Now, when we set about any new exercise whatever, we first begin with that which is easy, and afterwards proceed therefrom to that which is more arduous. In the work of self-examination, there is a scale of difficulty — and it were well perhaps that we should make our first entrance upon the work at some of its lower gradations, lest we begin our attempt at too high a place, and be repelled altogether, by finding that it is utterly inaccessible.
To guide us aright, then, in this matter, we might observe, that the overt acts of our visible history, are far more noticeable by the eye of self-examination than those affections of the heart by which they have been prompted — and, therefore, if not yet able to read the devices of the inner man, let our first attempt be to read the doings of the outer man: ‘Hereby know we that we know him, if we keep his commandments.’ This is a palpable test, in as far, at least, as the hand, or the mouth, or the footsteps, or any of the bodily organs, are concerned — and a series of questions regarding these were a good elementary introduction to the work of self-examination. — Have we, throughout the whole course of this day, uttered the language of profaneness, or contempt, or calumny? Or have we said any of those foolish things which might be ranked among the idle words of which men shall give account on the day of judgment? Or have we expressed ourselves to any of our fellows in the tone of fretfulness and irritation? Or have we on Sabbath refrained our attendance on the public ministrations, and, instead of the readings and the contemplations, and the devout exercises of sacredness, have we given any time to the business and society of the world? Or have we been guilty of disrespect and negligence towards parents, and masters, and superiors of any kind? Or have we done any acts of mischief and revenge to the man whom we hate? Or have we willfully directed our eye to that which was fitted to kindle the affections, or lead to the purposes of licentiousness? Or have we put forth a hand of violence on the property of our neighbor; and, what is an offence of the same species, have we taken an undue advantage of him in the petty contests and negotiations of the exchange, or of the market-place? Or have we spoken, if not a direct falsehood, at least a cunningly devised utterance, which, by the tone, and manner, and apparent artlessness of it, was calculated to deceive? Or have we gone to any of the excesses of intemperance, whether of the drunkenness which inflames the faculties, or of that surfeiting which damps and overweighs them? And what this day have been our deeds of beneficence — what our attentions of kindness and charity — what our efforts or our sacrifices in the walk of Christian usefulness — what our almsgivings to the poor — what our labors of piety, either among the habitations of ignorance, or with the members of our own family? These are all matters that stand broadly and discernibly out to the eye of consciousness. They form what may be called the large and legible types on the tablet of self-examination. They form, as it were, the primer, or the alphabet of this most important branch of scholarship. It is as easy for us to frame a catalogue of these questions, and sit regularly down every evening to the task of applying them in succession to our recent history, and meet them with as prompt and clear a reply, as it is for us to tell at the end of each day, what were the visits that we performed, or the people whom we have conversed with, or the walks that we have taken, or the bargains that we have concluded. There is nothing of reconditeness or mystery whatever in this process, at least, of self-examination; and by entering immediately upon it, may we at length be qualified for those more profound exercises by which the intimacies of the heart are probed; and be able to arrive at a finding, and a familiarity with the now hidden depths of a spiritual experience.
There is much to be gathered even from this more rude and elementary process of self-examination. ‘By their fruits shall ye know them,’ says our Savior; and, after all, much may be learned of the real character of our affections, from the acts in which they terminate. In natural husbandry, one may judge of the vegetation from the crop. It is not indispensable that we dive into the secrets of physiology, or that we be skilled in the anatomy and organization of plants, or that, with the eye of direct observation, we can satisfy ourselves as to the soundness of the root, or the healthful circulation of the juices which ascend from it. There is no doubt, that a good internal economy forms the very essence of vegetable health; and yet how many an agriculturalist, from whom this essence lies hid in deepest mystery, can pronounce upon that which is spread visibly before him, that there has indeed been a grateful and prosperous return for his labors. He knows that there has been a good and abundant growth, though, in the language of a gospel parable, whose design is to illustrate this very thing, he ‘knoweth not how.’ And so, to a great extent, of spiritual husbandry. One may be profoundly ignorant of moral science. He may not be able to grope his way among the arcana of the inner man. There might not be a more inscrutable thing to him in nature, than the mystery of his own spirit; and not a darker or more impenetrable chaos, than that heart which ever teemeth with the abundance of its own thoughts and its own counsels. Yet from the abundance of that heart the mouth speaketh; and words are audible things — and out of that heart are the issues of life; and the deeds of our life or history are visible things — and as the heart prompteth so the hand performeth — and thus a legible expression is sent forth, even from the depths of an else unsearchable cavern, which we at least have never entered, either to sound its recesses, or to read the characters that are graven within its secret chambers of imagery. If we cannot go profoundly to work, let us go to it plainly. If the fountain be hid, let us take cognizance of the stream that issueth from the outlets. If we cannot gauge the designs, let us at least institute a questionary process upon the doings; and if we have wearied ourselves in vain at searching for the marks of grace upon the soul, let us remember that the body is its instrument and its vehicle, and we may at least examine ourselves as to all its movements of accordancy with the ten commandments.
