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The Ministry of Comfort by J R Miller
J. R. Miller, 1898
1. Glimpses of Immortality
2. Why Trouble Comes
3. "But He for our Profit"
4. Love in Taking Away
5. Trouble as a Trust
6. Some Blessings of Sorrow
7. Comfort in God's Will
8. Jesus as a Comforter
9. God Himself the Best Comfort
10. The Duty of Forgetting Sorrow
11. Effectual Prayer
12. The Effacement of Self
13. One Day
14. The Culture of the Spirit
15. The Secret of Serving
16. The Habit of Happiness
17. Thinking Soberly
18. Stumbling at the Disagreeable
19. The Duty of Thanksgiving
21. Things Which Discourage Kindness
22. Putting Away Childish Things
A theological professor used to say to his students, "Never fail in any service, to have at least a word of comfort. No congregation, however small, ever assembles, but there is in it a person in sorrow, who will go away unhelped, if in scripture lesson, hymn or prayer, there is nothing to lift up a heavy heart."
No book for devotional reading would be complete, however full of other lessons, if it contained nothing for those who are in sorrow. In this little volume special prominence is given to the ministry of comfort, in the hope that the book may make some hearts braver and stronger in the hard and painful ways of life. It is affectionately dedicated to those who are called to pass through trial.
1. Glimpses of Immortality
Consciousness of immortality is a mighty motive in life. If we think only of what lies in the little dusty circle about our feet, we miss the glory for which we were made. But if we realize even dimly the fact that we are immortal, a new meaning is given to every joy of our life, to every hope of our heart, to every work of our hands.
The realization of this truth of immortality in our personal consciousness, is partly at least a matter of education. We may train ourselves to think of our life in its larger aspect. We may allow our mind to dwell only on material things, and keep our eyes on the narrow patch of earth on which we walk in our daily rounds. Or we may persist in lifting our thoughts to things which are unseen and eternal. This really is most important in the truest religious training and discipline, and we should lose no opportunity to get glimpses of things which are imperishable.
A literary friend tells of an experience with an optometrist. Her eyes were troubling her, and she asked him if she did not need a pair of new glassed. He replied, after making an examination, that it was rest which her eyes needed, not different lenses. She assured him that this was an impossible prescription, telling him a little of what she must do day by day. After a moment's thought, he asked her if she had not some wide views from her windows. She replied enthusiastically that she had – that from her front porch she could see the noble peaks of the Blue Ridge and from her back window the glories of the Alleghany foothills. "That is just what you need," said the oculist. "When your eyes get tired with your reading or writing, go and stand at your back window or your front porch, and look steadily at your mountains for five minutes—ten will be better. This far look will rest your eyes."
The friend finds in this direction, a parable for her own daily life. "Soul of mine," she says to herself, "are you tired of the little treadmill round of care and worry, of the conflicts with evil, of the struggles after holiness, of the harrowing grief of this world—tired of today's dreary commonplaces? Then rest your spiritual eyes by getting a far vision. Look up to the beauty of God's holiness. Look in upon the throngs of the redeemed, waiting inside the gates. Look out upon the wider life which stretches away illimitably."
It is such an outlook that the thought of immortality gives to us. We live in our narrow sphere in this world, treading round and round in the same little circle. Life's toils and tasks so fill our hands, that we scarcely have time for a thought of anything else. Its secularities and its struggles for bread, keep us ever bent down to the earth. The tears of sorrow, dim our vision of God and of heaven. The dust and smoke of earth's battles, hide the blue of heaven. We need continually to get far looks to rest us, and to keep us in mind of the great world which stretches away beyond our close horizons. The glimpses of eternity which flash upon us as we read our Bible or look into Christ's face, tell us anew that we so easily forget that we are immortal, that our life really has no horizon.
It is very inspiring to think of human life in this way, as reaching out beyond what we call death—and into eternity. Dying is not the end of our life—it is but an incident, a phase or process of living. Dying is not a wall, cutting off our path—it is a gate, through which we pass into larger fuller life. We say we have only three score and ten years to live, and must plan only for hopes or efforts which we can bring within this limit. But, really, we may make plans which will require ten thousand years—for we shall never die.
Life is short, even at the longest. It is but a little which we can do in our brief broken years. We begin things and we are interrupted in the midst of them, before they are half finished. A thousand breaks occur in our plans. We purpose to build something very beautiful, and scarcely have we laid the foundation when we are called to something else, or laid aside by illness, or our life ends and the work remains unfinished. It is pathetic, when a busy man has been called away suddenly—for us to go into his office or place of business or work, and see the unfinished tings he has left—a letter half written, a book half read, a picture begun but not completed. Life is full of mere fragments, mere beginnings of things.
If there is nothing beyond death, but little can come of all this poor fragmentary living and doing. The assurance, however, that life will go on without serious break, through endless years, puts a new meaning into every noble and worthy beginning. The smallest things that we start in this world will go on forever.
Paul tells us, at the close of his wonderful chapter on the resurrection, that our labor is not in vain in the Lord. Beyond our narrow horizon, a world of infinite largeness awaits us. Nothing done for Christ shall fail or be in vain. All good things shall live forever. The seeds we sow here which cannot come to harvest in earth's little years, will have abundant time for ripening in the measureless after years. The slowest ripening fruit will some day become mellow and luscious.
There is comfort in this for those whose life seems a failure here—crushed like a trampled flower under the heel of wrong or sin—broken and torn. There will be time enough in the immortal days for such broken lives to grow into strength and loveliness. Think of living a thousand years, a million years, in a world where there shall be no sin, no struggle, no injustice, no failure—but where every influence shall be inspiring and enriching; for in the immortal life all growth is towards youth, not toward the decrepitude of age.
The truth of immortality gives us a vision also of continued existence in love and blessedness, for those who have passed from us and beyond our sight. We miss them and we ask a thousand questions about them, yet get no answer from this world's wisdom. But looking through the broken grave of Christ, as through a window we see green fields on the other side, and amid the gladness and the joy we catch glimpses of the dear faces which we miss from the earthly circle. The New Testament shows us Jesus Himself beyond death, and He was not changed. He had the same gentle heart. He had not forgotten His friends. Thus it is that looking through the window of Christ's rent tomb—we have a vision of life as immortal and in the truth of immortality we find boundless inspiration, comfort for every sorrow, and gain for every loss.
2. Why Trouble Comes
There is always a mystery in sorrow. We never can understand for certain, why it comes to us. We cannot but ask questions when we find ourselves in the midst of trouble. But many of our questions must remain unanswered until earth's dim light becomes full and clear in heaven's glory. "What I do—you cannot now understand," said the Master; "but you shall understand hereafter."
Some godly people make the mistake of supposing, when any trouble comes upon them, that they have displeased God in some way and that He is punishing them for it. This was the thought in the minds of the disciples, when they asked the Master for whose sin, his own or his parent's, a certain man had been born blind. Jesus answered that the blindness had been sent for no one's sin—but for an occasion of good and blessing, for an opportunity of revealing the mercy and gentleness of God. When we have sorrow or suffering, our question should not be, "What have I done that God is punishing me for?" but, "What is the mission of this messenger of God to me?"
If we would always greet pain or trouble in this way, with welcome, reverently, in Christ's name—we would be in an attitude for receiving whatever blessing or good God has sent to us in it. There is no doubt that whatever trouble comes to us—that it comes from God on an errand of love. It is not some chance thing breaking into our life, without purpose, without intention. It is a messenger from God, and brings blessings to us. Our trouble is God's gift to us. No matter what it may be—duty, responsibility, struggle, pain, unrequited service, unjust treatment, hard conditions—it is that which God has given to us. No matter through whose fault or sin it may have come to us, when the trouble is ours—we may say it is a gift of God to us. Then being a gift from God, we may be sure that it has in it a divine blessing. As it comes to us, it may have a stern aspect, may seem unkindly, even cruel—but folded up in its forbidding form, it carries some treasure of mercy.
It is easy to find illustrations of this truth. The world's greatest blessings have come out of its greatest sorrows. Said Goethe, "I never had an affliction which did not turn into a poem." No doubt the best music and poetry in all literature had a like origin, if we could know its whole story. It is universally true that poets "learn in suffering what they teach in song." Nothing really worth while in life's lessons, comes easily without pain and cost.
Readers who find in certain books of Christian experience words which are bread to their spiritual hunger, which cheer and strengthen them, which shine like lamps on their darkness, showing them the way, do not know what it cost the writer to prepare these words, how he suffered, struggled and endured, in order that he might learn to write the sentences which are so full of helpfulness. This is one of the rewards of suffering—the power to light the way for other sufferers.
Many of the beneficences which have brought greatest good to the world have been the fruit of a bitter sorrow or a loss which seemed overwhelming. When Dr. Moon of Brighton was at the very ripeness of his powers and the summit of his achievements, he became totally blind. It seemed a terrible calamity that a man so brilliant, fitted to be so helpful to humanity, should have his career of usefulness thus ruthlessly ended. For a time his heart was full of rebellious thoughts; he could not and would not submit. He could see no possible goodness, nothing but unqualified misfortune, in the darkening of his eyes which had put an end to his career among men. But in his darkness, he began to think of others who were blind and to ponder the question whether there might not be some way by which they could be enabled to read. The outcome of his thought was the invention of the alphabet for the blind, which is now used in nearly every country and in every language, by means of which three or four million of blind in all parts of the world can read the Bible and other books. Was it not worth while for one man's eyes to be darkened, in order that such a blessing might be given to the blind of all lands?
In personal experience, too, countless of life's sweetest blessings and joys are born of sorrows. For many a man the things of earth on which he has set his heart are blighted, that his affections may be lifted to things heavenly and eternal. There are many who never saw Christ—until the light of some tender human beauty faded before their eyes, when, looking up in the darkness, they beheld that blessed Face beaming its love upon them.
A writer tells of a little bird which would not learn to sing the song its master would have it sing, while its cage was full of light. It listened and learned a snatch of this, a trill of that, a polyglot of all the songs of the grove—but never a separate and entire melody of its own. Then the master covered its cage and made it dark; and now it listened—and listened to the one song it was to learn to sing, and tried and tried and tried again until at last its heart was full of it. Then, when it had caught the melody, the cage was uncovered and it sang the song sweetly ever after in the light.
As it was with the bird, so it is with many of us, God's children. The Master has a song He wished to teach us—but we will not learn it. All about us earth's music is thrilling, and we get but a note here and there of the holy strain that is set for us. Then the Master makes it dark about us, calling us aside to suffer, and now we give heed to the sweet song He would teach us—until we can sing it through to the end. Then when we have once learned it in darkness, we go out into the light and sing it wherever we move.
When we think thus of troubles, as bearers of God's best blessings to us, they begin to wear a more helpful aspect to our thought. They come not to us lawlessly, breaking into our life with their loss, anguish, and terror—without God's permission. They do not come laden with hurt and marring, for us. They come as God's servants, and they bear in their hands divine blessings. They come not as avenging messengers to inflict punishment—but as angels of love to chasten us, perhaps to cure us of follies and sins, to lead us nearer to God, to bring out in us more beauty of Christ. No trouble of any kind ever comes to us—but it brings us something which will be a blessing to us, if only we will accept it.
But we must receive these divine messengers reverently, with hospitable welcome, as of old men received and entertained angels who came to their doors. Too often sorrow's gifts are not accepted, the messengers are not welcomed, and they can only turn and bear away again the blessing which they had brought in love—but which we would not take.
It is a serious thing to have troubles come to us, and not be graciously welcomed by us. We turn Christ Himself from our doors when we refuse to admit what He sends to us, though it be a sorrow or a loss. We thrust away heavenly treasures, shutting our heart against them. The only true way to deal with trouble—is to open our door to it as coming from God on an errand of love, its hands filled with priceless gifts for our true enriching.
3. God disciplines us for our good
"Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness." Hebrews 12:10
Affliction is not accidental. It does not break wildly and lawlessly into our life. No matter what its immediate cause or source—it is under God's direction. There is no 'chance' in the universe. This is our Father's world, and all things and all events are under His control. We need not fret ourselves over scientific laws or the inferences from them, for God is greater than His own creation and is never hindered in His purposes of love by the outworking of the laws He has established, which in any case are but His ways of working. Jesus spoke of the terrible cruelty and wrong which culminated in His death on a cross as "the cup which My Father has given Me."
It is comforting to think of trouble, in whatever form it may come to us—as a heavenly messenger, bringing us some blessing from God. In its earthly aspect it may seem hurtful, even destructive; but in its spiritual outworking, it yields blessing.
Take the matter of chastening. It is always painful—but we know that the object of our Father is our good, the correction in us of things that are wrong, and the bringing out in us of qualities of divine beauty, which otherwise would not be developed. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it very plainly in a remarkable passage. He reminds us that we are God's sons, and exhorts us not to regard lightly the chastening of the Lord, nor to faint when we are reproved by Him: "The Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son . . . God deals with you as with sons."
Referring to our acceptance of the chastening of earthly parents, he says: "We have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness." The wisest and most loving earthy father may not always chasten either wisely or lovingly—but whatever chastening our heavenly Father may minister to us, we know that He has in mind only our good, our profit. Then follow these words which interpret for us the purpose of all the trials that God sends into our life: "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it."
The teaching is clear and positive. Painful in the human experience as it must always be, we know that in its outcome, chastening always works good. We do not know how much we owe to suffering. Many of the richest blessings which have come down to us from the past, are the fruit of sorrow or pain. Others sowed in tears—and we gather the harvest in joy. We should never forget that redemption, the world's greatest blessing—is the fruit of the world's greatest sorrow. In our own personal life, it is true that in all chastening our Father's design is our profit, and that suffering rightly endured, yields the fruit of righteousness.
"He prunes every branch that produces fruit—so that it will produce more fruit." John 15:2. Take the process of pruning—the figure which our Lord Himself uses. The gardener prunes the branches—but not without wise purpose. The Master's words, referring to this process in spiritual husbandry, are rich in their comfort for those on whom the knife is doing its painful work.
For one thing, we are told that the Father is the gardener. We know that our Father loves us and would never do anything unloving or hurtful. We know that He is infinitely wise, that He looks far on in our life, planning the largest and the best good for us, not for today only—but for all the future, and that what He does is certainly the best that could be devised. In every time of sharp pruning, when the knife cuts deep and the pain is sore, it is an unspeakable comfort to read, "My Father is the gardener."
Another inspiring thought in all such experience, is that it is the fruitful branch which the Father prunes. Sometimes godly people say when they are led through great trials, "Surely God does not love me, or He would not so sorely afflict me." But it takes away all the distressing thoughts about our trouble, to read the Master's words, "He prunes every branch that produces fruit." It is not punishment to which we are subjected—but pruning, and it is because we are fruitful that we are pruned.
Still another comfort here is revealed in the object of the pruning—"He prunes every branch that produces fruit—so that it will produce more fruit." The one object of all God's pruning, is fruitfulness. The figure of pruning helps us to understand this. When one who knows nothing of such processes sees a man cutting away branch after branch of a tree or vine, it would seem to him that the work is destructive. But those who understand the object of the pruning—know that what the gardener is doing, will add to the vine's value and to its ultimate fruitfulness.
Dr. Marvin R. Vincent tells of being in a great hothouse where luscious clusters of grapes were hanging on every side. The owner said, "When my new gardener came he said he would have nothing to do with these vines unless he could cut them clean down to the stalk; and he did, and we had no grapes for two years—but this is the result." There is rich suggestiveness in this interpretation of the pruning process as we apply it to Christian life. Pruning seems to be destroying the vine. The gardener appears to be cutting it all away. But he looks on into the future and knows that the final outcome will be the enrichment of its life and greater abundance of fruit.
There is another Scripture teaching which many Christians seem to forget in time of trial. It is this—that every trouble which comes into the life of a believer, enfolds in its dark form, some gift from God. There are blessings which it would seem can be given only in pain and earthly loss, and lessons which can be learned only in suffering. There are heavenly songs we can never learn to sing while we are enjoying earth's ease. We can be trained for gentle ministry only in the school of loss and trial. In our short-sightedness we dread the hard things of life and would thrust away the bitter cups. If only we knew it, these unwelcome experiences bring to us rich gifts and benefits. There are blessings we never can have, unless we are ready to pay the price of pain. There is no other way to reach them—but through suffering.
There is a quite common misconception regarding answers to prayer, a misconception which would be corrected if we understood better the meaning of trouble as it comes into our life. In our time of suffering or sorrow, we cry to God for relief, asking Him to take away that which is so hard for us to endure. We do not remember that this very trial is a messenger of good from God to us. When we ask our Father to free us from the painful experience, we do not realize that we are really asking Him to recall an angel of mercy who has come with rich gifts in his hands for us.
What should our prayer be in such a case? There is no harm in our asking even earnestly and importunately that the suffering may pass—but we should always ask reverently, leaving it to God to decide what is best. Then the prayer should be, that if the trouble is not taken away we may be strengthened to endure it—and may not fail to receive its blessing. This is the promise, indeed, which is made. We are not told that God will either remove our burden or carry it for us. If there is a blessing in it for us, it would not be a kindness to lift it off. The assurance is, however, that He will sustain us as we bear our load.
This may disappoint some who turn to God with their trouble, thinking only of relief from it. But when we remember that God has a design in the trouble, a loving purpose, we know we cannot afford to lose it. To be freed from it would be to miss the good which is in it for us. We grow best under weights. So in love and wisdom God leaves the load on our shoulder that we may still carry it and get through it the gift which He sends us in it. He then gives us strength to bear it—strengthens us under its weight.
We have the same teaching in the word "comfort" itself, whose meaning is ofttimes greatly misunderstood. Many people looking for comfort in sorrow, expect that the bitter cup will be taken away or at least that its bitterness will be alleviated. But the word comfort is from a root which means to strengthen. Hence it contains no promise that in any way the burden will be made lighter, or the grief less poignant. God comforts us—by giving us strength to endure our trial. For example, when we turn to Him in bereavement, He does not restore our beloved, nor make the loss appear less—which could be done only by making us love less, since love and grief grow on the same stalk—but gives us new revealing of His own love to fill the emptiness, and to put into our heart new visions of the life into which our friend has gone, to help us to rejoice in his exaltation to a state of eternal blessedness.
