Lectures to Young People
William B. Sprague, 1830
"Let us do good unto all men." Galatians 6:10
In this brief exhortation, the spirit of the gospel comes out with unrivalled beauty. It is an index pointing away from earth to heaven, as the region whence this treasure of light and love was sent down to men. How different is the spirit of the gospel from the spirit of the world! The one is selfish—the other, noble. The one breathes good wishes and kind words—the other prompts to substantial acts. The one is limited to a circle which private interest marks out—the other, in its comprehensive range, takes in the world, and calls every man a brother. What youth, especially what Christian youth, would not desire that this spirit might have a permanent lodgement in his heart—controlling his actions, forming his character, elevating his destiny?
It is of great importance, my young friends, that, at the very commencement of your pious life, you should not only be deeply impressed with the fact that the great purpose for which you are to live is to do good—but also that you should form your plans, and direct your efforts, in such a manner as to accomplish the greatest amount of good in your power. Many a person who has been brought into the kingdom of Christ early in life, has sadly disappointed the hopes which have been formed in respect to his usefulness, merely from having made a wrong estimate of his own powers, or from having unwisely selected his sphere of action, or from having plunged, as it were, at random, into the duties of life, conscious of his own good intentions, and presuming that they could scarcely fail to be fulfilled. With a view to guard you against any such mistakes, and to secure to yourselves and the world the full benefit of your early conversion, I bring before you today, the comprehensive subject which my text suggests—that of DOING GOOD. I will endeavor to present it under the four following divisions—
I. The field for doing good.
II. Means of doing good.
III. Directions for doing good.
IV. Motives for doing good.
I. The FIELD for doing good.What is the field in which, as Christians, you are called to labor? In other words, to whom are you required to do good?
I answer, in general, the field is the world. You are to do good unto all men.
There are those who limit the sphere of their beneficence totheir own families or kindred. To their own children they are even profuse in offices of kindness; and not only do for them all which their necessities require—but grant them many indulgences which their best interests forbid. In the circle of their immediate friends, also, they seem to delight in diffusing happiness, and sometimes they may do this, even to their own personal inconvenience. But bring before them the needs of a stranger—much more of an enemy—and they are deaf as adders to every claim you can urge upon their compassion! Their sympathy and their charity are all expended at home: they never go abroad in search of objects of distress: they even pass unheeded the suffering stranger who lies at their door.
Exactly the opposite of this, is the course which Christianity marks out, and which, as the disciples of Christ, you are bound to pursue. You are indeed permitted by the gospel (for it is the dictate of nature) to cherish towards your family and kindred a special affection; and it is proper that they should occupy the first place in your beneficent regards; but you have no right, and if you are a Christian, you have no disposition, to limit your benevolent acts to them. Nor have you any right to refuse such acts even to an enemy; nay, the fact that he is an enemy, may impose upon you the stronger obligations to do him good: for not only is he a fellow member of the human family—but if he is an enemy to you, and nourishes towards you malevolent feelings, not improbably he is also an enemy to God, and as such, claims your best efforts for his salvation. Hear the language of our great Master on this subject: "But I say unto you, love your enemies; bless those who curse you; do good to those who hate you; and pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you."
There are those, again, (and I here refer especially to people in the higher walks of life,) whose sphere of benevolent action is limited tothose of the same rank with themselves. To the rich and the great, who stand least in need of their favors, their hearts and their hands seem always to be open; and even to real objects of charity who are invested with the dignity of rank, they may give liberally. But if you go around among the poor, and the friendless, and the homeless, who have nothing but their misery to recommend them, you will find yourself in a region which the charity of which I am speaking has never condescended to explore, and amidst sufferings with which it could, have no communion.
Let there be some great enterprise set on foot, which will be blazoned abroad to excite the admiration of the world, and these people will be forward to identify themselves with it, by contributing liberally to its advancement; but as for the more humble and every-day objects of charity, they have neither a heart to feel, nor a hand to give.
