The Laws of Christ for Common Life. Chapter 11. Family Life
12 min read
12 min read
About the infancy and childhood of the Lord Jesus Christ the writers of the four Gospels are almost silent.
For a long time this reticence of the four evangelists controlled the thought and spirit of the Christian Church. Our Lord’s sacrifice for the sin of the world, His victory over death, were the central and most absorbing objects of early Christian devotion. Of the festival of Christmas we find no trace till about three hundred years after the Crucifixion. The festivals of the early Church were the Lord’s Supper, which commemorated His death as a sacrifice for sin, and the First day of the week, which commemorated His Resurrection.
How soon painters began to delight in those representations of the Virgin and Child and of the Holy Family, which are now to be found in such endless numbers on the walls of all the picture galleries of Europe, I do not know. Perhaps they were suggested by the tendency which ultimately led to the enthronement of the mother of our Lord in a dignity which she would have repelled with dismay and abhorrence; they have certainly encouraged and strengthened the idolatrous homage with which she has been regarded for many centuries. In the childhood of our Lord, Mary was His protector, defender, and ruler. To her belonged authority, and to Him submission. I suspect that artists have done as much as theologians to teach millions of men that her dignity is permanent, and that the surest method of securing the grace of Christ is to appeal to the tenderness of His mother.
In another way art has misled the imagination of the Church, and by misleading its imagination has inflicted the gravest injury on its spiritual life. The kind of affection with which we regard a child is not the kind of affection which we should cherish for Him who is the Prince of the human race, the Judge of men, and who, even during the years of His humiliation, gave laws which have authority for all mankind and promises which are the solace and the support both of penitents and saints. The four evangelists — even those of them who tell the story of His birth — are careful not to place Him vividly before us until He has reached the maturity of His strength and is armed with the power which stilled the storm and raised the dead.
And yet it is true that He was once a child, and was subject to the authority of Joseph and Mary. It is also true that even after He reached manhood He continued to walk for some years in the quiet paths of life. The moral perfections of God were translated into those unostentatious virtues which constitute the dignity and the happiness of a human home. Within the narrow limits of the Family the Lord Jesus Christ revealed the glory of the Divine righteousness and the Divine love.
What was large enough for Christ during thirty years of His earthly history must surely be large enough for most of us. There are men and women who resent the mean and poor conditions under which they have to do the will of God, and who dream of what they might achieve if they had ampler space for their activities. They have not room enough — so they think — to be very good. They have it in their hearts to show a regal compassion to the miserable, and heroic chivalry and courage in the vindication of the oppressed. But for regal virtues they think that regal resources are necessary; and they suppose that heroic circumstances are necessary for the manifestation of the heroic spirit. It may be well for them to remember on Christmas Day, that for thirty years Christ lived a divinely perfect life within the walls of a peasant’s home, and that in the trade of a carpenter and in His relations to His friends and neighbours in an obscure town among the hills of Galilee, He was able to show a glorious fidelity to the eternal laws of righteousness.
For all of us our life at home must constitute a great part of that life in which, by patient continuance in well-doing, we have to seek for glory, honour, and immortality; for many of us it practically constitutes the whole. There are millions of women millions of girls, to say nothing of little children, who have no life worth speaking of beyond the boundaries of the family. Whatever fidelity to God, whatever love for Christ, whatever justice, whatever kindness, generosity and gentleness they are to illustrate in their spirit and conduct, must be illustrated there. And even men who have their business and their profession to follow during the greater part of the day find occasion in their home-life for forms of well-doing and ill-doing that are not possible elsewhere. I like a broad and rich life for myself — full of varied interests; and I should like to see the lives of most men, and of most women too, animated by the inspiration, and refreshed by the free air, of activities and interests outside their own home. But no shining achievements elsewhere can palliate the guilt of coldness, injustice, ill-temper in the family; and the noblest public virtues have their roots in the gentleness, the industry, the self-sacrifice, and the truthfulness, of which only those who are nearest to us have any knowledge.
And so on Christmas morning it will be well to ask ourselves whether the obscure duties which lie nearest to us — duties with which for thirty years Christ was perfectly content — are being faithfully discharged. Are there none at home to whom we could be more just — in whom we could repose a more generous confidence — whom we could cherish with a warmer affection — who claim from us a more patient forbearance? If we are parents, is our authority exercised at once with firmness and consideration? If children, do we yield a frank and cheerful obedience? Whatever we are, do we find at home occasions for showing that sympathy with sorrow and with joy, which heightens the happiness of the happy and almost charms away the grief of the sad? What are the burdens which our strength might enable those nearest to us to bear more easily? What are the anxieties which our thoughtfulness and care might diminish?
It is almost inevitable that I should quote the well known verses of Keble: —
We need not bid for cloistered cell
Our neighbour and our work farewell;
Nor strive to wind ourselves too high
For mortal man beneath the sky.
