To be uniformly good, to consider ourselves as destined in this life to promote the happiness of all around us, and to make this steadily and invariably the rule of our actions; this, as it is the true Christian character, is surely the most noble and godlike that can be ascribed to human beings.
We cannot contemplate it without love and delight, and this will as naturally excite our emulation, and lead us to desire in ourselves what we necessarily admire in others.
But this perfect character is not to be attained by a transient wish, by the simple inclination and consent of the mind; it must be formed, like other virtuous habits, by time and patience, exercise and application.
God, who has made the welfare of mankind depend much on their mutual love and care one for another, has at the same time, lest reason and religion should have too cold an influence, implanted very powerful passions in the heart to stimulate and excite to these duties.
We are so made as necessarily to commiserate the wants and feel the distresses of others. But if our mercy and compassion have no other foundation than this, though world may be the better for it, we shall be none the better ourselves.
But if we help others only to gratify ourselves, there is no virtue or merit in this appearance of charity. If we do Good only from instinct and inclination, from selfish or other human considerations, these principles vary in their influence and tendency; and, if some of them, at times, prompt us to what is generous and good, others will prevail in their turn, and more frequently seduce us from it.
To give stability to virtue, it must be founded on better motives, on the principles of reason and truth: these are everywhere the same, and operate in all circumstances alike; they will not bend to our own inclinations, or be moved by the entreaties and importunities of self-love.
This, then, is the proper foundation, the rock on which our virtue must be built. Whatever claims the authority of duty over us must be tried by our reason, not by our passions and inclinations. And where this authority is acknowledged, we must be subject: not for pleasure, profit, or fame, but for conscience sake.
This rational choice, this subjection of the mind to duty, is necessary not only to support but to constitute virtue. Without it our best actions will be worth nothing; it being a first principle in morality, that the virtue of every action is to be estimated from the principle and intention with which it is performed.
The best resolutions will not make us all of a sudden virtuous or charitable. We must not mistake the plan for the thing itself. Resolutions must be pursued to their proper consequences, and set the active powers of the mind at work, before we can take their character into ourselves.
We purchase very cheaply our own good opinion. If we would know our true moral character, we must inquire about our actions, not about our sentiments and opinions. These latter are always on the side of truth and virtue. God has made them so.
Only our actions are properly our own, and tell what we are. "I will show you my faith by my works," says the Apostle James. If you have charity, show it by your works. You feel it in yourself, but let others feel it.
Our Savior has declared that whoever gives a cup of cold water only to a disciple, for his sake, shall not lose his reward.
What families or what persons have been the better for your bounty? Have your ears and your hands been open to the wants of your suffering neighbors? Is your labor or your fortune, in any good degree, spent in their service?
When any good work has invited our concurrence, have we, according to our ability, encouraged and promoted it? Or have we contented ourselves with bidding it Godspeed, and wishing it good luck in the name of our Master, Jesus?
Charity is a duty, a duty God has bound upon us by all the ties of nature, reason, and religion; a duty which strikes the mind with more piercing conviction than any other duty which we acknowledge, and even think ourselves resolved to practice. But if this is a duty in any circumstances, it is surely so when the sick and needy in the anguish of their souls call upon us.
It is thus we must bring our virtue in this and every other instance to the trial, before we can determine what our real character is.
(Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Dr. William Adams, “Perseverance in Well-Doing," given Sept. 14, 1749 in Shrewsbury, England )