PRACTICAL PIETY by Hannah More
THE LOVE OF GOD
Our love to God arises out of need; God's love to us out of fullness. Our indigence draws us to that power which can relieve, and to that goodness which can bless us. His overflowing love delights to make us partakers of the bounties he graciously imparts, not only in the gifts of his providence, but in the richer communications of his grace. We can only be said to love God when we endeavor to glorify him, when we desire a participation of his nature, when we study to imitate his perfections.
We are sometimes inclined to suspect the love of God to us. We are too little suspicious of our lack of love to him. Yet if we examine the case by evidence, as we should examine any common question, what real instances can we produce of our love to him? What imaginable instance can we not produce of his love to us? If neglect, forgetfulness, ingratitude, disobedience, coldness in our affections, deadness in our duty, be evidences of our love to him, such evidences, but such only, we can abundantly allege. If life, and all the countless catalogue of mercies that makes life pleasant, be proofs of his love to us, these he has given us in hand; -- if life eternal, if blessedness that knows no measure and no end, be proofs of love, these he has given us in promise to the Christian, we had almost said, he has given them in possession.
When the adoring soul is gratefully expatiating on the inexhaustible instances of the love of God to us, let it never forget to rise to its most exalted pitch, to rest on its loftiest object, His inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the crowning point; this is the gift which imparts their highest value to all his other gifts. It combines whatever can render Divine munificence complete -- pardon of sin, acceptance with God, perfection and perpetuity of blessedness. Well may the Christian in the devout contemplation of this sublime mystery which the highest of all created intelligences "desire to look into," exclaim in grateful rapture, "You are the God that do wonders!" A redeemed world is the triumph of infinity. Power and goodness, truth and mercy, righteousness and peace incorporated and lost in each other!
Love is a grace of such preeminent distinction, that the Redeemer is emphatically designated by it as, "He who loved us." This is such a characteristic style and title that no name is appended to it.
It must be an irksome thing to serve a master whom we do not love, a master whom we are compelled to obey, though we think his requisitions hard, and his commands unreasonable; under whose eye we know that we continually live, though his presence is not only undelightful but formidable.
Now every creature must obey God, whether he loves him or not: he must act always in his sight, whether he delights in him or not; and to a heart of any feeling, to a spirit of any liberality, nothing is so grating as constrained obedience. To love God, to serve him because we love him, is therefore no less our highest happiness than our most bounden duty. Love makes all labor light. We serve with alacrity, where we love with cordiality.
Where the heart is devoted to an object, we require not to be perpetually reminded of our obligations to obey him; they present themselves spontaneously, we fulfill them readily, I had almost said, involuntarily: we do not think so much of the service as of the object. The principle which suggests the work inspires the pleasure: to neglect it would be an injury to our feelings. The performance is the gratification. The omission is not more a pain to the conscience than a wound to the affections. The implantation of this vital root perpetuates virtuous practice, and secures internal peace.
Though we cannot be always thinking of God, we may be always employed in his service. There must be intervals of our communion with him, but there must be no intermission of our attachment to him. The tender father who labors for his children does not always employ his thoughts about them: he cannot be always conversing with them or concerning them, yet he is always engaged in promoting their interests. His affection for them is an inwoven principle, of which he gives the most unequivocal evidence, by the assiduousness of his application in their service.
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart," is the primary law of our religion. But we are continually framing excuses, flying to false refuges , clinging to false holds, resting on false supports: as they are uncertain, they disappoint us; as they are weak, they fail us; but as they are numerous, when one fails another presents itself. Until they slip from under us, we never suspect how much we rested upon them. Life glides away in a perpetual succession of these false dependences and successive privations.
There is, as we have elsewhere observed, a striking analogy between the natural and spiritual life; the weakness and helplessness of the Christian resemble those of the infant; neither of them becomes strong, vigorous, and full grown at once, but through a long and often painful course. This keeps up a sense of dependence, and accustoms us to lean on the hand which fosters us. There is in both conditions an imperceptible chain of depending circumstances, by which we are carried on insensibly to the vigor of maturity. The operation which is not always obvious is always progressive. By attempting to walk alone we discover our weakness, the experience of that weakness humbles us, and every fall drives us back to the sustaining hand whose assistance we vainly flattered ourselves we no longer needed.
In some halcyon moments we are willing to persuade ourselves that religion has made an entire conquest over our heart; that we have renounced the dominion of the world, have conquered our attachment to earthly things. We flatter ourselves that nothing can now again obstruct our entire submission. But we know not what spirit we are of. We say this in the calm of repose and in the stillness of the passions; when our path is smooth, our prospect smiling, danger distant, temptation absent, when we have many comforts and no trials. Suddenly some loss, some disappointment, some privation, tears off the mask, reveals us to ourselves. We at once discover that though the smaller fibers and lesser roots which fasten us down to earth may have been loosened by preceding storms, yet our substantial hold on earth is not shaken, the sap root is not cut, we are yet fast rooted to the soil, and still stronger tempests must be sent to make us let go our hold.
