Habit Knocks at the Door

Acts 12:16.---' But Peter continued knocking.'

Peter was a frightened and bewildered man, but he knew that he had come to the right door, and that beyond it was his own company. He had been in prison and in chains. But his chains had been smitten from his hands, the prison doors had been opened, and with his shining comrade he had passed through such an experience without sudden and perilous reaction. Confused and stunned, in the frame of mind in which anything might have happened, he stood alone. He might well have simply fled anywhere blindly out of the city, and most likely into new dangers. But just then something old and powerful rose up in him and asserted itself---an old friendship stretched a hand in the dark to him; an old custom recovered its gracious hold; a remembered fellowship sent a calling fragrance through the doors of memory. When he had considered the thing, he came to the house where many were gathered together praying. In the dangerous moment a homing instinct arose and saved him.

When the inspiration leaves us, and we have to face a grey day or perhaps a dark night unhelped---what then? When spontaneity fails, need everything fail in the devout life? When the great experience is passed, and we are left in the common street with the common associations and perhaps temptation, and nothing else; no angel at all, but the probability of a devil round the very next corner---what then? Are there any abiding motives, independent of feelings and moods, upon which we can depend to keep our feet straight and order our goings, when the angel is gone away?

INSPIRED DAYS.---We have our vibrant moments, when our best powers are tuned and alert for quick response to higher things. We say perplexedly and wonderingly about things in ourselves or our deeds so much beyond and better than our normal possibilities, 'The Spirit moved me.' Have we not known times when our spirits rose clean above the levels of ordinary experience, as if invisible currents lifted us up and carried us? Have we not known days when we found things which before had been insuperably difficult, but now become singularly easy of accomplishment? Are there not times with us when thoughts spring to life and power within us which give life a larger meaning and range, and the soul in us comes into an unfamiliar freedom? Then can we run in a path on which a little while before we could scarcely walk without fainting. God has seemed very real and near, and fresh influences have come into the mind and heart like seasons of refreshing from the presence of the Lord. These are our great hours. We cannot explain them, but we know them for what they are---prophecies of our unreached possibilities. We know not when they may come; there is no calculating the angel. But the heart is warned in an unexpected hour, and the spiritual horizon lifts and clears. These are our royal days, and they bring with them a power for the mastery of evil and the transforming of life.

But it comes to pass that the angel departs. As has been said: "God has so arranged the chronometry of our spirits that there shall be thousands of silent moments between the striking hours." Every life has its great experiences, but life does not consist of them. Life is not a series of crises. It is not a chaos of catastrophe any more than it is a succession of exalted visions. It is not all prison, and very certainly it is not all angel. Most of it is plain street. The angel goes away, and the path without passion or miracle or inspiration has to be footed. It is folly to bewail this. There are tides of the spirit and we need not put them down to infirmity and instability.

In the occasionalism of piety I see not its shame but its distinctive glory; and would lay stress on the intermittency of the devout affections as the sign, not of poverty or weakness, but specifically of their grandeur in themselves and their accurate accordance with what is highest in God's realities. For, whether you stay at home and look in upon the composition of your own nature or go out into the universe and Providence of God, you will find this law: that, of His agencies and manifestations, it is the lowest that are least capable of change, and most remain the same from first to last; whilst the highest have ever in them a tidal ebb and flow---moving in waves of time, and surprising hidden inlets of space with their flood.

RESERVES FOR UNINSPIRED DAYS.---Are there reserves which we can lay up for ourselves beyond the reach of the fluctuations of feeling, upon which no thief of a mood, or robber circumstance, can break in and steal?

There must be an answer to this question. It would be a useless and futile religion that could not stand the test of the commonplace and the prosaic. Great songs can be sung without gorgeous singing-robes; kingliest acts can be wrought without crown or purple; sublimest sacrifice needs no glory of circumstance, as He proved once for all who became obedient unto the death of the Cross. Great art transfigures the commonplace, not by pretending that it is rare, but by realizing that it is common, and that its emotions and experiences are the raw material of greatness for the soul to shape and use, and that they hold destiny in their hands.

Part of the answer to this question is in THE CULTIVATION OF HABIT AS A MEANS OF GRACE. So many bad things are said of habit, and most of them are true. All character tends to final permanence. There are stern words of Scripture which set this in letters of flame: 'He that is unrighteous, let him be unrighteous still."

This is no arbitrary command or act of will that creates something without or as if without further effort of the Almighty, but a grim statement of the law of habit that he who is unrighteous long enough will go on being unrighteous to the end. This is the sinister side of the philosophy of habit, but it is not the whole truth. There is a sunny side of habit. 'He that is righteous, let him be righteous still; and he that is holy, let him be holy still.' Habit is not simply a diabolic influence for ever menacing us. It is a law of life, and, like every other law of life, is designed in the interests of life. It is meant to conserve and strengthen it in good. If by reason of us evil can lay hold upon us and master us, so by reason of use good grows also, and faith and hope, and moral vision and character.

