John Angell James (1785—1859)
"When Lamech had lived 182 years, he had a son. He named him Noah and said—He will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands." Genesis 5:28-29
"The king was overcome with emotion. He went up to his room over the gateway and burst into tears. And as he went, he cried—O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I could have died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son!" 2 Samuel 18:33
When Lamech selected a name for his son, he determined to call him Noah, which signifies "rest;" for he said, "he will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands." The history of Lamech is involved in impenetrable obscurity, which no conjecture can remove. It is probable that in naming his son, Lamech was guided by a reference to some circumstances of agitation and discomfort connected with his own life, of which no mention is made in the Scriptures. Whether the selection of the name was the result of prophetic inspiration—or merely of parental solicitude and hope—we cannot tell. The event, however, justified the selection, and the life of Noah answered to his name.
With Noah's early history, God has left us almost entirely unacquainted. All that is said of him before he is introduced to us as the patriarch of the new world's inhabitants, is, that "Noah walked with God, and was perfect in his generation." In the midst of a corrupt age he dared to be singular, and was not ashamed or afraid to avow his piety amid the scoffs of the impious. For five centuries his parents lived to witness his holy conduct and his high calling, as the preacher of righteousness, and the preserver of the human race from utter destruction. What a lengthened period of parental enjoyment!
A melancholy contrast is presented to all this, in the history of Absalom. His name signifies, "the father of peace." Alas, alas, what a contradiction was there between his history and his name! He was evidently his father's favorite son. We discern and condemn the weakness of David, whose 'parental partiality' was, in all probability, called forth by the extraordinary beauty of Absalom—an unworthy motive. He gave him a name expressive of his fondest wishes and affections. He watched with more than ordinary interest and regard, the development of Absalom's beautiful figure, the increasing attractions of his winning and fascinating manners, the nobleness of his bearing, and the displays of his genius. Even Solomon was, at that time, little thought of compared with Absalom. In this favorite child, David's hopes at one time centered—more than in all his other children. But this bright blossom of parental fondness and expectation, soon exhibited signs of blight, and the sequel became another instance and proof of the effects of a father's injudicious and misdirected partiality.
With Absalom's personal beauty, was associated a most vicious character—which wrung his father's heart with anguish! He manifested one atrocity after another, until his misconduct rose to a climax, by rebellion and intention to murder his father—and brought himself to an untimely end. What a bitter and cruel disappointment of parental hopes was there! The darling, the beautiful Absalom, proved a libertine, a murderer, a rebel—a character which, notwithstanding all his father's lingering affection and fond precautions—brought the unhappy son to his grave in infamy and blood! Instead of his remains reposing in the splendid mausoleum which his vanity had constructed, and by which he ambitiously hoped to perpetuate his fame to future generations—they were buried under a heap of stones—with no funeral rites to do honor to his rank—and no inscription to perpetuate his name.
But how much does it take to wear out a father's love, and to quench his fondness for a favorite child! No sooner were the tidings announced that Absalom was dead, than all his crimes were forgotten, and the poor afflicted father rushed into his chamber, and uttered one of the most simple and pathetic lamentations which grief ever dictated, or language ever expressed, in those moving words, "O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I could have died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son!"
With these two cases, as a historical introduction, I enter upon the consideration of my subject—"The disappointment or fulfillment of parental hopes."
I. The DISAPPOINTMENT of parental hopes.
I shall dwell first upon the conduct of him who defeats the expectations which have been indulged by those who were the authors of his being. Parental hopes are usually strong. The words of our Lord are according to nature, "A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world." Who but a mother can tell the feelings of that moment when her new-born babe is first laid in her bosom; and who but a father can know the emotions which are excited when he sees, for the first time, his own image reflected from the countenance of that little unconscious creature, whose infant cry, as he takes him in his arms, seems to say, in inarticulate language, "My Father!"
From that moment parental hopes begin. The child brings them with him into the world. How fondly the parents watch their treasure as he is dandled in a mother's lap, or sleeps in the cradle. How often they muse together over his future destinies, saying to each other, "What kind of child shall this be?" As the babe grows to a child, the child to a youth, the youth to manhood—what expectations are raised—what conjectures are formed—what prognostications are uttered! The mother hopes her son will be her comfort—and the father his help—and both make him their boast. As his faculties develop, they see, or think they see—and the fond fantasy can be forgiven them—the marks of ability, and the traits of excellence. Freaks of childish passion, instances of waywardness of disposition, and frequent acts of disobedience, which to others hold out painful prognostications—are either unnoticed—or do not disturb the pleasing fantasy—or lower the expectations of future excellence, if not of eminence.
Hope is predominant in the father's heart—all children, he says, have their follies and faults—and his not more than others. He sends his son to school, where he trusts he will improve his mind, and prepare for future life—apprentices him to some trade or profession by which he expects he will do well in the world—he starts him in business, and thus enables him to provide for himself and a family. How many hours of his private conversation have been spent with his wife over this son of theirs! What pictures have been drawn of his future career! Surely such talents, so cultivated, and with such advantages—must succeed!
