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The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations.
I HAVE twice already discoursed upon this text, in which, after some short explication and account given, both of the sense and design of the words, I cast the further prosecution of them under these following particulars.
1st, To shew how far God delivers persons truly pious out of temptation.
2dly, To shew what is the grand motive or impulsive cause inducing God thus to deliver them. And,
3dly and lastly, To shew why and upon what grounds this is to be reputed so great a mercy and so transcendent a privilege.
The two first of these I have formerly treated of, and proceed now to the third and last, which is to shew, why and upon what grounds deliverance out of temptation is to be reputed so great a mercy and so transcendent a privilege.
In order to which, as all deliverance, in the very 353nature and notion of it, imports a relation to some evil from which a man is delivered, so in this deliverance out of temptation, the surpassing greatness of it, and the sovereign mercy shewn in it, will appear from those intolerable evils and mischiefs which are always intended by and naturally consequent upon a prevailing temptation. To give some account of which shall be the business of our present discourse.
And for this we shall first in general lay down this as a certain truth: That all the mischief that sin can possibly do a man, temptation designs him. All that is valuable, either in this world or the next, it would rob him of; and all that can be called misery, either here or hereafter, it would subject him to. All that a man can enjoy is struck at, and all that he can suffer is intended; and if the tempter allows him the quiet enjoyment of any thing desirable in this life, it is only to bereave him of that which is infinitely more so in the other.
Which being so, as to that high concern in debate between the Devil and the souls of men; since his malice is such, that he cannot but tempt, it is an in finite mercy that he can do no more than tempt, and that a man’s own consent must be had to his own destruction. For if the tempter could have his will upon the person tempted, he would scorn to court where he could compel. He would make directly at his head, and not come stealing upon his heel. He would break in upon him with open force, and not stand poorly waiting at his elbow with a temptation.
But to come to particulars. Four things more 354 especially are designed, and driven at by the tempter in all his temptations. As,
1st, To begin with the greatest, and that which is always first intended, though last accomplished, the utter loss and damnation of the soul. For this is the grand mark which the tempter shoots at, this the beloved prize which he contends so hard for.
And as two enemies may be really as much enemies while they are treating as when they are fighting, so the Devil bears the same malice to a man while he tempts him, as when he actually torments him. Temptation is the way to torment, and torment the end of temptation.
When men first venture upon sinful objects, lewd converse, and occasions of life suitable to their corrupt humours, the face of the temptation looks fair and harmless, the first proposals of it plausible and modest, and the last and dismal issue of things is with great art and care kept out of their sight; so that they shall not perceive that their enemy is so much as about to strike, till the final and fatal stroke is effectually given.
The Devil, perhaps, offers thee pleasure; but, poor creature! it is thy life which he aims at, thy darling life which he is driving a base bargain for. Or he may lay wealth and riches before thee, but be assured that he will have something for his money, some thing of more value to thee than both the Indies, and the whole world besides. Sometimes he courts with honour and greatness, but still expects to be well paid for both. And as great a prince as he is, he never knights any one, but he expects more than knight’s service from him in return. In a word, he 355will have thy conscience and thy religion by way of earnest here, and thy soul in full payment for it hereafter. There is not the least thing in the world which the tempter offers a man for nothing; not so much as a pitiful mess or morsel to relieve thy craving, starving appetites, but he will, if he can, have thy birthright, thy immortal birthright in exchange for it.
