PRACTICAL PIETY by Hannah More, 1811
ON THE CONDUCT OF CHRISTIANS IN THEIR RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE IRRELIGIOUS
As serious Christians our relationships with unbelievers should exhibit a combination of integrity and discretion. We must consider ourselves not only as having our own reputation, but the honor of Christianity in our keeping. While we must, on the one hand, set our face as a flint against anything that may be construed as compromising, denying or concealing any Christian truth in order to curry favor. We must, on the other hand, be very careful never to maintain a Christian point of view with an unchristian disposition. When trying to convince others we must be cautious not to irritate them needlessly. We must distinguish between upholding God's honor and vindicating our own pride, and we must be careful never to stubbornly support the one under the guise of maintaining the other. The resultant dislike of the messenger will be quickly transferred to his God, and the adversary's unfavorable opinion of religion will be magnified by the faults of its advocate. At the same time the intemperate advocate disqualifies himself from being of any future service to the person who had been offended by his offensive manner.
As serious Christians we feel an honest indignation at hearing those truths treated so lightly on which our everlasting hopes depend. We cannot but feel our hearts rise at the affront offered to our Maker. But instead of calling down fire from heaven on the reviler's head, we should raise a secret supplication to God, which, if it does not change the heart of the opponent, will not only tranquilize our own, but soften it toward our adversary. We cannot easily hate the person for whom we pray.
Those of us who advocate the sacred cause of Christianity should be keenly aware that our being religious will never atone for our being disagreeable. Our orthodoxy will not justify our uncharitableness, nor will our zeal make up for our indiscretion. We must not persuade ourselves that we have been serving God when we have only been indulging our own resentment. A fiery defense may actually prejudice the cause we might perhaps have advanced by a more temperate argument. Keeping a judicious silence when we are being provoked may be painful, but the pain and grief borne in silence will show real forbearance.
Sometimes we hear unwise Christians boasting about the attacks which their own indiscretion has invited. With more vanity than truth they apply the strong and ill-chosen term "persecution" to the sneers and ridicule which some impropriety on their part has occasioned. Now and then it is to be feared the censure may be deserved, and the noble defender of the Christian faith may possibly be only displaying his fallen nature. Even a good man may be blameable in some instances, for which his censurers will naturally have to keep a keen eye. How necessary it is on these occasions to remember that our Lord cautioned us to distinguish for whose sake we are being scorned. Peter also warned us, "If you are reproached for the name of Christ you are blessed.... But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker."
This close scrutiny by worldly men of those who profess to be Christians is not without very important uses. It serves to promote circumspection in the real Christian, and the detection of those who are insincere, forming a broad and useful line of distinction between these two classes of characters that are frequently but erroneously confused.
The world believes, or at least pretends to believe, that the correct and elegant-minded Christian is oblivious to negative traits such as eccentricity, bad taste, and a propensity to stray from the straight line of prudence, and his adversaries delight to see this. But if the more mature Christians tolerate those infirmities in others, it is not because they do not clearly perceive and entirely condemn them. We bear with them only for the sake of their zeal, sincerity and the general usefulness of these imperfect Christians. Their good qualities are totally overlooked by the censurer, who is ever attempting to exaggerate the failings which Christian charity laments without excusing. Compassion bears with them, believing that impropriety is less harmful than carelessness, bad judgment less harmful than a bad heart, and some little excess of zeal better than gross immorality or total indifference.
We are not ignorant of how much truth itself offends. It is important therefore, not to add to the unavoidable offense by mixing the faults of our own character with the cause we support, because we may be certain that the enemy will take care never to separate them. He will always maintain the fatal association in his own mind. He will never think or speak of the Christian faith without associating it with the real or imputed bad qualities of Christian people he knows or has heard of.
Let not then the friends of truth unnecessarily increase the number of her enemies. Let her not have to sustain the assaults which her divine character inevitably subjects her to, with the infirmities and foibles of her unwise or unworthy champions. But we sometimes justify our rash behavior under the pretext that our superior spirituality cannot tolerate the faults of others. The Pharisee overflowing with wickedness himself, made the exactness of his own virtue a pretense for looking with horror on the publican, whom our Savior regarded with compassionate tenderness, while He strongly condemned the hypocritical attitude of his accuser. "Compassion," says an admirable French writer, "is that law which Jesus Christ came down to bring to the world, to repair the divisions which sin has introduced into it; to be the proof of the reconciliation of man with God, by bringing him into obedience to the divine law; to reconcile him to Himself by subjugating his passions to his reason; and finally, to reconcile him to all mankind by curing him of the desire to domineer over them."