It might be useful to adopt the habit of stating our own case as strongly to ourselves as if it were the case of another; to express in so many words, thoughts which are not apt to assume any specific or palpable form; thoughts which we avoid shaping into language, but slur over, generalize, soften, and do away. How indignant, for instance, should we feel (though we ourselves make the complaint) to be told by others that we do not love our Maker and Preserver!
But let us put the question fairly to ourselves. Do we really love him? Do we love him with a supreme, no, even with an equal affection? Is there no friend, no child, no reputation, no pleasure, no society, no possession, which we do not prefer to him? It is easy to affirm in a general way that there is none. But let us particularize, individualize the question -- bring it home to our own hearts in some actual instance, in some tangible shape. Let us commune with our own consciences; with our own feelings, with our own experience; let us question pointedly, and answer honestly. Let us not be more ashamed to detect the fault than to have been guilty of it.
This, then, will commonly be the result. Let the friend, child, reputation, possession, pleasure, be endangered, but especially let it be taken away by some stroke of Providence. The scales fall from our eyes; we see, we feel, we acknowledge, with brokenness of heart, not only for our loss, but for our sin, that though we did love God, yet we loved him not superlatively; that we loved the blessing, threatened or taken back, still more. But this is one of the cases in which the goodness of God brings us to repentance. By the operation of his grace, the taking back of the gift brings back the heart to the Giver. The Almighty by his Spirit takes possession of the temple from which the idol is driven out: God is reinstated in his rights, and becomes the supreme and undisputed Lord of our reverential affections.
There are three requirements to our proper enjoyment of every earthly blessing which God bestows on us -- a thankful reflection on the goodness of the giver, a deep sense of the unworthiness of the receiver, and a sober recollection of the precarious tenure by which we hold it. The first would make us grateful, the second humble, the last moderate.
But how seldom do we receive his favors in this spirit! As if religious gratitude were to be confined to the appointed days of public thanksgiving, how rarely in common society do we hear any recognition of Omnipotence even on those striking and heart-rejoicing occasions, when "with his own right hand, and with his holy arm, he has gotten himself the victory!" Let us never detract from the merit of our valiant leaders, but rather honor them the more for this manifestation of Divine power in their favor; but let us never lose sight of Him "who teaches their hands to war and their fingers to fight." Let us never forget that "He is the rock, that his work is perfect, and all his ways are judgment."
How many seem to show not only their lack of trust in God, but that he is not in all their thoughts, by their appearing to leave them entirely out of their concerns, by projecting their affairs without any reference to him, by setting out on the stock of their own unassisted wisdom, contriving and acting independently of God; expecting prosperity in the event, without seeking his direction in the outset, and taking to themselves the whole honor of the success, without any recognition of his hand! Do they not thus virtually imitate what Sophocles makes his blustering atheist boast: "Let other men expect to conquer with the assistance of the gods, I intend to gain honor without them"?
The Christian will rather rejoice to ascribe the glory of his prosperity to the same hand to which our own manly queen gladly ascribed her signal victory. When, after the defeat of the Armada, impiously termed invincible, her enemies, in order to lower the value of her agency, alleged that the victory was not owing to her, but to God, who raised the storm; she heroically declared that the visible interference of God in her favor was that part of the success from which she derived the truest honor.
Incidents and occasions every day arise which not only call on us to trust in God, but which furnish us with suitable occasions of vindicating, if I may presume to use the expression, the character and conduct of the Almighty in the government of human affairs; yet there is no duty which we perform with less alacrity. Strange, that we should treat the Lord of heaven and earth with less confidence than we exercise towards each other! that we should vindicate the honor of a common acquaintance with more zeal than that of our insulted Maker and Preserver!
If we hear a friend accused of any act of injustice, though we cannot bring any positive proof why he should be acquitted of this specific charge, yet we resent the injury offered to his character; we clear him of the individual allegation on the ground of his general conduct, inferring that from the numerous instances we can produce of his rectitude on other occasions, he cannot be guilty of the alleged injustice. We reason from analogy, and in general we reason fairly.
But when we presume to judge of the Most High, instead of vindicating his rectitude on the same grounds, under a Providence seemingly severe; instead of reverting, as in the case of our friend, to the thousand instances we have formerly tasted of his kindness; instead of giving God the same credit we give to his erring creature, and inferring, from his past goodness, that the present inexplicable dispensation must be consistent, though we cannot explain how, with his general character, we mutinously accuse him of inconsistency, no, of injustice. We admit, virtually, the most monstrous anomaly in the character of the perfect God.
