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The Christian Life by Thomas Arnold



We do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding.

This is the first of three verses, all of them forming a part of the Epistle which was read this morning, and containing St. Paul's prayer for the Colossians in all the several points of Christian excellence. And the first thing which he desires for them, as we have heard, is, that they should be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; or, as he expresses the same thing to the Ephesians, that they should be not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. He prays for the Colossians that they should not be spiritually foolish, but that they should be spiritually wise.

The state of spiritual folly is, I suppose, one of the most universal evils in the world. For the number of those who are naturally foolish is exceedingly great; of those, I mean, who understand no worldly thing well; of those who are careless about everything, carried about by every breath of opinion, without knowledge, and without principle. But the term spiritual folly includes, unhappily, a great many more than these; it takes in not those only who are in the common sense of the term foolish, but a great many who are in the common sense of the term clever, and many who are even in the common sense of the terms, prudent, sensible, thoughtful, and wise. It is but too evident that some of the ablest men who have ever lived upon earth, have been in no less a degree spiritually fools. And thus, it is not without much truth that Christian writers have dwelt upon the insufficiency of worldly wisdom, and have warned their readers to beware, lest, while professing themselves to be wise, they should be accounted as fools in the sight of God.

But the opposite to this notion, that those who are, as it were, fools in worldly matters are wise before God; although this also is true in a certain sense, and under certain peculiar circumstances, yet taken generally, it is the very reverse of truth; and the careless and incautious language which has been often used on this subject, has been extremely mischievous. On the contrary, he who is foolish in worldly matters is likely also to be, and most commonly is, no less foolish in the things of God. And the opposite belief has arisen mainly from that strange confusion between ignorance and innocence, with which many ignorant persons seem to solace themselves. Whereas, if you take away a man's knowledge, you do not bring him to the state of an infant, but to that of a brute; and of one of the most mischievous and malignant of the brute creation. For you do not lessen or weaken the man's body by lowering his mind; he still retains his strength and his passions, the passions leading to self-indulgence, the strength which enables him to feed them by continued gratification. He will not think it is true to any good purpose; it is very possible to destroy in him the power of reflection, whether as exercised upon outward things, or upon himself and his own nature, or upon God. But you cannot destroy the power of adapting means to ends, nor that of concealing his purposes by fraud or falsehood; you take only his wisdom, and leave that cunning which marks so notoriously both the savage and the madman. He, then, who is a fool as far as regards earthly things, is much more a fool with regard to heavenly things; he who cannot raise himself even to the lower height, how is he to attain to the higher? he who is without reason and conscience, how shall he be endowed with the spirit of God?

It is my deep conviction and long experience of this truth, which makes me so grieve over a want of interest in your own improvement in human learning, whenever I observe it, over the prevalence of a thoughtless and childish spirit amongst you. I grant that as to the first point there are sometimes exceptions to be met with; that is to say, I have known persons certainly whose interest in their work here was not great, and their proficiency consequently was small; but who, I do not doubt, were wise unto God. But then these persons, whilst they were indifferent perhaps about their common school-work, were anything but indifferent as to the knowledge of the Bible: there was no carelessness there; but they read, and read frequently, books of practical improvement, or relating otherwise to religious matters, such as many, I believe, would find even less inviting than the books of their common business. So that although there was a neglect undoubtedly of many parts of the school-work, yet there was no spirit of thoughtlessness or childishness in them, nor of general idleness; and therefore, although I know that their minds did suffer and have suffered from their unwise neglect of a part of their duty, yet there was so much attention bestowed on other parts, and so manifest and earnest a care for the things of God, that it was impossible not to entertain for them the greatest respect and regard. These, however, are such rare cases, that it cannot be necessary to do more than thus notice them. But the idleness and want of interest which I grieve for, is one which extends itself but too impartially to knowledge of every kind: to divine knowledge, as might be expected, even more than to human. Those whom we commonly find careless about their general lessons, are quite as ignorant and as careless about their Bibles; those who have no interest in general literature, in poetry, or in history, or in philosophy, have certainly no greater interest, I do not say in works of theology, but in works of practical devotion, in the lives of holy men, in meditations, or in prayers. Alas, the interest of their minds is bestowed on things far lower than the very lowest of all which I have named; and therefore, to see them desiring something only a little higher than their present pursuits, could not but be encouraging; it would, at least, show that the mind was rising upwards. It may, indeed, stop at a point short of the highest, it may learn to love earthly excellence, and rest there contented, and seek for nothing more perfect; but that, at any rate, is a future and merely contingent evil. It is better to love earthly excellence than earthly folly; it is far better in itself, and it is, by many degrees, nearer to the kingdom of God.

