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THE GREAT CONTROVERSY.
“Shew me wherefore Thou contendest with me.”
GOD has declared so plainly, that He rebukes and chastens all whom He loves, that we can hardly dare desire to he free from chastisement. Much as we shrink from the thought of God’s heavy hand coming down upon our weakness, of the sharpness of bodily pain, and of the anguish of affliction, yet we must still more shrink from such words as, “If ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons: for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?” Better any thing than this. God is so divinely gentle in His visitations, that if a light stroke, even the shadow of His hand, will suffice for our sanctification, He will send no more. Happy and blessed are they whose conscience is so sensitive and tender, that a slight sorrow, or a soft smiting of His 294rod, is enough to waken them into an eager and fervent desire of perfecting their conversion. To be easily awakened, and to open all the ear of the soul upon a fainter call of His voice, is a great sign of a state of grace. It is not, however, enough that it be a prompt, unless it be persevering attention. “When He slew them, they sought Him, and turned them early and inquired after God.”185185 Psalm lxxviii. 34. “But within a while they forgot His works, and would not abide His counsel.”186186 Psalm cvi. 13.
When, therefore, we are in any way smitten of God, the first thing we ought to ask is, “Shew me wherefore Thou contendest with me.” Some reason there certainly is: some special, and, by His light, some discoverable cause.
Let us take one or two of the commonest causes of God’s chastisement.
1. The first is clearly an unconverted life. By unconverted, I do not mean the life of those, if such there be, who have never received the grace of God; for in them it would be no special and personal sin, as it is in us, not to turn to God, because, without His grace, it would be for them impossible. But who are they among baptized Christians? I speak, therefore, of those to whom an unconverted life is a special state of sin, because they have received God’s grace, because 295they are regenerate. This is the condition of great multitudes in the visible Church. They have received that thing “which by nature they could not have.” They have in them the gifts and power of a new life, of a life which should be always turning more and more fully and intimately to God, until it be altogether filled with the Divine Presence. But they hold these gifts in unrighteousness, and bring this spiritual power into the bondage of an evil or worldly will. Even in childhood, the seven deadly sins often begin to wax strong, and to grieve the Spirit of our new birth. Then we proceed to positive breaches of God’s law and of our three baptismal vows; the mind of the flesh outgrows the spirit, and gains an habitual mastery in the soul. In this way a deceitful childhood grows up into a rebellious boyhood, and a stained and wilful youth, until the force of reason, and a few remaining fears, make a sinner in his manhood to put on a seemly disguise over an uncleansed heart. And many there are who thus become in fact, though not by intention, hypocrites. Or to take a fairer case. It often happens that men grow up without great and actual falls, and yet without any real knowledge of God or of themselves. The unseen world for them does not exist. All qualities, purely spiritual, and all realities of a holy life, are to them imperceptible. They have no sense for 296them; no eye, no ear, no spiritual capacity by way of imagination or of sympathy. Such people are often among the most blameless of ordinary Christians. They are upright, amiable, tenderhearted, full of fond affections; within the instincts of nature and of home, loving and beloved; but towards God they have little sorrow, little zeal, little love—no fire of devout worship. Such people are really unconverted. They are not yet turned to God. The world hangs between them and the True Light, and they are dark in the whole disk of their spiritual being. We might take many more cases; but as they would be, for the most part, shades of these two kinds, what has been said will suffice. Now all of these have one thing in common. They are not conscious that God has a special quarrel against them. It is a part of an unconverted state to mask itself. It draws an insensibility over the conscience and the heart. “Ephraim hath grey hairs, and he knoweth it not.” This, then, is one question to be asked when God afflicts us: “‘Shew me wherefore.’ Is it that I am walking after the flesh, or after the world? Is the grace of my regeneration supreme in my soul? or have I served myself, and crossed the Divine intention of my baptism? What was my childhood, boyhood, youth? What am I now? What is my chief end in life, the current of 297my desires, the habitual inclination of my will? What is the world unseen to me? what is my heart before God, and what is God to my soul? Am I living for Him, moving towards Him, passing out of myself into Him?” If not, this is the quarrel God has against you; and He will not leave off to smite until either you come to yourself, and confess the stroke to be just and merciful, or He be weary, and give over to chastise: which God forbid.
