« PreviousContinue »
ately designed. I shall explain this a little by the words 'forever' and 'everlasting,' which are far from having the same force in the sacred writings, as they generally have in our language. For it is certain that they do not always signify a strict and absolute eternity, but very frequently a limited duration; and the sense of them is, in a great measure, to be determined by the subjects to which they are applied. Thus every one allows, that when we read of 'everlasting mountains,' the word means very differently from what it does when God is said to be everlasting. Again, when it is said of Christ, that he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end,' we are to understand no more by it, than that he shall reign to the end of the world; for then, we are expressly informed by St Paul, 'he shall deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father, that God may be all in all.' In like manner, when we are told that Sodom and Gomorrah "are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire,' nothing more is meant, than a fire that made a full end of them, and was not extinguished, till those cities, with their inhabitants, were utterly consumed. In these passages, and in some others, which seldom regard things of real importance, we must allow for the change of languages, and different use of words; and the common people will, without much difficul
ty, fall into the true interpretation of all passages of this kind, if they follow but the natural and easy method of comparing one part of scripture with another.
OF A RELIGIOUS LIFE.
It is an excellent property of the pleasures of religion and virtue, that they will bear the strictest review, and improve upon reflection. Let a man examine ever so carefully the pleasure he feels on having discharged his duty to God and practised that reverence and submission, that love and gratitude, which are immutably due, from all rational beings, to the Father of the universe, the eternal and inexhaustable fountain of good; the pleasures of impartial justice, and generous, diffusive benevolence; or those that spring from temperance and chastity, keeping all his passions under strict government, and denying himself every irregular gratification, however agreeable to his warmest and strongest inclinations; let him examine those pleasures, I say, ever so carefully, and they will all appear to be worthy his most excellent faculties, the dignity and refine
ment of his nature. He will find himself so constituted, that it is impossible for him to avoid being delighted with the review of such a regular, honorable, and amiable conduct; and there is nothing but a sense of his defects, and not having cultivated these virtues in a higher degree, that can give the least check to his inward satisfaction. Every new reflection is a repetition of the pleasure.
But the enjoyments of sense, if pursued with the utmost prudence and moderation, will be found to be, at best, but innocent. There is nothing in them that shows the excellency of our constitution above that of the creatures below us; and consequently, it is not in their nature to yield that generous and sublime delight, that arises from exercises of piety and virtue. Nay, there is really something mortifying that attends a just estimate and consideration of them, as they discover to us the weakness and imperfection of our present frame, and the disorders to which it is liable. For by means of that very animal composition, which renders us capable of enjoyments of this kind, we are subject to innumerable inconveniences; not only to ungoverned passions, and the fatal extravagances that they continually produce, but to dejection of spirits, confused and melancholy thoughts, sickness, pain, and all the evils of mortality. And if the indulgences of sense, even
when they are most regular, yield so little comfort on a review, and are rather a humiliating consideration than a source of real satisfaction to the mind, in what a disagreeable light must the excesses of luxury and vicious pleasure appear, upon cool and impartial reflection! These, the natural consequences of which, where there is not a hardened, insensible temper, are nothing but confusion, shame, and remorse, cannot bear a comparison with the rational pleasures of religion, which, the more they are considered, must be the more thoroughly approved. Religious pleasures are of all others the most pure and unmixt, not interrupted in the enjoyment with disquieting suspicions, nor succeeded by uneasy terrors. And this is one of their most noble and most recommending properties; a property that can never belong to any enjoyments, however, for the moment they last, transporting, however applauded or admired, that reason condemns. And nothing can more fully demonstrate the folly of such irregular indulgences than this, that it is absolutely impossible for any man to be happy, whose favorite gratifications leave a sting behind them, who is ashamed of his conduct and at variance with himself.
The pleasures of religion depend entirely on ourselves, and not on those numberless accidents, which may either prevent, or blast, or entirely
destroy all outward pleasures; not on the senses, which may lose their quickness; not on the animal passions, which may grow faint and languid; not on the return of an overloaded and jaded appetite; not on mutual agreement and confederacy; not on critical seasons, and special opportunities; not on the jealousies, passions, and opposite interests of our fellow creatures. These things have almost the sole influence in forming and disposing of the pleasures of the ambitious and the sensualist; but those that spring from virtue are free and independent. Being seated in the mind, they may be enjoyed in their greatest refinement when the body decays, and the edge of all its appetites is blunted. The malice and power of the most formidable oppressors, who may take from us all the outward accommodations of life, cannot deprive us of them. They forsake us not, even in solitude. But if we were banished the society of all mankind, a consciousness of our integrity, while we conversed in the world, and a reflection on the simplicity and rectitude of our manners, would furnish out a great and noble entertainment. And as the pleasures of a good life depend entirely on ourselves, it is in our power to be always increasing them by a greater proficiency in virtue; whereas, those of sense are according to fixed and stated laws of nature, by us unalterable. We may, indeed, animate and raise our imagina