The Changed Life
“I protest that if some great power would agree to make me always think what is true and do what is right, on condition of being turned into a sort of clock and wound up every morning, I should instantly close with the offer.”
These are the words of Mr. Huxley. The infinite desirability, the infinite difficulty of being good – the theme is as old as humanity. The man does not live from those deeper being the same confession has not risen, or who would not give his all to-morrow, if he could “close with the offer,” of becoming a better man.
I propose to make that offer now. In all seriousness, without being “turned into a sort of clock,” the end can be attained. Under the right conditions it is as natural for character to become beautiful as for a flower; and if on forgotten. This is simply what man was made for. With Browning: “I say that Man was made to grow, not stop.” Or in the deeper words of an older Book: “Whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate…to be conformed to the Image of His Son.”
Let me begin by naming, and in part discarding, some processes in vogue already, for producing better lives. These processes are far from wrong; in their place they may even be essential. One ventures to disparage them only because they do not turn out the most perfect possible work.
The first imperfect method is to rely on Resolution. In will-power, in mere spasms of earnestness there is no salvation. Struggle, effort, even agony, have heir place in Christianity, as we shall see; but this is not where they come in. In mid-Atlantic the other day, the Etruria, in which I was sailing, suddenly stopped. Something had gone wrong with the engines. There were fine hundred able-bodied men on board the ship. Do you think that if we had gathered together and pushed against the mast we could have pushed it on? When one attempts to sanctify himself by effort, he is trying to make his boat go by pushing against the mast. He is like a drowning man trying to lift himself out of the water by pulling at the hair of his own head. Christ held up this method almost to ridicule when he said, “Which of you by taking thought can add a cubit to his stature?” The one redeeming feature of the self-sufficient method is this – that those who try it find out almost at once that it will not gain the goal.
Another experimenter says: “But that is not my method. I have seen the folly of a mere wild struggle in the dark. I work on a principle. My plan is not to waste power on random effort, but to concentrate on a single sin. By taking one at a time, and crucifying it steadily, I hope in the end to extirpate all.” To this, unfortunately, there are four objections: For one thing, life is too short; the name of sin is Legion. For another thing, to deal with individual sins is to leave the rest of the nature for the time untouched. In the third place a single combat with a special sin does not affect the root and spring of the disease. If one only of the channels of sin be obstructed, experience points to an almost certain overflow through some other part of the nature. Partial conversion is almost always accompanied by such moral leakage, for the pent-up energies accumulate to the bursting point, and the last state of that soul may be worse than the first. In the last place, religion does not consist in negatives, in stopping this sin and stopping that. The perfect character can never be produced with a pruning knife.
But a third protests: “So be it. I make no attempt to stop sins one by one. My method is just the opposite. I copy the virtues one by one.” The difficulty about the copying method is that it is apt to be mechanical. One can always tell an engraving from a picture, an artificial flower from a real flower. To copy virtues one by one has somewhat the same effect as eradicating the vices one by one; the temporary result is an overbalanced and incongruous character. Some one defines a prig as “a creature that is over-fed for its size.” One sometimes finds Christians of this species – over-fed on one side of their nature, but dismally thin and starved-looking on the other. The result for instance, of copying Humility, and adding it on to an otherwise worldly life, is simply grotesque. A rabid temperance advocate, for the same reason, is often the poorest of creatures, flourishing on a single virtue, and quite oblivious that his Temperance is making a worse man of him and not a better. These are examples of fine virtues spoiled by association with mean companions. Character is a unity, and all the virtues must advance together to make the perfect man. This method of sanctification, nevertheless, is in the true direction. It is only in the details of execution that it fails.
