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Communion Sunday
Discources: V. God Knows


I cannot tell: God knoweth — 2 COR. XII. 3.

IT was St Paul said it: said it twice in writing a few lines. Likely enough he had said the like many times. For it must have been a common process of thought then, as now, to pass from thinking of our own ignorance to thinking of God's perfect knowledge. He was speaking of that wonderful event in his life, which is known as his Rapture. All we know of that we are told, very briefly, in a few verses of this chapter. The Apostle was permitted an extraordinary revelation of the better world: he saw things and heard things not to be told to others. But whether this were in vision or in fact, whether in the body or out of the body, he says 'I cannot tell: God knoweth.'

It is curious, how natural it is to pass, by the association of extreme contrast, from the thought of our own ignorance of anything, to the thought of God’s perfect knowledge of it. How commonly the thing is said, which is said in my text! In this, people who lived long ago and far away, were even as we are now. Sometimes, indeed, the first step is dropt: is understood without being said. When a man says God knows, it means that he himself does not know. It is in common modes of thought like this, that we discern the identity of our race: much more than in mere tricks of outward expression. And the homeliest and least instructed man, just as much as the most cultured and elevated, is impelled to the same utterance of natural piety. Many of you remember the touching and true story, of the poor dog that watched for many weeks by his dead master on Helvellyn. A simple shepherd, pointing out the place to a traveller, ended by saying c Gcd knows how the poor creature was fed all that time/ And one of the chiefest poets, after beautifully telling of the love and fidelity of our humble fellow-creature whom a good many men would have little right to call morally an inferior animal, thus sums up:

How nourished during that long time,
He knows, Who gave that love sublime:
And gave that strength of feeling, great
Above all human estimate.

There is comfort, in several ways, in the reflection which my text suggests. We do not feel so beaten by some great mystery and perplexity, when we think, as we look at it, Though this beat me, and foil me, and sometimes make me very miserable, there is One Who understands and sees through it. We are not quite so anxious about the uncertain Future, when we think, Now, though I do not know at all what is coining to me, or to my children when I am gone, or to the Church and the world,— God knows: it is all quite plain and clear before Him at this moment. Wherefore, we thank God foi this rooted bent and tendency in us, of which the text reminds us once more. It is kindly and cheering, that such is our make, that the poor weak mortal is always ready to think, however imperfectly, of the great Father above; and when made to feel his own ignorance, weakness, inability, to remember that there are all sufficiency and strength and knowledge There. We like that fashion of Contrast: it comes naturally between Here and There, between the Here and the Hereafter: it will bear many exemplifications and repetitions. There is no night in heaven : ah, there are many dark hours here. The life here is short, is careworn, is sad: the endless and tearless life is There.

I do not need to show you how much you cannot tell. Nor will any one doubt that God knows all. Taking this as certain, What then? Several comforting reflections, I think. There are some awful ones, too. But it is not of these last that I purpose to speak. I desire to ( speak comfortably9 to God’s anxious people, this day. Let us meditate on the cheering and consolatory consequences from my text.

