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THE WEAK SHOULD BE WATCHFUL.
1 Cor. x. 12. Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall. THERE is no strength nor firmness in man, nor constancy in human affairs. All things, as well within as without us, are in motion; and the ground whereon we are placed, is, both steep and slippery. It is however chiefly from within ourselves, from the fickleness of our own hearts, and the violence of various passions, that all our giddy changes, our dangerous agitations, and unhappy lapses, proceed: yet we are too vain to think ourselves so weak, and too apt, when we fall, to blame the circumstances we are in, the accidents that befell us, or the persons we had to do with, for throwing us down. Like children, turning swiftly about, we imagine the whole world is running round, and so vainly endeavour to stop the supposed motion of the world, when we ought rather to fix ourselves. In this whirl we turn ourselves so quickly from one object, desire, or pursuit, to another, that few enjoyments or designs of any kind are brought to perfection. All things seem to dance round us, to present themselves in a swift succession, and retire along the circle, till the megrim of life grows too strong for our heads, and then ensues a fall, into some folly, or crime, or affliction, from whence we rise not again, till the head recovers, and repentance, which is little else than turning the contrary way, resettles all our thoughts and passions.
Some, who think themselves in a firm and standing posture, are nevertheless carried about by swift and various motions; and others, who do really stand for some time, vainly imagine themselves safe against the danger of all future alterations or falls. Yet the caution given to him, 'who thinketh he standeth, to take heed lest he fall,' will be found a very necessary one to him, who actually stands, if we consider either our own weakness, or the sense of standing or falling in this passage of Scripture.
As to our own weakness, we need be at no farther trouble to be convinced of that, than to recollect our past follies, our many and great miscarriages, from whence the too apparent danger of falling into the like again may be easily concluded.
By him, who in the text is said to stand, is to be understood a person, who having embraced the principles of eternal life contained in the gospel, lives not only in the belief, but practice of them. By falling is to be understood, a relinquishing of those principles, either entirely or in part, or acting contrary to them. The former is represented to us here, and in other parts of Scripture, by the figure of standing, because that posture denotes action, resolution, and strength; the latter by that of falling, which shews weakness, failure, and defeat.
The better to know the usefulness of this caution, let us consider a little more at large the weakness of mankind, first in regard to principles, and then in regard to actions; after which it will be necessary to think of some methods to bear
in such principles or practices, as may be said to give the soul an erect and upright posture.
Our weakness in the choice of principles themselves, as well as in respect to their influence on our actions, is very great; for the mind of man is capable of choosing opinions, not only upon examining and judging by reason, but in some measure upon the recommendation of mere liking and inclination. It is also capable of admitting by those means contrary principles at different times, and even at the same time, when the contrariety is not at all, or but faintly, perceived; which often happens.
This being the case, and our minds so pliant, whatsoever principles education may bave instilled during youth, when we come to the use of thought, and begin to feel our passions and desires violently drawing us towards various objects, we find it in some sort necessary to bring those principles to a re-examination, in order to a choice of our own making. But it generally so falls out, that before this examination can be had, or this choice made, we usually fix on some object, or espouse some design, for better, for worse, which our affections have engaged us to. Hence it happens, that such principles, as serve our pre-engagements,
are retained, and those of a contrary influence soon forced to give way to a sort of resistance, with which the mind arms itself against them.
For instance, if it is the purpose of the mind to please and enjoy God in a course of virtue, and to aim at eternal happiness and glory, then those stricter principles, by which the wildness of our nature may be corrected, its filthiness purged away, and the soul exalted to a taste for high and spiritual pleasures, are retained, or acquired.
But if either mere worldly profit, or sensual pleasures, should happen to be foremost in view or purpose, then the more indulgent doctrines of religion are chiefly dwelt on, and greatly overstrained ; the severer ones are relaxed, and qualified by this salvo, and that artful interpretation ; doubts and cavils are sought for in the understanding, bewildered by loose conversation, or false learning; and corrupt opinions raked for in the foul sink of appetite and affection. If reason is too stiff to yield to this force or imposition, she is diverted from all religious inquiries in a total inattention, by a close application to the business or pleasure of the world, which, being long and constantly persevered in, render the mind forgetful of all its former religious impressions, and almost wholly incapable of new ones. Now the absence of good principles will as effectually serve the purposes of a vicious mind, as the utmost acquiescence in bad ones.
