The Successive Steps of Going Astray

“But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended. He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful.” (Matthew 13:20-22)

John Angell James
Addresses To Young Men
pp. 411-420

If it is a melancholy fact, which the history of innumerable families can verify, that many young men, who leave home in every respect moral and respectable—become wicked, and end their course in profligacy and ruin—an inquiry presents itself as to the steps which lead to this dreadful reverse of character and circumstances. It rarely, if ever, happens, that the heart throws off at once all the restraints of virtue, and plunges suddenly into the depths of vice. It is not by one stride, that the moral youth passes from sober habits at home to those of an opposite nature abroad—but generally by slow and successive steps. The judgment and conscience would recoil from a temptation which proposed to him to become profligate at once; and if he ever becomes proficient in vice, he must be led on by insensible degrees, and little by little make advances in the way of wickedness, and in the counsels of the ungodly. This is what is meant by the deceitfulness of sin.

What individual who ever attained to enormity of wickedness, foresaw or conjectured the end of his career? When the messenger of Heaven disclosed to Hazael the Syrian, the wickedness of his future character, he indignantly exclaimed, “Is your servant a dog, that he should do this?” (2 Kings 8:13). It was a burst of honest indignation. At that time he was incapable of the atrocities which it was foretold he would one day commit, and his whole nature rose in an expression of sincere abhorrence. He knew not the deceitfulness of his heart, or the corrupting influences of ambition and power. He was led on by a gradual progress in his guilty career, until the events of his history surpassed in criminality the picture drawn by the prophet. Who that ever ended his days at the gallows, or in the felon’s exile, would at one period of his life have thought it possible that he should ever be so hardened as to commit such crimes? Habit renders all things easy—even the most atrocious crimes. And habits of vice, like other habits, begin with acts, many of them little ones. The most alarming view of sin therefore, and that which should excite the greatest dread caution and vigilance—is its progressive nature.

I have somewhere read of one who lived in the early ages of the Christian era, who, on being asked by a friend to accompany him to the amphitheater—to witness the gladiatorial combats with wild beasts, expressed his abhorrence of the sport, and refused to witness a scene condemned alike by humanity and Christianity. Overcome at length by the continued and pressing solicitation of his friend, whom he did not wish to disappoint, he consented to go; but determined that he would close his eyes as soon as he had taken his seat, and keep them closed during the whole time he was in the amphitheater. At some particular display of strength and skill by one of the combatants, a loud shout of applause was raised by the spectators, when the Christian almost involuntarily opened his eyes—being once open, he found it difficult to close them again; he became interested in the fate of the gladiator who was then engaged with a lion. He returned home professing to dislike, as his principles required him to do, these cruel games; but his imagination ever and anon reverted to the scenes he had unintentionally witnessed. He was again solicited by his friend to see the sport. He found less difficulty now than before in consenting. He went, sat with his eyes open, and enjoyed the spectacle; again and again he took his seat with the pagan crowd; until at length he became a constant attendant at the amphitheater, abandoned his Christian profession, relapsed into idolatry, and left a fatal proof of the deceitfulness of sin. Thousands of facts to the same signification might be collected, if it were necessary, tending to illustrate the insidious manner in which the transgressor is led on—in his gradual descent into the gulf of ruin!

Let us gather up the substance of the preceding chapters, and trace the wanderer through his sinful course. Perhaps before he left his father’s house he was not only strictly moral—but was the subject of pious impressions; convinced of sin, and an inquirer after salvation. He heard sermons with interest, kept holy the Sabbath, and made conscience of secret prayer and reading the Scriptures. His conduct had awakened the hopes of his parents, and raised the expectations of his minister; but he was not decided; there had been no actual surrender of his heart to God, through faith, repentance and the new birth. In this state of mind, he left home. Instead of taking alarm, as he should have done, at the dangers to which he was now about to be exposed, he went thoughtlessly to his new situation, and encountered its perils without due preparation. In his place he found little to encourage, perhaps something, or even much—to dampen and discourage serious reflection. The preacher whose ministrations he attended was less impressive and exciting than the one he had left. The employer whom he served took little care of his spiritual welfare. Amid these circumstances, his religious impressions were soon lost, and his concern speedily subsided. Still he could not at once give up the forms of devotion, and for awhile kept up the practice of private prayer; but having no separate room, he soon became ashamed to be seen falling upon his knees in the presence of mirthful or thoughtless companions, who slept in the same room, and who perhaps sneered at the practice.

