Great Texts of the Bible
Though he slay me, yet will I wait for him.—Job 13:15.
1. These words, in their strange mixture of faith and unfaith, of trust and mistrust may be taken as summing up the argument of Job in the book called by his name. That book is one of the most remarkable in the Bible, not merely for its great literary qualities, for the imaginative grandeur of its pictures of nature, and the boldness and directness of its expression of the facts of human life, and the emotions they excite in us, but above all for the vivid way in which it brings before us what we may call the great perennial debate between man’s soul and God. It describes the struggle between the doubts that beset man as to the existence of any Divine justice or goodness and the faith that sustains him against such doubts, and ultimately enables him to triumph over them.
This book has special reference to a stage in the development of the creed of Israel when the belief in a simple justice of rewards and punishments—the belief that goodness is directly followed by success and happiness, and ill-doing by failure and misery—began to be shaken by the experience of life. It was observed that the facts of human existence did not support the idea of any such immediate distribution of rewards and punishments, and the minds of men began to be distressed and perplexed by the problem, whether the whole conception of God as a righteous Judge was to be abandoned, or whether, on the other hand, a deeper justice could be discerned in the apparent injustice, and the old faith could be widened and elevated so as to overcome the new difficulties raised against it. And the intensity of the conflict was made greater by the fact that as yet there was no thought of a future life, or at least of a future life that had any joy or energy in it.
Yet—and this is the characteristic feature of the poem—through all his doubt and distress, through all his suffering and the agony of mind it produces, Job is exhibited as maintaining his faith in God; and in the end his integrity is vindicated by God against those who have denied it merely on the ground of his misfortunes. The aim of the writer, therefore, is to show that there is a point of view from which the difficulties in question may be removed, or transcended, that they are not fatal to faith but only trials of it, from which it may emerge purer and stronger than ever.
2. In the verses preceding the text Job resolves to appeal to God. But he knows how terrible will be the risk of this great enterprise. “I will take my flesh in my teeth, and put my life in my hand!” he cries,—a fine proverbial expression for running all hazards even to the last, of which Shakespeare gives a noble variation in King Henry 8, when describing the people of England under oppressions which break the sides of loyalty, as
Compell’d by hunger
And lack of other means, in desperate manner
Daring the event to the teeth.
Then comes our text. And first about its meaning. We have so fine a rendering in our Authorized Version that we cannot surrender it without pain. And, indeed, many competent scholars refuse to surrender it. They still read the verse, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” But properly translated and rightly understood, it means something quite different. In the Revised Version there is a rendering differing from the accepted one—“Though he slay me, yet will I wait for him,” it reads. But with their usual timidity the Revisers have thrown the really correct translation into the margin, and the passage ought to stand, as it there stands, “Behold, he will slay me; I wait for him; I will maintain my ways (or, I will argue my cause) before him.” So that instead of being the utterance of a resigned soul, submissively accepting chastisement, it is rather the utterance of a soul that, conscious of its own integrity, is prepared to face the worst that Providence can inflict, and resolved to vindicate itself against any suggestion of ill desert. “Behold, He will slay me. Well, I wait for Him in the calm assurance of the purity of my motives and the probity of my life. I will accept the blow, because I can do no other, but I will assert my blamelessness.”
What Cheyne has happily called “an inspired mistranslation” has to be given up. For many reasons, one regrets this, and yet I personally believe that the Revised Translation expresses a mightier faith than even the sacredly familiar translation of the Authorized Version—” Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” Here I unhesitatingly affirm that “waiting for” God in these circumstances is a higher type of faith than “trusting in” Him.
Job, in saying “Though he slay me, yet will I wait for him,” practically says, “Though He slay me, yet will I not try to escape from Him, or evade Him, I will wait for Him. If I am to be slain, it shall be with my face, and not my back, toward Him; and if I am to fall, I will fall at His feet!” Was there ever a more daring expression of faith than that?1 [Note: D. Davies, The Book of Job, i. 295.]
3. Yet, the words, as usually understood, have an historic claim in their favour which cannot be disputed. Even the Apostles do not spurn the use of the Greek words of the Old Testament, though they do not accord with the proper connexion in the original text, provided they are in accordance with sacred Scripture, and give brief and pregnant expression to a truth taught elsewhere in the Scriptures. Thus it is with this utterance, which, understood as the Vulgate understands it, is thoroughly Job-like, and in some measure the final solution of the Book of Job. It is also, according to its most evident meaning, an expression of perfect resignation. We admit that if it is translated: “behold, He will slay me, I hope not,” i.e. “I await no other and happier issue,” a thought is obtained that also agrees with the context.2 [Note: F. Delitzseh, Commentary on the Book of Job; i. 214.]
