Advice to Youth
by David Magie, Published by the American Tract Society in 1855.
YOUNG MEN IN DANGER.
Not many days ago, a gentleman of one of our large cities wrote thus to a friend—"When I first came to this place, I was a young man, with nothing on earth in the way of property, but the small bundle which I carried in my hand. But a kind Providence has smiled upon me, and I have become what the world calls rich. Still, as a family—we are far from being happy."
And what is it that is breaking the peace of that father's bosom, and chasing away the joys of that favored fireside? Wealth is there, spacious rooms are there, costly furniture is there, and both intelligence and refinement are there. No more, the parents of that household are professors of Christ's name, and are in the habit, we may hope, of sanctifying all their enjoyments by the word of God and prayer. Such is the confluence of good things in this case, that the cup seems to run over. Why, then, you will naturally ask, is not that a happy dwelling? The answer is short. Those parents have just heard of the improper conduct of a favorite son—a son on whom they had bestowed many advantages, and of whom they had indulged fond anticipations—and their hearts are sad within them. All feel the blow, but it falls heaviest on the mother. "My poor wife"—it is the language of the husband and father—"my poor wife never slept a wink the first night after the mournful news reached us."
This is a sorrowful tale, too sorrowful to be dwelt upon without tears, and yet where can you find any considerable group of families, which does not furnish material for a tale equally sorrowful. No strange thing has happened in that particular domestic circle. The sobs which were heard under the roof are often heard elsewhere. It is affecting to mark how much of the grief to be met with in our disordered world, has its origin in the bad behavior of some misguided son, who refuses to hearken to the instructions of his father, and forsakes the law of his mother. The enemy of God and man never shoots an arrow which pierces more deeply, or makes a sorer wound. Every sort of trouble seems conjoined here; and if you will only dam off this single stream, you will turn away a bitter tide from many a peaceful dwelling.
Say not, in the words of a man who imagined himself to be better than he was, "What! is your servant a dog that he should do such a thing?" Feel not indignant at the suggestion of a possibility, that you may be left to pursue a course which shall fill the home of your childhood and early days with lamentation and woe! This is being strong in your own strength, and trusting to your own hearts. Dream not that your mountain stands so strong that you can never be moved. Avenues leading off from the right path open on every side, and none are more exposed than those who think of no peril, and are impatient at such words of caution and counsel as may be addressed to them. It is here that the maxim, "to be forewarned is to be forearmed," has its fullest application.
1. You are in danger from YOURSELVES!
This may seem strange language, but the longer you live, the more deeply will you be convinced of its truth. One of the most obvious effects of the original apostasy was, to subvert man's government over his own heart, and undermine his power of self-control. By this fatal step, he not only broke those bonds in sunder which bound him in holy and happy allegiance to his Maker, but he subverted all the laws of his own moral constitution. From that moment passion obtained the ascendency over reason, and impulse over principle. So disloyal did his feelings become to his better judgment, that he needs now to be restored to himself, almost as much as to his God. Both of these changes, the one scarcely less than the other, are effected by true conversion.
Young men are necessarily inexperienced. The road they have to travel is to them a new road. It is their lot to be encompassed with difficulties with which they can have no previous acquaintance, and to mingle in scenes with which they are not familiar. Everything is novel, and because of its novelty it affects them all the more deeply—for good or evil. Parents may tremble for their safety, and friends may be anxious lest they should be led astray; but they are likely to feel little solicitude on their own account. Warnings are not heeded, because they are not seen to be applicable. Advice is not taken, because it is not felt to be appropriate. So skillfully is the hook baited, that the first intimation of its being a hook is found in the pricking of the barb! Some fatal step is taken before the person suspects the presence of danger. The homely adage, "those who know nothing—fear nothing," finds its illustration in thousands who set out with warm hearts and high hopes.
Could you realize, at the beginning of your journey, that you are to pass through an enemy's country, where foes lurk behind every bush and conceal themselves under the corner of every jutting rock, you would be on your guard. It could hardly fail to make you watchful, to be assured that a snare was concealed on one side of your path, and a pit on the other. Any proper appreciation of your danger would send you to the mercy-seat with an importunity that would take no denial, and clothe your sense of peril in the prayer, "My Father, be the guide of my youth." But thousands learn too late, that "strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leads unto life."
