But whatever grace may do for the body, it always transfigures the character. The love of God finds us ruined sinners, and leaves us glorified saints. We are predestinated "to be conformed to the image of his Son." Nor are we to wait for death to transform us; the work should begin at once. We have a responsibility, too, in this work. The sculptor takes the blackened marble block and hews it into a form of beauty. The marble is passive in his hands, and does nothing but submit to be cut and hewn and polished as he will. But we are not insensate marble; we have a part in the fashioning of our lives into spiritual holiness. We will never become like Christ without our own desire and effort.
We ought to know well what our part is, what we have to do with our own sanctification. How, then, may we become transfigured Christians?
There is a transfiguring power in prayer. It was as our Lord was praying that the fashion of his countenance was altered. What is prayer? It is far more than the tame saying over of certain forms of devotion. It is the pouring out of the heart's deepest cravings. It is the highest act of which the soul is capable. When you pray truly, all that is best, noblest, most exalted, purest, heavenliest in you, presses up toward God. Hence earnest prayer always lights up the very face, and lifts up the life into higher, holier mood. We grow toward that which we much desire. Hence prayers for Christ-likeness have a transfiguring effect.
Holy thoughts in the heart have also a transfiguring influence on the life. "As he thinketh in his heart, so is he." If we allow jealousies, envies, ugly tempers, pride, and other evil things to stay in our heart, our life will grow into the likeness of these unlovely things. But if we cherish pure, gentle, unselfish, holy thoughts and feelings, our life will become beautiful.
Professor Drummond tells of a young girl whose character ripened into rare loveliness. Her friends watched her growing gentleness and heavenliness with wonder. They could not understand the secret of it. She wore about her neck a little locket within which no one was allowed to look. Once, however, she was very ill, and one of her companions was permitted then to open this sacred ornament, and she saw there the words, "Whom having not seen I love." This was the secret. It was love for the unseen Christ that transfigured her life. If we think continually of the Christ, meditating upon him, thinking over sweet thoughts of him, and letting his love dwell within us, we shall grow like him.
Communion with Christ transfigures a life. Every one we meet leaves a touch upon us which becomes part of our character. Our lives are like sheets of paper, and every one who comes writes a word, or a line, or leaves a little picture painted there. Our intimate companions and friends, who draw very close to us, and are much with us, entering into our inner heart-life, make very deep impressions upon us.
If, therefore, we live with Christ, abide in him, the close, continued companionship with him will change us into his likeness. Personal friendship with Christ in this world is as possible as any merely human friendship. The companionship is spiritual, but it is real. The devout Christian has no other friend who enters so fully into his life as does the Lord Christ Jesus. The effect of this companionship is the transfiguring of the character. It is not without reason that the artists paint the beloved disciple as likest his Lord in features. He knew Jesus more intimately than any of the other disciples, and, in his deeper, closer companionship, was more affected and impressed by the Lord's beauty of holiness.
Again, keeping the eye upon the likeness of Christ transfigures the life. The old monks intently gazed upon the crucifix, and they said that the prints of the nails would come in their hands and feet, and the thorn-scars in their brow as they beheld. It was but a gross fancy; yet in the fancy there is a spiritual truth. Gazing by faith upon Christ, the lines of his beauty indeed print themselves on our hearts. This is the meaning of St. Paul's word: "We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image." The Gospel is the mirror. There we see the image of Christ. If we earnestly, continually, and lovingly behold it, the effect will be the changing of our own lives into the same likeness. The transformation is wrought by the divine Spirit, and our part is only to behold, to continue beholding, the blessed beauty. We sit before the camera, and our own picture is printed on the prepared glass. We sit before Christ, and we become the camera, and his image is printed on our soul.
There is a pathetic story of a French sculptor, which illustrates the sacredness with which life's ideal should be cherished and guarded. He was a genius, and was at work on his masterpiece. But he was a poor man, and lived in a small garret, which was studio, workshop, and bedroom to him. He had his statue almost finished, in clay, when one night there came suddenly a great frost over the city. The sculptor lay on his bed, with his statue before him in the centre of the fireless room. As the chill air came down upon him, he knew that in the intense cold there was danger that the water in the interstices of the clay would freeze and destroy his precious work. So the old man arose from his bed, and took the clothes that had covered him in his sleep, and reverently wrapped them about his statue to save it, then lay down himself in the cold, uncovered. In the morning, when his friends came in, they found the old sculptor dead; but the image was preserved unharmed.
We each have in our soul, if we are true believers in Christ, a vision of spiritual loveliness into which we are striving to fashion our lives. This vision is our conception of the character of Christ. "That is what I am going to be some day," we say. Far away beyond our present attainment as this vision may shine, yet we are ever striving to reach it. This is the ideal which we carry in our heart amid all our toiling and struggling. This ideal we must keep free from all marring or stain. We must save it though, like the old sculptor, we lose our very life in guarding it. We should be willing to die rather than give it up to be destroyed. We should preserve the image of Christ, bright, radiant, unsoiled, in our soul, until it transforms our dull, sinful, earthly life into its own transfigured beauty.
No other aim in life is worthy of an immortal being. We may become like the angels; what debasement, then, to let our lives, with all their glorious possibilities, be dragged down into the dust of shame and dishonor! Rather let us seek continually the glory for which we were made and redeemed. "Beloved, now are we children of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be. We know that, if he shall be manifested, we shall be like him; for we shall see him even as he is. And every one that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself, even as he is pure."
"Wonderful the whiteness of thy glory; Can we truly that perfection share? Yes; our lives are pages of thy story, We thy shape and superscription bear; Tarnished forms—torn leaves—but thou canst mend them, Thou thine own completeness canst unfold From our imperfections, and wilt end them— Dross consuming, turning dust to gold."
A drop of water lay one day in a gutter, soiled, stained, polluted. Looking up into the blue of the sky, it began to wish for purity, to long to be cleansed and made crystalline. Its sigh was heard, and it was quickly lifted up by the sun's gentle fingers—up, out of the foul gutter, into the sweet air, then higher and higher; at length the gentle winds caught it and bore it away, away, and by and by it rested on a distant mountain-top, a flake of pure, white, beautiful snow.
This is a little parable of what the grace of God does for every sinful life that longs and cries for purity and holiness.
THE INTERPRETATION OF SORROW.
"So much we miss If love is weak; so much we gain If love is strong; God thinks no pain Too sharp or lasting to ordain To teach us this." —HELEN HUNT JACKSON.
There will always be mysteries in sorrow. Men will always wonder what it means. It is impossible for us, with our earthly limitations, to understand it. Even the strongest Christian faith will have its questions, and many of its questions will have to remain unanswered until the horizon of life is widened, and its dim light becomes full and clear in heaven. Meanwhile, however, some of these questions may be at least partially answered, and grief's poignancy in some slight measure alleviated. And surely no smallest gleam of comfort should be withheld from the world that needs comfort so sorely, and cries out so hungrily for it.
Human hearts are the same everywhere. Sorrow's experiences, while strangely diverse, are yet alike in their general features. Wherever we listen to the suppressed voices of grief, we hear the same questions. What has been answer to one, will therefore be answer to thousands more. Recently, in one day, two letters came to me from sorrowing ones, with questions. Whether any comfort was given in the private answers or not, it may be that the mere stating of the questions, with a few sentences concerning each, may be helpful to others who are carrying like burdens.
One of these letters is from a Christian man whose only son has been led into sinful courses, swiftly descending to the saddest depths. The story is too painful to be repeated in these pages. In his sore distress, the father, a godly man, a man of strong faith and noble wisdom, cries out: "What is the comfort even of Christ and the Bible for me? How can I roll this burden of mine upon God?"
In answer to these questions it must be remembered that there are some things which even the richest, divinest comfort cannot do. For one thing, it cannot take away the pain of grief or sorrow. Our first thought of comfort usually is that it shall lift off our burden. We soon learn, however, that it is not in this way that comfort ordinarily comes. It does not make the grief any less. It does not make our hearts any less sensitive to anguish. "Consolation implies rather an augmentation of the power of bearing than a diminution of the burden." In this case, it cannot lift off the loving father's heart the burden of disappointment and anguish which he experiences in seeing his son swept away in the currents of temptation. No possible comfort can do this. The perfect peace in which God promises to keep those whose minds are stayed on him, is not a painless peace in any case of suffering. The crushed father cannot expect a comfort which will make him forget his wandering, sinning child, or which will cause him to feel no longer the poignant anguish which the boy's course causes in his heart. Father-love must be destroyed to make such comforting possible, and that would be a sorer calamity than any sorrow.
