Advice to Youth
by David Magie, Published by the American Tract Society in 1855.
Nothing is more delightful than to see what is pleasant and amiable blended with what is just and true. If the little amenities and everyday proprieties of life are not essential to a virtuous character, they are requisite to give finish and perfection to such a character. Men are to be courteous as well as pure—lovely as well as honest—kind as well as faithful. To be right in the weightier matters of the law, though confessedly the grand point, is no reason for being wrong in things of smaller consequence.
In nature, the tasteful and ornamental are sure to be seen mingling with the useful and the necessary. As we look over the face of creation, we find beauty as well as utility—the honey-suckle as well as the sturdy oak—the lily of the valley as well as the cedar of Lebanon. God does not merely give us trees for fuel, and water to drink, and bread to eat. His bounty adds flowers to send forth their fragrance, landscapes to delight the eye, breezes to fan the cheek, fruits sweet to the taste, and couches to lie upon. The world was designed to cheer and please us, and not simply to afford us a dwelling-place.
Why not then group together in human character whatever is amiable in disposition—with whatever is firm in principle? True men, just men, honest men and religious men, we hope you will all be; but this need not hinder you from exhibiting everything pleasing in disposition—and lovely in deportment—and kind in communion—and amiable in manners. Act thus, and you will fulfill the apostolic injunction, "Be courteous." Pursue such a course, and you will be happy yourselves and add to the happiness of others.
What are we to understand by courtesy, as a duty of Bible-responsibility?
The term implies that kindness and civility in social communion on which the enjoyment of life so much depends. We speak of it as an adornment of one's character, because it never fails to render him more pleasing as a companion, more esteemed as a superior, and more engaging as a friend. Cicero has beautifully remarked, "It is the property of justice not to injure men—and of politeness not to offend them." True Christian courtesy unites and perfects both these qualities, and thus constructs a reputation as solid as it is lovely, and as useful as it is charming. There must be minute touches and graceful fillings up—as well as bold and strong outlines—to constitute a good portrait. The fainter shades will not of themselves make a valuable picture, but without them there cannot be completeness and beauty.
You will hardly do wrong to rank courtesy, in its highest and best sense, among the graces of the Holy Spirit. If it be less essential to the existence of genuine piety in the heart, than repentance, or faith, or humility; it nevertheless springs from the same source, and is to be regarded as a sister in the same family. Let the gospel have free course, and it will render men meek and forbearing, and fill their bosoms with kindness and humility. It will be very wide of the mark to suppose that this book of God has to do merely with the grosser vices and the more splendid virtues. On the contrary, its aim is to fashion and mold the whole man, externally as well as internally; by abasing his pride, and thus disposing him to be kind and amiable and humble. We go not a step too far when we call it a system of the truest politeness. It does what nothing else ever does so well; it leads men not to look on their own things supremely and exclusively, but also on the things of others. Seldom are its triumphs more complete than are witnessed in an habitual tenderness of feeling—and kindness of deportment.
Can it be supposed that this is a matter which Christianity overlooks? As for the hollow-hearted courtesy which has its place and its purpose in the fashionable world, I trust you will know how to reckon it at its proper value. Nor are you to imagine that, even in its better form, it can be a substitute for a right spirit and a holy life. But sad will it be for the interests of society, if we weave the meshes of our moral net so wide as to admit the churl and the arrogant. When this is done, be assured, we make the meshes wider than the teachings of Christ and the apostles make them.
I hesitate not to say that the readiest way for a young man to become truly courteous is to drink in the spirit, and act upon the principles of the gospel. Besides teaching the terms of acceptance with God, and thus securing for you an inheritance in the heavens, the aim of this whole scheme of mercy is to soften whatever is harsh in temper, and smooth whatever is rugged in deportment. An external change will in all such cases be arrived at through the influence of a previous internal change. After having worked its hidden and interior renovation, the truth received in love will manifest its transforming power in what is external and palpable. Be assured, the religion of Christ never gains its full conquests while the subject of it continues sour and uncivil. You may be really pious and not have the splendid and hollow politeness of a Chesterfield, but you cannot be pious without having something of the mind of Christ.
