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Making the Most of Life Part 1
- Making the Most of Life
- Laid on God's Altar
- Christ's Interest in Our Common Life
- The Possibilities of Prayer
- Getting Christ's Touch
- The Blessing of a Burden
- Heart-peace Before Ministry
- Moral Curvatures
- Transfigured Lives
- The Interpretation of Sorrow
- Other People
- The Blessing of Faithfulness
Continue Part 2
A Word of Introduction.
To have the gift of life is a solemn thing. Life is God's most sacred trust. It is not ours to do with as we please; it must be accounted for every particle, every power, every possibility of it.
These chapters are written with the purpose and hope of stimulating those who may read them to earnest and worthy living. If they seem urgent, if they present continually motives of thoughtfulness, if they dwell almost exclusively on the side of obligation and responsibility, if they make duty ever prominent and call to self-renunciation and self-sacrifice, leaving small space for play it is because life itself is really most serious, and because we must meet it seriously, recognizing its sacred meaning and girding ourselves for it with all earnestness and energy.
If this book shall teach any how to make the most of the life God has entrusted to them, that will be reward enough for the work of its preparation. To this service it is affectionately dedicated, in the name of Him who made the most of his blessed life by losing it in love's sacrifice, and who calls us also to die to self that we may live unto God.
J. R. Miller
Chapter 1. Making the Most of Life.
"Then Jesus said to his disciples If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?" Matthew 16:24-26
According to our Lord's teaching, we can make the most of our life by losing it. He says that losing the life for his sake is saving it. There is a lower self that must be trampled down and trampled to death by the higher self. The alabaster vase must be broken, that the ointment may flow out to fill the house. The grapes must be crushed that there may be wine to drink. The wheat must be bruised before it can become bread to feed hunger.
It is so in life. Whole, unbruised, unbroken men are of but little use. True living is really a succession of battles, in which the better triumphs over the worse, the spirit over the flesh. Until we cease to live for self we have not begun to live at all.
We can never become truly useful and helpful to others, until we have learned this lesson. One may live for self and yet do many pleasant things for others; but one's life can never become the great blessing to the world it was meant to be until the law of self-sacrifice has become its heart principle.
A great oak stands in the forest. It is beautiful in its majesty; it is ornamental; it casts a pleasant shade. Under its branches the children play; among its boughs the birds sing. One day the woodman comes with his axe, and the tree quivers in all its branches, under his sturdy blows. "I am being destroyed!" it cries. So it seems, as the great tree crashes down to the ground. And the children are sad because they can play no more beneath the broad branches; the birds grieve because they can no more nest and sing amid the summer foliage.
But let us follow the tree's history. It is cut into boards, and built into a beautiful cottage, where human hearts find their happy nest. Or it is used in making a great organ which leads the worship of a congregation. The losing of its life was the saving of it. It died that it might become deeply, truly useful.
The plates, cups, dishes, and vases which we use in our homes and on our tables, once lay as common clay in the earth, quiet and restful but in no way doing good, serving man. Then came men with picks, and the clay was harshly torn out and plunged into a mortar and beaten, and ground in a mill, then pressed, and then put into a furnace, and burned and burned, at last coming forth in beauty, and beginning its history of usefulness. It was apparently destroyed that it might begin to be of service.
A great church-building is going up, and the stones that are being laid on the walls are brought out of the dark quarry for this purpose. We can imagine them complaining, groaning, and repining, as the quarry men's drills and hammers struck them. They supposed they were being destroyed as they were torn out from the bed of rock where they had lain undisturbed for ages, and were cut into blocks, and lifted out, and then as they were chiseled and dressed into form. But they were being destroyed only that they might become useful. They become part of a new sanctuary, in which God is to be worshiped, where the Gospel will be preached, where penitent sinners will find the Christ-Savior, where sorrowing ones will be comforted. Surely it was better that these stones should be torn out, even amid agony, and built into the wall of the church, than that they should have lain ages more, undisturbed in the dark quarry. They were saved from uselessness, by being destroyed.
These are simple illustrations of the law which applies also in human life. We must die to be useful to be truly a blessing. Our Lord put this truth in a little parable, when he said that the seed must fall into the earth and die that it may bear fruit. Christ's own cross is the highest illustration of this. His friends said he wasted his precious life; but was that life wasted when Jesus was crucified?
People said that Harriet Newell's beautiful life was wasted when she gave it to missions, and then died and was buried far from home bride, missionary, mother, saint, all in one short year without even telling to one heathen woman or child the story of the Savior. But was that lovely young life indeed wasted? No; all this century her name has been one of the strongest inspirations to missionary work, and her influence has brooded everywhere, touching thousands of hearts of gentle women and strong men, as the story of her consecration has been told. Had Harriet Newell lived a thousand years of quiet, sweet life at home, she could not have done the work that she did in one short year by giving her life, as it seemed, an unavailing sacrifice. She lost her life that she might save it. She died that she might live. She offered herself a living sacrifice that she might become useful.
In heart and spirit we must all do the same if we would ever be a real blessing in the world. We must be willing to lose our life to sacrifice ourself, to give up our own way, our own ease, our own comfort, possibly even our own life; for there come times when one's life must literally be lost in order to be saved.
There is more grandeur in five minutes of self-renunciation, than in a whole lifetime of self-interest and self-seeking. There is something Christly in it. How poor, paltry, and mean, alongside the records of such deeds, appear men's selfish strivings, self-interests' boldest venturing!
We must get the same spirit in us if we would become in any large and true sense a blessing to the world. We must die to live. We must lose our life to save it. We must lay self on the altar to be consumed in the fire of love, in order to glorify God and do good to men. Our work may be fair, even though mingled with self; but it is only when self is sacrificed, burned on the altar of consecration, consumed in the hot flames of love, that our work becomes really our best, a fit offering to be made to our King.
We must not fear that in such sacrifice, such renunciation and annihilation of self, we shall lose ourselves. God will remember every deed of love, every forgetting of self, every emptying out of life. Though we work in obscurest places, where no human tongue shall ever voice our praise, still there is a record kept, and some day rich and glorious reward will be given. Is not God's praise better than man's?
Mary's ointment was wasted when she broke the vase and poured it upon her Lord. Yes; but suppose she had left the ointment in the unbroken vase? What remembrance would it then have had? Would there have been any mention of it on the Gospel pages? Would her deed of careful keeping have been told over all the world? She broke the vase and poured it out, lost it, sacrificed it, and now the perfume fills all the earth. We may keep our life if we will, carefully preserving it from waste; but we shall have no reward, no honor from it, at the last. But if we empty it out in loving service, we shall make it a lasting blessing to the world, and we shall be remembered forever.
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Chapter 2. Laid on God's Altar.
"Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God." Romans 12:1
We have to die to live. That is the central law of life. We must burn to give light to the world, or to give forth fragrance of incense to God's praise. We cannot save ourselves and at the same time make anything worthy of our life, or be in any deep and true sense an honor to God and a blessing to the world. The altar stands in the foreground of every life, and can be passed by only at the cost of all that is noblest and best.
All the practical side of true religion, is summed up in the exhortation of Paul, that we present our bodies a living sacrifice to God. Anciently, a man brought a lamb and presented it to God, laid it on the altar, to be consumed by God's fire. In like manner, we are to present our bodies. The first thing is not to be a worker, a preacher, a saver of souls; the very first thing in a Christian life is to present one's self to God, to lay one's self on the altar. We need to understand this. It is easier to talk and work for Christ than to give ourselves to him. It is easier to offer God a few activities than to give him our heart. But the heart must be first, else even the largest gifts and services are not acceptable.
"A living sacrifice." A sacrifice is something really given to God, to be his altogether and forever. We cannot take it back any more. One could not lay a lamb on God's altar and then a minute or two afterward run up and take it off. We cannot be God's today and our own tomorrow. If we become his at all, in a sacrifice which he accepts, we are his always.
How can we present ourselves as a sacrifice to God? By the complete surrender of our heart and will and all our powers to him. Absolute obedience is consecration. The soldier learns it. He is not his own. He does not think for himself, to, make his own plans; he has but one duty to obey. Payson used to talk of his "lost will" lost in God's will, he meant. That is what presenting one's self a sacrifice means.
It is a "living" sacrifice. Anciently, the sacrifices were killed; they were laid dead on the altar. We are to present ourselves living. The fire consumed the ancient offering; the fire of God's love and of his Spirit consumes our lives by purifying them and filling them with divine life. Those on whom the fire fell on the day of Pentecost, became new men. There was a new life in their souls, a new ardor, a new enthusiasm. They were on fire with love for Christ. They entered upon a service in which all their energies flamed.
The living sacrifice includes all the life not what it is now only but all that it may become. Life is not a diamond but a seed, with possibilities of endless growth. Lyman Abbott has used this illustration: "I pluck an acorn from the greensward, and hold it to my ear; and this is what it says to me: 'By and by the birds will come and nest in me. By and by I will furnish shade for the cattle. By and by I will provide warmth for the home in the pleasant fire. By and by I will be shelter from the storm to those who have gone under the roof. By and by I will be the strong ribs of the great vessel, and the tempest will beat against me in vain, while I carry men across the Atlantic.' 'O foolish little acorn, will you be all this?' I ask. And the acorn answers, 'Yes; God and I.'"
I look into the faces of a company of children, and I hear a whisper, saying: "By and by I will be a great blessing to many. By and by other lives will come and find nest and home in me. By and by the weary will sit in the shadow of my strength. By and by I will sit as comforter in a home of sorrow. By and by I will speak the words of Christ's salvation in ears of lost ones. By and by I will shine in the full radiancy of the beauty of Christ, and be among the glorified with my Redeemer." "You, frail, powerless, little one?" I ask; and the answer is, "Yes; Christ and I." And all these blessed possibilities that are in the life of the young person, must go upon the altar in the living sacrifice.
Take another view of it. Some people seem to suppose that only spiritual exercises are included in this living sacrifice; that it does not cover their business, their social life, their amusements. But it really embraces the whole of life. We belong to God as truly on Monday as on the Lord's Day. We must keep ourselves laid on God's altar as really while we are at our week-day work as when we are in a prayer-meeting. We are always on duty as Christians, whether we are engaged in our secular pursuits or in exercises of devotion. All our work should therefore be done reverently, "as unto the Lord."
We should do everything also for God's eye and according to the principles of righteousness. The consecrated mechanic must put absolute truth into every piece of work he does. The consecrated business man must conduct his business on the principles of divine righteousness. The consecrated millionaire must lay his money on God's altar, so that every dollar of it shall do business for God, blessing the world. The consecrated housekeeper must keep her home so sweet and so tidy and beautiful all the days, that she would never be ashamed for her Master to come in without warning to be her guest. That is, when we present ourselves to God as a living sacrifice, we are to be God's in every part and in every phase of our life wherever we go, whatever we do.
"I cannot be of any use," says one. "I cannot talk in meetings. I cannot pray in public. I have no gift for visiting the sick. There is nothing I can do for Christ."
Well, if Christian service were all talking and praying in meetings, and visiting the sick it would be discouraging to such talentless people. But are our tongues the only faculties we can use for Christ? There are ways in which even silent people can belong to God and be a blessing in the world. A star does not talk but its calm, steady beam shines down continually out of the sky, and is a benediction to many. A flower cannot sing bird-songs but its sweet beauty and gentle fragrance make it a blessing wherever it is seen. Be like a star in your peaceful shining, and many will thank God for your life. Be like the flower in your pure beauty and in the influence of your unselfish spirit, and you may do more to bless the world than many who talk incessantly. The living sacrifice does not always mean active work. It may mean the patient endurance of a wrong, the quiet bearing of a pain; or cheerful acquiescence in a disappointment.
