John Newton's Letters
The comforts and snares of social and relative affections
Alas! how difficult do we find it to observe a proper medium between overvaluing and undervaluing our creature-comforts; especially those of social and relative life. The mutual affection which does, or should exist, between husband and wife, parents and children, and proportionally between other family connections, or our intimate and tried friends, constitute our chief temporal pleasures. These are almost the only pleasures this earth can afford, which are very interesting to an intelligent and serious mind. For these the voluptuary has little relish—sensuality has blunted his feelings, and his gratifications are scarcely superior to those of the brutes.
Such people are not at present concerned in the subject of this paper, nor can they well understand it. I write for those who possess and value the comforts of domestic life, acknowledge the goodness of the Lord in bestowing and preserving them, who wish to make them additional motives for gratitude and praise—but are often apprehensive that their attachments to God's gifts, should withdraw their thoughts from the great Giver, and encroach upon that supreme regard which is only due to himself.
A disposition to love the creature more than the Creator—is undoubtedly a part of a proof of our natural depravity. This evil principle, described by the apostle under the names of the Flesh, the Old Man, and Indwelling Sin, however weakened and mortified in a true believer—is not extirpated. The opposition between nature and grace, flesh and spirit, renders the Christian life a state of constant warfare. They are opposite, contrary, contradictory one to the other; no peace or truce can exist between them. The effects of this conflict extend to every faculty. When grace is in exercise, the motions of sin are noticed, checked and lamented—but they are always sufficiently strong to render our best intentions and best actions defective and polluted. And particularly, to depreciate and adulterate the finest feelings of humanity, and to turn our glory into shame. Thus our comforts often become our snares; and that which should be for our health proves an occasion of falling.
We cannot be too watchful against this propensity; it should prompt us to daily humiliation, and much prayer. But the Lord is not a hard master; he gives us all things richly to enjoy; not to raise, and then disappoint our expectations—but, within the limits his wisdom prescribes, to gratify them. Ignorance and superstition misrepresent him. Under their influence multitudes think to please them by self-invented austerities and mortifications, and suppose they shall be acceptable to him, in proportion as they make themselves miserable. But, on the contrary, we are assured that he delights in our prosperity—so far as it is consistent with our safety; and that he does not willingly afflict His own children, who love and serve him. He has placed us in a world, in which (considered as his world) everything is beautiful in its season, proper use, and due subordination, to our chief good; though considered as man's world, our apostasy has filled it with confusion and misery.
Contemplate his goodness in a rural situation. Light colors, and prospects, are suited to please the eye. The singing of birds, the lowing of the cattle, the bleating of the sheep, and in general, the inarticulate tones of all the animal tribes, are soothing and grateful to the ear. During a great part of the year, the scent of blossoms and flowers perfumes the air, and regales the sense of smelling. Food is a necessary means for the preservation of life, and would be so if it were no less unpalatable than the most nauseous drugs. But we are furnished with a profusion and variety of foods, which, while they satisfy our hunger, and recruit our strength, are likewise grateful to the palate, and accommodated to the different tastes of different people. Nay, he has not only given us food—but fruits. These are certainly not needful for the support of life, nor are they forbidden like the fruit of the tree of knowledge—but are freely presented for our use.
Things might have been so constituted, that all our sensations from external objects would have been disagreeable and painful. But God is good. We would live in the midst of continual enjoyments if we obeyed his precepts, and observed his regulations; which, however contrary to the evil dispositions of our fallen nature, amount to no more than the kind admonition, "Do yourself no harm!" For there is not a single restriction enjoined by the Scripture, with which it would not be our best interest to comply, if the authority of God was wholly out of the question. But sin, where it prevails, dishonors God, abuses his gifts, and throws all into confusion. Intemperance, riot, and disorderly passions, have filled the earth with woe!
Thus, as we are creatures formed for society, and cannot live, either with safety or comfort, in a solitary state, it has pleased God in his goodness—to make us susceptive to social affections, which sweeten our fellowship with each other, and combine duty with pleasure. Parents are certainly bound by the law of nature to take care of their own children, and to provide for them; especially in the helpless state of infancy, when they are utterly unable to take care of themselves. This would often be a irksome task, if they did not feel an instinctive tenderness for their infant offspring at first sight, which makes that delightful, which might otherwise be troublesome.
It is likewise the appointment of God, that the successive generations of mankind should be perpetuated by marriage. As this is the nearest of all natural relations, so when the union is properly formed and conducted, it is the most interesting and endeared. This union, by the will of God, is in itself indissoluble until death makes a separation, excepting in the single case of marital unfaithfulness. But the marriage state when entered into without a regard to God, to the rules of his Word, and a dependence upon his blessing, is seldom productive of an abiding union of hearts; and if this is lacking, the case of either party may be compared to that of a dislocated limb, which is indeed still united to the body—but, not being in its proper place and connection, is useless and painful itself, and the cause of pain and uneasiness to the whole body.
Even the marriages of those who come together, and live together, in the fear of the Lord, are subject to heavy troubles—doubled in wedlock, and frequently multiplied in children—they have a larger share of cares, duties, and anxieties, than those who live single; yet they are comparatively happy. And I think, all things considered, they have the most favored lot. They love the Lord, they seek his presence and blessing, and they do not seek in vain. They love each other, they have one faith, one aim, one hope. Their mutual affection, intimacy, and perfect confidence, greatly enhance the value and relish of the comforts in which they participate, and alleviate the weight of their burdens and trials. Love sweetens labor, and blunts the sting of sorrow. The vicissitudes of life give energy to prayer; and repeated supports and deliverances, in answer to prayer, afford new motives and causes for praise and thanksgiving.
