It is not safe to assume that “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Righteousness and sin always yield their harvests; the moral results of all our actions — of the least as well as of the greatest — are determined by definite and irresistible laws. But as soon as we descend into the lower provinces of human life the steadfastness of the Divine order seems to fail us, and nothing is certain. There is a great deal of sowing which is followed by no reaping. The seed rots in the ground; the young wheat is blighted; the harvest, just when it is touched by the autumn sun, is destroyed by storms.
We can make sure of nothing except the supreme ends of life, and this should be taken for granted in all our plans and expectations. A young merchant may resolve to build up a great fortune. He may have all the capital he needs and a perfect mastery of his business: he may be honest, diligent, alert, prudent. And after he has worked hard for twenty years a great commercial catastrophe may ruin in a month the results of all his industry and skill. Or a young politician may resolve to win high political office. He may be animated — not by personal ambition — but by a genuine patriotism, and an unselfish desire to render service to the State. Everything may seem to be in his favour. He may have an ample fortune and adequate intellectual power. He may be laborious, fearless, and upright. Year by year his knowledge of public affairs may become more varied and more exact; and year by year he may win increasing popularity. But success is not certain. Some physical infirmity, which was unsuspected in early manhood, may begin to show itself, just as he is reaching the maturity of his strength; or some fatal defect of temper; or in the vicissitudes of public affairs a grave difference of opinion emerges between himself and his party; or he has a serious illness from which he never quite recovers; or he meets with an accident, slight in itself, which incapacitates him for the public service; and as far as the great object is concerned, on which he has concentrated all his energy, he is baffled and defeated.
The same uncertainty menaces men in every pursuit. A surgeon acquires a unique knowledge of some special form of disease and a skill as an operator which seems almost supernatural. For fifteen or twenty years he has sacrificed everything to his noble profession. He has been distrusted, and has endured distrust with unflinching courage. He has been thwarted by professional jealousy, and has kept his temper sweet and generous. He has lived a hard and anxious life, but has never stooped to mean and ignoble methods of improving his fortunes. At last his loyal devotion to science, and his generous passion for the relief of suffering, seem on the point of yielding a splendid harvest. His magnificent skill is acknowledged. He has secured the public confidence, which he always deserved. A great position has been fairly won — a position which gives him wealth, reputation, and, what he values more than either, the opportunity of immense usefulness. And just then he happens to be in a railway accident, or is thrown out of a Hansom, and he receives a nervous shock which makes his hand unsteady and his eye untrue. He has been sowing for years, but he never reaps.
Human life has still sadder experiences than these. You may try to get a harvest of affection from your children and friends; but your seed is sown on the ” way-side,” and those whose love you most long for, and try most earnestly to win, forget your kindest words as soon as they are spoken, your kindest services as soon as they are done. Or your seed is sown on “rocky places;” there is a prompt and cordial response to your affection, but there is no “deepness of earth” — no capacity for strong and enduring love; the love is a passing impulse, and its strength is soon spent. Or your seed is sown “among thorns;” the cares of life or its pleasures so fill the heart and mind that in the crowd of less gentle and less noble interests you and your love are forgotten. All these things happen to God in His endeavours to win our love and confidence; they happen to us in our endeavours to win the love and confidence of others. In those provinces of life which lie below the eternal and the Divine we cannot be sure that ” whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
There are times when we say bitter words about the uncertainty and confusion of human affairs. We turn cynical. What is the use of working hard if we cannot make sure of the reward of our labour? Why practise self-denial if we are not certain that anything will come of it? Why qualify ourselves for positions which we may never fill? What practical wisdom is there in laying down plans of life which cover many years, when we are at the mercy of innumerable accidents which in a moment may bring all our schemes to nothing? Why should we take trouble to serve others who, for anything we know, will be ungrateful for all our love and service?
But the disorder which God permits in the lower provinces of human life is a part of that wise and kindly severity by which He disciplines the race for eternal righteousness and eternal joy. The confusion and the uncertainty warn us against spending our strength for objects which are below the true height of our nature and destiny. The low levels of life are swept by destructive floods, are smitten with fatal blight; they are unfenced and unprotected, and are open to the incursions of marauding tribes. What we sow there we are never certain of reaping. But the eternal fields are within our reach; in these we are sure of golden harvests.
