In this chapter of his book, The Country Parson, George Herbert begins to talk about our liberty in Christ. He does not expand on the subject of Christian freedom per se, however, but on one particular aspect of it: the distinction between necessary and “additionary” duties.
It is necessary, he says, for Christians to pray twice a day for example. And four times on Sunday. But it is not necessary for them to pray at other set hours, or every time they enter a church. They may well do those things regularly, and that is all well and good. But they must not worry if other things happen which prevent them from doing what they usually do. God won’t be angry with them because of that, since “God knows the occasion as well as he.”
Whether we agree with Herbert that it is strictly necessary to pray twice on Monday-Saturday and four times on Sundays, the distinction is worth pondering, along with the freedom of conscience it might bring when we may sometimes have to set aside our regular practices (such as saying “grace” when out at a non-Christian’s house, for example).
The Parson in Liberty
The country parson observing the manifold wiles of Satan (who plays his part sometimes in drawing God’s servants from him, sometimes in perplexing them in the service of God) stands fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free.
This liberty he compasses by one distinction, and that is of what is necessary, and what is additionary. As for example: it is necessary, that all Christians should pray twice a day, every day of the week, and four times on Sunday, if they be well. This is so necessary, and essential to a Christian, that he cannot without this maintain himself in a Christian state. Besides this, the godly have ever added some hours of prayer, as at nine, or at three, or at midnight, or as they think fit and see cause, or rather as God’s spirit leads them. But these prayers are not necessary, but additionary.
Now it so happens that the godly petitioner upon some emergent interruption in the day, or by over-sleeping himself at night, omits his additionary prayer. Upon this his mind begins to be perplexed and troubled, and Satan, who knows the exigent, blows the fire, endeavouring to disorder the Christian, and put him out of his station, and to enlarge the perplexity, until it spread and taint his other duties or piety, which none can perform so well in trouble, as in calmness.
Here the parson interposes with his distinction, and shows the perplexed Christian that this prayer being additionary, not necessary — taken in, not commanded — the omission thereof upon just occasion ought by no means to trouble him. God knows the occasion as well as he, and he is as a gracious Father, who more accepts a common course of devotion, then dislikes an occasional interruption. And of this he is so to assure himself, as to admit no scruple, but to go on as cheerfully, as if he had not been interrupted.
By this it is evident that the distinction is of singular use and comfort, especially to pious minds, which are ever tender, and delicate. But here there are two cautions to be added.
First, that this interruption proceed not out of slackness or coldness, which will appear if the pious soul foresee and prevent such interruptions, what he may, before they come, and when for all that they do come, he be a little affected therewith, but not afflicted, or troubled. If he resent it to a mislike, but not a grief.
Secondly, that this interruption proceed not out of shame. As for example: A godly man, not out of superstition, but of reverence to God’s house, resolves whenever he enters into a Church to kneel down and pray, either blessing God, that he will be pleased to dwell among men, or beseeching him, that whenever he repairs to his house, he may behave himself so as befits so great a presence; and this briefly. But it happens, that near the place where he is to pray, he spies some scoffing ruffian, who is likely to deride him for his pains. If he now shall either for fear or shame, break his custom, he shall do passing ill: so much the rather ought he to proceed, as that by this he may take into his prayer humiliation also.
On the other side, if I am to visit the sick in haste, and my nearest way lies through the Church, I will not doubt to go without staying to pray there (but only, as I pass, in my heart) because this kind of prayer is additionary, not necessary, and the other duty overweighs it. So that if any scruple arise, I will throw it away, and be most confident, that God is not displeased. This distinction may run through all Christian duties, and it is a great stay and settling to religious souls.