A SERIOUS CALL TO A DEVOUT AND HOLY LIFE
by William Law
Recommending devotions at nine o'clock in the morning, called in Scripture the third hour of the day. The subject of these prayers is humility.
I AM now come to another hour of prayer, which in Scripture is called the third hour of the day; but, according to our way of numbering the hours, it is called the ninth hour of the morning.
The devout Christian must at this time look upon himself as called upon by God to renew his acts of prayer, and address himself again to the throne of grace.
There is indeed no express command in Scripture to repeat our devotions at this hour. But then it is to be considered also, that neither is there any express command to begin and end the day with prayer. So that if that be looked upon as a reason for neglecting devotion at this hour, it may as well be urged as a reason for neglecting devotion both at the beginning and end of the day.
But if the practice of the saints in all ages of the world, if the customs of the pious Jews and primitive Christians, be of any force with us, we have authority enough to persuade us to make this hour a constant season of devotion.
The Scriptures show us how this hour was consecrated to devotion both by Jews and Christians: so that if we desire to number ourselves amongst those whose hearts were devoted unto God, we must not let this hour pass, without presenting us to Him in some solemnities of devotion. And besides this authority for this practice, the reasonableness of it is sufficient to invite us to the observance of it.
For if you were up at a good time in the morning, your first devotions will have been at a proper distance from this hour; you will have been long enough at other business, to make it proper for you to return to this greatest of all business -- the raising your soul and affections unto God.
But if you have risen so late, as to be hardly able to begin your first devotions at this hour, which is proper for your second, you may thence learn that the indulging yourself in the morning sleep is no small matter; since it sets you so far back in your devotions, and robs you of those graces and blessings which are obtained by frequent prayers.
For if prayer has power with God, if it looses the bands of sin, if it purifies the soul, reforms our hearts, and draws down the aids of Divine grace; how can that be reckoned a small matter, which robs us of an hour of prayer?
Imagine yourself somewhere placed in the air, as a spectator of all that passes in the world, and that you saw, in one view, the devotions which all Christian people offer unto God every day: imagine that you saw some piously dividing the day and night, as the primitive Christians did, and constant at all hours of devotion, singing psalms, and calling upon God, at all those times that saints and martyrs received their gifts and graces from God: imagine that you saw others living without any rules, as to times and frequency of prayer, and only at their devotions sooner or later, as sleep and laziness happen to permit them. Now if you were to see this, as God sees it, how do you suppose you should be affected with this sight? What judgment do you imagine you should pass upon these different sorts of people? Could you think that those who were thus exact in their rules of devotion, got nothing by their exactness? Could you think that their prayers were received just in the same manner, and procured them no more blessings, than theirs do, who prefer laziness and indulgence to times and rules of devotion?
Could you take the one to be as true servants of God as the other? Could you imagine that those who were thus different in their lives, would find no difference in their states, after death? Could you think it a matter of indifferency to which of these people you were most like?
If not, let it be now your care to join yourself to that number of devout people, to that society of saints, amongst whom you desire to be found when you leave the world.
And although the bare number and repetition of our prayers is of little value, yet since prayer, rightly and attentively performed, is the most natural means of amending and purifying our hearts; since importunity and frequency in prayer is as much pressed upon us by Scripture, as prayer itself: we may be sure, that when we are frequent and importunate in our prayers, we are taking the best means of obtaining the highest benefits of a devout life.
And, on the other hand, they who through negligence, laziness, or any other indulgence, render themselves either unable, or uninclined, to observe rules and hours of devotion, we may be sure that they deprive themselves of those graces and blessings, which an exact and fervent devotion procures from God.
Now as this frequency of prayer is founded on the doctrines of Scripture, and recommended to us by the practice of the true worshippers of God; so we ought not to think ourselves excused from it, but where we can show that we are spending our time in such business, as is more acceptable to God than these returns of prayer.
Least of all must we imagine that dulness, negligence, indulgence, or diversions, can be any pardonable excuses for our not observing an exact and frequent method of devotion.
If you are of a devout spirit, you will rejoice at these returns of prayer which keep your soul in a holy enjoyment of God; which change your passions into Divine love, and fill your heart with stronger joys and consolations than you can possibly meet with in anything else.
And if you are not of a devout spirit, then you are moreover obliged to this frequency of prayer, to train and exercise your heart into a true sense and feeling of devotion.
Now seeing the holy spirit of the Christian religion, and the example of the saints of all ages, call upon you thus to divide the day into hours of prayer; so it will be highly beneficial to you to make a right choice of those matters which are to be the subject of your prayers, and to keep every hour of prayer appropriated to some particular subject, which you may alter or enlarge, according as the state you are in requires.