Now, as no history is more various than Job’s fortune, so is no phrase, no style more ambiguous than that in which Job’s history is written; very many words so expressed, very many phrases so conceived, as that they admit a diverse, a contrary sense; for such an ambiguity in a single word, there is an example in the beginning, in Job’s wife; we know not (from the word itself) whether it be benedicas, or maledicas, whether she said Bless God, and die, or, Curse God: and for such an ambiguity, in an entire sentence, the words of this text are a pregnant and evident example, for they may be directly and properly thus rendered out of the Hebrew, “Behold he will kill me, I will not hope”; and this seems to differ much from our reading, “Behold, though he kill me, yet will I trust in him.” And therefore to make up that sense, which our translation hath (which is truly the true sense of the place), we must first make this paraphrase, “Behold he will kill me,” I make account he will kill me, I look not for life at his hands, his will be done upon me for that; and then, the rest of the sentence (“I will not hope”) (as we read it in the Hebrew) must be supplied, or rectified rather, with an interrogation, which that language wants, and the translators used to add it, where they see the sense require it: and so reading it with an interrogation, the original, and our translation will constitute one and the same thing; it will be all one sense to say, with the original, “Behold he will kill me (that is, let him kill me), yet shall not I hope in him?” and to say with our translation, “Behold, though he kill me, yet will I hope in him”: and this sense of the words, both the Chaldee paraphrase, and all translations (excepting only the Septuagint) do unanimously establish.1 [Note: John Donne, Works, iv. 539.]
4. May we take the text both ways? As Delitzsch says, each translation teaches a good lesson and a scriptural. So perhaps we may—the vindication first and the trust after. They show us, in a striking way, the two sides of one great truth.
1. In order to understand the real sentiment underlying this exclamation we must have a correct conception of the theory of the Divine action in the world common to that age. For let us remember that this is a dramatic poem; that Job is a real personage in the sense in which Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a real personage; and that the author of the poem is simply putting into his mouth a protest against the sentiments current in his day as formulated by the “friends” who came to condole with him in so extraordinary a fashion. And if the boldness of his self-vindication sounds somewhat too audacious, and, to some, seems to verge even upon the blasphemous, it must be borne in mind that it is the God of the contemporary theologians who is thus challenged, not the Father in Heaven whom our Lord revealed.
The struggle represented for us with so much dramatic power and vividness in this poem is Job’s struggle for reconciliation between the God of the theologians of his day and the God of his own heart. And is not this a modern as well as an ancient struggle? Does not our heart often rise within us to resent and repel the representations of Deity that some forms of theology give? Do we not say to ourselves, “This God cannot be our God for ever and ever”?
Job had to answer to himself, Which of these two Gods is the true one? The God of my contemporaries, who is ever on the watch for a slip or an offence that He may punish it, and who seems often to punish when there is no offence; or the God of whom my own heart speaks to me, who doth not afflict willingly, and whose chastisements are all kind? If the God of the theological imagination were the true God, he was prepared to hold his own before Him. This Divine Despot, as the stronger, might visit him with His castigations, but in his conscious integrity, Job would not blench. “Behold, he will slay me; I will wait for him. I will maintain my cause before him.”
A favourite theme of Greek tragedy was the conflict between fate and freedom, between Divine necessity and man’s free will, between the despotism of nature’s inexorable laws and the passionate longings of the human soul. And in the story of Prometheus, or Forethought, we have this conflict most vividly set forth. Because Prometheus brought fire from heaven for the benefit of mortals, Jupiter was angered and caused him to be chained to a rock on Mount Caucasus, where for thirty thousand years a vulture was sent to feed upon his liver, “which was never diminished, though continually devoured.” His offence was that he had brought a heavenly boon to men; and he would not cry “Peccavi” any more than Job would in order to secure release. “He whose God-like crime it was to be kind, he who resisted the torments and the terrors of Zeus, relying upon his own fierce soul,” is in this respect the counterpart of Job in his suffering. “Each refuses to say he is wrong merely to pacify God, when he does not see that he is wrong. As Prometheus maintains this inflexible purpose, so Job holds fast his integrity.”1 [Note: J. Halsey, The Spirit of Truth, 83.]
