PRACTICAL PIETY by Hannah More, 1811
THE HAND OF GOD TO BE ACKNOWLEDGED IN THE DAILY CIRCUMSTANCES OF LIFE
If we would indeed love God, let us acquaint ourselves with Him. God has assured us in His Scriptures that there is no other way to be at peace. As we cannot love an unknown God, so neither can we know him, or even approach a knowledge of Him, except on the terms which He Himself holds out to us. Neither will He save us except by the method which He has Himself prescribed. His very perfections, those just objects of our adoration, all stand in the way of guilty creatures. His justice is the flaming sword which excludes us from the Paradise we have forfeited. His purity is so opposed to our corruptions, His wisdom to our follies, that were it not for His atoning sacrifice, those very attributes which are now our trust, would be our terror. The most opposite images of human conception are required to show us who God is to us in our natural state, and who He is to us after we become regenerate. The "consuming fire" is transformed into essential love.
As we cannot know the Almighty perfectly, so we cannot love Him with that pure flame which animates glorified spirits. But there is a preliminary acquaintance with Him, an initial love of Him, for which He has equipped us by His works, by His word, and by His Spirit. Even in this weak and barren soil some germs will shoot up, some blossoms will open. That celestial plant, when watered by the dews of heaven, and ripened by the Sun of Righteousness will, in a more friendly environment, expand into the fullness of perfection, and bear immortal fruits in the Paradise of God.
A cold and unemotional person, who longs after the fervent love of the supreme Being he sees in others, may take comfort if he finds a similar indifference in his worldly attachments. But if his affections are intense towards the perishable things of earth, while they are dead toward spiritual things, it is not because he is destitute of passions, but only that they are directed toward the wrong object. If however, he loves God with that measure of feeling with which God has endowed him, he will neither be punished nor rewarded for the fact that his stock is greater or smaller than that of his fellow creatures.
In those times when our sense of spiritual things is weak and low, we must not give way to distrust, but warm our hearts with the recollection of our better moments. Our motives to love are not now diminished, but when our spiritual frame is lower, our natural spirits are weaker. Where there is languor there will be discouragements. But we must press on. "Faint yet pursuing," must sometimes be the Christian's motto.
There is more merit (if ever we dare apply so arrogant a word to our worthless efforts), in persevering under depression and discomfort, than in the happiest flow of devotion when the tide of health and spirits runs high. Where there is less gratification there is less interest. Our love may be equally pure though not equally fervent when we persist in serving our heavenly Father with the same constancy, though it may seem that He has withdrawn from us our familiar consolations. Perseverance may bring us to the very qualities the absence for which we have longing, "O tarry the Lord's leisure, be strong and He shall comfort your heart."
We are too ready to imagine that we are spiritual because we know something of religion. We appropriate to ourselves the pious sentiments we read, and we talk as if the thoughts of other men's heads were really the feeling of our own hearts. But piety is not rooted in the memory, but in the affections. The memory provides assistance in this, though it is a bad substitute. Instead of being elated when we meditate on some of the Psalmist's more beautiful passages, we should feel a deep self-abasement on the reflection, that even though our situation may sometimes resemble his, yet how unsuited to our hearts seem the ardent expressions of his repentance, the overflowing of his gratitude, the depth of his submission, the entireness of his self-dedication and the fervor of his love. But one who indeed can once say with him, "You are my portion," will, like him, surrender himself unreservedly to His service.
It is important that we never allow our faith, any more than our love, to be depressed or elevated by mistaking for its operations the ramblings of a busy imagination. Faith must not look for its character to erratic flights of fantasy. Once faith has fixed her foot on the immutable Rock of Ages, fastened her firm eye on the cross, and stretched out her triumphant hand to seize the promised crown, she will not allow her stability to depend on imagination's constant shiftings. She will not be driven to despair by the blackest shades of anxiety, nor be betrayed into a careless security by its most flattering and vivid allurements.
One cause for the fluctuations in our faith is that we are too ready to judge the Almighty as if He were one of us. We judge Him not by His own declarations of what He is and what He will do, but by our own low standards. Because we are too little disposed to forgive those who have offended us, therefore we conclude that God is not ready to pardon our offenses. We suspect Him of being implacable, because we are apt to be so. When we do forgive, it is usually grudgingly and superficially, therefore we infer that God will not forgive freely and fully. We make a hypocritical distinction between forgiving and forgetting injuries. But God cleans the slate when He grants the pardon. He not only says, "your sins and your iniquities will I forgive," but "I will remember them no more."
