with our souls, but all that is hard and rebellious in our souls also affords an opportunity for it. The consequence of these truths is, that the experiences of a soul that walks with God are far more simple than the experiences of an unfaithful soul; and, nevertheless, the knowledge of God and of the heart of man will be far deeper in the former case. As long as we walk in communion with Him, we walk in the light; and we have in His presence the continual sense of His fatherly love. Nevertheless this presence acts upon our soul to manifest all that is not in harmony with the light. The judgment of ourselves takes place in the presence of God, in the sense of His love, and in connection with that love. Sin has the character of everything which is not light; and is judged, not only because sin cannot agree with holiness, but also because it does not agree with the love of God.
With hearts purified by the love of God, and strengthened by communion with Him, the grace which acts thus in us takes the place of sin which has been judged, and thenceforth our walk in the world is the effect of the communion of God in our hearts. We carry God, so to speak, through the world in our hearts filled with His love, and living in the power of the life of Christ, that which Satan offers does not tempts us. Our worldly trials become a motive to obedience and not to sin. The presence of God in our hearts preserves us in our relations with men. Thenceforth we experience proofs of our corruption in the presence of God, and in communion with Him. It is thus we judge sin in ourselves, and sin thus judged does not appear in our walk. But if we do not walk in fellowship with God, if sin is not thus judged, we walk more or less in the world with a rebellious will and lusts unjudged. The action of our self-will makes us uneasy, because we are not satisfied. Are we satisfied? Then God is forgotten. Satan presents temptations which answer to unjudged lusts; then the corruption of the heart manifests itself by a fall and by our relations with Satan, which take the place of our relations with God. Such a knowledge of the corruption of the heart will be never so deep, never so clear, never so true, as that which we shall have obtained in the presence of God by the light itself. We shall know sin by sin, by a bad conscience, instead of knowing it by the light of God Himself. We shall be humbled, instead of being humble. The faithfulness of God will restore the soul; but the continued power and growing light of His communion will not be the same. It is true we shall experience His patience and His goodness; but we shall not know God in the same way as when walking faithfully in communion with Him. It is true, God glorifies Himself by His ways with such a soul, because all things concur to His eternal glory; but the knowledge of God grows by our communion with Him.
The life of Abraham and that of Jacob come in the way of interesting examples, in support of what we have been saying. It is true that neither the law, nor the fulness of grace, had been as yet revealed. Nevertheless, as we see in Hebrews n, the principles of the life of faith in the promises of God were in general the same.
“In many things we offend all.” Abraham himself failed in faith on some occasions; but, in general, his life was a walk of faith with God. This is the reason why his experiences are of another nature, far more intimate with God, and more simple, than those of Jacob. His history is short, and not rich in incidents; while the communications of God to this patriarch are numerous and frequent. In his history there is much about God, and little about man. With one single exception Abraham always remained in the land of promise. He was indeed a stranger and pilgrim, because the Canaanites dwelt there (Gen. 12:6), but he was in relation with God, and walked before Him.
At first when God had called him, he had not fully answered this call. It is true he left indeed his country and kindred, but not his father’s house, and so he did not arrive in Canaan. It is true, he had given up a great deal; he had gone from Ur in Chaldea, but he came no farther than Charran and rested there; chap, 11:31, 32. So it is with the heart that has not learned that it belongs entirely to God. It is only in conformity with the call of God that we can enter into the position of the promise.
After the death of his father Terah, Abraham started at the command of God; and they set out to come into the land of Canaan, and they entered into it; chap. 12:5. Here we have the position of the heavenly people. Placed, by the grace and power of God, in a heavenly position, of which Canaan is a figure, they dwell there; they have everything in promise, but nothing as yet in possession. The Lord revealed Himself to Abraham in calling him; He reveals Himself anew to him in the place which he now knew, and which he was going to possess: “I will give this land to thy posterity,” v. 7. Such is in general our confidence in God, that we shall possess really in future that which we know now as strangers.
“And Abraham built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him,” v. 7. He serves God and enjoys communion with Him. Thence he goes into another place and there pitches his tent; he builds anew an altar to the Lord, and calls on the name of Jehovah; v. 8. He is a pilgrim in the land of promise; and that is his entire history. We dwell in the heavenly places, we enjoy them by faith; and we have communion with God who brought us thither. Abraham’s tent and altar in this place give a character to his whole history, and all the experiences of faith consist in that.
His unbelief brings him into Egypt; v. 10-21. There he had no altar. An Egyptian servant-maid becomes afterwards the occasion of his fall, and a source of trouble to him. She is, as we learn in Galatians 4:24, 25, a type of the law; for the law and the flesh are always in relationship with each other. The grace of God brings Abraham back; but he does not regain an altar till he has returned to the place where he first pitched his tent, and to the altar which he had built before; there he has communion afresh with God; chap. 13:3, 4.
