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For in the midst of so many passions and appetites, as compose our frame; so many disorders in it, as we are born with; so many more, as we have superadded; such powerful temptations, as surround us on every side; we cannot hope, that the carefullest attention to ourselves will keep us entirely free from faults but without such care, we shall fall into many more and worse; we shall go much greater lengths in them; we shall continue the wrong conduct we have once begun, blind to its guilt and peril, or only quit one error to adopt another; till we fix ourselves down in a confirmed state of sin and misery. By a little neglect of culture, a soil, so fruitful of ill weeds, will soon be covered with them: besides, that the best inclinations of the best minds, if left to themselves, will run wild and degenerate. And proportionably as persons are more exempted from the free admonition of others, the more certainly and dangerously they must err, unless preserved by a most vigorous use of their own self-reflections.
A duty, thus plain and thus necessary, God will doubtless expect us to perform very faithfully. And what the Almighty commands, we shall always find it our interest to do, never to omit. When we have acted amiss indeed, we must feel pain in thinking of it. But it is pain in order to a cure, which health and ease will follow: whereas the cowardice of not searching our wounds will inevitably make them fatal. In some of the most trifling affairs of life, we should think it strangely absurd not to observe, what we were doing. But how vastly more is it so, in the management of the whole of life; on which our happiness or misery depends, in time and to eternity!
We cannot bear perhaps to be so serious. But if we refuse it, sooner or later we shall assuredly be
driven to it. And never have there been in the world poor creatures so dreadfully serious, as they, who have resolved to be always gay and thoughtless. Terrors of mind, pains of body, perplexity of affairs, have come to be their hourly companions; till very often life itself hath grown insupportable to them; and they have desperately broken out of it, and even that in vain. Here or hereafter every one must think will we then do it, while it may avail us; or when it can only aggravate our sufferings? Besides, persons of the greatest levity are serious in some points as earnest, as they are capable of being, about matters that very little deserve it: and why not about the one thing needful?
But possibly we are not convinced that our behaviour is of such infinite and eternal importance. However, at least it is of importance to examine, whether it be or not. That inquiry can do us no harm and it may do us good beyond conception.
But perhaps we have inquired, and think there is reason to doubt of what we are commonly taught concerning these matters. But when did we begin to think so? Was it before we had grossly sinned; or however, were pretty much resolved to sin, and wanted to be made easy in it? Or was it not in consequence of imagining, that an infidel way of thinking would give us a distinguished and fashionable air? If so, what chance was there, that our inquiry should be a fair one? It is not picking up from others, or inventing ourselves, a few jests and cavils, or even real objections against religion, that entitles us to say we have examined it: but an impartial thorough search into every thing, within our reach, favourable to it, as well as contrary. What authors then have we read, with what men of learning and
abilities have we conversed, on the religious side of the question? And with what sort of spirit have we done it! We have been caught, it may be, with somewhat, that appears ludicrous. But may not every thing almost be made to appear so to a light mind? We have been shocked perhaps by more solid difficulties. But are there not such in all parts of knowledge? Are there not much greater, in what infidels believe, than what Christians believe? Whoever looks closely into the matter, will find that their credulity beyond comparison exceeds ours. Or supposing, after some honest inquiry, we still doubt have we not often doubted long, of what at last we found true? Would we tamely give up our title to an estate, or an honour, because a few suspicions were started about it, that we could not immediately confute? And doth not our whole title, to no less than eternal felicity, stand and fall with our religion?
But further: what do we doubt of? Not surely of all the articles of faith, and all the obligations of life. Have we then considered well, what the undoubted ones are, and how far they ought to influence our conduct? Whenever we do, we shall certainly find, that no one part of it can safely be vicious and indeed, that there is not the least firm ground to stand on, between uniform piety and morals, and uniform profligateness and villany. If God and virtue are realities, we are bound to every thing which they require in every case. If they are not, we are bound to nothing in any case. Whoever then is shocked at the latter supposition, must take refuge in the former: and consequently see it his duty, to weigh all his behaviour deliberately and impartially.
We find it but too easy, if we will, to judge very favourably of almost the worst actions we have ever done. At least, between disguising them with false colours, and hurrying on to do and think of somewhat else, we can for the most part quiet, if not applaud ourselves: especially if others, above all, others of our own rank, are guilty of them without scruple. And even sins, that we thought heinous ones when they were just committed, after some time we grow to imagine scarce worth notice: as if distance lessened the reality of objects, as well as the appearance. But God sees every thing in its true light and magnitude: and surely then it is our concern to see it so too. For what can it avail us, to imagine pleasing falsehoods, when we are to stand so soon, indeed stand always, before a Judge who discerns the very bottom of our souls, and to whom a thousand years are but as one day?
Have we then examined, as in his presence, our lives and hearts? And by what standard have we tried their innocence or guilt? The practice of others can no more justify us, than ours can them. Mere fancy and inclination is no rule at all. And reason, if biassed, is next to none. Have we then really done our utmost to divest it of self-partiality, to enlighten it by the instruction of pious and judicious friends and books; and, above all, to direct it by the unerring word of God? The written laws of that cannot be moulded into what we please, like the variable arguings of our own minds: but will unmovably oppose our most darling passions, if they be wrong, and since our final state must be judged by it, surely our present ought too.
If then there be any persons, (and God grant there be not many here!) who have never duly obeyed his
great command of considering their ways; to-day, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts *. Tomorrow may be quite too late: and at best every delay will make self-inspection more painful, and our condition more hopeless. But how carefully soever we may have searched into our breasts already, fresh occasions for it will be daily rising; and unless the repetition of it be frequent, we shall perform it ineffectually, and very soon leave it off entirely. The present season indeed is a yearly memorial of recollection and seriousness. But as the mere outward shew of it is of no value; so the more real goodness of a few weeks, if it end with them, is of very little. Our business therefore is, so to examine ourselves now, as to live more christianly ever after. And whence can we better begin, than from what we owe to Him that made us?
Do we then often think of him, and constantly reverence him, as the wise and good, the just and powerful, ruler of the world? Do we praise him for his mercies, pray for his pardon, protection and grace, not only now and then in public form, but daily in private, with a deep and awful sense of what we say before him? Or can we perhaps some of us remember when we prayed in secret and in earnest last? If not, why this neglect of the Author of all we enjoy, the Disposer of all we hope for? Can we think it meanness to honour him, even with the lowest submission? Do we think it meanness in our inferiors to pay due respect to us? If not, why in us to pay all respect to God? Will we then at least do it for the future? Resolving otherwise deliberately, comes very little short of renouncing and defying him; and dare we then go thus far? What
Psalm xcv. 8.