Great Texts of the Bible
But this I say, brethren, the time is shortened, that henceforth both those that have wives may be as though they had none; and those that weep, as though they wept not; and those that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and those that buy, as though they possessed not; and those that use the world as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away.—1 Corinthians 7:29-31.
The subject of this chapter is marriage. But marriage is part of a larger subject. The great question agitating the Corinthians is whether a man should, on becoming a Christian, maintain the occupations and relationships which he entered into previously. The Apostle’s answer is, Yes: “Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called.” Let the slave remain a slave, though he may take advantage of an honourable opportunity of becoming free. Let those who are married remain married, and those who are unmarried remain unmarried. “But this I say”—there is a change of word (from λέγω to φημί), in order probably to give special emphasis to the assertion—“But this I do declare: though I counsel none to change their state, I counsel all to change their attitude towards these and all other earthly things.”
And what are the earthly interests towards which Christian men are to change their attitude? He names marriage, weeping, rejoicing, buying, and the use of the world generally. But how is this possible? Because the time is short—literally “is shortened, abridged”—there is no very long time now for any one to feel the duty of detachment irksome. And finally there is wisdom in it, for this world is neither essential nor enduring—“the fashion of this world passeth away.”
Thus the subject is detachment from the world. There is mentioned—
I. An Encouragement to Detachment.
II. Three Relationships of life towards which the Detachment may be practised:—
2. Sorrowing and Rejoicing.
III. A general Direction regarding the proper Attitude to the World.
IV. A good Reason for this Attitude.
Christianity is a spirit, not a law; it is a set of principles, not a set of rules; it is not a saying to us, You shall do this, you shall not do that—you shall use this particular dress, you shall not use that—you shall lead, you shall not lead, a married life. Christianity consists of principles, but the application of those principles is left to every man’s individual conscience. With respect not only to this particular case, but to all the questions which had been brought before him, the Apostle applies the same principle; the cases upon which he decided were many and various, but the large, broad principle of his decision remains the same in all. You may marry, and you have not sinned: you may remain unmarried, and you do not sin; if you are invited to a heathen feast, you may go, or you may abstain from going; you may remain a slave, or you may become free; not in these things does Christianity consist. But what it does demand is this: whether married or unmarried, whether a slave or free, in sorrow or in joy, you are to live in a spirit higher and loftier than that of the world.1 [Note: F. W. Robertson.]
An Encouragement to Detachment
“The time is shortened.”
1. There is no tremor of dismay or sadness in the voice. St. Paul was in the midst of work, full of the interest and joy of living, holding the reins of many complicated labours in his hands, and he quietly said, “This is not going to last long. Very soon it will be over.” It is what men often say to themselves with terror, clutching all the more closely the things which they hold, as if they would hold on to them for ever. There is nothing of that about St. Paul. And on the other hand, there is nothing of morbidness or discontent, no rejoicing that the time is short, and wishing that it were still shorter. There is no hatred of life which makes him want to be away. There is no mad impatience for the things which lie beyond. There is simply a calm and satisfied recognition of a fact. There is a reasonable sense of what is good and dear in life, and yet, at the same time, of what must lie beyond life, of what life cannot give us. It is as when the same pen wrote those sublime and simple words, “This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality”; the quiet statement of a great, eternal necessity, at which the wise man must feel the same kind of serious joy as that with which he follows the movements of the stars, and looks to see day and night inevitably give place to one another.
2. It does not matter what St. Paul was thinking of when he said the time was short. He may have had his mind upon the death which they were all approaching. He may have thought of the coming of Christ, which he seems to have expected to take place while he was yet alive. We cannot be quite certain which it was. And perhaps the very vagueness about this helps us to his meaning. For he is not, evidently, dwelling upon the nature of the event which is to limit the “time,” only upon the simple fact that there is a limit; that the period of earthly life and work lies like an island in the midst of a greater sea of being, the island of time in the ocean of a timeless eternity; and that it is pressed upon and crowded into littleness by the infinite. Not the shore where the sea sets the island its limits, but only the island in the sea, hearing the sea always on its shores; not the experience by which this life should pass into another, but only the compression and intensifying of this life by the certainty that there is another; not death, but the shortness of life—that is what his thoughts are fixed upon, and it is of this that the best men always think the most.
3. Time is short in reference to two things.
(1) First, it is short in reference to the person who regards it,—That mysterious thing Time is a matter of sensation, and not a reality; a modification merely of our own consciousness, and not actual existence; depending upon the flight of ideas—long to one, short to another. The span granted to the butterfly, the child of a single summer, may be long; that which is given to the cedar of Lebanon may be short. The shortness of time, therefore, is entirely relative, belonging to us, not to God.
In poetry and ordinary talk, we are obliged to look at time as an agent in itself; but in reality time does nothing and is nothing; we use it as an easy familiar expression for all those causes which are working slowly, and which we cannot see. Unless some positive cause is in action, no change takes place even in a thousand years. There are probably empty regions in the universe where no light comes, and nothing occurs; in such places there can be no time. It is simply that we are here, and that things are happening around us. The earth has gone a certain course round the sun, and brought us again to the same point where we were twelve months ago. We have for 365 days been careering through different parts of space. That is the meaning of a year. We are only allowed to join in the career, and to come back to the same point a certain number of repetitions in our lives—the same point, I mean, in reference to the solar system; but the solar system itself is moving onward through space. During each period, certain causes are leading either to the completion, the maintenance, or the decay of our bodies; and after we have spun round with our little globe for some 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, or at the most 100 circuits, then comes the end. We can see no further. Others take our place, and we are what is called dead.1 [Note: W. M. Sinclair, A Young Man’s Life, 126.]