But what a clue has revelation furnished to the intricate labyrinth which seems to involve the conduct which we impiously question! It unrolls the volume of Divine Providence, lays open the mysterious map of Infinite Wisdom, throws a bright light on the darkest dispensations, vindicates the inequality of appearances, and points to that blessed region, where, to all who have truly loved and served God, every apparent wrong shall be proved to have been unimpeachably right, every affliction a mercy, and the severest trials the choicest blessings.
So blind has sin made us, that the glory of God is concealed from us by the very means which, could we discern aright, would display it. That train of second causes, which he has so marvelously disposed, obstructs our view of himself. We are so filled with wonder at the immediate effect, that our short sight penetrates not to the first cause; to see Him as he is, is reserved to be the happiness of a better world. We shall then indeed admire him in his saints, and in all those who believe; we shall see how necessary it was for those, whose bliss is now so perfect, to have been poor, and despised, and oppressed. We shall see why the "ungodly were in such prosperity." Let us give God credit here for what we shall then fully know; let us adore now what we shall understand hereafter.
Those who take up Christianity on a false ground will never adhere to it. If they adopt it merely for the peace and pleasantness it brings, they will abandon it as soon as they find their adherence to it will bring them into difficulty, distress, or discredit. It seldom answers, therefore, to attempt making proselytes by hanging out false colors. The Christian "endures as seeing him who is invisible." He who adopts Christianity for the sake of immediate enjoyment will not do a virtuous action that is disagreeable to himself, nor resist a temptation that is alluring; present pleasure being his motive. There is no sure basis for virtue but the love of God in Christ Jesus, and the bright hope for which that love is pledged. Without this, as soon as the paths of piety become rough and thorny, we shall stray into pleasanter pastures.
Christianity, however, has her own peculiar advantages. In the transaction of all worldly affairs there are many and great difficulties. There may be several ways out of which to choose. Men of the first understanding are not always certain which of these ways is the best. People of the deepest penetration are full of doubt and perplexity; their minds are undecided how to act, lest, while they pursue one road, they may be neglecting another which might better have conducted them to their proposed end.
In Christianity the case is different, and in this respect easy. As a Christian can have but one object in view, he is also certain there is but one way of attaining it. Where there is but one end, it prevents all possibility of choosing wrong; where there is but one road, it takes away all perplexity as to the course of pursuit. That we so often wander wide of the mark, is not from any lack of plainness in the path, but from the perverseness of our will in not choosing it, from the indolence of our minds in not following it up. In our attachment to earthly things, even the most innocent, there is always a danger of excess; but from this danger we are here perfectly exempt, for there is no possibility of excess in our love to that Being who has demanded the whole heart. This peremptory requisition cuts off all debate. Had God required only a portion, even were it a large portion, we might be puzzled in settling the quantum. We might be plotting how large a part we might venture to keep back, without absolutely forfeiting our safety! we might be haggling for deductions, bargaining for abatements, and be perpetually compromising with our Maker. But the injunction is entire, the command is definite, the portion is unequivocal. Though it is so compressed in the expression, yet it is so expansive and ample in the measure; it is so distinct a claim, so imperative a requisition of all the faculties of the mind and strength, all the affections of the heart and soul, that there is not the least opening left for litigation; no place for anything but absolute, unreserved compliance.
Everything which relates to God is infinite. We must, therefore, while we keep our hearts humble, keep our aims high. Our highest services, indeed, are but finite, imperfect. But as God is unlimited in goodness, he should have our unlimited love. The best we can offer is poor, but let us not withhold that best. He deserves incomparably more than we have to give; let us not give him less than all. If he has ennobled our corrupt nature with spiritual affections, let us not refuse their noblest aspirations to their noblest object. Let him not behold us so prodigally lavishing our affections on the lowest of his bounties, as to have nothing left for himself. As the standard of everything in Christianity is high, let us endeavor to act in it with the highest intention of mind, with the largest use of our faculties. Let us obey him with the most intense love, adore him with the most fervent gratitude. Let us praise him according to his excellent greatness. Let us serve him with all the strength of our capacity, with all the devotion of our will.
Grace being a new principle added to our natural powers, as it determines the desires to a higher object, so it adds vigor to their activity. We shall best prove its dominion over us by desiring to exert ourselves in the cause of heaven with the same energy with which we once exerted ourselves in the cause of the world. The world was too little to fill our whole capacity. Scaliger lamented how much was lost because so fine a poet as Claudian, in his choice of a subject, wanted matter worthy of his talents; but it is the felicity of the Christian to have chosen a theme to which all the powers of his heart and of his understanding will be found inadequate. It is the glory of Christianity to supply an object worthy the entire consecration of every power, faculty, and affection of an immaterial immortal being.
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