PRACTICAL PIETY by Hannah More, 1811
THE TEMPER AND CONDUCT OF THE CHRISTIAN IN SICKNESS AND IN DEATH
The pagan philosophers have given many admirable precepts for enduring misfortunes; but lacking the motives and supports of the Christian faith, though they excite much intellectual admiration, they produce little practical results. The stars which glittered in their moral night, though bright, imparted no warmth. Their dissertations on death had no charm to extract death's sting. We receive no support from their elaborate treatises on immortality because they did not know Him who "brought life and immortality to light." Their consolations could not strip the grave of its terrors, for to them it was not "swallowed up in victory." To conceive of the soul as an immortal principle, without the pardon of its sins, was but cold comfort. Their future state was but a happy guess; their heaven but a conjecture. When we read their compositions, we admire the manner in which the medicine is administered, but we do not find it effectual for the cure. The beauty of the sentiment we applaud, but our heart continues to ache. There is no healing balm in their elegant prescription.
These four little words, "Your will be done, "contain a remedy of more powerful efficacy than all the discipline of the Stoic school. What sufferer ever derived any ease from the observation, that "pain is very troublesome, but I am resolved never to acknowledge it to be an evil"? He does not directly say that pain is not an evil, but by a sophistical turn professes that philosophy will never confess it to be an evil. But what consolation does the sufferer draw from the quibbling nicety? "What difference is there," as Tillotson well inquires, "between things being troublesome and being evil, when all the evil of an affliction lies in the trouble it creates to us?"
Christianity knows none of these fanciful distinctions. She never pretends to insist that pain is not an evil, but she does more; she converts it into a good. Christianity therefore teaches a fortitude more noble than philosophy; just as meeting pain with resignation to the hand that inflicts it, is more heroic than denying it to be an evil.
To submit on the mere human ground that there is no alternative, is not resignation but hopelessness. To bear affliction solely because impatience will not remove it may be a just reason for bearing it, but it is an inferior one. It savors rather of despair than submission when not sanctioned by a higher principle. "It is the Lord, let Him do what seems to Him good," is at once a motive of more powerful obligation than all the documents which philosophy ever suggested; a firmer ground of support than all the energies that natural strength ever supplied.
Under any painful visitation, sickness for instance, God permits us to think the affliction "not joyous but grievous." But though He allows us to feel dejected, we must not allow ourselves to be so. There is again a sort of heroism in bearing up against affliction, which some adopt on the ground that it raises their character and confers dignity on their suffering. This philosophic firmness is far from being the attitude which Christianity inspires.
When we are compelled by the Hand of God to endure sufferings, we must not endure them on the poor principle that they are inevitable. We must not, with a sullen courage, collect ourselves into a center of our own; into a cold apathy to everything else and a proud praise of all within. We must not concentrate our scattered faults into a sort of dignified selfishness nor adopt an independent correctness. A gloomy Stoicism is not Christian heroism. A melancholy passivity is not Christian resignation.
Nor must we compensate ourselves for our outward self-control by secret murmurings. It is inward discontent that we must endeavor to repress. It is the discontent of the heart, the unexpressed but not unfelt murmur, against which we must pray for grace and struggle for resistance. We must not suppress our discontents before others, and feed on them in private. It is the hidden rebellion of the will we must subdue, if we would submit as Christians. Nor must we justify our impatience by saying that if our affliction did not disqualify us from being useful to our families and active in the service of God, we could bear it more cheerfully. Let us rather be assured that our suffering does not disqualify us for that duty which we most need, and to which God calls us by that very suffering.
A constant posture of defense against the attacks of our great spiritual enemy is a better security than an occasional blow or victory. It is also a better preparation for all the occurrences of life. It is not some notable act of mortification, but a habitual state of discipline which will prepare us for great trials. A soul ever on the watch, fervent in prayer, diligent in self-inspection, frequent in meditation, fortified against the vanities of time by repeated views of eternity will be better able to resist temptation. "Strong in the Lord and in the power of His might," the heart will be enabled to resist temptation and expel the tempter. To a mind so prepared, the thoughts of sickness will not be new, for it knows it is the "condition of the battle." The prospect of death will not be surprising, for he knows it is its termination.