Could we but look into those mansions of horror, where he has lodged so many millions of lost souls, the cruel monuments of his victorious delusions, and whom almost amongst them all might we not hear charging his coming into that woful estate upon the overreaching arts of this great impostor! Some we should hear cursing those false and fallacious pleasures which had baited and beguiled, befooled and drawn them into those direful pains, from which there is neither respite nor redemption. Others we should hear raving and crying out of those guilty gains, those ill filled bags and deluding heaps, which served only to treasure up wrath to the owners of them, and at length sink them into a bottomless pit, deeper, and more insatiable, if possible, than their own covetousness. Others again we should hear, with the height of rage and bitterness, reflecting upon those treacherous, dear-bought honours, the unconscionable price of their wretched souls, by which the tempter hooked them into his clutches, blinding the judgment and blasting their innocence, till, by several steps of guilt and greatness, he preferred them downwards, to the place prepared for such forlorn grandees, where they are like to lie for ever, cursing themselves as much as formerly they were cursed by others,356
This is the result and end of all the tempter’s glossing arts and flattering addresses. Hell is the centre of all his temptations; for from thence they were first drawn, there they all meet, and in that they end.
And therefore let not that man who would not be fooled in so vast an interest as his salvation, fix his eye either upon the outside or the beginning of a temptation. Even the beginning of a tragedy is pleasant, but the close of it is not so. Let him not judge of what the tempter intends by what he offers; for be it what it will, look it never so gay or great, can any one, not quite abandoned by common sense, imagine that his mortal, avowed enemy is at all concerned for his pleasure, profit, or preferment? Assuredly nothing less; in all this he is but setting his trap; and no man sets a trap, but he baits it too. He hates most implacably, while he offers most plausibly. His drift in every one of his temptations is to separate between the soul and its chief good for ever, and to plunge it into a state of misery both intolerable and unchangeable.
Further than this he cannot go, and short of this, if possible, he never stops. Every temptation not defeated, certainly destroys. For by once casting a man from his innocence, it carries him still down wards; and he who falls so, falls further and further by a continual rolling motion, and never leaves falling (unless staid by a mighty intervening grace) till he comes to the bottom, or rather to the place that has none.
This is the natural course, way, and method of a temptation from first to last. In the beginning it flatters, in the progress of it, it domineers, and in the 357issue it damns; always concluding (if not baffled and broken off in time) in the worm that dies not., and the fire that is not quenched.
But to proceed. There are other consequences of a successful, conquering temptation, short of damnation, and yet sufficiently dreadful in themselves. As,
2dly, In the second place, loss of a man’s peace with God and his own conscience, and the weakening, if not extinguishing all his former hopes of salvation. It confounds and casts a man infinitely backwards, as to his spiritual accounts. It degrades him from his assurance; renders his title to heaven dubious and perplexed; draws a great and discouraging blot over all his evidences; and even shakes in pieces that confidence which was formerly the very life and support of his soul, with new, terrible, and amazing objections.
This is a man’s condition immediately upon the prevalence of a temptation. For whatsoever makes a breach upon his innocence, in the same degree also certainly dashes his comforts. And for a man to be thus always in the dark, as to the greatest concern he has in both worlds, what is it but a kind of temporary hell, as hell itself is chiefly a perpetual darkness! And therefore, where men cannot arrive to the high privilege of a certainty, they are glad at least of a probability of their salvation. But he who has once rifled and laid open his soul to a base compliance with a temptation, has nothing to relieve his tottering, shaken hopes with, but the weak and glimmering light of God’s general mercy, which many enjoy who shall never taste of his special favour.
Look upon David, a person represented under as sublime and heroic a character of piety to posterity, 358 as any one whatsoever; a person signalized with that peculiar elogy, of being the man after God’s own heart, 1 Samuel xiii. 14. And yet how did this glorious and great man, by yielding to a foul temptation, undermine and sap the very foundation of all that comfort and confidence in God, which, by a long course of piety and strict living, he had for many years together been building up; so that immediately after that terrible blow given him, we find the horror of his sin and the terrors of the Almighty always fresh and fierce upon his spirit. My sin, says he, is continually before me, Psalm li. 3. Nay, though he received his pardon by a particular message from heaven, a pardon bearing date as early as the very confession of his sin, (for no sooner had he said, I have sinned, but the prophet replies upon him immediately from God himself, 2 Sam. xii. 13, The Lord also hath put away thy sin, thou shalt not die,) yet, notwithstanding all this, the wound hereby made upon his conscience was so broad and deep, so angry and inflamed, that we can not find that it was ever perfectly cured and closed up; but still we have him complaining of broken bones and noisome sores, loss of God’s presence and decay of spiritual strength, mournful days and rest less nights; sometimes rising, and sometimes falling, with alternate hopes and fears, even to his dying day.
