Jonathan Edwards, the Christian Life, and Calm

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This article originally appeared in Issue 3 of the Union Magaine.

I have calmed and quieted my soul.
Psalm 131:2

How do you slow down the inner RPMs? How do you move through life without feeling on inside like a hamster running frenetically on the wheel? How do you get your frantic heart (not just lungs) to take deep breath? Haven’t you been around someone, and find your heart slowing down? Have you ever been around someone whose inner calm radiated outward and caused you to breathe more easily just by being in their presence?

Jonathan Edwards takes us into such calm. Let me be clear that by ‘calm’ I do not mean working any less hard. Life in Christ energizes us in one way, and calms us in another. Externally, we finally get traction with being truly productive, fruitful, and active. Internally, we move from frantic hastiness to calm.

Isaiah 28:16 says, ‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’ Our evangelical and reformed instincts might cause us to expect that sentence to conclude ‘condemned’ instead of ‘in haste’ – ‘Whoever believes will not be condemned.’ But the text takes trust in God in a different direction, identifying a different benefit. And as I consider all that God gives us through Jonathan Edwards, in living the Christian life, among the most personally meaningful—and at same time most neglected—today is captured by the little word ‘calm.’

Edwards liberally used two other synonyms when talking about calm: ‘tranquil’ and ‘serene’.

But he especially loved the word ‘calm,’ as evidenced by the fact that it crops up 442 times in the online Works of Edwards that Yale University hosts.

Jonathan Edwards shows us that the Christian life is not only a matter of being justified and adopted and reconciled and purchased and liberated and cleansed. It is also a matter of being calmed.

Jonathan Edwards shows us that the Christian life is not only a matter of being justified and adopted and reconciled and purchased and liberated and cleansed. It is also a matter of being calmed.

Have you tasted this?           

What is ‘Calm’?

By ‘calm’ we’re not talking about yawning indifference or stoicism or apathy or lethargy. Edwards wrote that ‘lukewarmness in religion is abominable.’ By calm Edwards had in mind a settled, inner, unflappable repose of soul, beyond the reach of circumstance. Like the eye of a tornado, it is an inner quiet when all around is chaos. It is deeper than simply not getting angry. After all, sometimes we should get angry and are wrong not to (cf. Eph. 4:26). Edwards has in mind something more wonderful, more all-of-life-encompassing. What a deep breath does for your lungs, Jonathan Edwards does for your soul. A sinner being given Jonathan Edwards is like an asthmatic child being given an inhaler.

The world has strategies for controlling our inner scurrying about. But all the world’s strategies are limited to self-resourcing. The world tells us to go in. Edwards tells us to go out. Jonathan Edwards shows us how to walk into true calm, by being drawn out of yourself, and stepping out of your unsustainably fast-paced mental universe.

Definitive

How does Edwards help calm us down, then? The first thing to get clear is that this blanketing soul-calm is definitive of the Christian life. It is not peripheral. It is not optional. In Religious Affections he wrote:

‘The strength of the good soldier of Jesus Christ appears in nothing more than in steadfastly maintaining a holy calm, meekness, sweetness, and benevolence of his mind, amid all the storms, injuries, strange behavior, and surprising acts and events of this evil and unreasonable world.’

Do you think of the Christian soldier’s central battle as ‘maintaining a holy calm’?

Comprehensive

And this defining, transcending calm breaks out into all the different aspects of living the Christian life. In our words, for example:  

‘In him who exercises the Christian spirit as he ought there will be no passionate, rash and hasty expression; there will not be a bitter exasperated countenance, or air of behavior, no violence in talk or carriage, but on the contrary, those words and that behavior which savor of peaceableness and calmness.’

In our pain:

‘The Christian temper is to be meek and calm and not easily provoked, to be undisturbed by affronts and injuries. The Christian is above these things; he is out of the reach of them; he does as it were dwell above the clouds, out of the reach of winds and storms, and enjoys a perpetual serenity and tranquility.’

Love is altogether a sweet disposition and affection of the soul. Love will prevent broils and quarrels, and will dispose to peaceableness.

In our relationships:

‘Love will dispose men to meekness and gentleness in their carriage towards their neighbors, and not to treat them with passion or violence, but with moderation and calmness. Love is altogether a sweet disposition and affection of the soul. Love will prevent broils and quarrels, and will dispose to peaceableness.’

In theological debate (referring to a controversy about the Lord’s Supper he was embroiled in):

‘If anyone opposes me from the press, I desire he would endeavor fairly to take off the force of each argument, by answering with calm and close reasoning—avoiding both dogmatical assertion and passionate reflection.’

Soul-calm is to pervade all of life for one united to Christ.

Holiness

Those are some ways calm manifests itself in the Christian life. But let’s go one step deeper, from the manifestation to the inner reality. The word Edwards used more than any other in tunneling in to the heart of the Christian life is holiness. And when we go to his descriptions of holiness, we find him using the language of calmness. In 1740 he reflected back on his conversion and wrote that holiness at that time

‘appeared to me to be of a sweet, pleasant, charming, serene, calm nature. It seemed to me, it brought an inexpressible purity, brightness, peacefulness, and ravishment to the soul: and that it made the soul . . . pleasant, delightful, and undisturbed; enjoying a sweet calm.’

