The Laws of Christ for Common Life. Chapter 10. Anxiety About the Future
13 min read
13 min read
It is a common complaint that the morals of those who profess to be governed by the laws of Christ are not exceptionally noble and generous, and that the differences between the Church and the world are, for the most part, merely technical and artificial. The charge is often grossly exaggerated, but there is too much truth in it.
One reason is to be found in the want of Christian orthodoxy among those who profess to be orthodox Christians. Between right thinking and right practice, Christian faith and Christian conduct, there are the closest and most vital relations. Now it is one of the chief elements of Christian orthodoxy to recognise the sovereignty of the Lord Jesus Christ over every province of human life. We profess to concede His claims. We say that all heresy has its roots in revolt against His authority. And yet we tamper with His plainest words. We pass some of them over as being inapplicable to the conditions of modern life. We assume that they may be disregarded without guilt.
“Be not anxious for the morrow: for the morrow shall be anxious for itself” These words are just as authoritative for all Christians as the Ten Commandments were for the Jews. The Jews were not to work on the Sabbath; we are not to be “anxious, saying, what shall we eat? or, what shall we drink? or, wherewithal shall we be clothed?” But I suppose that many excellent Christians think that whatever the words may have meant eighteen hundred years ago, they mean very little or nothing now.
There are some great laws which we know are authoritative. We must not lie. We must not steal. We must not get drunk. We must not permit ourselves to be mastered by revengeful passion. We should be tortured with self-reproach if we committed any of these offences. If a man we knew was guilty of lying, theft, drunkenness, malignity, we should regard his profession of religious earnestness as hypocritical. He might, indeed, lie once, under the stress of strong temptation; or he might get drunk once, in an hour of excitement and thoughtlessness, without wrecking our confidence in him; but if the offence was repeated we should lose all faith in his religious sincerity.
We do not apply the same rule to transgressions of many of Christ’s precepts. Men go on breaking them all their lives; and though we may be sorry for them, it does not occur to us that their disobedience is inconsistent with their Christian integrity. We break them ourselves, break them constantly, and yet never ask whether this revolt against Christ’s authority is consistent with Christian Faith.
I have on my shelves two folio volumes containing a collection of English ecclesiastical laws. The editor, Bishop Gibson, has printed in black-letter the laws which are no longer in force; which have been repealed, or which have become obsolete. It would be convenient, it would be very instructive, if some competent editor were to prepare an edition of the New Testament on the same principle; distinguishing between those laws which are regarded by the Church as still in force, and those which are regarded as obsolescent, or silently repealed by change of circumstances or lapse of time. I am afraid that he would have to print in black-letter very many of Christ’s precepts; this among the number: “Be not anxious for the morrow.”
And yet it is a very practical precept and a very reasonable one. It is a precept which if we received it heartily into our moral code and tried to keep it, would add very much to our effective strength and lift from our shoulders some of the burdens by which we are crushed.
For a great part, perhaps the greater part, of the misery of the human race comes, not from the actual presence of trouble, but from the dread of it. Very often our fears enormously exaggerate the real evils by which we are threatened: very often we are haunted by fears which are altogether imaginary. Apart from the distress which is occasioned by the apprehension of definite troubles, strength is worn, peace destroyed, happiness ruined, by vague anxieties about possible sorrows. The lives of men are shortened, not so much by hard work as by incessant and unnecessary worry.
No class of the community appears to be exempt from this curse. Even the kind of anxiety which our Lord was specially condemning — anxiety about the means of living — extends through all ranks and follows men through all changes of condition. A working-man thinks that with an increase of five or ten shillings a week in his wages he would be released from all care; the increase comes, and he is anxious still. His income is doubled, and he is sometimes more anxious than ever. Men look at people whose resources are much larger than their own, and envy them; but talk to those who seem fortunate and prosperous, and sometimes you will find that they are just as restless about the future as the men that envy them. The more they have the more they can lose. As their property extends it is in danger at more numerous points. Many rich men seem to be as constantly haunted by care as the poor.
