A sermon preached on Sunday evening,
May 21st, 1820, by John Angell James.
"The wisdom that descends from above is full of mercy and good fruits."
Matthew 5:7. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
The beatitudes with which our Lord commences his incomparable Sermon on the Mount, were intended to correct the errors which the Jews entertained as to the nature of his kingdom; and to exhibit to the world the leading features of the religion which he came to promulgate. Mistaking the spirit of prophecy, and interpreting literally the imagery by which, in the glowing style of Oriental composition, the writers of the Old Testament had described the person, reign, and success of Messiah—the Jews expected a mighty general, who at the head of victorious armies, would break the Roman yoke from their necks, and raise their nation into the proud pre-eminence of universal dominion. If such expectations had been well-founded, it is evident that lofty ambition, militaristic courage, indignant contempt of others, unrelenting severity, and insatiable resentment would have been the prominent virtues of the disciple of Christ. The dispositions which I have just enumerated, formed, in fact, the popular characters of the age in which our Lord appeared, both among Jews and Gentiles. And indeed the 'hero' has been a far greater favorite than the 'saint' with the historian of every age and every country. The mild and passive virtues have few admirers—compared with those which appear invested with the dazzling splendor of state policy, restless ambition, and military prowess.
But 'the kingdom of Christ is not of this world'—a remark which will strictly apply to his subjects; and to delineate their character as well as to describe their blessedness—was the design of the beautiful discourse with which he opened his public ministry.
Instead of that proud consciousness of superiority which both the Jews and Gentiles entertained—the disciples of Christ would be characterized by a deep sense of their needs and imperfections, and the most unfeigned humility, "Blessed are the poor in spirit."
Instead of being mirthful, thoughtless and fickle, addicted to scenes of festivity and noisy mirth—they would be serious, thoughtful, and penitent, "Blessed are those who mourn."
Instead of entertaining that high sense of personal importance, which is quick to receive offence, and hasty to resent it—they would meekly bear injuries, and rather forgive than revenge them, "Blessed are the meek."
Instead of an insatiable thirst after conquest—they would ardently covet the victory over their own lusts and corruptions, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness."
Instead of delighting in the horrors of war, in order to gather the ensanguined laurel from the field of battle—they would be infinitely better pleased to sympathize with the sorrows of mankind, and relieve them, "Blessed are the merciful."
Instead of seeking their happiness in luxurious or sensual gratifications—they would find it in the growth of inward purity, "Blessed are the pure in heart."
Instead of fomenting and delighting in hostility, either domestic, social or national—they would sacrifice everything but principle, to restore harmony where it has been unfortunately lost, and to maintain it where it is possessed, "Blessed are the peacemakers."
Instead of coveting the gale of popular applause by sacrificing their convictions to the smiles of the world—they would endure its bitterest wrath rather than apostatize from the faith; and esteem themselves more happy in securing the crown of martyrdom than a high place in the verses of the poet, or the declamations of the orator, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake."
Such is Christianity—as its Author
has described and blessed it. Such is the model after which every Christian
character ought to be formed. How far short of this we fall, I blush to
think. It is high time we should return to first principles, and begin, as
for the first time, to enquire in what true practical religion really
consists. From this assemblage of holy graces I select for our present
consideration the most useful of them all. My subject this evening is,
Christian Mercy—in the discussion of which, I shall explain its nature,
direct to its objects, enumerate its properties, unfold its reward, and urge
I. The NATURE of Christian Mercy.Mercy may be defined to be that benevolent sorrow which we feel at perceiving the sufferings or approaching calamities of others, connected with a desire to relieve them. The object of mercy is simple 'misery'—not according to some ethical writers as the effect of guilt—but as misery, without considering the cause which has produced it.
1.Mercy is that benevolent sorrow which we feel at perceiving the sufferings or approaching calamities of others. Without such a compassionate disposition, a man cannot be merciful. He may be liberal in the distribution of his wealth, but this may arise from ostentation, or may be an operation of self-righteousness. To the possession of the amiable and useful virtue of which I am now treating, a tender sympathizing heart is indispensably necessary. There must be a cord in the bosom vibrating to every note of woe, and where this exists in connection with a desire to relieve, there is mercy—even though the means of relief are not possessed. One may be destitute of mercy, while lavishing thousands; another may possess mercy in high perfection, and yet not have a dollar to bestow. Mercy begins in sympathy, although it does not end there. It is in the heart that mercy erects her throne; it is thence she issues her commands, and dispenses her favors—the senses and the bodily members are her servants; the gold and the silver are her means. But mercy never leaves the heart—for when she has left that she has departed from the character.