We have an illustration of the divine comforting in the way our Lord Himself was helped in His great sorrow. As He entered the bitter experience, He prayed that the cup of suffering might pass, yet praying submissively. The prayer was not answered in the form in which it was made. Instead of relieving Him of His suffering, strength was ministered to Him, and as we listen we find the intensity of His supplication subsiding into sweet acquiescence. Thus He was comforted, and passed through all the bitter trial of the cross without one other cry for relief, His heart filled with perfect peace. It is thus that usually God's comfort comes to His people—not in the lifting off of their weight of sorrow or pain—but in strengthening them for victorious endurance.
It is well that all who are called to suffer should get a clear and definite conception of the meaning of trouble, that they may know how to meet it. Since it comes always bearing some gift of love, some blessing from God—we should receive it as God's messenger, with reverence, with a welcome in our heart, though it brings pain or grief, and should be ready to take from it whatever benefit it brings. The reason many people find so little comfort in their troubles, is because they do not accept them as sent from God, nor expect to receive blessing from them. They think only of getting through them in the best way they can, and then of getting over them at length, as nature's slow processes brings healing.
But there is a better way. God's comfort can keep the heart sweet and unhurt in the midst of the sorest trials, and bring the life through the darkest hours, shining in transfigured beauty. A genial author writes: "Strangely do some people talk of getting over a great sorrow—overleaping it, passing it by, thrusting it into oblivion. Not so. No one ever does that, at least no nature which can be touched by the feeling of grief at all. The only was is to pass through the ocean of affliction solemnly, slowly, with humility and faith, as the Israelites passed through the sea. Then its very waves of misery will divide and become to us a wall on the right side and on the left, until the gulf narrows and narrows before our eyes, and we land safe on the opposite shore."
4. Love in Taking Away
One of the finest examples of comfort in sorrow given in the Scriptures, is in Job's case. In quick succession had come the messengers of misfortune and disaster, telling him of troubles and losses, last of all reporting the death of all his children. When this climax of sad tidings was reached, Job tore his garments, fell down upon the ground and worshiped. Instead of losing sight of God under the crushing blows which had fallen upon him, as so many people do at first, in time of great sorrow—he turned at once to God, falling at His feet in reverence and homage. His faith failed not. Everything had been taken—all his earthly blessings had been stripped off. Yet in his grief and bereavement he said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised."
It is easy enough to say that God gave, and then to bless His name. God is always giving, and we readily see goodness and love in His gifts. It would have been easy for Job, as his prosperity increased, adding to his possessions, covering his fields with flocks, to say, "It is God who gives all this," and then to add, "Blessed be His holy name." It would have been easy as, one by one, his children came, bringing gladness and brightness into his home, to praise God for them, and to say, "The Lord gave—blessed be name of the Lord."
But it was not so easy now, when all this prosperity had vanished, and when his children lay dead, to put the new chord into the song and say, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised." Yet that is just what Job did. It was the Lord who had given him all that had made his life happy—and it was the same Lord who now had taken everything away—the same Lord and the same love.
There seems to have been in the stricken father, a trust which was not shaken by all the calamities which had fallen upon him in such swift succession. He was kept in perfect peace. He had received good at God's hands in countless ways, and when trouble and disaster came—he saw no reason to change his thoughts of God as his friend. He did not complain, nor blame God—but accepted the losses of property and now the sudden smiting down of his children, with unquestioning confidence. It was the same Lord, and the same love, that had first given—and now had taken away.
There is immeasurable comfort in this truth, for all who are called to give back again, the gifts which God has bestowed upon them. God is a giving God—but He is also a God who sometimes takes away, and, in taking away, He has not changed in His character, nor in His feeling toward us, His children. He loves us just as truly and as tenderly when He takes away the things or the people we love, as He did when He gave them into our hands. They were sent to us in love, and for our good they came with their blessing for our life. Then the taking away is also in love, and has good and a blessing in it.
This is true, for example, of the friends we have. We are sure of the goodness which gives them to us. They bring divine blessings from God. We say of them, "The Lord gave—blessed be the name of the Lord." We have no doubt whatever concerning the goodness of God in giving our friends to us. But by and by they are taken from us. One of every two friends must some day see the other called away, and must stand, bearing an unshared grief, by the other's grave. Can we finish Job's song of faith then and say, "And the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised." Can we believe that there is as true and holy love in the taking away—as there was in the giving?
It is not necessary that we be able to discover or to see clearly the goodness in the experience of loss or sorrow. It is here that faith comes in. We believe in God as our Father, and we may trust His goodness, even when it seems to be tearing down what awhile ago it built up, when it takes from us what on a day bright with love and blessing, it gave. The simplest faith is that which asks no questions—and does not care to know the reasons for God's ways. Ofttimes we cannot find reasons—God does not show us why He does this or that.
Yet while we may not be able fully to understand, we may conceive of elements of goodness even in the taking away. For one thing, we know it is better for our friends in that home of love into which God calls them, than it ever could have been here. The true thought of Christian dying, is that it is a phase or process of life. The sorest misfortune that could come to any Christian—would be never to die! There are developments of life which can be reached only by passing through the experience of dying. Happy as our Christian friends may have been here, and rich and beautiful as was their life—we know that they have entered sweeter deeper joy, and that their life is fuller and richer where they now are with Christ. True love in its very essence is unselfish, and it ought to mean much to us in reconciling us to our loss—to know that our friends have been taken into larger blessedness. We ought to rejoice in their new happiness and in the greater honor which is shown to them, in their entering into heaven.
Then they are kept safe and secure for us, in the home of God. We really have not lost them, although they have been taken out of our sight. They lose nothing of their beauty or their excellence of character in passing through death. The things in them which made them dear to us in this world, they will have when we shall see them again. Indeed, they will have grown into rarer beauty and into greater dearness when we find them again.
We know, further, since God is love, that when He takes our friends into richer life, He will send compensation to us, too, in some way. Even the loss and the sorrow will yield their gain and their ministry of good, unless by our attitude of mind and heart, we miss the blessing. It is possible for us to fail to get the good which God sends, shutting our heart against it. But there is no doubt that in every loss, a gain is offered to us. When God takes away one blessing—He gives another. Perhaps the withdrawal of the human object of love—makes more room in the heart for God Himself. Or the taking away of the strength which has meant so much to us, trains us to more dependence on God, thus bringing out in us qualities of which hitherto we had been unaware. Or the sorrow itself deepens our spiritual life and enriches our experience, giving us a new power of sympathy through which we may become better comforters and helpers of others.
Then the taking of our earthly loved ones from our side through the gates of blessedness, makes heaven more real to us, because they now walk there. Thus, in many ways, does new blessing come in place of what has been taken away.
Once more, we know too that God never really takes away from us, out of our life, any gift or blessing that He bestows. The flower we love, may fade—but the flower is in our heart and is ours forever. A picture is lent to you for a little while and then is removed—but while it hung on your wall and you gazed at it, it found its way into your heart, and now none can ever take it from you. Your friend walked with you a few or many days, and then vanished as to his human presence—but the threads of his life are so inextricably entangled with yours, that he and you can never be really separated. What God takes away, is but the form which our eyes can see. This He keeps for us for a time until it has grown into fuller beauty and until we have grown, too, into larger capacity for love and for appreciation, and then He will give it back to us.
So it is
only for a little while that
God takes from us our loved ones. We shall have them back again, made into
immortal beauty. The hopes we mourn as having perished, are yet in Christ's
hands. He will keep them safe for us and at length will give them back to us in
radiant and imperishable loveliness. In this life we see only the beginnings of
our good things—we see them only in bud and blossom; the full fruit, the
ripeness we shall not get until we enter the eternal and better life. One of the
surprises of heaven, will be our finding there the precious hopes, joys, and
dreams which seemed to have perished on earth—not left behind—but all carried
forward and ready to be given into our hands the moment we get home.
5. Trouble as a Trust
One wrote to a friend who for some time had been a sufferer, "God must love you very dearly, to trust so much pain and sorrow to your care." The thought of suffering as something entrusted to us by God, is a very suggestive one. We may not be accustomed to think of it in this way. Yet there is no doubt that every trouble which comes to us is really a trust, something committed to us to be accepted by us, used as a gift of God, and then accounted for.
It is thus, indeed, that all life comes to us. Nothing is our own to use for ourselves only. We receive our gifts and talents, not to be spent on ourselves or as we please—but to be increased by proper use, held for the honor of the Master, employed for the benefit of the world, and then returned to our Lord when He calls for the accounting.
Money is to be regarded likewise as a trust—not our own—but our Master's, to be used for Him in doing good to others. The same is true of all blessings that we receive. We dare not use any of them, even the smallest, for our own pleasure or comfort alone; if we do—they cease to be blessings to us. Even divine mercy, the greatest of all God's gifts, which is granted so freely to every penitent, can become ours only on condition that we shall dispense it to others. When we ask to be forgiven, we must pledge our Father that we will be forgiving. The forgiveness we receive is not for ourselves only—but is a trust to be used, to be given out again to others.
This is the law of all life. Everything which is put into our hands, from the tiniest flower which blooms in our window—to the infinite gift of eternal life—all are entrusted to us that we may share their beauty and benefit with those about us. They are bestowed upon us, not as a treasure to be selfishly used—but as blessings to be dispensed to others. To try to keep any blessing altogether for ourselves, is to lose it; we can make its blessing really our own—only by holding it and using it for the good of others.
Suffering in every form comes under the same principle. It is a trust from God. It may have, and doubtless has, its peculiar meaning for us. But we must listen for its message. It brings in its dark folds some gift of God expressly for us—but not for us to hold selfishly or to absorb in our own life. Whatever is spoken to us in the darkness of sorrow, we are to speak out in the light. What we hear in the ear as we listen in the hour of grief or pain—we are to proclaim upon the housetops. What is revealed to us in the darkened room, when the curtains are drawn—we must go and tell others in their hours of need and trial. In all trouble—we are stewards of the mysteries of God.
Pain is wonderful revealer. It teaches us many things we never could have known, if we had not been called to endure it. It opens windows through which we see, as we never saw before—the beautiful things of God's love. But the revealing is not to be hidden in our own heart. If we try thus to keep them, we shall miss their blessing; only by declaring them to others, can we make them truly our own and get their treasure for ourselves. Only what we give away, can we really hold forever.
No doubt God's children are ofttimes called to suffer in order that they may honor God in some way. This is illustrated in the case of Job. Satan sneeringly asks, "Does Job fear God for nothing? Have not you made a hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth your hand now, and touch all that he has—and he will renounce you to your face."
It was necessary that this challenge of Satan's should be met and disproved, and hence the great trials through which Job was called to pass. His sufferings were not for the cleansing of his own nature, or the correction of faults in his character—but in order that he might show by his unshaken faith that his serving of God was not for earthly reward—but from true loyalty of soul.
Ofttimes the primary reason why godly men are called to suffer, is for the sake of witness they may give to the sincerity of their love for Christ and the reality of divine grace in them. The world sneers at religious profession. It refuses to believe that it is genuine. It defiantly asserts that what is called Christian principle is only selfishness, and that it would not stand severe testing. Then, godly men are called to endure loss, suffering or sorrow, not because there is any particular evil in themselves which needs to be eradicated—but because the Master needs their witness to answer the sneers of the world.
This suggests how important it is that all who claim to be Christ's followers shall guard most carefully the manner of their witnessing when they are passing though any trial. They do not know how much depends upon the victoriousness of their faith and joy in the hour of pain. Suppose that Job had failed, that he had not retained his integrity in the time of his sore trial; how Satan would have triumphed! But may it not be that in some sickness or loss or sorrow of ours, a like importance attaches to our faithfulness and submission, to our victoriousness, and that our failure would bring grief to the heart of Christ and cause the adversary to reproach God's name?
Then, whatever the unknown and inscrutable reason may be why we are called or permitted to suffer, there is always a duty of witnessing from which we cannot be exempted. Yet do many people think of this? We all understand that we are to confess Christ in our life before men, in our conduct, our words, our disposition, in our business, in our conflict with evil. But are we accustomed to think of a duty of confessing Christ in time of sorrow or trial? Too often those who in all other experiences are loyal to Christ, seem to break down in times of trouble, their faith failing. There is nothing in the way they endure pain or loss to show that they have any support or help which those who are not Christians do not have. No light from heaven seems to break into their earthly darkness. No unseen hand appears to come to them in their struggle, to hold them up. The comforts of God do not have any meaning for them. The voices of hope have no cheer for them.
But it is not thus that the friends of Christ should testify for their Master in their times of trial. The divine promises cover every experience. We are assured of the presence of Christ with us in every dark path, in every lonely way. We are clearly taught that the love of God never fails His children, that it is as true and tender in times of affliction—as it is in times of gladness, that it is the same when blessings are taken away—as when they are given. We know that all things work together for good to those who love God. It is made plain in the Scriptures, that no tribulation can harm us if we abide in Christ, that we shall be preserved blameless through the most terrible trials, if our faith in Christ does not fail. Many of life's events are full of mystery—we cannot understand them, nor can we see how they are consistent with God's love and wisdom. But we have the most positive assurance that some time we shall understand, and that in everything we shall see divine goodness.
With such comforts for every experience, we should never be cast down, however great are our trials. We should let the divine consolations into our heart, and believe them implicitly. We cannot but feel the pangs of grief—God will never blame us for our tears—but in our deepest afflictions our faith should not fail, and the songs of joy should not be choked. People are looking upon us and, and consciously or unconsciously, watching to see what Christ can do for us in our sore stress. To witness truly for Him we must suffer victoriously, be more than conquerors through Him that loved us.
We say that we believe on Christ and in the immortal life; what does our believing do for us? Do we endure our trials in such a radiant way, that those who see us are led to believe in Christ and to seek His love and help for themselves? If trouble is something committed to us as a trust, we must accept it reverently and submissively, we must endure it patiently and sweetly, we must take the divine comfort and let it sustain and strengthen us, and we must pass through it songfully, unhurt, with life enriched. Thus shall our trouble honor Christ and be a blessing to others.
There is a strange story of Abraham which illustrates one way in which trial must be endured if in it we would honor God. The old patriarch was bidden to take his son, his only son, the son of his love and of promise, and offer him on an altar as a burnt offering. The record says that God gave this command to Abraham to prove him, that is, to see if his faith would endure the test. And God was not disappointed in His friend. After it was all over, the angel of the Lord said to Abraham, "Because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son… in blessing I will bless you."
Abraham accepted his trial as a trust from God, was faithful, and did not fail God. Then who can tell what a blessing his faithfulness has been to the world through the centuries? Other people have been taught by Abraham's example, to give their children to God unquestioningly, willing that He should use them as He will, in whatever form of service will best honor Him and most greatly bless the world.
We are always in danger of selfishness in times of grief or sorrow. We are apt to forget our duty to those about us. Some godly people drop out of their hands the tasks of love which filled them in the days of joy, and feel that they cannot take them up again. Some allow their life to be hurt, losing its sweetness, its joy, its zest. There are those who are never the same after a sore bereavement or a keen disappointment. They never get back again their winningness of spirit, their interest in others, and their enthusiasm in duty. They come out of their trial, self-centered, less joyous as Christians, less ready to do good.
But not thus should trouble affect us, if we accept it as a trust from God. Not only should we endure it victoriously, sustained by Christ—but we should emerge from it ready for better service and for greater usefulness than ever before. We are told that Jesus was made perfect through suffering. He learned in His own experience of sorrow, how to sympathize with His people in their sorrows, and how to comfort them. One of the reasons for trouble, is that in it we may be prepared for helping others in their troubles. Sorrow is a school, and we meet it as we should, only when we learn the lessons and go out fitted for being a richer blessing in the world.
The problem of all true living is not to miss pain or trial—but in all experiences, however hard or bitter, to keep our heart ever sweet, and our ministry of good, and helpfulness ever uninterrupted. The keenest suffering should make us only the gentler in spirit, and send us out to be yet more loving and thoughtful—a benediction to everyone we meet.
In one of Paul's epistles, we are taught that God's comfort also is given to us in trust. We do not receive it for ourselves only—but that we may give it out again to others. To the Corinthians, the apostle wrote in an outburst of joyous praise: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, the God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction, that we may be able to comfort them that are in any affliction, through the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God." Thus the intention of our heavenly Father, when He finds us in sorrow and ministers comfort to us, is not merely to get us through the trial, to strengthen us to endure for ourselves the pain or loss—but also to prepare us for being comforters of others.
When we have been helped to say, "Your will be done," in some great trial, and have been enabled to go on rejoicing in tribulation, we have a secret which we must tell others. We must go to those whom we find in grief or trial, and sitting down beside them, let them know what God did for us when we were in like experience, giving them the words of God which have helped us.
When we pray for comfort in sorrow, it should be with this motive—that we may get a new blessing to take to others. To ask to be comforted merely that we may be able to endure our own pain or grief is to pray selfishly. But when we pray that God would teach us the lessons of comfort that we may teach them again to others that He would help us to overcome that we may help others to be victorious, our prayer pleases Him and will be answered.
Thus our lesson gathers itself all into this: We are "stewards of the mysteries of God. … It is required in stewards that a man be found faithful." When God sends us pain or sorrow—we are to be faithful. We are to accept our trust with love and to think of it as something of God's, which is committed to us. However heavy the burden, it is a gift from God and has a blessing in it for us. We must never forget that in our hardest trial—we have something of God's in our hands, and must treat it reverently and get from it whatever good God has sent to us in it. Then we must think of it also as something which is not for ourselves alone—but which we are to share with others.
It is a law among physicians, that whatever new discovery in medical science one makes—he must communicate it to the whole profession, that all may use the new knowledge for the alleviation of suffering or the saving of life. It should be a law of Christian life, that every good or blessing one may receive from God, any new revealing of truth, any new lesson, should be used for the helping of others in the name of Christ.
6. Some Blessings of Sorrow
It may seem strange to some, to speak of the blessing of sorrow. We would say at first thought, "Surely nothing good can come from anything so terrible!" Yet the Word of God assures us, and the experience of the ages confirms the assurance—that many of the richest and best blessings of life, come out of affliction.
