The human system is formed for alternate labor and rest, and not for incessant activity; and to provide for this, the night follows the day and the Sabbath the six days of labor. But not only is rest necessary after labor, but activity in a different direction. When you are carrying a burden of any kind, you find relief in a change of position. A poor boy was employed in turning a wheel, by which he was enabled to do something for his mother. A lady, observing him steadily employed at what appeared to be a very laborious occupation, inquired whether he did not get tired. He replied that he was often very tired. "And what do you do when you are tired?" she further inquired. "O," said he, "I take the other hand." He had learned that a change of position gave him rest. Neither the mind nor the body is capable of being incessantly exerted, in one direction, without injury. Like the bent bow, they will lose their elasticity. The body, after labor, and the mind, after study, need unbending, especially in youth, while the muscles of the body have not acquired maturity or solidity, and the powers of the mind are yet developing. At this period of life relaxation and amusement are especially necessary; and those young people who shun all play, and confine themselves to books and labor, must, in the natural course of things, suffer both in health and spirits. Healthful play is natural to the young, throughout the whole animal creation. The lamb, that emblem of innocence, is seen sporting in the fields, blithely bounding over the hills, as if desirous of expressing a grateful sense of its Creator's goodness. There is no more harm in the play of children than in the skipping of the lambs. It is necessary to restore the bent bow to its natural elasticity. It is the voice of nature, which cannot be hushed.
But having said so much, it is necessary to guard against improprieties and excesses in amusements. And yet, to determine what amusements are to be allowed, and what condemned, is no easy matter; for, while some kinds of amusement are evil in their own nature, and necessarily injurious, others are evil and injurious only on account of their excess, or of the manner in which they are pursued, or of the evils that are associated with them. My object is, not so much to point out what amusements are wrong, as to give you some rules by which you can judge for yourself.
I. Never engage in recreation at an unsuitable time. To neglect duty for the sake of amusement is not only wrong, but it will exert a bad influence upon your character. It tends to produce an immoderate love of amusement, and to break up all orderly and regular habits. Let your invariable rule be, "BUSINESS FIRST, AND THEN PLEASURE." Never suffer any kind of amusement to break in upon the time appropriated to labor or study.
II. Never do anything that is disapproved by your parents or guardians. They desire your happiness, and will not deprive you of any enjoyment, unless they see good reason for it. They may see evil where you would not perceive it. They regard your highest welfare. They look beyond the present, to see what influence these things will have on your character and happiness hereafter. They are also set over you of the Lord; and it is your duty not only to submit to their authority, but to reverence their counsel.
III. Engage in no amusement which is disapproved by the most devoted and consistent Christians of your acquaintance. I do not mean the few cross and austere people, who always wear an aspect of gloom, and cannot bear to see the countenances of youth lighted up with the smile of innocent hilarity. But I mean those Christians who wear an aspect of devout cheerfulness, and maintain a holy and consistent life. Their judgment is formed under the influence of devotional feeling, and will not be likely to be far from what is just and right.
IV. Do nothing which you would be afraid God should see. There is no darkness nor secret place, where you can hide yourself from his all-searching eye. Contemplate the Lord Jesus Christ as walking by your side, as he truly is in spirit; and do nothing which you would be unwilling that he should witness, if he were with you in his bodily presence.
V. Do nothing which unfits you for religious duty. If an amusement in which you are preparing to engage so takes up your mind as to interfere with your devotional exercises; if your thoughts run away from the Bible that you are reading to anticipated pleasures; or if those pleasures occupy your thoughts in prayer; you may be sure you are going too far.
VI. Engage in nothing on which you cannot first ask God's blessing. Do you desire to engage in anything in which you would not wish to be blessed and prospered? But God only can bless and prosper us in any undertaking. If, therefore, your feelings would be shocked to think of asking God's blessing on anything in which you would engage, it must be because your conscience tells you it is wrong.
VII. Engage in no amusement which unfits you for devotional exercises. If, on returning from a scene of amusement, you feel no disposition to pray, you may be sure something is wrong. You had better not repeat the same again.
VIII. Engage in nothing which tends to dissipate serious impressions. Seriousness, and a sense of eternal things, are perfectly consistent with serenity and cheerfulness. But thoughtless mirth, or habitual levity, will drive away such impressions. Whatever you find has this effect, is dangerous to your soul.
IX. Reject such amusements as are generally associated with evil. If the influences which surround any practice are bad, you may justly conclude that it is unsafe, without stopping to inquire into the nature of the practice itself. Games of chance are associated with gambling and drinking; therefore, I conclude that they cannot be safely pursued, even for amusement. Dancing, also, is associated with balls, with late hours, high and unnatural excitement, and dissipation; it is therefore unsafe. You may know the character of any amusement by the company in which it is found.
X. Engage in nothing which necessarily leads you into temptation. You pray every day, (or ought to,) "lead us not into temptation." But you cannot offer up this prayer sincerely, and then run needlessly in the way of temptation. And if you throw yourself in the way of it, you have no reason to expect that God will deliver you from it.