Yes, my young friends, courtesy is a Bible virtue, and it is in the Bible that we find the finest examples of its presence and power. Look at Abraham as he gives way to Lot, though his nephew and a man of much fewer years than himself, the choice of all the lands before them, rather than have strife between their respective herdsmen. See him as he welcomes the three travelers in the heat of the day, to the hospitalities of his tent, and hastens to kill for them the fatted calf. Observe his conduct as he bows before the sons of Heth to bargain with them for a cave, in which to deposit the remains of his beloved Sarah. Venerable and lovely man! Was there ever a better exemplification of the true gentleman? Well did the patriarch know what was due from man to his fellow-man.
We see the same thing in the bold, uncompromising apostle to the Gentiles. Though firm as a rock where truth and duty were concerned, it would be easy to note instances in which his courtesy was strikingly apparent. Read his defense before Felix. Study his address in the presence of Agrippa; mark his reply to the interruptions of Festus; or see him in his epistle to Philemon, or in his salutations at the close of his epistle to the Romans. Everything proves that in his zeal for more vital points, he was not inattentive to the graces and proprieties of social communion. The man of God did not absorb the man of humanity.
But a greater than patriarch and apostle is here. To those of you who have not thought of the matter in this light, it may seem almost strange to be told, that there was never so perfect an illustration of genuine courtesy as that given by the blessed Savior. Were I to furnish all the instances in which this virtue appears, I must transcribe his life. What a ray of softness and beauty did his unparalleled condescension shed over all his conduct! Notice him as he takes a towel, girds himself, and washes the disciples' feet, saying, "You call me Master and Lord, and you say rightly—for so I am." Draw near and mark how kindly he restores the young man just raised to life, to his widowed mother. Hear him cry out, in the kindness of his heart, "Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
Was there ever such courtesy as this? No matter how poor and wretched were the applicants for his favors; no matter if the children of affliction besieged his retreat, and broke in upon those hours which he needed for food and rest; no matter if publicans and women that had been sinners thronged around him, the blessed Savior had a kind look and an encouraging word for them all. Wearied and toil-worn as he often was, he was still ready to hearken to the sighing of the prisoner, and to raise the suppliant from the dust.
Such is true courtesy. And can we overestimate its value to the world?
I have already told you that you must not exalt courtesy and civility to an equality with the more essential characteristics of truth and integrity. Much less must you for one moment allow any such embellishment of the outer-man, to take the place of genuine, heart-felt piety towards God. Yet while this is admitted, be careful not to conclude that you can be cold, and distant, and overbearing, with impunity. This would not only greatly lessen your influence over friends, and neighbors, and dependents, but would be sure to produce bad effects on your own minds.
You have already seen enough of the world to know that many good and trustworthy men fail sadly at this very point. No one doubts the sincerity of their religious profession. No one feels a lack of confidence in the uprightness of their dealings. But having said this, there is nothing more that we can say. There is such a lack of kindness in their temper, and conciliation in their deportment, that the good which they really have, is in danger of being evil spoken of. Such characters may be likened to a diamond in its rough, unwrought state. It has value even then, but you must give it polish before its intrinsic luster can fully appear. Robert Hall once said of a pious friend, "he cannot know how offensive such conduct is, or as a religious man he would endeavor to correct it." This is the grand defect of multitudes.
No man, whatever his standing in more essential things, can afford to dispense with a courteous behavior. Take away what was manifest of this virtue from Moses and Daniel of the Old Testament—Paul and John of the New—Washington and Wilberforce in the world, and Leighton and Richmond in the church—and what a serious inroad do you make upon their reputation? They might perhaps have been good men and true at heart, without any such embellishment. But think of any of them as stiff or sour or arrogant, and you detract amazingly from their worth, and from the power of being useful which they possessed.
