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cherish evil thoughts daily, and be pure in spirit or virtuous in life. He who sows to the wind, in this respect, is sure to reap the whirlwind.
A man never sins in deed, until he has first sinned in thought. No matter how sudden or great is the temptation, he never yields and falls till the mind acts, thinks, wills. It is evil thoughts that invite temptations, and prepare the moral feelings to look with favor upon them, or at least to make but a feeble resistance. If the real history of men's apostacies could be written, it would be seen that the way is previously prepared, and all the safeguards and barriers to virtue and piety broken down and swept away, by evil thinking. Let a man keep out from his mind evil thoughts, and he is in no danger; his life will take care of itself, or rather, God will keep his feet from falling, his eyes from tears, and his soul from death. But let him once open the door of his mind to evil thoughts-it matters not what their object is; let them prowl at large and revel undisturbed in the chamber of the soul--and he is no longer master of his own house, and can no more rule his spirit or control his life, than he can chain the winds or calm the tempest : “a strong man armed” has taken possession : so many devils are let loose upon him, and if he do not "cast them out" by the power of prayer and repentance, they will as certainly defile and rule and ruin him, as that they are evil.
Let us beware, then, of evil thoughts. To harbor them is to harbor a merciless tyrant, who will fetter every attribute of the godlike soul, and kill the very life of virtue ; to harbor them is to harbor moral defilement, and guilt, and death itself; nay, to harbor evil thoughts is to harbor so many devils, who will riot on all that is fair and good within, and drive the possessed mortal on and down to eternal perdition ! Beware of evil thoughts! Watch against them-pray and strive against them! The mastery over these is everythingvirtue, obedience, life everlasting ; but defeat here is the loss of all things, self-command, the grace of God, the hope of heaven, the soul itself, with its power of endless thinking and endless happiness! 2. Watch against an evil Spirit
. This is one of the most insidious forms that sin ever takes. Its workings constitute a fearful illustration of the heart's deceitfulness. There is a degree of blindness and moral obliquity in relation to it, that is hard to account for. It is more difficult to make a man see and own that his spirit is bad, than to convince him of any other wrong.
There is no sin that we are more prone to indulge in ; none that it is so easy to cover up; none that men are more ready to excuse in themselves. And yet, in the whole catalogue of sins, not one can be found fuller of meanness, malignity, and all manner of evil. A bad spirit! Why, what good thing does it nourish, or speak well of, or spare ? It sours a man's disposition, and renders him habitually peevish, fretful, censorious, fault-finding, unmerciful
. Such a man breeds a moral pestilence in the community in which he lives; stirs up all the wrathful elements with which he happens to come in contact.
A bad spirit is sure to wither every generous thought and pure feeling; it will load the tongue with the poison of asps; it will see much evil and but little good in others; and it will, in the end, vitiate and pervert a man's entire influence. And yet how common is this sin. With what ease and facility do men fall into it! We have only to indulge our natural feelings—let the bitter waters of the heart flow; nay, we have only to neglect to cultivate the spirit of charity, meekness, love, and forgiveness, and straitway the spirit of evil rules the temper, and speaks out in every act.
Here, then, we are to build a watch-tower, and plant a sentinel, and charge him, on peril of his life, to keep the city. Failing to do it, how many are injured in character and usefulness, if not personally ruined. O, with what jealousy should we watch and try our hearts, to know what manner of spirit we are of! One may be actuated by a very bad spirit, when he little suspects it. His denunciations of sin may be but the expressions of his unholy selfish passions. The opinions which he declares respecting his fellow-sinners, may be but his cherished and uttered wishes. His zeal for God, may be but low ambition.
3. Watch against spiritual declension. How frequent and how sad are the instances of religious declension! How many who run well for a season, come to slacken their pace, and then to halt, and it may be, finally to turn back. How many who espouse Christ and his cause with zealous hearts and an earnest profession, at length lose their first love, and sadly decline in their religious interest, and deteriorate in their Christian character. Why is this? Is it not mainly because we are not half alive to the danger of such a declension, and do not watch against it with sufficient carefulness and prayerfulness?
Piety will not live of itself, in beings but partially sanctified; the graces of the Spirit, in such natures as ours, will not grow and bring forth fruit unto life if we withhold the hand of diligent culture. Let a man neglect his piety--do nothing to foster, invigorate, and keep it alive, and it will die out in a very little while; let him cease to watch and pray, strive and cultivate, and all his spiritual interests will quickly decay, and his soul become a barren waste. Piety, here on earth, is an exotic plant; and great care and pains are needed to make it grow, in so unfriendly a soil, and to protect it from the chilling winds and blighting frosts of so ungenial a clime. Keep it away from the sunshine, and moisture, and pure air of Divine grace, or neglect to care for it, and leave it to take its chance; and what can make it fruitful, or even keep it alive? Let a Christian, for example, leave his faith to stand alone—to shift for itself, or to live by its inherent vitality and power, and how long will it be a living faith? It must be strengthened by constant exercise, nourished by prayer and the study of the Scriptures ; pinions must be given to it, and it must be helped to mount and fly, or it will die a natural death, or at least become a lifeless principle : and just so of every other Christian grace.