2. Let us dare to follow our own thoughts of God, interpreting His relation and providence towards us through our own best instincts and aspirations. This is what Jesus taught us to do. He revealed and exemplified a manly and man-making faith, as far removed as possible from that slavish spirit which is so characteristic of much pietistic teaching. Christ said, Find the best in yourselves and take that for the reflection of God—the parental instinct, for instance, with its patience, its unselfishness, its self-denying love. Reason from that up to God, He says. “How much more shall your heavenly Father!”
John Sterling with us. Talked over many people. Much discourse on special providences, a doctrine which he totally disbelieves, and views the supporters of it as in the same degree of moral development as Job’s comforters. Job, on the contrary, saw further; he did not judge of the Almighty’s aspect towards him by any worldly afflictions or consolations; he saw somewhat into the inner secret of His providence, and so could say, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” We must look for the hand of His providence alike in all dispensations, however mysterious to us. Every movement here has its first impulse in Heaven; though, like a pure ether, it may be contaminated or altogether changed by collision with the atmosphere of this world, yet its origin is Divine. Thus, on the ruins of the doctrine of particular providences may be built up our belief in the constant superintendence and activity of our Infinite Father; and though some highly extolled species of faith may lose their value for us, we shall, instead of them, see our entire dependence on Omnipotence for every gift, however trifling, and feel that He doeth all things transcendently well.1 [Note: Caroline Fox, Journals and Letters, i. 236.]
3. It is pleasant to know from the last chapter, that before the drama closes Job comes to truer thoughts of God and a more spiritual knowledge of himself. He perceives that his heart, in its blind revolt, has been fighting a travesty of God and not the real God. Then, as soon as he sees God as He is, and himself as he is, his tone changes again. The accent of revolt is exchanged for that of adoring recognition, and the note of defiance sinks into a strain of penitential confession. “Who is this that hideth counsel without knowledge? Therefore have I uttered that which I understood not. I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear” (the things that Eliphaz the Temanite, and Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite had said to him about God); “but now mine eye seeth thee.” The vision brought him back by one bound to God and himself. “Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
The sentiment that the highest bliss might be found in love without return is no other than that which has nourished in all time the noblest forms of human love and devotion. It is the sentiment which inspired with sublime passion the well-known words of Saint Teresa: “Thou drawest me, my God. Thy death agony draws me; Thy love draws me, so that, should there be no Heaven, I would love Thee. Were there no Hell, I would fear Thee no less. Give me naught in return for this my love to Thee; for were I not to hope that I long for, then should I love Thee even as I do now.” Not until the passion of self-abandonment has touched the point at which the words, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him,” are the simple and natural expression of pride and joy, is that height of exaltation reached the attainment of which includes the highest possibilities of love and sorrow. For “love’s limits are ample and great, and a spacious walk it hath, but with thorns not lightly to be passed over.” The call to love, rightly understood, is, in truth, a call to self-renunciation, as indeed is every call to lead the higher life. The soul to whom such a call comes is directly confronted with the necessities of sacrifice, for devotion to another in its highest form leads to the way of the Cross. Only through much suffering may the Saint attain the fulfilment of the promise of the spiritual life and see Him face to face, yet in her triumph she cries, “Give me naught in return for this my love to Thee!”1 [Note: Lady Dilke, The Book of the Spiritual Life, 162.]
Couldst thou love Me when suns are setting,
Their glow forgetting
In thought of Me;
Couldst thou refrain thy soul from fretting
For days that used to be?
Couldst thou love Me when creeds are breaking,
Old landmarks shaking
With wind and sea;
Couldst thou restrain the earth from quaking,
And rest thy heart in Me?
Couldst thou love Me when friends are failing,
Because fast paling
Thy fortunes flee;
Couldst thou prevent thy lips from wailing,
And say, “I still have Thee”?
Couldst thou love Me when wealth is flying,
The night-blast sighing
Through life’s proud tree;
Couldst thou withhold thy heart from dying,
And find its life in Me?
Couldst thou love Me when tears are welling
Within thy dwelling
Once glad and free;
Couldst thou escape their flood’s high swelling,
And reach thine ark in Me?
Couldst thou love Me when storms are roaring,
Their torrents pouring
O’er mart and lea;
Couldst thou on larger wings be soaring,
And hear all calm in Me?
