JAMES 1:14 "But if ye have bitter envying," &c."
The cunning of Satan, and the deceitfulness of our own
hearts, are such that when a grosser temptation will not prevail with a
conscience in some measure enlightened, then they transform themselves into
angels of light, and deal more subtilely with us. And there is no greater
subtilty of Satan, nor no stronger self-deceit, than this, to palliate and
cover vices with the shadow of virtue, and to present corruptions under the
similitude of graces. It is common unto all temptations to sin, to have a hook
under their bait, to be masked over with some pleasure or advantage or credit.
But when such earthly and carnal pretences do not insinuate strongly unto a
believing heart that has discovered the vanity of all that which is in the
world, so dare not venture upon sin for all the pleasures which attend it, then
he winds about and tames and changes his likeness unto light, conscience, and
duty, presents many works of darkness and corruption under the notion of duty
and honesty, according as he finds the temper of a mans spirit to be. I
can give no instance more pregnant, and even common, than this which is given
here, viz, contentions and strivings among brethren, bitter envying, maligning
and censuring one another, which are very manifest works of the flesh, and
works of darkness, fitter for the night than the day, and for the time of
ignorance, nor the time after the clear light hath shined. Now if Satan were
about to persuade a church or a Christian of this, how do ye think he would go
about it? Would he present some carnal advantage to be gained by it, some more
profit or preferment from it? May be that might be very taking with some more
unconscientious self-seeking spirits, and I fear it be too much taken with
many. But sure it will not relish with every man. It will not entice him that
hath the fear of God, and the love of Jesus stirring within him. Therefore he
must seek about, and find some false prophet, that may come out in the name of
the Lord, and disguise himself, and by such means he will do it. Let a point of
truth or conscience come in debate, let a notion of religion, and one far off
from an interest in Christ be in the business, and then he can take advantage
to make a man overreach himself in it. He will present the truth as a thing of
so great weight and consequence, that he must contend for it, and empty all his
wit and power and parts for it. This good intention being established, he
raises up mens passions under a notion of zeal, and these be promoved
under that pretence for such an end. Whatsoever mean may be sought, profitable
for that end, all is chosen and followed without discretion or knowledge of
what is good or evil. It is apprehended that the good principle of conscience,
of duty, and the good intention, may justify all. And by that means he hath
persuaded the churches of Christ, and the Christian world, unto more rigidity,
severity, cruelty, strife, contention, blood, violence, and such works of
darkness, than readily have been found in the times of ignorance. Is
Christendom a field of blood, rather than any other part of the world? Truly
this is the reproach of Christianity. By this, Gods name is daily
blasphemed. Here our apostle sets himself to unmask this angel of light, and to
decipher him in his own proper nature and notion. He takes off the vizard of
religion and wisdom, and lets you see the very image of hell under it;
But if ye have bitter envying and strife, glory not. Ye glory as if
ye had the truth, you glory in your zeal for it, you boast that ye are the wise
men, the religious men; and so you take liberty upon the account of envy, to
malign, despise, and contend with others. Glory not, if you cherish such
strifes and contentions, to the breach of Christian peace and concord. You are
liars against the truth, which you profess. Do not think these proceed from
true zeal; nay, nay, it is but bitter envy, and bitter zeal. Do not flatter
yourselves with an apprehension of wisdom, or knowledge, or religion. That is
wisdom indeed; but mark of what nature. It is earthy, sensual, and devilish.
And indeed, that is a foolish wisdom, to say no worse of it.
