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PENITENCE

“And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter . . . .and Peter went out, and wept bitterly.”—LUKE xxii. 61, 62.

EVERY man at some time in his life has fallen. Many have fallen many times; few, few times. And the more a man knows his life and watches its critical flow from day to day, the larger seems to grow the number of these falls, and the oftener reaches out to God his penitential prayer, “Turn yet again, O Lord!”

We have all shuddered before this as we read the tale of Peter’s guilt. Many a time we have watched the plot as it thickens round him, and felt the almost unconscious sympathy which betrayed of itself how like the story was to one that had sometimes happened with ourselves. And we knew, as we followed the dreary stages of his fall, that the same well-worn steps had been traced since then by every human foot. How Peter could have slept in the garden, when he should have watched and prayed, all men who have an inner history can understand. The faithlessness that made him follow Christ far off, instead of keeping at his Master’s side, not the best of us will challenge. For we too know what it is sometimes to get out of step with Christ. We shall be the last to stop and ask his business in that worldly company who warmed themselves by the fire. And none who know that the heart is deceitful above all things, will wonder that this man who had lived so long in the inner circle of fellowship with Christ, whose eyes were familiar with miracles, who was one of that most select audience who witnessed the glory of the transfiguration—that this man, when his ears were yet full of the most solemn words the world had ever heard, when his heart was warm still with Communion-table thoughts, should have turned his back upon his Lord, and, almost ere the sacramental wine was dry upon his lips, have cursed Him to His face. Such things, alas! are not strange to those who know the parts in the appalling tragedy of sin.

But there is a greater fact in Peter’s life than Peter’s sin—a much less known fact—Peter’s penitence. All the world are at one with Peter in his sin; but not all the world are with him in his penitence. Sinful Peter is one man, and repentant Peter is another; and many who kept his company along these worn steps to sin have left him to trace the tear-washed path of penitence alone. But the real lesson in Peter’s life is the lesson in repentance. His fall is a lesson in sin which requires no teacher, but his repentance is a great lesson in salvation. And Peter’s penitence is full of the deepest spiritual meaning to all who have ever made Peter’s discovery—that they have sinned.

The few words which form the pathetic sequel to the tale of Peter’s sin may be defined as the “ideal progress of Christian penitence.” They contain materials for the analysis of the most rare and difficult grace in spiritual experience. And lying underneath these two simple sentences are the secrets of some of the most valuable spiritual laws. We find here four outstanding characteristics of the state of penitence:

(1) It is a divine thing. It began with God. Peter did not turn. But “the Lord turned and looked upon Peter.”

(2) It is a very sensitive thing. A look did it. “The Lord looked upon Peter.”

(3) It is a very intense thing. “Peter went out and wept bitterly.”

(4) It is a very lonely thing. “Peter went out”—out into the quiet night, to be alone with his sin and God.

These are characteristic not only of the penitential state, but of all God’s operations on the soul.

(1) To take the first of these, we find that the beginning of this strange experience came from God. It was not Peter who turned. The Lord turned and looked upon Peter. When the cock crew, that might have recalled him to himself. But he was just in the very act of sin. And when a man is in the thick of his sin his last thought is to throw down his arms and repent. So Peter never thought of turning, but the Lord turned; and when Peter would rather have looked anywhere else than at the Lord, the Lord looked at Peter. And this scarce-noticed fact is a great sermon to every one who sins—that the Lord turns first.

Now the result of this distinction is this: that there are two kinds of sorrow for sin. And these are different in their origin, in their religious value, and in their influence on our life. The commoner kind is when a man does wrong, and, in the ordinary sense of the word, is sorry that he has done it. We are always easier in such a case when this sorrow comes. It seems to provide a sort of guarantee that we are not disposed to do the same again, and that our better self is still alive enough to enter its protest against the sin the lower self has done. And we count this feeling of reproach which treads so closely on the act as a sort of compensation or atonement for the wrong. This is a kind of sorrow which is well known to all who examine themselves, and in any way struggle with sin. It is a kind of sorrow which is coveted by all who examine themselves; which gives relief to what is called a penitential heart, and lends a fervour to many a penitential prayer. But it is a startling truth that there is no religion in such a state. There is no real penitence there. It may not contain even one ingredient of true repentance. It is all many know of repentance, and all many have for repentance. But it is no true sorrow for sin. It is wounded self-love. It is sorrow that we were weak enough to sin. We thought we had been stronger men and women, and when we were put to the test we found to our chagrin that we had failed. And this chagrin is what we are apt to mistake for penitence. But it is no Divine gift of grace, this penitence—it is merely wounded pride—sorrow that we did not do better, that we were not so good as ourselves and our neighbours thought. It is just as if Peter turned and looked upon Peter. And when Peter turns and looks upon Peter, he sees what a poor, weak creature Peter is. And if God had not looked upon Peter he might have wept well-nigh as bitterly, not because he had sinned against his God, but because he, the great apostle, had done a weak thing—he was weak as other men.

