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A Classic Study by John Flavel (1628-1691)


[Here, we continue our reprint of excerpts from John Flavel's book Navigation Spiritualized. John Flavel was a 17th Century minister in the seaside town of Dartmouth, England. A good many of his parishioners made their living on the sea, and so Mr. Flavel wrote Navigation Spiritualized, a book which draws parallels between things of the sea and spiritual things. This book is a masterpiece in the way it communicates spiritual truths in the language of its target audience, the seamen of Dartmouth. In fact, it was written specifically for the seamen to take on voyages and read, so that (for example), while they sailed the boundless seas, they could read of God's boundless mercies; or, while they adjusted their sails for shifting winds, they could read how to prepare their souls for the shifting winds of life; etc. And indeed, though few of us are seamen, we are all on a voyage through this life, so (I dare say) we may all profit from this study. We continue it with an abridged reprint of the Supplementary Epistle which was written (I believe) by Thomas Manton (the author is only identified as "T. M."]--Ed.

The Art of Spiritual Navigation


To every Seaman sailing Heavenward.


Ingenious Seamen,

The art of Navigation, by which islands especially are enriched, and preserved in safety from foreign invasions; and the wonderful works of God in the great deep, and foreign nations, are most delightfully and fully beheld, etc. is an art of exquisite excellency, ingenuity, rarity, and mirability; but the art of spiritual navigation is the art of arts. It is a gallant thing to be able to carry a ship richly laden round the world; but it is much more gallant to carry a soul (that rich loading, a pearl of more worth than all the merchandise of the world) in a body (that is as liable to leaks and bruises as any ship is) through the sea of this world (which is as unstable as water, and hath the same brinish taste and salt gust which the waters of the sea have) safe to heaven (the best haven) so as to avoid splitting upon any soul-sinking rocks, or striking upon any soul-drowning sands. The art of natural navigation is a very great mystery; but the art of spiritual navigation is by much a greater mystery. Human wisdom may teach us to carry a ship to the Indies: but the wisdom only that is from above can teach us to steer our course aright to the haven of happiness. This art is purely of divine revelation. The truth is, divinity (the doctrine of living to God) is nothing else but the art of soul-navigation, revealed from heaven. A mere man can carry a ship to any desired port in all the world but no mere man can carry a soul to heaven. He must be a saint, he must be a divine (so all saints are) that can be a pilot to carry a soul to the fair-haven in Emmanuel's land. The art of natural navigation is wonderfully improved since the coming of Christ, before which time (if there be truth in history) the use of the [compass] was never known in the world; and before the virtue of that was revealed unto the mariner, it is unspeakable with what uncertain wanderings seamen floated here and there, rather than sailed the right and direct way. Sure I am, the art of spiritual navigation is wonderfully improved since the coming of Christ; it oweth its clearest and fullest discovery to the coming of Christ. This art of arts is now perfectly revealed in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament. . .

What further shall be added by way of preface. . . is to stir up all, especially seamen, to [be] conscience of using such choice helps for the promoting the sanctification and salvation of their souls, for the making of them as dexterous in the art of spiritual navigation, as any of them are in the art of natural navigation. Consider therefore,

1. What rich merchandise thy soul is. Christ assures us, one soul is more worth than all the world. The Lord Jesus doth, as it were, put the whole world into one scale, and one soul in the other, and the world is found too light (see Matt. 16:26). Shouldst thou by skill in natural navigation carry safe all the treasures of the Indies into thine own port, yea, gain the whole world, and for want of skill in spiritual-navigation lose thy own soul, thou wouldest [fail in] the greatest [of] sea-voyages. There is a plain [truth] in those words of Christ, "What is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for His soul?" (Matt. 16:26). More is meant than is spoken.

