Page images
PDF
EPUB

SERMON XXXII.

On SENSIBILITY.

ROMANS, xii. 15.

Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.

THE amiable spirit of our holy religion appears in nothing more than in the care it hath taken to enforce on men the social duties of life. This is one of the clearest characteristics of its being a religion whose origin is divine: For every doctrine which proceeds from the Father of mercies will undoubtedly breathe benevolence and humanity. This is the scope of the two exhortations in the text, to rejoice with them that rejoice, and to weep with them that weep; the one calculated to promote the happiness, the other to alleviate the sorrows, of our fellow-creatures; both concurring to form that temper which interests us in the concerns of our brethren; which disposes us to feel along with them, to take part in their joys, and in their sorrows. This temper is known by the name of Sensibility; a word which in modern times we hear in the mouth of every one; a quality which every one affects to possess, in itself a most amiable and worthy disposition of mind, but often mistaken and abused; employed as a cover, sometimes to a capricious humour, sometimes to selfish passions. I shall endeavour to

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

explain the nature of true sensibility. I shall consider its effects; and, after showing its advantages, shall point out the abuses and mistaken forms of this virtue.

[ocr errors]

THE original constitution of our nature with respect to the mixture of selfish and social affections, discovers in this, as in every other part of our frame, profound and admirable wisdom. Each individual is, by his Creator, committed particularly to himself, and his own care. He has it more in his power to promote his own welfare than any other person can possibly have to promote it. It was therefore fit, it was necessary, that in each individual self-love should be the strongest, and most active, instinct. This self-love, if he had been a being who stood solitary and alone, might have proved sufficient for the purpose both of his preservation and his welfare. But such is not the situation of man. He is mixed among multitudes, of the same nature. In these multitudes, the self-love of one man, or attention to his particular interest, encountering the self-love and the interests of another, could not but produce frequent opposition, and innumerable mischiefs. It was necessary, therefore, to provide a counterbalance to this part of his nature; which is accordingly done by implanting in him those social and benevolent instincts which lead him in some measure out of himself, to follow the interest of others. The strength of these social instincts is, in general, proportioned to their importance in human life. Hence that degree of sensibility which prompts us to weep with them that weep, is stronger than that which prompts us to rejoice with them that rejoice; for this reason,

that the unhappy stand more in need of our fellowfeeling and assistance than the prosperous. Still, however, it was requisite, that in each individual the quantity of self-love should remain in a large proportion, on account of its importance to the preservation of his life and well-being. But as the quantity requisite for this purpose is not both to ingross his attention, and to carry him into criminal excesses, the perfection of his nature is measured by the due counterpoise of those social principles which, tempering the force of the selfish affection, render man equally useful to himself, and to those with whom he is joined in society. Hence the use and the value of that sensibility of which we now treat.

THAT it constitutes an essential part of a religious character, there can be no doubt. Not only are the words of the Text express to this purpose, but the whole New Testament abounds with passages which enjoin the cultivation of this disposition. Being all one body and members one of another, we are commanded to love our neighbour as ourself; to look every man, not on his own things only, but on those of others also; to be pitiful, to be courteous, to be tenderhearted; to bear one another's burdens, and so to fulfil the law of Christ.* The dispositions opposite to sensibility are cruelty, hardness of heart, contracted attachment to worldly interests; which every one will admit to be directly opposite to the Christian character. According to the different degrees of constitutional warmth in men's affections, sensibility

* Luke, x. 27. Philip. ii. 4. 1 Peter, iii. 8. Ephes. iv. 23. Galat. vi. 2.

VOL. II.

K

may, even among the virtuous, prevail in different proportions. For all derive not from nature the same happy delicacy, and tenderness of feeling. With some the heart melts, and relents, in kind emotion, much more easily than with others. But with every one who aspires at the character of a good man, it is necessary that the humane and compassionate dispositions should be found. There must be that within him which shall form him to feel in some degree with the heart of a brother; and when he beholds others enjoying happiness, or sees them sunk in sorrow, shall bring his affections to accord, and if we may speak so, to sound a note in unison to theirs. This is to rejoice with them that rejoice, and to weep with them that weep. How much this temper belongs to the perfection of our nature, we learn from one who exhibited that perfection in its highest degree. When our Lord Jesus, on a certain occasion, came to the grave of a beloved friend, and saw his relations mourning around it, he presently caught the impression of their sorrow; he groaned in spirit, and was troubled. He knew that he was about to remove the cause of their distress, by recalling Lazarus to life; yet, in the moment of grief, his heart sympathised with theirs; and, together with the weeping friends, Jesus wept.*

LET us next proceed to consider the effect of this virtuous sensibility on our character and our state. I shall consider it in two views; its influence on our moral conduct, and its influence on our happiness.

* John, ii. 35.

FIRST, It powerfully influences the proper discharge of all the relative and social duties of life. Without some discharge of those duties there could be no comfort or security in human society. Men would become hordes of savages, perpetually harassing one another. In one way or other, therefore, the great duties of social life must be performed. There must be among mankind some reciprocal cooperation and aid. In this, all consent. But let us observe, that these duties may be performed from different principles, and in different ways. Sometimes they are performed merely from decency and regard to character; sometimes from fear, and even from selfishness, which obliges men to show kindness, in order that they may receive returns of it. In such cases, the exterior of fair behaviour may be preserved. But all will admit, that when from constraint only, the offices of seeming kindness are performed, little dependence can be placed on them, and little value allowed to them.

[ocr errors]

By others, these offices are discharged solely from a principle of duty. They are men of cold affections, and perhaps of an interested character. But, overawed by a sense of religion, and convinced that they are bound to be beneficent, they fulfil the course of relative duties with regular tenor. Such men act from conscience and principle. So far they do well, and are worthy of praise. They assist their friends; they give to the poor; they do justice to all. But what a different complexion is given to the same actions, how much higher flavour do they acquire, when they flow from the sensibility of a feeling heart? If one be not moved by affection, even supposing him influenced by principle,

« PreviousContinue »