The Laws of Christ for Common Life. Chapter 9. The Grace of Christ. A Law of Conduct
14 min read
14 min read
There is nothing so contagious as a great example. Christian morals have their root and inspiration in Christ Himself rather than in His isolated precepts. In every age men have been caught in the mighty currents of His infinite love for the human race, and have been swept away from the narrow interests of their personal life into the ocean of a boundless charity. The words of Tiburzio to Luria in Robert Browning’s noble poem — words in which the Pisan general describes the worth to a nation of a man of heroic goodness — illustrate the philosophy of Christian morals: —
“A people is but the attempt of many To rise to the complete life of one; And those who live as models for the mass Are singly of more value than they all. Such man are you, and such a time is this. That your sole fate concerns a nation more Than its apparent welfare.”
For eighteen hundred years the Christian Church has found its unity, its vigour, all its hope and all its glory, in “the attempt of many to rise to the complete life,” of Him who revealed at once the righteousness and love of God, and the true ideal of human perfection.
Men need not wonder that we care so much for the great truth that Christ was the eternal Son of God, who at the impulse of an infinite love descended from Divine heights to the infirmities and sorrows and temptations of the common life of mankind. There are great religious reasons which invest this truth with infinite importance; but it also lies at the foundation of Christian morals. Let the descent of Christ from His eternal throne for our sakes be denied, doubted, forgotten, and the world loses the springs of a moral inspiration which renders possible the most generous forms of goodness. For what we all need is, not merely a clear knowledge of duty, but that vigour of moral purpose, that intensity of moral enthusiasm which will not merely enable us to master temptations to indolence and selfishness, but which will raise us to lofty moral levels where these temptations will not be able to assault us.
The story of one man’s heroism makes a thousand heroes. The story of the Grace of Christ who, though He was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, that we through His poverty might become rich, has filled the heart of Christendom with floods of com passion for human want and pain and misery. It has built thousands of hospitals for the sick, thousands of asylums for the aged, for orphans, for those who have been suffering from every description of misfortune and desolation. It has constrained millions of unknown men and women who were poor themselves to become still poorer, in order to relieve the greater wretchedness of others. If ever I lose heart when I think of the magnitude of the claims of the friendless, the desolate, the oppressed, on the help and service of those who are happier than themselves — if I begin to fear that men will be too selfish to discharge obligations so immense, and demanding such enormous self-sacrifice — my courage returns when I think of Christ. I know that the story of His grace will continue to inspire the hearts of men through future centuries, as it has inspired them in centuries gone by. I see that, notwithstanding the intellectual confusions by which we are environed, it is exerting a greater power on the moral life of the race at the present moment than it has ever exerted before. I believe that the will of God which received so noble an expression in the incarnation, the miracles, the sufferings, and the death of Christ will at last be done on earth even as it is done in heaven.
The Grace of Christ is to be a law of Christian conduct. Grace transcends love. For in loving others we may be only meeting their claims upon us; and Grace passes beyond all claims. It does more than fulfil the law. It accepts sacrifices which the law could not impose; it confers benefits which the law could not award.
Paul, after his manner, made the Grace of Christ a reason for Christian generosity. The Christians in Jerusalem and its neighbourhood were suffering from great poverty; and he asked the Churches in remote heathen cities to contribute towards their relief. Although the Jewish Christians had not shown a brotherly spirit to himself or to those whom he had converted from heathenism, he might have obtained help for them by appealing to the common human sympathies of his Gentile converts. The sense of Christian brotherhood, affectionate veneration for the Church of Jerusalem, many of the members of which had been the personal friends of the Lord Jesus Christ, might have strengthened natural pity for human suffering, and led the converts to the Christian faith at Corinth and elsewhere to respond to his appeal. But to give fire and energy to their generosity, he reminded them of the most glorious and sublime manifestation of the Divine love for the human race. Christ was rich and for our sakes became poor. The infinite Grace revealed in the incarnation is to be revealed in Christian conduct. The mind that was in Christ is to be in us; and therefore the Christians at Corinth were to send money to relieve their Christian brethren in Jerusalem and Judaea. They were to suffer loss that they might serve others.
