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THE NATURAL AND THE SPIRITUAL LIFE.
John, ii. 10.—“Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now.”
EVERY one understands the natural meaning of these words. The incident which gave rise to them is one of the most striking in our Lord’s life, and, like all its other incidents, has a significant bearing upon human life in general. As we read it, we seem to forget for a moment the “Man of Sorrows,” and the tragic elevation of a self-sacrifice which knew no pause and invited none in others—whose great key-note was, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”4848 Matthew, xvi. 24. Here there is no shadow of the Cross. Neither the gloom of Calvary, nor the loneliness of the “Son of man, who had not where to lay His head,”4949 Ibid. viii. 20. is 84near to a picture bright with the assembly of wedding guests and the cheer of wine for the wedding festival. If we need any such lesson, we are here taught that the presence of Christ is not only for the darker, but also for the brighter moments of our lives—that all we do in our festive no less than our solemn hours should be beautified by the companionship of Him who was called with His disciples to the marriage in Cana of Galilee—that, in short, the consecration of His love should rest upon every aspect and activity of our being.
But it is not any general lesson of this kind of which I am now thinking. These words from an early period have been taken by themselves and turned into a parable, speaking a deeper meaning than lies upon the surface. They have been taken as applicable to a great contrast presented in the natural and the spiritual life respectively. Men who delighted in the language of Scripture, and studied it as almost their only literature, have been pleased to read in “the good wine set forth at the beginning” the charm of the natural life in its early freshness, finding its good at first; “and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse:” and again, in “the good wine kept 85until now,” the different law of the spiritual life, growing from weakness to strength, and from difficulty to enjoyment, preserving its good things to the last.5050 See Trench’s Notes on the Miracles of our Lord, pp. 108-110, and the quotations from mediaeval writers and others there given.
It matters little that the parable is a fanciful one. It is easy to see now that the words do not convey any such meaning. They were used apparently in their simple, direct sense, without any hint of a higher application. This is an obvious criticism which it requires no knowledge to make. Yet the associations of the higher meaning linger around the words, and we may well take them to illustrate what seems in itself a truth of great importance. No one need fear that we shall forget our Biblical criticism in so doing. After all, there are meanings imposed upon texts by good people, and zealously held by them, quite as fanciful as this, and having no better foundation. No one need quarrel with the spiritual fancies which have gathered around some Scriptural texts, so long as they are used merely for didactic or practical purposes. It is only when the controversialist would turn them to his purpose, and the theologian would wrest 86the meaning of revelation to impose an antiquated dogma, that we must be careful to read Scripture “as any other book,” and to hold closely to its critical and historical meaning.
There is no fancy in the thought which these words have been taken to express. There is a natural life, and there is a spiritual life. The law of the former is to set forth its good wine at the beginning; afterwards comes that which is worse. There is an immutable process of decay in all mere natural enjoyment. On the contrary, the law of the spiritual life is a law of increase. There is a spring of constant renewal in it. The good wine is kept to the last. Let us dwell upon this contrast for a little.
I. The natural life is the life into which we are all born. It is our life of sense, and passion, and intellect. Need I speak of the good of such a life in its first healthiness and vigour. All its impulses are impulses of gladness. It is like good wine to the palate. As a poet of our own day has sung—
“How good, is man’s life, the mere living! how fit to employ
All the heart, and the soul, and the senses for ever in joy!”
