ON the fly leaf of my Bible I find the following words, taken from I know not where: “This generation has rediscovered the unselfishness of God.”
If I were called upon to state in one sentence the sum and substance of my religious experience, it is this sentence I would choose. And no words could express my thankfulness for having been born into a generation where this discovery has been comparatively easy.
If I am not mistaken, the generation before mine knew very little of the unselfishness of God; and, even of my own generation, there are I fear many good and earnest Christians who do not know it yet. Without putting it into such words as to shock themselves or others, many Christians still at bottom look upon God as one of the most selfish, self-absorbed Beings in the universe, far more selfish than they could think it right to be themselves,—intent only upon His own honour and glory, looking out continually that His own rights are never trampled on; and so absorbed in thoughts of Himself and of His own righteousness, as to have no love or pity to spare for the poor sinners who have offended Him.
I grew up believing God was like this. I have discovered that He is exactly the opposite. And it is of this discovery I want to tell.
After more than seventy years of life I have come to the profound conviction that every need of the soul is to be met by the discovery I have made. In that wonderful prayer of our Lord’s in John 17, He says, “And this is life eternal, that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou has sent.” This used to seem to me a mystical saying, that might perhaps have a pious esoteric meaning, but certainly could have no practical application. But every year of my religious life I have discovered in it a deeper and more vital meaning; until now at last I see, that, rightly understood, it contains the gist of the whole matter. To know God, as He really is, in His essential nature and character, is to have reached the absolute, and unchangeable, and utterly satisfying foundation, upon which, and upon which only, can be reared the whole superstructure of our religious life.
To discover that He is not the selfish Being we are so often apt to think Him, but is instead really and fundamentally unselfish, caring not at all for Himself, but only and always for us and for our welfare, is to have found the answer to every human question, and the cure for every human ill.
But how to make this discovery is the crucial question. In our present stage of existence we have not the faculties developed that would make it possible for us to see God as He is in His essential and incomprehensible Being. We need an Interpreter. We must have an Incarnation. If I should want to make a colony of ants know me as I am in the essential essence of my being, I would need to incarnate myself in the body of an ant, and speak to them in their own language, as one ant to another. As a human being I might stand over an ant-hill and harangue for a lifetime, and not one word would reach the ears of the ants. They would run to and fro unconscious of my speech.
To know God, therefore, as He really is, we must go to His incarnation in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us that no man hath seen God at any time, but that the only begotten Son of the Father, He hath revealed Him. When one of the disciples said to Christ, “Show us the Father, and it sufficeth us,” Christ answered—“Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father, and how sayest thou then, Show us the Father? Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words I speak unto you I speak not of Myself: but the Father that dwelleth in Me, He doeth the works.”
Here then is our opportunity. We cannot see God, but we can see Christ. Christ was not only the Son of God, but He was the Son of man as well, and, as a man to men, He can reveal His Father. Whatever Christ was, that God is. All the unselfishness, all the tenderness, all the kindness, all the justice, all the goodness, that we see in Christ is simply a revelation of the unselfishness, the tenderness, the kindness, the justice, the goodness, of God.
Some one has said lately, in words that seem to me inspired, “Christ is the human form of God.” And this is the explanation of the Incarnation.
I do not mean, however, to say that no one can have any revelation of God to their souls except those who believe the Bible, and who know Christ as He is there revealed. I believe reverently and thankfully that “God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation, he that feareth Him and worketh righteousness is accepted with Him.” God has “not left Himself without a witness” at any age of the world. But what I do believe is exactly what is declared in the opening words of the Epistle to the Hebrews, that God, who “at sundry times and in divers manners spake in times past to the Fathers by the Prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son,” who is the “brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person;” and that, therefore, although we may find many partial revelations elsewhere, if we would know Him as He really is, we can only see Him fully revealed in His “express image,” the Lord Jesus Christ.
It was a long time before I found this out, and, until I did, I was, as my story will show, as really ignorant of Him as the most benighted savage, notwithstanding the fact that I lived in a Christian community, and was brought up in a Christian Church, and had the open Bible in my hand. God was a terror to me, until I began to see Him in the face of Jesus Christ, when He became an unmixed joy. And I believe many weary souls are in a similar case, who, if they could once be made to see that God is like Christ, would experience an unspeakable relief.
A friend of mine told me that her childhood was passed in a perfect terror of God. Her idea of Him was that He was a cruel giant with an awful “Eye” which could see everything, no matter how it might be hidden, and that He was always spying upon her, and watching for chances to punish her, and to snatch away all her joys. She said she would creep into bed at night with the dreadful feeling that even in the dark the “Eye of God” was upon her; and she would pull the bed covers over her head in the vain hope, which all the while she knew was vain, of hiding herself from this terrifying Eye, and would lie there in a tremble of fright, saying to herself in an agonized whisper, “What shall I do? Oh, what shall I do? Even my mother cannot save me from God!”
With a child’s strange reticence she never told any one of her terror; but one night her mother, coming into the room unexpectedly, heard the poor little despairing cry, and, with a sudden comprehension of what it meant, sat down beside the bed, and, taking the cold little hand in hers, told her that God was not a dreadful tyrant to be afraid of, but was just like Jesus; and that she knew how good and kind Jesus was, and how He loved little children, and took them in His arms and blessed them. My friend said she had always loved the stories about Jesus, and when she heard that God was like Him, it was a perfect revelation to her, and took away her fear of God forever. She went about all that day saying to herself over and over, “Oh, I am so glad I have found out that God is like Jesus, for Jesus is so nice. Now I need never be afraid of God any more.” And when she went to bed that night she fairly laughed out loud at the thought that such a dear kind Eye was watching over her and taking care of her.