Under the burdens of life, and the cares and labors which their family bring upon them, they look forward, during the infancy of their children, to future years, anticipating the pleasures to arise from the obedience, gratitude, and usefulness of those who they think will be the prop of their old age, and the supporters of each other, when they are gone to their rest. Pleasing reflections! Joyful anticipations! But in many cases—vain fantasies! How wisely is it ordered that man should not be able to lift up the 'veil of futurity' and foresee the history of himself—and of his children! It is enough to know the ills of life as they arise, without contemplating them in the distance.
What a misery to have all these parental hopes end in bitter disappointment, like beautiful blossoms cut off by a nipping frost! I speak not now of that disappointment which is occasioned by the dispensations of Providence, in the early death of children. This often comes. But how many, under a bitterer disappointment still—have lived to wish, that their children had died in infancy! And amid the sins and follies of the after years of their children's lives, have mourned with grief of heart, and exclaimed, "Oh, that my son had died from the womb, and that the cradle had become his coffin, rather than that he should have lived to distress and dishonor me as he has done!"
But what is it that will disappoint parental hopes? Undutifulness, and lack of affection, will do this. Parents have a right granted by nature, confirmed by reason, and enjoined by Scripture—to the obedience, honor, gratitude, and love of their children. They look for their due, and expect from their offspring everything that can thus conduce to their comfort. And to receive rudeness instead of respect; disobedience instead of submission; contempt instead of esteem; and cold indifference, or manifest dislike, or cruel unkindness, instead of affection and gratitude! How cutting is this! Well did Solomon say, "A foolish son is a grief to his father, and a bitterness to her who bore him!"
"Oh, how often," do they say together, "has our authority been affronted—and our love slighted for a mere trifle. We expected better things, and naturally supposed that so much love as we have lavished upon him would have brought us back some love in return. Is this the reward of all our study and efforts to make him happy—and do him good?" Oh, who can tell, "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is—to have a thankless child!" I believe that deep filial reverence is often the basis of that higher principle, the fear of God; and that, on the contrary, a manifest lack of good disposition and good conduct towards parents, must ever be attended with irreligion, and vicious dispositions and habits.
Indolence, lack of industry, and carelessness about general improvement, must, of course, produce the disappointment I now speak of. After a good school has been selected for a youth, and afterwards a suitable situation for acquiring a knowledge of business; when improvement in general knowledge, and especially the acquisition of a trade, is naturally looked for—then to see nothing but indolence, ignorance, and stupidity—money, time, exhortation all wasted—the youth going forth into the world ill-informed, unskilled in matters of trade, unfit for any situation of importance as a worker—and equally unfit to manage a business as a master! How mortifying, how disappointing, is all this to a father! How distressing for him to find all his schemes thwarted; all his anticipations frustrated; and while other young men are making their way in life, to see his son neither able nor willing to do anything for himself! He may not be vicious—but he is idle, a habit which is next to actual crime, and generally leads to it.
A vacillating, unstable dispositionalso, wherever it exists, defeats the hopes of parents who judge wisely. It is good counsel which Solomon gives, where he says, "Meddle not with those who are given to change." To change, when it is from bad to good is always right; and it is a part of wisdom to know when and how to change for the better. This is a different thing from being "given to change." I repeat what I said in the last chapter, that there is nothing against which a young man ought more assiduously to guard against, than fickleness of disposition. Reuben's character should be a beacon to all young men—"Unstable as water, you shall not excel." The man who tries many things, without keeping to anything, is absolutely certain to do nothing! A tree may sometimes be better for one transplanting—but it can never flourish under frequent transplantings. How annoying is it to a father to find that he has scarcely introduced a son into a good employment before the youth grows tired of it and leaves it, and comes back home again—a dead weight upon his father's hands, until, tired out with his perpetual changes, the good father is compelled to throw him upon his own resources—in which case he generally comes to ruin.