There are some people who think it impossible in their narrow sphere and in their uncongenial circumstances, to live so as to win God's favor or be blessings in the world. But there is no doubt that many of the most beautiful lives of earth, in God's sight, are those that are lived in what seem the most unfavorable conditions.
A visitor to Amsterdam wished to hear the wonderful music of the chimes of St. Nicholas, and went up into the tower of the church to hear it. There he found a man with wooden gloves on his hands, pounding on a keyboard. All he could hear was the clanging of the keys when struck by the wooden hammer, and the harsh, deafening noise of the bells close over his head. He wondered why people talked of the marvelous chimes of St. Nicholas. To his ear there was no music in them, nothing but terrible clatter and clanging. Yet, all the while, there floated out over and beyond the city the most entrancing music. Men in the fields paused in their work to listen and were made glad. People in their homes and travelers on the highways were thrilled by the marvelous bell-notes that fell from the chimes.
There are many lives, which to those who dwell close beside them, seem to make no music. They pour out their strength in hard toil. They are shut up in narrow spheres. They dwell amid the noise and clatter of common task-work. They appear to be only striking wooden hammers on rattling, noisy keys. There can be nothing pleasing to God in their life, men would say. They think themselves that they are not of any use, that no blessing goes out from their life. They never dream that sweet music is made anywhere in the world by their noisy hammering. As the bell-chimer in his little tower hears no music from his own ringing of the bells, so they think of their hard toil as producing nothing but clatter and clangor; but out over the world where the influence goes from their work and character, human lives are blessed, and weary ones hear with gladness sweet, comforting music. Then away off in heaven, where angels listen for earth's melody, most entrancing strains are heard!
No doubt it will be seen at the last that many of earth's most acceptable living sacrifices have been laid on the altar in the narrowest spheres and in the midst of the hardest conditions. What to the ears of close listeners is only the noise of painful toil is heard in heaven as music as sweet as angels' song.
The living sacrifice is "acceptable unto God." It ought to be a wondrous inspiration to know this; that even the lowliest things we do for Christ are pleasing to him. We ought to be able to do better, truer work, when we think of his gracious acceptance of it. It is told of Leonardo da Vinci, that while still a pupil, before his genius burst into brilliancy, he received a special inspiration in this way: His old and famous master, because of his growing infirmities of age, felt obliged to give up his own work, and one day bade Da Vinci finish for him a picture which he had begun. The young man had such a reverence for his master's skill that he shrank from the task. The old artist, however, would not accept any excuse but persisted in his command, saying simply, "Do your best."
Da Vinci at last tremblingly seized the brush and kneeling before the easel prayed: "It is for the sake of my beloved master that I implore skill and power for this undertaking." As he proceeded, his hand grew steady, his eye awoke with slumbering genius. He forgot himself and was filled with enthusiasm for his work. When the painting was finished, the old master was carried into the studio to pass judgment on the result. His eye rested on a triumph of are. Throwing his arms about the young artist, he exclaimed, "My son, I paint no more."
There are some who shrink from undertaking the work which the Master gives them to do. They are not worthy; they have no skill or power for the delicate duty. But to all their timid shrinking and withdrawing, the Master's gentle yet urgent word is, "Do your best!" They have only to kneel in lowly reverence and pray, for the beloved Master's sake, for skill and strength for the task assigned, and they will be inspired and helped to do it well. The power of Christ will rest upon them and the love of Christ will be in their heart. And all work done under this blessed inspiration will be acceptable unto God. We have but truly to lay the living sacrifice on the altar; then God will send the fire.
We need to get this matter of "consecration" down out of cloud-land, into the region of actual, common daily living. We sing about it and pray for it and talk of it in our religious meetings, ofttimes in glowing mood, as if it were some exalted state with which earth's life of toil, struggle, and care had nothing whatever to do. But the consecration suggested by the living sacrifice, is one who walks on the earth, who meets life's actual duties, struggles, temptations, and sorrows, and who does not falter in obedience, fidelity, or submission, but that which follows Christ with love and joy wherever he leads. No other consecration pleases God.
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Chapter 3. Christ's Interest in Our Common Life.
One of our Lord's after-resurrection appearances vividly pictures his loving interest in our common toil. While waiting for him to come to Galilee, the disciples had gone back for a time to their old work of fishing. They were poor men, and this was probably necessary in order to provide for their own subsistence. Thus fishing was the duty that lay nearest to them. Yet it must have been dreary work for them, after the exalted privileges they had enjoyed so long. Think what the last three years had been to these men. Jesus had taken them into the most intimate fellowship with himself into closest confidential friendship. They had listened to his wonderful words, seen his gracious acts, and witnessed his sweet life. Think what a privilege it was to live thus with Jesus those beautiful years; what glimpses of heaven they had; what visions of radiant life shone before them.
But now this precious experience was ended. The lovely dream had vanished. They were back again at their old work. How dreary it must have been this tiresome handling of oars and boats and fishing-nets, after their years of exalted life with their Master! But it is a precious thought to us that just at this time, when they were in the midst of the dull and wearisome work, and when they were sadly discouraged, that Christ appeared to them! It showed his interest in their work, his sympathy with them in their discouragement, and his readiness to help them.
The revealings of his appearance that morning, are for all his friends and for all time. We know now that our risen Savior is interested in whatever we have to do, and is ready to help us in all our dull, common life. He will come to his people, not in the church service, the prayer-meeting, the Holy Supper only but is quite as apt to reveal himself to them in the task-work of the plainest, dullest day.
There are duties in every life, which are irksome. Young people sometimes find school work dull. There are faithful mothers who many a day grow weary of the endless duties of the household. There are good men who tire ofttimes, of the routine of office, or store, or mill, or farm. There comes to most of us, at times, the feeling that what we have to do day after day is not worthy of us. We have had glimpses, or brief experiences, of life in its higher revealings. It may have been a companionship for a season with one above us in experience or attainment, that has lifted us up for a little time into exalted thoughts and feelings, after which it is hard to come back again to the old plodding round, and to the old, uninteresting companionships. It may have been a visit to some place or to some home, with opportunities, refinements, inspirations, privileges, above those which we can have in our own narrower surroundings and plainer home and less congenial intimacies.
Or our circumstances may have been harshly changed by some providence which has broken in upon our happy life. It may have been a death which cut off the income; or a reverse in business which swept away a fortune, and luxury and ease and the material refinements and elegances of wealth have to be exchanged for toil and plain circumstances and a humbler home. There are few sorer tests of character, than such changes as these bring with them. The first thought always is: "How can I go to this dreary life, these hard tasks, this painful drudgery, this weary plodding after having enjoyed so long the comforts and refinements of my old happy state?"
In such cases immeasurable comfort may be found in this appearance of the risen Christ, that morning on the shore. The disciples took up their dull old work because it was necessary, and was their plain duty for the time; and there was Jesus waiting to greet them and bless them. Accept your hard tasks, and do them cheerfully, no matter how irksome they appear and Christ will reveal himself to you in them. Be sure that he will never come to you when you are avoiding any tasks, when you are withholding your hand from any duty, or when you are fretting and discontented over any circumstances or conditions of your lot. There are no visions of Christ for idle dreamers or for unhappy shirkers.
Suppose you have come back, like the disciples, from times of privilege and exaltation, and find yourself face to face once more with an old life which seems now unworthy of you; yet for the time your duty is clear, and if you would have a vision of Christ, you must take up the duty with gladness. Suppose that your home-life is narrow, humdrum, unpoetic, uncongenial, even cold and unkindly; yet there for the time is your place, and there are your duties. And right in this sphere, narrow though it seem, there is room for holiest visions of Christ and for the richest revealings of his grace and blessing!
It will be remembered that Jesus himself, after his glimpse of higher things in the temple, went back to the lowly peasant home at Nazareth, and there for eighteen years more found scope enough for the development of the richest nature this world ever saw, and for the fullest and completest doing of duty ever wrought beneath the skies. Whatever, then, may be our shrinking from dull tasks, our distaste for dreary duty, our discontent with a narrow place and with limiting circumstances, we should go promptly to the work that God assigns, and accept the conditions which lie in the lot which he appoints. And in our hardest toil, our most irksome tasks, our lowliest duties, our dreariest and most uncongenial surroundings, we shall have but to lift up our eyes to see the blessed form of Christ standing before us, with cheer, sympathy, and encouragement for us!
There is more of the lesson. Not only did Christ reveal himself to these disciples while at their lowly work but he helped them in it. He told them where to cast their net, and turned their failure to success. We think of Christ as helping us to endure temptation, to bear trial, to overcome sin, to do spiritual duties but we sometimes forget that he is just as ready to help us in our common work. That morning he helped the disciples in their fishing. He will help us in our trade or business, or in whatever work we have to do.
We all have our discouraged days, when things do not go well. The young people fail in their lessons at school, although they have studied hard, and really have done their best. Or the mothers fail in their household work. The children are hard to control. It has been impossible to keep good temper, to maintain that sweetness and lovingness which is so essential to a happy day. They try to be gentle, kindly, and patient but, try as they will, their minds become ruffled and fretted with cares! They come to the close of the long, unhappy hours disturbed, defeated, discouraged. They have done their best but they feel that they have only failed. They fall upon their knees but they have only tears for a prayer. Yet if they will lift up their eyes, they will see on the shore of the troubled sea of their little day's life the form of One whose presence will give them strength and confidence, and who will help them to victoriousness. Before his sweet smile, the shadows flee away. At his word, new strength is given, and, after that, work is easy, and all goes well again.
Men, too, in their busy life, are continually called to struggle, ofttimes to suffer. Life is not easy for any who would live godly. Work is hard; burdens are heavy; responsibility is great; trials are sore; duty is large. Life's competitions are fierce; its rivalries are keen; its frictions sometimes grind men's very souls well near to death. It is hard to live sweetly amid the irritations that touch continually at most tender points. It is hard to live lovingly and charitably when they see so much inequity and wrong, and sometimes must themselves endure men's uncharity and injustice. It is hard to toil and never rest, earning even then, scarcely enough to feed and clothe those who are dependent on them for care. It is hard to meet temptation's fierce assaults, and keep themselves pure, unspotted from the world, ready for heaven any hour the Lord may come.
It is no wonder that men are sometimes discouraged and lose heart. They are like those weary disciples that spring morning on the Sea of Galilee, after they had toiled all night and had taken nothing. But let us not forget the vision that awaited these disciples with the coming of the dawn the risen Jesus standing on the shore with his salutation of love and his strong help that instantly turned failure into blessing. So over against every tempted, struggling, toiling life of Christian disciple, Christ is ever standing, ready to give victory and to guide to highest good.
Life would be easier for us if we could realize the presence and actual help of Christ in all life's experiences. We need to care for only one thing that we may be faithful always to duty, and loyal to our Master. Then, the duller the round and the sorer the struggle the surer we shall ever be of Christ's smile and help. We may glory in infirmities, because then the power of God rests upon us.
