Page images

moral government; and lastly, in compassion and mercy to our infirmities and feelings, in condescension to the difficulties and defects under which we labor, in accepting and remembering our struggles with temptation, our feeble endeavours, if they are sincere, after amendment, our progress, though but very imperfect, in obedience and reformation.



Romans X. 23. And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God.

A CHILD, if it reflect, will often be at a loss to account for the behaviour of its parents towards it; and a peevish and perverse child will often murmur and complain ; yet the same child, when it becomes a man, and looks back upon its youth and infancy, will see nothing in its parent’s treatment of it but the greatest prudence and affection ; will then discover the reason and the justice of what it once complained of, and discern the end and meaning of many things which at that time appeared so intricate and unaccountable. This hereafter may be our case, and probably will be so. We must wait for the great day of Christ’s coming again, for the further enlargement of our understandings and more perfect comprehension of these subjects. In the mean time, nevertheless, many considerations which may conduce to set us at ease, and inspire us with trust and confidence in God’s providence and goodmess, are fit to be known and attended to.

To proceed, therefore ; many of the complaints which we make against Providence are of such a nature as, one may say, can never be satisfied, and are therefore manifestly unreasonable; as, for instance, when we complain of the want of greater strength than we have, or of superior knowledge, or longer life, or immortality, or that we cannot move ourselves with greater speed, or get through our work in less time or with less trouble; what is this but, in other words, to wish that we had been cre

ated angels? which is all one as if a brute, a horse, for instance, or a dog, should murmur that it was not born a man. The absurdity of this we see immediately. In like manner, a superior being, or an angel, might as well complain that it was not formed an archangel; and the archangel itself would have the same reason to complain that it was inferior to the Supreme Being who made it. Now all these complaints are of a kind, as I said before, never to be satisfied; for so long as there is any thing above us, which there always must be, any perfection we do not possess, any, however, that we can form a notion of, there would be the same reason for these complaints. Suppose a brute to complain that it has not the faculties or reason of a man ; in other words, that it is not a man. Suppose its own complaint gratified, suppose it to succeed, and the brute to become a man ; would it cease to complain P Might it not still answer that it was without the properties and perfections of an angel? at least, it would have the same reason for its murmuring that we have. The evils, then, complained of, are called by divines the evils of imperfection ; and it is agreed, I think, by all, that they are to be laid out of the case, as conveying no possible imputation upon the divine wisdom or goodness; for a complaint which cannot be satisfied, and which you must go on for ever with, must evidently be groundless and unreasonable in its principle. So then, the defects and imperfections of our nature are what Providence, so far as we can judge, must permit, and should never be repined at, nor any of the consequences of them ; which will take in a great part of our complaints, for many of them may be traced up to this. The next consideration I shall propose, which makes a very material part of the subject, is this; that God thinks fit, and very wisely too, as we can in some measure understand, to govern the world by general rules and laws, which, however, like all general rules, must sometimes press hard upon individuals, and produce particular inconveniences. I will explain, as well as I can, what I mean by these general rules. There are, first, what we call laws of nature, which are in general observed to take place without interruption or regard to each particular effect that they may produce. Thus, by the law of nature, the sun rises and shines, though he shine perhaps on the fields of the wicked as well as the good. By the same law, a certain state of the air, which also is brought on by other regular causes, produces rain; rain, when it falls, swells the rivers; the rivers, when they swell, may overflow and damage or lay waste the neighbouring fields; and this falls equally on the virtuous and the sinner. All this comes to pass in consequence of the regular course of nature being suffered to take place ; and God does not see fit to interrupt or suspend this course for the particular prejudice that it may occasion to individuals. In like manner the tide ebbs and flows according to the constant order of its nature, though it may thereby obstruct, it may happen, the ships of the good and virtuous merchant, or carry safe into port the wealth and property of those who little deserve it. We perceive, then, reason in such things as are constant and regular, as the flowing of the tides, the return of the seasons, and the like; but do not see resemblances of it in the more varied parts of nature, as winds and storms, hail and thunder and lightning, though there is the same reason for it, because these as much depend upon their causes, and are as much governed by a law, though unknown to us, as the other. Now although great particular inconveniences may sometimes arise from these general laws of nature, yet I think it will be found to be for the common benefit of the world that they should be permitted to prevail; and for this reason amongst others, that it is upon their prevailing, that is, upon the course of nature going regularly on, that all the foresight we have of future events depends. We act, and determine, we prepare, we provide, in the expectation of those laws of nature going on as they have done; nor is it conceivable how we could act, prepare, or provide, if it was otherwise. How would the mariner, for instance, order his navigation, or settle his voyage, if the flowing of the tide or blowing of the wind was to depend upon the convenience of the good and virtuous How would the husbandman sow or plough either in hope or safety, if the rain must fall and sun shine only when it suited the grounds of the righteous and good 2 It is easy to imagine what confusion must arise from so much irregularity and uncertainty. It is evidently to the advantage of the whole, that such a general order of things should be appointed and maintained in the world, that in what concerns our conduct and subsistence, we may look forward to, and form a judgment of, futurity. Though here we must speak with caution. We intend not to say but that God can control and suspend the ordinary course of nature, direct the winds and storms, give or withhold the rain when he pleases, and as he pleases; nor do we dispute but that he often does so ; sometimes openly, oftener when we do not know it. We may say, that he has appointed general rules and regular courses of things, and permits it to a certain degree, so as to