There is a little insect that crawls upon the trees, and creeps, in one short day of ours, through all the experiences of life from birth to death. In a short twenty-four hours his life begins, matures and ends—birth, youth, activity, age, decrepitude, all crowded and compressed into these moments that slip away uncounted in one day of our human life. Is his life long or short? Is our life long or short to him? If he could realize it by any struggle of his insect brain, what an eternity our threescore years and ten must seem to him! And then lift up your eyes, lift up your thoughts, and think of God. How does the life that has any limits appear to Him? Nothing short of eternity can seem long to Him. He sees the infant’s life flash like a ripple into the sunlight of existence and vanish almost before the eye has caught it. And He sees Methuselah’s slow existence creep through its nine hundred and sixty-nine years, and find, at last, the grave which had stood waiting so long. Is there a real difference in the length of these two lives to Him? A little longer ripple is the life of the patriarch than was the life of the baby, that is all. What do we mean, then, by the shortness of our human life? To the ephemera it looks like an eternity; to God it looks like an instant. Evidently these attributes of length and shortness must be relative; they are not absolute.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks.]
An illusion haunts us, that a long duration, as a year, a decade, a century, is valuable. But an old French sentence says, “God works in moments”—“En peu d’heure Dieu labeure.” We ask for long life, but ‘tis deep life, or grand moments that signify. Let the measure of Time be spiritual, not mechanical. Life is unnecessarily long. Moments of insight, of fine personal relation, a smile, a glance—what ample borrowers of eternity they are!2 [Note: Emerson.]
(2) Again, time is short with reference to its opportunities.—For this is the emphatic meaning in the original—literally, “the opportunity is compressed, or shut in.” Time may be long, and yet the opportunity may be very short. The sun in autumn may be bright and clear, but the seed which has not been sown until then will not vegetate. A man may have vigour and energy in manhood and maturity, but the work which ought to have been done in childhood and youth cannot be done in old age. A chance once gone in this world can never be recovered.
An Italian superstition of the Middle Ages engaged with wonderful success the pencil of Watts while he was sojourning in Florence, and in it he who had been the pupil of Phidias in the study of the Elgin marbles at home, became the worshipper of Tintoretto in Italy. The Fata Morgana which Boiardo in his Orlando Innamorato imagined as a siren, fleeing from the pursuit of a knight, he embodies with a singular deftness. She is depicted as having reached a thicket of dense foliage, and the knight has almost grasped the hem of her crimson robe when she flees still further from him with a mischievous glance which mocks all his eager efforts. It was a superstitious notion among the Italian peasants that this mystic being could only be effectually caught by having the lock of her forehead seized with a firm grasp. What is this but virtually saying in finer form, what time, and every opportunity which it brings, is preaching to us in loud tones—to seize it by the forelock and hold it fast, otherwise it will escape and we shall lose it for ever?3 [Note: H. Macmillan, The Life-Work of George Frederick Watts, 171.]
Iron passes into the furnace cold and unyielding; coming out it quickly cools and refuses the mould; but midway is a moment when fire so lends itself to iron, and iron so yields its force to flame that the metal flows like water. This brief plastic moment is the inventor’s opportunity, when the metal will take on any shape for use or beauty. Similarly the fields offer a strategic time to the husbandman. In February the soil refuses the plough, the sun refuses heat, the sky refuses rain, the seed refuses growth. In May comes an opportune time when all forces conspire towards harvests; then the sun lends warmth, the clouds lend rain, the air lends ardour, the soil lends juices. Then must the sower go forth and sow, for nature whispers that if he neglects June he will starve in January. The planets also lend interpretation to this principle. Years ago astronomers were sent to Africa to witness the transit of Venus. Preparations began months beforehand. A ship was fitted up, instruments were packed, the ocean was crossed, a site selected, and the telescopes were mounted. Scientists made all things ready for that opportune time when the sun, Venus, and the earth should all be in line. That critical moment was very brief. Instinctively each astronomer knew that his eye must be at the small end of the glass when the planet went scudding past the large end. Once the period of conjunction had passed no machinery would offer itself for turning the planet back upon her axis. Not for astronomers only are the opportune times brief.1 [Note: N. D. Hillis, The Investment of Influence, 220.]
When I have time, so many things I’ll do,
To make life happier and more fair
For those whose lives are crowded now with care,
I’ll help to lift them from their low despair
When I have time.
When I have time, the friend I love so well
Shall know no more the weary, toiling days;
I’ll lead his feet in pleasant paths always,
And cheer his heart with words of sweetest praise,
When I have time.
When you have time! The friend you hold so dear
May be beyond the reach of all your sweet intent,
May never know that you so kindly meant
To fill his life with bright content,
When you had time.
Now is the time! Speed, friend, no longer wait
To scatter loving smiles and words of cheer
To those around, whose lives are now so drear;
They may not need you in that far-off year:
Now is the time.
4. What effect ought the shortness of the time to have on a man?
(1) It should make him discriminate.—Out of the mass of things which we have touched, we must choose those which are ours—the books which we shall read, the men whom we shall know, the power that we shall wield, the pleasure which we shall enjoy, the special point where we shall drop our bit of usefulness into the world’s life before we go. We come to be like a party of travellers left at a great city railway station for a couple of hours. All cannot see everything in town. Each has to choose according to his tastes what he will see. They separate into their individualities instead of going wandering about promiscuously, as they would if there were no limit to their time. So conscientiousness, self-knowledge, independence, and the toleration of other men’s freedom which always goes with the most serious and deep assertion of our own freedom, are closely connected with the sense that life is very short.
