ECLIPSE OF FAITH
THIS morbid self-introspection lasted, with variable degrees of earnestness, until the time of my marriage at nineteen. Nothing ever came of it, and in the nature of things, nothing ever could. It was a self-involved religion that had no relation whatever to any Divine facts. And I see now that it was a mercy my marriage, and the new life and wider interests into which I was introduced, more or less turned my attention in other directions, and made my religious emotions and feelings sink into the background for a time, so that my mind became free at a later period to take an entirely different view of the religious life.
I believe, however, that my experiences during these years have been valuable in one way, and that is in teaching me to avoid ever encouraging in the young people I have known any sort of a self-absorbed interior life. Self-absorption is always a temptation to young people, and if their religion is of a sort to add to this self-absorption, I feel that it is a serious mistake. If I had my way, the whole subject of feelings and emotions in the religious life would be absolutely ignored. Feelings there will be, doubtless, but they must not be in the least depended on, nor in any sense be taken as the test or gauge of one’s religion. They ought to be left out of the calculation entirely. You may feel good or you may feel bad, but neither the good feeling nor the bad feeling affects the real thing. It may affect your comfort in the thing, but it has nothing to do with the reality of the thing. If God loves you, it is of no account, as far as the fact goes, whether you feel that He loves you or do not feel it; although, as I say, it materially affects your comfort. Of course, if you really believe that He loves you, you cannot help being glad about it; but if you make your belief dependent upon your feelings of gladness, you are reversing God’s order in the most hopeless kind of way. I like so much that story of Luther when the devil said to him: “Luther, do you feel that you are a child of God?” and Luther replied, “No, I do not feel it at all, but I know it. Get thee behind me, Satan.”
During all the years when I was struggling over my feelings, I never succeeded in making them what I thought they ought to be; and as a consequence the religious part of my life was a misery to me. But after I had learned that the facts of religion were far more important than my feelings about these facts, and had consequently given up looking at my feelings, and sought only to discover the facts, I became always happy in my religious life, and had, without any effort, the very feelings of love to God, and of rest and peace and joy in my soul that before I had so vainly tried to work up. No words can express how vital I consider this point to be, nor how much, since I have found it out for myself, I have longed to make everybody else see it.
Many years after it had all become clear to me, one of my children came to me evidently in great perplexity and said, “Mother, how long does it take God to forgive you when you have been naughty?” “It does not take Him a minute,” I replied. “Oh,” she said, “I can’t believe that. I think you have to feel sorry first for a good many days, and then you have to ask Him in a very pretty and nice way, and then perhaps He can forgive you.” “But,” I said, “daughter, the Bible says that if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us right straight off.” “Well,” she said, “I wouldn’t believe that if fifty Bibles said it, because I know that you have got to feel sorry for quite a good while, and then you have got to ask God in a very pretty way, and then you have got to wait till He is ready to forgive you.”
I found the case was really serious, so, taking the child on my lap, I opened the Bible and made her read out loud the verse I had quoted, and then explained to her that God loved us so much that He sent His Son to die for us, and that, because of His love, He was always ready to forgive us the minute we asked Him, just as mothers were always ready to forgive their children as soon as the children wanted to be forgiven. At last the child was convinced, and putting her little hands together she said in a reverent little voice, “Dear Lord Jesus, I want you to forgive me this very minute for all my naughty, and I am certain sure you will, because you love me.” And then she jumped down off my lap and ran away shouting merrily in childish glee.
My little girl was happy because she had found out a happy fact and believed it. But in her first way of looking at the matter she was only voicing the natural idea of the human heart. We all feel, as she did, that we must come to God with great doubt and timidity, as to a Being of whom we know but little, and whom we fear much; and that His favour depends altogether upon the beauty and suitableness of our emotions, and the ceremonious order of our approach. To come “boldly to the throne of grace to find mercy and obtain help in the time of need” is only possible to the soul that has been brought into a real acquaintance with the goodness of God.
During all the years however of which I speak, from the age of sixteen to twenty-six, I knew nothing of this. God was to me a far off, unapproachable Being, whom, in spite of all my eager and painful searching, I failed utterly to find. I had not the slightest conception of what the expression “God is love” meant. My idea of Him was that He was a stern and selfish task-master, who might perhaps, if one could only secure the sort of feelings and of conduct that would please Him, be induced to pay some little attention to the needs of His children, but who was for the most part so absorbed in thoughts of His own glory, and of the consideration and reverence due to Himself, that it was almost impossible, except by a superhuman degree of perfection, to win His regards. He seemed to me a supremely selfish Autocrat who held my fate in His hands, but who only cared for me in proportion to my power of adding to His honour and His glory. Of all His loving and beautiful unselfishness, which I was afterwards to discover, I had for all these years not the faintest glimpse.
Moreover, the only way I knew of by which one could know that this unapproachable Deity did condescend to turn even a slight ear to the cries of His children, was to have some sort of an interior feeling of it, and consequently, whenever I was religious at all, the whole energy of my spirit was spent, as I have said, in the effort to acquire in some strange way this necessary inward feeling. The sort of introspection I had imbibed from my Quaker teaching was calculated to lead to constant self-examination of the most difficult sort, because it was an examination, not so much into one’s actions, as into one’s emotions! And, considering what ticklish things our emotions are, and how much they depend upon the state of our health, or the state of the weather, or the influence of other minds, no more fatal occupation in my opinion can be indulged in than this sort of self-examination, and no more unreliable gauge could possibly be found as to one’s spiritual condition than that afforded by one’s own interior emotions. But the religion of my years between sixteen and twenty-six was nothing but a religion of trying to feel; and, as I was a very natural, healthy sort of being, my feelings were not likely to be very sentimental or pious; and the agonizing futile efforts that I have described to bring them up to the right religious pitch is something pitiful to consider.
