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230

CHAPTER XV

THE RETURN

iii. 40-42

When prophets, speaking in the name of God, promised the exiles a restoration to their land and the homes of their fathers, it was always understood and often expressly affirmed that this reversal of their outward fortunes must be preceded by an inner change, a return to God in penitent submission. Expulsion from Canaan was the chastisement of apostasy from God; it was only right and reasonable that the discipline should be continued as long as the sin that necessitated it remained. It would be a mistake, however, to relegate the treatment of this deadly sin to a secondary place, as only the cause of a more serious trouble. There could be no more serious trouble. The greatest evil from which Israel suffered was not the Babylonian exile; it was her self-inflicted banishment from God. The greatest blessing to be sought for her was not liberty to return to the hills and cities of Palestine; it was permission and power to come back to God. It takes us long to learn that sin is worse than punishment, and that to be brought home to our Father in heaven is a more desirable good than any earthly recovery of prosperity. But the soul that can say with the elegist, "The Lord is my portion," has231 reached the vantage ground from which the best things can be seen in their true proportions; and to such a soul no advent of temporal prosperity can compare with the gaining of its one prized possession. In the triplet of verses that follows the pointed phrase which rebukes complaint for suffering by attributing it to sin the poet conducts us to those high regions where the more spiritual truth concerning these matters can be appreciated.

The form of the language here passes into the plural. Already we have been made to feel that the man who has seen affliction is a representative sufferer, although he is describing his own personal distresses. The immediately preceding clause seems to point to the sinful Israelite generally, in its vague reference to a "living man."209209   iii. 39. Now there is a transition in the movement of the elegy, and the solitary voice gives place to a chorus, the Jews as a body appearing before God to pour out their confessions in common. According to his usual method the elegist makes the transition quite abruptly, without any explanatory preparation. The style resembles that of an oratorio, in which solo and chorus alternate with close sequence. In the present instance the effect is not that of dramatic variety, because we feel the vital sympathy that the poet cherishes for his people, so that their experience is as his experience. It is a faint shadow of the condition of the great Sin-bearer, of whom it could be said, "In all their affliction He was afflicted."210210   Isa. lxiii. 9.

Before it is possible to return to God, before the desire to return is even awakened, a much less inviting action must be undertaken. The first and greatest232 hindrance to reconciliation with our Father is our failure to recognise that any such reconciliation is necessary. The most deadening effect of sin is seen in the fact that it prevents the sinner from perceiving that he is at enmity with God at all, although by everything he does he proclaims his rebellion. The Pharisee of the parable cannot be justified, cannot really approach God at all, because he will not admit that he needs any justification, or is guilty of any conduct that separates him from God. Just as the most hopeless state of ignorance is that in which there is a serene unconsciousness of any deficiency of knowledge, so the most abandoned condition of guilt is the inability to perceive the very existence of guilt. The sick man who ignores his disease will not resort to a physician for the cure of it. If the soul's quarrel with her Lord is ever to be ended it must be discovered. Therefore the first step will be in the direction of self-examination.

We are led to look in this direction by the startling thought with which the previous triplet closes. If the calamities bewailed are the chastisements of sin it is necessary for this sin to be sought out. The language of the elegist suggests that we are not aware of the nature of our own conduct, and that it is only by some serious effort that we can make ourselves acquainted with it, for this is what he implies when he represents the distressed people resolving to "search and try" their ways. Easy as it may seem in words, experience proves that nothing is more difficult in practice than to fulfil the precept of the philosopher, "Know thyself." The externalism in which most of our lives are spent makes the effort to look within a painful contradiction of habit. When it is attempted pride and prejudice face the inquirer, and too often233 quite hide the true self from view. If the pursuit is pushed on in spite of these hindrances the result may prove to be a sad surprise. Sometimes we see ourselves unexpectedly revealed, and then the sight of so great a novelty amazes us. The photographer's proof of a portrait dissatisfies the subject, not because it is a bad likeness, but rather because it is too faithful to be pleasing. A wonderful picture of Rossetti's represents a young couple who are suddenly confronted in a lonely forest by the apparition of their two selves as simply petrified with terror at the appalling spectacle.

Even when the effort to acquire self-knowledge is strenuous and persevering, and accompanied by an honest resolution to accept the results, however unwelcome they may be, it often fails for lack of a standard of judgment. We compare ourselves with ourselves—our present with our past, or at best our actual life with our ideals. But this is a most illusory process, and its limits are too narrow. Or we compare ourselves with our neighbours—a possible advance, but still a most unsatisfactory method; for we know so little of them, all of us dwelling more or less like stars apart, and none of us able to sound the abysmal depths of another's personality. Even if we could fix this standard it too would be very illusory, because those people with whom we are making the comparison, quite as much as we ourselves, may be astray, just as a whole planetary system, though perfectly balanced in the mutual relations of its own constituent worlds, may yet be out of its orbit, and rushing on all together towards some awful common destruction.

