PRACTICAL PIETY by Hannah More, 1811
ON THE COMPARATIVELY SMALL FAULTS AND VIRTUES
The "Fishers of Men," as if exclusively bent on catching the greater sinners, often make the openings of the moral net so wide that it cannot retain sinners of more ordinary size which everywhere abound. Their catch might be more abundant, if the net were woven tighter so the smaller, slipperier sinner could not slide through. Such souls, having happily escaped entanglement, plunge back again into their native element, enjoy their escape, and hope for time to grow bigger before they are in danger of being caught.
It is important to practice the smaller virtues, to avoid scrupulously the lesser sins, and to bear patiently with minor trials. The sin of always yielding tends to produce debility of mind which brings defeat, while the grace of always resisting in comparatively small points tends to produce that vigor of mind on which hangs victory.
Conscience is moral discernment. It quickly perceives good and evil and prompts the mind to adopt the one or avoid the other. God has furnished the body with senses, and the soul with conscience, an instinct to avoid the approach of danger and a spontaneous reaction to any attack whose suddenness and surprise allows no time for thoughtful consideration. If kept tenderly alive by paying continual attention to its admonitions, an enlightened conscience would especially preserve us from those smaller sins, and stimulate us to those lesser duties which we are falsely apt to overlook. We are prone to think they are too insignificant to be judged in the court of faith or too trivial to be weighed by the standard of Scripture.
By cherishing this quick sense of rectitude—this sudden flash from heaven, which is in fact the motion of the Spirit—we intuitively reject what is wrong before we have time to examine why it is wrong, and seize on what is right before we have time to examine why it is right. Should we not then be careful how we extinguish this sacred spark? Will anything be more likely to extinguish it than to neglect its hourly reminders to perform the smaller duties? Will anything more effectively smother it than to ignore the lesser faults, which make up a large part of human life, and will naturally fix and determine our character? Will not our neglect or observance of the voice of conscience incline or indispose us for those more important duties, of which these smaller ones are connecting links?
Vices derive their existence from wildness, confusion and disorganization. The discord of the passions is owing to their having different views, conflicting aims, and opposite ends. The rebellious vices have no common head. Each is all to itself. They promote their own operations by disturbing those of others, but in disturbing, they do not destroy them. Though they are all of one family, they live on no friendly terms. Extravagance hates covetousness as much as if it were a virtue. The life of every sin is a life of conflict which causes the torment, but not the death of its opposite sin.
On the other hand, without being united the Christian graces could not be perfected. The smaller virtues are the threads and filaments which gently but firmly tie them together. There is an attractive power in goodness which draws each part to the other. This harmony of the virtues is derived from their having one common center in which all meet. In vice there is a strong repulsion. Though bad men seek each other, they do not love each other. Each seeks the other in order to promote his own purposes, but at the same time he hates him.
Perhaps the beauty of the lesser virtues may be illustrated by gazing into the heavens at that long and luminous track of minute and almost imperceptible stars. Though separately they are too inconsiderable to attract attention, yet from their number and confluence they form that soft and shining stream of light which is everywhere discernible.
Every Christian should consider religion as a fort which he is called to defend. The lowest soldier in the army, if he add patriotism to valor, will fight as earnestly as if the glory of the whole contest depended on his single arm. But he brings his watchfulness as well as his courage into action. He strenuously defends every pass he is appointed to guard, without inquiring whether it be great or small. There is not any defect in religion or morals so little as to be of no consequence. Worldly things may be little because their aim and end may be little. Things are great or small, not according to their apparent importance, but according to the magnitude of their purpose and the importance of their consequences.
The acquisition of even the smallest virtue is actually a conquest over the opposite vice and doubles our moral strength. The spiritual enemy has one subject less, and the conqueror one virtue more. By being negligent in small things, we are not aware how much we injure Christianity in the eyes of the world. How can we expect people to believe that we are in earnest in great points when they see that we cannot withstand a trivial temptation? At a distance they may respect of our general characters. Then they get to know us and discover the same failings, littleness, and bad tempers as they have been accustomed to encounter in the most ordinary people. Shall not the Christian be anxious to support the credit of his holy profession by not betraying in everyday life any temperament that is inconsistent with his faith?