I cannot but fear for inexperienced youth, sent abroad into a world all inviting in its promises—but all deceitful in delivering those promises. Could they know beforehand what perils beset the way, how they must encounter a enchanting song at one corner, and a deceiving peril at another, with what false hopes they will be assailed today, and with what discouragements tomorrow; we would not see them bounding forth with such wild and heedless alacrity. A fraction of the real danger, anticipated at the beginning, could not fail to impart a degree of sobriety to the most careless.
Not a few young men are so yielding in their temperament, as to be in perpetual danger. Having no fixed principles, it is hard for them to resist temptation, come from what quarter and in what form it may. So long as a father's eye is upon them, or a mother's voice is sounding in their ears, there is something to hold them up. But let them be separated from all such influences and associations, and be brought into a condition, when, under God, they can be steadfast only as the result of inward rectitude and self-sustaining power, and they feel at once that their bark has not sufficient ballast for so rough a sea. Like Reuben, they are "unstable as water;" and no wonder if, like him, they never excel.
It is not 'obstinacy' that I recommend, or that sort of dogged adherence to one's own opinions, which shuts the eyes upon every opposing reason, however clear and strong. This is a very unhappy trait of character, especially in the young. But be careful in avoiding "Scylla," not to fall into "Charybdis." The young man who commences life with such an irresolute heart, as not to be able to reject decidedly any proposal to do wrong, has a source of danger in himself which will be almost sure to work his overthrow. Yet, a rough refusal is incomparably better than a reluctant compliance!
That kind of easy good-nature, which can never nerve itself sufficiently to put a decided denial upon any proposal, however injurious, is a most dangerous possession. It is no exaggeration to say, that the history of thousands of ruined youth, the untimely graves of thousands of broken-hearted parents, and the heavy woes of thousands of dishonored families, all join their solemn attestations to the evils which spring from that sort of pliant, accommodating disposition, which is unable to pronounce the monosyllable–"No!" Such a one is led like an ox to the slaughter, and like a fool to the correction of the stocks. If invited to take a glass with the merry, sit down at the table of the gambler, or profane the Sabbath with the impious, you can foretell what will be the result. There is no inner strength to rely upon. No falling back upon principle and duty.
Young men are often proudly self-confident. Too wise to be taught, and too secure to need caution—it is no matter of surprise if they speedily make shipwreck of faith and a good conscience. We are not surprised at the mistakes they make, when we see how impatient they are of control, and how confidently they rely upon their own wisdom and prudence. Glad that the hour has come, which allows them more liberty than they once enjoyed, they begin to put on an air of importance, and to act as if nobody's judgment of men and things was so good as their own. But this, be assured, is an unfailing prognostic of evil. Even had we never read in the Scriptures that "pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall," we would feel assured that such a state of mind must be a bar to everything like real respectability or permanent success.
Nobody loves pomposity and self-inflation in others. Much as genuine modesty and unaffected humility may be at a discount, in an age when learners think themselves better than teachers, pride and pomposity are not the road to eminence in any line of life.
When I see a youth, no matter what his talents or fortune, impatient of the counsels of experience, and disposed to lean to his own understanding, I always fear for the result. One thing is certain; before such an one is prepared for anything great and good in the world, he has many a hard lesson to learn; and the sooner he begins to learn these lessons the better. Previous to his being fitted for any post of trust and respectability, he must have the stern teaching of bitter rebuffs and cruel disappointments.
We have the highest authority for saying, "he who trusts to his own heart is a fool." Let the young judge as they may; the sober good sense of the world at large will join its verdict in favor of allowing the experienced to speak, and multitude of years to teach wisdom. It will still be considered fit and proper to pay some deference to the opinions of hoary hairs, and not to reject the advice of old men.
Now pause for a moment, and look at the dangers to which you are exposed, arising directly from yourselves! That moral derangement which we call depravity, finds an occasion for its working and an outlet for its influence, in your lack of acquaintance with the ways of the world, in your lack of firmness to reject the approach of temptation, and your proneness to rely unduly on your own resources. But this is not all.
2. You are in danger from the CIRCUMSTANCES in which you are placed.
What is defective and wrong within, is aggravated by what is bad and injurious without! It is the meeting of these two streams, the one internal and the other external, that causes the banks to overflow, and spreads devastation among the fairest fields and gardens of human life. As there must be both fire and powder to produce an explosion, so the heart must be acted upon by the world, in order that its corruptions may be manifested. Take away either, and so far as visible result is concerned, the other would be harmless; but let both come together, and an explosion must ensue! Let me name a few of the perils to which you are exposed from the circumstances which surround you.