The promises of God are the portion of Abraham. He lets Lot take what he pleases: “Is not the whole land before thee? Separate from me, I pray thee. If thou choosest the left, I will take the right; and if thou take the right, I will go to the left. And Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw the whole plain of Jordan, which, before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, was watered throughout until one comes to Zoar, like the garden of the Lord, and like the land of Egypt. And Lot chose for himself the whole plain of Jordan,” v. 9-11. Lot is the type of a worldly believer. He takes that which for the moment appears the better part, and chooses the place over which the judgment of God is suspended. Abraham had given up everything according to the flesh, and God shews him the whole extent of the promise. He gives him a visible proof of that which he has given him; and confirms it to him for ever; v. 14-18. Lot, the worldly believer, is overcome by the princes of the world. Abraham delivers him. With the servants of his house he overcomes the power of the enemy; chap. 14:1-21. He will receive nothing of the world. He says to the king of Sodom, “I have lifted up my hand to the Lord, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take from a thread even to a shoe-latchet, and that I will not take anything that is thine lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abraham rich,” chap. 14:22, 23.
Afterwards God reveals Himself to Abraham as his buckler and great reward. He promises him a posterity at a time when his body was now dead. Justified by faith, he receives the confirmation of the promises of God, who binds Himself by a sacrifice, type of the sacrifice of Christ. Then the inheritance is shewn him in its details; chap. 15.
Following the counsels of the flesh, Abraham desires for a moment the fulfilment of the promise by the law; that is to say, by Hagar. But thus he only learns that it is impossible that the child of the law should inherit with the child of promise; chap. 16. Then God reveals Himself anew as God Almighty. He tells him that he shall be the father of many nations, and that God will be his God for ever; chap. 17:1-14. The posterity according to the promise is promised again; chap. 17:15-19.
After that, God once more visits Abraham, and gives him positive promise respecting the approaching birth of his son; chap. 18:9-15. He looks upon him as His friend, saying, “Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do? “chap. 18:17. He communicates to him His thoughts concerning the world, and Abraham converses with Him in perfect peace and familiarity. He prays for those who had forgotten the Lord; chap. 18:23-33. It was necessary that Abraham should again experience, in the case of Ishmael, that the law produces sadness and anguish; and at the court of Abimelech he learnt to know that when unbelief is in action, it only produces troubles and sorrows. But God, in His faithfulness, watches over him, as well as over the mother of the posterity.
Afterwards Abraham was tried in the highest degree, till he had to give up everything according to the flesh, and even the promises. But the promises in a Christ raised in figure are confirmed to Christ Himself, and in Him to all the spiritual posterity of Abraham; chap. 22:15-19; compare Gal. 3:16-18.
Abraham then has learned by a fall that neither the law nor the promise is of any avail for the flesh; nevertheless, in general, his peculiar experiences consisted in pilgrimage and adoration, all the time he continued in the promised land. We have now remarked that his life is characterised by a tent and an altar. The whole experience, the whole life of the faithful Abraham, consists almost entirely of worship, intercession, and revelations from God; so that he learned to comprehend these latter with increasing clearness and accuracy. He passed his time in the place to which God had called him. The revelations of God were for him, rich, sweet, and admirable; his knowledge of God intimate and deep; his personal experiences happy and simple; for he walked with God, who had revealed Himself to him, in grace.
Now let us also examine a little more closely the life and history of Jacob. He was the inheritor of the same promise, and, as a believer, he valued it; but he did not trust in God alone. He did not walk, like Abraham, in daily fellowship with the Lord, and waiting upon the Lord. It is true he received the promise, but his experiences were very different from those of Abraham. Although at the end of his life he could say, “The angel which redeemed me from all evil” (Gen. 48:16), he nevertheless was constrained to add, “The days of the years of my pilgrimage are an hundred and thirty years: few and evil have the days of the years of my life been, and have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers, in the days of their pilgrimage,” chap. 47:9. The variety of his experience is a proof of unfaithfulness.
In compliance with his mother’s advice, he employed profane means to obtain his father’s blessing; and was obliged, through fear of his deceived but profane brother, to leave the land of promise; chaps. 27 and 28. Now his position is altogether changed; his unbelief has driven him out of the land of promise. His pilgrimage is not, like that of Abraham, in the land, but outside of it. It is true, God watches over him, waits on him, and preserves him; but he does not walk with God. He has no altar till his return, after a course of painful experiences; chap. 33:20. He had no full communion with God till he returned to the place where he had last enjoyed the revelation of God, and where he had been strengthened by His promises. For one-and-twenty years he had to do with men who cheated and oppressed him, while God preserved him in secret; but he could not possibly have an altar outside the land of promise.
