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after this life, and whether God intends them for any thing beyond this world; and yet they may think it highly reasonable and becoming them to worship and obey God, as much as others, who have better and greater expectations from him for themselves. You have in this description the very best of this case before you; and yet, under these circumstances, religion is all labor and no benefit: for no man can be so blind as to think religion a sure way to worldly prosperity and happiness ; and if it is not sure of a future reward, there is no security in it. Here is no remedy in such religion against the natural fear of death, to which all are subject; no consolation against the many
evils and afflictions of life, from all of which none are free. When we are surrounded with difficulties and distress, this religion shows us not the way to escape, but gives us up to our present sufferings, void of better hopes and expectations ; at least, uncertain of comfort or relief. Besides, how can a man possibly maintain a just and true notion of God under such a persuasion as this ? We are sure the best men often have a portion of misery in this world; and if we are not persuaded that there is something better for them in reserve hereafter, it is impossible to justify to ourselves the goodness of God towards the children of men: and yet, without this, religion must be all terror, consisting in the belief of an absolute power over us, but a power not rendered amiable by goodness or mercy. While men are easy in the world, they may find some satisfaction in such a kind of belief, and value themselves perhaps for the submission they pay to God, without being 80licitous what shall become of themselves; but distress will shake them, and the sorrows of the world will prove their religion to be void of comfort.
But the worst of this case is, when men resolve to be religious out of fear, and merely to secure themselves from some dreadful apprehensions which they have on their minds; such religion, as it begins in fear, so it lives perpetually in fear, and carries with it all its fears at least as far as the grave. When religion arises from a just notion of God, and from a right apprehension of what is due from a reasonable creature to his reasonable Maker and Governor, there is peace and satisfaction in every step of it; every act of religion carries with it the approbation of our own minds, and is followed by a contentment which nothing can disturb.
But he who is religious, not because he knows it is right for him so to be, but because he dreads to be otherwise, can never know that he is rigḥt in any thing he does, but will naturally fall into all the methods of superstition, which some weak ones and some wise in this world agree to call religion. Hence it is that some, who seem most devoutly disposed, are under a perpetual uneasiness of mind, and never satisfied that they have done any thing as they ought to do. Others, seeing men of such application to the duties of religion under such anxious concern about it, conclude that religion is a most burdensome thing, and that the wisest way is to be contented without inquiring much after it. Whether they who make this conclusion, or they who administer occasion for it, are the wiser, is no easy matter to determine : certain it is, that the fear of God, which is the foundation of true religion, differs as much from these fears of ignorance and superstition, as one thing can well differ from another. The religious man fears God because he knows him; and therefore he fears him as a wise, just, good; and merciful Father and Judge ought to be feared : his fear is full of love and reverence, and has nothing dreadful in it; unless guilt and a wounded conscience arm it with unnatural terrors : but the superstitious man fears God, just as children and weak men fear spirits and apparitions; he trembles at the thought of him, he flies from he knows not what, seeks refuge he knows not where; and this hurry and confusion of mind he calls' religion ;' but the Psalmist has given it a better name, it is · distraction.'
You see how unsuccessful all these attempts are to cure the fears which arise from doubts and uncertainties in religion : these remedies increase the distemper, and heighten the fear till it comes to be a phrenzy, and too strong to submit to the cure, of reason and sober sense. What must be done then ? Will you exhort us to cast away all doubts, and to be certain and positive in all points of religion? I know full well that this is no proper subject for exhortation ; but I will exhort you to be diligent inquirers after God. That you have reason, you are apt enough to boast : that God has provided proper employ
ment for your reason, the manifold works of nature and providence bear witness : these are the visible things of God, which will guide you by a sure clue to the acknowlegement of the invisible Author. And this inquiry, as it is the first in order of nature with regard to religious knowlege, so is it the first likewise with regard to the peace and comforts of religion : and it is with this view that I recommend this inquiry, as a cure for those terrors which are apt to seize on unsettled minds. Till we have a right notion of God and his attributes, it is impossible we should be able to judge of any case of religion: we
learned in all the doctrines and disputes of this and of past ages; and it is a learning which may well make us mad, if we have no rule to guide us through all the difficulties that surround us: but he who has fixed in his mind a just notion of God and of his attributes, will find his way to peace, be the darkness about him ever so thick. It is a great misfortune to a man to know much of religion, and little of God : such a man’s religion must either be his plague or his contempt; it must appear to him either ridiculous or terrible: and let him take it which way he will, he will find a terror in it at last. It is in vain therefore to seek for satisfaction till we know God, till we can say to our 'hearts, • We know in whom we have trusted.' This will make our religion become an holy and reverential fear, unmixed with terror and confusion; it will make our knowlege in religious matters become a wisdom unto salvation, and preserve to us that true freedom of mind to which as well the scoffers of the age as the superstitious are mere strangers.