Couldst thou love Me when death is nearing,
A mist appearing
In all but Me?
If then thy heart cast out its fearing,
Thy love shall perfect be.1 [Note: George Matheson, Sacred Songs, 168.]
1. How often have these words been the vehicle of a sublime faith in the hour of supreme crisis! In the moment of their darkest necessity and deepest anguish pious hearts have adopted this as the formula of their unwavering confidence in and submission to the Infinite Wisdom; and in the hour when their life’s path has been strewn with the wreck of all that was delightsome in their eyes, and all that was dear to their hearts, have cried, with unfaltering tones, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” And from this usage of centuries the words have acquired a sacredness, and are invested with associations, that make it very difficult to break the spell they hold over our devout affections by any attempt to show that they do not stand for the writer’s original thought, and are far from representing the suffering patriarch’s real state of mind.
There is a story, in Swedish history, of a king who was mad with rage; and, in his madness, sent for one of his prisoners to be brought before him. Then the king drew his dagger, and passed it through the arm of his victim; and the poor wounded man just drew the dagger out, kissed it, and gave it back to the brutal hand which had smitten him. Now, hating such loyalty, as I do, yet how one wonders at the passionate beauty of that deed! Marvelling that the man could so worship such a creature, yet how perfect was his loyalty to him! That man might have written, Though Thou slay me, yet will I trust in Thee. It was the king’s dagger that struck him, and he was the king’s subject, so he just drew out the dagger, kissed the bloody blade, and gave it back.1 [Note: G. Dawson, The Authentic Gospel, 269.]
2. Now, taking the text in this sense, we notice first that it is very easy to praise God when all things prosper. Praise and prosperity usually go together. Just as all my good luck comes from God’s providence, so God’s mercies perfect my praise. But that is no sign of faith. Even the Gentiles do that. To be thankful when there is something to be thankful for—there is nothing in that. To look pleasant when things are pleasant is but common graciousness. Not to smile when the sun shines would be churlish. To dance when the music is good is inevitable to those who are well attuned—there is nothing in that. But there are some men who are gracious when all things are ungracious, sweet when things are sour, bright when other people are in the dark. The good economist keeps his candle for the time when it is most needed; then his little light comes into eminent service. He puts his lamp out while other people’s lamps are shining; then, by and by, when the unwise virgins are all in the dark, this cheery soul lights his lamp.
(1) Do we trust God in the presence of the evil that is in the world, and in the darkness that accompanies it? Conscience affirms right and duty as supreme realities, but God pays no heed to them and lets the righteous suffer—this is the puzzle of the ages, and it is as far from solution to-day as ever. Conscience still holds men to duty, but what is the profit? The righteous suffer and die and pass away under the natural laws of God with no advantage over the wicked. Nature—and to the Jew nature was God—looked down on good and evil alike, and by no law, by no variation of its forces, showed that the good had any advantage over the evil. The wise avoid evil; the foolish incur it: but ask the light, the rain, the dew; ask gravitation and chemical affinity and electricity if they distinguish between good and evil men. To the Jew these things were God—he knew no difference between an agent of God and God Himself; and thus the terrible contradiction involved God. We blunt the force of it by referring evil to nature; but the Jew saw things more nearly as they are. Here was God in the conscience demanding righteousness, and here was God in nature ignoring righteousness. His intense sense of God deepened the problem and made it awful as a fact.
It is not the mere existence of evil, but the amount of evil in the world that really depresses us and seems like a load too heavy to be lifted up. And if we could realize to ourselves that the purposes of God are known to us in part only, not merely as regards another life, but also as regards this; if we could imagine that the evil and disorder which we see around us are but a step or stage in the progress towards order and perfection, then our conception of evil would be greatly changed. Slowly, and by many steps, did the earth which we inhabit attain to the fulness of life which we see around us. I might go on to speak of this world as a pebble in the ocean of space, as no more in relation to the universe than the least things are to the greatest, or to the whole earth. But, that we may not become dizzy in thinking about this, I will ask you to consider the bearing of such reflections, which are simple matters of fact, on our present subject. They tend to show us how small a part, not only of the physical but also of the moral world, is really known to us. They suggest to us that the evil and suffering which we see around us may be only the beginning of another and higher state of being, to be realized during countless ages in the history of man. That progress of which we think so much, from barbarism to civilization, or from ancient to modern times, may be as nothing compared with that which God has destined for the human race. And if we were living in those happier times, we should no more think seriously of the misery through which many have attained to that higher state of being than we should think of some bad dream, or dwell on some aberration or perversity of childhood when the character had been formed and had grown up to the stature of the perfect Man 1:1 [Note: B. Jowett, Sermons on Faith and Doctrine, 44.]
