PRACTICAL PIETY  by Hannah More, 1811

Chapter 15

Of all the motives to vigilance and self discipline which Christianity presents, there is not one more powerful than the danger of a slackening in zeal and declining devotion. Would that we could affirm that coldness in religion is confined to the irreligious! If it is melancholy to observe an absence of Christianity where no great profession of it was ever made, it is far more grievous to mark its decline where it once appeared not only to exist but to flourish. We feel the same distinct sort of compassion with which we view the financial distresses of those who have been always indigent, and of those who have fallen into poverty from a state of opulence. Our concern differs not only in degree but in kind.

These changes are a call to awaken watchfulness, humility and self-inspection in those who think that they stand but need to be vigilant lest they fall. There is not any one circumstance which ought more to alarm and quicken the Christian than that of finding oneself growing languid and indifferent after having made a profession and found progress in the Christian walk. Such indifference gives the irreligious person reason to suspect that either there never was any truth in the profession of the person in question, or that there is no truth in religion itself. Critics will be persuaded that religion is weak and soon exhausted, and that a Christian's faith is by no means sufficiently powerful to carry him on his course. Religion's detractor is assured that piety is only an outer garment, put on for show or convenience, and that when it ceases to be needed for either, it is laid aside. The evil spreads beyond the one indifferent believer, implying that all religious people are equally unsound or equally deluded, although some may be more prudent, or more fortunate or greater hypocrites than others. After one promising believer falls away, the old suspicion recurs and is confirmed, and the defection of others is thought to be inevitable.

The probability is that the one who fell away never was a sound and genuine Christian. His religion was perhaps entered into accidentally, built on some false ground, produced by some ephemeral cause. Although it cannot be fairly judged that he intended by his profession and prominent zeal to deceive others, it is probable that he himself was deceived. Perhaps he was too sure of himself; his early profession was probably rather bold and ostentatious. He may have imprudently fixed his stand on ground so high that it would not be easily tenable, and from which a descent would be all too observable. Although at first he thought he never could be too sure of his own strength, he allowed himself to criticize the infirmities of others, especially those whom he had apparently outstripped. Though they had started together, he had left them behind in the race.

Might it not be a safer course at the outset of the Christian life if a modest and self-distrusting humility were to impose a temporary restraint on the bravado of outward profession. A little knowledge of the human heart, a little suspicion of its deceitfulness, would not only moderate the intemperance of an ill-understood zeal, but would save the credit of the Christian faith, which receives a fresh wound from every desertion from her standard.

Some of the most distinguished Christians in this country began their religious career with this graceful humility. They would not allow their change of character and their adoption of new principles and a new course, to be blazoned abroad until the principles they had adopted were established and worked into their character. Their progress proved to be such as might have been inferred from the modesty of their beginnings. They have gone on with a perseverance which difficulties have only strengthened and experience confirmed, and will through divine aid doubtless go on, shining more and more unto the perfect day.

Now let us return to the less-steady convert. Perhaps religion was only, as we have hinted elsewhere, one pursuit among many which he had taken up when other pursuits had failed, and which he now lays down because his faith, not being rooted and grounded, fails also. It is also possible that the temptations coming from the outside might coincide with the inner failure. If vanity is his infirmity, he will recoil from the pointed disapproval of his superiors. If the love of novelty is his besetting weakness, the very uniqueness and strictness of religion, which first was attractive, now is repulsive. The flattering attention which he received, when his life was so different from the manners of the world, now disgusts him. The very opposition which once animated, now cools him. He is discouraged by the reality of the required Christian self-denial, which in anticipation had appeared so delightful. Perhaps his fancy had been fired by some acts of Christian heroism, which he felt an ambition to imitate. The truth is, religion had only taken hold of his imagination, his heart had been left out of the question.

Perhaps religion was originally seen as something only to be believed, but now he finds that it must be lived. Above all the one falling away did not take into consideration the CONSISTENCY which the Christian life demands. Whereas warm affections rendered the practice of some right actions easy at the beginning; not included in the reckoning were the self-denial, the perseverance, and the renouncing of one's own will to which everyone pledges himself who is enlisted under the banner of Christ. The cross which it was easy to venerate, is found hard to bear.

On the other hand, a faltering Christian might have adopted religion when he was in affliction, and he is now happy. It may have been when he was in bad circumstances, and he is now grown affluent. Or it may have been taken on as something he needed to add to his recommendation to some party or project with which he wanted to associate. It may have been something that would enable him to accomplish certain goals he had in view; or something that, with the new acquaintance he wished to cultivate, might obliterate certain blemishes from his former conduct, and whitewash a somewhat sullied reputation.