Not so with the benevolence of the gospel. That is not only widely active—but unostentatious and humble. It disdains not to go into the haunts of wretchedness, and to search out the children of poverty and woe, and to minister to the relief of the most abject, and even of the most depraved. And after having gone into the dark retreats of misery, it does not go out into the world, to chaunt its own praises—but goes back to the closet, to ask God's blessing on the deeds of mercy which it has performed, satisfied that only one record of them should be kept—and that in heaven.
If you would see precisely what I mean, brought out into living action, you have it in the illustrious Howard, who flew through Europe like an angel of mercy, not repelled but attracted by the contagion and loathsomeness of hospitals and dungeons; and who has left behind him a track of glory, which grows brighter the longer he sleeps in his grave. His was the genuine benevolence of the gospel—doing good for the sake of doing good—energetic, self-denying, quick in its operations as the lightning; and yet unostentatious, seeking no man's applause, and caring for no earthly reward.
There are those again, whose range of benevolent exertion does not extend beyondtheir own church or denomination. In this narrow sphere, they are willing to labor, and perhaps to labor diligently; they are willing to give, and perhaps to give liberally. And, at first view, you might think they were full of the benevolence of the gospel. But if you look a little farther, you will find that these people confine their labors to their own church or denomination. Let an object of charity be proposed to them, and the first inquiry is, "is it likely to subserve the interests of the sect or party to which I belong?" and the answer to this question decides the course they adopt in respect to it. The object may be one in which the interests of the community at large are deeply involved; but this is a consideration lighter than air with a person who is shut up within the narrow limits of a sect.
True Christian benevolence knows no such limits. You could no more trammel her by sectarian peculiarities, than you could arrest the progress of light, or chain a giant with a cobweb. Instead of stopping at the line which divides one denomination of Christians from another, as if she were arrested by a flaming sword, she walks over that line every day, and breathes as freely on one side as on the other. What though a man may be a worldling and renounced the Christian faith; she regards him just as he is; she does not receive him to her bosom as a Christian—but she pities and prays for him as an errorist, and does her utmost to reclaim him from his wanderings. All who are fundamentally right, she receives into the arms of Christian fellowship: to all the rest she delights to do good, as God gives opportunity.
I observe, once more, that there are those whose benevolence is limited totheir own country. It may be they have bright visions of their country's future glory; and their bosoms kindle at the thought that she is marching towards a nobler destiny than awaits any other of the nations. And when plans for her aggrandizement are brought forward, whether they are connected immediately with politics or true religion, they stand forward as their advocates; and whether it be personal exertion or financial contribution that is demanded, the demand is met with commendable promptness. But suppose there be a project of benevolence presented, as wide as the world; a project in which one's own country is recognized only as a single member in a great family—and it is met with chilling apathy; and it is faced with a thousand objections: and its advocates not improbably are called enthusiasts or madmen. Here again, the flame of benevolence burns brightly within certain limits; but beyond those limits, it goes out in the chillness of the grave.
Christian benevolence, on the other hand, literally embraces the world. He who has been touched with the true spirit of the gospel, remembers that men of other countries, as truly as of his own, have souls and bodies to be provided for—needs to be supplied, and miseries to be relieved. He does not, he cannot, refuse his aid to any project for doing good, because it may be intended to operate beyond the sphere of his immediate observation. He has his eye fixed on the moral regeneration of the world; and he does not regard any contribution, whether of influence or money, as to no purpose, which has a bearing, however remote, upon this grand object. Hence, while he is the active promoter of missions at home, he labors also to advance the cause of missions abroad; and the news of the triumphs of the gospel from the distant islands of the sea, gladdens his heart as truly as if it had come from his own immediate neighborhood.
Thus you see, my young friends, that the field which you are called to occupy in doing good, is literally the world! That is, you are to include all men in your benevolent regards—and are actually to do good to all men—so far as you have opportunity. Let me now, secondly, call your attention to some of,
II. The most important MEANS of doing good.On a subject of so great extent, I must necessarily confine myself to mere hints.