It is not ordinarily in the easy ways, in the luxurious surroundings, in the paths of worldly honor, in the congenial lot that the brightest heavenly visions are seen. There have been more blessed revealings of Christ in prisons than in palaces; in homes of poverty than in homes of abundance; in ways of hardship than in ways of ease. We need only to accept our task-work, our drudgery, our toil, in Christ's name and the glory of Christ will transfigure it and shine upon our faces.
Chapter 4. The Possibilities of Prayer.
We do not begin to realize the possibilities of prayer. There is no limit, for example, to the scope of prayer. We may embrace in it all things that belong to our life not merely those which affect our spiritual interests but those as well which seem to be only temporal matters. Nothing which concerns us in any way is matter of indifference to God. One writes: "Learn to entwine with your prayers the small cares, the trifling sorrows, the little needs of daily life. Whatever affects you be it a changed look, an altered tone, an unkind word, a wrong, a wound, a demand you cannot meet, a sorrow you cannot disclose turn it into prayer and send it up to God! Disclosures you may not make to man you can make to the Lord. Men may be too little for your great matters; God is not too great for your small ones. Only give yourself to prayer, whatever be the occasion that calls for it."
We soon find, however, if we are really earnest, that our desires are too great for words. We have in our hearts feelings, hungerings, affections, longings, which we want to breathe out to God; but when we begin to speak to him, we find no language adequate for their expression. We try to tell God of our sorrow for sin, of our weakness and sinfulness; of our desire to be better, to love Christ more, to follow him more closely, and of our hunger after righteousness, after holiness; but it is very little of these deep cravings that we can get into speech.
Language is a wonderful gift. The power of putting into words the thoughts and emotions of our souls, that others may understand them, is one of the most marvelous powers the Creator has bestowed upon us. Thus we communicate our feelings and desires, from one to the other. It is a sore deprivation when the gates of speech are shut and locked, and when the soul cannot tell its thoughts.
Yet we all know, unless our thoughts and feelings are very shallow and trivial, that even the wonderful faculty of language is inadequate to express all that the soul can experience. No true orator ever finds sentences majestic enough to interpret the sentiments that burn in his soul. Deep, pure love is never able to put into words its most sacred feelings and emotions. It is only the commonplace of the inner life that can be uttered in even the finest language. There is always more that lies back, unexpressed, than is spoken in any words.
It is specially true of prayer that we cannot utter its deepest feelings and holiest desires. We have comfort, however, in the assurance that God can hear thoughts. He knows what we want to say and cannot express. Your dearest friend may stand close to you when your mind is full of thoughts but unless you speak or give some sign, he cannot know one of your thoughts. He may lay his ear close to your heart, and he will hear its throbbings; but he cannot hear your feelings, your desires. Yet God knows all that goes on in your soul. Every thought which flies through your brain, is heard in heaven.
"O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my every thought when far away. You chart the path ahead of me and tell me where to stop and rest. Every moment you know where I am. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord." Psalm 139:1-4
We need not trouble ourselves, therefore, if we cannot get our wishes into words when we pray, for God hears wishes, heart-longings, soul hungerings and thirstings. The things we cannot say in speech of the lips, we may ask God to take from our heart's speech. There is not the feeblest, faintest glimmer of a desire rising on the far-away horizon of our being but God sees it. There is not a heart-hunger, not a wish to be holier and better, not an aspiration to be more Christ-like, not a craving to live for God and be a blessing to others, not the faintest desire to be rid of sin's power but God knows of it. Paul has a wonderful word on this subject: God, he says, "is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think." When our heart is stirred to its depths, what large, great things can we ask in words? Then, how much can we put into thoughts of prayer, into longings, desires, aspirations, beyond the possibilities of speech? God can do more than we can pray, either in words or thoughts.
Our truest praying is that which we cannot express in any words, our heart's unutterable longings, when we sit at God's feet and look up into his face and do not speak at all but let our hearts talk.
Our best, truest prayers are not for earthly things but for spiritual blessings. When the objects are temporal, we do not know what we should pray for what would be really a blessing to us. You are a loving parent, and your child is very ill. It seems that it must die. You fall upon your knees before God to pray but you do not know what to ask. Your breaking heart would quickly plead, "Lord, spare my precious child"; but you do not know that that is best. Perhaps to live would not be God's sweetest gift to your child, or to you. So, not daring to choose, you can only say, "Lord God, I cannot speak more; but you know your child; you understand what is best."
Or, some plan of yours, which you have long cherished, seems about to be thwarted. You go to God, and begin to pray; but you do not know what to ask. You can only say, "Lord, I cannot tell what is best; but you know." What a comfort it is that God does indeed know, and that we may safely leave our heart's burden in his hand, without any request whatever!
We can do little more than this, in any request for temporal things. Says Farrar: "There are two things to remember about prayers for earthly things: One, that to ask mainly for earthly blessings is a dreadful dwarfing and vulgarization of the grandeur of prayer, as though you asked for a handful of grass, when you might ask for a handful of emeralds; the other that you must always ask for earthly desires with absolute submission of your own will to God's." So silence is oft-times the best and truest praying bowing before God in life's great crises; but saying nothing, leaving the burden in God's hand without any of your own choosing. We are always safe when we let God guide us in all our ways.
Many of the richest possibilities of prayer, lie beyond valleys of pain and sorrow. The best things of life cannot be gotten, but at sore cost. When we pray for more holiness, we do not know what we are asking for; at least we do not know the price we must pay to get that which we ask. Our "Nearer, my God, to Thee," must be conditioned by, and often can come only through, "Even though it be a cross that raises me."
Not only are the spiritual things the best things but many times the spiritual things can be grasped only by letting go and losing out of our hands those earthly things we would love to keep. God loves us too much to grant our prayers for comfort and relief if he can do it only at spiritual loss to us. He would rather let it be hard for us to live if there is blessing in the hardness, than make it easy for us at the cost of the blessing.
There are certain singing-birds that never learn to sing until their cages are darkened. Would it be true kindness to keep these birds always in the sunshine? There are human hearts that never learn to sing the song of faith and peace and love until they enter the darkness of trial. Would it be true love for these if God would hear their prayers for the removal of their pain? We dare not plead, therefore, but with utmost self-distrust and submission, that God would remove the cross of suffering.
Does God answer prayers? "I have been praying for one thing for years," says one, "and it has not come yet." God has many ways of answering. Sometimes he delays that he may give a better, fuller answer. A poor woman stood at a vineyard gate, and looked over into the vineyard. "Would you like some grapes?" asked the proprietor, who was within. "I would be very thankful," replied the woman. "Then bring your basket." Quickly the basket was brought to the gate and passed in. The owner took it and was gone a long time among the vines, until the woman became discouraged, thinking he was not coming again. At last he returned with the basket heaped full. "I have made you wait a good while," he said, "but you know the longer you have to wait, the better grapes and the more."
So it sometimes is in prayer. We bring our empty vessel to God and pass it over the gate of prayer to him. He seems to be delaying a long time, and sometimes faith faints with waiting. But at last he comes, and our basket is heaped full with luscious blessings! He waited long that he might bring us a better and a fuller answer. At least we are sure that no true prayer ever really goes unanswered. We have to wait for the fruits to ripen and that takes time! Sometimes God delays until some work in us is finished.
Chapter 5. Getting Christ's Touch.
There was wonderful power in the touch of Christ, when he was on the earth. Wherever he laid his hand, he left a blessing and sick, sad, and weary ones received health, comfort, and peace. That hand, glorified, now holds in its clasp the seven stars. Yet there are senses in which the blessed touch of Christ is felt yet on men's lives. He is as really in this world today, as he was when he walked in human form through Judea and Galilee. His hand is yet laid on his weary, suffering, sorrowing people, and, though its pressure is unfelt, its power to bless is the same as in the ancient days. It is laid on the sick, when precious heavenly words of cheer and encouragement from the Scriptures are read at their bedside, giving them the blessing of sweet patience, and quieting their fears. It is laid on the sorrowing, when the consolations of divine love come to their hearts with tender comfort, giving them strength to submit to God's will and rejoice in the midst of trial. It is laid on the faint and weary, when the grace of Christ comes to them with its holy peace, hushing the wild tumult, and giving true rest of soul.
But there is another way in which the hand of Christ is laid on human lives. He sends his disciples into the world to represent him. "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you," is his own word. Of course the best and holiest Christian life can be only the dimmest, faintest reproduction of the rich, full, blessed life of Christ. Yet it is in this way, through these earthen vessels, that he has ordained to save the world, and to heal, help, comfort, lift up, and build up men.
Perhaps in thinking of what God does for the world, we are too apt to overlook the human agents and instruments, and to think of him touching lives directly and immediately. A friend of ours is in sorrow, and, going to our knees, we pray to God to give him comfort. But may it not be that he would send the comfort through our own heart and lips? One we love is not doing well, is drifting away from a true life, is in danger of being lost. In anguish of heart we cry to God, beseeching him to lay his hand on the imperilled life, and rescue it. But may it not be that ours is the hand that must be stretched out in love, and laid, in Christ's name, on the life that is in danger?
Certain it is, at least, that each one of us who knows the love of Christ, is ordained to be as Christ to others; that is, to be the messenger to carry to them the gift of Christ's grace and help, and to show to them the spirit of Christ, the patience, gentleness, thoughtfulness, love, and yearning of Christ. We are taught to say, "Christ lives in me." If this is true, Christ would love others through us, and our touch must be to others as the very touch of Christ himself. Every Christian ought to be, in his measure, a new incarnation of the Christ, so that people shall say: "He interprets Christ to me! He comforts me in my sorrow as Christ himself would do if he were to come and sit down beside me! He is as hopeful and patient as Christ would be if he were to return and take me as his disciple."
But before we can be in the place of Christ to sorrowing, suffering, and struggling ones we must have that mind in us, which was in him. When Paul said, "The love of Christ constrains me," he meant that he had the very love of Christ in him the love which loved even the most unlovely, which helped even the most unworthy, which was gentle and affectionate even to the most loathsome. We are never ready to do good in the world, in the truest sense or in any large measure until we have become thus filled with the very spirit of Christ! We may help people in a certain way, without loving them. We may render them services of a certain kind, benefitting them externally or temporally. We may put material gifts into their hands, build them houses, purchase clothing for them, carry them bread, or improve their circumstances and condition. We may thus do many things for them without having in our heart any love for them. This is nothing better than common philanthropy. But the highest and most real help we can give them, only through sincerely loving them.
"When I have attempted," says Emerson, "to give myself to others by services, it proved an intellectual trick no more. They eat your services like apples, and leave you out. But love them, and they feel you and delight in you all the time." When we love others, we can help them in all deep and true ways. We can put blessings into their hearts instead of merely into their hands. We can enter into their very being, becoming new breath of life to them quickening and inspiring them.
There is a touching and very suggestive story of a good woman in Sweden, who opened a home for crippled and diseased children children for whom no one else was ready to care. In due time she received into her home about twenty of these unfortunate little ones. Among them was a boy of three years, who was a most frightful and disagreeable object. He resembled a skeleton. His skin was covered with hideous blotches and sores. He was always whining and crying. This poor little fellow gave the good lady more care and trouble than all the others together. She did her best for him, and was as kind as possible washed him, fed him, nursed him. But the child was so repulsive in his looks and ways, that, try as she would, she could not bring herself to like him, and often her disgust would show itself in her face in spite of her effort to hide it. She could not really love the child.
