The Christian Father's Present to His Children
by John Angell James, 1825
THE PLEASURES OF A PIOUS LIFE
A desire after happiness, my dear children, is inseparable from the human mind. It is the natural and healthy craving of our spirit; an appetite which we have neither the will nor the power to destroy, and for which all mankind are busily employed in making provision. This is as natural, as for birds to fly, or fish to swim. For this the scholar and the philosopher, who think happiness consists in knowledge, pore over their books, light the midnight lamp, and keep frequent vigils, when the world around them is asleep. For this the warrior, who thinks that happiness is inseparably united with fame, pursues that bubble through the gory fields of conflict, and is as wasteful of his life as if it were not worth a soldier's pay. The worldling, with whom happiness and wealth are kindred terms, worships daily at the shrine of Mammon, and offers earnest prayers for the golden shower. The voluptuary gratifies every craving sense, rejoices in the midnight revel, renders himself vile, and yet tells you he is in the chase of happiness. The ambitious man, conceiving that the 'great essential' hangs in rich clusters from the throne, consumes one half of his life, and embitters the other half in climbing the giddy elevation of royalty. All these, however, have confessed their disappointment; and have retired from the stage exclaiming, in reference to happiness, as Brutus, just before he stabbed himself, did in reference to virtue, "I have pursued you everywhere, and found you nothing but a name." This, however, is a mistake; for both virtue and happiness are glorious realities, and if they are not found, it is merely because they are not sought from the right sources.
We may affirm of pleasure what Job did of wisdom, "But do people know where to find wisdom? Where can they find understanding? No one knows where to find it, for it is not found among the living. 'It is not here,' says the ocean. 'Nor is it here,' says the sea. It cannot be bought for gold or silver. Its value is greater than all the gold of Ophir, greater than precious onyx stone or sapphires. Wisdom is far more valuable than gold and crystal. It cannot be purchased with jewels mounted in fine gold. The price of wisdom is far above pearls. Its value is greater than the purest gold. But do people know where to find wisdom? Where can they find understanding? For it is hidden from the eyes of all humanity. God surely knows where it can be found, for he looks throughout the whole earth, under all the heavens. He made the winds blow and determined how much rain should fall. He made the laws of the rain and prepared a path for the lightning. Then, when he had done all this, he saw wisdom and measured it. He established it and examined it thoroughly. And this is what he says to all humanity: 'The fear of the Lord is true wisdom; to forsake evil is real understanding; and wisdom's ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.' "
Happiness has no other equivalent term than true religion—and this is a moral synonym. If, indeed, the case were otherwise, and true religion, so far as the present world is concerned, entailed nothing but wretchedness, yet, as it leads to eternal felicity in the world to come—it would surely be in our interest to attend to its claims. The poor Hindu devotee, who endures all kinds of tortures, under the idea that it is the only way to eternal felicity, acts with perfect rationality—IF his theory is true. A life protracted to the length of Methuselah's, and filled with penances and pilgrimages, would be willingly and thankfully endured, if salvation could be procured by no other means.
In the prospect of eternity, with heaven spreading out its ineffable glories, and hell uncovering its dreadful horrors, the only question which a rational creature should allow himself to ask is, "What is necessary to avoid the torments of the one, and secure the felicities of the other?" and on being told "True religion," he should apply with all the energies of his soul to this great business, without scarcely allowing himself to ask whether its duties are pleasant or irksome. The man who is journeying to take possession of a kingdom, scarcely thinks it worth his while to inquire whether the road be through a wilderness or a paradise. It is enough for him to know, that it is the only road to the throne. Hence the representation of the pleasures of true religion, is a sort of gratuity in this subject. It serves, however, to leave those still more destitute of excuse, who live in the neglect of piety, and in this view may have still greater power to rouse the conscience.
1.That true piety is pleasure, will appear, if you consider what part of our nature, it more particularly employs and gratifies.
