Sermon XI. Review of Life.
Psalm 119: 59, 60.
"I thought on my ways and turned my feet unto Thy testimonies;
I made haste and delayed not to keep Thy commandments."
SUCH is the history of almost all solid conversion. The great destroyer of the souls of men, which throughout the whole world is so widely wasting, is not so much, wilful, deliberate sin, as thoughtlessness, Ripened sinfulness alone is deliberate, with forethought. Most sinners are plunged into sin unawares. Even habitual sinners are "overtaken," as they say, again and again. They are walking at random, with no guard over their senses, no heed to their companions, riot looking to their steps, and sin comes upon them, and ere they know it, has the mastery over them. They flee not occasions of sin; trust themselves very near it; Satan, unseen, drives them on; the place whereon they stand is slippery; they fall in. They know not themselves, nor the strength of temptation, nor the deceitfulness of Satan, nor their own weakness, nor the Strength and Help of God; and, while they think they stand, they are fallen. The last act is very seldom in a person's own power. No one, hardly, purposes to be drunken; few in their first fall, perhaps for many, mean to be wholly impure. And yet any one would say, that it was a very miracle of Grace, if one, on the verge of deadly sin, were stopped and saved.
To sin with forethought is with a high hand to part with the very principle of good, to defy the Majesty of God, and to dare His Almightiness. We should rightly think it a very heavy increase of sin, were any to do it with full forethought and consciousness. We speak of such acts as of unwonted malignity. Deliberate murder makes the blood run cold. Almost all, bad as they might themselves be, think that any who could plan to destroy or lead astray female purity, had a beast's heart and a beast's nature, not man's. Wilful drunkenness would be a revolting extreme of sottishness. No one could come at once to purposed deadly sin. It is not, then, plea enough even before ourselves, (bribed and drugged as people's consciences often are), that the deadly sin was not planned beforehand. Ye may have pleaded this too often for yourselves; when the case is not your own, ye see that the plea will not stand.
Forethought heightens the sin, so much so, that of many sins persons could not bring themselves to think beforehand. They will even blind themselves, resolve not to see, will not look in the face what they are about to do, lest they should not dare to do it, if they saw it. They will not think that they are about to do it, will persuade themselves that they are not, will look away from it, until they are close upon it, and then it is done. Nay, they will again and again begin on the course which ever ends in it, and think they will stop short this time, though they never did before; or they will think of something short of it, in order not to think of the sin itself. Thus, a young person tempted to lie, will resolve not to think whether it will lie or no, until the very moment, that the lie may be told, without steadily thinking on it. People go to rest prayerless again and again, thinking they may say their prayers, without the effort or solemn act of kneeling, although they know how often they have thus fallen asleep, with scarce one thought of asking pardon, or God's Fatherly care. They will put off duties, although they know that this always ends in their not doing them, because they will not do them, yet dare not say, "I will not." They say, "I go, Sir," and go not.
Or, they will hurry to their sin, as even Judas did to that last sin, which filled up the measure of his wickedness. "He went immediately out," the Gospel says, "and it was night." He could not bear to stay in the Presence of his Master, Whom he would betray; to stay was to be drawn back; so he burst at once the bonds of love, whereby his Lord would have held him, and "went out." And sinners now go forth quickly out of themselves, that they may escape the Presence of God within them, rebuking them. They will sin hastily, impetuously, in order to avoid the struggle of conscience. They will not part with their purpose; yet, till they are quite hardened, it is a pain to sin against their Good God and Father; and so they will not take time to think what they are doing, because it is a torture to think that they are about to do evil, and yet to do it. "It was night," when Judas went out to betray his Good Master. He could not bear to look on his deed. Many sins are wrought by night, that people may hide themselves from themselves yet more than from others. So rare, at least until the heart is seared, and hardened, and inured to sin, is conscious, full, wilful sin. It is the very business of sinners to forget themselves and drown their memory. They hate to be by themselves, lest silence and stillness should force thought, and thought should reveal to them that fearful sight, themselves. Any thing better than to be alone! for to be alone is to be brought before themselves. Any toil or weariness, or wearisome society, sooner than to be left alone! lest, when all is hushed, thought should awake, and God speak through it, and they be forced to hear.