A very lamentable instance of the disappointment of parental hopes, occasioned by an unsettled and roving disposition, happened in the family of that distinguished theologian, the late Andrew Fuller. His eldest boy was a youth of this character. His father obtained for him a good employment in London. He at one time thought of the ministry, and was then, of course, a moral, and, apparently, a religious, young man. His father, however, soon recorded this remark in his diary—"Alas, alas, I have seen that in the conduct of my poor boy which has almost broken my heart—whose instability is continually appearing. He must leave London, and what to do with him I know not." Another employment was procured in his native town—but his restless disposition soon discovered itself—and he enlisted into the army. In a little time, he was discharged. Another employment situation was found for him—but in vain—for he enlisted a second time—into the marines. His father, in compliance with his son's wishes, procured his discharge—and in about a month he left his new place and friends. Perceiving there was no hope of his settling to an employment, his sorrowing parent procured him an employment in a merchant ship. It was soon reported that the poor boy had been guilty of some offence; had been tried, and sentenced to receive three hundred lashes; that he received them, and immediately died! Under this trial, Mr. Fuller thus wrote to a friend, "Oh! this is heart's trouble! In former cases, my heart found vent in tears; but now I can seldom weep. A kind of morbid heart-sickness preys upon me from day to day. Every object around me reminds me of him! Ah, he was wicked, and I could not prevent it. He was detected, tried, and condemned, and I knew it not; he cried under his agonies—but I heard him not; he expired without an eye to pity or a hand to help him! Oh, Absalom, my son, my son! How I wish I could have died for you, my son!"
The report of his son's death, however was incorrect—yet some time afterwards he deserted, and suffered so severe a punishment as to be totally unfitted for any employment for a time. He in some measure recovered his health, and a job was about to be provided for him; but he again absconded, entered a second time into the marines, went to sea, and his friends never again saw him. He died off Lisbon after a lingering illness, and, there is some reason to hope—confessing and lamenting the error of his ways.
So affecting an account may be, under the Divine blessing, the means of reclaiming some unhappy youth under similar circumstances—or of deterring others from tearing a parent's heart with anguish—and involving themselves in misery.
Failure in business, however it occurs, must of necessity prove a very painful disappointment to parental hopes. When a father has started his son in business, and advanced capital for the purpose, and expected to see him prosper, it must be a source of very great distress to find that all his efforts to serve him are abortive. Where this is the effect of causes over which even industry and ability could have no control; which involve no blame; and which therefore must be resolved into a dispensation of Providence—there is not the aggravation of sorrow which is produced by inability, indolence, or extravagance. In such a case a judicious and kind father will comfort his unfortunate son, and cheer him onward, by sympathy and promise of assistance for other efforts.
But whereMISCONDUCT has led to the sad result, how bitter is the cup of parental sorrow! For a father to occupy the dreadful post of observation, darker every hour, as he watches the downward progress of a son negligent of his business, and giving himself up to habits which must end in his ruin! Oh, miserable son, and miserable parent! He who should have been, and might have been, a flourishing tradesman—becomes a bankrupt; and instead of rising to respectability—sinks to indigence and shame! How many fond anticipations are terminated—how many bright dreams are dispelled—how many joyous expectations are prostrated by that wreck! And as the hopes of past times are defeated, none can be indulged for the future. Had it been the result of misfortune, the son might have recovered himself; but as the ruin came by misconduct, what ground of hope is left to the disconsolate father?
To a godly parent, theprofligate conduct of a child is the bitterest disappointment of all. To see a young man who has been religiously educated, and brought up in the fear of God—so far forgetting the instructions, prayers and examples of his father, and the tears and affectionate entreaties of his mother—as to "walk in the counsel of the ungodly, to stand in the way of sinners, and sit in the seat of the scornful"—to see him forming bad associations, neglecting business, indulging his evil propensities, wandering off, like the prodigal, into the paths of vice and profligacy, the slave of lust and wine—how distressfully disappointing is all this! Unhappy parents! You who have been called to endure this trial, and you only, can tell what this means—and even you know it better than you can tell it.
"Oh," says the Christian parent, "has it come to this—that all my solicitude, my prayers, my tears for my son—end in his profligacy! That all my desires and expectations that he would become a child of God—terminate in his being a prodigal! All my hopes of his being a servant of Christ—disappointed in my seeing him a slave of Satan! How carefully have I watched him, how diligently have I instructed him, how earnestly have I prayed for him, how anxiously have I waited for his yielding himself up to God! And are all my prayers and tears as water spilt upon the ground? In all that I have done for his conversion and salvation I have been laboring in vain, and spending my strength for nothing. Yes, worse than in vain—for every instruction, correction, and reproof, has aggravated his guilt here—and will increase his misery hereafter! So that while, in intention I was acting the most kind and tender part, I was, in the result, only treasuring up for my son wrath against the day of wrath. Alas, alas! Woe is me! O my son, my son!"
