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Again, those who feel that they have a mission may convert it into a
snare to themselves. Doubtless, if, according to St. Paul, "he who
desireth the office of a bishop desireth a good work," so one who
has a mission to do some particular work has a good office given
him. Still, where life is too prominently regarded in this light,
the view of life as a mission tends to supersede the view of it as
trial and probation. The mission becomes the final cause of life.
The generality may be born to do their duty in that station of life
in which it has pleased God to call them; but in their own case the
mission overtops and puts into the shade the general purpose of
life as probation; the generality are sent into the world for their
own moral benefit, but they are rather sent into the world for the
benefit of that world itself. The outward object with its display
and machinery is apt to reduce to a kind of insignificance the
inward individual end of life. It appears small and commonplace. The
success of their own individual probation is assumed in embarking
upon the larger work, as the less is included in the greater; it
figures as a preliminary in their eyes, which may be taken for
granted; it appears an easy thing to them to save their own souls, a
thing, so to speak, for anybody to do.

What has been dwelt upon hitherto as a source of false magnifying
and exaltation of human character, has been the invisibility of
men's motives. But let us take another source of mistake in human

Nothing is easier, when we take gifts of the intellect and
imagination in the abstract, than to see that these do not
constitute moral goodness. This is indeed a mere truism; and yet,
in the concrete, it is impossible not to see how nearly they border
upon counting as such; to what advantage they set off any moral
good there may be in a man; sometimes even supplying the absence of
real good with what looks extremely like it. On paper these mental
gifts are a mere string of terms; we see exactly what these terms
denote, and we cannot mistake it for something else. It is plain
that eloquence, imagination, poetical talent, are no more moral
goodness than riches are, or than health and strength are, or than
noble birth is. We know that bad men have possest them just as much
as good men. Nevertheless, take them in actual life, in the actual
effect and impression they make, as they express a man's best moods
and highest perceptions and feelings, and what a wonderful likeness
and image of what is moral do they produce. Think of the effect of
refined power of expression, of a keen and vivid imagination as
applied to the illustration and enrichment of moral subjects, - to
bringing out, e. g., with the whole force of intellectual sympathy,
the delicate and high regions of character, - does not one who can
do this seem to have all the goodness which he expresses? And it is
quite possible he may have; but this does not prove it. There is
nothing more in this than the faculty of imagination and intelligent
appreciation of moral things. There enters thus unavoidably often
into a great religious reputation a good deal which is not religion,
but power.

Let us take the character which St. Paul draws. It is difficult to
believe that one who had the tongue of men and of angels would not
be able to persuade the world that he himself was extraordinarily
good. Rather it is part of the fascination of the gift, that the
grace of it is reflected in the possessor. But St. Paul gives him,
besides thrilling speech which masters men's spirits and carries
them away, those profound depths of imagination which still and
solemnize them; which lead them to the edge of the unseen world,
and excite the sense of the awful and supernatural; he has the
understanding of all mysteries. And again, knowledge unfolds all its
stores to him with which to illustrate and enrich spiritual truths.
Let one then, so wonderful in mental gifts, combine them with the
utmost fervor, with boundless faith, before which everything gives
way; boundless zeal, ready to make even splendid sacrifices; has
there been any age in which such a man would have been set down as
sounding and empty? St. Paul could see that such a man might yet be
without the true substance - goodness; and that all his gifts could
not guarantee it to him; but to the mass his own eloquence would
interpret him, the gifts would carry the day, and the brilliant
partial virtues would disguise the absence of the general grace of

Gifts of intellect and imagination, poetical power, and the like,
are indeed in themselves a department of worldly prosperity. It
is a very narrow view of prosperity that it consists only in
having property; a certain kind of gifts are just as much worldly
prosperity as riches; nor are they less so if they belong to a
religious man, any more than riches are less prosperity because
a religious man is rich. We call these gifts worldly prosperity,
because they are in themselves a great advantage, and create
success, influence, credit, and all which man so much values; and
at the same time they are not moral goodness, because the most
corrupt men may have them.

But even the gifts of outward fortune themselves have much of the
effect of gifts of mind in having the semblance of something moral.
They set off what goodness a man has to such immense advantage,
and heighten the effect of it. Take some well-disposed person,
and suppose him suddenly to be left an enormous fortune, he would
feel himself immediately so much better a man. He would seem to
himself to become suddenly endowed with a new large-heartedness and
benevolence. He would picture himself the generous patron, the large
dispenser of charity, the promoter of all good in the world. The
power to become such would look like a new disposition. And in the
eyes of the others, too, his goodness would appear to have taken a
fresh start. Even serious piety is recognized more as such; it is
brought out and placed in high relief, when connected with outward
advantages; and so the gifts of fortune become a kind of moral
addition to a man.