2. Mercy is always connected with a desire to relieve misery, and that this desire will always prompt to vigorous exertion.Right dispositions wherever they prevail in the heart, will always appear by their appropriate effects in the conduct. Dr. Hartley concisely defines compassion "to be that uneasiness which a man feels at sight of the misery of another," and mercy, if not synonymous with compassion, is so near akin to it, as to admit of a very similar definition. If the misery of another renders us uneasy, a regard to our own peace will make us either anxious to relieve it, or to avoid the sight of it; the latter is the case with the man who merely feels the sorrows of others, but has no genuine compassion; the former is the conduct of the merciful. Mercy is a passion—but it leads to action. It is not mere sentimentalism, which sighs and weeps—yet does nothing more; like that of Sterne, which led him to shed tears on the sufferings of an expiring animal, but permitted him to leave his own mother in a state bordering on starvation. 'I feel for you' is a common reply to the tale of the sufferer; but unless that feeling be so far excited as to grant relief—it is not true compassion. James by an admirable association of ideas, has told us that the wisdom which comes from above is full of mercy and good fruits—evidently teaching us that this tender and beautiful grace of mercy, is never seen in its right character, but when in a state of fructification. And what are its fruits? Kind words? Sorrowful looks? Tears of pity? No! These are its blossoms, but substantial acts of kindness are the fruits which the 'hand of misery' is invited to pluck from this heavenly plant for its own relief.
We must renounce our claims to be a
merciful person, unless there is a desire, and that desire be
followed by vigorous exertion, to relieve the misery which has
excited our sympathy. A person of mild and gracious manners, soft and
compassionate language, who by this fair exterior awakens the hope of the
wretched—but after all confines his bounty to mere words and looks—resembles
the fig tree, which the Savior cursed, because it was covered with delusive
foliage, yet was destitute of fruit to satisfy the hungry.
II. The PROPERTIES of Christian mercy.
1. Mercy is supported and directed by the principles of the New Testament, and not merely by the force of natural feeling.It will be remembered that I am now speaking of 'Christian mercy'—or, in other words, of that compassion which is represented in the Word of God, as the work of the Divine Spirit, which supposes the previous existence of the Christian character, and which is urged by considerations peculiar to the gospel. The renewed mind of a believer is represented, in the figurative language of the Scripture, as the garden of the Lord; and all the holy virtues of sanctification as the fruits and flowers which, by a heavenly agency, have been planted in it. Between these 'holy virtues'—and the 'natural virtues of the unrenewed heart' there is a considerable resemblance, as there is between the wild plants of nature—and plants of the same species when removed to the garden, and placed beneath care and skill. I admit there is much mercy, much amiable compassion, shedding their fragrance and yielding their fruits in the wilderness of corrupt nature; refreshing the weary by the former, and by the latter satisfying the needs of the hungry.
We have sometimes the melancholy spectacle to see a man whom a whole village or a town unites to bless, because he has been eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame, and a father to the poor, and has fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and healed the sick, and caused the widow's heart to sing for joy; to see such a man—because he has not erected his mercy seat, like that in the temple, upon the Rock of God's choice—swept away with the refuse of the earth, and the wreck of nations who know not God. I pretend not to determine what effect 'natural loveliness of disposition' without saving religion may have in lessening the torments of hell, but if there be any truth in the Scripture—it will not elevate to the joys of heaven. A deist, or an atheist, may be of a merciful disposition, but will this save him? One feels a reluctance in applying the denunciatory parts of revealed truth to men, who, though they are apparently destitute of all real religion, possess everything else that can adorn humanity, and render them the blessing of mankind; and yet when so many are perpetually told, and so readily believe the assertion, that 'charity is a passport to the skies', it would be cruel if those who know the reality and consequences of the delusion, were to be silent, and not to declare that—the most amiable and diffusive benevolence, if unaccompanied by the essentials of true religion, will leave a man after all within the flood of divine vengeance, where he will be swallowed up by its approaching tide.
Paul expressly declares that though a man gives all his goods to feed the poor, and has not love—that is, love to God, leading to a proper regard of our fellow-creatures—he is nothing. Many have deluded themselves on this subject by the dreadful perversion of a passage of inspired truth, which utters a sentiment the most remote from that which it has been made to promulgate. "Charity," say these people, "shall cover the multitude of sins." Now, by charity, here, is meant love; and the sentiment contained in the expression is nothing more than that love will conceal with a friendly covering, instead of publishing to the world, a multitude of imperfections in those we regard. This is its true meaning. If it meant that God accepts those people who whose alms-deeds outweigh their crimes—it would justify all the vile and horrid hypocrisy of the darkest age of popery, when to build a church or found a monastery was declared by lying priests to the murderer or adulterer, to be a sufficient expiation for all the crimes of the most impure or bloody life; for if lesser acts of benevolence will cover lesser sins, there are no vices so flagrant which may not be covered on this principle, by an increase of munificence.
Let it not be said, that the motive of a merciful act is of no consequence, provided the compassion is felt, and the relief communicated. I admit that in relation to the object of our mercy, and the interests of society with regard to him, this remark is correct. In reference to these, it is no matter what was the motive which dictated the act; whether the doer of it had the glory of God in view, or whether he was an infidel. But our actions sustain other relations, which make it of infinite and eternal consequence under what motives, and upon what principles, they are performed. The question is, what influence our conduct will have, not upon the comfort of others, but upon our own eternal destiny; not what may be demanded by our fellow-creatures, whose most penetrating discrimination cannot reach the heart—but what may be and is required by that Omniscient Being, to whom the very soul, with all its most secret contents, is an open and legible page. In short, the question is not what constitutes worldly morality, but what is essential to pure evangelical religion.