How tenfold more dreadful are these reflections if the son has died in his sins—a case by no means uncommon. How painful are the father's tears that his child has fallen into a state of everlasting ruin! "Oh," will the afflicted parent say, "how comparatively light would be my sorrows, if, while looking on his breathless corpse, and mourning the disappointment of my hopes as to the present life, I could by faith look forward to the world of glory, and see the branch of my family, which is cut off from earth, transplanted there and flourishing there. Joy would then mingle with my paternal sorrows, and praises with my tears. But alas! I have reason to fear that it was cut down that it might be cast into everlasting burnings! On the former supposition, I might have comforted myself with the thought of meeting my child again, and of meeting him on terms of infinite advantage—and be no more separated from him. But alas! now I have lost my child, and lost him forever. Nor is this all. It would be mournful to me to think I should meet him no more; yet as the matter now stands, even that would be some alleviation to my distress; but the immutable decree of God forbids it. I must meet him at the judgment of God, and oh! what a dreadful meeting will it be! Must I be a witness against him? How dreadful! To bear my testimony for the condemnation of one whom I tenderly loved, of one whose soul I would have died to deliver. Oh, that if no shelter must be allowed him, God would hide me in the grave until this tremendous scene of His indignation be overpast; lest the anguish of a parent mingle with the joys of a rising saint, and to me overcast the triumphs of the day." (Doddridge's "Sermons on the Reflections of a Pious Parent over an Ungodly Son.")
Parental disappointment may, however, take place where none of the former causes exist. There may be no profligacy, no instability, no indolence, no lack of cleverness in business—but the very opposites; still there may be, as we have seen in a former chapter,amiability without true religion; the possession of all other good things, yet the lack of the one best thing. To a Christian parent, the lack of this in his children is a severe trial, a heavy affliction. This is the chief object of his desires, his prayers, his efforts, and his hopes. Until they are savingly converted to God by his grace, and are brought to live a life of faith in God and in Christ, he is, and must be, disappointed. He longed, above all things, for their salvation, and hoped to see them children of God, and useful in setting up his kingdom in the world—and in the absence of this, though they should gain wealth, rank, or fame, he is a disappointed father.
He cannot but rejoice and be thankful that his sons are not profligates; but as long as they are not true Christians, his chief joy is not fulfilled. He looks upon their success, their respectability, their worldly comfort, with the inward reflection, "Ah, this is all very well, and I am truly thankful for it—but it reaches no further than the grave! What I have coveted for them, prayed for, and sought, is, glory, honor, immortality, and eternal life! I wanted them to be united with me by ties which would last forever, and make us one in heaven, as well as upon earth. Notwithstanding their worldly prosperity, then, I am, by their lack of true piety, a disappointed father."
This disappointment of parents in regard to their children may be AGGRAVATED by several circumstances. Where unusual care has been bestowed upon their education, and it might have been expected that a proportionate degree of excellence would have been the result—where considerable talents have been possessed, and early indications of genius have exhibited themselves so as to awaken expectations; where virtue at one time began to bud, and piety to blossom; where friends congratulated the parents, and the parents felicitated themselves, on the promising impressions of their children—where, in short, for a while all seemed to hold out the most promising prognostications, and to justify the most favorable conclusions—in such cases, to have all these hopeful beginnings terminate unhappily, and the anticipations raised upon them disappointed—how bitter, how painful, how overwhelmingly cruel! Think of a parent mourning over the wreck of such hopes, and bewailing such a failure!
Young men! Let me plead with you on behalf of your parents. Are there not some of you who are thus disappointing every hope which they have formed concerning you? Does not the reflection grieve and shame you—and ought it not to overwhelm you? Let me appeal to your sense of obligation. Ungrateful youths! Have you no idea of what you owe to your parents? Are these the returns you make them for all their bounty, tenderness, and care—to be a sword in their vitals—and to pierce their very hearts? Did they expect such scenes as these when you hung upon your mother's bosom, reposed in her lap, and grasped in childish fear her hand to protect you from danger—when you returned their smiles with your own, and cried with your faint accents of endearment, "My father! My mother!" How can you endure the thought? How without shame, can you converse with them, and still daily receive unnumbered favors at their hands, when you are behaving in a manner that looks as if the more they love you—the more they must be afflicted and terrified by you? Do—do have compassion upon them.
Or if that will not move you—do have compassion on
yourselves, for your own interest is much more nearly concerned than even
theirs. It is not yet too late, even though until now you have pursued this
course of disappointing them. There is time to repair the mischief.
Repentance and reformation will yet heal the wounds which misconduct has
inflicted—and the joy of receiving back the prodigal will almost compensate
for the sufferings occasioned by his wanderings and his errors. Say then,
and say it at once, "I will arise and go to my father, and say—Father, I
have sinned against heaven and in your sight; forgive and receive your once
sinning and ungrateful—but now penitent child!" Such a confession, followed
by fruits fit for repentance, will bind up hearts, all but irreparably
broken—and will transfer you to the class I am next to describe.
II. The young man FULFILLING the hopes of his parents.It will take very much to do this. Much to reward a mother's pangs in child-birth; her months of anxious care by day, and often sleepless vigilance at night; all which involuntarily prompted her to say, "Surely I shall have a rich reward for this one day." Much that will be accounted an adequate reward for a father's incessant toil to provide for his family; his deep concern to select the best school, and the most suitable business, and all his wakeful and ceaseless solicitude for the welfare of his sons. How often, when bearing the heat and burden of the day, has he wiped away "the sweat of his brow," and exclaimed, with the smile of hope, "Well, my boy will one day reward me for all this. I am now sowing in hope to reap one day in joy!" And there are sons who realize all these expectations. How?
