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Lectures to Young People

William B. Sprague, 1830


"On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts." 1 Thessalonians 2:4

The church to which this epistle was addressed, is supposed to have been planted by Paul and Silas, soon after the outrages committed upon them at Philippi, and recorded in the sixteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. In the verses immediately preceding the text, the apostle alludes to the signal success which attended his first labors among the Thessalonians; and notices, as an occasion of rejoicing, the fact that he and his companion in labor, notwithstanding the shameful treatment they had just met in a neighboring city, and the obstacles which they still had to encounter—were enabled, in the strength of divine grace, to preach the gospel with boldness and fidelity. And what chiefly encouraged them to these courageous efforts, was the reflection that they had no mercenary purposes to answer; and that there was nothing in their management in respect to which they need shrink from the strictest scrutiny; but all was open and honest; "We are not trying to please men," or as consulting the tastes and prejudices of the world, "but" as endeavoring to secure the approbation of "God, who tests our hearts."

The text, you perceive, has a primary reference to ministers of the gospel. And surely, if there be a class of men, in respect to whom it is pre-eminently important that they should act under the influence of the principle which the apostle here recognizes, ministers of the gospel constitute that class. But it is important that all others should be governed by this principle, as well as ministers. It is especially important that its influence should be felt by people in the morning of life; because that is the period in which habits are formed, which, in most instances, constitute the elements of future character.

When the apostle, in our text, institutes an apparent opposition between pleasing men and pleasing God, we are not to suppose that he intends to forbid every effort to please men; for this would be inconsistent not only with many of his exhortations—but with his own conduct. "Let everyone of us," says he, "please his neighbor for his good to edification." And again: "I am made all things to all men, that I might, by all means, save some." The gospel not only allows—but requires, that we should seek the favorable regards of our fellow-men, especially, as a means of our own usefulness; and the course of conduct which it prescribes, is exactly fitted to such a result. Hence it has been said, with much truth and force—that the gospel contains the most perfect system of politeness which the world has seen.

The apostle, in our text, intends only to contrast a supreme regard to the approbation of the world, and a supreme regard to the approbation of God—as governing principles of action; and to imply that they are totally incompatible with each other.

My purpose, in this discourse, is To illustrate and contrast the influence of these two dispositions, I. upon human character: II. Upon human happiness.

I. The influence of these two dispositions UPON HUMAN CHARACTER.

1. I remark, in the first place, that it is the tendency of a supreme regard to the approbation of the world, to produce a FICKLE character; of a supreme regard to the approbation of God, a stable one.

Who that has any knowledge of the world, needs to be told that its maxims, principles, conduct, are constantly changing? What, at one period, is admired as elegant, or praiseworthy, soon comes to be regarded with indifference, and perhaps ultimately sinks into contempt; and on the other hand, what, at one time, is considered base or worthless, gradually rises into respectability, and it may be, at length, becomes an object of admiration. For a complete illustration of this remark, you need only look into the walks of what is commonly called fashionable life; and you will see one fashion after another, in respect to manners, dress, equipage, and many other things, succeeding so rapidly, that even the devotees of fashion themselves are scarcely able to do homage to every new idol. Here you have a fair specimen of the fluctuation of human opinion. If then you make human opinion the standard of your conduct, and that standard is constantly varying, your conduct must of course exhibit a corresponding course of changes; and here is the foundation of a fickle character.

On the other hand, the person who seeks supremely the approbation of God, has a fixed standard of action. The law of God is his rule of duty; and that law, like its author, is "the same yesterday, today, and forever." He may indeed sometimes be embarrassed, in respect to particular cases, to know what this law requires and what it forbids; but, in general, it marks out for him a plain path. Hence he acts not only in conformity to a fixed standard—but generally without hesitation; and in this way he cannot fail to acquire and to exhibit stability of character.

2. It is the tendency of a supreme regard to the approbation of the world, to produce a TIMID character; of a supreme regard to the approbation of God, a courageous one.