You see, then, what need we have of the exhortation of the apostle (Eph. vi. 11.), 10 11 Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. Truly we may stand against his darts, and violent open thrusts at our conscience; when we," being ignorant of his devices, and not acquainted with his depths (2 Cor. ii. 11. Rev. ii. 24.), will not be able to stand against his ways. For we have a great and subtile party to wrestle with, principalities and powers, and spiritual wickedness in high places, or heavenly things (as some render the word). He exercises much wickedness, spiritual invisible wickedness in heavenly and religious things, in which it is hard to wrestle, unless we be endowed with faith, knowledge, and righteousness, and shod with the gospel of peace; the peaceable gospel reducing our spirits to a peaceable temper. I conceive there is nothing the world hath been more abused with, than the notion of zeal, justice, and suchlike: and there is nothing wherein a Christian is more ready to deceive himself than this. Therefore conceive the Holy Ghost has undeceived us in this, and hath of purpose used the word zeal as often in a bad sense as in a good one, and usually chooses to express envy and malice by it, though another word might suit as well, and be more proper. So here bitter zeal, is reckoned among the works of the flesh, Gal. v. 20. and we are exhorted to walk honestly as in the day, not in strife and envy, or zeal. and therefore the apostle rebukes sharply the Corinthians. Are ye not carnal, and walk as men, whereas there is among you envying, or zeal, and strife, 1 Cor. iii. 3. Zeal is a vehemency of affection in any earnest pursuit, or opposition of a thing; and to make it good, it must not only be fixed upon a commendable and good object, but must run in the right channel, between the banks of moderation, charity, and sobriety. If it overflows these, certainly that excess proceeds not simply and purely from the love of God, or the truth, but from some latent corruption or lust in our members, which takes occasion to swell up with it. I find in scripture the true zeal of God hath much self-denial in it. It is not exercised so much concerning a mans own matters, as concerning the matters that are purely and merely concerning Gods glory. It is the most flexible, condescending, and forbearing thing in those things that relate to ourselves and our own interests. Thus Moses is commended as the meekest man, when Aaron and Miriam raise sedition against him, Num. xii. 3. He had not affections to be commoved upon that account. But how much is he stirred and provoked upon the apprehension of the manifest dishonour of God, by the peoples idolatry? How many are lions in their own cause, and in Gods as simple and blunt as lambs ? And how much will our spirits be commoved when our own interest lies in the business, and hath some conjunction with Gods Interest; but if these are parted, our fervour abates, and our heat cools. I lay down this, then, as the fundamental principle of true zeal, it is like charity that seekth not its own things.
But to make the nature of it clear, I give you three characters of it, verity, charity, and impartiality. I say it hath truth in it, a good thing for the object, and knowledge of that good thing in the subject, for the principle of it. It is good to zealously affected always in a good thing, Gal. iv. 18. Zeal is an evil thing, hath something of the impatient and restless nature of the devil in it. There is nothing we should be more deliberate and circumspect in, than what to employ or bestow our affections upon. We should have a certain persuasion of the unquesonable goodness of that which we are ardent and vehement to obtain, else the more ardour and vehemency, the more wickedness is in it. The Jews had a zeal for God but not according to knowledge, and that is a blind impetuous self-will. or if a man take a race at his full speed in the dark, he cannot but catch a fall. The eager and hot pursuits of men are founded upon some gross misapprehensions.
Secondly, There must not only be a goodness supposed in the object, but some correspondence between the worth and weight of that goodness, and the measure of our desires and affections; else there wants that conformity between the soul and truth, which makes a true zeal of God. I mean this, the souls most vehement desires should be employed about the chiefest good, and our zeal move in relation thmgs unquestionably good, and not about things of small moment, or of little signification. This is the apostolic rule, that not only we consider that there be some truth in the thing, but that we especially take notice, if there be so much truth and goodness as requires such a measure of vehemency and affection. Therefore in lesser things we should have lesser commotion, and in greater things greater, suitable to them. Otherwise the Pharisees who exercised their zeal about trifles, and neglected the weightier matters of the law, (Matt. xxiii. 23.) would not have been reproved by Christ. And indeed this is the zeal to which we are redeemed by Christ, Tit. ii. 14. Be ye zealous of good works, of works that are unquestionably good, such as piety, equity, and sobriety. There is nothing more incongruous than to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel, to spend the vital spirits upon things of small concernment to our own or others edification, and to have nothing to spare for the weightier matters of true godliness. It is as if a man should strike a feather or the air with all his might. He must needs wrest his arms. Even so, to strike with the spiritual sword of our affections, with such vehemency, at the lighter and emptier matters of religion, cannot choose but to disjoint the spirit, and put it out of course, as there is a falsehood in that zeal that is so vehement about a light matter, though it have some good in it.