When Dr. Chalmers was a young man, he was for a time more devoted to the study of mathematics than to the subjects which more properly should have concerned him as a parish minister. In a pamphlet which he wrote at the time in support of his application to be appointed to a mathematical chair in the University of Edinburgh, he affirmed that a minister could do all he needed to do in his parish, and do it well, and yet have five clear days every week for literary or other pursuits. Twenty years afterwards some one, who had found a copy of the old forgotten pamphlet, publicly taunted him with what he had said. Yes, he said, it was too true. “I was at that time unduly devoted to the study of mathematics. What, sir, is the object of mathematical science? Magnitude and the proportions of magnitude. But then, strangely blinded that I was, I had forgotten two magnitudes. I thought nothing of the littleness of time and the greatness of eternity.”1 [Note: The Morning Watch, Dec. 1902, p. 134.]
In a letter to his old schoolmaster Ruskin wrote as follows: “Nero’s choice of time and opportunity for the pursuit of his musical studies has been much execrated, but is guiltless in comparison to the conduct of the man who occupies himself for a single hour with any earthly pursuit of whatever importance, believing, as he must, if he believe the Bible, that souls, which human exertion might save, are meanwhile dropping minute by minute into hell. This being fully granted, the questions come, ‘What means are there by which the salvation of souls can be attained?’ and ‘How are we to choose among them?’ For instance, does the pursuit of any art or science, for the mere sake of the resultant beauty or knowledge, tend to forward this end? That such pursuits are beneficial and ennobling to our nature is self-evident, but have we leisure for them in our perilous circumstances? Is it a time to be spelling of letters, or touching of strings, counting stars or crystallizing dewdrops, while the earth is failing under our feet, and our fellows are departing every instant into eternal pain? Or, on the other hand, is not the character and kind of intellect which is likely to be drawn into these occupations employed in the fullest measure and to the best advantage in them? Would not great part of it be useless and inactive if otherwise directed? Do not the results of its labour remain, exercising an influence, if not directly spiritual, yet ennobling and purifying, on all humanity, to all time? Was not the energy of Galileo, Newton, Davy, Michael Angelo, Raphael, Handel, employed more effectively to the glory of God in the results and lessons it has left than if it had been occupied all their lifetime in direct priestly exertion, for which, in all probability, it was less adapted, and in which it would have been comparatively less effectual? Is an individual, then, who has the power of choice, in any degree to yield to his predilections in so important a matter? I myself have little pleasure in the idea of entering the Church, and have been attached to the pursuits of art and science, not by a flying fancy, but as long as I can remember, with settled and steady desire. How far am I justified in following them up?” What answer was sent by Canon Dale to assist his pupil in resolving the doubt between these conflicting calls, I do not know; but Ruskin’s own answer to it is written large in his life and work. He made the critic’s chair a pulpit.1 [Note: E. T. Cook, The Life of Ruskin, i. 122.]
(2) It should make him concentrate.—He who knows he is in the world for a very little while, who knows it and feels it, is not like a man who is to live here for ever. He strikes for the centre of living. He cares for the principles and not for the forms of life. He does the little daily things of life, but he does them for their purposes, not for themselves. He is like a climber on a rocky pathway, who sets his foot upon each projecting point of stone, but who treads on each, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the ones above it. The man who knows he is to die to-morrow does all the acts of to-day, but does them as if he did not do them, does them freely, cannot be a slave to their details, has entered already into something of the large liberty of death. That is the way in which the sense that life is short liberates a man from the slavery of details. You say, perhaps, “That is not good. No man can do his work well unless his heart is in it.” But is it not also true that a man’s heart can really be only in the heart of his work, and that the most conscientious faithfulness in details will always belong, not to the man who serves the details, but to the man who serves the idea of the work which he has to do?
Michael Faraday, when a poor apprentice, utilized every moment, and in a letter to a boy friend he wrote: “Time is all I require. Oh, that I could purchase at a cheap rate some of our modern gents’ spare hours—nay, days! I think it would be a good bargain both for them and for me.”1 [Note: G. C. Lorimer, Messages of To-day, 355.]
O gentlemen! the time of life is short;
To spend that shortness basely were too long,
If life did ride upon a dial’s point,
Still ending at the arrival of an hour.2 [Note: Shakespeare, Henry IV., pt. I. v. ii. 82.]
(3) It should make him realize.—Every emotion has its higher and its lower forms. It means but little to me if I know only that a man is happy or unhappy, if I do not know of what sort his joy or sorrow is. But all the emotions are certainly tempted to larger action if it is realized that the world in which they take their birth is but for a little time, that its fashion passes away, that the circumstances of an experience are very transitory. That must drive me down into the very essence of every experience and make me realize it in the profoundest and largest way. Take, for instance, one experience. Think of deep sorrow coming to a man, something which breaks his home and heart by taking suddenly, or slowly, out of them that which is the centre of them both, some life around which all his life has lived. There are two forms in which the sorrow of that death comes to a man. One is in the change of circumstances, the breaking up of sweet companionships and pleasant habits, the loneliness and weariness of living; the other is in the solemn brooding of mystery over the soul and the tumult of love within the soul, the mystery of death, the distress of love. Now if the man who is bereaved sees nothing in the distance, as he looks forward, but one stretch of living, if he realizes most how long life is, it is the first of these aspects of his sorrow that is the most real to him. He multiplies the circumstances of his bereavement into all these coming years. Year after year, year after year, he is to live alone. But if, as it so often happens when death comes very near to us, life seems a very little thing; if, as we stand and watch when the spirit has gone away from earth to heaven, the years of earth which we have yet to live seem very few and short; if it seems but a very little time before we shall go too, then our grief is exalted to its largest form. It grows unselfish. It is perfectly consistent with a triumphant thankfulness for the dear soul that has entered into rest and glory. It dwells not on the circumstances of bereavement, but upon that mysterious strain in which love has been stretched from this world to the other, and, amid all the pain that the tension brings, is still aware of joy at the new knowledge of its own capacities which has been given it.
