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The Personal Narrative of Jonathan Edwards - Part III

Most people who know me are aware that I’m not the “outdoors” type! My idea of “roughing” it is a weekend at a rundown Holiday Inn. But my appreciation for nature, indeed my delight in it, was initially awakened by the following comments of Edwards in his Personal Narrative. George Claghorn, who edited the volume on Edwards’ letters and personal writings for the Yale edition of his collected works, contends that “for Edwards, contemplation of nature took on a sacramental perspective” (16:749). That is to say, Edwards encountered the Creator in his creation. Or, to use the language of the apostle Paul, God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20; cf. also Psalms 19 and 104). So, read and enjoy!

“Not long after I first began to experience these things, I gave an account to my father of some things that had passed in my mind. I was pretty much affected by the discourse we had together; and when the discourse was ended, I walked abroad alone, in a solitary place in my father's pasture, for contemplation. And as I was walking there, and looking up on the sky and clouds, there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express. I seemed to see them both in a sweet conjunction; majesty and meekness joined together; it was a sweet, and gentle, and holy majesty; and also a majestic meekness; an awful sweetness; a high, and great, and holy gentleness.

After this my sense of divine things gradually increased, and became more and more lively, and had more of that inward sweetness. The appearance of every thing was altered; there seemed to be, as it were a calm sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost every thing. God's excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in every thing; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. I often used to sit and view the moon for continuance; and in the day, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things; in the mean time, singing forth, with a low voice my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer. And scarce any thing, among all the works of nature, was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning; formerly, nothing had been so terrible to me. Before, I used to be uncommonly terrified with thunder, and to be struck with terror when I saw a thunderstorm rising; but now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me. I felt God, so to speak, at the first appearance of a thunder storm; and used to take the opportunity, at such times, to fix myself in order to view the clouds, and see the lightnings play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God's thunder, which oftentimes was exceedingly entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God. While thus engaged, it always seemed natural to me to sing, or chant for my mediations; or, to speak my thoughts in soliloquies with a singing voice.” [“Sweet” or “sweetness” appears some 9 times in these two paragraphs!”]

Does “nature” affect you like that? Do you “see” God in the clouds and sky and grass and trees and rushing streams? Do thunder and lightning appear “sweet” to your soul, leading you to “sweet contemplations” of your great and glorious God? Edwards never viewed the natural creation as an end in itself. He would have considered it idolatry to derive delight from the complexity and design and grandeur of the physical realm were it not that such phenomena reflect and echo and embody the greatness and glory of their Creator.

No one has expressed this with greater clarity than John Piper. In his book, When I Don’t Desire God, he points us to Psalm 19:1ff. where we are told that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Again, in Psalm 92:4 we read, “For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy.” I assume, writes Piper, “that this joy is not idolatrous – that is, I assume it does not terminate on the works themselves, but in and through them, rests on the glory of God himself. The works “declare” the glory of God. They point. But the final ground of our joy is God himself” (184).

Edwards would no doubt joyfully concur. Again, Piper writes:

“That is, we see the glory of God, not just the glory of the heavens. We don’t just stand outside and analyze the natural world as a beam, but let the beam fall on the eyes of our heart, so that we see the source of the beauty – the original Beauty, God himself. . . . All of God’s creation becomes a beam to be ‘looked along’ or a sound to be ‘heard along’ or a fragrance to be ‘smelled along’ or a flavor to be ‘tasted along’ or a touch to be ‘felt along.’ All our senses become partners with the eyes of the heart in perceiving the glory of God through the physical world” (184-85).

I’m still not nearly the “outdoorsman” I ought to be, but I’ll never again gaze on a giraffe or a bug or a constellation or a cloud or a valley or a mountain stream or a bird in flight and fail to think of God and marvel at his power and worship him as the “Original” of all things beautiful.