For there is no suitable proportion between the worth of the thing and the vehemency of the spirit. Imagination acts in both. In the one it supposes a goodness, and it follows it; and in the other, it imposes a necessity and a worth far beyond that which really is, and so raises up the spirit to that height of necessity and worth that hath no being but in a mans imagination. I think there is no particular that the apostle doth so much caveat. For I find in 1 Tim. i. 4. he takes off such endless matters that minister questioning rather than godly edifying, and gives us a better subject to employ our zeal upon, ver. 5, the great end and sum of all religion, love to God and man, proceeding from a pure heart, a good conscience, and faith unfeigned, from which we must needs swerve, when we turn aside to such empty and vain janglings, ver. 6. For truly we have but narrow and limited spirits, and it must needs follow, when we give them very much to one thing, that they cannot attend another thing seriously, as Christ declares, (Matt. vi. 24.) no man can serve two masters, &c. And therefore there is much need of Christian wisdom to single out and choose the most proper and necessary object. For as much as we give other things that have not so much connexion with that, we take from it as much: and the apostle counsels us, (1 Tim. iv. 7.) rather to exercise ourselves unto true godliness, and to the most substantial things in it, rather than vain things, and opposition of science, chap. vi. 35, 20. There he opposes the wholesome words of Christ, and the doctrine that is according to godliness, unto questions, and strifes of words, whereof comes envy, railings, evil-surmisings, and perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds. And it is very observable that he is pressing the duties of believing servants towards their masters, whether believers or infidels, that the name of God be not blasphemed, nor the gospel evil spoken of, For there is nothing so much exposes it to misconstruction, as when it is stretched and abused unto the prejudice of natural and civil duties, and doubtless there would be many doubts and questions about it in these days, some contending for worldly pre-eminence over the Pagans, and some for the levelling of all Christians. But, says he, If any man teach otherwise, or contend about this, he is proud, knowing nothing, &c. He hath forsaken the substance of true godliness, which consists in good works shining before men, and disabuses the notion of Christian liberty to the dishonour of Christ, and hath supposed gain, a worldly carnal interest of the godly, to be piety, and so pursues that fancy of his own.
He renews this in the Second Epistle, (chap. ii. 1416.) showing that these strifes about words, albeit they seem to be upon grounds of conscience at the beginning, yet they increase unto more ungodliness, ver. 23. And unto Titus he gives the same charge very solemnly, (Tit. iii. 8, 9.) I will that thou affirm constantly, that they who believe in God should be careful to maintain good works. But avoid foolish and unlearned questions, &o.; For this is a faithful saying. But again,
Thirdly, Zeal must have charity with it, and this all the scriptures cited prove. It must be so tempered with love, that it vents not to the breach of Christian peace and concord. Charity envieth not or is not zealous. When zeal wants charity, it is not zeal but envy. And hence it is that there are so frequent and fervent exhortations to avoid such questions as may gender strifes, and contentions, and malice. Now certainly there was some truth in them, and something of conscience also in them. Yet he dissuades entirely the prosecution of them to the rigour, as men are apt to do, but wills us rather to have faith in ourselves. And truly I think the questions that did then engender strifes, and rent the church, were as much if not more momentous nor the most part of these about which we bite and devour one another,tbe questions of the law, the circumcision, and eating of things sacrificed to idols, of things indifferent, lawful, or not lawful. Yet all these he would have subordinated unto the higher end of the commandment, charity, 1 Tim. i. 4, 5 And when he exhorts the Corinthians to be zealous for spiritual gifts, he would yet have them excel in these things which edify the church, 1 Cor. xiv. 112. Covet earnestly the best gifts, says he, and yet he shows them a more excellent way, and that is charity, (1 Cor. xiii. 1.) to do all these things for the good and edification of the church, rather than of our own opinion, 1 Coy. xii. 3; chap. xiv. 12. I find where the word zeal is taken in a bad sense it hath these works of darkness attending it, wrath, strife, malice, &c. Gal v. 20; 1 Cor. iii. 3; Rom. xiii. 13. It is accompanied with such a hellish crowd of noisome lusts. Let me add a differential character of it. It is uncharitable, contentious, and malicious. It can do nothing, condescend to nothing, and is conversant about nothing, but what pleases our own humour, for the peace and unity of the church. It is a self-willed impetuous thing, like a torrent that carries all down before it. But truly right zeal runs calmly and constantly within the banks; it will rather consume its own bowels within with grief, than devour others without.
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