Below are quotes from Part Four: Special Rules for Young Men, from Thoughts For Young Men by J.C. Ryle (1816-1900).
Links to highlights for the other chapters are here.
(1) For one thing, resolve at once, by God’s help, to break off every known sin, however small.
Look within, each one of you. Examine your own hearts. Do you see there any habit or custom which you know to be wrong in the sight of God? If you do, delay not a moment in attacking it. Resolve at once to lay it aside.
Nothing darkens the eyes of the mind so much, and deadens the conscience so surely, as an allowed sin. It may be a little one, but it is not the less dangerous for all that. A small leak will sink a great ship, and a small spark will kindle a great fire, and a little allowed sin in like manner will ruin an immortal soul. Take my advice and never spare a little sin. Israel was commanded to slay every Canaanite, both great and small. Act on the same principle, and show no mercy to little sins. Well says the Song of Solomon, ‘Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines’ (Song of Sol. 2:15).
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Young men, resist sin in its beginnings. They may look small and insignificant, but mind what I say, resist them, – make no compromise, let no sin lodge quietly and undisturbed in your heart.
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He began habits of falsehood and dishonesty in little things, and they grew upon him. Step by step, he has gone on from bad to worse, till he has done things that at one time he would have thought impossible; till at last he has lost his place, lost his character, lost his comfort, and well-nigh lost his soul. He allowed a gap in the wall of his conscience, because it seemed a little one, – and once allowed, that gap grew larger every day, till at length the whole wall seemed to come down.
Remember this especially in matters of truth and honesty. Make conscience of pins and syllables. ‘He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in much’ (Luke 16:10). Whatever the world may please to say, there are no little sins. All great buildings are made up of little parts; – the first stone is as important as any other. All habits are formed by a succession of little acts, and the first little act is of mighty consequence. The ax in the fable only begged the trees to let him have one little piece of wood to make a handle, and he would never trouble them any more. He got it, and then he soon cut them all down. The devil only wants to get the wedge of a little allowed sin into your heart, and you will soon be all his own. It is a wise saying of old William Bridge, ‘There is nothing small betwixt us and God, for God is an infinite God.’
There are two ways of coming down from the top of a church steeple; one is to jump down, – and the other is to come down by the steps: but both will lead you to the bottom. So also there are two ways of going down to hell; one is to walk into it with your eyes open, – few people do that; the other is to go down by the steps of little sins, – and that way, I fear, is only too common. Put up with a few little sins, and you will soon want a few more. Even a heathen could say, ‘Who ever was content with only one sin?’ . . . Well did Jeremy Taylor describe the progress of sin in a man: ‘First it startles him, then it becomes pleasing, then easy, then delightful, then frequent, then habitual, then confirmed! – then the man is impenitent, then obstinate, then resolves never to repent, and then he is damned.’
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(2) For another thing, resolve, by God’s help, to shun everything which may prove an occasion for sin.
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There is an old fable, that the butterfly once asked the owl how she should deal with the fire, which had singed her wings; and the owl counselled her, in reply, not to behold so much as its smoke.
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This, too, is one great reason why worldly amusements are so objectionable. It may be difficult, in some instances, to show that they are, in themselves, positively unscriptural and wrong. But there is little difficulty in showing that the tendency of almost all of them is most injurious to the soul. They sow the seeds of an earthly and sensual frame of mind. They war against the life of faith. They promote an unhealthy and unnatural craving after excitement. They minister to the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eye, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). They dim the view of heaven and eternity, and give a false colour to the things of time. They indispose the heart for private prayer, Scripture-reading, and calm communion with God. The man who mingles in them is like one who gives Satan vantage-ground. He has a battle to fight, and he gives his enemy the help of sun, wind, and hill. It would be strange indeed if he did not find himself continually overcome.
Young men, endeavour, as much as in you lies, to keep clear of everything which may prove injurious to your soul. Never hold a candle to the devil. People may say you are over scrupulous, too particular, where is the mighty harm of such and such things? But heed them not. It is dangerous to play tricks with edged tools: it is far more dangerous to take liberties with your immortal soul. He that would be safe must not come near the brink of danger. He must look on his heart as a magazine of gunpowder, and be cautious not to handle one spark of temptation more than he can help.
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(3) For another thing, resolve never to forget the eye of God.
. . . they are eyes that read hearts as well as actions.
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You many deceive your parents or employers, you may tell them falsehoods and be one thing before their faces, and another behind their backs, but you cannot deceive God. He knows you through and through. He heard what you said as you came here today. He knows what you are thinking of at this minute.
