Practical Hints from a Father to His Daughter
William Sprague, 1835
In a preceding chapter I have endeavored to impress you with the importance of correct views of the great truths of religion. Such views unquestionably lie at the foundation of every right exercise of the affections, and of whatever is truly good in the life. Nevertheless, correct opinions are in themselves of comparatively little importance — unless they are allowed to exert their legitimate influence in forming and elevating the character. You may have "all knowledge and all faith" — you may be unwavering in your conviction of the truth, and even be able to confound gainsayers — and yet if in all this, there is nothing which reaches the heart and influences the conduct — your character in the eye of God is no better than that of an unbeliever!
You may indeed pass for a Christian with the world, or at least with the undiscerning part of it; and possibly you may imagine yourself to be a Christian; but the hour of affliction, and the hour of death, and above all the light of eternity, which will put your Christianity to the test — will prove it to be a mere name, an idle speculation — not a solid, practical, and sustaining principle of the heart.
I have said that practical religion has its beginning in the understanding. Religious truth being apprehended by the mind, spreads its influence over the affections, and through them, that influence is carried out into every department of action. There is no mystery in all this — no departure from the common operation of the principles of human nature. On the contrary, it is conformed to all the analogies of experience.
You believe that a beloved friend is wandering unconsciously on the verge of a precipice, and liable every moment to an irrecoverable and fatal plunge. This conviction operates irresistibly upon your affections, stirring up in your bosom the deepest compassion and anxiety. And these same feelings which cause your heart to throb on account of the danger of your friend — will lead you to rush toward the fearful precipice, and admonish your friend of her perilous circumstances; and if need be, even to lay hold of her, and rescue her from destruction.
Now this is a fair illustration of what I mean by practical religion. It is important here to remark, that it belongs to genuine religion, to take practical control alike the affections, and the external conduct. There are those who will have it, that to be religious is merely to be susceptible of a warm glow of feeling — to be able to weep profusely under the solemn and affecting truths of the gospel; and to talk with fervor and sensibility of the progress or the decline of true religion around them; while the every-day duties of the Christian life, which require action as well as feeling, are unhappily regarded as not among the weightier matters of religion.
And there are those, on the other hand, who seem willing to have their hands put in action — while yet they practically claim a dispensation for the heart. They cheerfully perform every deed of justice and charity which devolves upon them in their interaction with their fellow men, and are even models of external morality — who nevertheless seem to regard repentance, and faith, and devotion, as not being essential to the religious character.
Now both these classes are equally in a mistake. Practical religion does not assert its claims exclusively either over the heart or the life — but alike over both. The truths which you believe must exert their influence in the production of holy affections; and those affections must exert their influence in leading to a holy life. If you make your religion consist merely in feeling, or merely in action — it is at best a partial religion, and will never answer the great purpose of your acceptance with God.
Such is the natural perverseness of the heart, that it never yields up its rebellion, and becomes transformed into the divine likeness — until it is wrought upon by the almighty agency of God. But this agency, let it be always remembered, is of such a character as not to supersede — but to involve the exercise of the human faculties. Notwithstanding it is sovereign in its nature, (for the very idea of salvation by grace implies sovereignty,) it is in perfect accordance with all the laws of moral action. So that the sinner actually makes his very highest efforts — precisely at the time when he is the subject of the most powerful divine agency. The moral actions he performs at the period of his transformation into the divine image, are as truly his own, as if he were in every sense an independent agent; and yet God works as really, though not in the same manner, as he did in the original creation. This is the uniform doctrine of Scripture; and perhaps there is no single passage in which it is more clearly contained, than that in which the apostle exhorts the Christians, to whom he was writing, to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, giving it as a reason that it was God who worked within them, both to will and to do, of his good pleasure.
But you will ask, perhaps, whether there is not here something of mystery; and will inquire for an explanation of this concurrence between the agency of the Creator and the agency of the creature, in the production of this wonderful result. I answer unhesitatingly, that I know nothing on this subject, and expect to know nothing in this world, beyond the simple fact.
That it is so is amply proved, not only by Scripture but experience; but how it is so, is a problem which, to say the least, must be reserved to exercise the faculties in a higher state of existence. To reject a fact of which we have all the evidence of which it is susceptible, merely because we cannot explain everything that is connected with it — would certainly be the height of infatuation. Upon this principle, we would resign ourselves to a universal skepticism; for what object is there in nature, which, when subjected to a rigid examination, does not present mysteries, before which the highest human reason must own itself confounded.
