All's For the Best by T.S. Arthur
VII. Into Good Ground.
"What did you think of the sermon, Mr. Braxton?" said one church member to another, as the two men passed from the vestibule of St. Mark's out into the lofty portico.
Mr. Braxton gave a slight shrug, perceived by his companion as a sign of disapproval. They moved along, side by side, down the broad steps to the pavement, closely pressed by the retiring audience.
"Strong meat," said the first speaker, as they got free of the crowd and commenced moving down the street.
"Too strong for my stomach," replied Mr. Braxton. "Something must have gone wrong with our minister when he sat down to write that discourse."
"Or neuralgia," said Mr. Braxton.
"He was in no amiable mood--that much is certain. Why, he set nine-tenths of us over on the left hand side, among the goats, as remorselessly as if he were an avenging Nemesis. He actually made me shudder."
"That kind of literal application of texts to the living men and women in a congregation is not only in bad taste, but presumptuous and blasphemous. What right has a clergyman to sit in judgment on me, for instance? To give forced constructions to parables and vague generalities in Scripture, about the actual meaning of which divines in all ages have differed; and, pointing his finger to me or to you, say--'The case is yours, sir!' I cannot sit patiently under many more such sermons."
Mr. Braxton evidently spoke from a disturbed state of mind. Something in the discourse had struck at the foundations of self-love and self-complacency.
"Into one ear, and out at the other. So it is with me, in cases like this," answered Mr. Braxton's companion, in a changed and lighter tone. "If a preacher chooses to be savage; to write from dyspeptic or neuralgic states; to send his congregation, unshrived, to the nether regions--why, I shrug my shoulders and let it pass. Most likely, on the next Sunday, he will be full of consideration for tender consciences, and grandly shut the gate he threw open so widely on the last occasion. It would never answer, you know, to take these things to heart--never in the world. We'd always be getting into hot water. Clergymen have their moods, like other people. It doesn't answer to forget this. Good morning, Mr. Braxton. Our ways part here."
"Good morning," was replied, and the men separated.
But, try as Mr. Braxton would to set his minister's closely applied doctrine from Scripture to the account of dyspepsia or neuralgia, he was unable to push from his mind certain convictions wrought therein by the peculiar manner in which some positions had been argued and sustained. The subject taken by the minister, was that striking picture of the judgment given in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, from the thirty-first verse to the close of the chapter, beginning: "When the Son of Man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats." The passage concludes: "And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal."
Now, although Mr. Braxton had complained of the literal application of this text, that term was hardly admissible, for the preacher waived the idea of a last general judgment, as involved in the letter of Scripture, and declared his belief in a spiritual signification as lying beneath the letter, and applicable to the inner life of every single individual at the period of departure from this world; adding, in this connection, briefly: "But do not understand me as in any degree waiving the strictness of judgment to which every soul will have to submit. It will not be limited by his acts, but go down to his ends of life--to his motives and his quality--and the sentence will really be a judgment upon what he is, not upon what he has done; although, taking the barest literal sense, only actions are regarded."
In opening and illustrating his text, he said, farther: "As the word of God, according to its own declarations, is spirit and life--treats, in fact, by virtue of divine and Scriptural origin, of divine and spiritual things, must we not go beneath the merely obvious and natural meaning, if we would get to its true significance? Is there not a hunger of the soul as well as of the body? May we not be spiritually athirst, and strangers?--naked, sick, and in prison? This being so, can we confidently look for the invitation, 'Come, ye blessed of my Father, if our regard for the neighbor have not reached beyond his bodily life? If we have never considered his spiritual wants and sufferings, and ministered thereto according to our ability? Just in the degree that the soul is more precious than the body, is the degree of our responsibility under this more interior signification of Scripture. The mere natural acts of feeding the hungry and giving water to the thirsty, of visiting the sick, and those who lie in prison, of clothing the naked and entertaining strangers, will not save us in our last day, if we have neglected the higher duties involved in the divine admonition. Nor will even the supply of spiritual nourishment to hungry and thirsty souls be accounted to us for righteousness. We must find a higher meaning still in the text. Are we not, each one of us, starving for heavenly food?--spiritually exhausted with thirst?--naked, sick, in prison? Are we eating, daily, of the bread of life?--drinking at the wells of God's truth?--putting on the garments of righteousness?--finding balm for our sick souls in Gilead?--breaking the bonds of evil?--turning from strange lands, and coming back to our father's house. If not, I warn you, men and brethren, that you are not in the right way;--that, taking the significance of God's word, which is truth itself, there is no reasonable ground of hope for your salvation."
