(Fourth Sunday in Lent.)
PHILIPPIANS iv.8. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
It may not be easy to see what this text has to do with the story of Joseph, which we have just been reading, or with the meaning of the Bible of which I have been speaking to you of late.
Nevertheless, I think it has to do with them; as you will see if you will look at the text with me.
Now the text does not say 'Do these things.' It only says 'THINK of these things.'
Of course St. Paul wished us to do them also; but he says first THINK of them; not once in a way, but often and continually. Fill your mind with good and pure and noble thoughts; and then you will do good and pure and noble things.
For out of the abundance of a man's heart, not only does his mouth speak, but his whole body and soul behave. The man whose mind is filled with low and bad thoughts will be sure, when he is tempted, to do low and bad things. The man whose mind is filled with lofty and good thoughts will do lofty and good things.
For thoughts are the food of a man's mind; and as the mind feeds, so will it grow. If it feeds on coarse and foul food, coarse and foul it will grow. If it feeds on pure and refined food, pure and refined it will grow.
There are those who do not believe this. Provided they are tolerably attentive to the duties of religion, it does not matter much, they fancy, what they think of out of church. Their souls will be saved at last, they suppose, and that is all that they need care for. Saved? They do not see that by giving way to foul, mean, foolish thoughts all the week they are losing their souls, destroying their souls, defiling their souls, lowering their souls, and making them so coarse and mean and poor that they are not worth saving, and are no loss to heaven or earth, whatever loss they may be to the man himself. One man thinks of nothing but money -- how he shall save a penny here and a penny there. I do not mean men of business; for them there are great excuses; for it is by continual saving here and there that their profits are made. I speak rather of people who have no excuse, people of fixed incomes -- people often wealthy and comfortable, who yet will lower their minds by continually thinking over their money. But this I say, and this I am sure that you will find, that when a man in business or out of business accustoms himself, as very many do, to think of nothing but money, money, money from Monday morning to Saturday night, he thinks of money a great part of Sunday likewise. And so, after a while, the man lowers his soul, and makes it mean and covetous. He forgets all that is lovely and of good report. He forgets virtue -- that is manliness; and praise -- that is the just respect and admiration of his fellow-men; and so he forgets at last things true, honest, and just likewise. He lowers his soul; and therefore when he is tempted, he does things mean and false and unjust, for the sake of money, which he has made his idol.
Take another case, too common among men and women of all ranks, high and low.
How many there are who love gossip and scandal; who always talk about people, and never about things -- certainly not about things pure and lovely and of good report, but rather about things foul and ugly and of bad report; who do not talk, because they do not think of virtue, but of vice; or of praise either, because they are always finding fault with their neighbours. The man who loves a foul story, or a coarse jest -- the woman who gossips over every tittle tattle of scandal which she can pick up against her neighbour -- what do these people do but defile their own souls afresh, after they have been washed clean in the blood of Christ? Foul their souls are, and therefore their thoughts are foul likewise, and the foulness of them is evident to all men by their tongues. Out of their hearts proceed evil thoughts about their neighbours, out of the abundance of their hearts their mouths speak them. Now let such people, if there be any such here, seriously consider the harm which they are doing to their own characters. They may give way to the habits of scandal, or of coarse talk, without any serious bad intention; but they will surely lower their own souls thereby. They will grow to the colour of what they feed on and become foul and cruel, from talking cruelly and foully, till they lose all purity and all charity, all faith and trust in their fellow-men, all power of seeing good in any one, or doing anything but think evil; and so lose the likeness of God and of Christ, for the likeness of some foul carrion bird, which cares nothing for the perfume of all the roses in the world, but if there be a carcase within miles of it, will scent it out eagerly and fly to it ravenously.