One of the most striking visions of heaven granted to the revelator on Patmos, was that of a glorified company who seemed to surpass all the other blessed ones in the splendor of their garments and the radiant honor of their state. They were arrayed in white robes, carried palms in their hands, and stood nearest to the Throne and the Lamb. We would have said that these were the children of joy, that they had come up from earth's scenes of gladness, that their condition in life had been one of exceptional ease and freedom from trouble, that they had never known a care or a grief. But when the question was asked, "Those who are arrayed in the white robes, who are they, and whence came they?" the answer was, "These are those who have come out of the great tribulation." They were the children of earth's sorrow. They had been brought up in the school of trial.
This vision would seem to teach us that those redeemed ones who on earth have had the most affliction; in heaven attain the highest honor. Their robes are whitest, indicating surpassing purity. They bear palm branches, emblems of victory, showing that they have overcome in life's struggles. They are nearest Christ, too, among the glorified, verifying the promise that those who suffer with Him shall also reign with Him.
The Scriptures contain many words which receive confirmation in this glimpse within the gates. We are told that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. The way into a life of spiritual blessedness, is through pain. In the messages to the seven churches we have glimpses of great privileges, blessings, and honors which are within the reach of the followers of Christ. One shows us the tree of life in the paradise of God. In another we see a crown of life waiting to be put upon the head of him who is faithful. In another the lifting of the veil reveals to us hidden manna, and a white stone, with a new name written on it. In another it is power that is promised, authority to rule. Other of these visions show us white garments and the name written in the Book of Life, an honored place in the Temple of God, and, last of all, a seat beside Christ on His Throne. But all of these heavenly prizes are shown to us—beyond a field of struggle, and he who would win them must first fight the battle and be a victor. "To him that overcomes," runs the promise in every case. Not to overcome would be to miss the prize. Not to have the trial and the struggle would be to stay in lower, lesser blessedness.
We do not know what we owe to our sorrows. Without them we would miss the sweetest joys, the divinest revealing, and the deepest experiences of life. Afflictions are opportunities. They come to us bearing gifts. If we can accept them—they leave in our hand heavenly treasures. Not to be able to receive the bearer of the blessings—is to miss the blessings and to be poorer all the rest of our days.
Many of the finest things in character are the fruits of pain. Many a Christian enters trial, cold, worldly, unspiritual, with the best possibilities of his nature still locked up in his life, and emerges from the experience a little later, with spirit softened, mellowed, and spiritually enriched, the lovely things brought out. A photographer carries his picture into a darkened room that he may bring out its features. He says the light of the sun would mar the impression on the sensitized plate. There are features of spiritual beauty which cannot be produced in a life in the glare of human joy and prosperity. God brings out in many a soul its loveliest qualities—when the curtain is drawn and the light of human joy is shut out.
Sanctified afflictions soften the harshness and sharpness of one's character. They consume the dross of selfishness and worldliness. They humble pride. They temper worldly ambitions. They quell fierce passions. They show to us the evil of our own heart, revealing our weaknesses, faults, and blemishes—and making us aware of our spiritual danger. They discipline the wayward spirit. Sorrow draws its sharp ploughshare through the heart, cutting deep and long furrows, and the heavenly Sower follows with the seeds of godly virtues. Then by and by fruits of righteousness spring up. Sorrow has a tenderizing influence. It makes us gentle and kindly toward each other. It has been said that "The last, the best fruit which comes to late perfection, even in the kindliest soul, is tenderness toward the hard, forbearance toward the unforbearing, warmth of heart toward the cold, and philanthropy toward the misanthropic." In no other school do our hearts learn the lessons of patience, tolerance, and forbearance so quickly—as in the school of suffering. Harsh feelings are softened, and kindly charity takes the place of resentment. Many a household is saved from disintegration, by a grief which bows all hearts before God and wakes up the slumbering affections.
Ofttimes, indeed, sorrow is one of the secrets of happy home life. It is a new marriage when young parents stand, side by side, by the coffin of their first born. Grief is like a sacrament to those who share it, with Christ beside them. Many homes have been cured of harshness of spirit and sharpness of speech, and saved from pride, coldness, and heedlessness, by a sorrow which broke in upon the careless household life. Most of us need the chastening of pain to bring out the best of our love.
Another of the blessings which come from trial, is the finding of one's soul. It was in his great distress that the prodigal "came to himself." Many people walk in a dream, as it were, until in some trouble they are aroused to see the reality of spiritual things. They are happy in their earthly gladness, satisfied with their human ambitions, unaware meanwhile of the flitting nature of this world and of the eternal stability of the spiritual world. They are living in a dream, as it were. Then sorrow breaks in upon them. One who is very dear is lifted out of the circle and glorified. At once revealing comes. They see how mistakenly they have been living, and how perilously.
One tells of a company of tourists on the Alps who were overtaken by night, and after groping in the deep darkness for a time were compelled to settle down and wait until morning. A thunderstorm arose during the darkness and a vivid lightening flash showed them that they had stopped on the very edge of a precipice. Another step forward and they would have fallen to their death. The lightning flashes of sorrow ofttimes reveal to Christian people the peril in which they are living, and lead them to turn to safer paths. Many a redeemed one in glory will look back to the time of a great grief as the time of seeing God, which led to penitence and faith.
Another result of sorrow, when it is accepted, is in preparing us to be better messengers of God to others. Jesus Himself was made ready to be a sympathizing and helpful Friend by His human sufferings. He understands our grief because in His own life He was acquainted with grief. He is able to be a comforter to us because He Himself was comforted. Paul tells us that the reason God comforts us in our trouble—is that we may become comforters of others in their afflictions. We have a new power with which to bless others, when we have come from an experience of grief. An emptied heart is a wonderful sympathizer in other's bereavements. The power to be a true helper of those who are in trouble, a binder up of broken hearts—is the most divine of all enduements. Surely, then, it is worth while to pay any price of pain or suffering, in order to receive the divine anointing for such sacred ministry.
True comfort has a strange power to heal, to bind up hearts' wounds, to turn sorrow into joy. The Christian home which has been broken by bereavement, under the wise tuition of Christ, and the gentle influences of the divine love, is made to have a deeper happiness than ever it had before. The truth of immortality brings back the missing ones, as it were, and they sit again in their old places. The vacant chairs seem filled once more, and the love of the absent ones appears as real and as tender as it did when they were here. Christian faith nullifies the sad work of death, and binds again the broken ties.
7. Comfort in God's Will
A great secret of comfort lies in our heartfelt prayer, "Not my will—but Yours, be done." When we can say this and abandon ourselves and all in our life which causes perplexity or care, into the hands of divine wisdom and love, the struggle is over and the peace of God is already keeping our heart in quietness and confidence. This was the secret of the comfort which came to our Lord Himself in Gethsemane. He was face to face with the most terrible experience any soul ever met in this world. The record says He was exceeding sorrowful, even unto death. "Being in agony He prayed." The Holy Sufferer pleaded that the cup of bitter anguish now being held to His lips might pass from Him. Never was more intense prayer offered to the Father. But amid the anguished pleading, was heard the self restraining word of submission, "Not My will—but Yours, be done." There was something more important than the granting of the suppliant's request—it was that the purpose of God for Him that hour should go on unhindered.
It is interesting to trace the course of the Gethsemane prayer, and to see how the note of submission gains the ascendancy over the pleading for relief, until at length the struggle ends in acquiescence and perfect peace. The first supplication was, "O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass away from Me: nevertheless, not as I will—but as You will." A little later Jesus returned again to His pleading and we hear this petition from His lips: "O My Father, if this cannot pass away, unless I drink it—may Your will be done." The fierceness of the struggle in the Sufferer's soul, was being mastered by the spirit of submission to the divine will. Soon the agony was over. The victory had been won. We have at least an echo of the comfort which filled the heart of Jesus in His word to Peter, a little later, when that warm hearted but rash disciple had drawn his sword to resist the betrayal and the arrest of his Master: "The cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?" There was no word no of supplication for the passing away of the cup. Jesus had made way for His Father's will—and was comforted.
There is no other way by which true comfort can come to any heart in time of sorrow but by acquiescence. So long as we cannot say, "Not my will—but Your be done," the struggle is still going on, and we are still uncomforted. Comfort is peace, and there is no peace until there is acquiescence in the will of God. Whatever the sorrow, therefore, if we would find divine comfort—we must seek to bring our will into complete harmony with our Father's will.
There are reasons why we should do this in every grief or sorrow. One is that God has a plan and a purpose for our life. There is something He would make of us, and something He would have us do. What this divine thought for our particular life is, the divine will discloses. Every time we resist this will and refuse to accept it at any point, we mar the beauty and completeness of our own life. God's purpose for us runs through whatever sorrows or sufferings there may be in our lot. In all our experiences, God's will for us is the bringing out of His image in us. Only by acquiescence in the divine will, can we have our life fashioned after this heavenly pattern.
Another reason why we should let God's will work without resistance, without complaining, in our life—is that God is our King, and has a sovereign right to reign over us. Lack of submission is rebellion. Not only should our submission be complete, without condition and without reserve, in the smallest as well as in the greatest matters; it should also be cheerful and songful. Chafing and murmuring grieve God. The moment we recognize the will of God in either a duty or a sorrow—we should accept it with delight. In no other way can we please God and have His blessing of peace.
Another reason for submitting to the divine will in time of trouble, is that God always seeks our good. He is our Father, and would never send into our life anything which would harm us, nor take from us anything which would leave us poorer or less blessed. We are sure, too, that His wisdom is perfect, and that He knows what really is good for us. We ourselves do not know. We cannot follow the influence of this or that in our life, nor know where such and such a course would lead us. We have no wisdom to choose our own lot, and we would far better let God decide for us what is best.
The thing we are so eager to get, it may be, would do irreparable hurt to our truest life. The joy we so desire to keep, and which we think indispensable to our happiness, perhaps has done its full work for us and in us, and would better now be taken away. God knows what is best for us, and His will is not only perfect wisdom—but also perfect love. To resist it is to do harm to our own life; to reject it and insist upon having our own way—would be to choose evil, not good, for ourselves.
It does not seem to us that sorrow can be the bearer of blessing to us. Yet there is no doubt that every grief or pain which comes, brings a blessing wrapped in its dark folds. There is a marginal reading of a verse of one of the Psalms, which tells us that our burden is a gift—God's gift to us. Every burden which is laid upon us, however it may have become ours, carries, folded up in it, a gift of God. God's gifts are always good. To refuse to accept the burden—would be to reject a gift of love from our Father and to thrust away a blessing sent for the enrichment of our life.
Diamonds are sometimes found in the center of rough stones. It is said that the first discovery of diamonds in South Africa was in some pebbles which were tossed about on the ground by passing feet. A scientific man came upon a group of boys using some of these stones for marbles, and his keen eye detected the gem that was wrapped up in the rough encrusting. So it is that the stern and severe experiences which we call sorrows, conceal within their forbidding exterior, diamonds of God's love and grace. We do not know how we are robbing ourselves, when we refuse to accept the trials which come to us in God's providence. Acquiescence in the divine will is taking into our life the good which our Father is offering to us.
There are those who are called to long years of suffering or of sorrow. It is a comfort for such to think of their pain or grief as a friend sent to accompany them on the way. Mrs. Gilchrist wrote of Mary Lamb, "She had a lifelong sorrow, and learned to find its companionship not bitter." When the sufferer learns to think thus of the pain or the sorrow which stays and does not depart—the bitterness is turned to sweetness and the life finds blessing, inspiration, uplift, purifying in the sacred companionship.
Or it may be that the will of God would take from us something very dear which we would like to keep. We should always remember that God's love is the same, whether He is putting new gifts into our hands, or taking away those we have learned to cherish. The good things which mean so much to us are His, not ours. They have only been lent to us for a time, and for a specific purpose. When their mission is finished God, recalls them, and we may be sure there is blessing in the recalling.
A beautiful story is told of a devout Jewish home in which were twin boys who were greatly beloved. In the absence of the father both boys suddenly died. When the father returned, no knowing of the sorrow in his home, the mother met him at the door and said,
had a strange visitor since you went away."
"Who was it?" asked the father, not suspecting her meaning.
"Five years ago," his wife answered, "a friend lent me two precious jewels. Yesterday he came and asked me to return them to him. What shall I do?"
"Are they his?" asked the father, not dreaming of her meaning.
"Yes, they belong to him and were only lent to me."
"If they are his, he must have them again, if he desires."
Leading her husband to the boy's room, the wife drew down the sheet, uncovering the lovely forms, white as marble. "These are my jewels," said the mother. "Five years ago God lent them to me and yesterday He came and asked them again. What shall we do?"
With a great sob, the father said, bowing his head, "May the will of the Lord be done."
That is the way to find God's comfort. He has a right to take from us what he will, for all our joys and treasures belong to Him and are only lent to us for a time. It was in love that He gave them to us; it is in love that He takes them away. When we cease our struggle, and in faith and confidence submit our will to His, peace flows into our heart and we are comforted.
Thus it is that the secret of divine comfort is found in complete, quiet, and joyful yielding to the will of God. It does not make the pain of the sorrow less; it does not give back the loved one who has been called away—but it brings the heart into full accord with God, and thus gives sweet peace. "Not my will—but Yours, be done," ends all strife and struggle, and the soul rests in undisturbed calm on the bosom of God. We do not try to understand, we ask no more questions; we simply trust and leave all in our Father's hands, and are strangely, sweetly comforted.
8. Jesus as a Comforter
It is interesting to study Jesus as a comforter. The comfort He gave to His friends was strong and true. We have an illustration of this in the Bethany home. The sorrow was very great. Lazarus was dead, and Jesus came, not as other friends came, merely to mourn with the sisters—but to comfort their hearts in their overwhelming grief.
First, He lifted the veil and gave them a glimpse of what lies beyond death. "Your brother shall rise again." "I am the resurrection, and the life—he who believes on Me, though he dies, yet shall he live; and whoever lives and believes on Me, shall never die." Thus He opened a great window into the eternal world. This is all plainer to us than it could be at that time to Martha and Mary; for a little while after Jesus had spoken these words, He Himself passed through death, coming again from the grave in immortal life. To those who sorrow over the departure of a Christian friend, it is a wonderful comfort to know the true teaching of the New Testament on the subject of dying. Death is not the end; it is a door which leads into fullness of eternal glory.
Many in bereavement, though believing the doctrine of the future resurrection, fail to get present comfort from it. Jesus assured Martha that her brother should rise again. "Yes, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day," she said. The hope was too distant to give her much comfort. Her sense of present loss outweighed every other thought and feeling. She craved back again, the companionship she had lost. Who that has stood by the grave of a precious friend, has not experienced the same feeling of inadequateness in the consolation which comes from even the strongest belief in a far off rising again of those who are in their graves?
The Master's reply to Martha's hungry heart cry is very rich in its comfort. "I am the resurrection." This is one of the wonderful present tenses of Christian hope. To Martha's thought the comfort of resurrection was a dim far away consolation. "I am the resurrection," said Jesus. The resurrection was something present, not remote. His words embraced the whole blessed truth of immortal life. "Whoever lives and believes on Me shall never die." There is no death for those who are in Christ. The body dies—but the person lives on. The resurrection may be in the future—but there is no break whatever in the life of the believer in Christ. He is not here, our eyes see Him not, our ears hear not His voice, we cannot touch Him with our hands; but He still lives, thinks, feels, remembers and loves. No power in His being has been quenched by dying; no beauty dimmed, no faculty destroyed.
This is a part of the comfort which Jesus gave to His friends in their bereavement. He assured them, that for the believer there is no death. There remains for those who stay behind, the pain of separation and of loneliness—but for those who have passed over we need have no fear.
How does Jesus comfort the friends who are left? As we read over the story of the sorrow of this Bethany home, we find the answer to our question. You say, "He brought back their dead, thus comforting them by the literal undoing of the work of death and grief. If only He would do this now, in every case where love cries to Him—that would be comfort indeed." But we must remember that the return of Lazarus to his home, was only a temporary restoration. He came back to his old life of mortality, temptation, sickness, pain and death. He came back, too, only for a season. It was not a resurrection to immortal life; it was only a restoration to mortal life. He must pass again through the mystery of dying, and the second time his sisters must experience the agony of separation and loneliness. We can scarcely call this comfort—it was merely a postponement for a little while, of the final separation.
But Jesus gave the sisters true comfort besides this. His own presence with them brought them comfort. They knew that He loved them. Many times before, when He had entered their home, He had brought benedictions. They had a feeling of security and peace in His presence. Even their great grief lost something of its poignancy when the light of His face fell upon them. Every strong, tender and true human love, has comforting power. We can pass more easily through a sore trial, if a trusted friend is beside us. The believer can endure any sorrow, if Jesus is with him.
The trouble with us too often, is that we do not realize the presence of our Master though, He is close beside us, and miss altogether the comfort of His love. Mary stood with breaking heart by the empty grave, crying out for her Lord, who even then was close behind her—but unrecognized, "she supposed Him to be the gardener." A moment later, however, the speaking of her name in the old familiar tone of voice, revealed Him to her, and instantly her sorrow was turned into joy. Likewise, we stand ofttimes in the deep shadows of grief, longing for comfort, yearning for love, while Christ is close beside us, closer than any human friend can be. If only we will dry our tears and look up into His face, believing—our soul shall be flooded with His wonderful love, and our sorrow shall be swallowed up in fullness of joy. There is never the least doubt about the presence of Christ in our times of trouble; it is only because we remain unaware of that presence, that we are not comforted.
Another element of comfort for these sorrowing sisters, was in the sympathy of Jesus. There was a wonderful gentleness in His manner, as He received first one and then the other. Mary's grief was deeper than Martha's, and when Jesus saw her weeping, He groaned in spirit and was troubled. Then, in the shortest verse in the Bible, we have a window into the very heart of the Master, and we find there the most wonderful sympathy.
"Jesus wept." It is a great comfort in time of sorrow, to have even human sympathy, to know that somebody cares, that someone feels with us. It would have added something—very much indeed—of comfort for the sisters—if John, or Peter, or James, had wept with them beside their brother's grave. But the tears of the Master meant incalculably more. They told of the holiest sympathy this world ever saw—the Son of God weeping with two sisters in a great human sorrow.
This shortest verse in the Bible, was not written merely as a fragment of the narrative—it contains a revealing of the heart of Jesus for all time. Wherever a believer in Christ is sorrowing, One stands by, unseen, who shares the grief. There is immeasurable comfort in the revealing that the Son of God—suffers with us in our suffering, is afflicted in all our affliction, and is touched with the feeling of our infirmities. We can endure our trouble more quietly, when we know this.
