ArticlePDF Available

The English Puritans and Spiritual Desertion: A Protestant Perspective on the Place of Spiritual Dryness in the Christian Life



Spiritual depression is a term originally employed by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones to describe the phenomenon of Christians experiencing a state of the soul that is marked by an unusually potent and longstanding sense of pessimism, inadequacy, despondency, and lack of activity within (but not limited to) one's relationship with God for what appears to be no discernable cause. Although St. John of the Cross' The Dark Night of the Soul is arguably the most historically influential work on the subject, the English Puritans also developed a robust perspective of their own—one built upon the principles of the Reformation and a solidly Protestant perspective of the spiritual life. The Puritan concept of spiritual desertion is most lucidly articulated in a lesser-known work by Joseph Symonds titled, The Case and Cure of a Deserted Soul—a rich and invaluable resource for contemporary pastoral care.
1Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression (London: Pickering and Inglis LTD,
1965), 10.
2Ibid., 9.
Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care Copyright 2010 by Institute of Spiritual Formation
2010, Vol. 3, No. 1, 42–65 Biola University, 1939-7909
The English Puritans and Spiritual
Desertion: A Protestant Perspective on
the Place of Spiritual Dryness in the
Christian Life
David Chou-Ming Wang
University of Houston
Abstract: Spiritual depression is a term originally employed by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-
Jones to describe the phenomenon of Christians experiencing a state of the soul that
is marked by an unusually potent and longstanding sense of pessimism, inadequacy,
despondency, and lack of activity within (but not limited to) one’s relationship with
God for what appears to be no discernable cause. Although St. John of the Cross’
The Dark Night of the Soul is arguably the most historically influential work on the
subject, the English Puritans also developed a robust perspective of their own—one
built upon the principles of the Reformation and a solidly Protestant perspective of
the spiritual life. The Puritan concept of spiritual desertion is most lucidly articulated
in a lesser-known work by Joseph Symonds titled, The Case and Cure of a Deserted
Soul—a rich and invaluable resource for contemporary pastoral care.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ writings on spiritual depression represent a
lucid contemporary Evangelical articulation of a topic that has been treated
by many classical works throughout the history of the Church: spiritual
desolation. Lloyd-Jones described “spiritual depression” as a phenomenon
present among many Christians, causing them to give the impression that
they are unhappy, cast down, and in possession of a disquieted soul.1He
cited Psalm 42 as the paradigmatic account of spiritual depression, which
bore witness to a certain unhappiness of the soul which was characterized
by tears, a downcast and disturbed inward disposition, and a yearning for
God that was frustrated by a disheartening impression of God’s neglect.2
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:54 PM Page 42
3Archibald Hart, Counseling the Depressed (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing,
1987), 28.
4J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), 35.
5Leon Gautier, Chivalry (Hills, MN: Crescent Publishing, 1989), 3.
Wang: The English Puritans and Spiritual Desertion 43
How spiritual depression often relates to the Christian life is captured
by the common question: “I do not seem to experience the presence of God
like I used to. I am an active member of my congregation and I read Scrip-
ture and pray regularly but these things do not seem to draw me closer to
God anymore. Is there something wrong with me?” While this may seem to
be primarily an existential question, it is in fact a theological question. For
example, if one were to believe that spiritual depression is a form of God’s
abandonment in response to sin, one’s theology must account for the notion
that God is prone to withdraw his love whenever his children disobey Him.3
When one considers the topic of spiritual depression in view of the spir-
itual classics written throughout the history of the Christian Church, it is
difficult to avoid St. John of the Cross seminal works, The Ascent of
Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul. Indeed, because of the mas-
sive amount of scholarship that grew out of St. John of the Cross’ extraor-
dinary work, it is difficult not to abandon the search altogether for other
historical Christian perspectives on spiritual depression. The purpose of
this present manuscript, therefore, is to give voice to another perspective—
specifically, one from a lesser-known divine who was part of a rich spiritual
tradition closer to Evangelicalism—English Puritan Joseph Symonds. In the
pages that follow, Symonds’ work, The Case and Cure of a Deserted Soul,
will be examined in its own right, in light of its historical context (i.e., En-
glish Puritanism), and in view of related material written by other English
Puritan authors.
The Historical Background of English Puritanism
J.I. Packer defined English Puritanism as “that movement in 16th and
17th century England which sought further reformation and renewal in the
Church of England than the Elizabethan settlement allowed.4Being histor-
ically located soon after the Protestant Reformation, one could describe En-
glish Puritanism as a bridge between medieval Christianity and modern
Protestant Christianity. The Puritan hero bore no resemblance to the quest-
ing knight of medieval chivalry, who left the confines of everyday life to
pursue extraordinary feats in the name of honor, passionate love, courage,
and devotion to one’s master.5Rather, Puritanism challenged every man to
become a Christian hero within the context of his own everyday domestic
and commercial dealings. Following the lines of the Reformers, the Puritans
sought to expound theologically and fully live out the doctrine of the priest-
hood of all believers. Puritan teaching gave a new dignity to marriage and
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:54 PM Page 43
6N.H. Keeble, “Puritan Spirituality,” The Westminster Dictionary of Christian
Spirituality, ed. Gordon Wakefield (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1983),
7James Heron, A Short History of Puritanism: A Handbook for Guilds and
Bible Classes (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1908), 6.
8Ibid., 36.
9John Owen, A Discourse of the Work of the Holy Spirit in Prayer (London:
Nathanael Ponder, 1682), 136.
10 Ibid., 102.
44 Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care
employment, encouraging common people to see in the least circumstance
of their lives an opportunity for Christian service.6
The Christianity of the Middle Ages had preached the base and demor-
alizing surrender of the individual—the surrender of his understanding to
the Church, of his conscience to the priest, and of his will to the prince. The
policy of Calvin, which the Puritans extended and applied, was a vigorous
effort to produce a positive education of the individual soul. It was chiefly
an attempt to combine individual and equal freedom with strict, self-
imposed law; to found human society upon the common endeavor to pur-
sue moral perfection.7John Wycliffe, though predating the movement by
more than two centuries, is considered by many to be one of its chief exem-
plars. Like those after him, Wycliffe declared the Bible to be the supreme
and sole standard of truth and law, affirmed a direct relation between God
and man through Christ, denied the possibility of one meriting anything by
good works, and swept away the whole system of a mediating and sacrific-
ing priesthood, the foundation on which the medieval Church was based.8
Puritan Spirituality
The Puritan understanding and experience of union and communion
with God was marked by a depth and richness comparable to the great reli-
gious orders of their Roman Catholic counterparts. John Owen described
spiritual acts of communion as [an] intense fixation of the mind, by con-
templation on God in Christ, until the soul be as it were swallowed up in
admiration and delight. ... They do not ravish the soul into irrational ec-
stasy. Rather they fill it in all its faculties with overwhelming joy in the Di-
vine Grace revealed in Christ.9That mystical union with God which the
Puritans both experienced and wrote about was to them not only the goal
of the Christian life—it was also the beginning. They viewed the reality of
the Christian’s union with God as the fruit of justification; it may indeed be
realized more and more as time goes on, but the believer strives for deeper
union within the context of a present union already accessible. For the Pu-
ritan, the three ways” are not so much purgation, illumination, and union,
but justification, sanctification, and glorification.10
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:54 PM Page 44
11 J.I. Packer, The Pilgrim’s Principles: John Bunyan Revisited (London: St. An-
tholin’s Lectureship Charity Lecture, 1999), 15.
