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THE LIFE OF CHRIST THE ONLY TRUE IDEA OF SELF-DEVOTION.
“All seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.”
THERE is something peculiarly touching in the saddened tone of these few words, in which St. Paul glances at the slackness of his fellow-labourers. It must have been a cross almost too heavy to bear without complaining, when from his prison-house at Rome he saw his brethren in Christ drawing off, one by one, from the hardness of their Master’s service. It must have been a provocation almost beyond endurance to see, day by day, tokens of a faint heart and a selfish purpose coming out in the words and acts of those on whom he most depended. It added to his bondage the worst form of desolation—the loneliness of a high, unbroken spirit in the throng of shrinking and inconstant men. He had before now seen, in faithless and fearful Christians, open apostacy and undisguised 147abandonment of Christ and His Gospel. But keenly as that must have entered into his soul, he had in this to endure a still sharper trial. It was this that pierced him to the quick: for they of whom he here writes were not open apostates. They were not men who fell from the body of the Church, and were severed wholly from his fellowship; but men openly professing faith in Christ, keeping up with him the same outward relation as partakers in the same labour of love, and yet failing him in the moment of danger, in the very pinch of severe trial. Such, for instance, was Demas; who is often, but by mistake, supposed to have been an apostate from the faith: he did not renounce his Christianity, but fell back from the hardships of an apostle’s life. “Demas hath forsaken”—not Christ nor the Gospel—but “me, having loved this present world.”3535 2 Tim. iv. 10. He had no like zeal or self-devotion with St. Paul: they were unequally yoked together. Demas was hurried, beyond his own choice, into dangers and toils; he found St. Paul a perilous companion; he loved the Gospel, but not less he loved his own life and ease; and he fell back, from an apostle’s standing, to be an ordinary Christian.
This is probably a fair example of what St. Paul intended, when he told the Philippians, that he 148must needs detach Timothy, and send him unto them; for “I have no man like-minded, who will naturally care for your state: for all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.” We see, then, what he would express. It was the state of men in whom the first fervours of conversion had subsided. In an hour of ready zeal, they had forsaken all, and undertaken an apostle’s work. It may be they were, for a long season, forward and stedfast, foregoing much, and enduring more; but at the last they grew weary of the monotonous hardship of preaching and suffering. And first, it may be, they began to spare themselves, and to use trifling evasions, or to keep unseasonable silence, and secretly to long for their discharge from a service now grown irksome. And this hidden disloyalty of the heart shewed itself in low views of what was possible in Christ’s service, and in overrating difficulties, in discouraging views, in untimely objections, and in expostulations at the very moment of action. In some of these ways they betrayed the disappointing truth, that self-regard had mastered them, and that love of self out weighed their love of Christ. There was a counterattraction overcoming the constraining love of their Lord. This, then, is the heart-sin of which St. Paul writes: it is a refined selfishness, so plausibly defended, so strongly entrenched in reasonable 149pleadings, as to leave him no more to do than to expostulate and to be silent; to give them a fair opening to do high service for their Master; and then to pass them by, and choose some worthier and bolder men.
And here we see one of the worst antagonists of the Church of Christ,—a fair profession of Christianity with a predominant regard of self. The deepest wounds have been given, not so much by the sword of persecution, or by the grosser forms of sin, as by the overmastering powers of self-regard. Every body will admit that this is true, at the first hearing; but few really know the subtle insinuations and the full extent of this spiritual disease.
The peculiar danger of this fault may be seen by the following remarks:—
1. It may consist with all that the Church requires of her people as a condition to communion in her fullest privileges. A man may be under the dominion of this paralysing fault, and yet really live in many ways a Christian life. A man may live a pure life, and blameless; he may be benevolent, and do many works of charity; he may be very systematic in his religious duties; and have no little zeal in works of a directly religious character; and yet, after all, it shall be not more true of Demas than of such a man, that he loves this 150present world, that he habitually and deliberately seeks his “own, and not the things that are Jesus Christ’s.” For all the tokens of Christian life that I have spoken of, fall within the limit at which a man’s self-regard is put on trial. There is a large field of commonplace Christian duty, in which a man may toil without so much as ever once be coming aware that there is an irreconcilable variance between a governing regard to his own interests, and a faithful discharge of Christ’s service; that there is a clashing point, where one or other must give way. A very large part of Christianity is directly favourable to a man’s worldly interests:—all that goes to the establishing of a fair reputation, and to the conciliation of good will, is full of solid advantage; self-regard and self-respect urgently prescribe to a man such a habit of life as shall be in accordance with the outward example of Christ’s true servants.
