« PreviousContinue »
the biassed, bewildered judgment. The temptation they must expect will occur frequently, will meet them at every turn, ruin them when off their guard, struggle with them when upon it, infest them with constant importunity. What advice, then, can be given to such? To stick the closer to their integrity the more urgent their distress grows. To consider that every man has his trial, this is theirs; that this is their proper enemy, the persecution and danger to which they are exposed; this their spiritual enemy. They are to do what a good soldier does, arm themselves the strongest where they know they are the weakest; prepare for defence where they expect the attack; collect, that is, all their resolution, to this point; exert themselves, and all the vigour of character which they are masters of, against their adversary. If they have themselves to blame for their distress, strict honesty under it is the way, and the only way, by which they can repair their error. Uprightness in adversity always procures the respect and indulgence of mankind; and, we trust, also, the favor of Almighty God. Even when our adversity has been owing to our own fault or folly, it is an atonement in some measure for past
misconduct ; but when we see extravagance drive men to distress, and distress to dishonesty, there is no one will pity them ; because every body but themselves can see that both the distress and dishonesty lay at their own door. The case of those who are reduced by misfortunes, which is what may happen to the best and wisest of mankind, is, as it ought to be, more easy. It is easier, I mean, to bear up cheerfully against the inconveniences of poverty, when we have not ourselves to reproach with it. There is no infamy to contend with ; for where is the shame of sharing the disaster which all mankind are liable to? It is like being struck by a thunderbolt. There is no disgrace in it of any kind. Fools, indeed, may deride, when they see us stripped of the ornaments of wealth and honor, but none but fools will laugh; the good and serious will be taught to look up to the hand which holds the rod, and tremble for themselves. Misfortunes man is taught to expect; and, bad as the world is, it will always reverence an honest man struggling with difficulties. But there are for such, comforts and considerations of another kind, far above the world or its opinions. The proper reflection in such a situation, and which should never be out of a man's mind, is this; that their misfortune is the visitation of God alone, probably for the very purpose of trying and proving our integrity.
He, therefore, that stands firm, that holds fast his integrity,
comes out of the fire purer and brighter, approves himself to his God in the very part in which God has been pleased to try him. This is to sanctify our sufferings, making, that is, 'our light affliction, which is but for a moment, work out for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.' But, indeed, to speak the plain truth, it is not those who are brought to poverty by misfortunes that are often dishonest under it. It is those who set out with schemes of overreaching and deceit, and fail in them; or those who begin with extravagance and end in fraud; that is, wanting either any good principle or firmness of mind to abide by, they are carried away by the temptation which, according to their circumstances, is the strongest; in their prosperity by luxury and pride, in their adversity by the practices of fraud and roguery. The violent temptations that distressed circumstances lay men under, to attempt the arts of fraud and dishonesty, ought both to make us careful ourselves, and likewise somewhat more moderate and charitable towards others, who labor under difficulties of this kind. have been, perhaps, fair and honest in our dealings; we have done well, but we have been always in affluence, at ease in our circumstances, and have never felt the load and pressure of perplexed or reduced fortunes. We have never known what it is to look disgrace and poverty in the face. If we have known this, we know not the trials some men's honesty is put to, nor how far ours would have stood out against them. It is one thing to maintain our integrity in the ordinary transactions and easy concerns of life, and another to hold it fast at an extremity, when we are pushed on by indigence, and the prospect, perhaps, of ruin on the one side, and covenient opportunity, and the expectation we may be under of setting ourselves at ease and liberty on the other.
I am not now arguing for dishonesty of any kind, or in any circumstances. I am only pleading for the lenity of mankind, somewhat more mildness and moderation in our judgment and treatment of such persons, than is always shown; and this principally to impress upon you the advice of St Paul, “That if any be overtaken in a fault,' instead of driving him to despair by persecution and ill usage, to restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.'
THE MISAPPLICATION OF EXAMPLE.
1 CORINTHIANS XV. 33.
Evil communications corrupt good manners.