This is a temptation to which many are exposed, and it is one of the most successful in inducing young people to give up the habit of prayer. He could not, however, quite relinquish a practice to which he had been accustomed from childhood, and occasionally he stole away to his room, and spent a few moments in devotion. This too in time was given up, and prayer wholly discontinued. A great restraint was now removed, and a barrier thrown down. The fear of God, even that small portion of it he seemed to possess, was leaving his heart. He now lives without prayer, and stands exposed to the ten thousand snares and temptations of the world—without a single defense! Yet he fills up his place in the house of God; for he cannot throw off a certain kind of reverence for the Sabbath, and a still lingering attachment to the church.

In the same house in which he lives are to be found one, or it may be several, who have no taste for sacred things—but are worldly and sensual. He hears their scoffs at piety, which at first shock him, and he rebukes them, or expostulates with them, for he is not yet used to profanity—he goes further, and points out the impropriety of their conduct in other things, and warns them of the consequences. By degrees, however, he becomes more tolerant of their sins, and less offended by their wickedness. They rally him, ridicule him, and flatter him by turns, and on some fine Sabbath evening persuade him to accompany them in a ramble into the country. After a little hesitation, he consents, enjoys himself and is merry, though not altogether without his conscience smiting him. In a Sabbath or two the Sunday party is again formed, and the authority of God again resisted and despised. He now thinks once a day quite enough for public worship, that the morning being given to God, the evening may be given to pleasure, especially by one who is all the week shut up in a close town, and who has no opportunity except on a Sunday—to see the country or breathe fresh air. The same argument, once admitted to be valid, is soon applied to the morning service, and the whole Sabbath is at length given by him to recreation.

Conscience, however, has not allowed him to go thus far without frequent stings and warnings. A letter from home occasionally disturbs him. His father has been informed of his altered conduct, and, in grief of heart, expostulates, entreats, and warns. First he is sorrowful, then he is angry, then inwardly uneasy; but the jest of a sinful companion scatters every better thought, and he is determined to go on in his downward course. He is now the constant associate of evil doers, who have gained an ascendency over him, and are leading him further and further astray. To calm the apprehensions of his parents, and to silence the remonstrances from home, he writes a penitential letter, and gives promises of amendment. Lying and hypocrisy are now added to his sins, and they are dreadful auxiliaries in benumbing the conscience and hardening the heart.

A celebrated actor comes to the town, or is to appear at one of the theaters, and he is solicited to go to the performance; he is now prepared for this, and readily assents. Everything fascinates him. His senses, imagination, heart, taste, are all carried away captive. His mind is in a state of mental intoxication. He acquires a passion for the stage, and as often as his means and opportunity will allow, he is at the theater. News of his declension again reaches home, and again his shocked and heart-stricken parents write, and entreat him to alter his conduct, or return to them—but he can now treat a father’s advice with contempt, and a mother’s tears with cruel indifference. The theater, as we have already shown, is the resort of those unhappy women, of whom the wise man says, “their house is the way to Hell, going down to the chambers of death” (Prov. 7:27). He is caught in the snare and ruined! He is horror-struck when reflection comes, and in an agony of expiring virtue, exclaims, “What have I done!” Conscience is not quite dead, nor shame quite extinguished. To still the remonstrances of the troublesome monitor within, he revisits the scene where so many are assembled like himself—to drown their sorrows, or to blunt remorse.

The death of a friend or relative occurs, which renders it necessary that he should attend a funeral, perhaps hear a funeral sermon. The Book of God, and God’s faithful servant, now proclaim the sinfulness of sin and the sinner’s everlasting doom. He trembles—but repents not. Scripture now haunts him like a specter, and disturbs him in his course. If he persist in sinning, he must get rid of this troublesome interference. Is the Bible true? One of his companions is a skeptic, and now labors for his conversion to infidelity. Byron’s poetry prepares the way for Hume’s subtleties, Paine’s ribaldry, or Owen’s absurdities. Christianity is now called a fable; man’s accountability, a mere dogma of cunning priests; and Hell, only the picture of gloomy superstition—to hold the mind of man in bondage. He throws off the yoke of true religion; exults in his liberty; yields his body to lusts; adds iniquity unto iniquity, and runs to every excess of riot.

