Biblical Counseling, Hamlet, Holy Spirit, John Owen, Of Communion With the Father Son and Holy Spirit, Pascal, Puritan, Richard Sibbes, Shakespeare, Solitiude, The Soul's Conflict, The Soul's Conflict With Itself
Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries. Yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries. For above all, it it that which keeps us from thinking about ourselves and so leads imperceptibly to destruction. But for that we should be bored, and boredom should drive us to seek some more reliable means of escape, but distraction passes our time and brings us imperceptibly to our death (414-171).
It is here, to the one without distraction that Sibbes draws our attention. For Sibbes, human solitude is not a matter of being withdrawn, but being alone with God. We need not be drawn away with our own distractions and confused heart — if there is a Spirit above our spirit to govern our affections and draw us toward God:
Obs. 4. We see here again, that a godly man can make a good use of privacy. When he is forced to be alone he can talk with his God and himself; one reason whereof is, that his heart is a treasury and storehouse of divine truths, whence he can speak to himself, by way of check, or encouragement of himself: he hath a Spirit over his own spirit, to teach him to make use of that store he hath laid up in his heart.
Pascal famously noted that it was our inability to be alone in a room which causes the depth of human misery. Sibbes would agree and state that the heart which can be governed by the Spirit is one that need not be alone, at all. Rather, the one who knows and is known by God can come closest to God in such solitude.
The Spirit is never nearer him than when by way of witness to his spirit he is thus comforted;
If such solitude is such a bounty, then why do we fear it so? Our conscience. As Hamlet says to Rosencrantz:
O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
It is precisely this trouble which makes solitude such a misery:
wherein the child of God differs from another man, who cannot endure solitariness, because his heart is empty; he was a stranger to God before, and God is a stranger to him now, so that he cannot go to God as a friend. And for his conscience, that is ready to speak to him that which he is loth to hear: and therefore he counts himself a torment to himself, especially in privacy.
Now one may dispute Sibbes (and Pascal’s) proposition. Yet experience proves the opposite. First, there is the great mountain of distraction that is our world. We make gods out of those best able to distract us. To whom do we give our money? Those who distract us and those who manage the distraction.
Now the alternative of “peace” and “meditation” is merely a variant on the theme. To empty one’s mind is merely to drive off the thoughts in a different direction. Both strategies seek to leave us anything about alone with ourselves and God.
We read of great princes, who after some bloody designs were as terrible to themselves,* as they were formerly to others, and therefore could never endure to be awaked in the night, without music or some like diversion. It may be, we may be cast into such a condition, where we have none in the world to comfort us; as in contagious sickness, when none may come near us, we may be in such an estate wherein no friend will own us.
What then is the solution? To have a heart prepared to meet God, to live in communion with God. The great weakness of the Christian church is its inability to lead Christians to be with God. Even in the most doctrinally correct churches it seems that God is little better than an abstraction.
Sibbes directs to close with God in Word and Spirit (as Owen sought to teach in Communion With God). Christianity does most good with it is intensely spiritual and vital. When our hearts are directed and taught to be with God, even our solitude becomes a place of great joy and comfort:
And therefore let us labour now to be acquainted with God and our own hearts, and acquaint our hearts with the comforts of the Holy Ghost; then, though we have not so much as a book to look on, or a friend to talk with, yet we may look with comfort into the book of our own heart, and read what God hath written there by the finger of his Spirit. …. By this means we shall never want a divine to comfort us, a physician to cure us, a counsellor to direct us, a musician to cheer us, a controller to check us, because, by help of the word and Spirit, we can be all these to ourselves.
Consider careful those words of Sibbes: a divine (pastor), physician, counselor, musician, controller.
This comes from “observation 4” discussing remedies for a soul cast down. Here, Sibbes places the remedy in the preparatory work. We must prepare ourselves for our trouble. It will be found in: Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 1 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1862), 148–149.
The previous post in this series may be found here: https://memoirandremains.wordpress.com/2014/09/10/the-souls-conflict-with-itself-6-1/