The “mere mortal life held in common by man and brute “is full of exhilaration. It responds 87to the great, happy life of Nature with vivid and quick response. No healthy young brain and heart but have known something of this mere joy of living, when manhood is yet in its prime and “not a muscle is stopped in its playing.” No restrictions can crush it altogether, and no asceticism kill its uprising force in the boy or girl as they look forth from the seclusion of un wasted powers on what is always to them the spring-time of an unworn world. And as there is no joy more true, so there is none at first more innocent than this. There have been natures, indeed, that have shrunk from it—or so we read sometimes in books of devotion and biographies of the saints. There has seemed to such natures a touch of sin in the very overflow of youthful health and elation. The responsibilities of life have cast a darkening shadow over its youthful opening. The feeling is not so common as to be deprecated in a time like ours; but nothing, surely, can be more free from sinful alloy than the mere gladsome activity of the young heart. It lies near to God in the very freshness with which it owns the sweet attractiveness of the life which He has given it, and the bountiful earth on which He has made it to dwell.88
But I need not dwell on this charm of the natural life. It needs no preacher to describe it. There is no fear in the present age that it will be undervalued or despised; rather the contrary fear that we make too much of it, and place the mere forces of nature before the laws of the spirit. It is more my business and more my subject to point out how the activities of nature, so joyful in their first exercise, soon begin to lose their freshness and vigour. They waste in the using, and the glory of the mere natural life dies down as it runs its swift course from morning to noon and evening. Unless recruited from a higher source, or sustained by a happy temperance, it wastes away with a fated rapidity. The senses lose their zest, the spirits their spring, the passions their elevation. “Mere mortal life,” the joy of grateful activity, is never to the man what it was to the boy. It may still bring delight, but seldom the old rapture. It may be still as “good wine,” but it has lost the former relish. The “wild joy of living” vanishes with youth, never to be recalled; and the pulse beats more feebly, even though the arm be strong and the frame vigorous as ever. If we gain in experience, we lose in enthusiasm; and though both life and nature may speak to us in 89deeper tones, and move us with a more solemn gladness, we miss something we can never have again with the lapse of years. The leaping delight which once came from fresh fields or mountain-side is no more. There is no longer the same “splendour in the grass or glory in the flower.” The old thrill of passion comes not. We sigh over a vanished joy and a rapture that is dead; and court it as we may, the rapture never comes back again.
But “leaving the flesh to the fate it was fit for,” it may seem that the joys of the intellectual life grow rather than decay with advancing years. There is a certain truth in this. As the intellect gets older, it gets wiser up to a certain point. It learns its own measure and powers, and no longer frets itself, as in youth it often does, over impossible achievements and ideal aims. It gets more masterful within its own sphere, and does its work with less strain, and often a more conscious enjoyment. Happily there is this ever-recurring spring of pleasure in the intellectual side of our being. The joy of exercise, of mere life and activity, survive here when it has run to waste in the lower sphere of our sensitive and passionate existence. But if this be true, it is also true that the intellect loses while 90it gains. Its stores accumulate, its work goes on more easily; but here too, as elsewhere, enthusiasm vanishes. The mere delight in knowing passes away. The passion of knowledge for its own sake survives in but a few breasts. What seemed once within reach—the joy of discovery all the more tempting by its difficulty—is found inaccessible. The vision is proved to be a dream. The radiance which was once so bright dies down or disappears. Truths whose early dawning was as the exhilarating flush of morning, become commonplace. Perplexities grow more painful; problems more desperate. To the youthful intellectualist the world seems an open secret. He has only to pierce more deeply than others, and its meaning will lie plain before him. The veteran who has gone farthest afield, and sought most strenuously for wisdom as for hidden treasure, compares himself to a child who has gathered a few pebbles by the shore, while the great ocean of truth lies unexplored. He chiefly knows how little, after all, there is to be known. And so the life of intellect, infinitely greater as it is than any other sphere of our natural life, is seldom a very sanguine or hopeful life. The burden of thought saddens as it grows. Experience 91brings mastery; but it brings also difficulties and the consciousness of limits unfelt before. Here too, therefore, there is a sense in which the good wine is set forth at the beginning; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse. The glory and the freshness fade. The shadows deepen as the night cometh; and “turn whersoe’er we may,” there is no longer the same intensity or buoyancy of intellectual sight. “The things which we have seen, we now can see no more.”
And it is to be borne in mind that in all this view of the natural life I have taken it at the best. I have not identified it with the mere worldly or carnal life, into which it necessarily passes unless animated and controlled by some higher principle. I have not spoken of the world’s deceitful promises; or of the allurements of sinful passion, “carrying light in the face, and honey on the lip,” but, when men have well drunk, “fears and terrors of conscience, and shame and displeasure.”5151 J. Taylor’s Life of Christ, in loco. I have not done so, because it seems to me unnecessary to draw the picture in any darker colours than it sometimes presents. The natural life, if divorced from God, must always be a sinful life; but beyond 92doubt it may also be, in many things, a great or a beautiful life, with many springs in its mere healthy activity. But taking it thus at the very best, in its brightest fulness, it contains within itself the elements of decay. Its highest activity is a process of exhaustion which finds no renewal. When the wine is drained, there is only the lees of its former strength and brightness.