A truth is not true until it is realized. I know that a battle was fought and won; the mother whose only son appears in the list of the dead realizes it. A man is saved not by what he holds, but by what holds him. I believe in God. So did Antipas. So do you. Who would contradict this? We are all theists. We all believe in God. And yet any man who realized the awfully solemn and truly blessed meaning of this would live as in a temple. This world is the temple of God. And though somewhere and somehow we are in the thrice holy place we are never beyond its outer courts.1 [Note: J. H. Goodman, The Lordship of Christ, 236.]
(4) It should solemnize him.—It is not so much that the shortness of life makes us prepare for death as that it spreads the feeling of criticalness all through life, and makes each moment prepare for the next, makes life prepare for life. This is its power. Blessed is he who feels it. Blessed is he in whose experience each day and each hour has all the happiness and all the solemnity of a parent towards the day and the hour to which it gives birth, stands sponsor for it, holds it for baptism at the font of God. Such days are sacred in each other’s eyes. The life in which such days succeed each other is as a holy family, with its moments “bound each to each by natural piety.”
The bell strikes one. We take no note of Time
But from its loss. To give it then a tongue
Is wise in man; as if an angel spoke
I feel the solemn sound. If heard aright
It is the knell of my departed hours:—
Where are they? With the years beyond the flood.
It is the signal that demands despatch:
How much is to be done! My hopes and fears
Stand up alarmed, and o’er life’s narrow verge
Look down—on what? a fathomless abyss;
A dread eternity! how surely mine!1 [Note: Young.]
(5) It should make him sympathize.—Two men have lived side by side for years, with business and social life between them, with a multitude of suspicions and concealments; but let them know that they have only an hour more to live together, and, as they look into each other’s eyes, do not the suspicions and concealments clear away? They know each other. They trust each other. They think the best of each other. They are ready to do all that they can do for each other in those few moments that remain.
A traveller was crossing a mountain path alone. The snow was falling fast and thick, and an overpowering sense of sleep stole over him. Desperately he fought against it, for he knew that sleep was certain death. As he struggled on, dragging his tottering steps with increasing difficulty, his foot struck against an obstruction which lay across his path, and looking down to see what it was he found it was a man half buried in the snow. In a moment he forgot his drowsiness and was wide awake. He took the unconscious man in his arms and chafed his frozen body, and in so doing the effort to help another brought life and energy to himself.
A missionary describes a scene which he saw in South Africa. From the top of a hill he looked down upon a piece of land where a few men were busy sowing peas, and he recognized them to be lepers at work together. Two particularly caught his attention. One had no hands, the other no feet, for their limbs were wasted away by that terrible and loathsome scourge. By themselves they would both alike have been unable to work, but they had overcome their helplessness by mutual help and association. The man who was without hands was bearing on his back the other who had no feet, and he in turn carried the bag of seeds, which he dropped into the ground as they moved along, while his companion pressed each seed into the ground with his feet.1 [Note: C. J. Ridgeway, Social Life, 63.]
The time is short;
Therefore with all thy might,
Labour for God and Eight.
Pause not for heats and shadows of the day,
Fail not for difficulties of the way:
Be true, be pure, be strong!
Eternity is long.
The time is short;
Sin, misery, and despair
Darken the earth and air;
Therefore do thou with Heaven intercede,
And for thy brethren, ere they perish, plead:
Pray for the prayerless throng!
Eternity is long.
The time is short;
Therefore, my brother, love!
Love always! God above
Is one with thee in this; O take
His crown of thorns, and thine own self forsake!
Love, spite of pain and wrong!
Eternity is long.2 [Note: Shirley Wynne.]
In Three Relationships
There are many who have the impression that the tendency of religion, if a man is sincere and deep in it, is to make him less competent and practical in the affairs of the present. But this cannot be the Apostle’s meaning. He was too sane, too wise a man—to claim no more for him—to teach such a way of regarding the business and necessities of the present life. And indeed this was not St. Paul’s idea of religion at all. St. Paul’s doctrine is the doctrine which is taught all through the Bible, that the family, society, the state, business are of God’s ordaining, and that it is of supreme importance that man should fulfil his duties and play his part aright in all these. “Be not slothful in business.” “Whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord.” “If any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.” St. Paul does not tell us to withdraw from common relationships or from business. He does not blot out the words “home,” “politics,” “business.” The Christian life always means for him a life of more varied and nobler interests.
What, then, does he mean by saying that they who have wives should be as though they had none; and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not? What St. Paul is enjoining here is the relative value of the present order of things. Home, joy, sorrow, business—these are the most real things of the present; but he says even these, which are the most real, are not ends in themselves. They have uses to serve beyond the present. Do not take them as if they were final; learn to look through them and beyond them.
Let us consider them one by one.