The devotee of the world's favor has no easy task to perform. He well knows that he must shape his conduct to suit different and opposite dispositions; that in securing the approbation of one, he is liable to lose that of another; and that the means which may seem to him best adapted to gain favor, may prove to be fraught with injury or disgrace. Besides, he has, sometimes, at least—a secret conviction that the course which he is pursuing is wrong; and that his Maker and Judge is offended that the supreme homage of his heart should be withheld from Him. Here, then, is a double influence exerted to produce a timid character. On the one hand, he fears that he shall not gain the object which he is seeking: on the other, he fears that, if he does gain it, it will be at the expense of what is infinitely more valuable. Is it not obvious that a character formed under such an influence, will be likely to bear a strong impression of timidity?

But in seeking supremely the favor of God, there is everything to inspire true courage. There is the certainty of success, which is always favorable to bold and vigorous action. There is the reflection, that he whose approbation we seek—is All-gracious and Almighty; and that let the world do by us as it may, his favor is a sufficient portion. There is moreover the consideration that the course which we are pursuing is in itself the right course; the course which reason, conscience, the bible, all prescribe. Who that acts under the influence of considerations like these, can fail to act with unyielding resolution?

3. It is the tendency of a supreme regard to the approbation of the world, to produce a HYPOCRITICAL character; of a supreme regard to the approbation of God, an honest one.

I have already remarked that, owing to the different tastes and dispositions of men, it will often happen that that course of conduct which will gain the approbation of one, will forfeit that of another; and hence he whose governing object is to please the world, will endeavor to appear to each one in such a character as he supposes will be most likely to secure regard; and to conceal from each one whatever he thinks will serve to excite displeasure. If he happens to fall in with one who is a strong advocate of any particular measure, the desire of popularity will naturally lead him to appear as an advocate of it also. Or if he happens to be in the company of another by whom the same measure is opposed, the same desire will operate to induce him, if not to join in opposition to the measure, at least, to say nothing in its favor. In this way he contracts the habit of deception; and his whole social life becomes a system of studied concealment.

But on the other hand, he who is governed by a supreme regard to the favor of God, has no motive to depart from the path of open and honest dealing. If he were to do this, he would instantly defeat his object; for not the approbation—but the frown, of Jehovah, attends all insincerity. Moreover, the course which he is pursuing, neither involves guilt nor awakens shame: there is therefore no reason why he should attempt to conceal his conduct from his fellow-men, or why he should desire to conceal it from his Maker. Hence his character bears upon it the impression of truth and honesty.

4. It is the tendency of a supreme regard to the approbation of the world to produce an INCONSISTENT character; of a supreme regard to the approbation of God, a consistent one.

As he who is governed by a supreme regard to the favor of the world has no fixed rule of action—but is blown hither and thither by the breath of popular opinion, the different parts of his conduct must, of course, be inconsistent with each other. As the opinions of different individuals whom he wishes to please, are at variance, there must be a corresponding variance between the courses of conduct which he adopts in different cases, in order to gain his object; and hence his life is a perpetual scene of contradictions. And if he happens to be a professor of true religion, he is chargeable with a double inconsistency; for not only are the different parts of his conduct inconsistent with each other—but his deportment as a whole, is utterly inconsistent with his profession; for in his profession is implied an engagement to make the will of God, and not the opinions of men—the rule of his conduct. Most of the inconsistency that attaches itself to the characters of professed Christians, and I may add—of all others, results, no doubt, from an improper desire to please the world.

But he who acts from a supreme regard to the approbation of God, cannot fail to exhibit a consistent character. The rule by which his conduct is governed, requires that every duty should be done in its proper place; and in adhering to this, his character, in its different parts, acquires a beautiful consistency and harmony, which it could acquire under no other influence. Such a person will not, on the one hand, neglect his retired duties—the duties of secret prayer, and reading the scriptures, and self-communion, for the sake of being constantly engaged in public religious exercises; nor, on the other hand, will he excuse himself from the more public services of true religion, on the ground that he is regular in the duties of the closet. He will not substitute works for faith, nor faith for works—but will exhibit both in bright and beautiful combination. He whose favor he seeks, requires that he should cultivate all the virtues and graces of the Christian; and if he fails in respect to any, he so far incurs the divine displeasure. Hence his character is consistent with itself; and if he be a professed follower of Christ, it is consistent with his profession.

