Psalm xix. 13. Who can understand his errors 1 Cleanse thou me from secret faults.
Secret Faults.—Men are usually much less anxious to be free from them than they are to be restrained from open transgression. Yetx they enter deeply into the character, and will enter into the future judgment. It is important, therefore, that we should understand our own secret propensities to evil; and important that we should urge, with fervor and sincerity, the petition of the text, "Cleanse thou me from secret faults."
The following points will be considered in illustrating this subject:
I. What are secret faults;
II. By what means they are concealed; and,
III. Why should we desire and pray to be delivered from them?
I. What are secret faults? They stand opposed to open and " presumptuous transgressions;" to such as are seen and known by the world. They pertain to the motives, the feelings, the intentions of the heart. They relate particularly to such sins as the following:
(1.) To the secret bias of the heart to evil. There may be what may be called latent guilt; a propensity of the soul to sin which has never been developed, and of which, except in the feeblest degree, we may be scarcely conscious ourselves. Many a parent is surprised to see his son, in some new situation in life, evince a propensity to some form of vice which he had never suspected. The reason was, that he was not before placed in a situation to develop the peculiar depravity of his heart. Many a man discovers a propensity to evil suddenly springing up in his own soul, which is equally surprising to himself and to his friends. To his own amazement, he finds himself suddenly growing covetous, or ambitious, or proud, and wonders at the extraordinary power which the apparentlynew-born propensity has over his mind. The reason is, that the strong native inclination of his soul has not before been in circumstances to develop itself. It has been held in check and abeyance, and no opportunity has occurred where he could act out his nature. No man knows what latent propensities to evil there may be in the soul, until he has been thrown into a variety of circumstances fitted to test his character, and show him what he is. The human heart is a great deep. No line has been found long enough to sound it; and as it is in regard to the bottom of the ocean, so no one has fully told us. what lies buried in the depths of the soul of man. of thinking, and of the former course of life. There is much in habit, whether for good or evil, which we cannot understand. Essentially we mean by it the facility for doing any thing which results from having often done it; and when once a man has acquired the habit of sinning, it will follow him and annoy him until contrary habits are formed. A man who has been in the habit of profaneness, will long after find the words of blasphemy rising in his mind almost involuntarily and irresistibly. He who has been an infidel, will find infidel thoughts and associations torturing his peace for years after he becomes a true Christian. He who has been proud, and irritable, and selfish, and stubborn, and self-confident, and fault-finding, and censorious before his conversion, will find a constant tendency to these sins afterwards, and will detect himself in their indulgence almost before he is aware of it He who was covetous or avaricious before his conversion, will find the mighty remains of these sins in his heart after he becomes a Christian, and will be subjected to their secret operation, even when his general course of life is that of a man of benevolence. We are beset with two classes of evils—there is the evil of our original bias to transgress—the powerful tendency with which we came into the world; and there is the evil arising from long indulgence in habits of sin. He who commences the Christian life, in youth, will have the least trouble from either of these sources; he who is converted at middle or advanced life must expect a furious warfare that shall cease only at death.
(2.) Secret faults consist of the unholy thoughts which we intend no o:her person shall know. Some of those are usually of so gross a character, that the great body of persons at once reject them, and strive to be free from them. But others are such as the mind indulges in, with little effort to remove them, and with little sense of their evil. They go materially into the formation of the character as it is seen by God, and as it is ultimately developed before men,but they are often long indulged before there is any very decided effort to remove them, or any very deep conviction that they are evil. Most unconverted minds are in the habit of indulging in trains of thought which they would by no means be willing that the world should know of, and not a few such thoughts are suffered to pass through the minds of those who are professedly of pure life, which they are anxious to conceal from their fellow-men. Few, indeed, are the hearts that would bear the revolution of its workings for a single day without exciting a blush; and few are the inhabitants of this world, if there are any, who would be willing that their secret views, and thoughts, and plans, for any considerable period of their lives, should be laid open before their best friends.
