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COUNSELS OF PRUDENCE FOR THE USE OF YOUNG PEOPLE.
WISDOM OF THE SERPENT AND THE INNOCENCE OF THE DOVE:
IN WHICH ARE RECOMMENDED GENERAL RULES OF PRUDENCE; WITH PARTICULAR DIRECTIONS RELATING TO BUSINESS, CONVERSATION, FRIENDSHIP, AND USEFULNESS.
Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. Matt. x. 16.
THIS advice is found among those directions which our blessed Lord gave his disciples when be sent them from him upon a commission in his life-time here on earth. "These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying: Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as ye go, preach, saying: The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give." Matt. x. 5-8.
It is reasonable to conclude, that the disciples received this commission with much pleasure and satisfaction, accounting it a great honour done them, and conceiving at the same time fond expectations of honour and acceptance wherever they came. They were to carry with them very joyful and desirable tidings, that "the kingdom of heaven was at hand:" they were empowered to confer very great benefits, and were required to do all freely, without receiving any gratuity. The limitation in their commission could not but be a high recommendation of it: the good news was to be published to Jews, and them only, not to Gentiles, nor to Samaritans.
But our Lord thought not fit to dismiss them without some particular counsels and directions, which would be of use to them now, but especially hereafter; when their commission should receive an enlargement, both with regard to the subject matter of their message, and the persons to whom they were to carry it. And he judged it needful to give them some hints of a different reception from what they thought of, and some cautions to be upon their guard: that they might not afford any just ground for misconstructions or injurious reflections, nor do any thing that should tend to draw upon themselves a disagreeable treatment. He therefore tells them: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.". You mean well 'yourselves, and you think well of others. But I must forewarn you, that many, to whom you are going, have selfish and malicious dispositions, and are subtle and artful. For which reason you are to be cautious and prudent : "Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." Maintaining your present innocence and integrity, decline dangers as much as possible, and take care not to give any ground for reflection upon your conduct.'
This advice then of our Saviour to his disciples will give me just occasion to recommend some rules and directions of prudent conduct and behaviour to those who are entering upon the stage of action in the world. In doing which I shall take this method.
I. I shall represent the nature of prudence.
II. I shall show the necessity, grounds and reasons of prudence.
III. I intend to lay down some rules and directions concerning a prudent conduct, with regard both to our words and actions.
I. I shall represent the nature of prudence. In general, it is a discerning and employing the most proper means of obtaining those ends which we propose to ourselves. He who aims at his own advancement is prudent, if he contrive a good scheme for that purpose, and then put in practice the several parts of it with diligence and discretion. If the end aimed at be the good and welfare of others, in any particular respect; then prudence lies in taking those methods which are most likely to promote the advantage of those persons, and in doing that in the way least prejudicial to ourselves, and most consistent with our own safety.
It is an important branch of prudence to avoid faults. One false step sometimes ruins, or however greatly embarrasses and retards a good design. Therefore prudent conduct depends more on great caution and circumspection than great abilities. A bright genius is necessary for producing a fine composition. Courage and presence of mind are needful for a hazardous undertaking: but circumspection alone, such caution as secures against errors and faults, makes up a great part of prudent conduct, by preventing many evils and inconveniences.
Prudence likewise supposeth the maintaining of innocence and integrity. We may not neglect our duty to avoid danger. The principal wisdom is to approve ourselves to God, and it is better to suffer any temporal evil, than incur the Divine displeasure. These disciples of Christ were to go out and preach, saying: "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." That was the work assigned them by their Lord and Master, which therefore it was their duty to perform, and they could by no means decline. But they might do it in the way which would least expose them to inconveniences, and was most likely to secure acceptance to their message and themselves. This is prudence.
We are not out of a pretence of discretion to desert the cause of truth. But we are to espouse it with safety if we can; that is, maintain it in the way least offensive to others, and least dangerous to ourselves.
Nor have we a right from any rules of prudence to use unlawful methods to obtain our end. Our end is supposed to be good, and the means must be so likewise. Thus far of the nature of prudence.
II. I would now shew the necessity, grounds, and reasons of prudence. These are chiefly the wickedness and the weakness of men. The former is the reason which our Lord refers to. "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents.' It is upon this ground likewise, that St. Paul recommends the practice of prudent caution: "See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil," Eph. v. 15, 16. Some men are malicious and designing, enemies to truth and virtue, and to all that are hearty friends of either. Good men therefore are obliged to be upon their guard, and make use of some methods of defence and security. Others are weak and simple, and therefore liable to be misled and imposed upon by the insinuations of the subtle and malicious.