Such wilful ignorance of self is indeed real knowledge. To close one's own eyes against the light, is to see that, against which men shut them. It is no excuse before God; yea, it is man's very condemnation, that he will not see, will not hear, will not hearken, will not understand, "lest he should be converted, and God heal him." Yet it shows how sorely sin is against the remains of God's Image in us, and His Pleadings in our consciences, and the Graces of His Spirit, that even practised sinners find it hard to sin with their eyes fully open, until, when quite hardened, they glory in it. While man yet feels sin to be an evil, he shrinks from thinking of it, or that he will do it, or has done it; until he is quite blinded, and puts good for evil and evil for good, counts God's Law an evil, his own passions a good or his god. Until then, even habitual sinners blind, deafen, make pleas to, cozen themselves, that what they do is not sin, until they have done it; and then, they strive to forget it.
Since, then, persons come so slowly to full deliberate sin, what is the parent of this mass of sins wherewith we are encompassed? what is it which, day by day, is destroying souls? Thoughtlessness. At first, sinners do not think; then, they will not think: at last, they cannot think. "Let us drive away care, drown care "is the very invitation of sinners to one another, to forget themselves and God, and steep themselves in forgetfulness. The world invites them out of themselves; Satan shews them in his mirror, glories, beauties, enjoyments, for a long time to come; he goes before them, and his flock, "the flock of the slaughter," follow him; he is merry with them, applauds them, echoes their laugh, heightens their feasts, inflames them, makes the wine sparkle and give its colour aright, dances before them, until, in mirth and revelry, and forgetfulness of self, they dance after him, to the brink of Hell. "The harp and the viol, the tabret and pipe and wine are in their feasts," says the Prophet Isaiah; but what follows? "they regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation of His Hands." "The voice of harpers and musicians, and of pipers, shall no more be heard in her," is part of the woe on that great city, the city of the world, Babylon; the revelry whereby the world deadens the soul and would drown the Voice of God. And what is the last end of the world, when "like a snare it shall come upon the face of the whole world?" We know that in the last days "perilous times shall come," and "iniquity shall abound," and men shall be "lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of the good, traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God. "Yet our Lord, in foretelling the Day of Judgment, does not mark out any of these, or even any open sins. He warns us against that one sin which shall run through all the rest, "thoughtlessness;" thought (that is) of the things of this life, thoughtlessness of Him their Maker, and of the end of their being, and wherein it should end, in Heaven or Hell. "Ash it was in the days of Noe, so shall it also be in the days of the Son of Man. They did eat, they drank; they married wives, they were given in marriage; until the day when Noe entered into the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise also, as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank; they bought, they sold; they planted, they builded;" things of every day, which needs must be every day, yet all, things of time and sense, which men might perform as God wills, but wherein they do forget Eternity and God.
This is the history of most of mankind; a thoughtless childhood, careless youth, too thoughtful manhood; one half of life without thought, the other with misplaced thought; thoughtful of things of time and sense, thoughtless of Him Who made them and of their real selves. What does almost every countenance we see in this vast thronging city, rude or refined, express, but thoughtlessness or a wrong thoughtfulness, a vacant, self-enjoying look, or carefulness about things of this life? So rare is thoughtfulness, that if any look thoughtful, men think he' must have some sorrow. To be what Scripture calls "grave," is to have some hidden anxiety or grief. To be a "serious" person is a name of reproach. To be careful about the soul, is to be fain to be better than others. "Man1 walketh to and fro in a vain show, "an image, shadow, sporting himself with, following after, grasping at, shadows, and himself becoming-like them; bearing about him the image of things Divine, himself the image of God, yet by his own acts encrusting, and covering over, and burying that Image with mire and clay, or wearing it offline by line, until there remain only, what shall mark him as a deserter, not what shall be owned by Him Who placed it on him.
