PRACTICAL PIETY by Hannah More, 1811
INSENSIBILITY TO ETERNAL THINGS
Insensibility to eternal things in beings who are standing on the brink of eternity is a madness which would be considered a wonder if it were not so common. Suppose we had the prospect of inheriting a great estate and a splendid mansion which we knew would be ours in a few days, and in the meantime we rented a paltry cottage in bad repair, ready to fall, and from which we knew we must at all events soon be turned out. Would it be wisdom or common sense to overlook totally our near and noble inheritance and to be so fondly attached to our falling tenement that we spent a great part of our time and thoughts in supporting its ruins by props, and concealing its decay by decorations? To be so absorbed in the little sordid pleasures of this frail abode so as not even to cultivate a taste for the delights of the mansion where such treasures are laid up for us—this is an excess of folly which must be seen to be believed.
It is a striking fact that the recognized uncertainty of life drives worldly people to make sure of everything except their eternal concerns. It leads them to be up-to-date in their accounts and exact in their transactions. They are afraid of risking even a little property on so precarious a thing as life, without insuring their inheritance. There are some who even speculate on the uncertainty of life as a trade. It is strange that this accurate calculation of the duration of life should not involve a serious attention to its end! Strange, too, that in the prudent care not to risk a fraction of property, equal care should not be taken not to risk eternal salvation!
We are not speaking here of grossly wicked people. We are not supposing that their wealth has been obtained by injustice or increased by oppression. We are only describing a soul drawn aside from God by the alluring baits of the world. The shining bangles are obtained, but the race is lost!
To worldly people of a more serious nature, business may be as formidable an enemy of the soul as pleasure is to those of a lighter character. Business has so sober an air that it looks like virtue, and virtuous it certainly is when carried on in a proper spirit with due moderation in the fear of God. To have a lawful employment and to pursue it with diligence is not only right and honorable in itself, but is one of the best safeguards against temptation.
We can point out the diligence that business demands, the self-denying practices it imposes, the patience, regularity and industry indispensable to its success. These are habits of virtue that are a daily discipline to a moral person in business. The world, as a matter of fact, could not survive without business. But attention paid to these realities often detracts us from interests in the eternal world, when we can neglect to lay up a treasure in heaven in order to lay up the treasure of earth—a supply which we perhaps do not need and do not intend to use. In this case we are a bad judge of the relative value of things.
Business has an honorable aspect in that it is opposed to idleness, the most hopeless offspring of the whole progeny of sin. People in business, comparing themselves with those who squander their living, feel a fair and natural consciousness of their own value and of the superiority of their own pursuits. But it is by making comparisons with others that we deceive ourselves. Business, whether professional, commercial or political, endangers the mind which looks down on the pursuit of pleasure as beneath a thinking being. But if business absorbs the heart's affections, if it swallows up time to the neglect of eternity, if it generates a worldly spirit or encourages covetousness and engages the mind in ambitious pursuits, it may be as dangerous as its more frivolous rival.
The grand evil of both lies in the alienation of the heart from God. Actually, in one respect, the danger is greater to the one who is best employed. Those who pursue pleasure, however thoughtless, can never make themselves believe they are doing right. But those plunged in the work of serious business cannot easily persuade themselves that they are doing wrong.
Compensation and trade are the devices which worldly religion incessantly keeps in play. It is a life of barter—so much indulgence for so many good works. The implied accusation is that "we have a rigorous Master," and that therefore it is only fair to pay ourselves for the severity of His demands, just as an overworked servant steals a holiday. They set bounds to God's right to command, lest it should encroach on their privilege to do as they please.
We have mentioned elsewhere that if we invite people to embrace the Christian faith on the grounds that they will obtain present pleasure, they will desert it as soon as they find themselves disappointed. People are too ready to clamor for the pleasures of devotion before they have entitled themselves to them. We would be angry at those employees who asked to receive their wages before they would begin to work. This is not meant to establish the merit of works, but rather the necessity of seeking that transforming and purifying change which marks the real Christian. It is a matter of the heart and a genuine change in one's attitude.
