How glorious this idea of creation, and how beautiful the universe produced! -- the whole mantled in the effulgence of the eternal throne; the Sovereign Creator upholding all ranks of intelligences in the hollow of his hand, and pouring into their bosoms the fullness of his own fruition; while their hearts, in turn, rise to the Source of their being in sweetest incense of joy and praise; each burning with a seraph's love to communicate his own overflowing enjoyments to those around him. Well might the morning stars have sung together when such a universe awoke to being.
The greatest good, the richest possession, then, of an intelligent being, is a soul in harmony with this original design of creation -- a oneness of principle, of feeling, and interest, with God; in other words, disinterested benevolence. Truly, "It is more blessed to give than to receive;" for without the good will the generous deed implies, whatever else we have, we must have sorrow.
But how little of this spirit is evinced by man in his fallen state. Those ties of love, that bound us to our Creator and to one another, are sundered; as a race, severed from the governing Centre of all, each has chosen a centre for himself, and is moving on in darkness and ruin; selfishness the rule, self-interest the end.
Benevolence is not, therefore, natural to man. To practise it requires the greatest effort; it is reascending to that lofty height whence we have fallen. Hence the importance of System in the great work of beneficence.
System in action implies a principle from which it proceeds. Fluctuating opinions and feelings produce fickleness of conduct; while settled convictions, stability of affections, and fixedness of purpose, give birth to persevering and methodical action. A system of beneficence must be founded on abiding principles and dispositions.
I proceed to show in the first place, the Duty of Systematic Beneficence thus founded.
I. I argue the duty of systematic beneficence from the analogy of nature. The Author of nature is the perfection of order. Whatever he does, he does systematically. He proceeded in the great work of creation with regularity. Order moulded the planets, and every star that gems the evening sky; it launched them forth in their orbits, and guides their glorious way, producing "the music of the spheres." Order stretched the very layers of the everlasting rocks like ribs around the earth, and shaped the crystals of the cavern. There is order in the structure of every spire of grass, of every flower and shrub, of every tree and trembling leaf; in the mechanism of every animal, from man in his godlike attitude, to the smallest microscopic tribes. All organic existences are preserved in being, nurtured, grow and mature, according to certain laws. Even the winds, that stir the petals of the flowers, breathing fragrance and health, and the tornado, that bows the forest and dashes navies, obey established principles. Now, shall there be order all around me, and in my physical frame, in the flowing blood, in the heaving lungs, and chiseled limbs, while the accountable actions of this finely-knit and symmetrical form, especially the loftiest actions for which it was made, the diffusion of good, are exempted from this universal law? Such an exception, how incongruous! It would be an excrescence on the very vitals of nature.
II. From the characteristic of Divine beneficence. The supply of our physical necessities and comforts comes in the order of those natural laws already referred to. Social and civil blessings result from certain principles of mental, moral, and political science. Method is equally characteristic of our spiritual blessings. No sooner had man fallen, than God began to unfold the remedial scheme. But he is influenced by no impulses in accomplishing the wondrous plan. He rushes not to the result with an impetuosity indicative of a zeal that flames along its course uncontrolled by reason. But there is a steadiness of onward movement, showing that unwavering principles of order preside over all his proceedings. The world, the intelligent universe, must be prepared for such a stupendous event as the incarnation and death of the Son of God; prophecies, promises, types, and ritual institutions must gradually open the scheme, ere the final development could be suitably made. After forty centuries of preparation, Christ came; and yet years must pass away, before, in that order of events which God had established, the crowning event of all could occur, -- the propitiatory sacrifice be offered up. In extending the kingdom thus founded, the same order, the same adaptation of means to ends, is observable. The word of God, the Sabbath, the sanctuary, the workings of the Holy Spirit, and the co-operation of the individual reason and conscience, are all linked consecutively to each other, or work in beautiful harmony together. Thus, throughout the entire scheme of spiritual blessings, reaching from the opening promise of a Saviour to the incarnation; and from the incarnation to the judgment; and onward to eternity, everything is done systematically.
This is the result of the unchanging principles of the Divine Mind. They grow with a steady heat, equally prompting him to activity at every moment. Hence, like the sun shining in its strength, God sends down unweariedly the rays of his love, both on the evil and on the good, crowning their days with "loving-kindness and tender mercies." Indeed, should the ardor of his love cool, or the hand of his power or grace be withdrawn but for a single moment, all our hopes would be dashed, our very existence cease.
