John Wesley on Family Religion
“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
What will the consequence be, if we do not adopt this resolution? —if family religion be neglected? —if care be not taken of the rising generation? Will not the present revival of religion in a short time die away? Will it not be as the historian speaks of the Roman state in its infancy, res unius aetatis:
“an event that has its beginning and end within the space of one generation”? Will it not be a confirmation of that melancholy remark of Luther’s that “a revival of religion never lasts longer than one generation”? By a generation (as he explains himself), he means thirty years. But, blessed be God, this remark does not hold with regard to the present instance, seeing this revival, from its rise in the year 1729, has already lasted above fifty years.
Have we not already seen some of the unhappy consequences of good men’s not adopting this resolution? Is there not a generation arisen, even within this period, yea, and from pious parents, that know not the Lord, that have neither His love in their hearts, nor His fear before their eyes? How many of them already “despise their fathers and mock at the counsel of their mothers”? How many are utter strangers to real religion, to the life and power of it? Not a few have shaken off all religion and abandoned themselves to all manner of wickedness! Now, although this may sometimes be the case, even of children educated in a pious manner, yet this case is very rare; I have met with some, but not many instances of it. The wickedness of the children is generally owing to the fault or neglect of their parents. For it is a general, though not universal rule, though it admits of some exceptions, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
But what is the purport of this resolution, “I and my house will serve the Lord”? In order to understand and practice this, let us first inquire what it is to “serve the Lord.” Next, what we can do that we and our house truly “serve the Lord.”
What Does it Mean to Serve the Lord?
We cannot perform an acceptable service to God till we believe on Jesus Christ whom He hath sent. There the spiritual worship of God begins. As soon as anyone has the witness in himself, as soon as he can say “the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me,” he is able truly to “serve the Lord.”
Also implied in “serving the Lord” is obeying Him, the steadily walking in all His ways, the doing His will from the heart. Like those, His servants above, who do His pleasure, who keep His commandments, and hearken to the voice of His words, these, His servants below, hearken unto His voice, diligently keep His commandments, carefully avoid whatever He has forbidden, and zealously do whatever He has enjoined, studying always to have a conscience void of offense toward God and toward man.
What Can We Do?
Let us inquire what we can do so that everyone in our home will “serve the Lord.” We must endeavor, first, to restrain them from all outward sin, from profane swearing, from taking the name of God in vain, from doing any needless work on the Lord’s Day. This labor of love you owe even to your visitors, and even more so to your wife and children. To the visitors, over whom you have the least influence, you may restrain by argument or mild persuasion. If you find that, after repeated trials, they will not yield either to one or the other, it is your bounden duty to set ceremony aside and to dismiss them from your house.
Your children, while they are young, you may restrain from evil, not only by advice, persuasions, and reproof, but also by correction, only remembering, that you should take the utmost care to avoid the very appearance of anger. Whatever is done should be done with mildness, nay, indeed, with kindness too. Otherwise your own spirit will suffer loss, and the child will reap little advantage.
But some will tell you: “All this a waste of time. A child does not need to be corrected at all. They say that instruction, persuasion, and advice, will be sufficient for any child without correction, especially if gentle reproof be added, as occasion may require.” I answer, there may be particular instances wherein this method may be successful. But you must not, in anywise lay this down as a universal rule, unless you suppose yourself wiser than Solomon, or to speak more properly wiser than God. For it is God Himself, who knoweth His own creatures, that has told us expressly, “He that spareth his rod, hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes” (Proverbs 13:24). And upon this is grounded that plain commandment, directed to all that fear God, “Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying” (19:18).
We must endeavor to instruct them, to take care that every person who is under our roof has all such knowledge as is necessary to salvation. You should particularly endeavor to instruct your children early, plainly, frequently, and patiently. Instruct them early, from the first hour that you perceive reason begins to dawn. Truth may then begin to shine upon the mind far earlier than we are apt to suppose. And whoever watches the first openings of the understanding, may, by little and little, supply fit matter for it to work upon, and may turn the eye of the soul toward good things, as well as toward bad or trifling ones. Whenever a child begins to speak, you may be assured reason begins to work. I know no cause that a parent should not just then begin to speak of the best things, the things of God. And from that time no opportunity should be lost of instilling all truths as they are capable of receiving.
Using Object Lessons from Life
But the speaking to them early will not avail, unless you likewise speak to them plainly. Use such words as little children may understand, just such as they use themselves. Carefully observe the few ideas which they have already, and endeavor to graft what you say upon them.
To take a little example, ask the child to look up, and ask, “What do you see there?”
