THE EFFECTS OF RELIGION ON THE DIFFERENT ORDERS OF SOCIETY
Jam_1:9-10. Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: but the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.
RELIGION certainly appears in some respects adverse to the happiness of men, inasmuch as it inculcates the daily practice of humiliation and contrition, mortification and self-denial. The injunction to cut off a right hand and pluck out a right eye, cannot, it might be thought, conduce to our comfort in this world, whatever it might do with respect to the world to come. But, if Christianity deprive us of some carnal joys (I should rather say, limit and refine them), it affords abundant ground for joy of a more exalted kind. It does not merely concede as a privilege, but prescribes as a duty, that we should “rejoice evermore.” To persons of every description is this direction addressed in the words before us; and the reasons upon which it is founded are declared. In conformity with the Apostle’s views, we shall shew,
The effects of religion upon the different orders of society—
We shall notice them,
Upon the poor—
[These are represented as “exalted” by Christianity. Not that they are raised out of their proper sphere, or have any right to assume consequence to themselves on account of their acquaintance with religion [Note: Ignorant persons are sometimes faulty in this respect; but St Paul strongly cautions all, and especially servants, upon this head. 1Ti_6:1-2.]: but they are exalted in their state and condition, their dispositions and habits, their hopes and prospects.
The poor are for the most part regarded in so low and mean a light, that a rich man would be ashamed to acknowledge them as related to him: yea, they themselves feel a very humiliating disparity between themselves and their opulent neighbours. But, when once they embrace the Gospel, and are made “rich in faith,” “God himself is not ashamed to be called their God:” he calls them “his friends,” “his sons,” “his peculiar treasure:” “he gives them a name better than of sons and of daughters.” They instantly become “kings and priests unto God;” and the very angels in heaven account it an honour to wait upon them, as their ministering servants. In short, being born from above, they are sons of God, and “if sons, then heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ.” What an elevation is this! Surely, in comparison of it, all earthly dignities are no better than the baubles of children, or the conceits of maniacs.
When elevated thus, the poor begin to feel also dispositions suited to their state. While they are destitute of religion, they either riot in a licentious independence, without any regard to character, or, with a servility unrestrained by conscience, yield themselves willing instruments to any one that can reward their services. But when once they are taught of God, they learn primarily and solely to regard his will. We again say, that they will obey all the lawful commands of their superiors [Note: Rom_13:1-2; Rom_13:4.]; they will regard their authority as God’s, and do whatever is required of them, “as unto the Lord:” but their first inquiry will be, “What does my God require?” and, if urged to violate their duty to him, they will reply as the Apostles did, “Whether it be right to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye:” “we ought to obey God rather than men [Note: Act_5:29.].” Nor have they a lower standard of action than the most polished Christian upon earth: if they are truly upright before God, the rule by which they walk is that prescribed by the Apostle [Note: 1Co_7:21-23.]; and what can the highest refinement suggest more? Here therefore their elevation again appears, inasmuch as their habits are no longer formed by interest or the caprice of men, but founded on, and assimilated to, the mind and will of God.
As to the hopes of the poor, they have little to stimulate their ambition. To provide for their present wants, and to lay up something for a time of sickness, is the utmost that the generality of them aspire to. But what glorious views does religion open to them! Truly, instead of looking up with admiration to the great and opulent, they rather stand on an eminence, from whence they can look down upon them with pity and compassion. What are the prospects of princes, to those which are unfolded to their view? They can look within the vail of heaven itself, and there see crowns and kingdoms reserved for them, yea, a seat upon the throne even of God himself. Who that contemplates this will not say that religion “exalts” the poor?]
Upon the rich—
[These religion humbles. It does not indeed despoil them of that honour which is due to their rank; (it rather confirms it to them [Note: Rom_13:7.];) but it humbles them in their own estimation, and in the estimation of others, and in the daily habit of their minds.
The rich are apt to arrogate much to themselves on account of their distinctions; and even before God to entertain high thoughts of themselves: “Our lips are our own: who is lord over us?” But let grace reach their hearts, and they no longer say, “I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing;” but, “I am wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” And so far are they from despising the poor on account of the inferiority of their station, that they most gladly “condescend to men of low estate,” and love them truly as brethren, notwithstanding they are “brethren only of low degree.”
It is scarcely needful to say how much they are lowered also in the eyes of others. Only let them become true disciples of Christ, and it will soon appear that they have lost the esteem of an ungodly world. However wise or amiable they may be, the serpent’s seed will hiss at them. Though David was a king, and as eminent for piety as man could be, he was the sport of fools, and “drunkards made songs upon him.” If any qualities could have insured universal respect, the Lord Jesus Christ would have obtained it. But “he was despised and rejected of men:” and “if they called the Master of the house Beelzebub, much more will they those of his household.”
But though the contempt of men was once the most formidable of all evils, they are not much concerned at it now; for they are made “poor in spirit,” and consequently regardless of the indignities that are offered to them. They know what they deserve at God’s hands; and therefore they are willing to bear any thing from those whom He may use as instruments of his indignation or love. They are willing also that God should deal with them in any way he may see fit; and whether he give or take away, they are ready to bless his holy name. They are brought to a state of mind resembling that of a man subsisting upon alms: “they come to their God and Saviour for gold, that they may be enriched; for eye-salve, that they may see; and for raiment, that the shame of their nakedness may not appear.” They are contented, yea they are glad, to seek their daily bread at his hands, and to live altogether as pensioners on his grace and mercy. In short, as in their own estimation they are vile and guilty, so in the habit of their minds they are meek, patient, submissive, and dependent.
Thus, while the poor are elevated by religion, the rich “are reduced and made low.”]