The history of whose condition one would think abundantly sufficient to set a frightful look upon the fairest and best dressed temptation. For though in such a case, God by a sovereign restoring mercy should at the last secure a man’s eternal interest, and keep him from an hell hereafter, yet is it not misery 359enough to endure one here? to be still carrying about him a sick, ulcerated mind, a mind perpetually almost harassed with the returning paroxysms of diffidence and despair? and to go drooping all his days under the secret girds and gripes of a dissatisfied, doubting, ill-boding conscience?
Is it nothing to be haunted with the dismal apparitions of a reviving guilt, and the old black scores of our past, forgotten sins? Nothing to have that merciless handwriting of the law against us, which we thought had been cancelled, presented anew in fresh and flaming characters to our apprehensions? In a word, is it nothing to be always walking upon the brink of damnation, like a man looking down with horror into a deep and black water from a slippery standing, from which he expects trembling to fall every minute, and from which if he does fall, he sees his death and his grave before him in the bosom of the merciless element, where he is sure to be swallowed up irrecoverably?
A man may have the whole frame of his spiritual estate so broken and battered by a temptation, that he shall never be able to retrieve upon his heart so much rational confidence of his future happiness, as to afford him one cheerful day all his life after, but shall pass the time of his pilgrimage here in sadness and uncertainty, clouds and darkness, clouds that shall make all black and lowering over him, and intercept the view of all that is comfortable above him.
Such, for the most part, is the case and condition of a sinner plunged by temptation into a great guilt; a condition so inexpressibly miserable, that it is impossible for a man under it to enjoy any thing. 360 And that surely is or ought to be argument enough against it, though he should in the issue escape from it. For a wise man would live, not only with safety, but also with satisfaction.
And therefore, as in this temporal life it is not the bare union of soul and body, or a power merely to subsist and breathe, which deserves the name of life, and much less of enjoyment, but to have those nobler superstructures and advantages of nature, an healthful body and a sound mind, vigorous faculties and well-disposed organs, together with an happy symmetry and agreement of all the parts:
So in the spiritual and supernatural life, will any one who has a true sense and relish of such things content himself with so poor a proportion of grace and sincerity, as just to keep him spiritually alive, and out of a state of death and reprobation, and in the mean time neglect the health, the growth, the flower and activity of the spiritual principle? Will he satisfy himself in having just as much oil in his lamp as to keep it from going out, when he might and should have so much as to feed it up to a brisk and a glorious flame?
Why should a man choose to go to heaven through sloughs and ditches, briars and thorns, diffidence and desertion, trembling and misgiving, and by the very borders of hell, and death staring him in the face; when he might pass from comfort to comfort, and have all his way paved with joy and assurance, and made easy and pleasant to him by the inward, in valuable satisfactions of a well-grounded peace?
He who shuns the road of temptation may do so; but he who will needs keep in it, is at best but like the man in the gospel, who, travelling from Jerusalem 361to Jericho, fell amongst thieves. They stripped him, and wounded him, and left him half dead. After which, would any one, think we, in his right wits, who had seen all this, have ventured himself into the same hands, only because the man who fell into them was not actually despatched by them? Do wise men account the dangers and disasters of war as nothing, because every one who engages in the battle is not killed outright upon the place, but many escape and come off wounded and maimed, and leaving a good part of themselves behind them?
Surely I should think, that not only graves, but hospitals, not only the enemy, but the surgeon, not only the weapons of death, but the instruments of cure, should speak terror enough to dissuade considering minds from the peril of such adventures.