It is not a gratification of the senses, or of the animal part of our nature—but a provision for the immaterial and immortal MIND. The mind of man is an image not only of God's spirituality—but of his infinity. It is not like the senses, limited to this or that kind of object, as the sight does not meddle with that which affects the smell. But with a universal superintendence, the mind arbitrates upon all, and affects all. The mind is, as I may say, an ocean, into which all the little rivulets of sensation, both external and internal, empty themselves. Now, the mind is that part of man to which the exercises of true religion properly belong. The pleasures of the understanding, in the contemplation of truth—have been sometimes so great, so intense, so engrossing all the powers of the soul—that there has been no room left for any other kind of pleasure. How short of this, are the delights of the epicure! How vastly disproportionate are the pleasures of the eating man—and of the thinking man! "Indeed," says Dr. South, "as different as the silence of an Archimides in the study of a problem—and the stillness of a sow in her mire." Nothing is comparable to the pleasures of mind; these are enjoyed by the spirits above, by Jesus Christ, and the great and blessed God.
Think what objects true religion brings before the mind, as the sources of its pleasure—no less than the great God himself, and that both in his nature and in his works. For the eye of true religion, like that of the eagle, directs itself chiefly to the sun—to a glory that neither admits of a superior or an equal. The mind is conversant in the exercises of piety, with all the most stupendous events that have ever occurred in the history of the universe, or that ever will transpire until the close of time. The creation of the world; its government by a universal providence; its redemption by the death of Christ; its conversion by the power of the Holy Spirit; its trial before the judgment bar of God; the immortality of the soul; the resurrection of the body; the certainty of an eternal existence; the secrets of the unseen state—subjects, all of them, of the loftiest and most sublime kind, which have engaged the inquiries of the profoundest intellects—are the matter of contemplation to real piety.
What topics are these for our reason, under the guidance of true religion, to study! What an ocean to swim in! What a heaven to soar in! What heights to measure! What depths to fathom! Here are subjects which, from their infinite vastness, must be ever new, and ever fresh—which can be never laid aside as dry or empty. If novelty is the parent of pleasure, here it may be found; for although the subject itself is the same, some new view of it, some fresh discovery of its wonders—is ever bursting upon the mind of the devout and attentive inquirer after truth.
How, then, can true religion be otherwise than pleasant, when it is the exercise of the noble faculties of the mind, upon the most sublime topics of mental investigation—the voluntary, excursive, endless pursuits of the human understanding in the region of eternal truth? Never was there a more interesting or important inquiry than that proposed by Pilate to the illustrious Prisoner at his bar; and if the latter thought it not proper to answer it, it was not to show that the question was insignificant—but to condemn the light and flippant manner in which a subject so important was taken up. True religion can answer this question, and with an ecstasy greater than that of the ancient mathematician, exclaims, "I have found it—I have found it!"
The Bible is not only true—but TRUTH. It contains that which deserves this sublime emphasis. It settles the disputes of ages, and of philosophers—and makes known what is truth—and where it is to be found. It brings us from among the quicksands, and crags, and rocks of skepticism, ignorance, and error—and shows us that goodly land, in quest of which myriads of minds have sailed, and multitudes have been wrecked; and true religion is setting our foot on this shore, and dwelling in the region of eternal truth.
2.That a pious life is pleasant, is evident from the nature of true religion itself.
True religion is a principle of spiritual life in the soul. Now, all the exercises and acts of life are agreeable. To see, to hear, to taste, to walk, are all agreeable, because they are the voluntary energies of inward life. So true religion, in all its duties, is the exercise of a living principle in the soul—it is a new spiritual existence. Piety is a spiritual taste. Hence it is said, "If so be you have tasted that the Lord is gracious." No matter what the object of a taste is, the exercises of it are always agreeable. The painter goes with delight to his picture; the musician to his instrument; the sculptor to his bust—because they have a taste for these pursuits. The same feeling of delight attends the Christian to the exercises of godliness; and this is his language, "It is a good thing to give thanks, and to draw near to God. O, how I love your law! it is sweeter to my taste than honey. How amiable are your tabernacles!"
True religion, where it is real, is the natural element of a Christian; and every creature rejoices in its own appropriate sphere. If, my children, you consider true piety with disgust—as a hard, unnatural, involuntary thing—you are totally ignorant of its nature, entirely destitute of its influence, and no wonder you cannot attach to it the idea of pleasure. But viewing it as a new nature, you will perceive that it admits of most exalted delight.
