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Good Words 1860
Concerning Each One's Religious History


I have in my portfolio an engraving, cut from some illustrated newspaper, representing Mr Redgrave's noble picture of the "Awakened Conscience;" a coarse scrap of print bought for a penny at an old book-stall. Absurd to keep such a thing so carefully, is it not? I don't know that. I have walked in great galleries, and seen many a broad canvas filled by the cunning hand of the painter with lines of loveliness and hues of various light, but I do not remember having ever met any-thing in the form of art that so smote upon the inmost chords of my soul. It is true I have shewn it to others, and they saw nothing in it at all; but is that any reason why I, who have found so much in it and got so much from it, should not preserve and cherish it?

A man's own history is the greatest of all histories to him. Mizraim may cure wounds, and Pharoah be sold for balsams, but these ''mutations of the world" do not affect us. Each of us has his own history and life to fulfil—we shall never have another; and all circumstances, however mean in themselves, which affect this history of ours, take on thence an importance which nothing else could give them. The habit which many men have got of going through the world apologetically, as if conniving at their own existence, and ready to give up their distinctive feelings and ideas at the call of any person or of every person, is quite distinct from New Testament humility, and may sometimes lead to a baseness of spirit very dangerous to all New Testament graces and virtues. It is a thing to be opposed, were there no other reason, because of the vast amount of enjoyment which men lose who are thus liable to be pooh-poohed by others. Two-thirds of a man's pleasures are peculiar to himself—they are "intimate delights," with which a stranger may not intermeddle; and if you attempt to force them upon others, the whole flavour and aroma evaporates and is gone. Most men who have attained middle age will be found regretting nothing so much as the way in which they have sacrificed true and pure delights, day after day, to the opinions of a world which yet they too much despise. Better for them to have kept the child's heart, that enjoys its own things while it admires those of others, than thus to feel the stony heart closing round it in gradual petrifaction and. accretion.

But we lose better things than enjoyment by a foolish conformity to things around us, and a careless neglect of God's dealings with us and our own inner history. All moral life is continuous; consciously or unconsciously, it progresses on a plan, and our future is built upon our past. On our past it is built, not on another man's, nor on that of all other men, however rich and affluent their experience may be, and how poor soever our own. It is all we have—our one poor talent—so let us lay it quickly out to usury. There is no more important rule than this in that process of self-education which is every man's business. We find many people who continue with patient assiduity for years together at studies and pursuits from which they get no good in the world, and for which they have neither enthusiasm nor liking; and when you ask the reason, they say that these studies are universally approved, or that they were recommended to them by their parents, or perhaps, if you have to do with the more perverse and eccentric kind of stupidity, that such and such an eminent man had risen to fame by devoting himself to this particular study, and no other; and since that fig-tree bore figs, why should not our thistles do the same? Now, the most grievous thing about this is that these very people have in them than which, if they were not afraid or ashamed to bring it out, would give them, too, a place and a name in God's world—a place now, and a name at the revelation of the sons of God. There is an unfulfilled work waiting for every man to do, which no other man in the world can do but himself. If he succeeds in doing it, his work shall abide, and he shall receive a reward; but if he fails, it must remain undone for ever, and there results what Buskin calls the saddest spectacle in all this burden-bearing and sin-groaning world, ''the city that is not set on an hill, the lamp that giveth light to none that are in the house." If every lamp were content honestly to illuminate its own circle of immediately surrounding darkness, what a bright world would this become ! If every man would do the duties and enjoy the pleasures that lie to his hand, how would the load of life be lightened and the dull pain of conscience appeased! But if men are not faithful in that which is least and nearest them, how shall they enter into the distant joy of their Lord?

Yet, if this failure is often from mere want of honesty and conscientiousness, it is sometimes also, I am persuaded, from want of wisdom in restricting and limiting oneself to that which has value for oneself. Take the case of reading. "Beware the man of one book," is an old advice, which means, in so far as the saying is true at all, "Beware of the man who concentrates himself, who makes what he reads his own." Some men are "general lovers" in literature—they have no preferences. Ear be such men from our loved and cherished shelves! The true reader is he whose history may be gathered from his books, whose life lies folded in that dingy duodecimo or more modern octavo. But in this matter of reading it is emphatically true that each man has his own history, if he would only confess it. One of my friends, who in his tastes rather affects the learned and the antique, and loves Augustine and Thomas a Kempis above almost all hooks, acknowledged to me lately that one of the most powerful impulses his inner life ever received was from the reading of a novel—a religious novel—a popular religious novel—a novel by a modern American authoress. Now, such cases are exceedingly common. And what are people to do with them ? Are they to suppress the fact, and praise only the stupid standard works, from which they, at least, have never got any good—have, in fact, never got anything at all? Or are they, on the other hand, like some great authors in this unbashful age, to insist loudly that the world has been mistaken in its standard works, and that they and their new friends are the men, and wisdom shall die with them? There is surely a medium to be found somewhere. But let us, at all events, not forget that a man's own history is of the first importance to him, and whatever hook (or man or thing) has been the minister of God to him for good has a special claim upon him and an eternal connexion with his existence.

