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Holy Living

by Jeremy Taylor





The second general instrument of Holy Living, Purity of Intention.


That we should intend and design God’s glory in every action we do, whether it be natural or chosen, is expressed by St. Paul,[14] “Whether ye eat or drink, do all to the glory of God. Which rule, when we observe, every action of nature becomes religious, and every meal is an act of worship, and shall have its reward in its proportion, as well as an act of prayer. Blessed be that grace and goodness of God, which, out of infinite desire to glorify and save mankind, would make the very works of nature capable of becoming acts of virtue, that all our life-time we may do him service.

This grace is so excellent that it sanctifies the most common action of our life; and yet so necessary that, without it, the very best actions of our devotion are imperfect and vicious. For he that prays out of custom, or gives alms for praise, or fasts to be accounted religious, is but a pharisee hypocrite in his fast. But a holy end sanctifies all these and all other actions, which can be made holy, and gives distinction to them, and procures acceptance.

For, as to know the end distinguishes a man from a beast, so to choose a good end distinguishes him from an evil man. Hezekiah repeated his good deeds upon his sick-bed, and obtained favour of God, but the pharisee was accounted insolent for doing[15] the same thing: because this man did it to upbraid his brother, the other to obtain a mercy of God. Zacharias questioned with the angel about his message, and was made speechless for his incredulity; but the blessed Virgin Mary questioned too, and was blameless; for she did it to inquire after the manner of the thing, but he did not believe the thing itself; he doubted of God’s power, or the truth of the messenger; but she only of her own incapacity. This was it which distinguished the mourning of David from the exclamation of Saul; the confession of Pharaoh from that of Manasses; the tears of Peter from the repentance of Judas: ‘for the praise is not in the deed done, but in the manner of its doing.’[16] If a man visits his sick friend, and watches at his pillow for charity’s sake, and because of his old affection, we approve it; but if he does it in hope of legacy, he is a vulture, and only watches for the carcass. The same things are honest and dishonest: the manner of doing them, and the end of the design, makes the separation.’

Holy intention is to the actions of a man that which the soul is to the body, or form to its matter, or the root to the tree, or the sun to the world, or the fountain to a river, or the base to a pillar: for, without these, the body is a dead trunk, the matter is sluggish, the tree is a block, the world is darkness, the river is quickly dry, the pillar rushes into flatness and a ruin; and the action is sinful, or unprofitable and vain. The poor farmer that gave a dish of cold water to Artaxerxes was rewarded with a golden goblet; and he that gives the same to a disciple in the name of a disciple, shall have a crown; but if he gives water in dispute, when the disciple needs wine or a cordial, his reward shall be to want that water to cool his tongue.

Rules for our Intentions.

1. In every action reflect upon the end; and in your undertaking it, consider why you do it, and why you propound to yourself for a reward, and to your actions as its end.

2. Begin every action in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; the meaning of which is, 1, that we be careful that we do not the action without the permission or warrant of God; 2, that we design it to the glory of God, if not in the direct action, yet at least in its consequence; if not in the particular, yet at least in the whole order of things and accidents; 3, that it may be so blessed that what you intend for innocent and holy purposes, may not, by any chance, or abuse, or misunderstanding of men, be turned into evil, or made the occasion of sin.

3. Let every action of concernment be begun with prayer, that God would not only bless the action, but sanctify your purpose; and made an oblation of the action to God: holy and well intended actions being the best oblations and presents we can make to God; and, when God is entitled to them, he will the rather keep the fire upon the altar bright and shining.

4. In the prosecution of the action, renew and re-enkindle your purpose by short ejaculations to these purposes: ‘Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name, let all praise be given;’ and consider: “Now I am working the work of God; I am his servant, I am in a happy employment, I am doing my master’s business, I am not at my own dispose, I am using his talents, and all the gain must be his:” for then be sure, as the glory is his, so the reward shall be thine. If thou bringest his goods home with increase, he will make thee ruler over cities.

5. Have a care, that, while the altar thus sends up a holy frame, thou dost not suffer the birds to come and carry away the sacrifice: that is, let not that which began well, and was intended for God’s glory, decline and end in thy own praise, or temporal satisfaction, or a sin. A story, told to represent the vileness of unchastity, is well begun; but if thy female auditor be pleased with thy language, and begins rather to like thy person for thy story than to dislike the crime, be watchful, lest this goodly head of gold descend in silver and brass, and end in iron and clay, like Nebuchadnezzar’s image; for from the end it shall have its name and reward.[17]

6. If any accidental event, which was not first intended by thee, can come to pass, let it not be taken into thy purposes, not at all be made use of; as if, by telling a true story, you can do an ill turn to your enemy, by no means do it; but, when the temptation is found out, turn all thy enmity upon that.