It is not difficult to attract respect on great occasions, where we are kept faithful by knowing that the public eye is fixed upon us. Then it is easy to maintain our dignity, but to labor to maintain it in the seclusion of domestic privacy requires more watchfulness, and is no less a duty for the consistent Christian.
Our neglect of minor duties and virtues is particularly injurious to the minds of our families. If they see us "weak and infirm of purpose," peevish, irresolute, capricious, passionate or inconsistent in our daily conduct, they will not give us credit for those higher qualities which we may possess and those superior duties which we may be more careful to fulfill. They may not see evidence by which to judge whether our thinking is true; but there will be obvious and decisive proofs of the state and temper of our hearts. Our greater qualities will do them little good, while our lesser but incessant faults do them much injury. Seeing us so defective in the daily course of our behavior at home, though our children may obey us because they are obliged to it, they will neither love nor esteem us enough to be influenced by our instruction or advice.
In all that relates to God and to himself, the Christian knows of no small faults. He considers sins, whatever their magnitude, as an offence against his Maker. Nothing that offends Him can be insignificant. Nothing can be trifling that makes a bad habit fasten itself to us. Faults which we are accustomed to consider as small are apt to be repeated without reservation. The habit of committing them is strengthened by the repetition. Frequency renders us at first indifferent, and then insensible. The hopelessness attending a long-indulged custom generates carelessness, until for lack of exercise, the power of resistance is first weakened, then destroyed.
But there is a still more serious point of view to consider. Do small faults, continually repeated, always retain their original weakness? Is a bad temper which is never repressed not worse after years of indulgence than when we first gave the reins to it? Does that which we first allowed ourselves under the name of harmless levity on serious subjects, never proceed to profaneness? Does what was once admired as proper spirit, never grow into pride, never swell into insolence? Does the habit of loose talking or allowed exaggeration never lead to falsehood, never move into deceit? Before we positively determine that small faults are innocent, we must try to prove that they shall never outgrow their primitive dimensions. We must make certain that the infant shall never become a giant.
For example, procrastination is reckoned among the most excusable of our faults, and weighs so lightly on our minds that we scarcely apologize for it. But, what if, from mere sloth and indolence, we had put off giving assistance to one friend under distress, or advice to another under temptation. Can we be sure that had we not delayed we might have preserved the well-being of the one, or saved the soul of the other?
It is not enough that we perform duties; we must perform them at the right time. We must do the duty of every day in its own season. Every day has it own demanding duties; we must not depend upon today for fulfilling those which we neglected yesterday, for today might not have been granted to us. Tomorrow will be equally demanding with its own duties; and the succeeding day, if we live to see it, will be ready with its proper claims.
Indecision, though it is not so often caused by reflection as by the lack of it, may be just as mischievous, for if we spend too much time in balancing probabilities, the period for action is lost. While we are busily considering difficulties which may never occur, reconciling differences which perhaps do not exist, and trying to balance things of nearly the same weight, the opportunity is lost for producing that good which a firm and bold decision would have effected.
Idleness, though itself the most inactive of all the vices, is however the path by which they all enter, the stage on which they all act. Though supremely passive itself, it lends a willing hand to all evil. It aids and encourages every sin. If it does nothing itself, it connives all the mischief that is done by others.
Vanity is exceedingly misplaced when ranked with small faults. It is under the guise of harmlessness that it does all its mischief. Vanity is often found in the company of great virtues, and by mixing itself in it, mars the whole collection. The use our spiritual enemy makes of it is a master stroke. When he cannot prevent us from doing right actions he can accomplish his purpose almost as well by making us vain about them. When he cannot deprive others of our good works he can defeat the effect in us by poisoning our motive. When he cannot rob others of the good effect of the deed, he can gain his point by robbing the doer of his reward.
Irritability is another of the minor miseries. Life itself, though sufficiently unhappy, cannot devise misfortunes as often as the irritable person can supply impatience. Violence and belligerence are the common resource of those whose knowledge is small, and whose arguments are weak. Anger is the common refuge of insignificance. People who feel their character to be slight, hope to give it weight by inflation. But the blown balloon at its fullest distension is still empty.