3. Consider the MISERIES which true religion prevents.
It does not, it is true, prevent sickness, poverty, or misfortune. It does not fence off from the wilderness of this world, a mystic enclosure, within which the ills of life never intrude. No! these troublesome things happen to all alike. But how small a portion of human wretchedness flows from these sources, compared with that which arises from the dispositions of the heart. "The mind can make a heaven of hell—and a hell of heaven." People carry the springs of their happiness or misery in their own bosom! Hence it is said of the wicked, "that they are like the troubled sea which cannot rest, which is never at peace—but continually casting up mire and dirt." In contrast with which it is affirmed, that "the work of righteousness is peace; and that the good man shall be satisfied from himself."
Would you behold the misery entailed by pride, look at Haman. Would you behold the misery entailed by covetousness, look at Ahab. Would you behold the misery entailed by malice, look at Cain. Would you behold the misery entailed by profaneness and sensuality, united with the forebodings of a guilty conscience, look at Belshazzar. Would you behold the misery entailed by envy and a consciousness of being rejected of God, look at Saul. Would you behold the misery entailed by revenge, look at Herodias writhing beneath the accusations of John, and thirsting for his blood. Would you behold the misery entailed by apostasy, look at Judas.
True religion would have prevented all this—and it will prevent similar misery in you. Hearken to the confessions of the outcast criminal in the land of his banishment; of the felon in his irons and in his dungeon; of the prostitute expiring upon her bed of straw; of the malefactor at the gallows—"Wretched creature that I am, abhorred of men, accursed of God! To what have my crimes brought me!" True religion, my children, prevents all this! All that wretchedness, which is the result of crime—is cut off by the influence of genuine piety. Misery prevented—is happiness gained.
4. Dwell upon the PRIVILEGES which true religion confers.
To the man who is a partaker of its genuine influence, all the sins he has committed, be they ever so numerous or so great, are all forgiven, and he is introduced to the bliss of pardoned guilt; he is restored to the favor of that Great Being whose smile is life, and lights up heaven with joy; whose frown is death, and fills all hell with woe. But I cannot describe these privileges in such brilliant language as has been employed by an American author, "Regeneration is of the highest importance to man, as a subject of the divine government. In his former unregenerate state, he was a rebel against God, and with the new birth he becomes cheerfully an obedient subject. From an enemy, he becomes God's friend. From an apostate, he becomes God's child. From the debased, hateful, and miserable character of sin—he makes a final escape, and begins the glorious and eternal career of virtue. With his character, his destination is equally changed! In his native condition he was a child of wrath, an object of abhorrence, and an heir of woe. Evil, in an unceasing and interminable progress, was his lot; the regions of sorrow and despair his everlasting home; and fiends, and fiend-like men his eternal companions. On this character holy beings looked with detestation, and on his ruin with pity; while evil beings beheld both with that satanic pleasure, which a reprobate mind can enjoy at the sight of companionship in turpitude and destruction.
"But when he becomes a subject of this great and happy change of character, all things connected with him are also changed. His unbelief, impenitence, hatred of God, rejection of Christ, and resistance of the Spirit of grace—he has voluntarily and ingenuously renounced! No longer rebellious, impious, or ungrateful—he has assumed the amiable spirit of submission, repentance, confidence, hope, gratitude, and love. The image of his Maker is enstamped upon his mind, and begins there to shine with moral and eternal beauty. The seeds of immortality have there sprung up, as in a congenial soil; and warmed by the life-giving beams of the Sun of Righteousness and refreshed by the dewy influence of the Spirit of grace—rise, and bloom, and flourish, with increasing vigor. In him sin and the world and the flesh daily decay, and daily announce their approaching dissolution; while the soul continually assumes new life and virtue, and is animated with superior and undying energy. He is now a joint heir with Christ, and the destined inhabitant of heaven; the gates of glory and of happiness are already opened to receive him, and the joy of saints and angels has been renewed over his repentance. All around him is peace—all before him purity and transport. God is his Father; Christ is his Redeemer; and the Spirit of Truth his Sanctifier. Heaven is his eternal habitation; virtue is his immortal character; and cherubim and seraphim, and all the children of light, are his companions forever. Henceforth he becomes of course a rich blessing to the universe; all holy beings—no, God himself—will rejoice in him forever, as a valuable accession to the great kingdom of righteousness, as a real addition to the mass of created good, and as a humble but faithful and honorable instrument of the everlasting praise of heaven. He is a vessel of infinite mercy; an illustrious trophy of the cross; a gem in the crown of glory, which adorns the Redeemer of mankind." (Dwight's Sermon on Regeneration)
Who, my children, can read this animated description of the privileges of true piety—and it is not an exaggerated account!—without secretly longing to be a child of God? What are all the brightest distinctions of an earthly nature, after which envy pines in secret, or ambition rages in public, compared with this? Crowns are splendid baubles, gold is sordid dust, and all the gratifications of sense but vanity and vexation of spirit, when weighed against such splendid privileges as these!
