|And thou, son of man, be not afraid of them; neither be afraid of their words, though briars and thorns be with thee, and thou dost dwell among scorpions; be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house.| -- Ezekiel ii.6.
What is here implied, as the trial of the Prophet Ezekiel, was fulfilled more or less in the case of all the Prophets. They were not Teachers merely, but Confessors. They came not merely to unfold the Law, or to foretell the Gospel, but to warn and rebuke; not to rebuke only, but to suffer. This world is a scene of conflict between good and evil. The evil not only avoids, but persecutes the good; the good cannot conquer, except by suffering. Good men seem to fail; their cause triumphs, but their own overthrow is the price paid for the success of their cause. When was it that this conflict, and this character and issue of it, have not been fulfilled? So it was in the beginning. Cain, for instance, was envious of his brother Abel, and slew him. Enoch walked with God, and was a preacher of righteousness, and God took him. Ishmael mocked at Isaac; Esau was full of wrath with Jacob, and resolved to kill him. Joseph's brethren were filled with bitter hatred of him, debated about killing him, cast him into a pit, and at last sold him into Egypt. Afterwards, in like manner, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram rose up against Moses. And, later still, Saul persecuted David; and Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah; and the priests and the prophets the Prophet Jeremiah. Lastly, not to dwell on other instances, the chief priests and Pharisees, full of envy, rose up against our Lord Jesus Christ, and delivered Him to the heathen governor, Pontius Pilate, to be crucified. So the Apostles, after Him, and especially St. Paul, were persecuted by their fierce and revengeful countrymen; and from the way in which St. Paul speaks on the subject we may infer that it is ever so to be: |All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution:| or, as he says, after referring to the history of Isaac and Ishmael, |As then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now:| and indeed we see this fulfilled in its measure before our eyes even at this day. Hence our Saviour, to console all who suffer for His sake, graciously says, |Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.|
The case seems to be this: -- those who do not serve God with a single heart, know they ought to do so, and they do not like to be reminded that they ought. And when they fall in with any one who does live to God, he serves to remind them of it, and that is unpleasant to them, and that is the first reason why they are angry with a religious man; the sight of him disturbs them and makes them uneasy.
And, in the next place, they feel in their hearts that he is in much better case than they are. They cannot help wishing -- though they are hardly conscious of their own wish -- they cannot help wishing that they were like him; yet they have no intention of imitating him, and this makes them jealous and envious. Instead of being angry with themselves they are angry with him.
These are their first feelings: what follows? next they are very much tempted to deny that he is religious. They wish to get the thought of him out of their minds. Nothing would so relieve their minds as to find that there were no religious persons in the world, none better than themselves. Accordingly, they do all they can to believe that he is making a pretence of religion, they do their utmost to find out what looks like inconsistency in him. They call him a hypocrite and other names. And all this, if the truth must be spoken, because they hate the things of God, and therefore they hate His servants.
Accordingly, as far as they have power to do it, they persecute him, either, as the text implies, with cruel untrue words, or with cold, or fierce, or jealous looks, or in some worse ways. A good man is an offence to a bad man. The sight of him is a sort of insult, and he is irritated at him, and does him what harm he can. Thus Christians, in former times, were put to death by the heathen. As righteous Abel by Cain, as our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, by the Jews, as St. Paul too by the heathen; so, many after him were put to death also, and that by the most cruel torments. It would not be right to describe the horrible inflictions which the children of God once endured at the hands of the children of the flesh; but we have some allusion to what had taken place in an earlier age, in a passage from St. Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews, from which you may judge of the more cruel trials which Christians afterwards endured. They |had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheep-skins and goat-skins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented, (of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.|
Praised be God, we live in times when this cannot take place! Hitherto, at least, He has guarded us in a wonderful way. If any bad man did any serious harm to a religious man, he knows he would incur some punishment from the law of the land. Religious persons are protected in this day from all great persecutions, and they cannot sufficiently be thankful for it. The utmost they can suffer from the world is light indeed compared with what men suffered of old time. Yet St. Paul calls even his and their sufferings |our light affliction;| and if their suffering was but light, compared with the glory which was to follow after death, much more is ours light, who cannot undergo persecution, if we would, and at best can only suffer very slight inconveniences from serving God faithfully.
And yet, nevertheless, most true is it, that even now, no one can give his mind to God, and show by his actions that he fears God, but he will incur the dislike and opposition of the world; and it is important he should be aware of this, and be prepared for it. He must not mind it, he must bear it, and in time (if God so will) he will overcome it.