(3.) Secret faults are those sinful emotions and affections which rise up in the best hearts almost involuntarily, and against which a mind wishing to be pure struggles. They are the operations "of a nature deeply depraved. They are the streams that flow forth from the corrupt fountain, the heart. They are the result of former habits
(4.) Secret faults include those plans of evil which are not prosecuted to their completion. They are formed, and there is an intention of executing them, but the opportunity does not occur; or some unexpected barrier is thrown in the way; or the heart fails; or death breaks up the scheme. Of all the plans of evil that have been formed on earth, but a small proportion have ever been executed; and great as is the aggregate of iniquity, the amount would have been much more vast if all the purposes of wickedness had been accomplished as was desired by their projectors. Bad as the world is, and much occasion as there is to mourn over it, yet but little of the evil that has in fact existed has appeared to any but to the all-seeing eye of God. This is one reason why his estimate of the human character in the Bible, seems to be so much more severe than that which men form. He looks upon the heart; sees all the unexecuted plans of evil; knows what man would do if he were unrestrained; and forms his view of the human character from what he sees in the secret chambers of the soul, and will judge men according to that.
In speaking of secret faults, I might go on to speak of the crimes that are perpetrated in darkness; of those which escape the eye of the most vigilant police ; of those which have been committed and which are forgotten; and of those which are perpetrated under the specious name of virtue, and which pass for virtue among men. Bnt the enumeration already given will furnish an idea of what I mean, and will prepare the way for considering the propriety of prayer for deliverance from them in another part of this discourse. I proceed, therefore, to show,
II. In the second place, some of the ways in which sin is concealed, or in which our faults are hid from detection, so that they remain unknown to others-.
(1.) I begin with observing that men design to conceal them. A power to hide our purposes is essential to the existence of society, and grows out of its very organization. The body becomes the shield of the soul to guard our plans from the observation of other minds, and to bury our thoughts from the notice of all but the Omniscient Eye. It becomes a right which every man has, to conceal those of his plans in his own bosom which he is unwilling the world should know. This power we hold for good. It is essential often to the accomplishment of our virtuous purposes, which would be defeated if we could not hide them from others; it is vital to the performance of contemplated deeds of benevolence—for if the wicked could see them they would often defeat them. It constitutes individuality in the midst of society, that we are known only so far as we wish to be known; and that we may walk among thousands and be the depositories of our own secrets, and keep our individual aims hidden from the world.
The power of concealment is, therefore, originally an her to speak out; but he wishes to put on the appearance of innocence, and to be able to tell a lie as if it were the truth. That young man when he first pilfers the drawer of his employer, would betray the act the next moment if he were to allow nature to speak out, and did not put the eye and the cheek under discipline that they should not betray him. That man who has commenced a career of fraud and villany; who abuses his trust, and perverts or abstracts public funds, would betray himself at once if he would allow his nature to speak out. But he drills and disciplines himself, and his eye is calm, and Iris countenance is taught to be composed, and he speaks and acts as if he were an innocent man, and buries the consciousness of the crime deep in the recesses of the soul. Soon the brow is like brass, and the frame is schooled not to betray, and the living indexes of guilt which God had affixed to the body are obliterated, and the conscience is seared, and the whole man has departed from the beautiful form which God made, and has become an artificial and a guilty thing.