By this means you will have an opportunity of being large and particular in all the parts of any virtue or grace, which you then make the subject of your prayers. And by asking for it in all its parts, and making it the substance of a whole prayer once every day, you will soon find a mighty change in your heart; and that you cannot thus constantly pray for all the parts of any virtue every day of your life, and yet live the rest of the day contrary to it.
If a worldly-minded man was to pray every day against all the instances of a worldly temper; if he should make a large description of the temptations of covetousness, and desire God to assist him to reject them all, and to disappoint him in all his covetous designs; he would find his conscience so much awakened, that he would be forced either to forsake such prayers, or to forsake a worldly life.
The same will hold true in any other instance. And if we ask, and have not, 'tis because we ask amiss. Because we ask in cold and general forms, such as only name the virtues, without describing their particular parts, such as are not enough particular to our condition, and therefore make no change in our hearts. Whereas, when a man enumerates all the parts of any virtue in his prayers, his conscience is thereby awakened, and he is frighted at seeing how far short he is of it. And this stirs him up to an ardour in devotion, when he sees how much he wants of that virtue which he is praying for.
I have, in the last chapter, laid before you the excellency of praise and thanksgiving, and recommended that as the subject of your first devotions in the morning.
And because an humble state of soul is the very state of religion, because humility is the life and soul of piety, the foundation and support of every virtue and good work, the best guard and security of all holy affections; I shall recommend humility to you, as highly proper to be made the constant subject of your devotions, at this third hour of the day; earnestly desiring you to think no day safe, or likely to end well, in which you have not thus early put yourself in this posture of humility, and called upon God to carry you through the day, in the exercise of a meek and lowly spirit.
This virtue is so essential to the right state of our souls, that there is no pretending to a reasonable or pious life without it. We may as well think to see without eyes, or live without breath, as to live in the spirit of religion without the spirit of humility.
And although it is thus the soul and essence of all religious duties, yet is it, generally speaking, the least understood, the least regarded, the least intended, the least desired and sought after, of all other virtues, amongst all sorts of Christians.
No people have more occasion to be afraid of the approaches of pride, than those, who have made some advances in a pious life: for pride can grow as well upon our virtues as our vices, and steals upon us on all occasions.
Every good thought that we have, every good action that we do, lays us open to pride, and exposes us to the assaults of vanity and self-satisfaction.
It is not only the beauty of our persons, the gifts of fortune, our natural talents, and the distinctions of life; but even our devotions and alms, our fastings and humiliations, expose us to fresh and strong temptations of this evil spirit.
And it is for this reason that I so earnestly advise every devout person to begin every day in this exercise of humility, that he may go on in safety under the protection of this good guide, and not fall a sacrifice to his own progress in those virtues which are to save mankind from destruction.
Humility does not consist in having a worse opinion of ourselves than we deserve, or in abasing ourselves lower than we really are; but as all virtue is founded in truth, so humility is founded in a true and just sense of our weakness, misery, and sin. He that rightly feels and lives in this sense of his condition, lives in humility.
The weakness of our state appears from our inability to do anything as of ourselves. In our natural state we are entirely without any power; we are indeed active beings, but can only act by a power that is every moment lent us from God.
We have no more power of our own to move a hand, or stir a foot, than to move the sun, or stop the clouds.
When we speak a word, we feel no more power in ourselves to do it, than we feel ourselves able to raise the dead. For we act no more within our own power, or by our own strength, when we speak a word, or make a sound, than the Apostles acted within their own power, or by their own strength, when a word from their mouth cast out devils, and cured diseases.
As it was solely the power of God that enabled them to speak to such purposes, so it is solely the power of God that enables us to speak at all.
We indeed find that we can speak, as we find that we are alive; but the actual exercise of speaking is no more in our own power, than the actual enjoyment of life.
This is the dependent, helpless poverty of our state; which is a great reason for humility. For, since we neither are, nor can do anything of ourselves, to be proud of anything that we are, or of anything that we can do, and to ascribe glory to ourselves for these things, as our own ornaments, has the guilt both of stealing and lying. It has the guilt of stealing, as it gives to ourselves those things which only belong to God; it has the guilt of lying, as it is the denying the truth of our state, and pretending to be something that we are not.
Secondly, Another argument for humility is founded in the misery of our condition.
Now the misery of our condition appears in this, that we use these borrowed powers of our nature to the torment and vexation of ourselves, and our fellow creatures.
God Almighty has entrusted us with the use of reason, and we use it to the disorder and corruption of our nature. We reason ourselves into all kinds of folly and misery, and make our lives the sport of foolish and extravagant passions; seeking after imaginary happiness in all kinds of shapes, creating to ourselves a thousand wants, amusing our hearts with false hopes and fears, using the world worse than irrational animals, envying, vexing, and tormenting one another with restless passions, and unreasonable contentions.
