« PreviousContinue »
SUMMARY OF DISCOURSE XXVII.
PSALM LXXXVIII.-VERSE 15.
PART I. As the comforts of true religion are our only support against the calamities of the world, so the terrors of religion, exclusive of these comforts, add weight to all our miseries. But these terrors do not spring naturally from religion ; for it is much easier to believe that all we see is chance, than that an all-wise, all-powerful Being has formed us to be miserable, and given us a knowlege of himself that we may live in perpetual fear and distraction : yet this is often the case. Many are rendered unhappy by such fears, which, of all those that are incident to man, are most to be dreaded, and are, as the Psalmist says, distraction. A man in this sad state employs his time in finding reasons to justify his fears, and rejects every argument advanced for his consolation. This evil is the more to be lamented, because even virtue and innocence are not always a security against it, but on the contrary, make us sometimes think ourselves worse than we are. But this wretched state, in which we sustain at once the burden of the righteous as well as of the wicked, is not always the worst of the case; for those who are thus severe with themselves, God will one day judge justly and righteously; whereas there are others who, not being able to bear these fears, desert religion altogether, and imagining themselves not good enough to obtain its rewards, do all they can to deserve its punishments. This is the case of those who drown their apprehensions of futurity in vice and intemperance; also in some measure of those who harden their minds against a sense of religion, and reject the belief of a God. This latter irreligious phrenzy is the greater of the two, and more fatal in its consequences : for the weak man who fears God more than he ought, is more worthy of compassion than the bold man who despises him.
In every view the effects of these religious terrors afford us but a melancholy prospect : were they the natural effects of true religion, religion itself would be distraction, and not the reasonable service of a reasonable creature: unless we imagine that he who made us, takes a pleasure in seeing us lose our reason and understanding. The several kinds of these terrors, as well as their real causes, shown; also the true cure for them pointed out, and shown to arise from the following sources : I. from uncertainty in religion : or, II. from false notions of God, and of the honor and worship due to him : or, III. from a conscience wounded with a sense of guilt: or, lastly, from some accidental infirmities of mind or body. If there be any of the human race so degenerate as to be void of all sense of religion, they are evidently out of the question: but there are many whose minds are disturbed with a perpetual variety of opinions, like a ship tossed in a tempestuous sea.
The concern which every man has in the issue of true religion, is too great to be left to chance and uncertainty : the question is, whether we shall die like the beasts that perish, or rise to immortality. If a man holds his mind in doubt, he divests himself of all the hopes and comforts of religion, and its fears and terrors take possession of his heart; every thought of which, laboring under such uncertainty, deprives him of all present joy, and gives him no assurance of any hereafter. None can long endure this state, and all hasten to deliver themselves from these torments by various ways; some by flying to business or pleasure; others by forcing themselves to fix on some peculiar choice; and thus some reject all religion, and some take all, without being able to give a reason for what they do. But all these methods, being artificial and
without foundation, are overturned by the storms of life, and end in destruction. Let the man who has shut out of his mind all thought and reflexion, be but awakened from his lethargy, and all his fears and terrors will return with double force; and he will find that his attempt to deliver himself from the uncertainties of religion, has deprived him of its hopes and comforts only. So again, the mind of the unbeliever, if he meets with any shock to disturb his peace, will return to its natural state. Whoever in the great concerns of life neglects to consult reason, will ultimately find his reason return, and his second state much worse than the first. The question is, not whether those who prefer religion, notwithstanding all their doubts, are in a safe way, but how they are affected by its fears and terrors. The varieties in this case are so great and many, that the same considerations will not apply to all. Some may believe the being
. of a God and his providence, but have doubts as to their own state hereafter : this is the best of this case ; here religion is all labor without any benefit; and no man who does not think it certain of a future reward, finds any security in it; neither does he meet with any remedy against the natural fear of death, or consolation against the evils and afflictions of life.
A man cannot have a true and just notion of God under this persuasion. While men are at ease in their worldly affairs, they may find some satisfaction in this kind of belief; but distress will shake them, and their religion will be void of comfort.
But the worst of this case is, that when men are religious from fear, they carry their fears with them even to the grave. Not so when religion arises from a just notion of God; for then every act of it is followed by a contentment which nothing can disturb. He who is religious, not because he knows it is right for him to be so, but because he dreads to be otherwise, is apt to fall into superstition. Hence we see that some who are most devoutly disposed, are under a perpetual uneasiness of mind. Others, seeing them in this state, conclude that religion is bur
densome, and remain satisfied without inquiring into it: it is not easy to determine which is the wiser of the two. The religious man fears God because he knows that, as a wise, just, and good Father, he ought to be feared. His fear is full of love and reverence; but the fear of the superstitious man is what the Psalmist calls distraction.
Hence we see how unsuccessful all these attempts are to cure the fears which arise from doubts in religion. What is to be done then? God has given us reason, and provided the manifold works of nature and providence for its employment. The inquiry into the visible things of God will guide us by a sure clue to the acknowlegement of their invisible Author, and afford us a cure for those terrors which are apt
seize on unsettled minds. The man who thus acquires a just notion of God and his attributes, will find his way to peace, be the darkness about him ever so thick. It is in vain to seek for satisfaction till we know God, and can say in our hearts, We know in whom we have trusted. This will make our religion become an holy and reverential fear, unmixed with terror or confusion, and making us wise unto salvation.
II. False notions of God, and of the honor and worship due to him, are another source of religious terror. What has been already said proves how destructive the former are to the peace of mankind; and the latter being derived from these false notions, the same observations are applicable to it: this indeed may be illustrated by historical evidence; viz. the sacrifice of children by their parents in the heathen world, and pilgrimages or processions in the modern; as well as by those unnatural mortifications practised and recommended in some parts of the Christian church. All these are marks of a slavish fear, and of a religion of terror. To this head may be referred the terrors of those who are disappointed in their expectations of worldly success, when they enter the service of God. One who resolves to be good, expects to be prosperous; and if any
calamity befalls him, he thinks himself forsaken by God, and all his comforts vanish. Another having fallen into distress, applies to God by prayer; and if he meets with no deliverance, he falls into the same fears, like the Psalmist, who said, I have cried day and night before thee. Why castest thou off my soul? &c.
Such persons neither seek nor admit a remedy; but giving themselves up to despair, think they make a sacrifice to God. If true religion taught us to expect temporal prosperity in the service of God, we should rightly ascribe our sufferings to it: but as it does not do so, we ought not to charge God foolishly, and call that unfaithfulness in him, which is in fact the weak, ness and folly of man..
Now these terrors being difficult of cure, inasmuch as they are not approachable to reason and advice, it is the more incumbent on us to guard against them before they come. As we ought in all conditions of life to limit our hopes and expectations within the bounds of probability; so the same rule should be observed in religion. We ought never to expect more from God than he has expressly promised, or than he may consistently grant. If we exceed these bounds, religion will become our torment, and not our comfort : but we, and not religion, will be to blame. We should consider that our afflictions are trials, and therefore that God will not relieve us from them at our request. In the great end, the salvation of our souls, we can only be disappointed by our own fault. This is our true comfort, and is sufficient to support us under present evils, and to relieve us from the fears of the life to come.
Conclusion : we see that religion, though it may afford an occasion, is not the cause of these terrors. If it be said, that, if there were no sense of religion, there could be no such terrors, we answer, it is equally true that, were there no reason, there would be no such apprehensions; but we do not blame God for giving us reason : let us not then blame him for giving us reli,