PRACTICAL PIETY by Hannah More
CHRISTIANITY A PRACTICAL PRINCIPLE
If God be the author of our spiritual life, the root from which we derive the vital principle, with daily supplies to maintain this vitality, then the best evidence we can give that we have received something of this principle, is an unreserved dedication of ourselves to the actual promotion of his glory.
No man ought to flatter himself that he is in the favor of God whose life is not consecrated to the service of God. Will it not be the only unequivocal proof of such a consecration, that he be more zealous of good works than those who, disallowing the principle on which he performs them, do not even pretend to be actuated by any such motive?
The finest theory never yet carried any man to heaven. A religion of notions which occupies the mind without filling the heart, may obstruct, but cannot advance the salvation of men. If these notions are false they are most pernicious; if true and not operative, they aggravate guilt; if unimportant, though not unjust, they occupy the place which belongs to nobler objects, and sink the mind below its proper level; substituting the things which only ought not to be left undone in the place of those which ought to be done; and causing the grand essentials not to be done at all.
Such a religion is not that which Christ came to teach mankind. All the doctrines of the Gospel are practical principles. The word of God was not written, the Son of God was not incarnate, the Spirit of God was not given, only that Christians might obtain right views and possess just notions. Religion is something more than mere correctness of intellect, justness of conception, and exactness of judgment. It is a life-giving principle. It must be infused into the habit as well as govern in the understanding; it must regulate the will as well as direct the creed. It must not only cast the opinions into a right frame, but the heart into a new mold. It is a transforming as well as a penetrating principle. It changes the tastes, gives activity to the inclinations, and, together with a new heart, produces a new life.
Christianity enjoins the same temper, the same spirit, the same dispositions, on all its real professors. The act, the performance, must depend on circumstances which do not depend on us. The power of doing good is withheld from many, from whom, however, the reward will not be withheld. If the external act constituted the whole value of Christian virtue, then must the Author of all good be himself the Author of injustice, by putting it out of the power of multitudes to fulfill his own commands.
In principles, in tempers, in fervent desires, in holy endeavors, consists the very essence of Christian duty. Nor must we fondly attach ourselves to the practice of some particular virtue, or value ourselves exclusively on some favorite quality; nor must we wrap ourselves up in the performance of some individual actions, as if they formed the sum of Christian duty. But we must embrace the whole law of God in all its aspects, bearings, and relations. We must bring no fancies, no partialities, no prejudices, no exclusive choice or rejection into our religion, but take it as we find it, and obey it as we receive it, as it is exhibited in the Bible, without addition, curtailment, or adulteration.
Nor must we pronounce on a character by a single action really bad, or apparently good: if so, Peter's denial would render him the object of our execration, while we would have judged favorably of the prudent economy of Judas. The catastrophe of the latter who does not know? while the other became a glorious martyr to that Master whom, in a moment of infirmity, he had denied.
A piety altogether spiritual, disconnected with all outward circumstances -- a religion of pure meditation and abstracted devotion, was not made for so compound, so imperfect a creature as man. There have, indeed, been a few sublime spirits, not "touched, but rapt," who, totally cut off from the world, seem almost to have literally soared above this earthly region; who almost appear to have stolen the fire of the seraphim, and to have had no business on earth but to keep alive the celestial flame.
They would, however, have approximated more nearly to the example of their Divine Master, the great standard and only perfect model, had they combined a more diligent discharge of the active duties and beneficences of life with their high devotional attainments. But while we are in little danger of imitating, let us not too harshly censure the pious error of these sublimated spirits. Their number is small. Their example is not catching. Their ethereal fire is not likely, by spreading, to inflame the world. The world will take due care not to come in contact with it, while its distant light and warmth may cast, accidentally, a useful ray on the cold-hearted and the worldly.
But from this small number of refined but inoperative beings we do not intend to draw our notions of practical piety. God did not make a religion for these few exceptions to the general state of the world, but for the world at large; for beings active, busy, restless; whose activity he, by his Word, diverts into its proper channels; whose busy spirit is there directed to the common good; whose restlessness, indicating the unsatisfactoriness of all they find on earth, he points to a higher destination.
Were total seclusion and abstraction designed to have been the general state of the world, God would have given men other laws, other rules, other faculties, and other employments. There is a class of visionary but pious writers who seem to shoot as far beyond the mark as mere naturalists fall short of it. Men of low views and gross minds may be said to be wise below what is written, while those of too subtle refinement are wise above it. The one grovel in the dust from the inertness of their intellectual faculties; while the others are lost in the clouds by stretching themselves beyond their appointed limits. The one build spiritual castles in the air instead of erecting them on the holy ground of Scripture; the other lay their foundation in the sand instead of resting it on the Rock of ages. Thus the superstructure of both is equally unsound.