We also worship God, and we have communion with God, while we dwell in spirit in heavenly places, there where God Himself has given us our proper place. But if we get outside of it, we can have no fellowship with Him, although He knows how to keep us by His grace and faithfulness.
At the end of twenty-one years God orders Jacob to return. He must flee far from his father-in-law like a guilty fugitive. It is impossible to be pure from the world if we have lost heavenly communion with God; and it is difficult not to carry away something that belongs to the world, if we abandon that communion. But God is faithful. From that moment a course of experiences begins for Jacob (as they are generally called), but which nevertheless are nothing more than the effects of his getting away from God.
Delivered from Laban, Jacob pursues his journey towards Canaan; and God, to comfort and fortify him, sends an army of His angels to meet him; chap. 32:1. Nevertheless, notwithstanding this encouragement from God, unbelief, which deliverance from danger does not destroy, renews Jacob’s fear in the presence of his brother Esau. One does not get rid of the difficulties of the path of faith by trying to avoid them; one must surmount them by the power of God. Jacob had brought these difficulties upon himself, because he had not trusted in God. The host of God was forgotten; and the army of Esau, who no longer cherished in his heart hatred against his brother, frightened the feeble Jacob; chap. 32:7. He could then employ all kinds of means to appease the presumed and dreaded anger of his brother. He causes flock after flock to pass; and this does more to shew the state of the heart of Jacob than to change that of Esau. Nevertheless Jacob thinks of God; he reminds Him that He told him he ought to return; he implores Him to save him from the hands of his brother; he thinks of the state in which he left the country, and acknowledges that God had given him all his possessions; chap. 32:9-11. But his prayer discovers an ungrounded fear. He reminds God of His promises, as if it were possible that He had forgotten them. It is true there is faith in it, but the effect of unbelief produces a wild and confused picture. The timid Jacob has not only sent forward his flocks to appease Esau (chap. 32:13-20), but he sends his whole family across the brook, and remains behind alone; v. 22, 24. His heart is filled with anxieties. But God, who guides all, awaits him precisely there. Although He had not permitted Esau to touch so much as a hair of Jacob’s head, He nevertheless had Himself to judge him, and bring him into the fight of His presence; for Jacob could in no other way enjoy the land of promise with God. God wrestles with him in the darkness till daybreak; v. 24. It is not here Jacob wrestling with God of his own accord; but it is God wrestling against him.
He could not bless him simply, like Abraham; he must first correct the unbelief of his heart. Jacob must experience the effects of his conduct; he must even suffer, because God will bless him. Nevertheless, the love of God is acting in all this. He gives strength to Jacob during the conflict in which he must engage to obtain the blessings, to persevere in waiting for them. He will nevertheless have to retain a lasting proof of his weakness and previous unfaithfulness. His hip-joint had been put out while God wrestled with him; v. 25. And not only that, but God also refuses to reveal His name to him unreservedly. He blesses Jacob. He gives him a name in memorial of his fight of faith, but He does not reveal Himself. How great is the difference here between Jacob and Abraham! God reveals His name to the latter without being asked to do so, that Abraham may know Him fully; for Abraham generally walked with Him in the power of this revelation. He had no conflict with God; and, far from having to fear kinsfolk, he overcame the power of the kings of this world. He is there as a prince among the inhabitants of the land. God frequently converses with him; and, instead of wrestling with Him to obtain a blessing for himself, Abraham intercedes for others. He sees the judgment of the world from the height where he was in communion with God. Let us return to the history of Jacob,
Notwithstanding all, his fear never leaves him. Blessed by God by means of his conflict, he still trembles before his brother Esau. He divides his children and wives according to the measuring of his affection, so that those whom he most loved were at the greatest distance from Esau. Only then does he undertake to go to meet his brother. But nevertheless he deceives him again. He evades the offer of an escort which Esau makes him, and promises to follow him a little more gently to his residence near Seir; chap. 33:14. But Jacob went to Succoth; v. 17.
Now Israel (Jacob) is in the country; nevertheless, his heart having been long accustomed to the condition of a traveller without God, he knows not how to become a pilgrim with God. He buys a field near Shechem, and settles himself in a place where Abraham was only a stranger, and where, knowing the will of God, he had not possessed a spot of ground whereon to set his foot; v. 19. It is at Shechem for the first time, and after having returned into the land, that he builds an altar; the name of the altar recalls the blessing of Israel, but not the name of the God of the promises. He calls the altar “God, the God of Israel,” chap. 33:20. Thankfulness, it is true, recognises the blessing which Jacob has received; but the God who blessed him is not yet revealed.
