The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 37
Fear of the Living God
Fear of the Living God.
"It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
Hebrews, X, 81.
I wonder how many people know that this text is in the Bible. I wonder how many know that it is in the New Testament. I wonder how many know that it is in the most carefully finished book in the New Testament. I wonder how many of those who know of its existence underst and what it means, or ever tried to underst and it. If it were written thus:—"It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living Satan," or "it is a fearful thing to fall out of the hands of the living God"—that would be intelligible. But the passage as it runs is loaded, every word, with incomprehensibleness to modern Christians. I will not try to carry you back to the state of feeling about God which prevailed two thous and years ago, even in the Christian Church. Two thous and years are a long time; and when everything else that people thought and did then looks so very strange to us, what they thought and did about religion should not surprise us.
I might explain the sentence I have quoted by two others in the same chapter, the one immediately preceding this—"We know him who hath said, Vengeance is mine, I will repay;" the other concluding the chapter—"For our God is a consuming fire.page 2
But to explain these sentences so that they would seem true to a modem mind would be as hard as to explain the text. Let us give up all attempt, then, to get fully into the mind of those dark ages of Faith, and see what there may be in our own modes of thought that throws light on these strange words.
Is it not common now to think of God as standing for moral law, judgment, retribution? Is he not the representative of the accusing and avenging conscience? When is he instinctively thought of? In dark days, in gloomy times, in periods of fear, when calamity befals, or sorrow comes, or death approaches, or the sense of guilt oppresses the mind. How is he commonly thought of then? As the Being who darkens the day, makes the time gloomy, produces the fear, sends the calamity, causes the sorrow, inflicts the death, holds over the sense of guilt the rod of penalty. He is the awful Being. At the mention of his name men droop their heads, lengthen their faces, subdue their voices, let the light out of their countenances, and recall their misdoing. The word "punishment" calls up the thought of God. The mention of hell suggests Him. His attributes are the great swelling attributes that appal. He is Omnipotent; men are pigmies before Him; they are grasshoppers; He can blow them away as dust; they are as a sleep. He is Omniscient; He knows what everybody is about, knows what they are thinking of, what they are feeling, has a detective in every bosom. All over Christendom people tremble as they think of that Justice that holds every one to the letter of the Law; and makes each answerable for his deeds without regard to all those fine considerations which diminish the weight of personal responsibility. All over the world God is a terror. It is the effort of religious men to make him felt as a terror. Often he is the worst of terrors—a vast, vague, shadowy terror—a bugbear, as men call it. Hear men pray to him. Read the Church litanies. Listen to the warning counsel given to wilful, vicious, and criminal people. "Be careful. You are watched. The Avenging Angel is dogging your footsteps. You are rushing to your doom. Christian men and women have not yet outgrown the feeling that the living God is an unsleeping policeman page 3 incessantly walking his rounds. It is still the fashion to talk to people about him as parents talk to their adventurous children, telling them the bears will catch them if they go out of doors. This, I, say is a habit of mind ever with us. I believe it is still an inveterate instinct with us to get as far away from God as we can, to think of him no oftener than we must, and to rescue from association with him as much of our life as is possible. To fall into his hands is to suffer; to fall into his hands is to be shut up in prison; to fall into his hands is to be punished. There is a general impression that we are safest when we are out of his reach.
I do not say that our deliberate thoughts of God are so terrible as these. Our people would probably resent the charge of entertaining such black beliefs. They say handsome things of God. They give him sweet names. They praise him in songs. But, for all that, they do not care to come too near him. A chill creeps over them when they think of that. They will then feel their poorness and weakness. They will have to see dreadful sights. It is a "fearful thing."
Now this I take to be the effect of ignorance. It is blindness of mind. Very intelligible blindness, very natural and pardonable blindness, but still a very sad and pathetic, yes, and a very' painful and hurtful blindness. It is the blindness that leads people to imagine that unknown lands are infested with wild beasts; that the wilderness is peopled with goblins; that solitary places are evil places; that unexplored seas are full of monsters; that untried roads are dangerous roads; that the atmosphere is haunted by spirits of the air; that new sciences are perilous, new knowledge uncanny, new opinions hazardous, new acquaintances temptations, new experiences damaging to the soul, new experiments in life things of questionable salvation.
