The Young Man’s Friend and Guide through Life to Immortality,
Success or Failure in Business
By John Angell James (1785-1859)
He becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand; but the hand of the diligent maketh rich. (Proverbs 10:4)
In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider. (Ecclesiastes 7:14)
The Design of Ecclesiastes.
The book of Ecclesiastes, when properly understood, is an important portion of Sacred Scripture. It is on good grounds ascribed to Solomon, and is supposed as I stated in the last chapter, to have been composed after his recovery from his deplorable apostasy, and to have been intended by him to be a record of his own experience, and a warning, or at any rate a lesson, to mankind. Its chief design seems to be to answer that momentous inquiry, prompted at once by the misery and the ignorance of fallen humanity, “Who will shew us any good?” (Ps. 4:6). Man is made for happiness, and is capable of it: but what is it, and how is it to be obtained? To possess and enjoy it, he must be furnished with some good, suited to his nature, adapted to his condition, and adequate to his capacity and desires.
The nature of the chief good has been, in every age, the interesting subject of most earnest philosophic inquiry. But how various and opposed have been the conclusions at which the inquirers have arrived on this important subject. Varro, a learned Latin writer, who died about thirty years before Christ, reckoned up more than two hundred different opinions on this subject; thus plainly evincing man’s ignorance of his own nature, circumstances, and wants. Not perceiving what it is that has made him miserable, he cannot know of course what will make him happy. Unacquainted with, or rather overlooking, the disease, he cannot know the remedy. He feels an aching void within, an unsatisfied craving after something, but knows neither the nature nor the source of the food adapted to meet and satisfy his hungry appetite.
What human reason is thus proved to be too ignorant and too weak to decide, the Bible undertakes to settle; that which no human authority can adjudicate upon, the oracle of God explicitly, imperatively, and infallibly, determines for all and for ever. Precious Bible, if only for this! The vagrant spirit of man is seen wandering from God, the fountain of bliss, roaming through this “dry and thirsty land, where no water is” (Ps. 63:1); anxiously looking for happiness, but never finding it; coming often to springs that are dry, and to cisterns that are broken, till weary of the pursuit and disappointed in its hopes, it is ready to give up all in despair, and reconcile itself to misery, under the notion that happiness is but a name. In this sad and hopeless mood, the victim of grief and despondency is met by the Bible, which takes him by the hand, and leads him to the fountain of living waters.
Such is the design of this extraordinary book, to shew first of all what will not, and then what will, make man happy. Upon all the most coveted possessions of this world, it pronounces the solemn and impressive sentence, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” (Ecc. 1:2). It interrogates singly every coveted object of human desire, and asks, “What are you?” only to receive the melancholy answer, “Vanity.” Or if, deceptively, they return another answer, it turns to the man who has possessed and proved them all, and he contradicts their testimony and mournfully cries, “They are vanity.”
In the beginning of the book, Solomon gives this out as the first part of his subject, and then twenty times repeats it, and oftener still alludes to it in the course of his details; and when he has finished his proofs and illustrations, he formally re-announces it in his peroration. He does not by this sentence intend to pass any censure on the works of nature, the dispensations of Providence, or the arrangement of man’s social existence. All things are good in their nature, relations, and designs as God originally made them; but man’s sinfulness renders all corrupt to him; he makes those things to be ends which were only intended to be means; rests in what is subordinate instead of going on to that which is supreme; and abuses that which is granted him only for use. Solomon shews us in this book, that nothing on earth can satisfy the soul of man, as its supreme good. Three thousand years nearly have passed away since he wrote. Science has multiplied its discoveries, art its inventions, and literature its productions; civilization has opened new sources of luxury, and ingenuity has added innumerable gratifications of appetite and taste, unknown even to Solomon; every domain of nature has been explored, and every conceivable experiment been made, to extort from her new means of enjoyment, and new secrets of happiness; but still the heart of man confirms the testimony of the King of Israel, and the experience of the human race prolongs the echo of his words, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
True Religion—the Chief Good.
This however is only the negative view of the subject. If all these are vanity and not good, what is good, and is there anything which really deserves the name? There is; and it is the design of this portion of Scripture to reveal and to declare it. What is it? What, that is to settle the question, and reveal to the children of men the nature and the source of happiness? What, that is to terminate the weary pursuits, to revive the languid hopes, and to gratify the anxious desires, of the destitute and sorrowing children of men, hungering and thirsting after bliss? What? Wisdom. That wisdom of which I spoke in the last chapter, as constituting the subject of the book of Proverbs: between which portion of Scripture and this Book of Ecclesiastes there is so close a resemblance of design and construction.
