Copyright
Horace Bushnell.

Select works (Volume 1) online

. (page 11 of 29)
Online LibraryHorace BushnellSelect works (Volume 1) → online text (page 11 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


helms given us, by which we are able always to steer it
triumphantly on, to just the good we seek and the high-
est we can even conceive.

In this mode of statement the very supposition is,
^ou perceive, that we have no ability in ourselves, more
than simply to turn ourselves into the track of another,
more sufficient power, and so to have it upon ns.
Helms do not impel ships, and if there were no other
kind of power moving on the sea, they would only
swing dead -logged upon the waters, making never a
voyage. So the power we have as persons, in religion,
is not a power of self-impulsion, but only a steering
power ; though it is a very great power at that. For
when we so use it as to hold ourselves fairly to God'a
operation, as we hold a ship to the winds, that is suffi-
cient, that will do ever}^ thing, turning even our impoa-



CHRISTIAN ABILITY. 16H

sibles themselves into victory. Our inability to regen-
erate, or new-create ourselves can not be too strongly
stated. As little can our ability, when regarding the
fair adjustment and perpetual offering of ourselves to
God's operation.

Glance a moment here at the analogies of our phys-
ical experience. Great, overwhelmingly great, as the
forces and weights of nature are, what do we accomplish
more easily than to turn about their whole body and
bring them into manageable service ? — doing it always
by some adjustment, or mode of address, which ac-
knowledges their superior force. We do not manage
a horse by the collar, but by the bit. We do not raise
the winds that serve us by blowing on the mill our-
selves, but we let them blow as they list, only setting
the fans of the wheel to get advantage of them. The
cliffs of rocks we do not tear open with our hands, but
we drill them and, by merely touching a little gunpow-
der with a spark of fire, as we know how, let that blow
them into the air by a force of its own, repeating the
operation till we have literally removed mountains.
Our many thousand wheels of manufacture we do not
turn by our arms, but we take the rivers, flowing as
they will, and let them flow, only cutting sluices for
them and setting wheels before them, or under them;
whei'cupon they turn producers for us and even buildcns
of cities. We have a way too of taking that most
florce and dreadful power called steam into service and
nxanagement — doing it never by gathering it up into our
arms and holding it in compression, but by raising it ic



164 CHRISTIAN ABILITY.

heated folds of iron, and turning it through cocks and
conduit pipes, into points of lifting or expansion,
where it does the work of many winds and waters, con*
quering in fact both oceans and their storms. The
lightnings we do not catch by the chase and whip into
service, to be our couriers, but we just give them a wire
and they run, of their own accord, upon our errands,
true and swift as we could wish. We bring in thus all
the great powers of nature and set them to doing almost
miracles for us, by only just offering ourselves to them,
in a way that steers them into our service. The great
art now of all arts, that which is changing and new-
creating the modern world, is, at bottom and in some
real sense, a steering art. All our machineries — and
where is the end of them? — are only so many adjust-
ments, by which the great bulks and masses of force in
nature are steered into methods of use. Even our rail-
roads, which are revolutionizing, in a sense, all the
values and powers of the world, are in fact scarcely
more than adjustments for the steering of motions and
forces. The very skill we study most, and most contin-
ually practice is that of address to nature ; finding how,
or by what means and arrangements, we may get the
forces of the creation to exert themselves in our behalf.
Our ability thus amplified stops at almost nothing.
Neither have we any difficulty in regard to this kind
of ability, as if it were no ability at all. It is precisely
that in one view, and in another it is all ability. Hav-
ing got some force of nature, be it this or that, into use,
we have it even as a property, we make real estate



CHKISTiAN ABILITY'. 165

of it, buy it and sell it and, wlien we have it not
set our wheels o^ motijn, raise our cjdinders and fires,
to oDtain it. And it never once occurs to us that tlie
weakness we thereby confess in ourselves is any real
inability, or creates any shade of discouragement to
effort. On the contrary we call it our great power over
nature, and we have courage given us in it to attempt
almost any thing.

Prepared by such analogies, our dependence, in the mat-
ter of religion, ought to create no speculative difficulty,
and I really do not believe that it does, unless it be in some
few exceptional cases. There used to be much debate
over the question of ability and dependence, but as far
as my knowledge extends, such difficulties are not felt
any longer as they once were. And yet we seem to
have as much difficulty as ever in making that practical
adjustment of ourselves to God, which is necessary in
•Any and every true act of dependence.

Thus a great man}^, admitting quietly the fact of
some such ability as makes them responsible, take it
really upon themselves to do, out and out and by their
own force, all v'hich they are responsible for. It is as if
they were setting themselves to steady and move on the
general bulk of the ship, seizing it by its body. What
tremendous weights and fearfully complex forces the
80ul contains, and how many and fierce the storms may
be that have broken loose in it, under the retributive
damage of sin, they do not sufficiently consider, daring
even to hope tha,t they can gather it back into the sweet
unity of order and health, by their own self-governing



166 CHRISTIAN ABILITY.

power. It turns out of course, since they can govern
but one thing at a time, that while they are governing
that one, a hundred others are breaking loose — and all
these lusting, rasping, raging, tumultuous, wild forces
of evil, driving like fierce winds and tossing like moun-
tain seas, are too much, of course, for any human
pi)wer of self-government.

Besides we have no capacity, under the natural laws
of the soul, as a self-governing creature, to govern suc-
cessfully any thing, except indirectly, that is by a
process of steering. We can not govern a bad passion
or grudge by choking it down, or master a wild ambi-
tion by willing it away, or stop the trains of bad
thoughts by a direct fight with them — which fight
would only keep them still m mind as before — all that
we can do in such matters, in a w^ay of self-regulation,
is to simply steer the mind off from its grudges, ambi-
tions, bad thoughts, by getting, it occupied with good
and pare objects that w^ork a diversion ; and then the
danger is — only working thus upon ourselves — that we
shortly forget ourselves ; when the sky is filled, again,
of course, with the old tumult. We ourselves, acting
on ourselves, institute harmony in the soul and estab-
lish heaven's order in its working? — why if all its many
thousanxl parts and forces were put in a perfect military
subjection to the will, we could not even then conceive
the state of internal order and harmony accurately
enough to command them into their fit places and
functions.

Furthermore, if we could, our self-government woulJ



CHRISTIAN A 13 II. ITT. 107

not bo the state of religion, or bring iis any one of its
blessed incidents. The soul, as a religious creature, is
put in affiance, by a fixed necessit}^ of its nature, with
God. Having broken this bond in its sin it comes back
in religion to become what it inwardly longs for — re-
stored to God, filled with God's inspirations, made con-
scious of God. And this is its regeneration ; a grand,
all-dominating change that supposes a new revelation
of God in it, and is called, in that view, its being born
of God. Can it then reveal God in itself by its own
self-regulative force? Can it, in fact, accomplish any
one thing that is distinctively religious — the state of
peace, the state of liberty, the state of light, the state
of assurance? "Impossible" is the word written over
against every character and condition of good it can, as
a religious nature, attempt. And yet these impossibles
we can easily and surely master, by only bringing our-
selves into the range of God's operations. The helm-
power only is ours, the executive is God's. He can
govern the soul, its grudges, lusts, ambitions, bad
thoughts, all at once. He knows the state of harmony
internally and can settle us in it as a state of rest. He
has inspirations, when he gets into our love, that make
all duty free. He can settle assurance and confidence
in us He can be peace in the sealing of his forgive-
ness upon us. Eevealing himself in the soul, he can
fill its horizon with light. He can be angelic perfec-
tion in us, he can be purity, heaven, in his own fit time
and order.

What is wanted therefore in us, and nothing more is



168 CHRISTIAN ABILITF.

possible for us, is the using of our small helms so as to
make our appeal to God's operation. Self-impeding,
self-renovating power we have none; but the helm
power we have, and if we use it rightly, it will put us
in the range of all power, even the mighty power of
God. Hence the great call of the scripture salvation
is, "come unto mo," "come unto God;" because the
coming unto God is the coming unto God's operation,
and the receiving of what his divine power will work
in the soul, when he is templed in it. Hence also the
call to renounce our own will, to renounce the world,
to renounce eternally sin ; because whoever lives in his
own will — lives for the world as his end, lives apart
from all homage to God — can not be in God's will, or
come at all into God's operation. In the same way
there must be a clearing of a thousand particular and
even smallest things that will steer off the soul from
God. When the helm of a ship gets foul, or so tangled
in ropes, or weeds, that it can not traverse freely, it will
even steer the ship into wreck instead of holding it to
its course. So exactly it is with the soul. An old
grudge adhered to steers it forever away from God.
Any mode of profit, whose fairness or beneficence to
men we distrust, but will not give up, will do the same.
Adhering only to a party that we begin to doubt the
merit of, takes away the possibility even of confidence
toward God. In the same way, the dread only of
being singular, the going after popularity, the fear of
men's opinions, the cringing of the soul to men's fash-
ions — all these give over the helm of one's life to others,



CHRISTIAN ABILITY. 169

that they may turn it where they will — always away, of
course, and still away from God. Every such thing
must of necessity be renounced or even denounced, as
we hope to come into God's operation, or come unto
God. Ko soul is born of God till it comes into his
very mind and offers itself, as a really transj)arent me-
dium, to his light. When the helm is practically set,
honestly guaged for God, God wdll be a perfectly open
harbor to it, but how can it think of entering either
this or any other harbor, when it is really steering it-
self away?

Hence also that very positive matter called faith, or
the fixed demand of it as a condition of salvation.
The conception of it is, not that we are to do or attempt
doing something great upon ourselves — regenerating
ourselves, sanctifjdng ourselves. All that we can do is
to simply trust ourselves over to God, and so to bring our-
selves into the range of his divine operation. In one
view, or considered as including what God does for it
and by it, faith it is very true is every thing — the
whole substance and bulk and body of holiness ; but
considered in a manner most analytical and closest to
us, it is our act alone and a very small one at that, to
be the determining helm of a new life. Doubtless faith,
again, is somehow wrought by God, but it is none the
less acted by us, being the sublimest and completest
mortal act of dependence possible ; in which the soul,
ceasing from itself, turns away to God — comes unto God,
Whereupon as God meets it, accepts it, and pours him-
self into its open gates, it is filled with God's inspira-

15



170 CHRISTIAN ABILITY.

tions and the working of bis mighty power. Now the
life proceeds again from God as it ought, being insti-
gated inwardly, by his divine movement. Peace, lib*
erty, light are its element; it is even conscious of
God.

All human doings therefore, as regards the soul's re-
generation, or the beginning of a new life, amount to
nothing more than the right use of a power that steers it
into the sphere of God's operation. And the reason .
why so many fail here is, that they undertake to do
the work themselves, heaving away spasmodically to lift
themselves over the unknown crisis by main strength —
as if seizing the ship by its mast, or the main bulk of
its body, they were going to push it on through the
voyage themselves ! Whereas it is the work of God,
and not in any other sense their own, than that coming
in, to God, b}^ a total trust in him, they are to have it
in God's working. Let the wind blow where it lis-
teth — God will take care of that — they have only to
put themselves to it, and the impossible is done.

In just this way also it is that so many miscarriages
occur, after conversion. Kothing was necessarj^ to pre-
vent them, but simply to carry a steady helm in life's
duties. Thus there will be some who get tired of the
helm ; to be always at their post, praying always, guag-
ing their motions carefully to meet their new conditions,
keeping their courses set exactly by their conscience,
and allowing no slack times of indulgence, becomes
wearisome as certainly as they lose out the Spirit that
lljakes exactness libeity, and then they take away iheii



CHRESTIAN ABILITY. 171

hand, as it were to rest themselves. Some too will
have a way of persuading themselves that the houI will
get on w^ell enough, at least for a time, by the impulse
it is under already and so far will consent to do what
no sailoi ever dares, let the ship steer itself; whereupon,
when it begins to wdieel, and plunge, and go just no-
where, as regards the voj^age, tlie}^ begin also to cry,
"impossible!" "how can we stop it!" "how can we turn
it back !" They imagine some great fatality, impossible
to be controlled, when in fact the only fatality suffered
is that of a ship that can not keep, or get back into, its
course without beino- steered.