From this characteristic of the Divine beneficence, the inference is irresistible. If man is bound by the condition of his being, to imitate God in his moral character and conduct, he must cherish the same abiding principles of benevolence, and carry the same steady hand in diffusing good. The ardor of his love may never cool; his hand of charity never weary. He must be god-like. With permanency and uniformity of conduct, imitative of his own, our Holy Sovereign will be well pleased. But with him who is wavering in his principles; vacillating and impulsive in his purposes of good; at one time toiling for others with the utmost earnestness, and then, forgetful of their wants and woes for months together, he must be displeased. How unlike our Great Exemplar. He was always doing good. "The labor of his life was love." Reader, would you please your compassionate Savior? Go, and do likewise.
III. From the necessity of system to success in any kind of business. One cannot accumulate wealth, acquire learning, rise to distinction in any of the professions or trades without system. Even the pleasures of life depend much on regularity; otherwise they cloy and become insipid. He, who is unsteady in his habits, now indulging in ease, and now straining every muscle; who, as some excitement arouses him, -- such perhaps as the fresh inculcation of economy and industry, flares up and bustles about, resolves that his business shall henceforth be prosecuted with vigor and managed with precision, and in a few days relapses into his old, careless, inefficient habits, heedless alike of prudence and precept, gives little promise of success in any department of life. Or should one be perseveringly industrious, but suffer his affairs to lie in confusion, like the material world at its birth, he would be deemed at best but a busy-body. If he intends to succeed, he must have some established principles and a fixedness of purpose, which will prompt to accuracy and method, would be the universal decision of the wise. This is reasoning correctly. But must men practise on system in providing the means of personal supply and gratification; while in the Divine work of relieving the sorrows and wants of others, all system is matter of indifference? Is order so important in the accumulation of property; while the diffusion of it, in obedience to God's commands, may be safely left to the spontaneous impulses of feeling? The more important any business becomes, the more essential is precision in its management. This is a universal maxim. Now, as beneficence, in its comprehensive import, rises superior to all other employments, so, if it ever reaches its highest possible results, it must be carried on systematically. How often does benevolence to the poor fail of accomplishing all that it otherwise might, were it not exerted irregularly; whereas, when proceeding in equable flow, by encouraging frugality and economy, it fills even the dwellings of poverty with comfort. How much more efficient would our great benevolent societies become, were the contributions of the churches uniform, or uniformly rising like the waters from the sanctuary in Ezekiel's vision; so that those who conduct them might have sufficient data on which to erect their schemes for the future. It would infuse new life into all their operations; elevate them to a loftier position, from which they might stretch their arms around the world, and kindle joys reaching to heaven. Besides, is it not matter of personal experience, that when order enters into, and pervades our worldly business, we accomplish far more than when it is left to the driftings of fortune, or to the mere suggestions of the mind? And can any reason be assigned why the same practice should not be equally productive in carrying out the noblest work of our being?
Thus personal experience in other matters observation, and theory, alike teach us that the work of benevolence may not be left to the impulses of natural feeling -- to the influence of lectures and appeals, or casual stimulants. It must be planted in principle, and issue in regular contributions, like the tree of life yielding her fruit every month, if we would have the blessing of many ready to perish come upon us. Those who depend on intermittent springs are liable to suffer thirst.
IV. From the deep-seated depravity of the human heart. Depravity is supreme selfishness. This, in unregenerate men, is the governing principle. Quick-sighted, ever on the alert, and lying, as it does, at the foundation of the active powers, it becomes the propeller of the mind. It leads to a series, and thus substantially to a system, of actions. They may not always be rational; yet, as they spring from a fixed principle, and proceed in an uninterrupted current, they may properly be termed systematic. Hence the natural man feels a constant pressure of motives to conduct pleasing to himself; and is thereby borne away on the maddening torrent of self-gratification. There must be a counter-current; billow must battle with billow. The antagonist principle demanded is benevolence; and antagonist principles, coming in collision, must press with equal force, or one gradually gaining upon the other, will eventually secure the victory. The combatant, who is for a moment off his guard, or ceases to struggle, falls. As selfishness is always awake, benevolence must never slumber. The latter must be as spirited and persevering as the former. Hence, benevolence must be systematic in its operations, or it will be overborne by the ever-stirring energies of its opponent. Its series of acts must be as continuous and energetic as that of selfishness, in order simply to arrest the course of the latter; and to make advances against its headlong current, a strong additional force is requisite. A system, therefore, one founded in the depths of the soul, and bringing to its aid all the resources of reason and conscience, is indispensable to efficiency in the angelic work of doing good. System must be emblazoned on the banner of every benevolent society; and inscribed on the brow of every man by nature selfish, would he bless the world by his munificence.