Let us try to suppose an is land savage to be made acquainted with the fact that he lived on a round globe. Let us suppose him to have on his mind a clear image of the earth as a round globe Let us go further, and suppose him to think of himself as standing on the topmost summit of the mighty ball, shelving downwards from him on every side as far page 4 as the horizon line, the heaving waters that encompassed his island tossing uneasily, as if they were struggling to keep their position on the steep declivity. Suppose now that to this savage islander, trembling on his point of rock, should come a civilized man from the other side of the globe, who should tell him of the possibility of passing from where he stood to the opposite side of the ball, and that, not by going straight down through the middle, of it, but by going round it on the outside by sliding down the steep declivity, dipping over the edge of the horizon and crawling along the under side head downwards, like a fly on a ceiling. Can any imagination do justice to the poor savage's terror, as he conceives himself tearing down that awful rapid, dashing over that dizzy verge? and then suppose our educated traveller to tell him something about the immensity of space in which floated the globe he was on,—the billions and billions of miles of distance, where was nothing but bleak, impalpable vastness, black to the eye, noiseless to the ear, senseless to the touch, where was nothing to breathe, where was nothing at all but, incalculable leagues apart, bewildering clouds of globes, lowering and glaring, spinning and whirling, with nothing to hold them or move them. Would not the terror of the poor savage be horribly increased as he imagined himself falling into this terrific void, falling, falling, and never ceasing to fall? and would he not cling more desperately than ever to his little speck in the sea as the only hold he had on existence?
In much the same way as we imagine that poor savage to feel about falling off his island into the bottomless space, do ignorant people seem to feel about, falling into the hands of the living God; and almost as hard is it to convince them that they may safely launch out into unexplored spaces of thought, as it might be to convince the islander that, in putting oft' from his island, he would not be hurried along frightful rapids—would not be dashed over a precipice, would not be dropped off the globe into a bottomless void; but would proceed as over a perfectly level surface—would have his head always in the air and his feet always on the ground—would. page 5 have the stars above him just as they were, and in the course of his proceedings would find other islands and continents, other trees and plants, other men and women, living industriously, peacefully and happily in towns and great cities, no more apprehensive of falling off the globe than he was before he knew it was round. We have no fear of slipping off the planet; we have no dread of infinite space; our ships are sailing round the planet all the time. We know that the force that keeps our feet planted where they are, whether they be on the upper or the under side of the ball, keeps everything else in place, keeps in place the distant stars, keeps in place the comets and aerolites. We know that the great laws are invisible, and that, things invisible are under Law; we know, in a word, that we cannot fall out of the hands of the Living God, and that because we cannot fall out of them we are safe. All this the European might tell the savage. He might describe his voyage to the island, the vessels he met, the lands he saw, the ports he touched at, the races he encountered; but still the savage would remain unsatisfied.
So, from far-off regions of thought and experience, travellers bring the tale of their discoveries; but the unknown will still be the perilous, and to enter upon it will be a "fearful thing."
We have a faith in which we have been educated, in which we have lived, to which we have been wonted. It is comfortable and warm to us. We feel safe in it. It is our home. It is our tower. With every part of it we are familiar. We have touched its extreme edges all round. Prom this point we gaze abroad, as an islander might, upon an ocean of restless, tossing, troubled minds, questioning, doubting, fearing, tumbling about in the whirl of speculation; some seeming to rush furiously along, some apparently trying to keep their footing on a smooth descent; some slowly sinking from view; some hovering on the verge of a precipice; and we say—"Alas, poor souls! They are lost. They are slipping off the planet. They will tumble into the dreary spaces of unbelief,' atheism, despair. For what is there out there to hold them?"
