Great Texts of the Bible
Faithfulness in Little Things
He that is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much: and he that is unrighteous in a very little is unrighteous also in much.—Luke 16:10.
1. There is a quality of daring about this story which at first sight perplexes many people. It is the story of a steward who cheats his master, and of debtors who are in collusion with the fraud, and of a master praising his servant even while he punishes him, as though he said: “Well, at least you are a shrewd and clever fellow.” It uses, that is to say, the bad people to teach a lesson to the good, and one might fancy that it praises the bad people at the expense of the good. But this is not its intention. It simply goes its way into the midst of a group of people who are cheating and defrauding each other and says: “Even such people as these have something to teach to the children of light.”
2. The essential thing in the parable is not the craft, the unscrupulous character, of the steward, but his forethought. He looked ahead, accepted the inevitable, and prepared for it. And, says our Lord, there is far more prudence, prescience, and common sense manifested by men in the pursuit of small ends than by Christian people in the service of God. And lest any man should complain of the slenderness of his equipment, the straitness of his circumstances, or the weakness of his opportunities, it is laid down as a rule that it is not quantity but ability, not abundance but the way in which we handle trifles, that decides our place and doom. Even a fragment of humanity, with a scrap of a life, should diligently use that particle, so as to employ it for the highest and best end. In God’s sight many bulky things are very little, and many small things are very great; for this reason, that He seeth the heart and the hidden springs of action there, and judges the stream by the fountain.
The Little Things of Life
1. Let us glance first of all at the little things of life; and let us begin with its small events. Little things constitute almost the whole of life. The great days of the year, for example, are few, and when they come they seldom bring anything great to us. And the matter of all common days is made up of little things, or ordinary and stale transactions. Scarcely once in a year does anything really remarkable befall us.
If we were to begin to make an inventory of the things we do in any single day, our muscular motions, each of which is accomplished by a separate act of will, the objects we see, the words we utter, the contrivances we frame, our thoughts, passions, gratifications, and trials, many of us would not be able to endure it with sobriety. But three hundred and sixty-five such days make up a year, and a year is a twentieth, fiftieth, or seventieth part of our life. And thus, with the exception of some few striking passages, or great and critical occasions, perhaps not more than five or six in all, our life is made up of common and, as men are wont to judge, unimportant things. But yet, at the end, we have done an amazing work, and determined an amazing result. We stand at the bar of God, and look back on a life made up of small things—but yet a life, how momentous for good or evil.
Something led to our speaking of the small events which influence men’s lives, and Mr. Robertson of the Foreign Office (son of Robertson of Brighton) said: “My father always maintained that the whole course of his life had been changed by the barking of a dog. Once, when he was very ill, a dog belonging to Lady Trench, who lived next door, was terribly vocal. He was very good-natured about it, and formed thereby the acquaintance of its mistress. It was the influence of Lady Trench which determined him not to make his career in the army, as some seven or eight of his ancestors had done, but to take orders.”1 [Note: Grant Duff, Notes from a Diary, ii. 296.]
All service ranks the same with God:
If now, as formerly He trod
Paradise, His presence fills
Our earth, each only as God wills
Can work—God’s puppets, best and worst,
Are we; there is no last nor first.
Say not “a small event”! Why “small”?
Costs it more pain that this, ye call
A “great event,” should come to pass,
Than that? Untwine me from the mass
Of deeds which make up life, one deed
Power shall fall short in or exceed!1 [Note: R. Browning, Pippa Passes.]
2. Consider next the smaller duties of life. The smaller duties of life, because of their apparent insignificance and constant recurrence, are often harder to perform than the great ones. In times of excitement, or when we have the stimulus of great circumstances and the fervour of deep emotion to stir us with a sense of responsibility, it is not so hard to feel the call to act nobly as it is in the daily routine and drudgery of our common task, there to do the least faithfully as unto the Lord. On the day of battle, with its noise of trumpets and the enthusiasm of brave men a thrill of chivalry passes, like an electric shock, through an army. Every pulse beats with the throb of heroism. Excitement for a time exalts each soldier. But how difficult is it during the dull months of weary drill, and amid the petty details of military exercises, to act upon the same high principles! It is thus in a sense easier to be faithful on great occasions than to bring lofty motives into the sphere of common duties.
Although there is nothing so bad for conscience as trifling, there is nothing so good for conscience as trifles. Its certain discipline and development are related to the smallest things. Conscience, like gravitation, takes hold of atoms. Nothing is morally indifferent. Conscience must reign in manners as well as morals, in amusements as well as work. He only who is “faithful in that which is least” is dependable in all the world.2 [Note: M. D. Babcock, Thoughts for Every-Day Living, 2.]
