The Predicament Of The Sub-Earnest
Next to no religion, the greatest curse is a halfhearted religion. There are not only opposers of Christ and friends of Christ, but there are those who want to be classed as neutral. Of course, in the end, all who are not for Christ must be listed as against Him, but in the attitude of the individual soul, it often occurs that one is concerned, but not sufficiently concerned. Jesus called upon His hearers to “Strive to enter in at the straight gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” The comparison between strive and seek in this passage is so strong as to almost amount to contrast. Weymouth brings out the force a little better by the rendering, “Strive your hardest to enter in by the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will try to find a way in and will not succeed.” The Greek word here translated strive is agoonidzomai, from which we get agonize, and it is the same word used for contending in the public games (I Corinthians 9:25), or with the adversary (John 18:36), and in the Christian effort and persistence (Colossians 1:29). In the latter instance, Weymouth has the rendering, “To this end, like an eager wrestler, I exert all my strength in reliance upon the power of Him who is mightily at work in me.”
But it would be a misapplication if we were to take the words of Jesus to mean that from first to last the Christian life is a doubtful struggle. His words apply especially to that striving that is involved in making the initial entrance into the kingdom of God. The reference is especially to that period in which the wrestler is still struggling in his own strength and is reluctant to turn the contest over to Christ.
A group of small boys sat under a tree eating the lunch their mothers had prepared for them. It chanced that practically every box contained at least one boiled egg, and one small hero proposed that they should test their nerve by breaking the eggs, sharp point foremost, on their foreheads. The inexperienced commenced with light taps and gradually increased the force of the blow until pain demanded that they desist. They then insisted that the proposer live up to the standard of his own trick, and show them how it is done. He drew back and gave one heavy, shell smashing stroke, while his companions commended him for his “grit.” But being an honest lad, he explained that the feat is difficult only when you just try to do it, for when you actually do it, the shell takes the blow, and not your head, and it does not hurt your head.
Too often the Christian life is thought of in terms of requirement, to the overshadowing of provision and empowerment. It is indeed an exacting thing to be religious without the assisting grace of God. Rev. R. M. Guy used to say, “Trying to be religious without religion is like trying to pump water out of a dry cistern with a broken pump. The metaphor is strong, but the experience of those who have assumed the Christian obligations without obtaining the Christian empowerment fully justifies its use.
But Brother Guy also used to tell the story of a lifeguard at the beach. This man stood at his post until a drowning man out in the surf quit struggling and seemed to “go down for the last time.” Then the guard went quickly and brought the man’s apparently lifeless body to the shore, and by the use of proper means, brought the man back to consciousness. A bystander inquired as to why the lifeguard waited so long to undertake the rescue, and the guard replied, “If I had approached this man while he was struggling he might have drowned both himself and me. I had to wait until he quit trying to save himself before I could save him.” It is like that with people who are trying to save themselves from sin, and it is only when they reach the end of themselves that they find peace and rest. However, it must be noted that indifference is inexcusable, and that deliverance comes only at the end of the striving, not at its beginning.
There is a concept of the way of salvation that consists of so many steps in a settled order, and the scheme is capable of being worked out on a blackboard, like a problem in mathematics. But the recital of these steps is one thing, and the actual doing of them is another. Take repentance for example: it is not a long task to learn the definition of repentance, but it is a grinding thing to be truly penitent, and many a person of forward bearing in the use of the term is too shallow in the practice of the virtue to obtain any results. Repentance involves contrition of heart, and that word contrition is derived from the Latin con, meaning “with”, and terere, meaning “to grind.” It, therefore, means to be bruised, and it involves true and deep sorrow of heart for having offended God, and it must grow out of love for God, as well as out of fear for His judgments. The sailor that prays when the ship is in the storm, but curses when the sun shines again has no contrition for sin — his sorrow is based only upon fear of judgment. Out of two thousand people who professed to become Christians when they thought they were on their deathbeds, but who subsequently recovered, only three continued as faithful followers of Christ. The others, evidently, had only that sorrow of the world that worketh death. And this consideration justifies the definition that says, “Deathbed repentance is burning the candle of life to the service of the devil, and then blowing the dust into the face of heaven.” And the only way anyone can truly know that he is contrite and penitent is by the springing up of faith for forgiveness and peace — there is no human standard by which to measure such qualities.
I came one morning to the little junction railway station thirty minutes before train time, and asked the agent for a clergy ticket. The night agent had evidently put all the tickets and the money into the safe and locked the door, and mine was the first ticket called for since the new man had come on duty. So the agent went to the safe and commenced to work at the combination. He turned the knob so many turns to the right, so many back to the left, then back to the right again. But there was no sound within the mechanism of the lock, and the door would not open. Starting all new, the agent .turned so many rounds to the left, so many to the right, then back to the left. Still nothing happened. Either there was something wrong with the lock or the agent had forgotten the exact combination. Patiently the man worked at his task, while I waited and looked on. Time was passing. Ten minutes were soon gone. Then fifteen. Then twenty. I began to make a mental calculation on whether I had sufficient money to pay the full fare that would be required if I boarded the train without a ticket. I had counted on buying the clergy ticket for half fare. But anxious as I was, there was nothing I could do. I sympathized with the agent, and prayed for his success. But he said never a word, and I answered him in the same manner. The agent showed no sign of nervousness, and I tried not to do so. I knew that any word from me or any motion on my part could do nothing but embarrass. The task was the agent’s, and he alone must accomplish it. Finally, just five minutes before the train came to a stop at the little station, the lock gave a low “click,” the agent pulled on the handle and the door came open. He prepared my ticket in silence. I paid for it, and stepped outside to be ready to board the train. There just was not anything that could be appropriately said. No use to say, “You had a difficult time.” No use to say, “Well, you finally made it.” These things were quite evident. If the man had stopped just before that last effort, all that he had done would have counted for naught. And of course if he could have found the combination earlier, the continued effort would not have been required. It was not trying so much that mattered. He just had to find that combination — that was all.
