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Self-Knowledge

He hath often offended and injured me.

Let me consider (1) whether any offence was really intended, whether I do not impute that to ill-nature which was only owing to ill-manners, or that to design, which proceeded only from ignorance. Do I not take offence before it is given? If so, the fault is mine and not his; and the resentment I have conceived against him I ought to turn upon myself. Again (2) did I not provoke him to it, when I knew his temper? The fault is still my own. I did, or might know the pride, passion, or perverseness of his nature; why, then, did I exasperate him? A man that will needlessly rouse a lion must not expect always to come off so favorably as the hero of La Mancha. But (3) suppose I were not the aggressor, yet how came I into his company? who led me into the temptation? He hath acted according to his nature in what he hath done; but have I not acted according to my reason, in laying myself so open to him. I knew him; why did I not shun him, as I would any other dangerous animal that does mischief by instinct? If I must needs put my finger into a wasp's nest, why should I blame them for stinging me? Or (4) if I could not avoid his company, why did I not arm myself? Why did I venture, defenseless, into so much danger? Or (5) suppose he hath done me a real and undeserved injury, without my fault or provocation, yet does not my present discontent greatly aggravate it? Does it not appear greater to me than it does to anybody else? or than it will to me after the present ferment is over? And, lastly, after all, must I never forgive? How shall I be able to repeat the Lord's Prayer, or read our Savior's comment upon it, Matt. vi. 14, 15, with an unforgiving temper? Do I not hope to be forgiven ten thousand talents, and cannot I forgive my fellow-servant thirty pence, when I know not but he hath repented, and God hath forgiven him, whose forgiveness I want infinitely more than my greatest enemy does mine?

Such considerations are of great use to soften our prejudices against persons, and at once to discover the true spring, and prevent the bad effects of them. And happy would it be for a Christian could he but call to mind, and apply to his relief half the good things which that excellent heathen emperor and philosopher, Marcus Antonius, could say upon this subject.

The mind is apt to be prejudiced against, or in favor of, certain things and actions, as well as certain sentiments and persons.

If, therefore, you find in yourself a secret disinclination to any particular action or duty, and the mind begins to cast about for excuses and reasons to justify the neglect of it, consider the matter well; go to the bottom of that reluctance, and search out what it is that gives the mind this aversion to it, whether it be the thing or action itself, or some discouraging circumstances that may attend it, or some disagreeable consequences that may possibly flow from it, or your supposed unfitness for it at present. Why, all these things may be only imaginary! and to neglect a plain and positive duty upon such considerations shows that you are governed by appearances more than realities, by fancy more than reason, and by inclination more than conscience.

But let fancy muster up all the discouraging circumstances, and set them in the most formidable light, to bar your way to a supposed duty: for instance, "It is very difficult, I want capacity, at least am so indisposed to it at present that I shall make nothing of it, and then it will be attended with danger to my person, reputation, or peace; and the opposition I am like to meet with is great," etc. But, after all, is the call of Providence clear? is the thing a plain duty such as reason, conscience, and Scripture, your office, character, or personal engagements call upon you to discharge? If so, all the aforesaid objections are vain and delusive, and you have nothing to do but to summon your courage, and, in dependence on divine help, to set about the business immediately and in good earnest and in the best and wisest manner you can; and, you may depend upon it, you will find the greatest difficulty to see, only in the first attempt, these frightful appearances to be all visionary, the mere figments of fancy, turning lambs into lions and mole-hills into mountains; and that nothing but sloth, folly, and self-indulgence thus set your imagination on work to deter you from a plain duty. Your heart would deceive you, but you have found out the cheat, and do not be imposed upon.

Again, suppose the thing done, consider how it will look then. Take a view of it as past, and, whatever pains it may cost you, think whether it will not be abundantly recompensed by the inward peace and pleasure which arises from a consciousness of having acted right. It certainly will. And the difficulties you now dread will enhance your future satisfaction. But think again, how you will bear the reflections of your own mind if you willfully neglect a plain and necessary duty, whether this will not occasion you much more trouble than all the pains you might be at in performing it. And a wise man will always determine himself by the end, or by such a retrospective view of things considered as past.

Again, on the other hand, if you find a strong propension to any particular action, examine that with the like impartiality. Perhaps it is what neither your reason nor conscience can fully approve; and yet every motive to it is strongly urged, and every objection against it slighted. Sense and appetite grow importunate and clamorous, and want to lead, while reason remonstrates in vain. But turn not aside from that faithful and friendly monitor, whilst, with a low, still voice, she addresses you in this soft, but earnest language: "Hear me, I beseech you, but this one word more,—The action is indeed out of character, what I shall never approve; the pleasure of it is a great deal overrated. You will certainly be disappointed. It is a false appearance that now deceives you, and what will you think of yourself when it is past, and you come to reflect seriously on the matter? Believe it, you will then wish you had taken me for your counselor instead of those enemies of mine, your lusts and passions, which have so often misled you, though you know I never did."

Such short recollections as these, and a little leisure to take a view of the nature and consequences of things or actions, before we reject or approve them, will prevent much false judgment and bad conduct, and, by degrees, wear off the prejudices which fancy has fixed in the mind, either for or against any particular action, teach us to distinguish between things and their appearances, strip them of those false colors that so often deceive us, correct the sallies of the imagination, and leave the reins in the hand of reason.

Before I dismiss this head, I must observe that some of our strongest prejudices arise from an excessive self-esteem, or a too great value of our own good sense and understanding. Philantus, in everything, shows himself very well satisfied with his own wisdom, which makes him very impatient of contradiction, and gives him a distaste to all who shall presume to oppose their judgment to his in anything. He had rather persevere in a mistake than retract it, lest his judgment should suffer, not considering that his ingenuity and good sense suffer much more by such obstinacy. The fullness of his self-sufficiency makes him blind to those imperfections which everyone can see in him but himself So that, however wise, sincere, and friendly, however gentle and seasonable your remonstrance may be, he takes it immediately to proceed from ill-nature or ignorance in you, but from no fault in him.

How many among us
Do forge a life-long trouble for ourselves,
By taking true for false, or false for true.
—Shakespeare
He who is false to present duty breaks a thread in the loom, and will find the flaw when he may have forgotten the cause.
—H. W. Bucher
In no case can a man suffer that which he has not deserved.
—Annie Besant

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John Mason, M. A.

  • Lived from 1646 to 1694
  • Calvinistic Anglican priest and poet
  • Early hymn writer
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