1. Marriage.—“Those that have wives as though they had none.” St. Paul means by this expression domestic life generally. He does not mean that marriage is not a good thing. He is not doing what some Christian people have done—speaking slightingly of marriage, in the interests of godliness. Nor does he mean that marriage is to be looked upon lightly, that men and women should enter into that relationship and then take it as a little thing. That on the face of it would be contrary to the whole strain of the Scriptures. It would be contrary to the Apostle’s own teaching, “Husbands, love your wives.” St. Paul means by marriage domestic life, and his meaning is that a true family life looks on to something beyond itself, and is meant to prepare for something beyond itself. A good husband, a good wife, children growing up in the home united in family affection, a happy home life, are among the best things we can have here. They are present blessings, but they are prophetic of something beyond the present, and they are meant to train the affections for another home than the present. Home, and home relationships are not simply for our ease and comfort and happiness. They contribute much, where they are what they should be, to these. But they have a purpose beyond them. And we find most in them, and they do most for us, when we use them with a recognition of this greater purpose. To let home become everything to us is to make it less than if it were only a part of our life.
Rachel, the daughter of Lord Southampton, married in 1670 William Russell, the younger son of the Earl of Bedford. It was a very happy marriage. In one of her letters to him she writes, “My best life, make my felicity entire by believing my heart possessed with all the gratitude, honour, and passionate affection to your person any creature is capable of; and this granted, what have I to ask but a continuance (if God see fit) of these present enjoyments? if not, a submission without murmur to His most wise dispensations and unerring providence. He knows best when we have had enough here; what I most earnestly beg from His mercy is, that we both live so that, whichever goes first, the other may not sorrow as for one of whom they have no hope. Then let us cheerfully expect to be together to a good old age; if not, let us not doubt but He will support us under what trial He will inflict upon us.… Excuse me, if I dwell too long upon this; it is from my opinion that if we can be prepared for all conditions, we can with the greater tranquillity enjoy the present, which I hope will be long; though when we change, it will be for the better, I trust, through the merits of Christ.”1 [Note: The Morning Watch, September, 1906, p. 100.]
You cannot love a man, a woman, a child, without entering that centre of things where love alone reaches its true meaning. It is only when we have touched the timeless in those we love that we enter on the true glory of loving. It is only then that love becomes the ingredient and furtherer of the highest in us. It is this that gives love its permanency, when all else has fallen away; when youth has passed, when beauty has faded, when trials and difficulties come. When love inhabits this sphere it takes on a Divine patience, a forgiveness to the uttermost, a hopefulness that no disappointments can quench Here the eternity in us touches the eternity in our friend, and makes our love immortal.1 [Note: J. Brierley, The Secret of Living, 35.]
2. Sorrow and Joy.—“Those that weep, as though they wept not; and those that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not.” Again we must bear in mind that St. Paul is speaking in a terse, epigrammatic way. There is nothing more real to us than our joys and sorrows, and we cannot make believe about them. And there are sorrows that come, that possess us wholly for the time; we can do nothing with them, we cannot moderate them or put them aside. But we are not to let ourselves be carried off our feet by either the troubles of life or its joys. It is the part of those who believe in another life to have balance and moderation and self-control in these things. St. Paul would say, “Joy is joy and sorrow is sorrow; you will weep and you will laugh. Sorrow will be bitter and joy sweet. But do not make too much of either. Both will pass, and they will be only memories to you some day, but they ought to leave you different yourself. Let both have a place in a larger conception of life. Look beyond them to some purpose which God means them to serve.”
Fair vessel hast thou seen with honey filled, Which is no
sooner opened, than descend
Upon the clammy sweets by bees distilled
A troop of flies, quick swarming without end?
Yet these when one doth fan away and beat,
Such as had lighted with a fearful care
On the jar’s edge, nor cumbered wings and feet,
Lightly they mount into the upper air.
But all that headlong plunged those sweets among,
They cannot fly, in cloying sweetness bound;
The heavy toils have all around them clung,
In woful surfeiting their lives are drowned.
Such vessel is this world—fanned evermore
By death’s dark Angel with his mighty wing;
Then all that had in pleasure’s honied store
Their spirits sunk, they upward cannot spring.
Only they mount, who on this vessel’s side
With heed alighting, had with extreme lip
Just ventured, there while suffered to abide,
Its sweets in measure and with fear to sip.1 [Note: Trench, Poems, 328.]
In a palace, at Florence, there are two pictures which hang side by side. One represents a stormy sea with its wild waves, and black clouds and fierce lightnings flashing across the sky. In the waters a human face is seen, wearing an expression of the utmost agony and despair. The other picture also represents the sea tossed by as fierce a storm, with as dark clouds; but out of the midst of the waves a rock rises, against which the waters dash in vain. In a cleft of the rock are some tufts of grass and green herbage, with sweet flowers, and amid these a dove is seen sitting on her nest quiet and undisturbed by the wild fury of the storm. The first picture represents the sorrow of the world helpless and despairing; the second the sorrow of the Christian nestling in the bosom of God’s unchanging love. When striving to bear on and bear up we may remember a fine passage of Jeremy Taylor’s: “Well, let the world have its course, I am content to bear it; God’s will be done; let the sea be troubled; let the waves thereof roar; let the winds of affliction blow; let the waves of sorrow rush upon me; let the darkness of grief and heaviness compass me about; yet will I not be afraid. These storms will blow over; these winds will be laid; these waves will fall; this tempest cannot last long; and these clouds shall be dispelled; whatsoever I suffer here shall shortly have an end. I shall not suffer eternally; come the worst that can come death will put an end to all my sorrow and miseries. Lord grant me patience here and ease hereafter! I will suffer patiently whatever can happen, and shall endeavour to do nothing against my conscience and displeasing unto Thee; for all is safe and sure with him who is certain and sure of a blessed Eternity.”2 [Note: J. H. Goodman, The Lordship of Christ, 6.]