Again. The arts of polished and refined life, to a melancholy extent, have the same object. They are so arranged as to conceal rancor, and envy, and hatred, and the desire of revenge. They aim not to eradicate them, but to conceal them. I speak, of course, not of all; not I trust of the principal efforts which are made. I trust there is a much more pure and elevated code of morals among those who belong to the community called 'the world,' than there once was. Lord Chesterfield, who once gave absolute law to the fashionable world, and who was characterised by Johnson as 'teaching the morals of a woman of infamy, and the manners of a dancingmaster,' led the way in this system of hypocrisy and deception. He himself was, not inappropriately, one of the first victims of the system. A favorite young man— an adopted son—to whom he wrote his celebrated letters, and on whom he lavished every possible means of education, was one of the first to conceal his own ' secret fault' in the marriage of a woman with whom a connection would have never met with his approbation, and with a sad and betrayed heart he lived to see that no confidence could be placed in his own hollow system. Yet who is ignorant that the arts of polished life are often assumed for the most hase purposes, and that with all that education can give, and all that accomplishment can furnish, man can 'smile, and smile, and be a villain still?' It is alleged not seldom that there are hypocrites in the church, and I do not deny that there may be. But there are hypocrites and deceivers elsewhere than in the church, and there is many a concealed purpose, many a secret fault in the bosoms of those 'graced with polished manners and fine sense,' who have assumed an outward guise the better to impose on the world.
(2.) Many secret sins are concealed because there is no opportunity of carrying trie purpose into execution. The plan is laid, but some unforeseen occurrence prevents the execution of it, and it is abandoned. In some instances it may be cherished for years, and is not abandoned until the last hope of carrying it into effect fails.. A man forms a purpose of revenge, and pursues it from year to year, and looks out for an opportunity to gratify it, until all hope fails, and then it is abandoned. Or, in more cases still, the plan is arrested by death, and the man dies with his wicked scheme unaccomplished. In the aggregate of the sins of this world, the number of unfinished plans of evil is not small; the number of those who are hurried into eternity with their plans unexecuted is not few, and no man who forms such a. plan knows but that he will be hurried away while his scheme of iniquity is just ripening No one knows, in the mysteriousness of sudden deaths, how many a just and merciful God takes away for the very purpose of arresting an unexecuted scheme of evil, and of saving the innocent from the wiles of the destroyer.
(3.) Many faults are secret, because the individual has never been placed in circumstances to develop his character. He has innate propensities to evil of which he is unconscious, and which would be soon developed if he were placed in a favorable situation to show what he is. No small part of the virtue of this world is the result of circumstances. It is external and artificial. It does not reach and control the heart. It is formed by education; or it takes its form from the prevalent opinions in society; or it is a matter of convenience or policy. Beneath it there is latent evil never yet brought out, and corruption which has never been exposed. No oiie of us knows what we would be if we were so situated in life as to reveal exactly what we are. And none of us, therefore, should pride ourselves on our own supposed virtue, nor should we harshly judge our guilty fellows. They may have shown what they are; we may have a nature quite as corrupt as they, and yet while they have wrecked character, and hope, and peace by their vices, we may be congratulating ourselves on our own purity, and priding oursslves on our integrity. "Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall."
(4.) Connected with this we may observe, that the restraints of society conceal many a fault, and hide it from public view. The germ of the evil exists; and when a favorable opportunity presents itself, it is manifested. The restraints around a young man in a refined family or neighborhood, often guard him. The authority ,of a father; the mild influence of a mother; the society of a sister, or the courtesies of life in the society in which he moves, preserve him. In a distant city, or in a foreign land, how different the fact in regard to him! There the tendency of the heart is developed, and in scenes of amusement and sin the restraints of morality and of religion he alike disregarded and renounced.
Such are some of the ways in which the faults of the soul are concealed. Who is there that is not conscious that he has himself such secret faults? Who is there that has not been training himself, though perhaps unconsciously, to conceal them? Who is there that has not feelings and plans that he is not willing to disclose—not merely because he believes that another one has not a right to break in upon the secresy of his own feelings and views, but because he knows they are wrong? If the wish of some of the old philosophers that every man should" have a glass in his bosom could be realized, how few would venture out in the streets at noonday! What confusion, and blushes, and attempts at concealment would it produce in any promiscuous assembly! How would the busy world seek the shades of night, and bur houses be dens where we would seek to hide ourselves! There is not a man among us that would be willing to have his thoughts for a single week—the purest week of his life— written down and read to an assembly like this. For the truth of this, I appeal to every man's own consciousness. And if this be truth, then what is the human heart! What is man! And. with what propriety may each one urge the prayer of the text, and say, "Cleanse thou me from secret faults."
