By Harris Franklin Rall
The Church has long emphasized the Christ of kindliness and mercy and patience; there is danger that we forget the Jesus of stern demand. The God whom Jesus brought to men was a God of utter goodness, whose love knew no measure, who gave to men not only every earthly gift but his own self as well. But just because he gave so much, he had to ask much in return. He gave men the highest, he asked from them the utmost. All life, all love, all help he gave; in return he demanded perfect trust of heart and utter devotion of will. It is this demand of Jesus that we now consider.
Jesus' Great Demand
One who was present at that historic moment, tells how the defeated but undismayed Garibaldi made his appeal to the cheering throng that crowded about him in the Piazza of Saint Peter's. "I am going out from Rome," he said. "Let those who wish to continue the war against the stranger, come with me. I offer neither pay, nor quarters, nor provisions; I offer hunger, thirst, forced marches, battles, and death. Let him who loves his country in his heart and not with his lips only, follow me."
The Summons of Jesus.—It was some such summons to devotion that Jesus brought to his disciples. He always put before men a sharp "either, or." He had no place for half-hearted men. We see this first of all in the way in which he called his disciples. Follow me, he says, and they leave the sea and their nets and all the old ways forever (Mark 1. 16-20). Matthew 10. 16-39 sets forth the devotion demanded of the disciple. We are told that the words were spoken by Jesus at the time when he sent forth the twelve upon a special mission. He asks of them absolute allegiance; they may even need to choose him over against brother or father or children. He holds before them the prospect of persecution; it has come to their Master, and why should the servant be above his lord? He represents a great issue which knows no compromise; "I came not to send peace, but a sword." Condemned criminals went out to the place of execution bearing their own cross. That cross was the sign to every one that their lives were no longer their own. So, says Jesus to his disciples, you must follow me as men bearing their cross, whose lives are forfeited to me. As the end of Jesus' life drew near, his demand was even sharper. If you wish to follow me, he says to one, remember that the Son of man has not even a place to lay his head; while he rebukes another by declaring that there is no room in the Kingdom for men who put their hand to the plow but keep looking back (Luke 9. 57-62).
The Whole-Hearted Choice.—It is true that most of these sayings were probably spoken to the smaller group whom he had asked to be his personal companions; but Jesus makes it abundantly plain that he wants this same spirit in all his disciples. The Christian life is a great choice and it must be made whole-heartedly and absolutely. "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other." "Seek ye first his kingdom and his righteousness." "Enter ye in by the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many are they that enter in thereby. For narrow is the gate, and straitened the way, that leadeth unto life, and few are they that find it."
Jesus' Emphasis on the Will.—The Christian life has its different aspects. Religion could not live without emotion. There must be reverence, which the Bible sometimes calls fear; love and joy and peace are the natural fruitage of this experience. Religion engages the mind of man as well as his feelings; it is not blind and unthinking, but involves a conception of God and a definite idea of the meaning of the world and of life. But it is not in thought or feeling that Jesus puts the final test of a religious man; rather it is in the will. What are you doing? he asks. The man that will rise and follow him is his disciple. He may understand very little; and how much did these men understand of what the church has called distinctive Christian doctrines? The test is in the will. The last part of the Sermon on the Mount is wholly given to this solemn truth (Matthew 7. 15-27). It is the fruit that counts—what a man does. "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven." Who is the wise man, with the life that shall endure like the house on the rock? It is the man "that heareth these words of mine and doeth them."
The Sin of Indecision.—The great teachers of life have been one with Jesus in the insistence upon decision and devotion of character, and in their condemnation of indifference and indecision. In a passage of searching power, Dante describes the poor wretches whom he found just outside the gates of hell, the souls of men for whom heaven had no place and whom not hell itself would receive.
And then in one biting phrase he stamps their whole life:
To the same end writes Professor Peabody, in Jesus Christ and the Christian Character: "The first step toward safety is in the decision to proceed. The will takes up the march, and the mind and heart follow. Among the obstacles to the spiritual life on which Jesus primarily dwells is the sin of indecision: 'He that is not with me, is against me. He that gathereth not with me, scattereth. No man can serve two masters.' Neutrality is iniquity. Pilate, though he finds no fault with Jesus, is responsible for his fate. On which side? asks Jesus."
What Is This Obedience?
Is It Passive or Negative?—It is important, however, that we understand just what Jesus means by this obedience, for this word may have very different meanings. With some it means a blind, unquestioning, unthinking surrender, so that the man becomes a merely passive tool under a higher power. Such, for example, was the ideal of obedience held up by Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). He demanded the surrender not only of will, but of mind as well. His followers were to be like a ball of wax ready to be molded by the least touch, like a dead body that can be moved at will. Others have laid stress upon the negative side, the idea of surrender; for them obedience means giving up. Men have felt themselves called upon to give up property, the common business of life, home, and all forms of pleasure and even of comfort.