We go on to observe, then, that true Christian mercy—that which will be accepted in the sight of God, and receive his smile; that which will ensure his gracious and unmerited reward, and which will have no slight connection with our celestial happiness, is exercised in designed obedience to God's command, in express imitation of his conduct, and with an earnest desire to promote his glory. This is the ground on which it is enjoined, "Be merciful, as your Father who is in heaven is merciful." This disposition is cherished by a devout contemplation of that mercy which shines from heaven upon the human race through the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. With other men, mercy is merely a 'feeling'—with the Christian it is a 'principle'. By them, it is exercised in gratification of their inclination; by the believer, at the dictate of conscience. They think it is kind for one needy creature to compassionate another; in addition to the force of this sentiment, the Christian reasons—that if God has so far pitied him as to deliver his soul from eternal misery, the least spark of gratitude must lead him to relieve the needs of his fellow-creatures. They go no higher than to gratify their own propensities; the Christian desires to honor God. They expect, by deeds of mercy, to merit eternal life; but the Christian depends, amidst the most profuse benevolence, upon the righteousness of Christ.
2. Christian mercy displays tenderness of MANNER, in her acts of liberality.It is akin to that charity which is kind, and resembles that goodness of our heavenly Father, which "gives to all men liberally, and upbraids not." There are many ways of communicating relief to the wretched, but this lovely virtue will choose that which will least oppress the feelings of its object. It will act the part of the tender surgeon, who, in healing the wounds of his patient, will inflict no unnecessary pain. A rough and churlish man, whatever may be his skill, is unfit for the chamber of pain and sickness. Mercy needs a quick, discerning eye, a gentle hand, a tender heart; many of its objects must be dealt with delicately. It is a feminine virtue, and should partake of the softness and mildness of femininity. There should be nothing in our manner unnecessarily to wound the feelings of those whose miseries we wish to relieve; no upbraiding should accompany our beneficence; what we communicate should not appear to be extorted from a reluctant hand; it should not be like the spark smitten from a flint; nor like water squeezed from a sponge; but mercy should drop like balm upon the wounded spirit of the sufferer.
The smallest act of mercy will in every case be doubly sweet when administered with kindness; while the most substantial benevolence, tossed in petulance to the miserable, may aggravate the suffering which it is intended to mitigate. Like Him, who has left us an example, that we should follow his steps, we should be careful not "to break the bruised reed."
3. Christian mercy adds the greatest COURAGE IN ACTION—to the greatest tenderness of feeling.There are some who would be thought to possess too much compassion to endure the sight of human woe. They flee the scenes of wretchedness, and never venture down into the dark and gloomy abodes where misery dwells in all its loathsome and repulsive forms. At such sights, their senses are offended, their feelings are shocked, their comforts are interrupted, and they resolve to expose themselves no more to the scene of misery. But this 'sickly sensibility' deserves no higher character than selfishness in disguise, or cowardice—varnished with the tears of mock compassion. What would the miserable do if there were no other pity than this in the world, and no other benefactors than these to be found? Many of the forms of human wretchedness are of the most disgusting nature, and others of the most shocking nature—and every person of feeling would, on every ground but the hope of communicating relief, preserve the greatest distance from them.
But mercy, like the physician, consults not her pleasure, but the calls of duty; and bracing up her nerves, and fortifying herself with motives, and kindling all her courage—flies to the scene of need and suffering. Would you see this virtue in all its sublimity and grandeur, go, not to the study of the sentimentalist, where, weeping over the tale of unreal sorrows, in fancied tenderness of his heart, he hides himself from all the sights and sounds of actual woe, and whence he occasionally sends abroad his alms, without daring to trust himself amidst the living forms of grief; but follow the philanthropist from his home, the resort of plenty, luxury, and elegance—and trace him along the dirty and narrow alley, where the poorest of the poor herd together, amid poverty, and wretchedness, and vice; where there is everything to offend every sense, and some new shape of misery or 'specter of deprivation' crosses his path at every step; where sounds which seem the wailings and blasphemies of the damned, at every step, come across his ear; see this herald of mercy, trembling, yet pressing onward, through all these horrors, to reach a hovel in the center of this earthly hell, where, amidst filth, and poverty, and disease, lies gasping a human being, to whom he is anxious to convey the comforts of one world, and the hopes of another. This is mercy!
Behold the man, whose memory will never perish until the milk of kindness in the bosom of our species be transvenomed into the poison of asps, and whose name will be heard with transports on the banks of every river in Europe, until those rivers shall forget to flow—the immortal Howard, pacing backward and forward over our quarter of the globe in search of misery, diving into the depths of dungeons, plunging into the infection of hospitals, surveying every building in which society inflicts or hides away sorrow and pain. This is mercy. Behold that heroine of our own days, who, urged by the mighty impulses of her own brave heart, in opposition to kind advice, and as it seemed at first with neglect of prudence, but as we see now, under the protection of God, whose messenger she was, ventured within the walls of Newgate prison, where, in addition to all that could offend the eye, the ear, the touch, the smell—there was everything to shock the moral sense. See this astonishing woman, descending from splendor to place herself amidst scenes of living, crawling filth, and leaving for a season the pure and quiet endearments of her home—to collect around her a band of furies, maddened at once by disease and vice; and all this for the simple purpose of reforming creatures considered by society beyond any hope, and below every effort for their improvement. This is mercy. Go, you soft and sentimental benefactors of the human race, who can weep for wretchedness, but cannot bear to see it; go, look at these sublime and beautiful characters—and learn what mercy is.