Practical religion is begun and sustained through the influence of the truth, the doctrines and precepts of the Bible — and retains a perfect identity of character in every variety of circumstances. It conforms the human character everywhere to the same standard. Everywhere, it is accompanied by the same joys and sorrows, the same fears, and hopes, and aspirations. You may bring together people from the most opposite walks of society, and if you please from opposite sides of the globe; people whose feelings and habits on other subjects have little or nothing in common, and let each of them have a principle of genuine religion, and if they speak the same language, they will recognize each other as brethren, and they will be able to report a common experience, and the same spirit of love to their master; and love to each other, and love to their fellow men, will glow in the bosom of each; and they will be looking forward alike to Heaven as their final home!
The most cultivated mind, and the most uncultivated, may be brought together, and, supposing both to be deeply imbued with genuine religion, they will feel at home in each other's society. There will be one point, though there is only one, at which they can meet on the same level, and hold intelligent and delightful communion.
It is another attribute of true religion, that it is
practical and enduring. Who does not know how fugitive and uncertain are the
possessions of the world —
how riches take to themselves wings and fly away;
how the voice of human applause is often changed, almost in an instant into the voice of execration;
how pleasure turns into pain in the very moment of enjoyment;
how even natural affection itself will grow cold and shy, and finally give place to deep rooted enmity and bitter resentment!
But not so with true religion! Let the change of external circumstances be what it may, let the fate of other possessions be as it will — this is sure to remain through every vicissitude! A principle of true religion, once implanted in the heart — can never be eradicated, and can never cease to exert its influence! It will live in every climate; it will survive every calamity; and it will brighten into a higher and holier perfection in the better world!
And not only is true religion something which will endure
— but something which, even here, is destined to increase. The
principle of saving grace, when first implanted in the heart is indeed
feeble in its operations; and if we were to form our opinion without the aid
of experience, and without recourse to the divine testimony — we would
decide unhesitatingly that there was little reason to expect that this
principle could ever reach a full and strong maturity. But it is the
ordinance of God that it should be so; and the truth is illustrated and
confirmed by every Christian's experience. There may indeed be seasons of
occasional declension, and there may be seasons of so much darkness
as to create the most painful apprehension that the heart has never yet
practically recognized the claims of true religion; nevertheless, on the
whole, there is a constant progress in the Christian's experience.
Though his steps may be feeble and faltering — he is still gradually . . .
growing in grace;
gaining new victories over indwelling corruption;
enlarging the sphere of his benevolent activity; and
coming nearer and nearer the likeness of Christ!
It is said by an inspired writer, with equal truth and beauty, that "The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day!" Proverbs 4:18
There are two distinct views in which we may regard practical religion, as it stands connected with the trials of life; as triumphing over them, and yet as being advanced and strengthened by them. When you talk of human suffering, there is a cord in every bosom which vibrates in a response to the truth of what you say. The trials of mankind are indeed almost infinitely diversified; there are scarcely two individuals whose cup of sorrow is composed of precisely the same ingredients. But there is not a solitary individual whose personal experience does not furnish ample testimony, that this world is a valley of tears!
There are those, it may be, who, to the surrounding world, always bear a cheerful aspect, and who might almost leave an impression, by the uniform gladness of the countenance — that the sorrows of life had never invaded their hearts! But if you could know all that passes within their hearts — if you could, even for a single week, have access to every secret thought and feeling — you would no doubt find that, though the countenance seemed always to beam with joy — yet the heart was often overburdened with sadness!
There are comparatively few who do not, at some time or other, become the objects of sympathy, from being openly buffeted by the storms of adversity. And there are none who do not experience any trials! And sometimes those trials which bring into the heart the keenest anguish — the world knows nothing of.
Now I say with confidence, that true religion confers upon its possessor — a glorious triumph amidst the sorrows of life. Suppose poverty comes with its train of calamities. Or suppose slander points its barbed arrows against a blameless character. Or suppose bereavement cast a withering shadow upon the best earthly hopes and joys. Or suppose disease, which mocks the highest efforts both of friendship and of skill — makes its lodgment in the very seat of life. Or suppose, if you please, that this whole tribe of evils come marching in fearful array to assail an individual at once — I am sure that I do not say too much for true religion, when I declare to you that it will enable its possessor to meet them all in serenity and triumph! To do this must require a high effort of faith, I acknowledge; but such an effort as has been exemplified in the experience of thousands.