One day she was sitting on the veranda steps with this child in her arms. The sun was shining brightly, and the perfume of the autumn honeysuckles, the chirping of the birds, and the buzzing of the insects, lulled her into a sort of sleep. Then in a half-waking, half-dreaming state, she thought of herself as having changed places with the child, and as lying there, only more foul, more repulsive in her sinfulness than he was.
Over her she saw the Lord Jesus bending, looking lovingly into her face, yet with an expression of gentle rebuke in his eye, as if he meant to say, "If I can bear with you who are so full of sin, surely you ought, for my sake, to love that innocent child who suffers for the sin of his parents."
She woke up with a sudden startle, and looked into the boy's face. He had waked, too, and was looking very earnestly into her face. Sorry for her past disgust, and feeling in her heart a new compassion for him, she bent her face to his, and kissed him as tenderly as ever she had kissed a babe of her own. With a startled look in his eyes, and a flush on his cheek, the boy gave her back a smile so sweet that she had never seen one like it before. From that moment a wonderful change came over the child. He understood the new affection that had come instead of dislike and loathing in the woman's heart. That touch of human love transformed his peevish, fretful nature into gentle quiet and beauty. The woman had seen a vision of herself in that blotched, repulsive child, and of Christ's wonderful love for her in spite of her sinfulness. Under the inspiration of this vision she had become indeed as Christ to the child. The love of Christ had come into her heart, and was pouring through her upon that poor, wretched, wronged life.
Christ loves the unlovely, the deformed, the loathsome, the leprous. We have only to think of ourselves as we are in his sight, and then remember that, in spite of all the moral and spiritual loathsomeness in us he yet loves us, does not shrink from us, lays his hand upon us to heal us, takes us into most intimate companionship with himself. This Christian woman had seen a vision of herself, and of Christ loving her still and condescending to bless and save her; and now she was ready to be as Christ, to show the spirit of Christ, to be the pity and the love of Christ to this poor, loathsome child lying on her knee.
She had gotten the touch of Christ by getting the love of Christ into her heart. And we can get it in no other way. We must see ourselves as Christ's servants, sent by him to be to others what he is to us. Then shall we be fitted to be a blessing to every life which our life touches. Our words then shall throb with love, and find their way to the hearts of the weary and sorrowing. Then there will be a sympathetic quality in our life, which shall give a strange power of helpfulness to whatever we do.
Says a thoughtful writer, speaking of influence: "Let a man press nearer to Christ, and open his nature more widely to admit the power of Christ, and, whether he knows it or not it is better, perhaps, if he does not know it he will certainly be growing in power for God with men, and for men with God." We get power for Christ only as we become filled with the very life of Christ!
Everywhere about us there are lives, cold, and cheerless, and dull, which by the touch of our hand, in loving warmth, in Christ's name, would be wondrously blessed and transformed. Someone tells of going into a jeweler's store to look at certain gems. Among other stones he was shown an opal. As it lay there, however, it appeared dull and altogether lustreless. Then the jeweler took it in his hand and held it for some moments, and again showed it to his customer. Now it gleamed and flashed with all the glories of the rainbow. It needed the touch and warmth of a human hand to bring out its iridescence. There are human lives everywhere about us that are rich in their possibilities of beauty and glory. No gems or jewels are so precious; but as we see them in their earthly condition they are dull and lustreless, without brightness or loveliness. Perhaps they are even covered with stain by sin. Yet they need only the touch of the hand of Christ to bring out the radiance, the loveliness, the beauty of the divine image in them. And you and I must be the hand of Christ to these lusterless or stained lives! Touching them with our warm love, the sleeping splendor which is in them, hidden perhaps under sin's marring and ruin, will yet shine out the beginning of glory for them!
Chapter 6. The Blessing of a Burden.
It is not always the easiest things which are the best things. Usually we have to pay a high price, for any good thing. In all markets, commodities which cost little may be set down as worth but little. All our blessings may be rated in the same way. If they come easily, without great cost of effort or sacrifice, their value to us is not great. But if we can get them only through self-denial, tears, anguish, and pain we may be sure that they hide in them the very gold of God. So it is that many of our best and richest blessings come to us in some form of rugged hardness.
Take what we call drudgery. Life is full of it. It begins in childhood. There is school, with its set hours, its lessons, rules, tables, tasks, recitations. Then, when we grow up, instead of getting away from this bondage of routine, this interminable drudgery, it goes on just as in childhood. It is rising at the same hour every morning, and hurrying away to the day's tasks, and doing the same things over and over, six days in the week, fifty-two weeks in the year, and on and on unto life's end. For the great majority of us, there is almost no break in the monotonous rounds of our days through the long years. Many of us sigh and wish we might in some way free ourselves from this endless routine. We think of it as a sore bondage and by no means the ideal of a noble and beautiful life.
But really, much that is best in life comes out of this very bondage to drudgery. A recent writer suggests a new beatitude: "Blessed be drudgery." He reminds us that no Bible beatitude comes easily but that every one of them is the fruit of some experience of hardness or pain. He shows us that life's drudgery, wearisome and disagreeable as it is, yields rich treasures of good and blessing. Drudgery, he tells us, is the secret of all culture. He names as fundamentals in a strong, fine character, "power of attention; power of industry; promptitude in beginning work; method, accuracy, and adroitness in doing work; perseverance; courage before difficulties; cheer under straining burdens; self-control; self-denial; temperance"; and claims that nowhere else can these qualities be gotten but in the unending grind and pressure of those routine duties which we call drudgery. "It is because we have to go, morning after morning, through rain, through shine, through headache, heartache to the appointed spot and do the appointed work; because, and only because, we have to stick to that work through the eight or ten hours, long after rest would be so sweet; because the school-boy's lessons must be learned at nine o'clock, and learned without a slip; because the accounts on the ledger must square to a cent; because the goods must tally exactly with the invoice; because good temper must be kept with children, customers, neighbors, not seven times but seventy times seven; because the besetting sin must be watched today, tomorrow, next day; in short it is because, and only because, of the rut, plod, grind, hum-drum in the work that we get at last those self-foundations laid," which are essential to all noble character.
So there is a blessing for us in the commonest, wearisomest task-work of our lives. "Blessed be drudgery" is truly a beatitude. We all need the discipline of this tireless plodding, to build us up into beautiful character. Even the loveliest flowers must have their roots in common earth; so, many of the sweetest things in human lives grow out of the soil of drudgery. "Be O man, like unto the rose. Its root is indeed in dirt and mud but its flowers still send forth grace and perfume."
Take again life's struggles and conflicts. There are, in the experience of each one, obstacles, hindrances, and difficulties, which make it hard to live successfully. Everyone has to move onward and upward through ranks of resistances. This is true of physical life. Every baby that is born, begins at once a struggle for existence. To be victorious and live or to succumb and die? is the question of every cradle, and only half the babies born reach their teens. After that, until its close, life is a continuous struggle with the manifold forms of physical infirmity. If we live to be old, it must be through our victoriousness over the unceasing antagonism of accident and disease.
The same is true in mental progress. It must be made against resistance. It is never easy to become a scholar or to attain intellectual culture. It takes years and years of study and discipline to draw out and train the faculties of the mind. An indolent, self-indulgent student may have an easy time; he never troubles himself with difficult problems; he lets the hard things pass, not vexing his brain with them. But in evading the burden he misses the blessing that was in it for him. The only path to the joys and rewards of scholarship is that of patient, persistent toil.
It is true also in spiritual life. We enter a world of antagonism and opposition the moment we resolve at Christ's feet, to be Christians, to be true men or women, to forsake sin, to obey God, to do our duty. There never comes a day when we can live nobly and worthily without effort, without resistance to wrong influences, without struggle against the power of temptation. It never gets easy to be godly. Evermore the cross lies at our feet, and daily it must be taken up and carried, if we would follow Christ. We are apt to grow weary of this unending struggle, and to become discouraged, because there is neither rest nor abatement in it.
But here again we learn that it is out of just such struggles that we must get the nobleness and beauty of character, after which we are striving. This is the universal law of spiritual growth. There must be resistance, struggle, conflict or there can be no development of strength. We are inclined to pity those whose lives are scenes of toil and hardship but God does not pity them, if only they are victorious; for in their overcoming they are climbing daily upward toward the holy heights of sainthood. The beatitudes in the Apocalypse are all for over-comers. Heaven's rewards and crowns lie beyond battle-plains. Spiritual life always needs opposition. It flourishes most luxuriantly in adverse circumstances. We grow best under afflictions. We find our richest blessings in the burdens we dread to take up.
The word "character" in its origin is suggestive. It is from a root which signifies to engrave, to cut into furrows. In life, therefore, it is that which experiences cut or furrow in the soul. A baby has no character. Its life is like a piece of white paper, with nothing yet written upon it; or it is like a smooth marble tablet, on which, as yet, the sculptor has cut nothing; or the canvas, waiting for the painter's colors. Character is formed as the years go on. It is the writing the song, the story, put upon the paper. It is the engraving, the sculpturing, which the marble receives under the chisel. It is the picture which the artist paints on the canvas. Final character is what a man is, when he has lived through all his earthly years. In the Christian it is the lines of the likeness of Christ engraved, sometimes furrowed and scarred, upon his soul by the divine Spirit through the means of grace and the experiences of his own life.
I saw a beautiful vase, and asked its story. Once it was a lump of common clay lying in the darkness. Then it was harshly dug out and crushed and ground in the mill, and then put upon the wheel and shaped, then polished and tinted and put into the furnace and burned. At last, after many processes, it stood upon the table a gem of graceful beauty. In some way analogous to this, every noble character is formed. Common clay at first, it passes through a thousand processes and experiences, many of them hard and painful, until at length it is presented before God, faultless in its beauty, bearing the features of Christ himself.
Spiritual beauty never can be reached without cost. The blessing is always hidden away in the burden, and can be gotten only by lifting the burden. Self must die if the good in us is to live and shine out in radiance. Michael Angelo used to say, as the chippings flew thick from the marble on the floor of his studio, "While the marble wastes, the image grows." There must be a wasting of self, a chipping away continually of things that are dear to nature, if the things that are true, and just, and honorable, and pure, and lovely, are to come out in the life. The marble must waste, while the image grows.
Then take suffering. Here, too, the same law prevails. Everyone suffers. Said Augustine, "God had one Son without sin but none without sorrow." From infancy's first cry until the old man's life goes out in a gasp of pain, suffering is a condition of existence. It comes in manifold forms. Now it is in sickness; the body is racked with pain or burns in fever. Ofttimes sickness is a heavy burden. Yet even this burden has a blessing in it for the Christian. Sickness rightly borne, makes us better. It unbinds the world's fetters. It purifies the heart. It sobers the spirit. It turns the eyes heavenward. It strips off much of the illusion of life and uncovers its better realities. Sickness in a home of faith, prayer, and love, softens all the household hearts, makes sympathy deeper, and draws all the family closer together.
Trouble comes in many other forms. It may be a bitter disappointment which falls upon a young life when love has not been true, or when character has proved unworthy, turning the fair blossoms of hope, to dead leaves under the feet. There are lives that bear the pain and carry the hidden memorials of such a grief through long years, making them sad at heart even when walking in sweetest sunshine.
