The Laws of Christ for Common Life. Chapter 7. Courtesy and the Spirit of Service
14 min read
14 min read
A great evangelist with his soul on fire for the restoration of the human race to God is rarely able to care for anything except the central elements of the religious life. He is in an agony of earnestness to prevail on men to repent of sin, to appeal to the Divine mercy, to surrender themselves to the authority of the Divine will. To nearly everything else he is indifferent. About many moral questions of serious importance he will say little. He thinks that nearly everything must come right in time if men discover their own guilt and the righteousness and love of God. About what may be described as the minor moralities — courtesy, for example — he would think it an intolerable waste of time to speak at all.
It would be foolish to find fault with such a man as this. Everyone must do his own work. And there is a large measure of truth in the view which is natural to a fervent revivalist. The supreme thing is to induce men to break with sin, to realize the infinite and eternal world by which they are environed, to accept the will of God as the law of life. As long as this is not done, nothing is done. When this is accomplished a man has in him the root of all perfection.
But when the crisis is over there are many questions to ask, and a great deal of hard work to be got through. How, and to what extent, does the Divine law differ from the laws of morality which are sustained by the common opinions of the society to which we belong? Are there any personal habits of ours that society approves or does not condemn, which God requires us to give up? Is there anything in our temper and spirit that society easily forgives but which must be changed if we are to win God’s approbation? When we have discovered a Divine law, how are we to be disciplined to obedience.” There may be less of excitement in the quiet endeavour to learn what God’s idea of life really is, and in the effort to fulfil it, than there was in the great struggle which determined whether we would acknowledge His authority and submit to it; but the struggle comes to nothing unless after it is over we give our strength to learning God’s law and keeping it. I have sometimes seen, in the neighbourhood of great towns, streets of houses, half-built or less than half-built, which were begun by some enterprising capitalist who was unable to go on with them. In some cases there were the foundations and nothing more. It was no doubt a great thing to get the foundations well laid, and this is what is done when a man confesses from his heart the authority and love of Christ; but a foundation is not a house. In some cases the walls were up and the roof on; but the mere shell was left, with no window-frames in the ghastly-looking windows, no flooring laid on the joists, no doors hung on the door-posts, no plaster on the walls, and of course no paper and no paint. Very like rows of half-finished Christians! The foundations of character are sound, the walls are strong, the roof is safe; but how much there is to be done before they will be perfect in Christ!
Now it is the tendency perhaps of most Christian men that are intensely in earnest in these times, but especially of those who are the children and heirs of the Evangelical Revival, to be continually laying foundations, and to forget that conversion to God and faith in Christ are the beginning, not the end, of the Christian life. We think it a great matter if in addition to laying the foundations we can build up the walls of solid, necessary virtues, and get a roof on them to keep the character of a man from being ruined by wind and frost and rain; but the details of conduct are left uncared for. We are honest stone-masons and bricklayers, but for finer work we have not much taste and not much faculty. While there is so much to be done in order to rescue large masses of men from an utterly irreligious life, this seems natural, perhaps praiseworthy, certainly inevitable. When men really care for any one great object they generally care very little for anything else.
But Christ cared for everything worth caring for. George Whitefield, I think, would never have dreamt of preaching about courtesy and good manners; Christ did preach about them. It reminds one of the infinite calmness and comprehensiveness of the Divine thought. The same mind that guides the stars in their vast and awful circuits, moulded the frail blossom of the wild flower, and gave it its tint and its perfume. Christ, who was about to die for all the sin of all the world, was troubled when He saw the guests at a dinner eager for the most honourable seats. It offended His idea of the modesty and kindliness which ought to characterize social intercourse, and He condemned the fault in a parable.
It may be regarded as a very slight fault, a fault which does not affect the solid qualities of a man, a fault which it lies beyond the province of a Christian preacher or moralist to condemn, and which in our days may be left for correction to the essayist whose special business it is to discuss small questions of social ethics and to use the weapons of a kindly raillery to correct the lighter follies and infirmities of men. But though the fault itself may be corrected by a laugh just as blossoms may be nipped by a keen east wind, the spirit and temper out of which the fault comes will not be changed; nor will even the sharp pruning knife of a cynical moralist make the real inward life any better, though it may cut away some of the more ludicrous and contemptible outgrowths of it.