5. It is the tendency of a supreme regard to the approbation of the world to produce an UNHOLY character; of a supreme regard to the approbation of God, a holy one. It is the decision of inspiration, that "the whole world lies in wickedness;" and what the bible teaches on this subject, observation abundantly confirms. It is only necessary to look abroad into the world, to be satisfied that the maxims, the feelings, the practices, that generally prevail in it—are directly opposed to the spiritual and holy requisitions of God's word. He, therefore, who makes the approbation of the world his supreme object, must expect that his character will, in this respect also, take the stamp of the mold in which it is cast.

Moreover, the very object which he is seeking, considered as a supreme object, is unholy; the means by which he endeavors to gain it, are also unholy; and under such an influence, how can he form any other than an unholy character? It were a contradiction to suppose that a person should make the favor of the world his governing object—and not retain that carnal mind which is enmity against God.

He, on the other hand, who seeks supremely the approbation of God, endeavors to be conformed to a standard of perfect holiness. He can gain the divine approbation only by yielding obedience to the law which God has given him as the rule of his conduct; and that law is perfectly holy. In endeavoring to obey its requisitions, he comes under a sanctifying influence; he is brought immediately into the atmosphere of moral purity. And the more earnestly he seeks the divine approbation, by seeking conformity to the divine law, the more his character becomes assimilated to that of the infinitely holy God.

Such is the influence which the two principles brought to view in our text, exert upon human character.

II. I am now, secondly, to illustrate the influence of the same principles on HUMAN HAPPINESS. And if the effect on character is as has been represented, it would seem that little need be said to illustrate the effect on happiness; for it admits of no question, on the one hand, that a stable, courageous, honest, consistent, and holy character—is favorable to happiness. Nor, on the other, that a fickle, timid, hypocritical, inconsistent, and unholy character—has within itself the elements of misery. But as this is a point of great importance, I shall illustrate it by several distinct particulars.

1. The person who seeks supremely the favor of the world, has no assurance that he shall gain it: he who seeks supremely the favor of God, has certain evidence that his efforts will be successful.

In order to estimate the difficulty of gaining the favor of the world, consider, for a moment, how difficult it often is to gain the favor of an individual. Not unfrequently, the efforts to accomplish this object fail from the lack of a proper knowledge of the disposition to be consulted; or from their being made at an unfavorable moment; or from suspicion being excited that they have originated in some selfish purpose. Hence it has often happened that the very means which have been used to secure favor, have resulted in producing displeasure or disgust.

And if it is often so difficult to gain the favor even of an individual, how much greater the task to gain that of many; and how much greater still, that of the world; or of that part of it with which we have comradeship. As the number of individuals, and of course the variety of dispositions which we have to consult in our conduct, increases, the greater the probability that interfering claims will be made upon us which we shall not be able to meet, and that in gaining the favor of some, we shall provoke the jealousy of others. Thus, you perceive that, if you make the approbation of the world your supreme object, you can never be certain of gaining it; at least in any considerable degree. Admitting that it were ever so valuable, when attained, you may, for anything you can tell, spend your days in seeking it, and die without having ever gained your object.

But he who seeks supremely the favor of God, has an assurance that his efforts shall not be in vain. This assurance results from the declarations of God, and from the experience of men. Jehovah, speaking under the name of Wisdom, says, "I love those who love me, and those who seek me early shall find me." And again, our Savior says, "He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is that loves me; and he who loves me, shall be loved of my Father; and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him." And the testimony of experience corresponds with the declarations of God.

Every person who has made the favor of God his supreme object, has attained it; and in far the greater number of instances, the evidence of having attained it has been communicated in the light of God's countenance, and in the spirit of adoption. Every such instance conveys an assurance that the favor of God may be gained, by all who will seek it in a proper manner.