We are disposed to emphasize the smallness of our offenses, as a plea for their forgiveness; whereas God, to exhibit the boundlessness of His own mercy, has taught us to enter a plea directly contrary to that: "Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great." To natural reason this argument of David is most extraordinary. But while he felt that the greatness of his own iniquity left him no human resource, he felt that God's mercy was greater even than his sin. What a large, what a magnificent picture this gives us of God's power and goodness, that, instead of pleading the smallness of our own offenses as a motive for pardon, we plead only the abundance of the divine compassion!
We are told that it is the duty of the Christian to "seek God." Yet it would be less repulsive to our corrupt nature to go on a pilgrimage to distant lands than to seek Him within our own hearts. Our own heart is truly an unknown territory, a land more foreign to us than the regions of the polar circle. Yet that heart is the place in which we must seek an acquaintance with God. It is there we must worship Him, if we would worship Him in spirit and in truth.
But alas, the heart is not a home for a worldly man; it is scarcely a home for a Christian. If business and pleasure are our natural inclinations, the resulting emptiness, sloth and insensibility—too often worse than the inclinations themselves, disqualify too many Christians and make them unwilling to pursue spiritual things.
I have observed that a common beggar if overtaken by a shower of rain, would rather find shelter under the wall of a churchyard, than to enter through the open church door while divine services are going on. It is less annoying to him to be drenched with the storm, than to enjoy the convenience of a shelter and a seat, if he must enjoy them at the heavy price of listening to the sermon.
While we condemn the beggar, let us look into our own hearts; can we not detect some of the same indolence, reticence, and distaste for serious things? Do we not find that we sometimes prefer our very pains, vexations and inconveniences to communing with our Maker? Happy are we if we would not rather be absorbed in our petty cares and little disturbances. We too often make them the means of occupying our minds and of drawing them away from that devout fellowship with God which demands the liveliest exercise of our rational powers, and the highest elevation of our spiritual affections. It should be easily understood that the dread of being driven to this sacred fellowship is a chief cause of that activity and restlessness which sets the world in such perpetual motion.
Though we are ready to express our general confidence in God's goodness, what practical evidences can we produce to prove that we really do trust Him? Does this trust deliver us from worldly anxiety? Does it free us from the same agitation of spirits which those who make no such profession endure? Does it relieve the mind of doubt and distrust? Does it fortify us against temptations? Does it produce in us "that work of righteousness which is peace," that effect of righteousness which is "quietness and assurance forever"? Do we commit ourselves and our concerns to God in word merely, or in reality? Does this implicit reliance simplify our desires? Does it induce us to credit the testimony of His word and the promises of His Gospel? Do we not entertain some secret suspicions of His faithfulness and truth in our hearts when we persuade others in an attempt to persuade ourselves that we unreservedly trust Him?
In the preceding chapter we endeavored to illustrate how our lack of love for God is exposed when we are slower to vindicate the divine conduct than to justify the action of a mere human acquaintance. The same illustration may express our reluctance to trust in God. If a trusted friend does us a kindness, though he may not think it necessary to explain the particular manner in which he intends to do it, we take him at his word. Assured of the result, we are neither inquisitive about the mode nor the details. But do we treat our Almighty Friend with the same liberal confidence? Do we not murmur because we do not know where He is leading us and cannot follow His movements step by step? Do we wait for the development of His plan in full assurance that the results will be ultimately good? Do we trust that He is abundantly able to do more for us than we can ask or think, if by our suspicions we do not offend Him, and if by our infidelity we do not provoke Him? In short, do we not think ourselves utterly undone, when we have only Providence to trust in?
We are ready to acknowledge God in His mercies—no, we confess Him in the daily enjoyments of life. In some of these common mercies, such as a bright day, a refreshing shower, or delightful scene, we discover that an excitement of spirits, a sort of carnal enjoyment, though of a refined nature, mixes itself with our devotional feelings; and though we confess and adore the bountiful Giver, we do it with a little mixture of self-complacency and human gratification. Fortunately He pardons and accepts us for this mixture.
But we must also look for Him in scenes less animating; we must acknowledge Him on occasions less exhilarating, less gratifying to our senses. It is not only in His promises that God manifests His mercy. His threatenings are proofs of the same compassionate love. His warnings are intended to snatch us from punishment.
