THE FOURTH EPOCH IN MY RELIGIOUS LIFE
(THE LIFE OF FAITH)
IT was in the year 1865 that the fourth and most fascinating of all the epochs in my spiritual romance dawned upon my soul.
I had been a Christian nine years, and had had, as I have said, a delightful and enchanting time; but what was coming now was so far ahead of all that was past, that it seemed as if a new and magical world had opened before me.
My religion during those nine years had been perfectly satisfactory as far as God was concerned, and the discoveries I had made of His ways and His character had been all of them most delightful. But on my own side the satisfaction was much less complete. I was very happy, but I was not as good as I wanted to be. I had found a religion that provided perfectly for my future deliverance, but it did not seem to give me present deliverance. I had found an unselfish and a just God, whom I could worship and adore, without any fear of being disappointed; but I was continually disappointed in myself. I knew I was not what I ought to be. My life was full of failure and sin. Not outward sins so much, as sins of the heart, coldness, deadness, want of Christian love, roots of bitterness,—all those inward sins over which the children of God so often seem to mourn. When I would do good evil was present with me, and the good that I would I did not, while the evil that I would not that I did. I was continually sinning and repenting, making good resolutions and breaking them, hating what was wrong, and yet yielding to it, longing for victory, and sometimes getting it, but more often failing.
I could not help, however, seeing all the while that the Bible seemed to imply that Christ came to bring a real and present victory to His followers, and that it was intended that Christians should be delivered from their anxious cares and fears, and were to enjoy now and here a peace that passed all understanding. But I was painfully conscious that I knew very little of this. My soul it is true was at rest as to my future, but in the present it was racked and torn by a thousand daily cares and anxieties. The very fruits of that Spirit, which as a Christian, I believed I had received, were love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, goodness, and these were just the very things in which I knew myself to be the most deficient.
This was not what I had expected when I first became a Christian. From the peaceful, restful lives of the Quakers, among whom I had been brought up, and from their teaching of the paramount and vital necessity of being good, I had supposed of course that becoming a Christian meant necessarily becoming peaceful and good, and I had as much expected to have victory over sin and over worries as I had expected the sun to shine. But I was forced to confess in the secret depths of my soul that I had been disappointed.
At first, it is true, the joys of my new found salvation had carried me triumphantly over everything, and I had thought that temptation, and sin, and worry, and fear, had all been swept away forever. But in a little while, when the first glow had passed away, I found the old temptations coming back with all their old power, and it became just as easy as ever to be anxious, and worried, and care burdened, and irritable, and unkind, and critical, and severe, and in short to do and to be all the ugly things from which I had expected religion to deliver me. This did not for a moment shake my faith in the fact that I was a child of God and an heir of Heaven, but it often made me feel very mean, and very much ashamed of myself. To be a child of God, and yet to be unable to act like one, made me wonder whether I could have missed something in religion which would have given me victory, and I determined to find out if possible what that something was. I questioned several older Christians about it, but from one and all I received the same answer. “No,” they said, “you have not missed anything. The life of sinning and repenting is all we can expect in this world, because of the weakness of the flesh.” They explained to me that there were two natures in us—the old Adam which was ours at our natural birth, and the new Adam which became ours when we were born again by the spirit of God, and that these two natures were always warring against each other, sometimes one getting the victory and sometimes the other, and that only in death should we know any real delivery from the old Adam.
Nothing could have described my condition better than the Apostle’s account of his own condition in Rom. 7:14-23. It seemed as if it might have been written for me, and continually I cried out with him, “Oh wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” But I could not help wondering why Paul could ever have asked that question, since he must surely have known that in this life there was no such deliverance to be found. He certainly was aware, I reasoned, that the “body of death,” or the “old man,” under which he groaned, was always to dwell within him and fetter him, and that, until death should release him from its hateful presence, he need not look for any release. And yet continually the fact stared me in the face, that Paul had not only asked that question, but had also answered it, as though he really believed there was a way of deliverance, and had said triumphantly, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” But what, I asked myself, could he have meant by this triumphant reply? I had entered into the salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord, and yet I knew no such triumphant deliverance from the “body of death” within me, but was continually brought into bondage to it. Why was it? Where was the difficulty?
This feeling became especially strong after my discovery of the unlimited love of God. It seemed such an ungenerous return to His boundless unselfishness to be so lacking in those fruits of the spirit, which the Bible showed us He looked for from His people, that my whole soul cried out against it. Moreover, since He had shown Himself to be so mighty to save in the future, how could I believe He was so powerless in the present.
The Quaker examples and influences around me seemed to say there must be a deliverance somewhere, for they declared that they had experienced it; although they never seemed able to explain the “what” or the “how” in such a manner as that I could understand it.
There was also another influence in my life that seemed to tell the same story. I possessed a book which distinctly taught that God’s children were not only commanded to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, but also that they could do so; and which seemed to reveal the mystical pathway towards it. It was called “Spiritual Progress,” and was a collection of extracts from the writings of Fenelon and Madame Guyon. This book was very dear to me, for it had been a gift from my adored father, and always lay on my desk beside my Bible. When my father was quite a young man, in fact only eighteen years old, he was one day walking along the streets of Philadelphia on his way to join his ship for a long voyage to China, and, passing a second-hand book stall, the thought occurred to him to purchase a book to read during his voyage. He had but lately entered into the spiritual life, and was attracted by the title of an old book called “Spiritual Progress,” for sale for a few pence. He knew nothing of the book, but bought it at a venture, as far as his own consciousness was concerned, but unconsciously no doubt guided by the Lord whom he had begun to trust. He says in his Reminiscences—“This book proved to be of the greatest comfort to me. I carried it in my pocket, and at leisure moments read it to my everlasting profit, I trust. And I cannot but thank a kind Providence for giving me this blessed book.”
