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THE MYSTERY OF MAN’S BEING.
” I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are Thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.”
IN the beginning of this Psalm king David gives utterance to his wonder and awe at the mystery of God’s invisible, universal presence. And from this he turns upon the mystery of his own individual nature. It is with hardly less of awe and wonder that he muses upon himself. He feels a consciousness that his own very being is an ineffable work of God—his own body of dust, wrought after some high type of wisdom and perfection—knit together in a wonderful order—quickened by an ineffable breath of God—filled with the powers of life, with the light of reason, and the rule of conscience—able, by memory and by foresight, to make present both things past and things to come to look through visible things, and make unseen things visible; and that all this should be himself—that all should be so blended into one, as to revolve about his own will, and to be instinct with his own individual consciousness,—this it was that made him say, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made; and that my soul knoweth right well.”
It was from musing after this sort upon God, that he turned to muse upon himself. It was, indeed, by pondering upon the mystery of God’s nature, that he learned to stand in awe of the mysteriousness of his own; by dwelling on the awful thought of the unseen Being who fills all things, and quickens all things, he came to understand that he too was a being of a high descent, a mystery of God’s almighty power, and that in the wonderful frame of his own bodily form there dwelt a conscious soul, whose eye was turned inwardly to gaze upon itself. Now, as this consciousness of what we are follows in a most certain order upon a true knowledge, so far as man can have it, of what God is, so it is also a condition absolutely necessary to all true religion. There can be no real fear, or reverence, or seriousness of heart, until a man has come to understand, at least in some measure, what he is—to realise his own awful structure and destiny.
We will consider, then, some of the thoughts which press upon a mind conscious of its own wonderful nature. It perceives in part an evident likeness, and in part an equally marked unlikeness, to its Maker.
And, first; we know, by instinct and by revelation, that God has made us in part like to Himself, that is, immortal. This bodily frame we look upon, although it is a part of ourselves, is but the least part; although it is a partaker of Christ’s redemption, it is but the shrine of the redeemed spirit: we feel that a man’s self is his living soul—the invisible, impalpable spirit, which comprehends all his being with an universal consciousness, and is itself comprehended only of God. The body is its subject, its organ, its instrument, its manifestation, its symbol; it is not itself. All things that affect the body are external to it, separate from it. The very life of the body is but a lower energy of the true life of man, and is also separable and distinct. It may be quenched, and yet the soul shall live, and wield higher powers and intenser energies, as unclogged and disenthralled from the burden and the bondage of its lower life. It has a life in itself, which, embodied or disembodied, shall live on—outliving not the body alone, but the very world itself. All things visible shall decay; the heaven shall pass away like a scroll, the earth shall melt away under our feet; even now all things are hurrying past us, are dropping piecemeal, are dying daily: but we shall live for ever. We shall rise on the heaving wreck of material things. All men, both good and evil, shall live on; all that ever have lived, live still; all that ever died since Adam,—Abel the righteous, and Enoch that walked with God, and John that lay on his Master’s bosom, Balaam that tempted the Lord, Judas that sold his Redeemer, Herod that mocked the Lord of glory, the very men that nailed Him to the cross,—all are living in some unseen abode. In this life they were a mystery of mortality and immortality knit in one. They were in their season of trial; and their day ran out, and their award was fixed, and the mortal fell off like a loosened shroud, and the immortal spirit passed onward into the world unseen.
And, in the next place, we learn that our nature stands in a marked contrast to the divine; that the immortal nature which is within us is of a mutable kind, susceptible of the most searching changes. God, who is immortal, is also changeless. He is “I am that I am,” “the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever.” In Him “is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” But we, who, by His almighty power, are made immortal like Himself, unlike Him, are daily changing. We are susceptible of forms and characters stamped upon us from without; of habits and tempers of soul fixed by energies within. We grow, we decay, we fluctuate, we become what we were not, what we were we lose again; and yet we must be immortal. The most fearful and wonderful of mysteries is man. To be mortal and to be mutable, to be under the power of change and death, would seem, like the meeting of kindred imperfections, to be consistent; that we, who change daily, should change at last, once for all, from life to death, from being to annihilation, would seem like the carrying out of a natural law; and the last change to be like all other changes, save only in that it is the greatest and the last. But to be ever changing, and yet to be immortal; that after this changeful life ended, there should be life everlasting, or the worm that dieth not,—bespeaks some deep counsel of God, some high destiny of man; something that is ever fulfilling, ever working out in us, whether we will or no.
And so, indeed, it is. We are here, upon our trial, for this end. We are sent into the world, that, by our own will and choice, we should determine our eternal portion. This is the moral design and purpose of Him that made us; and therefore He made us as we are—mutable, that we may take our mould and character; and immortal, that we may retain it for ever.