But if we consider this world on true scriptural grounds as a place of testing, and see religion as a school for happiness, the consummation of which is only to be enjoyed in heaven, then the Christian hope will support us and the Christian faith will strengthen us. We can serve diligently, wait patiently, love cordially, obey faithfully and be steadfast under all trials. We can be sustained by the cheering promise held out to those "who endure to the end."
There are some who seem to have a graduated scale of vices. They keep clear of the lowest degrees on this scale, but they are not diligent in avoiding the "highest" vices on their scale. They forget that the same motive which operates in the greater operates on the lesser as well. A life of incessant gratification does not alarm the conscience, but it is surely unfavorable to faith, destructive of its motivations, and opposed to its spirit, as are the more obvious vices.
These are the habits that relax the mind and remove resolve from the heart, thereby fostering indifference to our spiritual state and insensibility to the things of eternity. A life of pleasure, if it leads into a life of actual sin, disqualifies us for holiness, happiness and heaven. It not only alienates the heart from God, but it lays it open to every temptation that natural temperament may invite, or incidental circumstances allure. The worst passions lie dormant in hearts that are given up to selfish indulgences, always ready to spring into action as any occasion invites them.
Sensual pleasure and irreligion play into each other's hands: each can cause the other. The slackness of the inward motivation confirms the carelessness of the conduct, while the negligent conduct protects itself under the supposed security of unbelief. The instance of the rich man in the parable of Lazarus strikingly illustrates this truth.
It is as essential that we inquire whether these unfeeling attitudes and selfish habits offend society and discredit us with the world, as it is important that we realize that they feed our corruptions and put us in a position unfavorable to all interior improvement. Let us ask whether they offend God and endanger the soul, whether the gratification of self is the life which the Redeemer taught or lived. Let us ask whether sensuality is a suitable preparation for that state where God Himself, who is Spirit, will constitute all the happiness of spiritual beings.
But these are not the only dangers. The intellectual vices, the spiritual offenses may destroy the soul without much injury to one's reputation. Unlike sensuality, these do not have their seasons of change and repose. Here the motive is in continual operation. Envy has no interruption. Ambition never cools. Pride never sleeps. The inclination to these at least is always awake. An intemperate person is sometimes sober, but a proud person is never humble. Where vanity reigns, it reigns always. These interior sins are more difficult to eradicate. They are harder to detect, harder to come at, and, as the citadel sometimes holds out after the outer defenses of a castle are breached, these sins of the heart are the last conquered in the moral warfare.
Here lies the distinction between the worldly and the religious person. It is frightening enough for the Christian that we feel any propensity to vice. Against these inclinations we must watch, strive and pray. Although we are thankful for the victory when we have resisted the temptation, we feel no elation of heart while conscious of our inward dispositions. Nothing but divine grace enables us to keep them from breaking out into a flame. We feel the only way to obtain the pardon of sin is to stop sinning, that although repentance itself is not a savior, there still can be no salvation where there is no repentance. Above all, we know that the promise of remission of sin by the death of Christ is the only solid ground of comfort. However correct our present life may be, the weight of past offenses would hang so heavy on our conscience that without the atoning blood of our Redeemer, despair of pardon for the past would leave us hopeless. We would continue to sin in the same way that a bankrupt person may continue to be extravagant because no present frugality could redeem their former debts.
It is sometimes pleaded that the work that busy and important people have leaves them no time for their religious duties. These apologies are never offered for the poor man, although to him every day brings the inevitable return of his many hours of work without intermission or moderation.
But surely the more important and responsible the position a person holds, the more demanding is the call for faith, not only in the way of example, but even in the way of success. If it is indeed granted that there is such a thing as divine interventions, if it is allowed that God has a blessing to bestow, then the ordinary man who has only himself to govern requires aid, but how urgent is the person's necessity who has to govern millions? What an awful idea that the weight of a nation might rest on the head of one whose heart does not look up for higher support!
The politician, the warrior and the orator find it peculiarly hard to renounce in themselves that wisdom and strength to which they believe the rest of the world is looking up. The person of station or of genius, when invited to the self-denying duties of Christianity often draws back, like the one who went away sorrowing because he had great possessions.