II. But is it different and better with the spiritual life? Some will tell us, in the first place, that we have no such evidence of a spiritual life at all as we have of a natural life—that at least the one is here and now, a living experience to make the most of; and the other a shadowy realm which we can neither test nor verify. On such a question we cannot enter into argument here. I am speaking to a Christian congregation, all of whom profess to hold the reality of the spiritual life, and the great unseen verities on which it sustains and nourishes itself. But surely we may say of the spiritual life, no less than the natural, that it appeals to a living course of experience. It is also here and now—a series of facts—as well as the other, if also reaching 93beyond the present to a higher and unseen sphere of being. The spiritual side of human life is a reality felt and enjoyed quite as truly as the natural side. To thousands it is the deepest reality, the true point of connection with the great Life of the universe, the enduring Power of which all forms of life are but the manifestation. We cannot get quit of religion by mere denial. Materialism itself, in order to make any show of meeting the mystery of the world, is found to clothe itself with spiritual meanings and to assume a religious voice.
The character of the spiritual life is equally verified in experience. In varying degrees and with casual reversions, it is yet essentially a life of growth—of growth from darkness to light, from weakness to strength, from dimness and poverty to beauty and hope and richness. This is the law of the higher life. There may be exceptions in individual experience. The law may be obscured by contradictory influences. But it remains true that when the spiritual life survives in any healthiness at all, it adds to faith knowledge, and to knowledge virtue, temperance, and patience, and to all these the “love which hopeth all things, and never faileth.”
(1.) The commencement of the spiritual life is 94frequently spoken of as a transition from darkness to light. The newly-born Christian, beginning to realise his priestly dignity and holy privileges, is called upon “to show forth the praise of Him who hath called him out of darkness into His marvellous light.”5252 1 Peter, ii. 9. And this access of light always attends the higher life. It is as the opening of eyes to the blind. It is a new gift of sight, so that we see a higher meaning in duty to God, in the work and sacrifice of Christ, and the gift of the Holy Ghost. Christ becomes the “master-light of all our seeing.” A new glory, other than the glory of nature, falls upon life and thought. The sacrifice of the Cross may have seemed before an unintelligible or repellent mystery. As in the early time it was “to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness,” so there are still, in divers forms, the Jewish and the Greek types of mind—the one unable to see the divine dignity of the great Sufferer, and the other unable to see that there was any need for the suffering at all. And all human theories and analogies help us but dimly to understand the great mystery. None read it, or can read it, fully. But there grows from the depth of sinful experience, 95and the hopelessness of our own mortal struggle with evil in our hearts and in our lives, a meaning in the Divine sacrifice which nothing else can give. The love and wisdom of God shine from the Cross on our struggling souls, and the power of God reveals itself in it as alone able and mighty to save. And as our spiritual insight grows, and we feel ourselves continually so weak and yet so capable, so grovelling and yet so aspiring—there comes an ever deeper meaning into that Life which was lifted up that all men might be drawn to it. The ideal of all higher life is seen to be there—self-sacrifice for the good of the others; and not only the ideal, which we may contemplate, but the strength which we may appropriate, and so receive help, that as He loved us and gave Himself for us, we should also walk in love, and live no longer unto ourselves, but unto Him that died for us and rose again.
This life of self-sacrifice in Christ—into which we have been redeemed by His suffering, of which we are made capable by His grace—sheds for us a higher light on this world of evil and suffering than all the theories of philosophy, or the generalisations of science. What our minds may fail to understand, our hearts enable us to realise. 96In all higher natures there is a subtle interchange betwixt the reason and the affections—a growth of intuition, partly intellectual and partly moral, which gives a new eye to the soul, and a better interpretation of the world’s mystery than aught else. More and more this light of the Divine brightens within us and suffuses the intelligence even in its subtlest questionings. Difficulties may remain. The hardness of external fact, and the pitiless logic of scientific induction, may sometimes seem to leave no foothold for our grasp of the Spiritual. There will come Jewish moods of mind, in which the idea of a Divine sacrifice seems a “stumblingblock;” and even more frequently Greek moods of mind, in which it will appear “foolishness;” and the strength and claims of the present existence will seem all that we can ever know. But if we remain true to our higher self—to the deeper elements of our experience—the thought of the Cross will become an increasing source of illumination and comfort. It will brighten our darkness as no other thought can. It will uphold in moments of anguish, when the strongest ties of the natural life are broken asunder, and there remains for this world only weakness and despair. It 97will become “the light of life” the more we dwell upon it, taking hold of our higher reason as well as our more tender sympathies. Christ Himself will be seen ever more clearly as “the way, the truth, and the life”—in whose perfect mind and character are hid all treasures of wisdom and knowledge. From the dreams of modern philanthropy, and its schemes of religious humanitarianism—from the prophets of experience and the preachers of negation—we shall turn to Him with a deeper rest, as the true Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world—as the highest fulfilment of conscience and of reason—the greatest reality of thought and of life.
