THE SPIRIT AND SARAH EDWARDS
I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better (Ephesians 1:17).
It was a Tuesday night, and Sarah Edwards was feeling uneasy and unhappy about the level of her spiritual life. Sarah was a sincere Christian, but she felt that she was low in grace and in need of God’s help. So she spent some time that evening praying earnestly for the Lord to give her more holiness. After awhile she began to feel a great quietness in her spirit, an unusual sense of submission to God, and a willingness to wait for him to bless her in his own time and in his own way.
The next morning, Wednesday, remarkable things began to happen. Sarah’s thoughts were on God and she found herself asking, “Can I now at this time, with the confidence of a child, and without the least misgiving of heart, call God my Father? … I had not the least doubt, that he then sweetly smiled on me, with the look of forgiveness and love, having laid aside all his displeasure towards me, for Jesus’ sake; which made me feel very weak, and somewhat faint.”
“I took the Bible,” Sarah says, “and read the words of Romans 8 to the end of the chapter… They appeared to me with undoubted certainty as the words of God, and as words which God did pronounce concerning me. I had no more doubt of it than I had of my being… and had it strongly impressed on me, how impossible it was for anything in heaven or earth, in this world or the future, ever to separate me from the love of God which was in Christ Jesus. I cannot find language to express how certain this appeared–the everlasting mountains and hill were but shadows to it. My safety, and happiness, and eternal enjoyment of God’s immutable love, seemed as durable and unchangeable as God himself. Melted and overcome by the sweetness of this assurance, I fell into a great flow of tears, and could not forbear weeping aloud. It appeared certain to me that God was my Father, and Christ my Lord and Savior, that he was mine and I his. Under a delightful sense of the immediate presence and love of God, these words seemed to come over and over into my mind, ‘My God, my all; my God, my all.’ The presence of God was so near, and so real, that I seemed scarcely conscious of anything else. God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, seemed as distinct persons, both manifesting their inconceivable loveliness, and mildness, and gentleness, and their great and immutable love to me… In all things, which concerned me, I felt myself safe under the protection of the Father and the Savior…”
“The peace and happiness, which I hereupon felt, was altogether inexpressible. It seemed to be that which came from heaven; to be eternal and unchangeable. I seemed to be lifted above earth and hell, out of the reach of everything here below, so that I could look on all the rage and enmity of men or devils, with a kind of holy indifference, and an undisturbed tranquility. At the same time, I felt compassion and love for all mankind, and a deep abasement of soul, under a sense of my own unworthiness… I also felt myself more perfectly weaned from all things here below, than ever before. The whole world, with all its enjoyments, and all its troubles, seemed to be nothing; –My God was my all, my only portion.”
We’re going to hear more of this woman’s experiences, but let’s pause for a moment and ask what was happening to Sarah Edwards. The answer is that she was experiencing a powerful outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit in her life. It was the year 1742, and Sarah wasn’t the only person whom the Lord touched in astonishing ways. Many could tell similar stories. Around that time, the Holy Spirit flooded the lives of many other people in North America and Great Britain. Thousands of Christians were overwhelmed by a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit, and thousands of people who had never known Christ before were suddenly and amazingly won to Christ and draw into the church. Entire towns and regions were transformed for years to come. That marvelous outpouring of the Holy Spirit became known as the Great Awakening, and Sarah’s husband, the brilliant preacher Jonathan Edwards, was a leading figure in the Great Awakening.
Today the church celebrates Pentecost. Pentecost marks the occasion when the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ poured his Holy Spirit out on his disciples in an astonishing way. In celebrating Pentecost, it’s important to realize that Pentecost was the beginning, not the end, of the Spirit’s extraordinary work. Ever since that first great outpouring, there have been individuals who have testified to profound encounters with God through the Holy Spirit, and there have been times of revival when the Spirit has swept through entire churches and cities and even nations in extraordinary ways.
For now we’re going to focus mainly on how the Spirit affected one person, Sarah Edwards; we’re going to see where her experience fits in the framework of what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit; and we’re going to ask whether we should be seeking such things for ourselves.