XI. If you engage in any recreation, and return from it with a wounded conscience, set it down as evil. A clear conscience is too valuable to be bartered for a few moments of pleasure; and if you find your conscience accusing you for having engaged in any amusement, never repeat the experiment.
XII. Practice no amusement which offends your sense of propriety. A delicate sense of propriety, in regard to outward deportment, is in manners what conscience is in morals, and taste in language. It is not anything that we arrive at by a process of reasoning, but what the mind as it were instinctively perceives. It resembles the sense of taste; and by it one will notice any deviation from what is proper, before he has time to consider wherein the impropriety consists. There is a beauty and harmony in what is proper and right, which instantly strikes the mind with pleasure. There is a fitness of things, and an adaptation of one thing to another, in one's deportment, that strikes the beholder with sensations of pleasure, like those experienced on beholding the harmonious and beautiful blending of the seven colors of the rainbow. But when propriety is disregarded, the impression is similar to what we might suppose would be produced, if the colors of the rainbow crossed each other at irregular angles, now blending together in one, and now separating entirely, producing irregularity and confusion. The sensation produced upon the eye would be unpleasant, if not insufferable. Among the amusements which come under this rule are the vulgar plays that abound in low company. In such cases, you know not to what mortification you may be subjected. Frolics, in general, come under this head, where rude and boisterous plays are practiced, and often to a late hour of the night, when all sense of propriety and even of courtesy is often forgotten.
XIII. Engage in nothing of doubtful propriety. The apostle Paul teaches that it is wrong to do anything the propriety of which we doubt; because, by doing that which we are not fully persuaded is right, we violate our conscience. It is always best to keep on the safe side. If you were walking near the crater of a volcano, you would not venture on ground where there was any danger of breaking through, and falling into the burning lake. You would keep on the ground where it was safe and sure. And so we should do, in regard to all questions of right and wrong. Never venture where the ground trembles under your feet.
XIV. Do nothing which you will remember with regret on your dying bed. It is well always to keep death in view; it has a good effect upon our minds. The death-bed always brings with it pains and sorrows enough. It is a sad thing to make work for repentance at such an hour. That is an honest hour. Then we shall view things in their true light. Ask yourself, then, before entering into any scene of amusement, how it will appear to you when you come to look back upon it from your dying bed.
XV. Do nothing in the midst of which you would be afraid to meet death. When preparing for a scene of pleasure, how do you know but you may be cut down in the midst of it? Sudden death is so common that it is folly to be in any place or condition in which we are not prepared to meet it. Many people have been cut down in the midst of scenes of gaiety, and the same may occur again. A man in Germany was sitting at the gaming table. His card won a thousand ducats. The dealer handed over the money, and inquired how he would continue the game. The man made no reply. He was examined, and found to be a corpse! Similar scenes have occurred in the ball-room. In the midst of the merry dance, people have been called suddenly out of time into eternity. A gentleman and lady started in a sleigh, to ride some distance to a ball, on a cold winter's night. Some time before reaching the place, the lady was observed to be silent. On driving up, the gentleman called to her, but no answer was returned. A light was procured, and he discovered, to his amazement, that he had been riding with a corpse! At no moment of life are we exempt from sudden death. He who holds us in his hand has a thousand ways of extinguishing our life in a moment. He can withhold the breath which he gave; he can stop the vital pulsation instantly; or he can break one of the thousand parts of the intricate machinery of which our mortal bodies are composed. No skill can provide against it. We ought not, therefore, to trust ourselves, for a single moment, in any place or condition where we are unwilling to meet death.
XVI. Do nothing for which you will be afraid to answer at the judgement of God. There every secret thing will be revealed. What was done in the darkness will be judged in open day. "Rejoice, O young man, in your youth; and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; and walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes: but know you that for all these things God will bring you into judgment." A young man, on leaving home to enter the army, was supplied with a small Bible, which, though a thoughtless youth, he always carried in his pocket. On one occasion, after a battle, he took out his Bible, and observed that there was a bullet hole in the cover. His first impulse was, to turn over the leaves, and read the verse on which the ball rested. It was the passage just quoted. It brought before his mind all the scenes of mirth and sinful pleasure in which he had been engaged, and pressed upon him the fearful truth, that for all of them he was to be brought into judgment. It was the means of awakening him to a sense of his condition, and led to a change of heart and life. And why should not the same solemn impression rest upon your mind, with respect to all scenes of pleasure, and lead you carefully to avoid whatever you would not willingly meet at that dreadful tribunal?
If you apply these tests to the various amusements that are in vogue among young people, you may readily discern what you can safely pursue, and what you must sternly reject. It will lead you, especially, to detect the evils of all theatrical performances, balls, cards, and dancing parties, country frolics, and all things of a like nature. But it will not deprive you of one innocent enjoyment. A girl, ten or twelve years old, made a visit to a companion about her own age. Both of them were hopefully pious. On returning home, she told her mother she was sure Jane was a Christian. "Why do you think so, my daughter?" inquired the mother. "O," said the daughter, "she plays like a Christian." In her diversions she carried out Christian principles, and manifested a Christian temper. This is the true secret of innocent recreation; and it cuts off all kinds of amusement that cannot be pursued in a Christian-like manner.