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Decision Of Character

By A.R. Benton

      A double minded man is unstable in all his ways:--Jas. i:8.

      HIS remark of the Apostle has been selected for the purpose of setting forth the Nature and Advantages of Decision of Character.

      Human life has often been compared to a voyage. Like a proud ship with all its sails set, or propelled by the mightier power of steam, freighted with the most costly merchandise, and the more valuable burden of human lives, admirable in all her appointments for a safe and prosperous voyage, so are we permitted to look on a human soul, just launched on the great ocean of life, about to make the voyage to an eternal world.

      But, if while contemplating that ocean-bound vessel, as it passes from its moorings, heading away from the port of its destination, we should discover that the helm was wanting, that by some oversight, the means for controlling the motion of the ship had been neglected, with good reason would we fear for the safety of the vessel and all on board. In fancy, [184] we follow it, as it rolls unmanageably at the mercy of the waves, thrown from its course into intertropical regions, or dashed against icebergs in northern seas, and at last swallowed up in the abyss, with nothing to mark the spot of the catastrophe.

      This is a brief and imperfect representation of that young man, who essays to make the voyage of life without the controlling principle, Decision of Character. The chart by which his course is to be taken, and the outfit for the passage may be perfect and complete, but without this Decision, all these will not avail, except by chance, to bring him to his desired haven. According to the figure employed by the Apostle in this very connection, he is like a wave of the sea, driven of winds and tossed. A wild fluctuation, an instability upon which nothing useful results, characterize the man devoid of decision. This oscillation of mind without progress, is not merely useless, but is positively pernicious.

      To be unable to make up a decision on a matter in science, in philosophy or in morals, is virtually to have no mind at all, and for all practical purposes, instinct would be a more reliable guide. But just so far as the mind is trained to give its decisions with promptness, force, and correctness, in that same degree it becomes useful as a guide, and a source of happiness to its possessor.

      It would be an easy task to show the essential relation of this decisive spirit to success in the secular affairs of life; and is it to be supposed that [185] its relation to our higher life--the life of principle--the life of the soul, is less important? To this higher exercitation we may perhaps be less disposed, but how, I ask, is it less our deep concern? If the interests of our immortal natures comprehend and subordinate all other interests, and contain them, as the greater contains the less, then the attainment of every lower good will be best secured by aiming at the higher good, and, figuratively, to hit the earth, it is best to aim at heaven. If then it may be assumed, that Decision of Character is vitally important in the secular employments of life, much more will it be valuable in our moral relations; or, in other words, Moral Decision gives tone, and imparts firmness and strength to character.

      To recommend the cultivation of this decisive disposition of mind, on the grounds of Christian principle, is the object we propose in this discourse.

      1. And first, in respect to the nature of this moral decision, I observe, that in a very important particular, it is different from mere firmness of character.

      In the original constitutions of men, both moral and physical, a great diversity is found to exist. One is bold and forward, another timid and reserved; one is frank and confiding, another is prone to concealment and distrust; one is wavering and undecided, another is firm and decisive. Now this latter quality of firmness differs from moral decision, since it may never act in harmony with the dictates of [186] conscience, or be controlled by sentiments of duty.

      This native heroism of the soul, as it may be termed, is as thoroughly compatible with injustice, cruelty, and oppression, as with any of the nobler attributes of the mind, and when linked to a revengeful and malicious spirit, it blossoms out into the most showy crimes, and ripens the most pestiferous fruit.

      But in contrast with this mere, undiscriminating firmness, moral decision first takes counsel of conscience, and inquires into the law of duty, and then resolves in view of what is right or wrong in the case.

      Without this moral element, firmness is obstinacy, a quality possessed by some brutes, but beneath the dignity of a rational being. Obstinacy is an instinct, moral decision is principle; the former is a degradation, the latter, a means of elevation.

      2. In the next place, as an element of this decision of character of which we speak, I would mention clear conviction.

      No one should infer from this statement that the attainment to clear convictions of duty, will necessarily insure decision of character, but no man can be practically decisive, without a strong conviction that he is in the path of duty. So long as that path is uncertain, timidity and irresolution will mark his hesitating footsteps. Like a benighted wanderer in the woods, uncertain whether his way lies to the right or to the left, fearing to go forward lest he go [187] further astray or fall into danger, he first hesitates, then doubts, and finally despairs. So the man with no clear convictions of duty palters with the most important concerns, and his efforts die away in languid and inefficient endeavors.

      To the man who is conscious of acting without any clear convictions, and perhaps on this very account disheartened by the reflection that he may be acting contrary to the will of Clod, how paralyzing the thought. This is a moral opiate that benumbs all his executive faculties, and forever consigns him to the shelf of uselessness.

