Chapter I. The Groundwork of God's Character
IT is a just complaint against every existing phase of religion that it lacks in dynamic force expressing itself in that supreme degree of character which theoretically we all admit to be within the reach of the least and lowliest. The situation is all the more alarming because idealism in every conceivable form walks openly in our streets and decks itself in attractive garb. Now it appeals to us in the polished language of intellectual culture, now in the tempestuous oratory of emotional fervour, now in the clear-cut terms of ecclesiastical dogma. But the result is ineffective. It is not merely that society as a whole pursues a course of gilded paganism, but also--and this is the serious thing--that the Churches which proclaim holiness as their chief programme fail to deliver this treasure to those who truly hunger and thirst after righteousness. If the ecclesiastic lays it to the charge of the disciple that the fault is due to his apathetic reception of the truth, the disciple can justly retort that it is rather due to the apathetic, incomplete and uninspiring presentation of the truth. There are saints and many of them, thank God! But for the most part they are of the hidden sort. It is they who are the saving element in Christian society. An honest mind cannot fail to be perturbed because in the ranks of spiritual leaders there are so few who achieve great heights of moral and spiritual character. The Churches for the most part in their organic life accept average standards as being satisfactory. Most of them are controlled by gusts of thought and devotion. Some one produces a single phase of truth or of virtue or of both, and sets it walking down the public highway arm in arm with the Gospel, proclaiming it to be the whole instead of a meagre part of God's revelation. A crowd gathers and a following is created. The pathetic spectacle of arrested development is one of the commonest incidents of religious history. A catchword not only catches but also imprisons its victim. May it not be that in this readiness to accept a part for the whole is the cause of our spiritual slackness and stunted growth? We slight our capacity grievously when we allow ourselves to be satisfied with half-truths and isolated virtues. And we discredit the veracity and the capability of God Himself when we let our standards for the individual and for the social whole fall short of the rich expectations and promises with which He has strewn the ages.
It is one thing to recognize unpalatable fact as undeniable, and quite another to surrender ourselves to it as inevitable. Christianity demands of us honesty and reality as our primary volitional disposition, preparatory to our arming for battle and deploying our forces to win a victory over the average, as well as over the positively evil. It is fatalism that rests satisfied with the result of effort whatever that result may be. The one justification of Christianity is its unquenchable thirst for the best, its determined claim upon completeness according to God's explicit plan. It is necessary to say this in view of the recognition of the failure of Christians to be Christian, a recognition to which we are driven by the spectacle of modern life within and without the Churches. The duty of living men is to wipe out the blot which stains our generation. If historians of the future are compelled by the facts of the case to say that we split mankind into warring fragments by submission to the average and by devotion to the incomplete, it is incumbent upon us to compel them to add that we recognized our culpability and its cause, and that we flung ourselves adventurously in the direction of the complete.
The little Christian can, of course, pursue his little way in the seclusion of his sect, polishing his self-conscious culture and resting satisfied in his puny ideas of God and mankind. But we must try to drive him out of his small ways. We must rouse him to acceptance of massive responsibility for the betterment of Christendom, responsibility which will not break but which will make him. He must be shaken out of his prejudices into the broad freedom of fairness. All this can be accomplished without any sacrifice of that fine carving of character which Christian culture demands. Indeed, large views of life give new point and interest to moral and spiritual effort. The individual is revealed to be not an isolated statue but a pillar builded into a stately temple. Salvation of self is impossible without the intention to save society.
Is it unfair to say that the conventional Lenten appeal is largely ineffective in that it drives men too exclusively into the depressing realm of self-criticism looking toward self-improvement without at the same time letting loose upon them the whole flood of inspiring truth? It is a deepening consciousness of what God is and of what He expects and why, that alone can make penitence bear permanent fruit. We must have at hand a mountain of vision to climb as well as a valley in which to descend. There are two ways of progress, the self-conscious and the self-unconscious. The former lays emphasis on direct attack, the latter upon indirect attack. The one compels, the other invites. The one looks chiefly at self, the other looks chiefly at God. The former, unless it has the latter as its substructure, creates at best an unjoyous character; the latter, if it steadfastly refuses to sacrifice detail in its loyalty to vastness, walks with gleaming eye and buoyant step straight toward the goal. The purpose of these pages is to help men to a mountain top, where perhaps the vision will serve to make them remember themselves by forgetting themselves and find themselves by losing themselves in God and God's plan for them.
The beginning and the end of everything is to be found in God. He is the Author of life. It is He, therefore, who has supreme authority over us, for authority is the just prerogative and right of an author. From Him we came, in Him, consciously or unconsciously, we live, to Him we go. As a mere First Cause we may study Him out of sheer curiosity, but we are under no obligation to do so. Purely impersonal things are of only secondary importance to persons. But a First Cause who is responsible for the existence of personality must and does include and contain in Himself, in addition perhaps to much else, all that personality means and connotes. Possibly it is quite legitimate to speak of God as Personality--not as a Personality--though it is more accurate to think of Him as being the source of personality. The point to grasp is that in His creation of us He established a relationship between Himself and us which is organic, and which we are bound to perpetuate by the deliberate purpose of our wills. It is not we who by the action of our minds create God after our own image, but it is God who has created us after His image to be conformed to His likeness. Having created us, He clings to us in protective and formative love, looking for responsive and co-operative effort on our part.
