We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.…
I. There are three stages of development in human life and society.
(1) That in which men regulate their life by rules. Such things you may do, and such things you may not do.
(2) The higher life of principle, when men open up a consideration of the reasons of the why you shall do so or not do so.
(3) The higher development is reached when to rules and principles is added intuition, the flash by which men discover right and wrong by their harmony or their discord with their own moral faculties.
2. As men go up, along the scale, they change gradually; and men that during all the early part of their life have been subject to rules, begin to substitute their own intelligence for them. A little child is told, "No, you must not go there." When, however, the child comes to be fourteen or fifteen years of age, we no longer say, "You shall not do this or that thing"; but "You must study the peace of the family"; or, "You must see to it that you do nothing to interfere with health." Instead of having practical rules, he begins to have principles by which to guide himself. Note —
I. THE DANGERS INCIDENT TO THIS DEVELOPMENT.
1. Christians who are on the lower plane — where they act from rules — are strongly inclined to believe that those who go higher and act from principles are acting from lawlessness, because they are not acting from considerations once in force. Hence, religious development may seem deterioration. A conscientious idolator, e.g., cannot dissociate religion from the use of superstitious observances; and if a native near to such an one forsakes the god of his father, and turns to Jehovah, the convert may seem as if he was abandoning all religion. He is abandoning the only religion that this heathen man knows anything about. And I can understand how to an honest Romanist, when one neither will tell his beads, nor respect holy hours, nor accept the voice of the priest, it should seem as if he abandoned all religion.
2. On the other hand, while there are dangers of this kind to those who are left behind, there are many dangers incident to those who go up; and it was to those especially that the apostle wrote. And this is not so strange after all.
(1) We know that sudden changes, e.g., from barbarism to civilisation do not prove beneficial to adults. If you take a Chinaman, twenty-five or thirty years old, and bring him into New York, he becomes a kind of neuter. He is neither a good Chinaman nor a good American. As a tree transplanted, and shorn of roots below, and of branches above, is slow to regain itself, and perhaps never will make its old top again, so it is with human transplantation.
(2) Among civilised men sudden violent changes, e.g., from great poverty to great wealth, are not beneficial.
(3) Sudden and violent moral changes carry their dangers, too. There are men who have trained their consciences all their life long to believe that right or wrong consisted in the performance of certain duties. But by and by it was made known to them that being a Christian depends on love, and not on a certain routine; and that the law is the law of freedom. And this is a new liberty; and new liberty stands very close on to old license. And men who begin to feel their freedom are like birds that have been long in a cage, and do not know what they can do with their wings, and fly to where they are quickly seized by the hawk. With this sense of intoxication comes a certain contempt for the old state. When a bean comes up it brings up its first two leaves with it — great thick covers, full of nutriment, to supply the stem until it begins to develop other leaves, and to supply itself. Now suppose the bean, looking down, should say contemptuously, "What a great clumsy stiff leaf that is down there! See how fine, how delicate the blossoms are that I am having up here" — why the whole of this up here came from that down there. And yet, how many persons, as they are developing into a higher religious life, feel, as the first-fruits of their spiritual liberty, contempt for their past selves, and for other people who are in that state from which they have just emerged! Then comes almost spontaneously the air of superiority; and then the judging men, not by comparing their conduct with their views of duty, but by comparing their conduct with your views of duty — which is the unfairest thing you can do to a man. In other words, dictation and despotism are very apt to go, with arrogant natures, from a lower stage to a higher one.
II. THE APOSTLE'S PRESCRIPTION FOR THIS STATE. Superiority, he tells us, gives no right to arrogate authority. Because I am an architect, or a statesman, or in any direction God has given me eminent gifts, and culture to develop them, I have no right of authority over others. Leadership does not go with these relative superior-tries; but responsibility does. "We, then, that are strong ought... not to please ourselves" — which is generally considered the supreme business of a man! When a man has acquired money and education, he makes it his business to render himself happy. He fills his mansion with luxuries, that he may not be mixed up with the noisy affairs of life. But, says the apostle, ye that are strong have no right to do any such thing. You ought to bear the infirmities of the weak. All human trouble ought to roll itself on to the broadest, not on the feeblest, shoulders. Rich men are to bear the infirmities of the poor. If a rough and coarse man meets a fine man, and the question between them is as to which shall give preference to the other, the man that is highest up is to be the servant of the man that is lowest down. Everywhere this is the law. "Let every one please his neighbour." What! are we to be mere pleasure-mongers? No; "Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification" — please him in that sense which shall make a better man of him. As a watchmaker never can see a watch that is out of order that he does not feel instinctively impelled to take hold of it and put it in order, so I feel like putting my hand on a man that is too small, and making him large. Paul says that you must not do it rudely, authoritatively, but that you must please him. And there is more — "For even Christ pleased not Himself," etc. Well, that is a hard task; and therefore the apostle adds, "Now the God of patience," etc.
1. If this seems impossible to any of you, if it even seems romantic and fanciful, I reply that you see it every day. Not in business or in politics. But go where father and mother have a little commonwealth of their own, and where the children are, and see if the wisest and the strongest and the best are not absolutely the servants of the poorest and the weakest. Now, if you can do it in the family, you can do it out of the family.
2. If this be so, we see the application of it to those who are set free, by larger thinking, from the narrow dogmas of the past. What is the evidence of your superiority? Every change of latitude, as you pass towards the equator from the poles, is marked, not by the thermometer, but by the garden and the orchard; and I know that I am going toward the equator, not so much by what the navigator tells me as by what the sun tells me. The evidence of going up in the moral scale is not that you dissent from your old dogmas, and have rejected your ordinances, and given wide berth to your Churches. If you have gone higher up, let us see that development in you of a true Christian life which shall show that you are higher. What use is your freedom of thought, if with that freedom you do not get half as many virtues as men who have not the freedom of thought?
3. Those who have risen above others are not at liberty to divide themselves from those with whom they are not in sympathy. To bring the matter right home, you are frugal, and your brother is a spendthrift. You take the air of superiority, and talk about him, and say, "William is a sorry dog. He never could keep anything." And the implication of it is, "I am different." But the apostle says, "Are you superior to him because you are frugal? Then you are to bear with his spendthriftness." I put on you the responsibility of taking care of him. You are to bear with him; and you are to do it not for your own pleasure, nor for his mere pleasure, but for his pleasure to edification, that Christ may save his soul. Here is a man that says of his neighbour, "He is an exacting, arrogant, brute creature." Yes, but Christ died for him, as He died for you; that hard man is your brother; and you are to seek his pleasure to edification. If there is either that ought to serve the other, it is the good man. That is what you do. Good men pay the taxes of bad men. Patriotic men pay the war bills of unpatriotic men. The good bear up the bad, and are their subjects.
4. There is an application, also, to the various sects. A Church is nothing but a multitude of families. All you want is, that those that are purest, those that are "orthodox," shall bear with those that are not orthodox. You must go down and serve those that have a poor worship. The higher must serve the lower.
(H. W. Beecher.)
Parallel VersesKJV: We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.