« Prev VIII. Christian Ability. Next »

VIII.

CHRISTIAN ABILITY.

Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.” James iii. 4.

The ships that were “so great” in former days, were, in fact, scarcely more than cock-boats, or small coasters, scraping round the shores of the inland seas; whereas, now, what we call the great ships are big enough to store in their hold, a whole armed fleet of the ancient time, vessels and men together; and these huge bulks strike out on the broad oceans defying their storms, yet still turned about, as before, with a very small helm, whithersoever the helmsman will. There he stands at his post, a single man, scarcely more than a fly that has lighted on the immense bulk of the vessel, having a small city of people and their goods in the world of timber under him, and perhaps with only one hand, turning gently his lever of wood, or nicely guaging the motion of his wheel, steers along its steady track the mountain mass of the ship, turning it always to its course, even as he would an arrow to its mark.

Dropping now the particular reference had by our 162 apostle, in his illustration, to the tongue, or the power of the tongue, I shall take it simply as an instance or exhibition of what is more general, viz., the fact—That man turns about every thing, handles all heaviest bulks, masters all hardest difficulties in the same way; that is, by using a small power so as to get the operation of a power greater than his own. He gets an immense ability thus, where his sufficiency is most restricted, and his Christian ability is of just this kind. We have no power to handle ships at sea by their bulk; as little have we to do or become, in the grand whole of character, what God requires of us. The soul is a magnitude more massive than any ship, and the storms it encounters are wilder than those of the sea. And yet there are small helms given us, by which we are able always to steer it triumphantly on, to just the good we seek and the highest we can even conceive.

In this mode of statement the very supposition is, you 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 us. 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’s operation, as we hold a ship to the winds, that is sufficient, that will do every thing, turning even our impossibles 163 themselves into victory. Our inability to regenerate, 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 physical 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 acknowledges 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 ourselves, 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 gunpowder 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; whereupon they turn producers for us and even builders of cities. We have a way too of taking that most fierce and dreadful power called steam into service and management—doing it never by gathering it up into our arms and holding it in compression, but by raising it in 164 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, conquering 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 adjustments, 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 continually 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. Having got some force of nature, be it this or that, into use, we have it even as a property, we make real estate 165 of it, buy it and sell it and, when we have it not, set our wheels of motion, raise our cylinders and fires, to obtain it. And it never once occurs to us that the 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 matter 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 many, 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 which 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 soul 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 that they can gather it back into the sweet unity of order and health, by their own self-governing 166 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 mountain seas, are too much, of course, for any human power of self-government.

Besides we have no capacity, under the natural laws of the soul, as a self-governing creature, to govern successfully 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 ambition by willing it away, or stop the trains of bad thoughts by a direct fight with them—which fight would only keep them still in mind as before—all that we can do in such matters, in a way of self-regulation, is to simply steer the mind off from its grudges, ambitions, bad thoughts, by getting it occupied with good and pure objects that work 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 establish heaven’s order in its working?—why if all its many thousand 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 would 167 not be the state of religion, or bring us any one of its blessed incidents. The soul, as a religious creature, is put in affiance, by a fixed necessity of its nature, with God. Having broken this bond in its sin it comes back in religion to become what it inwardly longs for—restored to God, filled with God’s inspirations, made conscious 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 ourselves 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 forgiveness upon us. Revealing himself in the soul, he can fill its horizon with light. He can be angelic perfection 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 possible for us, is the using of our small helms so as to make our appeal to God’s operation. Self-impelling, 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 me,” “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 fashions—all these give over the helm of one’s life to others, 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. No soul is born of God till it comes into his very mind and offers itself, as a really transparent medium, to his light. When the helm is practically set, honestly guaged for God, God will 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 itself 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, sanctifying ourselves. All that we can do is to simply trust ourselves over to God, and so to bring ourselves 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 some how 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 himself into its open gates, it is filled with God’s inspirations 170 and the working of his mighty power. Now the life proceeds again from God as it ought, being instigated inwardly, by his divine movement. Peace, liberty, light are its element; it is even conscious of God.

All human doings therefore, as regards the souls’ regeneration, 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, by a total trust in Him, they are to have it in God’s working. Let the wind blow where it listeth—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. Nothing was necessary to prevent 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, guaging 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 makes exactness liberty, and then they take away their 171 hand, as it were to rest themselves. Some too will have a way of persuading themselves that the soul will get on well enough, at least for a time, by the impulse it is under already, and so far will consent to do what no sailor ever dares, let the ship steer itself; whereupon, when it begins to wheel, and plunge, and go just nowhere, as regards the voyage, they 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 being steered.

At the same time it must not be forgotten, that multitudes of disciples fall out of course, for no less positive 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 sure 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 vanities of dress. Thousands again will let their lusts and appetites get above their affections, their bodies above their minds. Some are nursing their pride 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 helms, which all you keep turning, who turn yourselves away. You ask why it is, half grievingly, that you fall away from God so often, and loose the savor of his friendship so easily? But the very simple fact, if you could see it, is that you really steer yourselves away; allowing yourselves in modes of life that even turn you off from God, as by your own act. You not only forget, 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 mighty thing by your will; in which you virtually attempt to handle the slip 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, finding 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 carefully guaging your small duties so as to guide yourselves into his help. Remember 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 small helm of duty with great exactness may become painfully legal in it—a precisionist, a Pharisee. But it 173 should not be so, and never will be, save when the precision is itself made a religion of. That precision which is only a way of steering the soul, precisely and faithfully, into God’s inspirations, is but the necessary condition of liberty. No man ever keeps the way of 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 disciple consciously means to be faithful and, as certainly as God is God, he will somehow have God’s power upon him. A very nice way of application, a steady, sleepless watch of the helm, turning it moment by moment, by gentle deflections—this navigates the ship and keeps it bounding on, as in the liberty of the sea No Christian is ever driven loose from his course, when he holds himself 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 otherwise be given—this I will now present, and with this I close.

I have been showing what power accrues, or will accrue, 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 omnipotent 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, gentleness, 174 truth, purity, suffering compassion, in one word, his character. In this kind of power, he works, not by what he wills, but by what he is. What is wanted, 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 through 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 apprehensions? Therefore understanding well our utter inability 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 this 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, by the tragic tenderness 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 character. 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 God, in all those distant, impossible glories, and perfections, he otherwise could not conceive. This too was what he had in thought when he said—“He that believeth 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 wisdom 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 apprehension. 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 us, by a most naturally relational, humanly real, sympathy; 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 experience. 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 ourselves, 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 without a shadow of reason—utterly groundless. We can do and become just all that we ought, and without so much as one strain of self-endeavor. It is very true that God has not made us omnipotent—we can not manipulate ourselves into holy character by our will, we 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 inability? Does the man who can not navigate a ship by its body, or drag it through the sea by its beak, set himself 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 sends 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, just here, is the mighty power of man, that he can steer! Weak in himself, as regards most things, able to do almost nothing in the gross, he can yet do almost any thing by only steering it into the lines of forces that will do it for him. And the same holds true exactly in religion. No man here is called to do some great thing which he can not do. Nothing is necessary for you, in becoming a Christian, or maintaining a triumphant Christian life, but just to stay by the helm, and put yourselves in where the power is—then you have all power, and every mountain bulk goes away at your bidding! Come unto God, unite yourselves to God, and the doing power you have is infinite!—and is none the less yours because it is His. Trim your ship steadily to the course, and God’s own gales 178 will waft it. If you want success enough to set yourselves for it, and guage your courses accurately by a strict application, infallible success is yours. Or, better still, if your mind is dark, if you do not even know how to guage any movement rightly, or even what the words mean that speak of it—then come to the man Jesus, your blessed, all perfect brother, ask him to let you go with him and keep him company, cling fast to him, and all the transforming moral power of God shall be with you. To investigate much and know many things, is not necessary. Only to love Jesus and adhere to him faithfully, knowing simply him, is wisdom enough.

He will be the door, so that your heart will pass in, where your understanding can not. reach. No matter how weak you may seem to be, or how many impassable mountains to be before you, or how many fierce storms to be raging round you, still you will go over mountains beaten small as chaff, on through tempests that have heard the word “be still.” You will never fail or fall. Stay by your love to Jesus and the power of God’s infinite will is with you, and the still mightier, more inconceivable, power of his greatness upon you. O this glorious fact of our dependence—if we speak of ability, we have all utmost ability in it. We come to no bar in it, brethren, as many are wont to speak. If only we can rightly depend, we come into all power rather, and are able to do all things! Here it is that so many of God’s. mighty ones became mighty—Moses, Elijah, Paul, Luther, Cromwell—all those efficient and successful ones that we ourselves have met, wondering 179 often how they got such emphasis of action, such resistless sway. They were men who kept company with God, and lived in the powerful element of his divine operation. Here is the only way of success, whether of single men, or of churches. How can a church get on in any great concern of religion, when it is out at sea, beating about as it is driven, and steering just no whither. Nor is it any better if we take the ship into our own hands, to do all for it ourselves. Let us come into God’s operation, and God will know how to open a way for us. He will lead just where we most want to go, and send us every gift even as he gives us a gospel. So if we are baffled personally, in all our Christian aims and doings, losing ground, weak and growing weaker, unhappy, dissatisfied, hopeless of good—out upon this wild and dreadful sea, and driven by all fierce winds and storms of the mind, we have only to steer ourselves on, by the steady helm of dependence, and our way is clear to the harbor.

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