Action, then, on a large scale, and the overpowering effect of
great gifts, are what produce, in a great degree, what we call
the canonization of men - the popular judgment which sets them up
morally and spiritually upon the pinnacle of the temple, and which
professes to be a forestalment, through the mouth of the Church
or of religious society, of the final judgment. How decisive is
the world's, and, not less confident, the visible Church's note of
praise. It is just that trumpet note which does not bear a doubt.
How it is trusted! With what certainty it speaks! How large a part
of the world's and Church's voice is praise! It is an immense and
ceaseless volume of utterance. And by all means let man praise
man, and not do it grudgingly either; let there be an echo of that
vast action which goes on in the world, provided we only speak of
what we know. But if we begin to speak of what we do not know,
and which only a higher judgment can decide, we are going beyond
our province. On this question we are like men who are deciding
irreversibly on some matter in which everything depends upon one
element in the case, which element they cannot get at. We appear
to know a great deal of one another, and yet, if we reflect, what
a vast system of secrecy the moral world is. How low down in a man
sometimes (not always) lies the fundamental motive which sways his
life? But this is what everything depends on. Is it an unspiritual
motive? Is there some keen passion connected with this world at
the bottom? Then it corrupts the whole body of action. There is a
good deal of prominent religion then, which keeps up its character,
even when this motive betrays itself; great gifts fortify it, and
people do not see because they will not. But at any rate there is a
vast quantity of religious position which has this one great point
undecided beneath it; and we know of tremendous dangers to which it
is exposed. Action upon a theater may doubtless be as simple-minded
action as any other; it has often been; it has been often even
childlike action; the apostles acted on a theater; they were a
spectacle to men and to angels. Still, what dangers in a spiritual
point of view does it ordinarily include - dangers to simplicity,
inward probity, sincerity! How does action on this scale and of
this kind seem, notwithstanding its religious object, to pass over
people, not touching one of their faults, leaving - more than their
infirmities - the dark veins of evil in their character as fixed
as ever. How will persons sacrifice themselves to their objects?
They would benefit the world, it would appear, at their own moral
expense; but this is a kind of generosity which is perilous policy
for the soul, and is indeed the very mint in which the great mass of
false spiritual coinage is made.

On the other hand, while the open theater of spiritual power and
energy is so accessible to corrupt motives, which, tho undermining
its truthfulness, leave standing all the brilliance of the outer
manifestation; let it be considered what a strength and power of
goodness may be accumulating in unseen quarters. The way in which
man bears temptation is what decides his character; yet how secret
is the system of temptation? Who knows what is going on? What the
real ordeal has been? What its issue was? So with respect to the
trial of griefs and sorrows, the world is again a system of secrecy.
There is something particularly penetrating, and which strikes home,
in those disappointments which are especially not extraordinary, and
make no show. What comes naturally and as a part of our situation
has a probing force grander strokes have not; there is a solemnity
and stateliness in these, but the blow which is nearest to common
life gets the stronger hold. Is there any particular event which
seems to have, if we may say so, a kind of malice in it which
provokes the Manichean feeling in our nature, it is something which
we should have a difficulty in making appear to any one else any
special trial. Compared with this inner grasp of some stroke of
providence, voluntary sacrifice stands outside of us. After all, the
self-made trial is a poor disciplinarian weapon; there is a subtle
masterly irritant and provoking point in the genuine natural trial,
and in the natural crossness of events, which the artificial thing
cannot manage; we can no more make our trials than we can make our
feelings. In this way moderate deprivations are in some cases more
difficult to bear than extreme ones. "I can bear total obscurity,"
says Pascal, "well enough; what disgusts me is semi-obscurity; I
can make an idol of the whole, but no great merit of the half." And
so it is often the case that what we must do as simply right, and
which would not strike even ourselves, and still less anybody else,
is just the hardest thing to do. A work of supererogation would be
much easier. All this points in the direction of great work going
on under common outsides where it is not noticed; it hints at a
secret sphere of growth and progress; and as such it is an augury
and presage of a harvest which may come some day suddenly to light,
which human judgments had not counted on.

