When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
Taking the Apostle's words literally, it might appear that no words in the whole range of Scripture were less applicable to the circumstances of this particular congregation: for they speak of childhood and of manhood; and as all of us have passed the one, so a very large proportion of us have not yet arrived at the other. But when we consider the passage a little more carefully, we shall see that this would be a very narrow and absurd objection. Neither the Apostle, nor any one else, has ever stepped directly from childhood into manhood; it was his purpose here only to notice the two extreme points of the change which had taken place in him, passing over its intermediate stages; but he, like all other men, must have gone through those stages. There must have been a time in his life, as in all ours, when his words, his thoughts, and his understanding were neither all childish, nor all manly: there must have been a period, extending over some years, in which they were gradually becoming the one less and less, and the other more and more. And as it suited the purposes of his comparison to look at the change in himself only when it was completed, so it will suit our object here to regard it while in progress, to consider what it is, to ask the two great questions, how far it can be hastened, and how far it ought to be hastened.
"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things." It will be seen at once, that when the Apostle speaks of thought and understanding, ([Greek: erronoun elogizomeaen],) he does not mean the mere intellect but all the notions, feelings, and desires of our minds, which partake of an intellectual and of a moral character together. He is comparing what we should call the whole nature and character of childhood with those of manhood. Let us see, for a moment, in what they most strikingly differ.
Our Lord's well-known words suggest a difference in the first place, which is in favour of childhood. When he says, "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye can in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven," he must certainly ascribe some one quality to childhood, in which manhood is generally deficient. And the quality which he means is clearly humility; or to speak perhaps more correctly, teachableness. It is impossible that a child can have that confidence in himself, which disposes him to be his own guide. He must of necessity lean on others, he must follow others, and therefore he must believe others. There is in his mind, properly speaking, nothing which can be called prejudice; he will not as yet refuse to listen, as thinking that he knows better than his adviser. One feeling, therefore, essential to the perfection of every created and reasonable being, childhood has by the very law of its nature; a child cannot help believing that there are some who are greater, wiser, better than himself, and he is disposed to follow their guidance.
This sense of comparative weakness is founded upon truth, for a child is of course unfit to guide himself. Without noticing mere bodily helplessness, a child knows scarcely what is good and what is evil; his desires for the highest good are not yet in existence; his moral sense altogether is exceedingly weak, and would yield readily to the first temptation. And, because those higher feelings, which are the great check to selfishness, have not yet arisen within him, the selfish instinct, connected apparently with all animal life, is exceedingly predominant in him. If a child then on the one hand be teachable, yet he is at the same time morally weak and ignorant, and therefore extremely selfish.
It is also a part of the nature of childhood to be the slave of present impulses. A child is not apt to look backwards or forwards, to reflect or to calculate. In this also he differs entirely from the great quality which befits man as an eternal being, the being able to look before and after.
Not to embarrass ourselves with too many points, we may be content with these four characteristics of childhood, teachableness, ignorance, selfishness, and living only for the present. In the last three of these, the perfect man should put away childish things; in the first point, or teachableness, while he retained it in principle, he should modify it in its application. For while modesty, humility, and a readiness to learn, are becoming to men no less than to children; yet it should be not a simple readiness to follow others, but only to follow the wise and good; not a sense of utter helplessness which catches at the first stay, whether sound or brittle; but such a consciousness of weakness and imperfection, as makes us long to be strengthened by Him who is almighty, to be purified by Him who is all pure.
I said, and it is an obvious truth, that the change from childhood to manhood is gradual; there is a period in our lives, of several years, in which we are, or should be, slowly exchanging the qualities of one state for those of the other. During this intermediate state, then, we should expect to find persons become less teachable, less ignorant, less selfish, less thoughtless. "Less teachable," I would wish to mean, in the sense of being "less indiscriminately teachable;" but as the evil and the good are, in human things, ever mixed up together, we may be obliged to mean "less teachable" simply. And, to say the very truth, if I saw in a young man the changes from childhood in the three other points, if I found him becoming wiser, and less selfish, and more thoughtful, I should not be very much disturbed if I found him for a time less teachable also. For whilst he was really becoming wiser and better, I should not much wonder if the sense of improvement rather than of imperfection possessed him too strongly; if his confidence in himself was a little too over-weening. Let him go on a little farther in life, and if he really does go on improving in wisdom and goodness, this over-confidence will find its proper level. He will perceive not only how much he is doing, or can do, but how much there is which he does not do, and cannot. To a thoughtful mind added years can scarcely fail to teach, humility. And in this the highest wisdom of manhood may be resembling more and more the state of what would be perfect childhood, that is, not simply teachableness, but tractableness with respect to what was good and true, and to that only.