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How little is this really felt! How many things are done continually, which men would never do if they thought they were seen! How many matters are transacted in the chambers of imagination, which would never bear the light of day! Yes; men entertain thoughts in private, and say words in private, and do acts in private, which they would be ashamed and blush to have exposed before the world. The sound of a footstep coming has stopped many a deed of wickedness. A knock at the door has caused many an evil work to be hastily suspended and hurriedly laid aside. But oh, what miserable drivelling folly is all this! There is an all-seeing Witness with us wherever we go. Lock the door, draw down the blind, shut the shutters, put out the candle; it matters not, it makes no difference; God is everywhere, you cannot shut him out, or prevent his seeing. ‘All things are naked and open unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do’ (Heb. 4:13). Well did young Joseph understand this when his mistress tempted him. There was no one in the house to see them, – no human eye to witness against him; – but Joseph was one who lived as seeing him that is invisible: ‘How can I do this great wickedness’, said he, ‘and sin against God?’ (Gen. 39:9).
Young men, I ask you all to read Psalm 139. I advise you all to learn it by heart. Make it the test of all your dealings in this world’s business: say to yourself often, ‘Do I remember that God sees me?’
Live as in the sight of God. This is what Abraham did, – he walked before him. This is what Enoch did, – he walked with him. This is what heaven itself will be, – the eternal presence of God. Do nothing you would not like God to see. Say nothing you would not like God to hear. Write nothing you would not like God to read. Go to no place where you would not like God to find you. Read no book of which you would not like God to say, ‘Show it me.’ Never spend your time in such a way that you would not like to have God say, ‘What art thou doing?’
(4) For another thing, be diligent in the use of all public means of grace.
Be regular in going to the house of God, whenever it is open for prayer and preaching, and it is in your power to attend.
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By God’s blessing, the ministry of the gospel might be the means of converting your soul, – of leading you to a saving knowledge of Christ, of making you a child of God in deed and in truth. This would be cause for eternal thankfulness indeed. This would be an event over which angels would rejoice. But even if this were not the case, there is a restraining power and influence in the ministry of the gospel, under which I earnestly desire every young man to be brought.
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It acts as a wholesome check upon a man’s heart.
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Sunday travelling by railways and steamboats, Sunday visiting, Sunday excursions, are becoming every year more common than they were, and are doing infinite harm to souls.
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Begin with not honouring God’s day, and you will soon not honour God’s house; – cease to honour God’s house, and you will soon cease to honour God’s book; cease to honour God’s book, and by and by you will give God no honour at all.
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Young men, you may be thrown among companions who forget the honour of the Lord’s day; but resolve, by God’s help, that you will always remember to keep it holy.
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And one thing is certain, – your feelings about the Sabbath will always be a test and criterion of your fitness for heaven. Sabbaths are a foretaste and fragment of heaven. The man who finds them a burden and not a privilege, may be sure that his heart stands in need of a mighty change.
(5) For another thing, resolve that wherever you are, you will pray.
Prayer is the life-breath of a man’s soul. Without it, we may have a name to live, and be counted Christians; but we are dead in the sight of God. The feeling that we must cry to God for mercy and peace is a mark of grace; and the habit of spreading before him our soul’s wants is an evidence that we have the spirit of adoption. And prayer is the appointed way to obtain the relief of our spiritual necessities. – I opens the treasury, and sets the fountain flowing. If we have not, it is because we ask not.
Prayer is the way to procure the outpouring of the Spirit upon our hearts. Jesus has promised the Holy Ghost, the Comforter. He is ready to come down with all his precious gifts, renewing, sanctifying, purifying, strengthening, cheering, encouraging, enlightening, teaching, directing, guiding into all truth. But then he waits to be entreated.
And here it is, I say it with sorrow, here it is that men fall short so miserably. Few indeed are to be found who pray: many who go down on their knees, and say a form perhaps, but few who pray; few who cry unto God, few who call upon the Lord, few who seek as if they wanted to find, few who knock as if they hungered and thirsted, few who wrestle, few who strive with God earnestly for an answer, few who give him no rest, few who continue in prayer, few who watch unto prayer, few who pray always without ceasing and faint not. Yes: few pray! It is just one of the things assumed as a a matter of course, but seldom practised; a thing which is everybody’s business, but in fact hardly anybody performs.
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I have heard it said that the needle-grinders of Sheffield sometimes wear a magnetic mouthpiece at their work, which catches all the fine dust that flies around them, prevents it entering their lungs, and so saves their lives. Prayer is the mouthpiece that you must wear continually, or else you will never work on uninjured by the unhealthy atmosphere of this sinful world. – You must pray.
Young men, be assured of this: no time is so well spent as that which a man spends upon his knees.
Click here for highlights from Thoughts for Young Men: Conclusion.