It is true that Rossetti was affectionate, generous and lovable, but he was not considerate in small things, and it is on that quality more than on any other that the harmony of domestic life depends.1 [Note: A. C. Benson, D. G. Rossetti, 52.]
3. And now, let us ask what is meant by faithfulness in small things. We can see that it is more essential to be steadily faithful in small things than to flash forth in some great heroic act. All honour be to them who, spurred and stimulated by some sudden excitement, and borne up by the power that great sorrows and great difficulties bring, and consoled by the thought that the grief was but for a moment, and the glory would be for ever, have done and endured the things that have written their names high on the roll of the Christian Church! All honour be to the martyrs and the apostles—the Pauls, and the Peters, and the Luthers! but no less honour to the quiet Johns, whose business was only to “tarry till I come”! All honour to those whose names are possessions to the whole Church for ever! But let there be no less honour to those whose names, forgotten on earth, are written only in the Lamb’s book of life, and who, with no excitement, on no lofty pedestals, with no great crises, have gone on in Christian faithfulness, and by “patient continuance in well-doing” have sought for glory, honour, immortality, and have received eternal life! To keep ourselves clear from the world, never to break the sweet charities that bind together the circles of our homes, to walk within our houses with perfect hearts, to be honest over the pence as well as over the pounds, never to permit the little risings of momentary anger, which seem but a trifle because they pass away so quickly, to do the small duties that recur with every beat of the pendulum, and that must be done by present force and by instantly falling back upon the loftiest principle, or they cannot be done at all—these are as noble ways of glorifying Christ, and of being glorified in Him, as any to which we can ever attain.
Faithfulness may be said to be the most beautiful and the most necessary characteristic in a true soul. However much we admire gifts and graces and beautiful characteristics, or incipient, or possible, or developed excellences in human character, there is one thing about which we are quite certain, and that is, that the real ground and bond of all that is truly lovely—if that loveliness is to command our permanent admiration and our complete confidence—is that characteristic of unshaken truth and firm reality which can be relied upon, which assures us that what we admire has strength in it, and will last—which we call faithfulness.1 [Note: W. J. Knox Little.]
God’s Estimate of Little Things
1. The least things are important in God’s sight. We know how observant He is of small things. He upholds the sparrow’s wing, clothes the lily with His own beautifying hand, and numbers the hairs of His children. He holds the balancings of the clouds. He makes the small drops of rain. It astonishes all thought to observe the minuteness of God’s government, and of the natural and common processes which He carries on from day to day. His dominions are spread out, system beyond system, system above system, filling all height and latitude, but He is never lost in the vast or magnificent. He descends to an infinite detail, and builds a little universe in the smallest things. He carries on a process of growth in every tree, and flower, and living thing; accomplishes in each an internal organization, and works the functions of an internal laboratory, too delicate all for eye or instrument to trace. He articulates the members and impels the instincts of every living mote that shines in the sunbeam. The insect which is invisible to the naked eye, when placed under the microscope is discovered to be as complete in every detail as the greatest sun. Its jointed limbs, its brilliant eye, its wing of gauze, its coat of polished mail, are all of perfect finish. If, having searched through the majestic fields embraced by the eye of the astronomer, we contract our gaze to the veriest atom of which science can take cognizance, we find the same pervading watchfulness and the same care taken in the balancing of an ephemeral on its wing as in the poising of a world. With God there is this minutest attention to details, and the least work is as faithfully executed as the greatest.
One of the kings of Persia, when hunting, was desirous of eating of the venison in the field. Some of his attendants went to a neighbouring village, and took away a quantity of salt to season it; but the king, suspecting how they had acted, ordered them immediately to go and pay for it. Then, turning to his attendants, he said: “This is a small matter in itself, but a great one as regards me; for a king ought ever to be just, because he is an example to his subjects; and if he swerve in trifles, they will become dissolute. If I cannot make all my people just in small things, I can at least show them that it is possible to be so.”
All sights and sounds of day and year,
All groups and forms, each leaf and gem,
Are thine, O God, nor will I fear
To talk to Thee of them.
Too great Thy heart is to despise,
Whose day girds centuries about;
From things which we name small, Thine eyes
See great things looking out.1 [Note: George MacDonald, Poetical Works, i. 283.]