It has always been so. Two thousand years ago men dreaded poverty, sickness, bereavement, loss of honour, loss of power, just as they dread these calamities to-day. The moralists of antiquity attempted to discover a remedy for the universal evil. Some of them thought that the remedy was to be found in a frank and courageous acceptance of the obvious fact that the future is beyond our power, and that true wisdom, therefore, lies in enjoying the present. We may lose our property to-morrow, but it is ours to-day; we may have to suffer pain to-morrow, but we are at ease to-day; our children may be struck for death to-morrow, but to-day their eyes are bright, and their laughter musical, and the sunshine of our lives is unclouded. The wise man will seize the day as it passes, enjoy its pleasures, and wait for the troubles of the future till they come. Stoicism struck a loftier note. Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius told men that the things which are not in our own power are neither good nor evil. Poverty and wealth are the mere accidents of life: if a man becomes poor he himself is no worse; if he becomes rich he himself is no better; and it is the same with pain and ease, honour and shame. What a man should care for is that which is really a part of his own life and under his own control. It is always in our power to be just, courageous, temperate. Virtue is not the sport of Fortune. Whoever is virtuous secures the substantial good of life: all else the wise man regards with indifference.
That is a noble doctrine. It contains much more than half the truth. When the evils of life are remote it fills the heart with enthusiasm; we think that it will enable us to meet and to bear the worst sorrows; but when troubles are actually upon us we exclaim, “This is a hard saying; who can hear it?”
Christ was no Stoic. He never told His disciples that their inheritance in the eternal glories of the Divine kingdom should make them insensible to common troubles. He never said that the common sufferings of the race are not real evils. His feet were always on the solid earth, and His teaching, even when it seems most ideal, has its roots in the realities of human life. He had become flesh, and He was in immediate contact with the rudest, coarsest, most homely facts of common experience. He knew that thirst is a real pain, even though a man has the vision of God and the hope of an immortality of blessedness. He knew that it is a bad thing to be starved, whatever consolation a starving man may find in the Divine love. He knew that frost and snow and the cruel east wind, if we are unprotected against them by warm clothing, are real evils to the saint as well as to the sinner.
Christ does not say that the wise man should be insensible to hunger, thirst, and want of shelter against rain and cold; that we should regard it as a matter of indifference whether we have anything to eat, drink, and to put on. He says the precise opposite of this. He says that God knows that we have need of all these things. Nothing could be more remote from a visionary and impossible Stoicism.
He confirms and sanctions by an appeal to the authority of the eternal God the cravings of hunger and thirst, and the demands of the sensitive body for protection and warmth. He to whom the pains and pleasures of our mortal life must seem so transient and so brief, knows that we need the supplies of our physical wants.
It would have been fanaticism if our Lord had said that His disciples were to give up working, and to depend for food and clothing on the providence of God; but He did not say that. The birds of the air do not sow or reap or gather into barns; but Christ does not tell us that we are to follow their example and to leave our fields unploughed, or to let the wheat rot on the ground in harvest time, relying on God to feed us with bread from heaven. The lilies of the Syrian fields are clothed with a beauty beyond that of the robes of kings; but there is not a word to intimate that the followers of Christ are to leave their looms idle, and to expect angels to bring them garments of celestial tissue and shining with celestial splendour.
What Christ does say is that to make riches our master and to spend life in getting the means of living is inconsistent with living for God; that to be absorbed in anxiety about food and clothing is to forget that there is a Providence which feeds the birds and makes the flowers beautiful, and that we are of much greater worth in God’s sight than they are; that this anxiety is useless, for though we can do a great deal by work, we can do nothing by worry; that the Gentiles — the heathen — may be anxious about what they are to eat and to drink, and about wherewithal they are to be clothed; but that we who know that we have a Father in heaven should be free from sordid care, and should set our hearts upon God’s kingdom and the righteousness of God; that we may be sure that we shall receive from God all necessary things; that the anxiety of to-day will not lighten the burden of to-morrow, and that every day brings with it its full share of trouble and danger; the evil of to-day is sufficient for to-day.