We speak of childhood as a thoughtless age. Wherein is its thoughtlessness shewn? They are readily amused by whatever comes before them, live in the present, forget the past, fear not and take no thought for the future, fear not danger although close to them, think nothing will hurt them which pleases them, exchange readily one enjoyment for another, hope that to-morrow will be as glad as to-day, and gladder. Wherein does this their thoughtlessness differ from that of most of their elders, except in innocence and purity, and simplicity, and ready forgetfulness of wrong? What is all their thoughtlessness but what is daily and hourly repeated by their elders? Or do they think less of the morrow of this life, than their elders of the One Morrow, which knows no morrow, the Morrow of Eternity? are they more intent on their toys, than their elders on toys as vain and empty, yet less innocent? Are they less thoughtless as to present danger, than their elders as to the ever-present danger of Hell? They will be warned not to take what hurts the body; Prophets, Apostles, Ministers of Christ, our Blessed Lord Himself, in His Bodily Presence, His Sufferings, His Deeds of Love, His Words, the pleadings of His Spirit, have and do warn their elders in vain. Wherein are children thoughtless, and their elders not more deadlily?
What is the life of most men, even when free from overt, deadly, sin? What is it, even if they are in some degree engaged in works of their calling, in things in which they might please God, and, through the Blood of their Redeemer, gain Heaven? How very few are they who, in the morning, ever set steadily before themselves the temptations, duties, of the day; in what things they most often fail; wherein they can amend; and form one earnest purpose to give themselves during the day to God, and shape the actions of the day as shall please Him! How very few enter upon any of their every day trials, (however often they may have failed), with prayer to God for help! How few with any preparation at all! How few even know what some of their chiefest trials are! How few know, except in some halfway, that they have even failed at all! Almost every command of God is broken, almost every deadly sin committed, people are covetous, luxurious, slothful, envious, proud, angry, gluttonous, they speak ill of others, or against them, irreverently, vainly; and know not that they have done so. What is almost all conversation almost everywhere, but a breach of the law of love, so that if a person would escape sin, lie can hardly speak of all the world speaks of? And yet scarce any even doubt whether they are sinning! Act follows on act, and word on word, chasing one another, sweeping over one another, like wave on wave; and what remains in the memory? How few call themselves really, evening by evening, to any account! It were not too much to say that many or most know more of the state of others' souls than of their own, and care more to know it, "curious to know the lives of others, slothful to amend their own." [S. Aug. Conf. x. 3.]
Yet what should you think, brethren, of one who left his house or any thing he does value, as unguarded as men are daily content to leave their souls? What of one who took no more account of his worldly affairs, day by day, or year by year? What of any who awaited with just as much care, the inroad of enemies, who would wreak on you, your wives and children, the horrors we read of in Holy Scripture? And is then that thought with regard to the soul, which would be thoughtlessness as to body, or estate? is that watchfulness as to the deadly enemy of our soul, which would be recklessness as to bodily foes? are Heaven and Hell, God and Satan, everlasting joy and woe, God's Promises and His Threats a dream? or are men thoughtlessly dreaming on to the very brink of Hell?