III. I proceed, in the third and last place, to state some reasons why we should pray to be delivered from secret faults. I remark,
(1.) We should do it because we specially need the grace of God to overcome them. I presume most of us who have made the. attempt to subdue the inborn propensities of our nature to evil, have become entirely satisfied of our impotency in such an undertaking. Our external conduct we can better guard and secure. The restraints of education, of our professions, and of society, aid us much. Our calling may lead us into the circles of the re'fined and the pure; our profession may be such as shall constrain us to act on the principles of honesty and honor; our whole success in life may be dependent on our external probity and consistency. To fall into open sin, in such circumstances, is rare; and the prospect of it is not so great as seriously to alarm a virtuous mind. I believe, indeed, that it is only by the grace of God that we can be kept in the paths of external morality, and I put no great confidence in that untried and untempted virtue which is confident of a power to stand by itself; but still there are helps for the promotion of that virtue in the very frame-work of a well-organized society, on which we may place some reliance. But what protection against secret sins is there around the human heart? Who knows it so well that he can guard the approaches to it? Who can so well describe or understand the delicate laws of its associations as to be able to defend it from unholy thoughts? Who can arrest the passage of that flitting unholy thought that comes from you know not where, and is brought you know not how, and that, however brief may be its stay, always leaves pollution behind it? Who can safely analyze the laws of his own mind in regard to evil, and arrest and hold the train of polluted images long enough to know how to guard against them in future, without danger of finding a guilty pleasure in the contemplation, and desiring to retain them? Who can arrest that tide of evil recollections that comes pouring like a flood into a man's bosom from the remembrances of his past life? Who can of himself break the subtle chain of associated evil thoughts, or by an act of volition make a polluted mind pure? And who—for I believe there is, and was, and is to be such an agency—who can foresee the approach of the great tempter, and shut up the avenues of the heart against him, and make his fiery darts rebound? It is not in feeble human nature to be successful alone in this warfare, and he who has but once made the experiment, will feel the propriety of applying to God to help him. More distressed and troubled by far at these secret faults than at the danger of external derilection from duty; more downcast and sad at the triumph which sin gets over him than from losses of property or health; more anxious for purity of heart than for gold, yea, than much fine gold, he will feel the necessity of looking to the Great Source of purity and strength for aid. For often the sadness oh a man's countenance is not from losses and the cares of this life; not from the death of friends, or failure of business; it is from this internal war—-this heavy load—these fiery arrows—these secret faults—these unholy imaginings— these distressing inroads made by intruding plans of evil on his peace. '0 what would not I give,' may express the language of not a few, 'for one day of perfect purity —one day without an improper emotion, or an unholy feeling—one day when I should think, and speak, and act just as I ought to—one day like that of an angel;— like a day of the life of Jesus; like the passing moments of the ever-blessed God. For such a day of purity I would part with all earth's gilded baubles, and sacrifice the most brilliant schemes that this world can furnish. How sweet would sleep be at the close of such a day! How blessed to live—to awake again to repeat it, and to walk with. God in perfect holiness. 0 come that blessed day when my heart shall be thus pure; and when I shall sigh no more at night over the recollected errors and secret faults of the day, and when I shall feel that my easily-besetting sins shall torture my bosom no more!'
(2.) Such secret faults are peculiarly offensive to God, and we should, therefore, pray to be cleansed from them. The guilt of the wicked plan is not annihilated or diminished in the view of the Searcher of hearts, because he chooses to arrest it by his own Providence, or because he never allows the sinner the opportunity of accomplishing it. Indeed the guilt of a long-cherished plan of evil, though it is never executed, may be much greater in his sight than an outbreaking of sudden passion, or a sudden yielding to temptation. Many an open act of sin is momentary, and then is over. Wrath kindles in the eye, and then as soon dies away. It is the passion of one,
"That carries anger, as the 8int bears fire,
Which much enforced, shows a hasty spark,
And straight is cold again."