3. Business.—“Those that buy, as though they possessed not.” St. Paul recognizes, as every man must, the important place which business holds in life. Business or trade belongs just as much to life as the home and family do, or as the State does. It is part of the order of things, and may have just as great a religious value as the home has. Do not think of St. Paul as speaking slightingly of business, or as having any such idea in his mind. He has not. Nor does he mean that men are to be half in earnest in their work. “Whatsoever ye do, do it heartily.” What he means is that business is not an end in itself. It is ordained in the providence of God to serve for things greater than itself. Buy, but do not let business be your life. As we are not to lose ourselves in joy or sorrow, so we are not to lose ourselves in business.
When outward business diverted him a little from the thought of God, a fresh remembrance coming from God invested his soul, and so inflamed and transported him, that it was difficult for him to restrain himself.
That he was more united to God in his ordinary occupations than when he left them for devotion in retirement, from which he knew himself to issue with much dryness of spirit.
That the most excellent method which he had found of going to God, was that of doing our common business, without any view of pleasing men, and (as far as we are capable) purely for the love of God.
That it was a great delusion to think that the times of prayer ought to differ from other times; that we were as strictly obliged to adhere to God by action in the time of action as by prayer in its season.1 [Note: Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, 18, 21.]
A General Direction
“Use the world, as not abusing it.”
1. These English words—“use” and “abuse”—stand to each other in much the same relation as the corresponding words of the Apostle. To “use” anything is to turn it to account in the direction of those ends for which it is really needed. To “abuse” is simply to turn a thing away from its true and proper use. Often, in doing this, you spoil the thing itself; so that the idea of injury comes to be generally involved in that of abuse. But, originally and literally, to “abuse” is just to employ anything in a manner that is aside from those purposes for which it is needed and designed.
2. The word “world” is an expression which is used in the New Testament Scriptures with several meanings, and therefore needs to be interpreted with the utmost care and discrimination. Sometimes it denotes the whole material universe as created by God, “the maker of heaven and earth.” Sometimes it is this world in which God has placed man for a time, the temporary scene of human existence, man’s abode, in which he sojourns for a limited period. Sometimes it conveys the idea, not of a material creation of God’s fashioning, but of a spirit of worldliness in God’s reasoning creatures which is antagonistic to the will of God. Sometimes it is the aggregate of those possessed by this spirit who, having been made by God, rebel against His authority and refuse to heed His commands. Sometimes it is the equivalent of what is known to us by the name of Society, i.e. the environment of persons and things, in the midst of which each one lives his life here, and which, while not evil in itself, must be used, as St. Paul writes in his letter to the Christians at Corinth, with caution, “not overusing it,” or “using it to the full,” as his words really mean.
3. The text implies that this world has its uses. It stands in direct relation to human needs. According to the original purpose of God, it is our friend and not our enemy—a servant to minister to our wants, not a tyrant to oppress or degrade us. Why has God placed us here at all, if our surroundings have not their divinely appointed uses? It is true that the world may become a dangerous foe to our spiritual welfare; but this is only when we stand in false relations to it. Even God Himself cannot be to the wicked all that He can be to the “pure in heart.” And the world, which is God’s minister to us, cannot subserve the purposes which it is meant to fulfil, unless we use it aright. “Worldliness” is simply living as if the visible were all, as if we were merely visible creatures amongst visible things, forgetful that we are spiritual beings, whose abiding home is the eternal. “To use as not abusing”: this is the grand principle of the unworldly life. And if we would see how we may and do abuse the world, we have only to consider what are those uses which it is intended to subserve.
(1) This world is designed to aid in revealing God to us.—God is the Eternal Spirit; we are finite spirits. How is the Infinite to manifest Himself to the finite? Each human spirit is mysteriously associated with a material frame; and by this frame it is connected with that great world of matter and of circumstance on which God stamps the tokens of His presence, power, and character. Whatever other or more direct methods God may have of speaking to cur souls, this is at least one medium of communication. The material world and the human body, linked together by affinity, form a bridge over which the thoughts of God pass into the mind of man. And we may be sure that our relations to the world outside of us have their own distinctive part to play in the revelation of God within us. Humanity is doubtless a better interpreter of God than nature; but then nature may help to interpret humanity. The highest manifestation which has been given us of God is in Jesus Christ, His incarnate Son: but this Jesus becomes intelligible to us in virtue of His relations to the world outside of Himself. Christ is “the image of the invisible God”; when we see Christ, we “see the Father.” But how do we see Christ, except through the medium of His surroundings? The character of Jesus becomes visible to us as we behold His attitude and conduct in circumstances which are more or less familiar to ourselves, and the significance of which we can therefore in some measure appreciate. It is because He lived and moved in our “world” that what He did and suffered becomes, through the interpreting power of our own human experience, a revelation of the heart of God.
What an “abuse” of the world it is when men employ it to conceal God! The attributes of the Most High are mirrored in the world; but men look at the mirror from such an angle of vision as to see only its glittering surface, and not the reflection of the Divine glory. You have heard of the astronomer who said that what he found in the study of the starry sky was the glory of Newton and his fellow-thinkers, and not the “glory of God.”1 [Note: T. C. Finlayson.]
That was a fine reply of the astronomer, who, when interrogated about the science he had been idolizing, said, “I am now bound for the kingdom of Heaven, and I take the stars on my way.”2 [Note: S. L. Wilson, Helpful Words for Daily Life, 240.]