12 The reformed doctrine of the covenant of redemption (i.e., the eternal agree-
ment of each person of the Trinity to assume a particular role in the plan of salvation
for humankind) was frequently mentioned in Puritan literature as a comfort to trou-
bled souls. Puritan divines would remind their parishioners that because God’s inten-
tion to save existed from eternity past, He is not so fickle as to change His mind in
light of past sin. A central component to the covenant of redemption is the covenant
between God the Father and Christ—that is, the will of the Father giving the Son to
be the Head and Redeemer of the elect and the will of the Son presenting himself as a
willing Sponsor or Mediator for them. While Scripture does not explicitly mention
this covenant, it can be inferred from a number of passages including: Hebrews
13:20, Titus 1:2, Luke 22:29, and John 10:18.
13 Packer, The Pilgrim’s Principles: John Bunyan Revisited, 17.
Wang: The English Puritans and Spiritual Desertion 45
1. The Puritans on Conversion and Assurance
Since justification marked the beginning of the spiritual life, it is not
surprising to discover how dominant the topic of conversion was to Puritan
spirituality. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress provides a helpful framework
to exposit the Puritans’ approach to conversion. Drawing from Pilgrim’s
story, Packer offers two keen observations. First, as conversion appears at
the story’s opening chapter, it represents the beginning of a lifelong journey
that has as its destination the promised Celestial City. Second, conversion is
a “complex, often long-drawn-out process that advances by stages from
conviction of sin and need as its beginning to assurance of salvation as its
climax. It involves learning the key gospel truths, internalizing them in a
life-shaping way, and being so changed at heart that revulsion at sin, desire
for God, love for Christ and eager hope of being with him in heaven be-
come basic to one’s being.11
The Puritan extended the concept of conversion to cover the whole
process of being effectually called, a process which included not only the
initial moment when an individual decided to follow Christ, but also God’s
salvific intention that persisted from the past,12 as well as His sustaining
grace which continues the process of conversion until God gives assurance
that it is complete.1 3 As such, they saw one’s justification and sanctification
as fluid processes; although they could be logically distinguished from each
other, they were not to be divided into separate, mutually-exclusive phe-
nomena. This approach both starkly contrasts and stands to correct the ex-
clusive emphasis placed on the initial moment of decision seemingly com-
mon among many evangelistic methods employed today. Another point of
contrast may be found in the Puritan approach to salvific assurance in the
Christian life. While assurance is commonly expected immediately after the
point of decision in our present context, the Puritans saw assurance as
something which was not to be expected until much later in the conversion
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:54 PM Page 45
14 Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 181–182.
15 Cited in Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 182 from Thomas Goodwin’s Works,
ed. J. Miller (London: James Nichol, 1861), 8:346.
16 G.A. Hemming, “The Puritan’s Dealings with Troubled Souls,” in Puritan Pa-
pers, ed. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Phillipsburg, NJ: P. & R. Publishing, 2000), 1:31.
17 Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 41.
18 Ibid.
46 Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care
Although they believed that some measure of assurance was available
at the outset, full assurance was not normally enjoyed except by those who
have first labored for it and sought after it, serving God faithfully and pa-
tiently for some time without it. It was an aspect of faith which normally
appeared only when faith had reached a high degree of development, far be-
yond its minimal saving exercise.14 Therefore, full assurance was not some-
thing to which every believer was entitled, but a special gift of grace worthy
of much striving.
Assurance comes in as a reward of faith. ... A man’s faith must fight
first, and have a conquest, and then assurance is the crown, the tri-
umph of faith . . . and what tries faith more than temptation, and fears,
and doubts, and reasonings against a man’s own estate? That triumph-
ing assurance, Rom. 8:37, 39 . . . comes after a trial, as none are
crowned till they have striven.15
Implicit to this view of assurance is the expectation of many forms of
inward and outward desolation throughout the Christian life, as illustrated
by the many obstacles Christian faced throughout his journey to the Celes-
tial City. As such, the Puritan pastor often encouraged his people to come to
him and disclose the state of their hearts so that counsel and advice could
be given. In this way, he built up an amazing stock of knowledge not only of
God’s dealings with His children but also of the Christian’s experience of
these dealings.16 Joseph Symonds’ Case and Cure of the Deserted Soul is
just one of many fine examples of such knowledge preserved and published.
Symonds Case and Cure of the Deserted Soul belongs to a larger cate-
gory of Puritan books written with the intention of comforting (i.e.,
strengthening and encouraging) Christians who were experiencing different
forms of desolation; these are called paraenetic books.17 This category not
only includes books on spiritual desertion, but also countless volumes cov-
ering themes such as the love of God, the work of Christ, the renewing min-
istry of the Holy Spirit, and the covenant of grace—that commitment to
save made by all three Persons of the Trinity.18 Given the expectation that
salvific assurance was not to be expected until later in the spiritual journey,
it is of no surprise that topics concerning the comforting of distressed souls
so dominated Puritan devotional literature.
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:54 PM Page 46
19 G.A. Hemming, “The Puritan’s Dealings with Troubled Souls,” in Puritan Pa-
pers, 1:32.
20 Edward Hindson, Introduction to Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids, MI:
Baker Books, 1976), 178.
21 Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax some sermons con-
tracted out of Matt. 12:20 at the desire and for the good of weaker Christians (Lon-
don: R. Dawlman, 1658), 94.
22 John F. Sena, “Melancholic Madness and the Puritans,” 302.
Wang: The English Puritans and Spiritual Desertion 47
2. The Puritans and Spiritual Desolation
Being keen on the plight of the common Christian, the Puritans ad-
dressed the many forms of desolation experienced by troubled parishioners,
including spiritual aridity, melancholy, and physical suffering. The Puritans
realized that the child of God did not walk in a state of unbroken joy, that
there came times when Christians lost sense of God’s presence and favor.
Such a believer may complain that he had an indefinable sense that all is not
well with him spiritually; he might have lost all his joy; he might have fallen
back into some obvious sin which he thought he had put behind him for-
ever; he might have lost his assurance of salvation; he might even have
found assurance of damnation. He might be finding in his heart doubtings
of the gospel, of the goodness of God, of the very existence of God.19
Perhaps because of their strong belief in the total corruption of the
heart,2 0 Puritan pastors were not taken aback by what they heard from their
counselees, regardless of how atrocious or vile these matters might have
been. For example, Richard Sibbes wrote:
Some again are haunted with hideous representations to their fantasies,
and with vile and unworthy thoughts of God, of Christ, of the word,
etc. ... which as busy flies disquiet and molest their peace; these are
cast in like wild-fire by Satan, as may be discerned by the 1) strange-
ness, 2) strength and violence, 3) horribleness of them even unto nature
After receiving an honest and stark discourse of the parishioner’s trou-
bled soul, the puritan pastor would then carefully discern the nature of the
parishioner’s desolation before dispensing any counsel. As evidenced by the
passage above, one plausible explanation for a troubled soul was the direct
work of Satan. However, not all problems were diagnosed as spiritual in na-
ture. Melancholy (i.e., depression) was recognized as a condition with pos-
sibly both physical and spiritual causes. Richard Baxter, himself a sufferer
of melancholia, concluded that this condition was “physical as well as spir-
itual and thus should be treated by ‘physick’ as well as by faith.”22 As such,
recorded in his writings are five pages of medications prescribed to relieve
depression. Nevertheless, Baxter also saw the necessity for pastoral and
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:54 PM Page 47
23 Linda Lewis, “The Causes, Forms and Relief of Spiritual Anxiety in the works
of Richard Sibbes 1577–1635,” 95.