Many young men have no kind friend at hand to take an interest in their welfare. Nobody, from one week to another, or one month to another, drops a word of either caution or encouragement in their ears. If the clerk is in his place at the appointed time, and the apprentice fulfils his allotted task, and the student masters his assigned lesson, nothing further is inquired. From the very necessity of the case, they are separated from the refining, soothing, and elevating influence of the domestic circle. It is their hard lot to be separated from home, at the very time when they most need its scenes and associations. Who is to look after them, all buoyant and full of life as they are; to watch where they spend their evenings, and what resources for amusement or pleasure are within their reach?
It is enough to make one's heart bleed to see multitudes of ardent, aspiring youth cast upon the world, with its ten thousand allurements and snares, in a state, so far as any real affection or friendship is concerned, of complete orphanage. Ah! what is to hold them back from evil! How are they to be kept from the paths of the destroyer? If God does not interpose, it would seem as if they must inevitably perish.
No one can think of the circumstances in which young men are generally placed, without concern. During much of that pregnant interval, which lies between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one, most of them are so situated that they can seldom hear a father's prayer, or listen to a mother's counsels, or witness a sister's smiles. Oh! is it any marvel under such circumstances, if they should now and then find the way to the theater, the saloon, or the dwelling of infamy? One faithful friend at this juncture might save them from ruin. Were I to offer a prayer for you, beloved youth, as you pack your trunk, and leave for the city of business or the seat of learning, to spend five or seven years there in almost entire separation from the joys of home, it would be to ask that, next to the guardianship of the Watchman of Israel, you might never lack at least one wise, kind, faithful friend, to whisper to you words of reproof or consolation, as the case should be. This would relieve my anxieties, as nothing else would, short of real, living, Christian principle, ruling the heart and controlling the conduct.
But the evil is more than negative—it is positive and obtrusive!
Ten thousands of young men are surrounded by vicious and unprincipled associates. Besides having no one to take a real, outgoing interest in their welfare, they are thrown of necessity into a species of direct companionship, during the hours of toil and study—in the dining-room and dormitory, with those who have no fear of God before their eyes. This is a danger which they have to encounter at every onward step. Fear as they may, contact with evil is impossible to avoid. If they walk the streets of the city, or tread the floors of the dormitory, it is to see sights, and hear sounds, and be subjected to influences, all of which, gradually and imperceptibly, but surely and permanently, are drawing the 'lines of deformity' on their hearts. This is the grand peril which alarms the pious parent, and wakes him up to pray in the silence of the night, when he thinks of placing a son in school, sending him to college, or locating him in one of our towns for purposes of trade. No wonder that the father cries out, "God bless and keep our dear son!" No wonder that the mother betakes herself to her closet, and begs God to take care of her darling boy!
In multitudes of cases, it seems really almost a miracle if they do escape. The heart, by itself, is inclined to evil—irrespective of any external drawing; and if this native sinful tendency be aided, as it is too often, by the well-planned arts of the seducer, no wonder if ruin ensues! An unprincipled companion is often an unmitigated curse. If the fruit do not appear very fully, at once, the seed is sown, and sooner or later we may expect a foul harvest.
Alas! how often have I known youth, who, only a short time before, left the paternal roof amiable in their dispositions and pure in their morals, soon turn into ringleaders of vice, and from being tempted—become tempters themselves! We look around with astonishment at such downfalls, and inquire what enemy has done this! But should we search out the matter, it would generally be found, that the dreadful evil could be traced to the skepticism, the poisonous habits, or the licentiousness of some pleasant, jovial companion.
Then, to add to the danger, books of a certain kind are a fruitful source of injury to the young. Ours, we love to say, is a reading age; and few are the parents who do not feel gratified to have their children imbibe a fondness for this employment. But we would make a great blunder, if we conclude that all must be well because they subscribe for a magazine, and are often seen with a book in their hands. What tales of crime in its worst possible form have been told, the last few years, in some of the high places of our own land, as the known and recognized result of pernicious reading! Again and again have both adultery and blood been traced to this single source! As it regards the books with which the country is fairly inundated, it may well be said, "all is not gold that glitters." If one contains the bread of life—another is filled with deadly poison. To say the least, there is a kind of sickly sentimentalism pervading many of the fashionable volumes of the day, which scarcely less really unfits the reader for the duties of earth, than for communion with heaven.