1. Let us consider, then, first, that our immortal being is always changing for good or evil, always becoming better or worse. We came into this world with a bias of evil on our nature; but in holy baptism we received a gift which redressed the balance, and made us free to choose. From that day we have stood between two contending powers. On the one side, the world, the flesh, and the devil; on the other side, the Spirit, the water, and the blood; the powers of darkness and of light, of death and of life; the kingdom of Satan and the Church of Christ; the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life,—the gospel of salvation, and the holy Sacraments; all these, as antagonist legions, have contended for us, and cast in turn their power and their hold upon us, and we have hung in the poise and vibrated to and fro, wavering in weakness and wilfulness, a spectacle to men and angels, till, for good or ill, choice or time has determined the suspense. And this is the key to all the moral phenomena we see around us. The ten thousand various and conflicting characters of men are, each several one, nothing more than the shape and attitude in which they finally issue from this moral conflict. All men are good or evil, just as they incline determinately to this or that side of this moral balance; and their determined inclination is their character. All our life long, and in every stage of it, this process, which we vaguely call the formation of character, is going on. Our immortal nature is taking its stamp and colour; we are receiving and imprinting ineffaceable lines and features. As the will chooses, so the man is. Our will is ourself; and as it takes up into itself, and, as it were, incorporates with itself, the powers and the bias of good or ill—such we become.
2. In the next place, consider that this continual change is also a continual approach to, or departure from God. We are always tending to God or from God; and this must be by the force of moral necessity. We are always growing more or less like Him, and therefore nearer or further from Him. On these two lines all moral beings are for ever moving. The holy, the pure-hearted, and the penitent, have fellowship with angels, and walk with God, and God dwells in them with a growing nearness day by day; they are ever more and more one with Him, and partake more fully of the Divine nature, and are filled with the will of God: they abide in God, and God in them; they are one with Christ, and Christ with them: they are taken up as it were into the company of heaven, and, by the ascent of their moral being, climb upwards to the throne of God. But the sinful, the impure, and the impenitent, have their fellowship with fallen angels, and their moral being is in warfare against God, their will struggling and clashing against His will; they are beset round about, but they are not dwelt in by His holy presence; the gulf between them and heaven is ever widening day by day: they are ever departing from God, and ever sinking downward to the abyss; and the shadow of the outer darkness al ready gathers upon their inmost soul. Now this is the work which rests not, day or night, in the moral being of mankind. Heaven and hell are but the ultimate points of these diverging lines on which all are ever moving. The steady and changeless rise and fall of the everlasting lights is not more unerring. It is a moral movement, measured upon the boundaries of life and death; a change of nature, which, in the moral world, is a change of position and of standing before God,—it brings us nearer or casts us farther from Him.
3. And this leads us to one more thought: I mean, that such as we become in this life by the moral change wrought in our immortal nature, such we shall be for ever. Our eternal state will be no more than the carrying out of what we are now. After this life is over, there will be no new change—no new beginning—no passing the eternal gulf between good and evil. He that is unjust shall be unjust still; he that is filthy shall be filthy still; he that is righteous shall be righteous still; and he that is holy shall be holy still. The two diverging lines shall then be at an impassable distance, and they that move upon them, it may be, shall move onward still, into a brighter glory, or a darker gloom—to a closer ministry, or a further banishment from God. For, in very truth, heaven and hell are not more abodes than characters. Abodes they are, where shall be gathered all men and angels, according as the award shall be; but that which makes the bliss or misery of each is not less the habit which has here been wrought into the moral being, and there is made absolute for good or evil. In this life the holiest will and the most saintly spirit is clogged and checked by the swerving and burden of the flesh. All men fall short of their high purposes; the best of men bear but little fruit; it ripens slowly and uncertainly, and often soon decays: but the will which has here struggled to perfect itself after the example of our Redeemer, shall there be perfected by His mighty working. He shall fulfil the work. They that have yearned to be holy shall be holy with out blemish; they that have wept for their feeble services shall there excel in strength—what they would fain have been, they shall be. Their determination of will, and deliberate choice, and faithful toiling, shall fix the character of their eternal lot. What through their weakness they could not here attain, He, of His gracious power, shall make them to be for ever.