2. Again, another cause is some sin visible to Him in those who are converted. It may be some one of our original stock of sins not yet mortified; or some new sin into which we have recently fallen; or some relaxation of our spiritual life, out of which has arisen, perhaps, one dangerous temptation, such as lukewarmness, selfishness, or vainglory. There is hardly any thing more alarming than the thought that Satan appears to withhold his other temptations from those who are surely entangled in any one sin. He will let them go on and even prosper in all the circle of their religious life, so long as he can keep his hold by one such sin as pride, envy, or sloth. To be sheltered from temptation by the shadow and shield of God’s keeping, is, of course, an unspeakable mercy; but freedom from trials is so often a source of spiritual relaxation, and therefore of spiritual danger, 298 that they who suffer from them are specially called blessed. “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation.”
Now it is certain that in the course of a religious life sins gain an entrance with inconceivable subtilty. Just as we contract slight peculiarities of manner, tone, or gait, without knowing it, either in the course of acquisition or after it is acquired, so it often happens in a life of religion. A person who before his repentance was proud, will, after he has become religious, often insensibly grow to be self-confiding, or self-complacent; soft people become vain or unreal; selfish people become isolated and unsympathising. The sap of the old stock rises into the graft, and lowers the quality of the fruit. Most of our religious difficulties are old faults with new faces, working now upon the desires, relations, and objects of faith, as before upon those of the world.
Or again: through infirmity may we fall into faults entirely new, from which, in times of less religion, we were wholly free. For instance: sometimes those who before they were awakened to a sense of their personal danger were easy and indiscriminate, become almost schismatical in their abandonment of old and even religious friends: others who were formerly humble become opinionated and contentious, thinking it a duty to testify, 299as they say; that is, to thrust their own change upon the consciousness and senses of all about them. It is easy to see how soon pride and anger may spring up in such cases.
But a greater danger than these to every one who is turned to a life of religion, is the disposition to relax, which may steal unawares upon the most watchful. The lightest rules, if they be perpetual, become severe; and in that measure our indulgent natures shrink from them; much more from the practice of repentance and the habits of devotion, until they have become the food and delight of the soul. Very few go through a life of penitence and of devotion without many ebbs and floods, many rises and falls of zeal and sorrow. To persevere without drawing back, to go from strength to strength, without intervals of darkness and coldness, is a rare grace, and rarely seen. Let any one look back over his past life, and measure if it be only the quantity of time spent, morning and night, in prayer during seasons of anxiety and fear; or during the first days of repentance, sorrow, or sickness—I say the quantity of time; for the quality and intensity of desire and contrition are not easily measured—and he will feel how often and how great has been his need of God’s merciful visitations to contend with him for the upholding and saving of his soul.300
This, then, is another question to urge home upon ourselves. What does God see in me not yet rooted out? what new dangers have I added to my original stock of evil? into what have I fallen unawares? Surely He sees something in me that I see not; something that hinders my repentance, prayers, and love. Is it in the heart, or the imagination, or the will? is it in the tongue, or in the “lust of the eyes and the pride of life?” Is it towards Him, or towards others, or towards myself? My own discernment is not enough, I cannot discover it. Nothing but a light from Thee will reveal it. “Shew me wherefore Thou contendest with me.”
3. And still further: even on those who are truly turned to His service, and in whom, it may he, there are no special sins, such as I last spoke of, beyond the measure of our fallen state, His rod at times comes down: and for great purposes of love. There is one sure and sufficient cause inviting the chastisements of mercy; I mean, the dull sense we, most of us, have of our original and actual sinfulness. Perhaps there is nothing more awful and wonderful to those who truly repent, and are drawing closer and closer into the folds of God’s presence, than the changes which pass over the aspect of their life and state. Ever since they were awakened, sinners they have known themselves to 301be. But how great they have never known. They go on, like the prophet in the secret places of Jerusalem, from chamber to chamber, seeing always “greater things than these.” Their whole life seems to be a region full of places dark and deep. At first they saw but the horizon and a few gloomy hollows; here and there, a black form and a thick shadow; but, for the most part, all fair and clear. Year by year, new shapes arise, new shadows fall; the lights grow clearer, but make the scene less fair. Holy seasons and holy Sacraments cast upon us a fresh and searching brightness. Our life, seen before the altar, is a new revelation of the past. So, if possible, still more in sorrow and in sickness, when the spiritual sense is quickened to a sensitiveness which the world calls morbid, because it torments it “before the time.” At first, we measure our sins by quantity, by number, and by greatness. We have a sort of bead-roll, on which we set down the catalogue of greater acts; of things still visible above the flood of forgetfulness which broods upon the past. The path and series of our life has its marking-points of sin and shame; and we soon learn to look back upon them as through an avenue, closing as it recedes, and hiding its farthest objects. This is, perhaps, the first view we have of sin—a view of its quantity, as an object 302external to the spiritual conscience, seen rather by the memory than by the soul.