Let any man but look back upon his own life, and see what use he has made of his reason, how little he has consulted it, and how less he has followed it. What foolish passions, what vain thoughts, what needless labours, what extravagant projects, have taken up the greatest part of his life! How foolish he has been in his words and conversation; how seldom he has done well with judgment, and how often he has been kept from doing ill by accident; how seldom he has been able to please himself, and how often he has displeased others; how often he has changed his counsels, hated what he loved, and loved what he hated; how often he has been enraged and transported at trifles, pleased and displeased with the very same things, and constantly changing from one vanity to another! Let a man but take this view of his own life, and he will see reason enough to confess, that pride was not made for man.
Let him but consider, that if the world knew all that of him, which he knows of himself; if they saw what vanity and passions govern his inside, and what secret tempers sully and corrupt his best actions; he would have no more pretence to be honoured and admired for his goodness and wisdom, than a rotten and distempered body to be loved and admired for its beauty and comeliness.
This is so true, and so known to the hearts of almost all people, that nothing would appear more dreadful to them, than to have their hearts thus fully discovered to the eyes of all beholders.
And perhaps there are very few people in the world who would not rather choose to die, than to have all their secret follies, the errors of their judgments, the vanity of their minds, the falseness of their pretences, the frequency of their vain and disorderly passions, their uneasiness, hatred, envies, and vexations, made known unto the world.
And shall pride be entertained in a heart thus conscious of its own miserable behaviour? Shall a creature in such a condition, that he could not support himself under the shame of being known to the world in his real state, -- shall such a creature, because his shame is only known to God, to holy angels, and his own conscience, -- shall he, in the sight of God and holy angels, dare to be vain and proud of himself?
Thirdly, If to this we add the shame and guilt of sin, we shall find a still greater reason for humility.
No creature that had lived in innocence, would have thereby got any pretence for self-honour and esteem; because, as a creature, all that it is, or has, or does, is from God, and therefore the honour of all that belongs to it is only due to God.
But if a creature that is a sinner, and under the displeasure of the great Governor of all the world, and deserving nothing from Him but pains and punishments for the shameful abuse of his powers; if such a creature pretends to self-glory for anything that he is or does, he can only be said to glory in his shame.
Now how monstrous and shameful the nature of sin is, is sufficiently apparent from that great Atonement, that is necessary to cleanse us from the guilt of it.
Nothing less has been required to take away the guilt of our sins, than the sufferings and death of the Son of God. Had He not taken our nature upon Him, our nature had been forever separated from God, and incapable of ever appearing before Him.
And is there any room for pride, or self-glory, whilst we are partakers of such a nature as this?
Have our sins rendered us so abominable and odious to Him that made us, that He could not so much as receive our prayers, or admit our repentance, till the Son of God made Himself man, and became a suffering Advocate for our whole race; and can we, in this state, pretend to high thoughts of ourselves? Shall we presume to take delight in our own worth, who are not worthy so much as to ask pardon for our sins, without the mediation and intercession of the Son of God?
Thus deep is the foundation of humility laid in these deplorable circumstances of our condition; which show that it is as great an offence against truth, and the reason of things, for a man, in this state of things, to lay claim to any degrees of glory, as to pretend to the honour of creating himself. If man will boast of anything as his own, he must boast of his misery and sin; for there is nothing else but this that is his own property.
Turn your eyes towards Heaven, and fancy that you saw what is doing there; that you saw cherubims and seraphims, and all the glorious inhabitants of that place, all united in one work; not seeking glory from one another, not labouring their own advancement, not contemplating their own perfections, not singing their own praises, not valuing themselves, and despising others, but all employed in one and the same work, all happy in one and the same joy; "casting down their crowns before the throne of God"; giving glory, and honour, and power to Him alone. [Rev. iv. 10, 11]
Then turn your eyes to the fallen world, and consider how unreasonable and odious it must be, for such poor worms, such miserable sinners, to take delight in their own fancied glories, whilst the highest and most glorious sons of Heaven seek for no other greatness and honour, but that of ascribing all honour, and greatness, and glory, to God alone?
Pride is only the disorder of the fallen world, it has no place amongst other beings; it can only subsist where ignorance and sensuality, lies and falsehood, lusts and impurity reign.
Let a man, when he is most delighted with his own figure, look upon a crucifix, and contemplate our Blessed Lord stretched out, and nailed upon a Cross; and then let him consider how absurd it must be, for a heart full of pride and vanity to pray to God, through the sufferings of such a meek and crucified Saviour!