Christ appeals to a great principle, asserts a universal law, lays the axe to the root of the evil tree, tells men to change their inward spirit and so to change their outward manners. He goes at once to the heart. This ungracious and unmannerly contention for the most honourable seats was bad in itself; it was still worse as a sign of the habitual vanity and self-assertion of the men who were guilty of it. For Christ treats the discourtesy which occasioned His rebuke as only one of the manifestations of a spirit which is constantly leading to envy and bitterness in families, alienation among friends^ distrust, jealousy, and conflict among those who ought to be working heartily together in the service of mankind and for the glory of God. The chief seat, the most honourable position, the most conspicuous place — this is what many men are always seeking, seeking unscrupulously, no matter what pain they inflict on their allies, no matter what injury they may do to a cause which they profess to love.
A man is not honoured as he should be in a Church — I have heard of such cases, though they are less common than might have been expected — and he becomes the centre and leader of a party of discontent. A man is not elected to the management of a religious or benevolent organization with whose aims and methods he has the heartiest sympathy, and he shows his annoyance by fierce and angry attacks on its officials and its policy; he is perfectly sincere in his criticisms, and it does not occur to him to ask how it was that he did not discover that the institution was badly managed before he had received personal mortification. In a town council a man thinks that his services and capacity have given him a claim to the chairmanship of a committee; someone else is appointed whose claims, as he thinks, are inferior to his own, and then he goes off the committee altogether, or refuses to work, and makes the work which other men are doing as troublesome as he can. This miserable spirit shows itself in a hundred ways. Unless some people can have the chief seat at the feast, the wine is turned into vinegar and every pleasant dish into ashes; they are wretched themselves, and they do their best to spoil the joy of everyone else.
When a man is conscious of resentment at a real or imaginary slight, when he is annoyed because other men receive honour, place, and praise which he thinks due to himself, when he feels disposed to leave the ranks in a sulk because he is not promoted to command, he should consider how contemptible the same spirit would seem to him if shown by any one else; he should lay to heart the unwelcome discovery that in work which he had regarded with some complacency as an evidence of religious zeal or public spirit, his motives have been very mixed; and above all, he should remember that Christ found the root of this vanity in a fatal defect lying deep in the spiritual life: “Every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” “The kings of the Gentiles have lordship over them; but he which is the greater among you, let him become as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am in the midst of you as he that serveth.” “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.”
A man may legitimately desire a position which brings honour with it, but only for the sake of the service which the position would enable him to render to an institution he cares for — to his town, his country, or his church. When he tries to get it for the sake of the honour, he is scheming for the chief seat at the feast, and comes under our Lord’s condemnation. The test of character and spirit lies here — Do we want to serve or to rule? To give or to get? Are we thinking of glory or thinking of work?
The law of Christ is a law of service: to the man who is penetrated with the spirit of Christ, the humblest place is the highest place if it is the place in which he can do most for God and for man, and the obscurest duties are the most honourable, if, by discharging them, he can contribute most effectively to the triumph of the Divine love over the miseries and sins of mankind. To serve men for Christ’s sake, in Christ’s name, as His representative, though the service wins no praise, though it is met with coldness, ingratitude, calumny, by those to whom it is rendered — this is the true Christian life.
This law, if it were universally obeyed, would soon change the whole order of human affairs; the golden years would begin; the sorrows, the conflicts, and the bitterness of the troubled centuries would pass away, and would be remembered as an evil dream.