Austerity and holiness are antonyms according to Jonathan Edwards. Holiness is not dreary, morose, somber, plodding, shoulder-drooping. It’s bright, pleasant, serene. Calm.

Austerity and holiness are antonyms according to Jonathan Edwards. Holiness is not dreary, morose, somber, plodding, shoulder-drooping. It’s bright, pleasant, serene. Calm. He wrote:

‘Oh, of what a sweet, humble nature is holiness! . . . It makes the soul like a delightful field or garden planted by God, with all manner of pleasant flowers growing in the order in which nature has planted them, that is all pleasant and delightful, undisturbed, free from all the noise of man and beast, enjoying a sweet calm and the bright, calm, and gently vivifying beams of the sun forevermore: where the sun is Jesus Christ; the blessed beams and calm breeze, the Holy Spirit.’

Who is winning people over to Christian holiness like that today?

Regeneration

How then do you get this holy calm? The first answer Edwards gives is the same answer Jesus gave to Nicodemus: ‘You must be born again’ (John 3:7). Inner calm is not the result of having a certain Myers-Briggs personality profile.  

Before new birth, outside circumstances necessarily dictate the pace of our heart inside us. After new birth, we are plugged into God and reordered on inside, and an imperviousness to circumstance is now available to us. Edwards preached:

‘Men in their natural state [unregenerate] are like winter, perpetually disturbed with the storms of lust and vice, and a raging conscience; their souls are all beclouded with sin and spiritual darkness. But when Christ comes with his warming influences, things are far otherwise: their minds are calm and serene.’

New birth is the fundamental prerequisite to the inner calm every sinner is panting for.

Drilling Deeper                  

But what does regeneration do to give us this new fundamental calm? New birth makes God real to us. God himself goes from black-and-white to full color. From subscribed truth on paper to felt experience. We no longer see God like we see a postcard of a Jamaican beach; we see God like we see that beach if we’re suddenly transported there, blinking, looking around.

The one verse in the Bible that sums up the way you get calm in your life, and the one verse in the Bible that sums up what Jonathan Edwards does for us, is Job 42:5: ‘I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.’

You don’t get tranquility, calm, peaceableness, by looking for these things in themselves. You get them by looking at God—when God becomes real to you—and all these things will be added unto you.

But what about God becomes real to you? Seeing what? Seeing the glory of God in the Son of God revealing the love of God. If we ask how calm sweeps over your heart, the answer Edwards gives is that we see the beauty of the love of Christ. In a sermon late in life Edwards preached:

The creation of the world seems to have been especially for this end, that the eternal Son of God might obtain a spouse, toward whom he might fully exercise the infinite benevolence of his nature, and to whom he might, as it were, open and pour forth all that immense fountain of condescension, love, and grace that was in his heart, and that in this way God might be glorified. 

And if that just seems beyond what our messy little lives can really step into, Edwards understands. He said:

‘Here some Christians may be ready to say, ‘How can it be that I may be so bold thus to have communion with one who is so great and glorious when I am so exceeding little and vile?’ I answer: the grace of God is as great as his majesty. His mercy and condescension are fully equal to the height of his dignity and exaltation. You may place yourself in the love of Christ. You may place yourself in his divine embraces.’

It’s not seeing greatness of Christ that will calm you. It’s seeing that being so great, he loves little you.

It’s not seeing greatness of Christ that will calm you. It’s seeing that being so great, he loves little you. As he put it in another sermon,

‘The love of Christ has a tendency to fill the soul with an inexpressible sweetness. It sweetens every thought and makes every meditation pleasant; it brings a divine calm upon the mind, and spreads a heavenly fragrancy.’

Conclusion

Are you frenetic today? Hasty on the inside, despite being born again? Let Jonathan Edwards walks you into the green pastures and still waters of a calmed inner life.

Labor today to be melted afresh into the love of the Triune God, receiving God’s love, and expressing love back to him. Then go to bed. And get up tomorrow and do it again. And many years from now, you will be looking back on a life that slowly moved ever more deeply into radiant calm. Edwards spoke of this calm as something a Christian can carry around inside him:

‘He who has divine love in him has a wellspring of true happiness that he carries about in his own chest, a fountain of sweetness, a spring of the water of life. There is a pleasant calmness and serenity and brightness in the soul in the exercise of this holy affection.’

Jonathan Edwards takes us by the hand, and walks us out of the frenetic chaos of a life consumed with our natural inveterate self-preoccupations, into the bright, tranquil meadow of a life invincibilized by the giving and receiving of divine love.

Soul-calm is what real Christians exhale, having inhaled the love of God.

Picture of Dane Ortlund

Dane Ortlund

Dane Ortlund is Senior Vice President for Bible publishing at Crossway Books in Wheaton, Illinois, USA. He is the author of A New Inner Relish: Christian Motivation in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards (Christian Focus, 2008), and Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God (Crossway, 2014).
Picture of Dane Ortlund

Dane Ortlund

Dane Ortlund is Senior Vice President for Bible publishing at Crossway Books in Wheaton, Illinois, USA. He is the author of A New Inner Relish: Christian Motivation in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards (Christian Focus, 2008), and Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God (Crossway, 2014).