No doubt none of us are where we would be or even perhaps should be spiritually. That was certainly Paul’s confession (Philippians 3:12-13). We need to grow in grace (2 Peter 3:18) not just have it. But how do we go from merely desiring to make progress to actually getting moving? What can help us along the way? Sometimes it’s not always the things that we would expect. When experiences make us more humble we may go forward more discerning and less self-reliant. Maturing in patience as we grow slowly is also steady progress.
James Fraser of Brea (1639-1698) endured imprisonment on the Bass Rock for “illegal” preaching. This very high rock in the sea off the Scottish coast was purchased by the government expressly for imprisoning presbyterian ministers. Along with many others he suffered much in those fearful conditions. He was also imprisoned at a later period in Blackness Castle but survived the times of persecution. During many varied experiences the Lord taught him greatly.
Fraser records the things, through the Lord’s blessing, did him good spiritually. He says: “I cannot deny but the Lord has shown me kindness and done me good, and that a little one has become a great nation”. Although “I am poor and needy,” yet the Lord remembers me (Psalm 40:17). Despite the fact that “I came over this Jordan with my staff,” now I am by the Lord’s blessing, “become two bands” (Genesis 32:10). I have thought it fitting to declare the things which in my experience, through the Lord’s blessing, I have found to be most helpful in furthering me in the ways of holiness, peace and fellowship with God. And I have found these twenty-seven things especially blessed for doing me good.
1. The Company of Believers
When they have been full in communicating their condition, believers have encouraged me and eased my griefs. By their godly life I have been provoked to good works. I have been kept in life, recovered out of decline, enlightened and edified by them (Ecclesiastes 4:4, 9-10, n; 1 Corinthians 12:7; Hebrews 10:24, 25). Iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17).
2. Observing Providence
I have found great profit by observing the Lord’s providences and searching into God’s purpose in good or bad events. This has made me see much love in things, freed my understanding from confusion and made me know my duty (Micah 7:9; Hosea 14:9; Psalm 107:43; Jeremiah 8:7; Genesis 25:22; Exodus 3:3-4).
3. Meditating on God
I have found that meditating on God’s attributes has done me much good: especially His love, power, sovereignty, and holiness (Job 22:21; John 17:3). By this means I have been conformed to His image, and my love, fear, and faith have been produced and increased (Psalm 9:10; Ephesians 3:18-19).
4. Meditating on the Gospel
I have found great good by long and serious study of the covenant of grace. I have pondered its nature, freedom, fulness and unchangeableness and how faith secures its blessings. Meditating on the gospel, gospel promises, offers, and invitations has strengthened and sanctified me. It has given me more knowledge of Christ and His ways than anything else that I exercised myself in. I have found it indeed the “ministrations of life,” (Galatians 3:2: Hebrews 11; Romans 1:16-17).
Sometimes the Lord has confined me at home in not calling me elsewhere. Ordinarily this has been a gathering time and I have never ordinarily been better than when alone. Solitude has done me good, Proverbs 18:1; Numbers 6:2-3; Hosea 2:14). God has often visited me in a solitary wilderness.
6. Outward Afflictions
I have found outward afflictions and hard measures from the world doing me good, humbling my soul, mortifying me to the world. They have made Christ and His consolations sweet, whom I did not care much for before. I found it good to bear the yoke in my youth. I have learned dependence on God and have had much experience of His love supporting me under afflictions, sanctifying them to me, and delivering me out of them, (Lamentations 3:27; Psalm 94:12; Hebrews 12:11; Psalm 119:67, 71; Proverbs 29:15; Hosea 5:15).
7. Waiting on God
I have found quietness in spirit, moderation and calmness in speaking, and advisedness doing me good; and while I have waited on God in silence, His spirit has breathed (Isaiah 7:4 and 9:15; Exodus 14:13; 2 Chronicles 20:17; Philippians 4:7; Lamentations 3:26; 1 Peter 5:7).
8. Private Devotions
I have found much good by the diligent practice of private duties, such as prayer, meditation, reading, self-examination, and such like. I have thereby been strengthened, quickened, and drawn near to God; they have been as food and drink (Matthew 6:6; Luke 22:46; Psalm 1:2-3; Job 8:5; Proverbs 18:1).
I have found extraordinary duties (e.g. fasting) and making best use of other opportunities over and above the morning and evening sacrifice [devotions], do me much good. Much of the Lord’s mind has been revealed by these (Daniel 10:12) and strong lusts have received a dead stroke. I have been consciously comforted at these occasions. After long sickness, these have given me health (Psalm 126:6; Jeremiah 1: 5-6; Isaiah 58:7-8; Mark 9:29).
10. Hearing Faithful Preaching
I have found the Lord kind to me since I stopped hearing the sermons of the conformists [i.e. the ministers that conformed to the state domination of the Church]. Since that day the scales have been falling from my eyes. While I was listening to those ministers I was still kept in bondage (2 Corinthians 6:17-18; 1 Corinthians 5:7).
11. Others Praying for Me
I have found much good from and by the prayers of others; for since I made use of some for that purpose, I have found much good. I have observed, that those of us who seek the benefit of other’s prayers were the most thriving Christians and those who neglect this decay and wither (Job 42:8; James 5:16; Ephesians 6:19; Romans 15:30; 2 Thessalonians 3:1-2).
