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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
From The Baptist Magazine, 1858
"Hast thou found honey? eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it." Prov. 25:16
Are amusements lawful for the Christian? If so, what amusements? And to what extent? These are questions that claim our careful and candid consideration. In the present day, the pursuits of the church and of the world appear so nearly one, and the love of amusements has become so nearly universal, that every disciple of Christ is bound fairly to consider what course he ought to pursue in regard to them.
It may be presumed that innocent pleasures are not displeasing to God, and that Christians may consistently share in them to a certain extent. Disinclination for social delights is a disease, not a virtue; and asceticism is the foe to piety as well as to enjoyment. All nature teems with proofs of the benevolence of God, and his delight in the happiness of his creatures. He made our senses to be the inlets of enjoyment, and then clothed the earth with beauty, and filled the air with music.
"He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth, and wine that maketh glad the heart of man." (Psalm 104:14-15a) True piety is not blind to the beauties of nature, nor insensible to the sweets of life. It finds pleasure in those innocent recreations which call into united exercise the intellect, reason, and affections; whilst it avoids those which excite the passions without engaging the mind and the soul.
Many Christians, however, condemn all recreation as a waste of time which belongs to God, and as therefore sinful. Those who, by severe self-discipline or natural aptitude, are able to devote all their time and energies directly to spiritual things deserve all honour. The man who can live every moment in direct communion with God, is pre-eminently a happy man. Such a one was the Son of Man. We should fix our eye and our heart on him, and, as closely as possible, tread in his footsteps; great will then be our happiness and reward.
But to those who take this position, and condemn every innocent relaxation, I say, be consistent. Let your whole life accord therewith. Do not, for instance, condemn all amusements and spend your time in inactivity, in unmeaning employments, or in idle and worse than idle gossip. Do not condemn amusements, and devote all your energies to the business of this life, and the pursuit of wealth. If you do, you are far less Christ-like than him who labours for the glory of God and the good of man, though he occasionally spends an hour in recreation.
Be consistent; sleep only to restore vigour; eat only to sustain life; labour only to obtain what is essential to an honest livelihood; eschew ornaments and elegancies; your time, your wealth, your energies, your all, devote to God; and remember, that “when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do." (Luke 17:10) and beware, too, lest whilst you "strain at a gnat, you swallow a camel." (Matt. 23:24)
Such cases as those now adverted to are however the exception, not the rule. Man needs relaxation; both mind and body require rest; and it is better to find it in amusements than in listless inactivity. Man is endowed with certain tastes, and it cannot be supposed that God intended them to be entirely neglected, and they may be made to serve purposes at once pleasant and profitable. Further, Christians are associated with others in the relationships of life. Relatives and friends are necessarily brought into association with one another.
Now what course should Christians pursue towards their unconverted relatives and associates? By what course are they most likely to benefit them and glorify God? Should they be austere ascetics, manifesting their Christianity by the avoidance of all relaxation; condemning all mirth and recreation, and frowning on every pursuit or pleasure not strictly or technically religious? Decidedly not. They would be much more likely to benefit their unconverted companions by mingling in their innocent amusements, and thus showing them that religion teaches us to be happy and make others happy; at the same time winning their confidence, and thus preparing the way for a word that may turn their thoughts to Christ.
The indiscriminate condemnation of amusements by Christians has done much harm to the sinner, and hardened many a heart against God. Besides which, joyfulness is the Christian's special prerogative: "Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works." (Eccl. 9:7)
I am not then prepared to condemn amusements of all kinds, and under all circumstances. But it must be admitted that amusements may present powerful temptations to evil; that when there is no evil in them per se, they may exert an evil influence; and that many amusements are in themselves evil, or are inseparable from evil. Now whenever this is the case it is clearly the duty of the Christian to abstain from them. Not, indeed that all amusements that present temptations are to be avoided. If I avoid every engagement that does or may involve temptation, I know not what engagements I should not avoid. I must withdraw from the business of this world altogether; I had need become a hermit, and seek a lodge in some vast wilderness. Whilst even there, Satan would intrude, or my own thoughts become tempters.