7. In every more solemn action of religion join together many good ends, that the consideration of them may entertain all your affections; and that, when any one ceases, the purity of your intention may be supported by another supply. He that fasts only to tame a rebellious body, when he is provided of a remedy either in grace or nature, may be tempted to leave off his fasting. But be that in his fast intends the mortification of every unruly appetite, and accustoming himself to bear the yoke of the Lord, a contempt of the pleasures of meat and drink, humiliation of all wilder thoughts, obedience and humility, austerity and charity, and the convenience and assistance to devotion, and to do an act of repentance; whatever happens, will have reason enough to make him to continue his purpose, and to sanctify it. And certain it is, the more good ends are designed in an action the more degrees of excellency the man obtains.

8. If any temptation to spoil your purpose happens in a religious duty, do not presently omit the action, but rather strive to rectify your intention, and to mortify the temptation. St. Bernard taught us this rule: for when the devil, observing him to preach excellently and to do much benefit to his hearers, tempted him to vain-glory, hoping that the good man, to avoid that, would cease preaching, he gave this answer only, “I neither began for thee, neither for thee will I make an end.”

9. In all actions which are of long continuance, deliberation, and abode, let your holy and pious intention be actual; that is, that it be, by a special prayer or action, by a peculiar act of resignation or oblation, given to God; but in smaller actions a pious habitual intention; that is, that it be included within your general care that no action have an ill end; and that it be comprehended in your general prayers, whereby you offer yourself and all you do to God’s glory.

10. Call not every temporal end a defiling of thy intention, but only, 1, when it contradicts any of the ends of God; or 2, when it is principally intended in an action of religion. For sometimes a temporal end is part of our duty; and such are all the actions of our calling, whether our employment be religious or civil. We are commanded to provide for our family; but if the minister of divine offices shall take upon him that holy calling for covetous or ambitious ends, or shall not design the glory of God principally and especially, he hath polluted his hands and his heart; and the fire of the altar is quenched, or it sends forth nothing but the smoke of mushrooms or unpleasant gums. And it is a great unworthiness to prefer the interest of a creature before the ends of God, the Almighty Creator.

But because many cases may happen in which a man’s heart may deceive him, and he may not well know what is in his own spirit; therefore, by these following signs, we shall best make a judgment whether our intentions be pure and our purposes holy.

Signs of our Purity of Intentions.

1. It is probable our hearts[18] are right with God, and our intentions innocent and pious, if we set upon actions of religion or civil life with an affection proportionate to the quality of the work; that we act our temporal affairs with a desire no greater than our necessity; and that in actions of religion we be zealous, active, and operative, so far as prudence will permit; but, in all cases, that we value a religious design before a temporal, when otherwise they are in equal order to their several ends: that is, that whatsoever is necessary in order to our soul’s health be higher esteemed than what is for bodily; and the necessities, the indispensable necessities of the spirit, be served before the needs of nature, when they are required in their several circumstances; or plainer yet, when we choose any temporal inconvenience, rather than to commit a sin, and when we choose to do a duty, rather than to get gain. But he that does his recreation or his merchandise cheerfully, promptly, readily, and busily, and the works of religion slowly, flatly, and without appetite; and the spirit moves like Pharaoh’s chariots when the wheels were off; it is a sign that his heart is not right with God, but it cleaves too much to the world.

2. It is likely our hearts are pure and our intentions spotless, when we are not solicitous of the opinion and censures of men: but only that we do our duty, and be accepted of God. For our eyes will certainly be fixed there from whence we expect our reward: and if we desire that God should approve us, it is a sign we do his work, and expect him our paymaster.

3. He that does as well in private, between God and his own soul, as in public, in pulpits, in theaters, and market-places, hath given himself a good testimony that his purposes are full of honesty, nobleness, and integrity. For what Helkanah said to the mother of Samuel, ‘Am I not better to thee than ten sons?’ is most certainly verified concerning God; that he, who is to be our judge, is better than ten thousand witnesses. But he that would have his virtue published, studies not virtue, but glory. “He is not just[19] that will not be just without praise: but he is a righteous man that does justice, when to do so is made infamous; and he is a wise man who is delighted with an ill name that is well gotten.” And indeed that man hath a strange[20] covetousness, or folly, that is not contented with this reward, that he hath pleased God. And see what he gets by it. He that does good works[21] for praise or secular ends, sells an inestimable jewel for a trifle; and that which would purchase heaven for him, he parts with for the breath of the people; which, at best, is but air, and that not often wholesome.

