« PreviousContinue »
perfect, virtue would consist in following our inclinations, because those inclinations would tend only to good; as we are fallen and depraved, virtue consists in denying our inclinations, because those inclinations tend often to evil.
II. A second argument in favour of self-denial may be derived from the design of religion; which supposes the corruption of our nature, and is given to heal and restore it-a consideration, which will carry us a step farther into the nature of this evangelical duty. For the physician who undertakes to cure a disease must, of course, while he administers proper medicines, enjoin his patient to abstain from every thing (however pleasing and agreeable) which may, in any degree, counteract those medicines, and nourish the disease. In this light human nature is considered (and surely with the utmost truth and propriety) by the Gospel. We are fallen into a state of sin; and being so fallen, we find ourselves in a fallen world, where, unless we are upon our guard, every thing around us will contribute to aggravate and inflame the distemper. Therefore are we, in mercy, commanded to abstain. Christ came to deliver us from this state of sin and death, and to restore us to all those tempers, which may best prepare us for a state of glory, with immortal spirits, in another and a better world to come. Now, what are those tempers? Read the fifth chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel, and see :-Humility, meekness, mourning, purity, heavenly-mindedness, righteousness, peace, patience, resignation, and joy in being counted worthy to suffer abuse, ridicule, and persecution, for our Saviour's sake. We must renounce our religion, or acknowledge the excellency of these tempers, and the necessity of their being formed in us, that our Redeemer may pronounce us blessed. If, therefore, we find ourselves engaged in any habits of life, in a course of any indulgencies and enjoyments, any pleasures or diversions, which prevent the formation of these tempers in us, and tend to strengthen and confirm their opposites, in such instances it will undoubtedly be expedient to practise self-denial.
To account for the strictness of the Gospel precepts, it is likewise to be observed, under this head, that if we would possess the power of self-controul in things unlawful, we must sometimes exercise it in things lawful; as he who wishes to avoid a fall from a precipice, if he be a prudent man, will not venture too near the verge of it. The desires that have been
suffered, upon all occasions, to reach the line which separates virtue from vice, will, by a very small temptation, be seduced to pass it. The Christian soldier, like all others, must be put under the discipline of war in the time of peace; or, when the hour of actual service arrives, he will be found greatly wanting. He who has accustomed himself to govern his thoughts and words, will easily govern his actions; and he who has learned at proper seasons to abstain, will find no difficulty in being temperate. It may be added, that he who has attained to temperance, has gone a great way towards the acquisition of many other virtues.-This leads us to a
III. Third reason upon which the doctrine of self-denial is founded, namely, the influence which the body exerts upon the soul. So great and extensive is this influence, that the fall of man seems to have consisted very much in the subjection of the soul to the power and dominion of the body; as the characteristic mark of his restoration through Christ, is, the reduction of the body under the power and dominion of the soul. The corruptible body (says the Wise man) presseth down the soul, and the earthly tabernacle weigheth down the mind.' It must be our endeavour, as it is both our interest and our duty, to take off, as much as may be, this pressure, and to diminish this weight. The body must have its supplies, or the soul will lose a good servant; but great care must be taken as to the quantity and quality of those supplies, or it will acquire a very bad master. He who fares sumptuously every day, and makes each meal a full and luxurious one, may, after any such meal, feel the force and energy of the above-cited description-The corruptible body presseth down the soul, and the earthly tabernacle weigheth down the mind.' The heat and heaviness caused in the body by repletion induce, for a time, an uneasiness and dullness on the soul; nay, what is more extraordinary, even vitiate and deprave its taste. The intellectual, moral, or spiritual truths, which, after the light repast of the morning, were relishing as the patriarch's savoury meat, are now become tasteless as the white of an egg. The man has contracted a temporary indifference, at least, if not an aversion, towards every thing that is wise, and great, and good. In short, there is not more difference between any two men, than between the same man, when full, and when fasting.
But the difficulties and hardships to be encountered in a
course of self-denial, it will still be said, perhaps, are very discouraging. The objection may be in some measure obviated by a
IV. Fourth argument on its behalf, deduced from the examples frequently set us by the men of the world. There is not a votary of wealth, pleasure, power, or fame, who cannot, and who does not, upon occasion, practise a self-denial, which few Christians can be prevailed upon to practise, in a much better cause; a self-denial more severe and rigid indeed, than they are often called upon to practise.