By their dutiful conduct."There," said a father, "is a son who never gave his father's heart a pang." I knew the son while he lived—full Christian virtues and public esteem. He has ascended to glory, and left behind him a name never to be repeated but with esteem. Other sons of the same family had wrung their father's heart with anguish; but he, by his uniform obedience, general good conduct, and amiable character, was nothing but a delight to his parents. How sweet is it to a parent's heart to see a child so considerate for his comfort as to be ever studious to avoid everything that would for a moment distress him—and to do anything that could yield him the smallest pleasure. A parent does expect, has a right to expect, all this; and how ineffably sweet is it to his heart to be able to say, "In all that is dutiful, obedient, reverential, respectful, and attentive—my son is all a son should be, or can be. He has equaled all the ideas I had formed in my most sanguine moments of filial excellence. My hopes are more than realized."
A beautiful memoir of that most saintly man and eminent clergyman, the late Mr Bickersteth, has just appeared from the pen of his son-in-law, Mr. Birks; and among the other virtues for which that holy servant of Christ was distinguished, filial reverence sustained a very high place. The early history of Mr Bickersteth exhibits one of the most lovely and striking exhibitions of this excellence which I have ever met with. One scarcely wonders at the eminence he attained to as a Christian and a minister—when we read of his conduct as a son. I am persuaded that much of the neglect of the fear of God for which so many of the young men of the present day are notorious—may be traced to a defect of filial reverence.
High mental culture and attainmentswill do much to realize parental hopes. The most affectionate and amiable disposition, coupled with the most dutiful conduct, will not answer parental expectation if, at the same time, there be a lack of application to mental improvement and general knowledge, and also a stolid ignorance, or a deplorably base and groveling taste. In this extraordinary age every man is expected to fill up his place with honor to himself—and advantage to others. Society never had stronger claims upon young men than it has now. It is a high satisfaction to a parent blessed with a promising son to be able to say, "There is one who has repaid all the expense incurred by his education. While at school he received the most honorable testimonials for diligence and acquisition. He scarcely ever returned without a prize. He has assiduously improved himself since then, by reading and thinking, and now that he is entering upon life, he is evidently qualified to take a high standing for respectability and usefulness. He will not be one of the multitude who are ciphers. I certainly feel some glow of heartfelt delight, occasionally rising, unless well watched, into pride, as I see how he is carrying himself already, and is noticed by others; and can predict the eminence to which he will rise, and the esteem with which he will be regarded."
Next comeindustry, diligence and aptitude for business. For without these, nothing will be sufficient to satisfy parental desire. A son may be dutiful and intelligent—but if he has not devotedness to business, habits of industry—he must occasion disappointment to his parents. Happy is the father who sees in his son a constantly expanding principle of the diligent and thriving tradesman. With what pleasure does he mark the indefatigable application, the growing skill, the sharpening sagacity, the increasing tact—of his boy, in reference to business. "Ah," says he with gratitude, "I see he will make a good tradesman. He will make his way, and if I am not mistaken, will rise in life. He will be something." The youth rises into the man, and having learned his business or profession, commences it, and displays, as a master, the qualities he learned and exhibited as an apprentice and a shopman. Success crowns his efforts. His business prospers. His father follows him through his successful career with secret delight. He is never afraid to visit his son lest he should find him playing truant from his shop, neglecting his business, with all things in confusion, and 'ruin' looking in at the window. It is always a pleasure to him to go and see the beautiful order, the established system, the well-formed habits, the crowded scene—of a well-conducted business. How gratifying to hear from himself the report of his continued success, of his trade extending, his capital accumulating, and his property gradually increasing!
The father's concern is over; his son is thoroughly established, and has attained a degree of prosperity which at one time could not have been looked for. How peaceful and pleasant are the reflections of the parents of such a son in their private communion—"We are happy in being released from the pressing and painful anxieties of some families. Our dear son is obviously doing well. We never had much fear of his success; his steadiness and ability forbade this; but what little anxiety we felt, is all gone. Prosperity has begun to dawn upon him, and promises to shine more and more. We have but one anxiety now, and that is, that he may settle well in marriage." This anxiety is natural and wise. It is God's arrangement and intention that man should marry, for he sees that it is not good for him to be alone. It was not good in Paradise, it is not good now. It is not good for his morals, his comfort, or his prosperity—and all judicious parents have a wise solicitude that their children should in proper time marry, and always marry suitably. Indiscreet and unsuitable marriages by children, are a source of unutterable grief to parents. That anxiety, in the case I am supposing, is soon relieved. The prudence and propriety that have characterized the conduct of this good son in other things, do not forsake him in this. He is cautious and wise—selects a woman who, by her sterling excellence, good sense, and amiable qualities, is worthy of him. She is one of whom the wise man says, "She looks well to the ways of her household, the heart of her husband has full confidence in her." The parents see with delight a prosperous business—a rising family—a happy home!