Or it may be the failure of some other hope, as when one has followed a bright dream of ambition for days and years, finding it only a dream. Or it may be the keener, more bitter grief which comes to one when a friend a child, a brother or sister, a husband or wife fails badly. In such a case even the divine comfort cannot heal the heart's hurt; love cannot but suffer, and there is no hand that can lessen the pang. The anguish which love endures for others' sins is among the saddest of earth's sorrows.
There are griefs which wear no black garments, which close no shutters, which drop no tears which men can see, which can get no sympathy but that of the blessed Christ and perhaps of a closest human brother, and must wear smiles before men and go on with life's work as if all were gladness within the heart. If we knew the inner life of many of the people we meet, we would be very gentle with them and would excuse the things in them that seem strange or eccentric to us. They are carrying burdens of secret grief. We cannot begin to know the sorrows of others.
There is no need to try to solve that old, yet always new, question of human hearts, "Why does God permit so much suffering in his children?" It is idle to ask this question, and all efforts at answering it are not only vain but they are even irreverent. We may be sure, however, of one thing, that in every pain and trial, there is a blessing folded. We may miss it but it is there, and the loss is ours if we do not get it. Every night of sorrow carries in its dark bosom, its own lamps of comfort. The darkness of grief and trial is full of benedictions.
The most blessed lives in the world are those that have borne the burden of suffering. "Where, think you," asks James Martineau, "does the Heavenly Father hear the tones of deepest love, and see on the uplifted face the light of most heartfelt gratitude? Not where his gifts are most profuse but where they are most meager; not within the halls of successful ambition, or even in the dwellings of unbroken domestic peace; but where the outcast, flying from persecution, kneels in the evening on the rocks whereon he sleeps; at the fresh grave, where, as the earth is opened, heaven in answer opens too; by the pillow of the wasted sufferer, where the sunken eye, denied sleep, converses with the silent stars, and the hollow voice enumerates in low prayer the scanty list of comforts, the easily remembered blessings, and the shortened tale of hopes. Genial, almost to a miracle, is the soil of sorrow, wherein the smallest seed of love, timely falling, becomes a tree, in whose foliage the birds of blessed song lodge and sing unceasingly."
The truly happiest, sweetest, tenderest homes are not those where there has been no sorrow but those which have been overshadowed with grief, and where Christ's comfort was accepted. The very memory of the sorrow is a gentle benediction that broods ever over the household, like the afterglow of sunset, like the silence that comes after prayer.
In every burden of sorrow, there is a blessing sent from God, which we ought not to thrust away. In one of the battles of the Crimea, a cannon-ball gashed the earth and sadly marring the garden beauty of the place. But from the ugly chasm there burst forth a spring of water, which flowed on thereafter, a living fountain. So the strokes of sorrow gash our hearts, leaving ofttimes wounds and scars but they open for us fountains of rich blessing and of new life.
These are hints of the blessings of burdens. Our dull task-work, accepted, will train us into strong and noble character. Our temptations and hardships, met victoriously, knit muscles and sinews of strength in our souls. Our pain and sorrow, endured with sweet trust and submission, leave us with life purified and enriched, with more of Christ in us. In every burden that God lays upon us, there is a blessing for us, if only we will take it.
Chapter 7. Heart-peace Before Ministry.
Peace in the heart is one of the conditions of good work. We cannot do our best in anything if we are fretted and anxious. A feverish heart makes an inflamed brain, a clouded eye, and an unsteady hand. The people who really accomplish the most, and achieve the best results, are those of calm, self-controlled spirit. Those who are nervous and excited may be always busy, and always under pressure of haste; but in the end they do far less work than if they wrought calmly and steadily, and were never in a hurry.
Nervous haste is always hindering haste. It does faulty work, and does but little of it in the end. Really rapid workers are always deliberate in their movements, never appearing to be in any hurry whatever; and yet they pass swiftly from task to task, doing each duty well because they are calm and unflustered, and, with their wits about them, work with clear eye, steady nerve, and skillful hand.
An eminent French surgeon used to say to his students, when they were engaged in difficult and delicate operations, in which coolness and firmness were needed, "Gentlemen, don't be in a hurry; for there's no time to lose."
The people in all lines of duty who do the most work are the calmest, most unhurried people in the community. Duties never wildly chase each other in their lives. One task never crowds another out, nor ever compels hurried, and therefore imperfect, doing. The calm spirit works methodically, doing one thing at a time, and doing it well; and it therefore works swiftly, though never appearing to be in haste.
We need the peace of God in our heart, just as really for the doing well of the little things of our secular life as for the doing of the greatest duties of Christ's kingdom. Our face ought to shine, and our spirit ought to be tranquil, and our eye ought to be clear, and our nerves ought to be steady, as we press through the tasks of our commonest day. Then we shall do them all well, slurring nothing, marring nothing. We need heart-peace before we begin any day's duties, and we should wait at Christ's feet until we get his quieting touch upon our heart before we go forth.
It is especially true in spiritual work that we must know the secret of peace before we can minister either swiftly or effectively to others in our Master's name. Feverishness of spirit makes the hand unskillful in delicate duty. A troubled heart cannot give comfort to other troubled hearts; it must first become calm and quiet. It is often said that one who has suffered is prepared to help others in suffering; but this is true only when one has suffered victoriously, and has passed up out of the deep, dark valley of pain and tears to the radiant mountain-tops of peace. An uncomforted mourner cannot be a messenger of consolation to another in grief. One whose heart is still vexed and uncalmed, cannot be a physician to hearts with bleeding wounds. We must first have been comforted by God ourselves, before we can comfort others in their tribulations.
The same is true of all spiritual ministry. We need a steady hand to work faithfully in Christ's kingdom. One of our Lord's earlier miracles furnishes an illustration of this truth. Jesus was called to heal a woman who lay sick with a great fever. One of the Gospels describes the cure in these striking words: "He touched her hand, and the fever left her; and she arose and ministered unto them." We readily understand this record in its primary reference to the physical cure that was wrought by our Lord. We know, of course, that the woman could not minister to others while the fever was on her. When sore sickness comes, the busiest, fullest hands must drop their tasks. No matter how important the work is, how essential it may appear, it must be laid down when painful illness seizes us. We must be healed of our fever, before we can minister.
But there are other fevers besides those which burn in men's bodies. There are heart-fevers which may rage within us, even when our bodies are in perfect health. We find people with feverish spirits unhappy, discontented, fretted, worried, perhaps unsubmissive and rebellious. Or they may be in a fever of fear or dread. These inward fevers are worse evils than mere bodily illness. It is better in sickness to have our heart's fever depart, even though we must longer keep our pain, than to recover our physical health, meanwhile keeping our fretfulness and impatience uncured.
We cannot minister while heart-fever of any kind is on us. We may go on with our work but we cannot do it well, and there will be little blessing in it. Discontent hinders any life's usefulness. Jesus loved Martha, and accepted her service because he knew she loved him; but he plainly told her that her feverishness was not beautiful, and that it detracted from the worth and the full acceptableness of the good work she did; and he pointed her to Mary's quiet peace as a better way of living and serving. Anxiety of any kind, unfits us in some degree for work. It is only when Christ comes and lays his hand upon our heart, and cures its fever, that we are ready for ministering in his name, in the most efficient way.
There is a little story of a busy woman's life which illustrates this lesson. She was the mother of a large family, and, sometimes, in the multiplicity of her tasks and cares, she lost the sweetness of her peace, and, like Martha, became troubled and worried with her much serving. One morning she had been unusually hurried, and things had not gone smoothly. She had breakfast to get for her family, her husband to care for as he hastened away early to his work, and her children to make ready for school. There were other household duties which filled the poor, weak woman's hands, until her strength was well-near utterly exhausted. And she had not gone through it all that morning in a sweet, peaceful way. She had allowed herself to lose her patience, and to grow fretful, vexed, and unhappy. She had spoken quick, hasty, petulant words to her husband and her children. Her heart had been in a fever of irritation and disquiet all the morning.
When the children were gone, and the pressing tasks were finished, and the house was all quiet, the tired woman crept upstairs to her own room. She was greatly discouraged. She felt that her morning had been a most unsatisfactory one; that she had sadly failed in her duty; that she had grieved her Master by her lack of patience and gentleness, and had hurt her children's lives by her fretfulness and her ill-tempered words. Shutting her door, she took up her Bible and read the story of the healing of the sick woman: "He touched her hand, and the fever left her; and she arose and ministered unto them."
"Ah!" said she, "if I could have had that touch before I began my morning's work, the fever would have left me, and I should have been prepared to minister sweetly and peacefully to my family." She had learned that she needed the touch of Christ to make her ready for beautiful and gentle service.
In contrast with this story, and showing the blessed sweetness and holy influence of a life that gets Christ's touch in the morning, there is this account by Farrar of his mother: "My mother's habit was, every day, immediately after breakfast, to withdraw for an hour to her own room, and to spend that hour in reading the Bible, in meditation, and in prayer. From that hour, as from a pure fountain, she drew the strength and the sweetness which enabled her to fulfill all her duties, and to remain unruffled by all the worries and pettinesses which are so often the intolerable trial of poor neighborhoods. As I think of her life, and of all it had to bear, I see the absolute triumph of Christian grace in the lovely ideal of a Christian lady. I never saw her temper disturbed; I never heard her speak one word of anger, or of calumny, or of idle gossip. I never observed in her any sign of a single sentiment unbecoming to a soul which had drunk of the river of the water of life, and which had fed upon manna in the barren wilderness."
There are many busy mothers to whom this lesson may come almost as a revelation. No hands are fuller of tasks, no heart is fuller of cares, than the hands and the heart of a mother of a large family of young children. It is little wonder if sometimes she loses her sweetness of spirit in the pressure of care that is upon her. But this lesson is worth learning. Let the mothers wait on their knees each morning, before they begin their work, for the touch of Christ's hand upon their heart. Then the fever will leave them, and they can enter with calm peace on the work of the long, hard day.
The lesson, however, is for us all. We are in no condition for godly work of any kind, when we are fretted and anxious in mind. It is only when the peace of God is in our heart that we are ready for true and really helpful ministry. A feverish heart makes a worried face, and a worried face casts a shadow. A troubled spirit mars the temper and disposition. It unfits one for being a comforter of others, for giving cheer and inspiration, for touching other lives with godly and helpful impulses. Peace must come before ministry. We need to have our fever cured before we go out to our work. Hence, we should begin each new day at the Master's feet, and get his cooling, quieting touch upon our hot hand. Then, and not until then, shall we be ready for godly service in his name.
Chapter 8. Moral Curvatures.
Our Lord's miracles are parables in act. A woman came to him bent almost double, and went away straight. The human form is made for erectness. This is one of the marks of nobility in man, in contrast with the downward bending and looking of other animals. Man is the only creature that bears this erect form. It is a part of the image of God upon him. It indicates heavenly aspiration, hunger for God, desire for pure and lofty things, capacity for immortal blessedness. It tells of man's hope and home above the earth, beyond the stars. Says an old writer, "God gave to man a face directed upwards, and bade him look at the heavens, and raise his uplifted countenance toward the stars." The Greek word for "man" meant the upward looking. The bending of the form and face downward, toward the earth, has always been the symbol of a soul turned unworthily toward lower things, forgetful of its true home.
The look of a man's eyes, tells where his heart is, where his desires are reaching and tending, how his life is growing.