I have spoken of these words as if they were a law: it would be more just to describe them as a gospel — Christ’s Gospel for those who are worried with incessant cares about the common necessities of life — Christ’s Gospel for those whose strength is worn and whose hearts are wearied by any great anxiety about the future. His Gospel would be incomplete if it contained no message for those who are suffering from these great evils. For Christ claims authority over the whole of human life, and it is one of the initial assumptions of the Christian Faith that His grace extends beyond the limits of His law. There is no precept of Christ’s that is not heralded by a promise; every revelation of human duty rests upon a still larger revelation of Divine love. The commandments which God has given us through Him are “exceeding broad;” the grace is broader still.
It is a melancholy consideration that after the Gospel has been in the world for more than eighteen hundred years a large part of it remains unknown. Men think that Christ has much to say about the next world, but that He has very little to say about this. The Gospel, so they feel, is foreign to the interests which are nearest to us and most urgent; it relates to unseen and eternal worlds. There is no great need to think of it till the joys and duties of this life are exhausted and the supreme mystery of Death is at hand.
And yet Christ — shall I say — took a great deal of trouble to give a wholly different impression of His mission. It is very natural for us to think that religion concerns Eternity and not Time; that the Infinite God can care nothing about our poverty, hunger, pain; and that He must care everything about our thoughts of Himself, our worship, our loyalty, obedience, and trust. But a great part of Christ’s brief ministry was spent in healing disease, in giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb; and these miracles are a revelation to every age. If we learnt the Gospel at first hand the impression that Christ has nothing to do with our common human experiences would be impossible.
The precept forbidding anxiety about tomorrow is one of the ways in which Christ reveals the Fatherhood of God. He tells us that we are to live as children; that God cares for us; that we can perfectly trust the love, the wisdom, the power of our Father in heaven. Look at a child and see the difference between its life and the life of its parents. It needs food and clothing and a home; but the planning and scheming and labour to provide for the child’s wants belong to its father and mother. A child is suffering from illness; it shrinks from pain; but the father and mother have anxieties about the illness of which the child knows nothing. They watch the changing symptoms; they endeavour to follow the directions of the doctor; there is forethought in the evening about what will be wanted in the night; there is consideration about what must be done for the child when health begins to return. And Christ tells us that we are to live as children. We may have to suffer; we are obliged to work; but the anxiety is to be left to God. “Be not anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? … For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first His kingdom, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
This is not only a part of the Christian Gospel; it is a very important part. It is not enough to believe that we have sinned against God, and that Christ came into the world that our sins might be forgiven and that we might have eternal life and eternal righteousness. Do we also believe that God knows that we have need of food and clothing, a roof to shelter us from rain and storm, and a hundred other things that contribute to physical health and vigour? Do we believe that we may trust in God for these things as well as for the knowledge of Himself, peace of heart, wisdom, courage, and strength to keep His commandments? Or do we think that our physical wants are beneath God’s notice and that He regards them with indifference? If so, we believe only part of the Gospel; and the part we believe will be largely deprived of its power by our rejection of the rest.
For, however unimportant we may suppose our physical wants must appear to God, they are very important to us. If we begin by thinking that they lie below the reach of God’s providence we shall be very anxious about them ourselves. ” The care of the world ” will choke the seed sown by the Son of Man, and the Divine word will be unfruitful. I suppose that many people are “lost,” in the awful sense in which the word is used by the Lord Jesus Christ, because they have never come to believe the Gospel which underlies our Lord’s precepts against anxiety about to-morrow.
Christ’s teaching carries with it the assurance that in some way or another God will provide that the common blessings of this life shall reach us, unless there is some good reason why they should not.
“Unless”: but does not this spoil all? If we had an unqualified assurance that God would give us them, this would be a gospel indeed; but to be told that there may be a good reason why He should not give them is to throw us back on the common-places of an optimistic philosophy. For my part, I am not an optimist. This is not the best of all possible worlds. If all men were just, truthful, temperate, kindly, industrious, provident, it would be a very much better world. It is not God alone that has had the shaping of the conditions of human life and the history of mankind. He has called us into fellowship or partnership with Himself, and our share of the work has been done very badly. Whenever we pray that God’s will may be done on earth as it is done in heaven, we imply that at present His will is in many ways obstructed and defeated.