Nay, even more, a man’s own happiness is advanced by a Christian temper of mind; and thus far the service of Christ is oftentimes one of the chiefest and most refined means of cherishing himself.
Habits of devotional thought, and the hopes of an inheritance in light, kindle and sustain his interior life and peace; and in this way he makes the service of Christ minister directly to the self-regard 151which governs all his actions. Like education, or intellectual excitement, and other refined energies of the reason and moral habit, it becomes distinctly subservient to his predominant aim.
2. But, on the other hand, this habit of mind, while it satisfies the external demands of the Church, and ministers to the inward happiness of the mind, absolutely extinguishes all that ever produced any great work in Christ’s service. It stunts the whole spirit at the standard of self; and makes all a man’s thoughts and powers minister and submit themselves to his own aim and purpose. It makes a man live in himself and for himself, and bound himself about by his own horizon. He will be devoted and earnest just so far as he may with out trenching upon the comfort of his own life. He will pray, and fast, and give alms, and witness for the truth, just so far, and just so long, as shall involve him in no austerity, or weariness, or self-denial, or loss of popularity. All that goes beyond this measure will be to him excessive, unnecessary, gratuitous; the boundaries of his own practice are fixed, he believes, at the ultimate point, and so become absolute; the aims which rise above or lie beyond his practice are visionary and impossible. Most desirable, he will admit—and would to God we lived in days when they could be accomplished—but he deliberately thinks that times are changed; 152and what our fathers might reasonably do, we may as reasonably forbear. They did great works, bore great self-denials, made great sacrifices; but then it was the custom of their day—society did not require of them many things which it exacts of us. And who would set himself against society? Who would affect strangeness and singularity? Who would live below his means in life, or not keep pace with others of his own rank and standing?—No, brethren, not to evangelize mankind, would such a man offend the fastidious feelings of society, or break the self-constituted proprieties of a perishing world; no, not for an Apostle’s crown, nor for the love of Christ his Lord, would such a man say to himself, No change of times, customs, or conventional rule, can absolve me from the unchangeable law of self-devotion. No such man would say this, and act upon it. He stands well with the world; he is not censured by the Church;—what more is necessary? Surely for him it must be gratuitous and ostentatious to take a rule and standard of his own above other men. Besides, it would offend them; it would be a rebuke to them; it would alienate them from him, and neutralise his influence for good: a man forfeits the effect of good example by going too far.—So men tamper with the edge of conscience, and turn its keenness. Even they that have higher yearnings, and pulses 153that beat for nobler deeds, sink back acquiescingly under the burdensome traditions of our easy life. Little by little their sympathies with high aspiring minds are blunted; every thing that goes beyond their own habit is over-much; every thing that would by consequence break in upon some part of their blameless easy course is impossible. Oh, none are so hard to rouse to great works of faith as they. If we should plead with a Magdalene out of whom have been cast seven devils, or a Peter that hath thrice denied his Lord, or a Paul who hath made havoc of the Church,—there is material for a substantive and vivid character, there is energy for a life above the world. Conformed to the likeness of their Lord, the examples of all living men are no more to them than the gaudy shifting clouds of an evening sky; moving along the path of the cross, all the soft and silken customs of life are as threads of idle gossamer. There is about them a moral weight, and an onward force, and a clear definite outline of character, before which every thing gives way. They hurry all before them, as by the spell of absolute dominion. They have about them a dignity borrowed from the grandeur of the end for which they live. Poverty and plainness, solitude and a self-denying life, in them no man dares despise; nay, all men feel that these harder features are more in keeping with the loftiness of 154their moral choice, than the nice proprieties or the effeminate exactness of the world.
And yet, is it not most true that such characters as these we deem rather to be gazed after than followed; as objects rather to admire than to imitate? Do we not deal with each other, ay, and with our own consciences, as if the devotion of the Apostles were as miraculous as the casting out of devils? Do we not look along the lines of holy men, who, through the darkest ages of the Church, shine with unearthly splendour, and speak of them as we do of strange fires which move on no discoverable laws; wild and eccentric lights, of most commanding grandeur, but perilous to follow? And what do we thereby confess, but that the Divine laws, which ordered that spiritual world, are but feebly felt and faintly understood by us; that the powers of some lower system have absorbed us in their circuits; and that we are hurried along by some inferior forces, which bear us visibly away from their luminous paths and destinies, we know not whither, nor why?
