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The Nature and Kinds of Sins of Infirmity.
The First Sermon on this Subject.
MATTH. xxvi. 41.
The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. THESE HESE are the words of our blessed Lord to his drowsy dis
ciples. It was the night before his Passion, a night which he himself spent in prayer and watching, and he had entreated his disciples to tarry and watch with him. But their hearts were dull, and their eyelids heavy; and, notwithstanding all their best endeavours to the contrary, sleep stole upon them, and overcame them. Hereupon, their indulgent Master, coming to them, thus gently rebuked them : “ What, could ye not watch “ with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into “ temptation.” Then follows, “ the spirit indeed is willing, but “ the flesh is weak.” Which words I understand, with the generality of interpreters, as spoken in the way of kind excuse or mitigation of their fault, in not watching at a time when it was their duty to have done it, and when even common prudenco required it. One can scarce acquit them of some degree of negligence and want of respect in that affair: but our blessed Lord was pleased to put the mildest and most candid construction possible upon it. The night was far spent; sleep stole upon them unawares; and they were naturally slow and heavy, not apprehending how much depended upon that critical juncture.
They intended no affront or disrespect to their Lord: they had a true and real, only not so lively and vigorous a concern for him, as they ought to have had. Their spirit truly was willing, and they meant well; but yet, for want of quicker sentiments, they failed in the performance. It was natural infirmity which prevailed over their resolutions, which overpowered their very hearty and honest, but languid endeavours. “ The spirit” truly
willing, but the flesh” was " weak.” The words of the text have been thought to express, in very proper and affecting terms, the nature or essence of that kind of sins which we call sins of infirmity, or sins of human frailty: and it is under this general view that I now design to consider them, abstracting from the particular occasion of them.
In discoursing further, my design is,
1. To consider what sins are properly sins of infirmity, and what not.
II. To inquire how our state and condition to Godwards is affected by them.
III. To shew what kind of management on our part may prudent and proper in regard to them.
Their general nature is briefly described thus; that they are rather weak than wilful, having much more of frailty than of wilfulness in them. Something of wilfulness they must have, otherwise they could not be imputed as sins : but as the degree of wilfulness is small in comparison, and the frailty so much the greater; they have therefore their denomination from their most prevailing ingredient, and so are called sins of infirmity. are such, as by a very accurate caution and circumspection might be avoided or prevented, and therefore they are sins : but yet, because such exact caution or circumspection is but rarely seen, and is not generally to be expected, therefore it is that the sins of that kind have the favour of being numbered among human frailties. They are a kind of slips, failings, or deviations, issuing from an honest and good heart, and carrying no malice prepense, no premeditated guile, no ill meaning in them; harmless almost as to the matter of them, and without any bad design. They are owing either to inadvertency, forgetfulness, surprise, strength of passion, or to the suddenness and violence of an unlooked-for temptation. But this general description of them will
They not be so instructive or satisfactory to common hearers as a particular detail may be, while I descend to special cases and instances, which is what I now intend.
Sins of infirmity then may be branched out into three several sorts, respecting either our thoughts, our words, or our actions.
1. I begin with the first of them, such as have respect to the inward thought. And here we are liable to offend two ways, either in not thinking as we ought to think, or in thinking as we ought not.
Human frailty is too often and too sadly felt in what concerns the government of the thoughts. Who is there that does not often find distraction, and wanderings, and deadness at his prayers, pricate or public; but public more especially, as we there meet with more objects to divert the eyes, and to turn off the attention. There is nothing which a man has less under command than his own thoughts, in such cases. He
devout this minute, and design to be so all the way through, and yet be quite thrown off the next moment without observing it presently; and when he does observe it, he knows not how it came to him, but that it is like his waking from a dream. This kind of nonattention, or absence of thought, in religious exercises, so far as it is a sin, (for it is not so always,) is, generally speaking, a sin of infirmity, and no more. And it is then only to be reckoned among wilful sins, when a man makes a habit of it, and slothfully submits to it, without striving against it; or when it carries some contempt of the service with it, arising from some vicious principle of the mind.
Besides the sin of infirmity now mentioned, I may name some others reducible to the same head: such as the not thinking often enough, or highly enough, of God and his good providence; not having him constantly in our thoughts, nor setting him before our eyes; not attending to his calls, not regarding his judgments, nor being duly thankful for his mercies, and the like. As to omissions of this kind, more or less, we offend all : and such offences, we may hope, will rise no higher in account than pitiable infirmities.