The trivial round, the common task,
Will furnish all we ought to ask:
Room to deny ourselves, a road
To bring us daily nearer God.
The verses are excellent in their way, and, as I have said, it was almost inevitable that I should quote them. But in their soft music there is, perhaps, a false note; perhaps, indeed, there are two false notes.
For Keble suggests that we need not go to the cloister, because home affords all that the cloister can give.
But home affords more — immeasurably more — than the cloister can give: the opportunities for a more varied virtue, for a richer and fuller perfection. And the second false note is the natural sequence of the first. Home is sufficient for us, Keble says, because it will furnish ” room to deny ourselves.” No doubt. But I should be very sorry for the people that I live with to discharge their home duties in the spirit of martyrs. God preserve us all from wives, husbands, children, brothers, and sisters, who go about the house with an air of celestial resignation! There are homes in which I think I have caught a glimpse of people of that kind. They perform every duty with a faultless exactness, an exactness precise enough to irritate a saint. They submit with exemplary patience to every inconvenience, and are rather grateful than otherwise for the disappointments and vexations which sometimes disturb the smooth currents of life in the happiest families. But they regard the claims of others as affording opportunities for acts of self-denial which take the place of the hairshirt and the fasting and the scourge of the monastic life, a penance to be endured for the discipline of their perfection.
The lines rest on a poor, mean, un-Christian conception of self-denial, which I cannot stay to discuss. They also set the home-life in a false key. Self-denial! This is not what we ought to think of in connection with wife or husband, parent or child, brother or sister; but the joy of affectionate and hearty service for others. It is no self-denial for a man to wear an old coat a little longer that his wife may have a new dress, or for a mother to go on wearing an old bonnet that one of her children may have a new pair of boots. Where there is the kind of love which ought to bind all hearts together in a home, the happiness of life comes from giving our own pleasant things to those who are dear to us.
I like Miss Waring’s tone better than Keble’s: —
I ask thee for a thoughtful love,
Through constant watching wise,
To meet the glad with joyful smiles,
And wipe the weeping eyes,
A heart at leisure from itself,
To sooth and sympathise,
Wherever in the world I am,
In whatsoe’er estate,
I have a fellowship with hearts,
To keep and cultivate,
A work of lowly love to do,
For Him on whom I wait,
I ask Thee for the daily strength,
To none that ask denied,
A mind to blend with outward life,
While keeping at Thy side,
Content to fill a little space,
If Thou be glorified.
But even in these beautiful lines there is the absence of that healthy unconsciousness which is the strength and charm of goodness. The absence is natural; for the writer spent many years in a sickroom, and it was in broken health and while enduring suffering that she wrote the hymns which have contributed some of the sweetest and gentlest elements to the religious life of our times. On the whole I think that I like best the manly simplicity of Wordsworth’s lines: —
God for His service needeth not proud work of human skill:
They please Him best who labour most to do in peace His will;
So let us strive to live, and to our spirits will be given Such wings as when our Saviour calls shall bear us up to Heaven.
And it is in the discharge of the quiet duties of the family, in the unostentatious charities and the unromantic heroisms of the home, in the trifling services, rendered almost without thought, and received almost without recognition, that most of us have to do the will of God.
In the course of twelve months it is very possible that even in homes where every heart is loyal to righteousness and to God, the relations of one or another member of the family to the rest may have become so uneasy, that the ideal life has been almost lost. Negligences too slight to be named, too slight to be distinctly remembered, may have gradually created a sense of discomfort. In some cases there have been grave faults which have created great unhappiness. On Christmas Day, which is as much a festival of the Family as a festival of the Church, estrangements which have separated hearts that cling together notwithstanding estrangement should cease, and the ties which unite them should be drawn closer and firmer. It is the day of all the year for children to forget — if their parents have worried and vexed them; for parents to forget — if their children have been undutiful and ungrateful; for brothers and sisters to brush away the jealousies and resentments which have troubled their mutual confidence, and lessened or rather repressed their mutual affection; for husbands and wives to renew the romance of their courtship. There may be faults to forgive; of course i^ there are; but you will never come to an agreement if you try to estimate how much wrong there has been on one side and how much on the other. The heart is a bad accountant; it was never yet able to draw up a balance-sheet that any impartial auditor would sign. Let by-gones be by-gones; kiss and have done with them.
I wonder whether it would be of the slightest use to say anything to those of my readers who are not yet detached from the homes into which they were born, but who are beginning to think that it would be pleasant to have homes of their own. I do not know whether more young people fall in love with each other — or think they do — at parties and balls in winter, or on the lawn-tennis ground and at picnics in summer; both seasons are severely fatal. The destiny of not a few of my younger readers will probably be decided within the next few weeks.
With an honourable girl — with an honourable man — an engagement carries with it something more than a few sunny months of courtship. After courtship comes marriage. After marriage comes the home. To describe the reasons which to some young people seem quite sufficient to justify them, first in flirting, and then in getting ” engaged,” would answer no good purpose. The reasons are too trivial, too flagrantly absurd, to bear putting into words, and I have no pleasure in mocking at human folly, especially when the folly is likely to lead to years of misery and shame.