There are a great many bent people in the world. Physical bending may be caused by accident or disease, and is no mark of spiritual curvature. Many a deformed body is the home of a noble and holy soul, with eyes and aspirations turned upward toward God. I remember a woman in my first parish who then for fourteen years had sat in her chair, unable to lift hand or foot, every joint drawn, her wasted body frightfully bent. Yet she had a transfigured face, telling of a beautiful soul within. Joy and peace shone out through that poor tortured body. Disease may drag down the erect form, until all its beauty is gone, and the inner life meanwhile may be erect as an angel, with its eyes and aspirations turned upward toward God.
But there are crooked souls souls that are bent down. This may be the case even while the body is straight as an arrow. There are men and women whose forms are admired for their erectness, their attractive proportions, their graceful movements, their lovely features, yet whose souls are debased, whose desires are groveling, whose characters are sadly misshapen and deformed.
Sin always bends the soul. Many a young man comes out from a holy home in the beauty and strength of youth, wearing the unsullied robes of innocence, with eye clear and uplifted, with aspirations for noble things, with hopes that are exalted; but a few years later he appears a debased and ruined man, with soul bent sadly downward. The bending begins in slight yieldings to sin but the tendency unchecked, grows and fixes itself in the life in permanent moral disfigurement.
A stage-driver had held the lines for many years, and when he grew old, his hands were bent, and his fingers were so stiffened that they could not be straightened out. There is a similar process that goes on in men's souls when they continue to do the same things over and over. One who is trained from childhood to be gentle, kindly, patient, to control the temper, to speak softly, to be loving and charitable will grow into the radiant beauty of love. One who accustoms himself to think habitually and only of noble and worthy things, who sets his affections on things above, and strives to reach "whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely," will grow continually upward, toward spiritual beauty. But on the other hand, if one gives way from childhood to all ugly tempers, all resentful feelings, all bitterness and anger, his life will shape itself into the unbeauty of these dispositions. One whose mind turns to debasing things, things unholy, unclean will find his whole soul bending and growing toward the earth in permanent moral curvature.
There is also a bending of the life by sorrow. The experience of sorrow is scarcely less perilous than that of temptation. The common belief is that grief always makes people better. But this is not true. If the sufferer submits to God with loving confidence, and is victorious through faith, sorrow's outcome is blessing and good. But many are crushed by their sorrow. They yield to it, and it bears them down beneath its weight. They turn their faces away from the light of God, toward the grave's darkness, and their souls grow toward the gloom.
Here is a mother who several years since lost by death a beautiful daughter. The mother was a Christian woman, and her child was also a Christian, dying in sweet hope. Yet never since that coffin was closed has the mother lifted up her eyes toward God in submission and hope. She visits the cemetery on Sundays but never the church. She goes with downcast look about her home, weeping whenever her daughter's name is mentioned, and complains of God's hardness and unkindness in taking away her child. She is bent down with her eyes to the earth, and sees only the clods and the dust and the grave's gloom and sees not the blue sky, the bright stars, and the sweet face of the Father. So long has she now been thus bowed down in the habit of sadness and grieving, that she can in no way lift herself up.
Since I began to write this chapter I have had a long talk with one whose life is sorely bent. Ten years since I first knew her as a bright and happy young girl, her face sunny in the light of God's love. Trouble came into her life in many forms. Her own father proved unworthy, failing in all the sacred duties of affection toward his child. Events in her own life were disappointing and discouraging. Friends in whom she had trusted failed in that faithfulness and helpfulness which one has a right to expect from one's friends. There was a succession of unhappy experiences, through several years, all tending to hurt her heart-life. As the result of all this, she has become embittered and hardened, not only against those who have wronged her and treated her unjustly but even against God. So long has she yielded to these feelings that her whole life has been bent down from its upward, Godward look, into settled despondency. God has altogether faded out of her soul's vision, and she thinks of him only as unkind and unjust. To restore her life to its former brightness and beauty will require a moral miracle as great as that by which the body of the crooked woman was made straight.
Then there are lives also that are bowed down by toil and care. For many people, life's burdens are very heavy. There are fathers of large families who sometimes find their load almost more than they can bear, in their efforts to provide for those who are dear to them. There are mothers who, under their burdens of household care, at times feel themselves bowed down, and scarcely able longer to go on. In all places of responsibility, where men are called to stand, the load many times grows very heavy, and stalwart forms bend under it. This world's work is hard for most of us. Life is not play to any who take it earnestly.
And many people yield to the weight of a duty, and let themselves be bent down under it. We see men bowing under their load, until their very body grows crooked, and they can look only downward. We see them become prematurely old. The light goes out of their eyes; the freshness fades out of their cheeks; the sweetness leaves their spirit. Few things in life are sadder than the way some people let themselves be bent down by their load of duty or care. There really is no reason why this should be so. God never puts any greater burden upon us than we are able to bear, with the help he is ready to give. Christ stands ever close beside us, willing to carry the heaviest end of every load that is laid upon us.
Men never break down so long as they keep a happy, joyous heart. It is the sad heart which tires. Whatever our load, we should always keep a songful spirit in our breast. There are two ways of meeting hard experiences. One way is to struggle and resist, refusing to yield. The result is, the wounding of the soul and the intensifying of the hardness. The other way is sweetly to accept the circumstances or the restraints, to make the best of them, and to endure them songfully and cheerfully. Those who live in the first of these ways grow old at mid-life. Those who take the other way of life keep a young, happy heart even to old age.
The true way to live is to yield to no burden; to carry the heaviest load with courage and gladness; never to let one's eyes be turned downward toward the earth but to keep them ever lifted up to the hills. Men whose work requires them to stoop all the time to work in a bent posture every now and then may be seen straightening themselves up, taking a long, deep breath of air, and looking up toward the skies. Thus their bodies are preserved in health and erectness, in spite of their work. Whatever our toil or burden, we should train ourselves to look often upward, to stand erect, and get a frequent glimpse of the sky of God's love, and a frequent breath of heaven's pure, sweet air. Thus we shall keep our souls erect under the heaviest load of work or care.
The miracle of the straightening of the woman who was bent double, has its gospel of precious hope for any who have failed to learn earlier the lesson of keeping straight. The bowed down may yet be lifted up. The curvature of eighteen years' growth and stiffening was cured in a moment. The woman who for so long had not been able to look up, went away with her eyes upturned to God in praise.
The same miracle Christ is able to work now upon souls that are bent, whether by sin, by sorrow, or by life's load of toil. He can undo sin's terrible work, and restore the divine image to the soul. He can give such comfort to the sad heart that eyes long downcast shall be lifted up to look upon God's face in loving submission and joy. He can put such songs into the hearts of the weary and overwrought, that the crooked form shall grow straight, and brightness shall come again into the tired face.
Chapter 9. Transfigured Lives.
Every Christian's life should be transfigured. There is a sense in which even a true believer's body becomes transfigured. We have all seen faces that appeared to shine as if there were some hidden light behind them. There are some old people who have learned well, life's lessons of patience, peace, contentment, love, trust, and hope, and whose faces really glow as they near the sunset gates. Sometimes it is a saintly sufferer, who, in long endurance of pain, learns to lie on Christ's bosom in sweet unmurmuring quiet, and whose features take upon themselves increasingly the brightness of holy peace.
But whatever grace may do for the body, it always transfigures the character. The love of God finds us ruined sinners and leaves us glorified saints. We are predestinated "to be conformed to the image of his Son." Nor are we to wait for death to transform us; the work should begin at once. We have a responsibility, too, in this work. The sculptor takes the blackened marble block and hews it into a form of beauty. The marble is passive in his hands, and does nothing but submit to be cut and hewn and polished as he will. But we are not insensate marble; we have a part in the fashioning of our lives into spiritual holiness. We will never become like Christ without our own desire and effort.
We ought to know well what our part is, what we have to do with our own sanctification. How, then, may we become transfigured Christians?
There is a transfiguring power in prayer. It was as our Lord was praying, that the fashion of his countenance was altered. What is prayer? It is far more than the tame saying over of certain forms of devotion. It is the pouring out of the heart's deepest cravings. It is the highest act of which the soul is capable. When you pray truly, all that is best, noblest, most exalted, purest, heavenliest in you presses up toward God! Hence earnest prayer always lights up the very face, and lifts up the life into higher, holier mood. We grow toward that which we much desire. Hence prayers for Christ-likeness have a transfiguring effect.
Holy thoughts in the heart have also a transfiguring influence on the life. "As he thinks in his heart so is he." If we allow jealousies, envies, ugly tempers, pride, and other evil things to stay in our heart our life will grow into the likeness of these unlovely things. But if we nourish pure, gentle, unselfish, holy thoughts and feelings our life will become beautiful.
Drummond tells of a young girl whose character ripened into rare loveliness. Her friends watched her growing gentleness and heavenliness with wonder. They could not understand the secret of it. She wore about her neck a little locket within which no one was allowed to look. Once, however, she was very ill, and one of her companions was permitted then to open this sacred ornament, and she saw there the words, "Whom having not seen I love." This was the secret. It was love for the unseen Christ, which transfigured her life. If we think continually of the Christ, meditating upon him, thinking over sweet thoughts of him, and letting his love dwell within us we shall grow like him.
Communion with Christ transfigures a life. Everyone we meet leaves a touch upon us which becomes part of our character. Our lives are like sheets of paper, and everyone who comes writes a word, or a line, or leaves a little picture painted there. Our intimate companions and friends, who are very close to us, and are much with us, entering into our inner heart-life, make very deep impressions upon us.
If, therefore, we live with Christ, abide in him, the close, continued companionship with him will change us into his likeness. Personal friendship with Christ in this world, is as possible as any merely human friendship. The companionship is spiritual but it is real. The devout Christian has no other friend who enters so fully into his life as does the Lord Christ Jesus. The effect of this companionship is the transfiguring of the character. It is not without reason that the artists paint the beloved disciple as likest his Lord in features. He knew Jesus more intimately than any of the other disciples, and, in his deeper, closer companionship, was more affected and impressed by the Lord's beauty of holiness.
Again, keeping the eye upon the likeness of Christ, transfigures the life. Gazing by faith upon Christ, the lines of his beauty indeed print themselves on our hearts. This is the meaning of Paul's word: "We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image." The Gospel is the mirror. There we see the image of Christ. If we earnestly, continually, and lovingly behold it, the effect will be the changing of our own lives into the same likeness. The transformation is wrought by the divine Spirit, and our part is only to behold, to continue beholding, the blessed beauty.
There is a touching story of a French sculptor, which illustrates the sacredness with which life's ideal should be cherished and guarded. He was a genius, and was at work on his masterpiece. But he was a poor man, and lived in a small garret, which was studio, workshop, and bedroom to him. He had his statue almost finished, in clay, when one night there came suddenly a great frost over the city. The sculptor lay on his bed, with his statue before him in the center of the fireless room. As the chill air came down upon him, he knew that in the intense cold there was danger that the water in the interstices of the clay would freeze and destroy his precious work. So the old man arose from his bed, and took the clothes that had covered him in his sleep, and reverently wrapped them about his statue to save it, then lay down himself in the cold, uncovered. In the morning, when his friends came in, they found the old sculptor dead; but the image was preserved unharmed.
