The Christian Father's Present to His Children
by John Angell James
THE DECEITFULNESS OF THE HEART
"The human heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked! Who really knows how bad it is?" Jeremiah 17:9
The detection of deceit, if not a pleasant employment, is certainly a profitable one. That man deserves well of society who puts them upon their guard against a dangerous impostor. The object of this section of my book is to expose the greatest deceiver in the world, whose design is to cheat you, my dear children, not of your property, nor of your liberty, nor of your life—but of what is infinitely dearer than all these—the salvation of your immortal soul! His success has been frightful, beyond description. Earth is full of his wiles—hell of his spoils. Millions of lost souls bewail his success in the bottomless pit, as the smoke of their torment ascends up forever and ever. Who is this impostor, and what is his name? Is it the false prophet of Mecca? No! The spirit of paganism? No! The ploys of infidelity? No! It is the human heart! It is to this that the prophet's description belongs—"The human heart is most deceitful and desperately wicked! Who really knows how bad it is?" You will perceive that to the wiles of this deceiver, you are exposed. Let me, then, request your very serious attention, while I lay open to you some of his deep devices and endless machinations.
By the deceitfulness of the heart, we are to understand the liability of our judgment to be deceived and misled by the depravity of our nature.And the following are the PROOFS of the fact:
1.One proof of the deceitfulness of the heart, is the astonishing ignorance in which many people remain, of their character and motives.
It is with the mind, as with the countenance, every one seems to know it better than its possessor. Now, is not this somewhat singular? With the power of introspection, with access to our hearts every moment, is it not remarkable that any one should remain in ignorance of himself? Yet, is it not the case of myriads? How often do we hear people condemning others for those very faults of which everyone perceives that they themselves are guilty! We have a striking instance of this in David, when the prophet related to him the parable of the little ewe lamb.
It is astonishing with what dexterity some people will ward off the arrows of conviction which are aimed at their hearts, and give them a direction towards others. When in preaching or in conversation a speaker is endeavoring, in a covert way, to make them feel that they are intended as the objects of his censure—they are most busily employed in fastening it upon others, and admire the skill and applaud the severity with which it is administered. And when at length it becomes necessary to throw off the disguise, and to declare to them—"You are the man!" it is quite amusing to see what surprise and incredulity they will manifest, and how they will either smile at the ignorance—or frown on the malice, which could impute to them faults, of which, however guilty they may be in other respects, they themselves are totally innocent!
This self-deception prevails to a most alarming extent in the business of personal piety. The road to destruction is crowded with travelers, who vainly suppose that they are walking in the path of life, and whose 'dreams of happiness' nothing will disturb—but the dreadful reality of eternal misery! How can this mistake arise? The scripture most explicitly states the difference between a saved man and a wicked one—the line of distinction between conversion and impenitence is broad, and deep, and plain. This self-deception can only be accounted for on the ground of the deceitfulness of the heart.
Then, when conviction forces itself upon the mind, and the real character begins to appear, what a degree of evidence will be resisted, and on what mere shadows of proof will men draw a conclusion in their own favor. How they mistake motives which are apparent to every bystander; and, in some instances, even commend themselves for virtues, when the corresponding vices are rife in their bosoms!
2.Another proof of the deceitfulness of the heart, lies in the disguises which it throws over its vices.
It calls evil good, and good evil. How common is it for men to change the names of their faults, and endeavor to reconcile themselves to sins, which, under their own proper designations, would be regarded as subjects of condemnation. Thus, intemperance and excess are called social disposition and good fellowship; pride is called dignity of mind; revenge is called courage; vain pomp, luxury, and extravagance are called—taste, elegance, and refinement; covetousness is called prudence; levity, folly, vulgarity are called—innocent mirthfulness, cheerfulness, and good humor. But will a new name alter the nature of a vice? No! you may clothe a swine in purple and gold, and dress a demon in the robes of an angel of light—and the one is a beast, and the other a devil still!
The same operation of deceit which would strip vice of its deformity—would rob holiness of its beauty. Tenderness of conscience is called ridiculous preciseness; zeal against sin is called moroseness and ill-nature; seriousness of mind is called repulsive melancholy; superior sanctity is called disgusting hypocrisy. In short, all spiritual religion is called nauseating cant and wild enthusiasm. It is, however, the climax of this deceitfulness, when vice is committed under the notion that it is a virtue; and this has been done in innumerable instances. Saul of Tarsus thought he was doing God service while he was destroying the church. The bigots of Rome have persuaded themselves they were doing right while they were shedding the blood of the saints. O! the depth of deceit in the human heart!
3.What a proneness is there, in most people, to frame excuses for their sins; and by what shallow pretexts are they often led to commit iniquity.
