"When the objects of thought are God -- our accountableness to him -- our sin against him -- our salvation from it, or condemnation for it -- surely we shall not trifle and deceive ourselves! Yet, alas! so far is man from excelling in this solemn department, that there is nothing on which he thinks to so little purpose." -- AF
On the Vanity of the Human Mind
"The Lord knoweth the thoughts of man, that they are vanity." -- Psal xciv. 11.
By Andrew Fuller
SURELY it is the design of God in all his dispensations, and by all the discoveries of his word, to stain the pride of all flesh. The dust is the proper place for a creature, and that place we must occupy. What a humbling thought is here suggested to us! Let us examine it.
1. If vanity had been ascribed to the meaner parts of the creation Ė if all inanimate and irrational beings, whose days are as a shadow, and who know not whence they came nor whither they go, had thus been characterized -- it had little more than accorded with our own ideas. But the humiliating truth belongs to man, the lord of the lower creation -- to man, that distinguished link in the chain of being which unites in his person mortality and
immortality, heaven and earth. The "Lord knoweth the thoughts of man, that they are vanity."
2. Had vanity been ascribed only to the exercises of our sensual or mortal part, or of that which we possess in common with other animals, it had been less humiliating. But the charge is pointed at that which is the peculiar glory of man, the intellectual part, his thoughts. It is here, if any where, that we excel the creatures which are placed around us. We can contemplate our own existence, dive into the past and the future, and understand whence we came and whither we go. Yet in this tender part are we touched. Even the thoughts of man are vanity.
3. If vanity had been ascribed merely to those loose and trifling excursions of the imagination which fall not under the influence of choice, a kind of comers and goers, which are ever floating in the mind, like insects in the air on a summer's evening, it had been less affecting. The soul of man seems to be necessarily active. Every thing we see, hear, taste, feel, or perceive has some influence upon thought, which is moved by it as the leaves on the trees are moved by every breeze of wind. But "thoughts" here include those exercises of the mind in which it is voluntarily or intensely engaged, and in which we are in earnest; even all our schemes, contrivances, and purposes. One would think, if there were any thing in man to be accounted of, it should be those exercises in which his intellectual faculty is seriously and intensely employed. Yet the Lord knoweth that even these are vanity.
4. If, during our state of childhood and youth only, vanity had been ascribed to our thoughts, it would have been less surprising. This is a truth of which numberless parents have painful proof; yea, and of which children themselves, as they grow up to maturity, are generally conscious. Vanity at this period however admits of some apology. The obstinacy and folly of some young people, while they provoke disgust, often excite a tear of pity. But the charge is exhibited against man. "Man at his best estate is altogether vanity."
5. The decision proceeds from a quarter from which there can be no appeal: "The Lord knoweth" it. Opinions dishonourable to our species may sometimes arise from ignorance, sometimes from spleen and disappointment, and sometimes from a gloomy turn of mind, which views mankind through a distorted medium. But the judgment given in this passage is the decision of Him who cannot err; a decision therefore to which, if we had no other proof, it becomes us to accede.
But that which is here declared as the result of Divine omniscience, is abundantly confirmed by observation and experience. Let us take a brief view of the thoughts of man as exercised on two general topics -- the world that now is, and that which is to come.
I. WITH RESPECT TO THE PRESENT WORLD, CONSIDER WHAT MULTITUDES OF THOUGHTS ARE EMPLOYED IN VAIN.
1. In seeking satisfaction where it is not to be found. -- Most of the schemes and devices of depraved man go to the indulging of his appetite, his avarice, his pride, his revenge, or in some form or other to the gratifying of himself. Look at the thoughts of such a man as Nabal: "Shall I then take my bread and my water, and my flesh, that I have killed for my shearers, and give to I know not whom?" Or of such a man as Haman; now aspiring to be the man whom the king delighteth to honour; now contriving the death of a whole people, in revenge of the supposed crime of an individual, Esth. iii. Such, alas! is a great part of the world to this day. What desolations have come upon the earth through the resentments of a few individuals! And those whose situation has afforded them the greatest
scope for self-gratification in all its forms are generally the furthest off from satisfaction.
2. In poring on events which cannot be recalled. -- Grief, under the bereaving strokes of providence, to a certain degree, is natural, it is true, and allowable; but when carried to excess, and accompanied with despondency, and unthankfulness for continued mercies, it is a great evil. I knew a parent who lost an only child, and who never after appeared to enjoy life. It seemed to me, that if his spirit had been expressed in words, they would have been to this effect: Lord, I cannot be reconciled to thee for having taken away the darling of my heart, which thou gayest me! -- All such thoughts are as vain as they are sinful, seeing none can make straight what God hath made crooked.
3. In anticipating evils which never befall us. -- Such is our folly, that, as though the evils which necessarily attend the present state were not enough for us to carry, we must let loose our imaginations, and send them into the wilderness of futurity in search of ideal burdens to make up the load. This also is vanity.
4. To these may be added the valuing of ourselves on things of little or no account. -- If Providence has given one a little more wealth than another -- if he lives in a better house, eats better food, and wears better apparel -- what a multitude of self-important thoughts do such trifles breed in the mind! But all is vanity, and rejoicing in a thing of nought.
5. In laying plans which must be disconcerted. -- The infinitely wise God has laid one great plan, which comprehends all things. If ours accord with his, they succeed; if not, they are overturned, and it is fit they should. Men, in their schemes, commonly consult their own private interest; and as others are carrying on similar designs for themselves, they meet, and clash, and overturn one another. Thus men, partly by their plans being at variance with that of God, and partly with those of their fellow creatures, are ever exposed to disappointment and chagrin. Their lives are wholly occupied in building Babels, having them thrown down, and fretting against God and their neighbours on account of their disappointments.