Of course the greatest operative force in and behind life is God. Second to it comes our practical (as distinguished from our theoretical) conception of God, energized by faith declaring itself in works. God's plans, powerful as they are, are dependent for ultimate success on our energizing of them. Thy kingdom come, is impossible without, Thy will be done in earth as it is in Heaven. A wrong conception of God must mean a wrong conception of life. A partial, that is to say a sectarian, view of God issues in a mutilated view of life. Augustine, at a moment when his morals were corrupt said that his error was his God. He would seem to mean that there was a close and logical connection between what he thought of God's character and what he made of his own.
This is always and inevitably so. It is belief that rules the controlling faculties of man. If in our heart of hearts we think of God as mere justice, we will become mere slaves of duty or else try to run away from His wrath in bitter revolt. If we view Him as a revealer of ideals only, and not also as the force available to mankind to bring them to good effect, we will lapse into moral dreamers and be satisfied with thinking good rather than being and doing it. What we need is a whole conception of God, or a conception of whole God. This is not something which we can achieve in a single convulsive effort. But we must try to get a clear view of the groundwork of God's character on which to work out our personal relationship with Him.
That is the first and the important thing. Knowledge is a growth not an act. This is peculiarly true of fellowship between persons. To rest in one idea of God is to rest in error. We must move into new phases of His life incessantly, never allowing ourselves to confuse our conception of Him with Him. We must accept the penalty of possessing personality.
It has happened that, owing to the development of the modern nation, we have been accepting a national interpretation of God's character as being complete. In addition to the disablement resulting from this provincialism, we have had the conflicting ideas of Him promoted by the numerous Churches, no one of which is unbiased. The real reason why Christendom is divided is because of diverse and static conceptions of God.
It has been rightly maintained--and this is the meaning of catholicity--that safety so far as fundamentals are concerned is to be found in the universal. That which belongs to the totality of the ages is dependable, and gives us secure foothold for personal experience. There is such a thing as the groundwork of God's character. Upon it rests all else in eternity and time. It is the source from which reality flows, the foundation on which it stands. It is permanent and unchangeable. No opinion of ours can alter it. The most that a wrong conception of it can do is to help or hinder its complete working in the person who entertains the conception.
Because the groundwork of God's character is final, the most important errand in life is to discover and claim it as a personal possession after which to model the groundwork of our own character. The knowledge of God is not only life but also the highest kind of life, life eternal. Our working capital is our operative belief, our success as immortals rises and falls according to the measure of the knowledge of God there is in us. There is no possible escape from the unassailable logic of our Lord's conclusion: This is life eternal, that they should know Thee the only true God, and Him whom Thou didst send, even Jesus Christ.
Some one has finely, and, as it would seem, truly intimated that the groundwork of God's character is the Cross. [E. Herman in the Meaning and Value of Mysticism, the reading of which has coloured much that these pages contain.] Thinking, as is our custom, in terms of time, we may have reached the conclusion that it eventually became so, rather than that it was always so. A moment's reflection shows us that this could not be. We human beings are, or ought to be, becoming that which we as yet are not. God is only what He ever was. Revelation is never the taking on by God of some fresh attribute. It is the unveiling to our eyes of that which He always was, but which hitherto we have been unable to see. God lives in the present tense, so that it is always fitting to declare of Him that which is to be in the language of now. His completeness is not fluid. When once He has declared Himself there is no mistake to be corrected, no false expression to be recalled. This is equally true to the facts of historic revelation and of the progressive manifestations of God in individual experience. There may be expansion and development in the sense of our receiving larger views of unchanging reality. But God can never become in essence that which He has not always been. If in these pages words may at times be used as though their writer were oblivious to or forgetful of the fact, the real explanation is to be found in the inadequacy of language for the sublime task that has been set it. It is stimulating and provocative of spiritual effort to remember that our capacity is the full knowledge of God, that growing capacity involves growing knowledge, full capacity full knowledge.
We cannot afford to ignore or depreciate any revelation of God in the whole stretch of history of which the Bible is the representative volume. Men talk as though there were an Old Testament and a New Testament God, two distinct and somewhat contradictory beings. The Old Testament God is the New Testament God, the difference being that God, as revealed in the New Testament, is but the God of old with completer light shed upon His character. The groundwork of His character can be expressed in terms of the Cross in latter times only because it has always been in the form of the Cross. The Cross represents self-giving to the uttermost, with everything that dares to limit or aims to thwart it, defeated and destroyed. All else must be painted in on this background.