To battle with temptation would be a nobler deed, and to struggle for the crown which is promised to him that overcometh. But if any amusement become to me a powerful temptation; if I find, for instance, that it excites unholy desires, tempts me to neglect duties, or brings me into too close an association with ungodly companions, then it is clearly my duty to avoid it. Christ taught his disciples to pray, "Lead us not into temptation." (Matt 6:13) If we ask God not to lead us into temptation, we are not to rush into it. If duty leads us into temptation we may go safely, trusting on the arm of God; but if inclination leads us there, we have no right to expect help.
If, then, any amusement prove to me a powerful temptation, to me that amusement is sin. I say, to me, not necessarily to another, for the same action may be safe for one and not for another, and may be right and wrong for the same reasons under different circumstances. The wind that puts to death the plant may brace the hardy shrub; and the same rays of the sun which cause one flower to wither may excite another into bloom. I must not judge others by myself, nor condemn in others everything I condemn in myself.
An amusement apparently harmless may under certain circumstances, be injurious, and must then be avoided. For example, a Christian loves music; this love of music leads him frequently to the concert, and brings him into close association with companions devoid of religion. As a consequence the business of life is neglected, and, which is of infinitely more importance, the worship of God and the welfare of his soul. The worldly atmosphere around him enfeebles the growth of piety, and induces indifference to, or a distaste for religious pursuits. He finds that he must entirely crucify his musical taste, or sacrifice his spiritual welfare. His duty is plain.
Jesus Christ supplies the rule: "If thy right eye offend thee (i.e. prove a stumbling-block), pluck it out, and cast it from thee—or thy right hand, cut it off, and cast it from thee; for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell." (Matt. 5:29) The music may not in itself be sinful; it is not the concert that may be wrong; but though the music or the concert be in themselves harmless, if they are to him injurious, make him neglect his duties, or prove a stumbling-block to his salvation, then to him they are sin; and his duty is AT ONCE to crucify the taste and abstain from the gratification.
In this respect all forms of gambling are particularly objectionable. I do not say that in a game of cards there is anything absolutely sinful. But it is a complete waste of time; it does not bring any faculty of the mind or body into healthful exercise to render it sufficiently exciting. It is generally played for money, and though the stake be small, not more than the marble to the schoolboy, it begets a love of play, feeble perhaps at first, but strengthened by every game, which may never be conquered. A gambling disposition cannot be too strongly deprecated, whether manifested in amusement or in business; and many of the speculations and elsewhere are quite as sinful and infinitely more dangerous than games of chance.
Their injurious influence on OTHERS is a reason why the Christian should, under certain circumstances, avoid some amusements. There is a sense in which I am my brother's keeper. I am not, indeed, always bound to regard the scruples of others, and make their opinions the rule of my conduct. I leave others to follow the convictions of their consciences, and feel myself free to follow the convictions of my own. But if my conduct be a stumbling-block to a weak brother, and lead him astray, then Christian charity, and duty also, should lead me to surrender any gratification, though it be to myself harmless. For instance, I may attend a concert without injury to myself; my companion, influenced by my example may, as already pointed out, attend and experience injury; or my attendance at places of innocent amusement may encourage him to attend those of a more questionable character; under such circumstances my course is clear.
There are some amusements in themselves harmless, but whose concomitants are, in most cases, sinful, or at least questionable. Such amusements the Christian cannot frequent without sin—for instance, the theatre. There may be nothing wrong in the play itself; what may be read for amusement may be witnessed. The mere performance of a play in itself unobjectionable, cannot fairly be objected to. But the concomitants of a theatre are always vicious. The performers can hardly be strictly chaste; the environs of a theatre are always scenes of iniquity; and a pure stage has always been a failure. I feel no hesitation, then, in condemning the theatre, on the ground of the evils which invariably, if not necessarily, stand associated with it.