To know that they must come to an end stamps vanity on all the glories of this life. To know that they must come to an end soon stamps folly, not only on the one who sacrifices his conscience for their acquisition, but also on the person who, though upright in the discharge of his duties, discharges them without any reference to God. If the conqueror or the orator would reflect when the laurel crown is placed on his brow, how soon it will be followed by the shroud, the delirium of ambition would be cooled and the intoxication of prosperity removed.
There is a general kind of belief in Christianity prevalent in the world which, by soothing the conscience, prevents self-inquiry. That the holy Scriptures contain the will of God they do not question. That they contain the best system of morals, they frequently assert. But they do not feel the necessity of acquiring a correct notion of the teachings those Scriptures contain. The depravity of man, the atonement made by Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit—these they consider as the theoretical part of religion which they can easily neglect. By a kind of self-flattery, they satisfy themselves with the idea that they are acceptable to their Maker, a state they mistakenly believe they can attain without humility, faith and the rebirth of life.
People absorbed in a multitude of secular concerns, decent but unawakened, listen with a kind of respectful insensibility to the overtures of spiritual conviction. They consider the Church as venerable because of her antiquity and important because of her connection to the state. No one is more alive to her political, nor more dead to her spiritual importance. They are anxious for her existence, but indifferent to her doctrines. These they consider as a general matter in which they have no personal concern. They consider religious observances as something attractive but unreal, a serious custom made respectable by long and public usage. They admit that the poor who have little to enjoy and the idle who have little to do, cannot do better than to give over to God that time which cannot be turned to more profitable account. Religion, they think, may properly make use of leisure and occupy old age. Yet when it comes to themselves, they are at a loss to determine the precise period when the leisure is sufficient or the age is enough advanced. Goals recede as the destined season approaches. They continue to intend moving, but they continue to stand still.
Compare their drowsy sabbaths with the animation of the days of business and you would not think they were the same individual. The one is to be gotten over, the others are enjoyed. They go from the dull decencies, the shadowy forms (as they perceive them) of public worship, to the solid realities of their worldly concerns. These they consider as their bounden, and exclusive duties. The others indeed may not be wrong, but these, they are sure, are right. The world is their element. Here they are substantially engaged. Here their whole mind is alive, their understanding wide awake, all their energies in full play. Here they have an object worthy of their widest expansions, and here their desires and affections are absorbed.
The faint impression of the Sunday sermon fades away to be as faintly revived on the following Sunday, again to fade in the succeeding week. To the sermon they bring a formal ceremonious attendance. To the world they bring all their heart, soul, mind and strength. To the one they resort in conformity to law and custom. To induce them to resort to the other, they need no law, no sanction, no invitation. Their will is enough. Their passions are volunteers. The invisible things of heaven are clouded in shadow. The world is lord of the present. Riches, honors, power fill their mind with brilliant images. They are certain, tangible, and they assume form and bulk. In these, therefore, they cannot be mistaken. The eagerness of competition and the struggle for superiority fill their mind with an emotion, their soul with an agitation and their affections with an interest which, though very unlike happiness, they deceive themselves into thinking that it is the road to it. This artificial pleasure, this tumultuous feeling, does at least produce that one negative satisfaction of which worldly people are in search—it keeps them from themselves.
Even in circumstances where there is no success, the mere occupation, the crowd of objectives, the succession of engagements and the very tumult and hurry have their gratifications. The bustle gives false peace by leaving no leisure for reflection. They put their consciences to sleep by asserting they have good intentions. They comfort themselves with the believable pretense that they lack time and the vague resolution of giving up to God the dregs of life, while feeling the world deserves the better part of it. Thus dealing with their Maker, life wears away, its end drawing ever nearer, and that delayed promise to give God the last part is not fulfilled. The assigned hour of retreat either never arrives, or if it does arrive, sloth and sensuality are resorted to as a fair reward for a life of labor and anxiety. They die in the shackles of the world.
If we do not earnestly desire to be delivered from the dominion of these worldly tendencies, it is because we do not believe in the condemnation attached to their indulgence. We may indeed believe it as we believe any other general proposition or inconsequential fact, but we do not believe it as a danger which has any reference to us. We disclose this practical unbelief in the most unequivocal way by thinking so much more about the most frivolous concern in which we are sure we have an interest, than about this most important of all concerns.