Especially is system necessary to encounter emergencies. Men of business not unfrequently meet with crises when their affairs are in a critical state. Numerous calls for money may come thronging in upon them almost simultaneously. Their nerves may become depressed, and things may appear darker than they really are. Besides, Christians even may become worldly-minded, and their religious affections low. At such times benevolence will almost surely be submerged by the whelming tide of selfishness, unless buoyed up by well-established system.
V. From experience, which shows the inefficiency of impulsive benevolence. That liberality is sometimes the offspring of the kindly tendencies of our natures, is readily admitted. God, in making us social beings and helpers of each other's joy, gave us susceptibilities to sympathetic emotions. When objects of suffering are presented before us, our sensibilities are moved, tears flow, and the hand is extended in relief. But these emotions are short-lived. The exciting object being removed, they soon expire. And though thousands have flowed into the treasuries of charity from this source, when an accomplished agent, with a soul heated to a glow with his theme, has stirred the sensibilities of his hearers as the trees of the forest are rocked by the tempest, or some other influence has violently swept the chords of the heart; yet it is a source of too little depth and durability to give vitality to the persevering work of beneficence, in a world cankered to its center with corruption. Selfishness soon leads off the mind to other subjects; so that contributions can be drawn from the natural sympathies only by the repeated and almost continued presentation of the suffering object. But this course will ultimately defeat its own end; tending, as it does, to harden the heart, and thereby to seal up the very fountains intended to be opened. Accordingly, we find that those who have no plan of munificent effort, but give merely as their sensibilities are moved, usually contribute less and less as they advance in age; their susceptibilities to sympathetic emotion becoming hardened like the road over which the crushing wheel has rolled for years. Hence, though the product of impulsive benevolence may sometimes be bountiful, yet when we contemplate its workings for any lengthened period, its fruits are found neither uniform nor abundant. The soil is too thin for enduring fertility.
We find this exemplified in our churches where no system of charity is adopted. For want of stated times for contributions to the different objects, they are apt to be forgotten or neglected. They whose duty it is to make the appointments, are engaged in other cares; time whirls on; the year passes away, and no collection is made. Or if a few objects receive occasional attention, others are passed over for years altogether; proving to a moral demonstration, that what is done irregularly in the work of beneficence, is ill done. To this, the agents of our benevolent societies passing through our churches, can bear sorrowful testimony. -- The same is true of the individual. Every one knows that what falls not into his regular routine of duties, is apt to slide from the memory. This is peculiarly true of benevolence, for selfishness helps us to forget; and it the contribution come to our recollection, we are not ready to give just then; some debt must be first paid, some convenience purchased, or some other urgent call attended to. Thus he, who has no system in the bestowment of his bounties, is always finding excuses to turn off the edge of arguments and the force of appeals; though perhaps with the resolution of giving liberally at some future period. Here lies his greatest danger. The resolution satisfies his conscience; and while resting upon it, the opportunity to contribute passes away, and souls are lost; whereas, had he acted on principle, the donation, though inconvenient would have been made, and souls saved.
Such is not unfrequently the mournful termination of impulsive benevolence. Tears may be shed over the anguish wrought; but tears cannot remedy the evil; this must flow on in wailing and woe forever. But it may be prevented by the timely admonitions of experience. For that selfishness can be suppressed, and benevolence sustained, only by the strong hand of principle and systematic effort, is the voice of ages.
VI. From Scripture. All duties enjoined in the Scriptures, if contemplated in their principles, will be found subjected to the control of reason; and, if they lie under the control of reason, they must be conducted methodically. All acts of worship, from the first requisition of Divine homage given in Eden, onward through the successive generations of the patriarchs, were to be performed with decency and in order. The Mosaic economy was one of the most rigid exactness. The ritual prescribed to the Jews required the utmost method. The same law held in regard to the payment of tithes and their multiplied gifts to the Lord. This precision, with which every one must be struck in reading the Old Testament, is doubtless designed for the instruction of all succeeding times. But what is its peculiar lesson to us? It, at least, shows us that God is pleased with regularity in the conduct of his people; and not less in their beneficent transactions than in the discharge of their other duties. The same principle of order is transferred to Gospel times. Here, there may be liberty, but there must be regularity. This is taught in that general commendation of Paul to the Colossian christians for the order and steadfastness that rejoiced him. (Col. ii.5.) But if regularity in other things is pleasing to God under the New Dispensation, why is it not in this divinest work of an intelligent being? This is specifically shown in the injunction of Paul to the Corinthians,*[1 Cor. Xvi.2.] for each one to lay by him in store on the first day of the week, as God had prospered him. Now, without pushing this text to extremes, and affirming that the Holy Ghost intended to require of all christians in all circumstances and in all ages, to contribute a portion of their substance in charity every Sabbath, the passage most distinctly shows that God is pleased with systematic benevolence -- with stated appropriations of income to objects of munificence. As order is nature's first law, so it is of the Scriptures.