4.To judicious discrimination between true and false misery, Christian mercy unites a propensity to relieve ALL misery, on its own account. We certainly ought not to allow ourselves to be easily imposed upon by "that cunning craftiness which lies in wait to deceive." An indiscriminate liberality supplies a stimulus to vice, is a rewarder to fraud, and afterwards, when deception has been frequently detected, by a powerful reaction it overturns the very throne of mercy itself—for no one is more likely to have his heart steeled against all appeals to his compassion than he who, after a long course of benevolence, discovers that his pity has been often wasted upon pretended distress. But while this discrimination must be exercised, there should be a disposition to relieve to the extent of our ability—all real misery.
We can easily conceive, for it is a case of frequent occurrence, that misery may in some instances be attended by circumstances that give it a deep interest, and invest it with a charm of peculiar and resistless fascination. Even the churl, the miser, and the cruel oppressor—have bowed at the feet of afflicted beauty, and allowed themselves for once to be led captive in the fetters of mercy. There is a romantic kind of pity in the world, which silly tales, falling in with mawkish sensibility, have helped to produce and cherish—I mean that disposition which is ever seeking after what it considers interesting objects of compassion. Misery, exhibited naked and alone, as it may be found in every street and every day, has no power to set in motion this spurious passion. The cries of hunger, the groans of sickness, the plaint of woe—return unheeded in sad echoes upon the sufferer's heart, unless the child of romance can discover some moving incentives to give, and which might serve as the basis of some striking and pathetic tale. I call this the mercy, not of the heart, but of the imagination; the compassion of the novelist, of the poet, of the painter, but not of the Christian. It should be recollected that there may be the most deep and entire wretchedness, without either youth, or beauty, or rapid vicissitude, or complicated plot, in the case. It is but seldom that we shall meet with instances of woe so varied and interesting in their details as to form a picture for the pages of a story. If we wait for such scenes to awaken our compassion, the world will die around us, and we shall die in the midst of it—before we have hushed a groan, or wiped away a tear.
5. Christian mercy should be characterized by DILIGENCE.It is said of our Lord, that "he ever went about doing good;" and the history of his life proves the truth of the assertion. Whether in the crowded city, or the retired village; whether in the domestic circle, or the courts of the temple; whether he led the multitude into the wilderness, or met them amidst the social haunts of men—he was ever engaged in acts of compassion, both to the souls and bodies of mankind. His errand to our world was a commission of mercy, and all his actions here an uninterrupted display of pity. We are to find our model in Him who never slept in the cause of human happiness. Diligence characterizes the efforts of the enemies of the human race, and it should surely not be lacking in its friends. The powers of darkness, with an energy of which we can form no adequate conception, are perpetually scattering the seeds of human misery, and causing the thorn, the bramble, and the nettle, to grow with noxious lushness in the path of life. We must oppose energy to energy, and diligence to diligence.
The objects of our pity are every hour passing in crowds, above the need of our efforts, or below the reach of our efforts; rising to heaven, where misery never enters, or sinking to hell, where mercy is never seen. Sin and disease, accidents and injustice, misfortune and death, are every moment busily employed, in extending the range and the reign of misery; and surely mercy should not be tardy or lukewarm. Our compassion should not be fretful or capricious—today all ardor, tomorrow all languor—but steadfast, immoveable, always abounding. Whatever our hand finds to do, we should do it with our might.
6. Christian mercy should be attended with SELF-DENIAL.We are not to offer on her altar the halt, the blind, and the lame, the mere surplus of our comforts, which we deem below our notice. Nor are we to be content with yielding up the surplus of our possessions, which we do not want, and cannot use. We must stand prepared to make sacrifices, and endure hardships. It is shocking to think how little some people will do to relieve the miseries of others. If they can supply the wants of the needy, and alleviate the woes of the afflicted, without going a step out of their way, abridging themselves of a single comfort, or giving up a moment's ease—they feel no objection to do a generous act. But if they must endure the least fatigue, or sacrifice what is in any degree valuable to themselves, tears may flow in torrents, and groans may rise in dismal concert, before they can be excited to deeds of mercy. They will not abridge one of all their luxurious gratifications, although the 'prunings' of almost any of them would be enough to guard the cottage of a poor neighbor from the worst terrors of poverty.
Did the Son of God exhibit a species of compassion which cost him nothing? Did he, without effort and without humiliation, give us the mere surplus of his riches, the redundance of his glory? Did he only speak from the throne of his majesty, or despatch a company of angels from the countless multitudes ministering around his feet, to bring us tidings of mercy, expressions of his good will? Altogether the opposite! "You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, that we, through his poverty, might become rich." The measure of his self-denial was the difference between his throne of glory—and his cross. Can that man, who will not make the smallest sacrifice in mercy's cause, persuade himself that he is a disciple of this merciful, self-denying Redeemer?
7. Christian mercy is not discouraged by the ingratitude or the opposition which may be manifested by those whom it relieves.That man has calculated too highly upon human virtue who believes that benevolence will always be rewarded by the gratitude of those whose needs are supplied, and whose sorrows are mitigated, by its exertions. It is too common a fault of mankind—first to mistake, and then to forget, their benefactors. Mercy is not always received with the promptitude with which it is offered. Some are too proud to be dependent, and turn with scorn from the hand that would lift them into comfort; others sullenly receive the assistance as their due, and stoop not to thank the generosity to which they are indebted.