A fourth method I need scarcely mention, for it is a variation on those already named. It is the very young man’s method; and the pure earnestness of it makes it almost desecration to touch it. It is to keep a private note-book with columns for the days of the week, and a list of virtues with spaces against each for marks. This, with many stern rules for preface, is stored away in a secret place, and from time to time, at nightfall, the soul is arraigned before it as before a private judgment bar. This living by code, I suppose thousands could tell how they had hung up in their bedrooms, or hid in lock-fast drawers, the rules which one solemn day they drew up to shape their lives. This method is not erroneous, only somehow its success is poor. You bear me witness that it fails. And it fails generally for very matter-of-fact reasons – most likely because one day we forget the rules.
All these methods that have been named – the self-sufficient method, the self-crucifixion method, the mimetic method, and the diary method – are perfectly human, perfectly natural, perfectly ignorant, and, as they stand, perfectly inadequate. It is not argued, I repeat, that they must be abandoned. Their harm is rather that they distract attention from the true working method, and secure a fair result at the expense of the perfect one. What that perfect method is we shall now go on to ask.
A formula, a receipt, for Sanctification – can one seriously speak of this mighty change as if the process were as definite as for the production of so many volts of electricity? It is impossible to doubt it. Shall a mechanical experiment succeed infallibly, and the one vital experiment of humanity remain a chance? Is corn to grow by method, and character by caprice? If we cannot calculate to a certainty that the forces of religion will do their work, then is religion vain. And if we cannot express the law of these forces in simple words, then is Christianity not the world’s religion, but the world’s conumdrum.
Where, then, shall one look for such a formula? Where one would look for any formula - among text-books. And if we turn to the text-books of Christianity we shall find a formula for this problem as clear and precise as any in the mechanical sciences. If this simple rule, moreover, be but followed fearlessly, it will yield the result of a perfect character as surely as any result that is guaranteed by the laws of nature. The finest expression of this rule in Scripture, or indeed in any literature, is probably one drawn up and condensed into a single verse by Paul. You will find it in a letter – the second to the Corinthians – written by him to some Christian people who, in a city which was a byword for depravity and licentiousness, were seeking the higher life. To see the point of the words we must take them from the Scripture. They are these: “We all, with unveiled face reflecting as a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit.”
Now observe at the outset the entire contradiction of all our precious efforts, in the simple passive “we are transformed.” We are changed, as the Scripture has it – we do not change ourselves. No man can change himself. Throughout the New Testament you will find that wherever these moral and spiritual transformations are described the verbs are in the passive. Presently it will be pointed out that there is a rationale in this; but meantime do not toss these words aside as if this passivity denied all human effort or ignored intelligible law. What is implied for the soul here is no more than is everywhere claimed for the body. In physiology the verbs describing the processes of growth are in the passive. Growth is not voluntary; it takes place, it happens, it is wrought upon matter. So here. “Ye must be born again” – be cannot born ourselves. “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed” – we are subjects to transforming influence, we do not transform ourselves. Not more certain is it that it is something outside the thermometer that produces a change in the thermometer, than it is something outside the soul of man that produces a moral change upon him. That he must be susceptible to that change, that he must be a party to it, goes without saying; but that neither his aptitude nor his will can produce it, is equally certain.
Obvious as it ought to seem, this may be to some an almost startling revelation. The change we have been striving after is not to be produced by any more striving after. It is to be wrought upon us by the moulding of hands beyond our own. As the branch ascends, and the bud bursts, and the fruit reddens under the co-operation of influences from the outside air, so man rises to the high stature under invisible pressures from without. The radical defect of all our former methods of sanctification was the attempt to generate from thin that which can only be wrought upon us from without. According to the first Law of Motion: Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, except in so are as it may be compelled by impressed forces to change that state. This is also a first law of Christianity. Every man’s character remains as it is, or continues in the direction in which it is going, until it is compelled by impressed forces to change that state. Our failure has been the failure to put ourselves in the ay of the impressed forces. There is a clay, and there is a Potter; we have tried to get the clay to mould the clay.