God is the fountain from which all the streams of goodness flow; the center from which all the rays of blessedness diverge. All our actions are only good as they have a reference to him; the streams must revert back to their fountain, the rays must converge again to their center. If love of God be the governing principle, this powerful spring will actuate all the movements of the rational machine. The essence of religion does not so much consist in actions as affections. Though right actions, therefore, as from an excess of courtesy they are commonly termed, may be performed where there are no right affections; yet are they a mere carcass, utterly destitute of the soul, and therefore, of the substance of virtue.
But neither can right affections substantially and truly subsist without producing right actions; for never let it be forgotten that a pious inclination which has not life and vigor sufficient to ripen into act when the occasion presents itself, and a right action which does not grow out of a sound principle, will neither of them have any place in the account of real goodness. A good inclination will be contrary to sin, but a mere inclination will not subdue sin.
The love of God, as it is the source of every right action and feeling, so is it the only principle which necessarily involves the love of our fellow-creatures. As man, we do not love man. There is a love of partiality, but not of benevolence; of sensibility, but not of philanthropy; of friends and favorites, of parties and societies, but not of man collectively. It is true we may, and do, without this principle, relieve his distresses, but we do not bear with his faults. We may promote his fortune, but we do not forgive his offences; above all, we are not anxious for his immortal interests. We could not see him lack without pain, but we can see him sin without emotion. We cannot hear of a beggar perishing at our door without horror; but we can without concern witness an acquaintance dying without repentance.
Is it not strange that we must participate something of the Divine nature before we can really love the human? It seems, indeed, to be an insensibility to sin, rather than lack of benevolence to mankind, that makes us naturally pity their temporal, and be careless of their spiritual needs; but does not this very insensibility proceed from the lack of love to God?
As it is the habitual frame and predominating disposition which are the true measure of virtue, incidental good actions are no certain criterion of the state of the heart; for who is there who does not occasionally do them? Having made some progress in attaining this disposition, we must not sit down satisfied with propensities and inclinations to virtuous actions while we rest short of their actual exercise. If the principle be that of sound Christianity, it will never be inert. While we shall never do good with any great effect until we labor to be conformed in some measure to the image of God, we shall best evince our having obtained something of that conformity by a course of steady and active obedience to God.
Every individual should bear in mind that he is sent into this world to act a part in it. And though one may have a more splendid, and another a more obscure part assigned him, yet the actor of each is equally, is awfully accountable. Though God is not a hard, he is an exact Master. His service, though not a severe, is a reasonable service. He accurately proportions his requisitions to his gifts. If he does not expect that one talent should be as productive as five, yet to even a single talent a proportional responsibility is annexed. He who has said, "Give me your heart," will not be satisfied with less; he will not accept the praying lips, nor the mere hand of charity as substitutes.
A real Christian will be more just, sober, and charitable than other men, though he will not rest for salvation on his justice, sobriety, or charity. He will perform the duties they enjoin in the spirit of Christianity, as instances of devout obedience, as evidences of a heart devoted to God. All virtues, it cannot be too often repeated, are sanctified or unhallowed according to the principle which dictates them, and will be accepted or rejected accordingly. This principle kept in due exercise becomes a habit, and every act strengthens the inclination, adding vigor to the principle and pleasure to the performance.
We cannot be said to be real Christians until Christianity becomes our animating motive, our predominating principle and pursuit, as much as worldly things are the predominating motive, principle, and pursuit of worldly men.
New converts, it is said, are most zealous, but they are not always the most persevering. If their tempers are warm, and they have only been touched on the side of their passions, they start eagerly, march rapidly, and are full of confidence in their own strength. They too often judge others with little charity, and themselves with little humility. While they accuse those who move steadily of standing still, they fancy their own course will never be slackened. If their conversion is not solid, religion in losing its novelty, loses its power. Their speed declines. No, it will be happy if their motion become not retrograde.
Those who are truly sincere will commonly be persevering. If their speed is less eager, it is more steady. As they know their own heart more, they discover its deceitfulness, and learn to distrust themselves. As they become more humble in spirit, they become more charitable in judging. As they grow more firm in principle, they grow more exact in conduct. The rooted habits of a religious life may indeed lose their prominence, because they are become more indented. If they are not embossed, it is because they are burned in.
