Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit, in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.
It would be going a great deal too far to say, that they who fulfilled the latter part of this command, were sure also to fulfil the former; that they who were men in understanding, were, therefore, likely to be children in malice. But the converse holds good, with remarkable certainty, that they who are children in understanding, are proportionally apt to be men in malice: that is, in proportion as men neglect that which should be the guide of their lives, so are they left to the mastery of their passions; and as nature and outward circumstances do not allow these passions to remain as quiet and as little grown as they are in childhood, -- for they are sure to ripen without any trouble of ours, -- so men are left with nothing but the evils of both ages, the vices of the man, and the unripeness and ignorance of the child.
It is indeed a strange and almost incredible thing, that any should ever have united in their minds the notions of innocence and ignorance as applied to any but literal children: nor is it less strange, that any should ever have been afraid of their understanding, and should have sought goodness through prejudice, and blindness, and folly. Compared with this, their conduct was infinitely reasonable who weakened and tormented their bodies in order to strengthen, as they thought, their spiritual nature. Such conduct was, by comparison, reasonable because there is a great deal of bodily weakness and discomfort, which really does not interfere with the strength and purity of our character in itself, although, by abridging our activity, it may lessen our means of usefulness. But what should we say of a man who directed his ill usage of his body to that part of our system which is most closely connected with the brain; who were purposely to impair his nervous system, and subject himself to those delusions and diseased views of things which are the well-known result of any disorder there? Yet this is precisely what they do who seek to mortify and lower their understanding. It is as impossible that they should become better men by such a process, as if they were literally to take medicines to affect their nerves or their brain, in the hope of becoming idiotic or delirious. It is, in fact, the worst kind of self-murder; for it is a presumptuous destroying of that which is our best life, because we dread to undergo those trials which God has appointed for the perfecting both of it and of us.
But from the wilful blindness of these men, let us turn to the Christian wisdom of the Apostle: "In malice be ye children, but in understanding be men." Let us turn to what is recorded of our Lord in his early life, at that age when, as man, the cultivation of his understanding was his particular duty -- that he was found in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions: not asking questions only, as one too impatient or too vain to wait for an answer, or to consider it when he had received it; not hearing only, as one careless and passive, who thinks that the words of wisdom can improve his mind by being indolently admitted through the ears, with no more effort than his body uses when it is refreshed by a cooling air, or when it is laid down in running water; but both hearing and asking questions; docile and patient, yet active and intelligent; knowing that the wisdom was to be communicated from without, but that it belongs to the vigorous exercise of the power within, to apprehend it, and to convert it to nourishment.
Now, what is recorded of our Lord for our example, as to the manner in which he received instruction when delivered by word of mouth, this same thing should we do with that instruction, which, as is the ease with most of ours, we derive from reading. Put the Scriptures in the place of those living teachers whom Christ was so eager to hear; the words of Christ, and of his Spirit, instead of those far inferior guides from whom, notwithstanding, he, for our sakes, once submitted to learn; and what can be more exact than the application of the example? Let us be found in God's true temple, in the communion of his faithful people, -- his universal Church, sitting down as it were, surrounded by the voices of the oracles of God -- prophets, apostles, and Jesus Christ himself: let us be found with the record of these oracles in our hands, both reading them and asking them questions.
It is quite clear that what hinders a true understanding of anything is vagueness; and it is by this process of asking questions that vagueness is to be dispelled: for, in the first place, it removes one great vagueness, or indistinctness, which is very apt to beset the minds of many; namely, the not clearly seeing whether they understand a thing or no; and much more, the not seeing what it is that they do understand, and what it is which they do not. Take any one of our Lord's parables, and read it even to a young child: there will be something of an impression conveyed, and some feelings awakened; but all will be indistinct; the child will not know whether he understands or no, but will soon gain the habit of supposing that he does, as that is at once the least troublesome, and the least unpleasant to our vanity. And this same vague impression is often received by uneducated persons from reading or bearing either the Scriptures or sermons; it is by no means the same as if they had read or heard something in an unknown language; but yet they can give no distinct account of what they have heard or read; they do not know how far they understand it, and how far they do not. Here, then, is the use of "asking questions," -- asking questions of ourselves or of our book, I mean, for I am supposing the case of our reading, when it can rarely happen that we have any living person at hand to give us an answer. Now, taking the earliest and simplest state of knowledge, it is plain that the first question to put to ourselves will be, "Do I understand the meaning of all the words and expressions in what I have been reading?" I know that this is taking things at their very beginning, but it is my wish to do so. Now, so plain and forcible is the English of our Bible, generally speaking, that the words difficult to be understood will probably not be many: yet some such do occur, owing, in some instances, to a change of the language; as in the words "let," and "prevent," which now signify, the one, "to allow, or suffer to be done," and the other "to stop, or hinder," but which signified, when our translation was made, the first, "to stop or hinder," and the second, "to be beforehand with us;" as in the prayer, "Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings, with thy most gracious favour;" the meaning is, "Let thy favour be with us beforehand, O Lord, in whatever we are going to do." In other instances the words are difficult because they are used in a particular sense, such as we do not learn from our common language; of which kind are the words "elect," "saints," "justification," "righteousness," and many others. Now, if we ask ourselves "whether we understand these words or no," our common sense, when thus questioned, will readily tell us, whether we do or not; although if we had not directly asked the question, it might never have thought about it. Of course, our common sense cannot tell us what the true meaning is; that is a matter of information, and our means of gaining information may be more or less; but still, a great step is gained, the mist is partly cleared away; we can say to ourselves, "Here is something which I do understand, and here is something which I do not; I must keep the two distinct, for the first I may use, the second I cannot; I will mark it down as a thing about which I may get explanation at another time; but at present it is a blank in the picture, it is the same as if it were not there." This, then, is the first process of self-questioning, adapted, as I have already said, to those whose knowledge is most elementary.