But much otherwise is the discourse and arguing of those whom the tempter infatuates, when, in defiance of common sense and experience, they would reason away the dread of sin and the danger of temptation. They reason for the commission of a sin from the bare possibility of not being damned for it, but overlook the certainty of being made extremely wretched and miserable by it: just like a sot, who purchases the short, worthless pleasure of a luscious, unwholesome morsel with a terrible surfeit, or a long sickness, only because a man may be sick and surfeited, and not die. These are the wise consequences which some govern their actions by; while, by a new, unusual art of argumentation, they dispute for the Devil, but conclude against themselves.
3dly. The third consequent of a prevailing temptation, 362 is the exposing of a man to the temporal judgments of God in some signal and severe affliction. For though, in much mercy, God may (as we have shewn) save such an one from eternal death; yet it rarely happens that he frees him both from destruction and from discipline too; but that sometime or other he gives him a taste of the bitter cup, and teaches him what his sin has deserved, by what at present it makes him feel.
When the Israelites, by that monstrous instance of ingratitude and idolatry, in changing the Deity for a golden calf, (the God that made them, for a god made by them,) had provoked God utterly to cut them off, and Moses by a mighty intercession kept off the killing blow, so that they were not then destroyed; yet for all that, they did not go unpunished, as appears from that remarkable place in Exodus xxxii. 34, Nevertheless, says God, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them. And by many terrible items did the vengeance of God remind them of it for many succeeding generations. So that it was a common saying, even to a proverb, amongst the Jewish writers, that never any judgment befell the children of Israel from that time forward, but there was an ounce of the golden calf in it.
It seems there was an old score still to be reckoned for. As the killing malignity of many a distemper may be removed, and yet the man not so absolutely cured of it, but that for many years after he may find it in his bones, and never recover the debauches of his youth so far, but that they may leave something behind them, which shall be sure to rub up his memory in his age.363
Some there are who hold, that when God has once pardoned a sin, as to its guilt and merit of eternal punishment, there is yet another guilt, binding the sinner over to temporal punishment, which remains yet unpardoned, and consequently to be expiated and cleared off, either by God’s temporal judgments inflicted upon the sinner before or after his death, or to be satisfied for, by something voluntarily undergone, or otherwise commuted for by the sinner himself.
This, I say, is the doctrine of some. A doctrine much more beneficial in its consequences, than true in its principles; and such as maintains those who hold it, much better than it is maintained by them. For though it is most true, that after God has pardoned a sin as to its eternal punishment, he may nevertheless afflict and chastise the sinner for it in this world; yet to affirm that this is in order to the satisfaction of his justice for that sin, is false, and in consistent with the infinite fulness and perfection of Christ’s satisfaction.
All satisfaction implies recompence and an equal compensation; but God intends no such thing in the calamities which he inflicts upon a pardoned person, but he inflicts them for quite other ends; as partly to give the world fresh demonstrations of his hatred of sin, and partly to inodiate and embitter sin to the chastised sinner. So that to punish, properly taken, is one thing; and to afflict and chastise, perfectly another.
The difference therefore in stating the ground or formal reason of this dispensation is very great, though the effect of it be materially the same, and the evil inflicted, whether by way of retribution or 364 castigation, equally grievous. And since it is so, let no man, from any even the most rational persuasion that he can have of the main and final pardon of his sin, conclude, that there shall be no other reckonings with him in temporal visitations. For he who has escaped the axe or the gallows, is not sure also to escape the lash; and though mercy has spared a malefactor’s head, yet justice may leave him a small token in his hand to remember it by.
For the proof and confirmation of which, can any thing be more apposite and express, than that emphatical place in Psalm xcix. 8, Thou wast a God, says the Psalmist, that forgavest them, though thou tookest vengeance of their inventions. What! Forgiveness and vengeance upon the same persons! Light and darkness in the same region, and at the same time! Who can unriddle these obscurities, or reconcile the seeming contradiction? Why, the resolution is not so very difficult, if we consider that eternal mercy may very well consist with temporal severities, and the pardon of the sin with the correction of the sinner.
