The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.Brotherly Kindness
"We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak." If we were under the impression that Christianity is all metaphysics we have been under an impression that is false. There is nothing so practical, so work-a-day-like, as Christianity. It goes into the marketplace and into the family, and into all the holes and corners of life, and sees that everything is done according to the spirit of the eternal sanctuary. Orthodoxy does not look in one direction only, it is not a question of metaphysical correctness alone; it is rather a question of good conduct, lofty character, high quality of soul, fine temper, and inexhaustible charity.
"We then that are strong." How subtle the praise! How skilfully the compliment is introduced: a general plurality, a "We" that looks so simple in grammar, but that is larger than the sky in inclusiveness and meaning. The Apostle Paul could discriminate, but he could also suspend the faculty of criticism, that he might give heart to those who would be easily cast down. He utters this plural "We" as if it included others as well as himself, and others who were in all respects equal to himself, possibly superior to himself; yet here is a common plurality, a great golden cordon, within which anybody may come, that wants to do so with an honest heart. He talks about the weak as if they were a million miles away, and as if at some time, possibly, we might come in contact with them; and if ever that event should transpire, then we should be kind to them, gentle, civil, courteous, and helpful. He regards those to whom he is writing as if they were all equally strong, and as if he were sending them out on a mission to find the weak that they might nurture them into strength. Oh there is a truthful flattery, there is a subtly blessed eulogy, to be pronounced upon other people in an instructive sense. Sometimes we mean that the people ought to be as good as the compliment. It requires a master to handle such instruments, but when they are skilfully handled they work wonders. A man may be made ashamed of himself sometimes by having a compliment paid to him. He may say I ought to have been that, but I am not: is it possible this man has imagined me to be so good, so generous, so unselfish and so kind? What have I done to deserve this recognition? The man has only seen one glittering point in my character; if he could see the rest he would know that I am as base as I can be. But I must bestir myself; if this is the impression made by anything I have done, I must try to live up to it. Paul was a master teacher, a master builder; he never gave plain, straightforward, and undisguised medicine; he had a thousand little jellies and capsules under which he hid the stuff that would have been bitter in the mouth. Christianity can be courteous, gentle, instructive, eulogistic, without bating jot or tittle of its infinite veracity.
"We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak." There is nothing unreasonable in that request. That is the law of the household; and the household best represents Paul's idea of the Christian Church: a "whole family in heaven and earth" is Paul's conception of the spiritual fraternity. This is not a metaphysical difficulty; it did not need a written Bible to tell us this doctrine; this is the writing on the heart by invisible fingers in invisible ink; but there it is, never to be obliterated. If this doctrine could give way under any pressure, the world would be lost. A doctrine of this kind has saved the world, and has given the world hope of itself. It is easy for certain lines of thought to go in other directions. There is a surgery which talks about your broken limb as a beautiful case, and the doctor says if he can cure you he will make his name and fortune; it is one of the most interesting cases that ever came under his notice. So talks the man about your broken bones. There are those who say, The weak must go to the wall; the wall was built on purpose to receive them; let their brains be dashed out against the stonework; there will always be a survival of the fittest, and the fittest should eat all the bread, and drink all the wine, and enjoy all the wheatfield and vintage; everything was made for the burly, the big, the rotund, and the radiant, and the full-blooded; and as for little weak, puny, puling cattle, let who will set a foot upon them, and blot them out. Yet these scientific men are not cruel when you come to talk to them one by one: they are only talking from a very high scientific point of view. They never were there, but they talk as if they had always lived nowhere else. It is Christianity that is sympathetic, it is Christ that says, If there is a very little one anywhere about, take care you do not step upon that poor little life: wait; we must not go one step farther until we have gathered up the least of the flock. He shall lead his flock like a shepherd, he shall gather the lambs in his bosom; the bruised reed he will not break, the smoking flax he will not quench: "one of the least of these my brethren" is a strain of music that shall be found in the judgment of the eternal throne. We do not want a philosophical religion only: nobody ever understood philosophy or could make any use of it, except in endeavouring to explain it to other people, who would rather not have heard the explanation—people who imagine that they did understand something before it was explained to them, but after it was explained all life became one steady and frowning fog. Christianity is a mother, a nurse, a friend, a watcher that sits up all night, a gentle spirit that does not like tears, and therefore drives them away; a sweet, beautiful, summer-like angel that wants to grow a flower wherever there is room for its little root. Christianity would never despise the weak, therefore by so much Christianity is the true religion.