Now in his more independent situation, it may be that he is surrounded by temptations, softened by blandishments, allured by pleasures which he never expected would arise to weaken his resolutions. These new enchantments make it not so easy to be pious as when he had little to lose and everything to desire, as when the world wore a frowning, and religion an inviting aspect. Or he is perhaps, by the "changes and chances" of life, transferred from a sober and humble society, where to be religious was honorable, to a more fashionable set of associates, where, as the disclosure of his piety would add nothing to his credit, he began to take pains to conceal it until it has fallen into that gradual oblivion which is the natural consequence of its being kept out of sight.

But we proceed to a far more interesting and important character. While the one whom we have been slightly sketching may by his inconstancy do much harm, this person might by his consistency and perseverance achieve indispensable good. Even the sincere and established Christian needs to keep a vigilant eye upon his own heart, especially if his situation in life be easy, and his course smooth and prosperous. If we do not keep our ground, we do not advance in it. Indeed, it will be a sure proof that we have gone back, if we have not advanced.

In a world so beset with snares even sound Christians may experience a slow but certain decline in devotion, a decline scarcely perceptible at first, but more visible in its subsequent stages. Therefore, when we suspect our hearts of any departure from faithfulness, we should compare ourselves with what we were at the supposed height of our devotion, and not to any other time. The gradual progress of decline is observable only when these two remote states are brought into contrast.

Among other causes of our loss of interest in Christ is the indiscreet forming of some worldly connection, especially that of marriage. In this union the irreligious more frequently draw away the religious to their side, rather than the contrary which is easily understood by those who are at all acquainted with the human heart.

It is also possible for a sincere but incautious Christian to be led by a strong affection to make some little sacrifices of principle for the advancement of a loved one or for the pursual of a cherished cause. It may be observed in passing that those with the most tender hearts are the most susceptible to these disconcerting affections.

We must also take precautions against letting the wealth or position of another believer influence our intent to be honest with them. We become easily deceived because the film over our spiritual eyes grows gradually thicker, and the change is imperceptible to us. So we rationalize our diminished opposition to the faults of a friendly benefactor. We make slight, temporary concessions, tempering measures which we view now as perhaps too severe, when in fact all we have in mind is how that person or cause will benefit us. At the same time we grow cold in the pursuit of the rest of our duties. We begin to lament that in our present situation we can see only small effects of our labors, not perceiving that God may have withdrawn his blessing.

Many Christian parents may be similarly shortsighted with their children. In our plans for their lives we should neither entertain ambitious views, nor consider methods inconsistent with the strictness of our Christian faith. We must "seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness," avoiding the over-anxious attitude of many who do not profess our faith. We can cheerfully confide in that gracious and cheering promise, that God who is "both their sun and shield, who will give grace and glory, no good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly."

It is one of the trials of faith appended to the sacred office that its ministers, like Father Abraham are liable to go out "not knowing where they go," and this not only at their first entrance into their profession but throughout life, an inconvenience to which no other profession is necessarily liable, a trial which is not perhaps fairly estimated.

This remark will naturally raise a laugh among those who at once hold the ministry in contempt, deride its ministers, and think their well-earned pay lavishly and even unnecessarily bestowed. They will probably exclaim in a sarcastic manner, "It is surely a great cause of commiseration to be transferred from a starving assistantship to a position of financial security, or from the lower class of a country parish to the high society of an affluent church."

While there is the positive aspect of the change from a state of uncertainty to a state of independence, from a life of poverty to comfort, or from a marginal to an affluent provision, we cannot discount the feelings and affections of the heart. While money may be that chief good of which ancient philosophy says so much, there are feelings which a man of acute sensibility values more intimately than silver or gold.

Is it absolutely nothing to resign his local comforts, to break up his local attachments, to have new connections to form, and that frequently at an advanced period of life? Connections perhaps less valuable than those he is leaving? Is it nothing for a faithful Minister to be separated from an affectionate people, a people not only whose friendship but whose progress has constituted his happiness here, as it will make his joy and crown of rejoicing hereafter?

Men of delicate minds estimate things by their affections as well as by their circumstances; to a man of a certain cast of character, a change however advantageous may be rather an exile than a promotion. While he gratefully accepts the good, he receives it with an edifying acknowledgment of the imperfection of the best human things. These considerations we confess add the additional feelings of kindness to their persons and of sympathy with their vicissitudes, to our respect and veneration for their holy office.

To themselves, however, the precarious tenure of their situation presents an instructive emblem of the uncertain condition of human life, of the transitory nature of the world itself. Their liableness to a sudden removal gives them the advantage of being more especially reminded of the necessity and duty of keeping in a continual posture of preparation, having "their loins girded, their shoes on their feet, and their staff in their hand." They have also the same promises which supported the Israelites in the desert. The same assurance which cheered Abraham may still cheer the true servants of God under all difficulties. "Fear not—I am your shield and your exceeding great reward."