12. Seeking the Spiritual Good of Others
I have found very much good by doing good to others, by instructing, exhorting, and teaching them, and praying for them, especially poor ignorant people. At the very time I have been speaking to them, a glorious light shined on my soul, and made me apprehend those things I have been declaring to them more clearly. When full of confusions and sorrows going about this duty, my heart has been lightened and my talents improved (Isaiah 32:20; Ecclesiastes 11:1; Proverbs 11:25).
13. Understanding True Christian Liberty Properly
I have found the serious consideration of true Christian liberty, and of the easiness of Christ’s yoke, and Christ’s love in commands, in opposition to a slavish spirit and scrupulous fearful conscience, do me very much good, and make my heart engage in the service of God (1 Kings 12:4; Luke 1:74; Romans 7:1, 4, 6, and 6:14; Nehemiah 9:35; Deuteronomy 28:48). Likewise, making use of considerations against discouragements (1 Samuel 12:19-20).
14. Meditating on Baptism
I have found much profit and strength by considering baptism and what it seals. Scruples and difficult have been cleared up and removed by this. Assurance has been strengthened and I have been emboldened to draw near to God (Romans 6:1-12).
15. Reading Spiritual Books
The Lord has blessed to me the reading of practical writings. By this means my heart has been put into a good condition and received much strength and light. The writers most blessed to me have been Isaac Ambrose, Thomas Goodwin, Andrew Gray and especially Samuel Rutherford. I have been blessed most of all by Thomas Shepherd of New England’s works. The Lord has made him the ”interpreter, one of a thousand” to me. Under Christ I have been more obliged to his writings than to any other means for wakening, strengthening, and enlightening my soul. The Lord made him a well of water to me in all my wilderness difficulties.
16. Thinking the Best of God’s Dealings
I have found it good to put a good construction on the Lord’s ways, when they have been outwardly very sad (Exodus 20:19).
17. Commending God to Others
I have found much good by speaking to the praise and commendation of God. When many times not so affectionately, yet sincerely out of the sense of duty, I have begun to praise Him to others, I have found my tongue to have affected my heart (James 3:2; Psalm 105:3 and 145:5-6). The Lord has rewarded me consciously for this.
18. Inward Trials
I have found much good by sore and long inward trials, being “poured from vessel to vessel,” changing and being changed, lifted up, and cast down. The greatest way of being settled is by these. “By these” (Hezekiah says) “shall men live” (Isaiah 38:16). These humbled me, kept me awake, and ever crying to the Lord. They have given me much experience of the Lord’s kindness, and acquainted me with the exercise of saints in Scripture (James 1:2).
19. Overcoming Difficulties
The Lord has uniquely owned me in resisting strong temptations, engaging with difficult duties, and slaying inward indisposition. Also in loss and contempt from the world outwardly. The fruit of this has been very great. Such fruit has included praying under indisposition, reproving acquaintances and forsaking ways and thoughts very pleasing to the flesh (Jeremiah 2:1-2; Hebrews 11:6; Romans 2:7; Matthew 5:10 and 16:24).
20. Humble Submission
I have found much good by studying and exercising the duty of humility and submission (James 4:7). Duties are easy to a humble spirit. It eases the soul of disquiet and makes burdens easy. “Hell is not hell to a humble soul” (Thomas Shepherd). I have always found help when humbled.
21. Meditating on the Lord’s Dealings with Me
Seriously meditating on the Lord’s dealings with me as to soul and body and calling to mind His manifold mercies has done me very much good. It has cleared my case, confirmed my soul concerning God’s love, and my interest in Him, and made me love Him. What good writing in this journal has done me! What previously hidden wells of water my eyes have been opened to see! (Psalm 107:4 and 18: 1-2). Scarcely anything has done me more good.
22. Making Vows to God
Making and renewing vows to and covenants with God (although weakly engaged in and performed) has produced life and kind thoughts of God. It has been a means to recover me out of spiritual decline and keep me from further backsliding (Deuteronomy 29:12-13).
23. Meditating on the Main Things
Meditation on the most common general truths has done me good e.g. death, heaven, judgment, sin, God’s being and providence, man’s fall, and Christ’s death, etc.
24. Not Delaying Duties
Speedily going about duties without trifling or delaying. A duty done in time is worth twice as much as delayed duty.
25. Writing on Doctrine
By writing on points of doctrine e.g. Scripture, God’s attributes, Christian duties, sermons, experiences etc. These have kept my heart like fresh water.
Serious and deliberate self-examination has greatly helped to establish me. I have been testing myself, looking at the qualifications of saints and hypocrites in Scripture and their sins and failings. I have studied the nature of true saving grace and the difference (according to Scripture) between false and true grace.
27. Avoiding Unnecessary Temporal Concerns
I have found much good by being kept from too much temporal or secular business. For various reasons I did not have this at the beginning of my Christian life. Although my concerns called for diligence, I do not regret this because it meant that my heart was wholly taken up with my soul’s condition and not diverted from this (Proverbs 18:1).