It may be proper, however, before I proceed to specify particular means of doing good, to observe that these means are not all equally fitted to every individual; or rather, some of them may be employed with greater effect by some individuals than by others; owing to an original difference of character, or to a difference of providential allotments. All of them, however, may, by most, or all of you, be employed, in a greater or less degree. The comparative importance which you are to attach to each, or the principle by which you are to be governed in your selection, will come into view in a subsequent article of this discourse. I remark, then, in the first place—that one important means of doing good is,
1. PRIVATE CONVERSATION.In the circle of your acquaintance, and probably in the circle of your intimate friends, there are many young people, who are living in the neglect, perhaps the open contempt, of true religion. With some of them, it may be, you have been associated in a habit of carelessness, and possibly may have contributed your influence to render them insensible to their immortal interests. Now, these especially are the people, toward whose salvation your private efforts are to be directed. You are indeed to address yourself to this duty with prudence; not in a manner to excite disgust—but, if possible, to secure a favorable and listening regard; nevertheless, you may, you ought, to make a serious and earnest effort to impress them with their guilt and danger, and to bring them to escape from the wrath to come.
Or it may be that some with whom you have fellowship, are actually awakened to a sense of true religion, and are oppressed with the burden of unpardoned sin, and are agitating the momentous question—"what they must do to be saved." You may do good—good beyond the power of human calculation—by pressing upon such people the obligations of repentance, and faith, and holiness; by admonishing them of the danger of resisting the influences of the Holy Spirit; by taking them by the hand, as it were, and leading them into the kingdom. All this you may do in the ordinary fellowship of private friendship, without either being, or seeming to be, officious or obtrusive; and for anything you can tell, you may, by such instrumentality, save souls from death, and hide a multitude of sins!
Moreover, you may do good by private conversation, not only to those who are strangers to the power of true religion—but also to Christians, and especially to Christians at your own period of life. You may see among your companions, some who are beginning to grow unmindful of their Christian obligations, and seem to have entered on a course of backsliding. You may do immense good, by meeting them at the threshold of their decline, with an affectionate and faithful admonition: you may not only do good to them—but prevent a vast amount of evil to the cause of Christ. And to those of your Christian companions who are watchful and exemplary, you may do good, by encouraging them in acts of self-denial, by cherishing in their bosoms a spirit of devotion, by provoking them to love and good works. Especially, you may avail yourself of your fellowship with them, to devise plans for the moral and spiritual benefit of your fellow-men, or to encourage and assist them in carrying such plans into effect. In short, all your private fellowship with your companions, whether they be Christians or not, may, if rightly conducted, minister, either directly or indirectly—to the promotion of their best interests.
2.Another efficient means of doing good is furnished by the opportunity of instructing in the sabbath school. This I know may be considered as belonging to the great system of benevolent operations, of which I design to speak more particularly under the next article: but it is of so much importance, and withal, belongs so appropriately to young Christians, that I cannot forbear to give it a distinct consideration.
Though the sabbath school institution is yet comparatively in its infancy, it has been too long in existence to require, especially before the youth of this congregation, that its claims should be formally set forth. But I speak in accordance with my most deliberate convictions, when I say that you can scarcely employ a more efficient means of doing good than this institution furnishes; none which will show more loudly or more gloriously on the destinies of individuals, on the destiny of our country, or on the destiny of the world! When you sit down in the sabbath school room, with a few children around you, you may seem to those who look on, and possibly you may seem to yourself, to be accomplishing but little: but rely on it, the results of what you are doing, as they will be seen in the light of eternity, will surprise you: the influence which you exert there, may be felt through your city, and even through your country—and no mortal can say at what point, either of time or place, it will be arrested. If I were called upon to say what feature in the present age is most favorable to the benevolent activity of Christian youth, I would unhesitatingly refer to the fact that it is an age of sabbath schools; and I am sure that none of you whose heart has been touched by the benevolence of the gospel, will be willing to lose the opportunity of doing good which is hereby afforded.
Let me say, then, my young friends, let the sabbath school come in for a large share of your active regard and support. Instead of regarding it a task, regard it a privilege, to engage in it. And that your labors may turn to the best account, qualify yourselves thoroughly for the discharge of your duty; endeavor to impart, in connection with each exercise, all the instruction you can; aim not only to enlighten the understanding—but to impress the heart; and follow up every good impression with pious and affectionate counsels, which may be fitted to render it abiding. Consider yourselves as entrusted in a measure with the best interests of your pupils; and let all your efforts be directed, if possible, to secure their salvation. I rejoice that so many of you are already enlisted in this benevolent, this godlike enterprise; enlisted in it, I trust, with a degree of ardor, in some measure proportioned to its importance.