It is not thus with all. Tears of
gratitude often repay the philanthropist with a reward, compared with which
the gems of India are but as dust. If, however, we would do good, we must do
it looking only to the smile of conscience, and of God, for our
remuneration. It is delightful to behold poverty and need, and disease and
sorrow, disappearing before us in the path of mercy, although we may see
ingratitude filling their place. We have still the comfort of reflecting,
that notwithstanding we have done our duty—and the 'sum of human
wretchedness' is less. In this respect, also, we may be instructed by the
history of our divine Savior. He flew to our world on the wings of mercy, he
was himself incarnate love, truth dwelt on his lips, compassion reigned in
his heart; wherever he directed his course the miseries of multitudes
vanished before the miracles of his grace—and salvation followed his
footsteps. He was the teacher who instructed their minds, the benefactor who
satisfied their hunger, the physician who healed their disorders, the
deliverer who would have saved their souls; yet, for all this, he was
maligned, calumniated, hated, persecuted, murdered! And shall we expect to
find the path of benevolence like one of the walks of paradise, where the
serpent was harmless beneath the flowers? If we do, we shall soon discover
III. I go on to consider the OBJECTS of Christian Mercy.And I am sure no one will accuse me of degrading the subject, if, for a few moments, I urge the claims of that large portion of the animate creation to which Providence has denied the power of pleading its own cause. Oh! there is a depth of cowardice, cruelty, and injustice in inflicting misery upon an irrational brute, deprived of all means of resistance and all power of complaint, except by its quivering flesh and screaming cries, for which language is too feeble to furnish execrations sufficiently emphatic. Let me never fall into the hands, or be at the mercy of that man, who, whatever may be his pretensions or his character, would wantonly inflict a pang on the least and lowest insect in the scale of life. Man is, or ought to be, the guardian of the rights of the irrational creation; but, lest he should be unfaithful to his trust, the great God has interposed his authority, and raised a causeless injury of any of his creatures into a crime against their Almighty Creator. Remember, then, that "a merciful man is merciful to his animal."
But the chief object of mercy—is MAN.
1. With regard to his TEMPORAL wants and woes.Innumerable are "the ills which flesh is heir to" in this valley of tears. Poverty, sickness, hunger, nakedness, toil—all, like roots of bitterness, spring up along the road which conducts us to the grave. And all, the merciful man, to the utmost of his power, will endeavor to repress or eradicate. He will not hide himself from such sorrows. His own comforts will remind him of the necessities of others. A sense of the woes by which he is surrounded, will reach him at the center of that wide circle of plenty within which he dwells, and will not allow him to enjoy what Providence has given him, until, with no scanty hand, he has administered to their relief. He will remember that others are men of like passions with himself, and that if with so many comforts to sweeten the cup of life, he so often tastes the wormwood and the gall—their portion must be wretched indeed, to whom, but for the aid of mercy, the draught must be unmingled bitterness.
It has been adopted as a maxim by some good, but mistaken people, that as "the children of the world" devote all their charity to the temporal wants of mankind, "the children of light "should exclusively employ theirs for the spiritual interests of the human race. This appears to me a most erroneous sentiment, and highly derogatory to the honor of religion. We are "to let our light so shine before men, that they, seeing our good works, may glorify God, our heavenly Father." One way of exhibiting the splendor of this holy light, is by excelling in those virtues, the excellences of which are perceived, and the obligations of which are felt, by the people of the world. Zeal for the diffusion of the gospel is, by many, considered only as fanaticism. But mercy to temporal needs, is acknowledged by all to be a necessary Christian virtue. Besides, our motives will be mistaken if we abandon the temporal miseries of mankind; for men will be at a loss to conceive how they can have mercy for the soul—who appear to have none for the body; and how they can feel compassion for strangers whom they have not seen—who are destitute of it towards their neighbors whom they have seen. In the absence of mercy for the temporal miseries of mankind—all our solicitude for their spiritual interests will be resolved into disgusting hypocrisy, which, under pretense of compassion, is carrying on the purposes of mere sectarianism. The advocate of Missionary and Bible Societies should be foremost in the work of clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and healing the sick. The conduct of our Redeemer is an admirable model in this respect. His identifying character is the Savior of souls; but how diligent he was in relieving temporal needs, let the history of his life declare.
2. Christian Mercy extends its regard to the SPIRITUAL miseries of mankind.The man who believes the Gospel realizes that the whole human race in a state of sin and ruin; suffering all the consequences of sin in this world—and exposed to the bitter pains of eternal death in the world to come. He is convinced that without a fitness for the pure and spiritual joys of heaven, not one individual of all the millions who are continually passing into eternity, can ascend to the realms of glory and felicity. They appear, in his eyes, to be actually perishing, and hence he is filled with the tenderest concern, and affected with the deepest sorrow. In his estimation, the most agonizing diseases, the most pinching poverty, the greatest deprivation, and the heaviest cares—are as nothing, compared with those miseries which sin has brought upon the deathless soul. With all the compassion which he feels for the body, he cannot forget, that if it were not relieved, the grave would soon terminate its woes; but that the soul, if not saved, would become immortal in its suffering and wretchedness.