This little child had got a sight of God “in the face of Jesus Christ,” and it brought rest to her soul.
By the discovery of God, therefore, I do not mean anything mysterious, or mystical, or unattainable. I simply mean becoming acquainted with Him as one becomes acquainted with a human friend; that is, finding out what is His nature, and His character, and coming to understand His ways. I mean in short discovering what sort of a Being He really is—whether good or bad, whether kind or unkind, whether selfish or unselfish, whether strong or weak, whether wise or foolish, whether just or unjust.
It is of course evident that everything in one’s religious life depends upon the sort of God one worships. The character of the worshipper must necessarily be moulded by the character of the object worshipped. If it is a cruel and revengeful God, or a selfish and unjust God, the worshipper will be cruel, and revengeful, and selfish, and unjust, also. If it is a loving, tender, forgiving, unselfish God, the worshipper will be loving, and tender, and forgiving, and unselfish, as well. Also the peace and happiness of the worshipper must necessarily be absolutely bound up in the character of the God worshipped; for everything depends upon whether He is a good God or a bad God. If He is good, all is well of course, and one’s peace can flow like a river; while, if He is bad, nothing can be well, no matter how earnest or devoted the worshipper may be, and no peace is possible.
This was brought very vividly to my mind by hearing once in a meeting an educated negro, belonging to one of the savage tribes of Africa, giving an account of their tribal religion.
He said that they had two gods, a good god and a bad god; that they did not trouble themselves about the good god, because, as he was good, he would do right anyhow, whether they sacrificed to him or not; but the bad god they had to try and propitiate by all sorts of prayers, and sacrifices, and offerings, and religious ceremonies, in order, if possible, to get him into a good humour, so that he might treat them well. To my thinking, there was a profound truth in this. The poorer and more imperfect is one’s conception of God, the more fervent and intense will be one’s efforts to propitiate Him, and to put Him into a good humour; whereas on the other hand, the higher and truer is the knowledge of the goodness and unselfishness of God, the less anxiety, and fuss, and wrestling, and agonizing, will there be in one’s worship. A good and unselfish God will be sure to do right anyhow, whether we try to propitiate Him or not, and we can safely trust Him to carry on His affairs with very little advice from us. As to wrestling or agonizing with Him to fulfill what are really only the duties of His position, it could never be necessary; for, of course a good person always does his duty.
I have discovered therefore that the statement of the fact that “God is good,” is really, if we only understand it, a sufficient and entirely satisfactory assurance that our interests will be safe in His hands. Since He is good, He cannot fail to do His duty by us, and, since He is unselfish, He must necessarily consider our interests before His own. When once we are assured of this, there can be nothing left to fear.
Consequently the only really vital thing in religion is to become acquainted with God. Solomon says, “Acquaint thyself with God, and be at peace;” and I believe every one of us would find that a peace that passes all understanding must necessarily be the result of this acquaintance.
Who is there on earth who could see and know the goodness, and the kindness, and the justice, and the loving unselfishness, of our God, as He is revealed to us in the face of Jesus Christ, and fail to be irresistibly drawn to adore Him? Who could have anything but peace in coming to know that the God who has created us, and to whom we belong forever, is a God of Love? Who of us can have any more fears, after once we have found out that He cares for us as for the apple of His eye? And what else is there that can bring an unwavering peace? Acquaintance with doctrines or dogmas may give peace for a time, or blissful experiences may, or success in service; but the peace from these can never be trusted to abide. Doctrines may become obscure, experiences may be dulled or may change, we may be cut off by providential circumstances from our work, all things and all people may seem to fail us; and unless our peace is founded upon something more stable than any of these, it will waver as the waves of the sea. The only place therefore of permanent and abiding peace is to be found in an acquaintance with the goodness and the unselfishness of God.
It is difficult to explain just what I mean by this acquaintance with God. We are so accustomed to think that knowing things about Him is sufficient—what He has done, what He has said, what His plans are, and what are the doctrines concerning Him,—that we stop short of that knowledge of what He really is in nature and character, which is the only satisfactory knowledge.
In human relations we may know a great deal about a person without at all necessarily coming into any actual acquaintance with that person; and it is the same in our relations with God. We may blunder on for years thinking we know a great deal about Him, but never quite sure of what sort of a Being He actually is, and consequently never finding any permanent rest or satisfaction. And then, perhaps suddenly, we catch a sight of Him as He is revealed in the face of Jesus Christ, and we discover the real God, as He is, behind, and beneath, and within, all the other conceptions of Him which may have heretofore puzzled us; and from that moment our peace flows like a river, and in everything and through everything, when perhaps we can rejoice in nothing else, we can always and everywhere “rejoice in God, and joy in the God of our Salvation.” We no longer need His promises; we have found Himself, and he is enough for every need.
My own experience has been something like this. My knowledge of God, beginning on a very low plane, and in the midst of the greatest darkness and ignorance, advanced slowly through many stages, and with a vast amount of useless conflict and wrestling, to the place where I learned at last that Christ was the “express image” of God, and where I became therefore in a measure acquainted with Him, and discovered to my amazement and delight His utter unselfishness, and saw that it was safe to trust Him. And from this time all my doubts and questionings have been slowly but surely disappearing in the blaze of this magnificent knowledge.
It is of the processes leading to this discovery by my own soul that I want to tell. But in order to do this I must begin with the earliest influences of my life, for I am convinced that my knowledge of my Heavenly Father began first of all in my knowledge of my earthly father and mother, who were, I feel sure, the most delightful father and mother any child ever had. Having known them and their goodness, it was only reasonable for me to believe that my Heavenly Father, who had made them, must be at least as good as the earthly father and mother He had made; and no story of my soul would be complete without beginning with them.
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