And so, likewise, of evil men. The warning, and striving, and restraining of the Holy Ghost shall then be over; and all that in this life kept back the full outbreak of a sinful will shall be taken off. The whole power of evil, which lurks pent up in the hearts of the wicked, shall burst forth into a flame. The very air they breathe must kindle it. It may be they shall wonder at themselves, at the mystery of iniquity which has lain harboured in them. Their conditions in life so far repressed and masked them from themselves, that they did not fully know what they truly were: just as we often see men, by some outward change, put forth new and incredible powers of evil, which, before they were tried, no man could believe them to possess; and as we all know how the example of others,—their influence, their presence, the glance of their eye, and a thousand other outward checks,—will sustain in us a better habit, which, when they are removed, is altogether lost, and our true self rises to the surface, and overspreads the whole character, and puts out its full ungovernable strength. Such, beyond doubt, shall be the state of those whose will has here conflicted with the will of God. There all check, all mitigation, all repression, shall be gone; and such as they would be now, if they dared, they shall be then for ever.
And if these things be so, with how much awe and fear have we need to deal with ourselves!
First of all, we. must needs learn to keep a continual watch over our hearts. Every change that passes upon us has an eternal consequence; there is something ever flowing from it into eternity. We are never at rest: our moral life is like a running stream; its very condition is change. And these changes creep on us by such an insensible approach, that we hardly perceive them till they have established themselves. They are like the growth of our stature, or the alteration of our features,—most perceptible in the whole after-effect, but beyond the subtlest observation to detect in the manner and the moment of their changes. So, too, our moral dispositions grow upon us. We know them by retrospect. They took their first spring from some unperceived or forgotten incident, they penetrated into our inmost being, and drew it to their own shape. To pass by the grosser forms of sin, I would take, for example, a secret dislike of religion, which often comes from a soft, self-pleasing temper; or pride, springing from the accidents of life; or supercilious contempt of the Church’s warnings, arising from a confidence in our own judgment and opinion. These, being free from all grossness, and therefore compatible with all that the world exacts of a man, wind themselves imperceptibly around many who are otherwise blameless and upright. But, though free from all grossness, they are faults capable of great intensity. They stifle the very life of faith, wear out all reverence, excite a most restless and obstinate dislike of holiness, and turn the whole man aside from God with a perfect estrangement of heart. They are sins more deadly for the very reason that they are spiritual. They dwell in that depth of our being which is most akin to the immortality of fallen angels.
Watch, then, over the changes and inclinations of your will; for every one bears upon eternity. Every energy lays in another touch upon your deepening character; every moment fixes its colours with a greater stedfastness. Remember that you are immortal; realise your own immortality. Remember it all day long, in all places: live as men whose every act is ineffaceably recorded, whose every change may be retained for ever.
And, again; we have need not only to watch, but to keep up a strong habit of self-control. How it is that every act we do leaves upon us its impression, we know not; but the scars and the seams of our bodily frame may warn us of the havoc sin makes in our unseen nature. The cur rent of our thoughts, the wanderings of our imagination, the tumult of our passions, the flashes of our temper, all the movements and energies of our moral being, leave some mark, wither some springing grace, strengthen some struggling fault, decide some doubtful bias, aggravate some growing proneness, and always leave us other, and worse, than we were before. This is ever going on. By its own continual acting, our fearful and wonderful inward nature is perpetually fixing its own character. It has a power of self-determination, which, to those who give over watching and self-control, becomes soon unconscious, and at last involuntary. How carelessly men treat themselves! They live as if they had no souls. In their traffic of this life, they scheme as if they were to live for ever. In their preparation for death, they trifle as if there were no life beyond the grave. How easy is all self-control at the first! if neglected, how all but impossible at last! To most men, it must have somewhat of sharpness. To the unchastened it is galling and irksome; but what is this to the remorseful looking back and the fearful looking on ward of the guilty spirit waiting for the day of doom!
Watch, therefore, and win the mastery over yourselves. Live so as you would desire to live for ever. Speak and act as if you were now fixing your eternal state. Be such, that, if your moral being were now to be precipitated and made eternal, your portion should be. in the kingdom of God. And commit yourselves to the great movement of His mysterious providence, by which He is working out the change and transfiguration of His saints. The vision which the prophet saw by the river Chebar1515 Ezek. i. 4.—a vision of many wheels and wondrous creatures of God, of a whirlwind, and a light infolding itself, full of movements seemingly opposed, but absolute in harmony—full of powers angelic and ministering—full of meaning and of mystery; all this is a parable of the Divine presence working through the complex unity of His Church. On His Church, as upon the potter’s wheel, He hath laid our immortal being; and as it revolves, He shapes us with the unerring pressure of His hand, and the vessel of wrath rises into a vessel of glory. It is by His holy word and sacraments, by acts of homage and adoration, by a life of obedience, and by a wisely tempered discipline of chastisement and peace, that He wins and conforms us to Himself. He is working upon you. That in you which shall never die is changing daily, is being moulded or marred, according as you yield to or resist the working of His word and Spirit—is taking the eternal stamp of good or ill. To our eyes it is the Church, to our faith it is God Himself, that is changing us into the likeness of His Son.
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