I am confident, my young friends, there is more importance to be attached to these remarks than is commonly supposed. It is not everyone that looks below the surface of things. Demetrius might have had a good report of all men, for the lesser virtues that clustered around his name, though his attachment to the truth, for the truth's sake, could be appreciated by comparatively a very few. Nor is the fact that a man makes no pretensions to piety any excuse for his not being amiable, or kind, or agreeable. We may wish that he was not only almost but altogether a sincere Christian, and yet his failing to be such is no good reason why he should treat his friends and neighbors with disregard. Courtesy is useful even when it has no foundation in the fear and love of God. This it is which renders a superior amiable, an equal agreeable, or an inferior acceptable. It encourages the timid, soothes the turbulent, softens the fierce, and distinguishes a society of civilized men from a horde of barbarians. If we could look into the secret troubles of life, we would find that no small part of them have their origin in frowns and expressions of pride and arrogance.
Let me not be misunderstood. Kindness and courtesy, as they exist in a human bosom, are not an exhaustless spring, but a limited reservoir, which must be replenished from the fountain of Divine grace, or it will frequently dry up. No sufficient motive for the steady and uninterrupted love of others, apart from the principles of the gospel, can be found, either in ourselves or in them. The poet may beautifully compare cordial benevolence to the ripples of a lake stirred by the falling pebble, which is sure to form circles widening and spreading, until they reach the farthest shore, but the question is, what is to ensure the continuance of this healthful motion? In the cold world where friends die, and old-age saddens the spirit, and disappointment benumbs the sensibilities, it is difficult to originate the motion of the surrounding waters. We must love men for Christ's sake, or we shall be in danger of not loving them permanently and effectively.
The exercise of a spirit of courtesy is useful, even though it never rise to the dignity of a Christian grace. Kind words, and pleasant looks, and a condescending demeanor cost but little, and yet no one can estimate their happy effect upon all the relations and conditions of life. A charm is thus thrown around the communion of the fireside, the shop, the exchange and the senate-chamber. This is a cheap way of securing respect, and augmenting the circle of one's usefulness. Let a person be himself rightly disposed, and it can be no hard task for him to give a nod of friendly recognition to the humblest individual that he meets along the street. The outlay here is very small in proportion to the largeness of the return.
Such a course is sure to advance the comfort of those around you. It is cheering often to see how an approving smile, or a word of condolence, goes to the heart of men oppressed by poverty and borne down to the earth by sorrow. Shall such balm be withheld? Did those in the higher walks of life realize how much of light and peace they may thus dispense, we would see them courteous out of pure charity. On every side are to be found those whose lot in life is far from being easy. Incessant toil, scanty fare, and little or no prospect of ever rising to a condition of competency, are a load upon their spirits, which they have hardly strength to bear. Shall those in better circumstances never speak to them in accents of kindness? This would be cruel indeed.
Let anyone envelop himself in an atmosphere of courtesy, and he will in this very way increase his usefulness tenfold. It is not so much the labor he performs—as the temper he exhibits; not so much the money he gives—as the humility he shows; not so much the words he uses—as the tones he employs, that wins for him the honorable title of the poor man's friend.
And as this course does good to others, so it is sure to benefit oneself. No one cherishes a spirit of true courtesy and is careful to demonstrate it, without finding it tributary to his own enjoyment. It did Abraham as much good perhaps as it did his guests to prepare them a meal, and then stand by to see them eat under the shade of the tree. Some feeble old man receives pleasure, when youth and talent and wealth rise up to give him place, but the pleasure is always reciprocal. If a child be comforted by words of kindness, the person uttering those words is scarcely less so. What is thus sent out in the form of condescension is sure to come back in the form of augmented peace and self-respect. But, on the contrary, be arrogant and overbearing, and you as surely plant thorns in your own pillow, as you diminish the comfort of others. Such a man is always and of necessity an unhappy man.
