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CHRISTIANITY ELEVATES THE CHARACTER.
Christianity is the last dispensation of God to mankind; and it doth not seem possible, that more ample provision should be made to enlarge the views and comprehension of the human mind, in order to fix its attention upon great and remote objects, and raise it above the influence of present and temporary things.
A true Christian, like his great Master, is not of this world, but a citizen of heaven. He considers himself as a stranger and pilgrim here below, and lives by faith, and not by sight. Let him be ever so poor and despised here, he looks upon himself as an heir of immortal glory and felicity, of an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for him. He may see his body decaying with old age, wasting with a disorder, or mangled with torture, and every way at the mercy of his enraged persecutors; but he rejoices in the firm belief and expectation of its rising again incorruptible at the last day, and that when Christ, who is the resurrection and the life, shall appear, he also shall appear with him in glory.
What an elevation of thought and sentiment is here! How must this faith make us overcome the world, and render us superior to its allurements or its threats! With this enlarged comprehension of mind, which brings the future consequences of his actions into immediate prospect, it is impossible that a sincere Christian should live addicted to vicious gratifications and pursuits, which he must see to be destructive of these his animating hopes; and he must necessarily grow more in love with that temper and conduct which is, with the greatest propriety, called Christian, and which ensures to him these glorious expectations. As He who has called him to these great privileges is holy, so will he also be holy in all manner of conversation. It will be his daily endeavour to cultivate that holiness of heart and life, without which, he is sensible, no man can see the Lord. With this hope set before him, all the afflictions of this present life will seem light, trifling, and not worthy to be named with, but will be absolutely lost in the consideration of, that eternal weight of glory which awaits his patient continuance in well-doing.
This superiority to present and temporary things, which is attained by truly Christian principles, is of the most rational nature, being of the same kind with that which is acquired by experience, and which necessarily results from the structure of our minds, and the circumstances in which Divine Providence has placed us in this world: for it is only perfecting the association of those ideas which have a real connexion, and uniting in our minds the several parts of one whole, and things which nothing but time separates. If it be compared with that kind of superiority which might be acquired by other principles, those of the Stoics, for instance, its advantage will appear to be exceedingly great.
The Stoic affects to despise pain, because, according to his arbitrary definition of things, it cannot be called an evil, and does not depend upon himself. Having imagined, though without any ground, that every man's happiness must, in any case, arise from himself (in exclusion even of the Divine Being,) he thinks it absurd to complain of any thing which he could not help. Complaint implies a sense of unhappiness; and this, according to his hypothesis, can never take place without his own consent. If his wife or child be in the most dreadful agonies, he looks, or affects to look, on their condition with the greatest tranquillity and the most unfeeling indifference, satisfied that sickness and pain are not in the catalogue of things within his power, and that the sufferers themselves are not unhappy, since misfortunes are unavoidable, and he knew that his wife or child were not naturally exempt from them. When he dies, he expects that his soul, being a particle detached from the Universal Mind, will be absorbed in it again, and that his separate consciousness will be lost for ever.
These are the great outlines of the famous philosophical system of Zeno, which is said to have made so many great men; but it has certainly no foundation in nature. The principles of it can never have been really felt, and all the boasted effects of it must have arisen from conceit and obstinacy.
How differently, and how much more naturally, does the Christian think and act in the cases above mentioned! He does not pretend to deny the evidence of his senses, nor has recourse to whimsical distinctions; and, not having maintained that pain is no evil, he finds himself under no necessity of behaving as if he was unaffected by it. He owns that present sufferings are not joyous, but grievous; but he still thinks them nothing in comparison with the glory that shall be revealed, and therefore he endures patiently for righteousness' sake, in a firm belief of being more than recompensed for them at the resurrection of the just. If his friends be in distress, he has no principles that lead him to check, but, on the other hand, such as encourage him freely to indulge his natural sympathy with them; and these feelings will certainly prompt him to exert himself to the utmost in their favor. At the same time, he will not fail to exhort his friends to the duties of Christian patience and fortitude, inculcating the great Christian doctrine of the transitoriness of this world, and its subserviency to another. When he dies, he indulges no extravagant, but really uncomfortable conceit, about being absorbed in the Divine Mind; but believes that he shall, in his own person, rise again from the dead, when he shall resume and retain his own separate consciousness, live again under the government of that God whose goodness he has experienced and whose friendship he has secured, know all his virtuous friends once more, and rejoice with them through all eternity.
If we consider the principles of morals in the heathen world, we shall see the manifest advantage there is over it in the plan of revelation. The views of the heathens upon this subject were exceedingly confined, and did not require that comprehension of mind which is necessary to the practice of those duties that were enjoined both in the Jewish and Christian systems. The great duties of piety, consisting in the fear and love of God, and a cheerful reliance on his providence, were, in a manner, unknown in ancient times beyond the boundaries of Judea. And what can more evidently tend to enlarge the comprehension and faculties of the human mind, than the regards which are due to the Maker and Governor of the world 1
While the attention of the heathens was wholly engrossed by sensible things, those who were favored with Divine revelation, even in its most imperfect state, were engaged in the contemplation of their invisible Author. They considered the enjoyments of life as the effects of his bounty, and all the events of it as taking place according to the wise appointment of his providence. Thus was the power of association enabled to present to their minds the ideas of great and remote objects, by which their sentiments were influenced and their conduct directed. By this means, limited as were the views of the ancient patriarchs, their conceptions were far more enlarged, and consequently their minds more intellectual, than those of the gentile world.
It is true that all the heathens were prone to superstition, and that a great number of their actions were influenced by regards to invisible agents; but (not to say, what is very probable, that their religion was, in this respect, a corruption of the patriarchal) all the gods they had any idea of, at least all with whom they maintained any intercourse, were local and territorial divinities, liable to the influence of low and vulgar passions, and limited in their powers and operations. It was not possible, therefore, that their theology should suggest such sublime ideas, as must have been conceived by the Jews, from the perusal of the books of Moses; in which we find the idea of one God, the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth, who established and who controls the laws of nature, and who superintends the affairs of the whole world, giving the kingdoms of it to whomsoever he pleases; a Being of unspotted purity, and a friend and protector of all good men. So far were the notions which the gentiles entertained of their gods below the conceptions of the Jews, concerning their Jehovah, the Lord of heaven and earth, who brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, destroying their enemies in the Red Sea, and feeding them with bread from heaven for the space of forty years; that they could hardly have had any ideas to some of the finest expressions which occur in the sacred books of the Jews, as, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart;" and many others, which express sentiments of the most pure and exalted devotion.
If any people have exalted and sublime ideas, they are sure to be found in their poetry; but how poor and low is the sacred poetry of the heathens in comparison with the Psalms of David! The poems of Homer, of Hesiod, or of Callimachus in honor of the Grecian gods, can hardly be read without laughter; but the book of Psalms (the greatest part of which were written long before the works of any of those Grecian poets, and by persons who had travelled and seen far less than they had done) cannot be read without the greatest seriousness, and are still capable of exciting sentiments of the warmest and most exalted, and yet the most perfectly rational devotion. They give us the most sublime ideas of the infinite power, wisdom, and goodness of God. This difference between the poetry of the Jews and the Greeks, in favor of the former, is so great, that I