At the same time it must not be forgotten, that mul-
titudes of disciples fall out of course, for no less posi-
tive reason than that they actually steer themselves out
of God's operation. One goes into an employment the
right of which he is not sufficiently snre of to have a
good conscience in it. Another galls himself in a right
employment, by the consciously wrong manner in
which he carries it on. A third goes into company that
consciously does him injury, yet still continues to go.
A male disciple turns himself to the pursuit of honor,
a female disciple to the worship of fashion ; one to the
shows of condition, the other to the more personal van-
ities of dress, Thousands again will let their lusts and
jippetites get above their affections, their bodies above
their minds. Some are nursing their prido, and some
their envy, driven of fierce winds by the gustiness of
one, eaten out and barnacled by the water vermin of
the other. These now and such like are the small



172 CHRISTIAN ABILITY.

helms, wliicli all you keep turning, who turn yourselves
away. You ask why it is, half grievingly, that you fal]
away from God so often, and loose the savor of his
friendship so easily? But the very simple fact, if yon
could see it, is that you really steer yourselves awa}^ ;
allowing yourselves in modes of life that even turn you
off from God, as by your own act. You not only for-
get, or neglect, the small helms of guidance, but you
actually turn them the wrong way — only making now
and then some clumsy effort, as you wake up in
pauses of concern, to do some mightj^ thing by your
will ; in which you virtually attempt to handle the ship
by its body — sighing piously in mock resignation, as
you fail, over the inevitable fact of your dependence '
O, if you could but use your dependence rightly, find-
ing how to really and truly depend, what power and
victory would it bring! The very steering power
you have, which is the highest power God has given
you to wield, is nothing but a way of depending ; that
is of right self-adjustment to the gales of the Spirit and
the operating forces of God. How certainly too and
tenderly would your God be drawn to you, putting all
his power upon you, if he only saw you carefulh^ g^i^'ig-
ing your small duties so as to guide yourselves into his
help Kemember his promise, "he that is faithful in
that which is least," — nothing draws the heart of God
like that.

Now it is very true that a man who is tending the
Bmall helm of dut}^ VN'ith great exactness may become
painfully legal in it — a precisionist, a Pharisee. But it



CHRISTIAN ABILITY. 173

shonld not be so, and never will be, save when the pre
cision is itself made a religion of. That precision
which is only a way of steering the sonl, precisely and
faithfully, into God's inspirations, is bnt the necessary
condition of liberty. No man ever keeps the way ol
liberty in a heedless, hap-hazard life. Mere strictness is
only a mode of pain, but the strictness of a delicately
faithful and punctual address to God, has God's witness
and free blessing always upon it. Such a disciphj con-
sciously means to be faithful and, as certainly as God is
God, he will somehow have God's power npon him. A
very nice way of application, a steady, sleepless ^atch
of the helm, turning it moment by moment, by gentle
deflections — this navigates the ship and keeps it bound-
ing on, as in the liberty of the sea ! No Christian ia
ever driven loose from his course, when he holds him-
self up to God, in the adjustment of a careful trust.

Now in all that I have said, thus far, in the unfolding
of this very practical subject, I have been preparing a
more distinctly Christian view of it, that could not oth-
erwise be given — this I will now present, and with this
I close.

I have been showing what power accrues, or will ac-
crue, as we keep ourselves in, or bring ourselves into,
the range of God's operation ; and this word operation
has been taken probably as referring only to the omni-
potent working of his will, or spiritual force. But
there is a power of God which is not his omnipotence,
and has a wholly different mode of working; I mean
his moral power — that of his beauty, goodness, gentle-



174 CHRISTIAN ABILITY.

ness, truth, purity, suffering cornpassioTi, in one word,
his cliaracte]'. In this kind of power, he works, not b^
what he wills, but by what he is. What is w^antorl,
therefore, above all things, in the regeneration of souls,
and their advancement toward perfection afterward, is to
be somehow put in the range of this higher power and
kept there. And here exactly is the sublime art and
glory of the new divine economy in Christ. For he is
such, and so related to our want, that our mind gets a
way open throughi him to God's divine beauty and
greatness, so that we may bring our heart up into the
transforming, molding efficacy of these, which we most
especially need — need even the more imperatively, that
our very conceptions of God, under the lowness and
blind apathy of our sin, are so dull, and dim, and coarse,
as to have little value and power.