When we are indifferent to eternal things, we add to our peril. If shutting our eyes to a danger would prevent it, to shut them would not only be a happiness but a duty. But to trade eternal safety for momentary ease is a wretched bargain. The reason why we do not value eternal things is because we do not think of them. The mind is so full of what is present that it has no room to admit a thought of what is to come. We are guilty of not giving the same attention to an eternal soul which prudent souls give to a common business transaction. We complain that life is short, and yet throw away the best part of it, only giving over to religion that portion which is good for nothing else. Life would be long enough if we assigned its best period to the best purpose.
Do not say that the requirements of religion are severe. Ask rather if they are necessary. If a thing must absolutely be done and if eternal misery will be incurred by not doing it, it is fruitless to enquire whether it be hard or easy. Inquire only whether it is indispensable, whether it is commanded. The duty on which our eternal state depends is not a thing to be debated, but done. The duty which is too imperative to be evaded is not to be argued about, but performed. To continue quietly in sin because you do not intend to sin is to live on an expected inheritance which will probably never be yours.
It is folly to say that religion drives people to despair when it only teaches them by a healthy fear to avoid destruction. The fear of God differs from all other fear, for it is accompanied with trust, confidence and love. "Blessed is the one who fears always," is no paradox to one who entertains this holy fear. It sets us above the fear of ordinary troubles. It fills our heart. We are not distraught by those inferior apprehensions which unsettle the soul and unhinge the peace of worldly people. Our mind is occupied with one grand concern and is therefore less liable to be shaken than little minds which are filled with little things. Can that principle lead to despair which proclaims the mercy of God in Jesus Christ to be greater than all the sins in the world?
If despair prevents your returning to God, do not add to your list of offenses that of doubting the forgiveness which He sincerely offers. You have already wronged God in His holiness. Do not wrong Him in His mercy. You may offend Him more by despairing of His pardon than by all the sins which have made that pardon necessary. Repentance, if one may venture the bold remark, almost disarms God of the power to punish. Here are His style and title as proclaimed by Himself: "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, patience and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty;" that is, those who by unrepented guilt exclude themselves from the offered mercy.
If unfaithfulness or indifference, which is practical unfaithfulness, keeps you back, then as reasonable beings, ask yourselves a few short questions: For what purpose was I sent into the world? Is my soul immortal? Am I really placed here in a state of trial, or is this span my all? Is there an eternal state? If there is, will the use I make of this life decide my condition in that state? I know there is death, but is there a judgment?
Do not rest until you have cleared up, not your own proofs for heaven (it will be some time before you arrive at that stage) but whether there is any heaven. Is not Christianity important enough for you diligently to explore? Is not eternal life too valuable to be entirely overlooked, and eternal destruction, if a reality, worth avoiding? If you make these interrogations sincerely, you will make them practically. They will lead you to examine your own personal interest in these things. Evils which are ruining us for lack of attention lessen from the moment our attention to them begins. True or false, the question is worth settling. Do not waver then between doubt and certainty. If the evidence is inadmissible, reject it. But if you can once ascertain these cardinal points, then throw away your time if you can, and trifle with eternity if you dare!
It is one of the striking characteristics of the Almighty that "He is strong and patient." It is a standing evidence of His patience that "He is provoked every day." How beautifully do these characteristics complement each other. If He were not strong, His patience would lack its distinguishing perfection. If He were not patient, His strength would instantly crush those who provoke Him every day.
Oh you, who have a long space given you for repentance, confess that the forbearance of God, when seen as coupled with His strength, is His most astonishing attribute. Think of those whom you knew who have since passed away—companions of your early life, your associates in actual vice, or your confederates in guilty pleasures. They are the sharers of your thoughtless meetings, your jovial revelry, your worldly schemes, your ambitious projects. Think how many of those companions have been cut off, perhaps without warning, possibly without repentance. They have been presented to their judge. Their doom, whatever it is, is now fixed. Yours is mercifully suspended. Adore the mercy; embrace the suspension.
