PRACTICAL PIETY by Hannah More
CULTIVATION OF A DEVOTIONAL SPIRIT
To maintain a devotional spirit two things are especially necessary; habitually to cultivate the disposition, and habitually to avoid whatever is unfavorable to it. Frequent retirement and recollection are indispensable together with such a general course of reading, as, if it does not actually promote the spirit we are endeavoring to maintain, shall never be hostile to it. We should avoid as much as in us lies all such society, all such amusements as excite tempers which it is the daily business of a Christian to subdue, and all those feelings which it is his constant duty to suppress.
And here may we venture to observe, that if some things which are apparently innocent, and do not assume an alarming aspect, or bear a dangerous character; things which the generality of decorous people affirm (how truly we know not) to be safe for them; yet if we find that these things stir up in us improper propensities; if they awaken thoughts which ought not to be excited; if they abate our love for religious exercises, or infringe on our time for performing them; if they make spiritual concerns appear insipid; if they wind our hearts a little more about the world; in short, if we have formerly found them injurious to our own souls, then let no example or persuasion, no belief of their alleged innocence, no plea of their perfect safety, tempt us to indulge in them. It matters little to our security what they are to others. Our business is with ourselves. Our responsibility is on our own heads. Others cannot know the side on which we are assailable. Let our own unbiased judgment determine our opinion; let our own experience decide for our own conduct.
In speaking of books, we cannot forbear noticing that very prevalent sort of reading which is little less productive of evil, little less prejudicial to moral and mental improvement, than that which carries a more formidable appearance. We cannot confine our censure to those more corrupt writings which deprave the heart, debauch the imagination, and poison the principles. Of these the turpitude is so obvious that no caution on this head, it is presumed, can be necessary. But if justice forbids us to confound the insipid with the mischievous, the idle, with the vicious, and the frivolous with the profligate, still we can only admit of shades -- deep shades, we allow -- of difference.
These works, if comparatively harmless, yet debase the taste, slacken the intellectual nerve, let down the understanding, set the imagination loose, and send it gadding among low and worthless objects. They not only run away with the time which should be given to better things, but gradually destroy all taste for better things. They sink the mind to their own standard, and give it a sluggish reluctance, we had almost said a moral incapacity, for every thing above their level. The mind, by long habit of stooping, loses its erectness, and yields to its degradation. It becomes so low and narrow by the littleness of the things which engage it, that it requires a painful effort to lift itself high enough, or to open itself wide enough, to embrace great and noble objects. The appetite is vitiated. Excess, instead of producing a surfeit by weakening the digestion, only induces a loathing for stronger nourishment. The faculties which might have been expanding in works of science, or soaring in the contemplation of genius, become satisfied with the impertinences of the most ordinary fiction, lose their relish for the severity of truth, the elegance of taste, and the soberness of religion. Lulled in the torpor of repose, the intellect dozes, and enjoys, in its waking dream,
"All the wild trash of sleep without its rest."
In avoiding books which excite the passions, it would seem strange to include even some devotional works. Yet such as merely kindle warm feelings are not always the safest. Let us rather prefer those which, while they tend to raise a devotional spirit, awaken the affections without disordering them; which, while they elevate the desires, purify them; which show us our own nature, and lay open its corruptions. Such as show us the malignity of sin, the deceitfulness of our hearts, the feebleness of our best resolutions; such as teach us to pull off the mask from the fairest appearances, and discover every hiding place where some lurking evil would conceal itself; such as show us not what we appear to others, but what we really are; such as, cooperating with our interior feelings, and showing us our natural state, point out our absolute need of a Redeemer, lead us to seek to him for pardon, from a conviction that there is no other refuge, no other salvation. Let us be conversant with such writings as teach us that, while we long to obtain the remission of our transgressions, we must not desire the remission of our duties. Let us seek for such a Savior as will not only deliver us from the punishment of sin, but from its dominion also.
And let us ever bear in mind that the end of prayer is not answered when the prayer is finished. We should regard prayer as a means to a farther end. The act of prayer is not sufficient, we must cultivate a spirit of prayer. And though, when the actual devotion is over, we cannot amid the distractions of company and business always be thinking of heavenly things, yet the desire, the frame, the propensity, the willingness to return to them, we must, however difficult, endeavor to maintain.
The proper temper for prayer should precede the act. The disposition should be wrought in the mind before the exercise is begun. To bring a proud temper to an humble prayer, a luxurious habit to a self-denying prayer, or a worldly disposition to a spiritually-minded prayer, is a positive anomaly. A habit is more powerful than an act, and a previously indulged temper during the day will not, it is to be feared, be fully counteracted by the exercise of a few minutes devotion at night.
Prayer is designed for a perpetual renovation of the motives to virtue; if, therefore, the cause is not followed by its consequence -- a consequence inevitable but for the impediments we bring to it, we rob our nature of its highest privilege, and are in danger of incurring a penalty where we are looking for a blessing.