But still we have not reached the summit of a holy father's wishes; for though all this is very pleasant, and to a worldly man would be quite sufficient to realize his uttermost expectation, and fulfill his richest hopes—yet it is not so with the Christian. He has learned that, for himself, true religion is the "one thing needful," without which he neither attains to true happiness on earth, nor answers the great end of existence, nor is fitted for the felicity of heaven. And what he is supremely concerned for on his own account, he desires above all things for his children. It would be unnatural and cruel if he did not. If true religion is all-important to him, it can be no less so to them. Hence, whatever else they may gain, if they neglect this, he is, as I have already said, and I now repeat it, by way of emphasis, still sad at heart.
But I am now supposing a case in which the Christian parent sees his deepest anxieties relieved, and his fondest hopes realized—in the pious character of his sons. Aware that they are exposed to greater temptations than his daughters, and much more in danger of neglecting true religion, he is proportionably thankful when they become decidedly pious. The first symptoms of a serious attention to the momentous concerns of eternity, awaken the liveliest emotions of delight, not unmixed with solicitude, lest it should be only as "the morning cloud or early dew, which passes away." He prays more intensely than ever, and watches more anxiously for decision of character, and shields the bud of hope by his most assiduous care. As the bud expands into the blossom, and the blossom sets in fruit, his hopes and fears alternate, until at length the doubtful case is decided, and his child becomes a Christian, and gives a bold testimony. What a load of parental anxiety is removed! What an accession is made to his parent's delight! If the youth has been away from home, and the news of his conversion is conveyed by letter, the good father's heart is too full to hold back his emotions, and, weeping over the welcome tidings, he hastens to his chamber to pour out his gratitude to God, the author of this new rich mercy; a mercy in his esteem far greater than the appointment of his son to a lucrative and honorable employment, or his success in some matter of business.
And the gratitude of the father is equaled, if not surpassed, by that of the mother. "What, my son a true Christian! My boy, for whom I have suffered so much deep and painful solicitude; who when he left home wrung my heart with agonizing fears, because he was going forth as a lamb among wolves; what, he become a sincerely pious man, a child of God! May I indeed believe the blissful news? A happy woman am I now become, to be the mother of one who shall glorify God, and enjoy him forever!"
The true religion of this young man proves itself sincere, consistent, and active. It preserves him from the snares to which a youth away from home is ever exposed, and affords another illustration of the declaration that "godliness is profitable for all things, having the promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come." He connects himself with the schemes of usefulness which are so numerous in this day of Christian activity, and becomes a blessing to the church and the world. His true religion goes with him into his future character, employment, and circumstances—as a husband, a father, a master, and a tradesman. He is seen habitually among the Christian philanthropists of the age, uniting his influences and energies with theirs, to bless his species, and glorify his God. His assistance is willingly granted to all that is going on for the moral renovation of the world. By his prayers, his example, his property, his intelligence, and his labors, he acts up to the metaphorical description of the righteous, where our Lord says to his disciples, "You are the light of the world; you are the salt of the earth." His family are brought up in the fear of the Lord, and are likely to be his imitators in all good things—and thus he hands forward true religion as an heirloom to their descendants.
What a beautiful scene is this for Christian parents to witness, if, indeed, they are still alive to watch the growing piety, prosperity, happiness, and usefulness of this their son! How blissful are the feelings, how delightful the communion of the happy couple as they sit and talk of this their beloved and holy child! If he lives at home with them, how uninterruptedly agreeable is their communion with him. They have nothing to complain of or to reprove; and he nothing to explain, defend, or excuse. They have common objects, common delights, and common topics. Their spiritual tastes, their highest and most momentous pursuits and pleasures, are alike. How it rejoices the parents to be the witnesses of his piety and activity, and to hear the testimonies of others to his respectability, importance, and usefulness. How many congratulations they receive on the character and conduct of this their son. They see old age coming on upon them—but here is the bright star in the evening sky of their life. Here is no disappointment—but on the other hand, the fulfillment of their brightest hopes. Here is the rich reward of all their parental labors and anxieties, the abundant answer of all their prayers!
It may be that these parents are called, according to the order of nature, to descend first to the tomb. During a long decay, they are cheered and comforted, if their son lives at home, with his presence, his prayers, and his conversation. If he lives away from home, they are refreshed by his letters, and by his occasional visits. His conduct has planted no thorns in their dying pillow—but has softened it until it has rendered it even downy. They feel that separation from such a child is, indeed, bitter and painful to nature—but then his piety assures them they are not parting forever.