If in every house of business in England, every one from the head of the firm to the youngest porter was simply eager to serve; if this were the only rivalry, who could serve the firm most; if all the partners had this spirit, if the managers, the travellers, the clerks, the foremen, the workmen had it, we should soon have a kind of commercial prosperity which we have never dreamt of; and, what is infinitely more important, our places of business would not only be free from present vexations and cares, but would be a school for the great employments of the blessed life beyond the grave. The law is worth very little if it does not rule us in business as well as in the Church; for business covers the greater part of human life, -occupying six days out of seven, and until Christ’s authority is obeyed in common things we are in active revolt against Him. We pray that God’s will jTiay be done on earth as it is in heaven: on earthy this must mean in the affairs of earth, during the hours spent in counting-houses and workshops as well as during hours spent in religious worship and religious work; and Christ has taught us that it is God’s will that we should be eager to serve.
If in every public institution, in the management of hospitals, in the conduct of municipal and political business, every man wanted to serve and cared nothing for the credit of the service, was as willing to do work of which the public never hears as to do work which attracts universal praise, far more work would be done, work that is done now would be better done, and the greater part of the friction which now impedes work and worries those who have to do it would disappear.
I am bound, indeed, to say, after having had the opportunity of watching the public life of a great town for many years, and watching very much of it, not from without but from within, that I have seen an immense deal of work done in this spirit. In the conduct of philanthropic and educational institutions, in municipal and political life, the amount of loyal and laborious service which has been silently rendered by men whose names are almost unknown to the town, and who have got nothing for their work except the satisfaction of doing it, has been to me a perpetual source of satisfaction and delight. But here, and, I suppose, everywhere else, the ideal is still remote.
The law may look hard, — to work for men without reward, without gratitude, without honour, — flesh and blood cannot endure it. But the severity of the law has a charm for men of a generous and noble nature; and there is something in men who can hardly be called generous or noble that is reached by the contagion of a lofty example. Every man that serves the public with an enthusiasm of unselfishness will call many into the service whose work will be largely unselfish.
But with most of us it seems as if the law could not assert its authority over more than one or two departments of life. In these it is a relief to rise to moral heights lying far above the level of our common hours; but to remain at this elevation always is too severe a strain. Religious men are sometimes charged with observing ” days, and months, and years; ” and they are told — with perfect truth — that a religion which is good only for Sundays is worthless. But there are men that do not profess to be religious, who in morals seem open to a similar charge and a similar condemnation.
In business some men are hard as a flint, in public work singularly unselfish. In making money some men are a byword for their rapacity and unscrupulousness; they care not whom they crush; they drive the hardest bargains; they assert their rights relentlessly, and to the farthest limits of the letter of the law; they are mean, tricky, parsimonious. But the money which they get in these miserable ways they give away by handfuls; they found charitable institutions, and make themselves famous by the splendour of their munificence.
The morals of such people are very like the religion which shows itself on Sunday and not in the week. I have not much inclination to glorify the intermittent unselfishness, the occasional generosity, by which the baser qualities of their lives are relieved. Happily there are men of another sort, who are unselfish in their business as well as in the service of the town and the country, generous within the four walls of their counting-houses as well as when they are in the public eye.
The real secret of all perfection is to live with God. It is wonderful what calmness and equability this gives to life, what a sense of tranquillity in the midst of outward storm, what freedom from worry, from the fever of ambition, from the mortifications of vanity. If we can please Him it is enough. What are other voices, speaking blame or praise, compared with His?
And when the dignities and hopes of the Christian life are vividly present to the heart and exert their legitimate influence over the imagination — for the imagination should be made the fast ally of the will of God — the most brilliant and enduring of earthly triumphs become very dim. We have access to God, are akin to Him, are His children, and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, joint-heirs with Christ of eternal righteousness, and wisdom, and blessedness, and glory; what is the highest earthly rank, the rank which is far beyond the reach of the commonalty of men — what is fame, though of the noblest sort, reaching to distant lands and resounding through many generations — what are these, compared with the great position and great inheritance of those who are in Christ?