We’ve already heard how one Wednesday Sarah was overwhelmed with a sense of God as her Father. She sensed his love for her with enormous, absolute certainty, and she was flooded with joy, peace, and supreme satisfaction. For the rest of the week, Sarah writes, “I continued in a very sweet and lively sense of divine things, day and night, sleeping and waking… At night, my soul seemed to be filled with an inexpressibly sweet and pure love to God, and to the children of God… The next day, which was the Sabbath, I enjoyed a sweet, and lively, and assured sense of God’s infinite grace and favor and love to me, in taking me out of the depths of hell, and exalting me to the heavenly glory, and the dignity of a royal priesthood.”
A guest minister was preaching that Sunday. Sarah’s husband, Jonathan Edwards, was away preaching in another town. Sarah loved her husband and naturally liked to see him succeed, but she felt God wanted her to be happy if the guest preacher had even greater success than Sarah’s husband had been having. She also felt God wanted her to rejoice if all other Christians had greater spiritual experiences than she had been given. “When I thought of these things,” she says, “it was my instinctive feeling to say, ‘Amen, Lord Jesus! Amen, Lord Jesus!’ This seemed to be the sweet and instinctive language of my soul… I felt a great earnestness of soul and engagedness in seeking God for the town, that religion might now revive. God seemed to be very near to me while I was thus striving with him for these things, and I had a strong hope that what I sought of him would be granted. There seemed naturally and unavoidably to arise in my mind an assurance that now God would do great things.”
Sure enough, the visiting minister had a greater impact on the people that day than Jonathan Edwards himself had been having lately. The Lord was showing that it was ultimately the Spirit of Almighty God himself, and not just Jonathan Edwards, who was doing these things. As the Holy Spirit touched the people, says Sarah, “It appeared to me, that the angels in heaven sung praises, for such wonderful, free, and sovereign grace, and my heart was lifted up in adoration and praise.”
After the service, Sarah went home, where she and several fellow Christians talked together about God’s goodness. Sarah sensed the Spirit stirring her afresh. She says, “My mind was so deeply impressed with the love of Christ, and a sense of his immediate presence, that I could with difficulty refrain from rising from my seat, and leaping for joy.” At other times, though, the weightiness of God’s glory would become almost too much for her, and she would feel faint.
All this time, Sarah became more and more content with God’s will, even if that meant her husband would be less successful than others, even if it meant Sarah herself would endure thing far less enjoyable than her heavenly experiences, even if she had to be mistreated and suffer. “I was entirely swallowed up in God, as my only portion,” she writes, “and his honor and glory was the object of my supreme desire and delight. At the same time, I felt a far greater love to the children of God, than ever before. I seemed to love them as my own soul; and when I saw them, my heart went out towards them, with an inexpressible endearedness and sweetness. I beheld them by faith in their risen and glorified state, with spiritual bodies re-fashioned after the image of Christ’s glorious body, and arrayed in the beauty of heaven. The time when they would be so appeared very near, by faith it seemed as if it were present. This was accompanied with a ravishing sense of the unspeakable joys of heaven. They appeared to my mind in all their reality and certainty, and as it were in actual and distinct vision; so plain and evident were they to the eye of my faith, that I seemed to regard them as begun.”
That sense of God and heavenly joy continued and grew even more powerful in following days. Sarah says, “Thursday night, Jan. 28, was the sweetest night I ever had in my life. I never before, for so long a time together, enjoyed so much of the light, and rest, and sweetness of heaven in my soul… all night I continued in a constant, clear, and lively sense of the heavenly sweetness of Christ’s excellent and transcendent love, of his nearness to me, and of my dearness to him; with an inexpressibly sweet calmness of soul and an entire rest in him. I seemed to myself to perceive a glow of divine love come down from the heart of Christ in heaven, into my heart, in a constant stream, like a stream or pencil of sweet light. At the same time, my heart and soul all flowed out in love to Christ; so that there seemed to be a constant flowing and reflowing of heavenly and divine love, from Christ’s heart to mine; and I appeared to myself to float or swim in these bright, sweet beams of the love of Christ… I think that what I felt each minute, during the continuance of the whole time, was worth more than all the outward comfort and pleasure, which I had enjoyed in my whole life put together. It was a pure delight, which fed and satisfied my soul.”