See this further exemplified in the person of David himself, (the great instance whom we shall still have recourse to, in treating of this subject.) Could or can any one act an higher repentance than he did, whose repentance stands upon record as a pat tern to the penitents of all succeeding ages? Or can any one pretend to a greater assurance of his forgiveness than the same David, whose pardon (as we have shewn) was immediately sealed in heaven, and infallibly declared to him by the mouth of an inspired prophet? Yet for all this, cast but your eyes forward, and certainly from that time you will find 365but very few fair days in the following part of his life. For first of all, he hears the doom of his darling child; and then, by a strange intermixture of judgments and pardons together, in the very same breath almost that the prophet tells him, that he should not die, he tells him also, that the sword should never depart from his house. And how was his royal family broken and dishonoured by strange, infamous, and unusual villainies and disasters; by incest, murder, and rebellion: one brother ravishing his sister, another killing his brother, and rebelling against his father. Surely there was as sad a face of confusion upon the house of David as ever there was, not only upon the court of any prince, but upon the family of any private person whatsoever. And yet all these lamentable accidents were both subsequent upon and derivable from a sin which was fully pardoned. Of so vast, so lasting, and so surviving an extent is the malignity of a great guilt.
And no wonder; for as guilt is inseparable from sin, so sorrow and suffering are inseparable from guilt. Tribulation and anguish, says the apostle, upon every soul of man that doeth evil. The sentence is universal, and we find no reserve or exempt case in the execution. And therefore let that man, who can be so far taken and transported with the present, pleasing offers of a temptation, as to over look those dreadful after-claps which usually bring up the rear of it; let him, I say, take heed, that vengeance does not begin with him in this life, and mark him in the forehead with some fearful, unlooked-for disaster. And if this once comes to be the case, I cannot see, but that those high blades, who pretend 366 to outbrave hell, and laugh at all apprehensions of future misery, yet when they come to feel the hand of God upon their worldly interests, can as sadly and sharply resent the calamity of a languishing body or a declining family, a blasted name or a broken estate, and bend under it as poorly as the meanest and lowest spirited man whatsoever.
But let them bear it as they can; such for the most part are the dolorous effects and bitter appendages of a prevailing temptation. After all which, if pardoning mercy should come in, and save a man at the last, yet surely no serious, considering person would need any greater argument against the commission of a sin, than to have these the circumstances of its pardon.
4thly. The fourth and last mischievous consequence of a prevailing temptation is the disgrace, scandal, and reproach, which it naturally brings upon our Christian profession. The three former consequences terminated within the compass of the sinner’s own person; but this last spreads and diffuses the mischief much further: nothing in nature casting so deep a stain upon the face of Christianity, as the blots which fall upon it from the lewd and scandalous behaviour of Christians.
Forasmuch as every ill practice naturally reflects a disrepute upon a man’s principles, as being still supposed either to influence him to that practice, or at least not to restrain him from it; either of which is justly a discredit to them. For if the first be true, his principles are evil and immoral; if the latter, they are imperfect.
From whence it is, that constant experience has found it to be the common course and custom of the 367world, to except and inveigh against professions, offices, and things themselves, only for the faults of persons. A way of arguing indeed as absurd as spiteful, but yet very easy and usual, and with gross, vulgar minds (not well able to distinguish or discern any thing, but as it is exemplified and embodied in persons) almost unavoidable.
And this certainly should make every wise and good man very tender and cautious of being drawn into those ways, which may both bring upon him a personal guilt, and render him a public scandal. For why in all reason should the profession or society, the church or religion, which a man is of, suffer by his lewdness, or share the infamy of those crimes which they are not in the least concerned in, otherwise than to disown, hate, and detest them? Common ingenuity (one would think) should stop the foul mouth of any temptation with such reasonings and replies as these.