(2) This world is designed to aid in the formation and development of spiritual character.—The material exists for the sake of the spiritual. This earth has been furnished as a school for the education and discipline of man. Labour is the counteractive of lust; affliction, of pride. Our relationships tend to destroy selfishness; our temptations reveal to us our own weakness. The whole world is an arena of education by probation,—at once a weigh-house in which character is tested, and a gymnasium in which character is trained. It furnishes us with a plastic material, the moulding and shaping of which reveals the native royalty and develops the native capacity of our spiritual being.
Man learns to swim by being tossed into life’s maelstrom and left to make his way ashore. No youth can learn to sail his life-craft in a lake sequestered and sheltered from all storms, where other vessels never come. Skill comes through sailing one’s craft amidst rocks and bars and opposing fleets, amidst storms and whirls and counter currents.1 [Note: N. D. Hillis, A Man’s Value to Society, 46.]
Life is not as idle ore,
But iron dug from central gloom,
And heated hot with burning fears,
And dipt in baths of hissing tears,
And batter’d with the shocks of doom
To shape and use.2 [Note: Tennyson, In Memoriam.]
(3) This world is designed to be a sphere for the service of God.—God is a Spirit; and we are spirits; hence all true service of God is, in its root and essence, spiritual. Yet possibly it may be a necessity for the finite spirit that it shall be able to embody its devotion towards God in forms external to itself. At any rate, in giving to the human spirit a tabernacle of flesh, and thus connecting it with the material world, God has made that world an instrument for the expression of our spiritual obedience. If one human soul loves another, it longs for some opportunity of embodying its affection. If a servant is really devoted to his master, he rejoices when his master so takes him into confidence as to enable him to give some practical manifestation of his loyalty. And so, God has placed us in a world which may become a sphere of manifest service. He brings us into relations which are constantly trying our obedience, and therefore furnishing us with the means of expressing it.
Methought that in a solemn church I stood.
Its marble acres, worn with knees and feet,
Lay spread from door to door, from street to street.
Midway the form hung high upon the rood
Of Him who gave His life to be our good;
Beyond, priests flitted, bowed, and murmured meet,
Among the candles shining still and sweet.
Men came and went, and worshipped as they could—
And still their dust a woman with her broom,
Bowed to her work, kept sweeping to the door.
Then saw I, slow through all the pillared gloom,
Across the church a silent figure come:
“Daughter,” it said, “thou sweepest well my floor!”
It is the Lord! I cried, and saw no more.1 [Note: George MacDonald.]
A Good Reason
“For the fashion of this world passeth away.”
1. The word “fashion” here is a translation of the Greek word schema, from which we get our English word “scheme.” The text means that the present order of things, the earthly plan or scheme in which we live, must come to an end. It is true, indeed, of the earth itself. “This goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.” The fashion of this world passeth away; even the solid earth is moving on to sure destruction.
Above the valley of the Neckar rises the magnificent ruin of Heidelberg. To the world without it still presents a front of majesty and beauty. The mountain crags seem not more massive and enduring than its battlements of stone, its towers and walls of solid masonry. But within, what a picture of desolation meets the eye! Broken columns and shattered carvings are scattered in confusion about the deserted court. Fragments of costly monuments are mingled with the débris of crumbling walls, and trees are growing upon ramparts where once the cannon thundered to the echoes of the surrounding hills. The rent tower discloses the ingenuity of man to build, and his yet greater power to destroy.
The word translated “fashion” literally means “stage scenery.” St. Paul does not mean that everything on earth is perishable, but that every unreal thing is perishable. Stage scenery is unreal scenery. It does not represent the actual facts of the greenroom. Many an actor is bringing down the house with laughter when his own heart is breaking. St. Paul saw that a great deal of life is simply stage acting—concealment of the greenroom. How many kind things are spoken, not in order to reveal, but in order to cover! How many gifts are sent, not for your sake, but for the sake of the donor! How many blandishments are lavished for a vote! How many visits are paid for a subscription! St. Paul says all this unreality will pass away. When will it pass away? At death, you say. No; death does not reveal the reality of life. Death does not tear away the mask from the face of my brother. Death is itself a mask, itself an unreality. So far from causing the stage scenery to vanish, it is itself the climax of illusion. It is not to death I look; it is to love. Love is the great dispeller of unreality. Love is the great emancipator from stage scenery. Love is the true rending of the veil between this world and the world to come.1 [Note: G. Matheson.]
2. No doubt the world itself will pass away. For that we have the warrant of Scripture, and Science has countersigned the warrant. But this warrant is not to be found here. St. Paul is not predicting a future catastrophe; he is announcing a present fact. He does not affirm that “the cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples” of this familiar world, yea, the solid globe itself, with all who inherit it, shall dissolve, and like the baseless fabric of a vision, like an insubstantial pageant faded, “leave not a rack behind.” He affirms a fact with which we are more immediately concerned, namely, that the fashion, the form, the whole outward aspect, of the world in which we live fades, changes, passes, while we look upon it; that it is now, and always, passing away: and from this fact he infers the immense importance of fixing our affections and placing our aims, not on the outward show, the frail and shifting forms of things, but on the sacred and enduring realities which lie beneath and behind them. There are two ways in which it is true that the fashion of this world is passing away.
(1) First it is true with respect to all the things by which we are surrounded.—It is only in poetry—the poetry of the Psalms for example—that the hills are called “everlasting.” Go to the side of the ocean which bounds our country, and watch the tide going out, bearing with it the sand which it has worn from the cliffs; the very boundaries of our land are changing; they are not the same as they were when these words were written. Every day new relationships are forming around us; new circumstances are calling upon us to act, to act manfully, firmly, decisively, and up to the occasion, remembering that an opportunity once gone is gone for ever. Indulge not in vain regrets for the past, in vainer resolves for the future; act, act in the present.