We have better wealth — all of us — than money; and the voluntary poverty of Christ for our sakes is to have far more important effects on character and conduct than the creation of a disposition to give money for the relief of poverty and suffering. There is a selfishness of a more subtle kind than that which makes us keep a tight hand on our silver and gold. The giving of money may be the discipline of a loftier kind of generosity; but in some cases it seems to be made a substitute for the nobler service. It was not mere money that Christ gave when He became poor to enrich the human race; and if the power of His example and of His spirit rests upon us we shall give, and give freely, what we value infinitely more than money. It is a law of the Christian life that we should impoverish ourselves in many ways to enrich other men.
What, then, is our wealth — the wealth we care for most?
There are some to whom the refined and gracious habits of a cultivated life are far more precious than gold. They were fortunate in being born of intelligent and gentle parents. They received an education which not only informed and disciplined their mind, but which preserved and confirmed the traditions of their home. They are offended and pained by the coarseness of nature and roughness of speech, as the ear of a musician is offended and pained by a voice out of tune, or the eye of a painter by bad drawing and harsh contrasts of colour. The delicacy, purity, and refinement of nature which came to them by the felicity of their birth and early training are not to be bought with money, and are not always transmitted with inherited wealth. Rich men may purchase luxury and splendour, and may fill their houses with the beautiful creations of art; but that nameless indefinable grace of which I am speaking is not sold in any market, and those who possess it are conscious of its absence in the vulgar rich as well as in the vulgar poor. It is a distinction which, if they could, they would not sell for all “the wealth of Ormuzd or of Ind.” How are they to make the Grace of Christ a law of conduct?
I have known educated and refined Christian women who have made friends, not merely of the gentle poor, but of those who had been born in rough homes, who had been always surrounded by rough people, and who, not by their fault but by their misfortune, were rough themselves. It would have been much pleasanter to these Christian women to spend all their leisure with people of another kind. To men and women of a refined nature, living in refined homes, the wealth of life consists largely in the advantage and happiness of congenial society. There is a loss of enjoyment, and of something more than enjoyment, in intimate association with persons whose minds have never been cultivated, whose moral tastes are coarse, whose manners are ungentle. And it is one of the most beautiful and effective ways of imitating Christ to accept this voluntary poverty for His sake, to part with the wealth which we most value for the sake of enriching those who are wholly destitute of it.
It seems to be thought that rough uncultivated men and women, if only they want to do good, are likely to be of more service than the refined and educated to people who are coarse and ignorant. Thank God, it is possible for everybody that really cares for others to do them good; and it is wonderful how much good may be done by those whose knowledge is very small, whose powers are very limited, and whose education has been altogether neglected. But those who have been more fortunate have within their reach an exceptional kind of service. Let me illustrate what I mean.
Societies have been formed in several parts of England for diffusing a delight in beauty among those whose lives are environed by unlovely conditions. They give concerts of good music in the poorer parts of great towns; they cover with pleasant decoration the bare and hideous walls of school rooms, and mission-rooms, and private houses; they send bright flowers for people living in close and gloomy courts to put on their window-sills. The Kyrle Societies seem to me to be doing a very kindly service. But the noblest works of art are not in marble or on canvas; the loveliest music is not heard at concerts or the Opera; and there is something fairer than any flower that ever blossomed under southern skies. In a cultivated, refined and gracious man or woman there is a charm, a spell, a beauty of a divine order. Take the brightness, the music, the perfume of your gentle and delicate life into the homes of people who are coarse in their habits, and whose words are rude; sit down with them as a brother or a sister; talk to them, remembering that they, too, are God’s children, that perhaps they are trying to do His will as far as they know it, and that at last He may receive them home with words of welcome and joy. To them your life is a song, let them listen to it; a poem, let them read it; a picture, let them see its form and colour; a flower, for a little time let the brightness and the sweetness of it be theirs. Make your visit to them as charming as possible. Let me ask the ladies who may read these pages not to put on their plainest and shabbiest dresses when they go into their “districts.” If the weather is fine, wear a pretty dress, a dainty bonnet, and gloves of which you would not be ashamed when you visit your friends. If you must wear dresses which are a little dingy, let them be worn when at the houses of rich people, who see bright, pretty things every day. Be courteous to the poor, and make your visit delightful to them.
It is not always pleasant work. You will have to breathe an ungenial atmosphere; and as the plants when transferred from your gardens and green-houses to the narrow street and the close court, where the air is foul with smoke, are conscious that their very life is touched, so you with your delicate ways will be conscious of a certain pain and loss. But how are these brothers and sisters of ours to be led to higher levels of life except by service of this kind? And the service will lead you into a deeper knowledge of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. A morning spent among the poor and the miserable will sometimes teach you more about Christ than many mornings spent in church — will give you a clearer, closer vision of His love for us, and will enable you to trust in His love with a firmer and happier confidence.