(2.) But the spiritual life is not only a growth in light—it is a growth in practical strength and capacity of duty. When man first awakens to its reality, and begins to recognise a higher, divine voice, calling him to nobler work than he has ever done, he finds all his endeavours after the higher life weak and hesitating. The sense of a Divine ideal has been quickened within him; and “to will is present,” but “how to perform that which is good” he finds not. The old nature of selfish affection and action cannot be killed at once. Nay, it frequently 98asserts its power; and the new nature, the higher impulses of self-sacrificing love and duty, are driven under by the overmastering sway of evil habit and desire. And so it is that the beginnings of the religious life are so often hard, and even convulsive; and many good men are found to tell of the struggles which they went through in entering upon its “narrow way.” That which was worse was given at the first—despair and hopelessness of the good which had yet laid hold of them and would not let them go. The cry of conflict betwixt the Divine ideal in the heart and the love of sin which fights against it and beats it back is heard in many a struggling soul. “wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”5353 Romans, vii. 24.
But gradually this element of conflict and oppression disappears with the cherished love of the good. The grace of Christ becomes sufficient, and strength is made perfect in weakness. The will gets stronger to do that which is right and good, and to resist that which is wrong and evil. Temptation grows powerless, the sense of duty more clear and earnest, and the fact of duty therefore more easy and continuous. The 99evil no longer overcomes the good, but the good the evil. The higher attributes of our nature gather unity and force against its baser tendencies, and displace them with a steady consistency. Our complex being, disordered by sin, becomes righted through the indwelling harmony of the Divine Spirit; so that all its activities go forth in a higher union of love and self-sacrificing obedience. The law of the members ceases to invade the law of the mind; and “we present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is our reasonable service.”5454 Romans, xii. 1. We are no longer “conformed to this world,” but “transformed by the renewing of our mind, that we may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.”5555 Ibid. xii. 2.
And all this growth of spiritual strength is at the same time a growth of happiness. It is a better state in all respects. As our endeavours after the higher life become more successful, they become less difficult—nay, they become full of felicity. As we gain step by step on the upward path, the remaining steps are not only less toilsome,—there is a divine exhilaration in the progress—a joyful sense of victory. There may be descents—and deplorable and 100painful ones—after we have reached a fair height; but unless we lose hold of the good, or banish it from our hearts, it will never lose hold of us, but still bear us upwards. Unless we quench the Spirit, He will still dwell within us, strengthen us in the inner man, and carry us forwards in the divine life until we attain the measure of the stature of the perfect man in Christ. With every advance comes an increase of good. The “good wine” seems still kept “until now.” The enjoyment grows with the growth of spiritual strength and grace. The yoke of self-sacrifice, as it is fitted to every point of the spiritual nature, is no longer felt to be a yoke. The sense of burden falls away as the pilgrim mounts higher on his heavenward way. Here, as in so many other points, the great Puritan parable is true to the best spiritual experience. The life of holiness is from “strength to strength”—no mere toil of duty, but the perfection of being—at once the highest activity and the highest happiness.
(3.) But especially with increase of grace there is an increase of moral beauty and hopefulness. In these respects, perhaps, the natural and the spiritual life contrast more than in any others. The one sinks to the decay and weakness of old 101age; the other rises to a perennial and more perfect bloom. The one gets less hopeful; to the other hope is as “an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the vail.”5656 Hebrews, vi. 19.
