From a letter by John Wesley, written in August 1760 to a preacher named John Trembath:
Certainly some years ago you were alive to God. You experienced the life and power of religion. And does not God intend, that the trials you meet with, should bring you back to this? You cannot stand still; you know this is impossible. You must go forward or backward. Either you must recover that power, and be a Christian altogether, or in awhile you will have neither power, nor form, inside nor outside.
Extremely opposite both to one and the other, is that aptness to ridicule others, to make them contemptible, by exposing their real or supposed foibles. This I would earnestly advise you to avoid. It hurts yourself. It hurts the hearers. And it greatly hurts those who are so exposed, and tends to make them your enemies. It has also sometimes betrayed you into speaking what was not strictly true. Oh beware of this, above all things; never amplify; never exaggerate any thing. Be rigorous in adhering to truth. Be exemplary therein…. I pray, be exact in this. Be a pattern of truth, sincerity, and godly simplicity.
What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear to this day, is want of reading. I scarcely ever knew a Preacher read so little. And, perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago. It is lively, but not deep: there is little variety; there is no compass of thought. Reading only can supply this, with daily meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this. You can never be a deep Preacher without it: any more than a thorough Christian. Oh begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not: what is tedious at first, will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life: there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial Preacher. Do justice to your own soul: give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer. Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether. Then will all the children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you; and, in particular, yours, &c.
I think this is an extraordinary letter, and profoundly applicable to Christianity as it is (mal)practiced today, not least by many of its leaders. Wesley grasps here some vital points:
- That in the Christian life one cannot simply maintain a status quo. “You must go forward or backward.”
- That it’s cheap and easy, in preaching and teaching and writing, to attack those you believe to be wrong, and that in so doing you do not help anything but rather hurt everyone involved — including yourself. (Seeking to expose the foibles of others is a sure way to “go backwards.”)
- That the desire to expose and ridicule others will lead you away from strict adherence to truthfulness.
- That nothing is more to be shunned, by the faithful Christian, than looseness with the truth.
- That — this is only implied, but it is strongly implied — preachers are led into these temptations by a failure to read: a failure to fill their minds with substantive knowledge, in the absence of which they can only be superficial “triflers.”
- That such reading is vital because preachers cannot feed others unless they first feed themselves. (“Do justice to your own soul: give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer.”)
- That taking on this kind of intellectual discipline is one of the ways that Christians must take up their Cross.