But what is wisdom? He himself declares in the last chapter, where he sums up the whole of what he had said, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecc. 12:13). The first six chapters of the book give negative views of happiness, and are intended as illustrations of the declaration, “All is vanity:” the remainder is devoted to the illustration of the nature, excellence, and beneficial effects of true wisdom or religion. This then, after all the inquiries of philosophers, is the chief good, true religion. This suits the nature, meets the wants, alleviates the sorrows, and satisfies the desires of the human soul, and is its portion forever. This finds man depraved, and makes him holy; finds him little, and makes him great; finds him earthly, and raises him to Heaven. This leads the human spirit through the mediation of Christ, into the presence of the infinite, eternal, omnipotent, and all-sufficient Author of its existence, and by the teaching and aid of the Holy Spirit, impels and helps him to say, “Thou art my portion, O my God. Thy favour is life, and thy loving kindness is better than life. Thou art the centre, the rest, the home, of my heart.”
Perhaps we shall better understand this book [of Ecclesiastes], “if we suppose that the author at every step is meeting the arguments of an objector, who contends that appearances, in the present world, are such as to exclude the idea of a superintending Providence, to confound together, without discrimination as to their fate or fortunes, their merit or desert, the wise and the foolish, goodness and sin; thus destroying all rational hope for the future, and leaving nothing better to man than that he should eat and drink, and enjoy himself here as well as he can. The author meets, examines, and answers these objections, by exposing the unsatisfactoriness of mere pleasure, and insists on the regality and supremacy of duty.” This view of the design and the construction of the book will remove that appearance of an atheistic spirit which seems, in the view of objectors, to characterise some passages.
Having considered the design of the book, and thrown, I hope, some light upon what appears a little enigmatical, I will proceed to take up the subject of this chapter, and consider success or failure in business.
Success or Failure in Work.
I will suppose the case of two young men setting out in life with equal advantages as to capital, connexions, and prospects. They have gone through their term of apprenticeship, and the intermediate stage of the shopman or clerk, and have commenced business for themselves. One of them succeeds, a propitious gale seems to fill his believing in God, as the God of Providence. Do nothing upon which you cannot ask his blessing, and then seek his blessing upon everything you do. Never forget your dependence upon Him. He can exalt you to prosperity, or sink you into the lowest depth of adversity. He can make everything to which you set your hand to prosper, or to fail. Devoutly acknowledge this. Abjure the infidelity that shuts God out of his own world.
There is a passage however which, as it seems to favour an opposite view to this, I will explain. “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” (Ecc. 9:11). The obvious meaning of this verse is, that while there are some so timid and desponding as to expect nothing from their exertions, there are others so sanguine, bold, and self-confident, as to feel almost sure to succeed in everything: and while the preceding verse is intended to stimulate the energies of the former, by showing the benefit of exertion, this verse is designed to check the proud confidence of the latter, by reminding them, that the success of human efforts is not always in proportion to their ability. “Time and chance happen to all.” There are times propitious and unpropitious in the history of all, for the accomplishment of our purposes, over which we can have no command or control: and an endless variety of circumstances, which, as they could not be foreseen and cannot be controlled, may appear like chance, which may frustrate the wisest plans, and render nugatory the most industrious exertions.
All is Providence in determining results. So that from this well-known and frequently-quoted passage, we are not to conclude there is no adaptation of means to ends, no correspondence between the qualities and actions of men and their results; that there is, in fact, no superior probability of success for the swift more than for the slow, for the strong more than for the weak, for the intelligent more than for the ignorant, for the skilful more than for the foolish. Far from it. For if this were the case, fore. thought, intelligence, industry, were all useless, a large portion of Scripture would be contradicted by itself, and this passage proved false by a reference to examples constantly occurring before us. The meaning evidently is, that though these qualities tend to success, they cannot actually ensure it.