To these we may add, the not thinking how to lay hold of and to improve any opportunities we meet with of doing good in the world ; and this through dulness, through inadvertency or forgetfulness : for if we wilfully and designedly let slip the golden opportunity offered us, and despise the invitation, the sin is then wilful, and the offence presumptuous.
Among sins of infirmity belonging to this head may be reckoned some kinds of unbelief, as both belief and unbelief respect the inward thoughts of the heart. Want of faith or trust in God's words, or his promises, in some timorous minds, may justly pass for a sin of infirmity. Such was the sin of Zacharias, in doubting of the truth of the angel's message to him; and for such unbelief of his, he was struck dumb, and continued so, not able to speak for a season. Our blessed Lord often reproved his disciples for the like want of faith or trust, saying unto them, “ O ye of little faith,” and the like. Several of God's true servants under the Old Testament betrayed sometimes the like diffidence and doubtfulness. Moses, in his excessive shyness and modesty, durst not undertake to speak before Pharoah, though he had God's commission for doing it: and Jonas the Prophet discovered the like tergiversation and backwardness as to the errand he was sent upon to the Ninevites. These are instances of human frailty in men otherwise very pious and religious. Thomas's unbelief was somewhat worse, and was carried further. It was a strange instance of obstinacy to resolve to believe nothing but what he should see and feel. This fault of his can but hardly come under the head of infirmity; except it were because there was something very particular in the temper of the man, which might render it the more excusable in him. But Mary's want of faith in respect to our Lord's raising up her brother Lazarus, before she saw it done, is a proper instance of a sin of infirmity, and falls under this head.
Many timorous persons, though otherwise very religious and devout, are apt to offend in this kind; not relying upon God's good providence, nor reposing their trust in him with such confidence as they ought. They despond and sink down in the day of adversity more than becomes them to do; as if they had forgot that the very “hairs of their heads are all numbered ;" or as if they had never read, that not so much as a “sparrow falleth “ to the ground," but by the order or with the permission of an all-knowing God.
Hitherto I have been considering such sins of infirmity as respect the inward thoughts, in such cases wherein we do not think as we ought to think.
There is another branch of the same head, which is, the thinking as we ought not. The former is a sin of omission only, this of commission, both resting in the mind. When we are thinking of this world only, suppose in prayer-time, or sermon-time, instead of thinking of a better, as most of us are apt to do: this, we hope, may pass for a sin of infirmity if not chosen by us, nor designedly indulged.
Sometimes profane, blasphemous thoughts will rise up in men's minds : but if they be checked as soon as observed, and are not consented to, they are, at most, no more than sins of infirmity, owing generally to bodily indispositions. The same, I say, even of unchaste or malicious thoughts, if they are only short and transient, which abide not, which do not gain our consent, but are condemned by us as soon as perceived; they are then either sins of infirmity only, or not sins at all. For what the will or choice has no hand in, is not imputable to us as a fault ; it may be our misfortune. The first risings, the first dartings of a thought into the mind, are very little, if at all, in our power : we are mostly passive in them, and are no further accountable for them, than as we afterwards make them ours by indulging them, and taking pleasure in them: then indeed such evil thoughts become crimes, and grow up from infirmities into wilful sins.
The first emotions of the passions are as little in our power as the other. A sudden fear or astonishment, the first kindlings of wrath and anger, or the like: these a man cannot help : they come upon him unawares, and take him by surprise. So far he is innocent; and if they dwell with him a little time, they may amount to sins of infirmity : but if they are further indulged, as if anger, suppose, is suffered to grow into rage, or to settle into malice, it then becomes wilful, deadly sin.
Too much warmth and eagerness, in some instances, is a sin of infirmity. Such, I suppose, was Peter's eagerness, when he drew his sword, without staying for his Lord's commission, and smote off a servant's ear. Perhaps also St. Paul was too warm and eager, when he so sharply rebuked the high priest, correcting himself however, presently after, and making an apology for what he had said.
Excessive fondness, in some cases, is another instance of sins of infirmity. Fond parents especially have great reason to hope that their partial and often foolish fondness shall pass for no worse ; otherwise they would many times have a great deal to answer for. David's fondness for his son Absalom was very highly extravagant, and such as is not to be justified upon any principle of religion or reason : nevertheless it must admit of a