But — putting aside the indirect manner in which writers address their readers — let me speak frankly to you as a friend to a friend. Let me ask you to consider what you must have in your future husband, in your future wife, to make it even tolerable to spend twenty or thirty or forty years together. I will not insist on the elements which are necessary to the romantic perfection of married life; for most of us are commonplace people and a life of romance is beyond our reach. There are some very commonplace things you ought to make sure of.
Good sound health is one thing; there are twenty grave reasons for insisting on it. Next to this I should put perfect truthfulness; the man who will lie to other people will lie to his wife; the girl who will lie to other people will lie to her husband. Next to truthfulness — temperance, industry, and courage. Then, fortitude; that is the power to bear pain and trouble without whining. Then, unselfishness; for the selfish man, the selfish girl, though drawn out of selfishness in the early weeks of courtship, will settle back into it again when the wear and worry of life come on; someone has said, it is not so hard to get out of one’s self — the difficulty is to keep out. Then you should look for sufficient good sense to save you from the misery of having to live with a fool. If you are loyal to Christ you will know without my telling you, that your life can never be blended into perfect unity with another, unless there is loyalty to Christ in the other life as well as in your own.
But loyalty to Christ does not imply the possession of all that is necessary for a happy and honourable marriage. A man may have a genuine faith in Christ and yet have very little sense, and so may a woman. There may be genuine faith and yet a constitutional indolence or cowardice, or irritability, or sullenness, or waywardness. When a man or a woman has religious faith these grave tendencies to moral evil will be resisted, but they are not always perfectly mastered, and they may make married life very miserable.
I said just now that most of us are commonplace people, and that a life of romance is out of our reach; but I believe in ” falling in love.” The imagination should be kindled and the heart touched; there should be enthusiasm and even romance in the happy months that precede marriage, and something of the enthusiasm and romance should remain to the very end of life, or else the home is wanting in its perfect happiness and grace. The wonderful charm which makes the wife more to the husband than all other women, and the husband more to the wife than all other men; this is necessary to a true marriage. But take my word for it, those plain, solid virtues of which I have spoken are indispensable to the security and happiness of a home; and it is a home that you are drifting to when you are drifting into love.
You would not like to live with a liar, with a thief, with a drunkard, for twenty years; or with an indolent person, or a coward, or a fool; with such a comrade you could not build up a noble and beautiful, or even a tolerable, home. And remember that men and women may have the roots of some of these vices in them and yet be extremely agreeable and good-looking, dress well and say very pretty and charming things. With some of these miserable vices there may be a warm heart, generous impulses, real kindliness. But where these vices exist — where the elements of them exist— you cannot make sure of honour, of happiness, of peace, of the continuance of mutual affection, or of mutual trust. In the absence of plain, solid virtues in the man or the woman you marry, you are building your home on the sand, not on the rock, and when the winds rise and the waters are out, it will go badly with you.
If you ask me what is to become of the men and the women who do not possess these very plain excellences, I can only say that it would be a very happy thing if no one consented to marry them.
Their vices will spoil and ruin, not their own lives merely, not merely the lives of those they marry, but the lives of their children too. The miserable inheritance of their imperfections will be transmitted to coming generations. If it were only possible to keep all these people single, those who will be living thirty years hence would be living in a very different world from this.
Anyhow it is the duty as it is the interest of all young people to take care that their home, if they have one, shall be as nearly like what God meant a human home to be as it can be made. The making of a home is the greatest work that most of them will ever be able to do. In preparing to make it they have the supreme opportunity for showing that they care more for the righteousness and will of God than for all the world besides.
Let us look back again at the home into which Christ was born. Joseph and Mary had charge of the infancy and childhood of Him who was to be the Saviour of the world. The sublimity of the trust fills us with awe. But those of us who have children to care for have also received a trust which should sometimes make us tremble. Their future character, their spirit, their faith, their aims in life, the laws which they will regard as highest and most august, depend largely upon us. With us they begin that history which, if they are true to the Divine idea of life, will be consummated in the power and blessedness of immortality. It depends largely upon us whether they will be true to it or not. The home, for most men, is more than the school and the university. Our vices will poison the air which the young child has to breathe; our virtues will make it wholesome and sweet. It is by what we are — not by what we try to appear to be — that the destiny of our children will be determined. Genuine affection, firm trust, mutual respect, honour, and forbearance between the father and the mother; their equity, kindliness, and sympathy in the treatment of their children; their personal virtues and their religious faith — these will create a Christian home. In a Christian home Christ dwells; and those who live with Him in childhood are not likely to revolt against Him when the years of childhood are over. The life which begins with Christ is likely to be spent with Christ and to end in the glory of those unseen mansions, of which every Christian home is a symbol and prophecy.