He valued the book so highly that, as fast as his children grew old enough, he presented each one of us with a copy, and asked us to read it carefully. Our father was so dear to us that we always wanted to please him, and I for one had made the book my special companion during all the time of my first hungry and hopeless search after God. Being a book intended to teach souls how to progress in the spiritual life, rather than how to enter into that life, it was not of much definite help to me in those days of my blind searching; and when in 1858 I came into the knowledge of what I believed to be “the plan of salvation” settled upon in the councils of Heaven, and revealed to us in the life and death of Christ, and formulated and tabulated by the Apostle Paul, I filled the margins of my copy of the book with what I felt to be unanswerable criticisms as to its unsoundness.
But all unconsciously to myself its teachings had made a profound impression upon me; and, even while I criticized, I still was often conscious of an underlying hunger after the mystical side of religion set forth in this book. And, during all the years that followed, I was more or less tossed to and fro between the claims of Plymouth Brethrenism on one side and the claims of mysticism on the other. The practical business part of my nature inclined me to the former, while my Quaker inheritance and bringing up, and the influence of my book inclined me to the latter. At one time I would think doctrines were of the first importance, and life comparatively insignificant, and at other times doctrines would seem to be worthless, unless backed by and resulting in a righteous life. Sometimes Paul would have the ascendancy, with his teaching of salvation by faith, and sometimes James, with his teaching that faith without works was dead. My Plymouth Brethren friends exalted Paul, with his justification by faith, my dear Quaker friend and the Catholic Saints of my book exalted James with his justification by works. The business faculty in me leaned to the first, but the mystic side of my nature leaned to the last. The result was an intermittent unrest of soul, which, combined with my distress at my many failures, often made me question, as I have said, whether what I had learned of the salvation of Christ could really be all that that salvation had to offer.
Not knowing what else to do, I turned more and more to “sound doctrines” to quiet my unrest. Under Plymouth Brethren influence these had become very clearly defined; and they were all duly ticketed and safely deposited in the cubby-holes of my mind, each doctrine in its own recess, with its name clearly marked underneath. Nothing could have been neater or more orderly, as far as doctrines were concerned. And I had become quite a successful teacher of these same doctrines, and looked down pityingly upon everybody who was less clear and definite than myself. I often used to wish I could have most of the religious teachers I knew seated in a row on baby high chairs before me, that I might explain to them the doctrines they seemed to be so confused about, especially the doctrines of “justification by faith” and the “judicial standing of the believer.” I often declared that if you only had these two points clearly defined, and believed in them fully, you were all right, and need not trouble about much else.
I remember saying something of this kind to a cousin who had come to me, troubled about her shortcomings in the Christian life, and she exclaimed, “Why, Hannah, according to what you say, all our sins, past, present, and to come, are forgiven, if we only believe, and it really makes very little difference what we do.” “Yes,” I said, in my ignorance, “that is just the beauty of it. We are clothed with the robe of Christ’s righteousness, and that robe covers up all the vileness that is underneath, and when God looks at us He sees, not our unrighteousness, but the righteousness of Christ, and accepts us because of that.”
Another time a good Quaker Preacher, who had heard me expounding these crude views said, “It seems to me, Hannah Smith, that thou talks as if thou could go to a ready-made clothing shop, and buy garments of salvation, and put them on then and there, and come out clothed with righteousness and ready for heaven.” “Yes,” I said, “that is just how it is, only I do not need to buy the garments, they are given to me by Christ. Thank thee for such a beautiful illustration, I shall certainly use it to preach from.”
I have no doubt I took the Plymouth Brethren teaching in a far more outward and literal sense than was ever intended by them, but I always liked to define things clearly to my own mind, and this seemed to me the logical outcome of their teaching. Strangely enough, I failed to see the incongruity of a God of righteousness covering up our unrighteousness with the robe of His own righteousness, and then making believe to Himself that we were fit for heaven, when all the while He must know perfectly well that it was nothing but an outward show, and that, underneath His beautiful robe, our own “filthy garments” were still upon us. When now and then this was suggested to me by some of my Quaker friends, I stifled the misgivings their suggestions awakened, by saying to myself, that, although they were dear, good people, they were not at all doctrinal, and knew very little about the “plan of salvation” or “justification by faith,” or the “judicial standing of the believer,” and that their opinions, therefore, were not worth considering.
After, however, the discovery I had made of the wideness of God’s love, as described in my last chapters, I began to feel more and more uneasy. It seemed to me a most ungrateful return for such boundless love, that we, who were the objects of it, should fail so lamentably in living the sort of life which we could not but plainly see was the life He intended we should live. And more and more I felt the inconsistency of having a salvation, which was in the end to be so magnificently complete, but which failed now and here so conspicuously in giving that victory over sin and over worry, that seemed everywhere in the gospel to be set forth as the present result of this salvation.
Why was it, I asked myself over and over, that the God, who had planned such a glorious deliverance for us in the future, had not also planned a better deliverance in the present?
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