That the habitual tendency of the life should be the preparation for the stated prayer, is naturally suggested to us by our blessed Redeemer in his sermon on the Mount. He announced the precepts of holiness and their corresponding beatitudes; he gave the spiritual exposition of the law, the directions for alms-giving, the exhortation to love our enemies, no, the essence and spirit of the whole Decalogue, previous to his delivering his own Divine prayer as a pattern for ours. Let us learn from this that the preparation of prayer is, therefore, to live in all those pursuits which we may safely beg of God to bless, and in a conflict with all those temptations into which we pray not to be led.
If God be the center to which our hearts are tending, every line in our lives must meet in him. With this point in view, there will be a harmony between our prayers and our practice, a consistency between devotion and conduct which will make every part turn to this one end, bear upon this one point. For the beauty of the Christian scheme consists not in parts (however good in themselves) which tend to separate views and lead to different ends; but it arises from its being one entire, uniform, connected plan, "compacted of that which every joint supplies," and of which all the parts terminate in this one grand ultimate point. The design of prayer, therefore, as we before observed, is not merely to make us devout while we are engaged in it, but that its odor may be diffused through all the intermediate spaces of the day, enter into all its occupations, duties, and tempers. Nor must its results be partial or limited to easy and pleasant duties, but extend to such as are less alluring. When we pray, for instance, for our enemies, the prayer must be rendered practical, must be made a means of softening our spirit and cooling our resentment toward them. If we deserve their enmity the true spirit of prayer will put us upon endeavoring to cure the fault which has excited it. If we do not deserve it, it will put us on striving for a peaceful temper, and we shall endeavor not to let slip so favorable an occasion of cultivating it. There is no such softener of animosity, no such soother of resentment, no such allayer of hatred, as sincere, cordial prayer.
It is obvious that the precept to pray without ceasing can never mean to enjoin a continual course of actual prayer. But while it more directly enjoins us to embrace all proper occasions of performing this sacred duty, or rather of claiming this valuable privilege, so it plainly implies that we should try to keep up constantly that sense of the Divine presence which shall maintain the disposition. In order to this, we should inure our minds to reflection; we should encourage serious thoughts. A good thought barely passing through the mind will make little impression on it. We must arrest it, constrain it to remain with us, expand, amplify, and, as it were, take it to pieces. It must be distinctly unfolded and carefully examined, or it will leave no precise idea; it must be fixed and incorporated, or it will produce no practical effect. We must not dismiss it until it has left some trace on the mind, until it has made some impression on the heart.
On the other hand, if we give the reins to a loose ungoverned imagination, at other times if we abandon our minds to frivolous thoughts, if we fill them with corrupt images; if we cherish sensual ideas during the rest of the day, can we expect that none of these images will intrude, that none of these impressions will be revived, but that the temple, into which foul things have been invited, will be cleansed at a given moment; that worldly thoughts will recede and give place at once to pure and holy thoughts? Will that Spirit, grieved by impurity, or resisted by levity, return with his warm beams and cheering influences to the contaminated mansion from which he has been driven out? Is it amazing if, finding no entrance into a heart filled with vanity, he should withdraw himself?
We cannot in retiring into our closets change our natures as we do our clothes. The disposition we carry there will be likely to remain with us. We have no right to expect that a new temper will meet us at the door. We can only hope that the spirit we bring there will be cherished and improved. It is not easy, rather it is not possible to graft genuine devotion on a life of an opposite tendency; nor can we delight ourselves regularly for a few stated moments in that God whom we have not been serving during the day. We may, indeed, to quiet our conscience, take up the employment of prayer, but cannot take up the state of mind which will make the employment beneficial to ourselves, or the payer acceptable to God, if all the previous hours of the day we have been careless of ourselves and unmindful of our Maker. They will not pray differently from the rest of the world who do not live differently.
What a contradiction is it to lament the weakness, the misery, and the corruption of our nature in our devotions, and then to rush into a life, though not perhaps of vice, yet of indulgences calculated to increase that weakness, to inflame those corruptions, and to lead to that misery! There is either no meaning in our prayers, or no sense in our conduct. In the one we mock God, in the other we deceive ourselves.
Will not he who keeps up an habitual communion with his Maker, who is vigilant in thought, self-denying in action, who strives to keep his heart from wrong desires, his mind from vain imaginations, and his lips from idle words, bring a more prepared spirit, a more collected mind, be more engaged, more penetrated, more present to the occasion? Will he not feel more delight in this devout exercise, reap more benefit from it, than he who lives at random, prays from custom, and who, though he dares not omit the form, is a stranger to its spirit?