Such a passage is not intended to discourage industry, but only to check a spirit of proud self-reliance: not to repress the energies and the chastened confidence of man as a rational being, but to call into exercise his caution and piety as a dependent being. It is ever to be remembered, that Providence works by means, and the means employed are those which possess an adaptation to produce the end intended. And since God has appointed the employment of means, we do as much homage to him in using them, as we do in depending upon him for their success; in the one we honour his wisdom, and in the other his power. Hence therefore we must, in ordinary cases, look for the means of success, and the causes of failure, in men’s own conduct. This is true both in spiritual and temporal things; and is as true in one as the other, for the God of nature and providence is the God of grace, and there is an analogy between the methods of his procedure in these two departments of his action. In each second causes are employed; and in each the means are adapted to the end.
The Means of Success and Failure.
Let us then examine into the causes of the two different results of success and failure.
I. The possession or want of ability, cleverness, good judgment, and tact, in trade, will often account for success or failure. Success in any department of human action, without a competent knowledge of the means of obtaining it, cannot be expected, and ordinarily never is obtained. It is true an unusual occurrence of what are called fortunate circumstances, may, in some cases, contribute to results not otherwise to be looked for: but they form the exceptions, not the rule. It is undesirable for some young persons to be acquainted with such cases, as they may receive from them an unfavourable influence, leading them to trust what they call luck rather than ability. It is in the order of nature for intelligence combined with industry to succeed, and you should not let an occasional instance of prosperous ignorance, happening now and then, shake your conviction of the necessity of skill. Though in these cases the element of knowledge was in small proportion, the other elements of success in some measure compensated for that deficiency by their abundance: a combination not to be expected in your case.
A man must at all times, especially in this age of competition, thoroughly know not only his own trade, but the principles of trade in general. Business is an art and a science too, and to succeed he must be acquainted with both. He must know how to buy and how to sell. He must be a judge of articles and prices. He must know the markets and the times. In order to this, young men, you must be thoughtful, observant, and diligent, as apprentices and shopmen. You must be neither lovers of pleasure, nor companions of those who are such. Next to religion, it should be your aim to gain a complete mastery of your trade.
Who are the men that usually succeed? Not the dolts, the ill-informed, or the half-informed, but the well-informed. Who are the men that fail? Usually you will find them not the well-informed, but the half informed, or the ill-informed. Even religion itself, however eminent, cannot supply the want of the knowledge and the habits of a good tradesman. Godliness, it is true, is profitable for all things, having the promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come. But then it is not godliness without other things, but with them. A good and holy young man is not to expect to succeed by the favour of God, without either industry or ability. God’s blessing is not to be looked for as a substitute for these. He does not bless pious dolts, in whom the want of ability is the result of neglect. God will not set aside the general laws by which he governs the social world in favour of religion, any more than he will those of the natural world. Even a seraph, were he incarnate upon earth, would, if he had no acquaintance with earthly affairs, make a bad farmer or a bad manufacturer. Nor will the countenance and support of friends lead to success, without the tradesman’s own skill.
Who can help an incompetent man? What foreign aid can be a substitute for personal ability? There are some cripples too feeble to walk, even with the help of others. So there are some persons too ignorant to ever be helped to succeed. Capital will not do without knowledge. The largest amount of it will be soon dissipated, where there is no skill to direct its employment. And beware of over stocking and trading beyond your capital. A very frequent source of ruin to young tradesmen is allowing commercial travellers to force upon them too large purchases.
2. A Good Start.
II. Success or failure depends a great deal upon a favourable commencement, a good start. This is true as a general principle in application to all things. Bad beginnings may be repaired, but they are not usually. A first wrong step is often, if not always, the beginning of a series of steps all wrong. Great care, caution, circumspection, and forethought therefore are necessary here.
Many begin too soon, before they have sufficient capital or competent knowledge. They are impatient to be masters, before they are prepared for it. They are unwilling to “bide their time,” and they also miscalculate their ability. They are better fitted to obey than to rule. It is not every good servant that will make an able master, though unquestionably the best preparation for the latter is the former. He that begins with little capital and less experience, commences with fearful disadvantages, and failure has often been the result. Our most successful tradesmen have been cautious, as well as able, men. They have begun perhaps with limited capital, but they did not over-trade with it. They were willing to creep before they walked; to walk before they ran; and to run before they fled. They exemplified the truth of the Latin proverb, seemingly so paradoxical, “Hasten slowly.” Beginning well is a great thing, next to ending well; and the one leads on to the other.
Let there then be much reflection, much counsel, much prayer in such an important step as commencing business for yourself. As this, like marriage, is a step for life, let it be taken with care, and think no time lost, or too long, which is necessary to enable you to tread firmly and steadily at the outset. For one that has repented of beginning too late, ten have repented that they began too soon. Next to seeking counsel from God, by earnest and believing prayer, seek the advice of disinterested wise and experienced men.