A man has lived all his days under aristocratic in- page 6 stitutions, like Thomas Carlyle, for instance. Order for him is associated with government; and government, in his mind, is associated with a governing class, or a governing person who holds other men subject to him. To him belong the right and privilege and power. Rule and authority are his. This will gives to law its force. Army and navy are his arms. He has power over life and death. So accustomed is he to such an order of things that, though he knows these governing men to be of the same stuff with all other men,—though he knows that these governing men can have no real power save such as belongs to their manhood,—though he knows that the human alone is entitled to rule, and that the human is not held as a monopoly by any set of people,—he cannot conceive of any safety out of that condition of things. From his aristocratic enclosure he looks abroad on men, experimenting on other forms of government, venturing on new fields of social existence, tampering with entire institutions, and is filled with terror. He sees them "shooting Niagara," and afterwards plunging down, down into absolute chaos. "What!" he exclaims, "allow men to govern themselves! Let them choose their own rulers, make their own laws, regulate their own institutions, launch forth upon the untried sea of republicanism and democracy! Put the ballot into uneducated hands! Admit the working-men to the franchise! Let the rabble be represented! Let the ungoverned say what shall be government! What can come of that but anarchy?" It is, you see, the same old distrust of the living God. It is the same old fear that, outside there, the space is infested with evil spirits. It is the islander's fear.
Everywhere we come across this fear, and everywhere it is the same torment. The living God is terrible. The Conservative has it. He is never safe unless he is protected by Law. Everything must be provided for by Law. The Law must undertake everything, and the letter of the Law must be adhered to And so, when any one comes along who proposes to let people manage their own affairs in their own way, to build their own railroads, pave their own streets, mend their own sewers, educate their own children, maintain their own worship, feed page 7 their own poor, nurse their own sick, reform their own criminals, they are seized with a formidable trembling, and talk anxiously of the danger there is of falling off the social planet into shoreless, bottomless space.
The same superstition prevents people from adopting new customs of living, and makes them feel more comfortable in the discomfort they are used to, than in trying some new experiment of existence. They do not know where they are going, and not to know where they are going is to be apprehensive lest they are going to a bad place. We see it in the reluctance with which political privileges are granted to women, in the unwillingness to adopt the rational treatment of children, in the indisposition to trust principles, however rational, in the jealousy of what are called theories—as if sound theories were anything else than truths to which men were not accustomed, the living God who was outside the limits of ordinary experience! Nothing is more difficult than to imagine people who go away forever, as going into the sunshine. And the reason it is so difficult is here—the unknown is the dark, the untried is the dangerous. Except the little spot that we stand on, the world is full of evil spirits that lurk in the air.
And the secret of this monstrous and disabling error is the old notion, not yet outgrown, of God as a jealous, watchful, prying, censorious Being, who has no confidence in his children, and who does not feel kindly towards them; a Being, therefore, whom they must hold in distrust and suspicion, and be very careful to keep on the right side of. How slow we are to use the results of our experience in new fields!
We have, as I said before, no fear of falling into the hands of the living God when we start in trains across a continent, or sail in ships out on the deep sea; for we know that the winds are his messengers, the flaming fires his ministers. We know that the telluric and etherial forces befriend, that gravitation is a powerful servant, that we never can be out of the reach of air and light, and that the living God has no symbols and no agencies more beautiful than these. Here we have demonstration that the un- page 8 known is the beneficent. The open mid-ocean is safer than the harbor. When the storm threatens the pilot keeps clear of the coast. Why should we not feel that the living God fills with his presence the immense outlying space of mind where our thought has never been, and the vast outlying reaches of experience where our frail barks have never ventured? Why fear falling into the hands of the living God, when we launch forth upon the deep sea of knowledge, or reason, or faith, or feeling, more than we fear the same catastrophe when launching forth upon the salt brine of the Atlantic?
Is it answered that in the latter case we are certain, and in the former cases we are not? But how did we become certain in the latter case except by experiment? We were not always certain. There are people now who deem it a tempting of Providence to cross the ocean in a steam ship, or to take a railway train. Is it replied again that, in the latter case, we conform to certain rules which ensure our safety? We build ships after a certain model; we have learned how to regulate steam; we underst and how to adjust ourselves to the elements; science tells us precisely what we must do when we launch away upon the deep of adventure; we have chart and compass and sextant; the course is marked out for us. True again. But are such appliances wanting when we commit ourselves to those other seas upon which the soul puts forth under providential direction? Are there no laws of right-mindedness? Has the Heart no compass in its pure affections? Has the Conscience no star in its loyalty to rectitude? Has Reason no pilot in its fidelity to what it knows, in its allegiance to what it is convinced of? Surely the living God does not confine himself to the department of mechanical forces. The chambers of the air are not his only dwelling-place, He is not omnipresent merely, as electricity or gravitation. He is intelligence; He is love; He is justice; He is beneficence. You would not say He is to be trusted as atmosphere and distrusted as Mind! We have no fear of him as a force, but we dread Him as a Spirit! We can venture to touch His hand, but we cannot venture to fling ourselves upon His bosom! We am commit our lives to Him, but we shrink from page 9 trusting Him with our souls! He has furnished our bark for commerce between l and land; He has not supplied our souls for their more necessary voyage from one region of experience to another! You would not say that!
