1 Thessalonians 3:1-2
Why when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at Athens alone;…
1. St. Paul puts upon himself the sacrifice of solitude in a strange city simply because it comes in the line of his duty. To his tastes ether appointments would be more agreeable. Some familiar place would suit better his longing for sympathy. He is a scholar, and would prefer retirement. He is the worn hero of many battles, and would like to rest in some peaceful household of faith. That he cannot do and be faithful; and this with any honest soul settles the question. At Athens, busy as he is, he remembers the affectionate little band left behind at Thessalonica.
2. In his person, on landing at the Piraeus, the morning light of the new age rose on a second continent. Yet everything was bleak, every face unfriendly. Any courage less valiant than his must have quailed before the overpowering splendour and despotism of old heathenism in its stronghold. Paul had come to it as fearless of its sophistries and arrogance as he had been of the swords and dungeons of Syria.
3. Without some common interests, cities are wildernesses and society the saddest of solitudes.
(1) From the moment that Paul's feet touched the pier, the monuments of the dominant mythology began to lift themselves forbiddingly before him, to make him feel himself "alone." His own heart burning with love to Christ, the first objects that greet him are the statue of Neptune, a sensual temple of the God of Wine, images of Mercury, Minerva, Apollo, and Jupiter. Reaching the market place, his sense of separation deepens at every step. The buildings are memorials of a foreign history. Their walls are covered with paintings of barbarous exploits and alien manners. Processions of disgusting ceremonies meet him.
(2) If he turns from the world of sight to the world of thought, he finds the schools of unbelieving speculation strong in great names, but distracted with debate between doubt and delusion, and full of eloquent error. What was all this to the man who could say, "It is no more I that live; Christ liveth in me." Deeper and darker the solitude grew; and yet he could banish himself into a completer exile for the sake of the little band of Christians at Thessalonica.
I. IN GOD'S APPOINTMENTS THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF LONELINESS.
1. Outward and physical.
(1) The providential conditions are so settled for many that they have much less than the average share of social communication.
(a) Sometimes, by a shrinking turn of the constitution, or by natural reserve, or by lack of magnetic quality, or by a fatal propensity to say the wrong thing, or by necessities of occupation or residence, they are cut off from society.
(b) There is the solitude of temperament, the earnest heart all the while yearning for companionship, and yet strangely held back.
(c) There is a solitude of pride where social advantages are bitterly given up to escape making an appearance inferior to that of one's class.
(d) There is the solitude of obligation, created by the necessities of toil or devotion, by poverty or pity, imprisoning body and mind alike.
(e) There is the solitude of bodily infirmity.
(2) Among the perils of such a situation we must set down —
(a) A tendency to a belittling self-consideration. Finding nothing beyond self to fasten upon, affection stagnates or sours. Religion will have hard work to save such a life from contempt. It has been the snare of all monks.
(b) In other cases we see censoriousness. Rigid standards are applied to others. Allowances are not made for unavoidable differences, and so the first commandment of love is broken.
(c) Along with these bigoted ways of thinking, comes envy and cynicism. You have never had your fair chance. You are distanced by your contemporaries. Outside your sick chamber are the gay children of health and wealth. It needs a steady faith in God's impartiality to keep down your discontent. So Martha felt her solitude — "Carest thou not that my sister hath left me"; and Peter — "What shall this man do?" — contrasting John's brighter lot with his own martyrdom.
(d) Add to these a certain unwholesome fastidiousness, which is apt to arise from constant preoccupation with private tastes. The hand is withheld from many a useful office, and the tongue from many a cordial utterance. Opportunities for Christian benefaction are despairingly thrown away, and life miserably bereft of its true glory.
2. Involuntary and moral loneliness. While this, too, has its dangers, it may be made the occasion, as it was with Paul, of great spiritual gains.
(1) It is indispensable that at some period souls who follow Christ should stand morally apart, without honour or sympathy. This is one of the crosses which brave men have to take up, a school where strong principles are planted, convictions nourished, and energies trained. Rules of action taken up out of deference to prevailing notions fluctuate; these, wrought into the conscience in solitude, are more apt to come at first hand from God. Here is the test for all real characters. Can you live, work, suffer, stand out, move forward alone? This settles it whether you are a mere piece of movable furniture, moulded by the hands of fashion, or a living independent soul, satisfied to walk with Him who had not where to lay His head while He was showing the world the truth and love of God, satisfied to live with the apostle who thought it good to be left in Athens alone.