Suppose, however, that we are got beyond difficulties of this sort -- that the words and particular expressions of the Scriptures are mostly clear to us. Now, take again one of our Lord's parables; say, for instance, that of the labourers in the vineyard: we read it, and find that he who went to work at the eleventh hour received as much as he who had been working all the day. This seems to say, that he who begins to serve God in his old age shall receive his crown of glory no less than he who has served him all his life. But now try the process of self-questioning: what do I think that Christ means me to learn from this? what is the lesson to me? what is it to make me feel, or think, or do? If it makes me think that I shall receive an equal crown of glory if I begin to serve God in my old age, and therefore if it leads me to live carelessly, this is clearly making Christ encourage wickedness; and such a thought is blasphemy. He cannot mean me to learn this from it: let me look at the parable again. Who is it who is reproved in those words which seem to contain its real object? It is one who complains of God for having rewarded others equally with himself. Now this I can see is not a good feeling: it is pride and jealousy. In order, then to learn what the parable means me to learn, let me put myself in the position of those reproved in it. If I complain that others are rewarded by God as much as I am, it is altogether a bad feeling, and one which I ought to check; for I have nothing to do with God's dealings to others, let me think of what concerns myself. Here I have the lesson of the parable complete: and here I find it is useful for me. But if I take it for a different object, and suppose that it means to encourage waiting till the eleventh hour -- waiting till we are old before we repent -- we find that we make it only actually to be mischievous to us. And thus we gain a great piece of knowledge: namely, that the parables of our Lord are mostly designed to teach, some one particular lesson, with respect to some one particular fault: and that if we take them generally, as if all in them was applicable to all persons, whether exposed to that particular fault or not, we shall absolutely be in danger of deriving mischief from them instead of good. It is true, that in this particular parable, the gross wickedness of such an interpretation as I have mentioned is guarded against even in the story itself; because those who worked only at the eleventh hour are expressly said to have stood idle so long only because no man had hired them; their delay, therefore, was no fault of their own. But even if this circumstance had been left out, it would have been just the same; because the general rule is, that we apply to a parable only for its particular lesson, and do not strain it to any thing else. Had this been well understood, no one would have ever found so much difficulty in understanding the parable of the unjust steward.
This is another great step towards the dispelling vagueness, to apply the particular lesson of each part of Scripture to that state of knowledge, or feeling, or practice in ourselves, which it was intended to benefit; to apply it as a lesson to ourselves, not as a general truth for our neighbours. And the very desire to do this, makes us naturally look with care to the object of every passage -- to see to whom it was addressed, and on what occasion; for this will often surely guide us to the point that we want. But in order to do this, we must strive to clothe the whole in our own common language; to get rid of those expressions which to us convey the meaning faintly; and to put it into such others as shall come most strongly home to us. This I have spoken of on other occasions; and I have so often witnessed the bad effects of not doing so, that I am sure it may well bear to be noticed again; I mean the putting such words as "persecution," "the cares and riches of the world," "the kingdom of God," "confessing Christ," "denying Christ," and many others, into a language which to us has more lively reality, which makes us manifestly see that it is of us, and of our common life, and of our dangers, that the scripture is speaking, and not only of things in a remote time and country, and under circumstances quite unlike our own. Therefore I have a strong objection to the use of what is called peculiarly religious language, because I am sure that it hinders us from bringing the matter of that language thoroughly home to us; our minds do not entirely assimilate with, it; or if they fancy that they do, it is only by their becoming themselves affected, and losing their sense of the reality of things around them. For our language is fixed for us, and we cannot alter it; and into that common language in which we think and feel, all truth must be translated, if we would think and feel respecting it at once rightly, clearly, and vividly. Happy is he, who, by practising this early, has imbued his own natural language with the spirit of God's wisdom and holiness; and who can see, and understand, and feel them the better, because they are so put into a form with which he is perfectly familiar.
More might be said, very much more, but here I will now pause. In this world, wherein heavenly things are, after all, hard to seize and fix upon, we have great need that no mists of imperfect understanding darken them, over and above those of the corrupt will. To see them clearly, to understand them distinctly and vividly, may, indeed, after all be vain: a thicker veil may yet remain behind, and we may see and understand, and yet perish. Only the clear sight of God in Christ can be no light blessing; and there may be a hope, that understanding and approving with all our minds his excellent wisdom, the light may warm us as well as assist our sight; that we may see, and not in our vague and empty sense, but in the force of the scriptural meaning of the word, -- may see, and so believe.