Nay, should a man take up his religion, not out of conscience, but design, yet surely it would be his interest to keep it fair and creditable: and should he (as too many do) wear it only as a cloak, yet prudence and common decency would teach him to wear it clean, and without spots. For he who is not concerned for the honour of his religion, may justly be supposed to have neither honour nor religion.
If indeed a man could be wicked, and a villain to himself alone, the mischief would be so much the more tolerable. But the case is much otherwise. The plague flies abroad, and attacks the innocent neighbourhood. The guilt of the crime lights upon one, but the example of it sways a multitude; 368 especially if the criminal be of any note or eminence in the world. For the fall of such an one by any temptation (be it never so plausible) is like that of a principal stone, or stately pillar, tumbling from a lofty edifice into the deep mire of the street: it does not only plunge and sink into the black dirt itself, but also dashes and bespatters all that are about or near it when it falls.
Was it not thus with Samson? who, of a judge of Israel, and a terror to his enemies, a man all made up of miracle, rendered himself both the shame of the former and the contempt of the latter; a scoff and a by- word to all the nations round about him, (as every vicious and voluptuous prince must needs be;) and all this by surrendering up his strength, his reason, and his royal trust to the charms of a brutish temptation, which quickly trans formed and made him a more stupendous miracle of folly and weakness than ever he had been of strength; and a greater disgrace to his country than ever he had been a defence; or in a word, from a judge of Israel, a woful judgment upon it.
And was it not thus also with David? This was the worst and most killing consequence of the temptation which he fell by, 2 Sam. xii. 14, that he had, by that enormous act, given the enemies of God, as the prophet told him, great occasion to blaspheme. And no doubt, the religion he professed, as well as the sin he had committed, was thereupon made the song of the drunkards; and many a biting jeer was obliquely cast at one, as well as directly levelled at the other. For to be vicious in the sight of a man’s enemies, and those not more the enemies of himself than of his religion, what a bitter aggravation is it 369of his guilt, and what an indelible reproach to his person!
Yet thus it is and ever will be in such cases; where the person of the criminal is public, the infamy of the crime can hardly be private. It is too great and too diffusive to be confined to one place, or circumscribed within one person. But the report of it shall whirl and rattle over a whole nation, damping the spirits of some, and rejoicing the hearts of others, but opening the mouths of all; those of enemies in taunts and sarcasms, and those of friends in sighs and complaints; when it shall be said of any person of credit and repute, what a false or foul step he made, either in point of conscience or honour, throwing off all obligation of one, and all sense of the other, only through a blind, aspiring ascent to some pitiful station of worldly wealth and greatness, where the curse of men will be sure to follow, and the curse of God to overtake him.
These two things therefore let every one rest assured and persuaded of. First, that in every temptation the tempter’s design is not only the single guilt and damnation of the person tempted, but, if possible, to make him a means or instrument to carry and convey the infection of the crime to many more. And if he fails in that, so that he cannot defile or destroy persons, he will endeavour at least to derive a slur upon professions. This being most certain, that there is not a man of remark in any religion in the world, but has thereby got it into his power to do his religion a great mischief. To which I shall add one note more; that every man living has it in his power to do more mischief than he can do good. And this directly introduces that other thing, which 370 I would have every man fix and keep in his thoughts; namely, that it is the most unworthy, base, and ignoble thing, that can be incident to human nature, for a man to make himself a plague and a public calamity, a blot to a church, and a blemish to his religion. For what is it else, but to make himself a tool and an under-agent to the great enemy of God and man, and to do that for the Devil, which the Devil, without the help of such instruments, could not possibly do by himself?
But such a wretch is every one, who, by complying with a temptation in any vile or dishonest practice, does as much as in him lies to libel his very calling, to reproach his Saviour, and to put Christianity itself to the blush. But above all, scandalous and inexcusable would it be for a minister of the church, to suffer himself to be tempted to any thing wicked or dishonourable. For such an one, by so doing, first puts his foot into the mire, and then tramples upon the altar.