Ever since that fatal moment when our first parents endeavored to shift the blame of their crime from each other upon the serpent—a disposition to make excuses for sin, rather than to confess it, has been the hereditary disease of their offspring. It discovers itself early in the human character; and it is truly affecting to see how much adroitness is manifested by very young children in excusing their faults; and this disposition grows with their growth, and strengthens with their strength.
Some excuse their sins on the ground of custom; others plead the smallness of their sins; others endeavor to persuade themselves that the suddenness and strength of temptation will be admitted as a justification of their conduct; while some plead the power of bad example. It is the first offence, say some; it is force of habit, exclaim others. Some attempt to find excuse for their actual sins in the inherent depravity of their nature; others in the peculiarity of their temper and constitution; a few go so far as to lay all their sins upon the Author of their nature. These are but some among the many excuses by which men are first led on to sin; by which they afterwards defend themselves against the accusations of conscience—and which most convincingly demonstrate the deep deceitfulness of the human heart.
4.The deceitfulness of the heart, is also proved by the gradual and almost insensible manner in which it leads men on to the commission of sin.
No man becomes wicked all at once. The way of a sinner in his career has been compared to the course of a stone down a steep hill, the velocity of which is accelerated by every revolution. The heart does not offend and shock the judgment by asking for too much at first; it conceals the end of the career, and lets only so much be seen as is required for the immediate occasion. When the prophet of the Lord disclosed to Hazael his future enormities, he exclaimed, "Is your servant a dog, that he should do this?" The exclamation was totally honest. At that time, no doubt, he was incapable of such wickedness, and it was a sincere revulsion of nature which prompted the expression of his abhorrence. But he knew not his heart. Little by little, he was led forward in the course of iniquity, and, at length, exceeded by his wickedness the prophet's prediction.
Habit renders all things easy, not excepting the most atrocious crimes. Men have often done that without reluctance or remorse, which, at one period of their lives, they would have shuddered to even contemplate! Many have committed forgery, who at one time could have been persuaded by no arguments, nor induced by any motives to wrong an individual of a farthing; and the murderer whose hands are stained with blood, would, probably a few years or months before, have trembled at the idea of destroying an animal. "When the heart of man is bound by the grace of God, and tied in the golden bands of true religion, and watched by angels, and tended by ministers, those nurse-keepers of the soul—it is not easy for a man to wander, and the evil of his heart is like the fierceness of lions' whelps. But when he has once broken the hedge, and got into the strength of youth, and licentiousness of ungoverned adulthood, it is amazing to observe what a great inundation of evil, in a very short time, will overflow all the banks of reason and piety. Vice is first pleasing—then it grows easy—then it is delightful—then it is frequent—then habitual—then confirmed—then the man is addicted—then he is obstinate—then he resolves never to repent—then he dies—then he is damned!" (Jeremy Taylor's Sermons)
I have somewhere read of one of the early Christians, who, on being asked by a friend to accompany him to the amphitheater, to witness the gladiatorial combats with wild beasts, expressed his utmost abhorrence of the sport, and refused to witness a scene condemned alike by humanity and Christianity. Overcome, at length, by the continued and pressing solicitations of his friend, whom he did not wish to offend, he consented to go—but determined that he would close his eyes as soon as he had taken his seat, and keep them closed during the whole time that he was in the amphitheater. At some particular display of strength and skill, by one of the combatants, a loud shout of applause was raised by the spectators, when the Christian almost involuntarily opened his eyes; being once open he found it difficult to close them again; he became interested in the fate of the gladiator, who was then engaged with a lion. He returned home, professing to dislike, as his principles required him to do, these cruel games—but still his imagination ever and anon reverted to the scenes he had unintentionally witnessed. He was again solicited by his friend, who perceived the conquest that had been made, to see the sport. He found less difficulty now than before in consenting. He went, sat with his eyes open, and enjoyed the gory spectacle. Again and again he took his seat with the pagan crowd, until at length he became a constant attendant at the amphitheater, abandoned his Christian principles, relapsed to idolatry, died a heathen, and left a fatal proof of the deceitfulness of sin!
When a young man who has received a pious education, begins to be solicited to break through the restraints imposed upon him by conscience, he can venture only on lesser sins; he perhaps only goes to see a play, or joins in one midnight revel—but even this is not done with ease; he hears the voice of an internal monitor, startles, and hesitates—but complies. A little remorse follows—but it is soon worn off. The next time temptation presents itself, his reluctance is diminished, and he repeats the offence with less previous hesitation, and less subsequent compunction. What he did once, he now without scruple does frequently. His courage is so far increased, and his fear of sin is so far abated, that he is soon emboldened to commit a greater sin, and the tavern and the horse-race are frequented with as little reluctance as the theater. Conscience now and then remonstrates—but he has acquired the ability to disregard its warnings, if not to silence them. In process of time, the society of all who make any pretensions to piety is avoided, as troublesome and distressing—and the heedless youth joins himself to wicked companions better suited to his taste. Now his sins grow with vigor under the fostering influence of evil company, just like trees which are set in a garden.