Let us try how these not very novel remarks bear upon the question of personal religion. One of the most eminent preachers I know—a man of strange and wayward sublimity, who dwells in the pulpit as in a region of intellectual mist and darkness, illuminated at intervals by a startling conflagration of light—is in the habit of telling his hearers that every one of them, whether converted or not, has a religious history. I am inclined to believe that this is true of even the most godless man who has come to adult years, however much his soul be trodden into worldliness by respectable sin, or trampled into mire by the rush of swinish sensualities. There is a soft spot in every heart: would that we could find it! But the man guards it jealously and fiercely, with an instinctive feeling that this is the very citadel and sacred part of the soul, which no rude theological hands may touch, and no human eye must look upon. Pastors have many strange stories to tell of those who have worn, month after month and year by year, an aspect of utter composure or restless defiance, while all the while the inner spirit was trembling on the verge of convictions that came at last with a rush like a pent-up sea. Our theology recognises these admonitory feelings in the breast of the unconverted as dealings of God with man—as the strivings of His Divine Spirit, binding upon us a new responsibility, and conveying a special encouragement and call. We do not, therefore, feel it necessary to make any distinction among those whom we address, when we suggest to all who have had religious feelings or convictions of any sort, to give most earnest heed to these particular convictions and feelings, and to follow them forth. The danger of spiritual desultoriness is very great. In an age when the curse of itching ears is so common, when there are such endless opportunities for gratifying the prurient vagabondism of idle professors of the gospel, and innumerable utterances ready to drown, in excellent but irrelevant music, the still, small voice that has spoken to the heart, it comes to be really one of the most important practical advices that can be given to men, especially young men— When God puts a thread into your hand, follow it. Remember, the voice of conscience is an authoritative voice; and, among many truths, all equally revealed in the written "Word, that claims a rightful precedence in your regard which has come to you, not in word only, but with power. Do not be led away by every new form or phase in which truth is presented; do not alter your point of view with every change of ideas that others may bring before you. Especially, do not seek for such new ways ; above all, do not neglect the old. God has been dealing with you already from your childhood. All those old providences and experiences were the operation of His hand; it is His finger that has been laid upon your conscience, His light that has flashed upon your eye. All God's truth is venerable and sacred—manet in eternum; but the word that has been more specially spoken to you, is shall judge you at the last day. And as it is your duty to obey it, it is your wisdom. Many men can look back with the bitterest regret on wasted years, spent in a vain and idle running about from truth to truth, knocking first at one door of happiness and then at another, while no one opened unto us because we did not wait, and watch, and kneel at any one of them. And so that ancient doom has, in our modern days, become rather the rule than the exception, that men are '' ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth." It is not that men have too little light— they have too much, more than they know what to do with, or have honesty enough to meet. And when the light that is in us is darkness, how great is that darkness ! If men had grace given them wisely to discern what God requires of them—not of other men—and prayerfully and humbly to follow out and do that, their light would shine and broaden unto the perfect day. But when light outruns conscience, conscience becomes blind to light.

There are two directions in which danger may lie. First, there is the very great risk which men run by suppressing their own scruples of conscience, because they are not endorsed by Christians in general. It is in the inner world as in earthly battle-fields; the real contest is at a few points, and if these are lost or neglected, no matter how much else is gained. And what these points are, none knows but the man himself. How much would the world be astonished if it knew the trifles, as it might justly enough hold them, upon which the moral life of a human being may turn and hinge ; the strange personal scruples which have become to him the Hugoumont of his fate! But woe to him if he flinch from his post because he must maintain it alone! And ill for those through whose overbearing knowledge this weak brother perishes, for whom Christ died!

Then, secondly, there is the negative danger of not suppressing the voice of conscience, but neglecting or overlaying it; as when we let the afternoon sermon drive out the impression made by that of the forenoon, because the afternoon, equally with the forenoon discourse, is the truth of God; or go to a missionary meeting, and, in the abundance of intelligence and variety of motives presented, lose the too slight but genuine view that we already had of the nobility of the work. This danger of evaporation of religious feeling by spreading it over too broad a surface, is one well known in the experience of all ages. The complaint of Thomas a Kempis that the heart tends constantly to waste and dissipate itself on all around, [Defluere in omnia.] may recall to us the older prayer of a greater saint, ''Unite my heart to fear Thy name;" and both together suggest the desirableness for us weaker men of drawing our religious life into a comparatively narrow compass, and cultivating with care our own little vineyard in the great garden of the soul.

There is, of course, a danger of pushing this principle of individuality in religion too far, or, rather, of taking it up in a spurious and unworthy form. We may so entrench ourselves in ourselves as to lose all the rich blessings of Christian converse and communion. We may fall into a weak habit of undervaluing the most magnificent and glorious of all studies—the science of Christian theology. We may cut ourselves off, by our own folly, from many a help and comfort provided by the Lord of the way for the refreshment of pilgrims. We may stand alone, until we fall. Nor is this the only danger. There is much risk, in these days, of men hearkening to their own wayward fancies instead of to the revealed truth of God—of following a light within, distorted and refracted in the medium of their own minds, instead of that one light from heaven, "borrowed thence to light us thither." A well-known American preacher says finely, but not quite wisely, "A man has a right to picture God according to his need, whatever it be." True, provided the picturing be within that great and wondrous Name by the which He hath made Himself known, and not otherwise ; but within that Name, revealed in Christ, there are all riches and treasures of overflowing compassion and multitudinous grace, and help for every time of need. A better saying, and one more directly falling in with our too rambling suggestions, is that other, also from Ward Beecher's "Thoughts" — "Wherever you have seen God pass, mark it, and go and sit in that window again." Do not abuse other windows; do not undervalue any lattice from which the light of the Eternal Countenance may be discerned. But here you have met with God, and here you will often return, and look, and linger, and look again. It may be dim and dingy to others; to you it will be like the chamber where they laid Christian in the world-famous tale—it looked toward the sun-rising, "and the name of that chamber was Peace, and there he awoke and sang."


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