There are a number of lesser ways in which careless ungodly persons may annoy and inconvenience those who desire to do their duty humbly and fully. Such, especially, are those, which seem intended in the text, unkind censure, carping, slander, ridicule, cold looks, rude language, insult, and, in some cases, oppression and tyranny. Whoever, therefore, sets about a religious life, must be prepared for these, -- must be thankful if they do not befall him; but must not be put out, must not think it a strange thing, if they do.
Now, my brethren, observe this; in bidding you endure reproach for Christ's sake, I am bidding you nothing which, as a minister of Christ, I do not wish to practise myself. Nay, it is what all ministers of Christ are obliged to practise; for, in all ages, who do you think it is that the world will first attack and oppose? Christ's ministers, of course. Who is there who can possibly so offend this bad world, as they whose very office is to remind the world of God and heaven? If all serious persons are disliked by the world, because they bring before it unpleasant truths, which it would fain forget if it could, this trial surely applies still more to those whose very profession and business it is to remind men of the truths of religion. A religious man does not intend to remind his neighbours; he goes on his own way; but they see him and cannot help being reminded. They see that he is well-conducted, and sober-minded, and reverent, and conscientious; that he never runs into any excess, that he never uses bad language; that he is regular at his prayers, regular at Church, regular at the most Holy Sacrament; they see all this, and, whether he will or no, they are reminded of their duty, and, as disliking to be reminded, they dislike him who reminds them. But if this be so in the case of common men, who wish to go on in a religious way without making any profession, how do you think it will fare with us, Christ's ministers, whose very duty it is to make a profession? Every thing about a clergyman is a warning to men, or ought to be, of the next world, of death and judgment, heaven and hell. His very dress is a memento. He does not dress like other men. His habits are a memento. His mode of speech is graver than that of others. His duties too are a memento. He is seen in Church reading prayers, baptizing, preaching; or he is seen teaching children; he is seen in works of charity; or he is seen studying. His life is given to objects out of sight. All that he does is intended to remind men that time is short, death is certain, and eternity long. And, this being so, do you think that men, being as they mostly are, careless and irreligious, do you think they like this? No; and still less, when he goes on to tell men of their errors and faults, and, as far as he can, to restrain them. And so in all ages you will find that the world has resisted and done its utmost to get rid of the preachers of repentance and holiness. It would stone Moses, it cast Daniel into the den of lions, and the three Children into the fiery furnace: St. Paul it beheaded, St. Peter it crucified, others it burnt, others it tortured even to death. And so it went on for many generations. But at last, as I said just now, religious persons have by degrees been sheltered by the law of the land from persecution, and Christ's ministers among them. And the world has got more humane and generous, if not more religious; and God is sovereign over all. But though the devil cannot persecute us, he does what he can to oppose us. Surely this is so; for no one can look into the many publications of the day, without having proof of it; no one can go into places where persons meet together for refreshment, or for recreation, without hearing it, no one can travel on the road, without at times being witness to it. Christ's ministers are called names, untruths are told of them, they are ridiculed; and men encourage each other to oppose them, and to deceive them. And why? for this simple short reason, because they are God's messengers; and men in general do not like to be told of God. They say that they could do well enough without ministers of Christ; which really means, that they wish to do without God in the world.
Such is the portion to which all we, ministers of Christ, are called by our profession; and therefore, when we bid you prepare for the opposition of the world, we are calling you to nothing which we do not bear ourselves. It were well, could we, in all things, do first what we bid you do. There is no temptation or trial which you have, which in its kind we may not have to endure, or at least would not wish to endure, so far as it is lawful to wish it. St. Paul said to certain heathens, |We also are men of like passions with you.| St. Paul, and the Apostles, and all Christ's ministers after them, are of one nature with other men. They have to go through what other men go through. They suffer pain, sorrow, bereavement, anxiety, desolateness, privations; and they have need, as other men, of patience, cheerfulness, faith, hope, contentment, resignation, firmness, to bear all that comes on them well. But even more than other men are they called on to bear the opposition of the world. They have to bear being ridiculed, slandered, ill-treated, overreached, disliked. All this is not pleasant to them naturally, any more than to other people. But they find it must be so; they cannot alter it; and they learn resignation and patience. This patience and resignation then I exhort you to cherish, my brethren, when the world scorns you for your religion; and withal cheerfulness and meekness, that you may bear your cross lightly, and not gloomily, or sadly, or complainingly.