2 Christ stooped to the smallest things. He could have preached a Sermon on the Mount every morning. Each night He could have stilled the sea before His astonished disciples, and shown the conscious waves lulling into peace under His feet. He could have transfigured Himself before Pilate and the astonished multitudes of the Temple. He could have made visible ascensions in the noon of every day, and revealed His form standing in the sun, like the angel of the Apocalypse. But this was not His mind. The incidents of which His work is principally made up are, humanly speaking, very humble and unpretending. The most faithful pastor in the world was never able, in any degree, to approach the Saviour in the lowliness of His manner and His attention to humble things. His teachings were in retired places, and His illustrations were drawn from ordinary affairs. If the finger of faith touched Him in the crowd, He knew the touch and distinguished also the faith. He reproved the ambitious housewifery of a humble woman. After He had healed a poor being, blind from his birth—a work transcending all but Divine power—He returned and sought him out, as the most humble Sabbath-school teacher might have done; and, when He had found him, cast out and persecuted by men, He taught him privately the highest secrets of His Messiahship. When the world around hung darkened in sympathy with His cross, and the earth was shaking with inward amazement, He Himself was remembering His mother, and discharging the filial cares of a good son. And when He burst the bars of death, its first and final conqueror, He folded the linen cloths and the napkin, and laid them in order apart, showing that, as in the greatest things, He had a set purpose also concerning the smallest. And thus, when perfectly scanned, the work of Christ’s redemption, like the created universe, is seen to be a vast orb of glory, wrought up out of finished particles. Now a life of great and prodigious exploits would have been comparatively an easy thing for Him, but to cover Himself with beauty and glory in small things, to so fill and adorn every little human occasion as to make it Divine—this was a work of skill which no mind or hand was equal to but that which shaped the atoms of the world. Such everywhere is God. He nowhere overlooks or despises small things.
A friend once saw Michael Angelo at work on one of his statues. Some time afterwards he saw him again, and said, seeing so little done, “Have you been idle since I saw you last?”
“By no means,” replied the sculptor. “I have retouched this part and polished that; I have softened this feature and brought out that muscle; I have given more expression to this lip, and more energy to this limb.”
“Well, well,” said the friend, “all these are trifles.”
“It may be so,” replied Angelo; “but recollect that trifles make perfection, and that perfection is no trifle.”1 [Note: F. B. Cowl, Digging Ditches, 59.]
If the impression to be conveyed by his picture was of greater importance than usual, every line, and the character of every line, of the various parts was pondered over, sometimes during many years. On his return home, when the second version of the “Love and Death” upon a large scale was first brought out and put upon his easel, he saw that, owing to some subtle changes in line and tone, the figure of Death had neither the weight nor the slow movement he desired to give it. So day after day he thought and toiled, and I saw each fold of the garment deliberately reconsidered, a hair’s-breadth of line or a breath of colour making the difference that a pause or an accentuated word would make in speaking. For instance, by raising the hand and outstretched arm a less judicial and severe impression was conveyed, and by this slight alteration the action changed from “I shall” to the more tender “I am compelled.”1 [Note: M. S. Watts, George Frederic Watts, ii. 86.]
1. Fidelity in small things prepares for and opens the way to a wider sphere of service. Every power strengthens by exercise. Everything that I do I can do better next time because of the previous effort. Every temptation resisted weakens the force of all other temptations of every sort. Every time that a Christian acts for the sake of Christ, that motive is made stronger in his soul. Every time that a rebellious and seducing voice, speaking in his spirit, is withstood, his ear becomes more attuned to catch the lowest whisper of his Master’s commandments, and his heart becomes more joyful and ready to obey. Every act of obedience smoothes the road for all that shall come after. To get the habit of being faithful so wrought into our life that it becomes part of our second and truer self—that is a defence all but impregnable for us, when the stress of the great trials comes, or when God calls us to lofty and hard duties.
Ah! not as citizens of this our sphere,
But aliens militant we sojourn here,
Invested by the hosts of Evil and of Wrong,
Till Thou shalt come again with all Thine angel throng.
As Thou hast found me ready to Thy call,
Which stationed me to watch the outer wall,
And, quitting joys and hopes that once were mine,
To pace with patient steps this narrow line,
Oh! may it be that, coming soon or late,
Thou still shalt find Thy soldier at the gate,
Who then may follow Thee till sight needs not to prove,
And faith will be dissolved in knowledge of Thy love.2 [Note: G. J. Romanes, in Life and Letters, 344.]
Few, if any, can suddenly rise to great things who have not been first well trained by little things. The lofty summits of great mountains are only reached by passing first the little paths which lie below. So lofty standards of faithfulness in great things are only reached by previous training in the little things of lowly duties. The servant who is faithful with your pence may be safely trusted with your pounds. The friend who is faithful in the little matters of friendship will probably not be found unfaithful to you when emergencies shall arise which shall make great demands upon the faithfulness of his friendship. Your servant and your friend have been trained for great things by their faithfulness in little things. The biographer of the late Bishop of Manchester tells us how Fraser’s work in his little parish of two or three hundred people gradually trained him for the great work of one of the most important dioceses in England. He had shown himself faithful in the least things of his little parish; he was found faithful in the great things of his great diocese.1 [Note: H. G. Youard.]