The difference between the ancient and the modern world is this: in the one the great reality of being was now; in the other it is yet to come. If you would witness a scene characteristic of the popular life of old, you must go to the amphitheatre of Rome, mingle with its 80,000 spectators, and watch the eager faces of Senators and people; observe how the masters of the world spend the wealth of conquest, and indulge the pride of power; see every wild creature that God has made, from the jungles of India to the mountains of Wales, from the forests of Germany to the deserts of Nubia, brought hither to be hunted down in artificial groves by thousands in an hour; behold the captives of war, noble perhaps and wise in their own land, turned loose, amid yells of insult more terrible for their foreign tongue, to contend with brutal gladiators trained to make death the favourite amusement, and present the most solemn of individual realities as a wholesale public sport; mark the light look with which the multitude, by uplifted finger, demands that the wounded combatant be slain before their eyes; notice the troop of Christian martyrs awaiting hand in hand the leap from the tiger’s den; and, when the day’s spectacle is over and the blood of two thousand victims stains the ring, follow the giddy crowd as it streams from the vomitories into the street, trace its lazy course into the forum, and hear it there scrambling for the bread of private indolence doled out by the purse of public corruption; and see how it suns itself to sleep in the open ways, or crawls into foul dens till morning brings the hope of games and merry blood again;—then you have an idea of that Imperial people, with their passionate living for the moment, which the Gospel found in occupation of the world.
And if, on the other hand, you would fix in your thought an image of the popular mind of Christendom, I know not that you could do better than go at sunrise with the throng of toiling men to the hillside where Whitefield or Wesley is about to preach. Hear what a great heart of reality is in that hymn which swells upon the morning air—a prophet’s strain upon a people’s lips! See the rugged hands of labour, clasped and trembling, wrestling with the Unseen in prayer! Observe the uplifted faces, deep-lined with hardship and with guilt, streaming now with honest tears, and flushed with earnest shame, as the man of God awakes the life within, and tells of Him that bare for us the stripes and cross, and offers the holiest spirit to the humblest lot, and tears away the veil of sense from the glad and awful gates of heaven and hell. Go to these people’s homes, and observe the decent tastes, the sense of domestic obligations, the care for childhood, the desire for instruction, the neighbourly kindness, the conscientious self-respect, and say whether the sacred image of duty does not live within those minds; whether holiness has not taken the place of pleasure in their idea of life: whether for them too the toils of nature are not lightened by some external hope, and their burden carried by some angel of love, and the strife of necessity turned into the service of God. The present tyrannizes over their character no more, subdued by a future infinitely great; and hardly though they lie upon the rock of this world, they can live the life of faith; and while the hand plies the tools of earth, keep a spirit open to the skies.1 [Note: James Martineau.]
(2) Again, this is true with respect to ourselves.—“The fashion of this world passeth away” in us. The feelings we have now are not those which we had in childhood. There has passed away a glory from the earth—the stars, the sun, the moon, the green fields have lost their beauty and significance—nothing remains as it was, except their repeated impressions on the mind, the impressions of time, space, eternity, colour, form; these cannot alter, but all besides has changed. Our very minds alter. There is no bereavement so painful, no shock so terrible, but time will remove or alleviate it. The keenest feeling in this world time wears out at last, and our minds become like old monumental tablets which have lost the inscription once graven deeply upon them.
Jesus (on whom be peace!) said, “The world is a bridge; pass over it, but do not build upon it.”—Inscription on a bridge at Fatehpur Sikri.2 [Note: Field, A Little Book of Eastern Wisdom, 97.]
Perhaps no one has pictured with truer hand the changing fashion of the world in the passing of human life than Longfellow in his poem, “The Old Clock on the Stairs,” in which he tells us that
Through days of sorrow and of mirth,
Through days of death and days of birth,
Through every swift vicissitude
Of changeful time, unchanged it has stood,
And as if, like God, it all things saw,
It calmly repeats those words of awe,—
In that mansion used to be
His great fires up the chimney roared;
The stranger feasted at his board;
But, like the skeleton at the feast,
That warning timepiece never ceased,—
There groups of merry children played,
There youths and maidens dreaming strayed;
O precious hours! O golden prime,
And affluence of love and time!
Even as a miser counts his gold,
Those hours the ancient timepiece told,—
From that chamber, clothed in white,
The bride came forth on her wedding night;
There, in that silent room below,
The dead lay in his shroud of snow;
And in the hush that followed the prayer,
Was heard the old clock on the stair,—
All are scattered now and fled,
Some are married, some are dead;
And when I ask, with throbs of pain,
“Ah! when shall they all meet again?”
As in the days long since gone by,
The ancient timepiece makes reply,—
Never here, for ever there,
Where all parting, pain, and care,
And death, and time shall disappear,—
For ever there, but never here!
The horologe of Eternity
Sayeth this incessantly,—
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Cox (S.), Expositions, ii. 404.
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Webb-Peploe (H. W.), He Cometh, 33.
Wilson (J. M.), Sermons in Clifton College Chapel, i. 79.
Wood (W. S.), Problems in the New Testament, 80.
Cambridge Review, ii. Supplement, No. 40 (Bradby).
Christian Age, xxxiii. 21 (Talmage).
Christian World Pulpit, xiv. 65 (Rogers), 344 (Short); xliv. 44 (Smith); lxx. 273 (Home); lxxii. 9 (Taylor).
Churchman’s Pulpit: Lenten Season, v. 92 (Cooke).
Homiletic Review, xx. 537 (Hoyt); xxxi. 44 (Storrs).