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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : LECTURE VI. COLOSSIANS iii. 3.

The Christian Life by Thomas Arnold

LECTURE VI. COLOSSIANS iii. 3.

COLOSSIANS iii.3.

Ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.

When I have spoken, from time to time, of denying ourselves for the sake of relieving others, although self-denial and charity are, in their full growth, amongst the highest of Christian graces, yet I have felt much hope that, up to a certain degree, in their lowest and elementary forms at least, there might be many that would be disposed to practise them. For these are virtues which do undoubtedly commend themselves to our minds as things clearly good: so much so that I am inclined to think that the much-disputed moral sense, the nature of which is said to be so hard to ascertain, exists most clearly in the universal perception that it is good to deny ourselves and to benefit others. I do not say merely that there is a perception that it is good to deny ourselves in order to benefit others; but that there is in self-denial, simply, something which commands respect; an unconscious tribute, I suppose, to the truth, that the self which, is thus denied is one which, if indulged, would run to evil.

But a point of far greater difficulty, of absolutely the greatest difficulty, is to impress upon our minds the excellence of another quality, which is known by the name of spiritual or heavenly-mindedness. In fact, this, -- and this almost singly, -- is the transcendent part of Christianity; that part of it which is not according to, but above, nature; which, conscience, I think, itself, in the natural man, does not acknowledge. When Christianity speaks of purity, of truth, of justice, of charity, of faith and love to God, it speaks a language which, however belied by our practice, is at once allowed by our consciences: the things so recommended are, beyond all doubt, good and lovely. But when it says, in St. Paul's words, |Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth: for ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God,| the language sounds so strange that it is scarcely intelligible; and if we do get to understand it, yet it seems to give a wrench, as it were, to our whole being, to command a thing extravagant and impossible.

I am persuaded that this would be so, more or less, everywhere; but in how extreme a degree must it hold good amongst us! Even in poverty, in sickness, and old age, where this life would seem to be nothing but a burden, and the command to |set the affections on things above| might appear superfluous, still the known so prevails over the unknown, the familiar over the incomprehensible, that hope and affection find continually their objects in this world, there is still a clinging to life, and an unwillingness to die. But in a state the very opposite to this, in plenty, in health, in youth; with much of enjoyment actually in our hands, and more in prospect; with just so much mystery over our coming life as to keep alive interest, yet with enough known and understood in its prospects to awaken sympathy; what deafest ear of the deaf adder could ever be so closed against the voice of the charmer, as our minds, so engrossed with the enjoyments and the hopes of earth, are closed against the voice which speaks of the things of heaven?

Again, I have said, when speaking of other subjects, that I looked upon the older persons among you as a sort of link between me and the younger, who communicated, in some instances, by their language and example, something of an impression of the meaning of Christian teaching. But when we speak of a thing so high as spiritual-mindedness, it seems as if none of us can be a link between Christ's words and our brethren's minds: as if we all stand alike at an infinite distance from the high and unapproachable truth. The mountain of God becomes veiled, as it were, with the clouds which rested upon Sinai; we cannot approach near it, but stand far off, for a moment, perhaps, in awe; but soon in neglect and indifference.

Let any one capable of thinking, but in the full vigour of health of body and mind, placed far above want, and with the prospect, according to all probability, of many years of happy life before him, let such an one go forth, at this season of the year above all, let him see the vast preparation for life in all nature, amongst all living creatures, in every tree, and in every plant of grass; let him feel the warmth of the sun, becoming every day stronger and stronger; let him be possessed, in every sense, with an impression of the vigour and beauty and glory around him; and let him feel no less a vigour in himself, too, of body and mind, and infinitely varied power of enjoyment in so many faculties of repose and of energy, -- and then let him calmly consider what St. Paul could mean, when he says generally to Christians, |Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth; for ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.|

Let a person capable of thinking, and such as I have supposed in all other respects, consider what St. Paul could mean by calling him |dead.| With an almost thrilling consciousness of life, with an almost bounding sense of vigour in body and mind, he is told that he is |dead.| And stranger still, he is told so by one whose recorded life, and existing writings declare that he too must have had in himself a consciousness of life no less lively; that there was in him an activity and energy which neither age nor sufferings could quell; that he wielded an influence over the minds of thousands, such as kings or conquerors might envy. If St. Paul could stand by our side, think we that he, any more than ourselves, would be insensible to the power within him, and to the beauty and the glory without? Yet his words are recorded; he bids us not set our affections on things on the earth; he declares of himself, and of us equally, if we are Christ's servants, that we are dead, and that our life is hid with Christ in God.

I have put the difficulty in its strongest form, for it is one well worth considering. What St. Paul here urges is indeed the highest perfection of Christianity, and therefore of human nature; but it is not an impossible perfection, and St. Paul's own life and character are our warrant that it is nothing sickly, or foolish, or fanatical. But let us first hear the whole of St. Paul's language: |If ye, then, be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God. Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall we also appear with him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry.| |Mortify,| I need not say, is to make dead, to destroy. |Ye are dead;| therefore let your members on earth be dead; |fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection,| &c. As if he had said, By becoming Christians ye engaged to be dead; and therefore see to it that ye are so. But what he requires us to make dead or to destroy, are our evil affections and desires; it is manifest, then, that it is to these that, by becoming Christians, we engage to become dead.

