|I go to my Father.| -- JOHN xiv.12.
WRITTEN AFTER THE DEATH OF A FRIEND
You can unlock a man's whole life if you watch what words he uses most. We have each a small set of words, which, though we are scarce aware of it, we always work with, and which really express all that we mean by life, or have found out of it. For such words embalm the past for us. They have become ours by a natural selection throughout our career of all that is richest and deepest in our experience. So our vocabulary is our history, and our favourite words are ourselves.
Did you ever notice Christ's favourite words? If you have you must have been struck by two things -- their simplicity and their fewness. Some half-dozen words embalm all his theology and these are, without exception, humble, elementary, simple monosyllables. They are such words as these -- world, life, trust, love.
But none of these was the greatest word of Christ. His great word was new to religion. There was no word there, when He came, rich enough to carry the new truth He was bringing to men. So He imported into religion one of the grandest words of human language, and transfigured it, and gave it back to the world illuminated and transformed, as the watchword of the new religion. That word was Father.
The world's obligation to the Lord Jesus is that He gave us that word. We should never have thought of it -- if we had, we should never have dared to say it. It is a pure revelation. Surely it is the most touching sight of the world's past to see God's only begotten Son coming down from heaven to try to teach the stammering dumb inhabitants of this poor planet to say, |Our Father.|
It is that word which has gathered the great family of God together; and when we come face to face with the real, the solid, and the moving in our religion, it is to find all its complexity resolvable into this simplicity, that God, whom others call King Eternal, Infinite Jehovah, is, after all, our Father, and we are His children.
This, after all, is religion. And to live daily in this simplicity, is to live like Christ.
It takes a great deal to succeed as a Christian -- such a great deal, that not many do succeed. And the great reason for want of success is the want of a central word. Men will copy anything rather than a principle. A relationship is always harder to follow than a fact. We study the details of Christ's actions, the point of this miracle and of that, the circumferential truth of this parable and of that, but to copy details is not to copy Christ. To live greatly like Christ is not to agonize daily over details, to make anxious comparisons with what we do and what He did, but a much more simple thing. It is to re-echo Christ's word. It is to have that calm, patient, assured spirit, which reduces life simply to this -- a going to the Father.
Not one man in a hundred, probably, has a central word in his Christian life; and the consequence is this, that there is probably nothing in the world so disorderly and slipshod as personal spiritual experience. With most of us it is a thing without stability or permanence, it is changed by every trifle we meet, by each new mood or thought. It is a series of disconnected approaches to God, a disorderly succession of religious impulses, an irregulation of conduct, now on this principle, now on that, one day because we read something in a book, the next because it was contradicted in another. And when circumstances lead us really to examine ourselves, everything is indefinite, hazy, unsatisfactory, and all that we have for the Christian life are the shreds perhaps of the last few Sabbaths' sermons and a few borrowed patches from other people's experience. So we live in perpetual spiritual oscillation and confusion, and we are almost glad to let any friend or any book upset the most cherished thought we have.
Now the thing which steadied Christ's life was the thought that He was going to His Father. This one thing gave it unity, and harmony, and success. During His whole life He never forgot His Word for a moment. There is no sermon of His where it does not occur; there is no prayer, however brief, where it is missed. In that first memorable sentence of His, which breaks the solemn spell of history and makes one word resound through thirty silent years, the one word is this; and all through the after years of toil and travail |the Great Name| was always hovering on His lips, or bursting out of His heart. In its beginning and in its end, from the early time when He spoke of His Father's business till He finished the work that was given Him to do, His life, disrobed of all circumstance, was simply this, |I go to My Father.|
If we take this principle into our own lives, we shall find its influence tell upon us in three ways:
I. It explains Life.
II. It sustains Life.
III. It completes Life.
I. It explains Life. Few men, I suppose, do not feel that life needs explaining. We think we see through some things in it -- partially; but most of it, even to the wisest mind, is enigmatic. Those who know it best are the most bewildered by it, and they who stand upon the mere rim of the vortex confess that even for them it is overspread with cloud and shadow. What is my life? whither do I go? whence do I come? these are the questions which are not worn down yet, although the whole world has handled them.
To these questions there are but three answers -- one by the poet, the other by the atheist, the third by the Christian.
(a) The poet tells us, and philosophy says the same, only less intelligibly, that life is a sleep, a dream, a shadow. It is a vapour that appeareth for a little and vanisheth away; a meteor hovering for a moment between two unknown eternities; bubbles, which form and burst upon the river of time. This philosophy explains nothing. It is a taking refuge in mystery. Whither am I going? Virtually the poet answers, |I am going to the Unknown.|
(b) The atheist's answer is just the opposite. He knows no unknown. He understands all, for there is nothing more than we can see or feel. Life is what matter is, the soul is phosphorus. Whither am I going? |I go to dust,| he says; |death ends all.| And this explains nothing. It is worse than mystery. It is contradiction. It is utter darkness.