A young man came to me some years ago, to get an introduction to any friend whom I might know in the neighbourhood in which he wished to engage in business, and who would be willing to give him counsel on the probable success of a concern which he had some thoughts of taking. I gave him a letter to one of the most capable men in the country, who received him very kindly, and very wisely and earnestly advised him to abandon the project. But he had set his heart upon it, and, in opposition to the counsel which had been given him, entered upon the concern, and he was very soon glad to abandon it and escaped with difficulty from being utterly ruined. Do not first make up your mind, and then ask advice afterwards. Reverse this order, and go to the oracle first, and defer to its responses.
III. Success and failure are dependent upon diligence on the one hand, or neglect and indolence on the other. For proofs of this, I refer you to that invaluable book which was the subject of my last chapter, and to your own reason and observation. I have already quoted one passage from the Proverbs, which says, “The blessing of the Lord maketh rich” (10:22); I now add to it another, “The hand of the diligent maketh rich” (10:4). Both are true, and they stand related to each other, as the instrumental and the efficient cause. Man’s industry cannot be successful without God’s blessing, and God’s blessing is not bestowed without man’s industry.
The Lord’s providential visits are never granted to loiterers. Moses, David, and the shepherds at Bethlehem, were all keeping their flocks, and Gideon was at his threshing floor, when God’s revelations were made to them. How is slothfulness exposed, condemned, branded, in God’s book! Let a man hare ever so good a knowledge of his business; let him begin with all the advantages of capital, connections, and situation; yet if he be of an indolent or self-indulgent habit, a late riser, a lover of pleasure, a gossiping neighbour, a zealous political partizan, more busy in improving the state than in minding his own concerns; he will soon furnish another evidence of the truth of Solomon’s words, “He becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand” (Prov. 10:4).
Weigh well then young men, the import of that momentous word, diligence. You remember the anecdote of Demosthenes, who, on being asked the first grace of elocution, replied, “Delivery.” The second? “Delivery.” The third? “Delivery.” So if asked what is the first qualification of a successful tradesman? I answer, “Diligence.” The second? “Diligence.” The third? “Diligence.” Write it upon your hearts. Keep it ever before your eyes. Let it be ever sounding in your ears. Let it be said of you, as was affirmed of that admirable and holy missionary, Henry Martyn, when he was at college, “That he was known as the man who never lost an hour.”
4. Promptness, Punctuality, & Order.
IV. Method and system have much to do with failure or success. In this I include promptness, as opposed to procrastination. No habit can be more fatal to success than the wretched disposition of postponing till another time that which ought to be done, and can be done, at once. Procrastination has ruined millions for both worlds.
There is a class of adverbs which some men appear not to have studied, but which are of immense importance in all the affairs both of time and eternity. I mean the words, “instantly;” “immediately;” “at once;” “now;” for which they have unhappily substituted “presently;” “by and bye;” “tomorrow” “at some future time.” Young men, catch the inspiration of that weighty monosyllable “now.” Yield to the potency of that word “instantly,” and to use a still more business-like term, acquire a habit of “dispatch.” And in order to this, do not only be always doing something that should be done, but the thing that ought to be done next.
Punctuality is of immense consequence. It has been humorously said, “some people seem to have been born half an hour after their time, and they never fetch it up all their lives.” In the present busy age, when business is so extended and complicated, and when, of course, one man is so dependent upon another, and oftentimes many upon one, a want of punctuality is not only a fault, but a vice, and a vice which inflicts an injury not only upon the transgressor himself, but upon others who have been waiting for him. “You have caused us to lose an hour,” said a gentleman to another, for whose appearance twelve persons had been waiting. “Oh that is impossible,” replied the laggard, “for it is only five minutes after the time.” “Very true,” was the rejoinder, “but here are twelve of us, each of whom has lost five minutes.” He who keeps servants, customers, or creditors waiting through his want of punctuality, can never prosper. This is as irreligious as it is injurious, inasmuch as the apostle has commanded us to “redeem the time” (Eph. 5:16; Col. 4:5).