answer some beneficial purpose at least; thus enabling us to form a judgment of the future. There may be other, and perhaps stronger, reasons for God’s adhering, if we may say so, to general rules; and who can say how far general rules extend ? May we not refer to them, for example, diseases of body and weakness of mind 2 for these have their causes, and follow their causes as much as the tide does the moon. God can, no doubt, remove these causes, or hinder them from operating; but it is by the same power that he can hinder the tide from flowing, or the moon from drawing it; a power, which, in this latter instance, we do not expect he should exert often, nor perhaps without good cause, in either case. Upon the whole, even a single person, one out of many millions, an atom, compared with the universe, can he wonder that he should be suffered to labor under difficulties and inconveniences, rather than break in upon those general rules, upon the operation of which the happiness of the rest, of the whole, may in a great degree depend ? Thus it appears to be in the natural world, and the same respect to regularity in the effects and consequences of things may hold probably in the moral world; that is, the actions and behaviour of men to one another. Thus one man, by luxury or extravagance, reduces himself to beggary; his poverty involves others in distress who are connected with him; and yet it is still both fitting and necessary that luxury and extravagance should be followed by poverty, and that there should subsist those intercourses and communications between one man and another that make their fortunes dependent upon one another. This is the natural constitution of the world, and is not to be departed from, because it will now and then produce inconveniences to those who do not deserve to suffer them. In short, what we call the course of nature, that is, the ordinary train of cause and effect, is all we have to direct us in the conduct of life; and though the upholding it often presses hard upon innocent individuals, yet it is necessary for the good of the whole, and therefore perfectly consistent with divine wisdom and goodness, that it should, in general, however, be maintained and upheld. But thirdly; part of our difficulties are owing to this ; to our expecting too much ; more than we have any reason or authority to expect. If we find in ourselves any merit or virtue more than in others, we instantly count upon being rewarded by Providence with riches, and grandeur, and honor, and high station. Now this is nowhere promised. Our Saviour indeed says, “If ye

seek the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, these things shall be added unto you.’ But what things Not wealth, or power, or advancement, or such like, but food and raiment; what Christ had been speaking of, and ‘what your Father,’ he says, “ knoweth that you have need of.” The scripture nowhere bids us look for such things as riches or honors, or to pray for them. We are directed to the right use of them, when we have them, and to moderation in the pursuit of them ; and that is all that is said about them. Certainly those received them not who were most in God’s favor, the apostles and true followers of Jesus Christ; but quite the contrary. The truth is, the scriptures seem to consider them as hardly of any account or importance; hardly deserving attention, in comparison with the great and glorious objects it sets before us. Or the case may have been this ; riches, and grandeur, &c. may be a blessing or a curse, and are as often one as the other; therefore for the scriptures to have proposed them absolutely as either, would not have been just or proper. The established course of the world, and the overruling hand of Providence, are both, we trust, in favor of the virtuous and good; but neither seems to promise or even permit that riches and honor should always be their portion. Riches, for example, are generally the earnings of industry, activity, or ingenuity; and should be so ; for how else should there be any encouragement for these qualities? Who, if it were not so, would be industrious, active, or ingenious * Thus the world, and the business of it, might stand still. But though industry, activity, and ingenuity are sometimes accompanied with virtue, and sometimes not, the persons who possess these qualities will obtain, and from what has been said it seems proper they should do so, those wordly advantages which the good and pious would engross to themselves. But fourthly and lastly ; a principal key to this subject of providence, and the difficulties we are under about it, is contained, in my opinion, in the words of the text, which you will now observe. ‘We know,” says St Paul, “that all things work together for good to them that love God;’ which I understand . to be indirectly telling us, that even the best of us are not to look for each event, separately and singly considered, being either pleasant or useful to us; but that, be they what they will in themselves or for the present, they will work together for good; they will so far fall in with, and qualify one another, as that together the amount and issue of them at last will promote our happiness and interest.

« PreviousContinue »