But Christ has taught us that God is our Father, and we rob the name of its meaning if we suppose that God regards our perils with an ineffectual alarm and our miseries with an impotent pity. Kings are related to their subjects through general laws; the relations of fathers to their children are direct, personal, individual. It is mere mockery to tell us that our Father knows that we have need of food and drink and clothing if He is so fettered by what we describe as the general laws of His administration that He is unable to supply them. His knowledge that we need them gives no comfort, inspires no trust, relieves no anxiety. The most useless of our friends has the same knowledge. Christ means us to believe that God will help us.
“Unless there is some good reason” why He should not. He may sometimes see good reason for permitting us to suffer from other men’s sins and follies or from our own. He may sometimes see good reason for permitting us to suffer harm from accidental causes or from storms, or floods, or earthquakes, fierce heat, or malignant winds. But when he does, it should be an infinite relief to be assured that He not only knows our trouble but would have averted it had it not been, on the whole, better that we should sufi”er than that we should be delivered from suffering.
It may be thought that Christ’s revelation of God’s interest in our physical wants, though a source of comfort, has no close relation to morals. But His words take the form of a precept, not of a promise: ” Be not anxious for your life … nor yet for your body … Be not anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink … Be not anxious for the morrow.” Trust in God is a large element of Christian perfection. Nor is this all. Christ enables us to keep some of His commandments by giving us another commandment to keep. If we were not eager and anxious about food, drink, clothing, we should be placed beyond the reach of many fatal temptations. It is this eagerness that makes us irritable, mean, hard, ungenerous. It is this anxiety which exposes us to temptations which assault our moral integrity and which sometimes end in moral disaster and ruin. Christ saves men from lying, selfishness, dishonesty, by telling them to cast their care on God. We break this commandment and, therefore, we break many others.
In modern Christian thought there are two tendencies which are wholly irreconcilable; sooner or later one of them must be mastered by the other.
As yet it may seem hard to prophesy which will be victorious.
On the one hand it is thought incredible that God should interfere to shelter us from physical harm and to supply our physical wants. Excellent Christian people shrink from asking God for any blessings that will lessen the gloom or add to the brightness of their earthly life. ‘Health and strength are determined by general laws; they are to be secured by temperance, by exercise, by breathing pure air, by attention to all that science has discovered concerning the causes of disease. Success in business — this is not a matter which a Christian man has a right to pray for; it ‘depends partly on skill, capital, and industry; partly on circumstances which are beyond our own control, and with which God will not interfere. We may rely upon God’s defence and guidance in the higher regions of life; but in its inferior provinces we are left to do our best without any Divine assistance; in these we are in contact with general laws and can find no trace of a living, personal God.’
On the other hand, it is one of the deepest convictions of our times that unless religious faith is good for a great deal in common life, it is good for nothing. We are told to find God — not in creeds merely, or in sacred books, or in sacraments, or in prayers, or in the miracles of remote ages, or in visions of glory beyond death, but in the counting-house, the manufactory, and the consulting-room, in the laboratory, and in Parliament, wherever human hands are working, wherever human hearts are suffering: a faith that does not fill this world with God as well as worlds unseen is unreal and worthless.
But if we are to recognise the authority of the Personal God in our common life, we must also recognise His care. Wherever God is present to rule He is also present to help. If we never speak to God about our business, our business will soon cease to be a Divine vocation and a Divine service. Whatever lies beyond the reach of prayer, lies beyond the boundaries of religious duty. We have to make our choice between these’ conflicting tendencies. To give religious faith its true place in common life, we must accept all Christ’s teaching, and not a part of it merely; and we must learn all that He meant concerning God’s relations to the transient sorrows and joys of this world when He said, ” Be not anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? … For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.”