3.You have another important means of doing good, in the great system of evangelical institutions by which the present day is distinguished. The institutions which have grown up during the present age, for the diffusion of Christian light, and the consequent melioration of the character and condition of man, bespeak a new and better era of the world; and they put into the hands of everyone, and especially of every youth, facilities for doing good, which the wise and virtuous of other ages have desired without having enjoyed. This, unquestionably, is the great moral machinery by which the world is to be evangelized; and there is not one of you who may not, who ought not, and I think I may say, who will not, in some way or other, put forth his hand to keep this machinery in operation.
You may aid this great cause, in the first place, by personal exertion. In sustaining and carrying forward these various institutions, there is a demand for much sober calculation, for much judicious management, for much zealous and faithful cooperation; and that, whether you consider each institution as insulated, or as making part of a great system of benevolent operation. Here is a field in which you may tax your faculties to the utmost, and which you cannot occupy with success, without more or less of intellectual effort.
But beside the exertion necessary to guide and control these institutions, there is also a demand for a spirit of enterprise in extending their operation, and in enlisting a greater amount of influence in their favor. You may, by suitable measures, bring other youth who have hitherto stood aloof, to engage in the same great cause; and they, in their turn, may influence others; and so any one of you, for anything you can tell, may give a new impulse to the benevolent operations of a neighborhood, or even of a city.
And you may help forward the same great cause also, by your financial contributions. I do not undertake to prescribe the amount which any one shall give; nevertheless, I will venture to say, Give as the Lord has prospered you: give as an enlightened and well regulated conscience dictates: give as you believe the object will appear to have demanded, when you shall see it in the light of the judgment day. If you are rich, you can give much: if you have only a competence, you can do less: if you are comparatively poor, you can do something: and God, both by his word and providence, assures you that what you give shall not make you the poorer. It is a noble resolution which some young people have formed, to consecrate a certain part of their earnings to God in the promotion of his cause; and this resolution, to their honor, they have been enabled to keep, even though they have been prospered beyond all their expectations. The world is not to be evangelized without an immense amount of financial contribution; and as you desire that glorious result, and as you desire to be instrumental in bringing it forward, you cannot but esteem it a privilege to contribute of your substance according to your individual ability.
4.Another important means of doing good, which is fairly within the reach of all of you, is a holy EXAMPLE. There is a power in a consistent, devoted, Christian life, which belongs to nothing else; and which greatly increases the power of each particular effort that you may put forth. For instance, you may talk much on the subject of true religion, and occasionally manifest a deep interest in it, and yet it will be to little purpose, if your general deportment be not in agreement with your conversation. Whereas, on the other hand, a uniformly holy example will give to the same conversation, a point and energy not easily resisted. So also you may engage actively in the promotion of benevolent objects, and may bring large gifts to the treasury of the Lord—but if this is not of a piece with your daily walk, instead of stimulating others to nobler deeds of charity, it is probable that the charge of ostentation will be made behind your back, if it is not rung in your ears.
But beside the influence which a holy example exerts in giving effect to individual acts of beneficence, there is a more general and more direct influence, which may be calculated upon with absolute certainty. A devoted life addresses itself, silently indeed—but most powerfully, to people of every description. To the careless sinner, and to the slumbering Christian, it brings reproof and admonition. To those who are awakened to the importance of true religion, it proffers a most persuasive invitation to comply with the terms of the gospel. And to those who are actively engaged in doing their Master's business, it holds out encouragement to increased activity and perseverance. In short, a true Christian example is a living epistle, known and read of all men.