Order is no less essential to system and success than promptness and punctuality. Order, it is said, is heaven’s first law, an aphorism as true of earth as it is of heaven, and as applicable to the movements of trade as of the stars. A place and a time for everything, and everything in its place and time, is the rule of every successful tradesman. A disorderly and irregular man may be diligent, that is may be ever in a bustle, a very different thing from a well regulated activity, but his want of order defeats everything. The machinery of his habits may have velocity and power, but its movements are irregular and eccentric, and therefore unproductive, or productive only of uncertain, incomplete, and sometimes mischievous results. A disorderly man wastes not only his own time, but that of others who are dependent upon, and waiting for him; nor does the waste stop here, for what a useless expenditure of energy and a painful sacrifice of comfort are ever going on with him!
5. A Lifestyle of Contentment.
V. Economy has a most powerful influence in determining the failure or success of a young tradesman. This applies to personal trade and domestic expenses, and the man who would succeed in life must reduce them all to the lowest prudent level. In order to keep down the expenses of trade, he must do with as little purchased help as he can; and to accomplish this, he must be a hard worker himself, till he has attained to that pitch of prosperity, when he can do more with his eyes and ears than with his hands and feet.
As to personal expenses let him avoid all unnecessary consumption of money in dress and ornaments. Let it be no part of your ambition, young men, to be noticed and admired for matters of this kind. It is a very grovelling ambition to be complimented for that with which the draper, the mercer, and the jeweller, may bedizen the veriest fool in existence. How mean and petty is foppery, compared with an enlightened mind, a dignified character, and the beauties of holiness! I am not an advocate for either meanness or slovenliness. Cleanliness and neatness border upon virtue, as excessive foppery and expensiveness do upon vice. It is unworthy of a female to be inordinately fond of dress; but for a man to love finery is despicable indeed.
Avoid also the love of pleasure, for “he that loveth pleasure shall be a poor man” (Prov. 21:17). Never were truer words uttered. The man who is bent upon what is called “enjoying himself,” who will have his boon companions, his amusements and his frequent seasons of recreation; who is fond of parties, entertainments, the gaming table, the ballroom, the concert, and the theatre, is on the high road to poverty in this world, and to Hell in the next. Let the lover of pleasure read the history of Samson in the Old Testament (Judges 14-16), and of the Prodigal in the New (Luke 15:11-32); and also let him turn back to the illustrations contained in the last chapter. If you would have economical habits as a master, cultivate them as a servant. Begin then now and persevere.
You must carry out the principle of economy in your domestic establishment also. Frugality in the house is a virtue, and extravagance a vice. If you would have elegance and luxuries at the close of life, be content with necessaries at the beginning of it. He that must have superfluities at the beginning, will in all probability have scarce comforts at the end. Let your furniture, your style of living, your whole domestic establishment, be all arranged upon the principle of a rigid, though not mean, economy. Never aim to cover over poverty by extravagance, nor adopt the false principle that dash is necessary to success. Such conduct often defeats its own end, by exciting suspicion and undermining credit. Wise creditors have keen and vigilant eyes, that look not only at the shop, but penetrate into the dining and drawing room, and thus watch the mode of living as well as of doing business. They deal more readily and upon better terms with the frugal man, than with the extravagant one. The basis of credit is laid in economical simplicity and plain living, not in unsubstantial splendour; just as the foundation of a house consists of unadorned bricks and unsculptured stone, and not of carved and gilded wood. It is the diligent and frugal man who is considered the trustworthy one.
But while I recommend economy, I would with equal force condemn meanness; and reprobate with stronger language still, a want of principle. There have been men of fine talents, and otherwise excellent character, who have well nigh ruined themselves by a spirit of mean and starveling economy, which grudged the very means of success. There have been even professing Christians, and some of great benevolence too, who, from education or habit, have been so mean in some of their pecuniary transactions, as to throw a shade over their character. Economy, when rigid, has not unfrequently degenerated into sordid avarice. Hence the necessity of being on your guard against the meanest of all vices, the most despicable of all passions, and the most insatiable of all appetites, an excessive love of money.
It is very striking to observe how seemingly opposite dispositions are balanced in the word of God. How industry is commended and slothfulness condemned in that precious volume; and yet in that same Book it is said, “Labour not to be rich” (Prov. 23:4); “Labour not for the bread that perisheth” (John 6:27); “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth” (Mat. 6:19); “They that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (1 Tim. 6:9-10). Does not this look like contradiction? If it does it is not so in reality. These seemingly opposed passages are intended to teach us that we are neither to despise money nor to be fond of it.