It is upon such a train of thought as this which has been passing
through our minds that we raise ourselves to the reception of that
solemn sentence which Scripture has inscribed on the curtain which
hangs down before the judgment-seat - "The first shall be last, and
the last shall be first." The secrets of the tribunal are guarded,
and yet a finger points which seems to say - "Beyond, in this
direction, behind this veil, things are different from what you will
have looked for."

Suppose, e. g., any supernatural judge should appear in the world
now, and it is evident that the scene he would create would be one
to startle us; we should not soon be used to it; it would look
strange; it would shock and appal; and that from no other cause
than simply its reductions; that it presented characters stripped
bare, denuded of what was irrelevant to goodness, and only with
their moral substance left. The judge would take no cognizance of a
rich imagination, power of language, poetical gifts and the like,
in themselves, as parts of goodness, any more than he would of
riches and prosperity; and the moral residuum would appear perhaps
a bare result. The first look of divine justice would strike us
as injustice; it would be too pure a justice for us; we should
be long in reconciling ourselves to it. Justice would appear,
like the painter's gaunt skeleton of emblematic meaning, to be
stalking through the world, smiting with attenuation luxuriating
forms of virtue. Forms, changed from what we knew, would meet
us, strange unaccustomed forms, and we should have to ask them
who they are - "You were flourishing but a short while ago, what
has happened to you now?" And the answer, if it spoke the truth,
would be - "Nothing, except that now, much which lately counted as
goodness, counts as such no longer; we are tried by a new moral
measure, out of which we issue different men; gifts which have
figured as goodness remain as gifts, but cease to be goodness." Thus
would the large sweep made of human canonizations act like blight or
volcanic fire upon some rich landscape, converting the luxury of
nature into a dried-up scene of bare stems and scorched vegetation.

So may the scrutiny of the last day, by discovering the irrelevant
material in men's goodness, reduce to a shadow much exalted earthly
character. Men are made up of professions, gifts, and talents,
and also of themselves, but all so mixed together that we cannot
separate one element from another; but another day must show what
the moral substance is, and what is only the brightness and setting
off of gifts. On the other hand, the same day may show where, tho
the setting off of gifts is less, the substance is more. If there
will be reversal of human judgment for evil, there will be reversal
of it for good too. The solid work which has gone on in secret,
under common exteriors, will then spring into light, and come out
in a glorious aspect. Do we not meet with surprizes of this kind
here, which look like auguries of a greater surprize in the next
world, a surprize on a vast scale. Those who have lived under an
exterior of rule, when they come to a trying moment sometimes
disappoint us; they are not equal to the act required from them;
because their forms of duty, whatever they are, have not touched
in reality their deeper fault of character, meanness, or jealousy,
or the like, but have left them where they were; they have gone
on thinking themselves good because they did particular things,
and used certain language, and adopted certain ways of thought,
and have been utterly unconscious all the time of a corroding sin
within them. On the other hand, some one who did not promise much,
comes out at a moment of trial strikingly and favorably. This is
a surprize, then, which sometimes happens, nay, and sometimes a
greater surprize still, when out of the eater comes forth meat, and
out of a state of sin there springs the soul of virtue. The act of
the thief on the cross is a surprize. Up to the time when he was
judged he was a thief, and from a thief he became a saint. For even
in the dark labyrinth of evil there are unexpected outlets; sin is
established by the habit in the man, but the good principle which
is in him also, but kept down and supprest, may be secretly growing
too; it may be undermining it, and extracting the life and force
from it. In this man, then, sin becomes more and more, tho holding
its place by custom, an outside and a coating, just as virtue does
in the deteriorating man, till at last, by a sudden effort and the
inspiration of an opportunity, the strong good casts off the weak
crust of evil and comes out free. We witness a conversion.

But this is a large and mysterious subject - the foundation for high
virtue to become apparent in a future world, which hardly rises up
above the ground here. We cannot think of the enormous trial which
is undergone in this world by vast masses without the thought
also of some sublime fruit to come of it some day. True, it may
not emerge from the struggle of bare endurance here, but has not
the seed been sown? Think of the burden of toil and sorrow borne
by the crowds of poor: we know that pain does not of itself make
people good; but what we observe is, that even in those in whom
the trial seems to do something, it yet seems such a failure. What
inconstancy, violence, untruths! The pathos in it all moves you.
What a tempest of character it is! And yet when such trial has been
passed we involuntarily say - has not a foundation been laid? And so
in the life of a soldier, what agonies must nature pass through in
it! While the present result of such a trial is so disappointing,
so little seems to come of it! Yet we cannot think of what has been
gone through by countless multitudes in war, of the dreadful altar
of sacrifice, and the lingering victims, without the involuntary
idea arising that in some, even of the irregular and undisciplined,
the foundation of some great purification has been laid. We hear
sometimes of single remarkable acts of virtue, which spring from
minds in which there is not the habit of virtue. Such acts point to
a foundation, a root of virtue in man, deeper than habit; they are
sudden leaps which show an unseen spring, which are able to compress
in a moment the growth of years.

