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Bunyan Characters First Series: 14. PRUDENCE

By Alexander Whyte


      'Let a man examine himself.'--Paul.

      Let a man examine himself, says the apostle to the Corinthians, and so let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup. And thus it was, that before the pilgrim was invited to sit down at the supper table in the House Beautiful, quite a number of most pointed and penetrating questions were put to him by those who had charge of that house and its supper table. And thus the time was excellently improved till the table was spread, while the short delay and the successive exercises whetted to an extraordinary sharpness the pilgrim's hunger for the supper. Piety and Charity, who had joint charge of the house from the Master of the house, held each a characteristic conversation with Christian, but it was left to Prudence to hold the most particular discourse with him until supper was ready, and it is to that so particular discourse that I much wish to turn your attention to-night.

      With great tenderness, but at the same time with the greatest possible gravity, Prudence asked the pilgrim whether he did not still think sometimes of the country from whence he had come out. Yes, he replied; how could I help thinking continually of that unhappy country and of my sad and miserable life in it; but, believe me,--or, rather, you cannot believe me,--with what shame and detestation I always think of my past life. My face burns as I now speak of my past life to you, and as I think what my old companions know and must often say about me. I detest, as you cannot possibly understand, every remembrance of my past life, and I hate and never can forgive myself, who, with mine own hands, so filled all my past life with shame and self-contempt. Gently stopping the remorseful pilgrim's self-accusations about his past life, Prudence asked him if he had not still with him, and, indeed, within him, some of the very things that had so destroyed both him and all his past life. 'Yes,' he honestly and humbly said. 'Yes, but greatly against my will: especially my inward and sinful cogitations.' At this Prudence looked on him with all her deep and soft eyes, for it was to this that she had been leading the conversation up all the time. Prudence had a great look of satisfaction, mingled with love and pity, at the way the pilgrim said 'especially my inward and sinful cogitations.' Those who stood by and observed Prudence wondered at her delight in the sad discourse on which the pilgrim now entered. But she had her own reasons for her delight in this particular kind of discourse, and it was seldom that she lighted on a pilgrim who both understood her questions and responded to them as did this man now sitting beside her. Now, my brethren, all parable apart, is that your religious experience? Are you full of shame and detestation at your inward cogitations? Are you tormented, enslaved, and downright cursed with your own evil thoughts? I do not ask whether or no you have such thoughts always within you. I do not ask, because I know. But I ask, because I would like to make sure that you know what, and the true nature of what, goes on incessantly in your mind and in your heart. Do you, or do you not, spit out your most inward thoughts ten times a day like poison? If you do, you are a truly religious man, and if you do not, you do not yet know the very ABC of true religion, and your dog has a better errand at the Lord's table than you have. And if your minister lets you sit down at the Lord's table without holding from time to time some particular discourse with you about your sinful thoughts, he is deceiving and misleading you, besides laying up for himself an awakening at last to shame and everlasting contempt. What a mill-stone his communion roll will be round such a minister's neck! And how his congregation will gnash their teeth at him when they see to what his miserable ministry has brought them!

      Let a man examine himself, said Paul. What about your inward and sinful cogitations? asked Prudence. How long shall thy vain thoughts lodge within thee? demanded the bold prophet. Now, my brethren, what have you to say to that particular accusation? Do you know what vain thoughts are? Are you at all aware what multitudes of such thoughts lodge within you? Do they drive you every day to your knees, and do you blush with shame when you are alone before God at the fountain of folly that fills your mind and your heart continually? The Apostle speaks of vain hopes that make us ashamed that we ever entertained them. You have been often so ashamed, and yet do not such hopes still too easily arise in your heart? What castles of idiotic folly you still build! Were a sane man or a modest woman even to dream such dreams of folly overnight, they would blush and hide their heads all day at the thought. Out of a word, out of a look, out of what was neither a word nor a look intended for you, what a world of vanity will you build out of it! The question of Prudence is not whether or no you are still a born fool at heart, she does not put unnecessary questions: hers to you is the more pertinent and particular question, whether, since you left your former life and became a Christian, you feel every day increasing shame and detestation at yourself, on account of the vanity of your inward cogitations. My brethren, can you satisfy her who is set by her Master to hold particular discourse with all true Christians before supper? Can you say with the Psalmist,--could you tell Prudence where the Psalmist says,--I hate vain thoughts, but Thy law do I love? And can you silence her by telling her that her Master alone knows with what shame you think that He has such a fool as you are among His people?