5. Consider the CONSOLATIONS which true religion impart.
Our world has been called in the language of poetry, a valley of tears, and human life a bubble, raised from those tears, inflated by sighs, which, after floating a little while, decked with a few gaudy colors, is touched by the hand of death, and dissolves. Poverty, disease, misfortune, unkindness, instability, death—all assail the travelers as they journey onward to eternity through this gloomy valley. And what is to comfort them but true piety?
The consolations of true religion are neither few nor small; they arise in part from those things which are already mentioned in this chapter; that is, from the exercise of the understanding on the revealed truths of God's word, from the impulses of the spiritual life within us, and from a reflection upon our spiritual privileges—but there are some others, which though partially implied in these things, deserve a special enumeration and distinct consideration.
A good conscience, which the wise man says is a perpetual feast, sustains a high place among the comforts of genuine piety. It is unquestionably true, that a man's happiness is in the keeping of his conscience—all the sources of his felicity are under the command of this faculty. "A wounded spirit who can bear?" A troubled conscience converts a paradise into a hell, for it is the flame of hell kindled on earth. But a quiet conscience would illuminate the horrors of the deepest dungeon with the beams of heavenly day. The former has often rendered men like tormented fiends amid a paradise of delights—while the latter has taught the songs of cherubim to martyrs in the prison or the flames. True religion furnishes a good conscience. By faith in the blood of Christ, it takes away guilt towards God—and by a holy life it keeps the conscience clear towards man. It first makes it good by justification—and then keeps it good by sanctification. What trouble may not a man bear beneath the smiles of an approving conscience! If this be calm and serene, the storms of affliction, which rage without, can as little disturb the comfort of the mind as the fury of the wintry tempest can do, to alarm the inhabitants of a well-built, well-stored mansion.
In addition to this, true religion comforts the mind, withthe assurance of an all-wise, all-pervading Providence, so minute in its superintendence and control, that not a sparrow falls to the ground without the knowledge of our heavenly Father; a superintendence which is excluded from no point of space, no moment of time, and overlooks not the lowest creature in existence. Nor is this all; for the word of God assures the believer that "all things work together for good to those who love God, who are the called according to his purpose." Nothing that imagination could conceive is more truly consolatory than this—to be assured that all things, however painful at the time, not excepting the failure of our favorite schemes, the disappointment of our fondest hopes, the loss of our dearest comforts, shall be overruled by infinite wisdom, for the promotion of our ultimate good. This is a spring of comfort whose waters never fail.
True religion consoles also bymaking manifest some of the benefits of affliction, even at the time it is endured. It crucifies the world, mortifies sin, quickens prayer, extracts the balmy sweets of the promises, endears the Savior; and to crown all, it directs the mind to that glorious state where the days of our mourning shall be ended—that happy country where God shall wipe every tear from our eyes, and there shall be no more sorrow or crying. Nothing so composes the mind, and helps it to bear the load of trouble which God may lay upon it, as the near prospect of its termination.