And so, in His Mercy, lest, with Dives, we should awake too late in torments, God breaks in upon our dream, and the first step in turning back to Him, is that He turns men back into themselves. "I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto Thy testimonies." Before this, then, he had not thought on them. "My ways;" there are, then, divers ways, ways which are not right, ways which are "clean in a man's own eyes," but not in His Who trieth the hearts; ways which "seem right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death;" a broad, easy, way, whereat, our Blessed Lord warns us, many go in, but it "leadeth to destruction." And so this man of God, lest he should be on some of these evil ways, took account of his ways; and well was it, and of the Grace of God, for he adds, "and I turned my feet unto Thy testimonies." Before, then, they were not so turned. He speaks not only of striking nearer and closer into the very centre of the narrow way, lest, if we remain oil its edge, we slip unperceived out of it; but of being altogether out of the way, "I turned," (it is the very same word as "conversion" or "turning unto the Lord our God") "I turned my feet unto Thy testimonies;" they were then, before, turned other ways, and out of the ways of God's Law, since they were now to be turned unto them. And yet more, he adds, "I hasted, and lingered not to keep Thy commandments," as one who had, for a long time, perhaps his whole life, been wandering unawares out of God's ways, and now found himself in a far country, and much way to recover, and a brief time to do it, and the night perhaps at hand, "in which no man can work," but where he should be found in death, there he should awake to Judgment. The holy words contain yet more, "I thought," or, more fully in God's Own language, "I took account of," "reckoned up," "calculated" "my ways;" for our ways, although leading in one direction, are many; there are as many ways as there are acts, or passions, or temptations; and he "reckoned them up" and "took account of" them all, whither they were all leading, to turn them all and his whole self into the way of God. He would, henceforth, not try to walk on two ways, as so many do, unwilling to part wholly with God, or yet with their sins; to walk, as it were, to Heaven with one foot, and to Hell with the other; for what else does he try to do, who would wilfully reserve part of his obedience, in some things serve God, in the rest himself? He wished henceforth to give himself wholly to God, and so he reviewed all, took account of all, lest anything should escape him, and lie slip back to evil. And so also, he counted them up before God, as it was said before, in this same Psalm, "I have acknowledged my ways, and Thou heardest me: O teach me Thy statutes." "I acknowledged," and more exactly yet, "I recounted my ways;" "recounted" them there, as he "accounted" them here; recounted, one by one, his own ways, in sorrow before God. "I recounted my ways;" and what else are "our ways" but our sins? for they are all the ways of our own wilfulness, and any good in us is not ours, but God's. As a father briefly says, "I confessed my ways. Thou heardest, forgavest, effacedst them; teach me Thine, not to know them only, but to do them."
Such, brethren, is the way of all solid conversion to God. He chooses different ways of turning us. He is very patient with us. Some turn faster, some slower; some were not turned so far away, or for so long a time, or did not so wholly turn their backs upon God; some have, perhaps, scarcely perceived the steps whereby they had been brought back. Yet this is the history of almost all who have been deeply turned to God at all. God met them in their way, where they were going. He, in Whom we are, met them mostly in merciful displeasure, as they turned from Him, that they might turn to Him, and find Him in love. He meets us thus, in sickness, sorrow, failure of our hopes, loss of those we love, aching of the heart, or summoneth us before Him by some stronger thrill or pang of conscience, by fear of death or hell, and asketh us, "Whose art thou? whence comest thou? whither goest thou?" He stands in the way, as the Angel before Balaam, and brings us to a stand. And so He sends us back into ourselves, casts some ray of light into our souls, lights up before us past and to come, how our ways have been turned from Him, and whither they lead, until we shrink back in terror from the pit of Hell to which they were tending. He has doubtless called many by these very words. "I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto Thy testimonies." If for one by whom God vouchsafed to speak, who had promised to keep God's law, who had chosen the better part and God for his own, and could say those great words, "Thou, (not any created thing, but) Thou, Thyself, art my Portion, O Lord," if for such an one it had not been safe to go on, but he had had to think on and recount his ways, and so to turn to God, how shall it be for me?
How can it be safe for us, brethren, not to know, as fully as we can, our past lives? how can we be forgiven our sins, unless we repent of them? or repent of them, unless we know them? or know them, unless we think on them? or do ye think that because ye know, in a general way, where ye passed your lives, what has been your outward calling, your bodily employment, with whom ye have lived, conversed, yea, the changes of your circumstances, therefore ye know your inward lives? Your lives are not the mere outward life of the body; they are chiefly the life of the soul; not merely what we did, spake, thought, but why we did what we did, whether we lived, acted, thought, with a view to God, or to the world and ourselves. If the Psalmist knew not of his ways before he thus pondered, weighed them, if, before this, he was on a wrong way, if the greater part of mankind are deceiving themselves, thinking that they shall be saved, while they are yet on "the broad way which leadeth to destruction," yea, and even think themselves safe, because they are on the broad way, and do as others do, are not singular, are with the many who go to destruction, how can we think that we are safe, if we "think" not "on our ways?"