But whence come the funds to support his lusts? His father cannot supply them, nor can his wages; but secret pilfering can, and does. If he can escape detection, what has he to fear? “Man is the creature of circumstances,” and his circumstances compel him to rob his employer; and as to an hereafter, it is all a dream. Gambling is now added to his other crimes. Shame is lost, no, he glories in his shame; and commences the trade of ruining others; corrupting the principles of his associates, and the morals of young women. With a character composed of every darkest shade of human depravity, let his closing scene be narrated in the next chapter, which, by a melancholy fact, confirms the representation here given. Not that I mean to assert that all who go astray in youth reach this dreadful climax—but many do, and all are in danger of it.

Maxims To Stay Faithful Among The Faithless

What, then, are the maxims arising out of this representation, which every young man should always bear in mind?

1. That sin is the most deceitful thing in the universe, as manifested by the insidious manner in which it leads on the transgressor in its deceptive and destructive way; and the excuses with which at every stage of his progress it furnishes him.

2. Those who would not be found walking in the path of sin, should not take the first step in it. Avoid first sins—they always, or nearly so, lead on to others. It is far easier to abstain from the first sin than the second. No temptation of Satan has been more successful than the suggestion, “only this once.” That once may be your ruin forever. Acts may be repeated, and come to habits. No sin comes alone—but stands in close connection with others which they teach us to commit, and often afford us an opportunity to commit.

3. Carefully avoid little sins, for they usually lead on to greater ones. No sin abstractly is little—but comparatively some sins are greater than others. It is by inducing you to commit these, that Satan will prepare you for and lead you on to practices of greater enormity. When under the influence of temptation, though it be to a seemingly trivial fault, always ask the question, “What will this sin grow to?

4. Be very watchful against common and ‘acceptable’ sins. It is amazing to think what boldness sinners often derive from this circumstance, and how hard it is to persuade them of the danger of common, and generally practiced sins. Even good men are sometimes carried away by prevailing and epidemic sins. How frequent is the remark, “If this be sin, I am not singular in the commission of it; there are many others guilty as well as I!” Common sins lead to uncommon ones. If we follow others in what is evil in little things, we are preparing ourselves to follow evil examples in greater matters.

5. Take care not to be misled by ‘names’. Look at things as they are, and do not consider them merely by the terms employed to express them. “Woe to them,” said the prophet, “who call evil good—and good evil!” (Isaiah 5:20). This is often done—vice is called virtue, and virtue vice. Thus gluttony and intoxication are often called, and unhappily deemed by many—being social and being good company. Levity, folly, and even obscenity are called—youthful spirit, boyish cheerfulness, innocent liberty, and good humor. Pride, malice, and revenge are called—honor, courage, and dignity of mind. Vain pomp, luxury, and extravagance, are styled—taste, elegance, and refinement.

Under such disguises does sin often conceal itself, and by such means does it entrap the unwary, and conciliate their admiration. Do not then be cheated out of virtue by the change of names; lift up the disguise, and ascertain the real natures of things.

This deceit also discovers itself by its counterpart in disparaging true piety and goodness by the most deplorable titles. Tenderness of conscience is called—ridiculous precision, narrowness of mind, and superstitious fear. Zeal against sin is called moroseness or sullen nature. Seriousness of mind is called repulsive melancholy. Sanctity is called pietism or disgusting hypocrisy. Now, as nothing tends more to discredit goodness than to give it a bad name, and as not a few are led more by names than the things themselves—I cannot give you a more important piece of advice, than to admonish you to be upon your guard against this deception—of covering sin with the garb of virtue—and branding virtue with the name of sin.

6. Study well the peculiar temptations of the new situation into which you are introduced, and anticipate, so far as it can be done, by what snare you are likely to be tempted and led astray. Look around, and survey your circumstances, that, ascertaining as far as possible by what door temptation will approach, you may be the better prepared to meet it. Remember, it is of great consequence to your future conduct and character, how you act immediately on arriving at your new situation. I repeat with emphasis—the first steps in the path of goodness or of sin, are frequently taken very soon after a young man leaves home!

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