We're making big changes. Please try out the beta site at beta.ccel.org and send us feedback. Thank you!
« Prev Chapter XXI. Next »

237

CHAPTER XXI.

THE MEANING AND VALUE OF SOBERMINDEDNESS.—THE USE AND ABUSE OF RELIGIOUS EMOTION.

“But speak thou the things which befit the sound doctrine: that aged men be temperate, grave, soberminded, sound in faith, in love, in patience, that aged women likewise be reverent in demeanour, not slanderers nor enslaved to much wine, teachers of that which is good; that they may train the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be soberminded, chaste, workers at home, kind, being in subjection to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed: the younger men likewise exhort to be soberminded.”—Titus ii. 1–6.

In marked contrast to the seducing teachers who are described in the concluding verses of the first chapter, Titus is charged to teach that which is right. “But speak thou the things which befit the sound doctrine.” What they taught was to the last degree unwholesome, full of senseless frivolities and baseless distinctions respecting meats and drinks, times and seasons. Such things were fatal alike to sound and robust faith and to all moral earnestness. Belief was frittered away in a credulous attention to “Jewish fables,” and character was depraved by a weak punctiliousness about fanciful details. As in the Pharisees, whom Jesus Christ denounced, scrupulosity about trifles led to neglect of “the weightier matters of the law.” But in these “vain talkers and deceivers,” 238 whom Titus had to oppose, the trifles by which they distracted their hearers from matters of the highest importance were not even the minor duties enjoined by the Law or the Gospel: they were mere “commandments of men.” In opposition to calamitous teaching of this kind, Titus is to insist upon what is healthy and sound.

All classes are to be attended to, and the exhortations specially needed are to be given to each: to the older men and older women, the younger women and the younger men, to whom Titus is to show himself an example: and finally to slaves, for salvation is offered to all men, and is for no privileged class.

It will be observed that the sound teaching which Titus is charged to give to the different sections of his flock relates almost exclusively to conduct. There is scarcely a hint in the whole of this chapter that can be supposed to have reference to errors of doctrine. In quite a general way the old men are to be exhorted to be “sound in faith” as well as in love and patience: but otherwise all the instruction to be given to old and young, male and female, bond and free, relates to conduct in thought, word, and deed.7676   This makes one again inclined to regret that the Revisers here and elsewhere have left “doctrine” as the translation of διδασκαλία, while they have in most cases substituted “teaching” for “doctrine” as the translation of διδαχή. It would hardly be possible to confine either English word to either Greek word as its invariable rendering: but where both English words are admissible, it seems better to keep “teaching” (which is close to “teacher”) for διδασκαλία (which is close to διδάσκαλος) and reserve “doctrine” for διδαχή (see p. 47).

Nor is there any hint that the “vain talkers and deceivers” contradicted (otherwise than by an unholy life) the moral precepts which the Apostle here tells 239 his delegate to communicate abundantly to his flock. We are not to suppose that these mischievous teachers taught people that there was no harm in intemperance, or slander, or unchastity, or theft. The mischief which they did consisted in their telling people to devote their attention to things that were morally unprofitable, while no care was taken to secure attention to those things, the observance of which was vital. On the contrary, the emphasis laid upon silly superstitions led people to suppose that, when these had been attended to, all duties had been fulfilled; and a careless, godless life was the result. Thus whole households were subverted by men who made religion a trade. This disastrous state of things is to be remedied by pointing out and insisting upon the observances which are of real importance for the spiritual life. The fatal lowering of moral tone, which the morbid and fanciful teaching of these seducers produced, is to be counteracted by the bracing effects of wholesome moral teaching.

No one can read through the indications which the Apostle gives of what he means by “wholesome teaching,” without perceiving the key-note which rings through it all;—sobriety or sobermindedness. The aged men are to be taught to be “temperate, grave, soberminded.” The aged women to be “reverent in demeanour,” “that they may school the young women ... to be soberminded.” The younger men are to be “exhorted to be soberminded.” And in giving the reason for all this he points out God’s purpose in His revelation to mankind; “to the intent that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly.”

Now, what is the precise meaning of this sobriety or sobermindedness, on which St. Paul insists so strongly 240 as a duty to be impressed upon men and women both old and young?

The words used in the original Greek (σώφρων, σωφρονίζειν, σωφρονεῖν) signify, according to their derivation,7777   From σῶς, “safe and sound,” and φρήν, “mind.” The associations of the word are seen in Aristotle’s erroneous derivation (Eth. N., VI. v. 5); Ἔνθεν καὶ τὴν σωφροσύνην τούτῳ προσαγορεύομεν τῷ ὀνόματι, ὡς σώζουσαν τὴν φρόνησιν. “of sound mind,” “to make of sound mind,” and “to be of sound mind;” and the quality which they indicate is that mens sana or healthiness of mental constitution which shows itself in discreet and prudent conduct, and especially in self-control. This latter meaning is specially predominant in Attic writers.