Trifling is ranked among the venial faults. But, consider that time is one grand gift given to us in order that we may secure eternal life. If we trifle away that time so as to lose that eternal life, then it will serve to fulfill the very aim of sin. A life devoted to trifles not only takes away the inclination, but the capacity for higher pursuits. The truths of Christianity scarcely have more influence on a frivolous than on a depraved character. If the mind is so absorbed not merely with what is vicious, but with what is useless, it loses all interest in a life of piety. It matters little what causes this lack of interest. If such a fault cannot be accused of being a great moral evil, it at least reveals a low state of mind that a being who has eternity at stake can abandon itself to trivial pursuits. If the great concern of life cannot be secured without habitual watchfulness, how is it to be secured by habitual carelessness? It will afford little comfort to the trifler when at the last reckoning he accuses the more ostensible offender of worse behavior. The trifler will not be weighed in the scale with the profligate, but in the balance of the sanctuary.
Some will rationalize and excuse their lesser faults. They may even determine at what period of their lives such vices may be adopted without discredit, at what age one bad habit may give way to another more in character. Having accepted it as a matter of course that to a certain age certain faults are neutral, they proceed to act as if they even thought them inevitable.
But let us not believe that any failing, much less any vice, is necessarily a part of any particular state or age, or that it is irresistible at any time. We may accustom ourselves to talk of vanity and extravagance as belonging to the young, and avarice and cantankerousness to old, until the next step will be that we shall think ourselves justified in adopting them. Whoever is eager to find excuses for vice and folly will feel less able to resist them.
We make a final excuse for ourselves when we ask whether or not the evil is of a greater or lesser magnitude. If the fault is great, we lament our inability to resist it, and if small, we deny the importance of doing so. We plead that we cannot withstand a great temptation, and that a small one is not worth withstanding. We rationalize that if the temptation or the fault is great, we should resist it because of its very magnitude, and if it is small, giving it up can cost but little. The conscientious habit of conquering the lesser sin, however, will give considerable strength towards subduing the greater.
Then there is the person who, winding himself up occasionally to certain 'shining actions', thinks himself fully justified in breaking loose from the shackles of restraint in smaller things. He is not ashamed to gain favor through good deeds, at the same time permitting himself indulgences which, though allowed, are far from innocent. He thus secures to himself praise and popularity by means that are sure to gain it, and immunity from rebuke as he indulges himself in his favorite fault, practically exclaiming, "Is it not a little one?"
Vanity is at the bottom of almost all, may we not say, of all our sins. We think more of distinguishing than of saving ourselves. We overlook the hourly occasions which occur for serving, aiding and comforting those around us, while we perform an act of well-known generosity. The habit in the former case, however, better shows the disposition and bent of the mind, than the solitary act of splendor. The apostle does not say whatever great things you do, but "whatever things you do, do all to the glory of God." Actions are less weighed by their bulk than their motive. The racer proceeds in his course more effectively by a steady unslackened pace, than by starts of violent but unequal effort.
That great moral law, that rule of the highest court of appeal, to which every man can always resort is this: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you." This law, if faithfully obeyed, would be an infallible remedy for all the disorders of self-love, and would establish the exercise of all the smaller virtues. Its strict observance would not only put a stop to all injustice, but to all unkindness; not only to oppressive acts, but to cruel speech. Even haughty looks and arrogant gestures would be banished from the face of society if we asked ourselves how we should like to receive what we are not ashamed to give.
Until we thus morally trade place, person, and circumstance with those of our brother, we shall never treat him with the tenderness this gracious law enjoins. To treat a fellow creature with harsh language is not indeed a crime like robbing him of his estate or destroying his reputation. They are, however, all the offspring of the same family. They are the same in quality, though not in degree. All flow from the same fountain, though in streams of different magnitude. All are indications of a departure from that principle which is included in the law of love.
The reason those called "religious people" often differ so little from others in small trials is that instead of bringing religion to their aid in their lesser vexations, they either allow the disturbances to prey upon their minds, or they look to the wrong things for their removal. Those who are rendered unhappy by frivolous troubles, seek comfort in frivolous enjoyments. But we should apply the same remedy to ordinary trials as to great ones. For just as small anxieties spring from the same cause as great trials namely, the uncertain and imperfect condition of human life—so they require the same remedy. Meeting common cares with a right spirit would impart a smoothness to the temper, a spirit of cheerfulness to the heart which would mightily break the force of heavier trials.