I know it is difficult to define covetousness; to draw the line with precision between the idolatry and contempt of wealth; and to state that exact regard to money which industry requires to stimulate and reward its energies, and which both reason and revelation justify. When however wealth is considered as the chief end of life, and is sought exclusively, to the entire neglect of religion; when it is pursued at the expense of principle and honour; when it is the first thing coveted, and the last thing relinquished; when it is loved for its own sake, instead of its uses; when it is hoarded for the sake of mere accumulation, instead of being diffused for God’s glory and man’s benefit; when it is regarded as the standard of individual importance both for ourselves and others; it then has become the tyrant of the soul, which it has enslaved, it may be with fetters of silver and gold, but which is not the less a miserable bond slave because of the splendour and value of its shackles.
VI. Perseverance is also necessary to success. Without this nothing good or great can be achieved in our world. Success is not so much a creation, as a gradual formation, a slow deposit. In business it usually proceeds on the principle of arithmetical progression, till at a certain stage, and in some few instances, it changes its ratio of increase to that of geometrical progression. The ascent in life is usually the reverse of that of a mountain. In the latter case the steepest part is near the summit: in the former, at the base. Both however require perseverance. He that would succeed, must not expect to reach his object by a light, easy and elastic bound, but by many a successive and weary step, and occasionally, perhaps, by a step backwards. He must go on some times amidst discouragement, and always with labour.
There are some who cannot succeed, because they will not wait to do so. If success does not come at first, they will not follow after it. They are as impatient as the foolish child that sowed his seed in the morning, and went to bed hopeless and crying because he did not see it springing up before sunset. Be ever hopeful, prayerful, and persevering. “In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand, for thou knowest not whether shall prosper either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.” (Ecc. 11:6). “Behold the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it. Be ye also patient.” (James 5:7).
7. True Religion and Piety.
VII. The possession or the want of religion will have considerable influence in producing success or failure. Not that I mean to say all religious persons will be prosperous, and that all irreligious ones will sink to adversity—but that piety contains most of those qualities which tend to success, while sin, where it leads on, as it frequently does, to vice, tends to ruin. God has better promises than of wealth and honour for his people, even of glory everlasting; but then, godliness, as I have often said, has the promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come. Wisdom, as we saw in the last chapter, has riches and honour in her right hand for many who submit to her sway. It is quite certain that those who have come to poverty and ruin have been dragged down by iniquity, while many have succeeded who owed their prosperity to their piety.
We have examples of this in holy Scripture. Religion made Joseph prosper in the house of Potiphar, and raised him to the eminence he obtained in Egypt. Religion elevated David to the throne of Israel. Religion made Daniel prime minister of Babylon. Religion made Nehemiah governor of Judea. And although we should not expect such rewards, it may still bring us prosperity. It is the parent of virtue, the protector of health, the nurse of economy, the patron of industry, the guardian of integrity, the prompter of knowledge, and thus the guide to success, and the helper of prosperity.
The Uncertainty of Success.
And now let me set before you the two young men whom I have supposed to set out in life together, the one eventually failing, and the other succeeding, in business. Failure is a word, in such an application of it, pregnant with terrors. What a variety, complication, and depth of sorrows, are there in that very simple, and not uncommon expression, “He has failed in business!” You are happily unable by reflection, may you never be able by experience, to grasp that comprehension of wretchedness.
Now, young men, I present the fearful subject, the dreadful possibility to you, first of all, to excite a desire, an anxiety, an earnest solicitude, that in your case it may never be realized. Prevention is better than cure. It is easier to avert ruin by industry and economy, than to bring back prosperity when it has once departed. Be this easier task then your first care and endeavour. For you ruin is yet happily only pictured; a scene for the imagination to contemplate; except indeed as the reality is seen in the history of some acquaintance. Though it is not well to fill your mind with dark imaginings and gloomy forebodings, lest such thoughts become predictions, and the predictions fulfil and so verify themselves; yet is it well to look at the dreaded picture, in order not indeed to quail before it, but to bring up your mind to this determination, “By God’s grace upon my own intelligence, industry, economy, and perseverance, this shall never be my lot. But if, in the mysteries of Providence, it should befall me, it shall not be made more dreadful by the venom of self-reproach, it shall come from the ordination of God, and not from my own misconduct.“
How to Handle Failure.