The truth is, my friends, that these souls of ours instead of being pure and strong, are the very opposite; and the article speaks plain truth when it says, that we are every one of us of our own nature inclined to evil. That may seem a hard saying; but if we look at our own thoughts we shall find it true. Are we NOT inclined to take, at first, the worst view of everybody and of everything? Are we NOT inclined to suspect harm of this person and of that? Are we NOT inclined too often to be mean and cowardly? to be hard and covetous? to be coarse and vulgar? to be silly and frivolous? Do we not need to cool down, to think a second time, and a third time likewise; to remember our duty, to remember Christ's example, before we can take a just and kind and charitable view? Do we not want all the help which we can get from every quarter, to keep ourselves high-minded and refined; to keep ourselves from bad thoughts, mean thoughts, silly thoughts, violent thoughts, cruel and hard thoughts? If we have not found out that, we must have looked a very little way into ourselves, and know little more about ourselves than a dumb animal does of itself.
How then shall we keep off coarseness of soul? How shall we keep our souls REFINED? that is, true and honest, pure, amiable, full of virtue, that is, true manliness; and deserve praise, that is, the respect and admiration of our fellow-men? By thinking of those very things, says St. Paul. And in order to be able to think of them, by reading of them.
There are very few who can easily think of these things of themselves. Their daily business, the words and notions of the people with whom they have to do, will run in their minds, and draw them off from higher and better thoughts; that cannot be helped. The only thing that most men can do, is to take care that they are not drawn off entirely from high and good thoughts, by reading, were it but for five minutes every day, something really worth thinking of, something which will lift them above themselves.
Above all, it is wise, at night, after the care and bustle of the day is over, to read, but for a few minutes, some book which will compose and soothe the mind; which will bring us face to face with the true facts of life, death, and eternity; which will make us remember that man doth not live by bread alone; which will give us, before we sleep, a few thoughts worthy of a Christian man, with an immortal soul in him.
And, thank God, no one need go far to look for such books. I do not mean merely religious books, excellent as they are in these days: I mean any books which help to make us better and wiser and soberer, and more charitable persons; any books which will teach us to despise what is vulgar and mean, foul and cruel, and to love what is noble and high-minded, pure and just. We need not go far for them. In our own noble English language we may read by hundreds, books which will tell us of all virtue and of all praise. The stories of good and brave men and women; of gallant and heroic actions; of deeds which we ourselves should be proud of doing; of persons whom we feel, to be better, wiser, nobler than we are ourselves.
In our own language we may read the history of our own nation, and whatsoever is just, honest and true. We may read of God's gracious providences toward this land. How he has punished our sins and rewarded our right and brave endeavours. How he put into our forefathers the spirit of courage and freedom, the spirit of truth and justice, the spirit of loyalty and order; and how, following the leading of that spirit, in spite of many mistakes and failings, we have risen to be the freest, the happiest, the most powerful people on earth, a blessing and not a curse to the nations around.
In our own English tongue, too, we may read such poetry as there is in no other language in the world; poetry which will make us indeed see the beauty of whatsoever things are lovely and of good report. Some people have still a dislike of what they call foolish poetry books. If books are foolish, let us have nothing to do with them. But poetry ought not to be foolish; for God sent it into the world to teach men not foolishness, but the highest wisdom. He gave man alone, of all living creatures, the power of writing poetry, that by poetry he might understand, not only how necessary it was to do right, but how beautiful and noble it was to do right. He sent it into the world to soften men's rough hearts, and quiet their angry passions, and make them love all which is tender and gentle, loving and merciful, and yet to rouse them up to love all which is gallant and honourable, loyal and patriotic, devout and heavenly. Therefore whole books of the Bible -- Job, for example, Isaiah, and the Psalms -- are neither more nor less than actual poetry, written in actual verse, that their words might the better sink down into the ears and hearts of the old Jews, and of us Christians after them. And therefore also, we keep up still the good old custom of teaching children in school as much as possible by poetry, that they may learn not only to know, but to love and remember whatsoever things are lovely and of good report.