It was not with Mr. Braxton as with his friend. He could not let considerations like these enter one ear and go out at the other. From earliest childhood he had received careful instruction. Parents, teachers and preachers, had all shared in the work of storing his mind with the precepts of religion, and now, in manhood, his conscience rested on these and upon the states wrought therefrom in the impressible substance of his mind. Try as he would, he found the effort to push aside early convictions and early impressions a simple impossibility; and, notwithstanding these had been laid on the foundation of a far more literal interpretation of Scripture than the one to which he had just been listening, his maturer reason accepted the preacher's clear application of the law; and conscience, like an angel, went down into his heart, and troubled the waters which had been at peace.
Mr. Braxton was a man of thrift. He had started in life with a purpose, and that purpose he was steadily attaining. To the god of this world he offered daily sacrifice; and in his heart really desired no higher good than seemed attainable through outward things. Wealth, position, honor, among men--these bounded his real aspirations. But prior things in his mind were continually reaching down and affecting his present states. He could not forget that life was short, and earthly possessions and honors but the things of a day. That as he brought nothing into this world, so he could take nothing out. That, without a religious life, he must not hope for heaven. In order to get free from the disturbing influence of these prior things, and to lay the foundations of a future hope, Mr. Braxton became a church member, and, so far as all Sabbath observances were concerned, a devout worshiper. Thus he made a truce with conscience, and conscience having gained so much, accepted for a period the truce, and left Mr. Braxton in good odor with himself.
A man who goes regularly to church, and reads his Bible, cannot fail to have questions and controversies about truths, duties, and the requirements of religion. The barest literal interpretation of Scripture will, in most cases, oppose the action of self-love; and he will not fail to see in the law of spiritual life a requirement wholly in opposition to the law of natural life. In the very breadth of this literal requirement, however, he finds a way of escape from literal observance. To give to all who ask; to lend to all who would borrow; to yield the cloak when the coat is taken forcibly; to turn the left cheek when the right is smitten--all this is to him so evidently but a figure of speech, that he does not find it very hard to satisfy conscience. Setting these passages aside, as not to be taken in the sense of the letter, he does not find it very difficult to dispose of others that come nearer to the obvious duties of man to man--such, for instance, as that in the illustration of which, by the preacher, Mr. Braxton's self-complacency had been so much disturbed. He had never done much in the way of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, or visiting the sick and in prison--never done anything of set purpose, in fact. If people were hungry, it was mostly their own fault, and to feed them would be to encourage idleness and vice. All the other items in the catalogue were as easily disposed of; and so the literal duties involved might have been set forth in the most impassioned eloquence, Sabbath after Sabbath, without much disturbing the fine equipose of Mr. Braxton. Alas for his peace of mind!--the preacher of truth had gone past the dead letter, and revealed its spirit and its life. Suddenly he felt himself removed, as it were, to an almost impossible distance from the heaven into which, as he had complacently flattered himself, he should enter by the door of mere ritual observances, when the sad hour came for giving up the delightful things of this pleasant world. No wonder that Mr. Braxton was disturbed--no wonder that, in his first convictions touching those more interior truths, which made visible the sandy foundations whereon he was building his eternal hopes, he should regard the application of doctrine as personal and even literal.
It was not so easy a thing to set aside the duty of ministering to the hungry, sick, and naked human souls around him, thousands of whom, for lack of spiritual nourishment, medicine and clothing, were in danger of perishing eternally. And the preacher in dwelling upon this great duty of all Christian men and women, had used emphatic language.