But there are perils on the right hand and on the left. It is not among the least that though a pious Clergyman may at first have tasted with trembling caution of the delicious cup of applause, he may gradually grow, as thirst is increased by indulgence, to drink too deeply of the enchanted chalice. The dangers arising from anything that is good are formidable, because unsuspected. And such are the perils of popularity that we will venture to say that the victorious general who had conquered a kingdom, or the sagacious statesman who had preserved it, is almost in less danger of being spoilt by acclamation than the popular preacher; because, although their danger is likely to happen but once, his is perpetual. Theirs is only on a day of triumph, his day of triumph occurs every week; we mean the admiration he excites. Every fresh success ought to be a fresh motive to humiliation; he who feels this danger will vigilantly guard against swallowing too greedily the indiscriminate and often undistinguishing plaudits which either his doctrines or his manner, his talents or his voice may procure for him.

If he is not prudent as well as pious, he may be brought to humour his audience, and his audience to flatter him with a dangerous emulation, until they will scarcely endure truth itself from any other lips. No, he may imperceptibly be led not to be always satisfied with the attention and improvement of his hearers, unless the attention be sweetened by flattery and the improvement followed by exclusive attachment. The spirit of exclusive fondness generates a spirit of controversy. Some of the followers will rather improve in faulty reasoning to support their views. They will be more busied in opposing Paul to Apollos than looking unto "Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith." Religious gossip may substitute for religion itself. A party spirit is thus generated, and Christianity may begin to be considered as a thing to be discussed and disputed, to be heard and talked about, rather than as the productive motivation for virtuous conduct.

We owe, indeed, lively gratitude and affectionate attachment to the Minister who has faithfully labored for our edification; but the author has sometimes noticed a manner adopted by some injudicious adherents, especially of her own sex, which seems rather to erect their favorite into the head of a sect, than to reverence him as the pastor of a flock. This mode of evincing an attachment, amiable in itself, is doubtless as distressing to the delicacy of the Minister as it is unfavorable to religion, to which it is apt to give an air of partisanship.

May we be allowed to remark on the cause of declension in piety in some ministers who formerly exhibited evident marks of that seriousness in their lives which they continue to urge from the pulpit. May it not be partly due to an unhappy notion that the same exactness in his private devotion, the same watchfulness in his daily conduct, is not equally necessary in the advanced progress as in the first stages of a religious course? He does not desist from warning his hearers of the continual necessity of these things, but is he not in some danger of not applying the necessity to himself? May he not begin to rest satisfied with the preaching without the practice? It is not probable indeed that he goes so far as to establish himself as an exempt case, that he slides from indolence into the exemption, as if its avoidance were not so necessary for him as for others.

Even the very sacredness of his profession is not without a snare. He may repeat the holy offices so often that he may be in danger on the one hand of sinking into the notion that it is a mere profession, or on the other, of so resting in it as to make it supersede the necessity of that strict personal religion with which he set out. He may at least be satisfied with the occasional, without the consistent practice. There is a danger—we advert only to its possibility—that his very exactness in the public exercise of his function may lead him to little justifications of his laxity in secret duties. His zealous exposition of the Scriptures to others may satisfy him, though it does not always lead to a practical application of them to himself.

But God, by requiring exemplary diligence in the devotion of his appointed servants, would heap up in their minds a daily sense of their dependence on him. If he does not continually teach by His Spirit those who teach others, they have little reason to expect success, and that Spirit will not be given where it is not sought; or, which is an awful consideration, may be withdrawn where it had been given and not improved as it might.

Should this unhappily ever be the case, it would almost reduce the minister of Christ to a mere engine, a vehicle through which knowledge was barely to pass, like the ancient oracles who had nothing to do with the information but to convey it. Perhaps the public success of the best men had been, under God, principally owing to this; that their faithful ministration in the Temple has been uniformly preceded and followed by petitions in the closet; that the truths implanted in the one have chiefly flourished from having been watered by the tears and nourished by the prayers of the other.

We will hazard but one more observation on this dangerous and delicate subject. If the indefatigable laborer in his great Master's vineyard, has, as must be the case, produced the desired effect, where his warmest hopes had been excited—if he feels that he has not benefited others as he had earnestly desired, this is precisely the moment to benefit himself, and is perhaps permitted for that very end. Where his usefulness has been obviously great, the true Christian will be humbled by the recollection that he is only an instrument. Where it has been less, the defeat of his hopes offers the best occasion, which he will not fail to use, for improving his humility. Thus he may always be assured that good has been done somewhere, so that in any case his labor will not have been in vain in the Lord.