Where there is uniformity and consistency in the whole character, there will be little relief in an individual action. A good deed will be less striking in an established Christian than a deed less good in one who had been previously careless; good actions being his expected duty and his ordinary practice. Such a Christian, indeed, when his right habits cease to be new and striking, may fear that he is declining; but his quiet and confirmed course is a surer evidence than the more early starts of charity, or fits of piety, which may have drawn more attention, and obtained more applause.
Again: we should cultivate most assiduously, because the work is most difficult, those graces which are most opposite to our natural temper; the value of our good qualities depending much on their being produced by the victory over some natural wrong propensity. The implantation of a virtue is the eradication of a vice. It will cost one man more to keep down a rising passion than to do a brilliant deed. It will try another more to keep back a sparkling but corrupt thought which his wit had suggested, but which his religion checks, than it would to give a large sum in charity.
A real Christian, being deeply sensible of the worthlessness of any actions which do not spring from the genuine fountain, will aim at such an habitual conformity to the Divine image, that to perform all acts of justice, charity, kindness, temperance, and every kindred virtue, may become the temper, the habitual, the abiding state of his heart, that, like natural streams, they may flow spontaneously from the living source. Practical Christianity, then, is the actual operation of Christian principles. It is lying on the watch for occasions to exemplify them. It is exercising ourselves unto godliness.
A Christian cannot tell in the morning what opportunities he may have of doing good during the day, but if he be a real Christian he can tell that he will try to keep his heart open, his mind prepared, his affections alive, to do whatever may occur in the way of duty. He will, as it were, stand in the way to receive the orders of Providence.
Doing good is his vocation. Nor does the young artisan bind himself by firmer articles to the rigid performance of his master's work, than the indentured Christian to the active service of that Divine Master who himself "went about doing good." He rejects no duty which comes within the sphere of his calling, nor does he think the work he is employed in a good one if he might be doing a better. His having well acquitted himself of a good action is so far from furnishing him with an excuse for avoiding the next, that it is a new reason for his embarking in it. He looks not at the work which he has accomplished, but on that which he has to do. His views are always prospective. His charities are scarcely limited by his power. His will knows no limits. His fortune may have bounds; his benevolence has none. He is, in mind and desire, the benefactor of every miserable man. His heart is open to all the distressed; to the household of faith it overflows. Where the heart is large, however small the ability, a thousand ways of doing good will be invented.
Christian charity is a great enlarger of means. Christian self-denial negatively accomplishes the purpose of the favorite of Fortune in the fables of the nursery -- if it cannot fill the purse by a wish, it will not empty it by a vanity.
It provides for others by abridging from itself. Having carefully defined what is necessary and becoming, it allows of no encroachment on its definition. Superfluities it will lop, vanities it will cut off. The deviser of liberal things will find means of effecting them, which to the indolent appear incredible, to the covetous impossible. Christian beneficence takes a large sweep. That circumference cannot be small of which God is the center.
Nor does religious charity in a Christian stand still because not kept in motion by the main-spring of the world. Money may fail, but benevolence will be going on. If he cannot relieve need, he may mitigate sorrow. He may warn the inexperienced, he may instruct the ignorant, he may confirm the doubting. The Christian will find out the cheapest way of being good, as well as of doing good.
If he cannot give money, he may exercise a more difficult virtue; he may forgive injuries. Forgiveness is the economy of the heart. A Christian will find it cheaper to pardon than to resent. Forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of tempers. It also puts the soul into a frame which makes the practice of other virtues easy.
The achievement of a hard duty is a great abolisher of difficulties. If great occasions do not arise he will thankfully seize on small ones. If he cannot glorify God by serving others, he knows that he has always something to do in himself; some evil temper to correct, some wrong propensity to reform, some crooked practice to straighten. He will never be at a loss for employment while there is a sin or a misery in the world; he will never be idle while there is a distress to be relieved in another, or a corruption to be cured in his own heart.
We have employments assigned to us for every circumstance in life. When we are alone, we have our thoughts to watch; in the family, our tempers in company, our tongues. It will be a test of our sincerity to our own hearts, and for such tests we should anxiously watch, if we are as assiduous in following up our duty when only the favor of God is to be obtained by it, as in cases where subordinate considerations are taken into the account and bring their portion of influence. We must, therefore, conscientiously examine in what spirit we fulfill those parts of our duty which lie more exclusively between our Creator and our conscience. Whether we are as solicitous about our inward disposition as about the act of which that disposition should be the principle.