      I do not pretend, that it is easy to arrive at assured convictions of truth and duty on all subjects, but be admonished of the impossibility of being prepared for resolute and persevering action, unless sustained by this firm conviction of which we speak.

      But it must be obvious to all, if we are designed in our creation to act a part, and to act it well, then the principles which should govern us must be plain to every honest mind, and a clear conviction with respect to that aura courses along the muscles, and thus gives them tension and force, so clear conviction energizes all our decisions respecting duty; and imparts to them constancy and power. This is the germ from which the resolute and heroic virtues are produced.

      3. The last element of moral decision, we mentioned, is Reliance on our Convictions.

      The very first conception as it seems to me, which [188] we form of decision is, that we rely on our own perceptions, reason, or intuitions. These were manifestly designed to lead us to the cognizance of truth and duty; and the intensity of our moral decisions will have a fixed ratio to the reliance we bestow upon them. Hence, I am not surprised to hear the Savior declare, that if need be, a man must hate even father or mother, in order to be His disciple. Upon his own convictions, he must rely and act, though the tenderest ties be severed, and a man be ostracised from the amenities of domestic life. Reliance on the view, wishes, or practices of another fellow mortal, is contrary both to sound philosophy and true religion. The order of nature has been so disposed, that in making up our decisions respecting duty, we must rely at last upon our own perceptions, reason and intuitions. These original faculties of our nature are regarded as trustworthy and sufficient guides in tracing the attributes of Deity, and the credibility of the revelation which he has given to us. And if these are a court of ultimate appeal when we inquire into the loftiest subjects ever presented for the consideration of the human mind, surely, we may rely on them with unqualified security, when the questions pertaining to human duty are brought up for decision.

      This leads me to remark, that the want of reliance on our convictions, and conformity to the moral standard of others, will most effectually scatter the forces of a man. No matter how clear a man's [189] convictions may be, if he is not wilting to trust them and follow them, he has withdrawn so much force from his own proper life. This is that element of strength in all those master minds that have left an eternal imprint of themselves on the ages. Such are reliant on their own convictions of truth; and like the Apostle Paul, when a great truth was brought home to his conscience, they confer not with flesh and blood. Henceforward, what they must do is their concern, not what people will think. To them a platform of principles is something to stand upon, and not a convenient something from which to step off.

      It would be an easy thing comparatively, to live in the world if we might always follow the opinions and practices which are in fashion; but if we set up our own usurping views, the way of life will become hard and vexatious, since there will always be those who think they know what our duty is better than we ourselves know it.

      If at any time, therefore, friends, you are tempted to throw away that reliance which rightfully belongs to your convictions, in the hope of securing some ephemeral and sordid advantage, be encouraged by the noble words of the great astronomer Kepler, who true to himself and the cause of science, thus wrote to his friend: " I keep up my spirits (at this time he was in great want) with the thought that I, serve not the Emperor alone, but the whole human race--that I am laboring not for [190] the present generation, but for all posterity. If God stand by me and look to the victuals, I hope to perform something yet." Truly, this is the eternal type of that consolation which a relying consciousness of truth brings with it.

      Having thus briefly described the nature of Decision, we now proceed to the consideration of the advantages which it insures,

      1. A decided course is a safe course.

      I apprehend that much of the moral indecision in the world, results from the lurking suspicion that somehow it is not quite safe to take a decided stand in favor of the right. No doubt, men would generally prefer to be right, rather than to be wrong, but yet they would like to be insured in case the right should fail. Though they would assent to the maxim that honesty is the best policy, yet it is not believed to bean insurance policy which will adjust all losses. Now, if we could be thoroughly assured, that it is altogether safe to be decided with respect to moral truth, and moral action, much indecision would be banished from the world.

      It stands to reason that a course of moral decision must be a safe course, whether we regard this world or that to come. Is it not an obvious law of our being, that we shall be decidedly in favor of truth and right, and opposed to falsehood and wrong? And is it reasonable to suppose that God would make it our duty to obey this law of our nature, and then reward us for disobeying it? If [191] the Divine Lawgiver thus enacts and rewards infractions of His laws, He is arrayed against Himself, a thought so repugnant to the moral sense of every thinking being, that it can not be entertained for a moment.

      But it is true--it must be so--that God's providential government is exercised in favor of right, and against wrong, and discriminates in favor of those who are decided in virtue, and against the vicious and depraved.

      In the vegetable world, the sweetest flowers spring from innoxious plants, but flowers without fragrance and sweetness betray the plants that are pernicious. Such harmony and congruity belong to the fundamental laws of the vegetable world. Nor is the harmony of things less striking in the moral universe of God. It can not be safe to poison the fountains of truth, and then attempt to slake our thirst therefrom, nor to adulterate the bread of life, and then seek to appease our hungering after righteousness. In the very nature of the case, therefore, there is safety in a decisive course of moral action, since in this way a man drops into the current of God's providences, and is borne easily and safely by them, unimperiled by the eddies and counter-currents of a hesitating, and undecided course.