To this point, then, let me entreat you, my young friends, to give diligent heed. See that your life be, in all respects, as befits the gospel of Christ. See that the spirit of piety shed its kindly influence over your whole life. In whatever circumstances you are placed, exhibit the humility, the consistency, the dignified firmness—which belongs to the Christian character. I exhort you to this now, not as a matter of comfort—but as a matter of usefulness; as a means of doing good. And I repeat, that there is in the Christian life, a power over the hearts and consciences of men, of the extent of which you have probably never conceived. And if this is true of the Christian life in any circumstances, allow me to say that it is especially true of it when it is exhibited by the young. Let an elevated tone of piety appear in a young Christian; let him be at once humble, active, and consistent; and he will diffuse around him a light, which, perhaps, beyond almost any other, will lead men to glorify our Father who is in heaven.
5. The last of the means of doing good which I shall here specify, isPRAYER. In a preceding discourse, I have spoken of its importance as a means of growth in grace: I now remark, that it is not less important as a means of doing good. The kind of prayer to which I here especially refer, is of course, intercession.
I stop not now to inquire in respect to the nature of the connection between asking and receiving: it is sufficient for us to know that there is such a connection—that God has commanded us to ask, and has promised, if we ask aright, that we shall receive. And he is as ready to hear the prayers which we offer in behalf of others, as for ourselves. Not that every prayer we offer will be answered in the very manner, and at the very time, which we may expect or desire; still it is true, literally true, that praying breath is never spent in vain; and we shall ultimately know that all our prayers offered with faith in the Savior, have been answered in the best manner possible—in the way which infinite wisdom and goodness has dictated.
In some respects, you will instantly perceive that prayer possesses an advantage over every other means of doing good. It is a means which you may employ with its full effect, when you are unable to employ any other. Perhaps you have an impious friend, who has steadily resisted all your efforts for his salvation; who has even treated your affectionate counsels and expostulations with contempt, insomuch that you have become satisfied that you have done all for him in that way that you can ever do—must you then absolutely give him up, and sit down with the heart-rending reflection that he must certainly perish? No! You may enter your closet, and on his behalf, commune with your Father who sees in secret; and there perhaps, when all other means have failed, you may prevail with God to create within him a clean heart.
Or you may be laid in the providence of God upon a sick bed; and you may think with deep concern of the salvation of sinners around you, and yet be unable to reach them with the voice of expostulation; or you may think of the noble institutions of Christian charity which bless our land, and yet be too poor to contribute a farthing to aid their operation; but in either case, you can wield the most powerful engine that God has put into the hands of mortals; and it may be that you will actually accomplish more on that bed of sickness, than many around you who have health, and property, and a profusion of the means of active benevolence!
And then again, let it not be forgotten, that unless all your other efforts to do good are crowned with prayer, you have no assurance that they will be of any avail: or if they should, by God's grace, be made instrumental of good to others, they will bring no blessings into your own bosom.
And let me say too, that the spirit of prayer is the spirit of beneficence; and it is in the closet, in the worshiping assembly, and universally at a throne of grace—that the Christian's heart is quickened to its highest impulse of benevolent action.
I say then, my young friends—pray without ceasing! Pray in season, and out of season. Pray for your friends, and your enemies. Pray for those who are near at hand, and those who are afar off. Pray for the whole family of man. Pray with deep humility, with true faith, with earnest perseverance, and you shall know, probably in this world, if not, at the judgment, that in these importunate wrestlings, you were doing a greater amount of good to the souls of your fellow-men, than you have the power to calculate—perhaps, that you were clothing the wilderness with moral verdure, and causing the dark places of the earth to echo with the sounds of salvation.
I have now specified some of the most important means of doing good; means which, in a greater or less degree, are within the reach of all of you. Let me here only add, thatyour worldly calling, whatever it may be, ought to be regarded by you in the same light—as an important means of benefitting your fellow-men. In whatever sphere Providence may call you to labor, you are to bear in mind that your efforts are not to terminate in mere self-gratification—but are to have respect to the higher purposes of doing good to others, and of glorifying God.
III.I proceed to the third general division of the discourse, in which I am to suggest some DIRECTIONS for doing good.