The fit of low spirits which comes to us when we find ourselves overtaken in a fault, though we flatter ourselves to reckon it a certain sign of penitence, and a set-off to the sin itself which God will surely take into account, is often nothing more than vexation and annoyance with ourselves, that, after all our good resolutions and attempts at reformation, we have broken down again.

Contrast for a moment with such a penitence the publican’s prayer of penitence in the temple. It was no chagrin nor wounded pride with him. And we feel as we read the story that the Lord must have turned and looked upon the publican, when he cried “God”—as if God were looking right down into the man’s eyes—“God be merciful to me, a sinner!” Stricken before his God, this publican had little thought of the self-respect he had lost, and felt it no indignity to take the culprit’s place and be taught the true divinity of a culprit’s penitence.

Now it will be seen at once that the difference between the publican’s penitence and the first-named sorrow is just the difference between the divine and the human. The one is God turning and looking upon man, the other is man turning and looking upon himself. There is no wrong in a man turning and looking upon himself—only there is danger. There is the danger of misinterpreting what he sees and what he feels. What he feels is the mortification, the self-reproach of the sculptor who has made an unlucky stroke of the chisel; the chagrin of the artist who has spoilt the work of weeks by a clumsy touch. Apart altogether from religion we must feel mortified when we do wrong. Life, surely, is a work of art; character-building, soul-culture are the highest kind of art; and it would be strange indeed if failure passed unresented by the mind.

But what is complained of is not that it passes unresented by the mind, but that it passes unresented by the soul. Penitence of some sort there must be, but in the one case it is spiritual, in the other purely artistic. And the danger is the more subtle because the higher the character is the more there must necessarily be of the purely artistic penitence.

The effect is, that self gets in to what ought to be the most genuine experience of life, makes the most perfect imitation of it, and transforms the greatest opportunities for recovery into the basest ministry to pride. The true experience, on the other hand, is a touching lesson in human helplessness; teaching how God has to come to man’s relief at every turn of his life, and how the same Hand which provides his pardon has actually to draw him to the place of penitence.

It is God looking into the sinner’s face that has introduced a Christian element into human sorrow. And Paul, in making the Christian vocabulary, had to coin a word which was strange to all the philosophies of the world then, and is so still, when he joined the conceptions of God and sorrow into one, and told us of the Godly sorrow which has the marvellous virtue of working repentance not to be repented of. And it is this new and sacred sorrow which comes to sinful men as often as the Lord turns and looks upon their life; it is this which adds the penitential incense to the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart. That was a great distinction which Luke brings out, in the prodigal’s life, between coming to himself and coming to his father. “He came to himself,” and then “he came to his father.” So we are always coming to ourselves. We are always finding out, like the prodigal, the miserable bargains we have made. But it is only when we come to our Father that we can get them undone and the real debt discharged.

(2) But now, secondly, we come to the sensitiveness of penitence. Or rather, perhaps, we should talk of the sensitiveness of the penitent human soul. The Lord turned and looked upon Peter. There is nothing more sensitive in all the world than a human soul which has once been quickened into its delicate life by the touch of the divine. Men seldom estimate aright the exquisite beauty and tenderness of a sinner’s heart. We apply coarse words to move it, and coarse, harsh stimulants to rouse it into life. And if no answer comes we make the bludgeon heavier and the language coarser still, as if the soul were not too fine to respond to weapons so blunt as these. There is coarseness in the fibres of the body, and these may be moved by blows; and there is coarseness in human nature, and that may be roused with threats; but the soul is fine as a breath, and will preserve, through misery and cruelty and sin, the marvellous delicacy which tells how near it lies to the spirit of God who gave it birth. Peter was naturally, perhaps, the coarsest of all the disciples. Our picture of him is of a strong-built, sun-tanned fisherman, robust, and fearless in disposition, quick-tempered and rash, a man who would bluster and swear—as we know he did—a wild man who had the making of a memorable sinner had not God made him a memorable saint. But inside this wild breast there lay a most lovely and delicate plant—the most tender plant, perhaps, but one which God had growing on the earth. With His own hand He had placed it there. With His own breath He nourished it from day to day; and already the storms in the wild breast were calmed and tempered for the holy flower which had begun to send a perfume through even coarse Peter’s life. It always purifies a man to have a soul, and there is no such beauty of character as that which comes out in unconscious ways from a life made fine by Christ.