True religion shows the weather-beaten mariner the haven of eternal repose, where no storms arise, and the sea is forever calm. Genuine piety exhibits to the weary traveler the city of habitation, within whose walls he will find a pleasant home, rest from his labors, and friends to welcome his arrival. Genuine piety discloses to the wounded warrior his native country, where the alarms of war, and the dangers of conflict will be no more encountered—but undisturbed peace forever reign. In that one word, HEAVEN, true religion provides a balm for every wound, a cordial for every care.
Here, then, is the pleasure of that wisdom, which is from above; it is not only enjoyed in prosperity—but continues to refresh us, and most powerfully to refresh us, in adversity; a remark which will not apply to any other kind of pleasure.
In the hour of misfortune, when a man, once in happy circumstances, sits down, amid the wreck of all his comforts, and sees his fortune wiped away—what, in this storm of affliction, is to cheer him but true religion? And this can do it, and enable him to say, "Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vine; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty—yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation. The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He will make me as surefooted as a deer and bring me safely over the mountains." Habakkuk 3:17-19
What but true religion can comfort the poor laborer in that gloomy season when times are bad, and work is scarce, and he hardly knows where to procure his next meal? What can comfort the suffering female in that long and dreadful season, when, wasting away in a deep decline, she lies, night after night, consumed by fever, and day after day convulsed by coughing? Tell me, what can send a ray of comfort to her dark scene of woe, or a drop of consolation to her parched and thirsty lips—but true religion? And when the agonized parent, with a heart half broken by the conduct of a prodigal son, exclaims—"Oh! who can tell how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is, to have a thankless child?" what, in that season of torture, can pour a drop of balm into the wounded spirit, but true religion?
And when we occupy the bedside of a departing friend, "the dreadful post of observation darker every hour," what but true religion can sustain the mind, and calm the tumult of the soul? What—but this, can enable us to bear with even common composure the pang of separation? And we, too, must die; and here is the excellence of piety—it follows us where no other friend can follow us, down into the dark valley of the shadow of death, stands by us when the last hand has left his grasp, reserves its mightiest energies for that most dreadful conflict, presents to the eye of faith the visions of glory rising up beyond the sepulcher, and angels advancing to receive us from the hand of earthly friends, and bear us to the presence of a smiling God.
Other sources of pleasure are open only during the season of health and prosperity. Admitting that they are all which their most impassioned admirers contend for—what can balls, games, plays, cards, do in the season of sickness, misfortune, or death? Alas! alas! they exist then only in recollection, and the recollection of them is painful.
6. The pleasures of true religion appear in the GRACES it implants.
"And now abides these three—Faith, Hope, Love."
FAITHis the leading virtue of Christianity. To believe, in any case, where the report is welcome, and the evidence of its truth convincing, is a pleasing exercise of the mind—how much more so in this case, where the testimony to be believed, is the glad tidings of salvation, and the evidence of its truth most entirely satisfactory?
HOPEis a most delightful exercise. The pleasures of hope have formed a theme for the poet; and it is evident that these pleasures must be in proportion to the importance of the object desired—and the grounds that exist to expect its accomplishment. What, then, must be the influence of that hope which is full of immortality, which has the glory of heaven for its object, and the truth of God for its basis! which, as it looks towards its horizon, sees the shadowy forms of eternal felicity rising, expanding, brightening, and advancing, every moment.
LOVEis a third virtue, implanted and cherished in the soul by true religion. Need I describe the pleasures connected with a pure and virtuous affection? True religion is love—love of the purest and most sublime kind; this is its essence, all else but its earthly attire, which it throws off as Elijah did his mantle, when it ascends to the skies. The delight of love must be in proportion to the excellence of its object, and the strength of its own propensity towards that object. What, then, must be the pleasure of that love which has God as its object, and which consists in complacency in his glories, gratitude for his mercies, submission to his will, and the enjoyment of his favor! This is a heavenly feeling, which brings us into communion with angels, and anticipates on earth the enjoyments of eternity. Submission, patience, meekness, gentleness, justice, compassion, zeal—are also among the graces which true religion implants in the human soul; which, like lovely flowers, adorn it with indescribable beauty, and refresh it with the most delicious fragrance!
