Sometimes we pray even though we do not feel like praying. We open our Bibles and our minds and hearts feel as though they are under a dead weight. How should we approach this problem? There is a widespread false assumption that the spiritual life is either all or nothing. The idea is that things must come spontaneously and effortlessly or it just isn’t real. Yet the Scriptures speak of striving and agonising in prayer and disciplining ourselves in godliness. Exalted joy and love are not the only heavenly inclinations in the soul. There is genuine spiritual life in desiring to be revived. Mourning over our condition, examining and questioning ourselves and other things are also signs of life. Yet what can we do in such a situation? How do we stir up spiritual inclinations?
Such questions can be perplexing but are not always fully discussed; despite being so critical to our daily spiritual life. One person who did seek to tackle them was Samuel Rutherford in his book Influences of the Life of Grace. This deals with the sovereign influences of the Holy Spirit together with our own responsibility to engage in spiritual duties. Both work together in the area of spiritual growth and experience.
What Are Heavenly Inclinations?
Rutherford illustrates what he means by heavenly dispositions or inclinations by pointing to David’s experience in Psalm 57:7-8. David says “My heart is fixed, my heart is fixed; I will sing and give praise. Awake up my glory, awake psaltery and harp: I myself will awake early”. David had “a disposition of fixedness of heart”. His vehement affections are evident in the way he repeats this. This heavenly inclination produced within him “a fixed resolution to praise”. “Praying begets a holy disposition to pray”. “One grace brings forth another, and so holy dispositions [bring forth] holy actings; faith and trusting in God brings forth claiming God” as our own. The Lord “bids you pray, that you may pray; believe, that you may believe. So he commands heavenly dispositions, and He only can give them”. Influences of the Spirit generally come in connection with such commanded means.
David says “My heart is fixed, I will sing. Awake up my glory”. See how the touch of the Spirit in His heavenly inclinations sets afloat (a) the tongue; (b) the psaltery and harp; (c) David; (d) David’s heart to sing and praise. Though they were all sleeping, they are all awakened out of their sleep. It is in the same way as a great high spring-tide may set all the ships afloat, even though there were many hundreds of them. Thus:
- Actions are of the same nature as our inclinations
- Strong and mighty inclinations have strong and mighty actions
- Lesser actions arising from inclinations waken up the soul to strong actions
Sinful inclinations to the love of the world, vain-glory and empty pleasures, bring forth sinful actions. The thorn-tree brings forth a thorn-tree and the thistle-seed a thistle. This is clear in Cain and the Pharisees for example. Thus also, gracious inclinations produce acts of love, faith, hope, godly sorrow, works of righteousness and mercy. As wine-grapes grow out of the vine, the Lord fits influences of grace for such inclinations. The harvest will be like the sowing: men do not gather figs from thistles.
How Do We Receive Heavenly Inclinations?
Get heavenly dispositions and God will act on His own work, and bring forth all His own acts out of His own seed. The way to get heavenly dispositions is:
1. Peruse the Word and promises often: (a) Meditate on them; (b) Learn them; (c) Observe and love the testimonies of God. This is proof of heavenly inclination (Psalm 119).
2. Keep communion with God in praying, hearing, reading and spiritual conversation (Luke 24:34; John 7:45-46; Song of Solomon 2:4-7). Someone who spends much time daily among the perfumes of a perfumer will find that smells will cleave to him whether he wants them to or not.
3. Seek and keep much in mind the things that are above (Colossians 3:1-3).
4. Cherish the Spirit, obey Him, do not grieve Him and work with Him (See Ephesians 4:29-30; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20; Song of Solomon 3:4 and 5:8-12). Be willing to act in response to the breath of the Spirit blowing on you as a wind and when He draws, follow Him sweetly and willingly.
5. Beware of frequently smothering the light of divine knowledge. Deal tenderly with the light of the natural conscience and tenderly with convictions and warnings. If you do this, you will hardly lack divine inclinations and suitable influences (1 Samuel 24:4-6).