So God did not thunder and lighten to make Peter hear His voice. God knew that though Peter was blustering and swearing with his lips, there was dead silence in his soul. A whisper at that moment—that moment of high-strung feeling—a whisper even was not fine enough in its touch for this exquisitely sensitive spirit; so the Lord turned and looked. A look, and that was all. But it rent his heart as lightning could not, and melted into his soul.

There is a text in the Psalms which uses the strange expression, the gentleness of God. We wonder sometimes when God is so great, so terrible in majesty, that He uses so little violence with us, who are so small. But it is not His way. His way is to be gentle. He seldom drives; but draws. He seldom compels; but leads. He remembers we are dust. We think it might be quicker work if God threatened and compelled us to do right. But God does not want quick work, but good work. God does not want slave work, but free work. So God is gentle with us all—moulding us and winning us many a time with no more than a silent look. Coarse treatment never wins souls. So God did not drive the chariot of His omnipotence up to Peter and command him to repent. God did not threaten him with thunderbolts of punishment. God did not even speak to him. That one look laid a spell upon his soul which was more than voice or language through all his after life.

Here, then, are two great lessons—the gentleness of God, and the gentleness of the soul—the one as divine a marvel as the other. God may be dealing with us in some quiet way just now and we not knowing it. So mysteriously has all our life been shaped, and so unobtrusive the fingers which mould our will, that we scarce believe it has been the hand of God at all. But it is God’s gentleness. And the reason why God made Peter’s heart sensitive, and yours and mine, was to meet this gentleness of His.

Yes; we misunderstand God altogether, and religion, if we think God deals coarsely with our souls. If we ask ourselves what things have mainly influenced our life, we find the answer in a few silent voices which have preached to us, and winds which passed across our soul so gently that we scarce could tell when they were come or gone. The great physical forces of the world are all silent and unseen. The most ponderous of all—gravitation—came down the ages with step so noiseless that centuries of wise men had passed away before an ear was quick enough to detect its footfall. And the great spiritual forces which startle men into thoughts of God and right, which make men remember, in the rush of the world’s life, that they have souls, which bring eternity near to us, when time is yet sweet and young, are not so much the warnings from the dead who drop at our side, nor the threats of judgment to come, nor the retributions of the life that is; but still small voices, which penetrate like Peter’s look from Christ, and turn man’s sensitive heart to God. The likeness of a long-dead mother’s face; the echo of a children’s hymn laden with pure memories, coming over the guilty years which lie between; the fragments of an old, forgotten text—these are the messengers which Heaven sends to call the world to God.

Let those who are waiting for Christ to thunder at their door before they will let Him in, remember that the quiet service of the Sabbath Day, and the soft whisper of text and Psalm, and the plaint of conscience, and the deep, deep heart-wish to be whole, are Christ’s ways of looking for them. Let workers for Christ remember this. Let those who try to keep their influence for Christ, ponder Christ’s methods of influence. Let those who live in the shade, whose lives are naturally bounded by timidity and reserve, be glad that, in the genius of Christianity, there is a place for even the Gospel of the Face. And let those who live in the battle, when coarser weapons fail, discern the lesson of Elijah: “A great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind, an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice” (I Kings xix. 11).

(3) Thirdly and briefly, for the truth is obvious, we learn from Peter’s recovery that spiritual experience is intense. Peter wept bitterly. And this short sentence for ever settles the question of emotion in religion. When the Lord turned and looked upon Peter, and memory crushed into one vivid moment the guilt of those never-to-be-forgotten hours, what else could Peter do than weep bitterly? Let memory so work on any of our lives to-day, and let the eye of the Eternal bring the naked truth from out our past, and let us ask if “bitterly” is a word too strong to express the agony of God’s discovery of our sin. Much need, indeed, had Peter to weep bitterly; and if there are no bitter tears betimes in our religious life, it is not because we have less of Peter’s sin, but little of Peter’s grace.

It is vain to console ourselves by measuring, as we try to do, the small size of the slips we make as compared with his. There is such a thing in the world as a great sin, but there is no such thing as a small sin. The smallest sin is a fall, and a fall is a fall from God, and to fall from God is to fall the greatest height in the universe. The publicity of a sin has nothing to do with its size. Our fall last week, or yesterday, or to-day, was just as great, perhaps, as Peter’s fall, or David’s, or Noah’s, or Jacob’s, or the many private sins which history has made public examples, or the Bible placed as beacons to all the race.