And thus having set before you four of the most dire and fatal consequences of a prevailing temptation, I suppose it will be no hard matter to take an estimate of the greatness of the mercy of being delivered from it.
For first, Is there any happiness in being free from the cruel bites and tortures of a perpetually accusing conscience; a conscience labouring under the guilt of some great sin, which, like a remorseless vulture, shall lie daily and hourly gnawing and preying upon his heart; or, like a poisonous adder, rolling in his bosom, and from thence always hissing in his face?
Is it a blessing to be secured from poverty and 371sickness, infamy and disgrace, and all the terrible lashes of an angry, provoked vengeance, which are able to make life itself all anguish, horror, and astonishment, and death, in respect of it, a relief and a sanctuary to fly to?
Is it a mercy to be kept clear and innocent, and to be preserved from such courses and practices, as shall render a man a public nuisance and a common grievance, the abhorrence of the age he lives in, and the detestation and curse of the ages after him?
And lastly, Is it not an act of a superlative, divine goodness and compassion, to hinder a man from running headlong into a state of final and eternal perdition? A state of judgment without mercy; where there is no repentance, and from whence there is no return. A state of torment and despair; torment, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man to conceive. I say, let a man rally up his best attention, his severest and exactest thoughts, and let him consider and weigh these things, each of them in particular, and all of them together, the misery of enduring, and the felicity of escaping them; and then he shall be able to comprehend, or at least to adore the height and depth, the compass and dimensions of that mercy, which delivers him from temptation.
And now, to make some useful inference and deduction from the whole foregoing discourse: what can we so naturally and so happily improve it into, as into this one great, important lesson; namely, that let men’s desires, hopes, and designs, be never so big and swelling, and their fancy for the world, and the things of the world, never so fond and eager; yet that doubtless is, and ought to be accounted by 372 the truly pious and prudent, the best condition and state of life, (be it what it will,) which shall least expose them to temptation. For if the end of any course or condition be destructive, the way to it certainly must needs be dangerous.
It is the general aim and desire of men to be rich and great, and to live with ease, plenty, and honour, and to be their own carvers for all these things; and when they can be so, they think themselves happy men. But as the king of Israel said to his insulting enemy, 1 Kings xx. 11, Let not him who girdeth on his armour boast as he who putteth it off; so say I in the case now before us: let no present fluster of fortune, or flow of riches, either transport the man himself with confidence, or the fools about him with admiration, till we see that it makes him better and wiser than he was before, (which seldom happens,) and not only makes, but steadily keeps him so, till he has finished his course by a well led life, and closed his eyes by an honour able and an happy death.
Otherwise, let his first setting out be as bright and glorious as the rising sun, many a black cloud may gather over him, and many a furious storm fall upon him, which shall bring him beaten and battered with a Non putavi (the fool’s motto) in his mouth, to a sad and a doleful journey’s end; and then he will find, (when he has once felt it,) that it is no such strange thing for a fair morning and a foul evening to fall on the same day.
This is certainly true of things as well as persons: that performances rarely keep pace with promises; and that what flatters us most at first, generally in the issue befriends us least. And nothing in 373nature serves a man so more than his own heart. Oh! if I might have such an estate! how happy should I be! says one: and, If I might attain to such honour, such high place and favour, how should I enjoy myself! says another. But, thou ignorant man! dost thou know what thou shouldest be if under such and such circumstances? Dost thou carry thy heart so absolutely in thy hand, as to be sure to keep it firm and fixed, and faithful to thee, when the world and the tempter shall break in upon it, with riches to bribe, pleasure to court, and greatness to bewitch it, and all to debauch and draw it from thee, so that it shall be no longer thine, to bestow upon God or goodness, justice or religion? For alas! there is no such thing as being wicked to a measure, or playing the knave to a certain degree, and no further. This being (as the comedian says) dare operam, ut cum ratione insanias.