How Should We Do When We Lack Heavenly Inclinations?
How should we act when the soul is indisposed like a bird that cannot fly without its wings?
- It is possible that in those renewed ones that are in Christ, heavenly inclinations may seem to be a fire that has been extinguished and turned to cold ashes. We are to stir up and awake the principle of grace and act according to it. The instinct and nature of the new man possesses the principle of gracious acts and we are to make best use of the principle of grace.
- When one inclination is smothered by unbelief casting us down, there is still half of a contrary spiritual inclination alive which is working contrary to that unbelief. For this reason David chides his own soul in Psalm 42:5 for being cast down and urges it to trust in God. Whether David’s soul pleads against David’s soul by the principle of grace, or by an heavenly inclination or by both, it shows that all spiritual inclinations are never entirely lost, there is a seed of God which may be wakened up.
- When the inclination is smothered with heaviness, there is another counteracting heavenly inclination (Psalm 119:28). They have been disposed to deadness but behold there is a disposition to pray for strengthening in counteracting that disposition. In Psalm 119:81 the psalmist is in a fainting condition which indicates some weakness. There is still, however, a disposition to hope in God’s Word, which counteracts fainting. He says “I am become like a bottle in the smoke” (Psalm 119:83) which indicates some disposition to deadness in his spirit. But notice the counteracting disposition, he does not forget God’s statutes.
- The Spirit in the renewed person ultimately prevails over the flesh (Romans 7:23-24). So the gracious disposition is also victorious over, and gets the better of the sinful disposition. David may have been disposed to doubt at the time when he is forced to flee to the cave and part from with his few soldiers. Yet his faith and believing disposition prevails over his fears and doubting. This is clear from Psalm 57:1 and also verse 3 “He shall send from heaven and save me”. In verse 7 he says “My heart is fixed, I will sing and give praise”. He believed in God’s deliverance since a slain man buried in the cave could not sing and give praise?
When we do not feel spiritually inclined we must do as those who want to cross a river, if one ford is too deep try another and try every ford. There may be an indisposition to believe, but there may also be besides this a spiritual disposition to pray. Set to praying then. Sometimes there is a deadness that hinders praying, so that we cannot speak (Psalm 77:4) yet there is also a disposition to praise in Psalm 77:14-15. Set about praising then. Perhaps dispositions, motions, experiences are all gone and there is nothing left but the principle of grace. Go over the promises and act on the principle, blow on the glowing coal and strengthen that which remains. When one tool is broken, the tradesman makes use of another.
Though sinful dispositions and the flesh have the better of us for a while, wait on the Lord and trust in His strength and act. The heavenly flamings of God will eventually prevail. The Spouse is drowsy for a while, and refuses to open and refuses Christ lodging in Song of Solomon 5:2. Eventually, however, when Christ puts in His hand by the hole of the door, faith and heavenly inclinations are victorious. She rises and opens; she misses and seeks Him. She prays and becomes sick of love for Him (Song of Solom
on 5:6-8). Then she bursts out in a high song extolling her beloved in verses 10-12.
Job is cast down under much sadness of spirit due to unbelief in Job 19:6-7. “Behold I cry out of wrong, but I am not heard; I cry aloud, but there is no judgment” These are hard words indeed! If there is no judgment for an oppressed man crying to God, there is no providence, no God who rules the world. Yet in Job 19:25 he is able to say “I know that my Redeemer lives, I know I shall see him” [Rutherford’s paraphrase]. Get
anything of the principle of grace and spiritual inclinations and act with them. You will not lack victorious influences on the basis of this because “greater is he that is in you, then he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
To explore these reflections further, you may find it helpful to read the article What You Must Do When You Feel Spiritually Dead. John Brown of Wamphray explains how Christ is still the life the believer needs even when we feel dry and barren and wonder if things will ever change. Not only this but he shows how to make use of that life.