Thus Plato defines it as “a kind of order and a controlling of certain pleasures and desires, as is shown by the saying that a man is ‘master of himself’ ... an expression which seems to mean that in the man’s soul there are two elements, a better and a worse, and when the better controls the worse, then he is said to be master of himself” (Rep., IV. p. 431). Similarly, Aristotle tells us that the lowest bodily pleasures are the sphere in which this virtue of self-control is specially displayed; that is, those bodily pleasures which the other animals share with man, and which are consequently shown to be slavish and bestial, viz., the pleasures of touch and taste (Eth. N., III. x. 4, 9; Rhet., I. ix. 9). And throughout the best Attic writers the vices to which self-control is opposed are those which imply immoderate indulgence in sensual pleasures. It is a virtue which has a very prominent place in heathen moral philosophy. It is one of the most obvious of virtues. It is manifest that in order to be a virtuous man at all one must at least have control 241 over one’s lowest appetites. And to a heathen it is one of the most impressive of virtues. All of us have experience of the difficulty of regulating our passions; and to those who know nothing of Christian teaching or of the grace of God the difficulty is increased tenfold. Hence to the savage the ascetic seems to be almost superhuman; and even in the cultivated pagan abstinence from bodily pleasure and steadfast resistance of sensual temptation excite wonder and admiration. The beautiful panegyric of Socrates put into the mouth of Alcibiades in the Symposium of Plato illustrates this feeling: and Euripides styles such virtue as the “noblest gift of the gods.”

But when this virtue becomes illuminated by the Gospel its meaning is intensified. The “sobermindedness” or “sobriety” of the New Testament is something more than the “self-control” or “temperance” of Plato and Aristotle. Its sphere is not confined to the lowest sensual enjoyments. Self-mastery with regard to such things is still included; but other things are included also. It is that power over ourselves which keeps under control, not only bodily impulses, but spiritual impulses also. There is a spiritual frenzy analogous to physical madness, and there are spiritual self-indulgences analogous to bodily intemperance. For these things also self-mastery is needed.

St. Paul in writing to the Corinthians sums up his own life under the two conditions of being out of his mind and in his right mind. His opponents at Corinth, like Festus (Acts xxvi. 24), accused him of being mad. He is quite ready to admit that at times he has been in a condition which, if they like, they may call madness. But that is no affair of theirs. Of his sanity and sobriety at other times there can be no question; 242 and his conduct during these times of sobriety is of importance to them. “For whether we went out of our mind” (ἐξέστημεν), “it was for God, or are in our right mind” (σωφρονοῦμεν, “are of sober mind,” R.V.), “it is for you” (2 Cor. v. 13). The Apostle “went out of his mind,” as his enemies chose to say, at his conversion on the road to Damascus, when a special revelation of Jesus Christ was granted to him: and to this phase of his existence belonged his visions (Acts xvi. 9; xxvii. 23), ecstasies and revelations (2 Cor. xii. 1–7), and his “speaking with tongues” (1 Cor. xiv. 18). And he was “in his right mind” in all the great tact, and sagacity, and self-denial, which he exhibited for the well-being of his converts.

It was absolutely necessary that the latter condition of mind should be the predominant one, and should control the other; that the ecstasy should be exceptional and the sobermindedness habitual, and that the sobermindedness should not be turned into self-exaltation by the remembrance of the ecstasy. There was so much danger of this evil in St. Paul’s case, owing to “the exceeding greatness of the revelations” granted to him, that the special discipline of the “stake for the flesh” was given to him to counteract the temptation; for it was in the flesh, that is the sinful principle of his nature, that the tendency to pride himself on his extraordinary spiritual experiences was found.

St. Paul’s case was, no doubt, highly exceptional; but in degree, rather than in kind. Very many of his converts had similar, although less sublime, and perhaps less frequent, experiences. Spiritual gifts of a supernatural kind had been bestowed in great abundance upon many of the members of the Church of Corinth (1 Cor. xii. 7–10), and were the occasion 243 of some of the grievous disorders which were found there, because they were not always accompanied by sobriety, but were allowed to become incitements to licence and spiritual pride. Few things show more plainly the necessity for self-control and sobermindedness, when men are under the influence of strong religious emotion, than the state of things existing among the Corinthian converts, as indicated in St. Paul’s two letters to them. They had been guilty of two errors. First, they had formed an exaggerated estimate of some of the gifts bestowed upon them, especially of the mysterious power of speaking with tongues. And, secondly, they had supposed that persons so highly gifted as themselves were above, not only ordinary precautions, but ordinary principles. Instead of seeing that such special privileges required them to be specially on their guard, they considered that they stood in no need of vigilance, and might safely disregard custom, and common decency, and even principles of morality. Previous to their conversion they had been idolaters, and therefore had had no experience of spiritual gifts and manifestations. Consequently, when the experience came, they were thrown off their balance, and knew neither how to estimate these gifts, nor how to prevent “what should have been to their wealth, becoming to them an occasion of falling.”