The race course must be included in the same category. The race itself may be harmless. But the betting and other evils invariably, if not necessarily, associated with the turf, render it a place in which the Christian ought not to be found. The ballroom should be shunned on the same grounds. There may not be any harm in the mere act of dancing, but the late hours, the devotion to dress, the unhealthful excitement, and the provocations to vanity, invariably connected with the ball, are sufficient to make it a very unsuitable place for a Christian. It may be said that these are not necessary accompaniments of a ball. I answer, they are its invariable accompaniments, and that amounts to the same thing. The reading of the Bible and prayer must be very tame and very gainful to one who has just withdrawn from the exciting atmosphere of a dancing room. Any amusement which is found to unfit the mind for devotion, is, on this ground, unsuited for a Christian, and ought to be avoided by him.
There are some amusements which are wrong in themselves, and therefore to be avoided. It is unnecessary to mention them. One, however, which I cannot but regard as such claims a passing remark—the Oratorio. There are many who condemn concerts, and yet frequent oratorios. Their conduct is incomprehensible. Oratorios, when conducted by pious persons, and some when not so conducted, may be innocent; but for ungodly men to take the most solemn words upon their lips, such as parts of Mozart's Requiem, or Handel's Messiah, simply to afford amusement, must be offensive to God; and infinitely more grievous in his sight must be the conduct of his professed children, who derive gratification from such impious mockery of himself, and desecration of holy things. It may be objected that, on the same grounds, all singing should be excluded from our places of worship. It must, however, be remembered, that the ungodly in our religious assemblies sing of their own accord, neither at the invitation nor for the amusement of the pious. The Christian identifies himself in prayer and praise simply with the godly present, and is not responsible for the conduct of others.
One important question in connection with this subject is, what course of conduct in relation to amusements should Christian parents pursue towards their children? Should they allow them to follow out their own inclinations, or should they exercise restraint, and if so, to what extent? This is a very difficult point. As to amusements sinful in themselves, or in their associations, the Christian parent should forbid them, mildly but firmly; and explain why he forbids them. As to other amusements, supply them to your children, of that kind, and to that extent, which shall not injure them, and make as far as possible their amusements auxiliary to their intellectual and moral advancement.
Direct their pleasures, and as far as possible share them, and you will thus gain a place in their hearts, which will at all times impart the power of law to your simplest wish, and induce a ready relinquishment of the amusements you may condemn. Never cultivate a taste, the gratification of which you feel it wrong to encourage. Let them not, for instance, be taught dancing, if you mean to discourage the ball-room. To do so would be both dangerous and cruel. The parent who directs and unites in the amusements of his family will have his reward. He who drives his children to seek recreation away from home, will generally have to mourn over the results of his conduct. Happy is that parent who knows what to forbid and what to allow.
On the whole then it appears that we should not so much condemn amusements as the LOVE of amusements. It is not the occasional mingling in the enjoyments and pleasures of this life that will injure us, but the constant pursuit of them. It is when amusements are eagerly sought, and day after day are delighted in, that they are injurious. And then it is not so much the immediate effect of each pleasure, as the general frame of mind produced. The effect of the love and pursuit of amusements, is to enfeeble the mind, to induce and strengthen the craving for present gratification, and thus to promote selfishness. It destroys all noble ambition and manly vigour; it indisposes to exertion, to duty, and to the self-denial which philanthropy and piety demand.
They who have enlightened and blessed the world—whose memories have been embalmed, and whose deeds have left their trophies on the plain of time—have not been the votaries of pleasure; but men whose bodies and minds have been invigorated and braced for active life by self-denial and contempt of present gratification.
The history of by-gone ages may teach us that contempt for pleasure has conducted to greatness, and the love of amusement has led to degradation and ruin. Look at Greece—as long as the brave was the good, she was mighty and glorious; but when the beautiful and the harmonious became synonymous with the excellent, she decayed and withered. Look at Rome—in the days of her Commonwealth, manhood was virtue; in the days of her decay, beauty and art were substituted for manhood. Rulers and people surrendered themselves to the gratification of their tastes and passions; luxury and pleasure became the grand objects of life; and it was not long before her dominion and glory faded away, and she fell an easy prey to barbarism.