There is another way in which many of us may fulfil the law of Christ. Whether we are rich or poor, cultivated or uncultivated, our pleasant friends are among our most precious wealth, I mean the friends who exhilarate us, increase our courage, reinforce our strength when we are tired of life, and soothe and quiet us when we are restless and agitated. Most of us know people of a different sort; people who, not intentionally, but under the influence of some evil fate, always remember the things which it would be pleasant to forget, and always speak of the things about which we wish they would be silent; people who have a talent for misery — who are miserable themselves and make other people miserable; who when the sun is rising and filling the east with the fresh pure light of the dawn look westwards, where the heavy clouds of night are still hanging in funereal gloom, and who when the west is burning with the gorgeous splendours of sunset look eastwards where the grey twilight is ascending like the shadowy ghost of the departed day. They always walk on the shady side of the street. Their life is an arctic winter without even an arctic summer, for when they have had six months of darkness at the north pole, instead of taking the six months of pale sunlight which follow, they escape to the south pole to get another six months of darkness there.
People of this kind are to be found among those who have wealth as well as among those who have none; wherever they are found they are really the most destitute and miserable of mankind. But perhaps the destitute and miserable rich are the more pitiable. They have luxurious dinners, but their intellect and heart are starved; they have company at their table, but they are without friends; they have music about them, but no music in their hearts; pictures on their walls, but no forms of beauty in their fancy, no golden splendour, no romance, no mystery, no grace.
They are in want of something that it is harder to give them than money, of something that is more scarce even in the worst times, of something that we are more reluctant to part with. We must carry our own light and fire into their darkness and cold. There must be a real impoverishment of ourselves if we are to enrich them. We must lose part of our own vital force if we are to endure, even for a little while, the chill and the gloom in which they are always living; we must burn up some of the fuel which might keep ourselves warm to give them warmth; we must be fretted by their fretfulness, and depressed by their depression. There is a conscious loss of life when we are in contact with them. Virtue goes out of us at their touch. To be with them for an hour lowers our intellectual and moral temperature. But to submit to this loss in order to cheer and to animate them, is to accept the grace of Christ as a law of conduct.
We must impoverish ourselves in other ways if we are to imitate our Lord. To some people — and the number increases every year — delight in intellectual pursuits, in science, in art, in literature, is one of the most precious of all kinds of wealth. An additional five per cent, on their investments, gives some men less happiness than the effort to master some new department of science; a diamond necklace gives some women less happiness than a new and noble poem. I sometimes wonder whether intellectual covetousness will be as unfriendly to zeal in the public service and in the work which, by way of distinction, we call religious, as covetousness of a baser sort. “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!” Covetousness of all kinds is idolatry. Some men who have to pay a very light income-tax are in just as much danger from their ” riches “as men who have to return their income in five figures. Even those of us who are far enough from having anything that can be described as intellectual wealth are not safe.
I should like to illustrate this danger; but in a kindly notice of a volume which I published a year or two ago, the writer complained that my illustrations were “provincial.” The complaint was just one. Human life, as I know it, is the life of Birmingham manufacturers, merchants, and tradesmen, and of Birmingham working-people who work in iron, and brass, and tin, who make pens, and guns, and jewellery, hardware of all sorts, and beautiful things in silver and gold. When I think of human life I think of it in the forms which it assumes among the people with whom I have lived for more than thirty years. I think of the troubles and temptations which come to them in their trade, and of their keen interest in public affairs. And if I am to illustrate the dangers of intellectual covetousness I cannot illustrate them from the life of literary or fashionable people in London, or from the life of ladies and gentlemen living in pleasant country houses. I must take the material which lies under my hand. Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur.