But, all our life long, so far as we are walking in the light of God’s presence, and especially in times of chastisement and warning, we are learning to measure our sins by another and a truer rule; I mean, by their quality. What can be more clear than that the greatest breach of God’s law may be almost wholly free from malice, and the least sin of the heart contain an inconceivable malignity? The true measure of sin is the intensity of its conscious rebellion against God. And this we learn in proportion as we throw off the deadening power of sin which weighs upon us. It is a change in us, which is needed to reveal us to ourselves. What we were and what we are is as objectively real as the firmament of heaven. But the blind cannot behold it, and dim eyes see but little of it. Whenever, then, any trial comes upon us, we may with great safety assure ourselves, that one reason why God is contending with us is, because we do not enough perceive the malignant quality of sin. And in so speaking, I do not mean only of the greater and grosser sins, far from it; but of such sins as are purely spiritual—self-love, self-worship, envy, spiritual sloth, ingratitude, want of love and of joy in God. If we would but slowly say to ourselves, “I was made to love God, and to be happy in Him;” 303and then remember not our rebellions, but the great gulf of coldness and distance which stands open between Him and us; we should feel that to love God is itself life everlasting—not to love God is itself eternal death. It may be that there are many more lessons He would have us learn in every visitation; but certainly this is one. So long as we are happy and in health, full of active thoughts, with busy hands, serving and admonishing others, we live abroad, unconscious, and forget ourselves. God loves us too well to let this go on for ever. At any cost, at any pain of heart or flesh, He will contend with us; as much as to say, “Why wilt thou die? What shall it profit thee to gain the whole world for thyself, or even for Me, and to lose thine own soul; after preaching the Gospel to others, thyself to be a castaway?” Every body knows that a busy life in the world, in commerce, or politics, or society, or literature, is very distracting, and calls off our gaze from ourselves. But we do not so often reflect or realise, that a life of punctual religious observance, or of active benevolence, or even a life of pastoral acts, may be eminently beguiling to the spiritual consciousness. It is so nearly united to the interior life of the spirit, and may yet be fulfilled for years with such a perfect want of habitual and conscious intention, that it is most difficult to discern our actual state, For instance, 304thinking and speaking are acts of our living consciousness so absolutely, that our whole energy and soul is commonly thrown into our words and thoughts: and yet we both speak and think in sleep; nay, we speak without thinking, and we think, even waking, without presence of mind. We may think, and yet be unconscious; or, as we say, with a powerful and true figure, we are absent. So it is, as we all know, in religion. Who has not complained of absence of mind in reading holy Scripture, in prayer, in church, and even at the holy Sacrament? Every one has felt this at some time; and what is true, at times, with all, with some grows to be their habitual state. Their eyes rest upon the book, or upon the altar; they kneel for half an hour in their closets; they are busy in almsgiving; devout in the imagination and in the intellect; but they are absent in all their spiritual life. This is the secret reason of many falls, declensions, fruitless endeavours, obstinate temptations, and efforts to advance long made in vain.
Who does not, in some measure, know what this means? And how is it possible, that in such a condition we can weigh the quality of our spiritual state? How can we feel the malignity of not loving God without love to Him? It is love alone that reveals the sinfulness of not loving. How can we measure our ingratitude, without a spirit of praise? 305or our indevotion, without delight in prayer? How can we perceive the darkness of past evils in thought, desire, and will, but by a will and a heart in which the pure light of the Spirit is shed abroad? How can we estimate the exceeding sinfulness of a settled, morose, wilful life of conscious distance from God, without a present perception of the sin of being, even for a moment, estranged from Him, by any consent of our own? Granted that, by God’s exceeding mercy and patience, we have in some measure come to feel all this. But at most how little. How much need of the rod to waken us. “My soul cleaveth unto the dust; quicken Thou me according to Thy word.” What is the intensest perception we have of our sinfulness, even in times of sickness and sorrow, to that which we shall have in the day of judgment, or even upon our deathbed? How great, then, the need of discipline, how blessed the visitation, how loving the Rebuker!
And now, perhaps, it may be asked, “What shall I do when God visits me? How shall I find out what is the cause wherefore He is contending with me?”
To this I can but give two answers, both so plain as hardly to need giving.
