A godless experience curdles at once into acrid pessimism. It is the philosophy at this moment of many materialists—the sour unwholesome sediment left in souls from which all hope has evaporated. It is Schopenhauer, saying that our condition is so utterly wretched that total annihilation would be preferable; that the existence of the world is a matter of grief, and a fundamental misfortune. Such words are the defiant curse of deliberate unbelief; but if this life were everything, many would say the same. We find this hopelessness and dissatisfaction in every rank. Now it is Diocletian, declaring that planting cabbages at Salona is better than ruling the world in Byzantium. Now it is Severus, saying he has been everything, from a common peasant to a victorious emperor, and nothing is of any good. Now it is Abderrahman the Magnificent, recording that in his life he has had but fourteen happy days.
Now it is St. Augustine, saying, " Let a man consider the sources of his happiness, and if it will abide with him alway: if not it is of the streams of Babylon, let him sit down by it and weep." Now it is St. Bernard, saying of human life that its beginning is blindness, its continuance toil, its sum-total emptiness. Now it is Petrarch, saying, " I see not what anything in the world can give me save tears." Now it is Richard Hooker, saying, " I have lived to see that the world is made up of perturbations, and have been long preparing to leave it" Now it is Luther, saying, " I am weary of life, if this can be called life. There is nothing which would give me pleasure ; I am utterly weary. I pray that the Lord will come forthwith, and carry me home." Now it is Whitefield, saying, " Lord, I am weary not of Thy work, but in Thy work. Let me speak for Thee once more, then seal Thy truth and die." So then History, the life-histories of men, are full of these sad sighs.
And so too is literature. We hear the sigh in Shakespeare's famous sonnet, "Tired with all these, for restless death I cry".
It is Cowper's, "O for a lodge in some vast wilderness, Some boundless contiguity of shade, Where rumour of oppression and deceit, Of unsuccessful and successful war, Might never reach me more".
It is Shelley's, "I could lie down like a tired child, And weep away this life of care".
All these, and hundreds more, are sighs wrung from that inexorable weariness which, as the great Bossuet said, lies at the bases of our life.
Well, my brethren, it always seems to me worth while to recognise facts; to bring them out into the full light of consciousness, to look them in the face. And this being the fact respecting human life which we have to face, where is the remedy ? what are we to do ?
The great resource in every perplexity is to look to Christ. If we look to our Great Example we shall see that He too, even He, was forced to sigh for the sad world of sin and death; but notice that the sigh had scarcely been uttered when once more He was engaged in works of mercy and thoughtful care. To sigh is sometimes natural; but to waste time in sighing, to suffer ourselves to be wholly absorbed in the dark side of life, to exclude ourselves from its many and simple gladnesses, is unthankful and useless. However hard the struggle against intolerance and bigotry, against stupidity and malice, against robbery and wrong, no good and brave life will ever suffer itself to be crippled by conquerable melancholy. If we sigh for our own weaknesses and sins, we cannot indeed fly from ourselves, but we can by the grace of God amend ourselves. If we sigh for our surroundings, no wings of a dove indeed can take us from these dwellings of Meshech, these tents of Kedar, but by God's grace we may help to make them better and happier places. For, after all, at all times of our pilgrimage—
"The primal duties shine aloft like stars, And charities that soothe, and heal, and bless Lie scattered at the feet of man like flowers".
The lessons of Scripture and the lessons of the life of Christ alike teach us to labour and to wait; they combine to tell us that to every one of us alike, for sorrow and disaster, for weariness and discouragement, God has given us four great and perfect remedies. On these let me say a very few last words.
One remedy is Action. God taught it to Moses: "Wherefore criest thou unto Me? Speak to the children of Israel that they go forward." While there is anything to be done the time given to inactive sorrow is worse than wasted. Sorrow may take from life its delights; but thank God it can never take its duties. At the lowest ebb of dejection we still have much to do; and " that man is very strong and powerful who has no more hope for himself; who looks not to be loved any more; to be admired any more; to have any more honour or dignity; and who cares not for gratitude; but whose sole thought is for others, and who only lives for them." (So speaks Sir A. Helps.) The wings of a dove ? —nay, let us rather long for the wings of an eagle to fly in the path of God's commandments; let us, with the ancient Rabbi, pray that we may be bold as a leopard, swift as an eagle, bounding as a stag, brave as a lion, to do the will of our Father in heaven. " Let me work on," said Mendelssohn; " for me too the hour of rest will come." "Doe the next thynge,"—what a grand motto that was! And that was a good motto, Repos ailleurs. Work here, rest is elsewhere; wipe thy tears; cease thy sighing; do thy work. " The day is short; the work abundant; the labourers are remiss; the reward is great; the Master presses".
Another remedy is Patience. God is patient. His great ones are slandered every day by earth's little, and His wise men judged by fools, and " He makes no ado." His name is blasphemed, His character often hideously misrepresented by those who profess to teach in His name. He bears it all; He has borne with man's falsehood, and littleness, and disobedience for no one knows how many thousand years. Cannot we too wait ? If we do well and suffer for it, can we not take it patiently ? " Patient continuance in well-doing," there is a grand remedy for idle tears. " O rest in the Lord, and abide patiently upon Him; for they that patiently abide the Lord, those shall inherit the land".
Another remedy is Faith. Jesus, as He sighed, looked up towards heaven. "Two things alone can finally cure the malady of occasional depression—they are God and death." Faith looks up hopefully to God.; hope looks forward fearlessly to death. Is our sigh for our own work ? " O cast thy burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain thee." Is our sigh for the world? We did not make the world, and He who made it will guide. One day, when St. Francis was laying before God his troubles and disquietudes, the answer came to him, "Why dost thou trouble thyself, poor little man ? I who made thee the shepherd of My order, knowest thou not that I am its supreme protector? If those whom I have called succumb, I will put others in their place, and if none existed I would cause them to be born." " I cannot mend the world," said Luther; "if I thought that I could, I should be the veriest ass alive. Thou must do it, oh my God".
Action, Patience, Faith; lastly, the remedy is Hope. "It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord." " The worst of evils," says the French proverb, " are those that never come." Things are rarely as bad as they look to us. Elijah cries, "I, even I only am left;" and God tells him that He has 7000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal. The young man is terror-stricken in besieged Dothan, and Elisha shows him the whole mountain full of the protecting chariots of fire. If we be true and faith ful, then, rightly considered, our very trials and sorrows are the proofs and pledges to us of a better world beyond, and of a time when God shall finish His own work. Shall the great housekeeper of the world fodder His cattle, and water His flowers, and prune His plants, and not feed His children ?
My friends, however much the deluge may welter round us, that Holy Heavenly Dove of Peace is ready to descend into our hearts and rest therein. And if the plucked leaf, which she bears to us from God in heaven, seem bitter to us, yet none the less is it a leaf of the Tree of Life, — a green leaf from that tree " whose leaves are for the healing of the nations".
Ephphatha Sermons, p. 123.