Secondly, false notions of God, and of the honor and worship due to him, are another source of religious terror. What has been already said of the true notion of God may suffice to show how destructive all false notions of God are to the peace of mankind : and as false notions of the honor and worship due to God derive themselves from the false notions which men entertain of God himself, there is no great difference in the cases, and both are to be resolved on the same reason ; this latter may indeed be illustrated by great variety of historical evidence. What was their case who sacrificed their sons and their daughters, and gave the fruit of their body
as an atonement for the sin of their soul? What was theirs, who cut themselves with knives in the honor of their God, and endeavored to move his compassion, not with the sorrow, but with the blood of their hearts? 'I wish all instances of this sort were confined to the heathen world, and had never corrupted the doctrines of Christ; but what must we say to the tedious and expensive pilgrimages and processions; what to the unnatural mortifications and sullen retirements from the world, practised and recommended in some parts of the Christian Church? Are not all these marks of slavish fear, and of a religion that carries terror with it? Were you to instruct an ignorant person in the nature of God, by telling him that he takes delight in seeing men punish and afflict themselves, in seeing them divest themselves of all comforts of life, and retire to a state of mournful silence and solitude; what would he think this Being was? Would he not imagine him to want benevolence and kindness towards his creatures, and that his service was a state of slavery and misery? Doubtless he would.
To this head we may refer the terrors which arise from the unwarranted expectations which men raise to themselves from religion, which seldom fail to be a plague and a torment to them at the last. One enters with warmth and zeal into the service of God, not doubting but he shall find it turn to very good account in his worldly affairs : he resolves to be very good, and expects to be very rich and prosperous. As soon as any calamity befalls him, he is surprised, confounded; all his hopes and comforts vanish; and he begins to think himself forsaken of God, and given up to destruction. Another, perhaps, fallen into distress, takes up a religious purpose to apply himself to God by prayer: if he meets not with the deliverance he expects, (and surely our petitions ought not in reason to prescribe to Providence,) he falls into the very fears before described, and thinks that God regards him not. This seems to have been the Psalmist's case ; for thus he describes his own woe: I have cried day and night before thee.- Why castest thou off my soul ? why hidest thou thy face from me?'
Such persons as these are not apt to seek a remedy, nor yet to admit any: they submit to sorrow and despair ; and it seems to be their only comfort to refuse comfort: by this they think they make a right sacrifice to God's justice, giving up to misery the soul which he abhors. Now if true religion teaches you to expect temporal prosperity as the certain reward of serving God; if it has engaged to you, that all your prayers, without distinction, shall be answered; that every affliction, though sent perhaps for your good and your correction, shall be removed as soon as you desire it; then charge all these sufferings to the account of true religion : but if religion has taught you no such lesson, beware how you charge God foolishly, and call that unfaithfulness in him, which is in truth the folly and weakness of man.
Now as these terrors are hard to be cured, when once they have got possession of the mind, for they are obstinate against reason and advice, so there is the more reason to guard against them before they come. We ought, in all conditions of life, to limit our hopes and expectations within the bounds of probability, otherwise we expose ourselves to perpetual disappointments and vexation. The same rule is necessary to be observed in religion : we ought never to expect more from God than he has expressly promised, or than he may grant consistently with the measures by which his providence rules and governs the world : if we exceed these bounds, religion, instead of being our comfort, will soon become our torment; but we and not religion will be to blame. If we consider that this world is a state of trial, and that afflictions are trials, we can never lay it down to ourselves, that God will relieve us at our request from all afflictions; for this would be owning ourselves in a state of trial, and at the same time expecting that no trial should come near us : it is supposing that God has shown us a way to defeat the great end of his providence in sending us into this world; he sent us here to be proved, and yet we think to prevail on him not to prove us. In the great end which we ought to propose by our religion, the salvation of our souls, we can never be disappointed but through our own fault. This is our true comfort, and it is sufficient to support us under the evils of the life that now is, and to deliver us from the fears of that which is to come.