When persons are in acute distress about their sins, they are sometimes tempted to make rash promises, and to take on them professions without counting the cost. They think their present state of mind will last for ever; it changes—but their promise remains; they find they cannot duly fulfil it; then they are in great perplexity, and even despair. Perhaps they have been even imprudent enough to make their engagement in the shape of a vow, and this greatly increases their difficulty. They do not know whether it is binding or not—they cannot recollect the mode in which, or the feelings under which, they took it; or any of the minute circumstances on which its validity turns.
Now all this on the very first view of the case shows thus much, how very wrong it is to make private vows. We cannot be our own judge in a matter of this kind. Yet, if we take on ourselves an engagement without telling any one else of it, we trust it in a great measure to our own memory and judgment. The special publicity and distinctness with which the marriage vow is made, gives us a pattern how vows should be undertaken. The Church should hear them, and the Church should bless them. In the early Church even the highest ecclesiastical authorities were appealed to as their witnesses and imposers. But unless in some sense or form the Church is present, it seems rash to make vows.
I would rather recommend an observance, which is safer and more expedient. Persons who wish to repent of their past sins, are tempted to make vows of poverty, or continence, or humble estate, or the like. Now I do not say that they are wrong in wishing for themselves this or that kind of life which the Apostles exercised. I do not say that it is enthusiastic, or wild, or fanciful to wish to be like St. Paul, considering that he expressly wished all men to be as he was. I do not say that there is any thing eccentric or reprehensible in grudging oneself those comforts which our Saviour refused; but, as things are, it is best to confine ourselves to the wish and the endeavour, and to spare ourselves the solemn promise. I say this, because I think there is something which persons may do, which will practically come to the same thing, yet without the risk of their acting on their own judgment, unaccompanied by the formal blessing of the Church on their act. I mean, they may make it a point ever to pray God for that gift, or that state which they covet. If they desire to be humble, and of little account in this world, let them not at once make any engagement or profession to that effect, but let them daily pray God that they may never be rich, never be in high place, never in power or authority; let them daily pray God that their dwelling may be ever lowly, their food ordinary, their apparel common, their home solitary; let them pray Him that they may be least and lowest in the world's society; that others may have precedence of them, others speak while they are silent, others take the first seats, and they the last, others receive deference, and they neglect; others have handsome houses, rich furniture, pleasant gardens, gay equipages, great establishments. Will not such a prayer be a sort of recurrent vow, yet without any of that dangerous boldness which a private self-devised resolution implies? Who can go on day by day thus praying, yet not imbibe somewhat of the spirit for which he prays? As the creed is in one sense a prayer, so surely such a prayer may in some sense be considered a profession.
Yet even such a prayer let not a man begin at once; let him count the cost before offering it, for this reason, because, assuredly, it is a sort of prayer which Almighty God is very likely to grant. There are prayers which we have no confidence will be answered; but there are others which, as the experience of all ages assures us, are dangerous ones, because they are so effectual. Often the word has passed the tongue, and is written in heaven, and in spite of our own change of wish it is accomplished. Among such prayers are prayers for affliction, and for trial; and again, those which I have been describing, for the manner of life of the Apostles and first Christians, or (what may be called by way of distinction) the scriptural life. Let no one then rashly pray for that scriptural life; lest, before he wish it, he gain his prayer. Yet still, if after much thought he considers he really and deeply covets it, let him pray for it, and pray for grace to endure it; but this will be enough, he need not take any vow.