All the tendencies of human nature are towards declension, deterioration, in moral and spiritual things, and it possesses, in itself
, no compensative or reclaiming power,
These tendencies are numerous, strong, decided, and are ever operative; they draw with the strength of a Leviathan, and make the declivity to apostasy, and on to perdition, steep and slippery. All the influences of this world also, as well as the temptations of Satan, tend the same way. And what is to counteract such a world of depletive, wayward, corrupting influences, and preserve the “ life of God in the soul ?: There is nothing in religion itself
, in such circumstances, to perpetuate its own life, secure its proper growth and development, defeat these fatal tendencies, and hold one near to God, independently of his own exertions. If he wiil not use the appropriate means, there is nothing in God, nothing in the nature of religion, to keep the soul from sliding back with a perpetual backsliding. If he will not nourish and culture the grace of God in the soul, and thereby keep it fruitful, He will not hinder its return to its natural state of barrenness. If he will not hold on to the promises with the power of faith and prayer, He will not put forth his hand to arrest the natural process of decay, and stay the otherwise inevitable tendency of human corruption.
And here is where all declensions in religion begin, not from without, but from within ; not in overt transgressions, but in a personal falling away from God in the habits and experience of the soul. The inward fire is suffered to go down—the heart's first love to decline—the graces of the spirit to languishthen corruption regains its power, and the world comes in with the power of a flood, and the Devil prevails. O, how sad, and yet instructive is the history of men's experience in this thing! How imminent is our danger! What arm less than Omnipotence, continually invoked, can save us from declension-from a fatal apostasy? Let us heed the warning and watch-watch against any decline of interest in spiritual things—watch against any falling off in the heart's love to God and to his cause—watch against any inroads upon our spiritual temper and habits; any going back to the weak and beggarly elements of the world.
4. Watch against the neglect of religious duties.-Christian duty on earth is a work of difficulty and self-denial, in which there is always something to be overcome or borne, requiring both effort and endurance. The explanation of this singular fact is found, not in the nature of religion or its requirements, but simply in human corruption. There is enough of sin's sluggish spirit left in the Christian, to make a strong effort heavenward somewhat painful, and all spiritual exercises to cost him something; and enough of corruption remaining to make duties, which ought to be his delight and pleasure, crosses, self-denials, often irksome and wearisome. Consequently, the performance of spiritual duties always costs an effort ; there is required the power of resolution and of a moral bracing up, in order to overcome the natural tendency of things. The law of nature here is in opposition to the law of grace; and that law is not dead, nor is it a weak one. The Christian does not enter upon his religious daties from day to day as a matter of course, or from the power of preference of natural feeling : he is not drawn to his closet, drawn to the meeting for social prayer, drawn out into the field of Christian enterprise and toil, by any such natural law as almost irresistibly draws the man of business to his daily duties, or the man of pleasure to his enjoyments. Far otherwise. In every step he takes heavenward-in every duty he engages in, he has to rise above these earthly tendencies, and conquer all that is inborn by the sought and realized aid of Divine grace. Who that ever honestly tried to walk the path of Christian duty, has not felt this fatal tendency, chilling, at times, the very life of his soul, and rendering duty formal and even irksome, and again overcoming his resolution and drawing him away from duty, and restraining prayer, and shutting him up to despondency and barrenness!
Such being the case, the danger of neglecting spiritual duties is very greatand no man can avoid the danger. Such neglect, in part or total, requires no effort on our part: it is the easiest thing in the world to slide into a careless and negligent religious habit : it may cost not one inward struggle, not a tear, not a resolution even, to get away from God, and from prayer, and from every religious duty! There is no long and painful road to be gone over in depariing from God, in giving up secret prayer, and family prayer, or any other duty. We have only to stand still a little season, and let things take their natural course: just cease our wonted effort, and let the current of our thoughts and inclinations flow in their own chosen channels, and soon we shall find ourselves at a great moral distance from God, and maintaining no sort of intercourse with him! We have only to neglect to watch against neglect, and straightway our closet is forsaken; duty and the soul are become strangers to each other; and, as a religious being, we have made a frightful retrograde movement. On how wonderful and alarming are the facilities to declension, to neglect of duty, and even to open and fatal apostasy, made ready to our hands !