System in our benefactions is thus clearly a duty devolving on all. It is alike the voice within and the voice from heaven. It cannot be neglected without imminent peril. It is a subject of vital interest. It must be deeply pondered. It must be earnestly prayed over. The great idea must enter, like a consuming fire, into the very heart's core, and inflaming it with zeal, bring forth fruit an hundred fold to the Lord.
One thing more. Every man is bound to make the most of his being. All his powers, both of body and of mind, are to be taxed to the utmost, and exerted in the most effective manner. Each duty, without intrenching on others, should be performed in such a way, as best to secure the end aimed at in the obligation. Manner may not be disregarded. If there is reason to believe that the end contemplated in the obligation to beneficence may be best reached by a course of systematic effort, the very fact should lead to its immediate adoption. At the close of the preceding arguments, without reasoning in a circle, this may be adduced as a consideration of no small force, inducing every one to cast about him, and solemnly consider whether he is conducting his charities in the most efficient method; manner and spirit being as binding as the generous deed itself. And on this principle, every precept, promise, and example of revelation, enforcing benevolence, is really a precept, promise, and example, arousing to systematic benevolence. The same is true of the various incentives to this glorious work, offered in the ensuing pages; and in this light let the reader regard them.
In the second place, what is the Nature of a Scriptural System of Beneficence? This is an important inquiry. Every system, as we have seen, must be founded in principle -- a principle rooted in the active powers, resting down upon the main-springs of the soul, so as to be moved forward by all the mental energies combined. But it must not only rest on principle; it must rest on right principle. The moral character of a system depends on the character of the moral feelings from which it rises; and it is the moral character of any scheme of action, which, under the government of God, gives it permanent efficiency; for to succeed, it must have his co-operation and aid. Besides, a system of benevolence is designed to combat the selfishness of the heart; a principle, strong, subtle, insidious, and developing itself in ten thousand different ways. Diametrical opposition to this, therefore, must be its leading characteristic. The natural sympathies, and conscience, and reason, must, indeed, be enlisted in its service; but all these united are insufficient to support enduringly a system of munificence against this formidable antagonist. For selfishness may entirely submerge the sympathies, so that he who can weep with his bereaved neighbor at the grave of his child, may, with the malignity of a fiend, be inwardly pleased at the death of an enemy. Selfishness may so control the conscience, that it will utter no upbraiding accents; and so bewilder the keen-sightedness of reason, that one may put darkness for light, and bitter for sweet, and sin for holiness, while complacently feeling that he is standing on the everlasting hills of truth. Neither the natural sympathies, nor conscience, nor reason, then, can form the substantial basis of a system of action which is to battle with the selfishness of the human heart. It must be informed with a higher and nobler principle. Holy love is such a principle. This, in its very nature, is superior to all other affections of the soul. The object on which it is fastened is the Great Supreme, and all other objects disappear before it, as the stars before the morning sun. A system, then, inwrought with this heaven-born principle, controlling, quickening, inspiring all the moral energies of the soul, may resist this mighty foe of the heart; and it forms the only insuperable bulwark to his malignant inroads. This position accords with the Scriptures. They approve of no external act, only as it proceeds from a holy heart; otherwise, they stamp it as self-righteousness or superstition. A system of benevolent action, resting on any other foundation, falls under the same condemnation; it contains no element of life, nothing truly pleasing to God. Men may endeavor to find other bases on which to rear schemes of charity; they may bring to the task the most penetrating sagacity, and traverse again and again the secret windings of the mind, to find some other lurking principle which can resist and subdue the batteries of covetousness; but all their efforts will be vain. Whatever they may erect will be built upon the sand; the winds and floods will sweep it away. There is no foundation which can withstand the underminings of the depraved heart, and the shocks of a depraved world, but the rock of holy love.