If our piety be internal and sincere, we shall lament an evil temper no less than an evil action, conscious that though in its indulgence we may escape human censure, yet to the eye of Omniscience, as both lie equally open, both are equally offensive. Without making any fallible human being our infallible guide and established standard, let us make use of the examples of eminently pious men as incentives to our own growth in every Christian grace.
A generous emulation of the excellences of another is not envy. It is a sanctification of that noble excitement which stirred the soul of Themistocles when he declared that the trophies of Miltiades prevented him from sleeping. The Christian must not stop here. He must imitate the pagan hero in the use to which he converted his restless admiration, which gave him no repose until he himself became equally illustrious by services equally distinguished with those of his rival.
But to the Christian is held out in the sacred volume, not only models of human excellence but of Divine perfection. What an example of disinterested goodness and unbounded kindness have we in our heavenly Father, who is merciful over all his works, who distributes common blessings without distinction, who bestows the necessary refreshments of life, the shining sun and the refreshing shower, without waiting, as we are apt to do, for personal merit, or attachment, or gratitude: who does not look out for desert, but need, as a qualification for his favors; who does not afflict willingly; who delights in the happiness, and desires the salvation of all his children; who dispenses his daily munificence, and bears with our daily offences; who, in return for our violation of his laws, supplies our necessities; who waits patiently for our repentance, and even solicits us to have mercy on our own souls!
What a model for our humble imitation is that Divine person who was clothed with our humanity; who dwelt among us, that the pattern, being brought near, might be rendered more engaging, the conformity be made more practicable; whose whole life was one unbroken series of universal charity; who, in his complicated bounties, never forgot that man is compounded both of soul and body; who, after teaching the multitude, fed them; who repulsed none for being ignorant; was impatient with none for being dull; despised none for being outcast by the world; rejected none for being sinners; who encouraged those whose importunity others censured; who, in healing sickness, converted souls, who gave bread, and forgave injuries.
It will be the endeavor of the sincere Christian to illustrate his devotions in the morning by his actions during the day. He will try to make his conduct a practical exposition of the Divine prayer which made a part of them. He will desire to "hallow the name of God," to promote the enlargement and "the coming" of the "kingdom of Christ." He will endeavor to do and to suffer his whole will; "to forgive," as he himself trusts that he is forgiven. He will resolve to avoid that "temptation" into which he had been praying "not to be led;" and he will labor to shun the "evil" from which he had been begging to be "delivered."
He thus makes his prayers as practical as the other parts of his religion, and labors to render his conduct as spiritual as his prayers. The commentary and the text are of reciprocal application. If this gracious Savior has left us a perfect model for our devotion in his prayer, he has left a model no less perfect for our practice in his sermon. This divine exposition has been sometimes misunderstood. It was not so much a supplement to a defective law, as the restoration of the purity of a perfect law from the corrupt interpretations of its blind expounders.
These people had ceased to consider it as forbidding the principle of sin, and as only forbidding the act. Christ restores it to its original meaning, spreads it out in its due extent, shows the largeness of its dimensions and the spirit of its institution. He unfolds all its motions, tendencies and relations. Not concerning himself as human legislators are obliged to do, to prohibit a man the act merely which is injurious to others, but the inward temper which is prejudicial to himself.
There cannot be a more striking instance, how emphatically every doctrine of the Gospel has a reference to practical goodness, than is exhibited by Paul in that magnificent picture of the resurrection, in his Epistle to the Corinthians, which has been so happily selected for the consolation of survivors at the last closing scene of mortality. After an inference as triumphant as it is logical, that because "Christ has risen, we shall rise also;" after the most philosophical illustration of the raising of the body from the dust, by the process of grain sown in the earth, and springing up into a new mode of existence; after describing the subjugation of all things to the Redeemer, and his laying down the mediatorial kingdom; after sketching with a seraph's pencil the relative glories of the celestial and terrestrial bodies; after exhausting the grandest images of created nature, and the dissolution of nature itself; after such a display of the solemnities of the great day as makes this world and all its concerns shrink into nothing; in such a moment, when, if ever, the rapt spirit might be supposed too highly wrought for precept and admonition; the apostle, wound up as he was, by the energies of inspiration, to the immediate view of the glorified state, the last trumpet sounding, the change from mortal to immortality effected in the twinkling of an eye, the sting of death drawn out, victory snatched from the grave; then, by a turn as surprising as it is beautiful, he draws a conclusion as unexpectedly practical as his premises were grand and awful: "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord." Then at once, by another quick transition, resorting from the duty to the reward, and winding up the whole with an argument as powerful as his rhetoric had been sublime, he adds, "Forasmuch as you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord."
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