It is said of the father of the late Mr. Lyon, Principal of the Mount Holyoke Seminary, that he was never known to speak an unkind word. No wonder that we find it added; "he was greatly beloved by all his acquaintances, and was frequently sent for to visit the afflicted and sorrowful." Such an one is fitted to move about as an angel of mercy, among the abodes of sickness and the hovels of poverty.
In view of such considerations, will you not resolve at this early day to be courteous?
There are two ways for you to pass through the world. You may treat everybody kindly, high and low, rich and poor, bond and free, and feel that all are brethren of one common household, though some of them are rough and uncultivated and care-worn; or you may shut up your sympathies in your own bosoms, and live as if you felt no concern in the welfare of two thirds of the race. But what, as it respects comfort and usefulness and a good name, will be the difference between these opposite courses? The first will fill your bosoms with peace and surround you with tokens of regard, while the latter will render you as wretched as you really, though it may be unwittingly, render others.
To a young man just commencing his career, a kind and courteous disposition is worth more than rubies. Some of you will be mechanics, coming into business contact with those who have ships to build and mansions to erect. Some of you will be merchants, seeing hundreds of faces in a day, and among them people of all tempers and constitutions. Some of you will be lawyers, physicians, and ministers, having to do with every grade and walk of life. A uniformly kind and conciliating deportment will open a path before you. It will win confidence and success. The opposite will leave you alone and in poverty.
This matter may not appear to you now precisely as it will, when more years have passed over your heads. But if the experience of those who have lived longer and seen more of the world, is of any value, they can give you testimony which you should highly prize. There is no need of being false-hearted, or of expressing sympathy which you do not really feel. All you have to do is to act upon the large Bible-principles of good-will to all men, and you will be courteous sincerely and of choice. To this you are bound by considerations, which you cannot disregard without wronging yourselves.
There is an incident recorded of Zachariah Fox, one of the princely merchants of Liverpool, which you would do well to lay up in your memory. A friend asked the venerable man one day, by what means he had come to realize so ample a fortune? His simple and sententious reply was, "By one article alone, in which you too may deal if you chose—civility." Do not forget the advice, and while you remember the word, be sure to practice the thing. The young man of uniform civility will be almost sure to outstrip his fellows in the great race of life.
Begin right in this respect. Let the child in his father's house be uniformly kind and pleasant. Let the boy at school be considerate of the rights and feelings of his companions. Let the apprentice, the clerk and the student learn to treat everybody with civility. Let the man just commencing business, have a pleasant look and word for all; and while they thus diffuse happiness on every side, they will be sure to augment their own enjoyment.
But what are the ADVANTAGES which will be likely to result from this kind of self-control? These are many. Let me enumerate a few of them.
The PERSON RECEIVING INJURY is sure to be benefited by exercising this self-control. Instead of losing by being slow to anger and ruling his spirit, he gains by it—gains in reputation, in influence, and in peace of mind. This will lift him above the little broils of the world, as the summit of the mountain is lifted above the surrounding clouds. It is impossible for any one to be really and permanently harmed, no matter what insults are heaped upon him, or through what provocations he may be called to pass—if he can be calm and quiet himself. Uneasy men can give us but little disturbance, so long as their uneasiness is not imparted to our feelings. Thorns in the hedge we can generally avoid, but thorns in the flesh are perpetually irritating and annoying us.
What injury can all the malice of an ungoverned tongue do to a self-poised, self-collected man? At most, it is like a mouth full of smoke, blown upon a diamond, which, though it may obscure its brightness for a moment, is easily rubbed off, and then the gem is restored to more than its former luster. But so soon as we begin to give way to excitement, and repay angry looks and harsh words in the same coin, we let ourselves down to the level of anyone who may choose to molest us. Nobody can degrade our character as we degrade it ourselves, whenever we indulge an uncontrolled temper.