(c) But the Christian's answer explains something. Where is he going? |I go to my Father.| This is not a definition of his death -- there is no death in Christianity; it is a definition of the Christian life. All the time it is a going to the Father. Some travel swiftly, some are long upon the road, some meet many pleasant adventures by the way, others pass through fire and peril; but though the path be short or winding, and though the pace be quick or slow, it is a going to the Father.
Now this explains life. It explains the two things in life which are most inexplicable. For one thing, it explains why there is more pain in the world than pleasure. God knows, although we scarce do, there is something better than pleasure -- progress. Pleasure, mere pleasure, is animal. He gives that to the butterfly. But progress is the law of life to the immortal. So God has arranged our life as progress, and its working principle is evolution. Not that there is no pleasure in it. The Father is too good to His children for that. But the shadows are all shot through it, for He fears lest we should forget there is anything more. Yes, God is too good to leave His children without indulgences, without far more than we deserve; but He is too good to let them spoil us. Our pleasures therefore are mere entertainments. We are entertained like passing guests at the inns on the roadside. Yet after even the choicest meals we dare not linger. We must take the pilgrim's staff again and go on our way to the Father.
Sooner or later we find out that life is not a holiday, but a discipline. Earlier or later we all discover that the world is not a playground. It is quite clear God means it for a school. The moment we forget that, the puzzle of life begins. We try to play in school; the Master does not mind that so much for its own sake, for He likes to see His children happy, but in our playing we neglect our lessons. We do not see how much there is to learn, and we do not care. But our Master cares. He has a perfectly overpowering and inexplicable solicitude for our education; and because He loves us, He comes into the school sometimes and speaks to us. He may speak very softly and gently, or very loudly. Sometimes a look is enough, and we understand it, like Peter, and go out at once and weep bitterly. Sometimes the voice is like a thunderclap startling a summer night. But one thing we may be sure of: the task He sets us to is never measured by our delinquency. The discipline may seem far less than our desert, or even to our eye ten times more. But it is not measured by these -- it is measured by God's solicitude for our progress; measured solely by God's love; measured solely that the scholar may be better educated when he arrives at his Father. The discipline of life is a preparation for meeting the Father. When we arrive there to behold His beauty, we must have the educated eye; and that must be trained here. We must become so pure in heart -- and it needs much practice -- that we shall see God. That explains life -- why God puts man in the crucible and makes him pure by fire.
When we see Him, we must speak to Him. We have that language to learn. And that is perhaps why God makes us pray so much. Then we are to walk with Him in white. Our sanctification is a putting on this white. But there has to be much disrobing first; much putting off of filthy rags. This is why God makes man's beauty to consume away like the moth. He takes away the moth's wings, and gives the angel's, and man goes the quicker and the lovelier to the Father.
It is quite true, indeed, besides all this, that sometimes shadow falls more directly from definite sin. But even then its explanation is the same. We lose our way, perhaps, on the way to the Father. The road is rough, and we choose the way with the flowers beside it, instead of the path of thorns. Often and often thus, purposely or carelessly, we lose the way. So the Lord Jesus has to come and look for us. And He may have to lead us through desert and danger, before we regain the road -- before we are as we were -- and the voice says to us sadly once more, |This is the way to the Father.|
The other thing which this truth explains is, why there is so much that is unexplained. After we have explained all, there is much left. All our knowledge, it is said, is but different degrees of darkness. But we know why we do not know why. It is because we are going to our Father. We are only going: we are not there yet. Therefore patience. |What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know. Hereafter, thou shalt know.| Hereafter, because the chief joy of life is to have something to look forward to. But, hereafter, for a deeper reason. Knowledge is only given for action. Knowing only exists for doing: and already nearly all men know to do more than they do do. So, till we do all that we know, God retains the balance till we can use it. In the larger life of the hereafter, more shall be given, proportionate to the vaster sphere and the more ardent energies.
Necessarily, therefore, much of life is still twilight. But our perfect refuge is to anticipate a little and go in thought to our Father, and, like children tired out with efforts to put together the disturbed pieces of a puzzle, wait to take the fragments to our Father.
And yet, even that fails sometimes. He seems to hide from us and the way is lost indeed. The footsteps which went before us up till then cease, and we are left in the chill, dark night alone. If we could only see the road, we should know it went to the Father. But we cannot say we are going to the Father; we can only say we would like to go. |Lord,| we cry, |we know not whither thou goest, and how can we know the way?| |Whither I go,| is the inexplicable answer, |ye know not now.| Well is it for those who at such times are near enough to catch the rest: |But ye shall know hereafter.|
II. Secondly, and in a few words, this sustains Life.
A year or two ago some of the greatest and choicest minds of this country laboured, in the pages of one of our magazines, to answer the question, |Is Life worth living?| It was a triumph for religion, some thought, that the keenest intellects of the nineteenth century should be stirred with themes like this. It was not so; it was the surest proof of the utter heathenism of our age. Is Life worth living? As well ask, Is air worth breathing? The real question is this -- taking the definition of life here suggested -- Is it worth while going to the Father?
