John Hampden Gurney: The best guide to what our social duties are

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I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all His holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people. Philemon 4-7

“The wise man has said, indeed, that there is a time to speak, and a time to keep silence; and, assuredly, it will be better for us to stand aloof from doubtful company, than to turn preachers and reprovers, bidden or unbidden, wherever we go. But still let us remember that Christian love, in its highest exercise, will be the best guide as to what our social duties are, and the best prompter of that word in season which the wise man again has pronounced so emphatically good.

Let us love not in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth, wisely, generously, with high aims, and from worthy motives, like the best and ripest Christians,—or, better still, let our love be modeled after the pattern of Christ’s own love who never rested from His great work, who taught and healed men as He went along the world’s highway, but laboured in travail night and day that He might save them.

And then our difficult task will grow easier; we shall not speak rashly for fear of being silent sinfully; and as our own graces grow, and our own character for sincerity is established, we shall find that men will bear from us, if we speak in charity and in faith, what we fancied in early days would bring down a storm of indignation on our heads.”

John Hampden Gurney (1802-1862) in his sermon “Words and Deeds” in Christian Almsdeeds and Faithful Stewardship (London: Rivingtons, 1862) 8.

In our walk through Paul’s letters, we come to Philemon. In this short letter, Paul remembers what refreshed and uplifted people, namely, the Christian love of Philemon. It encouraged and blessed everyone he touched.

The challenge Gurney faced in the mid-1800’s, as English society was booming, appears similar to the challenges of those whose cultures flourish today. Someone needs to stand up and exhort people to consider their social duties. But this can be unpopular. It makes people uncomfortable.

The best guide for us is love in action and the model to follow is not our fellow man or woman but Jesus Christ. If we go along the world’s highway as He did it will be hard, for sure, but the journey will become easier over time.

And at some point, because of God’s grace at work, people will shift from shunning us to embracing us. All the while we must move about with charity and faith and do everything in love.

That said, the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer during this Covid season. What is the social duty of those who abound? Don’t give handouts that create dependencies but a hand up and build up disciples. And do this with grace and love.

Do this, and I am confident, like Philemon, your love will refresh and uplift all those you serve for God’s glory.