God is the only Master who always gives His servants the wages they work for. Work for wealth; it may slip from your hands just when you think that you have achieved the most splendid success. Discipline yourself for professional eminence, and when you are just reaching the height of your hopes you may have a ruinous fall. Resolve to serve the State, and after years of honest preparation the opportunity of service may never come. Try to win the affection of those dearest to your heart, and you may be cruelly disappointed. But serve God, and you cannot fail. Serve Him in your business, and every hour you spend in your counting-house or in your works — whether you make money or lose it — will increase your treasure in Heaven. Serve God in your profession, and whether you are successful or not in your professional life, every year of labour will discipline you for the higher activities on the other side of death. In your schemes for serving the public, let it be your supreme object to serve Him, and though you may never be appointed to the obscurest administrative office, and may never exert any appreciable influence on the course of public affairs, you will make sure of honourable distinctions and honourable functions in the kingdom of God. Serve your children and your friends for the sake of serving Him, and though you may win from them no affection and gratitude, you will hear from the lips of Christ the surprising words:
“Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these … ye did it unto Me. Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
In a world like this, how is it that men who believe in the living God, and whose thoughts wander through eternity, can be indifferent to the glorious ages which are their inheritance in Christ, and to the Will which is their supreme law? Even where emotion is touched and imagination kindled by the solemnities and grandeurs of God’s invisible and eternal kingdom conduct is often withdrawn from its control. A life of faultless morality, as well as a life of degrading vice, may be uninspired by reverence for God’s eternal righteousness and by gratitude for God’s eternal love. Deeds good in themselves may be done without regard to Him who has the right to our perfect and unreserved obedience. It may be only by accident that they coincide with the Divine will. They may be done to discharge claims arising out of the transient relationships of this life, and to fulfil laws which we should recognise as authoritative if we had never caught sight of the throne of God and had, no prevision of the world beyond death. There may be practical Atheism where there is theoretical faith in the Divine existence and authority. The disappearance of God from the creed would have no effect on life and character. But if there is nothing of the eternal and the Divine in our earthly conduct, we are sowing no seed from which we have a right to expect a Divine and eternal harvest. The connection between sowing and happy reaping is uncertain and precarious, except for those who have passed into the kingdom of God and who have received the life of God, who have made the Divine thought and purpose the law of all their actions and the ground of all their hopes.
The harvest they are sowing to-day may not be ready to-morrow or the day after, but “in due season” they will reap if they faint not. I will not press the words as far as to say that there is nothing to be hoped for till the ” season ” comes for reaping that eternal harvest which is absolutely certain. Many Christian people can say with Oliver Cromwell, “I have had plentiful wages beforehand, and I am sure I shall never earn the least mite.”
“How can they reckon up the grace
Each hour, each moment brings?
How store Thy gifts? How find a place
For all their precious things?”
“O boundless treasure, all unearned!
O wages given for nought!
Bestowed ere once their hearts have yearned,
Ere once their hands have wrought.”T.H Gill
But it may sustain the courage and constancy of others to be reminded that the great harvest which they are sowing is to be reaped in the sunlit fields of immortality. There are good men to whom in this world the calm and golden autumn never comes. For them the tree of life does not yield its fruit every month. They seem to labour in vain and to spend their strength for nought. Their life is one prolonged winter, or at best an ungenial spring. They have hardly any sunshine, and instead of the kindly heat of summer in which they might ripen to a beautiful righteousness, they are exposed to keen and cruel winds. One dreary season follows another; there is nothing to break the depressing monotony of the cloudy, cheerless years. They plough the same fields over and over again, and the soil is heavy and the ploughing is hard work. They try to clean the ground, but the roots of the weeds refuse to be torn out, and after all their labour the stones seem to be as thick as when they began. They sow good seed, but sow in tears, and they wonder whether the tender green will ever show itself above the bare brown earth.