1. The first is, Search yourselves and see. And with a view to this, it will be well for us to begin by making, even in writing, in as few words as 306possible, or by signs or symbols if we will, a review of our past life; dividing it into its chief seasons, such as childhood, boyhood, youth, and manhood; distinguishing also any periods marked by change of state or calling, which, as they bring new duties, bring also new qualities to our life, and new responsibilities upon our conscience. It will then be well to note under each period all the sins we can remember, especially the first of each kind, fixing, if possible, the beginning, the first opening of each bitter spring; then to trace the widening and increase of each, and their confluence in the broader stream of our after-life; and to see how it all connects itself with our present character and trials. It will be right to remember any persons, in every age, who have been implicated with us, or by us, in our past history. The tale of our life will hardly be more truly written than when our hand is under God’s hand. A time of trial, therefore, is specially meet—I may say is sent—for a time of self-judgment. If we throw it away on other things, we shall find that we have lost what nothing, it may be, but another chastisement will restore.
But when we have done this, there still remains the greater scrutiny. Thus far we have only laid up matter for our examination—answers for the questions of God. The next thing is, to 307try our life as before the throne of Christ, and with the accuser at our right hand; to fix our eyes, as if we were out of ourselves, upon ourselves—kneeling before the Judge, bound as guilty, with our hands at our back. And the rules by which to try ourselves are four: the seven deadly sins, the commandments of God, the three vows of our baptism, and the two precepts of the Gospel. If we deal truly with ourselves, we shall find that our whole life will put on a new appearance. What we once thought to be a full account, we shall find to be no more than an outline. Every stage of it will be seen to be fuller of transgression than the whole appeared before; every branch of our character to run out into endless fibres of self; what seemed single events, to unite in a chain of habits; even single acts, to contain a world of evil. The enlargement of our sin seems preternatural. It is seen to be manifold, and yet indivisible; untraceably complicated, and yet absolutely one; identified with the very being of our soul, with the very soul of our life. Only, be not afraid when you see these things. See them one day we must: one day, when to see them may be too late, in the light of the Son of man and of His holy angels; when all things now forgotten shall awake, like the piercing consciousness of drowning men; and all our whole life, with every deed, 308word, and thought of heart, shall he crowded into one intense and all but infinite consciousness of guilt. O fearful day, even though it were but the twinkling of an eye! How sweet, how soothing, how sadly blessed, is a whole life of penance, rather than one moment of eternal shame! Let us, then, take heart, and search to the very quick; trying ourselves by the letter of God’s law; reading it in all its spiritual perfection. And what we learn let us never again forget; let us never again permit the veil to fall between us and the past; nor suffer any the least part of it to withdraw into concealment. Through life let us go on adding to this awful secret of self-knowledge; reviewing, at fixed times and often, the record of the past, as we saw it in the day of visitation.
2. The other rule is, if possible, plainer than the last. Pray God to shew you your very self. Without the effusion of His light, this is impossible. We are dark to ourselves, and we walk in darkness. Our eyes are outward: what is within is, as it were, behind their gaze. There is, by nature, a spirit of slumber upon the soul, and it cannot wake itself. Like the breath of life, it must come from God into our dust; and such a breath is the free grace of God in our regeneration. There is nothing that more shews the love of God in our election than the gift of His preventing 309grace. Even after our new birth, we are still, for the most part, in a slumber; especially such as either fall into sin, or live without active habits of devotion. We are as unconscious of the great realities of God’s kingdom and our own sinfulness, as if we were asleep; and sleeping men cannot wake themselves. What but God drew us out of this insensibility? What first made our hearts to thrill and tremble, to fear and yearn, to feel about, groping at noon as in darkness? What but the Spirit of God? So it has been to this day. Let us, then, pray Him to shew us to ourselves, especially when He is contending with us in sorrow, sickness, crosses, or disappointments. All these are tokens that He is come to carry on His work of love; that He has not left us, nor given us over: that there is still “hope in the end:” though now it be neither dark nor light, yet “in the evening time it shall be light.” Let us, then, pray for the illumination of His Spirit; not fearing to see ourselves as we are, though they who have asked and obtained this prayer have prayed in haste, that they may be hid from themselves again. When we pray for this sight of fear, let us also pray that He will, at the same time, reveal unto us the Lamb of God, lest we be overwhelmed. It is a blessed thought, that if we sincerely desire to know ourselves, 310we may leave all to Him. He will reveal it in such measures and ways as for us is best. All our life through, we shall be seeing some reality of our spiritual state more clearly, more broadly, more deeply; and as we see the worst of ourselves, we shall see most of His love. These things go together, and revealing, temper each other to our infirmity; so that all through life, as we draw nearer to Him, we shall more abase ourselves. Ever more and more shall we behold this twofold vision of our shame and of His sanctity, till we shall be without sin before the throne, and in His light see ourselves without spot or blemish in the kingdom of God and of the Lamb.311
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