PRACTICAL PIETY by Hannah More, 1811
In this age of exploration every kind of ignorance is regarded as dishonorable. In almost every sort of knowledge there is a competition for superiority. It is true that intellectual attainments are never to be undervalued. All knowledge is excellent as far as it goes, and as long as it lasts. But how short the period is before "knowledge will pass away!" Shall we then regard it as dishonorable to be ignorant in anything which relates to life and literature, to taste and science, and not feel ashamed to live in ignorance of our own hearts?
To have a flourishing estate, but a mind in disorder; to keep exact accounts with others, but no reckoning with our Maker; to have an accurate knowledge of profit or loss in our business, but to remain utterly ignorant as to whether our spiritual state is improving or declining; to calculate at the end of every year how much we have increased or diminished our fortune, but to be careless whether we have gained or lost in faith and holiness—this is a grievous miscalculation of the comparative value of things. To pay attention to things in an inverse proportion to their importance is surely proof that our learning has not improved our judgment.
The distinguishing faculty of self-inspection would not have been given us if it had not been intended that we should use it regularly. It is surely just as sensible to look well to our spiritual as to our worldly possessions. We have appetites to control, imaginations to restrain, tempers to regulate, passions to subdue, and how can this internal work be done, how can our thoughts be kept within proper bounds, how can appropriate direction be given to our affections, how can our inward state be preserved from continual insurrection if we do not exercise this capacity to inspect ourselves? Without constant discipline, imagination will become an outlaw and conscience a rebel.
This inward eye is given to us for a continual watch upon the soul. Both the formation and the growth of our moral and religious character depends upon a constant vigilance over the soul's interior movements. A sporadic glance is not enough for a thing so deep. An unsteady view will not suffice for a thing so wavering, nor a casual look for a thing so deceitful as the human heart. Such an object must be observed under a variety of aspects, because it is always shifting its position, always changing its appearances.
We should examine not only our conduct but our opinions. Our actions themselves will be obvious enough. It is our inward motivations which require the scrutiny. These we should follow to their remotest springs, scrutinize to their deepest recesses, trace through their most perplexing windings. And lest we should in our pursuit wander in uncertainty and blindness, let us make use of that guiding clue which the Almighty has furnished by His Word and by His Spirit. He will conduct us through the intricacies of this labyrinth. "What I know not, teach me" should be our constant petition in all our researches.
If we would turn our thoughts inward we would abate much of the self-complacency with which we swallow the flattery of others. If we would examine our motives keenly, we would frequently blush at the praises our actions receive. Let us then conscientiously enquire not only what we do, but why we do it.
Self-inspection is the only means to preserve us from self-conceit. Self-acquaintance will give us a far more deep and intimate knowledge of our own errors than we can possibly have by curiously inquiring into the errors of others. We are eager enough to blame them without knowing their motives. We are just as eager to vindicate ourselves, though we cannot be entirely ignorant of our own. Thus two virtues will be acquired by the same act of self-examination: humility and candor. An impartial review of our own infirmities is the likeliest way to make us tender and compassionate to those of others.
We shall not be liable to overrate our own judgment when we perceive that it often forms such false estimates. It is so captivated with trifles, so elated with petty successes, so dejected with little disappointments, that when others commend our charity, which we know is so cold; when others extol our piety, which we feel to be so dead; when they applaud the strength of our faith, which we know to be so faint and feeble, we cannot possibly be intoxicated with the applause which never would have been given, had the applauder known us as we know, or ought to know ourselves.
If we contradict him, it may only be to have a further virtue attributed to us—humility, which perhaps we deserve to have ascribed to us as little as those which we have been renouncing. If we kept a sharp lookout we would not be proud of praises which cannot apply to us, but would rather grieve at the fraud we commit by tacitly accepting a character to which we have so little real pretension. To be delighted at finding that people think so much better of us than we are conscious of deserving is in effect to rejoice in the success of our own deceit.
We shall also become more patient and forgiving, and shall better endure the harsh judgment of others when we perceive that their opinion of us nearly coincides with our own real, though unacknowledged, sentiments. There is much less injury incurred by others thinking too badly of us than in our thinking too well of ourselves.