Let us therefore be in earnest in this work of self-examination, which is reputed to be of so much difficulty, and immediately do that which we can; and thus will we at length be qualified for doing that which we at present cannot. Let it be the task of every evening to review the palpable history of every day; and if we cannot dive into the heart, we may at least take cognizance of the handiwork. We may not yet be able to analyze the feelings which enter into the hidden life of obedience; but we can take account of the literalities of obedience. The hasty utterance by which we wounded another’s sensibilities — the pleasantries by which we enlivened a festive circle, at the expense of some absent character — the tone of offence or imperiousness into which some domestic annoyance hath provoked us — the excess into which we have been betrayed amid the glee of merry companionship — the neglect of prayer and of the Bible, into which we have once more been led by distaste, or indolence, or the urgency of this world’s business — these, and many more, are surely noticeable things, which can be recalled by the memory, and rebuked by the moral sense, of the most ordinary Christian; and which, if so dealt with at the close of any day, might give to the morrow’s walk a greater care and a greater conscientiousness.
What we ought to do is to begin now the work of self-examination — we should now make a practical outset, and do forthwith all that our attainment and ability will let us — we should not despise the day of small things, nor idly postpone the work of self-examination till a sense, and a spirit, and a subtlety, which we at present have not, shall come upon us, as if by inspiration. If the inward motions be too faint and fugitive for us to apprehend, let us lay hold at least of the outward movements, and by a faithful retrospect and reformation of these, will our senses at length be exercised to discern both the good and the evil. What we ought to chase away from the habit of the soul is a certain quietism of inert and inactive speculation, when lulled by the jingle of an unmeaning orthodoxy, it goeth not forth with its loins girded, as well as its lamp burning, and only dreams of a coming glory, and immortality, and honor, instead of seeking for them by a patient continuance in well-doing. We ought earnestly to make a business of our Christianity, and be diligent in doing that which our hand findeth to do; and if at present the mysteries of a deeper experience look so remote and inaccessible that we cannot apprehend them, let us at least question ourselves most strictly as to the doings of our ordinary path; and under the guidance of that Spirit whose office it is to reveal all truth, will we, at length, be disciplined for greater things than these.
In prosecuting the business of self-inspection, it is of importance that we be guided aright in our inquiries into our spiritual state; and we know of few works better fitted to assist the honest inquirer in his search, than Mr. Guthrie’s Christian’s Great Interest. It is divided into two parts, ‘The Trial of a Saving Interest in Christ,’ and ‘How to Attain to a Saving Interest in Christ’; and we think it impossible to peruse this valuable treatise, with the candor and sincerity of an honest mind, without arriving at a solid conclusion as to our spiritual condition. His experimental acquaintance with the operations and genuine fruits of the Spirit, and his intimate knowledge of the workings of the human heart, fitted him for applying the tests of infallible truth to aid us in ascertaining what spirit we are of — for exposing and dissipating the false hopes of the hypocrite — for leading the careless Christian to investigate the causes of his declension in godliness, and to examine anew whether he be in the faith — and for detecting and laying open the fallacies and delusions which men practice on themselves, in regard to the state of their souls. He faithfully exposes the insidious nature of that deceitfulness of the human heart, which lulls men into a false security, while their Christianity is nothing more than a heartless and hollow profession, and they are standing exposed to the fearful condemnation denounced against those who have ‘a name to live, but are dead.’
Nor is his clear and scriptural exhibition of the dispensation of grace less fitted to guide the humble inquirer into the way of salvation. As a faithful ambassador of Christ, he is free and unreserved in his offers of pardon and reconciliation, through the death and obedience of Christ, to the acceptance of sinners; but he is no less faithful in stating and asserting the claims of the gospel, to an unshrinking and universal obedience, and to an undisputed supremacy over the heart and affections. And to aid the sincere Christian in the cultivation of the spiritual life, he urgently enjoins an implicit acquiescence in the guidance and intimations of the Holy Spirit, through whose operation it is that a cordial and affectionate faith in the whole of God’s testimony can be wrought in the soul; by whose spiritual illumination it is that the truth becomes an instrument of sanctifying and saving us; while by the inward experience of the Spirit’s light, and comfort, and renewing power, combined with the outward and visible growth of the fruits of righteousness in the character, we acquire the best and surest evidence that we have obtained a saving interest in Christ.
The intimate acquaintance which he manifests with the spiritual life, and his clear, affectionate, and earnest expositions of the peculiar doctrines of the gospel, render this treatise a precious companion to the sincere Christian; while his powerful and urgent appeals to the conscience are peculiarly fitted to awaken men to a concern about those matters to which the Scriptures attach such an infinite importance; to lead them in earnest to avoid the possibility of continuing in deception; and to constrain them to seek after a full assurance on that subject on which, above all others, it becomes men to be well assured.
St. Andrews, January 1825