There is yet another feature in the manner of Christ's comforting His friends, which are suggestive. Too often human sympathy is nothing but a sentiment. Our friends weep with us—and then pass by on the other side. They tell us they are sorry for us, yet they do nothing to help us. But the sympathy of Jesus at Bethany was very practical. Not only did He reveal His affection for His friends in coming all the way from Peraea, to be with them in their trouble; not only did He show His love by speaking to them words of divine comfort, which have made a shining track through the world ever since; not only did He weep with them in their grief—but He also wrought the greatest of all His miracles to restore to them their heart's joy.
No doubt thousands of other friends of Jesus, in bereavement have wished that He would comfort them in like manner, by giving back their beloved one. Ofttimes He does what is in effect the same—in answer to the prayer of faith, He spares the lives of those who are dear and who seem about to be taken away. When we pray for the recovery of our friends who are sick, our prayer, if we pray acceptably, always ends with, "Not my will—but Yours, be done." Even the most passionate longing of our affection, we subdue in the quiet confidence of faith. If it is not best for our loved one, if it would not be a real blessing, if it is not God's way, then, "Not my will—but Yours, be done." If we pray thus, we must believe that the issue, whatever it may be, is God's best for us. If our friends are taken away, there is unspeakable comfort in the confidence that this was God's will for them. If they recover, it is Christ who has given them back to us, as He gave back Lazarus to Martha and Mary.
The problem of sorrow in a Christian life is a very serious one. It is important that we have a clear understanding upon the subject, in order that when it falls to our lot to suffer, we may receive blessing, and not hurt, from our experience. Every sorrow which comes into our life brings us something good from God. But we may reject the good, and if we do, we not only miss blessing—but receive harm instead. There is in Jesus Christ, an infinite resource of consolation, and we have only to open our heart to receive it. Then we shall pass through sorrow sustained by divine help and love, and shall come from it enriched in character and blessed in all our life. Our griefs set lessons for us to learn, and we should diligently seek to get into our life, whatever it is that our Master would teach us. In every pain is folded the seed of blessing—we should make sure that the seed shall have an opportunity to grow, and that we may gather its fruit. In every tear, a rainbow hides—but only when the sunshine falls upon the crystal drop, is the splendor revealed.
9. God Himself, the Best Comfort
After all, the most heart satisfying comfort in time of trouble, is found in God Himself, and not in anything God says or does. The Christian revelation concerning death brings comfort, when we learn to think of it as really only a process in which the life passes out of limitation, imperfection, and unattainment; emerging into rich beauty and wondrous enlargement. The truth of immortality also gives comfort, as we think of our godly friends entering upon an existence in blessedness which shall never have an end. There is comfort, too, in the assurance that God makes no mistakes in any of His dealings with us, and that in time, we shall see beauty and good—where now we see only what seems to be marring and hurt. We get a measure of comfort, also, in the divine assurance that "all things work together for good to them that love God," that sorrow has a mission, and that within every trial, God sends a blessing.
But the comfort which means most to the heart which is bruised or broken, is that which comes in the personal revealing of God, and in the experiences of communion with Him. One of the common failures of Christian faith, is in being satisfied with God's gifts and not then going on to find God Himself. God is always better than His best gifts. Always it is true that "the gift without the giver is bare." Especially is this true of God and His gifts.
We have illustrations of this in human friendships. One comes into our life, who does many things for us. His words encourage, cheer, and strengthen us. His kindness adds to our pleasure. His helpfulness in many ways, makes our burdens lighter. But we have never yet entered into close relations with Him. There has been no occasion in our life, no time of need, to draw Him near to us in those revealings in which the heart gives its best. We know Him only through what He has done for us in a general way. But at length there comes an experience of common kindness and helpfulness, the man gives us part of himself. We often hear it said of some friend: "I knew him for years, and he did a great deal for me; but I never learned what nobleness there was in his nature, what treasure of good there was in his friendship, until the time of my great need a few months since, when he came into my life with all his marvelous power of personal helpfulness." No longer was it merely the things the man did, which gave help—it was now the man himself who poured out the wealth of his own life, and this was better than the best of all his gifts, and of his services.
It is the same with God. There are many people who receive countless blessings from Him and who rest on His promises, who yet do not get to know God Himself in a personal way. There are many who for a time trusted Christ and found great comfort in the assurances of His love—but who at length, in some season of trial, entered into close relations of personal friendship with Him. In this revealing they found treasures of love, of sympathy, and of comfort, far surpassing the best they had ever experienced before. In seeking, therefore, for help in sorrow, we should never be content with the gifts of God alone, or with the comforts which come in His words of promise; we should pass beyond all these to God Himself and seek satisfaction in the infinite blessedness of His love.
It is thus that the Scriptures represent God. He is ever, with lavish hand, dispensing His mercies and benefits—but He would not have us content with these. "He makes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust." But He desires to manifest Himself to His children as He does not to the world. The great Bible saints found their satisfaction and their help, not in God's gifts—but in God himself. Thus the reason for David's sublime assurance, "I shall not want," was not because he had great stores of God's gifts laid up—but because "the Lord is my Shepherd." His confidence was not in the wealth which God had given him, which would cover all his wants for the future—but in God Himself.
In another psalm, the writer's intense longing is not for any mere tokens of divine goodness, any mere benefits or favors—but for God Himself. "As a deer longs for streams of water, so I long for You, God. I thirst for God, the living God!" Psalm 42:1-2 His thirst was unappeasable in any way—but in fellowship with God. Nothing that God could have given him of the richest of His gifts, of the sweetest blessings of His hand, would have satisfied him. It was for God Himself, the living God that he thirsted. The human soul was made for God, and God alone can meet its need.
The only heart-filling comfort, therefore, in time of sorrow is that which is in God Himself. It is thus, too, that our Father desires to bless us; He asks for our fullest trust, and He would reveal Himself to us in tenderest personal ways. After Horace Bushnell's death, there were found, dimly penciled on a sheet of paper, laid in his Bible, these words: "My mother's loving instinct was from God, and God was in her love to me first—which love was deeper than hers and more protracted. Long years ago she vanished—but God stays by me still, embracing me in my grey hairs as tenderly and carefully as she did in my infancy, and giving to me as my joy and the principal glory of my life, that He lets me know Him, and helps me, with real confidence, to call Him my Father."
That is very beautiful. Mother love is God coming to us in an incarnation which even infancy soon learns to understand. What the mother is to her baby, God is to His child unto the end. The Scriptures strive continually to make the truth of the divine nearness real to us. We are taught to call God our Father—but there is something about the mother's relation to her child which is even closer and tenderer than a father's. So when God is seeking most earnestly to make His people understand the tenderness of His love and yearning for them, He says, "As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you."
Jesus went straight to His Father with all His troubles. He was not content with any logic of comfort, or any promise of divine good in the final outworking of events. He believed all this—but in His trial He wanted the blessing of His Father's presence, the warmth of the Father's embrace. Continually we find Him fleeing away from the throng, from hatred and persecution, to commune with God. In the hour of His extremist sorrow, while He sought also human sympathy, it was to His Father that He turned for real comfort. "Being in an agony—He prayed." Our Master's example should be our guide in ever experience of grief or trial.
Persuasions, arguments, and promises, however true, precious, and divine they may be, will never bring perfect quiet to a heart in its anguish. We may listen to all that earth's most skillful comforters can tell us, even of the consolations of the word of God—but our lonely spirit will be lonely still. There may be an assent to all that is said to us, and our mind may acquiesce, finding a measure of rest; yet still in the depths of our being we remain uncomforted. Something is lacking. But if we creep into God's bosom, and nestle there like a tired child in the mother's arms, and let God's love enfold and embrace us, and flow into our heart, however deep the sorrow may be—we shall be comforted, satisfied. And even if every source of human joy has been cut off, and we are left utterly bereft—we can still find in God that which will suffice.
There is a blessing in true human sympathy. God sends our friends to us to bring us little measures of His own love—little cupfuls of His grace. But He Himself is the only true comforter. His love alone is great enough to fill our heart, and His hand alone has skill to bind up our wounds.
10. The Duty of Forgetting Sorrow
Sorrow makes deep scars; it writes its ineffaceable record on the heart which suffers; we really never get over our great griefs; we are never altogether the same after we have passed through them as we were before.
In one sense, sorrow never can be forgotten. The cares of a long, busy life may supervene—but the memory of the first deep sorrows in early youth, lives on in perpetual freshness, as the little flowers live on beneath the cold snowdrifts, through all the long winter. The old woman of ninety years remembers her grief and sense of loss seventy years ago, when God took her first baby out of her bosom. We never can actually forget our sorrows—nor is it meant that we should do so.
There is a way of remembering grief which is not wrong, which is not a mark of lack of submission, and which brings rich blessing to your heart and life; there is a tender and nourishing influence in sorrow, which has been rightly accepted and cheerfully borne.
"The memory of things precious, keeps warm the heart that once did hold them." Recollections of losses, if sweetened by faith, hope, and love—are blessings to the lives which they overshadow. Indeed, they are poor—who have never suffered, and have none of sorrow's marks upon them; they are poorer far who, having suffered, have forgotten their sufferings and bear in their life no beautifying traces of the experiences of pain through which they have passed.
Yet there is a way of remembering sorrow, which brings no blessing, no enrichment—which does not soften the heart, nor add beauty to the life. There is an unsubmissive remembering which brings no joy, which keeps the heart bitter, which shuts out the sunshine, which broods over losses and trials. Only evil can result from such memory of grief. In a sense, we ought not to remember our sorrow. We certainly ought not to stop in the midst of our duties and turn aside and sit down by the graves of our losses, staying there while the tides of busy life sweep on. We should leave our griefs behind us, while we go on reverently, faithfully, and quietly in our appointed way of duty.
There are many people, however, who have not learned this lesson; they live perpetually in the shadows of the trials and losses of their bygone days. Nothing could be more unwholesome or more untrue to the spirit of Christian faith, than such a course. What would be said or thought of the man who should build a house for himself out of black stones, paint all the walls black, hang black curtains over the dark stained windows, put black carpets on every floor, festoon the chambers with funeral crape, have only sad pictures on the walls and sad books on the shelves, and would have no lovely plants growing and no sweet flowers blooming anywhere about his home? Would we not look upon such a person with pity, as one into whose soul the outer darkness had crept, eclipsing the beauty of life?
Yet that is just the way some people do live. They build for their soul, houses just like that; they have a memory like a sieve, which lets all the bright and joyous things flow away while it retains all the sad and bitter things; they forget the pleasant incidents and experiences, the happy hours, the days that came laden with gladness as ships come from distant shores with cargoes of spices; but there has been no painful event in all their life, which memory is not kept ever vivid. They will talk for hours of their griefs and bereavements in the past, dwelling with a strange, morbid pleasure on each sad incident. They keep the old wounds ever unhealed in their heart; they keep continually in sight pictures and reminisces of all their lost joys—but none of the joys that are not lost; they forget all their ten thousand blessings, in the abiding and absorbing recollections of the two or three sorrows which have come amid the multitudes and unremembered joys.
So it is with these people who live perpetually in the shadows and glooms of their own sorrows. The darkness has crept into their soul, and all the joyous brightness has passed out of their life, until their very vision has become so blurred that they can no more even discern the glad and lovely colors in God's universe.
Few perversions of life could be sadder than this dwelling ever in the glooms and shadows of past griefs. It is the will of God that we should turn our eyes away from our sorrows, that we should let the dead past bury its dead, while we go on with reverent earnestness to the new duties and the new joys that await us. By standing and weeping over the grave where it is buried, we cannot get back what we have lost. When David's child was dead, he dried his tears and went at once to God's house and worshiped, saying, "Now he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again?" Instead of weeping over the grave—he turned all the pressure of his grief into the channel of holy living.
That is the way every believer in Christ should deal with his sorrows. Weeping inconsolably beside a grave can never give back loves' vanished treasure. Nor can any blessing come out of such sadness. It does not make the heart any softer; it develops no feature of Christ-likeness in the life; it only embitters our present joys and stunts the growth of all beautiful things. The graces of the heart are like flowers—they grow well only in the sunshine.
There was a mother who lost by death, a godly daughter. For a long time the mother had been a consistent Christian—but when her child died she refused to be comforted. Her pastor and other Christian friends sought by sympathy to draw her thoughts away from her grief, yet all their effort were vain. She would look at nothing but her sorrow; she spent a portion of nearly every day beside the grave where her dead daughter was buried; she would not listen to words of consolation; she would not lift an eye toward the heaven into which her child had gone; she went back no more to the sanctuary, where in the days of her joy she had loved to worship; she shut out of her heart every conception of God's love and kindness—and thought of Him only as a powerful Being who had taken her sweet child away from her bosom. Thus dwelling in the darkness of inconsolable grief, the joy of her religion failed her. Hope's bright visions no longer cheered her, and her heart grew cold and sick with despair. She refused to leave her sorrow, and to go on to new joys and toward the glory in which for Christian faith, all earths' lost things wait.
There was another mother who lost a child—one of the rarest and sweetest children God ever sent to this earth. Never was a heart more completely crushed than was the heart of this bereft mother—yet she did not, like the other woman, sit down in the gloom and dwell there; she did not shut out the sunshine and thrust away the blessing of divine comfort. She recognized her Father's hand in the grief that had fallen so heavily upon her, and bowed in sweet acquiescence to God's will; she opened her heart to the glorious truth of the immortal life, and was comforted by the simple faith that her godly child was with Christ. She remembered, too, that she had duties to the living, and turned away from the grave where her little one slept in such security, requiring no more any service of earthly affection, to minister to those who still lived and needed her care and love. The result was that her life grew richer and more beautiful beneath its baptism of sore grief. She came from the deep shadow—a lovelier Christian, and her home and the whole community shared the blessing which she had found in her sorrow.
It is easy to see which of these two ways of enduring sorrow, the true one is. We should forget what we have suffered. The joy set before us should shine upon our grief—as the sun shines through clouds, glorifying them. We should cherish sacredly and tenderly the memory of our Christian dead—but should train ourselves to think of them as not in the grave—but in the home of the blessed with Christ, safely folded, waiting for us. Thus the bright and blessed hopes of immortality should fill us with tranquility and healthy gladness, as we move over the waves of trial.
We should remember that the blessings which have gone away, are not all that God has for us. This summer's flowers will all fade by and by, when winter's cold breath smites them—we shall not be able to find one of them in the fields or gardens during the long cold dreary months to come—yet we shall know all the while that God is preparing other flowers, which are just as fragrant and as lovely as those which have perished. Spring will come again, and under its warm breath the earth will be covered once more with floral beauty as rich as that which faded in the autumn. So the joys that have gone from our home and our heart, are not the only joys; God has others in store just as rich as those we have lost, and in due time He will give us these to fill our emptied hands.
One of the most serious dangers of inconsolable sorrow, is that it may lead us to neglect our duty to the living, in our mourning for the dead. This we should never do. God does not want us to give up our work, because our heart is broken. We may not even pause long with our sorrows; we may not sit down beside the graves of our dead and linger there, cherishing our grief. "Let the dead bury their own dead," said the Master, to one who wished to bury his father, and then follow Him; "but you go and publish abroad the kingdom of God." Not even the tender offices of love, might detain him who was called to the higher service. The lesson is for all, and for all time. Duty ever presses, and we have scarcely laid our dead away out of our sight, before its earnest calls that will not be denied, are sounding in our ears, bidding us hasten to new tasks.
A distinguished general related this moving incident of his own experience in time of war. The general's son was a lieutenant of artillery. An assault was in progress. The father was leading his division in a charge; as he pressed on in the field, suddenly his eye was caught by the sight of a dead artillery officer lying just before him. One glance showed him it was his own son. His fatherly impulse was to stop beside the loved form and give vent to his grief—but the duty of the moment demanded that he should press on in the charge; so, quickly snatching one kiss from the dead lips, he hastened away, leading his command in the assault.
Ordinarily the pressure is not so intense, and we can pause longer to weep and do honor to the memory of our dead. Yet in all sorrow the principle is the same. God does not desire us to waste our life in tears. We are to put our grief into new energy of service. Sorrow should make us more reverent, more earnest, and more helpful to others. God's work should never be allowed to suffer, while we stop to weep. The fires must still be kept burning on the altar, and the worship must go on. The work in the household, in the school, in the store, in the field, must be taken up again—the sooner the better.
Ofttimes, indeed, the death of one in the circle is a divine voice calling the living to new duty. Thus, when a father dies, the mother is ordained to double responsibility. If there is a son of thoughtful age, his duty is not bitter grieving—but prompt taking up of the work that has fallen from the father's dead hands. When our friends are taken from us, our bereavement is a call, not to sad weeping—but to new duty.
Sometimes it is care only, which is laid down when death comes, as when a mother puts her baby away into the grave; no work drops out of the little hands for the mother to take up. But may we not then say that, since God has emptied her hands of the care and duty which had filled them, He has some other work for them to do? He has set them free from their own tasks, that with their trained skill and their enriched sympathies they may serve others.
In a sick room, there was a little rose bush in a pot in a window. There was only one rose on the bush, and its face was turned fully toward the light. This fact was noticed and spoken of, when one said that the rose would look no other way but toward the light. Experiments had been made with it; it had been turned away from the window, its face toward the shadow of the interior—but in a little time it would resume its old position. With wonderful persistence it refused to face the darkness, and insisted on ever looking toward the light.
The flower has its lesson for us. We should never allow ourselves to face toward life's glooms; we should never sit down in the shadows of any sorrow, and let the night darken over us into the gloom of despair; we should turn our face away toward the light and quicken every energy for braver duty and truer, holier service. Grief should always make us better and give us new skill and power; it should make our heart softer, our spirit kindlier, our touch more gentle; it should teach us its holy lessons, and we should learn them, and then go on, with sorrow's sacred ordination upon us, to new love and better service. It is thus, too, that lonely hearts find their sweetest, richest comfort.
Sitting down to brood over our sorrows—the darkness deepens about us and our little strength changes to weakness; but if we turn away from the gloom and take up the tasks of comforting and helping others—the light will come again and we shall grow strong.
11. Effectual Prayer
We kneel how
weak, we rise how full of power!
Why therefore should we do ourselves this wrong,
Or others–that we are not always strong,
That we are ever overborne with care,
That we should ever weak or heartless be,
Anxious or troubled, when with us is prayer,
And joy and strength and courage are with Thee?