“See how bright it is! Feel how warm it shines upon your face. Look how it makes the grass and the flowers to grow, and the trees and everything look green. But God, though you cannot see Him, is above the sky and is a [great] deal brighter than the sun! It is He, it is God that made the sun, and you, and me, and everything. It is He that makes the grass and the flowers grow, that makes the trees green, and the fruit to come upon them! Think what He can do! He can do whatever He pleases. He can strike you or me dead in a moment! But He loves you; He loves to do you good. He loves to make you happy. Should not you then love Him? You love me, because I love you and do you good. But it is God that makes me love you. Therefore, you should love Him. And He will teach you how to love Him.”
Praying While Teaching
While you are speaking in this, or some such manner, you should be continually lifting up your heart to God, beseeching Him to open the eyes of their understanding and to pour His light upon them. He, and He alone, can make them to differ herein from the beasts that perish. He alone can apply your words to their hearts, without which all your labor will be in vain, but whenever the Holy Ghost teaches, there is no delay in learning.
But if you want to see the fruit of your labor, you must teach them not only early and plainly, but frequently too. It would be of little or no service to do it only once or twice a week. How often do you feed their bodies? Not less than three times a day. And is the soul of less value than the body? Will you not then feed this as often? If you find this a tiresome task, there is certainly something wrong in your own mind. You do not love them enough, or you do not love Him who is your Father and their Father. Humble yourself before Him! Beg that He would give you more love, and love will make the labor light.
But it will not avail to teach them both early, plainly, and frequently, unless you persevere therein. Never quit; never give up your labor of love until you see the fruit of it. But in order to do this, you will find the absolute need of being endued with power from on high, without which, I am persuaded, none ever had, or will have, patience sufficient for the work. Otherwise, the inconceivable dullness of some children, and the giddiness or perverseness of others, would induce them to give up the irksome task, and let them follow their own imagination.
Ask yourself why you are sending your children to school. Is it to make them able to make it in the world? If so, which world do you mean—this or the next? Perhaps you thought of this world only, and had forgotten that there is a world to come. Yea, and one that will last forever! Pray take this into your account, and send them to such masters as will keep it always before their eyes. Otherwise, to send them to school (permit me to speak plainly) is little better than sending them to the devil. At all events, then, send your boys, if you have any concern for their souls, not to any of the large public schools (for they are nurseries of all manner of wickedness), but a private school, kept by some pious man who endeavors to instruct a small number of children in religion and learning together.
Preparing for Our Children’s Occupation
In what business will your son be most likely to love and serve God? In what employment will he have the greatest advantage for laying up treasure in heaven? I have been shocked above measure in observing how little this is attended to, even by pious parents! Even these consider only how he may get the most money, not how he may get the most holiness! Even these, upon this glorious motive, send him to a heathen master, and into family where there is not the very form, much less the power of religion! Upon this motive they fix him in a business which will necessarily expose him to such temptations as will leave him not a probability, if a possibility, of serving God. O savage parents! Unnatural, diabolical cruelty—if you believe there is another world . . . and do not regard, if he gets less money, provided he gets more holiness. It is enough, though he has less of earthly goods, if he secures the possession of heaven.
There is one circumstance more wherein you will have great need of the wisdom from above. Your son or your daughter is now of age to marry, and desires your advice relative to it. Now you know what the world calls a “good match”—one whereby much money is gained. Undoubt-edly it is so, if it be true that money always brings happiness. But I doubt it is true; money seldom brings happiness, neither in this world nor the world to come. Then let no man deceive you with vain words; riches and happiness seldom dwell together. Therefore, if you are wise, you will not seek riches for your children by their marriage. See that your eye be single in this also. Aim simply at the glory of God and the real happiness of your children, both in time and eternity. It is a melancholy thing to see how Christian parents rejoice in selling their son or their daughter to a wealthy heathen! And do you seriously call this a “good match”? Thou fool by purity of reason; thou mayest call hell a “good lodging” and the devil a “good master.” O learn a better lesson from a better Master! “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness;” both for thyself and thy children, “and all these things shall be added unto you.”
Don’t Get Discouraged
And suppose, after you have done this, after you have taught your children from their early infancy, in the plainest manner you could, omitting no opportunity, and persevering therein, you did not presently see any fruit of your labor; you must not conclude that there will be none. Possibly the “bread” which you have “cast upon the waters” may be “found after many days.” The seed which has long remained in the ground may, at length, spring up into a plentiful harvest, especially if you do not restrain prayer before God, if you continue instant herein with all supplication. Mean-time, whatever the effect of this be upon others, your reward is with the Most High.
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