It is obligatory that personality, if it gives as personality, gives itself with and in its other gifts. God's first gift to man was His own nature. God identified man with Himself when He made him in His own image. All subsequent revelation is built on this great fact. God's a mightiness, His holiness, His justice, His mercy rest upon His self-giving to the uttermost. Another word for self-giving is service, and he who serves is a servant. It is startling but true to maintain that God has been, fundamentally and always, a servant, the servant of man. We call Him love. Service is love in active, intelligent operation.
From the beginning the claim on man for service by God has been based upon the service of man by God with the fulness of His nature. There has never been a moment in which God has expected or exacted from man anything which He Himself is not or does not. Having made us in the image of Himself, He could do nothing short of requiring us to live up to the inherent requirements of the Divine character. His struggle with the human race has been, and is, a struggle to identify, in all respects, the life of man with the life of God, individually and corporately. If wre complain that too much is expected of us and that the strain is excessive, reduced to its final elements our complaint is that we are made in God's image. God being what He is could not have made man anything but what he is.
It is customary to think of God as made known in the Old Testament as chiefly the God of might, holiness unapproachable, and austerity. But surely He is also portrayed there as the God of passionate gentleness and unspeakable patience. No literature in the world can produce such a splendour of compassion as shines from the pages of the Old Testament. Its groundwork is shaped in the form of a Cross, and the chief sufferer depicted is not man but God. His kingliness, His justice, His holiness, His almightiness are each and all called in to do men service. More than that, they are revealed to be the attributes of God, not in terms of formal theology but in the main in those of vivid, human experience looking toward the well-being of the race. The recognition of God as He is is required of us in order that we may become what we may be. There is no other route or method. God has bound up His fortunes, so to speak, with ours in the act of creation. It is not merely that our life must rise or fall with God's, but, as the experience of the Son of God as the Son of Man declares, God's life rises and falls with ours. All this the Old Testament shows. It was for that reason that it was written. It is stupid, self-conscious pride that leads us to think that God has told us the story of His life and being through history for His own aggrandizement. Our ways are not God's ways, our thoughts are not God's thoughts.
When God reveals Himself as King, He does so to establish the heights and depths of His service. For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. It is "unto us" that all this is. And note the element of giving or service in every member of His five-fold name. He ministers to the ecstatic part of our being as He flashes Himself before us in the baffling, dazzling, beckoning glory of Divine mystery: He is Wonderful. He sets flowing manward the flood of His wisdom, which is as honey to the mouth and as sunshine to the mind: He is Counsellor. He upholds with the unexcelled might of Supreme Sovereignty the fate of men and things; He is Mighty God. His character as the author and sustainer of His children is for ever and ever: He is Everlasting Father. He is dispenser and steward of that which is deeper than joy and as stable as eternity among the storm-tossed sons of mortality: He is Prince of Peace. Such is one flashlight vision of the God of the Old Testament.
Again, where can be found in human language a fairer picture of hovering solicitude, rivalling maternal tenderness than this?
The Lord's portion is his people:
Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.
He found him in a desert land
And in the waste howling wilderness:
He compassed him about, he cared for him,
He kept him as the apple of his eye:
As an eagle that stirreth up her nest,
That fluttereth over her young.
He spread abroad his wings, he took them,
He bare them on his pinions.
And who were the people whom He thus treated? Why just the same sort as ourselves, a people void of understanding, a perverse and crooked generation. Yet He was their Rock, a God of faithfulness and without iniquity. Just and right is He. This great song of Moses might belong to the repertory of the Christian mystics. It suggests the lovely language of Julian of Norwich: "This is a sovereign friendship of our courteous Lord that He keepeth us so tenderly while we be in sin; and furthermore He touches us full privily and sheweth us our sin by the sweet light of mercy and grace."
Just as the kingliness of God finds expression in royal service, so the humility of God descends to such depths of service that extremes meet, and in its own might it scales the absolute heights, and we learn that lowliness is the most regal of God's attributes. He was despised and rejected of men; a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet did we esteem Him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him: and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to His own way: and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
God, yes God, is on the Cross for the Cross is the groundwork of His being and always has been so. In His people He has always suffered in their sufferings with a degree of suffering that surpassed theirs. The pangs of time in their manifold and multitudinous manifestations dart through the eternal nature of God. God has made common lot with man.
O God, I praise Thee for Thy love--that which Thou art and without which Thou couldst not be God of man. Thy love controls and shapes Thy power so that Thy almighty hand never slips in its creative task but makes and moulds all things well. Thy love melts Thy disciplines into the gold of spiritual treasure, and distils the soft rain of compassion from the clouds of trouble. Nothing can escape the transfiguring touch of Thy love, love finding utterance in lowly, regal service. Under its reign the darkness becomes as the light, and the unseemly face of evil flees away in shame and defeat. O God, I praise Thee for Thy love which bathes mankind and me, even me.