Still I will suppose that you may, and that some of you will, fail. What then? The answer to this depends upon the causes of the disaster. I will not deny that this, in some cases, is to be traced entirely to the dispensations of Providence, without any blame to the individual himself. I would not break the bruised reed, by heaping censure upon one who is an object of pity and sympathy. I would not pour vinegar into the wounds of his lacerated heart, and quite crush his broken spirits, by telling him that his misfortunes are his faults.
If, after exercising the abilities and virtues of a good tradesman, after struggling hard and long, it should be your lot to be compelled to yield to difficulties utterly insuperable by skill and labour, in that case, first of all, bow with submission to the will of God. Indulge no hard thoughts of God. Keep down a gloomy hopelessness, a sullen despondence, a comfortless grief. Call in religion to your aid. Open your Bible. Pour out your heart in prayer. Believe in God, in Providence, in Christ. Take it as a matter to be relied upon, that there is some wise and merciful end to be answered by these painful events.
Perhaps you were setting out in life forgetful of God. You were striving to make yourself happy without Him. You were entering upon your career in a state of practical atheism. Success in business would have been your spiritual ruin. The gain of the world would have been the loss of your soul. God spake unto you in what you thought was your prosperity, and you would not hear; and now he calls to you in harsher tones, and says to you in the language of the text, Consider. Consider the Author of your troubles, that they come from God: their cause, that sin is the bitter fountain of every bitter stream: their design, to do you good: and their impressive lesson, to teach the vanity of all things earthly, and the necessity of a better portion for man’s heart.
Ah! young man, you have indeed sorrowfully proved the uncertainty of all things earthly. How soon and suddenly has the beautiful prospect, which expanded before your admiring eyes, been covered with mist and gloom! How have all the ardent hopes which such a scene inspired, withered in your soul and left it bleak and desolate! Well, amidst the fragments of your broken cisterns, now look up to the great fountain of happiness, pouring out its never-failing streams before you. Earth has failed; now turn to Heaven. The world has disappointed you; now turn to religion. The creature has forsaken you, now turn to the Creator. All is not lost. Besides, you may yet recover. You have failed, but it is in early life, not in its decline. You have the main portion of your existence yet before you, and have health and vigour on your side and in your favour; and, in the case I am supposing, with your character unimpaired and your principles unsuspected. It may be only a step back to spring forward with greater vigour. It may be prosperity postponed, not put off forever. This painful experience may be necessary for you. It may be to prevent a sudden plethora which would have been fatal to you. Abandon not hope then. Do not let the main-spring be broken. Give not yourself to despair. The sun is not gone down, but is only veiled with a cloud. Begin afresh, make good use of your experience. Look up for God’s blessing; and you will have it.
But where the failure is the result of blameworthy conduct, what shall be said? Even here I would not be harsh, severe, and reproachful; but would blend tenderness with fidelity. Be humble before God. Your want of attention, industry, and economy, is a sin to be confessed to Him, as well as a matter to be bewailed on your own account. You have neglected God’s commands, as well as your own interests. You have abused the gifts of Providence, as well as trifled with your own happiness. And you cannot be in a right state of mind without peni. tence, humiliation, and confession. God is displeased with you; and you must seek his forgiveness through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. You must take care to blame yourself not God, for your present situation.
Especially must you be careful not to apply to wrong sources of relief. Misfortune and misconduct have led, in thou. sands of instances, to drinking. Broken in fortune, and equally broken in spirits, men have endeavoured to gain a momentary oblivion of their sorrows in the exhilaration or stupefaction of intoxicating liquor. Dreadful resort! What is this but to add crime to misery; and when the effect of the poisonous draught is over, to overwhelm the miserable dupe of intoxication with sorrows envenomed by the stings of remorse? It is, indeed, a horrible idea, but one that is often realized, that drunkenness should select some of its many victims from the ranks of misfortune, and thus complete the ruin which incompetency or indolence had begun, by depriving the subject of it of all power and all disposition to retrieve his position.
How to Handle Success.
But I now, in contrast, take up the case of those who succeed; a happy, and I rejoice to think, not a very small class. It is a delightful, and to you, my young friends, an encouraging thought, thạt success, varied of course in degrees, is the rule, and failure the exception. Conceive then of the man who, by the blessing of God upon his ability, industry, and economy, makes good his ground, and advances in life to respectable competency; perhaps to affluence.