1.In the first place, then, if you desire to accomplish the greatest amount of good, I would say, Be careful to select a field adapted to your peculiar talents. This remark may apply in general to the choice of your calling for life; or it may apply more particularly to special enterprises of benevolence in which you may engage. There are a great variety of stations and employments allotted to men, in any of which the true Christian, if otherwise fitted for them, cannot fail to be useful. But it is easy to conceive that a Christian, with certain natural or acquired talents, might be very useful in one station, when he would be little more than a cumberer of the ground in another. Hence the vast importance of judiciously selecting your employments; of always occupying those places which you are fitted to occupy with the greatest advantage; of using those means for doing good, which are likely, in your hands, to be most efficacious.
It is true, indeed, that this is a subject on which you may not always be able to form the most correct opinion; for there is no kind of knowledge in which we are more apt to be deficient, than the knowledge of our own character. But if you are prudent, you will not only look well into your own hearts—but will take counsel of judicious Christian friends, who will be able to judge with less partiality, and probably with more correctness. Entering a sphere of labor for which you are fitted, you may accomplish more in a short period, than, in other circumstances, you could accomplish during a whole life.
There is one COMMON MISTAKE connected with this subject, to which I beg leave to advert for the sake of putting you on your guard against it, if, perchance, it should, with any of you, become a practical matter. I refer to the fact that young men, not unfrequently, from conscientious considerations, leave a profession to which they have been trained, and for which they are fitted—for one to which they have neither a natural or acquired adaptation. Far be it from me to question that there may be cases in which a mechanic, or a merchant, or a lawyer, may very properly resign the trade or the profession to which he has been educated, and even at a comparatively late period, enter the gospel ministry. But I am constrained to offer it as my deliberate conviction that, in the great majority of instances in which such a change takes place, it is not for the better—but for the worse, as it respects the amount of good ultimately accomplished.
Admitting that the calling to which the individual is first devoted, is honest and honorable, and one to which he has been regularly trained, he had, in all ordinary cases, better remain in it; for if he enters another, especially if he enters the gospel ministry, it will probably be with at best a hurried preparation, and in circumstances which give little promise of success. If you have found by experience that you can occupy one place to advantage, there is always some hazard in relinquishing it for another which you have not tried, of a very different character. And you misjudge altogether, if you imagine that the Christian ministry opens the only extensive field of usefulness to a Christian: for it admits of no question that there are many good men, who can be far more useful out of the ministry than in it. I do not decide that in a case like that which I have supposed, you ought not to change; but I say with confidence, that you ought not to do it without much deliberation and prayer.
2.Another direction necessary to be observed, if you will accomplish the greatest amount of good in your power--so far as is possible, the whole of your TIME should be occupied in doing good. I would not be surprised, if the query should arise in some of your minds, whether this is indeed possible; whether it is not necessary, from the very constitution of our nature, that part of our time should be devoted to amusement? I answer, the constitution of our nature does require an occasional cessation from severe labor, and an occasional change of employment. But it does not require that it should be a change from what is useful to what is useless, or foolish! On the contrary, the whole purpose—the only legitimate purpose of amusement, is answered by a change from one useful employment to another; an employment which keeps you still doing good, though you are doing good in a different way. If you govern your conduct by this principle, you will find yourselves blessed with a far higher degree of activity both of mind and body, and will be far better fitted for the discharge of your ordinary duties, than if you should yield yourselves up to absolute inaction, or to what ordinarily passes with the world under the name of amusement—which is usually useless or foolish. In this way, too, many of your precious moments which would otherwise be lost—or worse than lost—are improved to the benefit of your own soul, your fellow-men, and the glory of God.
3.If you would do all the good in your power, reduce your various duties, so far as possible, to an organized system. Every man of the world knows how necessary this is in the accomplishment of his purposes: and it is equally necessary for the man, who, whatever he does, aims to do all to the glory of God. You ought to regard this as a matter of Christian obligation, not only in respect to whatever relates to your daily employment—but to your efforts for the promotion of particular objects of benevolence, and especially to your financial contributions.
