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SERMON XXIV A. *
ON THE SIN OF INGRATITUDE.
LUKE xvii. 17.
Were there not ten cleansed; but where are the nine?
That the rapture of enjoyment is more transitory, than the anguish of disappointment, and that favours once anxiously expected are imperceptibly disregarded, the experience of every day abounds with proofs equally decisive and lamentable. Hence the stubborn and untractable disposition of the human heart towards its benevolent Creator--the reluctance of some men to acknowledge the reality of his providence--and the captiousness of others in arraigning its dispensations. Has it pleased God, for purposes which, as it is the perfection of his wisdom to discern them, it would be an imperfection in his goodness not to pursue, to visit you lamities? Your minds are instantly racked with excessive grief; and every reflection you make on the conduct of God is attended with dark suspicion, or desperate defiance. Has the same God rescued you from the galling load of adversity, or poured down upon you such blessings as you had not the confidence even to ask? When the first transports of joy have subsided, you lose sight, of the hand that protected you; or perhaps with all the insolence of impiety pronounce it your own arm, and your own strength that has gotten the victory.
Whether indeed we are forgetful of the succours received from above, or impatient of that fatherly correction which is ever intended for our advantage, pride may be justly assigned as the cause of these very different effects. That pride is mortified by every situation that lays us under the ignominious necessity of stooping to implore assistance. It is equally mortified even by the attainment of its own ends ; because, to stand in need of support, to ask, and to obtain it, are unequivocal proofs, that the weakness of man is insufficient to his well-being to avert impending evil, or to secure solid good. Thus our innocence is ensnared on every side, while in adversity we are preyed upon by discontent, and in prosperity we suffer ourselves to be hardened into insensibility.
But the inconsistencies, as well as the crimes of men, even in points of acknowledged and supreme importance, almost mock description. Few among you are so captious as to doubt, and still fewer who are frantic enough to deny these abstract propositions — that God is more ready to hear than we to pray-or that he is accustomed to bestow what we have neither the wisdom to ask, or the merit to claim. But does the exterior conduct of men, or does even their secret conviction, in particular cases
coincide with this general confession? Far from it. Your confidence is tumultuous and transient-it is the result not so much of vigorous and reasonable hope, as of wild and abject fear. Roused you may be by the terrors of the Lord; for we read of the Israelites, that when he slew them, they sought him and turned them early and inquired after God. But you are seldom melted by his mercies; for it is recorded of the same Israelites, that when his wrath was turned away, they thought not of his hand, and of the day when he delivered them from the enemy.
When God has conferred upon us what we do not ask, we seldom form the slightest connection between the giver and the gift. When he grants what we do ask, the impressions of gratitude, though lively, are not lasting; and when he refuses it, we are apt to call in question, not the propriety of our request,
but the benevolence of him who alone can foresee the evil consequences of complying with it. But further ; if you consult the subtle researches of philosophers, you will be told, that the most costly sacrifices, and the most importunate supplications are utterly inefficacious—that we may, however, perceive, and therefore ought to acknowledge the wisdom of those counsels, which we cannot influence—that prayer may be permitted, but that thanksgiving is commanded. From these refined and I hope mistaken speculatists, turn your eyes to the mass of mankind, and you will find that many, who would reject such tenets as big with impiety, are yet actuated by principles more dishonourable to God, and more dangerous to man. For,
consider, I beseech you, even, where your success is supposed to be in some measure the consequence of your petitions, we see that men the keenest in their addresses to God, are often the most languid in their acknowledgments to him. Instead of perpetuating by reflection the calm and
satisfaction which past blessings may excite, they are pushing forward to seize such as are future and additional. Instead of indulging the honest and generous triumphs of gratitude, they give way to that anxious impatience, or that gloomy distrust, which too often accompanies the devotions of the selfish.
I will not balance the comparative merits of him who conscientiously abstains from prayer, and of him who against conscience omits thanksgiving. Yet while I admit the principles of the latter, I must partially approve the conduct of the former, for surely there is consistence at least between his professions and his actions, which marks sincerity. There is an air of profound reverence for the majesty of Almighty God, of unreserved trust in his providence, and of actual sensibility to his kindness, which ought to shelter him from the imputation of deliberate impiety. At all events, he holds a higher rank in the scale of reason and religion, than the inconsistent, capricious Christian, who, while he contends for the efficacy and the necessity of praying, neglects the very duty, without which it is a mere mockery to pray. For mockery it is of the most glaring kind to ask for more, when we have ceased to be grateful for the much we have asked and received. I cannot perceive any other species
of inconsistence equally common and indefensible in the behaviour of men towards God.
However the rigour of abstract speculation may compel us to associate the attribute of goodness with that of power, the generality of mankind at least in their habits of thinking are apt either to separate them, or to admit that goodness with the coldness of assent, not the fervour of affectionto contemplate that power with abject dread, not with generous reverence—to accept indeed with indifference, or perhaps seize with eagerness all that God can bestow, but not to consider the bestowal at all as a dispensation, by which the dignity of him who confers is in some measure communicated to him who receives. Hence we are seldom solicitous to feel that elevation of mind which must arise from the consciousness of enjoying, and of endeavouring to deserve, his protection who is the great and merciful governor of the universe. Instead of measuring the value of his favours by their immediate or final utility to ourselves, we impertinently and enviously examine the extent in which others are permitted to share them ; and as the haughty Jews paid little regard to a discovery which was vouchsafed to them in common with the despised Samaritans, so we consider ourselves as little indebted to Almighty God for blessings which he has not refused to those against whom, justly or unjustly, we have conceived disgust, contempt, or resentment.
From these general reflections on the defects of mankind in the noble and easy duty of thankfulness, I turn to the striking instance of ingratitude which