I questioned: Why is evil on the Earth?
A sage for answer struck a chord, and lo!
I found the harmony of little worth
To teach my soul the truth it longed to know.
He struck again; a saddened music, rife
With wisdom, in my ear an answer poured:
Sin is the jarring semitone of life,—
The needed minor in a perfect chord.2 [Note: Francis Howard Williams.]
(2) But the test can be closer; other calamities come pouring in upon Job with true epic swiftness. His family is swept out of existence. To the Jew this meant more than to us—not more grievous, but as taking away the hope of the Messiah. Under this hope the family had become a Divine institution, and so an intenser, if not a dearer, relation; it embraced his whole world; he had no thought, or life, or hope outside of it. When our children die we quench our tears with the hope of meeting them again; but to the Jew it was the overthrow of his life, the blotting out of his world. Job also endured this test, evolving in his communings with himself a full belief in another world, where, if he should find personal vindication, he might also find what was dearer to him.
Forty-three years ago, four men were left to starve on a southern isle, whither they had gone in the hope of preaching the Gospel to some of the lowest savages which the earth contains. Three of them slowly died of hunger; the fourth, Captain Allan Gardiner, survived them in a prolongation of agony. When the winter was over a ship touched on that bleak shore, and his remains were found near the entrance of the cave which had given rude shelter. Can you imagine a lot more lonely or horrible? Here was a noble and holy man, filled with the burning and the sole desire to make known the love of Jesus Christ to the miserable Fuegians, and God allowed him to starve to death in lonely anguish on a desert isle. And did his faith fail in that extremity of horror? Not for one moment. At the entrance of the cave, in red paint, he had painted a rude hand pointing downward, and under it the words, “My soul, trust thou still upon God.” The diary containing his last words, as for weeks he slowly starved to death, is written with the sunshine of joy and peace in God. “Asleep or awake,” said one of his starving companions, “I am happy beyond the poor compass of language to tell.” The very last words which Allan Gardiner wrote in his diary were these: “I know not how to thank my gracious God for His marvellous loving kindness.” Many a man, many a king, many a prince, many a millionaire, might give all that they had ever done and all they had ever possessed to die a death like that. And did these saintly heroes die in vain? No! Their very deaths brought about that Patagonian mission on which their labours had been spent.1 [Note: F. W. Farrar.]
The Electoress Louise Henriette von Oranien (died 1667), the authoress of the immortal hymn, “Jesus meine Zuversicht” [the English translation begins, “Jesus Christ, my sure defence”], chose these words, “Though the Lord should slay me, yet will I hope in him,” for the text of her funeral oration. And many in the hour of death have adopted the utterance of Job in this form as the expression of their faith and consolation. Among these we may mention a Jewess. The last movement of the wasted fingers of Grace Aguilar was to spell the words, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”2 [Note: F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Book of Job, i. 214.]
(3) Again, reverses of fortune often come on the good and honest with giant strides because of sickness, because of fraud, or the failure of others, because of unforeseen calamities; and then, oh! the anguish of heart-breaking anxieties which a man must feel, if not for himself, at least for those whom he loves. What is he to do? What form is his faith and fortitude to take?
There is a grandeur which has always touched my heart in the young man struggling with the storm of fate, in Œdipus nobler and grander in his blindness and exile than on the throne, in Marius sitting among the ruins of Carthage, and Belisarius begging for his obolus in the streets of Constantinople. Strip a man of everything that he possesses, rain all sorts of blights and sorrows and afflictions on his head as on the head of Job, let him die by lonely martyrdom, after long imprisonment, amid the alienation of all for whom he has spent his life, like St. Paul; let him be pelted and spat upon by the boys in the streets of his own city; or, like Savonarola, cast into the flames after recantation, enforced by the hideous torture of his fellow-men, and what remains to him? The grandest of all things remains to him, as an inalienable and abiding possession—himself. Not all the vaunted legions of men and devils can rob a man of himself and his immortality, of his peace with God, the glory-cloud of God’s presence in the temple of every pure and noble soul.1 [Note: F. W. Farrar.]