It might be thought that the conditions of the Christian life of St. Paul and of his converts were too unlike our own to yield any clear lesson in this respect. We have not been converted to Christianity from either Judaism or paganism; and we have received no special revelations or extraordinary spiritual gifts. But this is not so. Our religious life, like theirs, has its two 244 different phases; its times of excitement, and its times of freedom from excitement. We no longer work miracles, or speak with tongues; but we have our exceptional moments of impassioned feelings, and high-strung aspirations, and sublime thoughts; and we are just as liable as the Corinthians were to plume ourselves upon them, to rest in them, and to think that, because we have them, all must necessarily be well with us. We cannot too often remind ourselves that such things are not religion, and are not even the material out of which religion is made. They are the scaffolding and appliances, rather than the formed edifice or the unformed stones and timber. They supply helps and motive power. They are intended to carry us over difficulties and drudgery; and hence are more common in the earlier stages of a Christian’s career than in the time of maturity, and at crises when the career has been interrupted, than when it is progressing with steadfast regularity. Conversion to Christianity in the case of a pagan, and the realization of what Christianity really means in the case of a nominal Christian, involve pain and depression: and the attempt to turn again and repent after grievous sin involves pain and depression. Strong religious emotion helps us to get the better of these, and may, if we use it aright, give us an impetus in the right direction. But, from the very nature of things, it cannot continue, and it is not desirable that it should. It will soon run its course, and we shall be left to go on our way with our ordinary resources. And our duty then is twofold;—first, not to repine at its withdrawal; “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the Name of the Lord”: and, secondly, to take care that it does not evaporate in empty self-complacency, 245 but is translated into action. Impassioned feeling, that leads on to conduct, strengthens character; impassioned feeling, that ends with itself, weakens it. If religious excitement is not to do us more harm than good, by leaving us more insensible to spiritual influences than we were before, it must be accompanied by the sobriety which refuses to be exalted by such an experience, and which, in making use of it, controls it. And, moreover, these warm feelings and enthusiastic aspirations after what is good must lead on to calm and steadfast performance of what is good. One act of real self-denial, one genuine sacrifice of pleasure to duty, is worth hours of religious emotion and thousands of pious thoughts.

But sobermindedness will not only keep us from being pleased with ourselves for our impassioned feelings about spiritual things, and help us to turn them to good account; it will also preserve us from what is even worse than allowing them to pass away without result, viz., talking about them. To feel warmly and to do nothing is to waste motive power: it leads to hardening of the heart against good influences in the future. To feel warmly and talk about it is to abuse motive power: it leads to puffing up of the heart in spiritual pride and to blinding the inward eye with self-complacency. And this is the fatal mistake which is made by some religious teachers at the present day. Strong feelings are excited in those whom they wish to lead from a life of sin to a life of holiness. Sorrow for the past and a desire for better things are aroused, and the sinner is thrown into a condition of violent distress and expectation. And then, instead of being gently led on to work out his salvation in fear and trembling, the penitent is encouraged to seek excitement again and again, and to 246 attempt to produce it in others, by constant rehearsing of his own religious experiences. What should have been a secret between himself and his Saviour, or at most shared only with some wise adviser, is thrown out publicly to the whole world, to the degradation both of what is told and of the character of him who tells it.

The error of mistaking religious feeling for holiness, and good thoughts for good conduct, is a very common one; and it is confined to neither sex, and to no period of life. Men as well as women, and the old as well as the young, need to be on their guard against it. And therefore the Apostle urges Titus to exhort all alike to be soberminded. There are times when to be agitated about religion, and have warm feelings either of sorrow or joy, is natural and right. When one is first roused to desire a life of holiness; when one is conscience-stricken at having fallen into some grievous sin; when one is bowed down under the weight of some great private or public calamity, or elated by the vivid appreciation of some great private or public blessing. At all such seasons it is reasonable and proper that we should experience strong religious emotion. Not to do so would be a sign of insensibility and deadness of heart. But do not let us suppose that the presence of such feelings mark us out as specially religious or spiritually gifted people. They do nothing of the kind. They merely prove that we are not utterly dead to spiritual influences. Whether we are the better or the worse for such feelings, depends upon the use that we make of them. And do not let us expect that these emotions will be permanent, which will certainly not be the case, or that they will frequently return, which will probably not be the case. Above all, let us not be discouraged 247 if they become more and more rare, as time goes on. They ought to become more rare; for they are sure to become less frequent as we advance in holiness. In the steady growth and natural development of the spiritual life there is not much need of them or room for them. They have done their work when they have carried us over the breakers, which troubled our early efforts, into the less excited waters of consistent obedience. And to be able to progress without them is a surer token of God’s grace than to have them. To continue steadfast in our obedience, without the luxury of warm feelings and impassioned devotion, is more pleasing in His sight than all the intense longings to be freed from sin, and all the passionate supplications for increased holiness that we have ever felt and offered. The test of fellowship with God is not warmth of devotion but holiness of life. “Hereby know we that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.”


« Prev Chapter XXI. Next »



| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |