SERMON XXVIII. DARK TIMES
1 JOHN iv. 16-18.
We have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love but perfect love casteth out fear; because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.
Have we learnt this lesson? Our reading, and thinking, and praying, have been in vain, unless they have helped us to believe and know the love which God has to us. But, indeed, no reading, or thinking, or praying will teach us that perfectly. God must teach it us himself. It is easy to say that God is love; easy to say that Christ died for us; easy to say that God's Spirit is with us; easy to say all manner of true doctrines, and run them off our tongues at second-hand; easy for me to stand up here and preach them to you, just as I find them written in a book. But do I believe what I say? Do you believe what you say? There is an awful question. We believe it all now, or think we believe it, while we are easy and comfortable: but should we have boldness in the day of judgment?--Should we believe it all, if God visited us, to judge us, and try us, and pierce asunder the very joints and marrow of our heart with fearful sorrow and temptation? O Lord, who shall stand in that day?
Suppose, for instance, God were to take away the desire of our eyes, with a stroke. Suppose we were to lose a wife, a darling child; suppose we were struck blind, or paralytic; suppose some unspeakable, unbearable shame fell on us to-morrow: could we say then, God is love, and this horrible misery is a sign of it? He loves me, for he chastens me? Or should we say, like Job's wife, and one of the foolish women, 'Curse God and die?' God knows.
Ah, when that dark day seems coming on us, and bringing some misery which looks to us beforehand quite unbearable--then how our lip- belief and book-faith is tried, and burnt up in the fire of God, and in the fire of our own proud, angry hearts, too! How we struggle and rage at first at the very thought of the coming misery; and are ready to say, God will not do this! He cannot--cannot be so unjust, so cruel, as to bring this misery on me. What have I done to deserve it? Or, if I have deserved it, what have these innocents done? Why should they be punished for my sins? After all my prayers, too, and my church-goings, and my tryings to be good. Is this God's reward for all my trouble to please him? Then how vain all our old prayers seem; how empty and dry all ordinances. We cry, I have cleansed my hands in vain, and in vain washed my heart in innocency. We have no heart to pray to God. If he has not heard our past prayers, why should we pray anymore? Let us lie down and die; let us bear his heavy hand, if we must bear it, sullenly, desperately: but, as for saying that God is love, or to say that we know the love which God has for us, we say in our hearts, Let the clergyman talk of that; it is his business to speak about it; or comfortable, easy people, who are not watering their pillow with bitter tears all night long. But if they were in my place (says the unhappy man), they would know a little more of what poor souls have to go through: they would talk somewhat less freely about its being a sin to doubt God's love. He has sent this great misery on me. How can I tell what more he may not send? How can I help being afraid of God, and looking up to him with tormenting fear?
Yes, my friends. These are very terrible thoughts--very wrong thoughts some of them, very foolish thoughts some of them, though pardonable enough; for God pardons them, as we shall see. But they are real thoughts. They are what really come into people's minds every day; and I am here to talk to you about what is really going on in your soul, and mine; not to repeat to you doctrines at second-hand out of a book, and say, There, that is what you have to believe and do; and, if you do not, you will go to hell: but to speak to you as men of like passions with myself; as sinning, sorrowing, doubting, struggling human beings; and to talk to you of what is in my own heart, and will be in your hearts too, some day, if it has not been already. This is the experience of all REAL men, all honest men, who ever struggled to know and to do what is right. David felt it all. You find it all through those glorious Psalms of his. He was no comfortable, book-read, second-hand Christian, who had an answer ready for every trouble, because he had never had any real trouble at all. David was not one of them. He had to go through a very rough training--very terrible and fiery trials, year after year; and had to say, again and again, 'I am weary of crying; my heart is dry; my heart faileth me for waiting so long upon my God. All thy billows and storms are gone over me. Thou hast laid me in a place of darkness, and in the lowest deep.' -
Not by sitting comfortably reading his book, but by such terrible trials as that, was David taught to trust God to the uttermost; and to learn that God's love was so perfect that he need never dread him, or torment himself with anxiety lest God should leave him to perish.
Hezekiah felt it, too, good man as he was, when he was sick, and like to die. And it was not for many a day that he found out the truth about these dark hours of misery, that by all these things men live, and in all these things is the life of the Spirit.
And this was Jacob's experience, too, on that most fearful night of all his life, when he waited by the ford of Jabbok, expecting that with the morning light the punishment of his past sins would come on him; and not only on him, but on all his family, and his innocent children; when he stood there alone by the dark river, not knowing whether Esau and his wild Arabs would not sweep off the earth all he had and all he loved; and knowing, too, that it was his own fault, that he had brought it all upon them by his own deceit and treachery. Then, when his sins stared him in the face, and God rose up to judgment against him, he learnt to pray as he had never prayed before--a prayer too deep for words.
'And Jacob was left alone: and there wrestled a man with him till the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh; and the hollow of his thigh was out of joint as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, till thou bless me. And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of that place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.'
So it may be with us. So it must be with us, in the dark day when our faith is really tried by terrible affliction.
We must begin as Jacob did. Plead God's promises, confess the mercies we have received already. 'I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies which thou hast showed to thy servant.'
Ask for God's help, as Jacob did: 'Deliver me, I pray thee, out of the hand of Esau my brother.' Plead his written promises, and the covenant of our baptism, which tell us that we are God's children, and God our Father, as Jacob did according to his light--'And thou saidst, I will surely do thee good.'
So the proud angry heart will perhaps pass out of us, and we shall set ourselves more calmly to face the worst, and to try if God's promises be indeed true, and God be indeed as he has said, 'Love.'