Effectual prayer—is prayer which avails. A Scripture word tells us that "the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much." In the Revised Version there is a suggestive change in the rendering, making it read, "The supplication of a righteous man avails much in its working." So prayer works. There are those who tell us that the effect of prayer is only subjective. You are in some trouble and plead with God to take away that which is so hard to bear. The trouble is not removed—but through your supplication you are brought into the spirit of acquiescence and no longer plead for relief. Your prayer has changed nothing in your circumstances—it has only brought your mind into accord with you condition.
No doubt there are many prayers whose answer seems to come in this way. David pleaded for his sick child that it might live. The child died. But when David knew it was dead, he rose from his place of penitent pleading, washed away his tears, and went to God's house and worshiped. Then, returning to his home, he astonished the members of his household by the way he bore himself. His prayer had not kept his child in life—but it had brought into the king's heart such divine comfort, that his sorrow was turned into joy.
Paul earnestly and importunately besought the Lord to take away his "thorn in the flesh." The painful affliction was not removed, and yet there is evidence that the prayer availed in its working. There came to the apostle a word of assurance—"My grace is sufficient for you—for My power is made perfect in weakness." Immediately afterward we hear the triumphant rejoicing, "Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my weaknesses, that the strength of Christ may rest upon me." It is evident that while the prayer was not answered in the removing of the trouble, it was answered in the coming into the apostle's heart of such an accession of divine strength, that he was able now to keep his thorn and rejoice, not merely in spite of it—but even on account of it. The answer which came was indeed a greater manifestation of the power of prayer, than if the trial had been wholly taken away.
In our Lord's experience in Gethsemane, we have another example of a like working of prayer. The cup for whose taking away the Holy Sufferer pleaded with strong crying and tears, was not withdrawn, and yet the anguish of his heart grew less and less intense until we hear the word of victory, "The cup which the Father has given Me—shall I not drink it?" The supplication availed in its working, not in saving Him from the bitter experiences on which He was entering—but in the giving of help which enabled Him to pass through all the terrible fifteen hours which followed, without murmuring.
In all these cases, there was more than a subjective influence, bringing the suppliant into a spirit of acquiescence to that which was inevitable: there was an actual divine working in the heart, imparting grace for the hour. If you have a friend carrying a heavy load, there are two ways in which you may help him—you may take part of his burden and carry it for him—or you may put into his heart cheer and courage, making him stronger, so that he can bear his burden gladly himself. The latter way of helping is quite as effective as the former, and ofttimes it is a great deal wiser. We have a very inadequate conception of prayer—if we think of our Father as always, or even usually, at every cry of ours, hastening to lift away the burden we think too heavy, or to give us the pleasure or gratification we ask Him to give. In very many instances, such answering of prayer would be unkindness, not love. Then God answers, not by giving us what we cry for—but by imparting to us strength to do without it and to rejoice in His will. But the prayer as really avails in its working—as if the thing we sought had been granted.
Then there are many prayers which bring the answer in the very form which is sought. Elijah prayed fervently that it might not rain; and it rained not on the earth for three years and six months. He prayed again; and the heaven gave rain and the earth brought forth her fruit. The Bible is full of such illustrations. Every devout Christian has many examples in his own personal experience. We may say, therefore, that all true prayer is effectual, avails in its working. There are supposed prayers which get no answer—prayers, those who make them, perhaps wondering why nothing comes of them. The Master tells us that there are those who pray—in order that men may think them devout. Their petitions ascend not upward. James says there are those who ask and receive not, because they ask amiss, that they may spend it in their pleasures. But every true prayer is effectual, avails in its working.
What, then, if effectual prayer? It is easy to gather from the teachings of Holy Scripture, the answer to this question. Jesus Christ is our great Teacher, and He spoke many words about prayer. He Himself was a man of prayer and knew perfectly how to pray so as to receive an answer. Perhaps most of us altogether underestimate the value of what we call the Lord's Prayer, as definite instruction concerning the manner in which we should pray. It was given by the Master to His Disciples, in answer to their request that He would teach them to pray. We may study it therefore, as the divine ideal of acceptable and effectual prayer.
To begin with, we must enter at the right gate, the children's gate. We must approach God, saying, "Our Father." This means that we must come to God in prayer as His children. It is thus that we should come always to God in prayer. Whenever we do, we need not doubt that as quickly as the words "Abba, Father," are spoken, the door will open to us.
Much instruction is found in the order of the petitions of the Lord's Prayer. We are apt to think first of our own frets and worries, our own needs and desires, when we come to God, and to begin at once to pour these into His ear. But it is not thus, that we are taught by our Master to do. Half of the Lord's Prayer is finished, before there is a word about the earthly needs of him who is praying.
We are to pray first for the hallowing of our Father's name. It is a great deal more important that we in our own life shall be glorifiers of God—than that our burden shall be lifted away, our business prospered, our sorrows comforted. Next we are to pray for the coming of our Father's kingdom. This desire should be dearer to our heart than anything which concerns merely our own comfort, pleasure or advancement. Then we are to ask that God's will may be done in earth as it is in heaven. Of course it is the will of God as it concerns our own personal life, that we have to do with immediately. We are to seek that our will may be lost in His; that the law of heaven shall become the law within the realm our own heart. This, too, must come before any mention of need of ours.
It is not a mere accident that the petitions of the Lord's Prayer are arranged as they are. The order certainly teaches us that the first things in prayer, are not to be the affairs of our own personal life—but the great matters which concern the name, the kingdom, and the will of God.
It is very comforting, however, as we go on, to find that there is a place in the Master's model of prayer, for the commonest needs of daily life; that we may ask our Father even for the bread which our body needs. Only we should never forget to keep SELF and all personal needs and troubles in their true place—far secondary to our longing and asking for the things of God. Only that prayer is effectual in the largest measure—which puts the honor of God and the interests of God and His cause above all else in its desire. SELF creeps into our praying so easily and so insidiously, that we need always to be on our guard lest we dishonor God. If we do, our prayer cannot avail.
Another condition of effectual prayer suggested in our Lord's model form, is the spirit of forgiveness. "Forgive us—as we forgive those who have sinned against us." So important did Jesus regard this petition, that He returned to it again, saying: "If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." It is very clear that forgiveness of others, is one of the essentials in the prayer which God will hear and answer. Supplications breathed out of a bitter, resentful heart do not find their way to heaven.
Indeed the whole of the Lord's Prayer is a strong protest against selfishness. We are not to go to God with our own needs only. All the petitions require us to unite with others. We must come to God as "Our Father," and when we ask for daily bread—we must think of all who are hungry; and when we plead for the forgiveness of our sins—we must ask forgiveness for others as well. Selfishness at the throne of grace vitiates the most eloquent pleading. Love is a condition of effectual prayer.
There are other elements in the prayer which avails in its working. Our Lord teaches us that we must be importunate. "Men ought always to pray and not to faint." Ofttimes the reason no answer comes to our supplication, is because we lack earnestness. It is the pleading which will not give up until it gets the blessing, which prevails with God. Faith is essential. Prayer without faith has no power. Faith as a grain of mustard seed, said the Master, will move mountains; that is, will overcome the greatest difficulties and obstacles. To pray in faith is to pray as seeing Him who is invisible, entering into closest fellowship with Him. Such believing attaches us to Christ, so that His life flows through us. Nothing is impossible to him who believes.
lowliest and feeblest of God's children, is given the privilege of prevailing
prayer. We may lay hold upon God's strength. We may make intercession for others
and call down upon them the most gracious blessing. We may unlock storehouses of
divine goodness, and gather treasures at will. All things in earth and heaven
are within the reach of him who prays.
12. The Effacement of SELF
"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men—to be seen by them." Matthew 6:1
"Everything they do is done for men to see." Matthew 23:5
One of the most difficult lessons to learn, is self-effacement. SELF always dies hard. It seems to us that we have a right to put our name on every piece of work we do, and to get full honor for it. We like people to know of the good and virtuous things we do, the kindnesses we show, of our benevolences, our sacrifices, our heroism and services.
Yet we all know that this is not the attitude towards ourselves and our own work, which our Lord approves. Jesus expressly bids His followers to take heed that they do not perform their good works before men—to be seen by them. The last phrase is the emphatic one—"to be seen by men." We must often do our good works before men; indeed we are commanded to let our light shine before men—that they may see our good works and glorify our Father. It is not doing worthy things before men which is condemned—but doing them in order to be seen by men. We are not to live for the eye of men and for human praise—but for the eye of God and for His approval.
Jesus proceeded in the same connection to say that when we give alms, we should not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, that our alms may be in secret. Then God alone can recompense us—and He will. Regarding prayer, too, the same counsel is given. There were those who made a show of their private devotions, performing them in some conspicuous place, in order that they might be seen by men, that men might regard them very devout. "They have their reward," said Jesus. They get what they seek—they are seen by men—but they are not heard by God. Jesus exhorts that, avoiding this display of devoutness to attract men's attention, His disciples should enter into their inner chamber when they pray and should shut their door and pray to the Father who sees in secret. We are not to infer from this, that no prayer ever should be made in public—public prayer is an important duty; the teaching is that all acts of devotion should never do anything in order to get human notice and commendation.
We may apply this teaching to all life. We are to live only to please God. Jesus said of Himself—and His mode of life was a pattern for us—"I do always those things which please My Father." He never wrought for human eye—but always for the divine approval. It mattered not to Him, therefore, whether any but God knew what He was doing. The prophet said of Him, "He shall not cry out, nor cause His voice to be heard in the street," and His life fulfilled this foretelling. If we can learn this lesson of living and working for God's eye only, it will give us a wonderful sense of freedom; it will exalt our ideal of life and duty, and will inspire us always to the best that we can do.
There is another phase of the same lesson. Not only should we do all our work for the divine approval—but we should not be careful to get our own name on what we do. If it is done solely for the honor of Christ, why should we be solicitous to have everybody know our part in it? Should it not be honor enough to have Christ accept our work and use it?
John the Baptist, in his life and ministry, illustrated the grace of self-effacement as few other men have done. When he first began to preach, great throngs flocked about him. When Jesus came and began to preach, the crowds melted away from John and went after the new preacher. It was not easy for John to see this and not be disturbed by it. But it caused him no bitter pang. He rejoiced in seeing Jesus thus honored, though at the cost of his own fame. "He must increase—but I must decrease," was his answer, when his disciples grew envious of the Galilean Rabbi. He understood that the highest use to which his life could be put was to add to the honor of his Master. He was glad to be unnoticed, to have his own name extinguished, that the glory of Christ might shine the more brightly.
The same renunciation of self should characterize all who follow Christ. They should seek only to get recognition for Him, willing themselves to be unrecognized and unhonored. Yet not always are the Master's friends content to be nothing—that the praise may be given to Christ. Too often do they insist upon having their own name written in bold letters on their work. It would be the mark of a higher degree in spiritual attainment, if we were willing to be anonymous in every service for Christ. Even in the things men do which are necessarily conspicuous, in which it is impossible to hide the hand that works, there should always be in the heart the paramount desire to please and honor Christ. If in what they do, however beautiful and worthy it may be in itself, the wish is "to be seen by men," the beauty is blotted, and the worthiness vitiated. Only what we do for the honor of Christ—is really gold and silver and precious stones in the building; all the rest is but wood, hay, and stubble, which cannot abide.
Another practical application of this lesson is to the way we do the common deeds of love in our everyday life. We should seek to obliterate self altogether, and every thought of what is to come to us, from the thing we do. The faintest trace of a mercenary spirit in any service we may be rendering to another, leaves a blot upon the deed and spoils its beauty. The true reward of kindness or self denial is that which comes from the act itself, the joy of helping another, of relieving distress, of making the heart a little braver and stronger for the toil or struggle which we cannot make easier.
Are we willing to go about ministering blessing to others—and then forget what we have done? Are we willing to be as the dew which loses itself as it sinks away into the bosom of the rose, only to be remembered in the added sweetness of the flower? Are we willing to do deeds of love, and then keep absolutely quiet about what we have done? Is there not among us too much of the spirit which our Lord so severely condemned—sounding a trumpet before us when we are going out to do some deed of charity, some act of kindness? We all are quite ready to note the blemish in others—when they talk about their own piety and devoutness, or about their good deeds and their acts of self denial and helpfulness. We say the desire to have people know how holy he is and how useful, dims the luster of a man's graces. Moses knew not that his face shone, and the truest and divinest godliness is always unaware of its shining. We say this when we are speaking of others' self praise—but are we different from them? Do we do our deed of love and straightway hide the knowledge of it away in our heart?
Henry Drummond puts the lesson well in these short sentences: "Put a seal upon your lips and forget what you have done. After you have been kind, after love has stolen forth into the world and done its beautiful work, go back into the shade again and say nothing about it. Love hides even from itself." We could not do better than write out these words and place them where we must see them every day, and then make them the rule of our life, until we have indeed learned to seal our lips and be silent about ourselves and what we have done; to steal forth quietly on errands of love, do our errands, then hurry back into the quiet whence we set out, and to hide even from ourselves the things we have done to help others, never thinking of them again. Talking about these gentle and sacred ministries is like handling lovely flowers—it spoils their beauty.
Tell no one of the kindness you have been doing. Do not keep a diary, writing therein a minute record of your charities, your words and deeds of love. Let them be forgotten on the earth, even by yourself. There is a place where they all will be written down. That is record enough.
13. One Day
Time is given to us in days. It was so at the beginning. We need not puzzle or perplex ourselves trying to understand just when the day was, in which God wrought in creating the universe. But it is interesting to know that each day had its particular apportionment in the stupendous work. At the end of the creative periods we read, "There was evening and there was morning—one day." So it has been ever since. Time is measured to us not by years—but by days. Each day has its own particular section of duty, something that belongs, that is to be done, in between sunrise and sunset, that cannot be done at all if not done in its own hours. "There was evening and there was morning—one day, a second day, a third day."
This breaking up of time into little daily portions, means a great deal more than we are accustomed to think. For one thing, it illustrates the gentleness and goodness of God. It would have made life intolerably burdensome, if a year instead of a day had been the unit in the division of time. It would have been hard to carry a heavy load, or to endure a great sorrow, or to keep on at a hard duty, for such a long stretch of time. How dreary our common task work would be—if there were no breaks in it, if we had to hold our hands to the plough for a whole year! We never could go on with our struggles, our toils, our suffering, if night did not mercifully settle down at such brief intervals with its darkness, bidding us rest and renew our strength.
We do not understand what a blessing here is for us, in the shortness of our days. If they were even twice as long as they are, life would be intolerable. Many a time when the sun goes down we feel that we could scarcely have gone another step. We would have fainted in failure and defeat—if the summons to rest had not come just when it did.
Night with its darkness seems to be a blot on the whiteness of day. It seems to fall across our path as an interruption to our activity, compelling us to lay down our work when we are in the very midst of it, leaving it only half done. It seems to be a waster of precious time, eating up half the hours. How much more we could accomplish, we sometimes say, if the sun did not go down, if we could go on without pause!
Night throws its heavy veil over the lovely things of this world, hiding them from our view. Yet its deep shadow is no stain on the splendor of the day. It is no thief of time, no waster of golden hours, no obscurer of beauty. It reveals as much loveliness as it hides, for no sooner is the sun set, leaving earth's splendor of landscape, garden and forest swallowed up in gloom—than there bursts upon our vision the other splendor of the sky filled with glorious stars.
When the privilege of work is interrupted by the coming of the night, God has another blessing ready for us—the blessing of sleep. One may figure out with a fair show of mathematical certainty, that it is a waste of time to spend one third of each twenty four hours in the unconsciousness of idleness of sleep. But these hours which seem to be lost, in which we appear to be doing nothing, bring us new gifts from God.
"He gives His beloved sleep." We lie down with our vitality exhausted in the toils, tasks, and struggles of the day. We could not have gone another hour. Then, while we sleep, God comes to us in the silence and refills the emptied fountains. It is really a new creation which takes place in us, while we sleep a nightly miracle of renewal and restoration. We die, as it were—and are made to live again.
So night, which seems to us a waste of precious hours, is a time of God's working in us. He draws the veil of darkness that none may see Him when He visits us in loving ministry. He folds us in the unconsciousness of sleep, that we ourselves may not know when He comes or how He gives to us the marvelous blessings. When then morning returns and we awake strong and filled with new life, we learn that God has visited us, though we knew it not.
Thus we get hints of the graciousness of the divine thoughtfulness in giving us time in periods of little days, which we can easily get through with, and not in great years in which we would faint and fall by the way.
It makes it possible for us to go on through all the long years and not be overwrought, for we never have given to us at any one time, more than what we can do between the morning and the evening.
Not only are the days short, so that we can go on to eventide with our work or our burden—but they are separated as by an impassable wall so that there may be no overflowing of one day's care or responsibility into the field of another. Night drops down its dark curtain between the days, so that we cannot see today, anything which is in tomorrow. Our Lord taught us that we sin if we let ourselves try to carry the load of any but this one little day.
"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." Matthew 6:34. If we allow ourselves to borrow anxiety from tomorrow, we shall find that we have a greater load than we can carry. There is just enough for our full measure of strength—in the duty and the responsibility of the one day. If then we add to this the burden also of tomorrow, our strength will fail. We do great wrong to ourselves, therefore, when we go out of today—to get burdens which do not belong to us.
The only true way to live, therefore, is one day at a time. This means that we should give all or strength to the work of the present day, that we should finish each day's tasks by nightfall, leaving nothing undone at setting of the sun which we ought to have done that day. Then, when a new morning dawns, we should accept its duties, the bit of God's will it unrolls for us, and do everything well which is given us to do. We may be assured, too, that there is something for each moment, and that if we waste any portion of our day, we shall not make it complete. We should bring all the energy and all the skill of mind, heart, and hand to our duty as we take it up, and do nothing carelessly or negligently. Then we can lay our day back into God's hand at nightfall with confidence, saying, "Father, I have finished the work You gave me to do today."
Robert Falconer's creed gathers into its four articles a very clear summary of our Lord's teaching concerning the whole duty of man: "First that a man's business is to do the will of God. Second, That God takes upon Himself the care of the man. Third, Therefore, that a man must never be afraid of anything. Fourth, and so be left free to love God with all his heart, and his neighbor as himself."