To a man on the eve of Ordination the Bishop wrote: “ ‘Be faithful over a few things.’ The glory and bliss of this faithfulness are so great that I dare not set them down, lest I should seem to lay claim to them.”2 [Note: G. W. E. Russell, Edward King, Bishop of Lincoln, 221.]
There is a beautiful Rabbinical story, that, when Moses was tending Jethro’s flock in Midian, a kid went astray. He sought it and found it drinking at a spring. “Thou art weary,” he said, and lifted it on his shoulders and carried it home. And God said to him: “Since thou hast had pity for a man’s beast, thou shalt be shepherd of Israel, My flock.”3 [Note: David Smith, The Days of His Flesh, 315.]
2. Fidelity in small things issues in an enduring possession. We cannot take with us beyond the grave our business or the success it may have gained for us, our money or the pleasures it may have brought. But we can take the good we may have won or done. The moral qualities with which our use of Mammon may have strengthened and disciplined our character, the kindness it may have enabled us to show, the compassion it may have enabled us to realize, the self-sacrifice it may have enabled us to practise, the strength and cheer it may have enabled us to give to our fellows—these are secured for us, waiting as it were in the eternal world to speak for us, and to welcome us. It is well for us to contemplate that solitary journey which awaits us all when death has knocked at the door and summoned us forth.
“Take with you in your journey what you may carry with you, your conscience, faith, hope, patience, meekness, goodness, brotherly kindness; for such wares as these are of great price in the high and new country whither ye go. As for other things which are but this world’s vanity and trash … ye will do best not to carry them with you. Ye found them here; leave them here.”1 [Note: Samuel Rutherford.]
3. By means of this world God is testing character, and proving our capacity for the vaster world beyond. “He that is faithful”—Jesus sums up by saying—“faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in much; and he that is unjust in the least, is unjust also in much.” The real character comes out under all sorts of circumstances—sometimes quite clearly and strikingly even in the most insignificant and incidental, when no great issue is thought of, and no special effort made. God knows it of course without any such testing. But He would make it evident to the man himself, and to every witness, and He would also call it forth, and foster it where it is excellent; make it manifest and shame it out of being, where it is evil. So, in little things He proves faithfulness, and makes it grow to capacity for the greatest trust. In little things also He proves injustice, and seeks, by detection and exposure now, to brand and burn it out in time, and before it becomes ineradicable and forever ruinous.
I cannot better sum up the thought given to us by this parable than by quoting the words, adapted from the ancient hymn of Cleanthes, in which a great and typical Englishman, William Stubbs, Bishop of Oxford, a man reserved in speech, almost morbid in his English dislike of emotional display, devoted to the sense of duty, reveals the secret of his humility and of his strength—
Lead me, Almighty Father, Spirit, Son,
Whither Thou wilt, I follow, no delay,
My will is Thine, and even had I none,
Grudging obedience still I will obey.
Faint-hearted, fearful, doubtful if I be,
Gladly or sadly I will follow Thee.
Into the land of righteousness I go,
The footsteps thither Thine and not my own,
Jesu, Thyself the way, alone I know,
Thy will be mine, for other have I none.
Unprofitable servant though I be,
Gladly or sadly let me follow Thee.1 [Note: C. G. Lang, The Parables of Jesus, 190.]
Faithfulness in Little Things
Bushnell (H.), The New Life, 191.
Byles (J.), The Boy and the Angel, 105.
Cowl (F. B.), Digging Ditches, 54.
Ellis (J. J.), Through Christ to Life, 131.
Fürst (A.), Christ the Way, 138.
Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year: Sundays after Trinity, i.–xii. 283.
Lang (C. G.), The Parables of Jesus, 159.
Lyttelton (A. T.), College and University Sermons, 256.
Maclaren (A.), Sermons preached in Manchester, i. 265.
Miller (J.), Sermons Literary and Scientific, ii. 361.
Peabody (F. G.), Mornings in the College Chapel, i. 140.
Purves (P. C.), The Divine Cure for Heart Trouble, 61.
Pusey (E. B.), Parochial and Cathedral Sermons, 131.
Raymond (G. L.), Suggestions for the Spiritual Life, 217.
Walker (G. S.), The Pictures of the Divine Artist, 153.
Wilmot-Buxton (H. J.), New and Contrite Hearts, 93.
Children’s Pulpit: Third Sunday in Advent, i. 196 (J. N. Hallock); First Sunday after the Epiphany, ii. 340 (G. M. Mackie).
Christian World Pulpit, x. 277 (J. R. S. Harington); xvii. 115 (F. O. Morris); xxxi. 140 (H. W. Beecher).
Clergyman’s Magazine, 3rd Ser., iv. 77 (H. G. Youard).
Good Words, 1872, p. 694 (D. Macleod).
National Preacher, xxxii. 252 (Gordon Hall); xxxiii. 208 (A. L. Chapin).