The comfort in such a grief, is that which comes through faith in God even in the sore pain. The child was given to God in his infancy, and was brought up as God's child along his early years. Who will say that he may not yet, in some way, at some time, be brought back to God? The daily burden may then daily be laid in the divine hands. The heart's anguish may express itself not in despairing cries, but in believing prayers, inspired by the promises, and kindled into fervency by blessed hope. Then peace will come, not painless peace, but peace which lies on Christ's bosom in the darkness, and loves and trusts and asks no questions, but waits with all of hope's expectancy.
At the same time we are never to forget, while we trust God for the outcome of our disappointments, that every sorrow has its mission to our life. There is something he desires it to work in us. What it may be in any particular instance we cannot tell; nor is it wise for us to ask. The wisest, truest thing we can do is reverently to open our hearts to the ministry of the sorrow, asking God to do his will in us, not allowing us to hinder the beautiful work he would do, and helping us to rejoice even in the grief. The tears may continue to flow, but then with Mrs. Browning we can sing:—
"I praise thee while my days go on; I love thee while my days go on; Through dark and death, through fire and frost, With emptied arms and treasure lost, I thank thee while my days go on."
The other letter referred to is from another father, over whom wave after wave of sorrow had passed. Within a brief space of time two children were taken away. The one was a son who had entered his professional career, and had large hope and promise for the future—a young man of rare abilities and many noble qualities. The other was a daughter, who had reached womanhood, and was a happy and beloved wife, surrounded by friends and the refinements of a beautiful home, and all that makes life sweet and desirable. Both of these children God took, one soon after the other. The father, a man of most tender affections, and yet of implicit faith in God, uttered no murmur when called to stand at the graves of his beloved ones; and yet his heart cries out for interpretation.
He writes: "In one of your books I find these words: 'Sometimes our best beloved are taken away from us, and our hearts are left bleeding, as a vine bleeds when a green branch is cut from it. . . . Here it is that Christian faith comes in, putting such interpretation and explanation upon the painful things, that we may be ready to accept them with confidence, even with rejoicing. . . . A strong, abiding confidence that all the trials, sorrows, and losses of our lives are parts of our Father's husbandry, ought to silence every question, quiet every fear, and give peace and restful assurance to our hearts in all their pain. We cannot know the reason for the painful strokes, but we know that he who holds the pruning-knife is our Father. That ought always to be enough for us to know.'"
Having quoted these words, he continues: "Now I do not question the Father's husbandry. I would also 'silence every question' concerning his wisdom and his love. I would not doubt them for a moment. When I found that my only son, my pride and my staff, must die, I prayed with such strong crying and tears as only they can know who are in like circumstances, yet feeling that I could give back to God what he had lent me without a murmur. By his help, I believe even the slightest murmur has been repressed concerning the painful things, and that in some measure I have been ready to accept them with confidence, even with rejoicing. But my faith has not come in, as you suggest, to put 'such interpretation and explanation' upon them, as perhaps I ought to do. Why has God thus dealt with me? Why was a double stroke necessary? Is his dealing with me purely disciplinary? What are the lessons he would teach me? How am I to test myself as to whether his purpose in afflicting me has been accomplished? Or am I not anxiously to inquire concerning the specific lessons, but rather to let him show in due time what he designed? Such questions multiply without answer."
Has not this writer in his own last suggestion stated what should be done by those who are perplexed with questions as to the interpretation of sorrow? They should not anxiously inquire concerning the specific lessons, but rather let God show in due time what he designed. No doubt every sorrow has a mission. It comes to us, as God's messenger, with a message. If we will welcome it reverently, and be still while it gives its message, no doubt we shall receive some benediction.
Yet we must look at this whole matter carefully and wisely. We are in danger of thinking only of ourselves, and of the effect upon us and our life of the griefs that smite us. We think too often of our bereavements, for example, as if God took away the friend, ending his life, just to chasten or punish us. But we have no right to take so narrow a view of God's design in the removal of loved ones from our side. His purpose concerns them as well as us. They are called away because their work on earth is done, and higher service in other spheres awaits them. To them death is gain, promotion, translation. The event itself, in its primary significance, is a joyous and blessed one. The sorrow which we experience in their removal is but an incident. God cannot take them home to glory from our side, without giving us pain. But we must not reverse this order and think that the primary end of the calling away of our beloved ones is to chasten us, or to cause us to suffer. No doubt there is blessing for us as well as for them in their leaving us, since all things work together for good to them that love God; but we unduly exaggerate our own importance when we think of God as laying a beautiful life low in death merely to teach us some lesson or give to us some blessing.
When we look at our bereavements in this light, and think of what death means to our beloved ones who have been taken from us, we find new comfort in the thought of their immortality, their release from suffering and temptation, and their full blessedness with Christ. It is selfish for us to forget this in the absorption of our own grief. Should we not be willing to endure loss and pain that those dear to us may receive gain and blessing?
Even in life's relationships on the earth we are continually taught the same lesson. Parents must give up their children, losing them out of the home nest, that they may go forth into the world to take up life's duties for themselves. Then also the separation is painful, but it is borne in the sweet silence of self-denying love. We give up our friends when they are called from our side to accept other and higher places. Life is full of such separations, and we are taught that it is our duty to think of others, bearing our own loss in patience for their sake. Does not the same law of love "that seeketh not its own" apply when our beloved ones are called up higher?
Of lessons to be learned in sorrow the first always is submission. We are told even of our Lord that he "learned obedience by the things which he suffered." This is life's great, all-inclusive lesson. When we have learned this fully, perfectly, the work of sanctification in us is complete.
Then another lesson in all sorrow comes in the softening and enriching of the life in order to greater personal helpfulness. It is sad for us if for any cause we miss this blessed outcome of grief and pain. Christ suffered in all points that he might be fitted for his work of helping and saving men. God teaches us in our sorrow what he would have us tell others in their time of trial. Those who suffer patiently and sweetly go forth with new messages for others, and with new power to comfort.
Beyond these two wide, general lessons of all sorrow, it usually is not wise to press our question, "Why is it?" It is better for us so to relate ourselves to God in every time of trial, that we may not hinder the coming to us of any blessing he may send, but on the other hand, may receive with quiet, sweet welcome whatever teaching, correction, revealing, purifying, or quickening he would give us. Surely this is better far than that we should anxiously inquire why God afflicts us, why he sent the sorrow to us, just what he wants it to do for us. We must trust God to work out in us what he wants the grief to do for us. We need not trouble ourselves to know what he is doing.
Mercifully our old duties come again after sorrow just as before, and we must take these all up, only putting into them more heart, more reverence toward God, more gentleness and love toward man. As we go on we shall know what God meant the grief to do for us; or if not in this world, we shall in that home of Light, where all mystery shall be explained, and where we shall see love's lesson plain and clear in all life's strange writing. There is no doubt that sorrow always brings us an opportunity for blessing. Then we must remember that in this world alone can we get the good that can come to us only through pain, for in the life beyond death there is to be no sorrow, no tears. An old Eastern proverb says, "Spread wide thy skirts when heaven is raining gold." Heaven is always raining gold when we are sitting under the shadow of the cross. We should diligently improve the opportunity, and learn the lessons he would teach and get the blessings he would give, for the time is short.
"But if, impatient, thou let slip thy cross, Thou wilt not find it in this world again, Nor in another; here, and here alone, Is given thee to suffer for God's sake. In other worlds we shall more perfectly Serve him and love him, praise him, work for him, Grow near and nearer him with all delight; But there we shall not any more be called To suffer, which is our appointment here."
 "Practical Religion," page 107
"We need—each and all—to be needed, To feel we have something to give Towards soothing the moan of earth's hunger; And we know that then only we live When we feed one another, as we have been fed From the hand that gives body and spirit their bread." —LUCY LARCOM.