So, we should never be anxious about either yesterday or tomorrow. Yesterday is gone, and we can never get it back to change anything in it. It is idle, therefore, to waste a moment of time or a particle of strength fretting over it. Tomorrow is not yet ours, and we should not touch its life until it becomes our today. God means us to put our undivided energy, into the doing of the present day's work. If we do this, we shall have quite enough to keep our heart and our hands full from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same.
In this way, too, doing faithfully the work of this day, we shall best prepare for tomorrow. One day's duty slighted or neglected, prepares confusion or overburdening for the next day. The days are all woven together in God's plan, each one following the one before, and fitting into the one coming after it. Each takes up the work which the day before brought to its feet, and carries it forward to deliver it to the one which waits. A marred or empty day anywhere spoils the web, losing its thread.
If we learn well this lesson of living just one day at a time, without anxiety for either yesterday or tomorrow, we shall have found one of the greatest secrets of Christian peace. That is the way God teaches us to live. That is the lesson both of the Bible and of nature. If we learn it—it will cure us of all anxiety, it will save us from all feverish haste, and it will enable us to live sweetly in any experience.
14. The Culture of the Spirit
In the true life, beauty is as important as strength. Strength at its best is always beautiful—but sometimes loveliness is sacrificed to vigor. In these days, we hear much about the strenuous life—but the phrase has in it a suggestion of abundant vitality, of an unwearied energy, which may lack the enrichment and refinement which are the ripe fruit of true self culture. At least, the emphasis is put upon the strenuousness, as if that were the dominant quality of the life.
On every hand, and enforced by the holiest sanctions, we are urged to make the most of our life and our opportunities. Again and again, we hear in the Bible the ringing exhortation, "Be strong." More than one of our Lord's parables teaches our responsibility for the development of every power of our being to its fullest possibilities, and the using of every particle of energy in our nature in worthy service. One who does not do one's best, fails. Paul, himself a magnificent type of the utmost strenuousness in living, calls for the most vigorous Christian life in the followers of the Master. He exhorts a young man to stir up the gift that is in him, probably seeing plainly that his friend was not doing his best, making the most of his life. He uses the figure of the runner in the race, bending every energy to reach the goal and win the prize, to incite every Christian to the most eager stretching toward the highest possibilities in spiritual attainment. He employs the illustration of the soldier as the type of true manhood, and bids his friends be courageous like men, and to be good soldiers of Jesus Christ. If we would realize the scriptural thought of the worthiest life, we must call out all the latent power that is in us, and develop it to its highest degree of vitality.
The lesson is strongly emphasized in the spirit of the days in which we are living. Every man is now called to do his best. No patience is exercised toward one who takes life easily. The man who works leisurely, is left behind in the race. Literature is full of homilies on "success" and how to attain it. The men who are held up as examples to youth, are those who began with nothing and by their own energy have risen to wealth or power. Strenuousness is everywhere praised.
But not so universally nor so urgently is the duty of self culture taught. Yet the lesson is equally important. There are many people who are giants in strength—but are lacking in the qualities of refinement which belong to the truest character. Strength is sometimes crude. Too often it is ungentle and thoughtless. It is aggressive and resistless—but stops not to look what fair flowers it is trampling under its feet.
It is well that we pause, therefore, in the pressure under which we are striving, to give thought to self culture. The beginning of it lies in self mastery. There are many men who have prodigious strength, and yet never have achieved self control. We are truly strong, not merely when we have great forces of energy—but when we can command these forces at will. "He who rules his own spirit—is greater than he who takes a city."
There is much of bad temper even among Christian people. Many are quick to speak, flying into a passion at the slightest provocation. They are overly sensitive, even to the point of touchiness. They have capacity for strenuous life—but they are weak, driven by every wind and tossed, because their bark is without a helm. Under momentary impulses, they do rash and foolish things which grieve their friends and do irreparable harm to their own life.
Few faults mar the beauty and the influence of a life, more than the habit of ill temper. One writes: "Losing the temper takes all the sweet, pure feeling out of life. You may get up in the morning with a clean heart, full of song, and start out as happy as a bird; and the moment you are crossed and you give way to your temper, the clean feeling vanishes and a load as heavy as lead is rolled upon your heart, and you go through the rest of the day feeling like a culprit, unless you promptly confess your fault and seek forgiveness of God and man."
We all admire a self controlled person, one who is not irritated by irritating experiences, who is not disturbed in his equanimity by confusing or annoying circumstances, who is not vexed nor fretted by life's trials. This power of self control is a higher mark of royalty, than crown or scepter. Self culture includes self mastery. It holds the reins of the life and restrains every crude impulse, every wayward desire. It sits on the throne, and every feeling, every passion, every energy, every emotion, is ruled by it.
The thought of culture always implies also refinement, grace of spirit, beauty of soul. That is, it is gentle as well as strong. It is more than knowledge, for one may know all the worlds' literature and yet lack this culture. In the ordinary sense, it is the final result of true education and study. One may be very learned, and yet lack the refinement of spirit which the thought of culture suggests. Self culture is defined as what a man does upon himself; mending his defects, correcting his mistakes, chastening his faults, tempering his passions.
Always, love must be the ruling element in Christian culture. Fine manners may be the result of the study of the rules of etiquette—but no manners are really beautiful, which are not the fruit of love in the heart. Gentleness belongs to culture, and gentleness is love in exercise. The word "gentleman" as a designation of one who has reached the finest things in manliness, is very suggestive. No man, however masterly his strength, however wide his knowledge, however high his rank, however splendid his achievements, is manly in the fullest sense—if he is not gentle—a gentleman.
In a summary of the things which make up a worthy Christian character, Paul puts first, whatever things are true, honorable, just and pure, and whatever things are lovely and of good report. The sterner qualities alone do not make the character complete, while loveliness is lacking. The word "grace" which is used to describe the divine favor and is applied to all spiritual work wrought in a life, means primarily that which is pleasing and agreeable, beauty of form, manner, or movement. As applied to the disposition, it means sweetness, amiability, courtesy. To grow in grace is not only to become more devout, obedient, and holy—but also to grow more loving—more gentle, kindly, thoughtful, patient, unselfish.
It is evident, therefore, that we should pay heed to the culture of our spirit, as well as to the development of our energies. Success which takes account only of one's worldly life and its affairs, and does not also consider one's attainments in character, in heart qualities, in the spiritual elements of one's being, will not stand the test of life's most serious ordeals. It is possible to be growing in the elements which make for power among men and increasing in activities which do good in a community, and yet not to be advancing in grace and beauty of life. Heart culture is essential. It is not in what we have or what we do—but in what we are—that the true measure of our character must be taken. We are growing only when our mind is becoming more open to the truth, when the peace of God is possessing us more and more fully, and when we are giving our life more and more unreservedly and sweetly to the service of others, in Christ's name.
It need not be said, that all spiritual work in us is wrought by the divine Spirit. Yet we are in danger of missing the real meaning of this truth by putting God far from us instead of understanding that He is with us continually, closer than the closest human friend. We never can by any mere self discipline, achieve in ourselves the beauty we yearn for, nor attain the gentleness, the peace, the grace which belong to true spiritual culture; but God is ready to work in us and with us if we will admit Him to our life, and then our striving to grow into loveliness, will not be in vain.
No influence works upon life so deeply, so thoroughly, with such power for the cleansing and enriching of the nature—as personal friendship with Christ. If we live with Him in close daily companionship, walking with Him, talking with Him, dwelling in the very atmosphere of His presence continually, our rudeness will be imperceptibly transformed into spiritual refinement, and our earthliness into heavenliness.
One tells of buying a common clay jar for a few cents, and then filling it with some rare and costly perfume. At length the jar became saturated in all its substance with the rich fragrance. So it is with the commonest life, when it is filled with Christ. The sweetness of His love an the holiness of His Spirit permeate it, until disposition, thought, feeling, and affection—become like Christ indeed.
15. The Secret of Serving
Before we can do people good, we must love them. There is no other secret of real helpfulness. The weakness of many schemes for the relief of distress and the amelioration of misery, is that they are only systems, working in mechanical lines—but without a heart of love to inspire them. A paid agent may dispense charity very justly and generously, and what he gives may serve its purpose well enough—fuel for the fire in winter, bread for hunger, and clothes to cover the shivering poor. But how much would be added to the value of these gifts—if love dispensed them, if a real heartbeat of human sympathy throbbed and thrilled in each bit of helpfulness. There are deeper needs than those of the body. There is a higher help than that which satisfies only physical needs. When with the gift of bread, love comes to the door, when it is a brother's hand that brings the welcome loaf, two hungers are fed, the hunger of the body and the hunger of the heart.
But not in charity only, is it the element of love which imparts the best blessing, multiplying many times the value of the material gifts disbursed. In all lines of life, it is love which is the true secret of power. We know the difference in the serving which is merely professional, however skillful it may be, and the serving which love inspires. It is interesting to remember that the one question which the Master asked His disciple, whom He was about to restore to his lost place as an apostle, was, "Do you love Me?" Not until Peter had answered this question affirmatively, could the care of souls be put into his hands. The essential qualification, therefore, for being a pastor, a teacher, or a spiritual helper of other lives—is love.
It is, first of all, love for Christ. One who does not love Him more than all other things, and all other beings, is not truly His disciple, and certainly is not fitted for shepherd work among Christ's sheep and lambs. But if there is true love for Christ—there will also be love for our brothers. No one is fit to do Christ's work for men, who does not love men.
Love is the essential thing in preparing one for being a helper of others. It is not enough for the preacher to declare to all men that God loves them—the preacher must love them too—if he would make them believe in the divine love for them. The true evangel is the love of God interpreted in a human life. No other will win men's confidence and faith. We must show the tenderness of God—in our tenderness. We must reveal the compassion of God—in our compassion. God so love that He gave—we must so love as to give.
The only efficient preaching of the cross—is when the cross is in the preacher's life. The man must love men, and must love them enough to give himself for them; otherwise his preaching will have but little power. It was this which gave Jesus Christ such influence over men and drew the people to Him in such throngs. He told them of the love of God—but they also saw that love and realized its compassion in His own life. He loved, too. He wrought miracles and did many gracious things; but that which made all His ministry so welcome and so full of helpfulness, was that He loved the people He helped or comforted.
That is the meaning of the Incarnation—it was God interpreted in a human life, and since God is love, it was love which was thus revealed and interpreted. Just in the measure, therefore, that we love others, are we ready to help them in any true way. Nothing but love will do men good. Power has its ways of helping. Law may protect. Money will buy bread and build homes. But for the helpfulness which means the most in human lives, nothing but love prepares us. Even the most lavish and the most opportune gifts, if love is not in them, lack that which chiefly gives them their value. It is not the man whose service of others costs the most in money value, who is the greatest benefactor—but the man who gives the most of human compassion, the most of himself, with his gifts. He who puts his heart, his life, into his service, has given that which will multiply his gifts a thousand times.
It is worth our while to think of love's true attitude to others. The spirit of serving is different altogether from the spirit in which men usually think of others. The world's attitude is that of self interest. Men want to be served, not to serve. They look at other men, not with the desire to be helpful to them, to do them good, to give them pleasure—but rather with the wish to be served in some way by them, to have their own personal interests advanced through their association with them. Even friendship too often has this selfish basis—the gain there will be in it. But the love which Christ came to teach us, looks at others in an altogether different way. Instead of asking how they can be made profitable to us, it teaches us to ask in what way we may be helpful to them.
Jesus put it in a sentence when He said of Himself, "The Son of man came not to be ministered unto—but to minister." A study of His life in this regard, will make His meaning plain. He never demanded attention. Conscious of His divine glory, He never exacted reverence. He used all His authority and power, not to humble men beneath Him, nor to compel them to help Him—but in serving them and doing them good. The picture of Jesus with the basin and the towel is one of the truest representations of His whole life. He lived to serve.
On one occasion Jesus taught His disciples the lesson with special clearness, setting in contrast the world's way and His own: Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Mark 10:42-45. Thus He taught that the noblest, the divinest, life is that which seeks to serve. He is greatest, who ministers.
This does not mean that the servant in a house is greater than his master or his work more pleasing to God—the master may serve more truly than the servant. It is not by the position—but by the spirit, that the rank is determined. The law of love requires us to look upon everyone with a desire for his good and with a readiness to give him help, to do him service. As Paul puts it, we are debtors to every man, owing to each a debt of love and service. If this mind which was in Christ Jesus is in us, it will inspire in our heart, kindly thought of everyone. We will think not so much of having friends—as of being a friend, of receiving, as of giving, of being helped, as of helping.
We should not press our service officiously on anyone—this is an error always to be avoided. We will not over help—nothing could be more unwise or unkind. Nor will this spirit make us fawning or patronizing in our relations to others. On the other hand, nothing is manlier than the love which our Lord enjoined upon His followers, as the very badge of discipleship, and whose portrait Paul painted so inimitably.
It is when we have this spirit of service, that we are prepared to be truly helpful to others. Then we will look upon everyone we meet as our brother. Even the most debased will appear to us as still having in him possibilities of something noble and beautiful.
In both low and high, there is need always for love's serving. We are debtors to everyone—to every man we owe love's debt; and if we are truly following our Master—we must love all, and be ready ever to serve all in love's best way.
An interesting story is told of a good woman who opened a home for children for whom no one seemed to care. Among those received into her home was a boy of three years whose condition was pitiable indeed. His skin was blotched, and his disposition was fretful and unhappy. Try as she would, the woman could not love him. Something in him repelled her. She was outwardly kind to him—but it was always an effort to show him any tenderness.
One day she sat on the veranda of her house with this boy on her knee. She dropped asleep and dreamed that she saw herself in the child's place, the Master bending over her. She heard Him say, "If I can bear with you, who are so full of fault and sin, can you not, for My sake—love this poor child, who is suffering, not for his own sin—but through the sin of his parents?"
The woman awoke with a sudden startle, and looked into the face of the boy. Penitent because of her past unkind feeling, and with a new compassion for him in her heart, she bent down and kissed him as tenderly as ever she had kissed babe of her own. The boy gave her a smile so sweet that she had never seen one like it before. From that moment a change came over him. The new affection in the woman's heart transformed his peevish, fretful disposition into gentleness. She loved him now, and her serving was glad hearted and Christlike, no more perfunctory.
There is no other secret of the best and truest serving. We must love those we would help. Service without love counts for nothing. We can love even the unloveliest, when we learn to see in them possibilities of divine beauty. But only the love of Christ in us will prepare us for such serving.
16. The Habit of Happiness
Our habits make us. Like wheels running on the road, they wear the tracks or ruts in which our life moves. Our character is the result of our habits. We do the same thing over and over a thousand times, and by and by it becomes part of ourselves.
thought and reap an act;
Sow an act and reap a habit;
Sow a habit and reap a character."
For example, one is impatient today in some matter. Tomorrow there is another trial and the impatience is repeated. Thus, on and on, from day to day, with the same result. It begins to be easier to give way to the temptation, than to resist it. Again and again the stress is felt and yielded to, and at length we begin to say of the person, that he has grown very impatient. That is, he has given way so often to his feelings, that impatience has become a habit. If he had resisted the first temptation, restraining himself and keeping himself quiet and sweet in the trial; and then the second, the third, the fourth, the tenth time, had done the same, and had continued to be patient thereafter, whatever the pressure of suffering or irritation, we would have said that he was a patient man. That is, he would have had formed in him at last, the fixed habit of patience. As we say again, it would have become "second nature" with him to hold his imperious feelings in check; however he might have been tried. Patience would then have become part of his character.
In like manner, all the qualities which make up the disposition are the result of habit. The habit of truthfulness, never deviating in the smallest way from what is absolutely true, yields at length truth in the character. The habit of honesty, insisted upon in all dealings and transactions, fashions the feature of honesty in the life and fixes it there with rocklike firmness.
It is proper, therefore, and no misuse of words, to speak of the habit of happiness. No doubt there is a difference in the original dispositions of people, in the quality of cheerfulness or gloom which naturally belongs to them. Some people are born with a sunny spirit, others with an inclination to sadness. The difference shows itself even in infancy and early childhood. No doubt, too, there is a difference in the influences which affect disposition in the first months and years of life. Some mothers make an atmosphere of joy for their children to grow up in, while others fill their home with complaining, fretfulness, and discontent. Young lives cannot but take something of the tone of the home atmosphere into the disposition with which they pass out of childhood.
Yet, in spite of all that heredity and early education and influence do—each one is responsible for the making of his own character. The most deep seated tendency to sadness, can be overcome and replaced by happy cheerfulness. The gospel of Christ comes to us and tells us that we must be born again, born anew, born from above, born of God, our very nature recreated. Then divine grace assures us that it is not impossible even for the most unholy life, to be transformed into holiness. The being that is saturated with sin, can be made whiter than snow. The wolf can be changed into lamb-like gentleness. The fiercest disposition can be trained to meekness. There is no nature, therefore, however unhappy it may be because of its original quality or its early training, which cannot, through God's help, learn the lesson of happiness.
The way to do this, is to begin at once to restrain the tendency to gloomy feeling and to master it. We should check the first shadow of inclination to discouragement. We should choke back the word of discontent or complaining, which is trembling on our tongue, and speak instead a word of cheer. We should set ourselves, to the task of keeping sweet and sunny.
It will make this easier for us if we think of our task as being only for one day at a time. It should not be impossible for us even if we have things disheartening or painful to endure—to keep happy for only one day. Anybody should be able to sing songs of gladness, through the hours of a single short day. At the time of evening prayer, we should confess our failures; and the next morning begin the keeping of another day, bright and joyous, unstained by gloom, resolved to make our life more victorious than the day before.
At first the effort may seem utterly to fail—but if the lesson is kept clearly before our eyes, and we are persistent in our determination to master it, it will not be long until the result will begin to show itself. It takes courage and perseverance—but the task is not an impossible one. It is like learning to play on the piano, or like training the voice for singing. It takes years and years to become proficient in either of these arts. It may take a lifetime to learn the lesson of joy—but it can be learned. Men with the most pronounced and obdurate gloominess of disposition have, through the years, become men of abounding cheerfulness. We have but to continue in the practice of the lesson, until repetition has grown into a fixed habit, and habit has carved out happiness as a permanent feature of our character, part of our own life.