First, we do not know our own Future. We do not know what is coming to us: success in our work or failure in it; sickness in our homes or health; joy in our hearts or sorrow in them. Perhaps to some of us, this ignorance does not matter so much as concerns ourselves. Our own lot is (humanly speaking) fixed; and our own fortune made or marred: We have settled to the pace at which the rest of the pilgrimage must be traversed, till strength fail: we have found our humble mark: we cannot rise any farther, — God grant we may not fail. And so, looking out upon the awful Future, there are many whose thoughts are rather of their children, whose career is yet to make. Those little ones you think of and care for so much: what will come of them when you are far away! Of course, if a man is a selfish, heartless brute,—some scores of miles an (inferior animal9 to the dog on Helvellyn,—he will not mind: but I trust, and believe, there is not one such here. All of you who are parents will know what was meant by the wise and loveable writer 3 who said that if any middle-aged man evinces undue elation of spirits, that will be speedily and certainly abated by suggesting the question of the future lot of his children. Now, under the great anxiety you all often feel, and under the uncertainty of the vague out-look, here is comfort. We do not know : but God knows. And if we are His,—and of this we have a good hope through grace,—if we trust Him, and leave it all to His guidance Whose Name is Jehovah-Jireh, —it will all be well. Trust Him, that He ‘will provide:' and He will provide: 'Have faith, and you'll win through!' We do not know what may be coming; but we are sure that nothing can be coming which will be too much to bear. Great evil will be kept away from us: such evil as would crush, and break us down. We may venture, if we be Chrises children, quite confidently to say that: We shall not be visited with trial beyond what we can bear. The heaviest troubles will be kept away from us: and as for those of which every lot and heart must have its share, the grace will be given in proportion to the need for it: As the days, so shall the strength be. Yes, and not for yourselves only, through God's kind grace (we cleave to the belief), will prayer and faith prove mighty: No final mischance, no mischance that will mar their eternal destiny, will befall the children of many prayers. They may wander far, but they will be led back. As for yourselves, so for those to come after you, pray, and trust, and labour. No man in his senses supposes I counsel that loathsome hypocrisy which pretends to trust God with the children's welfare, while the vile hypocrite does nothing for it himself. Do your own very best and utmost: strain every muscle in your soul and body: Then leave them, by faith and prayer, to God: and He will keep them. The little boys may grow to gray-headed men: but they will not outgrow the reach and influence of the long-departed parent's faith and prayers. They will know the weary hand, and the sad heart, and the anxious mind: but they will be brought through. They will know temptations; and have their sorrowful portion in the humiliation of human sin and folly; but they will be brought in the end to be with you, after all the alienation of years, more nearly than in infancy, in that better country where are no more partings for the future, and where past partings are effaced.

Think, Christians, as you meditate on God's knowledge of all you do not know in that future lot before you and yours,—Think Who it is that knows: Kindest to love us, Wisest to order for us, Almighty to do all for us: and Who knows us so well,—how things affect us, and all our many fears: It is He that sees all that is coming to us, and that allows it to come. Surely this is enough for us: His will be done!

We have sometimes wished we could look into His book, and see what is written there, appointed to come to us and ours. We have sometimes wished we might see His Face, and read something of the awful Future in its expression. But it is better not.

It is His way to ask His children to trust Him. He has promised, largely, that ‘all things shall work together for good to them that love Him: Let that suffice. I cannot tell the details, the outs and ins, of the way before me: I do not want to know. It is enough to remember that ‘Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.'

So much of our own Future. Let us go onto think that we do not know the Future of the Race, and the Church, and Christianity. We are all, I doubt not, oftentimes very anxious about these. Those in these days must sometimes bear a heavy burden, who have any measure of unselfishness, and public spirit; and who love the old Institutions and the old Beliefs which are attacked. We cannot certainly say how it may be appointed to go with the Church: meaning not the Catholic Church, but the national establishment which represents it in this nation. I am not an alarmist: and I do not profess to stand in immediate fear: but I see how the tide appears to be setting : and it will not content me, for one, as I think of the sturdy old institution which amid many shortcomings, and plundered of her patrimony (which was the patrimony of the poor) by a grasping and dishonest aristocracy at the Reformation, has yet for three centuries made Scotland the most independent and enlightened country in the world;—it will not content me to think that she will last my day. Rather let it be the prayer of every churchman that for ages to come, improved and vivified wherever that be needful,—adding to sound truth and faithful labour all the beauty of holiness, all the reverence and sweetness which beyond question have hitherto been deficient,—she may render priceless service to the nation as from the days of brave and honest and unbribeable Knox till now. But though such be our prayer, we are not by any means sure it will be granted. Though such be our theory of what would be best for our country in the future, it may be merely the result of early training and prepossession: and God may have other plans. And it is not impossible that the heavy task may await us of breaking free from old convictions that are woven into our very being; or at the least, we may have to bear the seeing these cast aside as worn-out lumber by men who have caught the spirit of the age. Well, we cannot tell: but God knows'. And not merely does God know what is coming; but God has appointed it,—and so, in some sense, has approved it: If we could, indeed, but be sure of this last, that He has approved it! For we cannot read the past history of either Church or World, and then accept the event as the infallible exponent of what God approves. God may in some sense will,—that is, may permit men to will and to carry out,—what He can in no sense be fairly said to approve. But this is sure; that His kingdom will come: and if it be not appointed to be brought by our little machinery,—which we think the best,—then it will be brought in some other way. If we be not permitted the great reward of seeing God’s work prosper with us through our work,—but rather be appointed the sore trial of spending and being spent in a falling cause,—enough for us if God’s great work be done, if not by us then by others. ‘He must increase, but we must decrease!’ Only let poor human souls be enlightened and saved and comforted : Only let the darkest den of Glasgow be cheered by gospel light, and every Scottish soul know Christ and the power of His resurrection! Would God the dear old Church might do it: but enough if it be done at all!