This makes him not only willing, but anxious to support every scheme, which has for its object to extend the light of divine truth to those who sit in darkness and the region of the shadow of death. Often he surveys, from his own happy elevation on the hill of Zion, the countless millions that crowd the realms of Paganism and Islamism, until his heart yearning with compassion, dictates to his tongue the prayer of the Psalmist, "God be merciful unto us and bless us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving health among all nations." Nor is he content with expressing his mercy by prayers. He cannot withhold his property, while every breeze and every wave that touches upon our shore wafts to it from the dark places of the earth that heart-rending petition, "Come over and help us!"
Yes, 'mercy to the soul' is the
'soul of mercy'. This is its sublimest, its mightiest effort. It supplies
needs, and alleviates woes, which would otherwise be eternal. A missionary
society, or a Bible society, is the highest exhibition of benevolence that
can be witnessed below the skies. Its provisions and outcomes will be
everlasting, and the grandeur of its results be seen infinite ages after the
hospital, the dispensary, and the alms-house shall have sent forth their
last stream of healing. Mercy to the soul raises its subject into the
nearest resemblance of Jehovah. It is, in fact, "to have fellowship with the
Father and with his Son Jesus Christ." The human spirit seems to occupy the
center of the divine government, around which the plans and purposes of
Deity are perpetually revolving; and the chief end of all their mighty
movements is to glorify God in the salvation of man. Who, then, would
exclude the soul from the sphere of his compassion? Let us not forget to do
good in relieving the temporal needs of our fellow-creatures, but in the
exercise of a still holier and loftier ambition, let us aim at the honor of
saving the soul. An infinitely richer and more lasting renown will follow
such an achievement than the civic crown awarded by the Roman Senate to him
who saved the life of a citizen on the field of battle.
IV. Let us now dwell upon the BLESSINGS with which mercy stands connected."Blessed are the merciful—for they shall obtain mercy." If we considered this language as meaning no more than that the compassionate should, in their necessities, be the objects of pity to their fellow-creatures, we would assert no more than experience proves to be true. Who is so likely to receive the kind and merciful attentions of others, as he who in the days of his prosperity was a fountain of comfort to them? The public will hasten to such a man in the time of his distress, and attempt to discharge the obligations which he had conferred by his liberality. The tide of mercy which had flowed from his heart will return to him again, convincing him that "in such measure as we give to others, it shall be given back to us." When we consider the vicissitudes of this changing world, and think how speedily we may be reduced to the circumstances of those who now depend for relief upon our benevolence, we surely ought to find in such a reflection no feeble inducement to the exercise of mercy. Never can the denial of pity affect the sufferer's heart with such exquisitely painful emotions—as when it seems to come in the way of severe, but righteous retribution, and reminds him of the hour when he closed his own ear to the tale of another's woe.
But the text has a higher meaning, and expresses a far richer and more comprehensive beatitude than this. They who show mercy to others upon Christian principles, shall themselves obtain mercy from God. Here it will be necessary for me to state a distinction which is something more than merely a difference in words; I mean the distinction between the 'meritorious cause' of a blessing, and an indispensable prerequisite to its possession. Anyone who has favors to distribute, may require as absolutely essential from everyone who would enjoy them, the performance of a condition which could in no sense be considered as a meritorious cause of the desired favor, because not at all equivalent to it. In this sense, a merciful disposition to our fellow-creatures is the stipulated condition of our obtaining mercy from God—a prerequisite, but not the cause. It is not that for the sake of which we obtain mercy, but without which, God's mercy will be denied us. It bears the same relation to eternal happiness as holiness does (of which it is, indeed, a part); "without which no man shall see the Lord." The very mode of expression here employed utterly precludes the idea of pity to our fellow-creatures being the meritorious cause of the divine favor. It is said they shall obtain mercy, which would be a most inappropriate term in the case of merit. (The author feels great pleasure in quoting the sentiments of Mr. Hall on this subject, as most clearly expressing his own. "When the term 'conditions of salvation', or words of similar import, are employed, he wishes it once for all to be understood that he utterly disclaims the notion of meritorious conditions, and that he intends by that term only what is necessary in the established order of means—an absolute prerequisite, that without which another thing cannot take place. When thus defined, to deny there are conditions of salvation, is not to approach to antinomianism merely, it is to fall into the gulf. It is nothing less than a repeal of all the sanctions of revelation, of all the principles of moral government. Let the idea of 'conditions of salvation', in the sense already explained, be steadily rejected along with the term, and the patrons of the worst of heresies will have nothing further to demand. That repentance, faith, and their fruits in a holy life, supposing life to be continued, are essential prerequisites to eternal happiness, is a doctrine inscribed as with a sunbeam in every page of revelation.")
That mercy which God exercises towards man, essentially includes the idea of guilt on the part of the latter. It is the compassion, not merely of the benefactor towards simple misery, but of a ruler towards that wretchedness which is the consequence of crime. Hence, when it is said, we shall obtain mercy—the possibility of merit is excluded. Merit appeals not to mercy, but to justice. If it is admitted that we have all deserved death by our sins, it is confessed that none of us can become entitled to life by any part of our conduct, since it is impossible for the same being to merit both punishment and pardon; indeed, the very idea of our 'meriting pardon' is an absurdity. No! If any sinner is saved, it must be by grace through faith. The most diffusive compassion, united with the most exemplary charity, forms no ground on which a transgressor can rest his hope of pardoning mercy.