The wretched discontent which makes some people so miserable themselves, and such destroyers of happiness in others, is only the natural result of the habit of discontent yielded to and indulged through years. Anyone, who is conscious of such an unlovely, un-Christlike disposition, should be so ashamed of it that he will set about at once conquering it and transforming his gloomy spirit, into one of happiness and joyousness.
Let no one think of happiness as nothing more than a desirable quality, a mere ornamental grace, which is winsome—but is not an essential element in a Christian life, something which one may have or may not have, as it chances. Happiness is a duty, quite as much a duty as truthfulness, honesty, or good temper. There are many Scripture words which exhort us to rejoice. Jesus was a rejoicing man. Although a "man of sorrows," the deep undertone of His life, never once failing, was gladness. Joy is set down as one of the fruits of the Spirit, a fruit which should be found on every branch of the great Vine. Paul exhorted his friends to rejoice in the Lord. There are almost countless incitements to Christian joy. We are to live a songful life. There are in the Scriptures many more calls to praise, than to prayer.
But how are we to get this habit of happiness into our life? The answer is very simple—just as we get any other habit wrought into our life. There are some people to whom the lesson does not seem hard, for they are naturally cheerful. There are others who seem to be predisposed to unhappiness, and who find it difficult to train themselves into joyful mood. But there is no Christian who cannot learn the lesson. The very purpose of divine grace, is to make us over again, to give us a new heart.
A man who has formed the habit of untruthfulness and then becomes a Christian, may not say that he never can learn now to be truthful—that untruthfulness is fixed too obdurately in his being. No evil can be so stained into the soul's texture—that grace cannot wash it white. The love of Christ in a person makes him a new man, and whatever the old is, it must give way. So, though we have allowed ourselves to drift into a habit of gloom and sadness, there is no reason why we should not get our heart attuned to a different key, and learn to sing new songs. This is our duty, and whatever is our duty—we can do by the help of Christ.
The secret of Christian joy—is the peace of Christ in the heart. Then one is not dependent on circumstances or conditions. Paul said he had learned in whatever state he was, therein to be content. That is, he had formed the habit of happiness and had mastered the lesson so well, that in no state or condition, whatever its discomforts were, was he discontented. We well know, that his circumstances were not always congenial or easy. But he sang songs in his prison with just as cheerful a heart and voice as when he was enjoying the hospitality of some loving friend. His mood was always one of cheer, not only when things went well—but when things went adversely. He was just as songful on his hard days—as on his comfortable days.
Then Paul gives us the secret of his abiding gladness, in the word he uses—"content." It means self-sufficed. He was self sufficed—that is, he carried in his own heart the springs of his own happiness. When he found himself in any place, he was not dependent on the resources of the place for his comfort. The circumstance might be most uncongenial. There might be hardship, suffering, poverty; but in himself he had the peace of Christ, and this sustained him so that he was content.
There is no other unfailing secret of happiness. Too many people are dependent upon external conditions—the house they live in, the people they are with, their food, their companions, the weather, their state of health, the comforts or discomforts of their circumstances. But if we carry with us such resources that things outside us cannot make us unhappy, however uncongenial they may be—then we have learned Paul's secret of contentment, which is the Christian's true secret of a happy life.
17. Thinking Soberly
The smallest life is of infinite importance. It sends streams of influence into eternity. If it fails of its mission, it leaves a blank in God's universe. Therefore we should think reverently of our life. Yet we should also think humbly of it, for in God's sight the greatest are very small. It is well that we seek to have true thoughts of ourselves and of our place and importance in the world. One may have too exalted an opinion of one's self—there is a self conceit which exaggerates one's value to society, one's work, and one's influence among men. Then there is also such a thing as having too low an opinion of one's self and of one's abilities, by reason of which one shrinks from serious duty and fails to meet life's full responsibility.
In one of his letters, Paul exhorts the followers of Christ not to think of themselves more highly than they ought to think—but so to think as to think soberly, according as God has dealt to each man a measure of faith. Then follows an illustration of the exhortation, drawn from the body and its members. There are many members in the body, and these members do not all have the same office or function. Not all followers of Christ have the same gifts, or are fitted to perform the same duty. Some have the gift of teaching, others of ministering, and others of exhortation.
The counsel is that no man think more highly of himself than he ought to think—but so to think as to think soberly. Thinking soberly is recognizing the truth, first of all, that whatever our particular gift may be, it is what God has given us. Our gifts differ—but it is according to the grace bestowed upon us. This takes away all ground for glorying in our individual ability or power. If our gift is greater than our neighbor's, we may not boast of it nor be prideful because of it. God saw fit to endow him with certain abilities, in order that he might discharge the duties which are allotted to him in his appointed place. We have a different place to fill, with different duties, requiring different abilities, and through the grace of God we have received gifts fitting us for our particular duties. Therefore we should not think too highly of ourselves—but rather should think humbly and gratefully, giving God the praise and honor for whatever gifts we have received.
There are many people who see the dusty road on which they are waking—but see not the glorious sky which arches above them. They toil for earth's perishing things, and see not heaven's imperishable glory which might be made theirs. They spend all their life striving to get honor, wealth, or power—and miss God. Thinking soberly is getting God and eternal things first of all into our life. If we fail of this, nothing else that we may do will be of any avail. Without God, a life full of services great and small, is only a row of ciphers, with no numeral before them to give them value.
Thinking soberly, recognizes the truth that others also have abilities which God has bestowed upon them. We are not the only one to whom God has given brains and a heart. And how do we know that our gift is really greater or more honorable than our neighbor's? One man may have eloquence, and be able to move and thrill hearts. Another is a quiet man, whose voice is not heard in the street or in any assembly. But he has the gift of intercession. He lives near to God, and speaks to God for men. While the preacher preaches, this man prays. May the man of the eloquent tongue boast over his brother who cannot speak with impressiveness to men—but who has the ear of God and power in heaven instead? Who knows but that by the ministry of intercession, more things are wrought in peoples hearts and lives, than by the eloquence which wins so much praise among men?
Often, the gifts which men praise and regard as most honorable, are not those whose power reaches highest into heaven and deepest into men's hearts—but the gifts which attract no attention, of which no man boasts. Let not the eloquent preacher think more highly of himself or of his gift, than he ought to think—but so to think as to think soberly. It may be, that but for the lowly brother who sits on the stairs and prays, the great preacher's words would have no power over men to bring them to God.
Thinking soberly does not forget that the greatest gifts are great only in the measure in which they are used. The abilities which God bestows upon us are not merely for the adornment of our life—they are given to us in order that they may be used. No one gift in itself is really greater than another. The humblest member of the body which fulfills its function, thereby becomes honorable. But this gives it no reason to think highly of itself, or to depreciate other members and their functions. The lowliest Christian who does well the lowliest work given him to do, making the most of his gifts or his abilities in the serving of men and for the honor of God—is realizing God's plan for his life, and is pleasing God just as well as he who with his large ability, does a work far greater in itself.
Instead, therefore, of thinking highly of himself because of the attractiveness of his gift or power, each man should accept it as something committed to him by God, to be used. There is no room for contention as to which is greater, or for claiming that our particular form of doing good is superior to our neighbor's. Instead of this, each one should consecrate his own particular ability to God, and then use it. "If our gift is ministry, let us give ourselves to our ministry; or if it is one who teaches, to his teaching; or he who exhorts, to his exhorting; he who gives, let him do it with liberality." That is the way thinking soberly about our own life should inspire us to use our gift. Instead of boasting of our fine abilities, we should use our particular ability to its very utmost and in its own line. Many a person, with most meager natural gifts, makes his life radiant by its service of love—while the man with the brilliant natural powers does nothing, his gifts, unused, dying in his brain and heart.
Thus there are many reasons against thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, and for thinking soberly. Noble gifts, instead of making us proud and self conceited, should inspire in us a sense of responsibility. We are to use our abilities, whether large or small, and then we must account for them at the last—not for the abilities as they were when first given to us, mere germs and possibilities—but for their development into their full power of usefulness, and then for their use in ways of blessing, unto the uttermost. If we understand this, we cannot but think soberly about our life.
18. Stumbling at the Disagreeable
Many people fail in life, because they lack courage to do or to endure disagreeable things. They demand a career with only congenial experiences. They insist on getting the roses without the thorns. They want to reach fine results, without the toil it costs other men to reach them. They wish to stand upon the mountain peaks—but they are unwilling to climb the steep, rugged paths which lead up to them. They desire success in life—but they are not ready to work for it. They dream beautiful dreams—but they have not the skill or the energy to forge their dreams into realities. They would like to leave the disagreeable out of every phase of their existence. They are impatient of a disagreeable environment. They dislike disagreeable people and have not the good nature necessary to get along with them. They complain bitterly when they must suffer any inconvenience, when the weather is uncomfortable, when circumstances are unfavorable, when they are sick. They cannot bear disappointment, and they chafe and fret when things do not turn out as they expected.
But there really is nothing manly or noble in such an attitude towards life. It may be said, first of all, that it is impossible to find a path in this world, which has not in it something disagreeable. There always are thorns as well as roses, and usually they grow on the same stalk. There are some dark, unpleasant days in the brightest and most cheerful summer. It is not likely that every one of a hundred neighbors or companions at work, is altogether congenial—almost certainly there will be one disagreeable person among them. Then it is not by any means certain that even one's most congenial and best natured friend will be perfectly agreeable every hour of the three hundred and sixty five days in a year. The sweetest people are apt to have their disagreeable moods now and then. The sunniest hearted friend will likely have a day of cloud now and then.
It may be said, further, that not only is the disagreeable inevitable in life—but it is also the school in which much that is best may be learned. Nothing really noble and worthy is ever attained easily. One may get money by inheritance from an ancestor—but one cannot get education, culture, refinement, or character as an inheritance. These possessions can become ours only through our own struggle, toil, and self discipline.
Some people dream of genius as a gift which makes work unnecessary. They imagine that with this wondrous power, they can do the finest things without learning to do them. They fancy, for example, that genius can sit down at a piano the first time it sees the instrument, and play exquisitely the noblest music; or put a vision of beauty on the canvas without having touched brushes before; or write a story, a poem, or an essay which will thrill all hearts, without ever having been a student and without literary training; or go into business and build up a great fortune without having had any preliminary business experience.
But such thoughts of life, are only idle dreams. The truest definition of genius is that it is merely "an infinite capacity for taking pains." Those who expect results without processes, can only be bitterly disappointed in the end. Nothing beautiful or worthy in any department of life, was ever achieved or attained without toil. "Wherever a great work is done, there also has been Gethsemane." The lovely works of human creation which people linger before with admiring wonder, have all cost a great price. Somebody's heart's blood has gone into every great picture, into ever stanza of sweet song, into every paragraph which inspires men. It has been noted that the root of the word bless is the word for blood. We can bless another in deep and true ways, only by giving of our life blood. Anything that will do real good, can be wrought only in tears and suffering. When Raphael was asked how he produced his immortal pictures he replied, "I dream dreams and see visions—and then I paint my dreams and my visions."
And not only are these painful processes necessary in order to produce results which are worth while—but it is in them that we grow into whatever is beautiful and noble. Work is the only means of growth. Instead of being only a curse, as some would have us believe, work is a means of measureless good. Not to work is to keep always an undeveloped hand, or heart, or brain. The things which work may achieve, are not half as important as that which work does in us.
A genial writer has given us a new beatitude—"Blessed be drudgery!" and in a delightful essay, proves that we owe to what we speak of ordinarily as drudgery, the best things in our life and character. A child dislikes to be called in the morning and to have to be off to school at the same hour every day, and chafes at rules, bells, lessons, and tasks; but it is in this very drudgery of home and school in which the child is being trained for noble and beautiful life. The child that misses such discipline, growing up as its own sweet will inclines, may seem to be fortunate and may be envied—but it is missing that without which all its future career will be less beautiful and less strong. "Blessed be drudgery!" It is in the tiresome routine of hours, tasks, and rules—that we learn to live worthily and that we get into our life itself those qualities which belong to true manhood. Those who have been brought up from childhood to be prompt, systematic, to pay every debt, always to keep every promise and appointment, never to be late—will carry the same good habits into their mature life, in whatever occupation it may be called, and when these qualities will mean so much in success.
Thus, irksome things play an important part in the making of life. We can shirk them if we will—but if we do so, we throw away our opportunity, for there is no other way to success. Young people should settle it once for all, that they will shrink from no task, no toil, no self discipline which faces them, knowing that beyond the thing which is unpleasant and hard, lies some treasure which can be reached and possessed in no way, but by accepting the drudgery. Nor can we get some other one to do our drudgery for us, for then the other person, not we, would get the reward which belongs to the task work, and which cannot be obtained apart from it. We must do our own digging. The rich man's son might easily find some other one who would be willing to study for him, for a money consideration—but no money could buy the gains of study and put them in among his own life treasures. We can acquire knowledge, culture, breadth of mind—only through our own work.
It is a misfortune to a young man to be born rich, not to have to ask, "What shall I do for a living?" unless he has in him the manly courage to enter life as if he were a poor man and to learn to work as if he must indeed earn his bread by the sweat of his own brow. There is no other way to grow into manly character. There is no other way to make life worth while.
We are very foolish, therefore, certainly very short sighted, to quarrel with the disagreeable in our lot, of whatever sort it is. The disagreeable is inevitable. We cannot find all things just to our own mind, in even the most perfect human lot in this world. Nor could we afford to miss the things which are less pleasant, which are even painful. We shrink from life's hard battles—but it is only through struggle and victory, that we can reach the fair heights of honor, and win the prizes of noble character. We dread sorrow—but it is through sorrow's bitterness that we find life's deepest, truest joy. We hold our life back from sacrifice—but it is only through losing our life that we can ever really save it. If we have faith and courage to welcome struggle, cost, pain, and sacrifice—we shall find our feet ever on the path to the best things in attainment and achievement in this world, and the highest glory at the last.
19. The Duty of Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is one of our highest and holiest duties. There are in the Scriptures, more commands and calls to praise than to prayer. Yet few duties are more frequently neglected than this. There are many people who are always coming to God with requests—but who do not come to Him with thanksgiving after their request have been granted. Ten lepers once cried to Jesus, as He was passing at a distance, beseeching Him for cleansing. He graciously heard them and granted their plea. When they had been healed, one of the ten returned to thank the Healer—but the other nine did not thank Him for the great favor they had received. So it is continually—many are blessed and helped—but only one here and there shows gratitude. Our Lord felt keenly the ingratitude of the lepers. "Where are the other nine?" was His pained question. God pours out His gifts and blessings every day upon His children; and whenever no voice of thanksgiving is heard in return, He misses it. If one bird in the forest is silent in the glad spring days, He misses its song. If one human heart fails to utter its praise amid life's countless blessings, He is disappointed.
Some people seem to think that if they set apart certain definite days for praise, it is enough. For example, they will be grateful for a whole day once in the year—thinking that this is the way God wants them to show their gratitude. But the annual Thanksgiving Day is not intended to gather into itself the thanksgiving for a whole year; rather it is intended to give the keynote for all the year's life. Life's true concert pitch, is praise. If we find that we are below the right pitch, we should take advantage of particular thanksgiving seasons to get keyed up. That is the way people do with their pianos—they have them tuned now and then, when the strings get slack and the music begins to grow discordant—and it is quite as important to keep our life in tune as our piano.
The ideal life is one of joy. Discontent and fretfulness, are discord in the song. We have no right to live gloomily or sadly. Go where we may, we hear the music of joy, unless our ears have become tone deaf. The world is full of beauty and full of music. Yet it is strange how many people seem neither to see the loveliness, nor hear the music.
It was well if many of us would train ourselves to see the glory and the goodness of God as revealed in nature. It will be sad to leave this world after staying in it three score or fourscore years, without having seen any of the ten thousand beauties with which God has adorned it. "Consider the lilies," said Jesus. Every sweet flower has a message of joy—to him who can read the writing. One who loves flowers and birds and trees and mountain and rivers and seas, and has learned to hear the voices which everywhere whisper their secrets to him who understands, never can be lonely and never can be sad.
We must have the beauty in our soul, before we can see beauty anywhere. Hence there are many who are really blind to the loveliness which God has strewn everywhere, with most lavish hand, in His works. So we must have the music in our heart, before we can hear the music which sings everywhere for Him who has ears to hear. If we have thanksgiving within us, we will have no trouble in finding gladness wherever we go. It is a sad and cheerless heart, which makes the world dreary to certain people; if only they would let joy enter to dwell within, a new world would be created for them.
If we allow our heart to nourish unlovingness, bitterness, evil thoughts and feelings, we cannot hear the music of love which breathes everywhere, pouring out from the heart of God. But if we keep our heart gentle, patient, lowly, and kind, on our ears will fall, wherever we go, sweet strains of divine music, out of heaven.
A great man used to say that the habit of cheerfulness was worth ten thousand pound a year. This is true not only in a financial way—it is true of one's own enjoyment of life and also of the worth of one's life to others. A glad heart gets immeasurably more out of life—than one which is gloomy. Every day brings its blessings. If it is raining, rain is a blessing. If trouble comes, God draws nearer than before, for "as your days, so shall you strength be." Then in the trouble, blessings are folded up. If there is sorrow, comfort is revealed in the sorrow, a bright light in the cloud. If the day brings difficulties, hardships, heavy burdens, sharp struggles, life's best things come in just this kind of experience, and not in the easy ways. The thankful heart finds treasure and good everywhere.
Then, a glad life makes a career of gladness wherever it goes. It leaves an unbroken lane of sunbeams behind it. Everybody is better as well as happier for meeting, even casually, one whose life is full of brightness and cheer.
We can do nothing better either for ourselves or for the world in which we live—than to learn the lesson of praise, of thanksgiving. We should begin at once to take singing lessons, learning to sing only joyous songs. Of course there are troubles in every life—but there are a thousand good things—to one which is sad. Sometimes we have disappointments—but even these are really God's appointments, as some day we shall find out. People will sometimes be unkind to us—but we should go on loving just as before, our heart full of unconquerable kindness. No matter what comes—we should sing and be thankful, and should always keep sweet.
Manners are very important. Some people will tell you that if a person is genuine in character, it makes small difference what kind of manners he has. But this is not true. A man may have the goodness of a saint—but if he is crude, awkward, lacking refinement, a large measure of the value of his goodness is lost. Manners are the language in which the life interprets itself; ofttimes much of the sweetness and beauty of the heart's gentle thoughts and feelings, is lost in the faulty translation.