To conclude. The gospel language throws doubt upon the final
stability of much that passes current here with respect to
character, upon established judgments, and the elevations of the
outward sanctuary. It lays down a wholesome scepticism. We do not
do justice to the spirit of the gospel by making it enthusiastic
simply, or even benevolent simply. It is sagacious, too. It is a
book of judgment. Man is judged in it. Our Lord is Judge. We cannot
separate our Lord's divinity from His humanity; and yet we must be
blind if we do not see a great judicial side of our Lord's human
character; - that severe type of understanding, in relation to the
worldly man, which has had its imperfect representation in great
human minds. He was unspeakably benevolent, kind, compassionate;
true, but He was a Judge. It was indeed of His very completeness
as man that He should know man; and to know is to judge. He must
be blind who, in the significant acts and sayings of our Lord as
they unroll themselves in the pregnant page of the gospel, does
not thus read His character; he sees it in that insight into
pretensions, exposure of motives, laying bare of disguises; in the
sayings - "Believe it not"; "Take heed that no man deceive you";
"Behold, I have told you"; in all that profoundness of reflection
in regard to man, which great observing minds among mankind have
shown, tho accompanied by much of frailty, anger, impatience, or
melancholy. His human character is not benevolence only; there
is in it wise distrust - that moral sagacity which belongs to the
perfection of man.

Now then, as has been said, this scepticism with regard to human
character has had, as a line of thought, certain well-known
representatives in great minds, who have discovered a root of
selfishness in men's actions, have probed motives, extracted aims,
and placed man before himself denuded and exposed; they judged
him, and in the frigid sententiousness or the wild force of their
utterances, we hear that of which we cannot but say, how true! But
knowledge is a goad to those who have it; a disturbing power; a
keenness which distorts; and in the sight it gives it partly blinds
also. The fault of these minds was that in exposing evil they did
not really believe in goodness; goodness was to them but an airy
ideal, the dispirited echo of perplexed hearts, - returned to them
from the rocks of the desert, without bearing hope with it. They
had no genuine belief in any world which was different from theirs;
they availed themselves of an ideal indeed to judge this world, and
they could not have judged it without; for anything, whatever it
is, is good, if we have no idea of anything better; and therefore
the conception of a good world was necessary to judge the bad
one. But the ideal held loose to their minds - not anything to be
substantiated, not as a type in which a real world was to be cast,
not as anything of structural power, able to gather into it, form
round it, and build up upon itself; not, in short, as anything of
power at all, able to make anything, or do anything, but only like
some fragrant scent in the air, which comes and goes, loses itself,
returns again in faint breaths, and rises and falls in imperceptive
waves. Such was goodness to these minds; it was a dream. But the
gospel distrust is not disbelief in goodness. It raises a great
suspense, indeed, it shows a curtain not yet drawn up, it checks
weak enthusiasm, it appends a warning note to the pomp and flattery
of human judgments, to the erection of idols; and points to a day of
great reversal; a day of the Lord of Hosts; the day of pulling down
and plucking up, of planting and building. But, together with the
law of sin, the root of evil in the world, and the false goodness in
it, it announces a fount of true natures; it tells us of a breath of
Heaven of which we know not whence it cometh and whither it goeth;
which inspires single individual hearts, that spring up here and
there, and everywhere, like broken gleams of the supreme goodness.
And it recognizes in the renewed heart of man an instinct which
can discern true goodness and distinguish it from false; a secret
discrimination in the good by which they know the good. It does not
therefore stand in the way of that natural and quiet reliance which
we are designed by God to have in one another, and that trust in
those whose hearts we know. "Wisdom is justified of her children";
"My sheep hear my voice, but a stranger will they not follow, for
they know not the voice of strangers."

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Online LibraryVariousThe World's Great Sermons, Volume 5: Guthrie to Mozley → online text (page 12 of 13)