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EXODUS XX. 17.-Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.
THE preceding Precepts of the Decalogue, so far as the language in which they are written is concerned, are apparently intended to regulate, chiefly, the external conduct of mankind. Had they not been explained by the Prophets, who followed Moses, and still more by our Saviour and his Apostles, plausible reasons might be alleged, why all of them, even the fourth, might be satisfied by external observances. But the Precept in the Text is directed immediately, and only, to the heart; and is intended supremely to control the disposition. The propensity, forbidden in it, is Covetousness: an inordinate desire of worldly enjoyments; and, particularly, an inordinate desire of such enjoyments, when in the possession of others. We may lawfully desire the enjoyments furnished by this world; and that, even when they belong to our fellow-men; if the desire is confined within due bounds. We may desire, lawfully, the lands and houses of others, when they are willing to part with them, and we are equally willing to purchase them at an equitable price. We may lawfully wish to obtain any share of worldly good, with which God may crown our honest and industrious efforts, and which we may be prepared to enjoy with a spirit of gratitude, beneficence, and moderation. I know, says Solomon, that there is no good in them, (that is, in the creatures which God has made in this world, or the things created here) but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life; and also, that every man should eat, and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour: it is the gift of God.
An inordinate Desire of Natural good, seems, in the order of things, to be the Commencement of sin in a virtuous being. Our first parents began their apostacy by coveting the forbidden fruit as an enjoyment, and wishing to become as gods, knowing good and evil. In this disposition seem naturally to be involved, Ambition, Avarice, and Voluptuous wishes for its attainment: and out of it to spring, as consequences, Pride, Vanity, and criminal Sensuality, in its enjoyment; Envy towards those, who possess more of it than ourselves; Anger and Malice towards those, who hinder us from acquiring it; Revenge towards those, who have deprived us of it;
Falsehood, as the means of achieving and securing it; Forgetfulness, and therefore Ingratitude, with respect to such as give it; and Impiety, and consequent Rebellion, Repining, and Profaneness, towards Him, from whom we receive less of it, than our unreasonable wishes demand. In a word, to this disposition may be traced, with no great difficulty, most, if not all, of the sins, committed by mankind. The Text, therefore, appears to be levelled at the root of bitterness; at a sinful disposition in its original form, and in the very commencement of its existence. If we obey this Precept with the heart; and it cannot otherwise be obeyed; that Obedience will immediately fulfil all the demands of the other Precepts, belonging to the second table, or those, regulating our duty to mankind; and, consequentially, will fulfil those of the first. The Tenth Command, therefore, may be regarded as, in an extensive sense, a Summary of our duty.
This Command directly prohibits Coveting; or, in other words, Ambition, Avarice, and Voluptuous Desires. Of course, it requires, universally, Contentment, and by easy implication, Charity. Of consequence, also, it forbids Discontentment and Envy. Contentment, the Virtue required in this Precept, shall be the principal subject of the present discourse. With this subject, I shall connect some observations concerning Discontentment and Envy. Concerning Voluptuous desires I shall not, here, enter into any discussion.
In examining this subject I shall
I. Describe the Nature; and,
II. Mention the Benefits; of Contentment.
The Nature of Contentment has been very often misapprehended. Persons often suppose themselves to be contented, when they are merely gay, or glad; when a native, or accidental, sprightliness of mind excludes sorrow and gloom; or when a multiplicity of enjoyments, the gratification of a darling wish, or the success of a favourite enterprize, or the arrival of some unexpected benefit, fills the heart with pleasure. Others mistake Indifference and Phlegm for Contentment: and others, still, that kind of dull Equanimity, which springs from uniform, grave, and spiritless, employments; destroying all the elasticity of the mind, and settling it down in an immoveable stagnation. The Contentment, which is the object of this Precept, differs radically from all these dispositions. A man may be gay, or glad; and yet be totally destitute of this virtue. His natural disposition may incline him to flutter from one amusement to another, without suffering him to settle seriously upon any. Still, the disposition, which he mistakes for Contentment, is only Sportiveness. But no man will mistrust that sportiveness is the disposition required by this Precept. A man may be greatly delighted with his present enjoyments. But no person, beside himself, will mistake his pleasure for Contentment: and a reverse of fortune may convince even him, that there is a
wide difference between these two states of mind. Much less can the other attributes, which I have mentioned, lay a claim to this title. There is nothing excellent, nor amiable, in being merely grave, insensible to sufferings, or indifferent about them.
The Words, used in the Scriptures to denote Contentment, involve, as one of their significations, the restraining of ourselves; and, as another, the supporting of such burdens, as are incumbent on us. It includes, therefore, the supposition, that the contented person is placed in circumstances, which demand the restraint of his inclinations, and the sustentation of difficulties. Such, plainly, are the circumstances of every being, who can, with strict propriety, be said to be contented. To say, that an Angel was contented, would certainly be incorrect phraseology. An Angel is happy; all his circumstances being completely gratifying to his desires. A man, whom many troubles befal, and many burdens press, may, by steadily restraining his inclinations to murmur at the former, and serenely supporting the latter, be contented. Such is always the situation of man, upon the whole. He is never, for any length of time, in a situation entirely agreeable to him. On the contrary, he is always required, in some degree, and at short intervals, to suffer. If he possess a contented spirit, he will suffer with quietness and serenity.