Undoubtedly there is a process of moral decay in all merely natural lives. As they get older, they seem to harden. The confident fulness of youth and of manhood disappears. The natural virtues that seemed to cover or compensate for the inner selfishness are less prominent. A growing meanness of character comes forth. This is the inevitable fate of all self-love that is not supplanted by a higher motive, or killed at the root by that love of Christ which raises us to a higher sphere. On the other hand, the higher life, once begun, not only advances in strength, but in beauty. It takes to itself more comeliness and harmony, and grows more thoughtful, tender, gentle—and wise in its gentleness. Who has not known lives in whom these “beauties of holiness” have shone with a widely-diffusing lustre, whose “conversation,” already “in heaven,” has been to many an inexpressible good? When the eye saw them, it gave witness to them; and if 102we had ever doubted of the reality of a spiritual world, and its higher worth and meaning, such lives, we felt, were as “living epistles,” telling of its power and verity.
Again, as the natural life advances, how poor its prospects! Here more than anywhere—in its outlook on the future—it may be said to break down. When the spring and summer are gone, and autumn advancing, there is only a wintry weariness and gloom before it. The strength of former hope dies out; the affections on which it has fed grow sapless, or are pitilessly rooted out. There is no light beyond, and the darkness of the shortening years falls fast. It may have been a strong and beautiful life while it lasted; but its course is done, and death awaits it. The evil days have come in which it has no pleasure in them.5757 Ecclesiastes, xii. 1. There is an inexpressible sadness in this inevitable fate before the strongest and happiest mortal existence. The good wine has all been drained. It has sunk to the lees: that which is worse has come to it at last, if not long before.
The spiritual life, on the contrary, not only grows strong in higher holiness, but in higher 103hopefulness. The light burns brightly within, while darkness deepens without. For the soul has taken hold of an eternal life beyond death and the grave; and from the very sense of mortality, and the falling away of all earthly hope, there has sprung the consciousness of a higher hope, which entereth into that within the veil. The sure Foundation which underlies all the shows of life is felt all the more sure when these shows are vanishing. They perish, but He endureth; and from the very experience of change around and within, the soul cleaves with a more living hold to Him who is “the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever.”5858 Psalm cii. 27; Hebrews, xiii. 8. As the shadows fall and darkness gathers in the mortal eye, within the life that is hid with God in Christ the day is breaking and the shadows are fleeing away. There is a streak of dawning light in the higher heavens as the night rapidly shuts from view this lower earth.
What is the secret of this heavenly hope, as of all spiritual growth? Above all things, trust in God—the assurance that there is an Eternal Love embracing us and educating us to its own likeness. The roots of all religious strength and peace, and hope and joy and 104patience, seem to me personal. If I am only to grow stronger or better by increase of knowledge—by growing clearness and certainty of conviction—then my progress must be very halting; I may go backward rather than forward. For youth, and not age, is the season of dogma; and as men ripen in experience, they cease to be opinionative. They become less sure than they once were of many things. They leave the issues of the future to God, and the fear of hell may hardly mingle in their thoughts. If able to hold an authoritative creed for themselves, they are thankful; but hesitate to apply it to others, or to judge those who differ from them. True spiritual growth is certainly not in sharpness of opinion, but in largeness of trust—higher, more beautiful, and more embracing thoughts of God and of Christ—thoughts born not of the authority of any school or any Church, but of humility and charity and holy obedience.
The conclusion of the whole therefore is, that we look well to the springs of spiritual life within our own hearts—that we give all heed, by God’s blessing, to grow in grace and humility, in mercy and self-sacrifice—that we put off the “old man” with his selfish desires, and “be renewed in the spirit of our mind,” and put on the 105new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. Oh let us not waste the days of our strength in the service of evil, hoping that at last we can take up the higher life as an easy task! The thought is impious, as it is unwarranted. If there be a higher life at all, it must always be our duty—it can only be our happiness. All else must be vanity—must be sin—however fair it may look. Let us not deceive ourselves. The brightness of the natural life is vanishing while we look upon it. The glory of the spiritual is alone eternal. Let us choose the better part while God is waiting to be gracious; and all that is good in us the voice of conscience—the summons of grace,—invite us to give ourselves to the divine service.
“Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord: His going forth is prepared as the morning; and He shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain unto the earth.5959 Hosea, vi. 3.106
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