Puritan emotion, assurance and desertion


I’ve heard it said that the Puritans put too much emphasis on felt faith as the basis of assurance. This may be true and there is certainly evidence in the work of Thomas Watson of a high emphasis on experiential faith, with lines like:

The heart of a man lies under a curse. It brings forth nothing but the thistles and strife of contention. But when grace comes into the heart it makes it peaceable. It infuses a sweet, loving disposition.

It would be a mistake, I believe, to say that assurance was always found in felt faith. There was a place in Puritan thought for what Thomas Watson calls desertion. Here he answers the objection that it is unloving of God to allow his children to come under the “black clouds” of desertion.

First, Watson acknowledges the horror of desertion:

Concerning desertion, I must needs say that this is the saddest condition that can betide God’s children. When the sun is gone, the dew falls. When the sunlight of God’s countenance is removed, then the dew of tears falls from the eyes of the saints. In desertion God rains hell out of heaven (to use Calvin’s expression). ‘The arrows of the Almighty are within me, the poison whereof drinketh up my spirit, (Job 6:4). This is the poisoned arrow that wounds to the heart. …[Yet] There is peace and mercy in it. I shall hold forth a spiritual rainbow wherein the children of God may see the love of their Father in the midst of the clouds of desertion.

To answer the objection, Watson points to the cross and distinguishes between lack of vision and lack of union:

I answer: God may forsake his children in regard of vision, but not in regard of union. Thus it was with Jesus Christ when he cried out, ‘my God, my God’. There was not a separation of the union between him and his Father, only a suspension of the vision. God’s love through the interposition of our sins may be darkened and eclipsed, but still he is a Father. The sun may be hid in a cloud, but it is not out of the firmament. The promises in time of desertion may be, as it were, sequestered. We do not have the comfort from them as formerly, but still the believer’s title holds good in law.

Watson then brings the matter back to experiential faith arguing that desertion is an act of grace and mercy designed by God to strengthen faith and love:

(ii) I answer, God has a design of mercy in hiding his face from his adopted ones.

First, it is for the trial of grace, and there are two graces brought to trial in time of desertion, faith and love.

Faith: When we can believe against sense and feeling; when we are without experience, yet can trust to a promise; when we do not have the ‘kisses of God’s mouth’, yet can cleave to ‘the word of his mouth’; this is faith indeed. Here is the sparkling of the diamond.

Love: When God smiles upon us, it is not much to love him, but when he seems to put us away in anger (Psalm 27: 9), now to love him and be as the lime – the more water is thrown upon it the hotter it burns – this is love indeed. That love sure is ‘strong as death’ (Canticles 8:6) which the waters of desertion cannot quench…

Secondly, it is for the exercise of grace. We are all for comfort… We are loath to be in trials, agonies, desertions, as if God could not love us except he had us in his arms…

(iv) I answer: when God hides his face from his child, his [God’s] heart may be towards him…

I’ve noticed a difference between English conservative circles where emotions are held with a degree of suspicion, as if feeling anything too strongly might not be sound, and the Scottish evangelicalism in which I was converted. In England, the shifting sands of emotion are often suppressed because faith should be built upon the rock of the word. But there is a difference between not trusting our emotions and not nurturing them. Watson happily nurtured his affections for Christ through the word by the Spirit whilst recognising that God might withdraw the sense of his presence. When God hides his face he does so for the good of his children, to strengthen resolve, faith and love.

I’ve recently begun blessing my kids last thing at night. I use 24 scriptural blessings written by David Michael. One of the blessings is Numbers 6:24-26, which includes the line:

the LORD make his face to shine upon you

This raises the possibility that the LORD might not make his face shine upon me or my children and we need to be prepared not to confuse desertion with total rejection and abandonment.

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One Response to Puritan emotion, assurance and desertion

  1. Jordan Keiser says:

    HELPFUL BLOG POST.
    Bless you, dude.

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