"...and not to please ourselves." This is the line of discipline. Up to being thought strong we were good; up to paying some little attention to the infirmities of the weak, if they were not too many, we were willing to earn a little Christian reputation; but when the Apostle says, "and not to please ourselves," he breaks every bone in our body, he grinds us to powder, he roasts us before a slow fire, he drives us away with our hypocritical prayers, that we may breathe them into any bottomless pit that may receive such unsacred desires. Not to please myself! What is life? Is life worth living? May I not do both things—may I not help the weak, and still please myself? But the Apostle says you are not to help the amiable weak, the gentle, grateful weak, but you are to help the bearish weak, the ugly, hideous, impatient, furious, spiteful weak. You would not mind sitting up all night to watch some beautiful child in its fitful slumber: but to sit up all night, and to be scolded all the time, is like sitting up all the nights in one's life at once. Yet this is Christianity; this is the Cross; this is Calvary. You do not know your friends until you have come in direct conflict with them. Do not call a man nice, kind, genial, friendly, when the man has had all his own way with you. You know nothing about that man. Disappoint him, vex him, come in direct conflict with his most cherished opinions; tell him in a friendly and kindly way that he knows nothing about the subject, and ought therefore to keep his mouth shut—then you will see really what your friend is. So with the weak: if we have only been nursing the tender-hearted weak, we know nothing about infirmity. It is kindly, genial, gentle; but when everything is crossed, and crossed again, and nothing goes square, or straight, or up, or down, but is everywhere tortuous, winding, twisting, and crooked, and impracticable,—it is just along there that we find out how much we can bear, and how much we have in us of the genius of the agony of the Cross. In that high sense there are no Christians. Enough for us, meantime, that we have got so far conquest over the beast that is in us as to want to be Christlike.
"Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification." That is, to building the man up, getting him higher and higher day by day. We must not please the neighbour to his destruction. There is a pleasure that has in it no healthy qualities. There is a way of making work easy. Is there any work at all now? Certainly not in the old sense. Our fathers' fathers used to work: we make holiday. We have a genius for creating vacations. We are the inventors of labour-saving machinery. To edify a man without seeming to do so is the higher attainment of Christian skill. Let a man feel that you have made a dead set upon him with the view of making him better, and he will fight you; but so to arrange the environment of the man, and so to act that everything you say and do contributes to his upbuilding, is a skill a man must pray himself into. You leave the society of some men conscious that you have lost something. Some men come into your house, and when they have gone you say, Where are we? that man seems to have blown upon everybody: he has not said one kind word about any living soul; are there any gentlemen living, any scholars, any Christians, any preachers, any good people at all? There has been a robbery in the house. Other men come into the house, and redecorate it, hang all its walls with beauteous eloquent colour, and fill the soul with new thought, new hope, new life; so that you say, After all there is a touch of heaven in this old rotten earth; there are some flowers down here that must have been transplanted, brought from celestial climes. There you have been upbuilded, strengthened, made larger and stronger, wholly; and the process has been a pleasure to you; it may have been a pleasure you could not define in words, and yet when the process of communion has closed you feel that you have entertained an angel unawares, a soul that has built you up in your most holy faith, and yet has probably not uttered one single theological sentence.
