THIS LIFE A STATE OF PROBATIO.

BY WILLIAM PALEY, D.D
PSALM cxix. 71.
It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I
might learn thy statutes.
OF the various views under which human life has
been considered, no one seems so reasonable as
that which regards it as a state of probation;
meaning, by a state of probation, a state calcu
lated for trying us, and calculated for improving
us. A state of complete enjoyment and happiness
it certainly is not. The hopes, the spirits, and
the inexperience of young men and women are
apt, and very willing, to see it in this light. To
them life is full of entertainment : their relish is
high, their expectations unbounded. For a very few
years it is possible, and I think barely possible,
that they may go on without check or interrup
tion; but they will be cured of this delusion.
Pain and sorrow, disease and infirmity, accident
and disappointment, losses and distress, will soon
meet them in their acquaintance, their families, or
their persons. The hardhearted for their own,
the tender for others woe, will always find and
feel, enough at least to convince them, that this
world was not made for a scene of perpetual
gaiety or uninterrupted enjoyment.
SERMOS. 4-39
Still less can we believe that it was made for a
place of misery : so much otherwise, that misery
is in no instance the end or object of contrivance.
We are surrounded by contrivance and design. A
human body is a cluster of contrivances. So is
the body of every animal ; so is the structure of
every plant ; so is even the vilest weed that grows
upon the road side. Contrivances, therefore, in
finite in number, infinite also in variety, are all
directed to beneficial purposes, and, in a vast plu
rality of instances, execute their purpose. In our
own bodies only reflect how many thousand things
must go right for us to be an bour at ease. Yet
at all times multitudes are so ; and are so without
being sensible how great a thing it is. Too much,
or too little of sensibility, or of action, in any one
of the almost numberless organs, or of any part of
the numberless organs, by which life is sustained,
may be productive of extreme anguish, or of last
ing infirmity. A particle, smaller than an atom
in a sunbeam, may, in a wrong place, be the oc
casion of the loss of limbs, of senses, or of life.
Yet under all this continual jeopardy, this mo
mentary liability to danger and disorder, we are
preserved. It is not possible, therefore, that this
state could be designed as a state of misery, be
cause the great tendency of the designs which we
see in the universe, is to counteract, to prevent,
to guard against it. We know enough of nature to
be assured, that misery universal, irremediable,
inexhaustible misery, was in the Creator s power,
if he had willed it. Forasmuch therefore as the
result is so much otherwise, we are certain that no
such purpose dwelt in the divine mind.
But since, amidst much happiness, and amidst
440 SERMOS.
contrivancesyor happiness, so far as we can judge
(and of many we can judge,) misery, and very
considerable portions of it do exist, it becomes a
natural inquiry, to what end this mixture of good
and evil is properly adapted. And I think the
Scriptures place before us, not only the true (for,
if we believe the Scriptures, we must believe it to
be that,} but the most rational and satisfactory an
swer which can be given to the inquiry; namely,
that it is intended for a state of trial and proba
tion. For it appears to me capable of proof, both
that no state but one, which contained in it an
admixture of good and evil, would be suited to
this purpose ; and also that our present state, as
well in its general p Ian as in its particular pro
perties, serves this purpose with peculiar pro
priety.
A state, totally incapable of misery, could not
be a state of probation. It would not be a state
in which virtue or vice could even be exercised at
all ; I mean that large class of virtues and vices,
which we comprehend under the name of social
qualities. The existence of these depends upon
the existence of misery, as well as of happiness in
the world, and of different degrees of both: be
cause their very nature and difference consists in
promoting or preventing, in augmenting or dimi
nishing, in causing, aggravating, or relieving the
wants, sufferings, and distresses of our fellow-crea
tures. Compassion, charity, humanity, benevo
lence, nor even justice, could have any place in
the world, if there were not human conditions to
excite them ; objects and sufferings upon which
they might operate ; misery, as well as happiness,
which might be affected by them.