But the danger of the intermediate state between childhood and manhood is too often this, that whilst in the one point of teachableness, the change runs on too fast, in the other three, of wisdom, of unselfishness, and of thoughtfulness, it proceeds much too slowly: that the faults of childhood thus remain in the character, whilst that quality by means of which these faults are meant to be corrected, -- namely, teachableness, -- is at the same time diminishing. Now, teachableness as an instinct, if I may call it so, diminishes naturally with the consciousness of growing strength. By strength, I mean strength of body, no less than strength of mind, so closely are our body and mind connected with, each other. The helplessness of childhood, which presses upon it every moment, the sense of inability to avoid or resist danger, which makes the child run continually to his nurse or to his mother for protection, cannot but diminish, by the mere growth of the bodily powers. The boy feels himself to be less helpless than the child, and in that very proportion he is apt to become less teachable. As this feeling of decreased helplessness changes into a sense of positive vigour and power, and as this vigour and power confer an importance on their possessor, which is the case especially at schools, so self-confidence must in one point at least, arise in the place of conscious weakness; and as this point is felt to be more important, so will the self-confidence be likely to extend itself more and more over the whole character.
And yet, I am bound to say, that, in general, the teachableness of youth is, after all, much greater than we might at first sight fancy. Along with much self-confidence in many things, it is rare, I think, to find in a young man a deliberate pride that rejects advice and instruction, on the strength of having no need for them. And therefore, the faults of boyhood and youth are more owing, to my mind, to the want of change in the other points of the childish character, than to the too great change in this. The besetting faults of youth appear to me to arise mainly from its retaining too often the ignorance, selfishness, and thoughtlessness of a child, and having arrived at the same time at a degree of bodily vigour and power, equal, or only a very little inferior, to those of manhood.
And in this state of things, the questions become of exceeding interest, whether the change from childhood to manhood can be hastened. That it ought to be hastened, appears to me to be clear; hastened, I mean, from what it is actually, because in this respect, we do not grow in general fast enough; and the danger of over-growth is, therefore, small. Besides, where change of one sort is going on very rapidly; where the limbs are growing and the bones knitting more firmly, where the strength of bodily endurance, as well as of bodily activity, is daily becoming greater; it is self-evident that, if the inward changes which ought to accompany these outward ones are making no progress, there cannot but be derangement and deformity in the system. And, therefore, when I look around, I cannot but wish generally that the change from childhood to manhood in the three great points of wisdom, of unselfishness, and of thoughtfulness, might be hastened from its actual rate of progress in most instances.
But then comes the other great question, "Can it be hastened, and if it can, how is it to be done?" "Can it be hastened" means, of course, can it be hastened healthfully and beneficially, consistently with the due development of our nature in its after stages, from life temporal to life eternal? For as the child should grow up into the man, so also there is a term of years given in which, according to God's will, the natural man should grow up into the spiritual man; and we must not so press the first change as to make it interfere with the wholesome working of the second. The question then is, really, can the change from childhood to manhood be hastened in the case of boys and young men in general from its actual rate of progress in ordinary cases, without injury to the future excellence and full development of the man? that is, without exhausting prematurely the faculties either of body or mind.
And this is a very grave question, one of the deepest interest for us and for you. For us, as, according to the answer to be given to it, should depend our whole conduct and feelings towards you in the matter of your education; for you, inasmuch as it is quite clear, that if the change from childhood to manhood can be hastened safely, it ought to be hastened; and that it is a sin in every one not to try to hasten it: because, to retain the imperfections of childhood when you can get rid of them, is in itself to forfeit the innocence of childhood; to exchange the condition of the innocent infant whom Christ blessed, for that of the unprofitable servant whom Christ condemned. For with the growth of our bodies evil will grow in us unavoidably; and then, if we are not positively good, we are, of necessity, positively sinners.
We will consider, then, what can be done to hasten this change in us healthfully; whether we can grow in wisdom, in love, and in thoughtfulness, faster in youth, than we now commonly do grow: and whether any possible danger can be connected with such increased exertion. This shall be our subject for consideration next Sunday. Meantime, let it be understood, that however extravagant it might be to hope for any general change in any moral point, as the direct result of setting truth before the mind; yet, that it never can be extravagant to hope for a practical result in some one or two particular cases; and that, if one or two even be impressed practically with what they hear, the good achieved, or, rather, the good granted us by God, is really beyond our calculation. It is so strictly; for who can worthily calculate the value of a single human soul? but it is so in this sense also, that the amount of general good which may be done in the end by doing good first in particular cases is really more than we can estimate. It was thus that Christ's original eleven apostles became, in the end, the instruments of the salvation of millions: and it is on this consideration that we never need despair of the most extensive improvements in society, if we are content to wait God's appointed time and order, and look for the salvation of the many as the gradual fruit of the salvation of a few.