A further correction of the spirit of personal ambition, and of that evil temper which makes us impatient and ill at ease when others receive distinctions which we covet for ourselves, will come from the spirit of charity. A genuine love for other men will make us eager to do them honour. They are not our rivals; they are our allies, our brethren. Their claims will take precedence of our own. We shall not merely yield to other men, without resentment, places of honour and distinction; we shall promote their elevation; in honour we shall prefer one another. A fierce struggle to win reputation, or even to win positions of authority and influence, in which, as we think, we might be able to serve others as well as ourselves, is as inconsistent with the law of Christ as a fierce struggle for material wealth. Covetousness takes many forms; and an apostle tells us that the covetous man is an idolater.
“The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister,” and if we are “in Christ,” we, too, shall find it “more blessed to give than to receive.” We misconceive the true genius of the Christian revelation if we suppose that it allows us to make it our chief business to care for our own interests — even for our own salvation. We trust Christ to save us, and this leaves us free to live for the welfare and salvation of other men.
The re-assertion of this truth is the enduring glory of the Protestant Reformation. Devout souls had been sorely exercised in making sure of their own escape from perdition. They were never sure that their sins were remitted. Even if mortal sin was forgiven, they had to dread the fierce anger of purgatorial fires. They gave themselves to fasting and prayer; they retreated to monasteries and deserts to escape from the touch of the evils which imperilled their eternal salvation. Some, many indeed, chose a nobler way; but the solitary life was felt by tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands to be the safest. Luther taught men that for their own salvation they might trust to the infinite mercy of Christ, and that it was the will of Christ that those whom He was saving should ally themselves with Him in saving and serving other men. This is the true Evangelical Faith. The spirit of Christ is a spirit of Service.
And the spirit of Service is akin to the spirit of Courtesy. It is true, no doubt, that grace and gentleness of manner may come from early education and from social discipline, and is no sure evidence of a kindly heart. A man is largely made by the society in which he has lived. He speaks English because he has lived in England; he speaks good English because the people he has lived with spoke good English; he catches the accent of the county in which he was born, and the Northumbrian will speak with a burr to the end of his days. And so we catch the manners of the people about us: if they are courteous we shall be courteous; if they are rough, violent, reckless, we are likely to be the same; and even when our spirit has become kindly our manners may remain for a time very much what they were before.
“For a time,” but only for a time. The inward spirit will make its power felt in the outward bearing. The Charity which suffereth long and is kind, envieth not, vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things, will soften the harshness of the voice and change the expression of the countenance; it will make self-assertion, which is the root of discourtesy, give place to consideration for the happiness and comfort of others. The conventional forms of courtesy may never be acquired; these vary in different countries; they vary in the same country in different ages; they vary in the same country and the same age in different classes of society; but the man who has a gentle and unselfish spirit has the essential qualities of a gentleman.
To “honour all men” is a Christian law; and even apart from positive precepts it should be impossible for a Christian man to treat others with disrespect. He should be the most kindly and courteous of men. To him all the people with whom he is living, his neighbours, the men and women whom he meets accidentally, while travelling in his own country or in foreign lands, are touched and transfigured by the light of an infinite and eternal world. They are not merely masters, servants, tradesmen, labourers, merchants, physicians; they have in them the wonderful capacity of receiving the life of God and winning glory, honour, and immortality. They may live in a mean house, but at last they may have their home in the palaces of heaven; they may be poorly clothed, but someday we may see them in shining raiment walking the streets of gold; they may work at a mean trade, but they may have a most honourable place in the eternal city of God. Today they may be serving tomorrow — who knows? — they may be among the princes of heaven, and we among the commonalty of the saved.
Courtesy is itself a form of service. By gentleness of manner, by an unobtrusive sympathy, by thoughtfulness for others in little things, we may smooth the roughnesses of life for those with whom we live, soothe their vexations, and contribute more to their real happiness than by great and signal acts of generosity. On the other hand a harsh, careless word may inflict a worse wound than a blow, and the discomfort created by habitual indifference to the convenience, tastes, opinions, and prejudices of those about us may be harder to bear than positive physical pain. Discourtesy occasions not merely suffering, but sin; and Christian courtesy is a “means of grace” to all who have the happiness to receive it.