PRACTICAL PIETY by Hannah More
MISTAKES IN RELIGION
To point out with precision all the mistakes which exist in the present day on the awful subject of religion, would far exceed the limits of this small work. No mention, therefore, is intended to be made of the opinions or the practice of any particular body of people; nor will any notice be taken of any of the peculiarities of the numerous sects and parties which have risen up among us. It will be sufficient for the present purpose to hazard some slight remarks on a few of those common classes of characters which belong, more or less, to most general bodies.
There are, among many others, THREE DIFFERENT SORTS OF RELIGIOUS PROFESSORS.
1. The religion of one consists in a sturdy defense of what they themselves call orthodoxy, an attendance on public worship, and a general decency of behavior. In their views of religion they are not a little apprehensive of excess, not perceiving that their danger lies on the other side. They are far from rejecting faith or morals, but are somewhat afraid of believing too much, and a little scrupulous about doing too much, lest the former he suspected of fanaticism, and the latter of singularity. These Christians consider religion as a point which they by their regular observances having attained, there is nothing further required but to maintain the point they have reached, by a repetition of the same observances. They are therefore satisfied to remain stationary, considering that whoever has obtained his end is of course saved the labor of pursuit; he is to keep his ground without troubling himself in searching after an imaginary perfection.
These frugal Christians are afraid of nothing so much as excessiveness in their love, and overabundance in their obedience. This kind of fear, however, is always superfluous, but most especially in those who are troubled with the apprehension. They are apt to weigh, in the nicely-poised scales of scrupulous exactness, the duties which must of hard necessity be done, and those which without much risk may be left undone; compounding for a larger indulgence by the relinquishment of a smaller; giving up, through fear, a trivial gratification to which they are less inclined, and snatching doubtingly, as an equivalent, at one they like better. The gratification in both cases being perhaps such as a manly mind would hardly think worth contending for, even were religion out of the question. Nothing but love to God can conquer love of the world. One grain of that Divine principle would make the scale of self indulgence kick the beam.
These people dread nothing so much as enthusiasm. Yet, if to look for effects without their predisposing causes, to depend for heaven on that to which heaven was never promised, be features of enthusiasm, then are they themselves enthusiasts.
2. The religion of a second class we have already described in the two preceding chapters. It consists in a heart devoted to its Maker; inwardly changed in its temper and disposition, yet deeply sensible of its remaining infirmities: continually aspiring, however, to higher improvements in faith, hope and charity, and thinking that "the greatest of these is charity." These, by the former class, are reckoned enthusiasts; but they are in fact, if Christianity be true, acting on the only rational principles. If the doctrines of the Gospel have any solidity, if its promises have any meaning, these Christians are building on no false ground. They hope that submission to the power of God, obedience to his laws, compliance, with his will, trust in his word, are, through the efficacy of the Eternal Spirit, real evidences, because they are vital acts of genuine faith in Jesus Christ. If they profess not to place their reliance on works, they are, however, more zealous in performing them than the others; who, professing to depend on their good deeds for salvation, are not always diligent in securing it by the very means which they themselves establish to be alone effectual.
3. There is a third class -- the high-flown professor, who looks down from the giddy heights of antinomian delusion on the other two, abhors the one and despises the other; concludes that the one is lost, and the other in a fair way to be so. Though perhaps not living himself in any course of immorality which requires the sanction of such doctrines, he does not hesitate to imply in his discourse that virtue is heathenish, and good works superfluous, if not dangerous. He does not consider that though the Gospel is an act of oblivion to penitent sinners, yet it no where promises pardon to those who continue to live in a state of rebellion against God and of disobedience to his laws. He forgets to insist to others that it is of little importance even to believe that sin is an evil, (which however they do not always believe,) while they persist to live in it, that to know every thing of duty except the doing it, is to offend God with an aggravation from which ignorance itself is exempt.
It is not giving ourselves up to Christ, in a nameless inexplicable way, which will avail us. God loves a humble, not an audacious faith. To suppose that the blood of Christ redeems us from sin, while sin continues to reign in the soul, is to suppose an impossibility; to maintain that it is effectual for the salvation, and not for the sanctification of the sinner, is to suppose that it acts like an amulet, an incantation, a charm, which is to produce its effect by operating on the imagination, and not on the disease.