2. What a leaking vessel thy body is[2], in which this unspeakable, inconceivable rich treasure, thy soul, is embarked! O the many diseases and distempers in the humours and passions that thy body is subject to! It is above 2000 years ago, that there have been reckoned up 300 names of diseases; and there be many under one name, and many nameless, which pose the physicians not only how to cure them, but how to call them. And for the affections and passions of the mind, the distempers of them, are no less deadly to some, than the diseases of the body; but besides these internal causes, there are many external causes of leaks in this vessel, as poisonous malignities, wrathful hostilities, and casual mishaps; very small matters may be of great moment to the sinking of this vessel. The least gnat in the air may choke one, as it did Adrian, a pope of Rome; a little hair in milk may strangle one, as it did a counsellor in Rome; a little stone of a raisin may stop one's breath, as was the case of the poet Anacreon. Thus you see what a leaking vessel you sail in. Now the more leaky any ship is, the more need there is of skill to steer wisely.

3. Consider what a dangerous sea the world is in which thy soul is to sail in the leaking ship of thy body. As there are not more changes in the sea, than are in the world, the world being only constant in inconstancy, "The fashion of this world passeth away" (I Cor. 7:31). So there are not more dangers in the sea for ships, than there are in the world for souls. In this world souls meet with rocks and sands, syrens and pirates; worldly temptations, worldly lusts, and worldly company cause many to "drown themselves in perdition" (I Tim. 6:9). The very things of this world endanger your souls. By worldly objects we soon grow worldly. It is hard to touch pitch, and not be defiled. The lusts of this world stain all our glory, and the men of this world pollute all they converse with. A man that keeps company with the men of this world, is like him that walketh in the sun, tanned insensibly. Thus I have hinted to you the dangerousness of the sea wherein you are to sail. Now the more dangerous the sea is, the more requisite it is that the sailor be an artist.

4. Consider, what if through want of skill in the heavenly art of spiritual navigation, thou shouldst not steer thy course aright! I will instance only in two consequents there of: 1. Thou wilt never arrive at the haven of happiness; 2. Thou shalt be drowned in the ocean of God's wrath. As true as the word of God is true, as sure as the heavens are over thy head, and the earth under thy feet; as sure as thou yet livest, and breathest in this air; so true and certain it is, thou shalt never enter into heaven, but sink into the deep of the bottomless pit. Am I not herein a messenger of the saddest tidings that ever yet thy ears did hear? Possibly now thou makest a light matter of these things, because thou dost not know what it is to miss of heaven, what it is for ever to lie under the wrath of God; but hereafter thou wilt know fully what it is to have thy soul lost eternally, so lost, as that God's mercies, and all the good there is in Christ, shall never save it; and as God hath set and ordered things, can never save it. Hereafter thou wilt be perfectly sensible of the good that thou mightest have had, and of the evil that shall be upon thee (this is God's peculiar prerogative, to make a creature as sensible of misery as He pleaseth) then thou wilt have other thoughts of these things than thou now hast. Then the thoughts of thy mind shall be busied about thy lost condition, both as to the pain of loss, and the pain of sense, so that thou shalt not be able to take any ease one moment; then, that thy torments may be increased, they acknowledge the truth of thy apprehensions, yea, the strength of them shall be increased; thou shalt have the true and deep apprehensions of the greatness of that good that thou shalt miss of, and of that evil which thou shalt procure unto thyself; and then thou shalt not be able to choose, but to apply all thy loss, all thy misery to thyself, which will force thee to roar out, O my loss! O my misery! O my inconceivable, irrecoverable loss and misery! Yea, for the increasing of thy torments, thy affections and memory shall be enlarged. O that, to prevent that loss and misery, these things may now be known, and laid to heart! O that a blind understanding, a stupid judgment, a bribed conscience, a hard heart, a bad memory, may no longer make heaven and hell to seem but trifles to thee! Thou wilt then easily be persuaded to make it thy main business here, to become an artist in spiritual navigation. But to shut up this preface, I shall briefly acquaint seamen, why they should, of all others, be men of singular piety and heavenliness, and therefore more than ordinarily study the heavenly art of spiritual navigation. O that seamen would then consider:

1. How nigh they border upon the confines of death and eternity every moment; there is but a step, but an inch or two between them and their graves, continually: the next gust may overset them, the next wave may swallow them up. In one place lie lurking dangerous rocks, in another perilous sands, and every where stormy winds, ready to destroy them. Well may the seamen cry out, "I have not had tomorrow in my hands these many years." Should not they then be extraordinarily serious and heavenly continually! Certainly nothing more composeth the heart to such a frame, than the lively apprehensions of eternity do; and none have greater external advantages for that, than seamen have.

