Spiritual injury from undue pursuit of the affairs of this life
From Religious Cases of Conscience (1755), by Samuel Pike and Samuel Hayward, ministers at London, England.
When may a Christian be said to pursue the affairs of the present life, so as to prevent his advances in grace, dishonor God, and injure his soul?
As this question appears to be of so critical and important a nature, and will lead me to touch upon a darling sin, a sin too common amongst us, viz. love of the world; so, to be properly upon my guard, and to clear the way for a direct answer, I would first premise these two things:
1. That all persons ought to be diligent in that calling in which God in his providence has placed them. Diligence in the shop is highly commendable. For want of this, persons have often gone backward in the world, have thereby lost all opportunities of being useful, and have brought themselves into such circumstances, as greatly reflect upon the amiable character they bear as Christians. Poverty and distress are the consequences of slothfulness. Prov. 24:30-34. "I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the man void of understanding; and lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof, and the stone-wall thereof was broken down. Then I saw and considered it well; I looked upon it, and received instruction: yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep." It was a command, which the apostle under the direction of the Spirit gave, that if any man would not work, neither should he eat, II Thess. 3:10. Industry is not only consistent with, but highly becoming the Christian. It is of peculiar service to keep persons from temptations, both temporal and spiritual. A slothful life is a dangerous life. Satan has greater opportunities of laying his schemes with advantage. Whilst our hands are employed, our head is amused, and the enemy cannot so easily distress us. I hope none will take occasion, from anything I may say in my solution of this question, to intimate that I discourage diligence. I would rather press it. The children of God, though interested in his peculiar favor, and heirs of glory, yet are not exempted from labor, even with regard to the present world. If they will have bread and other of the comforts of life, they must get them by the sweat of their brows. Yet,
2. The enjoyments of this world, through the depravity of our hearts, are greatly ensnaring, and often prove greatly injurious to the Christian. They are blessings in themselves, and call for thankfulness; but through the sinfulness of our nature become temptations to us, often take away our affections from God, give us a coolness to spiritual duties, and endanger at least the eternal destruction of our souls. This is the reason why our Lord in such strong terms represents the great difficulty of a rich man's salvation, Matt. 19:24. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." And this is the reason that the apostle tells Timothy to "charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not high minded, nor trust in uncertain riches," 1 Tim. 6:17. No wonder then, that Agur made such a wise choice, and begged that God would give him "neither poverty nor riches, but would feed him with food convenient for him," Prov. 30:8. I mention this remark, to show how much persons ought to be upon their guard in their pursuits of this world. The first observation shows the necessity of diligence, this tends to keep diligence from degenerating into an immoderate thirst after outward enjoyments. I now then come to the question itself: When a Christian may be said to pursue the affairs of the present life, so as to prevent his advances in grace, dishonor God, and injure his soul? It is a difficult matter to steer between two extremes. We are either ready to be too negligent on the one hand, or too anxious and eager on the other. The Christian may often increase in worldly wealth, but God sends leanness into his soul. When we act unsuitably to our character, we grieve the Holy Spirit, and he in a measure departs from us, and leaves us to ourselves. But the Christian may be said to pursue the world, so as to dishonor God, prevent his growth in grace, and injure his soul,
I. When it breaks in upon his opportunities of attending to spiritual duties. It is not enough that we spend one day in seven in attending to the concerns of our souls. The Christian must not let the week slip away, even if his worldly engagements are never so great, without conversing with God and his own heart; if he does, it is a sad sign of his being in languishing circumstances. Spiritual meditation, self-examination, prayer, religious conversation, and reading the scriptures, are all duties of great importance; duties in the performance of which the Christian life is maintained, corruptions are subdued, graces are strengthened, and he is enabled to make some progress in his way to Zion. I say not how often a person must pray, read, hear, etc., that he may grow in grace. But when we find our worldly engagements breaking in upon our spiritual duties, and gradually curtailing our opportunities of attending to them, we should take the alarm. We have many enemies to encounter with in our Christian warfare. We have but little strength. We had need be much upon our guard, be much in prayer, and in the use of those means, which are necessary to our spiritual prosperity. When the world therefore encroaches upon our time, so as to leave but little for these duties, we have reason to be afraid of a decline. Many have begun well, have set out with attending to the duties of the family and the closet; but the world, increasing upon them, has taken up their time; they have left off all family prayer, and are, I fear, too little in the duties of retirement, and plead, for an excuse, they have no time. They content themselves herein by a persuasion that the work was begun some time since, and therefore they are safe, though they cannot so well attend to all the duties they once did. Whether these persons are Christians or not, I dare not determine; but I apprehend we may without hesitation conclude, that they are not growing Christians. They bring no honor to religion. They who give up such opportunities as these for the world, reflect thereby upon the concerns of the soul, as of a trifling nature, and far inferior to outward enjoyments: and I need not say how much this grieves the Spirit, and brings a consumption upon the new man. But if, whilst you are pursuing the world, you will reserve time for family and closet religion, for looking into your hearts, and attending the means of spiritual improvement, you may be growing as to both worlds.