24 Packer, The Pilgrim’s Principles: John Bunyan Revisited, 7.
25 Cited in Packer, The Pilgrim’s Principles: John Bunyan Revisited, 7 from John
Geree’s The Character of an Old English Puritane (1646).
26 Robert Bolton, A Cordial for a Fainting Christian (London: T. Paine, 1644),
27 Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1971),
28 George E. Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom (London: Paternoster Press,
29 Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope, 90.
48 Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care
spiritual treatment and believed that it was a minister’s obligation to pro-
vide both physical as well as spiritual assistance to his flock.23
Puritans were familiar with suffering—both in its inward and outward
forms. Said Packer, “Suffering, which the world would inflict out of malice
and God would send and sanctify as a nurturing discipline, was to them
part of the Christian course.”24 John Geree went so far as to say that the Pu-
ritan saw all of life as warfare (i.e., spiritual warfare), his motto for life was
Vincit qui patitur (he who suffers wins).25 They could see life no other way,
especially since Christ Himself suffered as He did while on earth. This was
exactly Robert Bolton’s sentiment, as he preached the following in a sermon
titled, A Cordial for a Fainting Christian:
Many afflictions are proper to God’s children, as temptations, doubt-
ing of salvation, etc . . . nay sometimes hideous suggestions, as were to
Christ, that no Christian is in the height: For the son of God to be
tempted to make away himself; nay he that thought it no robbery to be
equal with God to be tempted to worship the Devil, was more then any
Christian ever had . . . Let all Christians prepare for new sufferings; for
till death set us free, we are not to look to be free from troubles; and
never more need to be prepared then now, when not only the Church
beyond the Seas, but many good men be in great troubles.26
In spite of the many forms of desolation suffered by the Puritans, they
never gave way to the feeling that because the condition of the world (along
with their experience of the world) was so deplorable that the Second Com-
ing of Christ was the only hope for humankind. In their minds, to have
done so would have been a forfeiting of the precious promises made avail-
able by Christ’s first coming.27 What one sees instead is a spirituality that
profoundly synthesized the realities of life with the unfulfilled promises of
future hope, an approach to the Christian life that acknowledged the nature
of the Kingdom of God as already-but-not-yet.28 If what they hoped for
seemed impossible, the Puritans did not despair; instead, they contemplated
more deeply the authority and glory which even now belongs to Christ, the
Head of the Church.29
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:54 PM Page 48
30 John Flavel, The Method of Grace in Bringing Home the Eternal Redemption,
Contrived by the Father, and Accomplished by the Son, through the Effectual Appli-
cation of the Spirit into God’s Elect (London: Tho. Parkhurst, 1699), 271–272.
31 Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax, some sermons con-
tracted out of Matthew 12:20 at the desire and for the good of weaker Christians
(London: R. Dawlman, 1658), 129–130.
32 Jonathan Edwards, A Jonathan Edwards Reader, ed. John E. Smith (New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 276.
33 Flavel, The Method of Grace, 273.
34 Ibid.
Wang: The English Puritans and Spiritual Desertion 49
3. The Puritans and Spiritual Consolation
The comfort and consoling work of Christ was a rich motif within Pu-
ritan literature. In Method of Grace, John Flavel went so far as to describe
Christ Himself as “the very consolation of believers: he is pure comfort
wrapped up in flesh and blood . . . the only consolation of believers, and of
none besides them.”30 Elsewhere, Richard Sibbes added, “. . . after she [the
Church] had been humbled, Christ sweetly entertains her again, and falls
into commendation of her Beauty. ... Therefore if there be any bruised
reed, let him not except himself, when Christ does not except him; come
unto me all ye that are weary, and heavy laden . . .31
In light of the great value that they placed on inward consolation, the
Puritans should not be seen as cosmic killjoys, nor did they view God as
such. Spiritual comfort, joy, and pleasure—not just fear of divine judg-
ment—were what motivated them to fulfill their Christian duties. This was
keenly evident in the American Puritan Jonathan Edwards, who wrote the
following resolution within his diary: “Resolved, to endeavor to obtain for
myself as much happiness in the other world as I possibly can, with all the
power, might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can
bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.”32
The purpose of inward consolation was not only for enjoyment, it was
also God’s grace to the believer to resist temptation and to mortify sin:
“The nature of consolation . . . is nothing else but the cheeriness of a man’s
spirit whereby he is upheld, and fortified against all evils felt, or feared.”33
Inward consolation helped the believer resist sin by cultivating godly affec-
tions, which would in effect turn one away from being led by one’s carnal
lusts. Flavel identified three types of comfort: natural, sinful, and spiritual.
Natural comfort was the refreshment of our natural spirits by the good
creatures of God. Sinful comfort was the satisfaction and pleasure men
took in the fulfilling of their lusts, by the abuse of the creatures of God.
Spiritual comfort, on the other hand, was the refreshment, peace, and joy
which gracious souls had in Christ by the exercise of faith, hope, and other
graces.34 In light of this discussion, it is clear that the Puritans (including
Joseph Symonds) emphatically acknowledged the legitimate Christian need
for consolation while also recognizing that not all forms of comfort were
helpful to one’s progress in the Christian life.
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:54 PM Page 49
35 Ibid., 275.
36 Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 24.
37 Edward Hindson, Introduction to Puritan Theology, 20.
38 Owen Watkins, The Puritan Experience (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,
1972), 6.
39 Gordon Wakefield, Puritan Devotion: Its Place in the Development of Chris-
tian Piety, 24.
50 Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care
Recognizing, then, that the Christian’s process of sanctification did not
lead him to a denial of his need for consolation but rather to the proper
seeking of it, the problem of spiritual desertion was indeed a formidable
one to the Puritan. While the outwardly afflicted could be spiritually com-
forted and edified, the same could not be said of the one who was spiritu-
ally deserted. Flavel explained, “In spiritual desertion, and the hiding of
God’s face, matter of affliction, and casting down to believers . . . yes, yes,
it quails their hearts, nothing can comfort them. Thou hidest thy face, and I
was troubled (Psalm 30:7). Outward afflictions do but break the skin, this
touches the quick; they like rain fall only upon the tiles, this soaks into the
house.”3 5 The deserted were forced to persevere in their position despite
having their need for comfort continually denied.
4. The Puritans and Meditation
The Puritan practice of meditation was centered upon the Word of God
and its application to life. The Puritan sermon was the model for Puritan
meditation.36 They saw reason as the king of all faculties and viewed the
spoken word as the one agency by which one’s will and affections could be
reached. Even Puritan theologians were described as being preachers first
and theological writers second.37Puritan preaching sought to challenge
hearers to search and challenge their hearts, stir their affections to hate sin
and love righteousness, and be encouraged by God’s promises through ra-
tional persuasion by means of proofs, demonstrations, and the silencing of
objections.38 Perhaps this at least in part accounts for why so much of Puri-
tan paraenetic literature consists of rational arguments from Scripture
arranged in list form.