When we face serious illness and the prospect of death, we must summon all the fortitude and all the resignation of the Christian. The principles we have been learning must now be made practical. The speculations we have admired must now become reality. All that we have been studying was in order to furnish materials for this great need. All the strength we have been collecting must now be brought into action. We must now draw to a point all the scattered arguments, all the different motives, and all the cheering promises of faith. We must exemplify all the rules we have given to others. We must embody all the resolutions we have formed for ourselves. We must reduce our precepts to experience. We must pass from discourses on submission to its exercise; from dissertations on suffering to enduring it. We must heroically call up the determinations of our better days. We must recollect what we have said about the support of faith and hope when our strength was in full vigor, when our heart was at ease, and our mind undisturbed. Let us collect all that remains to us of mental strength. Let us implore the aid of holy hope and fervent faith, to show that Christian commitment is not a beautiful theory but a soul-sustaining truth.
The strongest faith is needed in the hardest trials. To the confirmed Christian the highest degree of grace is commonly imparted during those trials. Do not injure that faith on which you rested when your mind was strong by suspecting its validity now that it is weak. That which had your full assent in perfect health, which was then firmly rooted in your spirit and grounded in your understanding, must not be damaged by the doubts of a weakened reason and the misgivings of an impaired judgment. You may not now be able to reason clearly, but you may derive strong consolation from conclusions which were once fully established in your mind.
The reflecting Christian will consider the natural evil of sickness as the consequence and punishment of moral evil. We will mourn, not only that we suffer pain, but because that pain is the effect of sin. If our race had not sinned we would not have suffered. The heaviest aggravation of our pain is to know that we have deserved it. But it is a counterbalance to this trial to know that our merciful Father has no pleasure in the sufferings of His children; that He chastens them in love; that He never inflicts a stroke which He could safely spare; that He inflicts it to purify as well as to punish, to caution as well as to cure.
What a support in the dreary season of sickness it is to reflect that the Captain of our salvation was made perfect through sufferings! What a comfort to remember that if we suffer with Him we shall also reign with Him! This implies also the reverse, that if we do not suffer with Him—that is, if we suffer merely because we cannot help it, without reference to Him, without suffering for His sake and in His Spirit, we shall not reign with Him. If it is not sanctified, suffering it will avail but little. We shall not be paid for having suffered, as too many people believe, but our fitness for the kingdom of glory will be increased if we suffer according to His will and after His example.
Those who are brought to serious reflection by the salutary affliction of a sick bed, will look back with astonishment on their former false estimate of worldly things. Riches! Beauty! Pleasure! Genius! Fame! What are they in the eyes of the sick and dying?
Riches! These are so far from affording them a moment's ease, that it will be well if no remembrance of their misuse aggravate their present pains. They feel as if they only wished to live that they might henceforth dedicate their riches to the purposes for which they were given.
Beauty! What is beauty? they cry, as they consider their own sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, and pallid countenance. They acknowledge with the Psalmist that, "You make his beauty to consume away like a moth: surely every man is vanity." Psalm 39:11
Genius! What is it? Without faith, genius is only a lamp on the gate of a palace. It may serve to cast a gleam of light on those outside, but the inhabitant sits in darkness.
Pleasure! That has not left a trace behind it. It died in the birth, and is not therefore worthy to come into this bill of mortality.
Fame! Of this their very soul acknowledges the emptiness. They are astonished that they could ever have been so infatuated as to run after a sound, to pursue a shadow, to embrace a cloud. Augustus asked his friends as they surrounded his dying bed, if he had acted his part well. When they answered in the affirmative, he cried, "Applaud!" But the acclamations of the whole universe would mock rather than soothe the dying Christian if unsupported by the hope of God's approval. They now rate at its true value the fame which was so often eclipsed by envy, and which will be so soon forgotten in death. They have no ambition left but for heaven, where there will be neither envy, death, nor forgetfulness.