In looking at the struggles of different parties for power, whether in a monarchy, and aristocracy, or a democracy, one sees a dangerous rock, which multitudes are climbing at the utmost hazard, and from which great numbers fall and perish; and the same spirit operates through all degrees of men, according to the opportunities which they enjoy.
II LET US SEE WHAT ARE MAN'S THOUGHTS WITH REGARD TO RELIGION, AND THE CONCERNS OF A FUTURE LIFE. It might be expected that if in any thing they be other than vanity, it is in this. The thoughts of a rational and immortal creature upon its eternal interests, one would think, must be serious and solemn. When the objects of thought are God -- our accountableness to him -- our sin against him -- our salvation from it, or condemnation for it -- surely we shall not trifle and deceive ourselves! Yet, alas! so far is man from excelling in this solemn department, that there is nothing on which he thinks to so little purpose. The truth of this remark will appear from the following questions: --
1. What are the thoughts of the heathen world about religion? -- In them we see what the thoughts of man, left to himself, amount to. To call them vanity is to call them by a tender name. I speak not merely of the common people, who are enveloped in ignorance and superstition, but of their wisest philosophers. To what do all their inquiries about God, the chief good, amount? To nothing at all. All is vanity! A babe in the Christian religion, with a page of Godís word in his hand, knows more than they have been able to discover in the space of three thousand years.
2. What are all the thoughts of the Christian world, where God's thoughts are neglected? -- Men who have the Bible in their hands, but who, instead of learning the mind of God in it, and there resting contented, are ever bent on curious speculations, prying into things beyond their reach, vainly puffed up with a fleshly mind; to what do their thoughts amount? Nothing! They may presently lose themselves, and perplex others; they may obtain the flattery of unbelievers, and compliment one another with the epithets of candid and liberal; they may comfort themselves in the idea of being moderate men, and not like those bigots who refuse to yield or make any concessions to the objections of unbelievers; but all that they gain is the friendship of the world, which is enmity to God. Were a monument erected to the memory of all those who have perished by falling from the precipice of unscriptural speculation, it could not have a more appropriate motto than this: "Vain man would be wise."
3. What is all that practical atheism which induces multitudes to act as if there were no God? -- Great numbers of people in every part of the world, whatever they may call themselves, are practical atheists. They "work iniquity in the dark, and say in their hearts, The Lord seeth us not; the Lord has forsaken the earth." The Lord, they think, takes no cognizance of the world now, whatever he may have done formerly; but leaves us to shift for ourselves, and do as well as we can. -- Such characters there were in the times of David; and their presumptuous folly seems to have given occasion for the words on which these reflections are founded. They are denominated "proud;" described as "triumphing and boasting" in their wickedness, as "uttering hard things," as "breaking in pieces God's people and afflicting his heritage," as "slaying the widow and the stranger, and murdering the fatherless;" yet as saying, "The Lord shall not see, neither shall the God of Jacob regard." Well did the psalmist admonish them, saying, "Understand, ye brutish among the people; and ye fools, when will ye be wise? He that planted the ear, shall he not hear? He that formed the eye, shall he not see? He that chastiseth the heathen," (who are without the light of revelation,) "shall not he correct" those who possess and despise it? "The Lord knoweth the thoughts of man, that they are vanity."
4. What are all the unbelieving, self flattering imaginations of wicked men, as though God were not in earnest in his declarations and threatenings? -- Nothing is more solemnly declared than that "except we be converted, and become as little children, we cannot enter the kingdom of God" -- that "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" -- that "neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God" -- and that "without faith it is impossible to please God." Yet the bulk of mankind do not seem to believe these things, but flatter themselves that they shall have peace, though they add drunkenness to thirst; that to talk of a man, born in a Christian land, requiring to be born again, is enthusiastical; that God is merciful, and will not be strict to mark iniquity; and that if we do as well as we can -- that is, as well as we can find in our hearts to do -- the Almighty will desire no more. The vanity of these thoughts, prevalent as they are in the world, will appear, if not before, when God shall judge the world in righteousness by Jesus Christ.
5. What are the conceits of the self-righteous, by which they buoy up their minds with vain hopes, and refuse to submit to the righteousness of God? -- Of the two first-born sons of man who presented their offerings to God, one came without a sacrifice; and the greater part of professed worshippers in all ages, it is to be feared, have followed his example. It is
deeply rooted in every human heart, that if the displeasure of God be appeased towards us, or if he show us any favour, it must be on account of some worthiness found in us. To go to God as utterly unworthy, pleading the worthiness of a Mediator, and building all our hope of acceptance on his obedience and sacrifice, is a hard lesson for a proud spirit. Yet, till we learn this, we in effect learn nothing; nor will God accept our offering, any more than he accepted the offering of Cain.
Such is the vanity of man's thoughts, in things of everlasting moment. But, it maybe asked, are all the thoughts of men of this description? No: the charge is directed against men as depraved, and not as renewed; for though there be much vanity in the thoughts of the best of men, yet they are not mainly so. There are thoughts which, though we are not sufficient of ourselves to obtain them, yet, being imparted to us by Him in whom is all our sufficiency, are not vanity. If we think of God with approbation, of sin with contrition, of ourselves as nothing, of Christ as all, of earth as the house of our pilgrimage, and heaven as our home; this is thinking justly, as we ought to think. Such thoughts also are an earnest of that state where themes of unutterable glory shall for ever present themselves; and where all our powers, being corrected and sanctified, shall ever be employed in exploring the wonders of grace. ==============
[From Joseph Belcher, The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, Volume I, 1845; rpt. 1988, pp. 434-438. Document provided by David Oldfield, Post Falls, ID. -- jrd]
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