And therefore he who ventures, upon any unlawful or suspicious practice, or supposed advantage, on such terms, is like a man who goes into the water for his pleasure or refreshment, his design (to be sure) is to divert, not to destroy himself, and accordingly with great caution he enters in step by step; but the rapid stream presently draws him in, carries him away, and hurries him down violently, and so the poor man, with all his art and caution, is drowned. He thought to have been too wise and skilful for the stream, but the stream proved too strong for him.
In the concerns of the soul, as well as of the body, it is a dangerous thing for a man to venture beyond his depth. Since it is not in men as it is in waters, which are always as deep as they are high. 374 For in persons, experience shews, that height and shallowness may consist very well together.
But to draw towards a close. If that state or condition of life be undoubtedly the best, which is least subject to temptation, then this may afford us these two following directions.
1st, Let no man in his prayers peremptorily importune God for any particular enjoyment or state of life. That is, let him not pray and prescribe to God in the same petition. God alone knows what will help, and what will hurt us. He only can discern the various windings and turnings, the peculiar bent and constitution of the heart, and how this or that thing would affect or work upon it, and how far such or such a condition would agree or disagree with it. He knows the proper suitableness and unsuitableness of every state of life to each mind and temper, which it is hardly possible for the ablest and deepest heads to have a perfect knowledge of. For such very often pray for they know not what, even for their own bane and ruin, and with equal importunity and ignorance solicit their own destruction. They think they ask for bread, but it proves a stone; and for a fish, but they find and feel it to be a serpent; and therefore it is oftentimes in mere love to their persons that God answers not their prayers. In a word, the wisest man living is not wise enough to choose for himself; and therefore we have cause to fly to an infinite wisdom to direct our requests, as well as to an infinite goodness to supply our wants.
2dly, As a man is by no means positively to request, or pray for any particular enjoyment or state 375of life, so ought he with the greatest satisfaction of mind to accept of, and acquiesce in that state and condition (whatsoever it be) which Providence shall think fit to allot and set out for him. I have already shewn, that no man living is in this case fit to choose for himself. And if we refer it to God to choose for us, surely there is all the reason in the world that we should stand to his choice. We come all as suppliants, or rather as beggars, to the throne of grace; and to beg and to choose too, we know is too much. Is thy condition in the world poor, thy circumstances low, and thy fortunes, in the eyes of all about thee, mean and contemptible? Repine not at it; for do we not every day beg of God not to lead us into temptation? And shall we not allow him to judge which is the best and surest way to keep us from it? Possibly this very thing that thou complainest of, is that by which God is effectually answering that prayer.
He denies thee honour, but it is perhaps because he intends thee heaven. He refuses thee greatness, but it may be to preserve thy innocence, and perchance, in long run, thy neck too. In a word, he withholds that from thee, which he knows thy spiritual strengths are not able to bear. Thou affectest to be high and powerful, and probably the tempter, who hates thee mortally, would be glad to have thee so too. But God, who throughly knows and truly loves thee, knows that, instead of being high or powerful, it is much better for thee to be harmless and safe.
And if there be any truth in the gospel, and all religion be not made up of tricks and lies, it is really better and more eligible for a man to keep a good 376 conscience, though with an halter about his neck, or a dagger at his throat, than with the loss of it to gain all the riches, and glories, and kingdoms of this world, which the tempter heretofore so liberally offered our Saviour, and our Saviour so resolutely and disdainfully threw back in his face.
In fine, we have nothing to do, but to commit ourselves to God as to a faithful Creator; to receive what he assigns us humbly, and to enjoy it thank fully; knowing, that by denying us those gaudy nothings, those gilded poisons, he is doing us the greatest kindness in the world, which (in answer to the Lord’s prayer) is to keep us from temptation; and by keeping us from temptation, to deliver us from evil; and by delivering us from evil, to prepare and fit us for all the good that can be prayed for; and for himself, the endless, inexhaustible fountain of it; in whose presence there is fulness of joy, and at whose right hand there are pleasures for evermore.
To whom therefore be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, throughout all ages and generations. Amen.377
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