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And in fact, from one or other of these causes, into what astonishing errors, about their own qualifications, do we see people fall!
The instances are numberless, were no others to be mentioned, of persons deluding themselves in the most important of all points, the state of their souls: mistaking uncharitable zeal, or lifeless formality, or enthusiastic transports, for true religion; or badtempered rigidness, or prudential regularity, or constitutional good-nature, for true virtue: saying inwardly, as the Revelation of St. John expresses it, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and not knowing, that they are wretched and poor and blind and naked*. But in such matters also, as others are apt to value themselves upon, how established an observation is it, that, from things of the greatest importance down to the veriest trifles, almost all the world are continually judging wrong of their own title to esteem; and vain of imagined excellencies, where at most they do but equal those about them, or perhaps are peculiarly deficient! We can easily remark this in our neighbours: but we strangely overlook it in ourselves; and forget, that their failings are only those of human nature; to which, with the same nature, we are just as liable, and it may be full as guilty of them.
Some few indeed, through excess of modesty, or weakness of spirits, or strength of temptation, fall into the opposite extreme, of diffidence or even despondency. And these, were they to think soberly and justly, would think better of themselves; to which they ought to be excited with the most compassionate earnestness. But the general caution, to
Rev. iii. 17.
the rest of us, must ever be, not to think too well: to make sure of abating sufficiently from what they who pay court to us, would suggest; and attend to the less favourable judgments concerning us, that others pass; not to bear them the least ill-will on that account; but solely to learn that knowledge of ourselves, which we are happy, if we learn any way. The best of outward monitors indeed is a faithful and prudent friend; if we have such a one, and will permit him to act as such. But the main article is, that each take care to be his own friend; by studying his own qualifications impartially, and as one bound in conscience to be an upright judge. For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself. But let every man prove his own work *.
2. Having examined, what our qualifications are, the next point is to settle the true value of them. For one person is proud of what another despises : and therefore we have done nothing, till we have fixed, what things deserve esteem, and in what degree.
Now indisputably the strongest claim is that of a pious and benevolent and reasonable disposition, expressed in a suitable behaviour. This, however disregarded by a thoughtless world, is the one thing needful+: the ground-work of private and public, of present and future happiness. The human heart, notwithstanding its degeneracy, loves and reverences it, even though unwillingly, wherever seen: superior orders of beings look down upon it with complacency, and God himself approves it, as his own resemblance. To this character then let every one aspire, who seeks true honour, and place nothing in competition with it. Thus saith the Lord, Let not the wise man glory + Luke x. 42.
* Gal. vi. 3, 4.
in his wisdom; neither let the mighty man glory in his might; let not the rich man glory in his riches. But let him, that glorieth, glory in this; that he understandeth and knoweth me; that I am the Lord, which exercise loving-kindness, judgment and righteousness in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the Lord*.
But then we may value ourselves, even on this acknowledged excellency, much too highly. For indeed a temper and conduct of unmixed obedience would be no more, than plain reason and common sense dictates. And therefore our Saviour's precept is absolutely right: When ye shall have done all those things, which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants, that is, we have merited nothing: 'we have done that, which was our duty to do t. Right behaviour is only what ought to be expected: wrong behaviour is the thing to be wondered at. And therefore when any one admires and is astonished at his own goodness, in all likelihood he is but lately and imperfectly become good; and holds himself in such account for what he doth, either because he doth it with difficulty, or because he understands but in part what he ought to do. For they who act from confirmed habits, act with ease; and imagine, that others would of course do as well and better, being very sensible of their own failings. Or however perfect the self-applauder may be in the eyes of men, his heart is not right, but far from it, in the sight of God: nor will he have taken one single effectual step towards the kingdom of heaven, till he is filled with a deep sense of his own sinfulness, and unworthiness to be accepted, otherwise than through him, who of + Luke xvii. 10.
Jer. ix. 23, 24.
Acts viii. 21.
God is made unto us wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption; that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord *.
If then we may think too favourably of ourselves even for our piety and virtue: how much more for other qualities, which are good or bad only as they are employed!
Some insist greatly on their high birth, or distinguished rank. And unquestionably honour is due to all superiors; and especially to those, whose ancestors also have been of remarkable note and worth: which their descendants may be successfully excited to imitate, by seeing it thus respected. The education of such too should be of the best kind. And therefore we readily presume on these accounts, that their dispositions likewise are noble and generous, like the blood which runs in their veins, and the company which they are qualified to keep. But still this is only presumption. When it proves true in fact, they are the supports and the blessings of society. But when the contrary happens, though whatever submission their station requires, or prudent custom hath allotted to them, should be carefully paid; yet they ought to be very sensible of the essential distinction between external deference and inward veneration; and properly reminded, if there be need, how much more honourable it is, to be a wise and good person one's self, than to be sprung from ever so many; and to be useful in the lowest condition of life, than mischievous or insignificant in the highest.
Others claim to be valued on their superior wealth. And in case it was acquired by laudable methods, and is applied to beneficial purposes, their claim in its degree is just. But if they have gained it by
1 Cor. i. 30, 31.
fraud or extortion or servility; if they abuse it to the service of luxury or vanity or oppression; or withhold it from those to whom reason and religion direct them to impart of it; the poorest wretch on earth, with an humble and contented and honest heart, is unspeakably worthier of esteem than they.
Another foundation of self-complacency with some is their dexterity in business, and carrying on the designs which they form. But of what sort are their designs? What ways do they take to attain them? Are their acquaintance and neighbours, their country and mankind, the better or the worse for their abilities? If the wise in their generation* cannot return good answers to such questions as these, they must not expect very sincere congratulations from others on this notableness of theirs; and sooner or later they will find but little comfort in it themselves.
A more innocent claim to reputation, for the most part, is that of superior knowledge and learning. Yet science, falsely so called +, may be pernicious beyond any thing: especially that horrible sort, which dissolves the ties of religion and morals, and supplants the hopes of eternal happiness. Yet there are persons, who can be vain of it. But even true knowledge deserves our praise chiefly in proportion to its usefulness and the most useful of all, being that which is the most common, affords but small ground for over-weening self-opinion. Besides; the more we really know, the more conscious we shall be how imperfectly we comprehend things, and how much there is left behind, of which we are ignorant. When therefore St. Paul saith, that knowledge puffeth up, he means imaginary and misapplied knowledge. For he adds, that if any man thinketh that he knoweth any
* Luke xvi. 8.
+ 1 Tim. vi. 20.