But the plan of revenge, the proud and obstinate temper, the purposes of infamy, may be long cherished, and will constitute in fact the real character of the man. That will be far more hateful in the sight of God than the sudden burst of passion, or the solitary act of intemperance, or even the deed of blood, for these may be the result of temporary excitement. So of forgotten crime. It has passed away from your recollection. But though the specific act has passed away from your remembrance, yet its effects have not. It left a withering and a blighting influence on your soul. You are a less happy man, and a less pure man than you would have been had it not been for the secret fault, though that may have been long since forgotten. As fire that passes through the forest, leaves long desolation when the flame is extinguished, so has been the withering effects of sin on your soul— and God sees that soul scathed and blasted by the indwelling of former sinful thoughts and feelings.
(3.) And I add, finally, that we should pray for this, because if secret faults are indulged, they will sooner or later break out like smothered fires, and the true character of the heart will be developed. Fires uncap a mountain because they have been long accumulating, and can be confined no longer. Streams that flow far under ground, somewhere, though far from the fountain, make their way to the surface. Disease that is long in the system, and that flows round and round in the blood, will at some time manifest itself, and so it is with the corruptions of the heart. They cannot always be concealed, and God designs that they shall not always be. It is well, under the divine administration, that the true state of the heart should be made manifest, and that it should be seen what man is. Accordingly, few things are more common, than such sudden developments of character, and outbreakings of the secret faults of the soul. We are often shocked by such cases, and our philosophy about man seems to fail, and we are at a loss to account for the instances of sudden depravity that appal the community. A man of fair character, and enjoying universal confidence, becomes suddenly a public defaulter. A clergyman is guilty of some crime that shocks the moral sense of mankind. A man of supposed regular habits becomes suddenly intemperate. A man clothed with power, like Arnold, betrays his trust, and attempts to sell his country. A judge on the bench, like Bacon, shocks the world by the undisputed fact that he has been bribed. The community is horror-stricken, and we feel for the moment like distrusting every man, and doubting all virtue and all piety, and we are almost led to conclude that all our estimates of human character on which we have heretofore acted are false—and we ask, not improperly, who is safe? In whom can we confide? And we begin to distrust every clergyman, and every officer, and every man of supposed integrity and good morals in public life, and every judge on the bench.
But these painful disclosures are not departures from the great principles of human, nature. There is a maxim in law, that no one suddenly becomes eminently vile.* These melancholy lapses into sin are but exponents of the real character of the man; the regular results of a long course of guilt; the regular outbreakings of secret faults—like the breaking out of the volcano, or like the tumbling down of a bowing wall, or the fall of a house that has been long undermined by secret streams. In the case of the clergyman who becomes unprincipled and vile; who shocks our moral sense, and degrades himself
\Kemo repente turpissimus.