Certainly there needs to be caution, prudence, practical wisdom in making sure that we are in his hands. None but the foolish put off to sea in bowls, or trust themselves to the elements as children play with fire. None but the foolish say:—"We take our chance; we know nothing; we have taken no precautions; we simply know that God is good and will take care of us. It makes no difference what we do or how we behave; we venture in the dark, knowing that at the instant when it seems likely to cover us, the very night will be light about us." They who do that find that the living God is living law, living justice, living reason, living common sense, who will have no scruple to blow them up, or send them to the bottom, or starve them out, as he did those miserable deluded colonists of Jaffa. It is a fearful thing for such people to fall into the hands of the living God. But it is so simply because he is a God of order and equity and truth. This summary dealing with outlaws and fools furnishes the grand reason for trusting him on the part of right-minded men and women. At all events, it is time we abandoned the idea that the unknown is the terrible, or that the living God is a thing to be afraid of in advance of all experience.
Nay, we have experience. Multitudes have trusted themselves to the living God, and have found it very sweet to do so. Broad thinkers, cutting themselves adrift from the quiet moorings of their Faith, have launched away under the guidance of knowledge, and, instead of falling sheer into the gulf of unbelief and despair, have found themselves floating over sunny waters, beneath heavens lit with the glory of new constellations; have discovered islands and continents never heard of before; have made acquaintance with fresh territories of thought, and have learned how beautiful it was to be citizens of the world, free to come and go where they would, in full faith that the further they went the more won- page 10 dering, reverential, and loving they would become, provided they went in sober earnestness and faith.
Venturing to believe in humanity, we have tried republican institutions; and in proportion to the fidelity of our experiment has been the demonstration of its success. Mr. Carlyle's frightful picture of "shooting Niagara" provokes a smile. In live humanity we find shere is a live Deity; and so far from its being a "fearful thing" to fall into his hands, we are only praying that we may have grace to fall into his hands more entirely. If anything will save us from the fearfulness of the ancient systems of government, which assumed that the living God dwelt in a palace, and left it only to prowl round the gardens and awe intruders, it is trust in the principle that people are best governed when they govern themselves.
It was believed in the olden time that the State must maintain religion; that, if it did not, the evil one who was constantly going about seeking whom he might devour would snap up many souls, as a vulture snaps up chickens, and would bring the whole l and to the barrenness of infidelity. The State did cease to have any concern with religion, and the churches multiplied innumerably. Never was so much worship. Never so much piety. Never so much personal faith or conviction, Never so much deep individual concern for spiritual things. The wicked one who prowled about seeking whom he might devour, proved to be the living God stirring in his children's hearts the embers of the personal religious life.
It was believed in the olden time that either the Church or the State must undertake the support of schools. It was a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the malicious demon of ignorance which infested the world. But on the voluntary system, which throws on people the responsibility of educating themselves, the schools not only increased in numbers but improved in quality. There is better teaching, better discipline, better school architecture and regulation. And so on in other things. We have discovered that the whole universe is filled with the living God; that the living God is not living jeal- page 11 ousy, or wrath, or cunning, but living truth and goodness and beneficence. We have learned to see him in the elements that bring us health, comfort, prosperity, happiness. We have learned to see him in the elements which bring discipline, experience, wisdom. We have learned to see him in air and light, in the fine gases, in muscle, nerve, fibre, and tissue, in organs and functions. We have learned to see him in intelligence and affection, in the glow of aspiration, and in the courage of a noble will. We have learned to see him in the wise economies that administer life, in the knowledge that centuries have built up, in the principles that brace us in our difficulty and solace us in our grief. We have come to the belief that the dreadful thing is to fall out of the hands of the living God, to fall out of knowledge and reason and truth and charity, to fall out of confidence and trust, to remain so shut up in our narrow houses of belief or cnstom that we do not know what the living God is, and are continually fancying that he is living ogre or living devil.