II. The Christian may be said to pursue the things of the world to the dishonor of God, and injury of his soul, when he finds thereby a growing coldness and indifference to spiritual duties, and his thoughts are much taken off from God. It is an unspeakable happiness, when, amidst the engagements of this life, we find a readiness to duty, and a delight in it; when we can rejoice that the Sabbath is just at hand, and find that the enjoyments of the world do not give us an indifference to the great duties of it; when we find a holy warmth upon our spirits, a readiness to spiritual conversation, serious meditation, and a pleasure in closet duties. It is happy, when the Christian is enabled to keep the world at a proper distance, to look upon it is it is, emptiness and vanity, and cheerfully endeavor to abstract his thoughts from it, and attend, when God gives him an opportunity, to those things that relate to his immortal part. It is happy, when, like the good man whom David describes, he often employs his thoughts in sweet and spiritual meditation; when he labors to have his soul above, whilst his hands are employed; or to be in an habitual spiritual frame, to rise up to God often in holy thoughts, desires and affections. This is the person who makes advances in the divine life, even whilst he is busily engaged in his secular concerns, and pursuing them with all becoming diligence. But, if we find the world chilling our hearts, producing a barrenness in our frames, and a coldness to duty: if we can let slip opportunities of attending to our souls, making an excuse to God and our consciences, that we are busy, (though it really flows from that indifferency the world has given us to spiritual exercises,) if we find a growing fondness for present things, and as that fondness increases, our relish for the spiritual parts of religion lessens; if we can pursue the world with a particular gust, eagerness and delight; but, when we come to enter upon duties, we find a sad deadness and reluctance to them; if we find a growing indifference to spiritual conversation, but a pleasure in that which is worldly and trifling, we may conclude that we are pursuing the world, so as to dishonor God, and that, whilst our outward circumstances may be flourishing, our souls are in a lean and starving condition. Always suspect danger, when you find your warmth in, and relish for, spiritual duties upon the decline, when your heart is willing to make frequent excuses for the omission of them; conclude that you have been overacting your part, and too eagerly pursuing present enjoyments.
III. The Christian goes beyond his duty in the pursuit of this world, when his inclination of improving the mercies God has given him, is in some measure taken away, and he grows into a worldly, covetous temper. The world is not given us for ourselves only, but to improve, to lay out for the glory of God, and the good of others. Christ has left his poor with us as a legacy: we are to take care of them, to nourish and support them. We are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and supply the necessitous. We are to support the gospel, and in a variety of instances use what we have to promote the interest of our Redeemer. If then you are seeking after the world, and are diligent in your respective callings, that not only you and your families may have a comfortable subsistence, but that you may have opportunities of doing good to others, by supplying the indigent, and showing regard for the gospel; if you are concerned to set apart a portion of what God is giving you for his cause, and to improve as his providence calls, and you find this temper of mind increases with your wealth, then you have reason to conclude that your enjoyments come with a blessing; you walk in a great measure suitably to your character, and may be making improvements in the divine life. But if, as the world increases, you lose your desire of usefulness; if you find your concern for promoting the glory of God and the good of others is lessened; if what little you give, you give grudgingly: if you find an increasing fondness for the world, and a growing desire after riches; if you are willing to grasp at all you can, and cloak your covetousness under the names of prudence and frugality; if, upon the whole, you become more selfish, and your views and desires are more contracted, you have reason to conclude, that you are pursuing the world with too much eagerness, that you have suffered some loss as to your souls, walk unsuitably to your character, and bring but little honor to God. To put a brand upon covetousness, and to show its dangerous and destructive tendency, it is called idolatry, Col. 3:5. The nearer we approach to it therefore, the farther we go from God.