As he comforts them by his holy suggestions and devout petitions, they are ofttimes in a strait, like the apostle, desiring to depart to be with Christ, and yet, on the other hand, desiring, for the sake of those they are leaving, to remain. No painful but necessary warnings issue from their lips, wringing their hearts with anguish, as they solemnly abjure an ungodly son to forsake his ways. No bitter tears roll down their cheeks as they grasp his hand and entreat him to repent, and thus mitigate the sorrows of death, the only sorrow they know. On the contrary, all are words of consolation, expressions of gratitude, and effusions of joy, that they shall soon meet again. They are ready to repeat the words of Simeon, "Lord, now let you your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation, not only upon myself—but my children also." Happy parents, and happy son!
But if, on the other hand, this son after his father's own heart should, by an inversion of the order of nature, be called first to descend to the grave, with what feelings do his pious parents hang over his couch of sickness, and watch the progress of decay and the advance of death, how different from those of parents who have to wait around the death-bed of an ungodly son! True they are disappointed by his early removal from our world. To see such a blossom, yes fruit, of parental hope cut off, and sent to the grave, is indeed a trial! One so dutiful, so good, so holy, so promising, so useful, to be carried off from them, from the church, from the world—how mysterious an event, how great a calamity. Yes—but then his deep submission, his strong faith, his joy unspeakable and peace that passes understanding, his holy converse, his words of consolation to them—how tranquilizing all these! No agonizing fears about his spiritual state distress their minds. All is safe for eternity. He dies—but they can trace him to the realms of glory.
To lose such a son is, of course, a severe trial of their faith and patience—but the recollections of his past character and conduct, the soothing influence of his dying testimony, the assurance of his heavenly bliss, the anticipations of their final meeting and everlasting association—reconcile them to the stroke, and enable them to feel that after all, this their disappointment is inconceivably lighter than that of many who are afflicted by the conduct of a living profligate. In one case the affliction brings its own comfort with it—but in the other it is unmixed wormwood and gall. To the language of condolence which they receive from sympathizing friends, they are ready to give the answer which the Duke of Ormond did in similar circumstances, "I would rather have my dead son, than half the living sons of all Christendom."
There have been cases where the realization of parental hopes has come after a season of protracted, anxious, and even agonizing fear and disappointment. The exquisitely beautiful parable of the prodigal son, in its close as well as in its beginnings, has, in a few instances, and perhaps but a few, received its accomplishment in the children of the godly. There have been youths whose erratic career of folly and sin has half-broken a father's and a mother's heart—but whose ultimate recovery came just in time to save them from being entirely crushed. I heard of one young man of this description, who, though the son of pious parents, and therefore, the child of many prayers and much instruction, had wandered far, and wide, and long, from the path of piety and morality. Through his dark and winding course he was followed by a father's prayers and a mother's tears. Every means which ingenuity could suggest, had been tried to reclaim him—but in vain. To parental remonstrance while under his father's roof he was deaf, and to all letters sent to him in his distant vagrancies he was insensible. As a last means of restoring him, after a long suspension of communication, his father, who could not forget his truant and wicked son, nor alienate his heart altogether from him, called together in the vestry of the chapel, where, if I mistake not, he labored as a minister, a few friends to pray for his son's penitence and restoration. After several had poured out their hearts in fervent supplication, the father gave utterance to his own feelings, in a strain of most tender supplications, which melted all present to tears. During these exercises a poor wretched creature was seen wandering round the window, and listening at the door of the vestry; and no sooner had the prayer of the good man for his son ended, after which the meeting was about to break up, than the listener, who was indeed the subject of all these prayers, entered, fell upon the neck of his father, and simply sobbed out, "O, my father, forgive me." It is unnecessary that I should describe the scene that followed; you have it in the parable of the prodigal son, "Rejoice with me, for this my son was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found." He lived a new life, and realized in the end, the hopes of his parents, after long disappointing them. What an encouragement this to parents to continue constant in prayer! And what an encouragement to prodigals to say, "I will arise and go unto my father, and say—Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight, and am no more worthy to be called your son."
If any whose eye shall glance over these pages shall be still in the land of their wandering, I say—Return, return! It is not yet too late. You may still realize the hopes of your parents. You may still repent, reform, and lead a new life. The grace of God which brings salvation may teach you to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this evil world. You may be respectable, happy, and useful even yet. Abandon despair. There is no need of hopelessness even in your case. If returning prodigals are few—you be one of the few. Let me recommend, earnestly recommend, you to read the fifteenth chapter of the gospel by Luke, which is one of the most beautiful and touching portions of the whole Bible. It is full of instruction, of tenderness, of encouragement; and will, if you have not extinguished every spark of feeling in your soul, melt your heart to contrition and your eyes to tears. It describes your character, suits your condition, represents your father's heart towards you, and will perhaps, by God's grace, recover you from your present condition. Read it, read it, until this blessed effect is produced. Read it with earnest prayer, that you may be indeed a reclaimed, restored prodigal, and even yet bind up the heart which you have nearly broken, and not bring down a "father's grey hairs in sorrow to the grave."