Now of course I have never known whether or not there was anything wrong with that lock. My guess is that there was not. I think the whole difficulty was that the agent “knew approximately” what the combination was, and that he just had, by process of elimination, to find out what it really was. It is easy to say that the agent should have known, and not to have been in any degree uncertain. But the fact is he was somewhat uncertain, and he had to be given time to make sure. And the only way he could be sure was to get the door open. There would be no use for him to insist that the combination he had in mind was correct — not if the door did not open. He just had to get the door open to prove that he had struck the combination.
We do not even intimate that God is unwilling to be found, and we do not mean to say that the prerequisites for finding Him are uncertain or even difficult, just viewed within themselves. But the prerequisites are of such a nature that we must be absolutely sincere and earnest to the full limit to meet them. If doing certain things could merit the bestowal of God’s grace, or if the observance of certain sacraments would bestow the realities the sacraments symbolize, or if saying prayers were really praying, or if affirming “I believe” were identical with true faith, or if saying,” I have found it” were just the same thing as actually finding, then the whole matter would be simple. And it is simple for some people, for some people come at once and do from their hearts just the things that “prepare the way of the Lord,” and their conversion is instant and apparently “easy.” We glory in the fact that conversions of this kind are genuine, and that the stability of many who did thus come in is ample proof. But what we are saying is that the combination must be found. If it is found easily and quickly, well and good. If it is not found until there has been an approach involving hours, days, weeks, months, years: well, it just must be found, that’s all.
A person may appear to others to be just plain stubborn because he will not follow the advice of those who insist that he “take it by faith.” But the truth is, he knows he has not found the combination, and that the door is not really open. Happy is the man who, under such circumstances, insists on praying on, seeking on, striving on until he does get the door open.
During the Charles G. Finney revivals, half a million people professed conversion and joined the churches of the communities affected by the revivals. A later estimate was to the effect that eighty-five per cent of these thousands from all walks of life made permanent Christians. There may have been other contributing causes, but one main factor in the abiding type of the work must have been Finney’s own methods. Finney used often to preach twice a day for four full weeks before he encouraged any move on the part of his listeners. His theme was, “The law and the gospel,” and he worked into the pattern all the essential doctrines of the Christian creed, proved their validity, illustrated their meaning and applied their force to the hearts, consciences and wills of men. If there were evidences that the emotions of the people were about to break forth prematurely, Finney would dismiss the service, and urge the people to go out quietly and go to their homes or places of business. He said that when emotional outbreaks came prematurely repentance was likely to be shallow (like the touching off of gun powder in the open), and that knowledge of God would be correspondingly faint and unenduring. Father Nash was for many years Finney’s traveling companion. But he was a prayer, rather than a preacher, and sometimes did not attend the meetings for ten days at a time, spending the time that Finney was in the meetings in prayer in his room.
And, further, Finney instructed the personal workers in his meetings to plead and exhort, but to leave the question of testimony to faith and assurance to the seeker himself. Finney’s contention was that a mere “endeavoring to be a Christian” is altogether a mis-emphasis. It is being truly born of the Spirit and assured by the witness within that is essential.
Even in my boyhood days it was customary for evangelical churches to differentiate between “protracted meetings” and revivals. It would be announced that on a certain date a protracted meeting would begin, and the people were exhorted to pray that the meetings might result in a revival. At the close it would be said they had a protracted meeting. And then it would be added that they had or had not had a revival.
And in those old-time revivals it was customary, after the meetings reached the stage where people were publicly seeking God and asking for prayer, to set apart certain pews near the front of the church, and to ask that those who were seekers after God take places there. These pews were popularly dubbed “mourner’s seats,” and people often took their places there night after night and day after day, thus branding themselves as persistent seekers or “mourners,” and by giving special attention to the preaching and other parts of the service, they sought to know and to do what is required of one who would be truly converted. It was expected that people from this section would come immediately to the altar of prayer when the invitation was given, and that they would continue so to do until they were “satisfied.”
Exactions are easy or difficult upon the basis of their relation to ability. A man called me on the telephone and invited me to go with him to some public eating place for dinner. I accepted, and when we had gone a little way down the street, I suggested that we turn in at a small eating place where I had frequently gone, and where an acceptable little lunch could be had for twenty-five cents. But my host insisted on going farther. At a cafe I suggested that we turn in, assuring my friend that we could get all anyone should eat there for forty cents. But he was not impressed. Next I named the cafeteria where one can see what he is getting, and where he can select whatever quantity he desires. But my host said he wanted to go somewhere where we could have leisure to talk. By and by he turned in at a high class dining room. I demurred, saying that the place was too expensive. But my host said, “It will cost you just the same here that it would have cost at one of the other places.” So we went in. The menu was inviting, but the price seemed to me to be too high. Nevertheless, when we had dined, my host paid the tickets, left a tip for the waiter, and gave a coin to the girl who had checked our hats. There did not seem to be any strain about it, for while the price seemed high to me, it did not tax the resources of my friend. This is a picture of a Christian who has obtained the fullness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ. The moral law has been in no sense outmoded, but the happy Christian says, “His commandments are not grievous.” The will of God is still our sanctification. But the Spirit-filled saint replies, “I delight to do thy will, O my God.” The burdens of the way have not been directly diminished, but the Spirit-anointed soul speaks from the vantage point of abundant grace and power, and says, “His yoke is easy, and His burden is light.”