And what shall we say of these diversified effects? Are they represented as adverse to our happiness? No: we are rather led to contemplate,
The universal satisfaction which they are calculated to produce—
That the poor have cause to rejoice in their exaltation, is obvious enough—
[Think only what the poorest of the Lord’s people are privileged to enjoy—
First, they have the most exalted of all characters.—Though some few of the Lord’s people have been opulent, the generality have been “a poor and afflicted people.” The Apostles had little else besides a scrip and a staff; they were “poor, though making many rich; and had nothing, though in some respects they possessed all things.” When it pleased God also to send his only dear Son into the world, what was the state to which he appointed him? It was that of a poor man, who “had not where to lay his head.” And has not this dignified the condition of the poor? Yea, have they not reason to glory, in being so assimilated to their Lord and Saviour? The tribe of Levi had no portion allotted to them in Israel: but were they therefore less honourable than the rest? No: the Lord was their portion: and their want of earthly possessions was a favour conferred, and not a privilege denied. Thus it is an honour to the poor that they have their all in God: and though flesh and blood cannot receive the saying, it is really a greater honour to be fed like Elijah from day to day by the special providence of God, than to be living upon stores collected by the hands of men.
Next, they are in the most favourable of all states.—Our adorable Saviour has determined this point beyond a doubt. He has declared, that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven:” “with men,” he says, “it is altogether impossible.” The Rich Youth perished only because he would not sacrifice his earthly possessions: had he been a poor man, he would in all probability have followed Christ, and have been at this moment in heaven. Besides, a rich man is afraid of being thought singular, if he “follow the Lord fully:” he fancies that his situation obliges him to conform to the customs of the world: he is ashamed to associate with the Lord’s people: nor will he suffer any one to deal faithfully with him: but a poor man may follow his own ways, and seek instruction wherever he can obtain it; and nobody will trouble himself about him: his instructor also may, without compliment or circumlocution, come at once to the point, and “declare unto him all the counsel of God.” What an advantage is this for the obtaining of everlasting happiness; and what a solid ground of joy to all who possess it.
Once more; they have a sovereign antidote against all their disadvantages.—Be it granted; they want the benefit of human learning: but they have the teachings of God’s Spirit. They want many earthly comforts; but they have the promises of the living God. “Their afflictions may abound; but their consolations also abound by Christ.” Whereinsoever they may be supposed to labour under any disadvantage, they have every thing that they need, treasured up for them in Christ Jesus; and out of his fulness they receive, in the time and measure which he knows to be best for them. Poor they may be in this world’s goods; but they are enriched with “the unsearchable riches of Christ.”
Now let the poor say whether they have not reason to rejoice. Surely if they estimate their state aright, they may well “rejoice with joy unspeakable and glorified [Note: See Hab_3:17-18.].”]
That the rich have equal reason to rejoice in their humiliation, is, though less obvious, not at all less true—
[What a mercy is it to them, that they are brought to see the vanity of all their earthly distinctions. In their unenlightened state, they have no conception how contemptible those things are, which they suppose to be of such mighty consequence. What is a high-sounding title, or a large estate, to a man that in a few hours is about to launch into eternity? Yet that is the real condition of all: we are like the grass, which by the influence of the sun and rain is brought forth rapidly into gay luxuriance, but by an eastern blast is withered in an hour. Every thing we possess is perishing; and we ourselves also are fading away in the midst of our enjoyments [Note: This is particularly noticed in the text, and amplified in the verse that follows it.]. Ungodly men do not like to reflect on these things; but the true Christian delights to realize them in his soul: and he well deserves our warmest congratulations, who has learned to estimate earthly things by the standard of truth.
It is also a mercy to the opulent servants of God, that they are made to know wherein true honour and happiness consist. That which may be possessed by the vilest, as well as by the best of men, can never constitute the chief good of man. But to be restored to the favour of God, to live in the enjoyment of his presence, to possess his image on our souls, to glorify him in the world, and to be growing up into a meetness for his everlasting inheritance, this is honour, this is happiness: and O! what a mercy is it to see and feel this! Happy art thou, whoever thou art, that hast lost thy relish for earthly vanities, and art brought to set thine affections upon things above!
Finally, it is a mercy past all conception to have for their portion an inheritance that shall never fade. Were they instantly, and of necessity, to be deprived of all they possess, we should still bid them to “rejoice that they were made low:” for earthly riches, however great, are only dung and dross in comparison of the Christian’s portion. Let those who in this life “took joyfully the spoiling of their goods,” say, whether they found any reason to alter their minds, when once they reached the mansions of bliss? How small do their sacrifices now appear, how unworthy of a single thought! Blessed then indeed are ye who are enabled to “forsake all and follow Christ:” even “in this world” he promises you “an hundred-fold;” but what ye shall possess in the world to come “no eye hath seen, or ear heard, or heart conceived.”]
[But what shall we say, either to the poor or rich, who are destitute of an interest in Christ? Shall we bid them rejoice? What cause of joy have the poor, who, after all their trials and privations here, shall have no part or lot with the saints above? or what ground of glorying have the rich, who will so soon be “lifting up their eyes in torments, seeking in vain a drop of water to cool their tongues?” Should we attempt to console any from a consideration of their present attainments or possessions, the prophet would rebuke our folly, and dash the cup out of their hands [Note: Jer_9:23-24.]. Be it known then to you all, that the poor must be exalted here, if ever they would be exalted in a better world; and the rich must be humbled here, if ever they would attain the true riches. The poor must be made partakers of a divine nature, before they can “inherit a throne of glory;” and the rich must be emptied of self, before they can be “filled with all the fulness of God.”]