Or if your parents have gone to the world where "the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest," and perhaps have been hurried to their grave by your misconduct; if they left our earth with hearts broken by disappointed hopes, and breathed out their last feelings for you, exclaiming, "O my son, my son, must we part forever?" If in this world there was not, by your good conduct, any reward of their prayers, their tears, their example, and their labors—carry it to them, by your present repentance and reformation, and by your thus following them there when you die. If nothing but disappointment was felt by them here, let the reward of their trouble be granted to them there. Though they left you in your sinful wanderings when they ascended to their glory, and feared they had lost you forever—let them by, your forsaking your evil courses, find you in Paradise. What a meeting will you then have in that happy state. How will it enhance even their heavenly felicity, after having given up all hope of your salvation upon earth, to have the assurance of your salvation by seeing you in heaven. Richly will it repay them for all their sorrows and anxiety, and infinitely more than compensate for all they have endured on your account.
And now, young men, let me close this chapter by a few more words ofaffectionate yet earnest admonition and persuasion. It is cruel under any circumstances, to frustrate willfully and wickedly, by any part of our conduct, the hopes of our fellow creatures; and the cruelty is in exact proportion to the strength, the propriety, and the justness of the expectations which are so defeated. If people who have no right to expect anything from us, make us out of mere choice, the subject of foolish and unwarranted anticipations, we have no great need to concern ourselves about the matter; and any disappointment which we may occasion is rather a punishment for their folly—than a reproach upon us.
But where by a kind of necessity we become to others the objects of their well-founded and rational expectations; where these expectations are very large and authorized by every consideration; where their disappointment must be followed by great misery; and the accomplishment of their wishes must secure them great happiness; and where it is in our power to bring about either of these alternatives—it is most cruel wickedness to sport with the hopes thus suspended upon our conduct. A generous and sensitive person does not like to occasion disappointment even to a dumb animal. Think, then, of the hopes of parents in reference to their children. I appeal to your generosity on their behalf. Have they not a right to entertain hope concerning you? Does not the very relationship give them this right?
Envision your mother thus addressing you, "I am a mother and have all a mother's affections, anxieties, hopes, and rights. Next to God and my husband—in whom should I hope so justly as in my child—whom I have borne in my womb, nursed at my bosom, cuddled in my arms? For whom I have given the sleep of countless nights, and the labor of countless days. Whom I have taught to walk, to speak, to think, to act. Whom I have loved with a mother's love, watched around his couch in sickness, wept when he wept, and smiled when he smiled, heard his complaints, and soothed his sorrows, borne with his waywardness, and gently reproved his faults. Whom as an infant, a child, a youth, a man—I have anxiously cared for, as I have watched with solicitude each successive development. Whom I have prayed for, instructed, warned, encouraged. O, my son, my son, had not your mother a right to hope that all this would be rewarded at some period when it should be all understood? I saw your infant smiles as you turned your eyes upon she who fed you from her bosom, and which seemed at that time silently to thank me for your sustenance. I heard you call me your 'dear mother,' as you made your first essays at articulate language. I beheld your opening talents and virtues, as they appeared to be then, and interpreted them into signs of future excellence—and had I not a right to hope for much at your hands—and will you disappoint it all, and thus reward your mother's care? Shall hopes so early awakened, so fondly cherished, so long sustained, so justly founded, that rose so high, and anticipated so much—be all doomed, by your misconduct—to disappointment? O, my son, my son!"
And then your father too, think of him—that kind, good man, who when he first took you in his arms, felt the new and strange emotions of that rapturous moment all kindle into hope, as he looked upon your face, and for the first time cried, "My child!" How did that hope grow with your growth, and strengthen with your strength—rising higher and sinking deeper at every advanced stage of your life. His hope of your future excellence was his prospective reward for all the labor he sustained to support, to educate, and provide for you. Often as he wiped away the sweat of his brow amid the heat and burden of the day, and began to think his labors almost too severe, his hope of your future good conduct checked the rising feeling of hardship, and compelled him to say, "It is for my children—and it is my hope that they, by their affection and piety, will one day make me as thankful that I endure all this for them, as their mother already does."
Young men, have you generosity, gratitude, nobility of soul? If so, let me ask you, what do such ties, such benefits, such feelings, and such conduct, deserve at your hands? Can you be insensible to such an appeal? One would imagine it would be your study and delight to acknowledge and discharge, in the most effectual and satisfactory manner, obligations which you began to contract before you had the ability to understand and appreciate them; and which, from that time to the present, have never ceased to accumulate. Above all things upon earth, your parents have the largest claims upon your consideration, and though there are higher motives to the cultivation of all moral excellence, than even a regard to their happiness, yet this ought never to be left out of view, and never will be, by any generous, dutiful, and affectionate son.