There are other people. We are not the only ones. Some of the others live close to us, and some farther away. We stand in certain relations to these other people. They have claims upon us. We owe them duties, services, love. We cannot cut ourselves off from them, from any of them, saying that they are nothing to us. We cannot rid ourselves of obligations to them and say we owe them nothing. So inexorable is this relation to others that in all the broad earth there is not an individual who has no right to come to us with his needs, claiming at our hand the ministry of love. The other people are our brothers, and there is not one of them that we have a right to despise, or neglect, or hurt, or thrust away from our door.
We ought to train ourselves to think of the other people. We may not leave them out of any of the plans that we make. We must think of their interests and good when we are thinking of our own. They have rights as well as ourselves, and we must think of these when asserting our own. No man may set his fence a hair's breadth over the line on his neighbor's ground. No man may gather even a head of his neighbor's wheat, or a cluster of grapes from his neighbor's vine. No man may enter his neighbor's door unbidden. No man may do anything that will harm his neighbor. Other people have inalienable rights which we may not invade.
We owe other people more than their rights; we owe them love. To some of them it is not hard to pay this debt. They are lovable and winsome. They are thoroughly respectable. They are congenial spirits, giving us in return quite as much as we can give them. It is natural to love these and be very kindly and gentle to them. But we have no liberty of selection in this broad duty of loving other people. We may not choose whom we shall love if we claim to be Christians. The Master's teaching is inexorable: "If ye love them that love you, what thank have ye? for even sinners love those that love them. And if ye do good to them that do good to you, what thank have ye? for even sinners do the same. And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? even sinners lend to sinners, to receive again as much. But love your enemies, and do them good, and lend, never despairing; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be sons of the Most High; for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil."
The good Samaritan is our Lord's answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" and the good Samaritan's neighbor was a bitter enemy, who, in other circumstances, would have spurned him from his presence. Other people may not be beautiful in their character, nor congenial in their habits, manners, modes of life, or disposition; they may even be unkind to us, unjust, unreasonable, in strict justice altogether undeserving of our favor; yet if we persist in being called Christians ourselves we owe them the love that thinketh no evil, that seeketh not its own, that beareth all things, endureth all things, and never faileth.
No doubt it is hard to love the other people who hate us. It is not so hard just to let them alone, to pass them by without harming them, or even to pray for them in a way; but to love them—that is a sore test. We are apt to ask:—
"Dear Lord, will it not do, If we return not wrong for wrong, And neither love nor hate? But love—O Lord, our souls are far from strong, And love is such a tender, home-nursed dove— How can we, Lord, our enemies bless and love?
"Fasting—Oh, one could fast— And praying—one could most pathetic pray; But love our enemies! Dear Lord, Is there not unto thee some easier way— Some way through churchly service, song, or psalm, Or ritual grand, to reach thy heaven's calm?"
But there comes no answer of Christly indulgence to such questions. Other people, though they be our enemies, are not thus taken out of the circle of those to whom we owe love. Our part is always pictured for us in the example of the good Samaritan.
That is, we owe other people service. Service goes with loving. We cannot love truly and not serve. Love without serving is but an empty sentiment, a poor mockery. God so loved the world that he gave. Love always gives. If it will not give it is not love. It is measured always by what it will give. The needs of other people are therefore divine commands to us, which we dare not disregard or disobey. To refuse to bless a brother who stands before us in any kind of want is as great a sin as to break one of the positive commandments of the Decalogue. Indeed, in a sense, it is the breaking of the whole second table of the commandments—the sense of which is, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."
We like to think there is no sin in mere not doing. But Jesus, in his wonderful picture of the Last Judgment, makes men's condemnation turn on not doing the things they ought to have done. They have simply not fed the hungry, not clothed the naked, not visited the sick, not blessed the prisoner. To make these sins of neglect appear still more grievous, our Lord makes a personal matter of each case, puts himself in the place of the sufferer who needs it and is not cared for, and tells us that all neglects to give needed kindness to any are shown to him. This divine word gives a tremendous interest to other people, who are brought providentially into the sphere of our life, so that their wants of whatever kind may make appeal to our sympathy and kindness. To neglect them is to neglect Christ. He sends them to us. They represent him. To turn them away is to turn him away.
This matter of serving has multitudinous forms. Sometimes it is poverty that stands at our gate, and money help is wanted. A thousand times more frequently, however, it is not money, but something else more precious, that we must give. It may be loving sympathy. Sorrow is before us. Another's heart is breaking. Money would be of no use; it would be only bitter mockery to offer it. But we can hold to the neighbor's lips a cup of the wine of love, filled out of our own heart, which will give new strength to the sufferer. Or it is the anguish of a life struggle, a human Gethsemane, beside which we are called to watch. We can give no actual aid—the soul must fight its battles alone; but we can be as the angel that ministered in our Lord's Gethsemane, imparting strength, and helping the weary struggler to win the victory.
The world is very full of sorrow and trial, and we cannot live among our fellow-men and be true without sharing their loads. If we are happy we must hold the lamp of our happiness so that its beams will fall upon the shadowed heart. If we have no burden it is our duty to put our shoulders under the load of others. Selfishness must die or else our own heart's life must be frozen within us. We soon learn that we cannot live for ourselves and be Christians; that the blessings that are given to us are really for other people, and that we are only God's ministers, to carry them in Christ's name to those for whom they are intended.
We begin to felicitate ourselves upon some special prosperity, and the next moment some human need knocks at our door, and we must share our good things with a suffering brother. We may build up our fine theories of taking care of ourselves, of living for the future, of laying up in the summer of prosperity for the winter of adversity, of providing for old age or for our children; but ofttimes all these frugal and economic plans have to yield to the exigencies of human need. The love that seeketh not its own plays havoc with life's hard logic, and with the plans of mere self-interest. We cannot say that anything is our own when our brother is suffering for what we can give.
"Herein is love: to strip the shoulders bare. If need be, that a frailer one may wear A mantle to protect it from the storm; To bear the frost-king's breath so one be warm; To crush the tears it would be sweet to shed, And smile so others may have joy instead.
"Herein is love: to daily sacrifice The hope that to the bosom closest lies; To mutely bear reproach and suffer wrong, Nor lift the voice to show where both belong; Nay, now, nor tell it e'en to God above— Herein is love indeed, herein is love."
Not a day passes in the commonest experiences of life, in which other people do not stand before us with their needs, appealing to us for some service which we may render to them. It may be only ordinary courtesy, the gentle kindness of the home circle, the patient treatment of neighbors or customers in business relations, the thoughtful showing of interest in old people or in children. On all sides the lives of others touch ours, and we cannot do just as we please, thinking only of ourselves, and our own comfort and good, unless we choose to be false to all the instincts of humanity, and all the requirements of the law of Christian love. We must think continually of other people.
We may not seek our own pleasure in any way without asking whether it will harm or mar the comfort of some other one. For example, we must think of other people's convenience in the exercise of our own liberty and in the indulgence of our own tastes and desires. It may be pleasant for us to lie late in bed in the morning, and we may be inclined to regard the habit as only a little amiable self-indulgence. But there is a more serious side to the practice. It breaks the harmonious flow of the household life. It causes confusion in the family plans for the day. It makes extra work for faithful housekeepers or servants. It sorely tries the patience of love.
The other day an important committee of fifteen was kept waiting for ten minutes for one tardy member, whose presence was necessary before anything could be done. At last he came sauntering in without even an apology for having caused fourteen busy men a loss of time that to them was very valuable, besides having put a sore strain on their patience and good nature. We have no right to forget or disregard the convenience of others. A conscientious application of the Golden Rule would cure us of all such carelessness.
These are but illustrations of the way other people impinge upon our life. They are so close to us that we cannot move without touching them. We cannot speak but that our words affect others. We cannot act in the simplest things without first thinking whether what we are about to do will help or hurt others. We are but one of a great family, and we dare not live for ourselves. We must never forget that there are other people.
THE BLESSING OF FAITHFULNESS.
"It must be done by both; God never without me, I never without God." —JOHANNES SCHEFFLER.