It is evident then, that to live at random, without any self-examination, is not the life of a rational, much less an immortal, least of all an accountable being. To pray occasionally, without a deliberate course of prayer, to be liberal without a plan, and charitable without a motive, to let the mind float on the current of public opinion, to be every hour liable to death without any habitual preparation for it, to carry within us a soul which we believe will exist through all the countless ages of eternity, and yet to make little enquiry whether that eternity is likely to be happy or miserable—all this is totally thoughtless. If adopted in the ordinary concerns of life, such a way to live would ruin a man's reputation for common sense. Yet he who lives without self-examination is absolutely guilty of this folly.
Nothing more plainly shows us what weak, vacillating creatures we are than the difficulty we find in holding ourselves to the very self-scrutiny we had deliberately resolved on. Some trifle which we should be ashamed to dwell upon at any time intrudes itself on the moments dedicated to serious thought. Recollection is interrupted. The whole chain of reflection is broken so that the scattered links cannot again be united. And so inconsistent are we that we are sometimes not sorry to have a plausible pretense for interrupting the very employment to which we had just committed ourselves. For lack of this inward acquaintance, we remain in utter ignorance of our inability to meet even the ordinary trials of life with cheerfulness.
Nursed in the lap of luxury, we have no notion that we have but a loose hold on the things of this world, and of the world itself. But let some accident take away not the world, but some trifle on which we thought we set no value while we possessed it, we find to our astonishment that we hold, not the world only, but even this trivial possession with a pretty tight grasp. Such detections of our self-ignorance ought at least to humble us.
There is a spurious sort of self-examination which does not serve to enlighten but to blind. People who have given up some notorious vice, who have softened some shades of a glaring sin, or substituted some outward forms in the place of open irreligion, may look on their change of character with pleasure. They compare themselves with what they were and view the alteration with self-complacency. They deceive themselves by taking their standard from their former conduct, or from the character of others who are worse, instead of taking it from the unerring rule of Scripture. He looks more at the discredit than the sinfulness of his former life. Being more ashamed of what is disreputable than grieved at what is vicious, he is, in this state of shallow reformation, more in danger in proportion as he gives himself more credit. He is not aware that having a fault or two less will not carry him to heaven while his heart is still glued to the world and estranged from God.
If we ever look into our hearts at all, we are naturally most inclined to it when we think we have been acting right. In this case, self-inspection gratifies self-love. We have no great difficulty in directing our attention to an object when that object presents us with pleasing images.
But it is a painful effort to compel the mind to turn in on itself when the view only presents subjects for regret and remorse. This painful duty however must be performed, and will bring more healing in proportion as it is less pleasant. Let us establish it into a habit to ponder our faults. We need not feed our vanity with the recollection of our virtues. They will, if that vanity does not obliterate them, be recorded elsewhere.
We are also most disposed to look at those parts of our character which will best bear it, and which consequently least need it; at those parts which afford most self-gratification. If a covetous man, for instance, examines himself, instead of turning his attention to the guilty part, he applies the probe where he knows it will not go very deep; he turns from his greed to that abstention of which his very avarice is perhaps the source. Another, who is the slave of passion, fondly rests upon some act of generosity, which he considers as a fair exchange for some favorite vice that would cost him more to renounce than he is willing to part with.
We are all too much disposed to dwell on that smiling side of the view which pleases and deceives us, and to shut our eyes upon that part which we do not choose to see, because we are resolved not to stop that particular sin. Self-love always holds a screen between the superficial self-examiner and his faults. The nominal Christian wraps himself up in forms which he makes himself believe are religion. He exults in what he does, overlooks what he ought to do and never suspects that what is done at all can be done amiss.
We are usually so indolent that we seldom examine a truth on more than one side, so we generally take care that it shall be that side which shall confirm some old prejudices. We will not take pains to correct those prejudices and to rectify our judgment, lest it should oblige us to discard a favorite opinion. We are still as eager to judge and as presumptuous to decide as if we fully possessed the grounds on which a sound judgment may be made, and a just decision formed.