      Anger, also, sudden and even long-entertained anger, was one of the 'many failings' of which Christian was so conscious to himself. His outbursts of anger at home, he bitterly felt, might well be one of the causes why his wife and children did not accompany him on his pilgrimage. And though he knew his failing in this respect, and was very wary of it, yet he often failed even when he was most wary. Now, while anger is largely a result of our blood and temperament, yet few of us are so well-balanced and equable in our temperament and so pure and cool in our blood, as altogether to escape frequent outbursts of anger. The most happily constituted and the best governed of us have too much cause to be ashamed and penitent both before God and our neighbours for our outbursts of angry passion. But Prudence is so particular in her discourse before supper, that she goes far deeper into our anger than our wives and our children, our servants and our neighbours, can go. She not only asks if we stamp out the rising anger of our heart as we would stamp out sparks of fire in a house full of gunpowder; but she insists on being told what we think of ourselves when the house of our heart is still so full of such fire and such gunpowder. Any man, to call a man, would be humbled in his own eyes and in his walk before his house at home after an explosion of anger among them; but he who would satisfy Prudence and sit beside her at supper, must not only never let his anger kindle, but the simple secret heat of it, that fire of hell that is hid from all men but himself in the flint of his own hard and proud heart,--what, asks Prudence, do you think of that, and of yourself on account of that? Does that keep you not only watchful and prayerful, but, what is the best ground in you of all true watchfulness and prayerfulness, full of secret shame, self-fear, and self-detestation? One forenoon table would easily hold all our communicants if Prudence had the distribution of the tokens.

      And, then, we who are true pilgrims, are of all men the most miserable, on account of that 'failing,' that rankling sting in our hearts, when any of our friends has more of this world's possessions, honours, and praises than we have, that pain at our neighbour's pleasure, that sickness at his health, that hunger for what we see him eat, that thirst for what we see him drink, that imprisonment of our spirits when we see him set at liberty, that depression at his exaltation, that sorrow at his joy, and joy at his sorrow, that evil heart that would have all things to itself. Yes, said Christian, I am only too conversant with all these sinful cogitations, but they are all greatly against my will, and might I but choose mine own thoughts, do you suppose that I would ever think these things any more? 'The cause is in my will,' said Caesar, on a great occasion. But the true Christian, unhappily, cannot say that. If he could say that, he would soon say also that the snare is broken and that his soul has escaped. And then the cause of all his evil cogitations, his vain thoughts, his angry feelings, his envious feelings, his ineradicable covetousness, his hell-rooted and heaven-towering pride, and his whole evil heart of unbelief would soon be at an end. 'I cannot be free of sin,' said Thomas Boston, 'but God knows that He would be welcome to make havoc of my lusts to-night and to make me henceforth a holy man. I know no lust that I would not be content to part with. My will bound hand and foot I desire to lay at His feet.' Yes: such is the mystery and depth of sin in the hearts of all God's saints, that far deeper than their will, far back behind their will, the whole substance and very core of their hearts is wholly corrupt and enslaved to sin. And thus it is that while their renewed and delivered will works out, so far, their salvation in their walk and conversation among men, the helplessness of their will in the cleansing and the keeping of their hearts is to the end the sorrow and the mystery of their sanctification. To will was present with Paul, and with Bunyan, and with Boston; but their heart--they could not with all their keeping keep their heart. No man can; no man who has at all tried it can. 'Might I but choose mine own thoughts, I would choose never to think of these things more: but when I would be doing of that which is best, that which is worst is with me.' We can choose almost all things. Our will and choice have almost all things at their disposal. We can choose our God. We can choose life or death. We can choose heaven or hell. We can choose our church, our minister, our books, our companions, our words, our works, and, to some extent, our inward thoughts, but only to some extent. We can encourage this or that thought; we can entertain it and dwell upon it; or we can detect it, detest it, and cast it out. But that secret place in our heart where our thoughts hide and harbour, and out of which they spring so suddenly upon the mind and the heart, the imagination and the conscience,--of that secretest of all secret places, God alone is able to say, I search the heart. 'As for secret thoughts,' says our author, speaking of his own former religious life, 'I took no notice of them, neither did I understand what Satan's temptations were, nor how they were to be withstood and resisted.' But now all these things are his deepest grief, as they are ours,--as many of us as have been truly turned in our deepest hearts to God.