The Apostle cannot long keep himself away from Christ. He comes to that sweet name in the next sentence—"For even Christ pleased not himself." He will have Christ made the standard and the fountain everywhere. All his reasoning came out of the Cross. The Apostle said, I have nothing that Christ has not given me: if I have said one good, true, musical word, it was because Christ made use of me that I might be a medium of the holy communication. This is the use which the Apostle Paul made of Christ; he found everything in him. We have before endeavoured to get rid of the sophism which says that some preachers read meanings into the text. Nothing of the kind. If it is true it is in the text. Whatever is beautiful is in Christ; in Christ you have all music, all light, all nobleness. Jesus Christ may never have spoken the words which are attributed to him, and yet he may never have spoken anything else in spirit and in substance. We might have more Christ, if we made more of him. We have not realised the fulness of Christ, the plethora; we have not realised that in him dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. A man may as well attempt to read a pebble into the earth as read any true thought into Christ. All the pebbles are in the earth, and belong to the earth, and are part of the great quarry of the earth: and so all holy, beautiful, tender, musical thoughts are in Christ; without him there is nothing that is of his quality. Let us then have larger sermons; let us betake ourselves to waters to swim in; whatever will plant a flower in a poor man's window is part of the Cross of Christ; whatever will take up a little child, and clean its face and hands, and give it something to eat, and start it on its little life-journey, comes out of the garden of Gethsemane. We have been fools to allow men to start little rivalries to Christ: we ought to have included all of them as part of the mission of Christ.
The Apostle Paul comes to one of his "Wherefores." He is always in "Therefore" or "Wherefore," and reasoning himself out to some new grasp of Divine realities in the great economy of human life:—"Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God." Now he brings both the Christian and Christ himself into one verse. "Wherefore receive one another:" there is room for speculation, room for arrangement, room for consultation, as who should say, How do you think this ought to be done? and, What is your judgment upon this topic? Not so does the Apostle talk: receive ye one another as"—here is the standard, here is the pattern, here is the way—"Christ also received us." How were we received? As gentlemen, as equals, as virtuous persons who lent a kind of radiant patronage to the Man of Sorrows, and the soul that was acquainted with grief? No, it was not so. We have only been received as broken-down, crippled, lost, dead, having in us only life enough to say that we do not live. Has Christ received only men of one stature? A curious army is the Lord's; there are men there of all inches, men of all complexions, men of all languages: some great, buoyant, royal souls that make the earth green all the year round—God's amaranths that cannot be withered by the snows of winter; and others so little you can hardly see them, but you can always hear them, they have voice enough, though they are very much like Euclid's definition of a point, which is, "position without magnitude"; we are to look after them, and make record of them, and add them up as if they were as good as anybody else. A marvellous democracy! And yet every man goes simply for his own weight, bulk, quality, and force. When the Lord weighs a man he does not tell him any lies as to his weight. He is either a substantial man, or a medium man, or a very small man, and that is written down plainly on his ticket. Who are we, then, that we should say, This man does not belong to Christ, and that man ought not to be in the Church? The Church is large enough to hold us all. The Church can take in the most crooked and perverse persons that ever lived. The Church can carry any burden that wants to be carried. It is only the burden that says, I am an ornament which the Church is tired of carrying. If a man shall say, I am very weak and poor, and not worth looking after, but if you can find time to pray for me, and think of me, and love me, then you will make my life brighter, then all the Church would be turned into a mother and nurse, and we should get a perambulator for the creature, and ride him out in all the prettiest parts of the country on all the longest and brightest days in the summer: but if he said he was as good as anybody else, we should allow him to provide his own means of locomotion, and go, in the jovial companionship of himself, anywhere he liked. Everything depends upon the spirit of brotherliness, kindness, simplicity. Everything depends upon a man knowing exactly what he is himself. Let a man keep within the line of his strength, and he is strong; let him overreach that, and he can strike nothing, he can pluck nothing; he is powerless because he is overstrained. This is the great lesson in all life, in business, in literature, in statesmanship, in public speaking. Keep to those subjects you know; work easily within the limits which God has appointed as your boundary, and then every stroke tells, and every apple in the fence belongs to you of right.