"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved" is the language of the gospel. This faith, however, produces suitable fruits, and one of its inseparable effects is a merciful disposition. Without this there can be no genuine belief of the gospel; where this exists, and compassion is exercised in obedience to the divine Word, in conformity to the divine example, and with a view to the divine glory, there shall the promise of the text be fulfilled—God will blot out the transgressions of such a man, restore him to his favor, pity him in all his distresses, and finally cause his miseries to end in that state where "he will wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away."
Without 'mercy to others' we have no
more reason to expect it from God, than we have to hope for an entrance into
heaven without that holiness which is its only preparative. While, on the
other hand, in proportion as this disposition of 'mercy to others' prevails
in the heart, we have at least one evidence of having obtained God's
saving mercy. But by the aid of what rhetoric, sophistry, or delusion which
the deceitfulness of the human heart may supply, can that man persuade
himself that he has received grace from God, who knows, if he knows anything
of himself, that 'pity' and 'mercy' is a stranger to his character? A lack
of Christian mercy is a no less damning mark upon the soul than a lack of
purity or honesty. Let such an unfeeling creature tremble, for he is
hastening to take his station before a throne where he shall find judgment,
but no mercy!
V. In conclusion, I urge the CULTIVATION and the PRACTICE of this most amiable and useful disposition of Christian mercy.
1. Let us consider how much need there is of mercy, from the amount of misery which exists in the world.By a figure of speech, which is by no means too strong, our present state of existence is said to be a "valley of tears," in which "man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward." From the hour when our first parents ate the forbidden fruit, they and their offspring have sadly possessed the knowledge of evil. The deep groan with which the great bard represents nature to have marked the perpetration of that awful deed, has been so protracted and so echoed, that it may be justly said, "the whole creation groans, and travails in pain together until now." The world is full of misery of one kind and another. Poverty, sickness, disease, toil, disappointment, and innumerable other causes of distress, are perpetually at work in destroying the comforts of mankind, and embittering the cup of human life. Could we from some upper region in the air, with powers of vision strengthened for the task, look down upon every scene of suffering but in one populous town; could we penetrate into every chamber of sickness, every hovel of poverty, every scene of dreadful foreboding, heart-withering care, and deep despondency; could we see at one glance every widow, every orphan, every fatherless babe, and all the tears they shed at the remembrance of their loss; could we behold all the ignorance and vice to be found within this town, and the souls there perishing in sin; could all the sounds of woe which, from only such a small portion of our race are perpetually rising, to expire unheeded by man on the gales of the wind, enter at once into our ear, surely, surely we should descend from our elevation determined "to sell all our goods and give to the poor."
But though we see it not, a 'mass of misery' does exist in that town—of which we can form no adequate idea. We look upon the 'external show of human life' as the attendants at a theater do upon a comedy—where the brilliant lights, the picturesque scenes, the seeming gaiety of the performers—exclude all ideas of sadness. To form an accurate idea of the real condition of the actors, we would have follow them to the miserable garrets where they are hourly struggling with poverty and care, where, throwing aside the 'pretend characters' assumed for the hour, and losing the smiles put on for the occasion, we would find them most forlorn and miserable.
So if we go behind the scenes of this life's drama, we shall find an internal world of distress—which meets not the eye in public. And can we remain cold and unfeeling, inactive and illiberal—amidst universal misery? Shall we give ourselves up to luxurious enjoyment, while the groans of creation are heard all around us? Shall the lament of human woe be but as the serenade of our selfish gratification? Shall the tear fall perpetually with less power of impression on our spirits, than the dropping of water upon a rock? Shall human cries move us less than the sighing of the wind does the mountain oak? Let us all become philanthropists upon a scale proportioned to our circumstances! Let us all be actuated by a noble, merciful ambition to leave the world holier and happier than we found it! There is much for us all to do; and after we have all done our uttermost, much will remain undone.
2. Remember how much you have it in your power to alleviate human misery.Most men underrate their means of doing good. Few are aware of the full extent of their ability to bless others. It may be safely affirmed that there is not one rational being so sunk in poverty, or so circumscribed in influence, as to be deprived of all opportunity of diminishing the sum of human wretchedness. It is to be apprehended that a mistake on this subject prevents many from exerting themselves as they should do in the cause of humanity. They suppose that philanthropy requires, in every case, a large capital of wealth, influence, and talent. Nothing is more erroneous! It is true, that the larger the stock of those things which a man possesses, the more good he can do. But to imagine that we must be either rich, or great, or learned, in order to be a blessing to others, is a mistake which robs us of much pleasure, and society of much assistance. Let there be only the assiduous cultivation of a merciful disposition, coupled with a determination to exercise it to the uttermost, and it is astonishing to find how many channels will open through which to pour the streams of benevolence. If we have not property of our own, we may be able to exert our influence over those who have it; and we may become the almoners of those who have no leisure or inclination to distribute their own benefactions.
