The Peril of the Second Best

Ps. 106:15.---' He gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul.'

We frequently make the mistake of limiting the call of the gospel to the initial alternatives which it presents. It sets before us Christ and His Kingdom as against the world and its attractions; and urges upon us the necessity of choice. But when the will, conscience-prompted and stirred into action by the high emotion of the heart, has made the choice, and has opened up life to the reign and rule of Christ, only the first step in the Christian life has been taken. There still ranges before us all the way which we must patiently traverse in the comradeship of our Lord. And it is just along that way that there lurks the peril of the second best. For life is one long series of choices to those who are not less but the more responsible beings for having united themselves to Christ. It is inevitable that choices must be daily made by them between the supreme and the secondary, between the lofty and the low, between self-pleasing and God-pleasing.

The commonest danger is not that of choosing the manifestly bad. It is the temptation to choose the better in stead of the best; to compromise, to choose things which may be worthy considered by themselves, but which are not the will of God for us. And yet, so far as the practical effect in our lives is concerned, we might almost as well choose the openly evil. For, by committing ourselves to any course other than that of absolute fidelity to the highest, we put ourselves hopelessly out of touch with God. And the deterioration of life which follows, and which eventually disables us from even recognizing anything higher, is the awful Nemesis of the choice.

This is forcefully illustrated in the case of Israel, to whom these words refer. God's purpose for the Israelites was that they should have no earthly sovereign. He Himself purposed to be their Lord and King. The uniqueness of a theocracy was designed as part of His educative process of the nations. Israel was to be the world's object-lesson. But Israel rebelled. They said to the prophet of God, 'Make us a king. We want to be like, and not unlike, the other nations. We want a monarchy with all its trappings and splendors. We want a king who will lead us to battle and give us that place among the nations from which a theocratic government excludes us.' All of which is of course eloquent of the fact that they had failed in faith, and had lost the national love for God which their unique history had inspired. God, however, did not leave them to their own divices or cast them off. He said in effect---'Very well. Make them a king. They are not choosing the best; but I will let them have their self-chosen second best. It is the only way of teaching them their folly and of bringing the ultimately to know themselves---and Me.' And the whole of that nations subsequent history shows the peril of the second best. Disastrous war with all its attendant horrors came upon her. The nation, instead of becoming the world's teacher, became the world's disciple. The land was distracted with internal dissensions and unrest. Fitful prosperity attended the flickering flame of worship, until eventually, we come upon the sad story of the nations captivity.

And not only is this set forth in the national but in personal life also. Take, for instance, the case of Solomon, whose choice of wisdom is often acclaimed as being an example of the highest and best choosing. But was it so? He chose wisdom that he might become a great ruler, and make his kingdom a great power. He became thereby strong, rich and successful---and he became a castaway! Had he chosen God's best, he would have asked for holiness of heart, purity of mind, nobility of purpose, and constancy of devotion. Then the sad, awful story of the end of Solomon's reign had never been written.

This is the peril which is round about us all. But God does not leave us when we fail in this matter of making the choices by which life's actions and directions are largely governed. Indeed it is on this account that the second best leads to the smart and sting of unexpected and unwelcome experiences. It may often be the kindest way of showing us our own hearts, and of redeeming us from their waywardness. Leanness of soul is always the consequence of self-will. But it sometimes also expresses the love of an interested God.

It is well to pray that God should put into our minds good desires, and that we should use our wills to keep ourselves from dwelling too much upon small and pitiful desires, for the fear is that they will be abundantly gratified. And thus when the time comes for recollection, it is a very wonderful thing to look back over life, and see how eagerly gracious God has been to us. He knows very well that we cannot learn the trivial value of the things we desire if they are withheld from us; and thus we have no reason to doubt His fatherly intention, because He does so much dispose life to please us. And we need not take it for granted that He will lead us by harsh and provocative discipline, though when He grants our desire, He sometimes sends leanness nevertheless into our soul.

Now if these illustrations of a principle of action have any value at all for us, it surely is in their emphasis on the necessity of adopting and maintaining an attitude of entire consecration toward Christ, which declares itself in unflinching choice of the highest in every moral and spiritual crisis.

It is a commonplace to say that our choices attest our character, and that the things to which a man's mind involuntarily turns shows what kind of man he is. It is true to add that these same choices make the character they proclaim. The seriousness and solemnity of life is that every day we live we are tested as to the vital foundations and inspirations of life. For to every one of us, and almost daily, comes the temptation to adopt lower and unworthier standards than those of Christ's ethic. We are tempted to diminish life's dimensions by making ease, comfort and prosperity its chief end. In short, we are tempted to take the way of the world rather than the way of Christ.

The choice of the second best, involving as it does the outrage of conscience and the silencing of our best instincts, always means also the forfeiture of the closest fellowship with God, and the loss of that Divine partnership of power. How many men, when confronted with the stern duty of making a determining choice, have unconsciously bartered all that makes life worth living while by giving their allegiance and devotion to a beautiful second best. They become prosperous, but their souls are almost petrified. They acquire importance, but lose influence. They reason that because what they have chosen is not wrong it is therefore justified. When two lines are in exact parallel they may be produced to infinity without increasing by a hair's breadth the distance between them. Let one of them, however, deflect in the slightest degree and then the further they are produced the greater becomes the distance between them. And so is it in the all-important matter of choice. To turn from the highest for anything else, however slight the difference between them, is to make ultimately certain a gulf of separation between the soul and God which can only be bridged by Divine grace and the bitter penitence of a renewed life.

It is often a sharp test and challenge of faith to know what is God's best; for it recognition brings the immediate necessity of response. Always to follow the guiding light, always to submit every judgment to the will of God, always to take God's way amid all the intersecting and perplexing paths that open before us, is the most severe test which life holds. But happy indeed is the man whose courage does not falter, whose ideals are not dethroned, and whose heart is not traitorous to conscience and to God.

It follows upon the simple acceptance of the fact of God's interested care and personal providence, that since His best [which is of course just another name for His will] is the design of His love, all our capabilities are fitted for just that thing and for no other. We mar by misuse, and forfeit by disuse, every endowment diverted from its original purpose. There is no tragedy which is to be so carefully avoided as that of living for lower things than God intended us for. For all of our present life and training is but preparation for eternal service. What we lose now by our own choice we shall never regain by any arbitrary act of Divine compensation. The bare possibility of eternal restriction of usefulness is the strongest warning of all against the peril of the second best. A nearer consideration, too, is the fact which common observation attests, that the choice of the second best always brings impoverishment of present influence. For is a man would wield highest influence he must live for the highest things.

But over against all these warning things is the ever-present of our Lord's own life---the strongest appeal to our hearts to choose the highest. For as we read the record of the days of His flesh we see Him as the One who always consistently chose God's best. 'I came not to do mine own will but the will of him that sent me.' And again at the end of His life, when the cup was heavy and bitter and full, we hear Him in the garden still true to the governing purpose of His redeeming life---'Nevertheless, not as I will but as thou wilt.' And choosing God's best, He drank the cup to the last dregs. And now for us all, God's best is expressed in Christ's call, 'Follow thou me.' It all comes to this, that consistently, loyally, courageously to follow Him is to choose the highest in all life's alternatives.

In Christ, timothy. maranatha