And, knowing our danger, shall we not watch, and strive, and pray against it? Can we fold our arms and quiet our fears, and leave our religious duties to take care of themselves ? Let us rather plant a sentinel at the door of our hearts, and charge him in the name of Christ and of duty, and in behalf of our spiritual interests, to watch with all Christian fidelity and prayer, against inward declension and outward neglect ; to resist, even unto blood, those fatal tendencies, inwrought into our very natures, which are ever drawing the soul toward worldliness, and formality, and spiritual indolence. Above all, let us invoke the Spirit of the living God, to keep our hearts for us, and keep alive our graces, and make us lively and faithful in duty.
5. Above all we should watch against a surprise by death. The danger in every man's case is—and it is real and great—that, notwithstanding, so many warnings and premonitions, death will steal on him at last, as a thief in the night, and find him sleeping. Few living men are quite ready to die, or would be willing to die without warning, precisely as they live from day to day.. Whenever we think of death, there is a resolution entertained to seek a higher
fitness; there is a felt consciousness of insufficiency; the remembrance of sins not put away, and of duties deferred, instantly arises in the mind. And yet, it is a most solemn and instructive thought, that most men die as they live; with the same essential character, and the same mental habits. If our life is an impenitent life, our death is almost certain to be an impenitent death ; if we live unprepared for eternity, we shall (unless our case prove a rare exception) die at last without hope. If we profess to be Christians, and yet are slothful, negligent, prayerless, and confessedly living far away from God, in the daily habit and practice of life, in that same fearful state we shall in all probability die. Whatever duty or service we neglect, living, whether it relate to our own soul, to our children, to the church, or to the impenitent, we are almost sure to die and not perform. The character that a man maintains through life, with here and there a solitary exception, he will die with, and carry up to the judgment. Whatever he may think, or purpose, or flatter himself to believe, he will
, so to speak, stand before God at last in his every-day dress. There will be no change of raiment when death shall come; the thoughts, and the habits, and the sins of his life, will go with him up to the bar of God. The truth is
, most men are the dupes of a good resolution. They mean to repent and seek God's favor before they die : they have no thoughts of dying as they live; but alas! the heart's deceitfulness, and the providence of God, cheat their intentions. Death takes them by surprise. Not one person in a hundred, probably, dies the death he expects to die, or by the disease he imagines will end his days. Very few die when, or where, or in the manner they anticipate. One may be expecting death long, and yet, at last, it comes at an hour or in a way unexpected, and he is surprised. "I have often been surprised at this fact. There is a marked and warning Providence in it. There is a fearful significance in the Saviour's words, "Watch, therefore, for you know not what hour your Lord doth come.”
God would have us LIVE religion, if we mean to reap its consolations in death, and its rewards beyond. If our eternal hopes hang only upon our intentions, they are not worth a straw. If we are living as we would be unwilling to die, we shall, most likely, die without hope. What we each are today, and have been in years past, and expect to be in future years, if God spare us, we shall, in all probability, be, at the hour of death, and forever after. It is a startling truth. It is a warning voice that we do well to heed. “What! am I to die just as I am now living --with no other preparation-in my present character-with so many duties neglected-with so many sins upon me-with so little relish for holiness-so little of the spirit of angels and glorified saints ! My God! let me not be deceived : let me anticipate the day of my dying; and what I would be then let me seek to be now, and every day and hour of life.”
“Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is
grievous unto me; for all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”—Eccles. 2: 17.
There are few parts of the sacred Scriptures more difficult of interpretation than the one which contains this text. The style of the Book is peculiar; and the rapid transition of thought from one subject to another, and from one state of mind to another-a transition often made without any express mention of it—throws an air of obscurity and, indeed, sometimes an appearance of contradiction over the sentiments uttered.
Hence, the most extravagant ideas have sometimes been deduced from it ;-the most mischievous, the most absurd. Some expressions in it have been employed in a manner which might well rejoice libertines; and the licentious themselves have sometimes seized upon ideas contained in it, to justify all the extravagances of an unbridled licentiousness. They have very eloquently repeated that passage in the seventh verse of the ninth chapter, “Ġo thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart," as if it were a fit motto for a man of pleasure. With equal animation and eloquence, they have recited that passage in the twenty-fourth verse of the second chapter—“ There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor," as if it were designed to give loose reins to indulgence.
And infidelity, as well as libertinism, has made itself merry over the supports supposed to be found in some of these chapters. It has called ideas found here contradictory—the whole Book a jumble of inconsistencies. Bringing together the second verse of