The actual pain and anguish arising from such a state of mind, are among the chief of its evils. Give me a hard bed and a scanty table—give me sickness and bereavement—give me almost anything in the long catalogue of human ills—rather than make me the victim of an angry temper. A petulant, ill-natured man, really knows not what it is to be happy. Every cup which he puts to his lips seems mingled with wormwood—and every path in which he walks is planted thick with briers. Often is his heart broken, by that which ought not to break his sleep. How different is such a person, as it respects comfort and reputation, from him who has learned the great lesson of bridling his temper and his tongue! There he is, as a noble ship riding safely at anchor in a furious storm; the timbers may creak, and the rigging tremble, under the dreadful force of the tempest, but nothing breaks her from her moorings.
It is the glory of a wise man to overlook a wrongdoing. A celebrated emperor was heard to say, on his dying bed, "Among all my conquests, there is but one which affords me any consolation now, and that is the conquest I have gained over my worst enemy—my own turbulent temper." This is a victory worth celebrating. Alexander and Caesar found it easier to subdue a world than to subdue themselves. After conquering nation after nation, they fell—one of them the victim of beastly intemperance, the other of frenzied ambition.
To keep one's self cool and quiet is also the surest method of benefitting the OFFENDER. Remember, it is the soft answer which has power to turn away wrath. Coals must not have air introduced to them, if we would see them go out, and passion must not be met by passion, if we would have it subdued. The idea of bringing a man who has done me an injury to a right state of mind, by inflicting as large or a larger injury upon him, is preposterous to the very last degree. This argues a childish ignorance of the great principles of human nature. As soon as we demand satisfaction, we put our adversary into a posture of defense, and he is led, almost necessarily—not to think of retracing his steps—but of repelling our attack. Revenge never yet conquered a foe, so as to make a friend of him; but forgiveness has its thousands. The Bible plan is, "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; or if he is thirsty, give him a drink—for in so doing you shall heap coals of fire upon his head."
With this accord all observation and all experience. Even Saul himself—the envious, cruel, vindictive Saul—was on more occasions than one, entirely overcome by the unselfish and generous conduct of David. His heart could not but relent, as he listened to the deeply-injured man, who cried out, "God forbid that I should stretch forth my hand against the Lord's anointed." No wonder that the monarch was disarmed of his fury, and compelled to exclaim, "You are more righteous than I." Mark, too, how Jacob found access to all the better feelings of Esau's bosom, by a meek and conciliating deportment. Had that high-mettled man been met with looks of defiance and words of menace, we would never have heard of his running to his brother and falling on his neck and kissing him. Yielding, in this instance, pacified a great offence, and wrath was conquered by kindness.
One thing is to be observed; the person doing wrong is usually much more hesitant to yield, than the person suffering wrong. If ever called to reconcile two men at variance, you will find it much easier to deal with the one who has been injured—than with the one who has inflicted the injury. The difficulty of reconciliation is generally very much in proportion to the amount of guilt. This may seem strange, but nothing is more indisputable as matter of fact. It was he who did his neighbor wrong, who complained of Moses as usurping the authority of a prince and a judge. A sense of being in error, often renders a man impatient of reproof.
The exhibition of a well-regulated temper likewise exerts a good influence on all around. When a man controls himself, he gains two conquests—one over his own heart, and another over his opposer—and this will ensure him the respect and confidence of society at large. No possible way of acquiring the good-will of the community is so certain, so safe, and so honorable. He who has no rule over his own spirit is like a city which is broken down and without walls—while the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit is of great price in the sight both of God and man. The empty, blustering bravado may acquire a short-lived popularity—among others as degraded and worthless as himself. But no one can help feeling a sincere regard for that high-born courage which prefers suffering to sinning, and would sooner be posted as a coward than be guilty of a wrong act.
Such a man is a great public blessing. No possession that can be named is so efficient for good as power over ourselves—power to endure trial, bear reproach, and confront danger—power to follow the convictions of conscience in the midst of taunt and scorn—the power of calm self-command, when made the mark of envy and detraction. This is real nobility—a name inscribed in the very best book of heraldry.