Is it a fearful thing to fall into the hands of health or understanding? Is it a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Being who will make you better? Yes, even if in making you better He make you for the time feel worse.
I know men dread nothing so much as health and knowledge. We will go about with an ugly pain in chest or side, fearful of getting into the hands of a wise physician who may tell us our complaint is more serious than we imagined, and calls for immediate treatment; as if, so long as we were ignorant of the complaint, it was not there! As if the physician in telling us of it put it there and made it incurable! None dread cold water so much as they who most need it. None loathe medicine like the sick. The crisis of virtuous experiments is always fearful. It is a fearful thing when the drunkard puts away his glass; when the opium-eater discards his poisonous drug: when the idler sets himself to work; when the dissolute man enters on a course of virtue; when a pleasure-seeker is immersed in care; when a person of luxurious habits is compelled to endure wholesome hardships; when one who has all he wants is deprived of a portion of his means, and is page 12 obliged to work hard to get what he once had for nothing. It is a fearful thing for a mother or father to lose a child, and to be driven by sorrow out of the sweet seclusion of a home untroubled by affliction, into the blank spaces of loneliness; when the winds of restless thought blow chill, and the bitter night dews of grief fall, and the feet stumble over graves, and the blackness of doubt closes round, and only a star, now and then visible in the night heavens, calls back the remembrance of the skies that used always to smile. It is a fearful thing when one who has never questioned his belief first begins to question it, and, stepping out of his old home of Faith, sees what looks like a howling wilderness about him. It is a fearful thing when one who has always dwelt on problems he could master, and has felt perfectly at home with the ordinary questions of his lot, finds himself face to face with problems he cannot master, and gropes about in the dark for an answer to questions that baffle his intelligence. All experimenting of this kind is a fearful thing—all venture into the l and of the unknown, though it has been going on for thousands of years, and has always resulted in the nobleness of mankind. Nothing is so fearful as Novelty in custom or institution. However confident their anticipation of heaven, none are ready to die. But experience teaches us that the fearfulness is for the instant. The momentary shock of the plunge over, a new set of powers comes into play; a new order of satisfactions reveals itself to view; a new and broader existence is disclosed. We come to learn that to live under law, to live justly, healthfully, obediently, trustingly, is the furthest possible from being a fearful thing. The liar, the thief, the traitor, the murderer, would all be the happier for falling into the hands of the living God. Let His hands make the criminars arrest; let His hands institute the discipline: let His hands execute the sentence; the pain will be brief, the peace will be everlasting.
I plead, then, for full faith in the living God—for full confidence in the mysterious—for full trust in the unknown. I plead for the substitution of a spirit of quiet repose for a spirit of fear, as we think of the power that holds our destiny in its hands. I plead page 13 for a spirit of courage in meeting emergencies, facing difficulties, coming in contact with trials, encountering what seem to be evils, entering upon new and untried paths of life. Let us be sure that there is no demon but the demon of doubt, fear, ignorance, in our own timid bosoms—that out of doors all is light and power. How simple all this is, yet how dark! The words of the old Christian Apostle sound in our ears almost like impiety. Yet how many practically regard them so!
"Yes. write It in the rock!" Saint Bernard said;
"Grave it on brass with adamantine pen.
'Tis God himself becomes apparent, when
God's wisdom and God's goodness are displayed.
For God of these his attributes is made."
Well spake the impetuous Saint, and bore of men
The hearty suffrage. Now not one in ten
Recalls the obscure opponent he outweighed.
God's wisdom and God s goodness! Ay, out fools!
Misdefine these, till God knows them no more.
Wisdom and Goodness, they are God! What schools
Have yet so much as heard this single lore?
This no Saint preaches, and this no Church rules;
'Tis in the desert, now and heretofore.