"Such reading," as Hannah More well remarks, "relaxes the mind which needs hardening, dissolves the heart which needs fortifying, stirs the imagination which needs quieting, irritates the passions which need calming, and, above all, disinclines and disqualifies for active virtues and spiritual exercises." Young men must take heed what they read, as well as how they hear. The eye is as fruitful an inlet of evil as the ear!
It is my deliberate opinion, that thoughtful, studious youth are exposed to few greater perils than are to be found in books. So fully am I convinced of this, that I would like to see a large majority of all the publications which come in such crowds from the press, consigned to one enormous conflagration! The ability to read and the love of reading, like a thousand other things good in themselves, have their attendant evils. A bad book must exert a bad influence, and the more touching it is in incident, and the more captivating in style—the worse of necessity this influence will be!
The heaviest censures upon such works have fallen sometimes from the authors themselves. Goldsmith, though a very popular novelist and writer of plays, gave this advice in respect to the education of a nephew—"Above all things, never let him touch a novel or romance." He had good sense and right feeling enough to keep his voluptuous lines from his own daughters, though not enough to prevent his sending them abroad into the world. It is affirmed too of a celebrated stage-actor, that he never allowed his children to see the inside of a theater. There is meaning in such opinions, coming from such men.
Such are the circumstances, my young friends, in which you are placed, and it is idle to complain of them. The present state would be no probation to you, if you were already so confirmed in good principles, and so free from temptations—as to have nothing to fear either from yourselves or the position you occupy. That is the highest virtue that consists in overcoming the blandishments of vice. No crown is so bright as that which the victor will wear. Instead then of unavailing regrets at trials, arise whence they will, and come as they may, be it your determination by the help of God to surmount them all.
Deem it not unkind that I take so much pains to apprize you of your perils. If they exist, it is important that you should know them. The difference between being conscious of danger, and unconscious of it, is like that between two travelers passing over the same rough road, one of whom has his eyes open, and the other has his eyes shut. Both may stumble. Both may fall; but the advantage is immensely on the side of him who looks at the obstacles which lie in his way.
Yes, you are in danger, in danger from inward corruption and outward temptation; in danger from your own native bias to evil, and from the traps which are set for your feet; and it is proper for me to raise the voice of alarm. I believe in the doctrine of human depravity—I know what the Bible says of the difficulty of leading a godly life—I have been over the ground which you now occupy; and to me it is no marvel that ministers, teachers, friends and parents all unite in asking for you the preserving mercy and the sanctifying grace of God. There is reason for this solicitude. It is not without a cause.
I do not charge it upon you as a fault, that you are inexperienced. I do not blame you in all cases for working in the same room with the vile, the foolish and the profane. I do not mention it as a crime that bad books are sometimes put in your way. These things are a part of your allotment. They are difficulties which you cannot always avoid. But what will you do? My heart yearns over you. And I long to see you betaking yourselves to the only sure and unfailing protection. Ask God for Christ's sake to watch over and bless you. Seek for help in the might of his outstretched arm!
But trying as your case may be, let me beg you to guard against despondency. This will give you over at once into the power of the destroyer. I would say to the student sad and downcast over his books, to the clerk jaded and worn by his often-repeated duty, and to the apprentice exhausted by his monotonous task—Be not disheartened. Though you have no father's fireside to return to, when the long day's service is over, and no kind sister to throw her arms around you and kiss away your griefs, and no circle of sympathizing friends to whom you may tell your troubles—despair not! A brighter morning will yet arrive. "Patient continuance in well-doing" will lead to "glory, and honor, and eternal life." "Heart within and God overhead," and you have nothing to fear. You will work for yourselves a way to the esteem of the wise and good, and secure a godly name and place.
There is in God as revealed in the Gospel, in Christ as exhibited in his own life, death and sacrifice, in the Spirit as a Comforter and a guide, in the Bible as a light to those who sit in darkness, and in the prospect of a blissful immortality, held out to such as endure to the end, all the strength which you need to resist evil. Be steadfast in the hour of trial, and you will gain at last a crown which will never fade away!
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