Each of us should enquire in what particular way he can be most useful to the interests and comforts of mankind. Our situation and circumstances vary so much, that the same schemes of usefulness do not adapt themselves with equal facility to all. We should study our temper, fortune, talents, and neighborhood, with a view to ascertain whether there is in either of these any peculiarity which seems to mark us out more for one sphere of action than another; and it should never be forgotten by those who have large means of usefulness, that exertion is binding on them in exact proportion to the extent of their ability.
The responsibility attaching to wealth seems to be but imperfectly understood after all that has been said or written on the subject. It should ever be borne in mind that the exercise of mercy and charity is represented by our Lord in his description of the judgment day, as one of the principal topics of scrutiny in that season of final retribution. What a spectacle of horror and amazement will the rich man then present, who lavished in selfish extravagance that princely fortune which was entrusted to him for the benefit of society. Let such men read the parable of Dives and Lazarus; its salutary and impressive warnings were delivered expressly for them. Wealth considered as a means of sensual gratification, ranks but one step above the acorns of the swine; while as a means of relieving misery, it opens sources of felicity, lofty and sublime as the joy of angels. It is a transporting picture which the fancy presents to the soul, by portraying what the world would be if every rich man were a benefactor; if all our wealthy tradesmen, gentry, and nobility, were to employ a suitable proportion of their property in lessening human misery, and increasing human happiness. But long, we fear, it will be before such a picture will be realized.
3. Let us consider the HAPPINESS attending upon a merciful spirit.Duty and personal interest are in every case inseparably connected, but never more obviously than in this. Of mercy may be strictly said, what is affirmed of piety in general, "her commands are not grievous, but joyous, and in keeping of them there is great reward." It is true that a sympathizing spirit, in some measure, makes the sorrows of others its own, but its tears, like a shower in summer, produce a refreshing atmosphere, and are far more pleasant than that cold stiffness and frosty hardness which prevail in the bosom of the unmerciful man. Think with what emotions Howard must have reposed on his pillow, after a day spent in carrying the cup of mercy into dungeons, as in his dreams he still beheld the captives quaffing the delicious draught. Think what must have been the sublime bliss of the liberator of Africa, on that solemnly delightful evening, when, after smiting for twenty years on the fetters of slavery, he saw them yield at last to his toilsome and patient exertions; and to the vision which had so often in imploring attitude exclaimed, "Come over and help us," he could at length reply, "Your chains are broken; Africa be free." And even in lesser instances of mercy, there is a luxury which holy generous minds alone can know, and with which all the gratifications of vanity, and the pleasures of sense, cannot be brought into comparison. God is the happiest of beings, because he is the most benevolent. It is expressly said, that "he delights in mercy." We can form no idea of the manner in which the Deity is susceptible of pleasure; it is enough for us to know, that in whatever manner this delight is experienced, it arises from the exercise of mercy; and surely if it administers pleasure to him who sits on the eternal throne, it might be expected to afford some of the purest bliss that mortals know on earth.
Let any man be able to appropriate to himself the language of Job, already alluded to in a former part of this discourse, and his bosom will be conscious of a bliss which a seraph must almost feel inclined to envy, "When they heard me, they blessed me, and when they saw me, they spoke well of me. For I rescued the poor man who cried out for help, and the fatherless child who had no one to support him. The dying man blessed me, and I made the widow's heart rejoice. I clothed myself in righteousness, and it enveloped me; my just decisions were like a robe and a turban. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I examined the case of the stranger. (Job 29:11-16)
4. Remember your own dependence on Divine mercy, both for all the comforts of this life, and all the blessings of the life which is to come.It is, indeed, an impressive consideration, eminently calculated on the one hand to encourage our hopes, but certainly on the other to awaken our alarm—that we are all most entirely at the mercy of God. Having sinned against his law we have forfeited our souls to his justice, and depend for happiness on that grace which he is under no other obligation to exercise, than that which he has imposed upon himself, by his own promise. If we are ever saved at all, it must be by an act of goodness still more unmerited than that which we should perform, were we to bestow a favor upon the man who had done his uttermost to injure us. God could utterly destroy us, and from the very ruins of our eternal state, raise a monument to the praise of his justice. The smoke of our torment ascending up forever and ever, would cast no reflection upon the equity of his proceeding, or throw any shadow upon the perfection of his administration.
"God be merciful to me a sinner," is the humble petition which best suits our character in every approach to his throne. Upon that mercy we are every hour living. It is this mercy which keeps us from dropping into the pit, whence there is no redemption; this which gives us every comfort we enjoy on earth; this which opens to us the prospect of eternal glory. And shall we, who owe everything we possess, everything we hope for, to the unmerited grace of God, deny the exercise of mercy to our fellow-creatures? Shall we, who must perish eternally, unless God be full of compassion towards us—be lacking in pity towards those who are in any measure dependent for their comfort on us? Where is the heart that can resist the force of these considerations? Let us yield ourselves up to their influence, and convince the world that the wisdom which descends from above, is indeed what the Scriptures declare it to be, "full of mercy and good fruits."
Be merciful, therefore, in every other case of human misery, to the extent of your ability. Many will bless you for your benevolence. And even if gratitude had left the earth, your witness is in heaven, and your reward is on high. A day is approaching when, not a cup of cold water administered to the parched lips of wretchedness, in obedience to the authority, and in imitation of the mercy, of God, shall be either forgotten, or overlooked, by him who has the destiny of man at his disposal. To the solemnities and decisions of that day I refer you!