Whence, then, these pressures, and where this Potter? The answer of the formula is “By reflecting as a mirror the glory of the Lord we are changed.” But this is not very clear. What is the “glory” of the Lord, and how can mortal man reflect it, and how can that act as an “impressed force” in moulding him to a nobler form? The word “glory” – the word which has to bear the weight of holding those “impressed forces” – is a stranger in current speech, and our first duty is to seek out its equivalent in working English. It suggests at first a radiance of some kind, something dazzling or glittering, some halo such as the old masters loved to paint round the heads of their Ecce Homos. But that is paint, mere matter, the visible symbol of some unseen thing. What is that unseen thing? It is that of all unseen things the most radiant, the most beautiful, the most Divine, and that is Character. On earth, in Heaven, there is nothing so great, so glorious as this. The word has many meanings; in ethics it can have but one. Glory is character, and nothing less, and it can be nothing more. The earth is “full of the glory of the Lord,” because it is full of His character. The “Beauty of the Lord” is character. “The effulgence of His Glory” is character. “The Glory of the Only Begotten” is character, the character which is “fullness of grace and truth.” And when God told His people His name He simply gave them His character, His character which was Himself: “And the Lord proclaimed the name of the Lord…the Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth.” Glory then is not something intangible, or ghostly, or transcendental. If it were this how could Paul ask men to reflect it? Stripped of its physical enswathement its is Beauty, moral and spiritual Beauty, Beauty infinitely real, infinitely exalted, yet infinitely near and infinitely communicable.
With this explanation read over the sentence once more in paraphrase: We all reflecting as a mirror the character of Christ are transformed into the same Image from character to character – from a poor character to a better one, from a better one to one a little better still, from that to one still more complete, until by slow degrees the Perfect Image is attained. Here the solution of the problem of sanctification is compressed into a sentence: Reflect the character of Christ, and you will become like Christ.
All men are mirrors – that is the first law on which this formula is based. One of the aptest descriptions of a human being is that he is a mirror. As we sat at table to-night the world in which each of us lived and moved throughout this day was focused in the room. What we saw as we looked at one another was not one another, but one another’s world. We were an arrangement of mirrors. The scenes we saw were all reproduced; the people we met walked to and fro; they spoke, they bowed, they passed us by, did everything over again a if it had been real. When we talked, we were but looking at our own mirror and describing what flitted across it; our listening was not hearing, but seeing – we but
looked on our neighbor’s mirror. Whether we like it or not, we live in glass houses. The mind, the memory, the soul, is simply a vast chamber paneled with looking-glass. And upon this miraculous arrangement and endowment depends the capacity of mortal souls to “reflect the character of the Lord.”
But this is not all. If all these varied reflections from our so-called secret life are patent to the world, how close the writing, how complete the record, within the soul itself? For the influences we meet are not simply held for a moment on the polished surface and thrown off again into space. Each is retained where first it fell, and stored up in the soul forever.
This law of Assimilation is the second, and by far the most impressive truth which underlies the formula of sanctification – the truth that men are not only mirrors, but that these mirrors, so far from being mere reflectors of the fleeting things they see, transfer into their own inmost substance, and hold in permanent preservation, the things that they reflect. No one knows how the soul can hold these things. No one knows how the miracle is done. No phenomenon in nature, no process in chemistry, no chapter in necromancy can ever help us to begin to understand this amazing operation. For, think of it, the past is not only focused there, in a man’s soul, it is there. How could it be reflected from there is it were not there? All things that he has ever seen, known, felt, believed of the surrounding world are now within him, have become part of him, in part are him – he has been changed into their image. He may deny it, he may resent it, but they are there. They do not adhere to him, they are transfused through him. He cannot alter or rub them out. They are not in his memory, they are in him. His soul is as they have filled it, made it, left it. When once the image of likeness of any of these is fairly presented to the soul, no power on earth can hinder two things happening – it must be absorbed into the soul, and forever reflected back again from character.
Upon these astounding yet perfectly obvious facts, Paul bases the doctrine of sanctification.