Let them not despair. The sure promise of God will not be broken. The law of the eternal kingdom will not fail. Let them not grow “weary in welldoing.” Let them not become impatient. Impatient! Why should they be? Suppose that they have to live a life of sixty or seventy years, ploughing and sowing, in dreary, dismal weather, with dark days and cold nights — what are their labours compared with the everlasting harvest? Let one good deed follow another; let every brave triumph over temptation give heart and courage for the conflict which follows it; let the ascent of one mountain height of moral and spiritual achievement be accepted as little more than the discovery of a loftier height beyond; they have need of endurance, but the end will crown all. In far-off worlds, in far-off ages, among triumphant saints, in the presence of an approving God, they will reap at last the golden harvest of their well-doing.
When we take sides with God, God takes sides with us. Work done for God is never wasted. This truth has very wide applications. With some qualifications it holds good in reference to other harvests than those which are to be reaped in our own personal righteousness and joy. Work of every kind that God cares for is done in alliance with God’s eternal wisdom and strength. No doubt God Himself is baffled by the waywardness, the folly, and the sin of men. He sows seed in rocky hearts, in hearts trodden hard by the passing feet of this world’s business and custom and pleasure, in hearts infested with the thorns of care and of wealth; and no harvest comes. Our endeavours to do good to men are certain to be hindered and defeated by the same causes; but it is a great thing to have God on our side.
And whenever men work for the fulfilment of a Divine law — even though they may not recognise it as Divine, and may therefore miss the personal rewards which would follow their service if they had meant to serve God — it is wonderful how their unconscious alliance with the Divine righteousness and love augments their strength and contributes to their success. I find in this a certain consolation for much of the unfaithfulness of the Christian Church. Those who mean to serve God neglect very much of the work which God wants to have done, and their neglected tasks are taken up by those who never meant to serve Him. Fragments of God’s thought come to men who have no knowledge of God Himself Isolated precepts of His law constrain the obedience of men who have never made His will the i universal law of life. They sow the good seed not knowing to whom it belongs; not knowing for whom they are working; and the seed yields glorious harvests.
This is specially true in the province of social and political reform. We are most certain to succeed if we are consciously endeavouring to get the Divine will done on earth as it is done in heaven; but those who, without intending that this should be the result of their labours, are working on the lines of the Divine thought, achieve large success.
I am clear that the desponding tone in which some men are in the habit of speaking of all schemes for the improvement of the morality and the material condition of the nation is altogether unjustifiable. The law holds that, if we are not weary in well-doing, we reap if we faint not. To tell us that all generous effort is worthless, that things get no better, is to quench the fires of a noble enthusiasm, to paralyse conscientious labour for the public good, and it is to do dishonour to that beneficent alliance of the Divine love with common philanthropy which has actually lessened the evils which were the curse of earlier generations.
In due season we reap if we faint not. Read the accounts of the flagrant injustice which disgraced the administration of the law in this country two or three centuries ago, and then say whether the patriots and statesmen who resolved that the injustice should cease have not been successful. Read the descriptions of the prisons of England a hundred years ago, and then say whether John Howard has not reaped the harvest which he laboured for. Read the horrible story of the tortures and agonies inflicted by the slave-trade at the close of the last century and the beginning of this, and then say whether it was for nothing that Wilberforce and Clarkson appealed to the humanity and justice of the English people to put a stop to it for ever.
Within the memory of living men, what great and happy changes have passed on the condition of the large masses of people in the manufacturing districts of the country! Their condition is still bad enough. During the last three winters many of them have suffered severely. Many are still suffering from the prolonged depression of trade. There are many honest and industrious families whose permanent condition is terribly unsatisfactory, and who, in the best times, are barely able to free themselves from the burdens which they have incurred in times of stagnation and disaster. There is still a great deal of roughness, coarseness, and violence among some classes of our population, and among others a great deal of selfishness, extravagance, ostentation, and profligacy.
But the wide wastes of misery and despair have been largely reclaimed. The appalling growth of hereditary pauperism, which fifty years ago threatened an early exhaustion of our national resources and the destruction of all manly self-reliance and independence, has been checked. Periods of extreme distress recur less frequently, and the area of suffering is narrowed. The turbulence and the savagery of the early part of the century have almost disappeared; the mutual hatred which separated different classes from each other, the fierce jealousy with which a starving population regarded the wealthy, the inhuman scorn and contempt, not unmixed with fear, with which the wealthy regarded their miserable fellow-countrymen, have passed away.