And yet the reason is not mysterious. We need call up no seer to unravel the secret. It is simply this, “all seek their own, and not the things that are Jesus Christ’s.”
1. First of all; few of us have any clear view of Christ’s service projected before our minds, to 155which all our living powers are bent. There is a want of external reality in all our views of religion. They are self-contemplative and limited. We do not look out of ourselves to Him. The secret of that stupendous self-devotion which the saints of Christ in all ages have manifested in the world is simply this: they set up the life of Christ their Lord before them. They believed it to be the only spiritual reality the world ever saw, and that all other patterns of life were cheats and shadows; from it they drew all maxims and rules of living; by it they tried all customs of mankind; what combined with it, they held fast; what clashed with it, they trampled under foot; they gazed upon it, and grew towards it; they fell down before it, and worshipped it; and when they arose, and turned from it upon the world, they knew not that they reflected its borrowed glory. They knew not why men followed them, and yet shrunk from them; why they resisted them, and yet gave way before them; and they were troubled, and went and hid themselves, and did their works in secret, and bade no man speak of them; and yet their words and deeds came abroad, and kindled others to a like devotion.
This, then, is the main reason why in these days we see so few great examples of bold and masculine devotion. Men have lost sight of the 156living type of self-sacrifice, and with that type they have lost their energy of will. Lower views insure lesser powers.
2. And the natural consequence of this must be, that all the customs of life, the habits of the world, the particular traditions of family and individual character, and all the current maxims and unwritten laws of society, maintain so tyrannous a hold even over good minds (for of such only, not of the coarsely selfish, or the grossly self-indulgent, am I speaking), that high and generous tempers are chilled into inaction, and so miserably depressed, as to move along the dreary level of an over-circumspect and self-regarding life. They are predestined by the usurping fatality of the world to grow rich, or to make a family, or to perpetuate a fortune, or to spend an income ostentatiously, or to maintain the laborious courtesies of life; they are in a bond age from which there is no escape. Oh, what high spirits are dwarfed, what heavenly aspirations beaten back to earth, what deep yearnings of love are crushed and stifled, for want of the free air of heaven, and the bold action of a devoted life! They are forced to seek their own, until a refined selfishness returns upon their regenerate nature with all the tainting, stupifying power of its original sin. And they grow over-prudent and wary, shrinking within the narrowest lines, always on the safer 157side, hazarding nothing, measuring by the scale of their own feebleness what is possible to be done for Christ in His own kingdom. And thus the glow of early religion is chilled down into the torpor of after-life: and hence come isolating forms of opinion and practice, “even in religion; and over-development of peculiarities in the individual character, and the obscuration of that common type of Christian life which knits men insensibly in one. Hence, too, arise schisms of sympathy within the Church; and disappointing slackness, even in good men; jealousy of private rights in things most sacred; the reappearance of unequal ranks, in the very sanctuary of God; irregular and conflicting schemes of well-doing, even when we do our best; decline of missionary zeal, of eucharistical charity; and, as a consequence of all this, the contraction and palsy of the Church itself. Oh, that we did but know the freedom and the happiness of a life above the world! They whose names are splendid with the most hallowed light have in their day moved along all paths of life. Among the saints of Christendom are men of toil and trade, the craftsman, and the merchant, the pleader, the man of letters, orators, lawgivers, warriors and leaders of mighty hosts, princes, and queens, and emperors. In all ranks, and all orbits of the civil state, men mortified in soul, as the holy Paul, have lived unto Christ their 158Lord. None so fulfilled the offices and tasks of life as they—because they were above them all. They descended to them, and discharged them with an ease and grace which nothing but an absolute extinction of self can give. None so wise, so courteous, so beloved as they; none richer nor more prosperous; none more faithful in their stewardship of this world’s wealth; none bequeathed costlier heir-looms to their children’s children: and that because they sought not their own, but the things that were Jesus Christ’s. Brethren, here is the key of this great spiritual parable: ask of God the mind of Jesus Christ; for “He pleased not Himself.” Learn to do, to give up, to give away, as He did. Live as men whose “life is hid with Christ in God.” “Let your conversation be in heaven.” Try every thing, measure every thing, check every thing, by the governing law of Christ’s example. Seek first what is His; and He will take care for what is your own.
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