It has been observed that sinful propensities are commonly, if not always, the original propensities of human nature, perverted or abused. Emulation, scorn, anger, the desire of property, and all the animal appetites, are not in themselves evil. If directed to right objects, and governed by the will of God, they are important and useful principles; but, perverted, they degenerate into pride, haughtiness, bitterness, avarice, and sensibility.
By this remark we may be enabled to judge of the propriety and impropriety of bestowing commendation. There are some who for fear of making others proud, as they say, forbear the practice altogether. But this is contrary to the Scriptures. We have only to hear what the Spirit saith unto the seven churches in Asia to perceive the usefulness of commending the good for encouragement, as well as of censuring the evil for correction. Paul, in his Epistles, seldom deals in reproof without applauding at the same time what was praiseworthy. This, doubtless, ought to be a model for us. Those who withhold such commendation for fear of making others proud, little think of the latent vanity in their own minds which this conduct betrays. If they did not attach a considerable degree of consequence to their own opinion, they would not be so ready to suspect the danger of another’s being elated by it. A minister, fifty or sixty years ago, after delivering a sermon and descending from the pulpit, was accosted in rather a singular manner by another minister who had been his hearer. Shaking him by the hand, and looking him in the face, with a smile, “I could,” said he, “say something, … I could say something … but, perhaps, it is not safe; it might make you proud of yourself.”—“No danger, my friend,” replied the other, “I do not take you to be a man of judgment.”
Yet there is real danger of our becoming tempters to one another, by untimely and improper commendation. Man has too much nitre about him to render it safe to play with fire. Whatever may be said by worldly men, who have adopted Lord Chesterfield’s maxims, and whose only study is to please, it is not only injurious, but by men of sense considered as inconsistent with good manners to load a person with praises to his face. Such characters are flatterers by profession, and their conduct is as mean as it is offensive to a modest mind; hut what is flattery, but insult in disguise? Its language, if truly interpreted, is this: “I know you to be so weak and so vain a creature that nothing but praise will please you; and as I have an end to answer by obtaining your favour, I will take this measure to accomplish it.”
The love of praise has been called “the universal passion,” and true it is that no man is free from it. There are some, however, who are much more vain than others. It is the study of a flatterer to find out this weak side of a man, and to avail himself of it; but good men are incapable of such conduct. If they see another covetous of praise, they will commonly withhold it, and that for the good of the party. It is true, I have seen the vanity of a man reproved by a compliance with his wishes, giving him what he was desirous of, and that in full measure, as it were, pressed down. He did not seem to be aware that he had thirsted for the delicious draught till the cup was handed to him; the appearance of which covered him with confusion. But this kind of ironical praise is a delicate weapon, and requires a quick sensibility in the person who receives the address as well as in him who gives it. It is, however, hardly consistent with the modesty, gentleness, and benevolence of Christianity.
When two or more persons of a vain mind become acquainted, it may be expected they will deal largely in compliments; playing into each other’s hands: where this is the case, there is great danger of the blind leading the blind till both fall into the ditch.
To a wise and humble man, just commendation is encouraging; but praise beyond desert is an affliction. His mind, sanctified by the grace of God, serves as a refiner to separate the one from the other; justly appreciating what is said to him, he receives what is proper, and repels what is improper. Thus, it may be, we are to understand the words of Solomon: “As the fining pot for silver, and the furnace for gold, so is a man to his praise.”
The Scriptures never address themselves to the corrupt propensities of the mind, but to its original powers; or, to use the language of the ingenious Bunyan, they have “nothing to say to the Diabolians, but to the ancient inhabitants of the town of Mansoul.” Men address themselves to our vanity; God to our emulation. If we follow this example we are safe.
The occasion of all these reflections was my finding the other day, among a number of old loose papers, the following tale, which carries in it the marks of being a true one; and with which I shall conclude this paper:—“A young minister (whom I shall call Eutychus) was possessed of talents somewhat above mediocrity; his delivery also was reckoned agreeable. He was told by one of his admirers, in an evening’s conversation, how much his sermons excelled those of the generality of preachers. Alas, the same thought had occurred to himself! Hence he easily assented to it, and entered freely into conversation on the subject. On retiring to rest, he endeavoured first to commit himself to the Divine protection. It was there, while on his knees, that he first felt his folly. Overwhelmed with shame and confusion before God, he was silent; seeming to himself a beast before him. At the same time, a passage in the Acts of the Apostles flashed like lightning in his mind: And they shouted and said, “It is the voice of a god, and not of a man … And he was eaten of worms, because he gave not God the glory.” There seemed to him a considerable analogy between his case and that of Herod. Herod was flattered and idolized—his heart was in unison with the flattery—he consented to be an idol, and gave not God the glory—for this he was smitten by an angel of God, his glory blasted, and his life terminated by a humiliating disease. “I also have been flattered,” said Eutychus, “and have inhaled the incense. I have consented to be an idol, and have not given God the glory. God, I am afraid, will blast my future life and ministry, as he justly may, and cause me to end my days in degradation and disgrace!” About the same time, those words also occurred to him, “Woe to the idol shepherd! his arm shall be dried up, and his right eye shall be darkened!” He could not pray!—Groaning over the words of David, “O Lord, thou knowest my foolishness, and my sin is not hid from thee,” he retired to rest. The next morning the same subject awoke with him. He confessed, and again bemoaned his sin; entreated forgiveness for Christ’s sake, and that his future spirituality might not be blasted. “Cast me not away from thy presence,” said he, “take not thy Holy Spirit from me!” But he could not recover any thing like freedom with God. The thought occurred to him of requesting one of his most intimate friends to pray for him; but this only occasioned a comparison of himself with Simon the sorcerer, who importuned Peter, saying, “Pray to the Lord for me, that none of these things come upon me.”
In short, the temptation into which he had fallen not only polluted his mind, and marred his peace, but rendered him for some time wretched in the exercise of his ministry.
Let hearers take heed, while they give due honour and encouragement to ministers, not to idolize them; and let ministers take heed that they do not receive, and still more that they do not court, applause.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Expositions—Miscellaneous. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 3, pp. 811–812). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.