Letter to one of a managing and disingenuous spirit

From an anonymous work, published in 1855 by the Presbyterian Board of Publication, Philadelphia, under the title, Monitory Letters to Church Members.

I am not at all disposed to condemn the exercise of a due degree of caution, in the intercourse which the Christian has with society. Prudence is a virtue which he cannot dispense with, without jeoparding his comfort, his character, his usefulness. For want of this, some men, who general good intentions and right feelings we cannot doubt, have seemed to pass through the world, leaving it a matter of question whether they had accomplished more of good or of evil. But the quality of which I am about to speak, though it may sometimes take the name of prudence, has really no affinity to anything which Christianity recognizes as a virtue. It is identical with worldly cunning. It loves darkness rather than light. It hesitates not to take an undue advantage, even of a Christian brother. It conceals daggers beneath smiles. It sometimes professes great frankness, and even glories in having no purposes which it is ashamed to avow; but in making such a proclamation, it is acting altogether in character — it is an effort to blind the eyes of men, in order that it may work to better advantage for the accomplishment of its unworthy ends.

Without imputing to you this offensive quality in the highest degree, I am sure that I do you no injustice in saying that you cannot claim an exemption from it; and the result of my recent observations upon your conduct has been to satisfy me, that time is doing nothing to render your character more transparent. You will allow me, therefore, in all friendship, to expostulate with you in regard to this unfortunate propensity.

The evil to which I here refer is two-fold — it has respect to the end which you seek to accomplish, and to the means which you employ for accomplishing it. You scruple not to endeavour to subserve your own interest by injuring another; and need I say that this is a palpable contradiction to the spirit of the Gospel? It is seeking your own advantage, not only above that of another, but at the expense of another. It involves criminal injustice, as well as gross selfishness; both of which, Christianity, in its precepts and in its spirit, uniformly forbids. The religion which you profess, requires you to love your neighbour as yourself; to do evil to none, and to do good to all, as you have opportunity. If then you have attempted to injure your neighbour’s property for the sake of increasing your own, or to wound his good name in the hope of gathering some fresh laurels for yourself, or to further any of your designs at the expense of interfering with the just and praiseworthy designs of others, you may rest assured that Christianity loudly reproves you — it charges you with being false to the sacred obligations which you have assumed — if it does not pronounce your religion absolutely spurious, it stamps it at least with great imperfection and gross contradiction. Where this spirit is deliberately and habitually cherished, it furnishes conclusive evidence that you do not possess the spirit of Christ, and, of course, are none of his; and where it exists even as one of the remaining corruptions of the renewed nature, over which grace hath not yet completely triumphed, it is still an offence against the benevolent spirit of the Master you profess to serve, and may well lead you to doubt whether the hope which you are keeping alive in your bosom is not the hope of the hypocrite.

But it is not merely that your efforts contemplate an unworthy end, but they are themselves characterized by a spirit of disingenuousness. You have a purpose, but you do not avow it; or perhaps you have one purpose which occupies your thoughts night and day, while yet you seem to be aiming at another. You have your tools; which, though they breathe and speak, and seem to be operating with all due intelligence, still move entirely at your bidding; and it is only a modified sort of moral agency that you allow to them. Possibly your purpose is gained, while the master mind that has conceived and executed it, has moved so silently, and in such deep darkness, that its agency has not even been suspected. Possibly the whole blame of the transaction is visited upon the poor instruments, though they knew little what they were doing until they were surprised by some strange result of their own efforts.

It not unfrequently happens that this spirit of unworthy management and worldly cunning manifests itself where there is no evil end to be accomplished; nay, it sometimes appears where the end is positively a good one. In some cases it seems to be nothing more than a simple love of management — a natural aversion to walking in an open, beaten track; and here it would seem to be more closely allied to vanity than anything else. I call to mind, at this moment, a man who was more remarkable than any other I ever knew, for moving in a mysterious way; he was acknowledged to possess great talents, but was never contented to perform even the most common actions in the same way with other people. Where the result to be produced was necessarily an ordinary affair, it was sure to be brought about by some extraordinary instrumentality. He was undoubtedly a person of great natural sagacity; but, unhappily, he had acquired, in the community in which he lived, a great reputation for worldly cunning. And the consequence was that he did everything at a disadvantage. If he had really wished to engage in any enterprise, without anything of management or finesse, the world would not have done justice to his intentions; he would still have had the reputation of working in his accustomed way, and not a few would have kept their eyes upon him to see if he was not aiming at something which he did not avow. Where a man of acknowledged frankness and integrity sets about any good object, there are multitudes who are ready to co-operate with him, and nobody thinks of questioning the sincerity of his aims; but let a man of great reputed cunning avow his intention of bringing something to pass, that may materially benefit the community, and few will be disposed to become his efficient auxiliaries, until they have looked on every side to see whether he may not be enlisting them, professedly for one purpose, but really for another.

Let me urge you to beware of this evil, as one that must essentially vitiate your character, both as a man and a Christian. Be prudent, indeed; but let not prudence, with you, ever degenerate into disingenuous concealment or unfair dealing. You are not always bound to tell the whole truth, but you are never at liberty to practice deliberate deception. And where this disposition appears in a professor of religion, especially in connection with some unworthy selfish purpose, it is not easy to overrate the evil which it brings upon the cause of Christ. How often have I heard worldly men, speaking of such professors, congratulate themselves that, if they were not themselves religious, they were at least honest! Whatever there is amiss on this subject in your character, may God enable you to correct. See to it, that the ends at which you aim, and the means by which you seek to gain them, will both bear the light; and you will, through grace, meet the reward of such a course of conduct, both on earth and in heaven.

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