The religion which mixes with human passions, and is set on fire by them, will make a stronger blaze than that light which is from above, which sheds a steady and lasting brightness on the path, and communicates a sober but durable warmth to the heart. It is equable and constant; while the other, like culinary fire fed by gross materials, is extinguished the sooner from the fierceness of the flame.
That religion which is merely seated in the passions, is not only liable to wear itself out by its own impetuosity, but to be driven out by some other passion. The dominion of violent passions is short. They dispossess each other. When religion has had its day, it gives way to the next usurper. Its empire is no more solid than it is lasting, when principle and reason do not fix it on the throne.
The first of the above classes consider prudence as the paramount virtue in religion. Their antipodes, the flaming professors, believe a burning zeal to be the exclusive grace. They reverse Paul's collocation of the three Christian graces, and think that the greatest of these is faith. Though even in respect of this grace, their conduct and conversation too often give us reason to lament that they do not bear in mind its genuine and distinctive properties. Their faith, instead of working by love, seems to be adopted, from a notion that it leaves the Christian nothing to do, rather than because it is its nature to lead him to do more and better than other men.
In this case, as in many others, that which is directly contrary to what is wrong is wrong also. If each opponent would only barter half his favorite quality with the favorite quality of the other, both parties would approach nearer to the truth. They might even furnish a complete Christian between them: that is, provided the zeal of the one was sincere, and the prudence of the other honest. But the misfortune is, each is as proud of not possessing the quality he needs, because his adversary has it, as he is proud of possessing that of which the other is destitute and because he is destitute of it.
Among the many mistakes in religion, it is commonly thought that there is something so unintelligible, absurd, and fanatical in the term conversion, that those who employ it run no small hazard of being involved in the ridicule it excites. It is seldom used but ludicrously, or in contempt. This arises partly from the levity and ignorance of the censurer, but perhaps as much from the imprudence and enthusiasm of those who have absurdly confined it to real or supposed instances of sudden or miraculous changes from profligacy to piety.
But surely, with reasonable people, we run no risk in asserting that he, who being awakened by any of those various methods which the Almighty uses to bring his creatures to the knowledge of himself, who, seeing the corruptions that are in the world, and feeling those with which his own heart abounds, is brought, whether gradually or more rapidly, from an evil heart of unbelief to a lively faith in the Redeemer, from a life not only of gross vice, but of worldliness and vanity, to a life of progressive piety; whose humility keeps pace with his progress; who, though his attainments are advancing, is so far from counting himself to have attained, that he presses onward with unabated zeal, and evidences; by the change in his conduct, the change that has taken place in his heart: such a one is surely as sincerely converted, and the effect is as much produced by the same divine energy, as if some instantaneous revolution in his character had given it a miraculous appearance.
The doctrines of Scripture are the same now as when David called them "a law converting the soul, and giving light to the eyes." This is perhaps the most accurate and comprehensive definition of the change for which we are contending, for it includes both the illumination of the understanding and the alteration in the disposition.
If, then, this obnoxious expression signify nothing more nor less than that change of character which consists in turning from the world to God, however the term may offend, there is nothing ridiculous in the thing. Now, as it is not for the term which we contend, but for the principle conveyed by it; so it is the principle, and not the term, which is the real ground of objection; though it is a little inconsistent that many who would sneer at the idea of conversion would yet take it extremely ill if it were suspected that their hearts were not turned to God.
Reformation, a term against which no objection is ever made, would, if words continued to retain their primitive signification, conveys the same idea. For it is plain that to re-form means to make anew. In the present use, however, it does not convey the same meaning in the same extent, nor indeed does it imply the operation of the same principle. Many are reformed on human motives, many are partially reformed; but only those who, as our great poet says, are "reformed altogether," are converted. There is no complete reformation in the conduct effected without a revolution in the heart.
Ceasing from some sins; retaining others in a less degree; or adopting such as are merely creditable; or flying from one sin to another; or ceasing from the external act without any internal change of disposition, is not Christian reformation. The new principle must abolish the old habit; the rooted inclination must be subdued by the substitution of an opposite one. The natural bias must be changed. The actual offence will no more be pardoned than cured, if the inward corruption do not be eradicated. To be "alive unto God through Jesus Christ," must follow "the death unto sin." There cannot be new aims and ends where there is not a new principle to produce them. We shall not choose a new path until a light from heaven direct our choice and "guide our feet." We shall not "run the way of God's commandments" until God himself enlarge our heart.