4. It is well, also, when we are not solicitous or troubled concerning the effect and event of all our actions; but that being first by prayer recommended to him, is left at his dispose: for then, in case the event be not answerable to our desires, or to the efficacy of the instrument, we have nothing left to rest in but the honesty of our purposes; which it is the more likely we have secured, by how much more we are indifferent concerning the success. St. James converted but eight persons, when he preached in Spain; and our blessed Saviour converted fewer than his own disciples did; and if thy labours prove unprosperous, if thou beset much troubled at that, it is certain thou didst not think thyself secure of a reward for thine intention; which thou mightst have done if it had been pure and just.

5. He loves virtue for God’s sake and its own that loves and honours it wherever it is to be seen; but he that is envious or angry at a virtue that is not his own, at the perfection or excellency of his neighbour, is not covetous of the virtue, but of its reward and reputation; and then his intentions are polluted. It was a great ingenuity in Moses that wished all the people might be prophets; but if he had designed his own honour, he would have prophesied alone. But he that desires only that the work of God and religion shall go on, is pleased with it whosoever is the instrument.

6. He that despises the world, and all its appendant vanities, is the best judge, and the most secured of his intentions; because he is the farthest removed from temptation. Every degree of mortification is a testimony of the purity of our purposes; and in what degree we despise sensual pleasure, or secular honours, or worldly reputation, in the same degree we shall conclude our heart right to religion and spiritual designs.

7. When we are not solicitous concerning the instruments and means of our actions, but use those means which God hath laid before us, with resignation, indifferency, and thankfulness, it is a good sign that we are rather intent upon the end of God’s glory than our own conveniency, or temporal satisfaction. He that is indifferent whether he serve God in riches or in poverty, is rather a seeker of God than of himself; and he that will throw away a good book because it is not curiously gilded, is more curious to please his eye than to inform his understanding.

8. When a temporal end consisting with a spiritual, and pretended to be subordinate to it, happens to fail and be defeated if we can rejoice in that, so God’s glory may be secured, and the interests of religion, it is a great sign our hearts are right, and our ends prudently designed and ordered.

When our intentions are thus balanced, regulated, and discerned, we may consider, 1. That this exercise is of so universal efficacy in the whole course of a holy life that it is like the soul to every holy action, and must be provided for in every undertaking; and is, of itself alone, sufficient to make all natural and indifferent actions to be adopted into the family of religion.

2. That there are some actions, which are usually reckoned as parts of our religion, which yet, of themselves, are so relative and imperfect, that, without the purity of intention, they degenerate: and unless they be directed and proceed on to those purposes which God designed them to, they return into the family of common secular, or sinful actions. Thus, alms are for charity, fasting for temperance, prayer is for religion, humiliation is for humility, austerity or sufferance is in order to the virtue of patience; and when these actions fail of their several ends, or are not directed to their own purposes, alms are misspent, fasting is an impertinent trouble, prayer is but lip-labour, humiliation is but hypocisy, sufferance is but vexation; for such were the alms of the pharisee, the fast of Jezebel, the prayer of Judah reproved by the prophet Isaiah, the humiliation of Ahab, the martyrdom of heretics; in which nothing is given to God but the body, or the forms of religion; but the soul and the power of godliness is wholly wanting.

3. We are to consider that no intention can sanctify an unholy or unlawful action. Saul, the king, disobeyed God’s commandment, and spared the cattle of Amalek to reserve the best for sacrifice; and Saul, the pharisee, persecuted the church of God with a design to do God service; and they that killed the apostles had also good purposes, but they had unhallowed actions. When there be both truth in election, and charity in the intention;[22] when we go to God in ways of his own choosing or approving, then our eye is single, and our hands are clean, and our hearts are pure. But when a man does evil that good may come of it, or good to an evil purpose, that man does like him that rolls himself in thorns that he may sleep easily; he roasts himself in the fire that he may quench his thirst with his own sweat; he turns his face to the east that he may go to bed with the sun. I end this with the saying of a wise heathen:[23] “He is to be called evil that is good only for his own sake. Regard not how full hands you bring to God, but how pure. Many cease from sin out of fear alone, not out of innocence or love of virtue;” and they, as yet, are not to be called innocent but timorous.



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