Lastly, for those who cannot read, or have really no time to read, there is one means left of putting themselves in mind of what every one must remember, lest he sink back into an animal and a savage. I mean by pictures; which, as St. Augustine said 1400 years ago, are the books of the unlearned. I do not mean grand and expensive pictures; I mean the very simplest prints, provided they represent something holy, or noble, or tender, or lovely. A few such prints upon a cottage-wall may teach the people who live therein much, without their being aware of it. They see the prints, even when they are not thinking of them; and so they have before their eyes a continual remembrancer of something better and more beautiful than what they are apt to find in their own daily life and thoughts.
True, to whom little is given, of them is little required. But it must be said, that more -- far more -- is given to labouring men and women now than was given to their forefathers. A hundred, or even fifty years ago, when there was very little schooling; when the books which were put even into the hands of noblemen's children were far below what you will find now in any village school; when the only pictures which a poor woman could buy to lay on her cottage- wall were equally silly and ugly: then there were great excuses for the poor, if they forgot whatsoever things were lovely and of good report; if they were often coarse and brutal in their manners, and cruel and profligate in their amusements.
But even in the rough old times there always were a few at least, men and women, who were above the rest; who, though poor people like the rest, were still true gentlemen and ladies of God's making. People who kept themselves more or less unspotted from the world; who thought of what was honest and pure and lovely and of good report; and who lived a life of simple, manful, Christian virtue, and received the praise and respect of their neighbours, even although their neighbours did not copy them. There were always such people, and there always will be -- thank God for it, for they are the salt of the earth.
But why have there always been such people? and why do I say confidently, that there always will be?
Because they have had the Bible; and because, once having got the Bible in a free country, no man can take it from them.
The Bible it is which has made gentlemen and ladies of many a poor man and woman.
The Bible it is which has filled their minds with pure and noble, ay, with heavenly and divine thoughts.
The Bible has been their whole library. The Bible has been their only counsellor. The Bible has taught them all they know. But it has taught them enough.
It has taught them what God is, and what Christ is. It has taught them what man is, and what a Christian man should be. It has taught them what a family means, and what a nation means. It has taught them the meaning of law and duty, of loyalty and patriotism. It has filled their minds with things honest and just and lovely and of good report; with the histories of men and women like themselves, who sinned and sorrowed and struggled like them in this hard battle of life, but who conquered at last, by trusting and obeying God.
This one story of Joseph, which we have been reading again this Sunday, I do not doubt that it has taught thousands who had no other story-book to read -- who could not even read themselves, but had to listen to others' reading; that it has taught them to be good sons, to be good brothers; that it has taught them to keep pure in temptation, and patient and honest under oppression and wrong; that it has stirred in them a noble ambition to raise themselves in life; and taught them, at the same time, that the only safe and sure way of rising is to fear God and keep his commandments; and so has really done more to civilize and refine them -- to make them truly civilized men and gentlemen, and not vulgar savages -- than if they had known a smattering of a dozen sciences. I say that the Bible is the book which civilizes and refines, and ennobles rich and poor, high and low, and has been doing so for fifteen hundred years; and that any man who tries to shake our faith in the Bible, is doing what he can -- though, thank God, he will not succeed -- to make such rough and coarse heathens of us again as our forefathers were five hundred years ago.
And I tell you, labouring people, that if you want something which will make up to you for the want of all the advantages which the rich have -- go to your Bibles and you will find it there.
There you will find, in the history of men like ourselves -- and, above all, in the history of a man unlike ourselves, the perfect Man -- perfect Man and perfect God together -- whatsoever is true, whatsoever is honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report; every virtue, and every just cause of praise which mortal man can desire. Read of them in your Bible, think of them in your hearts, feed on them with your souls, that your souls may grow like what they feed on; and above all, read and study the story and character of Jesus Christ himself, our Lord, that beholding, as in a glass, the glory of the Lord, you may be changed into his likeness, from grace to grace, and virtue to virtue, and glory to glory.
And that change and that growth are as easy for the poor as for the rich, and as necessary for the rich as for the poor.