We do not, however, insist that the change required is such as precludes the possibility of falling into sin; but it is a change which fixes in the soul such a disposition as shall make sin a burden; as shall make the desire of pleasing God the governing desire of a man's heart; as shall make him hate the evil which he does; as shall make the lowness of his attainments the subject of his deepest sorrow. A Christian has hopes and fears, cares and temptations, inclinations and desires, as well as other men. God, in changing the heart, does not extinguish the passions. Were that the case the Christian life would cease to be a warfare.
We are often deceived by that partial improvement which appears in the victory over some one bad quality. But we must not mistake the removal of a symptom for a radical cure of the disease. An occasional remedy might remove an accidental sickness, but it requires a general regimen to renovate the diseased constitution. It is the natural but melancholy history of the unchanged heart, that, from youth to advanced years, there is no other revolution in the character but such as increases both the number and quality of its defects: that the levity, vanity, and self-sufficiency of the young man are carried into advanced life, and only meet and mix with the defects of a mature period; that instead of crying out with the royal prophet, "O remember not my old sins," he is inflaming his reckoning by new ones: that age, protracting all the faults of youth, furnishes its own contingent of vices; that sloth, suspicion, and covetousness swell the account which religion has not been called in to cancel: that the world, though it has lost the power to delight, has yet lost nothing of its power to enslave. Instead of improving in candor by the inward sense of his own defects, that very consciousness makes him less tolerant of the defects of others, and more suspicious of their apparent virtues.
His charity in a warmer season having failed to bring him in that return of gratitude for which it was partly performed, and having never flowed from the genuine spring, is dried up. His friendships, having been formed on worldly principles, or interest, or ambition, or convivial hilarity, fail him. "One must make some sacrifices to the world," is the prevailing language of the nominal Christian. "What will the world pay you for your sacrifices?" replies the real Christian.
Though he finds that the world is insolvent, that it pays nothing of what it promised, for it cannot bestow what it does not possess -- happiness -- yet he continues to cling to it almost as confidently as if it had never disappointed him.
Were we called upon to name the object under the sun which excites the deepest commiseration in the heart of Christian sensibility, which includes in itself the most affecting incongruities, which contains the sum and substance of real human misery, we should not hesitate to say, an irreligious old age. The mere debility of declining years, even the hopelessness of decrepitude in the pious, though they excite sympathy, yet it is the sympathy of tenderness unmixed with distress. We take and give comfort, from the cheering persuasion that the exhausted body will soon cease to clog its immortal companion; that the dim and failing eyes will soon open on a world of glory.
Dare we paint the reverse of the picture? Dare we suffer the imagination to dwell on the opening prospects of hoary impiety? Dare we figure to ourselves that the weakness, the miseries, the terrors we are now commiserating, are ease, are peace, are happiness, compared with the unutterable perspective?
There is a fatal way of lulling the conscience by entertaining diminishing thoughts of sins long since committed. We persuade ourselves to forget them, and we therefore persuade ourselves that they are not remembered by God. But though distance diminishes objects to the eye of the beholder, it does not actually lessen them. Their real magnitude remains the same. Deliver us, merciful God, from the delusion of believing that secret sins, of which the world has no cognizance; early sins, which the world has forgotten, but which are known to "Him with whom we have to do," become by secrecy and distance as if they had never been! "Are not these things noted in YOUR book? If we remember them, God may forget them; especially if our remembrance be such as to induce a sound repentance. If we remember them not, he assuredly will. The holy contrition which should accompany this remembrance, while it will not abate our humble trust in our compassionate Redeemer, will keep our conscience tender, and our heart watchful.
We do not deny that there is frequently much kindness and polish, much benevolence and generosity, in men who do not even pretend to be religious. These qualities often flow from constitutional feeling, natural softness of temper, and warm affections; often from an elegant education– that best human sweetener and polisher of social life. We feel a tender regret as we exclaim, "What a fine soil would such dispositions afford to plant religion in!" Well-bred people are accustomed to respect all the decorums of society, to connect inseparably the ideas of personal comfort with public esteem, of generosity with reputation, of order with respectability. They have a keen sense of dishonor, and are careful to avoid everything that may bring the shadow of discredit on their name. Public opinion is the breath by which they live, the standard by which they act; of course they would not lower, by gross misconduct, that standard on which their happiness depends. They have been taught to respect themselves; this they can do with more security while they can retain, on this half-way principle, the respect of others.