The infinite perfection, or unseen beauty of God —
how could we so much as frame a notion of it, when
even the being of God, as an unseen spirit, has so little
reality to our coarse and fearfully demoralized appre-
hensions? Therefore understanding well our utter ina-
bility to so much as conceive the perfect good in which
we require to be fashioned, or the moral excellence of
God whose image is to stamp itself upon, us, he has
undertaken to put even this before our eyes. To thin
end he becomes incarnate in the person of his Son.
As the incarnate Son, he is God in the small, God in
humanity, the Son of Man, bringing all God's beauty
and perfection to us in a personal being and life akin to
our own— powerful on our own, bj the tragic uenderncsa



CHRISTIAN ABILITY. 175

of his cross ; so that if we simply love and cleave unto
his human person, unto his cross, we embrace in him
all that is included in God's infinite feeling and char-
acter. In this view it is, that he says, " I am the door ;"
for he is just that opening into the infinite beauty that
brings us to the sense of it, and puts us in the power of
it, Just this too was his meaning when he said, "he that
hath seen me hath seen the Father " — he has seen a man
simply, in one view ; yet, in another, he has seen even
Grod, in all those distant, impossible glories and perfec-
tions, he otherwise could not conceive. This too was
what he had in thought when he said — " He that be-
lieveth on me believeth not on me, but on him that sent
me. And he that seeth me seeth him that sent me."
The omnipotence of God works absolutely, the moral
power of God by being seen, and Christ makes it seen.
By which means, as an apostle conceives, he becomes the
power of God — " Christ the power of God and the wis-
dom of God." In short this exactly is Christianity —
this thought labors all through — that Christ in humanity
is God humanized, divine feeling and perfection let
down into the modes of finite sentiment and apprehen-
sion. In his human person, and the revelation of his
cross, he is the door, the interpreter to our hearts, of
God himself — so the moral power of God upon our
hearts. It is not necessary that we should so much as
frame the intellectual idea of God's perfection" from him,
which multitudes could never do — we have simply to
love him and cleave to him as to a human person, and
we have the very excellence of God framing itself into



176 CHRISTIAN ABILITY.

US, bj a most naturally relational, humanly real, sym-
pathy; the power, that is the moral power, of God is
upon us, and revealing itself in us with all needed
efficacy.

Christ then as the Son of Man, is that small helm put
in the hand, so to speak, of our affections, to bring us
in, to God's most interior beauty and perfection, and
puts us in the power of his infinite, unseen character ;
thus to be molded by it and fashioned to conformity
with it. And so we have nothing to do but to keep his
company, and watch for him in faithful adhesion to his
person, in order to be kept in the very element of God's
character, and have the consciousness of God, as a state
of continually progressive and immovably steadfast ex-
perience. The moral power of God and God's glory is
mirrored directly into us, to become a divine glory in
us. Beholding, as in a glass, the glory of the Lord, we
are changed into the same image from glory to glory.
This it is, working in our sin, that clears it all away —
the power of God unto salvation.

What now brethren and friends, is our conclusion ?
What have we seen but that all condolings with our-
selves, all regrets of failure, turning upon the fact of
our weakness, all protestations of inability, all sighs and
suspirations ending in the word "impossible," are with-
out a shadow of reason — utterly groundless. We can
do and become just all that we ought, and without so
muv*.h as one strain of self-endeavor. It is very true
that God has not made us omnipotent — we can not ma-
nipulate ourselves into holy character by our will, we



CHRISTIAN ABILITY. 177

can neither regenerate, nor make free, nor purify, nor
keep ourselves. And just so we can not do any thing
in the world of natural experience, without making our
address to the powers of nature. Do we mourn over
this in listless impatience, and call it our dreadful ina-
bility ? Does the man who can not navigate a ship by
its body, or drag it through the sea by its beak, set him-
self down upon the word impossible, and desist from
the voyage? No, but he takes the very small helm,
heading bravely out into the storms, compelling the
huge bulk, in that easy manner, to go where he senda
it, dashing on still on, by night and by day, and week
after week, and month after month, till he has taken it
possibly clean round the planet he lives on, and brought
it quietly in to the haven for which he was set. Here,



Online LibraryHorace BushnellSelect works (Volume 1) → online text (page 11 of 29)