We speak not here to the self-sufficient formalist, or the careless profligate. Among those whom we now take the liberty to address, are to be found, especially in the higher class of females, the amiable and the interesting, and, in many respects, the virtuous and correct; characters so engaging, so evidently made for better things, so capable of reaching high degrees of excellence, so formed to give the tone to Christian practice as well as to fashion; so calculated to give a beautiful impression of that religion which they profess without sufficiently adorning, which they believe without fairly exemplifying; that we cannot forbear taking a tender interest in their welfare, we cannot forbear breathing a fervent prayer that they may yet reach the elevation for which they were intended; that they may hold out a uniform and consistent pattern of "whatever things are pure, honest, just, lovely, and of good report!" This the apostle goes on to intimate can only be done by thinking on these things. Things can only influence our practice as they engage our attention. Would not then a confirmed habit of serious thought tend to correct that inconsideration which, we are willing to hope, more than lack of principle, lies at the bottom of the inconsistency we are lamenting?
If, as it is generally allowed, the great difficulty of our spiritual life is to make the future predominate over the present, do we not, by the conduct we are regretting, aggravate what it is in our power to diminish? Miscalculation of the relative value of things is one of the greatest errors of our spiritual life. We estimate them in an inverse proportion to their value, as well as to their duration: we lavish earnest and durable thoughts on things so trifling that they deserve little regard, so temporary that they "perish with the using," while we bestow only slight attention on things of infinite worth; only transient thoughts on things of eternal duration.
Those who are so far conscientious as not to omit a regular course of devotion, and who yet allow themselves, at the same time, to go on in a course of amusements which excite a directly opposite spirit, are inconceivably augmenting their own difficulties. They are eagerly heaping up fuel in the day on the fire which they intend to extinguish in the evening; they are voluntarily adding to the temptations against which they mean to request grace to struggle. To acknowledge, at the same time, that we find it hard to serve God as we ought, and yet to be systematically indulging habits which must naturally increase the difficulty, makes our character almost ridiculous, while it renders our duty almost impracticable.
While we make our way more difficult by those very indulgences with which we think to cheer and refresh it, the determined Christian becomes his own pioneer; he makes his path easy by voluntarily clearing it of the obstacles which impede his progress.
These habitual indulgences seem a contradiction to that obvious law, that one virtue always involves another; for we cannot labor after any grace -- that of prayer, for instance -- without resisting whatever is opposite to it. If, then, we lament that it is so hard to serve God, let us not by our conduct furnish arguments against ourselves; for, as if the difficulty were not great enough in itself, we are continually heaping up mountains in our way, by indulging in such pursuits and passions as make a small labor an insurmountable one.
We may often judge better of our state by the result than by the act of prayer; our very defects, our coldness, deadness, wanderings, may leave more contrition on the soul than the happiest turn of thought. The feeling of our needs, the confession of our sins, the acknowledgment of our dependence, the renunciation of ourselves, the supplication for mercy, the application to the "fountain opened for sin," the cordial entreaty for the aid of the Spirit, the relinquishment of our own will, resolutions of better obedience, petitions that these resolutions may be directed and sanctified -- these are the subjects in which the supplicant should be engaged, by which his thoughts should be absorbed.
Can they be so absorbed, if many of the intervening hours are passed in pursuits of a totally different complexion -- pursuits which raise the passions which we are seeking to allay? Will the cherished vanities go at our bidding? Will the required dispositions come at our calling? Do we find our tempers so obedient, our passions so subservient, in the other concerns of life? If not, what reason have we to expect their submission in this grand concern? We should, therefore, endeavor to believe as we pray, to think as we pray, to feel as we pray, and to act as we pray. Prayer must not be a solitary, independent exercise; but an exercise interwoven with many, and inseparably connected with that golden chain of Christian duties, of which, when so connected, it forms one of the most important links.
Let us be careful that our cares, occupations, and amusements may be always such that we may not be afraid to implore the Divine blessing on them; this is the criterion of their safety, and of our duty. Let us endeavor that in each, in all, one continually growing sentiment and feeling of loving, serving, and pleasing God, maintain its predominant station in the heart.
An additional reason why we should live in the perpetual use of prayer, seems to be, that our blessed Redeemer, after having given both the example and the command while on earth, condescends still to be our unceasing intercessor in heaven. Can we ever cease petitioning for ourselves, when we believe that he never ceases interceding for us?
If we are so unhappy as now to find little pleasure in this holy exercise, that however is so far from being a reason for discontinuing it, that it affords the strongest argument for perseverance. That which was at first a form will become a pleasure; that which was a burden will become a privilege; that which we impose upon ourselves as a medicine will become necessary as nourishment, and desirable as a gratification. That which is now short and superficial will become copious and solid. The chariot-wheel is warmed by its own motion. Use will make that easy which was at first painful. That which is once become easy will soon be rendered pleasant. Instead of repining at the performance, we shall be unhappy at the omission. When a man recovering from sickness attempts to walk, he does not discontinue the exercise because he feels himself weak, nor even because the effort is painful. He rather redoubles his exertion. It is from his perseverance that he looks for strength. An additional turn every day diminishes his repugnance, augments his vigor, improves his spirits. That effort which was submitted to because it was salutary, is continued because the feeling of renovated strength renders it delightful.
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