When capable of reflection, the sick Christian will go over the sins and errors of his past life, humbling himself for them as sincerely as if he had never repented of them before, imploring forgiveness as fervently as if he did not believe they were long since forgiven. The remembrance of our former offenses will grieve us, but the humble hope that they are pardoned will fill us "with joy unspeakable and full of glory."
Even in this state of helplessness we may improve our self-acquaintance. We may detect new deficiencies in our character, fresh imperfections in our virtues. Omissions will now strike us with the force of actual sins. Resignation, which we fancied was so easy when only the sufferings of others required it, we now find to be difficult when called on to practice it ourselves. We may have sometimes wondered at their impatience; we are now humbled at our own. We will not only try to bear patiently the pains we actually suffer, but will recollect gratefully those from which we have been delivered, and which we may have formerly found less bearable than our present sufferings.
In the extremity of pain we feel there is no consolation but in humble acquiescence in God's will. It may be that we can pray but little, but that little will be fervent. We can articulate perhaps not at all, but our prayer is addressed to One who sees the heart, who can interpret its language, who requires not words, but love. A pang endured without a murmur, or only such an involuntary groan as nature compels and faith regrets, is itself a prayer.
If surrounded with all the accommodations of affluence, let us compare our own situation with that of thousands, who probably with greater merit and under more severe trials have not one of our means of relief. When invited to take a distasteful remedy, let us reflect how many perishing fellow creatures may be pining for that remedy, suffering additional distress from their inability to procure it.
In the lulls between bouts of severe pain we can turn our few advantages to the best account. We can make the most of every short respite, patiently bearing with little disappointments, little delays, with the awkwardness or accidental neglect of our attendants. Thankful for general kindness, we can accept good will instead of perfection. The suffering Christian will be grateful for small reliefs, little alleviations, short snatches of rest. Abated pain will be positive pleasure. The freer use of limbs which had nearly lost their activity, will be enjoyments.
The sufferer has perhaps often regretted that one of the worst effects of sickness is the selfishness it too naturally induces. We can resist the temptation to this by not being exacting and unreasonable in our requirements. Through our tenderness to the feelings of others, we can be careful not to add to their distress by any appearance of discontent.
What a lesson against selfishness have we in the conduct of our dying Redeemer! It was while bearing His cross to the place of execution that He said to the sorrowing multitude, "Weep not for me, but for yourselves and for your children." While enduring the agonies of crucifixion He endeavored to mitigate the sorrows of His mother and of His friend by tenderly committing them to each other's care. While sustaining the pangs of death, He gave the immediate promise of heaven to the expiring criminal.
Christians should review, if able, not only the sins, but the mercies of our past life. If we were previously accustomed to unbroken health, we can bless God for the long period in which we have enjoyed it. If continued infirmity has been our portion, we will feel grateful that we have had such a long and gradual weaning from the world. From either state we can derive consolation. If the pain is new, what a mercy to have hitherto escaped it! If habitual, we bear more easily what we have borne long.
We can also review our temporal blessings and deliverances, our domestic comforts, our Christian friendships. Among other mercies, our now "purged eyes" will add up our difficulties, our sorrows and trials and find a new and heavenly light thrown on that passage "It is good for me that I have been afflicted." It seems to us as if hitherto, we had only heard it with the hearing of our ears, but now our eyes see it.
If we are real Christians, and have had enemies, we will always have prayed for them, but now we will be thankful for them. We will the more earnestly implore mercy for them as instruments which have helped to fit us for our present state. He will look up with holy gratitude to the great Physician, who by a kind of "divine chemistry" in making up events, has made that one unpalatable ingredient, at the bitterness of which we once revolted, the very means by which all other things have worked together for good; had they worked separately they would not have worked efficaciously.