Another distinguishing characteristic of Puritan literature was its thor-
oughness; they dwelt on each word and phrase of a biblical passage as
though “every grain of gold must be wrestled from the heavenly mine.”39
The contemporary person might think that a more existential approach
would be appropriate to the comforting of troubled souls. Yet the puritans
were amazingly effective in their comforting—so much so that they emu-
lated this same approach in their own private practice of meditation. They
would often comfort themselves by means of self-persuasion, as they con-
sidered and reminded themselves of the many promises of God found in
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:54 PM Page 50
40 Ibid., 22.
41 Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 22.
42 Gordon Wakefield, Puritan Devotion: Its Place in the Development of Chris-
tian Piety, 27.
43 Thomas Goodwin, A Child of Light Walking in Darkness (London: R. Dawl-
mann, 1659), 15–16.
44 Charles Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disci-
plines in Seventeenth-Century New England (Williamsburg, VA: The University of
North Carolina Press, 1982), 168–170.
45 Charles Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety, 168.
46 Gordon Wakefield, Puritan Devotion, 74.
Wang: The English Puritans and Spiritual Desertion 51
Nothing was more important to the practice of Puritan piety than the
reading of Scripture. The Puritans believed that all Scripture reading should
be accompanied by both prayer and meditation.40This was so because they
eagerly sought to apply all that they read—as though each passage were ad-
dressed particularly to the reader, as if the words of the Bible were spoken
by God standing at their side.41 In fact, they viewed the story of their own
lives as recapitulations of Bible history. The people of God in the wilder-
ness, along with the patriarchs and prophets, were the companions of the
Puritans much like the saints were to the Catholics.4 2 The practice of re-
framing the believer’s experience in light of Bible history helped make God
more real to them and enabled them to find meaning in both their joy and
suffering under the context of divine ordinance.
In speaking of spiritual desertions, Thomas Goodwin related such ex-
periences to similar episodes found within the lives of biblical characters
such as King Saul, Jonah, David, and even Jesus Christ:
And this is here [God’s presence] utterly withdrawn: and it may thus
come to pass, that the soul in regard of any sense or sight of this, may
be left in that case that Saul really was left in: 1 Samuel 28:15, God is
departed from me, and answers me not, neither by Prophets nor by
dreams”. ... Such was Jonah’s case, I am cast out of thy sight (Jonah
2:4), that is, he could not get a sight of him; not one smile, not one
glance or cast of his countenance, not a beam of comfort; and so
thought himself cast out. And so he dealt with David often, and some-
times a long time together, Psalm 13:1: How long will thou hide thy
face from me? ...So from Job (Job 13:24), yea and from Christ him-
self; My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?43
A common type of mediation was “self-examination,” or “meditation
on experience”—a practice that formed a regular part of the believer’s
evening devotional exercises.44 Self-examination was a spiritual exercise
whose aim was to chart repentance and also to further the salvific work of
God in the soul.4 5 The Puritan’s life was to be above all else a rigorously
scrutinized one.4 6 When a repentant sinner appealed for God’s grace, he
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:55 PM Page 51
47 William Perkins, The Greatest Test that Ever Was: How a man may know
whether he be the child of God or not (London: Robert Walde-graue, 1592), 29.
48 Ibid., 36.
49 Ibid., 57.
50 Owen Watkins, The Puritan Experience, 9.
51 Ibid., 10.
52 Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care
would know that if he were among the elect, divine power would enable
him to be faithful to the end. However, to many, the question of whether
one was indeed among the elect was particularly troubling. Puritan divine
William Perkins recognized this and devoted an entire work to address this
very issue, titled, The Greatest Test that Ever Was: How a man may know,
whether he be the child of God or not. In it, Perkins warns, “I say truly . ..
it may come to pass, that many in their own thinking shall be predestined:
yet in truth they are not persuaded so, for they are deceived.47 Although
the threat of self-deception was significant, Perkins asserted that it was
nonetheless possible for Christians to be assured of their salvation through
the Holy Spirit.48 To him, the key principle that guided the process of dis-
cerning one’s election was that “those who were predestinate to the end . ..
are also predestinate to the means, without which they cannot attain to the
end.49 In other words, a life lived befitting a child of God was the best ev-
idence that one was indeed a child of God.
As such, the Puritan kept constant watch over his moral and spiritual
life for evidence of the fruits of the Spirit, which were the outward signs of
saving grace in the heart.50 To be certain that these signs were genuine, it
was necessary to make a rigorous distinction between the effects of grace,
and behavior that was the result of natural causes. It was the task of the Pu-
ritan pastor, then, to transpose abstract doctrine into a rule of practice so
that by diligent self-examination the perplexed believer could accurately
dissect his soul.”5 1 This process towards assurance would start from the
pulpit and end with private self-examination.
I have thus attempted to briefly introduce the historical, theological,
and spiritual context of Joseph Symonds work, The Case and Cure of a De-
serted Soul. Puritan spirituality appeared to reflect the turbulence of its
times, as evidenced by the abundance of paraenetic literature (Symonds’
work would be categorized as such), which was written to comfort,
strengthen, and encourage the many who were spiritually depressed and
downtrodden. In light of their view on assurance as a work of God’s grace
that was typically enjoyed late in the conversion process, it is not surprising
that anxiety concerning one’s election was a topic of great concern to both
the common parishioner as well as the divine. As it will soon become appar-
ent, the concept of spiritual desertion gave the Puritans an effective means
to understand, express, and ultimately treat a uniquely severe case of deso-
lation affecting both the inward and outward person.