Oh! when I have stood amidst such scenes, and witnessed the sweet aspirations of hope, and seen the bright beams of joy irradiate the countenance over which sorrow had thrown her deepest shadows, just as the rainbow casts its brilliant hues upon the dark cloud — I have looked upon true religion as a bright angel come down from Heaven to exercise a sovereign influence over human calamity. And I have offered a prayer at such a moment, that this good angel may be his constant attendant through this valley of tears.
But while there is an energy in true religion to sustain the soul amidst the calamities of life — this energy, instead of being lessened, is increased by the influence of these calamities. Let true religion emerge from a scene in which she has kept some child of distress from sinking in the deep waters, or in which she has bound up some heart that has been smitten by the rod of God — and you shall see her more healthful and vigorous for having performed these offices of mercy.
In other words, nothing is so well adapted to purify and brighten the Christian graces — as the furnace of affliction! And hence we look for the noblest specimens of Christian attainment, not among those who have been always surrounded with the sunshine of prosperity — but among those who have had to struggle hard with the calamities of life.
Not every Christian, whose lot is peculiarly marked by adversity, experiences, at least in the degree which he might — the happy effects of which I have spoken. But the reason is, that he does not receive his afflictions with a right spirit. Every Christian who is severely tried — may and ought to be the better for it; and if he is not so, I do not say that he may not be saved — but let him take heed lest it should be so as by fire.
I have spoken of the triumph of true religion in affliction; but she triumphs still more gloriously in death. Yes, in that hour when the clustering symptoms of dissolution proclaim that all is over; when friends sit down and weep in silence, because they have done everything, and yet the beloved object must die; when there is nothing now thought of either by the dying or the mourning — but the winding-sheet, and the grave, and the region that lies beyond it. I say in that hour — as dark, and portentous and terrible as it seems — true religion still triumphs. You may trace her footsteps amid that scene of desolation — in expression of hope, and peace, and joy — and frequently in the serene and seraphic smile which she has left upon the countenance, after she has ascended with the spirit to a brighter world.
Infidelity may be brave in life — but she is a coward in death. True religion is never more courageous, than when she is acting as a guide in the dark valley; when with one hand she opens the door of the sepulcher, as a safe though temporary resting-place for the body — and with the other hand, the gate of the heavenly city, as the everlasting residence of the soul.
There is still more to be said for true religion — for her noblest triumph is in eternity. In the religion of the heart and life, as it exists here — there is the germ of that exceeding and eternal weight of glory, which is to he the Christian's portion hereafter.
Let no one talk of the brilliancy of an earthly crown — when compared with the immortal splendors of a crown of life. Let no one value earthly treasures — when compared with the incorruptible treasures which true religion secures at God's right hand. Let no one set a high estimate upon earthly friendship — when viewed in comparison with an everlasting communion with the spirits of the just made perfect, and with the angels who blaze before the eternal throne, and even with the infinitely perfect and redeeming God! When we speak of the joys of Heaven, we speak of that, the full extent of which it has not entered the heart of man to conceive! It is in that world, that true religion will sit enthroned, in the majesty of a blessed and perpetual triumph.
I have rarely seen the legitimate operations of true religion in forming the character so sublimely exemplified, as in the case of a revered friend, whom, not many years ago, I followed to the grave. He was a man upon whom nature had bountifully bestowed her choicest gifts, and who combined every intellectual and moral quality which was necessary to stamp the seal of greatness upon his character. But above all, he was a practical Christian. I knew him when his locks were silvered with years, and his eyes were dim with age, and his limbs tottered beneath their burden. On his furrowed cheek, sat the smile of contentment — the living image of peace and joy. He could hardly open his lips but in some expression of penitence for his sins, or of thankfulness for his mercies. While he was cheerful in the enjoyment of temporal blessings — the eye of faith and hope was fixed on Heaven!
I saw him when the fatal impressions of disease had fastened upon his countenance; when the symptoms of dissolution were advancing in slow but certain progress, and when eternity was opening its doors to receive his almost disenthralled spirit. I watched him to see if I could discover a symptom of terror or agitation, anything like the shrinking-back of the soul from the grasp of death — but all was calmness and triumph. Just as he had reached the boundary between earth and Heaven, I said, "My father, are you dying in peace?" and his animated expression told me that the songs of seraphs were already trembling on his ear. His dying eye shot forth a beam of rapture, and told, in language more than mortal — the vigor of a spirit on the wing for immortality. Never before, did I behold Christianity march with so much triumph into the territories of Death! The scene is imprinted upon my memory, and I would gladly carry the impression of it to the grave!