27 February, 2013
Christian Progress - Part 6
1. Some are fearful that they are not making progress because their feelings are not so vividly excited in religious matters as they formerly were. They are not easily and powerfully wrought upon either in the way of joy and sorrow, hope and fear, as they once were. They have not those lively and ecstatic states of mind which they formerly experienced when they began the divine life.
Here we must just glance at the constitution of our nature. True religion exerts its influence over all the faculties of the soul—it calls into exercise the understanding, engages the determination of the will, moves the affections, and quickens the conscience. The same differences of natural constitution will be observable in some degree in the new or spiritual nature as existed in the old or physical one. A person of great sensibility in ordinary things, will, after conversion, be so in spiritual ones; while they of little emotion in the former will exhibit the same phase of mind in the latter. The sensibility or emotional state of the mind depends very much therefore on our physical organization. Now it is a very wrong criterion of the reality and degree of our true religion to judge of it only by the exercise of the affections. Some people of excitable natures are easily moved to joy and sorrow, hope and fear. The power of poetry or eloquence, of sights of distress or raptures—over their feelings is irresistible; while at the same time their judgments are not proportionately employed, their wills not in the same measure engaged, and their conscience but little moved.
Take, for instance, the sentimental readers of novels, how by fits they are melted to tears, or excited to ecstasies. Yet how idle and unemployed are all the other faculties of the soul. There is no virtue in all this. It is mere sentimental emotion. Now look at the philanthropist. He may not be a man of tears, or of strong and vivid emotions of any kind—but he is a man of principle. His understanding comprehends the circumstances of some case of deep distress, and he judges it is right to pity and relieve it. His heart, though not wrought up to extreme anguish, so as to fill his eyes with tears, and his mouth with loud lamentations, feels for the miserable object; his will resolutely determines at once to help the sufferer; and his conscience, which would condemn him if he did not, approves the determination. You will particularly notice what constituted the virtue of the good man; not wholly the emotional excitement, for there was very little—but the dictates of the judgment, the determination of the will, and the action which was performed under these conjoint powers.
So it is in true religion, which consists partly of the exercise of all the faculties—but chiefly of the judgment, will, and conscience. The heart is of course, engaged, for we must love God and hate sin—we must delight in Christ and fear the wrath to come; but the amount of vivid emotion is of little consequence, compared with an enlightened judgment, showing us clearly what is right and wrong; a determined will to avoid the evil and perform the good; and a tender conscience shrinking from the least sin. Emotion is, to a certain extent, instinctive, involuntary, and irrepressible. Not so with judgment, will, and conscience. It is not, therefore, the amount of feeling—but of willing and doing, and approving or condemning, that determines the state of true religion.
There is such a thing I know—and, alas, it is a very common one—as losing "first love," and it is marked by our Lord with his disapprobation in his address to the church at Ephesus; but many distress themselves on this account who have no need to do so. Their ardor perhaps, at first was in some measure the excitement of animal feeling, which will soon die away of course, though their real practical love may not be diminished—but may be growing stronger. When a son returns home after a long absence, especially if he be a reclaimed prodigal, and meets his parents, brothers, and sisters, there is a glow of feeling, a joyousness of emotion, which cannot be expected to continue always, and which he may never be able to recall again, though he may be ever growing in real attachment to his friends and his home.
From all this it will be seen that the emotional part of true godliness may be, and is by many, overestimated. The question is not merely what we can feel—but what we can do, for Christ; not how many tears we can shed—but how many sins we can mortify; not what raptures we can experience—but what self-denial we can practice; not what happy frames we can enjoy—but what holy duties we can perform; not simply how much we can luxuriate at sermon or at sacrament—but how much we can exhibit of the mind of Jesus in our communion with our fellow-men; not only how far above earth we can rise to the bliss of heaven—but how much of the love and purity of heaven we can bring down to earth—in short, not how much of rapt feeling we can indulge—but how much of godly principle we can bring to bear on our whole conduct.
It is evident, therefore, there may be progress where there is a fear that there has been declension. The vividness of feeling may have subsided—but if the firmness of principle has been strengthened, it is only like the decadence of the blossom when the fruit has set. The joy might not be so great—but it may be more intelligent, more solid, and more sober. Just as the exuberant delight of the child, when it passes off, leaves the pleasure of the youth less noisy—but more rational. The frames and feelings may be less rapturous—but they may at the same time be less idolized, less depended upon, less put in the place of Christ. The growing Christian is less pleased with self—but sees more of the glory of the Savior—his own righteousness appears more imperfect and defiled, and is therefore less loved—but the righteousness of the Savior comes out before him more beautiful, glorious, and necessary.