SERMOS. 441
or would, in my opinion, the purposes of trial
be sufficiently provided for, by a state in which
happiness and misery regularly followed virtue
and vice : I mean, in which there was no happi
ness, but what was merited by virtue, no misery
but what was brought on by vice. Such a state
would be a state of retribution, not a state of pro
bation. It may be our state hereafter ; it may be
a better state, but it is not a state of probation ; it
is not the state through which it is fitting we
should pass before we enter into the other. For
when we speak of a state of probation, we speak
of a state in which the character may both be put
to the proof, and also its good qualities be con
firmed and strengthened, if not formed and pro
duced, by having occasions presented in which
they may be called forth and required. ow,
beside that the social qualities which have been
mentioned would be very limited in their exercise,
if there was no evil in the world but what was
plainly a punishment (for though we might pity,
and even that would be greatly checked, we could
not actually succour or relieve, without disturb
ing the execution, or arresting, as it were, the
hand of justice) ; beside this difficulty, there is
another class of most important duties which
would be in a great measure excluded. They are
the severest, the sublirnest, perhaps the most me
ritorious, of which we are capable: I mean pa-
tience and composure under distress, pain, and
affliction ; a steadfast keeping up of our confi
dence in God, and our dependence upon his final
goodness, even at the time that every thing pre
sent is discouraging and adverse ; and, what is no
442 SERMOS.
less difficult to retain, a cordial desire for the
happiness and comfort of others, even then, when
we are deprived of our own. I say, that the pos
session of this temper is almost the perfection of
our nature. But it is then only possessed, when
it is put to the trial : tried at all it could not have
been in a life made up only of pleasure and gra
tification. Few things are easier than to perceive,
to feel, to acknowledge, to extol the goodness of
God, the bounty of Providence, the beauties of
nature, when all things go well ; when our health,
our spirits, our circumstances, conspire to fill our
hearts with gladness, and our tongues with praise.
This is easy : this is delightful. one but they
who are sunk in sensuality, sottislmess, and stu
pefaction, or whose understandings are dissipated
by frivolous pursuits ; none but the most giddy
and insensible can be destitute of these senti
ments. But this is not the trial, or the proof. It
is in the chambers of sickness; under the stroke
of affliction ; amidst the pinchings of want, the
groans of pain, the pressures of infirmity : in grief,
in misfortune ; through gloom and horror, that it
will be seen whether we hold fast our hope, our
confidence, our trust in God ; whether this hope
and confidence be able to produce in us resigna
tion, acquiescence, and submission. And as those
dispositions, which perhaps form the comparative
perfection of our moral nature, could not have
been exercised in a world of unmixed gratifica
tion, so neither would they have found their pro
per office or object in a state of strict and evident
retribution ; that is, in which we had no suffer
ings to submit to, but what were evidently and
SERMOS. 4-43
manifestly the punishment of our sins. A mere
submission to punishment, evidently and plainly
such, would not have constituted, at least would
very imperfectly have constituted, the disposition
which we speak of, the true resignation of a
Christian.
It seems, therefore, to be argued with great
probability, from the general economy of things
around us, that our present state was meant for a
state of probation : because positively it contains
that admixture of good and evil which ought to
be found in such a state to make it answer its pur
pose, the production, exercise, and improvement
of virtue : and because negatively it could not be
intended either for a state of absolute happiness,
or a state of absolute misery, neither of which
it is.
We may now also observe in what manner
many of the evils of life are adjusted to this par
ticular end, and how also they are contrived to
soften and alleviate themselves and one another.
It will be enough at present, if I can point out
how far this is the case in the two instances,
which, of all others, the most nearly and seriously
affect us, death and disease. The events of life
and death are so disposed, as to beget, in all re
flecting minds, a constant watchfulness. " What
I say unto you, I say unto all, Watch :" Hold
yourselves in a constant state of preparation : " Be
ready, for ye know not when your Lord cometh/
Had there been assigned to our lives a certain age
or period, to which all, or almost all, were sure of
arriving; in the younger part, that is to say, in
nine-tenths of the whole of mankind, there would
444 SERMOS.
have been such an absolute security as would have
produced, it is much to be feared, the utmost neg
lect of duty, of religion, of God, of themselves;
whilst the remaining part would have been too
much overcome with the certainty of their fate,
would have too much resembled the condition of
those who have before their eyes a fixed and ap
pointed day of execution. The same consequence
would have ensued if death had followed any
known rule whatever. It would have produced
security in one part of the species, and despair in
another. The first would have been in the highest
degree dangerous to the character ; the second
insupportable to the spirits. The same observa
tion we are entitled to repeat concerning the two
cases of sudden death, and of death brought on by
long disease. If sudden deaths never occurred,
those who found themselves free from disease
would be in perfect safety : they would regard
themselves as out of the reach of danger. With
all apprehensions, they would lose all seriousness
and all restraint : and those persons who the most
wanted to be checked, and to be awakened to a
sense of the consequences of virtue and vice, the
strong, the healthy, and the active, would be with
out the greatest of all checks, that which arises
from the constant liability of being called to
judgement. If there were no sudden deaths, the
most awful warning which mortals can receive,
would be Jost ; that consideration which carries
the mind the most forcibly to religion, which
convinces us that it is indeed our proper concern ?