"Faithful servant" will be the commendation on the judgment-day of those who have lived well on the earth. Not great deeds will be commended, but faithfulness. The smallest ministries will rank with the most conspicuous, if they are all that the weak hands could do. Indeed, the widow's two mites were more in value than the rich men's large coins.
"Two mites, two drops, but all her house and land Fell from an earnest heart but trembling hand; The others' wanton wealth foamed high and brave; The others cast away, she only gave."
Yet faithfulness as a measure of requirement is not something that can be reached without effort. It does not furnish a pillow for indolence. It is not a letting down of obligation to a low standard, to make life easy. It is indeed a lofty measurement. "Thou hast been faithful" is the highest possible commendation.
It may not be amiss to look a little at the meaning of the word as a standard of moral requirement. In general, it implies the doing of all our work as well as we can. All our work includes, of course, our business, our trade, our household duties, all our daily task-work, as well as our praying, our Bible-reading, and our obeying of the moral law. We must not make the mistake of thinking that there is no religion in the way we do the common work of our trade or of our household, or our work on the farm, or in the mill or store. The faithfulness Christ requires and commends takes in all these things. Ofttimes, too, it would be easier to be faithful in some great trial, requiring sublimity of courage, than in the little unpicturesque duties of an ordinary day. Says Phillips Brooks: "You picture to yourself the beauty of bravery and steadfastness. You let your imagination wander in delight over the memory of martyrs who have died for truth. And then some little, wretched, disagreeable duty comes, which is your martyrdom, the lamp of your oil; and if you will not do it, how your oil is spilt! How flat and thin and unilluminated your sentiment about the martyrs runs out over your self-indulgent life!"
Lovers of the violin are familiar with the name of Stradivarius, the old violin-maker of Cremona. He has been dead nearly two hundred years, and his violins now bring fabulous prices. George Eliot, in one of her poems, puts some noble words into the mouth of the old man. Speaking of the masters who will play on his violins, he says:—
"While God gives them skill, I give them instruments to play upon, God choosing me to help him."
Referring to another violin-maker, his rival, he says:—
"But were his the best, He could not work for two. My work is mine, And, heresy or not, if my hand slacked, I should rob God—since he is fullest good— Leaving a blank instead of violins. I say, not God himself can make man's best Without best men to help him. * * * * * * 'Tis God gives skill, But not without men's hands. He could not make Antonio Stradivari's violins Without Antonio."
At first reading these words may indeed seem heretical and irreverent, but they are not. It is true, indeed, that even God cannot do our work without us, without our skill, our faithfulness. If we fail or do our little duty negligently, there will be a blank or a blur where there ought to have been something beautiful. As another says, "The universe is not quite perfect without my work well done."
One man is a carpenter. God has called him to that work. It is his duty to build houses, and to build them well. That is, he is required to be a good carpenter, to do the very best work he can possibly do. If, therefore, he does careless work, imperfect, dishonest, slurred, slighted work, he is robbing God, leaving only bad carpentering where he ought to have left good. For even God himself will not build the carpenter's houses without the carpenter. Or, here is a mother in a home. Her children are about her, with their needs. Her home requires her skill, her taste, her refinement, her toil and care. It is her calling to be a good mother, and to make a true home for her household. Her duty is to do always her very best to make her home beautiful, bright, happy, a fit place for her children to grow up in. Faithfulness requires that she do always such service as a mother, that Jesus shall say of her home-making, "She hath done what she could." To do less than her best is to fail in fidelity. Suppose that her hand should slack, that she should grow negligent, would she not clearly be robbing God? For even God cannot make a beautiful home for her children without her.
So we may apply the principle to all kinds of work. The faithfulness which God requires must reach to everything we do, to the way the child gets its lessons and recites them, to the way the dressmaker and the tailor sew their seams, to the way the blacksmith welds the iron, and shoes the horse, to the way the plumber puts the pipes into the new building and looks after the drainage, to the way the carpenter does his work on the house, to the way the bridge-builder swings the bridge over the stream, to the way the clerk represents the goods, and measures or weighs them. "Be thou faithful" is the word that rings from heaven in every ear. God's word for the doing of every piece of work that any one does. How soon it would put a stop to all dishonesty, all fraud, all scant work, all false weights and measures, all shams, all neglects or slightings of duty, were this lesson only learned and practiced everywhere!
"It does not matter," people say, "whether I do my little work well or not. Of course I must not steal, nor lie, nor commit forgery, nor break the Sabbath. These are moral things. But there is no sin in my sewing up this seam carelessly, or in my using bad mortar in this wall, or in my putting inferior timber in this house, or a piece of flawed iron in this bridge." But we need to learn that the moral law applies everywhere, just as really to carpentry, or blacksmithing, or tailoring, as to Sabbath-keeping. We never can get away from this law.
Besides, it does matter, for our neighbor's sake, as well as for the honor of God's law, how we do our work. The bricklayer does negligent work on the walls of the flue he is putting in, and one night, years afterward, a spark creeps through the crevice and reaches a wooden beam that lies there, and soon the house is in flames and perhaps precious lives perish. The bricklayer was unfaithful. The foundryworker, in casting the great iron supports for a bridge, is unwatchful for an instant, and a bubble of air makes a flaw. It is buried away in the heart of the beam and escapes detection. One day, years later, there is a terrible disaster. A great railroad bridge gives way beneath the weight of an express train and hundreds of lives are lost. In the inquest it is testified that a slight flaw in one beam was the cause of the awful calamity which hurled so many lives into eternity. The foundry workman was unfaithful.
These are but suggestions of the duty and of its importance. No work can be of so little moment that it matters not whether it be done faithfully or not. Unfaithfulness in the smallest things is unfaithfulness, and God is grieved, and possibly sometime, somewhere, disaster may come as the consequence of the neglect. On the other hand, faithfulness is pleasing to God, though it be only in the sweeping well of a room, or the doing neatly of the smallest things in household care. Then faithfulness is far-reaching in its influence. The universe is not quite complete without each one's little work well done.
The self-culture that there is in the mere habit of faithfulness is in itself a rich reward for all our striving. It is a great thing to train ourselves to do always our best, to do as nearly perfect work as possible. Said Michael Angelo: "Nothing makes the soul so pure, so religious, as the endeavor to create something perfect; for God is perfection, and whoever strives for it, strives for something that is Godlike." The habit, unyieldingly persisted in, of doing everything with the most scrupulous conscientiousness, builds up in the one who so lives a noble and beautiful character.
WITHOUT AXE OR HAMMER.
"Souls are built as temples are,— Based on truth's eternal law, Sure and steadfast, without flaw, Through the sunshine, through the snows, Up and on the building goes; Every fair thing finds its place, Every hard thing lends a grace, Every hand may make or mar."
We read of the temple of Solomon, when it was in building, that it was built of stone made ready in the quarry, so that neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron was heard in the house while it went up.
"No workman's steel, no ponderous axes rung; Like some tall palm, the noiseless fabric sprung."
So it is that the great work of spiritual temple-building goes on continually in this world. We are all really silent builders. The kingdom of God cometh not with observation. The divine Spirit works in silence, changing men's hearts, transforming lives, comforting sorrow, kindling hope in darkened bosoms, washing scarlet souls white as snow. The preacher may speak with the voice of a Boanerges, but the power that reaches hearts is not the preacher's noise; silently the divine voice whispers in the soul its secret of conviction, or of hope, or of strength. The Lord is not in the storm, in the earthquake, in the fire, but in the sound of gentleness, the spirit's whisper, that breathes through the soul.
Perhaps the best work any of us do in this world is that which we do without noise. Words give forth sound, but it is not the sounds that do good, that brighten sad faces as people listen, that change tears to laughter, that stimulate hope, that put courage into fainting hearts,—it is not the noise of our words, but the thoughts which the words carry. Words are but the chattering messengers that bear the sealed messages; and it is the messages that help and comfort. We may make noise as we work, but it is not our noise that builds up what we leave in beauty behind us. It is life that builds, and life is silent. The force that works in our homes is a silent force,—mother-love, father-love, patience, gentleness, prayer, truth, the influences of divine grace.