But we disqualify ourselves from becoming the instruments of God in promoting the spiritual good of anyone if we obstruct the avenue to his heart through our imprudence. We not only disqualify ourselves from doing good to all whom we disgust, but should we not take some responsibility for the failure of all the good we might have done them if we had not forfeited our influence by our indiscretion? If we do not assist others with their spiritual and bodily needs, Christ will consider it as not having been done to Himself. Our own reputation is so inseparably connected with that of Christianity that we should be careful of one for the sake of the other.
The methods of doing good in society are various. We should sharpen our discernment to discover them and our zeal to put them in practice. If we cannot open a man's eyes to the truth of our faith by our arguments, we may perhaps open them to its beauty by our moderation. Though he may dislike Christianity in itself, he may, admiring the forbearance of the Christian, he at last led to admire the Christian's God. If he has hitherto refused to listen to the written evidences of faith, the temperament of her advocate may be evidence of such an engaging kind that his heart may be opened by the sweetness of the one to the truth of the other. He will at least allow that Christianity cannot be so bad when its fruits are so agreeable. The conduct of the disciple may in time bring him to the feet of the Master. A new combination may be formed in his mind. He may begin to see what he had supposed as opposites are now being reconciled. He may begin to couple honesty with Christianity.
But if the mild advocate fails to convince, he may attract. Even if he fails to attract, he will at least leave on the mind of the adversary such favorable impressions as may induce him to inquire further. He may be able to engage him on some future occasion with better results, enlarging on the entrance his restraint will have obtained for him.
But even if the temperate pleader should not be so fortunate as to produce any considerable effect on the mind of his antagonist, he is still benefitting of his own soul. He is at least imitating the faith and patience of the saints; he is cultivating that meek and quiet spirit which his blessed Master commanded and commended.
If all bitterness, malice and evil-speaking are expressly forbidden in ordinary cases, surely the prohibition must more particularly apply in the case of religious controversy. Suppose Voltaire and Hume had received their impression of our faith (as one would really suppose they had) from the defenses of Christianity by their able contemporary, Bishop Warburton. They saw this Goliath of learning delivering his ponderous blows, attacking with the same powerful weapons both the enemies of Christianity and also its friends who disagreed with him on points of faith. He did not meet them as his opponents but pounced on them as his prey, not seeking to defend himself but delighting in unprovoked hostility. When Voltaire and Hume saw Warburton's tactics, would they not exclaim with pleasure, "See how these Christians hate one another"? On the other hand, had Warburton's vast powers of mind and knowledge been sanctified by the angelic meekness of Leighton, they would have been compelled to acknowledge, if Christianity is false, it is after all so amiable that it deserves to be true.
If we aspired to furnish the most complete triumph to infidels, contentious theology would be our best device. They enjoy the wounds the combatants inflict on each other, not so much from the personal injury which either might sustain as from the conviction that every attack, however it may end, weakens the Christian cause. In all engagements with a foreign foe, they know that Christianity must come off triumphantly, therefore all their hopes are founded on attacks within Christianity itself.
If a forbearing temper should be maintained towards unbelievers, how much more towards those who share the same faith. As it is deplorable that there is so much hostility carried on by good men who profess the same faith, so it is a striking proof of the contentiousness of human nature that people can overlook larger problems (slavery, e.g., difficulties that conscience ought not to ignore) and fight over the smaller details, details so insignificant that the world would not even know they existed if the disputants were not so impatient to inform it by their ill-tempered arguments.
While we should never withhold a clear and honest confession of the great tenets of our faith, let us discreetly avoid dwelling on minor distinctions, since they do not affect the essentials either of faith or practice. In this way we may allow others to maintain their opinions while we steadily hold fast our own.
It almost seems that the smaller the point being contested the greater the hostility. We can remember when two great nations were on the point of war over a small parcel of land in another hemisphere. It was so little known that the very name had scarcely reached us, so inconsiderable that its possession would have added nothing to the strength of either. So in theological disputes, more stress is often laid on the most insignificant things.
Is this the catholic spirit which embraces with compassion all children of our common Father without vindicating or approving their faults or opinions, and like its gracious Author, "would not that any should perish"? A preference for remote opinions over those close at hand is by no means confined to Christians.
It is a delicate point neither to vindicate the truth in so coarse a manner as to excite a prejudice against it; nor to make any concessions for the hope of obtaining popularity. "If it be possible, as much as lies in you, live peaceably with all men" can no more mean that we should exhibit a false openness which conciliates at the expense of sincerity, than that we should defend the truth with such an intolerant spirit that we injure our cause by our own indiscretion.