Everywhere in life, manners count for a great deal. In business, civility is almost as important as capital. A man, who is crude, discourteous, and brusque, lacking the graces of cordiality and kindliness, may have fine goods in his store—but people will not come to buy of him. On the other hand, a man with affable manners, who treats his customers with politeness, who is patient, thoughtful, ready always to oblige, desirous to please—will attract patrons to his place and will build up a business. No merchant will retain in his employ, a salesperson who treats customers rudely.
The same is true in the professions and in all occupations and callings. The surly, discourteous physician will not get patients. If you begin to deal with a tradesman who appears to be cross tempered, and disobliging, you will not continue to go to him. The principal of a private school was very popular with his boys and did splendid work for some years. Meanwhile the school prospered. Then something happened which soured the principal and embittered his spirit. His manners changed, becoming stern, severe, and harsh. He would give way to fits of violent temper in which he lost self control and used language in the presence of his pupils that no gentleman should ever use. One year of this, was enough to break up the school.
We all know the impressions which the manners of people make upon us when we first meet them. A beautiful behavior goes a long way in winning our favor and confidence; and ill manners offset many excellences of character and much true worth.
In a passage in the Old Testament there is intimation that the manners of the people of Israel very sorely tried the Lord in the days of the wilderness wanderings. It is said that for about the space of forty years, He endured their manners in the wilderness—not only bore with them—but endured them. There is no doubt that their manners were very bad. They were always murmuring and complaining. They did not praise the God who had done so much for them. They were ungrateful and rebellious. It is given as a mark of the Divine patience that the Lord endured their manners all those years. It is implied, also, that He was sorely grieved by all that was so unbeautiful and so unworthy in their manners.
There is a class of ill manners which is much too common, and which many people seem not to think of as in any way ungracious—the habit of fretting and complaining about one's condition or circumstances.
There are some people who's greatest pleasure appears to be found in talking about their discomforts and miseries, their ill health, their trials. They seem never to think there is anything discourteous or unrefined in thus inflicting upon their neighbors, the tale of their real or imagined at least exaggerated, woes. Yet the truest Christian spirit always avoids the intruding of self in any way, especially the unhappy or suffering self, into the life of others. "By the grace of God I never fret," said Wesley. "I am discontented with nothing. And to have people at my ear fretting and murmuring at everything is like tearing the flesh off my bones."
The Bible is the best book of manners ever written. All its teachings are toward the truest and best culture. It condemns whatever is crude in act, coarse and unlovely in disposition, ungentle in word or thought. Jesus Christ was the most perfect gentleman who ever lived, and all His teachings are toward whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, pleasing to others, well spoken of. Paul, also, is an excellent teacher of good manners. If we would learn to live out the teachings of the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, for example, we would need no other instruction on how to behave. No rules of conduct ever formulated in books of etiquette, are so complete or cover all possible cases so fully—as these few words in that immortal chapter: "If I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned—but have not love, it profits me nothing. Love is patient and kind; love envies not; love vaunts not itself, is not puffed up, does not behave itself unseemly, seeks not its own, is not provoked, takes not account of evil; rejoices not in unrighteousness—but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
This subject is very important. We cannot pay too careful heed to our manners. Religion is love, and love, if it is true and large hearted, inspires perfect manners. There are certain conventional rules regulating one's conduct in good society, which everyone should know and follow. There is a place for etiquette, and no one has a right to ignore the formalities which prevail among refined people. But the essential element in all good manners, is the heart. The love which Paul so earnestly commends inspires gentleness, kindliness, thoughtfulness, unselfishness, humility, good temper, self control, patience, endurance of wrong, and all the graces.
A daily study of this one chapter, the thirteenth of First Corinthians, with hearty and earnest effort to get is teaching into the heart and then to live them out in all life's relationships, would ultimately change the faultiest manners into the beauty and gracefulness which belong to all true Christian life.
Some people are greatly hindered in the cultivation of politeness by their shyness. A great deal of rudeness is unintended; indeed, it is altogether unconscious. All that is needed to cure it, is thoughtfulness. But we have no right to be thoughtless. Lack of thought is only a little less blameworthy than lack of heart. A man says, when he learns that some word or act of his, gave great pain, "I didn't know that my friend was so sensitive at that point." If he had been more thoughtful he would have known, or at least he would not have spoken the word nor done the thing which hurt so. We never know what burden our neighbor is carrying, how tender his heart is. If we knew, we would be more careful.
In seeking to have our manners thoroughly Christian, we need to bring every phase and every expression of our life, under the sway of the love of Christ. It is easy enough to be gentle to some men, for they are so kindly in their spirit, so patient, so thoughtful, and so generous, that they never in any way try us. But there are others to whom it is hard to be gentle, for they are continually doing or saying things which would naturally irritate us and excite us to unloving and unlovely treatment of them. But our manners should be unaffected by anything in others. It was thus with our Master. His moods were not dependent on the influence which played upon Him. Rudeness to Him in others—did not make Him rude to them. Wrong and injustice did not dry up the fountain of love in His heart. He was as gracious and sweet in spirit and manner to the discourteous and the unkind, as if they had shown Him the most refined courtesy. If we have the mind that was in Christ Jesus, we, too, will be unaffected by the atmosphere about us. Love bears all things, endures all things, and never fails.
One has sketched the character of a gentleman, in the Christian sense, in words that it is worth while to quote:
"It is almost the definition of a gentleman, to say he is one who never gives pain … He carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast—all clashing of opinion or collision of feeling, all restraint or suspicion or gloom or resentment—his great object being to make everyone at ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company. He is tender toward the bashful, gentle toward the distant, and merciful toward the unreasonable; he guards against unreasonable allusions or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation and never wearisome.
"He makes light of favors while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when required to do so, never defends himself by mere retort. He has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes an unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil. He has too much sense to be affronted at insult. He is too busy to remember injuries and too wise to bear malice. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, though less educated minds, who, as with blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean.
"He may be right or wrong in his opinion—but he is too clear headed to be unjust. He is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive. Nowhere shall we find greater candor, consideration, and indulgence. He throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes. He knows the weakness of human nature as well as its strength, its province, and its limits."
The best school of manners is the school of Christ. The best culture is heart culture. To be a Christian in the fullest sense, is to be a gentleman or a lady of the highest type. The world's standards are worldly; the Beatitudes give the heavenly standard, which is infinitely better.
21. Things Which Discourage Kindness
It is well always to be optimistic about people. Jesus was. He never gave anybody up as hopeless. Evil returned by those who received His kindness, never checked nor lessened the flow of kindness in Him. The fountain of love in Him was not dried up by the bitterest enmities and persecutions. The person who wronged Him, was the very one He sought the earliest opportunity to befriend. When a man had proved unworthy, taking advantage of His compassion and unselfishness, and returning only ingratitude and injury, the next one who came with his needs did not find the heart of the Master closed, or the flow of affection checked—but met as tender love as if that great heart had never received a hurt. In all our Lord's dealings with others, we find this abiding love, with exhaustless patience, sympathy, hope and help.
The Master would have all His followers like Him in this. He has taught us that we are to love as He loved. "As I have loved you," the new commandment runs. We are to show to others the same forgiveness that we ask from God for ourselves. We are to love our enemies—as Jesus loved His enemies. When others use us despitefully, we are to pray for them, instead of resenting their unkindness and cherishing bitterness toward them in our heart.
This is one point at which we need to keep most careful watch over our own life. We are naturally disposed to resent wrongs done to us, and to be affected in our own disposition by the treatment we receive from others. When we have denied ourselves and made sacrifices to help another, and he shows no appreciation, no gratitude, the danger is that the warmth of our love shall be chilled, and the flow of our kindness checked.
The old teaching was that one should forgive another three times. Peter thought he was taking a great stride forward, when he suggested that a Christian should forgive seven times. But Jesus set the standard far beyond Peter's, saying, "Not seven times—but seventy times seven." That is, forgiveness is to be exhaustless. We are never to weary of exercising it. However often one may repeat his offence against us, we are still to be ready to forgive and forgive. The same is true of patience, of compassion, of kindness, of all goodness. The love in our heart is to be unfailing, like a spring of water which flows continuously.
Yet there are many things which discourage kindness, which make the kindly disposed, to restrain their gentle impulses and withhold their hand from ministry. Ingratitude is too common. Too often those we help, even at much cost to ourselves, prove unworthy. Nothing comes of our efforts to do them good. They promise to do better—but soon are back again in the old paths. They take our favors and enjoy our gifts—and pay us with neglect or injustice. Too frequently those for whom we have done the most, make the smallest return. It is easy in such experience to conclude that it is not worth while to continue to show favors or to deny ourselves to do others good, since nothing comes of it—nothing but disappointment.
In the matter of helping with money, there is special discouragement. There are people who are ready always to assist others in time of need. But perhaps no other form of kindness proves quite so unsatisfactory as this. In the fewest cases do gifts of money bring back a return of gratitude. The acceptance of such help seems to have a sinister influence upon the feelings. Not many retain afterward as close friends, those to whom they have given financial assistance. Many godly men who begin dispensing money with a free hand, truly interested in other's troubles and eager to assist them, meet with such discouragement in the effect of their gifts upon those who receive them, that the fountains of their charity are at last dried up. Not only are they led to decline to give further help to those who have proved so ungrateful—but, as a consequence, they harden themselves against all such appeals for help in the future. As a result, when really worthy objects of benevolence are presented to them, there is no answer of sympathy.
These are suggestions of things which discourage kindness and check the flow of benevolence. In ancient times in the East, a common practice among tribes at war was to fill up each other's wells. Every well thus rendered useless was a public blessing destroyed. Similar crime against humanity is it—when a well of kindness in a heart is stopped. The world's need and sorrow are the losers. The thirsty come to drink where before their need had been satisfied, and are disappointed.
But the most serious consequence, is in the harm which is done to the people themselves, whose love and compassion are thus restrained. One of the great problems of Christian living, is to keep the heart gentle and sweet amid all the world's trying experiences. Nothing worse could happen to anyone, than that he should become cold toward human suffering, or bitter toward human infirmity and failure.
Jesus gave us in His own blessed life the example of One who lived all His years amid ingratitude and enmity, and yet never lost the sweetness out of His spirit. He poured out love, and men rejected it. He scattered kindnesses today, which tomorrow were forgotten. He helped people in sorest need and distress, and they turned about and joined His maligners. He came to save His nation, and they nailed Him on a cross. Yet amid all this rejection of His love, this rewarding of good with evil, of love with hate—the heart of Jesus never lost a trace of its gentleness and compassion. He was just as ready to help a needy one on the last day of His life—as He was the day He set out to begin His public ministry. He wrought a miracle of healing on an enemy, on the night of His betrayal; and when being fastened on His cross—he prayed for the men who were driving the nails through His hands!
Love is always the divine answer to human sin. The answer to the crucifying of the Son of God, was redemption. So love, more love, should be our answer to all injury, to all wrong, to all injustice and cruelty, to all ingratitude. No evil returned for our good, should ever be permitted to discourage us in the doing of good.
Whatever failure there may seem to be in our ministry of kindness, through the shutting of lives against it, our heart should never lose any of its compassion and yearning. One writes of finding a fresh water spring close beside the sea. Twice every twenty four hours the tides rolled over it, burying it deep under their brackish floods. But when the bitter waters rolled out again, the spring was found as fresh as before, with no taint of the salt sea in its sweet stream. So should it be, with the heart of love. When the tides of unkindness, injustice, or cruelty have swept over it, it should emerge unembittered, patient, long suffering, and meek, rich still, in its generous thought and feeling, and ready for any new service for which there may be opportunity tomorrow.
That is one of the great lessons, which Jesus would teach us. The secret of such a life is to have and ever to keep in us—the heart of a little child. Instead of allowing our spirit to grow bitter when our kindness has been abused, when our love has been repaid with hate, we should take the first opportunity to repeat the kindness and the love, thus overcoming evil with good. The Master said, "Love your enemies, and pray for those who despitefully use you, and persecute you." That is, if you have an enemy, one in whose breast is bitterness toward you—he is the very man you are to love. If anyone has used you badly today, he is the very person you are to pray for tonight when you bow before God.
Someone may say that this is impossible, that no love can endure rejection and unrequiting day after day, and lose none of its warmth; that no kindness can meet unkindness, continually, and yet keep all its warmth and generosity undiminished. But Paul tells that love suffers long and is kind, seeks not its own, is not provoked, takes no account of evil, bears all things, endures all things, never fails. Christian love is not an earth-born affection—it is born out of heaven, out of God's own heart. Hence it is immortal, its life is inextinguishable, and it cannot perish.
22. Putting Away Childish Things
There is a wide difference between childlikeness and childishness. Childlikeness is commended as very beautiful in life and disposition. The Master exhorted His disciples to become as little children, and said that until they would do so, they could not enter into the kingdom of heaven. The finest things in character are childlike things—humility, simplicity, trustfulness, the absence of scheming and ambition.
But childishness is something altogether different. It is something to get as far as possible away from, and not something to cultivate. It is one of the things we are to put off and leave behind as we grow into the strength and beauty of mature manhood. Instead of being a noble quality, the mark of rank and greatness in spiritual life—it is the sign of weakness, of unmanliness.
Childishness in a child may be endured. One is expected to be a baby—before he becomes a man. But a childish life is not beautiful. Precocity is deformity, monstrosity. We are forbearing with childishness in a child. We do not grow impatient with it. "He is only a child," we say in apology for actions and words and ways which are not beautiful. But when these childish things appear in one who has come to manhood in years, we find no excuse for them. They are blemishes, marks of immaturity. We ought to leave them behind us, when we pass up into the larger, more mature life of manhood. We have good authority for saying that when we are children—we speak as children, we feel as children, we act as children; but when we become men—we put away childish things.
Yet there are too many people who keep their childish ways—after they are grown up. For example, pouting is not uncommon in quite young children. Something disappoints them, and they turn away in sullen mood, thrusting out their lips and refusing to speak to anyone or take part in what their companions are doing. It is no wonder that the other children jeer at such puerile behavior in one of their number, ridiculing him with taunting epithets. The lesson of good naturedly bearing slights, hurts, or defeats—usually has to be learned by experience, and the lesson is a long one.
It need not be wondered at, therefore, if young children are sometimes slow in mastering their sensitiveness in this regard. We may have great patience with them. Immaturity is always faulty. An unripe apple is not usually sweet. Unripeness, however, is not blameworthy. It is but a phase in the progress toward ripeness.
But every now and then—we find full grown people who have not gotten beyond the pouting phase. They are very genial and happy in their relations with others—while nothing occurs to impinge upon their self esteem. But the moment anyone seems to slight them or to show improper respect for them, when one appears to treat them unkindly, or when some scheme or proposal of theirs is set aside, instantly out go the lips in a childish pout, down come the brows in a bad tempered frown, and the offended person goes off in a fit of babyish sulking.
This spectacle is not uncommon among young people in their relations with each other. There are some who demand absolute and exclusive monopoly in their friendships. They are ardent in their devotion to the person on whom they fasten their affection—but that person must become wholly theirs, scarcely treating any other one respectfully, certainly showing no cordiality to anyone. If the object of their attachment fails to be fully loyal, the doting friend pouts and sulks and whimpers, "You don't care for me any more!" Such conduct may be tolerated in children—but in young people who are past the years of childhood, it is the token of a sickly and most unwholesome sentimentality.
A beautiful friendship is one which is generous and trustful, not exacting and unreasonable in its demands, which is willing and glad to see others esteemed and honored, and sharing in affection and regard. Yet too many people are selfish in their friendships, not only demanding the first place—but insisting that no other one shall be admitted to any second or third place, even that no one else shall be treated with common courtesy. Such people are not fit to have friends. Even the most childish child rarely shows such a spirit. Envy and jealousy are most unlovely, and are unworthy of anyone, especially of anyone who bears the Christian name; and are certainly to be set down among the childish things which should be put away, on becoming men and women.
There are other manifestations of feeling and disposition which should be left behind by all who grow up into maturity of life. Paul names many qualities which have no rightful place in a Christian life and which should be put away—anger, wrath, malice, railing, and shameful speaking. There are many good people, good in the great features of life and character, who are very hard to live with. They are thoughtless, ungentle, uncontrolled in speech. They lack the graces of kindliness and helpfulness. While they are honest, true, strong, upright—they are lacking in the refinements of life, which in the last analysis, are essential to real lovableness of character, and which make a person winsome, agreeable, companionable, and pleasant to get along with in intimate relations.
Very much of the unhappiness of human lives is caused, not by cruel wrongs which crush the heart—but by tiny unkindnesses and irritations, which fret and vex the spirit continually. A thoughtful woman says very truly: "Taking life through and through, the larger part of the sadness and heartache it has known, has not come through its great sorrows—but through little needless hurts and unkindnesses. Look back and you can readily count up the great griefs and bereavements which have rent your heart and changed your life. You know what weary months they darkened. There was certain sacredness and dignity, like the dignity of lonely mountain tops, in their very greatness; and looking back, if not at the time, you can often understand their purpose. But, oh! The days which are spoiled by smaller hurts! Spoiled because somebody has a foolish spite, a wicked mood, an unreasonable prejudice, which must be gratified and have its way, no matter whose rights, plans, or hearts are hurt by it!
One has said, "There are so many hard places along the road for most of us, made hard needlessly by human selfishness, that the longing to be kind with a tender, thoughtful, Christlike kindness grows stronger in me each day I live."
It is not expected of a child, that he be always thoughtful—the lesson usually has to be learned, and the learning of it takes years and long experience. But when one has come to maturity, it is certainly time that at least one has begun to grow kind and considerate.
These are only illustrations of a most unhappy spirit which is much too common in the world. We all know how such conduct mars the beauty of manliness. Nothing is a better test of character and disposition, than the way one meets defeat or bears injury. "Blessed are the meek" is a great deal more beautiful beatitude than we are accustomed to think. Commendation is sweet—but we show a pitiable weakness if we keep sweet only when people are saying complimentary things to us or of us, and then get discouraged and out of sorts, when the adulation fails to come.
Let us put away childish things forever. Let the young people begin to do so very early. If you find the slightest disposition in yourself to pout or sulk or be envious or jealous, or to play the baby in any way realize that this is a most unchristian attitude.
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