By this time the Bible is put out of sight, all prayer neglected, and the sabbath constantly profaned. At length he feels the 'force of custom', and becomes enslaved by the 'entrenched habit'. The admonitions of a father, and the tears of a pious mother, produce no impressions—but such as are like the "morning cloud, or early dew, which soon passes away." He returns to the society of his evil associates, where parental admonitions are converted into matter of wicked jest. The sinner is settled now in an evil way; and the 'sapling of iniquity' has struck his roots deep into the soil of depravity. The voice of conscience is now but rarely heard, and even then only in the feeble whisper of a dying friend.
His next stage is to lose the sense of shame. He no longer wears a mask, or seeks the shade—but sins openly, and without disguise. Conscience now is quiet; and he pursues without a check, the career of sin. He can meet a saint without a blush, and hear the voice of warning with a sneer. Would you believe it? he glories in his shame—and attempts to justify his conduct. Not content with being wicked—he attempts to make others as bad as himself—puts on the character of an apostle of Satan, and, like his evil master, goes about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.
As he is condemned in all his ways by the Bible, he endeavors to get rid of this troublesome judge, and persuades himself that Christianity is a cheat. With infidel principles, and immoral practices, he now hurries to destruction, polluted and polluting. His parents, whose gray hairs he brought in sorrow to the grave, have entered on their rest, and in mercy are not permitted to live to witness his shame. His vices lead him to extravagance; his extravagance is beyond his resources, and in an evil hour, under the pressure of claims which he is unable to meet, he commits an act which forfeits his life. He is arrested, tried, convicted, condemned, executed!
This is no imaginary picture; it has often occurred. My dear children, see the deceitfulness of sin. Meditate, and tremble, and pray. Be alarmed at little sins, for they lead on to great ones. Be alarmed at acts of sin, for they tend to habits. Be alarmed at common sins, for they proceed to those which are heinous. I have read of a servant who went into a closet, with an intention only to gratify his palate with some sweets—but perceiving some silver articles, he relinquished the lesser prey for these, purloined them, became a confirmed thief, and died at the gallows! Many a prostitute, who has perished in a garret upon straw, commenced her miserable and loathsome course with mere love of dress. Sin is like a fire, which should be extinguished in the first spark, for if it be left to itself, it will soon rage like a conflagration!
5.The last proof of the deceitfulness of the heart which I shall advance is, the delusive prospects which it presents to the judgment.
Sometimes it pleads for the commission of sin on the ground of the pleasure which it affords. But while it speaks of the honey of gratification—does it also tell of the venom of reflection and punishment?
At other times the deceitfulness of the heart suggests that retreat is easy in the career of sin, and may be resorted to if its progress be inconvenient. Is it so? The very contrary is true. Every step we advance renders it more and more difficult to return.
Then the deceitfulness of the heart urges us forward with the delusive idea that there is time enough to repent in old age. But does it say, what indeed is true, that for anything you know, you may die tomorrow? No! and herein is its deceit.
It dwells upon the mercy of God—but is silent upon the subject of his justice.
What think you now of the human heart? Can you question its deceitfulness, or that it is deceitful above all things? How then will you treat it?
Think basely of it. Surely with such a picture before you, you will not talk of the moral dignity of human nature; because this would be to talk of the dignity of falsehood and deceit.
Seek to have it renewed by the Holy Spirit. It is a first principle of true religion, that the heart must be renewed, and here you see the need of it. It is not only the conduct which is bad—but the heart, and therefore it is not only necessary for the conduct to be reformed—but the very nature must be regenerated. It is the heart which imposes upon the judgment, and the judgment which misleads the conduct; and therefore the root of the evil is not touched until the disposition is changed.
Suspect the heart and search it. Treat it as you would a man who had deceived you in every possible way, and in innumerable instances had been proved to be false. Continually suspect it. Always act under the supposition that it is concealing something that is wrong. Perpetually examine it. Enter the house within you; break open every door; go into every apartment; search every corner; sweep every room. Take with you the lamp of Scripture, and throw a light on every hiding place.
Watch the heart with all diligence, knowing that it is the wellspring of everything you do. You would carefully observe every attitude, every movement, every look of an impostor who had fixed his eye upon your property. Thus treat your hearts. Let every thought, every imagination, every desire—be placed under the most vigilant and ceaseless inspection!
Place your heart in the hand of God to keep it. "My son, give me your heart," is his own demand. Give it to him that it may be filled with his love, and kept by his power. Let it be your daily prayer, "Lord, hold me up and I shall be safe; keep me by your power through faith, unto salvation."
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