On matters of detail I cannot speak with any great confidence except for my own town. But what is true there must be true elsewhere. The houses in which large numbers of the people are living now are bad enough, and the shops in which large numbers of them are working now are bad enough. But when I compare the sanitary condition of the town to-day with the disgraceful negligence of thirty or forty years ago, which left whole districts to be the nests of foul and destructive diseases; when I compare the abundant supplies of wholesome water which are now generally within the reach of the people with the filthy wells, with sewage filtering into them, which were common in those times; when I compare the large, airy, light work-rooms in which thousands of the people are now working, with the close, poisonous atmosphere in which their fathers and mothers worked, and which I used to visit when my ministry began, — I can never say that the reformers have laboured in vain and spent their strength for nought.
Read the preface which Charles Kingsley prefixes to one of the later editions of “Alton Locke.” He says that very much that was contained in that vehement and noble appeal for justice and mercy to the poor had become obsolete. The battle was largely won. The worst evils against which he fought had passed away.
It is hardly possible to run by railway through the poorer districts of any of the great towns in the kingdom without seeing the conspicuous monuments and illustrations of the success of a still more recent movement for the public welfare. Every Board School rising above the humbler roofs which shelter our great working-class population should rebuke the despondency and renew the courage of those who are labouring for any Social Reform. About the merits of the School Board system, and about its administration, there are still divisions of opinion which I need not discuss; but those to whom the system is most hateful may learn from it the lesson I am anxious to enforce. Fourteen years ago more than half the children in most of our great towns were in no school at all. Many of the schools at which the rest attended were worthless. Religious zeal, sustained and guided by the State, had accomplished great results; but for half-a-century there had been a demand for large measures of educational reform. About the year 1866 or 1867 a few men, inspired with a genuine zeal for popular education, combined together, and, taking up the work of their predecessors, they resolved to make a passionate assault on the indifference and despair of the public mind. They were men without any great public position, and without the resources which are commonly supposed to be necessary to produce any great and immediate impression on national policy. They encountered fierce opposition, but they met it with a light heart, seeing before them the harvest which would come if they were not weary in well-doing. And already there is hardly a child in the kingdom for whom there is not a place in a fairly good school; and that compulsory law which, a little more than ten years ago, was denounced in every part of the country as foreign to the temper and traditions of the English people, and certain, if put in force, to provoke popular resistance and tumult, is working quietly and peacefully; and, while inflicting some hardships on individual families, is bringing the whole of our children under civilizing and elevating influences.
It is in the highest work of all that there seems to be the gravest reason for despondency. Many weary centuries have gone by, and the vessel of the Church is still in mid-ocean, labouring heavily and beaten with storms. The happy shores for which she is sailing seem as far off as ever. In the Christian work which lies nearest to every one of us there is very much to chasten the exultation of hope with which, perhaps, most of us began it. To measure the harvest which we have already reaped against the zeal, and energy, and thoughtfulness, and solicitude with which we have laboured, is, indeed, a perilous business. It may be that those of us who have been least successful have no great occasion for surprise. In work of this kind it is the quality, not the amount, of work that tells. And if we have been successful at all — successful, I mean, in winning the trust of a few men for Christ, in persuading them to accept His will as their highest law, in enriching their knowledge of God, in ennobling their conception of Christian righteousness; if we have been successful, here and there, in finding some solitary sheep that had been lost, and successful in keeping a very little flock from going astray — the results of our work are of infinite value. There is no proportion between the worth of our labour and what, through God’s infinite goodness, we have been permitted to accomplish.
And however bitter may be our disappointments, we are in the presence of a Divine sorrow which silences our complaints. He who laid aside His eternal glory and died on the cross at the impulse of His love for mankind and His love of righteousness, has not forsaken the world which He died to save. Our work is His rather than ours; our successes are His, and His are our defeats. “He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man,” and if no harvest comes, or seems to come, we should think of His grief rather than of our own.