Habit has its value for faith, and its place in the devout life. It is part of our religious business to organize our religious thoughts, feelings, and acts. We leave too many loose ends of these flapping about to trip us. We need a braced and girded religion.

Commonly, when men speak of habits, they have bad habits in their mind. They talk of the smoking-habit, and of the swearing-habit, and of the drinking-habit, but not of the abstention-habit, or the moderation-habit, or the courage-habit. After a certain output of deliberate effort and a period of practice, the vital virtues become second-nature; we acquire the instinct for self-denial, the prayer-habit, the Bible-reading-habit, the purity-habit, the truth-habit, the habits of faith, and hope, and love. Our receptive and expansive nature waits ready to incorporate all such pieties and virtues in its fiber and spontaneous movement. It is specially at the early stage that we have to bend our wills and drill our nature proclivities and watch ourselves with sentinel alertness. Time after time it is much 'against the grain' to keep up the good custom; but 'the grain' will soon 'grow to' the repeated demand, like the muscles of a child-acrobat, or the branches of a Japanese dwarf-tree. Every time we repeat the exercise in self-mastery or honor or devotion,that this is also akin to the law of Nature, and is the power to keep on in the good way---increases.

Consider this in relation to PRAYER. There are many who have a story like this to tell of themselves. They were accustomed to private and personal prayer since they were children. They have not grown godless, nor are they now altogether prayerless. Sometimes the fire kindles, and it is almost as easy to pray as in old time. Sometimes the pressure of life grows so that out of sheer necessity they pray again. But a time came when a creeping dullness and paralysis fell upon the spirit, and prayer grew first mechanical, then irksome, and then the practice dropped. The situation was accepted, and better no prayer at all than prayer that is unreal.

Consider this in relation to GOING TO CHURCH on Sundays. That, too, was an ingrained custom. But there came a time when a dull indifferentisim infected the mind and soul. There is a Sunday when at church-time we do not feel like it. We used to go twice; then once. Then there was the hard week, or something went wrong at home, or the last time we were at church somebody stepped in before us and took the only seat in which, for some deep and solemn reason, we can worship God---or any one of a thousand reasons which are so final when we take them to ourselves.

But in abandoning the forms and customs of piety we are abandoning a reserve we cannot afford to lose. We say that spontaneity is a grace of true piety and worship. What is spontaneity? We do a thing spontaneously when we do it instinctively and without sense of compulsion or effort. But you will have observed how often in the common day a habit of work will carry you to tasks to which your own immediate inclination certainly would not lead you. Many a man tied to a city office all week wakes on Monday morning disgruntled and disgusted at the prospect of another week of the same old round. He will nevertheless find his way into work, to sit at the same old office chair, at the same old tasks. By midday he has been caught again by its interests; a little later he is keen enough, for he has scented new business, and going home that night he is so satisfied that he will talk shop all the way with you if you will let him. It sounds like a paradox, but it is actually a platitude of experience that habit is one of the conditions of spontaneity. The Spirit of God works through the facts of life, and one of the most persistent facts is the fact of habit.

Test this against the illustrations just named. It will be said that it is better not to pray than to pray perfunctorily, and that anything is better than unreality. Perhaps so; but the thing is here an irrelevancy. Prayer by an act of will is not less real than prayer by the high, irresistible prompting of the heart. The will needs cultivation in religion as much as the conscience, and a great deal more than the emotions. 'When thou hast shut to thy door,' said Jesus. To get that door shut will often need a summoned and sanctified will. If prayer has ceased to be for the time a privilege and a joy pray then as a duty. It seems incredible that a moving iceberg---bleak, grim, and enormous---should ever dissolve at all. But when the warm waters of the Gulf Stream begin to flow round its edges and its base, it is a swiftly disappearing thing. God has given to us, who have these freezing troubles of the soul, the power of self-direction. Set a summoned will to keep the course, and you will strike the healing waters.

Worship, too, must not be left to depend upon impulse alone. We brand it as weakness that a man should be at the mercy of inclination and vagrant impulse in other things. Why dress it up as a virtue in the greatest concern of all? We need the habit of worship to hold us to the serious aspects of life, without regard for which character grows thin, and life itself trivial. It is our safeguard in many a difficult time.

We isolate ourselves at our peril from the forms of the religious and Christian life. They are the strongest of conserving powers. We need help of devout habit to hold us against our own caprice, to keep us in the way against our own waywardness. You never know when the groove worn deep by a good habit may not become the channel of God's floodtide.

In Christ, timothy. maranatha