We each have in our soul, if we are true believers in Christ, a vision of spiritual loveliness into which we are striving to fashion our lives. This vision is our conception of the character of Christ. "That is what I am going to be some day," we say. Far away beyond our present attainment as this vision may shine, yet we are ever striving to reach it. This is the ideal which we carry in our heart amid all our toiling and struggling. This ideal we must keep free from all marring or stain. We must save it though, like the old sculptor, we lose our very life in guarding it. We should be willing to die rather than give it up to be destroyed. We should preserve the image of Christ, bright, radiant, unsoiled, in our soul until it transforms our dull, sinful, earthly life into its own transfigured beauty.
No other aim in life is worthy of an immortal being. What debasement, then, to let our lives, with all their glorious possibilities, be dragged down into the dust of shame and dishonor! Rather let us seek continually the glory for which we were made and redeemed. "Beloved, now are we children of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be. We know that, when he shall be manifested, we shall be like him; for we shall see him even as he is. And everyone that has this hope set on him purifies himself, even as he is pure."
A drop of water lay one day in a gutter, soiled, stained, polluted. Looking up into the blue of the sky, it began to wish for purity, to long to be cleansed and made crystalline. Its sigh was heard, and it was quickly lifted up by the sun's gentle fingers up, out of the foul gutter, into the sweet air, then higher and higher; at length the gentle winds caught it and bore it away, away, and by and by it rested on a distant mountain-top, a flake of pure, white, beautiful snow.
This is a little parable, of what the grace of God does for every sinful life that longs and cries for purity and holiness!
Chapter 10. The Interpretation of Sorrow.
There will always be mysteries in sorrow. Men will always wonder what it means. It is impossible for us, with our earthly limitations, to understand it. Even the strongest Christian faith will have its questions, and many of its questions will have to remain unanswered until the horizon of life is widened, and its dim light becomes full and clear in heaven. Meanwhile, however, some of these questions may be at least partially answered, and grief's poignancy in some slight measure alleviated. And surely no smallest gleam of comfort should be withheld from the world that needs comfort so sorely, and cries out so hungrily for it.
Human hearts are the same everywhere. Sorrow's experiences, while strangely diverse, are yet alike in their general features. Wherever we listen to the suppressed voices of grief, we hear the same questions. What has been answer to one, will therefore be answer to thousands more. Recently, in one day, two letters came to me from sorrowing ones, with questions. Whether any comfort was given in the private answers or not, it may be that the mere stating of the questions, with a few sentences concerning each, may be helpful to others who are carrying like burdens.
One of these letters is from a Christian man whose only son has been led into sinful courses, swiftly descending to the saddest depths. The story is too painful to be repeated in these pages. In his sore distress, the father, a godly man, a man of strong faith and noble wisdom, cries out: "What is the comfort even of Christ and the Bible for me? How can I roll this burden of mine upon God?"
In answer to these questions, it must be remembered that there are some things which even the richest, divinest comfort cannot do. For one thing, it cannot take away the pain of grief or sorrow. Our first thought of comfort usually is that it shall lift off our burden. We soon learn, however, that it is not in this way that comfort ordinarily comes. It does not make the grief any less. It does not make our hearts any less sensitive to anguish. "Consolation implies rather an augmentation of the power of bearing the burden, than a diminution of the burden." In this case, it cannot lift off the loving father's heart the burden of disappointment and anguish which he experiences in seeing his son swept away in the currents of temptation. No possible comfort can do this. The perfect peace in which God promises to keep those whose minds are stayed on him, is not a painless peace in any case of suffering. The crushed father cannot expect a comfort which will make him forget his wandering, sinning child, or which will cause him no longer to feel the poignant anguish which the boy's course causes in his heart. Father-love must be destroyed to make such comforting possible, and that would be a sorer calamity than any sorrow.
The comfort in such a grief, is that which comes through faith in God even in the sore pain. The child was given to God in his infancy, and was brought up as God's child along his early years. Who will say that he may not yet, in some way, at some time, be brought back to God? The daily burden may then daily be laid in the divine hands. The heart's anguish may express itself not in despairing cries but in believing prayers, inspired by the promises, and kindled into fervency by blessed hope. Then peace will come, not painless peace but peace which lies on Christ's bosom in the darkness, and loves and trusts and asks no questions but waits with all of hope's expectancy.
At the same time we are never to forget, while we trust God for the outcome of our disappointments, that every sorrow has its mission to our life. There is something he desires it to work in us. What it may be in any particular instance we cannot tell; nor is it wise for us to ask. The wisest, truest thing we can do, is reverently to open our hearts to the ministry of the sorrow, asking God to do his will in us, not allowing us to hinder the beautiful work he would do, and helping us to rejoice even in the grief. The tears may continue to flow but then with Mrs. Browning we can sing:
"I praise you while my days go on;
I love you while my days go on;
Through dark and death, through fire and frost,
With emptied arms and treasure lost,
I thank you while my days go on."
The other letter referred to is from another father, over whom wave after wave of sorrow had passed. Within a brief space of time, two children were taken away. The one was a son who had entered his professional career, and had large hope and promise for the future a young man of rare abilities and many noble qualities. The other was a daughter, who had reached womanhood, and was a happy and beloved wife, surrounded by friends and the refinements of a beautiful home, and all that makes life sweet and desirable. Both of these children God took, one soon after the other. The father, a man of most tender affections, and yet of implicit faith in God, uttered no murmur when called to stand at the graves of his beloved ones; and yet his heart cries out for interpretation.
He writes: "In one of your books I find these words: 'Sometimes our best beloved are taken away from us, and our hearts are left bleeding, as a vine bleeds when a green branch is cut from it . . . Here it is that Christian faith comes in, putting such interpretation and explanation upon the painful things, that we may be ready to accept them with confidence, even with rejoicing . . . A strong, abiding confidence that all the trials, sorrows, and losses of our lives are parts of our Father's husbandry, ought to silence every question, quiet every fear, and give peace and restful assurance to our hearts in all their pain. We cannot know the reason for the painful strokes but we know that he who holds the pruning-knife is our Father. That ought always to be enough for us to know.'"
Having quoted these words, he continues: "Now I do not question the Father's husbandry. I would also 'silence every question' concerning his wisdom and his love. I would not doubt them for a moment. When I found that my only son, my pride and my staff, must die, I prayed with such strong crying and tears as only they can know who are in like circumstances, yet feeling that I could give back to God what he had lent me without a murmur. By his help, I believe even the slightest murmur has been repressed concerning the painful things, and that in some measure I have been ready to accept them with confidence, even with rejoicing. But my faith has not come in, as you suggest, to put 'such interpretation and explanation' upon them, as perhaps I ought to do. Why has God thus dealt with me? Why was a double stroke necessary? Is his dealing with me purely disciplinary? What are the lessons he would teach me? How am I to test myself as to whether his purpose in afflicting me has been accomplished? Or am I not anxiously to inquire concerning the specific lessons but rather to let him show in due time what he designed? Such questions multiply without answer."
Has not this writer in his own last suggestion stated what should be done by those who are perplexed with questions as to the interpretation of sorrow? They should not anxiously inquire concerning the specific lessons but rather let God show in due time what he designed. No doubt every sorrow has a mission. It comes to us, as God's messenger, with a message. If we will welcome it reverently, and be still while it gives its message, no doubt we shall receive some benediction.
Yet we must look at this whole matter carefully and wisely. We are in danger of thinking only of ourselves, and of the effect upon us and our life of the griefs which smite us. We think too often of our bereavements, for example, as if God took away the friend, ending his life, just to chasten or punish us. But we have no right to take so narrow a view of God's design in the removal of loved ones from our side. His purpose concerns them as well as us. They are called away because their work on earth is done, and higher service in other spheres awaits them. To them death is gain, promotion, translation. The event itself, in its primary significance, is a joyous and blessed one. The sorrow which we experience in their removal, is but incidental. God cannot take them home to glory from our side, without giving us pain. But we must not reverse this order and think that the primary end of the calling away of our beloved ones is to chasten us or to cause us to suffer. No doubt there is blessing for us as well as for them in their leaving us, since all things work together for good to those who love God; but we unduly exaggerate our own importance when we think of God as laying a beautiful life low in death merely to teach us some lesson, or give to us some blessing.
When we look at our bereavements in this light, and think of what death means to our beloved ones who have been taken from us, we find new comfort in the thought of their immortality, their release from suffering and temptation, and their full blessedness with Christ. It is selfish for us to forget this in the absorption of our own grief. Should we not be willing to endure loss and pain that those dear to us may receive gain and blessing?
Even in life's relationships on the earth, we are continually taught the same lesson. Parents must give up their children, losing them out of the home nest, that they may go forth into the world to take up life's duties for themselves. Then also the separation is painful but it is borne in the sweet silence of self-denying love. We give up our friends when they are called from our side to accept other and higher places. Life is full of such separations, and we are taught that it is our duty to think of others, bearing our own loss in patience for their sake. Does not the same law of love "that seeks not its own" apply when our beloved ones are called up higher?
Of lessons to be learned in sorrow, the first always is submission. We are told even of our Lord that he "learned obedience by the things which he suffered." This is life's great, all-inclusive lesson. When we have learned this fully, perfectly, the work of sanctification in us is complete.
Then another lesson in all sorrow comes in the softening and enriching of the life in order to greater personal helpfulness. It is sad for us if for any cause we miss this blessed outcome of grief and pain. Christ suffered in all points that he might be fitted for his work of helping and saving men. God teaches us in our sorrow what he would have us tell others in their time of trial. Those who suffer patiently and sweetly go forth with new messages for others, and with new power to comfort.
Beyond these two wide, general lessons of all sorrow, it usually is not wise to press our question, "Why is it?" It is better for us so to relate ourselves to God in every time of trial, that we may not hinder the coming to us of any blessing which he may send but on the other hand, may receive with quiet, sweet welcome whatever teaching, correction, revealing, purifying, or quickening he would give us. Surely this is far better than that we should anxiously inquire why God afflicts us, why he sent the sorrow to us, just what he wants it to do for us. We must trust God to work out in us what he wants the grief to do for us. We need not trouble ourselves to know what he is doing.
Mercifully, our old duties come again after sorrow just as before, and we must take these all up, only putting into them more heart, more reverence toward God, more gentleness and love toward man. As we go on, we shall know what God meant the grief to do for us; or if not in this world, we shall in that home of Light, where all mystery shall be explained, and where we shall see love's lesson plain and clear in all life's strange writing. There is no doubt that sorrow always brings us an opportunity for blessing. Then we must remember that in this world alone, can we get the good which can come to us only through pain, for in the life beyond death there is to be no sorrow, no tears. An old Eastern proverb says, "Spread wide your skirts when heaven is raining gold." Heaven is always raining gold when we are sitting under the shadow of the cross. We should diligently improve the opportunity, and learn the lessons he would teach and get the blessings he would give, for the time is short.
Chapter 11. Other People.
There are other people. We are not the only ones. Some of the others live close to us, and some farther away. We stand in certain relations to these other people. They have claims upon us. We owe them duties, services, love. We cannot cut ourselves off from them, from any of them, saying that they are nothing to us. We cannot rid ourselves of obligations to them, and say we owe them nothing. So inexorable is this relation to others, that in all the broad earth there is not an individual who has no right to come to us with his needs, claiming at our hand the ministry of love. The other people are our brothers, and there is not one of them that we have a right to despise, or neglect, or hurt, or thrust away from our door.