Yet we can understand the question. On any other definition we can understand it. On any other definition life is very far from being worth living. Without that, life is worse than an enigma; it is an inquisition. Life is either a discipline, or a most horrid cruelty. Man's best aims here are persistently thwarted, his purest aspirations degraded, his intellect systematically insulted, his spirit of inquiry is crushed, his love mocked, and his hope stultified. There is no solution whatever to life without this; there is nothing to sustain either mind or soul amid its terrible mystery but this; there is nothing even to account for mind and soul. And it will always be a standing miracle that men of powerful intellect who survey life, who feel its pathos and bitterness, and are shut up all the time by their beliefs to impenetrable darkness -- I say it will always be a standing miracle how such men, with the terrible unsolved problems all around them, can keep reason from reeling and tottering from its throne. If life is not a going to the Father, it is not only not worth living, it is an insult to the living; and it is one of the strangest mysteries how men who are large enough in one direction to ask that question, and too limited in another to answer it, should voluntarily continue to live at all.
There is nothing to sustain life but this thought. And it does sustain life. Take even an extreme case, and you will see how. Take the darkest, saddest, most pathetic life of the world's history. That was Jesus Christ's. See what this truth practically was to Him. It gave Him a life of absolute composure in a career of most tragic trials.
You have noticed often, and it is inexpressibly touching, how as His life narrows, and troubles thicken around Him, He leans more and more upon this. And when the last days draw near -- as the memorable chapters in John reveal them to us -- with what clinging tenderness He alludes in almost every second sentence to |My Father.| There is a wistful eagerness in these closing words which is strangely melting -- like one ending a letter at sea when land is coming into sight.
This is the Christian's only stay in life. It provides rest for his soul, work for his character, an object, an inconceivably sublime object, for his ambition. It does not stagger him to be a stranger here, to feel the world passing away. The Christian is like the pearl-diver, who is out of the sunshine for a little, spending his short day amid rocks and weeds and dangers at the bottom of the ocean. Does he desire to spend his life there? No, but his Master does. Is his life there? No, his life is up above. A communication is open to the surface, and the fresh pure life comes down to him from God. Is he not wasting time there? He is gathering pearls for his Master's crown. Will he always stay there? When the last pearl is gathered, the |Come up higher| will beckon him away, and the weights which kept him down will become an exceeding weight of glory, and he will go, he and those he brings with him, to his Father.
He feels, to change the metaphor, like a man in training for a race. It is months off still, but it is nearer him than to-morrow, nearer than anything else. Great things are always near things. So he lives in his future. Ask him why this deliberate abstinence from luxury in eating and drinking. |He is keeping his life,| he says. Why this self-denial, this separation from worldliness, this change to a quiet life from revelries far into the night? |He is keeping his life.| He cannot have both the future and the present; and he knows that every regulated hour, and every temptation scorned and set aside, is adding a nobler tissue to his frame and keeping his life for the prize that is to come.
Trial to the Christian is training for eternity, and he is perfectly contented; for he knows that |he who loveth his life in this world shall lose it -- but he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.| He is keeping his life till he gets to the Father.
III. Lastly, in a word, this completes life.
Life has been defined as a going to the Father. It is quite clear that there must come a time in the history of all those who live this life when they reach the Father. This is the most glorious moment of life. Angels attend at it. Those on the other side must hail the completing of another soul with ineffable rapture. When they are yet a great way off, the Father runs and falls on their neck and kisses them.
On this side we call that Death. It means reaching the Father. It is not departure, it is arrival; not sleep, but waking. For life to those who live like Christ is not a funeral procession. It is a triumphal march to the Father. And the entry at the last in God's own chariot is the best hour of all. No, as we watch a life which is going to the Father, we cannot think of night, of gloom, of dusk and sunset. It is life which is the night, and Death is sunrise.
|Pray moderately,| says an old saint, |for the lives of Christ's people.| Pray moderately. We may want them on our side, he means. but Christ may need them on His. He has seen them a great way off, and set His heart upon them, and asked the Father to make them come quickly. |I will,| He says, |that such an one should be with Me where I am.| So it is better that they should go to the Father.
These words have a different emphasis to different persons. There are three classes to whom they come home with a peculiar emphasis: --
1. They speak to those who are staying away from God. |I do not wonder at what men suffer,| says Ruskin, |I wonder often at what they lose.| My fellow pilgrim, you do not know what you are losing by not going to the Father. You live in an appalling mystery. You have nothing to explain your life, nor to sustain it; no boundary line on the dim horizon to complete it. When life is done you are going to leap into the dark. You will cross the dark river and land on the further shore alone. No one will greet you. You and the Inhabitant of Eternity will be strangers. Will you not to-day arise and go to your Father?
2. They speak, next, to all God's people. Let us remember that we are going to the Father. Even now are we the sons of God. Oh, let us live like it -- more simple, uncomplaining, useful, separate -- joyful as those who march with music, yet sober as those who are to company with Christ. The road is heavy, high road and low road, but we shall soon be home. God grant us a sure arrival in our Father's house.
3. And this voice whispers yet one more message to the mourning. Did Death end all? Is it well with the child? It is well. The last inn by the roadside has been passed -- that is all, and a voice called to us. |Good-bye! I go to my Father.|