Having premised these general remarks, I observe, that Evangelical Contentment, the object of the Command in the Text, involves,
1. A fixed belief of the Reality, and Excellency, of the Divine Government.
The Divine Government is, throughout the Scriptures, made the foundation of every delightful, and even every comfortable, thought. This Scheme is perfectly accordant with the dictates of Reason. Both the views, and prospects, of the Atheist, as I have heretofore shown at large,* are gloomy and desolate, full of perplexity and discouragement, and destitute alike of comfort and hope. The Lord reigneth, let the earth rejoice: is a declaration, and a precept founded on it, which a very limited understanding will show us to be just; and a very moderate degree of rectitude incline us to obey.
It is not, however, sufficient to insure our obedience, however well disposed, that we believe in the superintendence of some Allcontrolling Agent. It is the Government of Jehovah, in which we are required to rejoice; the result of the Wisdom, Power, and Goodness, which constitute the Perfect Character of this glorious Being. No man can be contented, who does not believe, that the administration, by which all his own interests, both personal and social, are ultimately to be decided, is both just and benevolent. The state of things, with which we are immediately concerned, is
See Sermon III.
mysterious and distressing. The mysteries we cannot unravel: the distresses we often find it difficult to bear. Both, united, must frequently be insupportable, unless we could confide in the Wisdom and Goodness of Him, who controls the Universe, as furnishing sufficient assurance, that they are right and good in themselves, and will in the end be shown to be right and good. The reality, and excellence, of the Divine Government, therefore, must indispensably be objects of a steady faith to a contented mind.
2. Contentment involves a humble Hope, generally existing, that We are interested in the Divine Favour.
We suffer many evils in the present world. Philosophy bids us suffer them with firmness; since they cannot be avoided; and since impatience and sinking under them will only make them heavier. I am not disposed to deny the prudence, or even the propriety, of this precept. It may be, it usually is, true, that we lessen the degree of our sufferings by resolving firmly to endure them. But it is equally true, that the immoveable nature of evils is no cause of Contentment. On the contrary, it is always the most distressing consideration, which can attend them. This, however, is the only support, which Philosophy can give to the sufferer.
No motive can rationally make us willing to suffer. There is no virtue in suffering evil for its own sake. All rational submission to evil arises from the consideration, that God wills us to suffer, as the proper reward of our sins, and as the means of promoting his Glory, and the good of ourselves or others; of others alway, and of ourselves, if we do not prevent it by our disobedience to his pleasure. This motive to Contentment, Christianity holds out to its disciples, invariably, by pointing their attention, and their faith, to the government of God. The hope of an interest in his favour, Christianity, also, regularly inspires, by presenting to them all the promises of infinite Mercy through the Mediation of Christ. Without such a hope, the ills of life would often overcome the equanimity of such minds, as ours. The outcast would be feebly supported by an assurance, that he could obtain no relief for his sufferings; and the martyr, by being told, that his flames could not be ex tinguished. In the hope of the divine mercy, a remedy is found for every present evil; and he, who exercises it, will naturally summon all his powers to sustain, with serenity, distresses, which although grievous for the present, will operate as the means, and terminate in the enjoyment, of everlasting good.
3. Contentment involves a Conviction, that it is both our Duty end our Interest, to acquiesce in the divine dispensations.
With the dispositions, already mentioned, it may be regarded a a thing of course, that such a conviction will prevail in the mind If God is the universal Ruler; if his government is the result of infinite excellence; if what he does, or permits to be done, is right in itself, and will hereafter appear to be right; if we are furnished with a humble hope of an interest in his favour; then, however
mysterious and perplexing the events of Divine Providence may be, and however distressing to us, we still shall see, and feel, abundant reason to be satisfied. We shall readily admit, that the most untoward events, the most difficult to be reconciled with our apprehensions of wisdom and goodness, are difficult only in the view of creatures whose minds are limited, like ours. We shall believe, that they are perplexing, only because we cannot explain them; that they seem wrong, only because we cannot understand them. With such views, we shall cheerfully resign the Government of the Universe into the hands of its Maker, and wait for the removal of our own perplexities, until the day when the mystery shall be finished, when God shall appear just in judging, and clear even in condemning.
4. Contentment implies a Cordial Acknowledgment, that we are unworthy of the mercies which we receive.
There are in the present world many afflictions. If we are guiltless beings; our sufferance of them must be unmerited; and the communication of them to us by our Creator is irreconcileable with all our ideas of equity. If we admit God to be just; we are obliged also to admit, that ourselves are sinners. If we are not sinners, but are unjustly distressed; there is no reason, why we should be contented with our situation. No being can be bound to be contented with injustice. But if we are sinners; we can have no claim to any favour. If we are conscious, that we are sinners; we shall see, that we have no such claim. We shall see, that, however small our blessings may appear, God hath not dealt with us after our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. Enjoyments, in the view of a mind thus attempered, will all ap pear to be mere gifts of Sovereign Goodness, mere emanations of benevolence, to a being, destitute of any claim to the favour of God. Without such views, seated in the heart, and controlling its affections, it appears to me impossible, that such a being, as a man, should be contented.
5. Contentment involves a disposition steadily to mark the daily mercies of God.
The great body of mankind seem to regard their enjoyments either as things of course; or as acquisitions, made by their own ingenuity, and efforts. With such views it seems impossible, that they should consider them as blessings. Their afflictions, on the contrary, they appear to consider as mere hardships; partly as injuries, done to them by their fellow-men, and partly as vexatious and unlucky events, brought upon them by, they know not what, untoward chance, or evil destiny. Accordingly, in their hours of complaining, they customarily pronounce themselves to be ill-starred; unlucky; unfortunate; persecuted by ill-fortune; plagued; and harassed; and, what is very remarkable, never speak of themselves as chastised or afflicted by God. According to their own account, their enjoyments are accidents, and acquisitions; not