      But the voice of History and Experience fully confirms the truth which is thus antecedently probable. Would it not have been safe for the mother [192] of our race, to give a decided dissent when an act of disloyalty to the command of God was first proposed?

      Humanly speaking, what woes would have been averted, had there been the power on her part to utter the decisive No!! What a long and self-perpetuating train of ills has one act of indecision drawn after it! Contemplate all the unchronicled ills of the past, and the unrevealed miseries of the future resulting from this source, and then say, if it is not safe to be decided in favor of right and duty.

      When led by his affection, Peter followed his master into the hall of the High Priest, thinking no doubt, that the Savior would deliver Himself in some way from His foes, as He was wont to do--and while he mixes in the crowd, hoping to escape observation, either his speech or perturbation betrays him, and a little damsel remarks, this is one of His disciples.

      What penitential tears, what deep and poignant grief, what bitterness of soul, he would have escaped, had not his Christian decision of character deserted him! Under a load of almost insupportable shame and anguish, he went out and wept bitterly, when the enormity of his guilt flashed upon his soul from the mildly reproachful look of his Savior.

      It would have been perfectly safe--to confess discipleship to the Lord, though he had accompanied [193] the Master to crucifixion; but it was unspeakably hazardous to deny His name. This decision of character, which is so important in the highest concerns of life, and which is always safe, is equally safe in respect to all the minor interests of this state of being. These high moral interests subordinate and control all others, and what is safe here is safe everywhere.

      2. Again, a decided course is the most useful course.

      Were I to ask, why of two men with equal natural abilities, this one is more influential and useful in life than the other? in most cases the answer would be, the one has a decided character, and the other has not.

      To be useful as a man in this commercial and enterprising age, one must possess this quality; and when on this stock you engraft integrity and Christianity, you have the fruitful boughs on which will cluster all the ripened virtues.

      Moreover, to the student especially, is it useful to cherish this decided state of mind. No real progress can be made when effort is chilled by indifference and indecision. A feeble assent to demonstrated truth, a vague idea of some lurking truth in philosophy, or a nebulous, misty notion of the beauties of literature, is of no avail in the discipline or information of the mind.

      There are persons who claim to be students that lack ligament. There is nothing to tie together their [194] faculties which are lying loosely around. They are like some kinds of cloth, so loose in texture that no amount of workmanship can make them into garments of any account.

      Such learners would willingly--that is, they would not object to have some learning galvanized upon the surface in some easy way. But if the solid metal of knowledge must be obtained, as the real gold is toilsomely gathered by the miner, they turn away from such decided efforts with undisguised aversion. It is no easy matter "to gird up the loins of the mind" so as to think intensely and decisively on a given subject.

      Absorption, too, is a method of acquiring knowledge that is greatly praised by loose and spongy minds. If knowledge could be imbibed as automatically as the sponge draws in water, then nothing would be more easy or delightful than the process of education. But I greatly fear that all these methods are impracticable, however desirable they seem to be.

      Let me, then, commend to your earnest consideration the importance of decision of character in making attainments in knowledge. If you, do not have a decided tendency of mind by nature, let it become yours by habit. Resolve to do nothing, except with decision. This is the fundamental principle of energy. With it you may fail, but without it you can not succeed.

      But on another arena decision of character exerts [195] a wider and nobler influence. I mean by this, that the deeds which have been followed by the most useful and permanent results have been achieved by moral decision.

      The communication of moral and religious truth, and its exemplification in life, is the most important work ever committed to men. For this purpose was the mission of the Son of God, and for this end the apostles and early martyrs labored. With them, all considerations of temporal policy and expediency, all temporizings and compromisings were made to bow before the commanding majesty of duty. What moral decision was that which could hurl twelve men, strong only in truth and the resolution it imparts, against the opposing hosts of the world in arms against them.

      Trace the results of their heroic labors through the years of time and the cycles of eternity, and be instructed in the permanent and useful effects of Christian decision.

      The multitude of examples that occur in illustration of this truth is so great as to distract choice, embracing that proud array of names enrolled on the lists of philanthropists, reformers; moral teachers, and inspired apostles of truth. But selecting one from the many, let us contemplate for a moment the moral decision of Moses, with its attendant train of blessings.

      Reared in all the luxuriousness of a sensual and effeminate court, prospective heir to all the [196] treasures of Egypt, soon to grasp a powerful scepter belonging to the most renowned monarchy of ancient times, as the prospect of life is expanding before his view, he is called to make a most important decision--one in which the interests of millions are directly at stake, and indirectly the interests of the whole world.