IV. The Christian dishonors God, and hurts his own soul, when his pursuing the world produces a proud carnal frame, or too great anxiety and distrust. This has been too often the case. When Christians have succeeded as to this world, they have grown proud. Paul tells Timothy (as we observed before) to charge rich men that they should not be high minded, 1 Tim. 5:17. And Agur was afraid lest riches should make him deny God, Prov. 30:8. When Jeshurun waxed fat he kicked, Deut. 22:15. Christians, through a flow of prosperity, have too much forgotten God, become carnal and trifling in their frames and conversation, have been too much carried away with the thoughts of their enjoyments, aimed at a superiority over others, looking upon them with an air of haughtiness, or treating them as if they were not made of the same materials; as if they were not children of the same family, interested in the same God, and equally precious to the same Redeemer. Carefully avoid such a frame as this. It provokes God to withdraw his Spirit in a measure, the consequence of which is a sad decline in the power of religion. He that trusteth in his riches shall fall, Prov. 11:28. Always be afraid that you are going backward, when your enjoyments lift you up, and bring you into a careless spirit. Again, if your pursuits of the world are accompanied with anxiety, suspect some danger. Some persons are so eager after the world, or put such a value upon it, that they are ever fretful and uneasy, if they meet with the least disappointment. They pursue present things with the utmost solicitude, are afraid lest their schemes should not be properly executed, are ever doubting of success, and discontented if every circumstance does not appear suitably to their inclinations, or if others prosper more than they. Now what does all this signify, but a too great dependence upon the world, valuing it too highly, as if all our happiness consisted in the enjoyment of it? What a reflection this upon God, his providence and ways? What a grieving the Spirit? What a sinking the concerns of the soul? How unsuitably to the Christian character, and to all those who have heaven in prospect? Thus I have endeavored to answer the question in a few particulars, and shall now close with some suitable reflections.
1. How awful is their state, who have this world as their portion! It is absolutely incapable of giving complete happiness. All its enjoyments are empty and unsatisfying, and are by no means suitable to the desires of a soul. How many have been miserable in the midst of all their affluence? A circumstance in providence robs them of all their peace, and, like Haman, they cannot be happy whilst there is a Mordecai sitting at the gate -- All the world will leave them at death. The term of life is as long as they possibly can hold their enjoyments: then, however unwilling, they must take their everlasting farewell, and oftentimes when they have the highest relish of them, and delight in them, they must leave all behind, and make an awful exchange of worlds. "Lo, this is the man who made not God his strength, but trusted in the abundance of his riches, and strengthened himself in his wickedness," Psalm 52:7. He is not happy in life; he is far from being so in death. He leaves all, and lies down in everlasting sorrow; all that he enjoyed not being able to secure him from the terrors of the second death, or give him the least degree of ease; but in hell he lifts up his eyes, being in great torments, Luke 16:23. Lord, deliver us from such a condition!
2. How much should each be concerned to examine himself with regard to his pursuits of the world! If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him, 1 John 2:15. The covetous shall not inherit the kingdom of God, I Cor. 6:10. This should put us upon inquiry, whether we fall under this character or not. We should inquire, whether we do not dishonor God, and injure our souls, by a too diligent pursuit of inferior comforts? Does the world take up all my time? Can I easily omit duties, the duties of the family, or of the closet? Do I find a growing coldness to spiritual duties? What is my end in pursuing the world, to gratify an unbounded ambition of honor, wealth or pleasure; or is it to improve every mercy, and employ every talent for the glory of God? With what frame do I pursue the world? What impression, what influence has it upon me? God knows how it is with you: I must leave it to your consciences to answer.
3. What matter of lamentation is it, that there are so many professing Christianity, who are of so worldly a temper? Does it not call for a tear, when we see so much of a covetous, proud, carnal, trifling spirit amongst those who call themselves Christians? Alas, alas! How much time in the world, how little with God? What eagerness in worldly, but what coldness in spiritual pursuits? How cheerfully are opportunities embraced for the world, but how they are omitted for God! How does the world lift us up! What readiness to lay out any thing upon self, how backward to use it for the good of others! What self love amongst Christians! Is it not so? Canst thou stand the test, Christian? Is not thy heart too much divided? Art thou not too greedy of earthly gain? Dost thou not trust too much in thy riches? Where is thy love to God, thy zeal for his glory? O be ashamed, ye professors of religion, be ashamed for your earthliness, your coldness, your carnality and unprofitableness.
Let us all then be upon our guard, and pursue the world so as that we may honor God, and grow in grace. Consider amidst your pursuits of present things, that they are all transitory and uncertain, Luke 12:16-21. Consider, and walk under the view of that day, when you must give an account of your improvement of time, with all your enjoyments. Consider the obligations Christ has laid you under to him, and what a short time you have to do anything for him or his people. Consider how much more excellent spiritual enjoyments are than temporal. And may the Lord enable us all to keep a watch over our hearts, and to use this world so as not to abuse it, knowing that the fashion of all things is passing away.