Under the most severe visitation, let us compare our own sufferings with the cup which our Redeemer drank for our sakes. Let us compare our condition with that of the Son of God. He was deserted in His most trying hour; deserted probably by those whose limbs, sight and life He had restored, whose souls He had come to save. We are surrounded by unwearied friends; every pain is mitigated by sympathy, every need not only relieved but prevented. When our souls are "exceeding sorrowful," our friends participate in our sorrow; when desired "to watch" with us, they watch not "one hour" but many, not falling asleep, not forsaking us in our "agony" but sympathizing where they cannot relieve.
Besides this, we must acknowledge with the penitent malefactor, "We indeed suffer justly but this man has done nothing amiss." We suffer for our offenses the inevitable penalty of our fallen nature. He bore our sins and those of the whole human race. How cheering in this forlorn state to reflect that He not only suffered for us then, but is sympathizing with us now; that "in all our afflictions He is afflicted." (Isa. 63:9) The tenderness of His sympathy seems to add a value to our sacrifice, while the severity of our suffering makes His sympathy more dear to us.
If our intellectual powers be mercifully preserved, how many virtues may now be brought into exercise which had either lain dormant or been considered as of inferior worth in the prosperous day of activity. The Christian disposition indeed seems to be more evident and to be exercised more vigorously on a sick bed. The passive virtues, the least brilliant but the most difficult, are then particularly called into action. To suffer the whole will of God on the tedious bed of suffering is often more trying than to perform the most shining exploit on the stage of the world. The hero in the field of battle has the love of fame as well as patriotism to support him. He knows that the witnesses of his valor will be the heralds of his renown. The martyr at the stake is divinely strengthened. Extraordinary grace is imparted for extraordinary trials. The martyr's pangs are exquisite but they are short. The crown is in sight; it is almost in possession. By faith, Stephen said, "I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God." But to be strong in faith and patient in hope in a long and lingering sickness is an example of more general use and ordinary application, than the sublime heroism of the martyr. We read of the martyr with astonishment. Our faith is strengthened, and our admiration kindled. But we read it without that peculiar reference to our own circumstances which we feel in cases that are likely to apply to ourselves. With a dying friend we have not only a feeling of tenderness, but there is also a community of interests. The certain conviction that his case must soon be our own, makes it our own now. To the martyr's stake we feel that we are not likely to be brought. To the dying bed we must inevitably come.
Accommodating our state of mind to the nature of our disease, the dying Christian will derive consolation in any case, either from thinking how forcibly a sudden sickness breaks the chain which binds us to the world, or how gently a gradual decay unties it. We will feel and acknowledge the necessity of all we suffer to wean us from life. We admire the divine goodness which commissions the infirmities of sickness to divest the world of its enchantments and to strip death of some of its most formidable terrors. We feel much less reluctant to leave a body exhausted by suffering rather than one in the vigor of health.
Sickness, instead of narrowing the heart in self-centeredness, which is its worst effect on a carnal mind, enlarges the Christian's heart. We earnestly exhort those around us to defer no act of repentance, no labor of love, no deed of justice, no work of mercy, because of the sickness in which we now lie.
How many motives has the Christian to restrain his murmurs! MURMURING offends God because it injures His goodness and because it perverts the occasion which God has now afforded for giving an opportunity to display an example of patience. Let us not complain that we have nothing to do in sickness when we are furnished with the opportunity and called to the duty of resignation. The duty indeed is always ours, but the occasion is now more prominently given. Let us not say even in this depressed state that we have nothing to be thankful for. If sleep be afforded, let us acknowledge the blessing. If wearisome nights be our portion, let us remember they are "appointed to us." Let us mitigate the grievance of watchfulness by considering it as a sort of prolongation of life; as the gift of more minutes granted for meditation and prayer. If we are not able to employ it to either of these purposes, there is a fresh occasion for exercising that resignation which will be accepted for both.