      The question is simply this, will he take part with the wronged and oppressed, be their leader and benefactor, or will he cleave to these glittering and attractive splendors of royalty? Benevolence is on the one side, selfishness on the other; here poverty, hardship, and persecution, there wealth, ease, and immunity from wrong.

      Despite all these advantages held out to him as the son of Pharaoh's daughter, he strangely "chooses to suffer affliction." Nothing but a genuine decision of character could have prompted him to adopt a course almost without a parallel. The wisdom of that decision, how loudly is it vindicated by the immense benefits that have inured to the whole human race.

      Now, what is true with respect to the consequences of his moral decisions has been true, in some degree, in thousands of other cases. This principle, by whomsoever exhibited, always gravitates to the same general result of usefulness.

      There can be no excuse for any man who turns away from rectitude for the sake of outward prosperity. If he sells his principles for secular [197] prosperity,he will find in the end that its promises were all spurious. In public affairs, in commercial affairs, in social affairs, the course which carries with it the highest moral element is the safest, best, and most prosperous course.

      3. In the third place a decided course is an easy course. Here we would not be understood as affirming that a man, in consequence of his moral decision, will not at times be subject to severe trials, or on the other hand, that by a timid and temporizing course, he may not sometimes avoid trials, but this--a man's decision of character will, on the whole, cause him less embarrassment than any other course in discharging the duties of life.

      Decision is a piece of defensive armor by which temptation is most successfully warded off. Like the shield of Achilles it is of heavenly beauty and divine temper. When assailed by temptations to sinful indulgence, no protection is so reliable as the defensive one of decision. To barter this away for irresolution or hesitating indetermination is, like Esau, to sell a birthright for a mess of pottage.

      Let a man, especially a young man, when the temptations of the world are spread out before him, show himself determined and able to resist them; let him, when solicited to the haunts of sin by wicked associates, exhibit a firmness of denial that no sneers or flatteries can shake, and let this be repeated, if necessary, a few times, and soon there will be occasion to repeat it no more; for at length, convinced [198] that their efforts will be unavailing, his tempters will retire from the fruitless contest.

      But on the other hand, let a man, when plied with incentives to wrong-doing, only show himself half-inclined to yield; let him look with indulgence and no disfavor on courses of moral obliquity, and let him yield occasionally to the fascinations of questionable pleasures, that man is painfully and continually embarrassed, if not essentially lost.

      Every yielding to the importunities of the unprincipled will encourage them to renew their demands, and it will not be strange if their attempts are continued until the victim is led step by step practically to apostatize from acknowledged duty, and eventually to place himself beyond all affinity for moral good.

      It will be hard, without embarrassment and inconsistency, to conform to the low and variable standard of mere worldly maxims and practices; but comparatively easy to conform to the everlasting laws of Christian manner, piety, and purity, that can not be changed by any fluctuation of opinion.

      Thus we have attempted briefly to indicate the nature of decision; that it is mainly composed of clear convictions, and reliance on our convictions, and we have endeavored to recommend a decisive course of moral life as the only safe, useful and easy course.

      In conclusion, it seems almost unnecessary to add that this is also the course of happiness. [199]

      "Our being's end and aim, that something still which prompts the eternal sign," that ideal and intangible good, which we call happiness, can only be found in this direction. This must be so, because all experience and observation declare that a man is not to be judged happy by what befalls him in the outward circumstances of life, but by the spirit with which he bears the allotments of life. Milton has truly observed that

      "The mind is its own place, and in itself
      Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven."

      Before, then, we can pronounce a man happy, we must know how he lives within, who are his thought companions, and what is his spiritual fare.

      We are inclined to think the man happy who has a great deal, while at the same time, like Lucifer, he may be wasting away by strange combustion in the penal fires of a self-kindled gehenna.

      Life will be like the material of which it is builded. If built of silver and gold, it will be hard, metallic life; if out of pleasure, an unsatisfied life; if out of passion and appetite, a boisterous and sensual life; but if of righteousness and truth, a happy and eternal life. A man's happiness consists not in the abundance of the things he possesses, but in his rich affections, his moral tastes, and in his comprehensive grasp of God's truth as impressed on all his works. To have decided predilection for all these moral conditions is to have a hold upon the [200] sources of human happiness, and without it a man is a starveling and a pauper in the midst of the greatest profusion and abundance.

      Ye seekers after happiness, know ye that life--true life--is not made up of externals, but of the states of the soul, and in walking across this narrow bridge of time, if your look is bent downward upon this world you shall grow dizzy and fall; but if your eye is steadily and decidedly fixed on the shore of the eternal world, you shall walk straighter here, and be more sure of reaching the other side in safety. [201]

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