It is the same in the building up of personal character in each of us. There may be a great deal of noise all about us, but it is in silence that we grow from a thousand sources come the little blocks that are laid upon the walls,—the lessons we get from others, the influences friends exert upon us, the truths our reading puts into our minds, the impressions life leaves upon us, the inspirations we receive from the divine Spirit—ever the builders are at work on these characters of ours, but they work silently, without noise of hammer or axe.
There is another suggestion. Down in the dark quarries, under the city, the men wrought, cutting, hewing, polishing, the stones. They hung their little lamps on the walls, and with their hammers and chisels they hewed away at the great blocks. Months and years passed; then one day there was a grand dedication, and there in the glorious sunshine all the secret, obscure work of those years was seen in its final beauty, amid the joy of a nation. If the men who had wrought in the quarries were present that day, what a joy it must have been to them to think of their work in preparing the great stones for their place in the magnificent building!
Here is a parable. This world is the quarry. We are toiling away in the darkness. We cannot see what good is ever to come out of our lonely, painful, obscure toil. Yet some day our quarry-work will be manifested in the glory of heaven. We are preparing materials now and here for the temple of the great King, which in heaven is slowly rising through the ages. No noise of hammer or axe is heard in all that wondrous building, because the stones are all shaped and polished and made entirely ready in this world.
We are the stones, and the world is God's quarry. The stones for the temple were cut out of the great rock in the dark underground cavern. They were rough and shapeless. Then they were dressed into form, and this required a great deal of cutting, hammering, and chiselling. Without this stern, sore work on the stones, not one of them could ever have filled a place in the temple. At last when they were ready they were lifted out of the dark quarry and carried up to the mountain-top, where the temple was rising, and were laid in their place.
We are stones in the quarry as yet. When we accepted Christ we were cut from the great mass of rock. But we were yet rough and unshapely; not fit for heaven. Before we can be ready for our place in the heavenly temple we must be hewn and shaped. The hammer must do its work, breaking off the roughnesses. The chisel must be used, carving and polishing our lives into beauty. This work is done in the many processes of life. Every sinful thing, every fault in our character, is a rough place in the stone, which must be chiselled off. All the crooked lines must be straightened. Our lives must be cut and hewn until they conform to the perfect standard of divine truth.
Quarry-work is not always pleasant. If stones had hearts and sensibilities, they would sometimes cry out in sore pain as they feel the hammer strokes and the deep cutting of the chisel. Yet the workman must not heed their cries and withdraw his hand, else they would at last be thrown aside as worthless blocks, never to be built into the place of honor.
We are not stones; we have hearts and sensibilities, and we do cry out ofttimes as the hammer smites away the roughnesses in our character. But we must yield to the sore work and let it go on, or we shall never have our place as living stones in Christ's beautiful temple. We must not wince under the sharp chiselling of sorrow. Says Dr. T. T. Munger:—
"When God afflicts thee, think he hews a rugged stone Which must be shaped, or else aside as useless thrown."
There is still another suggestion from this singular temple-building. Every individual life has its quarries where are shaped the blocks which afterward are built into character, or which take form in acts. Schools are the quarries, where, through years of patient study, the materials for life are prepared, the mind is disciplined, habits are formed, knowledge is gained, and power is stored. Later, in active life, the temple rises without noise of hammer or axe. Homes are quarries where children are trained, where moral truth is lodged in the heart, where the elements of character are hewn out like fair stones, to appear in the life in after days, when it grows up among men.
Then there are the thought-quarries back of what people see in every human life. Men must be silent thinkers before their words or deeds can have either great beauty or power. Extemporaneousness anywhere is of small value. Glib, easy talkers, who are always ready to speak on any subject, who require no time for preparation, may go on chattering, forever, but their talk is only chatter. The words that are worth hearing come out of thought-quarries where they have been wrought ofttimes in struggle and anguish. Father Ryan, in one of the most exquisite of his poems, writes of the "valley of silence" where he prepares the songs he afterwards sings:—
"In the hush of the valley of silence I dream all the songs that I sing; And the music floats down the dim valley 'Till each finds a word for awing, That to hearts, like the dove of the deluge, A message of peace they may bring."
So it is of all great thoughts. Thinkers brood long in the silence and then come forth and their eloquence sways us. So it is with art. We look at a fine picture and our hearts are warmed by its wondrous beauty. But do we know the story of the picture? Years and years of thought and of tireless toil lie back of its enrapturing beauty. Or here is a book which charms you, which thrills and inspires you. Great thoughts lie on its pages. Do you know the book's story? The author lived, struggled, toiled, suffered, wept, that he might write the words which now help you. Back of every good life-thought which blesses men, lies a dark quarry where the thought was born and shaped into the beauty of form which makes it a blessing to the world.
Or here is a noble and beautiful character. Goodness appears natural to it. It seems easy for the man to be noble and to do noble things. But again the quarry is back of the temple. Each one's heart is the quarry out of which comes all that the person builds into his life. "As he thinketh in his heart so is he." Everything that appears in our lives comes out of our hearts. All our acts are first thoughts. The artist's picture, the poet's poem, the singer's song, the architect's building, are thoughts before they are wrought out into forms of beauty. All dispositions, tempers, feelings, words, and acts start in the heart. If the workmen had quarried faulty stones in the caverns, the temple would have been spoiled. An evil heart, with stained thoughts, impure imaginings, blurred feelings, can never build up a fair and lovely character.
We need to guard our heart-quarry with all diligence, since out of it are the issues of life. The thoughts build the life and make the character. White thoughts rear up a beautiful fabric before God and man. Soiled thoughts pile up a stained life, without beauty or honor. We should look well, therefore, to our heart-quarry, where the work goes on in the darkness without ceasing. If all be right there we need give little concern to the building of character. Diligent heart-keeping yields a life unspotted from the world.
A little child had been reading the beatitudes, and was asked which of the qualities named in them she most desired. "I would rather be pure in heart," she said. When asked the reason for her choice, she answered: "If I could but have a pure heart, I should then possess all the other qualities of the beatitudes in the one." The child was right. A pure heart will build a beautiful life, a fit temple for Christ. Thinking over God's holy thoughts after him will make us like God. Thinking habitually about Christ, Christ's beauty will come into our souls and shine in our faces.
DOING THINGS FOB CHRIST.
"We can best minister to him by helping them Who dare not touch his hallowed garment's hem; Their lives are even as ours—one piece, one plan. Him know we not, him shall we never know, Till we behold him in the least of these Who suffer or who sin. In sick souls he Lies bound and sighing, asks our sympathies; Their grateful eyes thy benison bestow, Brother and Lord,—'Ye did it unto me.'" —LUCY LARCOM.
If Christ were here, we say, we would do many things for him. The women who love him would gladly minister to him as did the women who followed him from Galilee. The men who are his friends would work to help him in any ways he might direct. The children who are trying to please him would run errands for him. We all say we would be delighted to serve him if only he would come again to our world and visit our homes. But we can do things for him just as really as if he were here again in human form.
One way of doing this is by obeying him. He is our Lord. Nothing pleases him so well as our obedience. It is told of a great philosopher that a friend called one day to see him, and was entertained by the philosopher's little daughter till her father came in. The friend supposed that the child of so wise a man would be learning something very deep. So he asked her, "What is your father teaching you?" The little maid looked up into his face with her clear eyes and said, "Obedience." That is the one great lesson our Lord is teaching us. He wants us to learn obedience. If we obey him always we shall always be doing things for him.
We do things for Christ which we do through love to him. Even obedience without love does not please him. But the smallest services we can render, if love inspire them, he accepts. Thus we can make the commonest tasks of our lives holy ministries, as sacred as what the angels do. There is a legend of a monk who painted in an old convent-cell pictures of martyrs and holy saints and of the sweet Christ-face with the crown of thorns. Men called his pictures only daubs.
"One night the poor monk mused, 'Could I but render Honor to Christ as other painters do— Were but my skill as great as is the tender Love that inspires me when his cross I view.'
"'But no, 'tis vain I toil and strive in sorrow; What man so scorns still less can He admire; My life's work is all valueless; to-morrow I'll cast my ill-wrought pictures in the fire.'