We should watch ourselves whether we observe a simple rule of truth and justice in our conversations as well as in our ordinary transactions. Are we exact in our measures of commendation and censure? Do we not bestow extravagant praise where simple approval alone is due? Do we not withhold commendation, where if given, it would support modesty and encourage merit? Do we reprimand as immoral what deserves only a slight censure as imprudent? Do we not sometimes pretend to overrate ordinary merit in the hope of securing to ourselves the reputation of candor, so that we may on other occasions, with less suspicion, depreciate established excellence? We may be extolling ordinary merit because we think that it can come into no competition with us, and we denigrate excellence because it obviously eclipses us.
It is only by scrutinizing the heart that we can know it. Any careless observer may see that his watch has stopped by casting an eye on its face, but it is only the expert who takes it to pieces and examines every spring and every wheel separately. By ascertaining the precise cause of the problem he sets the watch right and restores the hidden movements.
The illusions of intellectual vision would be corrected by a close habit of cultivating an acquaintance with our hearts. We fill much too large a space in our own imaginations and fancy that we take more room in the world than Providence assigns to an individual who has to divide his allotment with so many millions who are all of equal importance in their own eyes. The conscientious practice we have been recommending would greatly assist in reducing us to our proper dimensions and limiting us to our proper place. We would be astonished if we could see our real smallness and the speck we actually occupy. When shall we learn from our own feelings how much consequence every person is to himself or herself?
Self-examination must not be occasional, but regular. Let us settle our accounts frequently. Little articles will run up to a large amount if they are not cleared off. Even our innocent days, as we may choose to call them, will not have passed without furnishing their measure of faults. Our deadness in devotion, our eagerness for human applause, our care to conceal our faults rather than to correct them, our negligent performance of some relative duty, our imprudence in conversation, especially at table, our inconsideration, driving to the very edge of permitted indulgences—let us keep all our numerous items in small sums. We can examine them while the particulars are fresh in our memory. Otherwise, we may find when we come to settle the grand account, (the final judgement), that these faults have not been forgotten.
And let one subject of our frequent inquiry be to ask whether, since we last examined our hearts, our secular affairs or our eternal concerns have had the predominance. We do not mean which of them occupied most of our time. Naturally, the larger portion must necessarily be absorbed in the cares of the present life. What we need to ask is how have we conducted ourselves when a competition arose between the interests of both.
That general burst of sins which so frequently rushes in on the consciences of the dying would be much moderated by previous habitual self-examination. The sorrow must be as precise as the sin. Indefinite repentance is no repentance. And it is one helpful use of self-enquiry to remind us that all unforsaken sins are unrepented sins.
To a Christian there is this substantial comfort which follows minute self-inspection: when we find fewer sins to be noted and more victories over temptations obtained, we have solid evidence of our advancement which well repays our trouble.
The faithful searcher into his own heart feels himself in the situation of Ezekiel, who being conducted in vision from one idol to another, the spirit at sight of each repeatedly exclaims, "Here is another abomination!" The prophet was commanded to dig deeper, and the further he penetrated, the more evils he found, while the spirit continued to cry out, "I will show you yet more abominations."
Self-examination, by detecting self-love, self-denial by weakening its powers and self-government by reducing its tyranny, turns the disposition of the soul from its natural bias, controls the disorderly appetite, and under the influence of divine grace restores to the person the dominion over himself that God first gave us over the lower creatures. Desires, passions and appetites are brought to move somewhat more in their appointed order—as subjects, not tyrants. In the end, self-examination restores us to dominion over our own will, and in good measure enthrones us in that empire which we forfeited by sin.
We now begin to survey our interior, the awful world within, not with complacency but with the control of a sovereign, and we still find too much rebellion to feel ourselves secure. Therefore we continue our inspection with vigilance but without agitation. We continue to experience a remainder of insubordination and disorder, but this calls forth a stricter supervision rather than driving us to relax our discipline.
This self-inspection somewhat resembles the correction of a literary effort. After many careful revisions, though some grosser faults may be removed, though the errors are neither quite so numerous nor so glaring as at first, yet the critic perpetually perceives faults which he had not perceived before. Negligences appear which he had overlooked and even defects show up which had passed as benefits before. He finds much to amend and even to erase in what he had previously admired. When by rigorous reprimands the most acknowledged faults are corrected, his critical discernment, improved by exercise and a greater familiarity with his subject, still detects and will forever detect new imperfections. But he neither throws aside his work nor leaves off his criticism. If it does not make the work more perfect, it will at least make the author more humble. Conscious that if it is not quite so bad as it was, it is still an immeasurable distance from the desired excellence.