Nay, if there were no bad men, yet there would be need of a prudent behaviour, because some who have not much reflection or experience are apt to put wrong constructions upon harmless actions.
This leads us somewhat farther into the nature of prudence, and to observe a particular, which could not be so well taken notice of, before we had observed this ground and reason of it. For a great part of prudence lies in denying ourselves, so as to keep some way within the limits of virtue. A good man, if all about him were wise and good, might be secure in his innocence alone. It might then be sufficient to mean well, and to pursue directly the good ends he has in view, without doing any harm in the prosecution of them. But now, on account of the weakness of some, he must not only be innocent, but he must also obviate misconstructions and misrepresentations.
We may perceive this in an instance or two. Our Saviour directs his disciples at the eleventh verse of this chapter: "Into whatsoever city or town ye enter, inquire who is worthy, and there abide till ye go thence." This is more particularly expressed in another Gospel: "In the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: go not from house to house," Luke x. 7. They had not then in the eastern countries houses of public entertainment. And it was usual for men of good dispositions, such as our Lord terms worthy, to enter
tain strangers. The disciples were sent two and two. They were not to make a long abode in any place, and would not be thought burdensome by any that were worthy or hospitable men. But our Lord charges them "not to go from house to house," or remove from the place they had first resorted to. This perhaps might be sometimes done very reasonably. But our Lord does now in a manner absolutely restrain his disciples from acting thus, whatever some others might do : that they might not give any the least ground of suspicion, or insinuation, that they were curious about their entertainment.
It was upon this principle that the apostle Paul went yet farther, and in some places, particularly in Greece, waved his right to a subsistence from those he taught, as he observes to the Corinthians: "If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power, but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ, 1 Cor. ix. 12. Again, ver. 19. "Though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant to all, that I might gain the more." This rule he observed also at Thessalonica: "For ye remember, brethren, our labour and travel: for labouring night and day, because we would not be chargeable unto any of you, we preached unto you the gospel of God," 1 Thess. ii. 9.
I have now given you a view of the nature of prudence, and the reasons of it.
III. In the next place I am to lay down some rules and directions concerning a prudent conduct with regard to our words and actions.
This is indeed a work of some niceness and delicacy, and is most properly reserved for men of distinguished characters. There is likewise oftentimes a backwardness in men to pay any deference to directions of this kind, except they are delivered by men of large experience, and of great renown for wisdom. For this reason, as it seems, Solomon in his book of Proverbs, containing excellent rules of virtue and prudence, thought fit to introduce Wisdom herself proclaiming her kind intentions to mankind, and delivering many of those directions, that men might be the better induced to hearken to them. And when he was about to publish some remarks upon the world, and the affairs of men in it, he jaggrandises his own character, and sets it off to the best advantage; giving himself the title of "the Preacher," or Collector. Ecc. i. 1. One who had been long and carefully employed in laying up a store of just and useful observations; and who had good opportunities for that purpose, as he was "King in Jerusalem:" affirming likewise, that he had given his heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven;" that he "had seen all the works that are done under the sun," and that his "heart had great experience in wisdom and knowledge," Ecc. i. 1-16.
As we have before us for our guidance the observations of those who have been eminent for wisdom, and whose character is well established in the world; it may be presumed, that all these high qualifications are not now requisite for a performance of this nature. And I would hope, that they, for whom the following directions are chiefly intended, are already so wise, or so well disposed at least, as to be willing to hearken to good counsel from any one who means them well. It will be my care to deliver such rules of prudence as have been approved and recommended by those who have had a knowledge of the world, and are esteemed good judges of mankind. And I shall generally support the rules laid down by reasons, which if they do not convince, the counsel itself may be the less regarded.
Rules of this sort are very numerous, and have been often given, as many are in the book of Proverbs, without connection or dependence on each other. I shall propose those I mention in the following method: First, I shall observe some general rules of prudence; and then some particular directions relating to business, civil conversation in the world, more intimate friendship, and private relations; lastly, usefulness to others.
1. I shall mention some general rules of prudence. The preservation of our integrity in acting strictly according to the rules of religion and virtue will not be allowed a place among these rules. However, (as has been already shewn,) it ought to be supposed. Our blessed Lord does not omit the innocence of the dove, when he recommends the wisdom of the serpent. I must therefore again desire it may be observed, that nothing I am about to say is to be understood as inconsistent with integrity; which, though not properly a rule of prudence, is oftentimes of advantage, and is both a mean of security, and adds weight and influence to a man's character. "He that walketh uprightly, walketh surely, but he that perverteth his way shall be known," Prov. x. 9. Again: "In the way of righteousness there is life, and in the path