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REFLECTION ON OUR CONDITION.
For he satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness. Seek the Lord, and his strength; seek his face evermore.
MAN is placed here at school-and he is schooling for eternity. His lot is a divine appointment, and why is he so disposed to murmur at it? We see, in too many instances, how men, misled by vain illusions, in the eagerness of their pursuit, miss the road even to earthly happiness. In vain are the stores of divine bounty poured around us, while we turn from the crystal fountain of true felicity, and set our hearts on some unwholesome spring, vainly conceiving that in what heaven denies in mercy, we should be supremely blessed; but that without it, earth has no joys, and life no value.
Now this unhappy propensity to become our own tormentors, is to be traced chiefly to three bitter roots, growing within the mind itself -pride, selfishness and envy; whence probably proceed a great part of the miseries of mankind. By fancying nothing equal to their desert, they become dissatisfied with all that they possess: by grasping with inordinate desire, more than they ought, they lose all; and turn the imagined good of others into positive evil to them
Why will men thus throw darkness upon the bright beam of day? God assures us, that if we relish as we ought the bounties of heaven, he will not turn them bitter. Though the present state is one of trial and probation, it is by no means left destitute of comforts and gratifications. Difficulties and afflictions are unquestionably intermingled; and are no doubt, graciously designed for the purification. of our good dispositions, and the amendment of our evil ones. Yet God is too merciful a parent, though correction may be needful, to inflict one unnecessary pang; though bitter remedies may be expedient, to mingle one insalubrious ingredient in the cup of existence. His views are all consistently wise and good; ever tending to the same unalterable end; the improvement and true happiness of his creatures, here and hereafter.
How often do we resist his gracious will, by our own pride and folly! How often give way to vain anxiety, foolish vexation, if not ungodly murmurs-how rarely taste all that heartfelt satisfaction, which his goodness meant and which his bounty puts into our power!
Let us resolve, for the time to come, to make a more careful improvement of the blessings of Providence. Gratefully acquiescing in our own condition, let us, instead of envying, be kind and helpful, one to another; and sincerely rejoice with those who are placed above us. This is true benevolence. This is true wisdom. This is genuine piety. This meets the approbation of our own minds; and will render us acceptable in the sight of God and of good men.
"God is Love." He made us to be happy ourselves, and to contribute to the happiness of our fellow creatures. He has placed us in a world, replenished with his bountiful gifts; has spread a mantle of beauty and grace over the whole surface of our habitation; and hung his glories in the surrounding heavens. He has ordained that the faithful performance of our duty shall ever be accompanied with satisfaction and delight; and he has destined us hereafter-if our own exceeding folly prevent it not-for a state of increasing and endless felicity.
But I keep under my body and bring it into subjection. **
No man can be said to possess the power of self government, who has not under his habitual controul, the tenour of his thoughts, the language of his lips, the motions of lust and appetite, and the energy of his passions. This shows you, at once, the extent and division of this subject. I shall limit the remarks of this day to the last topic.
The passions are the enemies of self command; and like fire, when they are not servants they are tyrannical masters. Think of the woful instances of indulged passion which crowd the pages of history! Alas, how weak is man! When clouded with passion, his boasted reason, instead of disentangling the perplexity of his affairs, or impelling him to act wisely and virtuously, often serves only to aggravate his misery, and to justify him in his perverseness. During this temporary insanity, all things upon which the eye is fixed, appear enlarged and gigantic. If the object be pleasing, it assumes a lustre which appears to gild with its rays every future scene of being; and without which life must inevitably sink into a melancholy blank. If on the contrary, the object be to be dreaded, it deadens the sense of every comfort, and appears to spread its baleful influence to the uttermost limit of our existence-in short, it appears intolerable; and we wish to escape, though with the sacrifice of all that we do, or ever can, enjoy. If, again, this evil be brought upon us by the caprice or injustice of another, we estimate the malignity of that other, by the enormous magnitude of the evil itself; and our resentment is unlimited. It has involved us in dishonour, a thousand times worse than death, and therefore death is infinitely too mild a punishment for such an offender. Such is the logic of the passions. Into what extravagances, what miseries, what crimes, are men precipitated, for want of learning and practising, the art of self government !