This is true; and it is most certain that Christ requires us to be dead only to what is evil. But the essence of spiritual-mindedness consists in this, that it is assumed that with earth, and all things earthly, evil or imperfection are closely mixed; so that it is not possible to set our affections keenly upon, or to abandon ourselves to the enjoyment of, any earthly thing without the danger of those affections and that enjoyment becoming evil. In other words, there is that in the state of things within and around us, which, renders it needful to be ever watchful; and watchfulness is inconsistent with an intensity of delight and enjoyment.

For, consider the case which I was just supposing; that lively sense of the beauty of all nature, that indescribable feeling of delight which arises out of the consciousness of health, and strength and power. Suppose that we abandon ourselves to such impressions without restraint, and is it not manifest that they are the extreme of godless pride and selfishness? For do we not know that in this world, and close to us wherever we are, there is, along with all the beauty and enjoyment which we witness, a large portion also of evil, and of suffering? And do we not know that He who gave to the earth its richness, and who set the sun to shine in the heavens, and who gave to us that wonderful frame of body and mind, whose healthful workings are So delightful to us, that He gave them that we might use both body and mind in His service; that the soldier has something else to do than to gaze like a child on the splendour of his uniform or the brightness of his sword; that those faculties which we feel as it were burning within us, have their work before them, a work far above their strength, though multiplied a thousand fold; that the call to them to be busy is never silent; that there is an infinite voice in the infinite sins and sufferings of millions which proclaims that the contest is raging around us; that every idle moment is treason; that now it is the time for unceasing efforts; and that not till the victory is gained may Christ's soldiers throw aside their arms, and resign themselves to enjoyment and to rest?

Then when we turn to the words, |our life is hid with Christ in God,| the exceeding greatness of Christ's promises rises upon us in something of the fulness of their reality. Some may know the story of that German nobleman, whose life had been distinguished alike by genius and worldly distinctions, and by Christian holiness; and who, in the last morning of his life, when the dawn broke into his sick chamber, prayed that he might be supported to the window, and might look once again upon the rising sun. After looking steadily at it for some time, he cried out, |Oh! if the appearance of this earthly and created thing is so beautiful and so quickening, how much more shall I be enraptured at the sight of the unspeakable glory of the Creator Himself!| That was the feeling of a man whose sense of earthly beauty had all the keenness of a poet's enthusiasm; but who, withal, had in his greatest health and vigour preserved the consciousness that his life was hid with Christ in God; that the things seen, how beautiful soever, were as nothing to the things which are not seen. And so, if from the feeling of natural enjoyment we turn, at once thankfully and earnestly, to remember God's service, and to address ourselves to his work; and sadly remember, that, although we can enjoy, yet that many are suffering; and that, whilst they are so, enjoyment in us for more than a brief space of needful rest cannot but be sin; then there must come upon us, most strongly, the impression of that life where sin and suffering are not; where not God's works only, but God Himself is visible; where the vigour and faculties which we feel within us are not the passing strength of a decaying body, nor the brief prime of a mind which in a few years must sink into dotage; but the strength of a body incorruptible and eternal, the ripeness of a spirit which shall go on growing in wisdom and love for ever.

[Footnote 12: The Baron Von Canitz.]

Thus, then, if we consider again St. Paul's meaning, we shall find that, high and pure as it is, it is nothing unreasonable or impossible; that what he requires us to be dead to absolutely is that which is evil; that, because of the mixture of evil with ourselves and all around us, this life must not and cannot be a life of entire enjoyment without becoming godless and selfish; that, therefore, our affections cannot be set upon earthly things so as to enjoy them in and for themselves entirely, without becoming inordinate, and therefore evil. He does require us, old and young alike, to set our affection on things above: to remember that with God, and with Him alone, can be our rest, and the fulness of our joy; and amidst our pleasure in earthly things to retain in our minds, first, a grateful sense of their Giver; secondly, a remembrance of their passing nature; and thirdly, a consciousness of the evil that is in the world, which makes it a sin to resign ourselves to any enjoyment, except as a permitted refreshment to strengthen us for duty to come. Above all, let one feeling be truly cherished, and it will do more, perhaps, than any other to moderate our pleasure in earthly things, and to render it safe, and wholesome, and Christianlike. That feeling is the remembrance of our own faults. Let us bear these in mind as God does; let us consider how displeasing they are in His sight; how often they are repeated; how little they deserve the enjoyments which are given us. If this does not change our selfish pleasure into a zealous gratitude, then, indeed, sin must have a dominion over us; for the natural effect would be, that our hearts should burn within us for very shame, and should enkindle us to be thankful with all our strength for blessings so undeserved; to show something of our love to God who has so richly shown his love to us.

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