As the apostle beautifully advises us, every Christian should adorn our doctrine, not by power, but "by the meekness and gentleness of Christ." But we must carefully avoid adopting the ornamental appearance of an amiable temperament as a substitute for true piety. Condescending manners may be one of the numberless modifications of self-love by which a reputation is often obtained but which is not fairly earned. Carefully to examine whether we please others for their edification or in order to gain praise and popularity, is the bounden duty of a Christian.
We should not be angry with the blind for not seeing, nor with the proud for not acknowledging their blindness. Perhaps we ourselves were once as blind and as proud! We, under their circumstances, might have been more perversely wrong than they are, if we had not been treated by our teachers with more patient tenderness than we are disposed to exercise towards them. Tyre and Sidon, we are assured by Jesus Himself, would have repented had they enjoyed the privileges which Chorazin and Bethsaida threw away. Surely we may, for the love of God and for the love of our opponent's soul, do that which well-bred people do through a concern for politeness. Why should a Christian be more ready to offend against the rule of charity than a gentleman against the law of decorum? Candor in judging is like lack of prejudice in acting; both are statutes of the royal law.
Men also feel that they have a right to their own opinions. It is often more difficult to part with this right than with the opinion itself. If our object be the good of our opponent, if it be to promote the cause of truth and not to contend for victory, we shall remember this. We shall consider what value we put upon our own opinion. Why should our opponent's opinion, though a false one, be less dear to him if he believes it true? This consideration will teach us not to expect too much at first. It will teach us the prudence of seeking some general point in which we cannot fail to agree. This will let him see that we do not differ from him for the sake of differing, and our conciliating spirit may bring him to a willingness to listen to arguments on topics where our disagreement is wider.
In disputing, for instance, with those who wholly reject the divine authority of the Scriptures, we gain nothing by quoting them and insisting vehemently on the proof which is to be drawn from them, to support our point in the debate. Their unquestionable truth avails nothing to those who will not allow it. But if we take some common ground on which both parties can stand, and reason from the analogies of natural religion and the recognized course of God's providence, to the ways in which He has declared He will deal with us as revealed in the Bible, our opponent may be struck with the similarity. He then may be more disposed to considerations which may end in the happiest manner. He may finally become less averse to listening to us and accept beliefs which he might otherwise never have seen as having any value.
Where a disputant cannot endure what he sneeringly calls the strictness of evangelical religion, he will have no objection to acknowledging the momentous truths of man's responsibility to his Maker, of the omniscience, omnipresence, majesty and purity of God. Strive then to meet him on these grounds and respectfully ask him if he can sincerely affirm that he is acting upon the truths he already acknowledges. Is he living and acting in all respects as an accountable person ought to live and is he really conscious that he is continually under the eye of a just and holy God? You will find he cannot stand on these grounds. Either he must be contented to receive the truth as revealed in the Gospel, or be convicted of inconsistency or self-deceit or hypocrisy. You will at least make his own ground untenable, if you cannot, indeed, bring him over to yours. But while the opponent is effecting his retreat, do not cut off the means of his return.
Some Christians approve Christianity as knowledge rather than as truth. They like it as it enlarges their view of things, opens to them a wider field of inquiry, a fresh source of discovery and another topic of critical investigation. They consider it as extending the limits of their research rather than as a means of changing their lives. It furnishes their understanding with a fund of riches on which they are eager to draw, not so much for the improvement of the heart as of the intellect. They consider it a thesis on which to raise interesting discussions rather than as promises from which to build a rule of life.
There is something in the presentation of sacred subjects by these people which according to our conception is not only mistaken but dangerous. We refer to their treatment of faith as a mere science divested of its practical application, taken as a code of philosophical speculation rather than of active belief. After they have spent half a life upon proofs, which is a mere vestibule to be passed through on the way into the temple of Christianity, we accompany them into their edifice and find it composed of materials all too identical with their former taste. Questions of criticism, grammar, history, metaphysics; questions of mathematics and sciences meet us in what Paul calls the place where "charity out of a pure heart and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned, from which" he adds, "some having swerved, have turned aside to vain jangling."
We do not mean to apply this term "jangling" to all scientific discussions of faith, for we would be the last to deny their use or question their necessity. Our main objection lies in the supremacy given to such topics by our disputants and to the spirit too often manifested in their discussions. It is a preponderance which makes us fear that they consider these things as faith itself, as substitutes rather than aids and allies of devotion. At the same time, a cold and philosophical spirit studiously maintained seems to confirm the suspicion that religion with them is not inadvertently, but essentially and solely an exercise of the wits, a field for display of intellectual prowess as if the salvation of souls were a thing of no importance.