Our earth holds no more glorious scene than that of men and women who have passed from a mansion to a cottage, from abundance and servants to simplicity and necessity, and who have widened their influence as the path of life narrowed. Here is a man who, through no fault of his own, has lost all his goods. Gone the splendid house, the carriages, the positions of honour. Gone his pictures, his wife’s piano and all her jewels. He lives in a tiny little house. He who always rode now walks. He still stands in the aisle of the church on Sunday morning; his beautiful face is more handsome at seventy than it was in the prosperous days when he was fifty. Never was he so useful, never did his word and example count for so much. Having no more duties as director of companies he has more time to visit the poor, to teach boys in the mission school, to serve the needy, to carry the flower and the cup of cold water to Christ’s little ones. He never repines. The note of victory is in his voice when he refers to the old days. Once he ruled over things and bonds and stocks and markets. Now he rules over souls, and has time to spare. His last days have been his best days, through poverty. His happiest years have been his despoiled years. Once he made his gold to shine through Christian generosity; now he makes his coppers to shine. Yesterday, in the brown sear field, where the plough had made havoc, where the gleaners had carried away the last ear of corn, there stood in the corner of the field a bunch of wild asters, blooming up to the very edge of frost and winter, their brave beauty challenging the north wind! It was my old friend, with his stout heart, his finely-chiselled face, his beautiful, Christlike life, flinging out his challenge to poverty, disaster, revolution, and standing victorious over all life’s troubles. When the sunset gun shall boom for him the end of that man will be peace.2 [Note: N. D. Hillis, The Contagion of Character, 266.]
(4) But there are even closer tests, harder trials and heavier burdens. So long as a man is strong he can endure; the crucial test is made in weakness. He can endure poverty, standing erect in the strength of manhood; he can bear death—it is the common lot. But there is one thing a man cannot endure, simply because it takes away the strength to endure. Disease is the intolerable thing in human life, because it is the reversal and negation of life. It confuses or destroys our field of action; it takes the world from under our feet; it is a subtraction from our powers; it colours and distempers the action of the mind; it saps the will, dulls or exaggerates the sensibilities; and because it does all this, it unfits us beyond all else for resistance.
Not in the hour of peril, thronged with foes,
Panting to set their heel upon my head,
Or when alone from many wounds I bled
Unflinching beneath Fortune’s random blows;
Not when my shuddering hands were doomed to close
The unshrinking eyelids of the stony dead;—
Not then I missed my God, not then—but said:
“Let me not burden God with all man’s woes!”
But when resurgent from the womb of night
Spring’s oriflamme of flowers waves from the sod;
When peak on flashing alpine peak is trod
By sunbeams on their missionary flight;
When heaven-kissed earth laughs, garmented in light;—
That is the hour in which I miss my God.1 [Note: Mathilde Blind, Poems, 140.]
3. Now while the problem of the Book of Job is always a problem, it does not always press upon men in exactly the same way. The existence of evil and the fact of death, poverty, and disease are still felt to be hard to bear and harder to explain. But the great perplexity of our day is due to the decay of authority. This age has been called the age of criticism, an age in which every belief and institution inherited from the past is called upon to show its credentials, and in which, at least for educated men, there is no possibility of evading the duty of examining them, and endeavouring to the best of their ability to distinguish what is accidental and changeable from that which is essential and of permanent value. What, then, is the best course for those who are born in such a time to follow?
(1) There are many at the present day who tell us that, in view of the progress of science and the results of critical inquiry, the only rational course is to adopt an Agnosticism which gives up as hopeless the whole problem of religion; that is to say, all the great problems of human life and destiny. Guided by a very narrow view of science, they advise us to repudiate the great heritage of religious thought and life which has been accumulated by all the labours and sacrifices of the past, because it centres in a belief for which, in their view, scientific evidence is wanting. They think, like Job’s wife, that the difficulties which try our faith are a sufficient reason for renouncing it altogether.