(2) In all the biographies of human greatness we find this proved by examples. I try in vain to think of one memorable saint who has not had the discipline of the desert or the mountain. It is there that great leaders have gathered gifts from on high, broken the bondage of ambition and vanity, and came so close to Christ that His sacrificial power has entered them. Out of the Bible, no less than in it, master men have been lonely men.
(3) Hence the defect you are sure to find in people who have never accepted or made intervals of seclusion. They may be stirring characters, but thin; loud, but shallow, wanting in reverence and steady power, over-anxious about results and appearances, over-deferential to the popular cry; at home only in the multitude, but afraid of the mount. It is the earnest, hearty worker with God who knows how to be refreshed with fellowship at Thessalonica, and to be left at Athens alone.
(4) In our fast and outward living generation, and our noisy and showy age the Church needs most religious retirement and private prayer. The greater the tendency to secular arrogance and surface morality the more Christians ought to guard the sacred retreats. This nation would hardly have been what it is or done what it has if our ancestors had brought up their sons and daughters in the glaring parlours of a vast hotel. Strong character is a separate thing, and requires a separate, individual nurture. Promiscuous intermixtures never produce it. It might well be defined as the power of standing alone. How we see the want of it wherever men and woman meet together; wherever majorities brow beat an unpopular faith; whenever you are likely to be a loser in money, or to be laughed at. Righteousness never counts her companions. This is the heroic loneliness of all God's great ones from the beginning; of Jacob left alone through the long night wrestling with the Angel; of Moses receiving commission to emancipate a nation, alone in the mountains; of Elijah when he cried "I only am left"; of Daniel watched by an idolatrous monarch kneeling three times a day; of Peter answering the rulers "Whether it is right in the sight of God," etc., and higher yet, of Him who trod the winepress alone, and yet not alone, for the Father was with Him.
II. THE GOD OF OUR LIVES PUTS INTO ALL OF THEM SOME SOLITUDE FOR A PURPOSE OF HIS OWN.
1. He arranges it for us that we cannot be always in anybody's company. Friend after friend departs. Misunderstandings arise. There is a night between every two days. Sickness is sent. Is it not plain that this is because the deepest and holiest exercises of the spirit are where no human presence is by?
2. Look back. If repentance ever took hold of you and bade you look up for mercy; if the great choice between God and self was ever made, was it not when you were alone with your Saviour.
3. Before the Spirit has done His deepest and best work in you, He will have you all to Himself. The question of everlasting love is a private question — "Wilt thou be Mine forever?" Each succeeding struggle, when we make the tremendous sacrifice which carries us clear of some entangling alliance, is solitary work. Great griefs are solitary — the heart breaks alone.
4. Our communion with Christ only obeys the law of all lofty delicate friendships. Intervention is interruption; and even the best society on earth is not good enough to divide your intercourse with your Master.
III. LONELINESS SOMETIMES BECOMES LONESOMENESS. The excessively secluded life is imbittered by a craving for sympathy. This would have been Paul's feelings at Athens, and he would not have thought it "good" to be left there, but for the one Divine Friend who stayed with him. It is in His felt presence that those hearts are to find their consolation which are separated from their kind. However thronged the streets or brilliant the season, these uncheered souls are all around us. By far the greater number of us have hours when we long for nothing so much as to hear some fellow soul say "I know how you suffer; one heart at least answers to yours." There are constitutions finely tempered which need continual protection, but have it only under coarse, sordid hands, lacerating wherever they touch. There are self distrustful, timid creatures, tortured with a despairing sense of failure who never get an encouraging look. What is the comfort? Only one. For all these the Man of sorrows is the only companion, and His hidden love the only consolation. What would Athens have been to Paul without his Saviour?
IV. CHRIST'S BLESSING RESTS AS GRACIOUSLY ON OUR MORE SECLUDED AND LEAST NOTICED SERVICES FOR HIM AS UPON THE MOST CONSPICUOUS OF HIS WORKMEN. Paul the despised missionary at Athens is as sure of his Saviour's presence and benediction as when the populace of Lystra are hailing him as a god. We are slow to learn that the spirit of the gospel is no more in the assembly of ten thousand than where one tired labourer watches by the sick orphan, or one daughter of fortune and culture cheerfully crucifies every taste to teach a group of unclean vagabonds how to pray. We hurry into publicity as if that were heaven, and are impatient to count converts and see results, as if that were salvation. The most glorious chronicles and monuments of Athens are not in her letters, temples, arms, but in that little record of the friendless traveller who thought it good to be left there alone.
Parallel VersesKJV: Wherefore when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at Athens alone;