For a man who has a keen delight in literature, and who can snatch only an hour or two now and then for reading, it is not a pleasant thing on a winter’s evening, when he happens to be at leisure, and when he might have two or three hours of perfect happiness with a poet, with an historian, with some master of philosophy, or with some charming essayist — it is not, I say, a pleasant thing for him to leave his warm room and his books, and to walk a mile or two through the damp and cold, to be present at a meeting of the “eight hundred,” or to speak for a municipal candidate in a noisy Ward meeting, or to attend a Ward committee. It is not a pleasant thing for such a man to give a couple of hours to a hospital meeting in the morning, or two or three hours to a meeting of the School Board in the afternoon, knowing that after dinner he will be obliged to work off the business letters of the day, instead of being free to read some delightful book on the history of Art For a Sunday-school teacher to give up an evening every week for the preparation of his lessons instead of attending a class in some science in which he is interested, for the conductor of a Band of Hope to make a similar sacrifice, requires a real and vigorous moral effort.
In the case of hundreds and thousands of us, in every part of the country, one public claim after another interferes with intellectual cultivation. We miss the opportunity of adding to our knowledge; we lose what we once knew. We are humbled when we are with men and women who have not been called to the service which we have endeavoured to render to others, or who have declined it, and who have been able to accumulate an intellectual wealth which is in vivid contrast to our own poverty. Perhaps we think that our native powers were not inferior to theirs, that we had an equal passion for intellectual achievement, and are capable of an equal industry. If it happens that they assume airs of superiority, it is hardly possible for us not to resent the assumption, although in our better moments we are conscious that their superiority is indisputable, and that their intellectual resources are really larger and more varied than our own. But that is a noble poverty which comes upon men as the result of the free and voluntary service which they have rendered to the ignorant, the suffering, and the wretched — to their town, to their country, and to the Christian Church. It involves no disgrace. The poverty is real; there is folly in the refusal to recognise it; but it is a poverty which brings us into closer fellowship with Christ, who, though He was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, that we, through His poverty, might become rich.
I do not mean that young men and women should let the golden years of youth slip by without a serious attempt to carry on the studies which were only begun at school, and to acquire some knowledge of the glorious literature which is the noble inheritance of all Englishmen. For the sake of doing more effective work in future years, as well as for the sake of their own intellectual cultivation, they ought to avail themselves of those means of intellectual improvement which are within their reach. But there is a point — every one must determine it for himself — at which the claims of our own intellect must give place to the claims of human want and misery. We must consent to be intellectually impoverished ourselves for the sake of increasing the wealth of other men.
The law extends to a still higher province of human life. It requires us to sacrifice religious advantages for the sake of others. There may be a certain selfishness in the hunger for religious knowledge and religious enjoyment, as well as in the cultivation of the intellect, in the pursuit of social pleasures, and in dealing with money. Whatever may be said about the worthlessness of sermons, and the dullness of public worship, there are large numbers of people who listen to preaching with keen interest, and to whom the sermons and worship of Sunday are the strength and joy of life. But their true place on Sunday may not always be at church, but at the bedside of a parent, a child, a friend, a man that works with them in the same warehouse, or a neighbour living in the same street. If they make the grace of Christ the law of conduct they may have to watch by the sick when they would like to be worshipping God. Or, perhaps, their true place is with some aged person, weary of the monotony of living week after week in the same room, and weary of almost unbroken solitude; or, perhaps, with husbands, brothers, wives, of whom they can see little during the week, who will not come with them to worship, whose affection they are losing and whose happiness they are marring, while enriching their own religious life. Everyone must judge for himself.
Or perhaps they could give more to others by mission work, or school work, on Sunday evenings than they could gain for themselves by listening to sermons and joining in prayer and song. The work involves a real loss to those who engage in it — a loss of religious knowledge and of the religious refreshment which would make life easier and brighter.
But if the sacrifice is made under the inspiration of a desire to serve others, it is a part of that imitation of Christ which is the law of the Christian life.
Of the more heroic forms in which the law is illustrated — of the courage and self-devotion of those who, at the impulse of love for Christ and mankind, leave home and country and friends, the refinements and the intellectual excitements of civilized life, the noble virtues and the sacred purity of Christian society, in order to live among heathen and barbarous people, I will say nothing. They have heard a divine voice; they know the secret of the voluntary poverty of Christ as I cannot know it. But to the imitation of Christ all Christian people are called; and in all human conditions it is possible to translate into conduct the law of Christian perfection. It is not merely in the virtues of His human life — this is the point of my paper — that Christ is our example. According to the measures of our strength we are to imitate the infinite grace which, for our sake, brought Him from heights of divine majesty to the weakness, the poverty, and the suffering which had become the inheritance of the human race. In His incarnation He has given us an example that we should walk in His steps.