You seek help in your faith in dealing with great evils. Why does it not occur to you to seek it in the less? Is it that you think the instrument greater than the occasion demands? You would exercise your faith at the loss of your child, so exercise it at the loss of your temper. As no calamity is too great for the power of Christianity to mitigate, so none is too small to experience its beneficial results.
Our behavior under the ordinary accidents of life forms a characteristic distinction between different classes of Christians. Those least advanced resort to religion on great occasions. What makes it appear of so little comparative value is that the medicine prepared by the great Physician is discarded instead of being taken. The patient does not use it except in extreme cases. A remedy, however potent, if not applied, can bring no healing. But he who has adopted one fixed rule for the government of his life, will try to keep the remedy in perpetual use.
Mundane duties are not great in themselves, but they become important by being constantly demanded. They make up in frequency what they lack in magnitude. How few of us are called to carry the doctrines of Christianity into distant lands, but which of us is not called every day to adorn those doctrines by gentleness in our own bearing, by kindness and patience to all about us?
Vanity provides no motive for performing unseen duties. No love of fame inspires that virtue of which fame will never hear. There can be but one motive, and that the purest, for the exercise of virtues when the report of them will never reach beyond the little circle whose happiness they promote. They do not fill the world with our renown, but they fill our own family with comfort. And if they have the love of God for their motive, they will have His favor for their reward.
What we refer to here are habitual and unresisted faults: habitual, because they go by unresisted, and allowed because they are considered to be too insignificant to call for resistance. Faults into which we fall inadvertently, though that is no reason for committing them, may not be without their uses. When we see them for what they are, they renew the conviction of our own sinful nature, make us little in our own eyes, increase our sense of dependence on God, promote watchfulness, deepen humility, and quicken repentance.
We must, however, be careful not to entangle our consciences with groundless apprehensions. We have a merciful Father, not a hard master to deal with. We must not harass our minds with a suspicious dread, as if the Almighty were laying snares to entrap us. Nor should we be terrified with imaginary fears, as if He were on the watch to punish every casual error. Being immutable and impeccable is not part of human nature. He who made us best knows of what we are made. Our compassionate High Priest will bear with much infirmity and will pardon much involuntary weakness.
But every man who looks into his own heart must know the difficulties he has in serving God faithfully. Yet, though he earnestly desires to serve Him, it is lamentable that he is not more attentive to remove all that hinders him by trying to avoid the inferior sins, resisting the lesser temptations, and by practicing the smaller virtues. The neglect of these obstructs his way, and keeps him back in the performance of higher duties. Instead of little renunciations being grievous, and slight self-denials being hardship, they in reality soften grievances and diminish hardship. They are the private drill which trains us for public service.
We are hourly furnished with occasions for showing our piety by the spirit in which the quiet, unobserved actions of life are performed. The sacrifices may be too little to be observed except by him to whom they are offered. But small services, scarcely perceptible to any eye but his for whom they are made, bear the true character of love to God, as they are the infallible marks of charity to our fellow creatures.
By enjoining small duties, the spirit of which is everywhere implied in the Gospel, God's intention seems to be to make the great ones easier for us. He makes the light yoke of Christ still lighter, not by lessening duty, but by increasing its ease through its familiarity. These little habits at once indicate the sentiment of the soul and improve it.
It is an awesome consideration, and one which every Christian should bring home to our own bosoms, whether or not small faults willfully persisted in, may in time not only dim the light of conscience, but extinguish the spirit of grace. Will indulgence in small faults ultimately dissolve all power of resistance against great evils? We should earnestly seek to remember that perhaps among the first objects which may meet our eyes when we open them on the eternal world, may be a tremendous book. In that book, together with our great and actual sins, may be recorded in no less prominent characters, an ample page of omissions and of neglected opportunities. There we may read a list of those good intentions, which indolence, indecision, thoughtlessness, vanity, trifling, and procrastination served to frustrate and to prevent.
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