Here, then, you perceive one important point of difference between the two objects brought to view in our text—the difference between a certainty and an uncertainty. Even if the favor of God and the favor of the world, when actually gained, were equally valuable, as means of promoting happiness, yet you have no security that you can gain the one, while you have certain evidence that you may gain the other. Who that is wise, would choose to spend his strength in pursuit of that which would probably elude his grasp, while his efforts might be directed towards another object, to say the least, of equal value, which was fairly within his reach?

2. He who seeks supremely the favor of the world, if he gains it, has no security that he shall RETAIN it: he who seeks supremely the favor of God, having once gained it, has an assurance that he shall retain it forever.

Who does not know, who has not felt, how unstable are human friendships? Who of us has not witnessed cases in which the most ardent friendships—friendships which seemed formed for life, have suddenly given place to deep-rooted and bitter enmity; and that too, it may be, from some circumstance of the most trifling nature? Who of us has not, at some time, been met with distant reserve, where he anticipated a cordial welcome; or who has not been pained to observe indications of diminished regard, when he has been conscious of having done nothing to deserve it, and has been unable even to conjecture the occasion of the change? Nor are these facts difficult to be accounted for. There is a fickleness belonging to the human character, which goes far towards explaining it.

Moreover, as you are yourself—but an imperfect and sinful being, you are liable, from the impulse of passion or the lack of proper caution, to say and do some things which may wound the feelings of a friend, and ultimately produce a permanent alienation. Or you may say and do other things, with perfectly innocent intentions, which, yet, from being misunderstood, may produce the same unhappy effect. Or some jealous rival, who wishes to supplant you in the affections of your friend, may, by his disingenuous efforts, accomplish the object. You perceive, then, that if the favor of the world were worth ever so much in itself, and were gained with ever so much ease, its value would be greatly abated, by the consideration that you have no security that you shall retain it even for an hour. Must not the very enjoyment of it be embittered by the uncertainty of its continuance? And what will you do, when it is actually gone—and has left you without any other resources?

Far otherwise is it with the favor of God. Gain that once, and you have gained it for eternity. The love which God bears for his people, is called, in scripture, an "everlasting love." Our Savior declares concerning them, "I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand." I do not mean that the Christian may not, by neglect of duty, lose, in some measure, the evidences of the divine favor, and provoke God to a temporary withdrawment of the light of his countenance. But I mean that he who is once reconciled to God, has his name written in the lamb's book of life; and that name will never be blotted out; and even the temporary loss of divine consolation, he may and will, in a great measure at least, avoid, if he is faithful in the discharge of duty. Yes, I repeat, the favor of God, once gained, endures forever. Principalities and powers may combine their efforts to wrest from the believer this possession—but it will still remain his. It is secured by the promise—the oath, of the ever-living Jehovah.

3. He who seeks supremely the favor of the world, even if he not only gains it—but retains it until the close of life, does not, after all, find in it what he needs: he who seeks supremely the favor of God, finds in it everything that he needs.

Be it so, that so long as the days of prosperity last, the man who seeks supremely the favor of the world, finds in it a portion with which he is tolerably satisfied—though I doubt not that even then, the heart sometimes sickens over the meagerness of its enjoyments, and longs for something more substantial and satisfying. But let it not be forgotten, that in the calendar of human life are numbered many days of affliction. There are days of pain, when the hand of disease rests upon us, with convulsive and ominous pressure. There are days of bereavement, when the light of friendship and hope goes out in our dwellings. Above all, there is the day of death, when this earthly tabernacle tumbles to ruins, and the spirit which has inhabited it takes its flight to other worlds. Weigh all the consolation to be derived from the favor of the world in either of these cases, and it will be lighter than vanity. Can the favor of the world make you forget the pains which convulse your system? Can the favor of the world cheer your desolate heart, when your dearest friend goes down to the grave? Will any light break from the favor of the world upon the valley of death, to cheer your passage from time into eternity?