So, too, with the Future of the Race: When we think that God knows it, we are enabled to leave it, not without confidence, in His Hand. On the whole, the Race is bettering: beyond all doubt, it is, almost everywhere, inconceivably better than it once was. And in the long Future, if we believe in God at all, we must believe that mankind will be, in all respects, growing better by far. Not that this gives us any assurance of the continued prosperity of our own country. Though the tide advance on the whole, it may be receding at this point and that. It has pleased God to permit uttermost ruin and degradation to overwhelm individual nations already: lands, once enlightened and civilized, have been allowed to go back to darkness and barbarism : and periods of extravagant profusion and abject want side by side,— periods of wide-spread moral deterioration and lack of honesty,—periods of sham and shoddy in all ranks, —are full of awful omen. The deep truth of the old axiom has been proved by much experience, that Righteousness exalteth a nation,—taking righteousness for no more than downright honesty between man and man. Where that fails, ruin is near: unless God in mercy command repentance and reformation. But there is not time to go into this matter now: it is too large, and too sad. As for Christianity, if we have in ourselves the assurance of its truth, and if we believe what God's Word says of its Future, we shall not be greatly afraid, even in the presence of certain strong currents of thought, whose acceptance among many of those who should be the best-instructed is indeed portentous. The questionings as to the power of Prayer: The Materialism which is waxing arrogant as it grows fashionable: The calm, settled purpose to identify man in nature and in destiny with the brute that perishes: The main wonder I feel in the presence of these, is of how the men that teach them can manage to live at all, and do not hasten to get back into the nothingness which they hold to be our end and original: how, if they had indeed ascertained that awful negation, they did not rather hide it from the Race it could but degrade and make wretched; and so let man cheer himself a little under the load of life by the hope of another, even if it were never to be,—and by the teachings and consolations of the cross, even if these were fond delusion!

But, even amid many things of which I do not now speak, I have no fear at all for the Future of our holy faith. In God’s way, and God’s time, that shall prevail. Purged of all accretion of human error, pure Gospel truth in some happy day will fill every soul from the rising to the setting sun. We put away, here, resolutely, all faithless fears and misgivings. God knows all: God orders all: All will be well. We hear talk of Optimism: which means, briefly said, the creed that All is for the Best. Why, every Christian must be an Optimist: that is, must cleave to the belief that All things work together for good, if not for the best: must cleave to that belief sometimes with a sinking heart and a bewildered head, all but despairing. Job was an Optimist when he said, 'Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him!' St Paul, pierced and humbled by the thorn in the flesh, was an Optimist when he said, * Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me/ It follows, assuredly, from the fact that there is a God Who knows and orders all, that All shall be well. If there were not a God Who knows and orders all, it were better we had never been born: The sublime despair of the old Greek dramatist would be right,— 'Not to be, is best of all.' I do not wonder that he who loses the living belief in an all-knowing and all-ordering God should be Pessimist in utter bewilderment and desperation. Look round this world: how wrong everything sometimes seems: What sin and misery everywhere! The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now/ How can good be brought out of that irremediable evil: How can a world that is all wrong and out of joint be set right and got in train again? We cannot tell; but God knoweth. We trust His wisdom and power for the ultimate issue: Meanwhile, we trust His sure word. Our Redeemer shall see of the travail of His soul, in a ransomed world, and be satisfied: How much is assured in that word! As for the outcome of all His Agony and Death, He will not be satisfied in the day of small things. All that is now amiss, lesser and greater together, shall yet be made right for evermore. Meanwhile we may read it told, with a sorrowful air of triumph, that it is in ignorant districts of our own country that Christianity retains its influence : that it is there the churches are ‘ filled as in the middle ages :9 that the thoughtful and cultivated are the sceptical: that old means of grace, prized in simpler times, are held cheap by the wise now.