It is impossible to awaken the sympathy of wise and good men, by vehement gestures and boisterous language. If our cause is a just and right one—it needs not the defense of an excited temper; and if it is bad—to defend it with a bad spirit is only to make it tenfold worse. This is the common opinion, and it is not entertained without reason. Let a dispute arise whenever and wherever it may, we naturally, and, I might almost say, instinctively, take the side of the man who is most calm and self-controlled. It is neither the last word nor the loudest word that convinces us.
Such a man carries a pleasant atmosphere with him wherever he goes. As we gaze upon his placid and composed countenance, and see how unmoved he stands in the midst of the jarring elements around him, we can hardly help wishing for the privilege of binding another laurel on his brow. Such victories as he achieves make no wives widows, no children orphans. They bring down no gray hairs of fathers or mothers with sorrow to the grave. No one is called into the field of single combat, to burnish up his tarnished honor and try either his courage or his cowardice, by a man who can govern himself.
On the contrary, no small share of the annoyances of life—its daily heart-burnings, its constant irritations—spring from an unbridled temper. Why is it that the peace of yonder domestic circle is so often broken? What has separated those once bosom friends, so that they pass each other without one smile of pleasure or one word of recognition? Who has been sowing discord here and there, in neighborhoods and villages and churches? Ah! much of all this has come from the lack of a little more meekness, a little more self-control.
Why should this be so? From some trials it is impossible to escape, inasmuch as they come directly from the hand of God himself. Such are often the diseases which flesh is heir to—the disappointments in business—the bereavements of Providence—and the approaches of death. These we cannot avoid, take what course we may. But why give ourselves so much uncalled-for trouble? Why pour fresh bitterness into the cup of life? Why add to the catalogue of ills by indulging a bad temper?
The best government in the world is the government of one's self. Let each individual put on the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, and families will be happy, and congregations happy, and towns happy, and the country happy, and the world happy. It all begins with individuals. The work of general peacemaking must commence in each separate bosom.
Never excuse yourselves by alleging, that your temperament is naturally hasty. This is but a flimsy pretext, which can have no power to repair the injury inflicted by imprudent words and deeds. It will not do to strike a man and then tell him that you are easily excited. Some, no doubt, are quicker and warmer in their feelings than others—but no temper is so irritable as to be beyond the control of reason and religion. The experiment has been made again and again, and with surprising success. Hard as it is to conquer this form of human depravity, remember for your encouragement that nothing is impossible with God. By his assisting grace your temper may become as serene as a summer evening.
Suffer me to give an instance of wonderful self-control, from the life of the great Marshal Turenne. Some young nobleman, conceiving himself affronted by the marshal, adopted the fashionable expedient for retaliating, and sent him a challenge for a duel. This the good man declined, because, as he said, it was contrary to his duty to God, to his country, and to himself. But this only irritated the hot-headed, foolish young man the more, and he resolved, at all hazards, that a duel should be fought. Accordingly, on some public occasion, he deliberately approached the marshal and spit in his face. For a moment the old soldier was excited, and before he had time for reflection, he found his hand clenching the hilt of his sword. The cloud, however, immediately passed away. Pausing, he meekly replied, "Young man, if I could I wash your blood from my conscience as easily as I can wipe my face, I would make you pay for this act of brazenness with your life."
Magnanimous man! His name would have been honorable had he never worn a title. It reminds us of our own beloved Washington. You know how serenely he lifted up his head, amid all the storms and agitations of the Revolution. He was rarely known to be angry in the whole course of his life.
Go, then, my young friends, and learn this noble lesson everywhere. Learn it of Moses, whose meekness in the midst of provocations constitutes the brightest trait in his character. Learn it of Daniel, who, though surrounded by mistrust and suspicion, maintained a serene and cheerful trust in God. Above all, learn it of Christ, who, when he was reviled, reviled not again, and when he suffered threatened not. Learn it you must, if you would honor God and do good to men, or be happy yourselves.
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