We ought to train ourselves to think of the other people. We may not leave them out of any of the plans that we make. We must think of their interests and good, when we are thinking of our own. They have rights as well as ourselves, and we must think of these when asserting our own. No man may set his fence a hair's breadth over the line on his neighbor's ground. No man may gather even a grain of his neighbor's wheat, or a cluster of grapes from his neighbor's vine. No man may enter his neighbor's door unbidden. No man may do anything which will harm his neighbor. Other people have inalienable rights which we may not invade.
We owe other people more than their rights; we owe them love. To some of them it is not hard to pay this debt. They are lovable and winsome. They are thoroughly respectable. They are congenial spirits, giving us in return quite as much as we can give them. It is natural to love these and be very kindly and gentle to them. But we have no liberty of selection in this broad duty of loving other people. We may not choose whom we shall love if we claim to be Christians. "Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another." Romans 13:8
The Master's teaching is inexorable: "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." Luke 6:32-36
The good Samaritan is our Lord's answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" and the good Samaritan's neighbor was a bitter enemy, who, in other circumstances, would have spurned him from his presence. Other people may not be beautiful in their character, nor congenial in their habits, manners, modes of life, or disposition; they may even be unkind to us, unjust, unreasonable, in strict justice altogether undeserving of our favor; yet if we persist in being called Christians ourselves, we owe them the love which thinks no evil, which seeks not its own, which bears all things, endures all things, and never fails.
No doubt it is hard to love the other people who hate us. It is not so hard just to let them alone, to pass them by without harming them, or even to pray for them in a way; but to love them that is a sore test. Other people, though they be our enemies, are not thus taken out of the circle of those to whom we owe love. Our part is always pictured for us in the example of the good Samaritan.
That is, we owe other people service. Service goes with loving. We cannot love truly and not serve. Love without serving is but an empty sentiment, a poor mockery. God so loved the world that he gave. Love always gives. If it will not give it is not love. It is measured always by what it will give. The needs of other people are therefore divine commands to us, which we dare not disregard or disobey. To refuse to bless a brother who stands before us in any kind of need, is as great a sin as to break one of the positive commandments of the Decalogue. Indeed, in a sense, it is the breaking of the whole second table of the commandments the sense of which is, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
We like to think there is no sin in mere not doing. But Jesus, in his wonderful picture of the Last Judgment, makes men's condemnation turn on not doing the things they ought to have done. They have simply not fed the hungry, not clothed the naked, not visited the sick, not blessed the prisoner. To make these sins of neglect appear still more grievous, our Lord makes a personal matter of each case, puts himself in the place of the sufferer who needs it and is not cared for, and tells us that all neglects to give needed kindness to any, are shown to him. This divine word gives a tremendous interest to other people, who are brought providentially into the sphere of our life, so that their wants of whatever kind may make appeal to our sympathy and kindness. To neglect them is to neglect Christ. He sends them to us. They represent him. To turn them away is to turn him away.
This matter of serving has multitudinous forms. Sometimes it is poverty which stands at our gate, and monetary help is needed. A thousand times more frequently, however, it is not money but something else more precious, that we must give. It may be loving sympathy. Sorrow is before us. Another's heart is breaking. Money would be of no use; it would be only bitter mockery to offer it. But we can hold to the neighbor's lips, a cup of the wine of love, filled out of our own heart, which will give new strength to the sufferer.
Or it is the anguish of a life struggle, a human Gethsemane, beside which we are called to watch. We can give no actual aid the soul must fight its battles alone; but we can be as the angel that ministered in our Lord's Gethsemane, imparting strength, and helping the weary struggler to win the victory.
The world is very full of sorrow and trial, and we cannot live among our fellow-men and be true, without sharing their loads. If we are happy we must hold the lamp of our happiness so that its beams will fall upon the shadowed heart. If we have no burden it is our duty to put our shoulders under the load of others. Selfishness must die or else our own heart's life must be frozen within us. We soon learn that we cannot live for ourselves and be Christians; that the blessings that are given to us are really for other people, and that we are only God's ministers, to carry them in Christ's name to those for whom they are intended.
We begin to felicitate ourselves upon some special prosperity, and the next moment some human need knocks at our door, and we must share our good things with a suffering brother. We may build up our fine theories of taking care of ourselves, of living for the future, of laying up in the summer of prosperity for the winter of adversity, of providing for old age or for our children; but ofttimes all these frugal and economic plans have to yield to the exigencies of human need. The love which seeks not its own, plays havoc with life's hard logic, and with the plans of mere self-interest. We cannot say that anything is our own, when our brother is suffering for what we can give.
Not a day passes in the commonest experiences of life, in which other people do not stand before us with their needs, appealing to us for some service which we may render to them. It may be only ordinary courtesy, the gentle kindness of the home circle, the patient treatment of neighbors or customers in business relations, the thoughtful showing of interest to old people or to children. On all sides the lives of others touch ours, and we cannot do just as we please, thinking only of ourselves, and our own comfort and good, unless we choose to be false to all the instincts of humanity, and all the requirements of the law of Christian love. We must think continually of other people.
We may not seek our own pleasure in any way, without asking whether it will harm or mar the comfort of some other one. For example, we must think of other people's convenience, in the exercise of our own liberty and in the indulgence of our own tastes and desires. It may be pleasant for us to lie late in bed in the morning, and we may be inclined to regard the habit as only a little amiable self-indulgence. But there is a more serious side to the practice. It breaks the harmonious flow of the household life. It causes confusion in the family plans for the day. It sorely tries the patience of love.
The other day an important committee of fifteen was kept waiting for ten minutes for one tardy member, whose presence was necessary before anything could be done. At last he came sauntering in without even an apology for having caused fourteen busy men a loss of time that to them was very valuable, besides having put a sore strain on their patience and good nature. We have no right to forget or disregard the convenience of others. A conscientious application of the Golden Rule, would cure us of all such carelessness.
These are but illustrations of the way other people impinge upon our life. They are so close to us, that we cannot move without touching them. We cannot speak, but that our words affect others. We cannot act in the simplest things, without first thinking whether what we are about to do will help or hurt others. We are but one of a great family, and we dare not live for ourselves. We must never forget that there are other people.
Chapter 12. The Blessing of Faithfulness.
"Faithful servant" will be the commendation on the judgment-day of those who have lived well on the earth. Not great deeds will be commended but faithfulness. The smallest ministries will rank with the most conspicuous, if they are all that the weak hands could do. Indeed, the widow's two mites were more in value than the rich men's large coins.
Yet faithfulness as a measure of requirement is not something that can be reached without effort. It does not furnish a pillow for indolence. It is not a letting down of obligation to a low standard, to make life easy. It is indeed a lofty measurement. "You have been faithful" is the highest possible commendation.
It may not be amiss to look a little at the meaning of the word as a standard of moral requirement. In general, it implies the doing of all our work as well as we can. All our work includes, of course, our business, our trade, our household duties, all our daily task-work, as well as our praying, our Bible-reading, and our obeying of the moral law. We must not make the mistake of thinking that there is no piety in the way we do the common work of our trade or of our household, or our work on the farm, or in the mill or store. The faithfulness Christ requires and commends takes in all these things. Ofttimes, too, it would be easier to be faithful in some great trial, requiring sublimity of courage, than in the little unpicturesque duties of an ordinary day. Says Phillips Brooks: "You picture to yourself the beauty of bravery and steadfastness. You let your imagination wander in delight over the memory of martyrs who have died for truth. And then some little, wretched, disagreeable duty comes, which is your martyrdom, the lamp of your oil; and if you will not do it, how your oil is spilt! How flat and thin and unilluminated your sentiment about the martyrs runs out over your self-indulgent life!"
It is true, indeed, that even God cannot do our work without us, without our skill, our faithfulness. If we fail or do our little duty negligently, there will be a blank or a blur where there ought to have been something beautiful. As another says, "The universe is not quite perfect without my work well done."
One man is a carpenter. God has called him to that work. It is his duty to build houses, and to build them well. That is, he is required to be a good carpenter, to do the very best work he can possibly do. If, therefore, he does careless work, imperfect, dishonest, slurred, slighted work, he is robbing God, leaving only bad carpentering where he ought to have left good. For even God himself will not build the carpenter's houses without the carpenter.
Or, here is a mother in a home. Her children are about her, with their needs. Her home requires her skill, her taste, her refinement, her toil and care. It is her calling to be a godly mother, and to make a true home for her household. Her duty is to do always her very best to make her home beautiful, bright, happy a fit place for her children to grow up in. Faithfulness requires that she do always such service as a mother, that Jesus shall say of her home-making, "She has done what she could." To do less than her best is to fail in fidelity. Suppose that her hand should slack, that she should grow negligent, would she not clearly be robbing God? For even God cannot make a beautiful home for her children without her.
So we may apply the principle to all kinds of work. The faithfulness which God requires, must reach to everything we do to the way the child gets its lessons and recites them, to the way the dressmaker and the tailor sew their seams, to the way the blacksmith welds the iron, and shoes the horse, to the way the plumber puts the pipes into the new building and looks after the drainage, to the way the carpenter does his work on the house, to the way the bridge-builder swings the bridge over the stream, to the way the clerk represents the goods, and measures or weighs them. "Be faithful" is the word which rings from heaven in every ear. "Be faithful" is God's word for the doing of every piece of work that any one does. How soon it would put a stop to all dishonesty, all fraud, all scant work, all false weights and measures, all shams, all neglects or slightings of duty, were this lesson only learned and practiced everywhere!
"It does not matter," people say, "whether I do my little work well or not. Of course I must not steal, nor lie, nor commit forgery. These are moral things. But there is no sin in my sewing up this seam carelessly, or in my using bad mortar in this wall, or in my putting inferior timber in this house, or a piece of flawed iron in this bridge." But we need to learn that the moral law applies everywhere to carpentry, or blacksmithing, or tailoring. We never can get away from this law.
Besides, it does matter, for our neighbor's sake, as well as for the honor of God's law, how we do our work. The bricklayer does negligent work on the walls of the chimney flue he is putting in, and one night, years afterward, a spark creeps through that crevice and reaches a wooden beam which lies there, and soon the house is in flames and perhaps precious lives perish. The bricklayer was unfaithful. The foundryworker, in casting the great iron supports for a bridge, is unwatchful for an instant, and a bubble of air makes a flaw. It is buried away in the heart of the beam and escapes detection. One day, years later, there is a terrible disaster. A great railroad bridge gives way beneath the weight of an express train and hundreds of lives are lost. In the inspection, it is testified that a slight flaw in one beam was the cause of the awful calamity which hurled so many lives into eternity. The foundry workman was unfaithful.
These are but suggestions of the duty and of its importance. No work can be of so little consequence, that it matters not whether it be done faithfully or not. Unfaithfulness in the smallest things is unfaithfulness, and God is grieved, and possibly sometime, somewhere, disaster may come as the consequence of the neglect. On the other hand, faithfulness is pleasing to God, though it be only in the sweeping well of a room, or the doing neatly of the smallest things in household care. Then faithfulness is far-reaching in its influence. The universe is not quite complete, without each one's little work well done.
The self-culture that there is in the mere habit of faithfulness is in itself, a rich reward for all our striving. It is a great thing to train ourselves to do always our best to do as nearly perfect work as possible. Said Michael Angelo: "Nothing makes the soul so pure, so pious, as the endeavor to create something perfect; for God is perfection, and whoever strives for it, strives for something that is Godlike." The habit, unyieldingly persisted in, of doing everything with the most scrupulous conscientiousness, builds up in the one who so lives a noble and beautiful character.