Every sin that was ever done demands a bitter penitence. And if there is little emotion in a man’s religion, it is because there is little introspection. Religion without emotion is religion without reflection. Let a man sit calmly down to think about his life. Let him think how God has dealt with him since ever he lisped God’s name. Let him add to that how he has dealt with God since ever he could sin. And as he turns over the secrets of his past, and forgotten sins come crowding one by one into his thoughts, can he help a strong emotion rising in his heart, and shedding itself in tears? Yes; religion without emotion is religion without reflection. And, conversely, the man who gives himself to earnest thought upon his ways will always have enough emotion to generate religious fervour in his soul.

Only let religious emotion run in the right channel, let it work itself out in action and not in excited feeling, let it be something more than nervous agitation or a mere selfish fear and there is no experience more purifying to the soul. No doubt it was a great thing for Peter that he wept bitterly, and no doubt from the bitterness of that night of penitence came much of the sweetness that hallowed his after life.

(4) Fourthly, and lastly, penitence is a lonely thing. Peter went out. When the Lord turned, He looked upon Peter. No one else noticed the quiet glance that was exchanged. But it did its work. It singled out one man in a moment, and cut him off from all the rest of the world. “And Peter went out.” And there was no man beneath the firmament of God that night so much alone as Peter with his sin.

Men know two kinds of loneliness, it has been said,—a loneliness of space and a loneliness of spirit. The fisherman in his boat on the wide sea knows loneliness of space. But it is no true loneliness. For his thoughts have peopled his boat with forms of those he loves. But Peter’s was loneliness of spirit. A distance wider than the wide sea cut off the denier from all fellowship of man, and left him to mourn alone.

When God speaks He likes no other voice to break the stillness but His own. And hence the place that has always been given to solitude in all true religious life. It can be overdone, but it can be grossly underdone. And there is no lesson more worth insisting on in days like ours than this, that when God wants to speak with a man He wants that man to be alone. And God develops the germ of the recluse enough in all true Christian hearts to see that it is done. “Talent forms itself in solitude,” says the German poet; “character amidst the storms of life.” And if religious character is developed and strengthened in the battle of the world, it is no less true that religious talents are cultivated in quiet contemplation and communion alone with God. Than the worshippers who do all their religion in public there are none more profoundly to be pitied; and he who knows not what it is to go out from the crowd sometimes and be alone with God is a stranger to the most divine experience that comes to sanctify a Christian’s heart.

But what gave the beauty to Peter’s loneliness was this—that he took God’s time to be alone. Peter’s penitence was not only an intense thing and a lonely thing, it was an immediate thing. Peter need not have gone out that time. He might have stood where he was, and braved it out. God has looked at us when we were sinning; and we did not do as Peter did. He lost no time between his penitence and his sin. But we spoil the grace of our penitence many a time by waiting till the sin grows old. We do it on purpose. Time seems to smooth the roughness off our sin and take its bitterness away. And we postpone our penitence till we think the edge is off the sharpness of the wrong. As if time, as if eternity could ever make a sinner’s sin less black. Sin is always at its maximum. And no man ever gets off with penitence at its minimum. The time for penitence is just the time when we have sinned. And that perhaps is now. Peter’s penitence came sharp upon his sin. It was not on his death-bed nor in his after life. But just when he had sinned. Many a man who postpones his penitence till he cannot help it, postpones his penitence till it cannot help him, and will not see the Lord turning till He turns and looks upon him in judgment. Then, indeed, he goes out to weep. But it is out into that night which knows no dawn.

Such are the lessons from Peter’s penitence. Just one word more.

When God speaks He speaks so loud that all the voices of the world seem dumb. And yet when God speaks He speaks so softly that no one hears the whisper but yourself. To-day, perhaps, as the service has gone on, the Lord has turned and looked on some one here. And the soul of some one has gone out to weep. No one noticed where the Lord’s glance fell, and no one knows in the church that it was—you. You sit there in your wonted place. But your spirit is far away just now, dealing with some old sin, and God is giving you a lesson Himself—the bitterest, yet the sweetest lesson of your life, in heartfelt penitence. Come not back into the crowd till the Lord has turned and looked on you again, as He looked at the thief upon the cross, and you have beheld the “glory of the love of God in the face of Jesus.”

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