We may also trace His hand not only in the wonderful visitations of life, not only in the severer dispensations of His providence, but in vexations so trivial that we should hesitate to recognize that they are providential appointments, if we did not know that our daily life is made up of unimportant circumstances rather than of great events. As they are of sufficient importance to exercise the Christian desires and affections, we may trace the hand of our Heavenly Father in those daily little disappointments, the hourly vexations which occur even in the most prosperous circumstances, and which are inseparable from the condition of humanity. We must trace that same beneficent hand, secretly at work for our purification and our correction, in the imperfections and unpleasantness of those around us, in the perverseness of those with whom we transact business, and in those interruptions which break in upon our favorite engagements.
We are perhaps too much addicted to our innocent delights, or we are too fond of our leisure, our learning or even of our religious devotion. But while we say with Peter, "It is good for us to he here," the divine vision is withdrawn, and we are compelled to come down from the mount. Or perhaps we do not use our time of prayer for the purposes for which it was granted, and to which we had resolved to devote it, and our time is broken in upon to make us more sensible of its value. Or we feel a self-satisfaction in our leisure, a pride in our books or of the good things we are intending to say or do. A check then becomes necessary, but it is given in a most imperceptible way. The hand that gives it is unseen, is unsuspected, yet it is the same gracious hand which directs the more important events of life. Some annoying interruption breaks in on our projected privacy and calls us to a sacrifice of our inclination, to a renunciation of our own will. These incessant tests of our temper, if well received, may be more salutary to the mind than the finest passage we had intended to read, or the most sublime sentiment we had fancied to write.
Instead of searching for great mortifications, as a certain class of pious writers recommends, let us cheerfully bear and diligently receive these smaller trials which God prepares for us. Submission to a cross which He inflicts, to a disappointment which He sends, to a contradiction of our self-love which He appoints, is a far better exercise than great penances of our own choosing. Perpetual conquests over impatience, ill temper and self-will, indicate a better spirit than any self-imposed mortifications. We may traverse oceans and scale mountains on uncommanded pilgrimages without pleasing God. We may please Him without any other exertion than by crossing our own will.
Perhaps you had been busying your imagination with some projected scheme, not only lawful, but laudable. The design was basically good, but the involvement of your own will might interfere and even taint the purity of your best intentions. Your motives were so mixed that it was difficult to separate them. Sudden sickness obstructed the design. You naturally lament the failure, not perceiving that however good the work might be for others, the sickness was better for yourself. An act of charity was in your intention, but God saw that you should have required the exercise of a more difficult virtue; that the humility and resignation, the patience and contrition of a sick bed were more necessary for you.
He accepts your plan as far as it was designed for His glory, but then He calls you to other duties, which were more honoring for Him, and of which the Master was the better judge. He sets aside your work and orders you to wait, which may be the more difficult part of your task. To the extent that your motive was pure, you will receive the reward of your unperformed charity, though not the gratification of the performance. If it was not pure, you are rescued from the danger attending a right action performed on a worldly principle. You may be the better Christian, though one good deed is subtracted from your catalogue.
By a life of activity and usefulness, you would have, perhaps, attracted the public esteem. The love of prestige begins to mix itself with your better motives. You do not, it is presumed, act entirely, or chiefly for human applause; but you are too concerned about it. It is a delicious poison which begins to infuse itself into your purest cup. You acknowledge indeed the sublimity of higher motives, but you begin to feel that the human incentive is necessary, and your spirits would flag if it were withdrawn. This yearning for praise would gradually tarnish the purity of your best actions. He who sees your heart as well as your works, mercifully snatches you from the perils of prosperity.
Malice in others may be awakened. Your most meritorious actions are ascribed to the most corrupt motives. You are attacked just where your character is most vulnerable. The enemies whom your success raised up, are raised up by God, not to punish you but to save you. We are far from suggesting that He can ever be the author of evil; He does not excite or approve the attack, but He uses your accusers as instruments of your purification. Your fame was too dear to you. It is a costly sacrifice, but God requires it. It must be offered up. You would gladly embrace another offering, but this is the offering He chooses. And while He graciously continues to employ you for His glory, He thus teaches you to renounce your own. He sends this trial as a test, by which you are to try yourself. He thus instructs you not to abandon your Christian exertions, but to elevate the principle which inspired them, to rid it from all impure mixtures.
By thus stripping away the most engaging duties of this dangerous delight, by infusing some drops of bitterness into our sweetest drink, He graciously compels us to return to Himself. By taking away the buttresses by which we are perpetually propping up our sagging self-images, they fall to the ground. We are, as it were, driven back to Him, who condescends to receive us, though He knows we would not have returned to Him if everything else had not failed us. He makes us feel our weakness, that we may resort to His strength. He makes us sensible of our hitherto unperceived sins, that we may take refuge in His everlasting compassion.
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