For the sake of collecting what is never to be used, and adding to his beloved heap, the miser will forego the comforts, the conveniences, and almost the necessaries of existence, and voluntarily submit, all his days, to the penances and austerities of a mendicant.-The discipline of a life in fashion is by no means of the mildest kind; and it is common to meet with those, who complain of being worn down, and ready to sink under it. Consider the vigils and the abstinence of the gamester. To discharge with propriety the duties of his profession, it is expedient that he keep his habit cool, and his head clear. His diet is, therefore, almost as spare as that of St. John in the wilderness; and he drinks neither wine nor strong drink; lest, instead of his cheating his friend, his friend should cheat him. -Look at the aspirant to power: he wears a countenance always suited to the present occasion. No symptom of inward uneasiness is suffered to appear in it. He holds his passions in the most absolute subjection. He takes patiently and cheerfully affronts and insults. He bears and forbears.-How often does the candidate for literary fame pursue his proposition, or his problem, or his system, regardless of food and rest, till his eyes fail, his nerves are shattered, his spirits are exhausted, and his health is gone!
But greater things than these are still behind. At the call of honour, a young man of family and fortune, accustomed to the gratifications of the table, and a life of ease and voluptuousness, quits every valuable and tender connection at home, and submits at once to all the painful duties and hard fare of a camp, in an enemy's country. He travels through dreary swamps, and inhospitable forests, guided only by the track of savages. He traverses mountains, he passes and repasses rivers, and marches several hundred miles, with scarcely bread to eat,
or change of raiment to put on. When night comes, he sleeps on the ground, or perhaps sleeps not at all; and at the dawn of day resumes his labour. At length he is so fortunate as to find his enemy. He braves death, amid all the horrors of the field. He sees his companions fall around him-he is wounded, and carried into a tent, or laid in a waggon; where he is left to suffer pain and anguish, with the noise of destruction sounding in his ears. After some weeks, he recovers, and enters afresh upon duty.-And does the Captain of thy salvation, O thou who stylest thyself the soldier and servant of Jesus Christ-does He require anything like this at thy hands? Or canst thou deem him an austere Master, because thou art enjoined to live in sobriety and purity, to subdue a turbulent passion, to watch an hour sometimes unto prayer, or to miss a meal now and then, during the season of repentance and humiliation? Blush for shame, and hide thy face in the dust.
More strange and inexcusable still will this conduct of the Christian appear, when we consider, in the V. Fifth and last place, the rewards annexed to the practice of self-denial.
Many and great are its advantages, in the present life. The lightness of spirits, the cheerfulness of heart, the serenity of temper, the alacrity of mind, the vigour of understanding, the obedience of the will, the freedom from bad desires, and the propensity to good ones, produced by a prudent and judicious abstinence, are inconceivable by those who have never experienced them. For think not that the felicity, any more than the virtue, of man consists in gratifying at all times his own humour, and following his own will; since his humour is perverse, and his will depraved. We are, in the very deed, the oldest of us, children, wayward children; and unless we would be miserable, as well as vicious, we must treat ourselves as we do our children. Now, compare the child that is taught submission and obedience, with him that is humoured in every thing. How rational, cheerful, agreeable, and happy is the one! How ridiculous, peevish, disagreeable and unhappy is the other! The smallest favour done the first, is received and acknowledged as a particular obligation: the greatest kindness done to the other, is either rejected with disdain, or received with thankless ill manners. The more you strive to please him, the more difficult he is to be pleased; till at length nothing will satisfy or oblige him, because he hath been obliged
in all things.-Betimes, therefore, accustom your desires, like children, to disappointments. Deny them every thing they ask for, that is improper for them to obtain; nay, every thing (be it what it may) which they ask for in an improper manner. This will be so far from souring the temper (as some have weakly suggested in the case of children) that it will give you as well as them a confirmed habit of acquiescing in what is right; of cheerfully submitting, when your wills are over-ruled; of receiving every thing with pleasure and gratitude, in which you are indulged; above all, of controuling every sudden passion that may arise; of commanding and moderating every desire; of resigning to the appointments of Providence, through every situation and period of life. And if this be not happiness, say, where is it to be found, and where is the place thereof?-It is the happiness of a hero, the joy and the glory of a conqueror, returning from the field of battle triumphant through grace, and dragging the enemies of his salvation fast bound to his chariot-wheels. When self-denial has thus wrought its perfect work within you, the kingdom of heaven is thereand that kingdom is righteousness, and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.
But self-denial will not only thus bring down heaven to you for a time-it will carry you up to heaven for ever. Let us revert to the fifth chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel, and consider well the promises there made to those holy and happy tempers, peculiar to Christianity, the essence of all which is self-denial; and let us observe the manner, in which the reward is adapted and appropriated to each several temper.
'Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful; for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God. Blessed are the peace-makers; for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad; for great is your reward in heaven,'