"He raised his eyes within his cell—O wonder! There stood a Visitor; thorn-crowned was He; And a sweet voice the silence rent asunder: 'I scorn no work that's done for love of me.'
"And round the walls the paintings shone resplendent With lights and colors to this world unknown, A perfect beauty and a hue transcendent, That never yet on mortal canvas shone."
There is a beautiful meaning in the old legend. Christ scorns no work that is done for love of him. Most of us have much drudgery in our lives, but even this we can make glorious by doing it through love for Christ.
Things we do for others in Christ's name, are done for him. We all remember that wonderful "inasmuch" in the twenty-fifth of Matthew. If we find the sick one, or the poor one, and go and minister, as we may be able, as unto the Lord, the deed is accepted as if done to him in person. Mrs. Margaret J. Preston, in one of her beautiful poems, tells of a weary sister who grieved sorely because, as it seemed to her, she had not been able to do any work for Christ. By a mother's dying bed she had promised to care for her little sister, and her work for the child so filled her hands that she had not time for anything else. As she grieved thus once, the little sister sleeping beside her stirred and told her of a sweet, strange dream she had had. She thought her sister was sitting sad because the King had bidden each one to bring him a gift.
"And in my dream I saw you there, And heard you say, 'No hands can bear A gift, that are so filled with care.'
"What care?' the King said, and he smiled To hear you answer, wailing wild, 'I only toil to feed a child.'
"And then with such a look divine ('Twas that awaked me with its shine), He whispered, 'But the child is mine.'"
There are many for whom this little story-poem should have sweet comfort. There are fathers and mothers who find it hard to provide for their children. It takes all their time and strength, and sometimes they say, "I cannot do any work for Christ, because it takes every moment to earn bread and clothing for my little ones, and to care for them." But Jesus whispers, "Yes; yet your children are mine, and what you do for them you do for me."
There is in a home an invalid who requires all the time and thought of another member of the household in loving attention. It may be an aged parent needing the help of a child; it may be a child, crippled, blind, or sick, needing all a parent's care; or it may be a brother broken in health on whom a sister is called to wait continually with patient love. And sometimes those who are required thus to spend their days and nights in ministry for others feel that their lives count for nothing in work for Christ. They hear the appeals for laborers and for service, but cannot respond. Their hands are already filled. Yet Jesus whispers, "These for whom you are toiling, caring, and spending time and strength are mine, and in doing for them you are doing for me just as acceptable work as are those who are toiling without distraction or hindrance in the great open field."
Sometimes the work we do for Christ with purest love fails, or seems to fail of result. Nothing appears to come of it. There are whole lifetimes of godly people that seem to yield nothing. A word ought to be said about this kind of doing for Christ. We are to set it down as true without exception, that no work wrought in Christ's name and with love for him is ever lost. What we, in our limited, short-sighted vision, planned to do may not be accomplished, but God's purpose goes on in every consecrated life, in every true deed done. The disciples thought that Mary's costly ointment was wasted. So it seemed; but this world has been a little sweeter ever since the breaking of the vase that let the perfume escape into its common air. So it is with many things that are done, and many lives that are lived. They seem to fail, and there is nothing on the earth to show where they have been. Yet somehow the stock of human happiness is larger and the world is a little better.
Our work for Christ that fails in what we intended may yet leave a blessing in some other way. A faithful Bible-class teacher through many months visited a young man, a member of her class, in sickness. She read the Bible to him and sang sweet hymns and prayed by his bedside. He was not a Christian and she hoped that he would be led to Christ. But at length he recovered and went out again, unchanged, or even more indifferent than ever to his spiritual interests. All the faithful teacher's work seemed to have been in vain. Then she learned that a frail, invalid girl, living in an adjoining house, had been brought to Christ through the loving work done for the careless scholar. The songs sung by the sick man's bedside, and which seemed to have left no blessing in his heart, had been heard through the thin wall of the house in the girl's sick-room, and had told her of the love of the Saviour.
The records of Christian ministry are full of such good work done unintentionally. Failing to leave a blessing where it was hoped a blessing would be received, it blessed some other life. We may not say that any good work has failed until we know in the last great harvest all the results of the things we have done and the words we have spoken.
"Not all who seem to fail have failed indeed; Not all who fail have therefore worked in vain; For all our acts to many issues lead; And out of earnest purpose, pure and plain, Enforced by honest toil of hand or brain, The Lord will fashion in his own good time (Be this the laborer's proudly humble creed), Such ends as in his wisdom, fitliest chime With his vast love's eternal harmonies. There is no failure for the good and wise; What though thy seed should fall by the wayside, And the birds snatch it?—Yet the birds are fed; Or they may bear it far across the tide, To give rich harvests after thou art dead."
Many people die, and see yet no harvest from their life's sowing. They come to the end of their years, and their hands are empty. But when they enter heaven they will find that they have really been building there all the while, that the things that have seemed to leave no result on the earth have left glorious results inside the gates of pearl.
"There is no end to the sky, And the stars are everywhere, And time is eternity, And the here is over there; For the common deeds of the common day Are ringing bells in the far away."
Then even if the work we do does not itself leave any record, the doing of it leaves a record—an impression—on our own life. There is a word of Scripture which says, "He that doeth the will of God abideth forever." Doing God's will builds up enduring character in us. Every obedience adds a new touch of beauty to the soul. Every true thing we do in Christ's name, though it leave no mark anywhere else in God's universe, leaves an imperishable mark on our own life. Every deed of unselfish kindness that we perform with love for Christ in our heart, though it bless no other soul in all the world, leaves its sure benediction on ourselves.
Thousands of years since a leaf fell on the soft clay and seemed to be lost. But last summer a geologist in his ramblings broke off a piece of rock with his hammer, and there lay the image of the leaf, with every line, and every vein, and all the delicate tracery, preserved in the stone through these centuries. So the words we speak, and the things we do for Christ to-day, may seem to be lost, but in the great final revealing the smallest of them will appear, to the glory of Christ and the reward of the doer.
HELPING AND OVER-HELPING.
"As we meet and touch each day The many travellers on our way, Let every such brief contact be A glorious, helpful ministry; The contact of the soil and seed, Each giving to the other's need, Each helping on the other's best, And blessing each as well as blest."
Even kindness may be overdone. One may be too gentle. Love may hold others back from duty, and thus may wreck destinies. We need to guard against meddling with God's discipline, softening the experience that he means to be hard, sheltering our friend from the wind that he intends to blow chillingly. All summer does not make a good zone to live in; we need autumn and winter to temper the heat, and keep vegetation from luxuriant overgrowth. The best thing we can do for others is not always to take their load or do their duty for them.
Of course we are to be helpful to others. No aim should be put higher in our life-plans than that of personal helpfulness. The motto of the true Christian cannot be other than that of the Master: "Not to be ministered unto, but to minister." Even in the ambition to gather and retain wealth, the spirit of the desire must be, if we are Christians at all, that thereby we may become more helpful to others; that through, or by means of, our wealth, we may be enabled to do larger and greater good. Whatever gift, power, or possession we have that we do not seek to use in this way is not yet truly devoted to God. Fruit is the test of character, and the purpose of fruit is not to adorn the tree or vine, but to feed hunger. Whatever we are, whatever we have, is fruit, and must be held for the feeding of the hunger of others. Thus personal helpfulness is the aim of all truly consecrated life. In so far as we are living for ourselves, we are not Christians.
Then there are many ways of helping others. Some people help us in material ways. It is a still higher kind of help which we get from those who minister to our mental needs, who write the books which charm, instruct, and entertain us. Mind is greater than body. Bread, and clothing, and furniture, and houses will not satisfy our intellectual cravings. There are those, however, who do help us in these loftier ranges. Music, poetry, and art minister both to our gratification and our culture. Good books bring to us inestimable benefits. They tell us of new worlds, and inspire us to conquer them. They show us lofty and noble ideals, and stimulate us to attain them. They make us larger, better, stronger. The help we get from books is incalculable.
Yet the truest and best help any one can give to others is not in material things, but in ways that make them stronger and better. Money is good alms when money is really needed, but in comparison with the divine gifts of hope, friendship, courage, sympathy, and love, it is paltry and poor. Usually the help people need is not so much the lightening of their burden, as fresh strength to enable them to bear their burden, and stand up under it. The best thing we can do for another, some one has said, is not to make some things easy for him, but to make something of him.