Let the plan by which you are to regulate your whole conduct, be formed in your closet: let it be formed deliberately; in the exercise of a spirit of prayer; with a deep sense of your Christian obligations; and in view of the retributions of the judgment—and that plan reduced to practice, will, on the whole, bring a much larger amount of blessing in its train, than any course of conduct which should be left to the control of accidental circumstances and occasional impulses. I do not say but that, in the latter case, you might sometimes do more, and give more, from the momentary impulse of excited feeling, than in the former: but in the one case, your influence would be like that of a summer shower—rattling, soon over, and not penetrating beyond the surface of the earth; in the other, it would be like that of a steady rain—comparatively noiseless—but sinking deep into the earth, and causing it to minister to the wants of man.
Allow me to say, my young friends, that if you intend ever to regulate your efforts in doing good by a regard to system, you cannot begin too early. I know not whether there be any one habit which is broken up with more difficulty, than a habit of action which has no respect to order; and such a habit persisted in for a few years, if we may judge from the analogy of experience, must be pronounced nearly incurable. As you desire, then, not only to do the greatest amount of good—but to do it with the greatest ease and pleasure, I exhort you to lose no time in forming a habit of systematic action.
4.It is also important, in order that you may do the greatest good in your power, that your efforts should be PROPORTIONED to different objects, according to their claims on your regard. Two objects may be equally important in themselves, and yet the one, from peculiar circumstances, may have a much stronger claim on your attention than the other: for instance, the members of your own family, or the circle of your immediate friends, have no doubt a stronger claim on your benevolent exertions, than the inhabitants of Japan or Hindustan; not because the souls of your kindred or friends are more precious than the souls of these heathen—but because Providence has placed the former more immediately within the range of your influence. Not that you are to refuse your aid for the salvation of those who are afar off; for you have already seen that your field of operation is the world. Nevertheless, as a general rule, you are to regard those who are near you, other things being equal, as having stronger claims than the more distant, on the principle to which I have just adverted.
Of the various objects of real benevolence which are presented to you, I do not advise you to turn away from any which you have the ability to aid; but I exhort you to let the comparative aid which you render to each, be a matter of reflection and prayer. An object in itself less important, may, sometimes, from peculiar circumstances, demand, for the time being, more of your aid, than a more important one; but in general, the relative importance of the object, in connection with the providential relation you sustain to it—is to be the criterion by which you are to determine your duty.
5.I observe, once more, that if you would do the greatest amount of good in your power, you must watch for the most favorable SEASONS for action. You know how important this is to the merchant, and indeed to men of every profession: the improvement of a single opportunity, the taking advantage of a slight turn of circumstances, may be the hinge on which turns their fortune for life. Let not the children of this world, my young friends, be wiser in their generation than the children of light. Be always on the watch for opportunities of doing good; lest, while your vigilance is suspended for an hour, some opportunity should escape you, which, by having been faithfully improved, might have secured the salvation of some immortal soul. Be ready at all times to speak a word in season for God: I say, a word in season; for while I desire that you may be faithful on this subject, I would never have you disgust by being inappropriate and obtrusive. But "a word fitly spoken," that is, spoken in the right time, and in the right manner, the wise man has declared, "is like apples of gold in pictures of silver."
So also you may sometimes do incalculable good by a tract, and that too in circumstances in which you could do good in no other way: and who does not know that, by this means, a reproof has sometimes been brought home to the heart of the scoffer, which has melted him down into a penitent at the foot of the cross? In a word, let it be your object, while you are always engaged in doing good, to avail yourselves especially of those golden seasons which now and then occur, in which you may accomplish great good, perhaps in a single moment; opportunities which, if once allowed to pass, can never be recalled.
I have already dwelt at so great length on this subject, that I shall detain you but a few moments upon the last article, in which I am to consider,
IV. The MOTIVES for doing good.This of itself constitutes a subject so broad, that, instead of occupying a small part of a discourse, it might profitably occupy several discourses.
1. The first motive which I would present before you for doing good, is, that,in this way alone, you answer the end of your existence. A moment's inspection of your intellectual and moral constitution, shows you that you are gifted with noble powers; powers which could have been bestowed only by the Almighty and All-wise God. The question arises, Why, then, were they bestowed? Was it that they might be perverted to purposes of sin and vice? Such an inquiry needs no reply. Was it then that they might merely answer the purposes of self-indulgence; or that they should remain in a state of indolent inaction? To admit this, were not only absurd—but blasphemous. You need go to no higher teachers than reason and conscience, to be assured that these noble powers were given you to glorify God, and do good to others; and that when they are used in any other way, or for any other purpose, they are perverted.