There is another case, however, which I cannot but think is more frequent now than formerly; and if it is so, it may be worth while to direct our attention to it. Common idleness and absolute ignorance are not what I wish to speak of now, but a character advanced above these; a character which does not neglect its school-lessons, but really attains to considerable proficiency in them; a character at once regular and amiable, abstaining from evil, and for evil in its low and grosser forms, having a real abhorrence. What, then, you will say, is wanting here? I will tell you what seems to be wanting -- a spirit of manly, and much more of Christian, thoughtfulness. There is quickness and cleverness; much pleasure, perhaps, in distinction, but little in improvement; there is no desire of knowledge for its own sake, whether human or divine. There is, therefore, but little power of combining and digesting what is read; and, consequently, what is read passes away, and takes no root in the mind. This same character shows itself in matters of conduct; it will adopt, without scruple, the most foolish, commonplace notions of boys, about what is right and wrong; it will not, and cannot, from the lightness of its mind, concern itself seriously about what is evil in the conduct of others, because it takes no regular care of its own, with reference to pleasing God; it will not do anything low or wicked, but it will sometimes laugh at those who do; and it will by no means take pains to encourage, nay, it will sometimes thwart and oppose any thing that breathes a higher spirit, and asserts a more manly and Christian standard of duty.

I have thought that this character, with its features more or less strongly marked, has shown itself sometimes amongst us, marring the good and amiable qualities of those in whom we can least bear to see such a defect, because there is in them really so much to interest in their favour. Now the number of persons of extraordinary abilities who may be here at any one time can depend on no calculable causes: nor, again, can we give any reason more than what we call accident, if there were to be amongst us at any one time a number of persons whose whole tendency was decidedly to evil. But if, in these respects, the usual average has continued, if there is no lack of ability, and nothing like a prevalence of vice, then we begin anxiously to inquire into the causes, which, while other things remain the same, have led to a different result. And one cause I do find, which, is certainly capable of producing such a result: a cause undoubtedly in existence now, and as certainly not in existence a few years back; nor can I trace any other besides this which appears likely to have produced the same effect. This cause consists in the number and character and cheapness, and peculiar mode of publication, of the works of amusement of the present day. In all these respects the change is great, and extremely recent. The works of amusement published only a very few years since were comparatively few in number; they were less exciting, and therefore less attractive; they were dearer, and therefore less accessible; and, not being published periodically, they did not occupy the mind for so long a time, nor keep alive so constant an expectation; nor, by thus dwelling upon the mind, and distilling themselves into it as it were drop by drop, did they possess it so largely, colouring even, in many instances, its very language, and affording frequent matter for conversation.

The evil of all these circumstances is actually enormous. The mass of human minds, and much more of the minds of young persons, have no great appetite for intellectual exercise; but they have some, which by careful treatment may be strengthened and increased. But here to this weak and delicate appetite is presented an abundance of the most stimulating and least nourishing food possible. It snatches it greedily, and is not only satisfied, but actually conceives a distaste for anything simpler and more wholesome. That curiosity which is wisely given us to lead us on to knowledge, finds its full gratification in the details of an exciting and protracted story, and then lies down as it were gorged, and goes to sleep. Other faculties claim their turn, and have it. We know that in youth the healthy body and lively spirits require exercise, and in this they may and ought to be indulged: but the time and interest which remain over when the body has had its enjoyment, and the mind desires its share, this has been already wasted and exhausted upon things utterly unprofitable: so that the mind goes to its work hurriedly and languidly, and feels it to be no more than a burden. The mere lessons may be learnt from a sense of duty; but that freshness of power which, in young persons of ability would fasten eagerly upon some one portion or other, of the wide field of knowledge, and there expatiate, drinking in health and strength to the mind, as surely as the natural exercise of the body gives to it bodily vigour, -- that is tired prematurely, perverted, and corrupted; and all the knowledge which else it might so covet, it now seems a wearying effort to attain.

Great and grievous as is the evil, it is peculiarly hard to find the remedy for it. If the books to which I have been alluding were books of downright wickedness, we might destroy them wherever we found them; we might forbid their open circulation; we might conjure you to shun them as you would any other clear sin, whether of word or deed. But they are not wicked books for the most part; they are of that class which cannot be actually prohibited; nor can it be pretended that there is a sin in reading them. They are not the more wicked for being published so cheap, and at regular intervals; but yet these two circumstances make them so peculiarly injurious. All that can be done is to point out the evil; that it is real and serious I am very sure, and its effects are most deplorable on the minds of the fairest promise; but the remedy for it rests with yourselves, or rather with each of you individually, so far as he is himself concerned. That an unnatural and constant excitement of the mind is most injurious, there is no doubt; that excitement involves a consequent weakness, is a law of our nature than which none is surer; that the weakness of mind thus produced is and must be adverse to quiet study and thought, to that reflection which alone is wisdom, is also clear in itself, and proved too largely by experience. And that without reflection there can be no spiritual understanding, is at once evident; while without spiritual understanding, that is, without a knowledge and a study of God's will, there can be no spiritual life. And therefore childishness and unthoughtfulness cannot be light evils; and if I have rightly traced the prevalence of these defects to its cause, although that cause may seem to some to be trifling, yet surely it is well to call your attention to it, and to remind you that in reading works of amusement, as in every other lawful pleasure, there is and must be an abiding responsibility in the sight of God; that, like other lawful pleasures, we must beware of excess in it; and not only so, but that if we find it hurtful to us, either because we have used it too freely in times past, or because our nature is too weak to bear it, that then we are bound most solemnly to abstain from it; because, however lawful in itself, or to others who can practise it without injury, whatever is to us an hindrance in the way of our intellectual and moral and spiritual improvement, that is in our case a positive sin.

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