But do not be astonished, do not be disheartened, if, when the trouble comes, there comes with it, as to Jacob, a more terrible struggle far, a struggle too deep for words; if you find out that fine words and set prayers are nothing in the hour of need, and that you will not be heard for your much speaking. Ah! the darkness of that time, which perhaps goes on for days, for months, all alone between you and God himself. Clergymen and good people may come in with kind words and true words: but they give no comfort; your heart is still dark, still full of doubt; you want God himself to speak to your heart, and tell you that he is love. And you have no words to pray with at last; you have used them all up; and you can only cling humbly to God, and hold fast. One moment you feel like a poor slave clinging to his stern master's arm, and entreating him not to kill him outright. The next you feel like a child clinging to its father, and entreating him to save him from some horrible monster which is going to devour it: but you have no words to pray with, only sighs, and tears, and groans; you feel that you know not what to pray for as you ought, know not what is good for you; dare ask for nothing, lest it should be the wrong thing. And the longer you struggle, the weaker you become, as Jacob did, till your very bones seem out of joint, your very heart broken within you, and life seems not worth having, or death either.
Only hold fast by God. Only do not despair. Only be sure that God cannot lie; be sure that he who cared for you from your birth hour cares for you still; that he who loved you enough to give his own Son for you hundreds of years before you were born, cannot but love you still; do not despair, I say; and at last, when you are fallen so low that you can fall no lower, and so weak that you are past struggling, you may hear through the darkness of your heart the still small voice of God. Only hold fast, and let him not go until he bless you, and you shall find with Jacob of old, that as a prince you have power with God and with man, and have prevailed. And so God will answer you, as he answered Elijah, at first out of the whirlwind and the blinding storm: but at last, doubt it not, with the still small voice which cannot be mistaken, which no earthly ear can hear, but which is more precious to the broken heart than all which this world gives, the peace which passes understanding, and yet is the surest and the only lasting peace.
But what is the secret of this strange awful struggle? Can you or I change God's will by any prayers of ours? God forbid that we should, my friends, even if we could; for his will is a good will to us, and his name is Love.
Do not be afraid of him. If you do, you are not made perfect in love; you have not yet learnt perfect the lesson of his great love to you. But what is the secret of this struggle? Why has any poor soul to wrestle thus with God who made him, before he can get peace and hope? Why is the trouble sent him at all? It looks at first sight a strange sort of token of God's love, to bring the creatures whom he has made into utter misery.
My friends, these are deep questions. There are plenty of answers for them ready written: but no answers like the Bible ones, which tell us that 'whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth; that these sorrows come on us, and heaviness, and manifold temptations, in order that the trial of our faith, being much more precious than that of gold, which perishes though it be tried with fire, may be found to praise, and honour, and glory at the appearance of Jesus Christ.' This is the only answer but it does not explain the reason. It only gives us hope under it. We do not know that these dreadful troubles come from God. The Bible tells us 'that God tempts no man; that he does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.' The Bible speaks at times as if these dark troubles came from the devil himself; and as if God turned them into good for us by making them part of our training, part of our education; and so making some devil's attempt to ruin us only a great means of our improvement. I do not know: but this I do know, the troubles are here, and God is love. At least this is comfortable, that God will let no man be tempted beyond what he is able: but will with the temptation make a way for us to escape, that we may be able to bear it. At least this is comfortable, that our prayers are not needed to change God's will, because his will is already that we should be saved; because we are on his side in the battle against the devil, or the flesh, or the world, or whatever it is which makes poor souls and bodies miserable, and he on ours: and all we have to do in our prayers, is to ask advice and orders and strength and courage from the great Captain of our salvation; that we may fight his battle and ours aright and to the end. And, my friends, if you be in trouble, if your heart be brought low within you, remember, only remember, who the Captain of our salvation is. Who but Jesus who died on the cross--Jesus who was made perfect by sufferings, Jesus who cried out, 'My God! my God! why hast thou forsaken me?'
If Christ had to be made perfect by sufferings, much more must we. If he needed to learn obedience by sorrow, much more must we. If he needed in the days of his flesh, to make supplication to God his Father with strong crying and tears, so do we. And if he was heard in that he feared, so, I trust, we shall be heard likewise. If he needed to taste even the most horrible misery of all; to feel for a moment that God had forsaken him; surely we must expect, if we are to be made like him, to have to drink at least one drop out of his bitter cup. It is very wonderful: but yet it is full of hope and comfort. Full of hope and comfort to be able, in our darkest and bitterest sorrow, to look up to heaven, and say, At least there is one who has been through all this. As Christ was, so are we in this world; and the disciple cannot be above his master. Yes, we are in this world as he was, and he was once in this world as we are, he has been through all this, and more. He knows all this and more. 'We have a High Priest above us who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, because he has been tempted in all things like as we are. yet without sin.'
Yes, my friends. Nothing like one honest look, one honest thought, of Christ upon his cross. That tells us how much he has been through, how much he endured, how much he conquered, how much God loved us, who spared not his only-begotten Son, but freely gave him for us. Dare we doubt such a God? Dare we murmur against such a God? Dare we lay the blame of our sorrows on such a God--our Father? No; let us believe the blessed message of our confirmation, which tells us that it is his Fatherly hand which is ever over us, and that even though that hand may seem heavy for awhile, it is the hand of him whose very being and substance is love, who made the world by love, by love redeemed man, by love sustains him still. Though we went down into hell, says David, he is there; though we took the wings of the morning, and fled into the uttermost part of the sea, yet there his hand would hold us, and his right hand guide us still. It is holding and guiding every one of us now, through storm as well as through sunshine, through grief as well as through joy; let us humble ourselves under that mighty hand, and it will exalt us in due time. He knows, and must know, when that due time is, and, till then, he is still love, and his mercy is over all his works.
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