We often make a very bad use of the example of others; and this is not owing solely to the wickedness of the example, but to our own error and perverseness in applying it. It is very difficult to live well among bad companions. It is a proof of a strong sense of duty, as well as of a great command of resolution, to maintain our virtue and innocence in any particular branch of morals, in which there is a general relaxation of principle and insensibility of guilt prevailing among the persons around us. Men without principle, men without religion, men of unsteadfast minds, of easy consciences, of thoughtless dispositions, are swept away by the current; they go down with the stream of general practice, and of general conversation, with very little opposition to corruptions which have example to support them. Hence the infectious nature of vice, and the rapid progress of the infection. If licentious and laseivious sins have found their way into a neighbourhood, good and serious men are shocked to see how the youth of both sexes fall into the spare. It is with concern that they observe how many are undone, and how soon. When drinking, late hours, riotous proceedings, gain footing in a place, there is no computing what numbers are drawn in; at first, it is probable, those only who were bad beforehand, then the idle and unoccupied, who are ready for any seduction, then the giddy and foolish, then the pliant tempered ; but the evil practice continues, till husbands and parents forget all those who ought to be the nearest and dearest to them, and share in the general profligacy, to the great grief, terror, and prejudice of their friends, and those who depend upon them. If swearing get into use, it is inconceivable how the horror of it wears away, and how soon oaths and imprecations become frequent in our streets, even from the lips of children; how all discourse, especially all mirth and diversion, become tainted with it; but the good Christian reflects, he knows, that sin is the same, whether it be common or uncommon, whether there be many examples to countenance it, or none, whether it be the fashion of the placé, or the contrary ; that it is the same in the sight of God, the same in its final effects, the same in its punishment; and that all those, be they many or few, who are led away by the commonness of a vice, are either men of hollow and unsound principles, or foolish and ignorant, men wanting in firmness and selfcommand, men incapable of any moral proficiency; yet that is the true time to hold close to a man's innocency and resolutions, when he is beset, as I may so say, by the restless importunity of evil example, of a corrupt neighbourhood, of a licentious age.
These all are the natural consequences of bad examples; but what I rather propose to consider is, not so much the effects, as the misapplications of example. And of these one is the following; when a man of general good character has some particular failing mixed with his virtues, we without possessing his virtues, make them an excuse for the failings in ourselves; than which nothing can be more absurd, for how far these virtues may extenuate the failings in him is certainly of no importance to us; if we have not his virtues to allege in our conduct, they can be of no benefit or profit to us. And if we take the argument the other way, if we suppose that the failing cannot have so much harm and guilt in it as some impute to it, otherwise so good a man would not have allowed himself in the practice, we advance the unsafest argument that can be alleged. Some are very mixed characters, very inconsistent with themselves; and men, otherwise good, are under surprising delusions in that part of their character in which they have suffered themselves to be overcome; so that to build upon their authority in the very point in which they betray their weakness, is to rely upon a very feeble support indeed. Thus, a man of honor and honesty in his dealings, in whom the world places great trust and confidence, may unfortunately, with all his character for general conscientiousness and integrity, have fallen into habits of sottishness and drinking; others who give themselves up to this insinuating and pernicious vice will plead his example, and appear to themselves to be sheltered, as it were, under his character, though not one of the qualities which compose his character belong to themselves. But, they say, could he be the man to permit himself these indulgences, if he thought them so wrong? Alas! we ought never to argue in this manner; we cannot infer a man's judgment from his practice; we know not what passes in his mind; perhaps his conscience is struggling against it all the while ; perhaps he has been so often overcome by temptation and by his propensity, that conscience has lost its force and its sensibility, which will happen; perhaps if he were to counsel and admonish, he would be the first man to warn or caution us against the very indulgence in which we think we are only following him; he would propose
his own case to us, not as an encouragement or an example, which we make it to be, but as a lesson and a warning. Sensible of his infirmity and his unsteadiness, he does not undertake to defend it, although he has often found himself overcome by it. And what must be the consequence of this kind of imitation ? If we will imitate some particular person, let us imitate him in his good properties; at least, let us imitate him throughout. Picking out from each character the bad parts of it, and infusing those, and those only, into our own, is a plan which must end in gradual loss of virtue and growth of vice; and if others pursued it as well as we, in universal depravity and corruption. We are to judge of actions and conduct as they are in themselves, and not as they are joined with other actions and other conduct in the same person ; that is the right and sound judgment; but the most wrong, and the inost unsound, is that which would excuse vices which we have, by virtues which we have not; that which presumes that a man's judgment vindicates what his passions prompt him to.
A second misapplication of example is this; when we see a man of pious and religious carriage forget his character, so as to fall into some unjustifiable or loose conduct, we forthwith conclude that his former piety was all hypocrisy, his religion feigned. Now this is a very hasty conclusion; the experience of human life does not authorize it. On the contrary, we see men drawn into transgressions of their duty, without renouncing, or even disturbing their principles. There is a great deal of difference between secretly respecting religion, and religion not having so firm a hold on our minds as to guide and direct our conduct uniformly. We may infer the weakness of a man's principles and resolution, or we may infer the violence of his passions, and the mastery they have gained over him, from his giving way to temptation ; but we cannot infer, either his former insincerity, or that any deliberate change in his opinions has taken place. A difference ought to be made whether the sin be casual or habitual; that is, whether it be a single offence, or a course of offending; if it be the first kind, it is a very harsh judgment to pronounce, because a man has been off his guard, and overtaken off his guard, that therefore, in truth he has no religion at all. There is no foundation for any such inference. Not only charity but probability is against it. If a man apparently religious falls not only into a single