On the contrary, all, probably, who ever thought on their ways, have found with the Psalmist, that they before deceived themselves. It is of us that the Psalmist chiefly speaks; for us, that God put it into his mouth so to speak, that we, taking his words into ours, might bear witness to ourselves. We repeat, month by month, or some, day by day, to God, "I thought on my ways and turned my feet unto Thy testimonies;" we confess what is needful to us, if we have not done it; what is true, and a blessing to us, if we have. It is mostly by little steps that people go out of the way. Even great falls are prepared by many little ones. They hold little things of no account, and so, as the Wise man saith, "they fall by little and little." And thus, they know not when they went out of God's Way, because, perhaps, their whole life has been, step by step, a going out of His Way. The ways of life and death part most often at what seems at first something very slight. They will seem to go on, long time, side by side: and even to the last, they who think not on their ways will not see that they have parted, because to them, not observing whither they were going, the ways have widened slowly. Yet, in the end, they are as wide apart as that wherein they end, Heaven or Hell.
Ye often see images of this, how very little two ways part, yet he who hath entered on the one will never reach his home, if it be on the other, unless he retrace his way, or strike back out of that which he has chosen amiss.
We cannot understand what we are now, unless we look back, as far as we may, on all we have been. The same state in outward shew, will be very different as men are sinking down or rising up, going on or returning. Two men may be alike out of the road; yet if the one is leaving the right road, the other striking back into it, their ends will be very different. This or that act may be a sin of weakness, or negligence, or ignorance; but if often repeated, and not repented, it will be known sin. And so people cheat themselves. They will not see their whole selves. They will forget that to-day's act of gluttony, or levity, or self-will, or seeking man's praise, if it be added to those of former days, is not merely a slight sin, but is making them what Scripture calls gluttons, or vain or heady persons. They will not see that each fresh, unrepented sin, is one step more out of the way, one step more on the way to Hell. They will not look back, lest they should see how far out of the way they are, how much they must undo. Yet believe this, my brethren, it is the fruit of experience. Whosoever, I may say, has not, all his life through, been taking heed to his ways, and has, at whatever time, been brought, by the Grace of God, to look back on his whole past life, has found much evil, which he thought not of; much or most which he thought to be good, to be at least mixed up with, and spoiled by, real evil. Very many have found that they were on the way to Hell, when they thought they were on the way to Heaven, because they could not part with the hope of it. If this have been so with others, why should it not be with thee? If all who look not into themselves, forget themselves, are ignorant of themselves, whence knowest thou thyself? If others were, unknowing, on the brink of Hell, how knowest thou that it is not just before thy feet? There are many ways to Hell; one only to life; the way is narrow; not to take heed, is to miss it; "the snares of death encompass us;" not to take heed, is to fall into them. Not fully to know thyself, as far as thou canst, is to walk blindly on a precipice, where to fall, is to perish for ever.
Be not disheartened, because it seems so great a task to review the ways of a whole life, in which, perhaps, some of us could not recal distinctly one single day. God asketh of thee what thou canst do, not what thou canst not; and what God teacheth to do, He enables to do, as far as is needed. If we do what we can, He Who, by His Grace, enables us to do it, and, for His Mercy's sake, accepts it, will, "out of the exhaustless Fountain of His Mercy and the Treasure of His Merits," supply what is lacking-, either to our knowledge of our sins or to our repentance. Our ways, entangled though they have been, will not seem so, if we set ourselves steadily to look at them; and He Who, in the Judgment Day, will lay them open to those who know them not here, will, if we pray, lay them open to us now, that we see them not to our endless shame then.