If reason is continued, yet with sufferings too intense for any spiritual duty, the sick Christian may take comfort that the business of life was accomplished before the sickness began. We will not be terrified if duties are superseded, for we have nothing to do but to die. This is the act for which all other acts, all other duties, and all other means, have been preparing us. They who have long been accustomed to look death in the face, and who have often anticipated the agonies of their deteriorating nature, and who have accustomed themselves to pray for support under them, will now feel the blessed effect of those petitions which have long been treasured in heaven. To those very anticipatory prayers we may now owe the humble confidence of hope in this inevitable hour. Accustomed to contemplation, we will not, at least, have the dreadful addition of surprise and novelty to aggravate the trying situation. It has long been familiar to our mind, though beforehand it could only exist as a faint picture compared to a reality. Faith will not so much dwell on the open grave, as look forward to the glories to which it leads. The hope of heaven will soften the pangs which lie in the way to it. On heaven we can fix our eyes rather than on the fearful intervening circumstances. We will not dwell on the struggle which is for a moment, but on the crown which is forever. We will endeavor to think less of death than of its Conqueror, less of the grave than its Spoiler, less of the body in ruins than of the spirit in glory, less of the darkness of our closing day than of the opening dawn of immortality. In some brighter moments, when viewing our eternal redemption drawing near, we may exclaim, "Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we are escaped."
If we ever wish for recovery, it is in order to glorify God by our future life more than we have done in the past. But as we know the deceitfulness of our heart, we are not certain that this would be the case. Yet should we be restored, we humbly resolve in a better strength than our own, to dedicate our life to the Restorer.
When death nears, our prospects as to this world are at an end also. We commit ourselves unreservedly to our heavenly Father. But though secure in our destination, we may still dread the passage. The Christian will rejoice that our rest is at hand, though we may shudder at the unknown transit. Though faith is strong, nature may be weak. No in this awful crisis strong faith is sometimes rendered faint through the weakness of nature.
At the moment when our faith is looking round for every additional confirmation, we may rejoice in those blessed certainties, those glorious realizations which Scripture affords. We may take comfort that the strongest witnesses given by the apostles to the reality of the heavenly state were not mere speculation. They spoke what they knew and testified what they had seen. "I reckon," says Paul, "that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us." He said this after he had been caught up into the third heaven, and after he had beheld the glories to which he alludes. The author of the Book of Revelation, having described the indescribable glories of the new Jerusalem, thus puts new life and power into his description: "I John saw these things, and heard them."
The power to distinguish objects increases as they grow nearer. Christians feel that they are entering a state where every care will cease, every fear vanish, every desire be fulfilled, every sin be done away, and every grace perfected. There will be no more temptations to resist, no more passions to subdue, no more insensibility to mercies, no more deadness in service, no more wandering in prayer, no more sorrows to be felt for themselves, nor tears to be shed for others. They are going where their devotion will be without apathy, their love without alloy; their doubts will turn to certainty, their expectation to enjoyment, and their hope to fruition. All will be perfect, for God will be all in all.
We know that we shall derive all our happiness immediately from God. It will no longer pass through any of those channels which now sully its purity. It will be offered us through no second cause which may fail, no intermediate agent which may deceive, no uncertain medium which may disappoint. The bliss is not only certain, but perfect—not only perfect, but eternal.
As we approach the land of realities, the shadows of this earth cease to interest or mislead us. The films are removed from our eyes. Objects are stripped of their false luster. Nothing that is really little any longer looks great. The mists of vanity are dispersed. Everything which is to have an end appears small, appears nothing. Eternal things assume their proper magnitude—for we behold them with a true vision. We have ceased to lean on the world for we have found it both a reed and a spear. It has failed and it has pierced us. We lean not on ourselves, for we have long known our own weakness. We lean not on our virtues, for they can do nothing for us. If we had no better refuge in death, we feel that our sun would set in darkness and our love close in despair.
But we know in whom we have trusted. We look upward with holy but humble confidence to that Great Shepherd, who having long since led us into green pastures, having corrected us by His rod, and by His staff supported us, will, we humbly trust, guide us through the dark valley of the shadow of death, and safely land us on the peaceful shores of everlasting rest.
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