Say not you, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for you do not inquire wisely concerning this.
On the whole we may confidently affirm that the world improves, and yet in certain moods we are apt to regard its conditions as increasingly desperate. Thus is it sometimes with our religious life — we mistake the signs of progress for those of retrogression, and through this mistake de injustice to ourselves.
1. "I am not so happy as I once was," is a lament from Christian lips with which we are almost distressingly familiar. We look back to our conversion, to the glittering joy which welled up in our soul in those days, and the memory moves us to tears. Then "all things were apparelled in celestial light, the glory and the freshness of a dream." Then we turn to consider the present phases of our experience, and conclude sadly that we are not so happy now as then — all the gold has changed to grey. Now, is this really so? We fully allow that it may be so. Through unfaithfulness we may have lost the joy and power of the days when first we knew the Lord. But may not the mournful inference be mistaken, and what we regard as a diminished happiness be really a profounder blessedness? The essence of religion is submission to the will of God, and that grave tranquillity of mind which follows upon deeper self-renunciation, the chastened cheerfulness which survives the strain and strife of years, is a real, although not perhaps seeming, gain upon the first sparkling experiences of our devout life.
2. "I am not so holy as I once was," is another note of self-depreciation with which we are unhappily familiar, and with which, perhaps, we are sometimes disposed to sympathize. When we first realized forgiveness, we felt that there was "no condemnation" if the Spirit of God seemed to hallow our whole nature; our heart was cleansed, and strangely glowed. But it is not so now. We have not done all we meant to do, not been all we meant to be, and have a consciousness of imperfection more vivid than ever. With the lapse of years we have grown more dissatisfied with ourselves; and this more acute sense of worldliness leads us to the conclusion that we have lest the rarer purity of other days. Once more we admit that this may be the case. There may be a very real depreciation in our life; we may have allowed our raiment to be soiled by the world and the flesh. But may not this growing sense of imperfection be a sign of the perfecting of our spirit? It may be that we are not less pure than formerly, only the Spirit of God has been opening our eyes, heightening our sensibility, and faults once latent are now discovered; the clearer vision detects deformities, the finer ear discords, the pure taste admixtures which were once unsuspected. It is possible to be growing in moral strength and grace, in everything that constitutes perfection of character and life, when appearances are decidedly to the contrary. Watch the sculptor and note how many of his strokes seem to mar the image on which he works, rendering the marble more unshapely than it seemed the moment before, and yet in the end a glorious statue rises under his hand; so the blows of God, bringing us into glorious grace, often seem as if they were marring what little symmetry belonged to us, often as if knocking us out of shape altogether.
3. "I do not love God as I once did," is another sorrowful confession of the soul. How glowing was that first level Your whole soul went out after the Beloved! But it is not so now. The temperature of your soul seems to have fallen, your love to your God and Saviour does not glow as in those memorable hours when first it was kindled "by the spirit of burning." Once again, it may be so. The Church at Ephesus had "left" its "first love," and we may not cherish the same fervid affection for God which once filled and purified our heart. But may we not misconceive the love we bear to God? Our more dispassionate affection may be equally genuine and positively stronger. Our love to God may not be so gushing, so florid in expression as it once was, but in this it only bears the sober hue of all ripened things.
(1) The test of love is sacrifice. We love those for whose sake we are prepared to suffer. Will our love to God to-day bear this test? Would we for His sake endure hardship, death? Many sorrowing souls know they are ready to die for Him whom they cannot love as they feel He ought to be loved.
(2) The test of love is obedience. We love those to. whom we pay ungrudging service. "If ye keep My commandments, ye shall abide in My love; even as I have kept My Father's commandments, and abide in His love Ye are My friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you." Here, once more, are we sure of ourselves? We "have not wickedly departed from" our God. Is it not the supreme purpose of our heart to bring life into entire harmony with the will of God?
(3) The test of love is confidence. We love those whom we trust. Do we not feel, then, that God has our confidence so thoroughly that even if He "slay" us, yet will we trust in Him? "Red-hot religion" has its place and value, but white-hot religion, the silent, intense force which acts without sparks, smoke or noise, is a diviner thing. Is it thus with our love to God? Has that passion simply changed from red to white? Has the sentiment become a principle, the ecstasy a habit, the passion a law? If so, the former days were not better than these.
4. "I do not make the rapid progress I once did," is another familiar regret. Once we had the pleasing sense of swift and perpetual progress. Each day we went from strength to strength, each night knew our "moving tent a day's march nearer home." But we have not that sense of progress now, and this fact is to us, perhaps, a great grief. Our grief may be well founded; for those who "did run well" are sometimes "hindered" and fall into slowest pace. Yet impatience with our rate of progress is capable of another construction. Our first experiences of the Christian life are in such direct and striking contradistinction to the earthly life that our sense of progress is most vivid and delightful; but as we climb heaven, get nearer God, traverse the infinite depths of love and righteousness sown with all the stars of light, the sense of progress may well be less definite than when we had just left the world behind. And in considering our rate of progress, we must not forget that the sense of progress is regulated by the desire for progress.
(W. L. Watkinson.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.