How greatly ought we to be upon our guard, not only against the violence, but against the illusion of the passions! To the mind which strongly feels their influence, nothing seems what it really is. As in the troubled water, all the images of things are broken and distorted, and seem to undulate with the surface that reflects them; so in the impassioned and agitated mind the same confusion prevails; and all the surrounding world seems to partake of the commotion, and assumes a quite different aspect, when this internal tumult rises, and when it subsides. Wise therefore and happy the man, who before he ventures on any decisive step, waits the period of returning reason. Certainly much depends on opposing the passions in their origin. If we suffer them to grow into strength, and especially to acquire the habit of dominion, we shall probably have much cause to repent our supineness. A small effort of fortitude and self denial at first, may prove effectual; while much greater and more painful exertions, at a later period, may succeed very imperfectly. As the Hollander raises his mound against the swelling billows of the ocean, during its subsidence and calms; so ought we, during our cooler and more temperate hours, to fortify our minds, by reason and reflection, against those torrents and tempests of the soul, to which, from the vicissitudes of life and the frailty of human nature, we are all liable.
EVILS OF UNGOVERNED PASSION.
And God said unto Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.
It is the nature of the passions to concentrate our views in one glowing point, and thus cause us to overlook whatever might allay their fervour. Hence, the undoubting confidence, with which the impassioned mind insists upon its own rectitude, and even glories in the violence of its emotions. Nor is it the angry and the revengeful only; the voluptuous, the ambitious, and distempered minds of every description, all find specious arguments to reconcile the indulgence of their own will and their personal gratification, the indulgence of their own will with their duty, and with the general good; at least, to palliate, if they cannot altogether justify, their conduct, from the inevitable pressure of events and peculiarity of situation. They will perhaps allow that the same action would be highly exceptionable in others; but in them it is excusable, because unavoidable. They "do well," therefore, to break through laws which are generally binding: extraordinary cases demand extraordinary modes of acting. Thus the ambitious easily persuade themselves, that on their advancement, depends the fate of society itself. Such are the intrinsic beauty and excellence of their schemes and projects, that the success of them would be cheaply purchased at almost any price. The voluptuous too, paint the pleasurable scenes which they are pursuing in such alluring colours, that all other aims appear insipid; all other objects comparatively insignificant. Nay, let the course to be pursued, be ever so immoral and inhuman-and in a cooler hour acknowledged to be so-the passions, once roused, will still drive on, and call it amiable and meritorious. "I do well," said Jonah, "to be angry." Not content with this sufficiently morose reply to the mild expostulation of heaven, he adds, "to be angry, even unto death." How preposterous! Must Jonah punish himself, because the Ninevites escape unpunished; and either rush out of life indignantly, or pine away in the slow consuming fires of his own rancorous spirit, because God had not forgotten to be merciful as well as just? If from the foolish weakness of our nature, the prophet might be allowed to feel, in the midst of benevolent joy for the Ninevites' unexpected deliverance, some secret selfish mortification for his own degraded dignity; yet we must be astonished at the height to which his mind was inflamed-at the degree in which his feelings were exasperated. "It is better for me to die, than to live !" Had instant death followed the wish of the discontented prophet, how would he have shrunk back, and stood aghast, and deprecated his rash choice! Then the petty mortification he had felt would have vanished; and all the charms of life would have revived. Jonah, at this instant, had, like many others, forgotten his former feelings-"when the waters compassed him about, and the weeds were wrapped around his head, when he went down to the bottom of the mountains, and his soul fainted within him-then, says he, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came in unto him: but I will sacrifice unto thee, with the voice of thanksgiving. I will pay unto thee vows which I have vowed"-then he felt the value of life; and his expressions of thankfulness for preservation, testify his sense of the importance of the benefit; which however he would now, with childish capriciousness, renounce, as a burden too great to be borne.
I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.
If this happy art is to be learned, it is certainly, of all attainments, the most desirable. And that it is to be learned, the Apostle testifies from his own experience.
Wisely has Divine Providence ordained, that a cheerful and happy mind should not depend so much on outward circumstances, as on internal culture and regulation. Our condition in life, we cannot always command; but if we can learn to extract the good that is in every thing which God appoints, we need not repine that we have so little power over the will of our fellow-creatures, or over the elements of nature. He that ruleth his own spirit is better than the mighty; a soul in harmony with itself, and with the dispensations of Eternal Wisdom, is preferable to extended empire.