      'But,' replied Prudence, 'do you not find sometimes as if those things were vanquished which at other times are your perplexity?' 'Yes, but that is but seldom; but they are to me golden hours in which such things happen to me.' 'Can you remember by what means you find your annoyances at times as if they were vanquished?' 'Yes, when I think what I saw at the cross, that will do it; and when I look upon my broidered coat, that will do it; also, when I look into the roll that I carry in my bosom, that will do it; and when my thoughts wax warm about whither I am going, that will do it.' Yes; and these same things have many a time done it to ourselves also. We also, my brethren--let me tell you your own undeniable experience--we also have such golden hours sometimes, when we feel as if we should never again have such an evil heart within us. The Cross of Christ to us also has done it. It is of such golden hours that Isaac Watts sings in his noble hymn:

      'When I survey the wondrous Cross;'

      and as often as we sing that hymn with our eyes upon the object, that will for a time vanquish our worst cogitations. Also, when we read the roll that we too carry in our bosom--that is to say, when we go back into our past life till we see it and feel it all, and till we can think and speak of nothing else but the sin that abounded in it and the grace that much more abounded, that has a thousand times given us also golden hours, even rest from our own evil hearts. And we also have often made our hearts too hot for sin to show itself, when we read our hearts deep into such books as The Paradiso, The Pilgrim's Progress, The Saint's Rest, The Serious Call, The Religious Affections, and such like. These books have often vanquished our annoyances, and given us golden hours on the earth. Yes, but that is but seldom.

      'Now, what is it,' asked Prudence, as she wound up this so particular colloquy, 'that makes you so desirous to go to Mount Zion?'

      'Why,' replied the pilgrim, and the water stood in his eyes, 'why, there I hope to see Him alive that did hang dead on the cross; and there I hope to be rid of all those things that to this day are an annoyance to me; there they say is no death, and there shall I dwell with such company as I love best. For, to tell you truth, I love Him, because by Him I was eased of my burden, and I am weary of my inward sickness; and I would fain be where I shall die no more, and for ever with that company that shall continually cry, Holy, holy, holy.'

      * Delivered on the Sabbath before Communion.

      * LECTURE DELIVERED IN ST. GEORGE'S FREE CHURCH EDINBURGH

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See Also:
   INTRODUCTORY
   1. EVANGELIST
   2. OBSTINATE
   3. PLIABLE
   4. HELP
   5. MR. WORLDLY-WISEMAN
   6. GOODWILL, THE GATEKEEPER
   7. THE INTERPRETER
   8. PASSION
   9. PATIENCE
   10. SIMPLE, SLOTH, AND PRESUMPTION
   11. THE THREE SHINING ONES AT THE CROSS
   12. FORMALIST AND HYPOCRISY
   13. TIMOROUS AND MISTRUST
   14. PRUDENCE
   15. CHARITY
   16. SHAME
   17. TALKATIVE
   18. JUDGE HATE-GOOD
   19. FAITHFUL IN VANITY FAIR
   20. BY-ENDS
   21. GIANT DESPAIR
   22. KNOWLEDGE
   23. EXPERIENCE
   24. WATCHFUL
   25. SINCERE

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