It is not true, to the measure we are often told. But if it were, it will all be well again in the better day when Christ's kingdom shall come; and sin and misery go.

And the Temple shall be built,
And filled as it was of yore:
And the burden be lift from the heart of the world,
And the nations all adore!

There is a third application,—the last,—which I wish to make of the text, and of what it suggests : It is in regard to the inscrutable mysteries by which we are surrounded, and met everywhere, in this life. All the manifold and awful questions to which we can see no answer, are plain to Him. All those religious difficulties; speculative difficulties; difficulties how we are to think about God, and ourselves, and this world, and all the way in which this world goes, and the unseen world; all those difficulties which have perplexed the wit and wrung the heart of the best of the Race in all ages, are no difficulties at all to our heavenly Father. All that we cannot tell He knoweth. I am not going to expatiate on these mysteries, or even to attempt to number them: It may suffice just to name the Existence of Evil as the chiefest and in some sense the all-including example of what is meant. And I venture to say that for all gave some very exceptional mind here and there,— some mind gifted with a marvellous power of seeing deeper into things than has heretofore been seen, and so of showing to everybody of commonplace folk what but for him would have been discerned by nobody among them,—I say that for all save such an exceptive mind, the text shows the line of peace and safety, in respect of such awful and crushiug perplexity. ‘I cannot tell: God knoweth:' after unutterable effort and suffering you will not have got an inch farther on: You had better, far better, not bruise head and heart seeking to pierce into the impenetrable granite. Look as long as you will, no ordinary eyes will ever see farther into a stone. And I venture to say yet more: The healthful mind, humbly aware of its own little power, and simply trusting God with a firm faith, is able to rest quite undisturbed in the presence of an inscrutable mystery : The inscrutable mystery disquiets it not at all. The healthful mind, when it sees quite plainly that some mysterious question is beyond its comprehension, quite contentedly leaves it alone. It is just as foolish to tax mental strength to do what it cannot, as to tax bodily. When you see a great boulder weighing many tons, you do not go and vex yourself in trying to lift it: you know you cannot: you make up your mind that to move it is beyond your strength; and you do not try. Should we not do the like, intellectually? Frankly accept what is the condition of our being ? And say cheerfully, and with firm faith, what a far wiser and deeper thinker said, in the presence of an unanswerable question, — ‘I cannot tell: God knoweth!’

There are minds that run on such mysteries: minds (it may be) so gifted that by long meditation they may be able to help humbler understandings to unravel these: perhaps only morbid minds that never will find any end to their questionings, ‘in wandering mazes lost;' themselves bewildered, and unfitted for the practical work of life. Such may fitly take for their own that beautiful prayer Against Inquisitive and Perplexing Thoughts which was prepared'and used by one concerning whom it may be said, with no disrespect to any Christian congregation, that he was beyond comparison a deeper and weightier thinker than almost any of its number: I mean the great and good Samuel Johnson. Let us listen to it, and join in it.

0 Lord, my Maker and Protector, Who hast graciously sent me into this world to work out my salvation, enable me to drive from me all such unquiet and perplexing thoughts as may mislead or hinder me in the practice of those duties which Thou hast required. When I behold the works of Thy hands, and consider the course of Thy providence, give me grace always to remember that Thy thoughts are not my thoughts, nor Thy ways my ways. And while it shall please Thee to continue me in this world, where much is to be done, and little to be known, teach me by Thy Holy Spirit, to withdraw my mind from unprofitable and dangerous inquiries, from difficulties vainly curious, and doubts impossible to be solved. Let me rejoice in the light which Thou hast imparted : let me serve Thee with active zeal and humble confidence; and wait with patient expectation for the time in which the soul which Thou receivest shall be satisfied with knowledge. Grant this, O Lord, for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.’

Such was the good man’s prayer. I might not venture to add to it 'And let all the people say Amen.' But I do venture to add to it, Let nine hundred and ninety-nine in every thousand say even so!

One word, one last word, to-day. To each disciple, amid all ignorance, and all perplexity, our Blessed Redeemer says, as He said heretofore:

'What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.'


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