These prize fighters in theology remind us of the philosophers of others schools: we feel as if we were reading Newton against Descartes. The practical part of religion in short is forgotten, and lost in its theories; and what is worst of all, a temperament hostile to the spirit of Christianity is employed to defend or illustrate its positions.
This latter effect might be traced further into another allied cause: the habit of treating religion as a field of knowledge capable of demonstration. On a subject supported only by moral evidence, we lament to see questions dogmatically proved instead of being temperately argued. No, we could almost smile at the sight of some intricate and barren novelty in religion demonstrated to the satisfaction of some ingenious theorist who draws upon a hundred confutations of every position he maintains. The concealed attitudes of the debate are often such as might make angels weep. Such speculators who are more anxious to make proselytes to their opinion than converts to a principle will not be so likely to convince an opponent, as the Christian who is known to act upon his convictions and whose genuine piety will put life and heart into his reasonings. The opponent probably knows already all the ingenious arguments which books supply. Ingenuity therefore will less likely touch them than godly sincerity, which he cannot help but see that the heart of his antagonist is dictating to his lips. There is a simple energy in pure Christian truth which a false motive imitates in vain. The "knowledge which puffs up" will make few real converts when unaccompanied by the "charity which builds up."
To remove prejudices is the bounden duty of a Christian, but we must take care not to remove them by conceding our integrity. We must not wound our conscience to save our credibility. If an ill-bred roughness disgusts another, a dishonest concession undoes oneself. We must remove all obstructions to the reception of truth, but truth itself we must not dilute. In clearing away the impediments, we must secure the principle.
If our own reputation is attacked, we must defend it with every lawful means, and we must not sacrifice that valuable possession to any demand but of conscience, to any call but the imperative call of duty. If our good name is put in competition with any other earthly good, we must preserve it, no matter how dear the other good may be. But if the competition lies between our reputation and our conscience, we have no hesitation in making the sacrifice, costly as it is. Sensitive people feel that their fame is as dear as life itself, but as Christians we know that it is not life to our souls.
For the same reason that we must not be over-anxious to vindicate our fame, we must be careful to preserve it from any unjust allegation. Paul has set us an admirable example in both respects, and we should never consider him in one point of view without recollecting his conduct in the other. So profound is his humility that he declares himself "less than the least of all saints." Not content with his comparative depreciation, he proclaims his actual corruptions. "In me, that is, in my flesh, there is no good thing." Yet this deep self-abasement did not prevent him from asserting his own worth by declaring that he was not behind the very chief of the apostles. Again, "As the truth of Christ is in me, no man shall stop me of this boasting," he says. He then enumerates with a manly dignity, tempered with a noble modesty, a multitude of instances of his unparalleled sufferings and his unrivaled zeal. Where his own personal feelings were in question, how self-abasing! But where the unjust imputation involved honor of Christ and the credit of the Christian faith, what carefulness it wrought in him, yes, what clearing of himself; yes what indignation, yes, what zeal!
While we rejoice in the promises annexed to the beatitudes, we should be cautious of applying to ourselves promises which do not belong to us, particularly that which is attached to the last beatitude. When our fame is attacked, let us carefully inquire if we are "suffering for righteousness' sake," or for our own faults. Let us examine whether we may not deserve the censures we have incurred. Even if we are suffering in the cause of God, may we not have brought discredit on that holy cause by our imprudence, our obstinacy, our vanity; by our zeal without knowledge and our earnestness without moderation? Let us inquire whether our revilers have not some foundation for the charge, whether we have not sought our own glory more than that of God, whether we are not more disappointed at missing the praise which we thought our good works were entitled to bring us, than the wound Christianity may have sustained. Let us ask whether, though our views were right and pure on the whole, we neglected to count the cost and expected unmixed approval, uninterrupted success and a full tide of prosperity, totally forgetting the reproaches received and the shame sustained by the Man of Sorrows.
If we can acquit ourselves as to the general purity of our motives, the general integrity of our conduct and the sincerity of our efforts, then we may indeed, though with deep humility, take to ourselves the comfort of this divine beatitude. When we find that men only speak evil of us for His sake in whose cause we have labored, however that labor may have been mingled with imperfection, we may indeed "rejoice and be exceeding glad." Submission may be elevated into gratitude and forgiveness into love.
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