It is just here that friendship makes most of its mistakes. It over-helps. It helps by ministering relief, by lifting away loads, by gathering hindrances out of the way, when it would help much more wisely by seeking to impart hope, strength, energy. "Our friends," says Emerson, "are those who make us do what we can." Says another writer: "Our real friend is not the man or woman who smooths over our difficulties, throws a cloak over our failings, stands between us and the penalties which our mistakes have brought upon us, but the man or woman who makes us understand ourselves, and helps us to better things." Love is weak, and too often pampers and flatters. It thinks that loyalty requires it to make life easy as possible for the beloved one.
Too often our friendship is most short-sighted in this regard, and most hurtful to those we fervently desire to aid. We should never indulge or encourage weakness in others when we can in any way stimulate it into strength. We should never do anything for another which we can inspire him to do for himself. Much parental affection errs at this point. Life is made too easy for children. They are sheltered when it were better if they faced the storm. They are saved from toil and exertion, when toil and exertion are God's ordained means of grace for them, of which the parents rob them in their over-tenderness. There are children who are wronged by the cruelty and inhumanity of parents, and whose cries to heaven make the throne of the Eternal rock and sway; but there are children, also, who are wronged of much that is noblest and best in their inheritance by the over-kindness of parents.
In every warm friendship, too, there is strong temptation to make the same mistake. We have to be ever on our guard against over-helping. Our aim should always be to inspire in our friend new energy, to develop in him the noblest strength, to bring out his best manhood. Over-helping defeats these offices of friendship.
There is one particular point at which a special word of caution may well be spoken. We need to guard our sympathies when we would comfort and help those who are suffering or are in trouble of any kind. It may seem a severe thing to say, but illness is ofttimes made worse by the pity of friends. There is in weak natures a tendency to indulge sickness, to exaggerate its symptoms, to imagine that it is more serious than it really is, and easily to succumb to its influence. You find your friend indisposed, and you are profuse in your expressions of sympathy, encouraging or suggesting fears, urging prompt medical help. You think you have shown kindness, but very likely you have done sore injury. You have left a depressing influence behind you. Your friend is disheartened and alarmed. You have left him weaker, not stronger.
It may seem hard-hearted to appear to be unsympathetic with invalids, and those who are slightly or even seriously sick; not to take interest in their complaints; not to say commiserating things to them; but really it is the part of true friendship to help sick people fight the battle with their ills. We ought, therefore, to guard against speaking any word which will discourage them, increase their fear, exaggerate their thought of their illness, or weaken them in their struggle. On the other hand, we ought to say words which will cheer and strengthen them, and make them braver for the fight. Our duty is to help them to get well.
Perhaps the very medicine they need is a glimpse of cheerful outlook. Sick people ofttimes fall into a mood of disheartenment and self-pity which seriously retards their recovery. To sit down beside them then, and fall into their gloomy spirit, listening sympathetically to their discouraged words, is to do them sore unkindness. The true office of friendship in such cases is to drive away the discouragement, and put hope and courage into the sore heart. We must try to make our sick friend braver to endure his sufferings.
Then, even in the sacredness of sorrow, we should never forget that our mission to others is not merely to weep with them, but to help them to be victorious, to receive their sorrow as a messenger from God, and to bear themselves as God's children under it. Instead, therefore, of mere emotional condolence with our friends in their times of grief, we should seek to present to them the strong comforts of divine love, and to inspire them to the bearing of their sorrow in faith and hope and joy.
So all personal helpfulness should be wise and thoughtful. It should never tend to pamper weakness, to encourage dependence, to make people timid, to debilitate manliness and womanliness, to make parasites of those who turn to us with their burdens and needs. We must take care that our helping does not dwarf any life which we ought rather to stimulate to noble and beautiful growth. God never makes such mistakes as this. He never fails us in need, but he loves us too well and is too wise to relieve us of weights which we need to make our growth healthful and vigorous. We should learn from God, and should help as he helps, without over-helping.
THE ONLY ONE.
"Before the monstrous wrong he sets him down— One man against a stone walled city of sin. * * * * * * When the red dust has cleared, the lonely soldier Stands with strange thoughts beneath the friendly stars." —E. R. SILL.
There are a great many people in this world—hundreds of millions, tables of population foot up. Yet in a sense each one of us is the only one. Each individual life has relations of its own in which it must stand alone, and into which no other life can come. Companionships may be close, and they may give much comfort and inspiration, but in all the inner meaning of life each individual lives apart and alone. No one can live your life for you. No one but yourself can answer your questions, meet your responsibilities, make your decisions and choices. Your relations with God no one but yourself can fulfil. No one can believe for you. A thousand friends may encircle you and pray for your soul, but until you lift up your own heart in prayer no communication is established between you and God. No one can get your sins forgiven but yourself. No one can obey God for you. No other one can do your work for Christ, or render your account at the judgment-seat.
In the realm of experience also the same is true. Each person suffers alone, as if there were no other being in the universe. Friends may stand by us in our hours of pain or sorrow, and may sympathize with us or administer comfort or alleviation, but they enter not really into the experiences. In these we are alone. No one can meet your temptations for you, or fight your battles, or endure your trials. The tenderest friendship, the holiest love, cannot enter into the solitariness in which each one of us lives apart.
"Still in each heart of hearts a hidden deep Lies, never fathomed by its dearest, best."
This aloneness of life sometimes becomes very real in consciousness. All great souls experience it as they rise out of and above the common mass of men in their thoughts and hopes and aspirations, as the mountains rise from the level of the vale and little hills. All great leaders of men ofttimes must stand alone, as they move in advance of the ranks of their followers. The battles of truth and of progress have usually been fought by lonely souls. Elijah, for example, in a season of disheartenment and despondency, gave it as part of the exceptional burden of his life that he was the only one in the field for God. It is so in all great epochs; God calls one man to stand for him. As Robert Browning says:—
"In life exceptional, When old things terminate and new commence, A solitary great man's worth the world. God takes the business in his own hand At such time."
But the experience is not that only of great souls; there come times in the lives of all who are living faithfully and worthily when they must stand alone for God, without companionship, perhaps without sympathy or encouragement. Here is a young person, the only one of his family who has confessed Christ. He takes him as his Saviour, and then stands up before the world and vows to be his and follow him. He goes back to his home. The members of the home circle are very dear to him; but none of them are Christians, and he must stand alone for Christ among them. Perhaps they oppose him in his discipleship—in varying degrees this ofttimes is the experience. Perhaps they are only indifferent, making no opposition, only quietly watching his life to see if it is consistent. In any case, however, he must stand for Christ alone, without the help that comes from companionship.
Or it may be in the workshop or in the school that the young Christian must stand alone. He returns from the Lord's Table to his week-day duties, full of noble impulses, but finds himself the only Christian in the place where his duty leads him. His companions are ready to sneer, and they point the finger of scorn at him, with irritating epithets. Or they even persecute him in petty ways. At least they are not Christ's friends, and he, as follower of the Master, finds no sympathy among them in his new life. He must stand alone in his discipleship, conscious all the while that unfriendly eyes are upon him. Many a young or older Christian finds it very hard to be the only one to stand for Christ in the circle in which his daily work fixes his place.
This aloneness puts upon one a great responsibility. For example, you are the only Christian in your home. You are the only witness Christ has in your house, the only one through whom to reveal his love, his grace, his holiness. You are the only one to represent Christ in your family, to show there the beauty of Christ, the sweetness and gentleness of Christ, to do there the works of Christ, the things he would do if he lived in your home. Perhaps the salvation of all the souls of your family depends upon your being true and faithful in your own place. If you falter in your loyalty, if you fail in your duty, your loved ones may be lost and the blame will be yours; their blood will be upon you.