2. Consider (seamen) what extraordinary help you have [in] the book of the creatures: "The whole creation is God's voice; it is God's excellent handwriting, or the sacred scriptures of the most High" to teach us much of God, and to make conscience of obeying God only, naturally, and continually. The heavens, the earth, the waters, are the three great leaves of this book of God, and all the creatures are so many lines in those leaves. All that learn not to fear and serve God by the help of this book, will be left inexcusable (see Rom. 1:20). How inexcusable then will ignorant and ungodly seamen be! Seamen should, in this respect, be the best scholars in the Lord's school, seeing they do, more than others, see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the great deep (see Ps. 107:24).

3. Consider how often you are nearer heaven than any people in the world. "They mount up to heaven" (Ps. 107:26). It has been said of an ungodly minister, that contradicted his preaching in his life and conversation, that it was pity he should ever come out of the pulpit, because he was there as near heaven as ever he would be. Shall it be said of you, upon the same account, that it is a pity you should come down from the high towering waves of the sea? Should not seamen that in stormy weather have their feet (as it were) upon the battlements of heaven, look down upon all earthly happiness in this world but as base, waterish, and worthless? The great cities of Campania seem but small cottages to them that stand on the Alps. Should not seamen, that so oft mount up to heaven, make it their main business here, once at last to get into heaven? What! (seamen) shall you only go to heaven against your wills? When seamen mount up to heaven in a storm, the Psalmist tells us, that "their souls are melted because of trouble" (Ps. 107:26). O that you were continually as unwilling to go to hell, as you are in a storm to go to heaven!

4. And lastly, Consider what engagements lie upon you to be singularly holy, from your singular deliverances and salvations. They that go down to the sea in ships, are sometimes in the valley of the shadow of death, by reason of the springing of perilous leaks; and yet miraculously delivered, either by some wonderful stopping of the leak, or by God's sending some ship within their sight, when they have been far out of sight of any land; or by His bringing their near-perishing ship safe to shore. Sometimes they have been in very great danger of being taken by pirates, yet wonderfully preserved, either by God's calming of the winds in that part of the sea where the pirates have sailed, or by giving the poor pursued ship a strong gale of wind to run away from their pursuers, or by sinking the pirates, etc. Sometimes their ships have been cast away, and yet they themselves wonderfully got safe to shore upon planks, yards, masts, etc. I might be endless in enumerating their deliverances from drowning, from burning, from slavery, etc. Sure (seamen) your extraordinary salvations lay more than ordinary engagements upon you, to praise, love, fear, obey, and trust in your Savior and Deliverer. I have read that the enthralled Greeks were so affected with their liberty, procured by Flaminius the Roman general, that their shrill acclamations of "A Savior! A Savior!" made the very birds fall down from the heavens astonished. O how should seamen be affected with their sea-deliverances! Many that have been delivered from Turkish slavery, have vowed to be servants to their redeemers all the days of their lives. Ah! Sirs, will not you be more than ordinarily God's servants all the days of your lives, seeing you have been so oft, so wonderfully redeemed from death itself by Him? Verily, do what you can, you will die in God's debt.

"As for me, God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you" (I Sam. 12:23-24). That by the perusal of this short and sweet treatise, wherein the judicious and ingenious author hath well mixed profit and pleasure, you may learn the good and right way, even to fear the Lord, and serve Him in truth with all your hearts, considering how great things He hath done for you. This is the hearty prayer of your cordial friend, earnestly desirous of a prosperous voyage for your precious and immortal souls... T. M.



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