Man was made for a far higher purpose than the beasts which perish; but if his faculties are employed in any other way than in doing good, he loses the place in creation which his Maker assigned him, and becomes worse than a blank in the works of God.
I know that this is a motive which addresses itself to youth of every character—to those who utterly neglect true religion, as well as to those who have entered on a pious life. But I am sure it applies in all its force to you who are professedly the disciples of Christ; for it is certain that you bear about with you a body of sin, and hence are in danger of doing far less good than is actually within your power. And just in proportion as you come short of this, you defeat the design for which your faculties, your very existence, was given you. As you desire then to answer, in the highest degree, the end for which God made you, and made you what you are in the scale of being, be always employed in doing good.
2. Another motive by which I would urge you to a life of active benevolence, is, thatyour destiny thereby becomes allied to that of the highest orders of creation. No doubt there are various ranks of being above us, as we know that there are various orders below us; and with the exception of the rebel angels who are confined in chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day, all these superior orders of intelligence are engaged in a course of unceasing, active benevolence. They breathe the pure atmosphere of Heaven: they walk in the light of the Lamb: they execute the purposes of infinite wisdom and infinite love: they strike their golden harps to the praises of Jehovah. By a life of active benevolence, you become incorporated into the same family with them, and prepared for their communion and their joys. Nay, more, your destiny, in some respects, will be elevated above theirs; for the song of redemption you will raise to a higher and nobler note than they ever can. Is not here, then, a powerful motive to benevolent action; a consideration which should induce you not to be weary in well-doing?
3. By a life of active benevolence,you are changed into the image of God, from glory to glory. It is the most perfect epitome that was ever formed of the character of God, that he is Love: it is his delightful and unceasing employment to do good. Everything in creation, everything in providence, everything in redemption, proves it. Would you, then, bear the lineaments of his character; and do you desire that you may wear his image with increasing brightness? Then, let me say, imitate his divine beneficence. Let it be the constant employment of your life to do good. This brings you up towards the standard of infinite perfection; and while it makes you like God, it makes you a constant object of his delight and blessing.
4. Be encouraged to a life of benevolent action, by the consideration thatyou hereby act in character not only as a creature of God, and a probationer for eternity—but especially as a professor of true religion. In acknowledging yourself a disciple of Jesus Christ, you not only recognize your obligations to do good—but avow your determination to do good. And it is only in proportion as your life is given to active benevolence, that you fulfill the pledge which a Christian profession involves. When you make it manifest that your grand aim is to diffuse blessings around you, to relieve the temporal and spiritual needs of your fellow creatures, and thus to leave the world the better for your having lived in it, your character is clothed with a majesty which surpasses that of the hero or the statesman—the majesty of a consistent Christian. But on the other hand, if you content yourself with a mere negative character, satisfied to do no harm, though you do little positive good, every man who knows what you profess, will note your inconsistency, and will, at least in his heart, say, "You profess more. What do you, more than others?"
5. Finally: Let me urge you to a steady course of benevolent action, by the consideration thatin no other way, can you accomplish the design of your early conversion. When God calls sinners into his kingdom at any period of life, he calls them to be active in his service: when he calls them in the morning of life, it is that they may labor for him early; and if he is pleased to continue them to an advanced period, that they may also labor long. Suppose, in his providence, he should spare you to advanced age—what an amount of good may you accomplish! What a mighty influence may you exert on the destinies of your fellow men! What large treasures of bliss and glory may you lay up for yourselves in a better world!
And what if you should die early? Still you do not wish to die without having done something to benefit your generation, and glorify God. And God, by calling you early into his kingdom, has declared that he is willing—nay, that he is desirous, that you should thus be honored. In the accomplishment of this benevolent design concerning you, see that you faithfully and diligently co-operate. Do good to all men as you have opportunity; and God your Father and Redeemer will smile upon you from his throne—and before long will take you up to dwell amid the glories of his own eternal beneficence!
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