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:55 PM Page 52
52 Benjamin Brook, The Lives of the Puritans (London: James Black, 1813),
53 Ibid.
54 Ibid.
55 Lewis, The Genius of Puritanism, 79.
56 Symonds, The Case and Cure of a Deserted Soul, 3.
57 Ibid., 18.
Wang: The English Puritans and Spiritual Desertion 53
The Life of Joseph Symonds
Unfortunately, little is known about the life of Joseph Symonds. For ex-
ample, it is not known where or when he was born. As a young man, he had
been the assistant of the famous Puritan Thomas Gataker at Rotherhithe,
near London, but afterwards he became rector of St. Martin’s, Ironmon-
gers Lane, in the metropolis of London.52Due to his independent stance to-
wards church governance, he forsook the Church of England, left his post,
and settled in Rotterdam, Holland, where he was chosen to be the pastor of
the English church there.53 Although he was a pastor of a church in a for-
eign land, he was sometimes called to preach before the British parliament
nonetheless, as evidenced by the title of one of his published sermons: “A
Sermon lately preached at Westminster, before sundry of the Honorable
House of Commons, 1641: By Joseph Symonds, late minister in Ironmon-
gers’-lane, London, now pastor of the Church at Rotterdam.”5 4
In 1647, Symonds became fellow of Eton College, and eventually was
vice-president of that historic school. As school records indicate that his fel-
lowship terminated on October 17, 1652, it is presumed that this was the
exact date of his death. In a letter from Thomas Doolittle to Richard Bax-
ter, it appears that Essex was the place of Joseph Symonds’ death.55
Spiritual Desertion according to Joseph Symonds
Similar to the format of many other Puritan writings, The Case and
Cure of a Deserted Soul presents the topic of spiritual desertion in a logi-
cally structured and orderly manner. A total of 37 chapters systematically
guided the reader through the definition of spiritual desertion, its causes
and symptoms, guidelines determining how it could be distinguished from
other spiritual ailments, and directives for recovery. Joseph Symonds de-
fined spiritual desertion as God’s withdrawing Himself in respect of quick-
ening, quieting, or comforting the souls of the truly regenerate.56 According
to him, those who were deserted typically complained of at least one of the
following three symptoms: 1) that God did not carry on their spiritual life
as they were accustomed to, 2) that God no longer gave them peace, joy,
comfort, and assurance, and 3) that God brought them into outward straits
without deliverance.57 Since God no longer carried them, the deserted lived
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:55 PM Page 53
58 Ibid., 129–130.
59 Ibid., 22–23.
60 Ibid., 23.
61 Ibid., 5.
54 Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care
as if they were dead to all spiritual things, neither seeing, hearing, nor tast-
ing the things of God:
Thou were wont to find God feeding thee with milk, and the honey of
the Gospel, and causing his glory to pass before thee in his house; but
now those days are gone, the word does not warm thee, cheer thee,
humble thee, quicken thee as in former days; but you come for manna
to feed your starving soul and find none; you come in deadness and go
away without life; ... the Gospel is hidden to you; that ministry that is
a shining and burning light to others is to you without power.58
The spiritual deadness caused by desertion was a universal deadness af-
fecting the entire person. Not only have they grown less in godly affection,
but also less in godly inclination and action. The deserted did not yearn as
much for the presence of God, nor were they inclined to seek it, show con-
cern for its absence, or even recognize its presence. As a result, they would
likely suffer a concomitant loss of God’s comforting presence, as this spiri-
tual deadness also encumbered their ability to ascertain and receive spiri-
tual comfort. This combination of deadness and loss of comfort could eas-
ily lead even the most devout into spiritual lethargy (if their condition no
longer concerned them) or spiritual frenzy (if their condition did indeed
cause much fear and grief).59 Last, the inward turmoil caused by spiritual
desertion might also be further coupled with unresolved outward troubles
as well. When this was the case, the sufferer was afflicted on all fronts and
indeed placed within “the lowest pitch of misery that a believer can fall
A chief biblical example of spiritual desertion was King David, whose
encounter with it occasioned him to write Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God,
why have you forsaken me?” Symonds noted how even though the favor of
God was upon David throughout His life, it did not invalidate the legiti-
macy of his experience as friendless, helpless, woeful, and comfortless at
the time of his desertion. Furthermore, Symonds argued that David was to
be understood as a type of Christ, and as such, his sorrow was in fact just a
shadow of Christ’s own sorrow on the cross.61 In light of this, Christ’s echo-
ing of the phrase My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” prior to
surrendering His life on the cross chronicled the ultimate example of spiri-
tual desertion. It was the conclusive proof of the case that God indeed with-
drew His quickening, quieting, and comforting presence from His children
for a time.
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:55 PM Page 54
62 Ibid., 3.
63 Flavel, The Method of Grace, 6.
64 Symonds, The Case and Cure of a Deserted Soul, 3.
65 Ibid., 9–10.
66 Ibid., 39–40.
67 Ibid., 11.
Wang: The English Puritans and Spiritual Desertion 55
1. What Spiritual Desertion is Not
First, Symonds limited the scope of spiritual desertion to the regenerate
only.62 Flavel described regeneration as the infusion of supernatural, divine,
and new qualities by the Holy Spirit into the soul, which subsequently be-
comes the grounds of all holy action.63It was a holistic work, touching
one’s mind, affections, and will. As such, the proof that one was indeed re-
generate would be the presence of right thinking, right feeling, and right
acting in relationship to God. All evidences had to be present within an in-
dividual before it was possible for him to experience spiritual desertion. To
Symonds, it was simply not enough for one to claim to have once felt the
presence of God; such feelings needed to be accompanied by corresponding
thoughts and actions in order for desertion to be diagnosed in an individ-
ual. Indeed, the unregenerate might experience all the signs of desertion but
would not be considered as such because Christ was never with them in the
first place. Such a case would have been a matter of a hypocrite being de-
ceived about his true spiritual estate.64
In speaking of spiritual desertion among the truly regenerate, Symonds
noted that God’s withdrawal, though real, was always only a temporary
withdrawal. God leaves them for a season, not forever. If He goes from
them, it is but as one that goes from home, to return again: I will not leave
you comfortless, or as orphans, but I will come again (John 14:18). ...
Though the River has her ebbings, yet it has her flowings. The tide of com-
fort will come in again.”6 5 However, although desertions were not perma-
nent withdrawals of God, they were prolonged withdrawals nonetheless.
The ebbings of comfort that Symonds referred to were not to be understood
as the transient ebbings that typically come and go over the course of a day;
they were rather seasons of ebbings. Said Symonds, Not every interruption
of communion with God, not every present distemper and indisposedness
proves God to have withdrawn Himself . . . the deadness of a deserted soul
is not a transient, but an abiding deadness . . . not a present short abate-
ment of God’s quickening presence, but a continued cessation for some
space of time: it may be long.66
Furthermore, Symonds argued that desertion was a withdrawal only of
God’s acts of love, not of His love itself. God’s affection for His deserted
child was the same even though the expression of His affection temporarily
changed.67 In light of this, it cannot be said that God loves His children
differently in light of his desertions; the withdrawal or giving of consola-
tion are both expressions of that same divine love. Symonds explained, “A
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:55 PM Page 55
68 Ibid., 13.
69 Ibid., 42.
70 Ibid., 41–43.
71 Ibid., 49.
72 Ibid., 51.
56 Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care
father may have a dear affection to his child, yet show but little in his
carriage.”6 8
2. Discerning Spiritual Desertion
Spiritual desertion was not a condition that was disposed to being im-
mediately discerned or noticed, for indeed a believer might be deserted and
not know it. Symonds observed how God’s departure was often gradual,
coming not all at once but by degrees: “As the sun rises by degrees and sets
by degrees, and so night creeps often upon men before they are aware.”69
For this reason, it was often the case that a believer would not discover
their deserted state until its process had already progressed for some time.
A number of other factors also contribute to people’s inability to recognize
the onset of spiritual desertion. These include: pride and conceitedness fu-
eled by comparing oneself to others worse than them, the testimony and ap-
plause of others (even from the godly), the abundance of apparently godly
activity done apart from the power of the Holy Spirit, and the common ten-
dency not to consider one’s own estate.70 In light of this, Symonds strongly
suggested that believers intentionally discern and judge for themselves
whether or not they were deserted. To help them in this endeavor, he of-
fered some rules for help in judging one’s estate.