And so will it ever be both with countries and individuals; when a nation becomes worldly and voluptuous—fond of shows and show—delighting in accomplishments and amusements—preferring the external and flashy to the real and substantial—it loses its strength, and its "end draweth nigh." May our nation be preserved from such ruin! When we contemplate the prevalence of the aesthetic in religion, the growing preference of popular and exciting preaching to that which is instructive and scriptural, the rage for accomplishments and amusements which marks all classes, the increasing thirst for gold and love of appearances, and the little self-sacrifice and self-denial which are found even among Christians, one almost trembles. May God avert the threatened danger, and restore our nation to a sound mind and healthy condition!
Beware, then, of the intellectual and moral degradations to which the paths of pleasure conduct. Allow not those habits to be formed in youth which may never be overcome; permit not your faculties and energies to be weakened by the fascinations of pleasure, and your future life enfeebled and embittered. Fix your eye on Christ; follow in his footsteps; and through the path of self-denial and sacrifice, arrive at the reward and crown.
And let the Christian remember, that amusements, how innocent whatsoever in themselves, become dangerous and sinful when an immoderate attachment is felt for them; when they are more than a passing recreation; when they are essential to his happiness; when the time that ought to be devoted to God is devoted to them; when the mind dwells with fond recollection on the past amusement, and anticipates with longing anxiety the one in prospect; when the concert-room or evening party is preferred to the house of prayer or religious instruction; when the Christian can find time for amusement, and not for the week-day service of the sanctuary, they then usurp that place in his affections which belongs to the gospel.
This love of amusement, alas, is too prevalent among professing Christians. It indicates a feebleness of piety, and a worldly-mindedness, inconsistent, if not incompatible, with genuine Christianity. This is "to love the world and the things of the world;" (I John 2:15) this is to be "lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God;" (II Tim. 3:4) this is "to mind earthly things," (Phil. 3:19) and to be "enemies of the cross of Christ."(Phil. 3:18)
But there are pleasures with which no alloy mingles, and which may be indulged in without restraint; which leave no injurious influence on the mind, and which at once gladden and strengthen the heart; pleasures which follow in the train of Him at whose birth angels sang "Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, and good-will towards men." (Luke 2:14) Of divine wisdom it is true that "her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace." (Prov. 3:17)
True religion sweetens every sorrow, and hallows every enjoyment. It lights up the path to our Father's house, where the redeemed, as one happy, loving family, shall feast at the marriage supper of the Lamb; and in "his presence find fulness of joy, and pleasures for evermore." (Ps. 16:11) If thy heart be full of these, if Jehovah be thy Father and thy Saviour, and death thy friend, then thou mayst mingle in the innocent pleasures, and partake of the inferior joys, with which a bountiful God has enriched this world. But if this be not the case; if thy sins be unpardoned, and if death may in a moment bear thee away to everlasting woe, what madness to linger, even for an hour, amid the pleasures and amusements of earth!
Imagine a condemned cell turned into a ball-room, or the deck of a dismantled and sinking ship covered with a vain and frivolous crowd of dancers, intent upon displaying their agility and grace once more before the hungry waves suck them down in the vortex. Neither of these scenes would be more incongruous than a company of guilty condemned sinners on the brink of perdition, giving themselves up to vain delights and thoughtless mirth.
Imagine thyself borne away from the festive scene to the bar of God, there to hear the sentence from his lips—"Cast ye the UNPROFITABLE servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matt. 25:30)
Dear friend, let safety, not pleasure, be thy first pursuit; let heavenly, not earthly, joys be thy first aim; give not sleep to thine eyes, nor slumber to thine eyelids, until thou hast secured, through Christ, the friendship of God, in whose “favour is life,” (Ps. 30:5) and whose “lovingkindness is better than life." (Ps. 63:3) Then, on earth shalt thou have secure delight, and in heaven eternal bliss. Then shalt thou find that “light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart." (Ps. 97:11)