“This lively sense of the beauty and excellency of divine things continued during the morning, accompanied with peculiar sweetness and delight… The spiritual beauty of the Father and the Savior, seemed to engross my whole mind; and it was the instinctive feeling of my heart, ‘Thou art; and there is none beside thee.’ I never felt such an emptiness of self-love, or any regard to any private, selfish interest of my own… The glory of God seemed to be all, and in all, and to swallow up every wish and desire of my heart.”
“I felt at the same time an exceedingly strong and tender affection for the children of God, and realized, in a manner exceedingly sweet and ravishing, the meaning of Christ’s prayer in John 17:21. ‘That they all may be one, as thou Father art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.’ This union appeared to me an inconceivable, excellent, and sweet oneness; and at the same time I felt that oneness in my soul, with the children of God who were present… So conscious was I of the joyful presence of the Holy Spirit, I could scarcely refrain from leaping with transports of joy… my soul was filled and overwhelmed with light, and love, and joy in the Holy Ghost.”
“I wished to have the world join me in praising him; and was ready to wonder how the world of mankind could lie and sleep, when there was such a God to praise, and rejoice in… I felt a love to all mankind … far beyond all that I had ever felt before. The power of that love seemed to be inexpressible. I thought, if I were surrounded by enemies, who were venting their malice and cruelty upon me, in tormenting me, it would still be impossible that I should cherish any feelings towards them but those of love, and pity, and ardent desires for their happiness…”
Along with Sarah’s love for other people, she felt it would be a horrible thing to use her experiences as an excuse to look down on other Christians or judge them. “To do this,” she said, “seemed abhorrent to every feeling of my heart.” she says that she also sensed in a lively and powerful way that a great part of true Christianity is not just in personal experience but in our duties and relationships to one another.
Sarah Edwards then felt with renewed force the majesty of God. “Towards night,” she said, “I had a deep sense of the awful greatness of God, and felt with what humility and reverence we ought to behave ourselves before him… It seemed to me that we ought greatly to revere the presence of God, and to behave ourselves with the utmost solemnity and humility, when so great and holy a God was so remarkably present, and to rejoice before him with trembling. In the evening, these words, in the Penitential Cries,–‘The Comforter is come!’–were accompanied to my soul with such conscious certainty, and such intense joy, that immediately it took away my strength, and I was falling to the floor; when some of those who were near me caught me and held me up. And when I repeated the words to the bystanders, the strength of my feelings was increased. The name–‘The Comforter’– seemed to denote that the Holy Spirit was the only and infinite Fountain of comfort and joy, and this seemed real and certain in my mind. These words–‘The Comforter’–seemed as it were immensely great, enough to fill heaven and earth.”
Then, to top it all off, Sarah heard news that her husband, who had been preaching elsewhere, had been blessed with enormous power and effectiveness in his preaching. The Spirit, who had blessed Sarah so powerful and used a guest minister so mightily in the absence of Jonathan Edwards, had also been blessing the preaching of Pastor Edwards himself in the place he had been.
When Sarah heard some other people describe encounters with God that sounded even more powerful than her own, it made her all the happier. She was thrilled to hear how not only white people but also black people and Native American Indians were being gripped by the Holy Spirit of Christ. The thought of others advancing ahead of her and having great experiences and higher places in heaven actually made her glad. As Sarah finished recording her experiences, she quoted a poet and said,
“No more, by mortal words, can be expressed;
But vast Eternity shall tell the rest.”
What did Sarah’s husband, Jonathan Edwards, think of all this? He was perhaps the most brilliant mind in American history, a genius in logic and philosophy as well as theology, a rational man if ever there was one. Did Jonathan Edwards see his wife as weird, unstable, and far too emotional? No, if Sarah’s experience was the result of a confused brain, said Edwards, then “let my brain be evermore possessed of that happy distemper.” In other words, if that’s being crazy, then I want to be crazy too. And, added Edwards, “I pray God that the world of mankind be all seized with” this same experience.