The chief rule that Joseph Symonds offered for the discernment of spir-
itual desertion was to consider the various forms of grace previously given
by the Lord. It was often the case that many of these graces have been pre-
viously taken for granted. Examples include: the strength to perform holy
endeavors, the ability to apprehend spiritual things through Scripture, and
even the inclination to seek after God. Symonds asserted that in times of de-
sertion, the withdrawal of many such graces could be discerned through ob-
serving decay in the human spirit with respect to its activity, light and sight,
and affections.71
Decay in spiritual activity was chiefly denoted by two things: unfruit-
fulness in good and less willingness towards good. By unfruitfulness in
good, Symonds was referring to the deserted believer’s loss of ability to
demonstrate inward signs of grace as well as outward works done in the
power of the Holy Spirit. There was less mourning for sin, less rejoicing in
God, less hope on His promises, and less desire for Christ’s appearing.7 2
This would be coupled with less giving of alms, less time spent in prayer
and the reading of Scripture, and less private acts of charity. Symonds ad-
mitted, however, that the abatement of good works alone was not a clear
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:55 PM Page 56
73 Ibid., 51.
74 Ibid., 50.
75 Ibid., 55.
76 Ibid., 60.
77 Ibid., 75.
78 Ibid., 63.
79 Ibid., 68.
80 Ibid., 64.
Wang: The English Puritans and Spiritual Desertion 57
indicator of desertion because pride could easily motivate one to perform
public duties for human applause.7 3 Also, God would sometimes lead the
godly away from outward service for various reasons such as bodily infir-
mity or personal rest.74
The second manner by which the human spirit decayed in spiritual de-
sertion was in regard to its light and sight, the eye of the deserted soul being
weakened in its ability to perceive God and spiritual things.7 5 To Symonds,
one’s ability to conceive or apprehend anything of God was ultimately the
sustained supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, who persistently stirred,
strengthened, and directed the mind. At the moment the Spirit’s work
abated, the human soul would immediately lose its spiritual sight even if it
were to seek earnestly after God through the Word or Sacraments.76 Often,
the result of this type of decay was the prevailing of unbelief in the mind of
the believer. The lack of evidence of God left the deserted to struggle with
various doubtings, disputes, objections, strange reasonings about spiritual
truths; so much that the soul is greatly perplexed and snared in the diver-
sity, crossness, subtlety, and ambiguity of her own reasonings.77
In addition to a constrained ability to apprehend new things of God
coupled by plagues of unbelief, the deserted man lost touch with his former
evidences of God and His grace. More specifically, his former light lost its
previous efficacy to affect, impel, repel, and humble his heart.78 Remember-
ing and recalling the past work of God has long been an activity that has
edified the souls of the saints. In Psalm 42:4–6, King David followed this
practice in the midst of his suffering and lamenting: These things I remem-
ber as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the
procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among
the festive throng. ... My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will re-
member you from the land of Jordan.” According to Symonds, such remem-
bering impelled the believer to fulfill his duties joyfully, restrained him from
evil, humbled his heart, and warmed his affections for God.79 Unfortu-
nately, all these benefits were lost for the deserted. The deserted may recall
certain memories of God, but these do not touch his heart and offer little
help to his depressed condition: “A man is not affected with the things that
he knows, as in former days; time was when the apprehension of God’s love
did work mightily, melting to repentance, quickening to obedience . . . but
now the thoughts of divine love do not so raise the heart.”80
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:55 PM Page 57
81 Ibid., 483.
82 Ibid., 125.
83 Ibid., 486.
84 Ibid., 488.
85 Ibid., 511–512.
58 Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care
The Causes of Spiritual Desertion
1. For Spiritual Edification
Generally speaking, Symonds viewed spiritual desertion as a means of
grace to edify and bless the children of God. It was one of the tools, albeit a
particularly unpleasant one at the time, which God employed as He saw fit
to facilitate the Christian’s process of sanctification. Sanctification was fa-
cilitated in part by the deserted believer’s deeper yearning for the perfect
comfort of heaven. The lack of God’s manifest presence in this world
caused one to seek after its perfect expression all the more at the time of
glorification. Whenever an absence of God was suffered, the Christian
would be reminded of the distance between heaven and earth: “Comfort be-
longs not to sanctification, but glorification, therefore the fullness of it is
kept until we be set in glory.”81 The believer’s hunger for God and spiritual
things grew deeper for the present life as well, not just the afterlife.
Symonds explained, “The soul longs after God, that in him it may find all
supplied, which it wants in the world. Now the more God stirs up desires of
himself the more the soul is prepared to communion with him, and the
more it has of him, the hungry man eats most, and he that is most thirsty,
drinks most.”82
Symonds believed that desertions also occurred to establish the godly
in fuller comfort. As God’s method of redemption for Israel was to bring
them through Egypt, the Red Sea, and the wilderness before they reached
Canaan, it was often the case that God premised affliction of the soul be-
fore great comforts.83 When the soul has passed through dire straits and
then sees the wonders of the Lord in the depths of darkness and deadness,
the deserted are more profoundly edified and encouraged by the future evi-
dences and comforts of God.84 Such enlightened souls are often the ones
who are later called upon for special acts of service, which may help explain
why so many outstanding saints have experienced desertion. Symonds of-
fered the following exhortation to his readers:
They that go down into the deeps see many wonders which others
know not. Experience gives wisdom . . . some are ordinary passengers,
and it is enough for them to look to themselves being able to do but lit-
tle for others; but some must be pilots, and therefore must be ac-
quainted with winds, and seas, and rocks, and sands, that they may not
only save themselves, but others.85
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:55 PM Page 58
86 Ibid., 135.
87 Ibid., 45.
88 Ibid., 135.
89 Ibid., 136.
Wang: The English Puritans and Spiritual Desertion 59
2. For Instruction
Spiritual desertion was a means by which God instructed His children
on the value of grace as well as the reality of their own sinfulness and weak-
ness. These lessons in fact worked hand in hand as a deeper knowledge of
one’s sin inevitably led to a greater appreciation for the grace that redeemed
it. Symonds found evidence of the didactic intentions behind God’s acts of
desertion in 2 Chronicles 32:31, where God temporarily left Hezekiah in
order to try him, so that he might know all that was in his heart.86 As we
will see, the self-knowledge that typically came out of God’s testing was
largely for the benefit and edification of the believer.
Symonds held to a strong view of man’s profound and comprehensive
moral depravity, which applied also to the regenerate. Because divine grace
kept human depravity from fully manifesting itself, many enjoyed a grace-
sustained life without ever being mindful or conscience of the true depth of
their sinfulness. Moreover, God may have previously been present in many
gracious counsels, checks, and impulsions, and yet elicit little thanks or ac-
knowledgement.8 7 This ignorance was remedied by the temporary with-
drawal of divine grace associated with spiritual desertion:
A man would not think that he is so bad as he is while he enjoys an
abundant aid of spiritual grace, as while the soul is in the body, that
putrefying quality, and the filthiness of it does not so much appear, but
when the soul has left it; then it becomes a rotten carcass . . . while it is
fed with the continued issues and streams of pure water from a clear
fountain, [it] shows not its filth, but when the streams are cut off, then
the foulness of it discovers itself.88
Similarly, it was often the case that a Christian would believe that he
had been freed from his lusts only to wonder in shame and astonishment as
these lusts reappeared in strength of force during the night of desertion.89
Such a man would likely be led to consider the liberality of God’s previous
dispensing of grace, as well as the necessity of it. The payoff of this added
understanding and self-knowledge was a newfound value, desire, and grati-
tude for God’s grace that was not possible if the believer had not been de-
serted. To them, present grace could no longer be easily taken for granted
and opportunities for receiving future grace could no longer be taken
lightly. However, perhaps the greatest instruction afforded by desertion was
to know God as the God of comfort firsthand:
And therefore that they may have a sight of that dark and dismal na-
ture of their own hearts, he shuts in his light; and then when the soul
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:55 PM Page 59
90 Ibid., 508–509.
91 Ibid., 140.
92 Ibid., 141.
93 Ibid., 143.
94 Ibid., 144.
60 Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care
lies in a mournful and distressed case . . . , and reckon himself past all
hope; then I say, God shows himself to be the God of comfort, by com-
manding light to shine out of darkness, and quieting the high and rag-
ing storms, which did bear down all before them.9 0
3. For Correction
In addition to instructing the believer in the ways of grace and human
depravity, spiritual desertion was also a means by which God corrected and
disciplined believers out of love.91To Symonds, the chief blemish that deser-
tion corrected was spiritual pride, which led a person to believe that his
strength, which was actually afforded by divine grace, originated from him-
self. Reflecting on the importance God placed on the correction of human
pride, Symonds related the corrective qualities of desertion to those of the
Apostle Paul’s thorn in the flesh: “Pride, which is a swelling and tumor of
the spirit, or a lifting up in the heart through a supposed abundance of rev-
elation in the mind (2 Corinthians 12:7), or of other rich endowments
of spiritual graces; it brought upon the Apostle that goring thorn in the
flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet him, lest he should be exalted above
Another flaw which spiritual desertion corrected was carelessness, evi-
denced by the habit of not accepting the seasons of grace when God drew
near. As God withdrew Himself during times of desertion, conversely, there
were also periods when God drew especially near the believer. When such
was the case, a believer might enjoy and draw special excitement and inspi-
ration towards many godly thoughts and resolutions.9 3 If these graces were
sought after and taken hold of, they would have likely born much fruit.