We now find corruption and violence in his family; chap. 34. The wrath of his sons, cruel and void of the fear of God, brings him out of his false rest, which was not founded on God; but again the faithfulness of God preserves him. Hitherto Jacob had not thought of the place where God Himself had made him the promise, from the time of his departure, and where Jacob had promised to worship when he should have returned by the help of God. God Himself sends him there now, and says to him, “Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there, and make there an altar unto God who appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother,” chap. 35:1. God, who had guarded, guided, chastened him, had prepared him to come into communion with Him. But first it was necessary that he should leave his false home, where God was not. He must lodge at Bethel (the house of God), and in that very place build an altar to God who had first revealed Himself to him. We here see the instantaneous effect of the presence of God with Jacob, a presence which he had not yet learned to know, in spite of all his experiences up to that moment. The thought of that presence immediately recalls to his mind the false gods which were still among his furniture.
These false gods were the effect of his connection with the world; and Rachel, from fear of Laban, had hid them under the camels’ furniture. Jacob knew well that they were there; nevertheless he said to his family and to all those who were with him, “Put away the strange gods that are among you and be clean, and change your garments, and let us arise and go up to Bethel, and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and who was with me in the way which I went. And they gave Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings that were in their ears, and Jacob hid them under the oak that was by Shechem,” chap. 35:2, 4. The thought of the presence of God made him remember the false gods; it awakens in his soul the conviction that the gods, the objects of the adoration of this world, can never be kept together with a faithful God. Nothing else can awaken this conviction. No possible experiences can ever have the effect which the presence of God produces on a soul. Such experiences are useful to humble us, they are a means of stripping us of ourselves. Nevertheless it is only the presence of God as light which can cause us to condemn ourselves, and gives us power to purify ourselves from our deepest and well-known though hidden idols. Abraham had nothing to do either with Jacob’s idols or Jacob’s experiences.
The fear of God reigned over the enemies of Jacob, so that they did not follow him, notwithstanding the murderous violence of his sons; chap. 35:5. Now God could reveal Himself to Jacob; and although he remained lame, all went on as if he had not before passed through any experience. Jacob had come to Bethel, from whence he had started. There he built an altar to the God who had made him the promises, and who had always been faithful to him. The name of his altar no longer reminds us of Jacob blessed, but of Him who blesses, and of His house. It is not called the altar of God, the God of Israel, but the altar of the God of Bethel, that is to say of the house of God; chap. 35:7. God at this time speaks with Jacob, without saying anything at all of his experiences. These had been necessary to chasten Jacob, and empty him of himself, because he had been unfaithful. God Himself appeared to him now without being entreated. We read in verse 9, God appeared again to Jacob when he came from Padan-Aram, and blessed him. He gave him the name of Israel, as if He had not given it him before, and reveals to him His name without Jacob having asked it of Him. He converses with him as formerly with Abraham. He renews the promises, and confirms them to him—at least, those which have reference to Israel; and, after having ended His communication with him, God went up from him, for He had visited him; Gen. 35:13.
Jacob was then returned, after a course of experiences, to the place where he could have communion with God—to a position in which, by the grace of God, Abraham had almost always kept himself. Jacob is a warning to us, but Abraham is an example. The first has, it is true, found the Lord again by His grace; but he has not had the many and blessed experiences of the other, and does not pray for others. The highest point of attainment with him is Abraham’s starting point, even the home of his soul. With the exception of a few falls, this was the habitual state of Abraham, the state in which he lived. Abraham “died in a good old age, an old man, and full of days, and was gathered to his people.” But Jacob said, “Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been, and have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers, in the days of their pilgrimage,” Gen. 25:8; chap. 47:9. He ended his life in Egypt. The experiences of Jacob are the experiences of what the hearts of men are. The experiences of Abraham are the experiences of the heart of God.
We have described three kinds of experiences:1, Those which take place under the law, the position of a believer not known; or, when without being ignorant of it, he is there, having his heart all the time under the law. 2, The experiences which one had of his own heart, from the time that one walks far from that position where God reveals Himself to cherish and keep up this communion. 3, The simple and blessed experiences which one has in walking with God, in the place where God has set us, to enjoy communion with Him, in lowliness and thankfulness. These last are experiences of the heart of God, which bring us into the knowledge of His counsels, and of the faithful love which is contained in them. They consist in a close communion with God Himself; the others are, as it has been said, the painful experiences of the heart of man, among which the highest measure—and also precious for us—is, that God remains faithful in the midst of our unfaithfulness, and that He is patient towards our folly, by the which we put ourselves at a distance from His presence.
Our privilege is to walk like Abraham; our refuge when we are unfaithful (for God is faithful who does not suffer us to be tempted above what we are able to bear) is that God remains faithful, and draws us out of all danger to the end. May God give us grace to dwell near to Him, to walk with Him, that our experiences may have for their end the growing knowledge of His love and of His nature; Col. 1:9-12.
6 The original was in German.