Is it not astonishing that we should go on repeating periodically, "Search me, O God, and know my faults," yet neglect to examine ourselves? Is there not something more like defiance than devotion to invite the inspection of Omniscience to that heart which we ourselves neglect to inspect? How can any of us as Christians solemnly cry out to God, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life," while we neglect to examine our hearts and are afraid of testing our thoughts, dreading to ask if there be any way of wickedness in us, knowing that the inquiry ought to lead to the expulsion of sin?
In our self-inquisition let us fortify our virtue by calling things by their proper names. Self-love is particularly ingenious in inventing disguises of this kind. Let us lay them open, strip them bare, face them and give them as little quarter as if they were the faults of another. Let us not call wounded pride, sensitivity. Self-love is made up of soft and sickly sensibilities. Not that sensibility which melts at the sorrows of others, but that which cannot endure the least suffering itself. It is alive in every pore where self is concerned. A touch is a wound. It is careless in inflicting pain, but exquisitely awake in feeling it. It defends itself before it is attacked, revenges affronts before they are offered, and resents as an insult the very suspicion of an imperfection.
In order then to unmask our heart, let us not be content to examine our vices, let us examine our virtues also, those smaller faults. Let us scrutinize to the bottom those qualities and actions which have more particularly obtained public estimation. Let us inquire if they were genuine in the motivation, singular in the intention, and honest in the prosecution. Let us ask ourselves if in some admired instances our generosity had any trace of vanity, our charity any taint of ostentation. We must question whether when we did such a right action which brought us credit, would we have persisted in doing it if we had foreseen that it would incur censure?
Do we never deceive ourselves by mistaking a natural slothfulness, for Christian moderation? Do we never transform our love of ease, into deadness of the world? Do we make our carnal activity, into Christian zeal? Do we mistake our obstinacy for firmness, our pride for fortitude, our selfishness for feeling, our love of controversy for the love of God, and our indolence of temper for deadness to human applause? When we have stripped our good qualities bare, when we have made all due deductions for natural temperament, easiness of disposition, self-interest, desire of admiration, of every nonessential attachment, every illegitimate motive, let us fairly add up the account; and we shall be mortified to see how little there will remain.
Pride may impose itself upon us even in the guise of repentance. The humble Christian is grieved at his faults; the proud man is angry at them. He is indignant when he discovers he has done wrong, not so much because his sin offends God, but because it has let him see that he is not quite so good as he had tried to make himself believe. It is more necessary to stimulate us to the humbling of our pride than to the performance of certain good actions. The former is more difficult and it is less pleasant.
That very pride will of itself stimulate to the performance of many things that are laudable. These performances will reproduce pride since they were produced by it, whereas humility has no outward stimulus. Divine grace alone produces it. It is so far from being energized by the love of fame, that it is not humility until it has laid the desire of fame in the dust.
As we have said, if an actual virtue consists in the dominion over the contrary vice, then humility is the conquest over pride; charity over selfishness. It is not only a victory over the natural disposition, but a substitution of the opposite quality. This proves that all virtue is founded in self-denial and self-denial in self-knowledge, and self-knowledge in self-examination.
Pride so insinuates itself in all we do and say and think, that our apparent humility often has its origin in pride. That very impatience which we feel at the perception of our faults is produced by the astonishment at finding that we are not perfect. This sense of our sins should make us humble, but not desperate. It should teach us to distrust everything in ourselves, and to hope for everything from God. The more we lay open the wounds which sin has made, the more earnestly shall we seek the remedy which Christ has provided.
But instead of seeking for self-knowledge, we are glancing about us for grounds for self-exaltation. We almost resemble the Pharisee who with so much self-complacency delivered the catalogue of his own virtues and other men's sins. Or like the Tartars, who thought they possessed the qualities of those they murdered, the Pharisee fancied that the sins of which he accused the publican would swell the amount of his own good deeds. Like him we take a few items from memory, and a few more from imagination.