and his high calling by some public and shameful offence, we are not to suppose that this is a sudden fault or crime. There has been a long previous preparation. There has been a relaxing of the high sense of obligation, and of the sacredness of his calling; there has been a train of evil thoughts, and unholy imaginings; there has been an indulgence in guilty wishes, and the rovings of an impure eye and imagination;—there has been a neglect of secret prayer and of communion with God—and God suffers him to fall, not merely to mark his detestation of the open crime, but of the long train of evil thoughts that have led on at length to so painful a catastrophe. The man who has betrayed his trust, and who shocks the community by some stupendous crime as a public defaulter, we are not to suppose has been led by sudden temptation into the sin, or that the act which now amazes us is a solitary act. Back of that, there has been a series of secret faults that have been accumulating like pent up waters, and that now burst forth in an enormous act of guilt that sweeps away every thing that is valuable in his character, and that is peaceful in his domestic circle. The man who betrays his country, as Arnold sought to do, does not perform such a deed by one act of sudden temptation. Far back in guilty pleasures, in extravagance of living, in secret dissatisfaction with his commander or his country, in disappointed ambition, envy, malice, or covetousness, is laid the foundation of the enormous crime, and the act of treason is just the exponent of the man's secret guilt. And the judge on the bench who disregards the purity of the ermine, and who sells justice for a bribe, does not do this deed alone. It is the result of secret crimes and guilty desires, of a weakened sense of honor and obligation, of habitual contemplation of plans of evil, until the strength of guilt surpasses his sense of honesty and honor, and he falls to rise no more. And so our cherished secret faults will yet manifest themselves unless they are checked and removed by the grace of God, and by the blood of the atonement. In a pure heart only are we safe. The indulgence in unholy thoughts, and impure imaginings, and in the contemplation of guilty pleasures, no man, no matter what his rank or standing or external character, is safe. We are safe only when in the sincerity of our hearts, and in the deep consciousness of internal corruption and great feebleness, we can lift our eyes habitually to heaven, and say, " Cleanse us from secret faults, keep us back from presumptuous transgression."
(1.) Who can understand his errors? Who knows what man is? Who knows himself? We look upon the fair exterior, the polished manners, but who knows what is in the heart? A man of forty feels that he knows much less of himself than he supposed he did at twenty; and increasing years only serve to astonish him with the great deep of depravity in the human soul. His own heart is more and more an enigma; and his observation of his own feelings teach him more and more to distrust himself. We look on men high in office and in public confidence, we see them on an eminence, and a halo of glory seems to be around their heads, and then we see them suddenly fall into irretrievable ignominy, and we instinctively ask, who is safe? Who is next to fall? Who can be safely and wholly trusted? We weep over their fall. Let the effect be to lead us more and more to distrust ourselves, and to put. our trust in God.
(2.) We should be humble. The fall of others, and our own conscious sinfulness; our deeds of forgotten guilt and our half-executed plans of evil, should make us humble. "Oh, why should mortal man be proud?"
- 'Follies and crimes, a countless sum,
Are crowded in life's little span;
How ill, alas, does pride become
That eiring, guilty creature, man!"
Our career has done but little to lift us up with pride in its recollection; and onr own course of life should produce any other feeling than self-congratulation in the retrospect.
(3.) We have much to dread at the revelations of the day of judgment. Those secret faults of the sinner will be brought out to noon-day then. God will bring every secret thing into judgment. You have labored long and hard to conceal your purposes. You have supposed that the darkness of night might hide them. You have congratulated yourself in the belief that they were unknown by the world. But there has been one eye upon you and your sins—one eye that has never been turned away by day or by night; and there has been a book of record where every word, and thought, and feeling has been written down; and there is one mind that remembers all. Sinner, for every evil thought, for every impure desire, for every deed of darkness, for every half-formed plan of evil, you are to give account to God. 0 what a scene will be exhibited on the great day of trial! Who can bear the revelations of that day? Who of you could bear to have your past lives and feelings all drawn out and exposed in letters of living light to this congregation? Who is there here that would not call on the mountains to shelter him, and the hills to cover him, at the prospect of such a revelation? Not one. With no consciousness of sinfulness but such as I believe common to man; with the recollection of the general aim of my life to do right; with great occasion for thanksgiving that I have been preserved from the open vices that have ruined so many who began the career of. life with me, yet I confess to you, that if there is any thing that I should more than all other things dread, it would be that the record of all my thoughts and feelings should be exhibited to the assembled universe in the last day. That the universe would acquiesce in my condemnation on such a revelation, I have no manner of doubt. And if there is any one thing for which I desire to give unfeigned thanks more than others, it is that through the blood of Christ, those sins may be blotted out; and that through the infinite mercy of God the secret sins of which I am conscious, may Never—no Never—be disclosed to assembled worlds.