My soul hungered after God, but I could not find Him. Even the comfort of prayer was denied me, for I had, as I have said, imbibed the idea that you could not pray acceptably unless you felt an inward sense of the Divine favour, and that any prayers offered without this sense were really a mockery, and even perhaps a sin. And, since this inward sense of God’s favour was the very thing I was seeking to secure, and yet might not pray for until I first possessed it, I seemed tossed out helpless and forlorn into dreary darkness.
What the Bible said about God’s love was altogether a secondary consideration to what I might feel about it; indeed, as far as I can recollect, I did not consider the Bible at all. “How do I feel?” not “What does God say?” was my daily cry. I was like a criminal in the presence of a judge, who, instead of being concerned as to how the judge felt about him, should spend all his efforts in trying to see how he felt about the judge.
A more ridiculous as well as pitiful attitude of soul one can hardly conceive of. And yet no one whom I approached on the subject seemed to know any better; and I floundered on in a despairing sort of way, afraid to give up my spiritual struggles lest I should be eternally damned, and yet realizing that they brought no help; and being continually tempted to upbraid God for being deaf to my cries.
I was like a man kneeling in a dark room and praying despairingly for light, ignorant of the fact that outside the sun was shining, and that it only needed to open the windows and light would pour in. In the very nature of things light, either in the physical world or the spiritual world, cannot be self-evolved. I had gone to work in entirely the wrong way. I was trying to feel before I knew; and, instead of basing my feelings upon my knowledge, I was seeking to base my knowledge upon my feelings.
It was just as if a man, wanting to travel to a certain place, should enter the first railway station he might come across, and, without making any enquiries, should take a seat in the first railway carriage at hand, and should then shut his eyes and try to feel whether he was in the right train or not. No man in his senses would do such an idiotic thing. And yet it was exactly this I was doing in my religious life. It never entered my head to try and find out the facts of religion. I did not even know there were any facts to find out. My relations with God seemed to me altogether a matter of my own feelings towards Him, and not in the least of His feelings towards me; and every religious energy I possessed was consequently directed towards getting up these necessary feelings.
Of course it was an impossible task, and, as time went on, and no right feelings would come for all my striving, I became more and more discouraged, and at last, when I was between twenty-three and twenty-four, I found myself being driven into absolute unbelief. I argued that, if there really was a God anywhere, some answer to all my long and earnest wrestling would surely have been vouchsafed to me; and that, since He made no sign, therefore He could not be.
Moreover, as I grew older, I had begun to learn something more of the awful condition of things in the world because of sin; and the manifest evidences I seemed to see of an imperfect creation in my own life and in the lives of others, where failure was generally the rule, and success only the exception, appeared to me incompatible with the idea of a wise and sensible Creator, not to say a good One, such as I had been told I must believe in. And gradually the creation came to seem to me such a grievous failure that I felt driven to the conclusion that either it must have been a wicked God who had created us, or else we had not been created by God at all, but by some evil and malicious power opposed to Him.
In my diary under date of 11th mo. 5, 1855, I head my entry with the following ominous words:—
“The Eclipse of Faith.”
“This last year has witnessed a great change in me. Every faculty of my nature has been thoroughly aroused. I have felt my mind expanding and have been cognizant of an actual and rapid mental growth. I pass from one phase of experience to another, leave behind me one standing place after another, and am now—where! Oh Christ, that I indeed knew where!
* * * * * *
“An inevitable chain of reasoning on free will has loosened every foothold, and I know not where to rest, if indeed there is any rest. Without any apprehension on my part of the result, thoughts and reasonings have been slowly gathering around my faith, and dashing themselves against it, until at last, with a sudden shock, it has fallen; and I am lost!
“It has come to me like this. Benevolence certainly is a necessary attribute of the Almighty. His love, we are told, surpasses the love of an earthly parent far more than we can imagine. But it is utterly inconsistent with this to suppose that He can have any foreknowledge of the destiny of the human beings He creates. For of course, did He know, His benevolence would not allow Him to create any but beings destined to eternal happiness. Therefore He cannot be omniscient. Further if He were omnipotent, as we are told, He would have made such modifications in man’s nature as would at least render the work of salvation less difficult and of far more frequent occurrence. Therefore He cannot be both all loving and also all powerful. Without either of these He ceases to be a God. Either He has set in motion a creating force which He can neither control nor end, and has performed His work in the first place so imperfectly and blindly that the results are grievously disastrous; or He has nothing to do with creation, and we are created by another and an evil Power.
* * * * * *
“A further conclusion is forced upon me. Justice is another necessary attribute of a good God. But it were most utterly unjust that we now should be feeling the effects of Adam’s fall, supposing there ever was such a thing. We are driven therefore from the possibility of a just Creator making independent beings suffer eternally for each other’s sins. And on the other hand benevolence could not allow of the creation of innately wicked natures, while justice could not share in punishing them.
“There is no escape! A thousand questions rush in on every side. I am a sceptic!”
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