Every one knows that contentment is another name for happiness. It is also the ground-work of the most delightful duties and affections we owe to God and to man; and therefore stands high in the scale of moral and religious virtue.
A contented mind is the gem that alone can give substantial worth to the drapery of external fortune. Often does the benevolent observer of human life view with surprise and delight, the treasure of a cheerful heart, in situations where it were least to be expected. On the other hand, not less frequently is he mortified, amidst mighty preparations and dazzling shows of enjoyment, not to find the preeious substance.
True happiness is not the creature of state and circumstance; the materials of which it is composed are universally diffused, like the presence of God; and its seat is in the mind. Were it otherwise, the Apostle, who tells us that "he had learned in whatsoever state he was, therewith to be content," had been, perhaps, "of all men, the most miserable." But if a life of toils, dangers and sufferings like his, could be sweetened by a self-approving mind, resting on Divine Providence, and rejoicing in the hope of a happy futurity-what a blessed influence must the same views and sentiments have on man's ordinary condition! The peace and joy, however, with which the mind of the Apostle was replete, could scarcely be increased or diminished by the varying aspect of the world. For when the people of Lystra imagined that Paul and Barnabas were gods and the priest of Jupiter came, with oxen and garlands, and would have done sacrifice to them--instead of being elated by the admiration and applause of the enthusiastic multitude--"they rent their clothes." And when this burst of popular favour was turned into rage; when these men, so lately deified, were thrust into a dungeon and cruelly fettered-at midnight, they employed the sleepless hours in singing praises to God; "and the prisoners heard them." Judge, then, what solid happiness was theirs, which not all the powers on earth could shake from its foundations; whose light shone forth in the midst of darkness; who enjoyed their sufferings more than other men enjoy their prosperity.
This, this is happiness indeed, which brings the reversion of a far greater happiness to come.
Why should I murmur ?--O'er this scene
THE PHARISEE AND THE PUBLICAN.
This man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
HUMILITY is a virtue peculiar to christianity, and injunctions to it are every where prominent among christian precepts. A more striking example to show the propriety of it, in communing with God, and the absurdity of an exhibition of spiritual pride in his presence, could scarcely have been selected than in the parable of the praying Pharisee and Publican. The one arrogantly enumerates his titles to divine favour in a manner, which could not but be offensive to Him who perceived their hollowness and insufficiency; the other casts himself in sorrowful penitence before that mercy which is ever indulgent to the sincerely contrite. Every one sees at a glance, how much more acceptable must have been the offering of the latter, than the former.
But though not so striking as in open prayer, it is equally true, that he who indulges in secret exaltation of himself; and who dwells in the contemplations of his mind on his own supposed religious faith, and virtue, on his strict adherence to all the requisitions of his religion, and his exemption from the vices, errours or follies of those around him, is acting the part of the Pharisee, before that God who sees the operations of the mind, as plainly as if expressed in language and it is also true that he who thoroughly examines and condemns himself, in the silence of his own conscience; who casts from his mind every idea of merit, and viewing with deep contrition all his sins, lifts only an imploring thought for forgiveness, shall like the Publican, find justification, and acceptance, and the aid of the divine spirit, to forward him in the works of effectual repentance.
But little reflection is necessary to show us the propriety of humility, in all degrees and characters of men; for what is the best of them, in the sight of God? and even in comparison with other men, it is not always those, who are least inclined to blame themselves, or even who appear of the fairest character to the world, who if judged on a scale of merit, taking into view all their advantages and aids, would be found to be least deserving of censure. It is not a mark of self knowledge, to be satisfied with our characters; and the most eminent christians, have been generally most inclined to depreciate themselves.
We see therefore a good reason why the proud should be abased, and the humble exalted; for the blindness of the former, to their own state of mind, is an obstruction to their improvement, while the penitence of the latter, is the first and best step to their reformation-and we should be careful to cultivate a contrite and self abasing disposition, if we would advance in religious attainments, and the favour and assistance of God. "Let him who thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall."
Benignant condescension that Thy ray
Should send its brightness through a clod of clay,
Thus privileged, let my spirit-rousing thought,