If a thinker had no stake in the unknown, no vital needs, to live or languish according to what the unseen world contained, a philosophic neutrality and refusal to believe either one way or the other, would be his wisest cue. But, unfortunately, neutrality is not only inwardly difficult, it is also outwardly unrealizable, where our relations to an alternative are practical and vital. This is because, as the psychologists tell us, belief and doubt are living attitudes, and involve conduct on our part. Our only way, for example, of doubting, or refusing to believe, that a certain thing is, is continuing to act as if it were not. If, for instance, I refuse to believe that the room is getting cold, I leave the windows open and light no fire just as if it still were warm. If I doubt that you are worthy of my confidence, I keep you uninformed of all my secrets just as if you were unworthy of the same. If I doubt the need of insuring my house, I leave it uninsured as much as if I believed there were no need. And so, if I must not believe that the world is Divine, I can only express that refusal by declining ever to act distinctively as if it were so, which can only mean acting on certain critical occasions as if it were not so, or in an irreligious way. There are, you see, inevitable occasions in life when inaction is a kind of action, and must count as action, and when not to be for is to be practically against; and in all such cases strict and consistent neutrality is an unattainable thing.1 [Note: W. James, The Will to Believe, 54.]
(2) There are others who tell us that the only safe course is to shut our ears to every doubt and difficulty, and simply to adhere to every element in the faith. They bid us follow Job’s friends in simply reaffirming the forms of doctrine we have inherited, and refusing to pay any regard to the new questions which our new experience—the experience of a world which, both in knowledge and in action, has been carried far beyond any previous generation—inevitably presents for our consideration.
(3) Both these alternatives are counsels of despair, and they both lead to a narrowing of human life and thought; in the one case by a scepticism which gives up as hopeless all endeavour to throw light upon the ultimate meaning of our lives, and abandons all those beliefs in which the best of our race have found their greatest support and stimulus; in the other case by making our religion an adherence to the tradition of the past rather than an immediate living experience of the present.
The spiritual life of man cannot detach itself from its religious root without withering and decaying; but neither can it continue to exist without growing. Neither Scripture nor reason gives any encouragement to such a desperate alternative between “all” and “nothing,” between Agnosticism and a faith which is fixed once for all and has no possibility of growth.
For us, as for Job, it is the greatest of all the supports of spiritual life to believe in the rational character of the system of things in which we are placed, or, in other words, in the wisdom and goodness of the power which manifests itself in our own life and in the life of the world. For us, as for him, the essence of religion lies in the simple elementary creed that there is a Divine purpose in our existence, and that, if we make ourselves its servant and instrument, it will be well with us, but, if not, it will be ill with us. Now, as then, the great source of religious energy is to feel that the cause we serve is the good cause, and that the good cause is the cause of God. The simple consciousness expressed already in the song of Deborah, that the “stars in their courses fought against Sisera,” that is, that the whole system of things is leagued against evil, and makes its ultimate triumph impossible, has been the great solace and support of religious men in all ages.
The ideal end for man, as it exists in the mind of God, is only gradually being revealed to him, so that every height he attains to discloses a higher yet behind it:
We climb, life’s view is not at once disclosed
To creatures caught up, on the summit left,
Heaven plain above them, yet of wings bereft;
But lower laid as at the mountain’s foot.
We press on towards a phantom light that for ever flies before us, bidding us aspire, but not suffering us to attain; or perhaps we should rather say that the goal of our journey is, as it were, a to-morrow that never comes, or the last of all the lamps upon a winding road, where each appears the last until the traveller draws near it, and sees another coming into view. We pass therefore, not merely from what seems bad to what seems good, but also “from what once seemed good, to what now seems best,” not merely, that is, from what we are, towards what we think we ought to be, but also from what we once thought we ought to be towards a more recent ideal of ourselves.1 [Note: A. C. Pigou, Robert Browning as a Religious Teacher, 73.]
Askew (E. A.), The Service of Perfect Freedom, 68.
Bennie (J. N.), The Eternal Life, 179.
Caird (E.), Lay Sermons and Addresses, 285.
Dawson (G.), The Authentic Gospel, 264.
Donne (J.), Works, iv. 537.
Hall (N.), Gethsemane, 237.
Halsey (J.), The Spirit of Truth, 79.
Newman (J. H.), Parochial and Plain Sermons, iv. 117.
Pusey (E. B.), Sermons from Advent to Whitsuntide, 91.
Pusey (E. B.), Selected Occasional Sermons, 41.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxi. (1875), No. 1244.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Grace Triumphant, 300.
Voysey (C.), Sermons, iii. 17.
Christian World Pulpit, xliv. 184 (Munger), 369 (Farrar); lxxiii. 372 (Sparrow); Ixxv. 189 (Abey).
Church of England Pulpit, xxxvii. 97 (Farrar).