Only suppose if they could be permitted to come back to this world, if they were allowed another period of trial, how they would spend their restored life! How earnest would be their penitence, how intense their devotion, how profound their humility, how holy their actions! Think then that you still have in your power that for which they would give millions of worlds. "Hell," says one writer, "is truth seen too late."In almost every mind there sometimes float indefinite and general purposes of repentance. The operation of these purposes is often repelled by a real, though denied, skepticism. Because the sentence is not executed speedily, they suspect it has never been pronounced. They, therefore, think they may safely continue to defer their intended, but unshaped, purpose. Though they sometimes visit the sickbeds of others and see how much disease disqualifies one from performing all duties, yet it is to this period of incapacity that they continue to defer this vital need to repent.
What an image of the divine condescension does it convey that "the goodness of God leads to repentance"! It does not barely invite, but it conducts. Every warning is more or less an invitation. Every visitation is a lighter stroke to avert a heavier blow. This was the way in which the heathen world understood signs and wonders, and on this interpretation of them they acted. Any alarming warning, whether rational or superstitious, drove them to their temples, their sacrifices. Does our clearer light always carry us farther? Does it, in these instances, always carry us as far as natural conscience carried them?
The final period of the worldly person at length arrives, but they will not believe their danger. Even if they fearfully glance around to every surrounding face, looking for an intimation of it, every face, it is too probable, is in league to deceive them. What a noble opportunity is now offered to the Christian physician to show a kindness far superior to any they have ever shown, just as the concerns of the soul are superior to those of the body! Let them not fear prudently to reveal a truth for which the patient may bless them in eternity! Is it sometimes to be feared that in the hope of prolonging for a little while the existence of the perishing body, they rob the never-dying soul of its last chance of pardon? Does not the concern for the immortal part united with their care of the afflicted body bring the Christian physician to a nearer imitation of that divine Physician who never healed the one without manifesting a tender concern for the other?
But the deceit is short and fruitless. The amazed spirit is about to dislodge. Who shall speak of its terror and dismay? Then the person cries out in the bitterness of their soul, "What ability have I, now that I am dying, to acquire a good heart, to unlearn false beliefs, to renounce bad practices and establish right habits, to begin to love God and hate sin?" How is the stupendous concern of salvation to be worked out by a mind incompetent to do it in the most favorable conditions?
The infinite importance of what a person has to do, the goading conviction that it must be done, and the impossibility of beginning a repentance which should have been completed—all these complicated concerns together add to the sufferings of a body which stands in little need of these additional burdens.
It would be well if we were now and then to call to our minds, while in sound health, the solemn certainties of a dying bed. It would be well if we accustomed ourselves to see things now as we shall wish we had seen them. Surely the most sluggish insensibility can be roused by seeing for itself the rapid approach of death, the nearness of our unalterable doom and our instant transition to that state of unutterable blessing or unimaginable woe to which death will in a moment consign us. Such a mental image would assist us in dissipating all other illusions. It would help us realize what is invisible, and to bring near what we think of as remote. It would disenchant us from the world, tear off its painted mask, shrink its pleasures into their proper dimensions, its concerns into their real value, and its promises into nothingness.
Terrible as the evil is, if it must be met, do not hesitate to present it to your imagination. Do this, not to lacerate your feelings, but to arm your resolution, not to arouse more distress, but to strengthen your faith. If it terrifies you at first, draw a little nearer more gradually, and familiarity will lessen the terror. If you cannot face the image, how will you encounter the reality?
Let us then picture for ourselves the moment when all we cling to shall elude our grasp, when every earthly good shall be to us as if it had never been, when our eyes open on the eternal spiritual world. Then there shall be no relief for the fainting body, no refuge for the parting soul except that single refuge to which perhaps we have never thought of resorting—the everlasting mercies of God in Christ Jesus.
Reader! whoever you are who have neglected to remember that to die is the end for which you were born, know that you have a personal interest in this scene. Do not turn away from it in disdain, however feebly it may have been represented. You may escape any other evil of life, but its end you cannot escape. Do not defer then life's weightiest concern to its weakest period. Do not begin the preparation when you should be completing the work. Do not delay the business which demands your best faculties to the period of their greatest weakness and near extinction. Do not leave the work which requires an age to do, to be done in a moment, a moment which may not be granted. The alternative is tremendous. The difference is that of being saved or lost. It is no light thing to eternally perish.
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