"I give you," he said, "God's judgment of the case--not my own. 'Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of the least of these, ye did it not unto me. And these shall go away;' where? 'To everlasting punishment!' Who shall go thus, in the last day, from this congregation?"
As Mr. Braxton sat alone on the evening of that Sabbath, troubled by the new thoughts which came flowing into his mind, the full impression of this scene in church came back upon him. There was an almost breathless pause. Men leaned forward in their pews; the low, almost whispered, tones of the minister were heard with thrilling distinctness in even the remotest parts of the house.
"Who?" he repeated, and the stillness grew more profound. Then, slowly, impressively, almost sadly, he said:
"I cannot hide the truth. As God's ambassador, I must give the message; and it is this: If you, my brother, are not ministering to the wants of the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the sick and in prison, you are of those who will have to go away."
And the minister shut the Book, and sat down. If, as we have intimated, the preacher had limited Christian duty to bodily needs, Mr. Braxton would not have been much exercised in mind.
He had found an easy way to dispose of these merely literal interpretations of Scripture. Now, his life was brought to the judgment of a more interior law, as expounded that day. It was in vain that he endeavored to reject the law; for the more he tried to do this, the clearer it was seen in the light of perceptive truth.
"God help me, if this be so!" he exclaimed, in a moment of more perfect realization of what was meant in the Divine Word. "Who shall stand in the judgment?"
For awhile he endeavored to turn himself away from convictions that were grounding themselves deeper and deeper every moment,--to shut his eyes in wilful blindness, and refuse to see in the purer light which had fallen around him. But this effort only brought his mind into severer conflict, and consciously removed him to an almost fatal distance from the paths leading upward to the mountains of peace.
"This is the way, walk ye in it." A clear voice rose above the noise of strife in his soul, and his soul grew calm and listened. He no longer wrought at the fruitless task of rejecting the higher truths which were illustrating his mind, but let them flow in, and by virtue thereof examined the state of his inner life. Now it was that his eyes were in a degree opened, so that he could apprehend the profounder meanings of Scripture. The parables were flooded with new light. He understood, as he had never understood before, why the guest, unclothed with a wedding garment, was cast out from the feast; and why the door was shut upon the virgins who had no oil in their lamps. He had always regarded these parables as involving a hidden meaning--as intended to convey spiritual instruction under literal forms--but, now, they spoke in a language that applied itself to his inward state, and warned him that without a marriage garment, woven in the loom of interior life, where motives rule, he could never be the King's guest; warned him that without the light of divine truth in his understanding, and the oil of love to God and the neighbor in his heart, the door of the kingdom would be shut against him. Ritual observances were, to these, but outward forms, dry husks, except when truly representative of that worship in the soul which subordinates natural affections to what is spiritual and divine.
At last the seed fell into good ground. Mr. Braxton had been a "way-side" hearer; but, ere the good seed had time to germinate, fowls came and devoured it. He had been a "stony-ground" hearer, receiving the truth with gladness, but having no root in himself. He had been as the ground choked with thorns, suffering the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches to choke and hinder the growth of heavenly life. Now, into good ground the seed had at last fallen; and though the evil one tried to snatch it away, its hidden life, moving to the earth's quick invitation, was already giving prophetic signs of thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold, in the harvest time.
Why was there good ground in the mind of Mr. Braxton? Good ground, even though he was wedded to external life; a self-seeker; a lover of the world? In the answer to this question lies a most important truth for all to whom God has committed the care of children. Unless good ground is formed, as it was in his case, by early instruction; by storing up in the memory truths from the Bible, and states of good affection; by weaving into the web and woof of the forming mind precepts of religion--there is small hope for the future. If these are not made a part of the forming life, things opposite will be received, and determine spiritual capabilities. Influx of life into the soul must be through prior things; as the twig is bent, the tree is inclined; as the child's memory and consciousness is stored, so will the man develop and progress. Take heart, then, doubting parent; if you have in all faithfulness, woven precious truths, and tender, pious, unselfish states into the texture of your child's mind--though the fruit is not yet seen, depend on it, that the treasured remains of good and true things are there, and will not be lost.