Instead of pulling down the edifice which pride has raised, we look around on our good works for buttresses to prop it up. We excuse ourselves from the accusation of many faults by alleging that they are common, and certainly not unique to ourselves. This is one of the weakest of our deceits. Faults are not less personally ours because others commit them. The responsibility for sin can be divided just as matter can. Is there any lessening of our responsibility for our sin just because others are guilty of the same?
Self-love is a very diligent motivation, and generally has two concerns in hand at the same time. It is as busy in concealing our own defects, as in detecting those of others, especially those of the wise and good. We might indeed direct its activity in the latter instance to our own advantage, for if the faults of good men are injurious to themselves, they might be rendered profitable to us, if we were careful to convert them to their true use. But instead of turning them into a means of promoting our own watchfulness, we employ them mischievously in two ways. We lessen our respect for pious characters when we see the infirmities which are blended with their fine qualities, and we turn their failings into a justification of our own, which are not like theirs since ours are overshadowed with virtues. To admire the excellences of others without imitating them is fruitless admiration. And to condemn their errors without avoiding them is unprofitable judgment.
When we are compelled by our conscience to acknowledge and regret any fault we have recently committed, this fault so presses upon our recollection that we seem to forget that we have any other. This single error fills our mind and we look at it as through a microscope, which confines sight to that one object exclusively. Other sins indeed are more effectually shut out because we are examining this one. Thus, while the object in question is magnified, the others seem as if they did not exist.
It seems to be established into a kind of system not to profit by anything outside us, and not to cultivate a knowledge of anything within us. Though we are perpetually remarking on the defects of others, when does the remark lead us to study and to root out the same defects in our own hearts? Almost every day we hear of the death of others, but does it induce us to reflect on death as a thing in which we have an individual concern? We consider the death of a friend as a loss, but seldom apply it as a warning. The death of others we lament, and the faults of others we censure, but how seldom do we make use of the one for our own change, or the other for our own preparation for death?
It is the fashion of the times to try experiments in the arts, in agriculture and philosophy. In every science the diligent professor is always afraid there may be some secret which he has not yet attained, some hidden principle which would reward the labor of discovery, something even which the diligent and intelligent person has actually found out, but which has before this eluded his pursuit. Shall the Christian stop short in his scrutiny? Shall he not examine and inquire until he lays hold on the very heart and core of the faith?
Why should experimental philosophy be the prevailing study while experimental religion be branded as the badge of enthusiasm, and the jargon of a hollow profession? Shall we never labor to establish the distinction between appearance and reality, between studying religion critically and embracing it practically; between having our conduct creditable and our heart sanctified? Shall we not aspire to do the best things from the highest motives, and elevate our aims by our attainments? Why should we remain in the vestibule when the sanctuary is open? Why should we be content to dwell in the outer courts when we are invited to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus?
Natural reason is not likely to furnish arguments sufficiently convincing, nor motives sufficiently powerful to drive us to a close self-inspection. Our corruptions foster this ignorance. To this they owe their undisputed possession of our hearts. No principle short of Christianity is strong enough to impel us to a study so disagreeable as that of a study of our faults. Humility is the prime grace of Christianity, and this grace can never take root and flourish in a heart that lives in ignorance of itself. If we do not know the magnitude and extent of our sins, if we do not know the imperfection of our virtues, the failure of our best resolutions, the sickness of our purest purposes, we cannot be humble. If we are not humble, we cannot be Christians.
But we can ask, is there to be no end to this vigilance? Is there no assigned period when this self-denial may become unnecessary? Is there no given point when we may be freed from this annoying self-inspection? Is the matured Christian to be a slave to the same drudgery as the novice? The true answer is—we may cease to watch when our spiritual enemy ceases to assail. We may cease to be on guard when there is no longer any temptation from without. We may cease our self-denial when there is no more corruption within us. We may give the reins to our imagination when we are sure its tendencies will be toward heaven. We may dismiss repentance when sin is abolished. We may indulge selfishness when we can do it without danger to our souls. We may neglect prayer when we no longer need the favor of God. We may cease to praise Him when He ceases to be gracious to us. To discontinue our vigilance at any time short of this will be to defeat all the virtues we have practiced on earth and to put in danger all our hopes of happiness in heaven.
Downloaded from Grace Gems - A Treasury of Ageless, Sovereign Grace, Devotional Writings
Bible Bulletin Board
Middletown, DE 19709 USA