7. Consider the DUTIES which true religion enjoins and you will find in each of these a spring of hallowed pleasure.
How delightful an exercise is prayer! "Prayer is the peace of our spirits, the stillness of our thoughts, the evenness of recollection, the seat of meditation, the rest of our cares, and the calm of our tempests. Prayer is the daughter of charity, and the sister of meekness." It is pleasant to tell our sorrows to another; how much more to him who is omnipotent in power, infallible in wisdom, and infinite in compassion! With prayer is connected praise, that elevated action of the soul, in which she seems at the time to be learning motion and melody from an angel.
How pleasant an exercise is the perusal of the Scriptures! In prayer we speak to God—and in the Bible God speaks to us—and both confer upon us honor indescribable. Passing by the antiquity of its history, the pathos of its narratives, the beauty of its imagery—how sublime are its doctrines, how precious its promises, how free its invitations, how salutary its warnings, how intense its devotions! "Precious Bible! when weighed against you, all other books are but as the small dust of the balance." Nor less pleasant is the holy remembrance of the Sabbath! "I was glad," exclaims the Christian, "when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord;" and there, when standing within the gates of Zion, surrounded with the multitude that keep holy day, he repeats, amid the years of his manhood, the song of his childhood, and from the fullness of his joy, he exclaims—
"Lord how delightful 'tis to see
A whole assembly worship Thee;
At once they sing, at once they pray,
They hear of heaven and learn the way."
The sweetly-solemn engagements of the sacramental feast; the flow of brotherly love, called forth by social prayer, together with the ardor of benevolence, inspired by the support of public religious institutions; in these exercises is true happiness to be found, if indeed it is to be found anywhere on earth.
8.As a last proof of the pleasures derived from true religion, I may appeal to the experience of its friends. Here the evidences accumulate by myriads on earth, and millions in heaven. Who, that ever felt its influence, will doubt its tendency to produce delight? Go, go, my children, to the saints of the most high God, and collect their testimony, and you shall be convinced that "light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart." Go not to the Christian of doubtful character, for he has only just religion enough to make him miserable. Go to the most holy, and you shall find them the most happy.
And then there are also two or three other circumstances which are connected with the pleasures of true religion that deserve attention. It is pleasure that never satiates or wearies. Can the epicure, the voluptuary, the drunkard, the ball-frequenter, say this of their delights? "How short is the interval, how quick the transition between a worldly enjoyment—and a burden. If sport refreshes a man when he is weary, it also wearies when he is refreshed. The most devoted pleasure-hunter in existence, were he bound to his sensual delights every day, would find it an intolerable burden, and fly to the spade and the hoe for a diversion from the misery of an unintermitted pleasure. Custom may render continued labor tolerable—but not continued pleasure. All pleasures that affect the body must needs weary, because they are unable to keep up that height of intensity, that the pleasure of the sense raises them to.
But the pious pleasure of a well-disposed mind moves gently, and therefore constantly; it does not need by rapture and ecstasy—but is like the pleasure of health, which is still and sober, yet greater and stronger than those which call up the senses with grosser and more affecting impressions.
And as all the grosser pleasures of sense weary, and all the sports and recreations soon pall upon the appetite, so, under some circumstances, do the more elevated enjoyments of exalted rank, agreeable company and lively conversation; it is true religion alone that preserves an unfading freshness, an undying charm, an inexhaustible power to please; it is this alone of all our pleasures which never cloys, never surfeits—but increases the appetite the more it gratifies it, and leaves it, after the richest feast, prepared and hungry for a still more splendid banquet.
And then another ennobling property of the pleasure that arises from true religion is, that as the sources and the seat of it are in a man's own bosom, it is not in the power of anything outside him to destroy it, or take it away. Upon God alone is he dependent for its enjoyment. Upon how many other agents, and upon what numerous contingencies, over which he can exercise no control, is the votary of worldly pleasure dependent for his bliss. How many things which he cannot command are necessary to make up the machinery of his schemes! What trifles may disappoint him of his expected gratification, or rob him of his promised delights! A variable atmosphere, or a human mind no less variable; a lack of punctuality in others, or a lack of health in himself—these, and a thousand other things, might be enumerated as circumstances, upon the mercy of each one of which, the enjoyment of worldly pleasure depends. "But the good man shall be satisfied from himself." "Whoever shall drink of the water that I shall give him," said Jesus Christ, "shall never thirst—but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life."