namely, the precariousness of our present condi
tion, would be done away. On the other hand, if
SERMOS. 44-5
sudden deaths were too frequent, human life
might become too perilous : there would not be
stability and dependence either upon our own
lives, or the lives of those with whom we are con
nected, sufficient to carry on the regular offices of
human society. In this respect, therefore, we see
much wisdom. Supposing death to be appointed
as the mode (and some mode there must be) of
passing from one state of existence to another, the
manner in which it is made to happen, conduces
to the purposes of warning and admonition, with
out overthrowing the conduct of human affairs.
Of sickness, the moral and religious use will be
acknowledged, and, in fact, is acknowledged, by
all who have experienced it ; and they who have
not experienced it, own it to be a fit state for the
meditations, the offices, of religion. The fault,
I fear, is, that we refer ourselves too much to that
state. We think of these things too little in
health, because we shall necessarily have to think
of them when we come to die. This is a great
fault : but then it confesses, what is undoubtedly
true, that the sick bed and the death bed shall in
evitably force these reflections upon us. In that
it is right, though it be wrong in waiting till the
season of actual virtue and actual reformation be
past, and when, consequently, the sick bed and
the death bed can bring nothing but uncertainty,
horror, and despair. But my present subject leads
me to consider sickness, not so much as a prepa
ration for death, as the trial of our virtue ; of vir
tues the most severe, the most arduous, perhaps
the best pleasing to Almighty God ; namely, trust
and confidence in him, under circumstances of
44-6 SERMOS.
discouragement and perplexity. To lift up the
feeble hands, and the languid eye : to draw and
turn with holy hope to our Creator, when every
comfort forsakes us, and every help fails ; to feel
and find in him, in his mercies, his promises, in
the works of his providence, and still more in his
word, and in the revelation of his designs by Je
sus Christ, such rest and consolation to the soul,
as to stifle our complaints, and pacify our mur
murs ; to beget in our hearts tranquillity and
confidence, in the place of terror and consterna
tion, and this, with simplicity and sincerity, with
out having, or wishing to have, one human wit
ness to observe or know it, is such a test and trial
of faith and hope, of patience and devotion, as
cannot fail of being in a very high degree well-
pleasing to the Author of our nature, the guar
dian, the inspector, and the rewarder of our vir
tues. It is true in this instance, as it is true in all,
that whatever tries our virtue, strengthens and
improves it. Virtue comes out of the fire purer
and brighter than it went into it. Many virtues
are not only proved, but produced by trials : they
have properly no existence without them. " We
glory," saith St. Paul, " in tribulation also,
knowing that tribulation worketh patience, and
patience experience, and experience hope."
But of sickness we may likewise remark, how
wonderfully it reconciles us to the thoughts, the
expectation, and the approach of death; and how
this becomes, in the hand of Providence, an ex
ample of one evil being made to correct another.
Without question, the difference is wide between
the sensations of a person who is condemned to
SERMOS. 447
die by violence, and of one who is brought gra
dually to his end by the progress of disease ; and
this difference sickness produces. To the Chris
tian, whose mind is not harrowed up by the me
mory of unrepented guilt, the calm and gentle
approach of his dissolution has nothing in it ter
rible. In that sacred custody, in which they that
sleep in Christ will be preserved, he sees a rest
from pain and weariness, from trouble and dis
tress. Gradually withdrawn from the cares and
interests of the world; more and more weaned
from the pleasures of the body, and feeling the
weight and pressure of its infirmities, he may be
brought almost to desire, with St. Paul, to be no
longer absent from Christ; knowing, as he did,
and as he assures us, that sc if our earthly house
of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a
building of God, a house not made with hands,
eternal in the heavens."
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