In some who make further advances towards religion, we continue to see it in that same low degree which we have always observed. It is dwarfish and stunted; it makes no shoots. Though it gives some signs of life, it does not grow. By a tame and spiritless round, or rather by this fixed and immoveable position, we rob ourselves of that fair reward of peace and joy which attends on a humble consciousness of progress, on the feeling of difficulties conquered, on a sense of Divine favor. That religion which is profitable is commonly perceptible. Nothing supports a traveler in his Christian course like the conviction that he is getting on, like looking back on the country he has passed, and, above all, like the sense of that protection which has hitherto carried him on, and of that grace which has promised to support him to the end.
The proper motion of the renewed heart is still directed upward. True religion is of an aspiring nature, continually tending towards that Heaven from where it was transplanted. Its top is high, because its root is deep. It is watered by a perennial fountain; in its most flourishing state it is always capable of further growth. Real goodness proves itself to be such by a continual desire to be better. No virtue on earth is ever in a complete state. Whatever stage of religion any man has attained, if he is satisfied to rest in that stage, we would not call that man religious. The Gospel seems to consider the highest degree of goodness as the lowest with which a Christian ought to sit down satisfied. We cannot be said to be finished in any Christian grace because there is not one which may not be carried further than we have carried it. This promotes the double purpose of keeping us humble as to our present stage, and of stimulating us to something higher, which we may hope to attain.
That superficial thing which by mere people of the world is dignified by the appellation of religion, though it brings just that degree of credit which makes part of the system of worldly Christians, neither brings comfort for this world, nor security for the next. Outward observances, indispensable as they are, are not religion. They are the accessory, but not the principal; they are important aids and adjuncts, but not the thing itself; they are its aliment, but not its life; the fuel, but not the flame; the scaffolding, but not the edifice. Religion can no more subsist merely by them, than it can subsist without them. They are divinely appointed, and must be conscientiously observed; but observed as a means to promote an end, and not as an end in themselves.
The heartless homage of formal worship, where the vital power does not give life to the form, the cold compliment of ceremonial attendance, without the animating principle, as it will not bring peace to our own mind, so neither will it satisfy a jealous God. That God whose eye is on the heart, who tries the thoughts and searches the imaginations, will not be satisfied that we make him little more than a nominal deity, while the world is the real object of our worship. Such people seem to have almost the whole body of performance; all they lack is the soul. They are constant in their devotions; but the heart, which even the heathen esteem the best part of the sacrifice, they keep away. They read the Scriptures, but rest in the letter, instead of trying themselves by its spirit. They consider it as an enjoined task, but not as the quick and powerful instrument put into their hands of the critical dissection of "piercing and dividing asunder the soul and spirit;" not as the penetrating discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. These well-intentioned people seem to spend, no inconsiderable portion of time in religious exercise, and yet complain that they make little progress. They almost seem to insinuate that the Almighty does not keep his word with them, and manifest that religion to them is not pleasantness, nor her "paths peace."
Of such may we not ask, would you not do better to examine than to complain? to inquire whether you do indeed possess a heart which, notwithstanding its imperfections, is sincerely devoted to God? He who does not desire to be perfect is not sincere. Would you not do well to convince yourselves that God is not unfaithful, that his promises do not fail, that his goodness is not slackened? May you not be entertaining some secret infidelity, practicing some latent disobedience, withholding some part of your heart, neglecting to exercise that faith, subtracting something from that devotedness to which a Christian should engage himself, and to which the promises of God are annexed? Do you indulge no propensities contrary to his will? Do you never resist the dictates of his Spirit, never shut your eyes to its illumination, nor your heart to its influences? Do you not indulge some cherished sin which obscures the light of grace, some practice which obstructs the growth of virtue, some distrust which chills the warmth of love? The discovery will repay the search, and if you succeed in this scrutiny, let not the detection discourage, but stimulate.