In like manner, if you are the only Christian in the shop, the store, or the office where you work, a peculiar responsibility rests upon you, a responsibility which no other one shares with you. You are Christ's only witness in your place. If you do not testify there for him, there is no other one who will do it. Miss Havergal tells of her experience in the girls' school at Dusseldorf. She went there soon after she had become a Christian and had confessed Christ. Her heart was very warm with love for her Saviour and she was eager to speak for him. To her amazement, however, she soon learned that among the hundred girls in the school, she was the only Christian. Her first thought was one of dismay—she could not confess Christ in that great company of worldly, un-Christian companions. Her gentle, sensitive heart shrank from a duty so hard. Her second thought, however, was that she could not refrain from confessing Christ. She was the only one Christ had there and she must be faithful. "This was very bracing," she writes. "I felt I must try to walk worthy of my calling for Christ's sake. It brought a new and strong desire to bear witness for my Master. It made me more watchful and earnest than ever before, for I knew that any slip in word or deed would bring discredit on my Master." She realized that she had a mission in that school, that she was Christ's witness there, his only witness, and that she dare not fail.
This same sense of responsibility rests upon every thoughtful Christian who is called to be Christ's only witness in a place—in a home, in a community, in a store, or school, or shop, or social circle. He is Christ's only servant there, and he dare not be unfaithful, else the whole work of Christ in that place may fail. He is the one light set to shine there for his Master, and if his light be hidden, the darkness will be unrelieved. So there is special inspiration in this consciousness of being the only one Christ has in a certain place.
There is a sense in which this is true also of every one of us all the time. We really are always the only one Christ has at the particular place at which we stand. There may be thousands of other lives about us. We may be only one of a great company, of a large congregation, of a populous community. Yet each one of us has a life that is alone in its responsibility, in its danger, in its mission and duty. There may be a hundred others close beside me, but not one of them can take my place, or do my duty, or fulfil my mission, or bear my responsibility. Though every one of the other hundred do his work, and do it perfectly, my work waits for me, and if I do not do it, it never will be done.
We can understand how that if the great prophet had failed God that day when he was the only one God had to stand for him, the consequences would have been most disastrous; the cause of God would have suffered irreparably. But are we sure that the calamity to Christ's kingdom would be any less if one of us should fail God in our lowly place any common day?
Stories are told of a child finding a little leak in the dike that shuts off the sea from Holland, and stopping it with his hand till help could come, staying there all the night, holding back the floods with his little hand. It was but a tiny, trickling stream that he held back; yet if he had not done it, it would soon have become a torrent, and before morning the sea would have swept over the land, submerging fields, homes, and cities. Between the sea and all this devastation there was but a boy's hand. Had the child failed, the floods would have rolled in with their remorseless ruin. We understand how important it was that that boy should be faithful to his duty, since he was the only one God had that night to save Holland.
But do you know that your life may not stand any day, and be all that stands, between some great flood of moral ruin and broad, fair fields of beauty? Do you know that your failure in your lowly place and duty may not let in a sea of disaster which shall sweep away human hopes and joys and human souls? The humblest of us dare not fail, for our one life is all God has at the point where we stand.
This truth of personal responsibility is one of tremendous moment. We do not escape it by being in a crowd, one of a family, one of a community. No one but ourself can live our life, do our work, meet our obligation, bear our burden. No one but ourself can stand for us before God to render an account of our deeds. In the deepest, realest sense each one of us lives alone.
There is another phase of this subject, however, which should not be overlooked. While we must stand alone in our place and be faithful to our trust, our responsibility reaches only to our own duty. Others beside us have their part also to do, and the perfection of the whole work depends upon their faithfulness as well as upon ours. The best any of us can do in this world is but a fragment. The old prophet thought his work had failed because Baalism was not yet entirely destroyed. Then he was told of three other men, who would come after him—two kings and then another prophet, who each in turn would do his part, when at last the destruction of the great alien idolatry would be complete. Elijah's faithfulness had not failed, but his achievement was only a fragment of the whole work.
This is very suggestive and very comforting. We are not responsible for finishing everything we begin. It may be our part only to begin it; the carrying on and finishing of it may be the work of others whom we do not know, of others perhaps not yet born. We all enter into the work of those who have gone before us, and others who come after us shall in turn enter into our work. Our duty simply is to do well and faithfully our own little part. If we do this we need never fret ourselves about the part we cannot do. That is not our work at all, but belongs to some other worker, waiting now, perchance, in some obscure place, who at the right time will come forward with new heart and skilful hand, anointed by God for his task.
Mr. Sill illustrates this truth in one of his poems, where, speaking of the young, "led on by courage and immortal hope, and with the morning in their hearts," he says:—
"They to the disappointed earth shall give The lives we meant to live, Beautiful, free, and strong; The light we almost had Shall make them glad; The words we waited long Shall run in music from their voice and song."
Mr. Whittier also suggests the same truth:—
"Others shall sing the song, Others shall right the wrong, Finish what I begin, And all I fail of win.
"What matter I or they, Mine or another's day, So the right word be said And life the sweeter made?"
So while we are alone in our responsibility we need give no thought for anything but our own duty, our own little fragment of the Lord's work. The things we cannot do some other one is waiting and preparing now to do after the work has passed from our hand. There is comfort in this for any who fail in their efforts, and must leave tasks unfinished which they hoped to complete. The finishing is another's mission.
SWIFTNESS IN DUTY.
"Life is a leaf of paper white, Whereon each one of us may write His word or two—and then comes night." —LOWELL.
Many good people are very slow. They do their work well enough, perhaps, but so leisurely that they accomplish in their brief time only a fraction of what they might accomplish. They lose, in aimless loitering, whole golden hours which they ought to fill with quick activities. They seem to have no true appreciation of the value of time, or of their own accountability for its precious moments. They live conscientiously, it may be, but they have no strong constraining sense of duty impelling them to ever larger and fuller achievement. They have a work to do, but there is no hurry for it; there is plenty of time in which to do it.
It is quite safe to say that the majority of people do not get into their life half the achievement that was possible to them when they began to live, simply because they have never learned to work swiftly, and under pressure of great motives.
There can be no doubt that we are required to make the most possible of our life. Mr. Longfellow once gave to his pupils, as a motto, this: "Live up to the best that is in you." To do this, we must not only develop our talents to the utmost power and capacity of which they are susceptible, but we must also use these talents to the accomplishment of the largest and best results they are capable of producing. In order to reach this standard, we must never lose a day, nor even an hour, and we must put into every day and every hour all that is possible of activity and usefulness.
Dreaming through days and years, however brilliantly one may dream, can never satisfy the demands of the responsibility which inheres essentially in every soul that is born into the world. Life means duty, toil, work. There is something divinely allotted to each hour, and the hour one loiters remains forever an unfilled blank. We can ideally fulfil our mission only by living up always to the best that is in us, and by doing every day the very most that we can do.
"So here hath been dawning another blue day; Think, wilt thou let it slip useless away? Out of eternity this new day is born; Into eternity at night will return."
We turn over to our Lord for example, since his was the one life in all the ages that reached the divine thought, and filled out the divine pattern; and wherever we see him, we find him intent on doing the will of his Father, not losing a moment, nor loitering at any task. We see him ever hastening from place to place, from ministry to ministry, from baptism to temptation, from teaching to healing, from miracle-working to solitary prayer. His feet never loitered. He lost no moments; he seems indeed to have crowded the common work of years into a few short, intense hours. He is painted for us as a man continually under the strongest pressure, with a work to do which he was eager to accomplish in the shortest possible time. He was always calm, never in nervous haste, yet ever quietly moving with resistless energy on his holy errand.
We ought to catch our Master's spirit in this celerity in the Father's business. Time is short and duty is large. There is not a moment to lose, if, in our allotted period, we would finish the work that is given us to do. We need to get our Lord's "straightway" into our life, so that we shall hasten from duty to duty, without pause or idle lingering. We need to get into our heart a consciousness of being ever on the Master's errands, that shall be within us a mighty compulsion, driving us always to duty.
Naturally we are indolent, and fond of ease and self indulgence. We need to be carried out of and beyond ourselves. There is no motive strong enough to do this but love to God and to our fellow-men. Supreme love to God makes us desire to do with alacrity everything he commands. Love to our fellow-men draws us to all service of sympathy and beneficence for them, regardless of cost. Constrained by such motives, we shall never become laggards in duty.