On yonder dying bed lies a man, the grand object of whose life has been to gain the favor of the world. And now in this extremity of nature—this most fearful exigency of his existence, let the world be called upon to open its resources of consolation. Who now of all the children of the world shall go to that bed of death in the character of a comforter? Shall the votary of wealth go, and talk to that dying sinner of his splendid domains or numerous possessions? Shall the votary of pleasure go, and tell of some projected scene of amusement, where every heart will beat high with sensual joy? Shall the stout-hearted and impious opposer of true religion go, and talk fearlessly about dying, and exhibit all the black infidelity of his creed, and press the awful thought of annihilation?

Who will not say that all this is but an insult to the agonies of death; and that they who have professedly come on an errand of consolation, have only imparted an additional sharpness to the pang of dying? Go back, you miserable comforters; this is not the place for you. Here are agonies to be relieved, which your presence only serves to heighten. This expiring sinner pants for something which it is not for you, or the world which you represent, to bestow; and because he has it not, he is stung by remorse, or overwhelmed with despair. Such are the world's resources of consolation in respect to the calamities which befall us while we remain in it.

And if it is so powerless to yield relief even here, what can it do for the soul when it shall have passed into the eternal world? Do not think that all the evils to which men are exposed, exist in the present life: the most fearful evils belong to the condition of the sinner in eternity. But when he has once passed the boundary of time, the world, if it had ever so many favors to bestow—can no longer reach him. The influence of what it has done is indeed felt, not in the mitigation—but in the aggravation of his doom; but henceforth it can do nothing either to lessen or to increase his anguish. Oh, if the favor of the world could satisfy every desire in the present life, yet how poor a portion would it be, so long as it offers no provision for a future and eternal existence!

Not so with the all-sufficient God. When the arrows of affliction pierce the heart, Jehovah condescends to take up his residence in it, while it is yet bleeding and broken, as the Spirit of consolation. You may see what his Almighty grace can do, in that quiet and uncomplaining spirit which delights to count up the mercies of God, on the bed of pain. You may see it in the cheerful submission with which the heart lets go the earthly objects and interests which it valued most; in the serenity which settles upon the countenance, while the falling clods announce that a beloved friend will never rise from his dark bed until the morning of the resurrection. You may see it especially in the sublime actings of that faith, which often enables the soul to hold sweet communion with its Redeemer in the valley of death, and to celebrate, as it were, the fall of the earthly tabernacle with a shout of victory.

And beyond the boundaries of time, when the soul wakes, conscious, active, immortal, and the world has no more that it can do, or even attempt to do, for the soul's comfort, there will flow out to it from the favor of God, blessings large as its desires—lasting as its existence. Tell me, you votaries of the world's favor, what is it, when compared with the treasures of Almighty grace?

4. He who seeks supremely the favor of the world, forfeits the peace of his conscience: he who seeks supremely the favor of God, secures the peace of his conscience.

As there is an essential difference between virtue and vice, holiness and sin—so God has constituted us with the power of perceiving this difference; and with the perception, has connected a corresponding feeling of approbation or disapprobation; and in respect to our own conduct, of pleasure or pain. Now, that that course of conduct in which we seek supremely the favor of the world is a sinful course, admits of no question; for surely it is the very essence of sin to withhold the heart from God. He who adopts such a course, then, must necessarily fall under the lash of his own conscience. He may indeed, for the most part, succeed in drowning her accusations in the din of pleasure or the din of business; but sometimes, at least, she will speak with an authority and an energy that will make him tremble; and with such an accuser as this in his bosom, it matters little how many friends he may have in the world.

Moreover, conscience sternly points him to a retribution: she spreads out before him his sins, as matter of record in the book of God's remembrance, and as matter for trial on the judgment day: she anticipates the condemning sentence, and the final doom; and asks with awful emphasis, "Who can dwell with everlasting burnings?" The martyr on the rack, or in the flames, may be happy; for he has conscience on his side: but not he who is at war with himself, though he may dwell in a palace, or sit upon a throne.