The piety of his heart, produced by the Holy Spirit, is this well-spring of pleasure, which a godly man carries everywhere with him, wherever he goes. He is independent of all the contingencies of life for his bliss. "It is an easy and a portable pleasure, such as he carries about in his bosom, without alarming the eye or the envy of the world. A man putting all his pleasures into this one, is like a traveler putting all his goods into one jewel; the value is the same, and the convenience greater."
"Nor is this kind of pleasure out of the reach of any outward violence only—but even those things also, which make a closer impression upon us, which are the irresistible decays of nature, have yet no influence at all upon this. For when time itself, which of all things in the world will not be baffled or defied, shall begin to arrest, seize, and remind us of our mortality—by pains, aches, and weakness of limbs, and dullness of senses—yet then the pleasure of the mind shall be in its full youth, vigor, and freshness. A palsy may as soon shake an oak, or a fever dry up a fountain, as either of them shake, dry up, or impair the delight of conscience; for it lies within, it centers in the heart, it grows up into the very substance of the soul, so that it accompanies a man to his grave; he never outlives it, and that for cause only, because he cannot outlive himself."
How comes it to pass, then, that, in opposition to all this, the opinion has gained ground that true religion leads to melancholy? The unsaved judge of it by their own feelings; and as they are not conscious of any pleasurable emotions excited by sacred things, they conclude that others in like manner are destitute of them. But is their testimony to be received, before that of the individual who has tried and found it by experience to be bliss?
Again, unsaved people form their opinion by what they see in many professors, some of whom, though professing godliness, are destitute of its power; and being more actuated by a spirit of the world than of piety, are strangers to the peace that passes understanding; others are not yet brought out of that deep dejection, with which the earlier stages of conviction are sometimes attended. The sinner, when first arrested in his thoughtless career, is filled with dismay and the most poignant grief; reviewed in this state of mind, his appearance may produce the idea that true religion is the parent of melancholy. But wait—he who sows in tears shall reap in joy. His tears, like showers in summer from a dark and lowering cloud, carry off the gloom which they first caused, portend a clearer and cooler atmosphere, and are ultimately followed by the bright shining of the sun.
An unfavorable impression against true religion is sometimes produced by the constitutional gloom of some of its genuine disciples. It should be recollected, that, in these cases, true religion does not cause the dejection, for this would have existed had there been no piety. All that can be said is, that it does not cure it, which is not to be expected, unless piety pretended to exert an influence over the physical nature of man.
The supposition that piety leads to melancholy is also founded, in part, on the self-denying duties which the word of God enjoins. Penitence, self-denial, renunciation of the world, willingness to take up the cross and follow after Christ, are unquestionably required, and must be truly found in the genuine Christian. Hence the worldling thinks it impossible—but that with such duties should be associated the most sullen and miserable state of mind. Little does he imagine, that the pleasures which true religion has to offer for those she requires us to abandon, are like the orb of day to the glow-worm of the hedge; and that for every moment's self-denial she requires us to endure, she has a million ages of ineffable delight to bestow!
"And now upon the result of all, I suppose that to exhort them to be religious is only in other words to exhort them to take their pleasure—a pleasure, high, rational, and angelical—a pleasure with no appendant sting, no consequent loathing, no remorses or bitter farewells—but such an one, as being honey in the mouth, never turns to gall in the belly; a pleasure made for the soul, and the soul for that; suitable to its spirituality, and equal to its capacities; such an one as grows fresher upon enjoyment, and though continually fed upon, is never consumed; a pleasure that a man may call as properly his own, as his soul and his conscience; neither liable to accident, nor exposed to injury; it is the foretaste of heaven, and the pledge of eternity. In a word, it is such a pleasure begun in grace, which passes into glory, blessedness, and immortality—and those joys that neither eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man to conceive!" (This, and the other quotations, are from Dr. South's sermon on Proverbs 3:1, which is so striking that I could not avoid giving these extracts from it. See also an excellent volume of sermons, by H. F. Burder, on 'The Pleasures of True Religion')
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