Moments of Vision

Hos. 6:4.---' O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? O Judah, what shall I do unto thee? for your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away.'

Most of the prophets seem concerned only with the evils they see; and sometimes their message strikes us as harsh and hopeless. But Hosea is distinguished from the rest of the goodly fellowship of the prophets by his tenderer nature and his more human sympathies; and this has given him a profounder insight into the real condition of human nature. He sees the good there is in it; the weakness is in its admixture with evil, and especially in the uncertainty and evanescence of the good, which is as fickle and misleading as the morning weather. It is so easily stirred by generous emotions and attracted by high ideals; the difficulty is to secure their effectiveness and permanence. Man has good inclinations and tendencies within him that make for righteousness, but they are so soon exhausted. He seems able to live only by some intermittent principle, and most often achieves nothing better than a continual rise and fall in his ethical life.

We see the ideal, are visited by high and holy thought and feeling, are ashamed of our inferiority, vividly see what we ought to be, receive a sudden influx of power, and resolve to lead a worthier life. Most men know these special times of illumination and conviction, brought about, it may be, in various ways---by calamities and sorrows, by special mercies and blessings, by the message of the pulpit, and often simply by the direct action of the Spirit upon the conscience and heart. Yet all these exercises of mind, these stirrings of the heart, these good resolutions prove vain. Nothing permanent comes of it. Thus multitudes are inconstant, fitful, wavering. Their goodness never lasts: ever beginning anew, the relapsing; ever making a show, good feelings, aspirations, resolves, and yet there is no abiding result.

Religion is not a thing of mere moods and frames of mind. It is not mere emotion, but the power and principle of a new life. This does not mean that religious life, like other life, has no ups and downs, no inevitable vicissitudes. It has its times of clear vision and realization of the love of God; its times of lively conviction or of tranquil confidence, of touching emotion and of settled peace. But it has also its fears and troubles, its dullness and depression. Today the Psalmist exults in God as his chiefest joy; tomorrow he remembers God, and is troubled. At one time he is sure that the Lord's mercy endures for ever; at another he cries out, 'Is thy mercy clean gone?' Thus variable is the inner life even of the most spiritual of men. Yet such a life may not be at all like the morning cloud or the early dew; but on the contrary, with all its variations, its path may be as the path of light that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.

What the prophet complains of is that the people were satisfied with penitent feelings which led to no practical results. They were satisfied with the temporary stirring up of a little emotion, without any strenuous effort to turn it to practical account. And the evil of indulging in this kind of mere emotional goodness is that every time it is repeated it blunts our moral sensibilities, and enfeebles our moral power, and produces at last, if we persist in it, a deep-seated unbelief in all spiritual things. That result is vividly set before us in the parable of the man from whom the evil spirits went forth for a season. He had left his old house empty, unoccupied, untenanted, with no busy work going on in it, and therefore it was easy to return and take possession again. And it is certain that, in such a case, the old evil power will return with fresh force, and it will be harder than ever to shake off its hold. Not only so, but every time that besetting sins prevail against us, our faith in God and in all spiritual things grows weaker and weaker, until we run the risk of losing all belief in a better life. A man who has thus quenched the Spirit comes at last to lose all faith. He says, "Oh, I have felt all that before, and there is nothing in it; it never comes to any result." And that is the most deadly of all unbeliefs. The skepticism of the intellect questioning and travail and frivolous objection about doctrine is comparatively a shallow thing. But that is a fatal unbelief which learns to distrust goodness and the Spirit that pleads for it, and feels no sting of conscience.

Religion is neither a doctrine of truth nor an emotion of piety, but it is both of them working together to bring about a life of practical goodness. A mere intellectual religion of creed and dogma is a poor affair, but a mere emotional one of regrets and longings is not a bit better. The former may abide and work no change of character, the latter may pass like an effervescence, and leave our heart stale and dead, but neither will bring us a step nearer God. To think that all is well when our opinions are right, or that we need no more than to have our heart touched for a little with lively emotion---either of these is a kind of religion made easy. But what we need is, not religion made easy, but religion made earnest, to depart from evil and learn to do well.

In the New Testament our Lord teaches the obligation of permanence. 'Abide in me, and I in you.' Revelation puts no value on sudden exuberance of feeling, on surprised confession, on temporary panic or ecstasy. 'Persistence is the sign of reality.' Whatever does not persist may be fancy, sentiment, or imagination; but it is not the righteousness of God, nor does it avail in His sight. These brief seasons are all too short to bring to any kind of maturity the faint beginnings of higher qualities and graces.

We know the dangers only too well from our own fluctuating feelings. We have had high moments, when we saw the light, discerned the truth and vowed eternal fidelity. But those moments are often superseded by a reaction, and remain, not as permanent impulses, but only as memories. We had a great emotion in which it was possible to vow almost everything; but we may have lived to drift back again to an undirected and undedicated life, determined by outward events, swayed by the opinions of others, coerced by the constant compromises of life. Or we may still cling to the vision as something we mean to obey some day when circumstances are more propitious, when we can work ourselves up to take the final step; but if so we must be getting rather alarmed at the poor prospect of realization. What disconcerts us is that we do not keep our resolutions. We do have sudden awakenings. We discover that we are losing ground, that some bad habit is gaining upon us, and we determine to change it. It may be a quite small thing: procrastination of decisions or conflicts until things are decided for us; battles which are never lost only because they are never fought; a growing irritability which makes it difficult for people to live or work with us; slothfulness which is gradually destroying our efficiency; a constant speaking about ourselves which is making us a bore to every one. Or it may be something much more serious---some horrid habit or disgusting vice which we resolve with sincere intention for the moment to give up. But we discover that to will is easy, to carry out is astonishingly difficult. What we lack is sustained vitality. If we could only feel the breezes of the Spirit carrying our raft to the desired haven!

How may we convert the movements of the soul into abiding goodness? Many fail because they do not take measures to perpetuate the higher life that these precious visitations of grace initiate. The great thing is to take care that the times of our spiritual visitation do not exhaust themselves but that they are seized, we being frugal, and perpetuated. We must follow on to know the Lord. By wise and practical effort we must fix the gracious inspiration.

And as we do not, and were not intended to, live this life alone, we must have our faith sharpened and our emulation stimulated by others who have the same aim and are travelling to the same goal. We must cultivate the communion of saints, and that means more than having our name registered as a member of a church. And above all, there must be that spirit of prayer which keeps us in continual contact with our Lord. So shall we be His disciples and glorify the Father by bearing much fruit.

In Christ, timothy. maranatha