It is certain, as to a numerous class of men, that inclination, desire, passion, and prejudice, dictate absolutely to them. They think of things as they would have them, and feed up their minds with such notions, about religion, as they relish most. They would rather be their own teachers, in order that they may be their own lawgivers, than suffer others to instruct them, who might put a bridle in the mouth of passion, and lay a yoke on the neck of desire. In truth, it is a disagreeable and shocking thing to have a principle within us, which, immediately upon our giving into any pleasure, or delight, examines, with an odious severity, whether that pleasure is consistent with the strictness and purity of a spiritual life, and, if it judges it otherwise, threatens us with no milder a scourge for the enjoyment of it, than hell-fire and damnation. It is to keep his mind clear of so terrible a guest as this, that the libertine flies to bad conversation, worse books, and to the most dangerous of all seducers, his own dissolute heart. The stricter principles being by these, means shut out from his mind, and never admitted to a fair hearing or trial, the heart, in the meantime, melts and opens to all opinions that encourage his pleasures, and countenance his crimes, to all reflections that may help to keep up an irreligious sneer, to all cavils that may raise doubts, and all doubts that may enfeeble his little remaining sense of religion. The weakness of human nature is not more remarkable in any instance, than in this fall from the dignity of a being, born to the free and happy service of God, to infidelity ; from thence to brutality; and finally, from that to the nature and condition of devils. Formerly the worst of men waited to be thus thrown down by the enemy of their souls, and their infirmities; but, in these detestable times, they deliberately scheme their own ruin, and exert their utmost strength to make the desperate leap.
There are infinite numbers, who, as if religion were a thing of no consequence, give little or no time or pains to the choice of principles ; but either receive no principles at all, living like brute beasts, without God in the world, or contenting themselves with such as their bigoted and senseless parents were pleased to entail upon them. Others, , after having received good principles, seldom turn their meditations on them, giving up their thoughts and time entirely to the things of this world, insomuch that their religious impressions, howsoever sound, howsoever alarming, are soon banished from their consciences, and confined to their memories, from whence they are sometimes indeed drawn out to the war of opinion, and employed in disputation; but never against the enemies of their souls.
As to the weakness of man in respect to his actions, it is even greater than that which he shews in the management of his principles. Folly and wickedness divide almost his whole life between them.
However, some there are, whom the grace of God bath forbidden to be included in this censure. These men, in the main of their actions, are enabled to govern themselves by wise and virtuous rules. Others again, after a course of folly and sin, return to their duty, and arm themselves against their known weaknesses, with effectual resolutions. These two sorts of people may be truly said 'to stand,' and therefore are admonished by the text,' to take heed lest they fall' from their present virtuous life, to one of sin and wicked
As to the first, let him not repose too much confidence in his never having greatly fallen, in his present abhorrence of sin, or love of virtue. These are indeed blessed dispositions, and ought to fill him with comfort and gratitude, but not with assurance or security. He is still but a man, a very weak and fallible man, with many a dark corner in his mind, where evil dispositions lie concealed even from himself; whence they will be sure to rush out against his resolutions, when temptations come to call them forth, perhaps in an unguarded hour, when he is least prepared to receive their charge. He hath not yet sounded the depths of his own false heart, which, like the hearts of other men, is deceitful and desperately wicked,' insomuch that he cannot know it ;' and therefore it is absolutely necessary he should be perpetually on the watch against it. • There is no man who sinneth not. Who can say, I have made myself clean, I am pure from sins ? A just man falleth seven times a day,' and at every fall he is uncertain whether he shall be able to rise again, or not. Who can understand his errors? If thou shalt mark iniquity, O Lord, who shall stand ?'
But instances will as fully prove, and more strongly enforce, this point.
Adam, though formed in the utmost perfection of human nature, encouraged to duty by all the delights of paradise, and threatened, in case of disobedience, with death ; at the request of his wife, and to gratify an impious curiosity, broke the command of his Maker and Benefactor, and eat the forbidden fruit.
Noah, though saved for his righteousness from the universal deluge, soon after this prodigious deliverance, fell into the sin of drunkenness, and lay in his tent naked, and uncovered, like a beast.
Lot, who was ' vexed with the filthy conversation of the wicked,' and was saved for his singular goodness from a shower of fire and brimstone, had hardly made his escape, when he got drunk, and committed incest with his own daughters.