For instance, persons may press you to do something which you know to be wrong -- to tell an untruth, or to do what is not quite honest, or to go to companies whither you should not go; and they may show that they are vexed at the notion of your not complying. Still you must not comply. You must not do what you feel to be wrong, though you should thereby displease even those whom you would most wish to please.
Again: you must not be surprised, should you find that you are called a hypocrite, and other hard names; you must not mind it.
Again: you may be jeered at and mocked by your acquaintance, for being strict and religious, for carefully coming to Church, keeping from bad language, and the like: you must not care for it.
Again, you may, perhaps, discover to your great vexation, that untruths are told of you by careless persons behind your backs, that what you do has been misrepresented, and that in consequence a number of evil things are believed about you by the world at large. Hard though it be, you must not care for it; remembering that more untruths were told of our Saviour and His Apostles than can possibly be told of you.
Again: you may find that not only the common run of men believe what is said against you, but even those with whom you wish to stand well. But if this happens through your conscientiousness you must not mind it, but must be cheerful, leaving your case in the hand of God, and knowing that He will bring it out into the light one day or another, in His own good time.
Again: persons may try to threaten or frighten you into doing something wrong, but you must not mind that, you must be firm.
In many, very many ways you may be called upon to bear the ill-usage of the world, or to withstand its attempts to draw you from God; but you must be firm, and you must not be surprised that they should be made. You must consider that it is your very calling to bear and to withstand. This is what you offer to God as a sort of return for His great mercies to you. Did not Christ go through much more for you than you can possibly be called upon to undergo for Him? Did He bear the bitter cross who was sinless, and do you, who are at best so sinful, scruple to bear such poor trials and petty inconveniences?
In conclusion, I will but call your attention to two points, to which what I have said leads me.
First; Do not be too eager to suppose you are ill-treated for your religion's sake. Make as light of matters as you can. And beware of being severe on those who lead careless lives, or whom you think or know to be ill-treating you. Do not dwell on such matters. Turn your mind away from them. Avoid all gloominess. Be kind and gentle to those who are perverse, and you will very often, please God, gain them over. You should pray for those who lead careless lives, and especially if they are unkind to you. Who knows but God may hear your prayers, and turn their hearts, and bring them over to you? Do every thing for them but imitate them and yield to them. This is the true Christian spirit, to be meek and gentle under ill-usage, cheerful under slander, forgiving towards enemies, and silent in the midst of angry tongues.
Secondly, I would say, recollect you cannot do any one thing of all the duties I have been speaking of, without God's help. Any one who attempts to resist the world, or to do other good things by his own strength, will be sure to fall. We can do good things, but it is when God gives us power to do them. Therefore we must pray to Him for the power. When we are brought into temptation of any kind, we should lift up our hearts to God. We should say to Him, |Good Lord, deliver us.| Our Lord, when He was going away, promised to His disciples a Comforter instead of Himself; that was God the Holy Ghost, who is still among us (though we see Him not), as Christ was with the Apostles. He has come in order to enlighten us, to guide us in the right way, and in the end to bring us to Christ in heaven. And He came down, as His name |Comforter| shows, especially to stand by, and comfort, and strengthen those who are in any trouble, particularly trouble from irreligious men. The disciples, when Christ went, had to go through much trouble, and therefore He comforted them by the coming of the Holy and Eternal Spirit, the Third Person in the Blessed Trinity. |These things I have spoken unto you,| He says, |that in Me ye might have peace; in the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.| When, then, religious persons are in low spirits, or are any way grieved at the difficulties which the world puts in their way, when they earnestly desire to do their duty, yet feel how weak they are, let them recollect that they are |not their own,| but |bought with a price,| and the dwelling-places and temples of the All-gracious Spirit.
Lastly, I am quite sure that none of us, even the best, have resisted the world as we ought to have done. Our faces have not been like flints; we have been afraid of men's words, and dismayed at their looks, and we have yielded to them at times against our better judgment. We have fancied, forsooth, the world could do us some harm while we kept to the commandments of God. Let us search our consciences; let us look back on our past lives. Let us try to purify and cleanse our hearts in God's sight. Let us try to live more like Christians, more like children of God. Let us earnestly beg of God to teach us more simply and clearly what our duty is. Let us beg of Him to give us the heart to love Him, and true repentance for what is past. Let us beg Him to teach us how to confess Him before men; lest if we deny Him now. He may deny us before the Angels of God hereafter.
2 Tim. iii.12. Gal. iv.29. Matt. v.10.