480) Samuel Johnson on ‘The Need to be Reminded’

18th century linguist Samuel Johnson often said that in the area of morality we do not so much need ‘instruction’ as we need ‘reminding.’  Most of the time, he would say, the problem is not that we don’t know what is the right thing to do, but, for whatever reason, we often do what we know to be wrong.  The best remedy, Johnson says, is to find ways to constantly remind ourselves of God’s presence in our lives, and of his commandments.  Weekly worship and daily devotions are good ways to keep us mindful of God; and, remembering God, says Johnson, is the most effective incentive and encouragement for the doing of what is right.  Or as Moses said, we must be careful and watch closely so that we do not forget what God has done for us and let his Word slip from our heart.

What follows is from the writings of Samuel Johnson.  Johnson was not a pastor, but occasionally wrote sermons for his pastor.  A couple sections from two of these sermons are here edited and paraphrased.


From #19, Sermons:

     Most of the wrongs we do in our lives arise not from ignorance, but from negligence.  We know what we should do,– we just don’t do it.  And sometimes, the obligations that are best known, are most readily forgotten.  However strong or durable our knowledge of right and wrong, our resolve to do the right is weakened by time or by distractions.  It is necessary then, that our minds be enlightened by frequent repetition of basic moral instructions, which if not recollected, quickly lose their effect…

      If we truly observe our own hearts and conduct, we see how difficult it is to preserve the precepts of religion in their full force and how easily we forsake the ways of virtue.  Many temptations surround us and many obstacles oppose us.  We are lulled by laziness, we are seduced by pleasure, we are led astray by bad examples, and we are betrayed by our own hearts.  Very quickly do we relax our attentions to the doctrines of pure Christian living, and we grow cold and indifferent to religion.  When we are then called on to do the right thing in the moment of decision, we find our minds entangled by a thousand objections and we are quick to make every excuse.  And because we readily satisfy ourselves with our excuses, we are willing to imagine that we shall also satisfy God.  But the God of infinite holiness and justice sees into our hearts and minds and penetrates our hypocrisy.


From #9, Sermons:

     All sin that is committed by Christians is committed either through an absolute forgetfulness of God, or, because the ideas of God and religion that were in our minds were not strong enough to overcome and suppress the desire created by some other, more pleasing, or more terrifying choice.  That is to say, the love or fear of some temporary good or evil, were more powerful that the love or fear of God.

     The ideas that influence our conduct can be more strongly impressed on the mind only by frequent recollection.  For every idea, whether of love, fear, grief, or any other passion, loses its force by time; and, unless revived by regular meditation, will at last vanish.  But by dwelling upon ideas, we increase their force, gradually making those ideas predominant in the soul.  These moral values and virtues can then become more powerful than our passions, so that morality shall easily overrule those appetites which formerly ruled within us.

     Therefore, when a person neglects worship and God’s Word, he may begin to lose all ability to distinguish good and evil, and having no fear of God to oppose his inclination to wickedness, he may go forward from sin to sin with no remorse.  But if one struggles against temptation and does not give in to idleness and despair, he may find himself able, at least at times, to resist the wrong and do what is right.  And that resistance is greatly aided by a diligent attendance upon the service and the sacraments of the church, together with a regular practice of private devotion.  This strengthens faith, imprints upon the mind an habitual attention to the laws of God, and gives one a constant sense of God’s presence– all of which will help one in the avoidance of the snares of sin.  The one who thus regularly reminds himself of God and his commands, will find that the fear of God will grow superior to the desires of wealth or the love of sinful pleasure.  And by continuing to receive the blessings and wisdom of worship and God’s Word, the attributes of goodness and faith will be preserved and not weakened, and he will be able to persevere in a steady practice of virtue and will enjoy the unspeakable pleasures of a quiet conscience.


Romans 7:15  —   I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.

Deuteronomy 4:9  —  (Moses said), “Be careful and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live.

Exodus 20:8  —  Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.


Almighty God, give us a measure of true religion and thereby set us free from vain and disappointing hopes, from lawless and excessive appetites, from frothy and empty joys, from anxious, self-devouring cares, from a dull and black melancholy, from an eating envy and swelling pride, and from rigid sourness and severity of spirit; so that we may possess that peace which passeth all understanding, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

 –Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683), English philosopher