Did Sarah’s flood of blessing from the Holy Spirit put her head so far in the clouds that she lost touch with everyday life? No, Jonathan and Sarah Edwards had a family of eleven children. Sarah was known as a polite, practical, no-nonsense woman who handled the details of everyday life extremely well–but she glowed with the light of God’s Spirit in all she did. She said, “Oh how good it is to work for God in the daytime, and at night to lie down under his smiles.” Sarah didn’t spend all her time in Bible reading, church, and prayer meetings. She loved to do those things, but she also went about her everyday business with great skill and enjoyment. It was God’s will for her to have a family and many other activities to tend to, and because these things were all part of her service to God, Sarah said, they were as joyful and as good as prayer itself.
But what about the hard times and heartbreaks of life? Sure, Sarah was thrilled during times of blessing, but how did she respond to grief and loss? Well, her beloved husband died tragically in his middle 50’s, shortly after becoming president of the college of New Jersey (later called Princeton University). After her husband’s death, Sarah wrote to her daughter Esther:
“My very dear child,’
What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands upon our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness, that we had your father so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left us! We are all given to God; and there I am, and love to be.
Your ever affectionate mother,
What great faith! In her greatest loss, this Spirit-filled woman said, “We are all given to God; and there I am, and love to be.”
What the Holy Spirit did in Sarah Edwards is in keeping with what the Bible says about the Spirit. Scripture says that the Spirit moves us to call God our Father. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16). The Spirit who inspired the writing of the Bible applies and seals the Bible’s words on the heart, as Sarah experienced. The Spirit does not give experience for the sake of experience but always draws the mind and heart to Jesus Christ and to God the Father, as the Bible says (John 16:16) and as Sarah testified. The Holy Spirit convinces people of their own sin and of God’s forgiveness, and in his own time and his own way, the Holy Spirit may also seal their hearts with a powerful, immediate assurance of God’s favor beyond anything they’ve tasted before.
A biblical writer prays that his readers may “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18-19). Scripture speaks of “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) and of “an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8). This overwhelming delight in God made Sarah willing to give up anything else, just as it moved a biblical writer to say, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).
This satisfaction in God moves the soul to passionate love for the Lord and also to love for others. The Spirit gives a taste of heaven that transforms your life and behavior on earth. “The fruit of the Spirit,” says the Bible, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Some people of less maturity than Sarah Edwards have been tempted to make their own marvelous experiences an excuse to judge others or look down on them, and that sometimes makes people resent any talk about such intense and glorious blessings from the Holy Spirit. But our response to the Spirit’s touch should be love and humility, not pride.
Another mistake in speaking of the Spirit’s ministry is to insist that only the act of speaking in tongues is the sure mark of the Spirit’s richest blessing in a person’s life. The Bible doesn’t say that an outpouring of the Holy Spirit always produces the gift of tongues. Sarah Edwards never spoke in tongues, and neither did most other people in the Great Awakening, and yet the mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon them was undeniably real.
Others have placed great emphasis on physical effects such as leaping for joy or fainting from an overwhelming sense of God’s majesty. This, too, can become an obstacle if it’s implied that being filled with the Spirit is synonymous with fainting or jumping up and down. We can learn from Sarah Edwards. Although the Holy Spirit’s outpouring sometimes had an impact on her body, she always considered such things a mere side effect, not something to be focused on. Her focus was on Christ, and that’s where she wanted others to focus as well.
Don’t be so afraid of excesses or oddities or errors that you quench the Holy Spirit. Instead, keep seeking more and more of the Holy Spirit’s blessing in your life. Don’t just seek an experience–seek God. The intensity of experience may vary from person to person as it pleases God to give his blessing, but the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is real, and we should be seeking that reality more and more. So on this Pentecost, pray earnestly that you may know Christ more fully and directly through the touch of his Spirit, and pray that the Holy Spirit’s mighty power of renewal and revival may flood many others in your community and throughout the world.
As the apostle, Paul put it in the Bible, “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for those who believe” (Ephesians 1:17-18).
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.