Only be in earnest, and pray to be so. Look back into thyself; bring, as well as thou canst, thy past life before thee, or throw thyself back into it. Something which has been amiss in thee, which has not been according to the law of God, will mostly stand out before thee; trace it back into its first beginnings, (it is almost always some sin of childhood), see how much of life perhaps it stained, whether it is wholly mastered now, whether it be in thee in some other form still, what other sins it branched out into. Or try to bring before you your earliest life. Recall in it any one fault you can remember. It was, too likely, the first parting from the law of God. The sins of childhood are the images and shadows of the deeper sins of the full-grown being. Some deceit to cover a childish fault, some wrong curiosity, some unchecked feeling of envy or jealousy, some indulged anger, or wrong desire of human praise, or vanity, some preference of self or emulation of others, have been, alas too often the forerunners of years of deadly sin, or of a wrong aim in all life, of direct evil, or the eating out and cankering of that which was good.
Do this, in mind, under the Eye of your Merciful Redeemer. Pray Him, Who searcheth the hearts and reins, to lay open thine own to thee, and to have compassion on thee. It may be that thou wilt find what thou hast hitherto thought good in thee, melt away before the fire of His Holy Presence. Yet, even thus, own unto Him, that "thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked," and buy of Him, as He biddeth thee, "gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich, and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and the shame of thy nakedness do not appear, and anoint thine eyes with eye-salve, that thou mayest see." It may be that thou wilt find thyself from head to foot a leper, almost thy whole self tainted with the leprosy of some prevailing sin; yet, even thus, fall down before Him, with the leper in the Gospel, and say "Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean, "and He will say unto thee also, "I will; be thou clean. "It would bring but despair to review our sins, except, as St. Mary Magdalene, at the Foot of His Cross. It will deepen thy penitence, while it sustains thee;--deepen thy penitence, since thy sins nailed Him there, and thou perhaps hast crucified Him afresh, and wasted in thyself the Price of His Blood; It will sustain thee, since for thee He was crucified, for thee on the Cross He prayed, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."
He, Who hath prayed for thee, will strengthen thee. Only, when thy heart is set at liberty, pray that thou mayest "run the way of God's Commandments." "Make haste and delay not to keep God's Commandments." Nothing besides lingers. Time is sweeping by. Thy life hasting away. The Day of Judgment is drawing on. Eternity is at hand. The Judge is at the door. Year by year whirls on more rapidly. Thy way, if it be not turned backward to God, is hurrying thee more onward, away from Him and to the pit. If not nearer, day by day it becomes further. Most have lost too much time already. Thou must feel thyself far short of that measure, which God in the Eternal Purpose of His Goodness intended for thee. Thou canst not think that thou wast made in the Image of God, redeemed by the Precious Blood of Christ, endowed with His Spirit, called to His Faith, waited for by His Grace, watched over by His Providence, tended by Angels, chosen to be set among them in His Presence in Everlasting Bliss, to enter into the Joy of thy Lord, and be nothing more than now thou art!
Choose then, with steadfast heart, Him Who hath chosen thee; love Him Who hath loved thee. "Make haste and delay not." Pray Him to draw thee, that thou mayest run after Him; lay aside every weight, that thou mayest run; and He will give thee strength that "thou shalt run and not be weary, walk and not faint." "He will bear thee up, that thou dash not thy foot against a stone." "Thou shalt tread on the Lion and the Dragon," through Him, Who trode them under His Feet, that He might tread them under thine. He will give thee "Grace for grace," lead thee "from strength to strength." He, if in earnest thou seek Him now, and give thyself wholly to Him, will give thee back all thou hast lost; the Grace thou hast wasted; the Love thou hast chilled; the Purity thou hast stained; His Spirit Which thou hast grieved. He, in the residue of thy years, will accomplish in thee all His Work, will form thee to the full stature of His Grace and Love for Which He made thee, that thou mayest love Him "with an everlasting love," in overflowing joy, and transporting glory, and never-sating, ever-satisfying bliss, in Himself, The Fountain of all Bliss and all Good.