However, Symonds observed that these special seasons of grace were often
negligently squandered by believers who “chose not to hoist up their sails
to these gales” and were therefore justly left to a spirit of dullness.94
From Symonds’ perspective, grace did not cease to be grace if it re-
quired action on the part of its recipient. Even though grace was a free gift
that could not be earned, it was still to be sought after even laboriously, ir-
respective of the fact that these efforts were not meritorious. In light of its
exceedingly great value, any other human response to grace would be unfit-
ting and inappropriate. Symonds went so far as to say that anyone who ad-
vocated the contrary was likely guilty of spiritual sloth: “It is just, that he
that labors not should not eat, he that digs not for the pearl should not find
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:55 PM Page 60
95 Ibid., 146.
96 Ibid., 503.
97 Ibid., 504.
98 Ibid., 515.
99 Ibid., 521.
100 Ibid., 521.
Wang: The English Puritans and Spiritual Desertion 61
it, but that the fruit of spiritual slothfulness should be a decay in spiritual
Last, spiritual desertion corrected rigidity and unmercifulness.
Symonds observed how certain saints lacked tenderness and compassion,
dealing with their brethren roughly by censures, neglects, and contempt.96
This relational approach needed to be corrected because Christ is full of
mercy, one who will not quench the smoking flax, nor break the bruised
reed.97 When this was the case, desertion would soften the hearts of the
rigid by showing them their own need for mercy and grace.
The Relief of Desertion
1. Concerning Cases of Melancholy
Following the likes of other notable Puritan divines such as Richard
Baxter and Robert Bolton, Joseph Symonds recognized spiritual desertion
and melancholy (i.e., psychological troubles) as distinct conditions even
though their sufferers may have complained of similar symptoms. As such,
he began his discussion on the cure of spiritual desertion with the following
admonition warning his readers not to apply spiritual remedies to a physi-
cal ailment: “As for the first, who are oppressed with melancholy, that dark
and dusky humor, which disturbs both soul and body; their cure belongs
rather to the Physician than to the Divine, and Galen is more proper for
them than a minister of the gospel: it is a pestilent humor where it abounds,
one calls it the devil’s bath.”98
2. Concerning the Possibility of Recovery
Before he offered directives for the relief of spiritual desertion,
Symonds sought first to establish that recovery was indeed possible. He re-
minded the reader of other believers who have successfully recovered in the
past, such as King David.9 9 He also reasoned that the present condition of
the deserted was not worse off than their condition before conversion; if
God appeared to them when they were completely without Him and while
still in darkness and bondage to sin, how much more would God appear to
them if they earnestly sought after Him?100 Moreover, the deserted had
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:55 PM Page 61
101 Ibid., 298.
102 Ibid., 174.
103 Ibid., 274.
104 Ibid., 358.
105 Ibid., 359.
106 Ibid., 359.
62 Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care
many promises of God: rest to the weary, strength to the weak, light to the
blind, and health to the sick. These promises were given so that those lack-
ing would have hope.101
Moreover, that the sufferer had the ability and responsibility to both
cooperate with and facilitate this process of recovery was a critical convic-
tion of Symonds. If this was not true, his discussion on the cure of desertion
would have been short-lived. By way of persuasion, he counseled deserted
believers to labor tirelessly for a constant communion with God despite be-
ing in their spiritually depressed state.10 2 Citing 1 Chronicles 22:16—“Sit
not weeping and sighing, for that will not profit, you must be doing”—
Symonds argued that the manner by which this was accomplished was the
diligent, wise, and constant use of the available means of grace. He added:
Be doing: many cry Lord help, but they stir not up themselves, but
think to live all upon supply from heaven: but if you keep the seed in
the garden God will not increase your store, you must plough and sow
...; you have a life in you, and you must put it forth, God has said he
will help you: that is, you must do what you can, and he then will join
with you.103
By exhorting the deserted to work for their recovery, Symonds was not
insinuating that recuperation was effected by the power of human strength.
In fact, he clearly acknowledged one’s need of divine assistance: “It is true,
that which you want is out of your reach, you are not able to make crooked
things to become straight, and lay those swelling mountains of corruption
level, but yet you must set to the work.”104 To him, reasoning that all was of
God and then resigning oneself into fatalistic passivity was an ill-drawn
conclusion from a true principle; believers indeed possessed the power to
do good by virtue of the fact that they were regenerate. If this were not so,
there would be no difference between the regenerate and the unregener-
Instead, Symonds recognized that God’s transformative work on the
human heart entailed a dynamic synergy between divine and human initia-
tive. Symonds found this synergy keenly illustrated in the biblical account
of Joshua and the fall of Jericho in Judges 7:18. Even though the strength of
the noise made by the ram horns did not physically cause the walls of Jeri-
cho to fall, Joshua was still required faithfully to complete his work in his
bid to overthrow the city.106 In light of this, Symonds exhorted the deserted
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:55 PM Page 62
107 Ibid., 242.
108 Ibid., 243.
109 Ibid., 248.
110 Ibid., 366.
111 John Piper, “Insanity and Spiritual Songs in the Soul of a Saint: Reflec-
tions on the life of William Cowper,”
Biographies/1463_Insanity_and_Spiritual_Songs _in_the_Soul_of_a_Saint/ (accessed
March 21, 1997).
Wang: The English Puritans and Spiritual Desertion 63
to employ faithfully and diligently all available means of grace for the relief
of their condition.
