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Reviews: Happiness and Thoughts for Young Men

Posted by Edward Bowes-Smith and Michael Hayden, 26 Jun 2020

Reviews of two books by J.C. Ryle, recently revised by Mary Davis.

What a powerful little book this is! This new edition of one of J. C. Ryle’s tracts is as refreshing as a citron pressé on a hot summer’s day. In three three short chapters Ryle gets right to the heart of what constitutes true happiness.

The first chapter focuses on the essential ingredients of true happiness. Ryle explains with succinct clarity that to be truly happy a person must have a source of happiness that lies outside of the material world—everything of this world is temporary and uncertain. Joy based on worldly distractions might be deeply felt but is short-lived.

The second chapter concerns itself with some of the common mistakes people make about the way to achieve happiness and it is striking how contemporary Ryle’s thoughts are at this point. Status, wealth, intelligence, leisure, and pleasure seeking are all examined and examples taken from Ryle’s day help to illustrate his point that human beings persist in seeking happiness where happiness cannot ultimately be found. Over each of these fountains God has written, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again.”

In his final chapter Ryle explains the way to be really happy is to join him in being a real, thorough-going, true hearted Christian. The Christian is in a uniquely happy position compared to the unbeliever. They have a clear conscience before God and a deep inner peace. The true Christian is happy because their heart is in the right place, not set on this world, but the next. Ryle ends with a plea to those who are not yet believers to come to Christ and to those who are Christians not to rest on old grace but to press on deeper into Christ and to find an even greater happiness in His service.

Who would benefit from receiving a copy of Ryle’s tract today? Every parent today just seems to want their children to be happy. Ryle helps us to think through what that really means. The title alone draws us in: who isn’t interested in their own happiness. The complacent unbeliever will be challenged to think more a little more deeply. The Christian who is struggling will life will find that Ryle has not forgotten them and that there is a happiness that they too can enjoy. The preacher will also find some nuggets to use at when addressing unchurched folk at weddings and funerals. Its age does show at points (Ryle takes one gratuitous swipe at Roman Catholicism) but, all in all, it deserves to be used widely.
Edward Bowes-Smith

Thoughts for Young Men: An Exhortation Directed to Those in the Prime of Life is a modernisation and republication of the classic work by J. C. Ryle, part of a larger project by the publisher to bring Bishop Ryle’s work to a modern audience. The work itself is classic Ryle: insightful, pastoral, and just as relevant as ever. He sets out to exhort young people, young men in particular, to take seriously the spiritual dimensions of their lives whilst they are still in a position to do so.

The structure of the book is simple, and effectively deployed. The opening chapter lays out the author’s “Reasons for encouraging young men,” followed by “Dangers to young men,” “General advice to young men,” and, finally, “Special rules for young men.” Ryle is clear in the opening chapter that the reason he writes to young men especially here is that the young men of his day were facing a spiritual crisis: very few young men were to be observed in church on a Sunday, and even fewer throughout the week. They were preferring to spend their time in a pub, gambling house, or getting themselves into the sort of trouble that meant the country’s prison population was overwhelmingly male. It is on this point that the work is so relevant for our society today. Indeed, the book could well have been written last week, rather than in 1865.

The modernisation of the book is well-executed, and undoubtedly strengthens the contemporary feel of the book. The book is short and easy to read, meaning that it would be ideal to give to someone not used to reading, particularly someone not inclined to read long Christian tomes. This work would be useful and edifying not just for young men to read, but also those who have pastoral care of young men. Indeed, whilst the work is overtly aimed towards young men and the spiritual problems found in that group, the principles put forth are applicable to all people, men and women, young and old.
Michael Hayden

Edward Bowes-Smith is vicar of the 900 year old St.Peter in Eastgate Church Lincoln and the 3 year old parish of St.Peter in Carlton which currently meets in a pub. Michael Hayden is shortly to begin his curacy at St Andrew's Church, Norwich.

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