A more trustworthy standard may be found in the heart-searching words of Scripture, which prove to be234 as much a revelation of man to himself as one of God to man. This Divine test reaches its perfection in the historical presentation of our Lord. We discover our actual characters most effectually when we compare our conduct with the conduct of Jesus Christ. As the Light of the world, He leads the world to see itself. He is the great touchstone of character. During His earthly life hypocrisy was detected by His searching glance; but that was not admitted by the hypocrite. It is when He comes to us spiritually that His promise is fulfilled, and the Comforter convinces of sin as well as of righteousness and judgment. Perhaps it is not so eminently desirable as Burns would have us believe, that we should see ourselves as others see us; but it is supremely important to behold ourselves in the pure, searching light of the Spirit of Christ.

We may be reminded, on the other hand, that too much introspection is not wholesome, that it begets morbid ways of thought, paralyses the energies, and degenerates into insipid sentimentality. No doubt it is best that the general tendency of the mind should be towards the active duties of life. But to admit this is not to deny that there may be occasions when the most ruthless self-examination becomes a duty of first importance. A season of severe chastisement, such as that to which the Book of Lamentations refers, is one that calls most distinctly for the exercise of this rare duty. We cannot make our daily meal of drugs; but drugs may be most necessary in sickness. Possibly if we were in a state of perfectly sound spiritual health it might be well for us never to spare a thought for ourselves from our complete absorption with the happy duties of a full and busy life. But since we are far from being thus healthy, since we err and fail and235 sin, time devoted to the discovery of our faults may be exceedingly well spent.

Then while a certain kind of self-study is always mischievous—the sickly habit of brooding over one's feelings, it is to be observed that the elegist does not recommend this. His language points in quite another direction. It is not emotion but action that he is concerned with. The searching is to be into our "ways," the course of our conduct. There is an objectivity in this inquiry, though it is turned inward, that contrasts strongly with the investigation of shadowy sentiments. Conduct, too, is the one ground of the judgment of God. Therefore the point of supreme importance to ourselves is to determine whether conduct is right or wrong. With this branch of self-examination we are not in so much danger of falling into complete delusions as when we are considering less tangible questions. Thus this is at once the most wholesome, the most necessary, and the most practicable process of introspection.

The particular form of conduct here referred to should be noted. The word "ways" suggests habit and continuity. These are more characteristic than isolated deeds—short spasms of virtue or sudden falls before temptation. The final judgment will be according to the life, not its exceptional episodes. A man lives his habits. He may be capable of better things, he may be liable to worse; but he is what he does habitually. The world will applaud him for some outburst of heroism in which he rises for the moment above the sordid level of his every-day his, or execrate him for his shameful moment of self-forgetfulness; and the world will have this amount of justice in its action, that the capacity for the occasional is itself a permanent attribute, although the opportunity for the active working236 of the latent good or evil is rare. The startling outburst may be a revelation of old but hitherto hidden "ways." It must be so to some extent; for no man wholly belies his own nature unless he is mad—beside himself, as we say. Still it may not be so entirely, or even chiefly; the surprised self may not be the normal self, often is not. Meanwhile our main business in self-examination is to trace the course of the unromantic beaten track, the long road on which we travel from morning to evening through the whole day of life.

The result of this search into the character of their ways on the part of the people is that it is found to be necessary to forsake them forthwith; for the next idea is in the form of a resolution to turn out of them, nay, to turn back, retracing the footsteps that have gone astray, in order to come to God again. These ways are discovered, then, to be bad—vicious in themselves, and wrong in their direction. They run downhill, away from the home of the soul, and towards the abodes of everlasting darkness. When this fact is perceived it becomes apparent that some complete change must be made. This is a case of ending our old ways, not mending them. Good paths may be susceptible of improvement. The path of the just should "shine more and more unto the perfect day." But here things are too hopelessly bad for any attempt at amelioration. No engineering skill will ever transform the path that points straight to perdition into one that conducts us up to the heights of heaven. The only chance of coming to walk in the right way is to forsake the wrong way altogether, and make an entirely new start. Here, then, we have the Christian doctrine of conversion—a doctrine which always appears extravagant to people who take superficial views of237 sin, but one that will be appreciated just in proportion to the depth and seriousness of our ideas of its guilt. Nothing contributes more to unreality in religion than strong language on the nature of repentance apart from a corresponding consciousness of the tremendous need of a most radical change. This deplorable mischief must be brought about when indiscriminate exhortations to the extreme practice of penitence are addressed to mixed congregations. It cannot be right to press the necessity of conversion upon young children and the carefully sheltered and lovingly trained youth of Christian homes in the language that applies to their unhappy brothers and sisters who have already made shipwreck of life. This statement is liable to misapprehension; doubtless to some readers it will savour of the light views of sin deprecated above, and point to the excuses of the Pharisee. Nevertheless it must be considered if we would avoid the characteristic sin of the Pharisee, hypocrisy. It is unreasonable to suppose that the necessity of a complete conversion can be felt by the young and comparatively innocent as it should be felt by abandoned profligates, and the attempt of the preacher to force it on their relatively pure consciences is a direct incentive to cant. The fifty-first Psalm is the confession of his crime by a murderer; Augustine's Confessions are the outpourings of a man who feels that he has been dragging his earlier life through the mire; Bunyan's Grace Abounding reveals the memories of a rough soldier's shame and folly. No good can come of the unthinking application of such utterances to persons whose history and character are entirely different from those of the authors.