These are the reflections that you are often to meditate upon, that you may thereby be disposed to walk before God and man, in such a spirit of humility as becomes the weak, miserable, sinful state of all that are descended from fallen Adam.
When you have by such general reflections as these convinced your mind of the reasonableness of humility, you must not content yourself with this, as if you were therefore humble, because your mind acknowledges the reasonableness of humility, and declares against pride. But you must immediately enter yourself into the practice of this virtue, like a young beginner, that has all of it to learn, that can learn but little at a time, and with great difficulty. You must consider that you have not only this virtue to learn, but that you must be content to proceed as a learner in it all your time, endeavouring after greater degrees of it, and practising every day acts of humility, as you every day practise acts of devotion.
You would not imagine yourself to be devout, because in your judgment you approved of prayers, and often declared your mind in favour of devotion. Yet how many people imagine themselves humble enough for no other reason, but because they often commend humility, and make vehement declarations against pride!
Cecus33 is a rich man, of good breeding, and very fine parts. He is fond of dress, curious in the smallest matters that can add any ornament to his person. He is haughty and imperious to all his inferiors, is very full of everything that he says, or does, and never imagines it possible for such a judgment as his to be mistaken. He can bear no contradiction, and discovers the weakness of your understanding as soon as ever you oppose him. He changes everything in his house, his habit, and his equipage, as often as anything more elegant comes in his way. Cecus would have been very religious, but that he always thought he was so.
There is nothing so odious to Cecus as a proud man; and the misfortune is, that in this he is so very quicksighted, that he discovers in almost everybody some strokes of vanity.
On the other hand, he is exceeding fond of humble and modest persons. Humility, says he, is so amiable a quality, that it forces our esteem wherever we meet with it. There is no possibility of despising the meanest person that has it, or of esteeming the greatest man that wants it.
Cecus no more suspects himself to be proud, than he suspects his want of sense. And the reason of it is, because he always finds himself so in love with humility, and so enraged at pride.
It is very true, Cecus, you speak sincerely, when you say you love humility, and abhor pride. You are no hypocrite, you speak the true sentiments of your mind: but then take this along with you, Cecus, that you only love humility, and hate pride, in other people. You never once in your life thought of any other humility, or of any other pride, than that which you have seen in other people.
The case of Cecus is a common case; many people live in all the instances of pride, and indulge every vanity that can enter into their minds, and yet never suspect themselves to be governed by pride and vanity, because they know how much they dislike proud people, and how mightily they are pleased with humility and modesty, wherever they find them.
All their speeches in favour of humility, and all their railings against pride, are looked upon as so many true exercises and effects of their own humble spirit.
Whereas, in truth, these are so far from being proper acts or proofs of humility, that they are great arguments of the want of it.
For the fuller of pride any one is himself, the more impatient will he be at the smallest instances of it in other people. And the less humility any one has in his own mind, the more will he demand and be delighted with it in other people.
You must therefore act by a quite contrary measure, and reckon yourself only so far humble, as you impose every instance of humility upon yourself, and never call for it in other people, so far an enemy to pride, as you never spare it in yourself, nor ever censure it in other persons.
Now, in order to do this, you need only consider that pride and humility signify nothing to you, but so far as they are your own; that they do you neither good nor harm, but as they are the tempers of your own heart.
The loving, therefore, of humility, is of no benefit or advantage to you, but so far as you love to see all your own thoughts, words, and actions, governed by it. And the hating of pride does you no good, is no perfection in you, but so far as you hate to harbour any degree of it in your own heart.
Now in order to begin, and set out well, in the practice of humility, you must take it for granted that you are proud, that you have all your life been more or less infected with this unreasonable temper.
You should believe also, that it is your greatest weakness, that your heart is most subject to it, that it is so constantly stealing upon you, that you have reason to watch and suspect its approaches in all your actions.
For this is what most people, especially new beginners in a pious life, may with great truth think of themselves.
For there is no one vice that is more deeply rooted in our nature, or that receives such constant nourishment from almost everything that we think or do: there being hardly anything in the world that we want or use, or any action or duty of life, but pride finds some means or other to take hold of it. So that at what time soever we begin to offer ourselves to God, we can hardly be surer of anything, than that we have a great deal of pride to repent of.
If, therefore, you find it disagreeable to your mind to entertain this opinion of yourself, and that you cannot put yourself amongst those that want to be cured of pride, you may be as sure as if an angel from heaven had told you, that you have not only much, but all your humility to seek.
For you can have no greater sign of a more confirmed pride, than when you think that you are humble enough. He that thinks he loves God enough, shows himself to be an entire stranger to that holy passion; so he that thinks he has humility enough, shows that he is not so much as a beginner in the practice of true humility.
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