The Scriptures call upon him to be joyful, a state of mind, in which, without such call, he is likely to be found. A Christian is to be joyful not only in, but for, his prosperity. His joy, however, should be a religious, not a sensual, joy. He is not to express his delight by conviviality, extravagance, splendour, and all the other delights of sense and taste. He is piously to trace up all his prosperity to God. He is not boastfully to look round upon his possessions, and say, “My own hand hath gotten me this” (Deut. 8:17): and thus, to use the language of the prophet, “Sacrifice unto their own net, and burn incense to their drag, because by them their portion is fat, and their meat plenteous” (Hab. 1:16). Let your joy be subordinate to a higher and nobler felicity, I mean the felicity derived from true religion.
Prosperity, if it has its joys, has also its snares. It is, as regards the moral character, the interests of the soul, and man’s eternal destiny, a most perilous condition. “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mat. 19:24). “The prosperity of fools shall slay them.” (Prov. 1:32). Multitudes have lost their souls in gaining a fortune. Their wealth has been their curse: their gold, the weight that dragged them down to perdition. And after all, “What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36). The whole world is no more a compensation for the loss of the soul, than a feather or a grain of sand. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Mat. 6:33). Be made happy by religion. “Rejoice in the Lord, and again I say rejoice.” (Phil. 4:4).
But the best way to use, to enjoy, and even to preserve prosperity, is to sanctify it by true religion, and to employ it for Christian liberality. Set out in life with the intelligent, deliberate, and fixed determination, that if you should succeed in business, your prosperity shall in due measure be consecrated to the cause of God and man. Already make up your mind to the opinion, that the chief design and highest enjoyment of wealth, is diffusion rather than accumulation.
Instead of admiring the men whom you see living in splendid houses, rolling about in gay equipages, and faring sumptuously every day (but who all this while are known by their grandeur, but not by their public spirit, liberality, and good works), fix your delighted gaze upon those nobler spirits, who while sustaining with propriety, yet simplicity, the rank which Providence has assigned to them in society, are economical that they may be liberal, and are redeeming time from business, ease, and elegant retirement, to glorify God and bless their species. Look at the Howards, the Wilberforces, the Thorntons, the Wilsons, the Reynoldses; men who gave their talents, their influence, and their lives, for the benefit of the slave, the prisoner, and the debtor; who renounced in some cases the gains of business for the pursuits of benevolence; and in others carried it on to have larger means to assist the cause of humanity and religion; who lived for others rather than for themselves; and who had far more enjoyment while they lived, and will ever have far more honour after their death, than the sordid and selfish, whose wealth, while it did little to make them happy or respected upon earth, will neither preserve their names from oblivion, nor yield them a fragment of reward in heaven.
But wait not till you are rich before you begin to be benevolent. Let the beginnings of your success be consecrated by the beginnings of your devotedness. I knew a Christian philanthropist who set out in life by consecrating a tenth of his income to God. He did this when he had but a hundred a year. He became at length possessed of eight thousand a year, and having no children, he did not then satisfy himself with the tithe, as he had commenced, but spent less than two thousand a year on his own simple and elegant establishment, and gave all the rest away (Mr. Broadley Wilson). How much happier, as well as holier, was that Christian man than those who hoard for they know not who; or than those who lavish their wealth on splendour, luxury, and pleasure: and, oh! the different reception he will meet with at the bar of God, where wealth must be accounted for; and in eternity, where the successful but irreligious worldling will remember, and be punished for, his unsanctified prosperity!
Eternal Success of Utmost Importance.
And now let me remind you that this alternative of failure or success exists also as to the great trial ever going on in this world, which must issue in the ruin or the salvation of your immortal soul. You are here upon probation for eternity. Your chief business is religion, your supreme object should be immortality.
He that is enabled to repent, to believe, and to lead a holy life, notwithstanding the temptations by which he is surrounded, who thus obtains the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory, though he should fail in everything else, may look round upon the wreck of all his hopes, prospects, and fortunes, exulting even now in the greatness and the grandeur of his success, and shall stand at the last day, upon the ashes of the globe, after the general conflagration, exclaiming, “I have lost nothing.” While he who so far succeeds as to gain everything that is dear to ambition, to avarice, and to sensuality, but fails to obtain the one thing needful, the salvation of his soul, stands now, amidst all bis prosperity, a miserable instance of failure in all the great objects of man’s immortal being, will be seen in the day of judgment a ruined and lost immortal, and will wander forever through the universe, with this awful exclamation, “I have voluntarily, deliberately, and irrecoverably incurred a failure, which it will require an eternity to understand and an eternity to deplore.”