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Again: when one makes his own salvation the end of prayer, of almsgiving, and of all his religious duties, this is only selfishness and not true religion, however much he may abound in them. This is only interested benevolence, or benevolence to self.
Again: from the very nature of true benevolence, it is impossible that every interest should not be regarded according to its relative value. When another interest is seen by me to be more valuable in itself, or of more value to God and the universe than my own, and when I see that, by denying myself, I can promote it, it is certain, if I am benevolent, that I shall do it. I cannot fail to do it, without failing to be benevolent. Benevolence is an honest and disinterested consecration of the whole being to the highest good of God and of the universe. The benevolent man will, therefore, and must, honestly weigh each interest as it is perceived in the balance of his own best judgment, and will always give the preference to the higher interest, provided he believes, that he can by endeavor, and by self-denial, secure it.
That self-denial is an attribute of the divine love, is manifested most gloriously and affectingly in God's gift of his Son to die for men. This attribute was also most conspicuously manifested by Christ, in denying himself, and taking up his cross, and suffering for his enemies. Observe, it was not for friends that Christ gave himself. It was not unfortunate nor innocent sufferers for whom God gave his Son, or for whom he gave himself. It was for enemies. It was not that he might make slaves of them that he gave his Son, nor from any selfish consideration whatever, but because he foresaw that, by making this sacrifice himself, he could secure to the universe a greater good than he should sacrifice. It was this attribute of benevolence that caused him to give his Son to suffer so much. It was disinterested benevolence alone that led him to deny himself, for the sake of a greater good to the universe. Now observe, this sacrifice would not have been made, unless it had been regarded by God as the less of two natural evils. That is, the sufferings of Christ, great and overwhelming as they were, were considered as an evil of less magnitude than the eternal sufferings of sinners. This induced him to make the sacrifice, although for his enemies. It mattered not whether for friends or for enemies, if so be he could, by making a less sacrifice, secure a greater good to them.
Let it be understood, that a self-indulgent spirit is never, and can never be, consistent with benevolence. No form of self-indulgence, properly so called, can exist where true benevolence exists. The fact is, self-denial must be, and universally is, wherever benevolence reigns. Christ has expressly made whole-hearted self-denial a condition of discipleship; which is the same thing as to affirm, that it is an essential attribute of holiness or love; that there cannot be the beginning of true virtue without it.
Again: much that passes for self-denial is only a specious form of self-indulgence. The penances and self-mortifications, as they are falsely called, of the superstitious, what are they after all but a self-indulgent spirit? A popish priest abstains from marriage to obtain the honor, and emoluments, and the influence of the priestly office here, and eternal glory hereafter. A nun takes the veil and a monk immures himself in a monastery; a hermit forsakes human society, and shuts himself up in a cave; a devotee makes a pilgrimage to Mecca, and a martyr goes to the stake. Now if these things are done with an ultimate reference to their own glory and happiness, although apparently instances of great self-denial, yet they are, in fact, only a spirit of self-indulgence and self-seeking. They are only following the strongest desire of good to self.
There are many mistakes upon this subject. For example: it is common for persons to deny self in one form, for the sake of gratifying self in another form. In one man avarice is the ruling passion. He will labor hard, rise early, and sit up late, eat the bread of carefulness and deny himself even the necessaries of life, for the sake of accumulating wealth. Every one can see, that this is denying self in one form merely for the sake of gratifying self in another form. Yet this man will complain bitterly of the self-indulgent spirit manifested by others, their extravagance and want of piety. One man will deny all his bodily appetites and passions, for the sake of a reputation with men. This is also an instance of the same kind. Another will give the fruit of his body for the sin of his soul will sacrifice everything else to obtain an eternal inheritance, and be just as selfish as the man who sacrifices to the things of time, his soul and all the riches of eternity.
But it should be remarked, that this attribute of benevolence does and must secure the subjugation of all the inclinations. It must, either suddenly or gradually, so far subdue and quiet them, that their imperious clamor must cease. They will, as it were, be slain, either suddenly or gradually, so that the sensibility will become, in a great measure, dead to those objects that so often and so easily excited it. It is a law of the sensibility of all the desires and passions, that their indulgence develops and strengthens them, and their denial suppresses them. Benevolence consists in a refusal to gratify the sensibility, and in obeying the reason. Therefore it must be true, that this denial of the inclinations will greatly suppress them; while the indulgence of the intellect and of the conscience will greatly develop them. Thus selfishness tends to stultify, while benevolence tends greatly to strengthen the intellect.
19. Condescension is another attribute of love.
This attribute consists in a tendency to descend to the poor, the ignorant, or the vile, for the purpose of securing their good. It is a tendency to seek the good of those whom Providence has placed in any respect below us, by stooping, descending, coming down to them for this purpose. It is a peculiar form of self-denial. God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, manifest infinite condescension in efforts to secure the well-being of sinners, even the most vile and degraded. This attribute is called by Christ lowliness of heart. God is said to humble Himself, that is, to condescend, when He beholds the things that are done in heaven. This is true, for every creature is, and must forever be, infinitely below Him in every respect. But how much greater must that condescension be, that comes down to earth, and even to the lowest and most degraded of earth's inhabitants, for purposes of benevolence! This is a lovely modification of benevolence. It seems to be entirely above the gross conceptions of infidelity. Condescension seems to be regarded by most people, and especially by infidels, as rather a weakness than a virtue. Skeptics clothe their imaginary God with attributes in many respects the opposite of true virtue. They think it entirely beneath the dignity of God to come down even to notice, and much more to interfere with, the concerns of men. But hear the word of the Lord: "Thus saith the High and Lofty One, who inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place; with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite one" (Isaiah 57:15). And again, "Thus saith the Lord, the heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool, where is the house that ye build unto Me? and where is the place of My rest? For all those things hath My hand made, and all those things have been, saith the Lord. But to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and that trembleth at My word" (Isaiah 66:1-2). Thus the Bible represents God as clothed with condescension as with a cloak.
This is manifestly an attribute both of benevolence and of true greatness. The natural perfections of God appear all the more wonderful, when we consider, that He can and does know and contemplate and control, not only the highest, but the lowest of all His creatures; that He is just as able to attend to every want and every creature, as if this were the sole object of attention with Him. So His moral attributes appear all the more lovely and engaging when we consider that His "tender mercies are over all His works" (Psalms 145:9), "that not a sparrow falleth to the ground without Him" (Matt. 10:29), that He condescends to number the very hairs of the heads of His servants, and that not one of them can fall without Him. When we consider that no creature is too low, too filthy, or too degraded for Him to condescend to, this places His character in a most ravishing light. Benevolence is good will to all beings. Of course one of its characteristics must be condescension to those who are below us. This in God is manifestly infinite. He is infinitely above all creatures. For Him to hold communion with them is infinite condescension.