On the other hand, there are one or two further238 considerations which should be borne in mind. Thus it must not be forgotten that the greatest sinner is not necessarily the man whose guilt is most glaringly apparent; nor that sins of the heart count with God as equivalent to obviously wicked deeds committed in the full light of day; nor that guilt cannot be estimated absolutely, by the bare evil done, without regard to the opportunities, privileges, and temptations of the offender. Then, the more we meditate upon the true nature of sin, the more deeply must we be impressed with its essential evil even when it is developed only slightly in comparison with the hideous crimes and vices that blacken the pages of history—as, for example, in the careers of a Nero or a Cæsar Borgia. The sensitive conscience does not only feel the exact guilt of its individual offences, but also, and much more, "the exceeding sinfulness of sin." When we consider their times and the state of the society in which they lived, we must feel that neither Augustine nor Bunyan had been so wicked as the intensity of the language of penitence they both employed might lead us to suppose. It is quite foreign to the nature of heartfelt repentance to measure degrees of guilt. In the depth of its shame and humiliation no language of contrition seems to be too strong to give it adequate expression. But this must be entirely spontaneous; it is most unwise to impose it from without in the form of an indiscriminate appeal to abject penitence.

Then it is also to be observed that while the fundamental change described in the New Testament as a new birth cannot well be regarded as a thing of repeated occurrence, we may have occasion for many conversions. Every time we turn into the wrong path we put ourselves under the necessity of turning back if ever we239 would walk in the right path again. What is that but conversion? It is a pity that we should be hampered by the technicality of a term. This may lead to another kind of error—the error of supposing that if we are once converted we are converted for life, that we have crossed our Rubicon, and cannot recross it. Thus while the necessity of a primary conversion may be exaggerated in addresses to the young, the greater need of subsequent conversions may be neglected in the thoughts of adults. The "converted" person who relies on the one act of his past experience to serve as a talisman for all future time is deluding himself in a most dangerous manner. Can it be asserted that Peter had not been "converted," in the technical sense, when he fell through undue self-confidence, and denied his Master with "oaths and curses?"

Again—a very significant fact—the return is described in positive language. It is a coming back to God, not merely a departure from the old way of sin. The initial impulse towards a better life springs more readily from the attraction of a new hope than from the repulsion of a loathed evil. The hopeful repentance is exhilarating, while that which is only born of the disgust and horror of sin is dismally depressing. Lurid pictures of evil rarely beget penitence. The Newgate Calendar is not to be credited with the reformation of criminals. Even Dante's Inferno is no gospel. In prosecuting his mission as the prophet of repentance John the Baptist was not content to declare that the axe was laid at the root of the tree; the pith of his exhortation was found in the glad tidings that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand." St. Paul shows that it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance. Besides, the repentance that is induced by this means240 is of the best character. It escapes the craven slavishness of fear; it is not a merely selfish shrinking from the lash; it is inspired by the pure love of a worthy end. Only remorse lingers in the dark region of regrets for the past. Genuine repentance always turns a hopeful look towards a better future. It is of little use to exorcise the spirit of evil if the house is not to be tenanted by the spirit of good. Thus the end and purpose of repentance is to be reunited to God.

Following up his general exhortation to return to God, the elegist adds a particular one, in which the process of the new movement is described. It takes the form of a prayer from the heart. The resolution is to lift up the heart with the hands. The erect posture, with the hands stretched out to heaven, which was the Hebrew attitude in prayer, had often been assumed in meaningless acts of formal worship before there was any real approach to God or any true penitence. Now the repentance will be manifested by the reality of the prayer. Let the heart also be lifted up. The true approach to God is an act of the inner life, to which in its entirety—thought, affection, and will—the Jewish metaphor of the heart points.

Lastly, the poet furnishes the returning penitents with the very language of the heart's prayer, which is primarily confession. The doleful fact that God has not pardoned His people is directly stated, but not in the first place. This statement is preceded by a clear and unreserved confession of sin. Repentance must be followed by confession. It is not a private matter concerning the offender alone. Since the offence was directed against another, the amendment must begin with a humble admission of the wrong that has been done. Thus, immediately the prodigal son is met by241 his father he sobs out his confession;211211   Luke xv. 21. and St. John assigns confession as an essential preliminary to forgiveness, saying: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."212212   1 John i. 9.


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