But still they are jealous of themselves, lest those affectionate feelings, which greatly assist them in discharging their social and relative duties with attention and cheerfulness, should become excessive and idolatrous. And, as I have already observed, they have reason to be always on their guard, lest that which is lawful and right in itself, should, by being indulged in an immoderate degree, become ensnaring and hurtful.
A true believer is, for the most part, rather shocked, than seduced—by temptations to gross evils; his heart recoils at the proposal. He thinks with Joseph, "How can I do this wickedness, and sin against God? The believer's chief danger, lies in the abuse of lawful things.
The relation we stand in to God, as his intelligent creatures, from whom we derive all that we have or are, and on whom we depend for every breath we draw, makes it our indispensable duty to love him with all our heart, and mind, and soul, and strength. And, as we have broken this law of our creation, he has in mercy been pleased to claim us for his own by a new and more endearing title. He has redeemed us to himself—by His blood. He has bought us with a price, and paid his life as a ransom for our souls. When a sinner is enabled to feel the force of this argument, he needs no more—the love of Christ constrains him. From that moment he is made willing to devote himself, and his all—to him who died for him. But the flesh strives against the Spirit; he is still a poor creature. He cannot do the things that he would, nor as he would; otherwise every thought of His heart should be in absolute subjection to his Lord and Savior.
The Lord, who knows our frame, and of what we are made, is unspeakably merciful to our infirmities—but he will not admit a rival. The believer knows and acknowledges, that whatever he possesses, which is not held and improved in subordination and subservience to the will and glory of him from whom he received it—is so far an idol! And the consciousness of his proneness to afford these intruders an undue share in his affections, often makes him confess to the Lord with Job, "Behold, I am vile!" though his outward conduct in the sight of men may be unblamable and exemplary.
Yet perhaps some people may be overburdened with this apprehension. The gospel is not designed to make us stoics—it allows full room for those social feelings which are so necessary and beneficial in our present state, though it teaches and enjoins their due regulations. It is the duty, no less than the privilege, of husbands, to love their wives, even as their own selves; yes, even as Christ loved the church, and gave himself for it. These expressions are very strong; they imply great love, tenderness, and sympathy. When the Lord said to Abraham, "Take now your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love," he did not reprove him for loving his child; and Abraham's prompt obedience, when commanded to offer up his beloved son, was a proof that, though his love to Isaac was strong, it was not inordinate. And the apostle declares, "that, if any man provides not for those of his own household—he has denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel." He is to provide for them, if in his power, in preference to others, which plainly intimates that they are preferably entitled to his love. Friendship, likewise, between those who are joint partakers of grace, is very consistent with true religion. Such was the friendship between David and Jonathan. And though our Lord loved all his disciples, one of them is honored with a peculiar distinction, as "the disciple whom Jesus loved."
God formed us originally for himself, and endued the human mind with a capacity which he alone can fill. But, when he dwells in the heart, there is still room for innumerable objects of happiness, in their proper subordinate order. When a woman marries, she may continue to love her own parents and relatives as formerly; she may extend her affection and regard to the parents and friends of her husband; in a course of years the number of those whom she loves and values may be greatly increased, without interfering with each other, or with that love which she owes to her husband. But there is a different and special regard due to him, which if she should transfer to another person, she would be criminal. Thus we may love, and we ought to love, our husbands, wives, children, parents, and friends; and, if we consider them as the Lord's gifts—if we seek his blessing in them and upon them—if we hold them at his disposal—if we employ all our influence with them, to engage them to seek and love him supremely—if, when they are removed from us, we are disposed to yield a cheerful submission to his holy will—and if, when things are brought into competition, we rather choose to venture displeasing our dearest friends, than to sin against the Lord—with these restrictions we cannot easily love them too much.
But who can come up to this standard? I suppose no person can completely. But we may aim at it; we may lament our deficiency; we may pray for more grace; and by grace we may approximate more and more to it.
It is not necessary to distress ourselves with what may happen; as, how should I behave, if the Lord were to take the desire of my eyes from me suddenly? We are to live today—and to leave tomorrow with him. If we presume that we could support such a stroke, we should probably find it too heavy for us. But this we may say, The Lord is all-sufficient, and he is faithful. He has promised strength according to the day. He permits me to call upon him in the time of trouble, and I trust, when the time of trouble shall come—he will enable me to pray for that help from him, without which I know I must sink; for in myself I am weaker than a bruised reed. In the meantime I endeavor to cast all my care upon him who cares for me.
For the rest, we are in the Lord's school—the school of the cross. His daily providential dispensations are suited to wean our attachment from everything here on earth, and to convince us that this world cannot be our rest—for it is polluted. Our roses grow on thorns, our honey bears a sting. Frequently our sharpest trials—spring from our choicest comforts. Perhaps, while we are admiring our gourd—a worm is secretly preying upon its root. As every bitter thing is sweetened to a believer, so there is some bitter thing mingled with every sweet. This is wisely and mercifully ordered by our heavenly Father. It is necessary. With such hearts an we have, and in such a world as we live in—much discipline is needful to keep us from sleeping upon the enchanted ground.
But the time is short. It will not be thus always. We hope soon to be out of the reach of sin and temptation. Happy hour, when sorrow and mourning, hitherto our inseparable companions, shall flee away, to return no more! When joy and gladness shall come forth to meet us, and conduct us to our eternal home! Then those who have loved each other in the Lord upon earth, shall rejoice together before him, shall drink of the rivers of pleasure that are at his right hand, and their happiness shall be unspeakable, uninterrupted, without abatement, and without end!