3. Employing Available Means of Grace
Among all the means of grace available to retain a divine presence,
prayer was to be employed most liberally. Symonds offered three guidelines
for the prayers of the deserted. First, as evidenced by David’s prayer in
Psalm 119:10 (“With my whole heart have I sought thee, oh let me not
wander from thy commandments”), prayer was to be initiated by a strong
desire of walking with God.107 Second, prayer was to be sustained by sensi-
tivity to one’s perpetual insufficiency of strength to curb inward corruption
and properly perform spiritual duty.108 Third, the goal of prayer must be the
ends and purposes of God, otherwise prayer would be a means of manipu-
lating God into the service of people. Said Symonds, God must be your
last end, come then and say, ‘Lord help me that I may honor thee, I owe all
to thee, but I can do nothing without thee; if I have life from thee, I will live
to thee; what I receive from thee, I will lay out for thee.’”109
In addition to prayer, Symonds made mention of other means of grace
that should be used. He exhorted his readers to attend the ordinances faith-
fully and thoughtfully, to persevere in the practice of other good works, and
to receive help of other saints. Speaking of the benefits of godly fellowship,
he wrote, “Crave their counsels, their prayers, use their company, for they
are living, and they will impart their life: they will be helpful to the infirmed
... woe be to him that is alone, if he fall, who shall raise him up?110 An
excellent example of godly friendship curbing the effects of melancholy was
that of John Newton and William Cowper. Newton stood by Cowper
through many attempts at suicide, sacrificing his own vacation so as not to
leave Cowper alone. They frequently took long walks between homes and
talked of God and His purposes for the church in addition to collaborating
together in the writing of a hymnbook consisting of 276 hymns (including
the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace”).111
Another way deserted believers could labor towards recovery was to
stir their hearts by their understanding. Symonds reasoned that the heart
could be changed through the use of reason; if one were to meditate on
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:55 PM Page 63
112 Symonds, The Case and Cure of a Deserted Soul, 363.
113 Ibid., 365.
114 Ibid., 338.
115 Ibid., 345–347.
64 Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care
and apply truths of Scripture, the will may be provoked and awakened.112
To this end, he suggested the following rules and resolutions: as far as it
was possible, to steer every notion of the mind to the betterment of the
heart, to be frequent in deep thoughts, to focus thoughts on matters that
concern the individual, to observe the temper of one’s heart and take note
of which thoughts are most efficacious, to sustain thoughts once they take
hold, and finally to arm one’s thoughts with prayer—asking God to be in
4. Pursuing the Cause
Last, Symonds admonished his readers to pursue the cause of their de-
sertion: Pursue your loss and sad condition to the birth of it, consider how
long this night of darkness has been upon you.”114 If it could be discerned
that the desertion was related to the persistence of some gross sin (which to
him, was not always the case), Symonds admonished the deserted to bewail
and repent from that sin. He explained, “Repentance is the way to make up
your losses, and to repair your ruins, God has promised grace and mercy to
the penitent. ... Till you repent, your sin is continued and consequently
God’s displeasure.”1 15
It would not be a stretch to believe that the phenomenon of spiritual
desertion still occurred in the context of contemporary Evangelical Christi-
anity. For if God deserted the likes of King David and the Apostle Paul, not
to mention many English and American Puritans, then it would follow that
He continues this practice even now. Spiritual desertion, as Symonds under-
stood it to be, was a biblically-sanctioned means of grace by which God in-
structed and corrected his children out of love and for their sanctification.
Although a more thorough reflection on Symonds’ work could not be pre-
sented here due to space limitations, it is my hope that this present dis-
cussion would help highlight the importance of developing a broader, more
robust view of the role of spiritual consolation in the Christian life—specif-
ically, one which rejects therapeutic religion (i.e., the hunger for peace of
mind, personal well-being, and psychic self-improvement and security as its
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:55 PM Page 64
116 Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of
Diminishing Expectations (New York: Warner Books, 1979), 33.
Author: David Chou-Ming Wang. Title: doctoral student. Affiliation: University
of Houston. Highest Degree: Th.M., Regent College (Vancouver, B.C.). Areas of in-
terest/specialization: psychology, spiritual theology, church history.
Wang: The English Puritans and Spiritual Desertion 65
own end116) but also one which values the right seeking of spiritual consola-
tion while respecting the mystery of God’s tendency to at times seemingly
withdraw himself from his beloved children.
text:SFJ 3-1 Spr2010 4/1/10 1:55 PM Page 65
Copyright of Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care is the property of BIOLA University and its content
may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express
written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.
... Consequently, when faced with financial stress, religious individuals either engage in positive reliance on God (by trusting God and believing that God has their best interests in mind) or in negative religious coping in the form of spiritual struggle (not trusting God and questioning the reasons for their current situation). Notably, negative forms of religious coping (e.g., perceived abandonment by God and doubt) have been observed and have received considerable attention in the theological and pastoral care literature across both Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions (Wang, 2010(Wang, , 2011. Gutierrez et al., (2017) conducted a recent study in which they investigated how faith and spirituality can be an adaptive response to spiritual hardship. ...
Full-text available
Financial stress is a growing concern for Americans. One population that is particularly susceptible to financial stress and its negative consequences are students enrolled in seminaries many of whom will graduate with large amounts of debt while entering a profession with unique financial challenges that can make repaying student loan debt a daunting task. Prior studies have found that financial stress can lead to poor spiritual, mental, and relational health outcomes. However, research has not yet established that spiritual health is a key part of the mechanism by which financial stress is linked with mental and rela-tional health. The current study involved 189 students from five theological seminaries. Structural equation modeling revealed that spiritual health accounts for some of the negative impact of financial stress on both mental and relational health outcomes. These results suggest that the spiritual health of seminary students represents a salient focal point for potential interventions seeking to improve the holistic health of this population.
This paper offers a critique of certain aspects of the spiritual formation movement as it has been manifested in evangelical churches in the past few decades. My experience with this facet of the spiritual formation movement has grown out of my former ministry as a pastor in a large, evangelical, suburban congregation and out of my current role as a professor serving at a Christian university and seminary. It is a friendly critique, offered by a person who has been directly involved in facilitating spiritual formation in various settings within the evangelical community. Taken together, the points of unease I will identify are not a “cease and desist” order, but rather a cautionary word for all of us who seek to press the spiritual formation movement forward. These points of unease include: 1) unease about a dualistic tendency to value spirituality at the expense of the material world, 2) unease with devotional practices grown in the soil of monastic Catholicism rather than Protestantism, 3) unease with a rhetorical strategy that sharply distinguishes between being and doing, 4) unease with devotional practices that fail the “soccer mom” test, and 5) an unease with certain ways of using Scripture which are devotionally fruitful but hermeneutically faulty.
Full-text available
According to the research of J. Robert Clinton only a third of leaders finish well. Clinton describes a developmental barrier he refers to as “the doing to being” boundary that many leaders face in their forties or fifties. This barrier requires leaders to undergo a paradigm shift from finding their meaning and fulfillment in achievement to ministry that flows out of being. According to Clinton many leaders fail to successfully negotiate this important transition which contributes to the alarming failure rate of leaders. This research project addressed this problem by exploring the nature and meaning of doing and being and examining the critical factors related to the doing to being boundary and transition. This exploration began with a theological and biblical review of doing and being in Scripture followed by a literature review which compared Clinton’s description of this boundary and transition with two other spiritual development stage models and other pertinent literature. The researcher then conducted a grounded theory field study with leaders he determined to have successfully negotiated the doing to being boundary in order to gain further insight into the critical factors these leaders faced as they processed the doing to being boundary in their own lives. The researcher synthesized the results of the biblical review, literature review, and field study into a conceptual map of the doing to being boundary and transition, and developed a set of navigational aids to help leaders successfully negotiate this important transition.
Insanity and Spiritual Songs in the Soul of a Saint: Reflections on the life of William Cowper
  • John Piper
John Piper, "Insanity and Spiritual Songs in the Soul of a Saint: Reflections on the life of William Cowper," Biographies/1463_Insanity_and_Spiritual_Songs _in_the_Soul_of_a_Saint/ (accessed March 21, 1997).
The Case and Cure of a Deserted Soul, 363. 113 Ibid
  • Symonds
Symonds, The Case and Cure of a Deserted Soul, 363. 113 Ibid., 365.