If then you resolve to take up religion in earnest, especially if you have actually adopted its customary forms, rest not in such low attainments as will afford neither present peace nor future happiness. To know Christianity only in its external forms, and its internal dissatisfactions, its superficial appearances without, and its disquieting apprehensions within; to be desirous of standing well with the world as a Christian, yet to be unsupported by a well-founded Christian hope; to depend for happiness on the opinion of men, instead of the favor of God; to go on dragging through the mere exercises of piety, without deriving from them real strength or solid peace; to live in the dread of being called an enthusiast, by outwardly exceeding in religion and in secret consciousness of falling short of it; to be conformed to the world's view of Christianity, rather than to aspire to be transformed by the renewing of your mind -- is a state not of pleasure but of penalty, not of conquest but of hopeless conflict, not of ingenuous love, but of tormenting fear.
It is knowing religion only as the captive in a foreign land knows the country in which he is a prisoner. He hears from the cheerful natives of its beauties, but is himself ignorant of every thing beyond his own gloomy limits. He hears of others as free and happy, but feels nothing himself but the rigors of incarceration.
The Christian character is not understood by the votaries of the world; if it were, they would be struck with its grandeur. It is the very reverse of that lowliness and pusillanimity, that abject spirit, and those narrow views, which they who know it not ascribe to it.
A Christian lives at the height of his being; not only at the top of his spiritual but of his intellectual life. He alone lives in the full exercise of his rational powers. Religion ennobles his reason while it enlarges it.
Let then your soul act up to its high destination; let not that which was made to soar to heaven grovel in the dust. Let it not live so much below itself. You wonder it is not more fixed, when it is perpetually resting on things which are not fixed themselves. In the rest of a Christian there is stability. Nothing can shake his confidence but sin. Outward attacks and troubles rather fix than unsettle him, as tempests from without only serve to root the oak faster, while an inward canker will gradually rot and decay it.
That religion which sinks Christianity into a mere conformity to religious practices, must always fail of substantial effects. If sin be seated in the heart, if that be its home, that is the place in which it must be combated. It is in vain to attack it in the suburbs when it is lodged in the center. Mere forms can never expel that enemy which they can never reach. By a religion of decencies, our corruptions may perhaps be driven out of sight, but they will never be driven out of possession. If they are expelled from their outworks, they will retreat to their citadel. If they do not appear in the grosser forms prohibited by the Decalogue, still they will exist; the shape may be altered, but the principle will remain; -- they will exist in the spiritual modification of the same sins, equally forbidden by the Divine expositor. He who dares not be revengeful will be unforgiving. He who ventures not to break the letter of the seventh commandment in act, will violate it in the spirit. He who has not courage to renounce heaven by profligacy, will scale it by pride, or forfeit it by unprofitableness.
It is not any vain hope built on some external privilege or performance, on the one hand, nor a presumptuous confidence that our names are written in the book of life, on the other, which can afford a reasonable ground of safety; but it is endeavoring to keep all the commandments of God, it is living to him who died for us, it is being conformed to his image as well as redeemed by his blood. This is Christian virtue, this is the holiness of a believer. A lower motive will produce a lower morality, but such an unsanctified morality God will not accept.
For it will little avail us that Christ has died for us, that he has conquered sin, triumphed over the powers of darkness, and overcome the world, while any sin retains its unresisted dominion in our hearts, while the world is our idol, while our fostered corruptions cause us to prefer darkness to light. We must not persuade ourselves that we are reconciled to God, while our rebellious hearts are not reconciled to holiness.
It is not casting a set of opinions into a mold, and a set of duties into a system, which constitutes the Christian religion. The circumference must have a center, the body must have a soul, the performances must have a principle. Outward observances were wisely constituted to rouse our forgetfulness, to awake our secular spirits, to call back our negligent hearts: but it was never intended that we should stop short in the use of them. They were designed to excite holy thoughts, to quicken us to holy deeds, but not to be used as equivalents for either. But we find it cheaper to serve God in a multitude of exterior acts, than to starve one interior corruption.
Nothing short of that uniform stable principle, that fixedness in religion which directs a man in all his actions, aims, and pursuits, to God as his ultimate end, can give consistency to his conduct, or tranquility to his soul. This state once attained, he will not waste all his thoughts and designs upon the world; he will not lavish all his affections on so poor a thing as his own advancement. He will desire to devote all to the only object worthy of them -- to God. Our Savior has taken care to provide that our ideas of glorifying him may not run out into fanciful chimeras or subtle inventions, by simply stating -- "herein is my father glorified, that you bear much fruit." This he goes on to inform us is the true evidence of our being of the number of his people, by adding "So shall you be my disciples."
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