He, on the other hand, who seeks supremely the favor of God, keeps a conscience, in a good degree, void of offence. The course of conduct which he must pursue in order to gain the divine approbation, is precisely that which conscience approves and prescribes. Hence, let his external circumstances be as they may, he has peace within—a peace that passes understanding. And not only has he the delightful consciousness of doing right—but he can look upward to the throne of God, and recognize in the amazing Being who sits thereon—a forgiving Father. He can look forward to the eternal world, and in the bright glories of Heaven, can recognize his own future and everlasting portion. Say, you who have known what it is to have a conscience burdened with guilt, and have afterwards known what it is to have that burden removed by the application of the peace-speaking blood of Christ—say whether a good conscience—a pacified conscience, is not among the richest blessings to be enjoyed on this side heaven?

5. I observe in the last place, that he who seeks supremely the favor of God, is more likely to gain the favor of the world, than he who makes the favor of the world his chief object.

It is a truth never to be forgotten, that men are constituted with an original sense of right and wrong; and that nothing but an extreme degree of depravity can materially impair it. Hence it is not at the option of men whether they will respect virtue or not: they may indeed profess to despise it, and make it the theme of ridicule and insult; but they cannot, unless by a long course of flagrant wickedness, extinguish that sentiment of reverence for it, which belongs to their nature. Does not the world respect stability, honesty, and consistency of character? I hesitate not to make the appeal to the most fickle, dishonest, and inconsistent of the children of the world; and whatever may be the testimony of their lips, I doubt not that their consciences will return an affirmative answer. In the exhibition of these traits of character, no doubt, there will be some things to which their feelings will be opposed; but nothing which will not accord with their conviction of what is right, reasonable, and honorable.

Moreover, in making the favor of God your supreme object, you necessarily adopt a course of conduct from which the world cannot fail to derive much advantage. You not only cautiously avoid doing them injury—but you aim, by every means in your power, to promote their best interests. Now I maintain that, as depraved as man is, he has too much of conscience, and I may say ordinarily too much of gratitude, to be able altogether to resist such an appeal. Show a man that you are his friend, by doing everything you can for his benefit, and let this course be continued for a long time, and it must be a deeply rooted prejudice indeed, which will not yield to such an exhibition of kindness. "And who is he who will harm you," says the apostle, "if you be followers of that which is good?"

But what appears so probable from the nature of the case, is abundantly confirmed by facts. Look abroad and decide for yourselves, who is the person to whom the world renders the most substantial tribute of respect. Is it not the man who is stable in all his purposes, and who has moral courage to carry them into effect; who is honest in all his dealings, both before God and man; whose conduct is consistent with itself, and consistent with his profession; and who maintains a close and holy walk with God? I dare appeal to any of you, my young friends, for an answer. Is it not manifest, then, both from reason and from fact, that they who seek supremely the favor of the world, mistake in respect to the best means of gaining it; and that it is the ordinance of God that it should be found of those, of whom it may be said comparatively that they seek it not?

And now, my young friends, will not everyone of you resolve, here on the threshold of life, that you will make the favor of God, and not the favor of the world, your grand object of pursuit? Is it not evident that the world is a hard master; that while its favor is difficult to be gained, it is easy to be lost; that all that it can do for its votaries, it does in seasons of prosperity, when they are least in need; and that when the evil days come, it leaves them to struggle unassisted with calamity and death? Is it not manifest, on the other hand, that it is a most profitable employment to seek the favor of God: for his favor is not only easily gained, and when gained, is never lost—but it is life; it meets all the exigencies of the soul in every period of its existence. Moreover it keeps the soul at peace with itself; and saves it from the shudderings of guilt, and the forebodings of hell. And even the world itself renders its best tribute to the man who seeks supremely the favor of God.

Be it your fixed purpose, then, in every step that you take, to endeavor to gain the divine approbation. In all the various parts of your deportment, in all your fellowship with the world, especially in the adoption of your pious sentiments, and the formation of your pious character, let the grand inquiry be—'What will please God who searches the heart?' Do this, and no matter whether the world smiles, or whether the world frowns—you can look inward to an approving conscience, and upward to an approving God!

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