Blind Obedience.—In all this is a fundamental misunderstanding of Jesus. First of all, the obedience that he wants is not blind and unthinking; it is, rather, an obedience of trust resting upon personal conviction. He wants an absolute obedience, but only because of this conviction. Trust must come first, and he asks men to trust because he brings to them such a God as our Father. He does not ask us to shut our eyes and obey; he wants us to open our eyes and obey. Look at God! All power belongs to him, and all goodness too. To take his will is to find our life, to trust him is to gain strength to live that life. When man sees such a God as Jesus shows, then obedience is not from the will alone, but with mind and heart as well. •
Passive Obedience.—Further, such obedience is not passive. What God wants is not a dead body, but a living man. The Christian life is not giving up, but taking on. What Jesus does is to give a man a worth-while goal. He asks absolute devotion, but only because he offers something high enough and big enough to command and to fill a man's life. The "Follow me" of Jesus is not a word of suppression, it is a call to high ambition, to noblest endeavor; it is a challenge such as can come only by offering a man a great end for his life. To live as a son of God, to fling your life into the world for the sake of men, to help bring in God's kingdom, that is the challenge.
Living Obedience.—Thus it comes that the obedience which Jesus demands is really a gift which he bestows; it is a way of deliverance and life. The will of God means the way by which we come to the highest life. The disciple who prays, "Thy will be done," should say the words not with resignation accepting the inevitable, but with enthusiasm as the goal of his life and its battle-cry. In that word is wrapped up the highest that God has planned for his life, and for the world. "Thy will be done" means the same as "Thy kingdom come," and the kingdom for Jesus meant the fullest life and the highest good.
The Way to Strength and Peace.—The life of obedience, then, means a life of resolution and decision, and such a life alone brings success and satisfaction. The "doubleminded man, unstable in all his ways," is the object of pity if not of scorn. The way of success lies with whole-hearted decision. "The longer I live," says one, "the more certain I am that the great difference between men, the feeble and the powerful, the great and the insignificant, is energy and invincible determination." The undecided life or the divided life always means weakness. The decision which Jesus demands means strength. It means mastery of self, for no man rules himself till he has found something higher to which he may give himself. Such a high end gives unity to his life. It enables him to overcome evil desires and passions. It unites his forces and multiplies his strength. And because it is a high and worthy end it brings him unchanging satisfaction and unfailing peace.
The Life Of Trust
No Obedience Without Trust.—The life of trust is the other side of the life of obedience. "Perfect obedience would be perfect happiness," some one has written, "if only we had perfect confidence in the power we were obeying." Now, it is just these two things that Jesus joins together. He asks perfect obedience because he brings One in whom men may have perfect confidence. He asks a man to give his life entirely to one great end, and then he assures the man that so obeys that all his life is under God's care and that this high end will be achieved. George McDonald has well joined these two thoughts together when he says: "This is a healthy, a practical, a working faith. First, that a man's business is to do the will of God. Second, that God takes upon himself the care of that man. Third, and therefore, that a man ought never to be afraid of anything."
The Confidence of Christ.—No words of Jesus are more beautiful than those in which he pictures the peace and joy and strength that belong to this life of trust. Such was his life. Serene and unafraid, he takes his course. There is struggle, it is true. He knows the dangers; he sees the power of evil and the coming of its apparent triumph. He cries out in the agony of Gethsemane. His trust is not untried, but it is victorious. And the way of quiet and strength which he points out to others is the way that he himself has walked. When Jesus offers peace to men he does not talk of a beautiful but distant ideal. He says: "My peace I give unto you." "Come unto me, . . . and I will give you rest."
The First Condition, a Vision of God.—The first condition of this life of trust, according to Christ, is a vision of God. It was his own deep sense of God that gave him this confidence and peace. Only one thing could cast out the fear of men, and that was the fear of God. Men needed to pray, as he did, "I thank thee, 0 Father, Lord of heaven and earth." "Fear them not, therefore," he says to his disciples, when he speaks of coming danger. "Be not afraid of them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10. 26, 28). Jesus saw God's power in all things. "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? and not one of them shall fall on the ground without your Father." Not the least part of this world's life but was linked to God. "Behold the birds of the heaven; . . . your heavenly Father feedeth them." "Consider the lilies of the field." God clothes them all and the grass as well. To these timid, troubled men God was far off; evil spirits, the threat of hunger and misfortune, were near and real. The great fact for Jesus was the presence and power of God in all his world. And men needed the vision of God's love, his real concern for each humblest life. "Ye are of more value than many sparrows," Jesus cried out to them. "The very hairs of your head are all numbered." "If God doth so clothe the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, 0 ye of little faith?"
No Trust Without Surrender.—We have seen that without trust there can be no free and whole-hearted obedience. Now we must look at the other side: without obedience there can be no real trust. In both the passages which we have just been considering (Matthew 6. 19-34; 10. 16-39) Jesus joins these two great aspects of the life with God, obedience and trust. The man who is utterly given to God need never be afraid. "Be not anxious how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you." "Fear them not." "Be not afraid." "Every one who shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father who is in heaven." But the man who would trust God must be entirely given to him. The cure for worry is a single purpose. The root of worry is a divided mind. That is the literal meaning of the word translated "be not anxious" in the Revised Version. Jesus did not say, "Take no thought." Men are to take thought; Jesus wants men of earnest purpose and care. The mistake lies in the divided purpose. It is in trying to serve two masters, believing in God and yet being afraid about the world, loving God and yet concerned about many other things. To all this Jesus says: "No man can serve two masters." "Be not anxious for your life." "Seek ye first his kingdom and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you."
Devotion and Confidence.—This, then, is the Christian life of trust. A great devotion comes first. A man finds the real end of his life; he gives himself to that end and he knows that it will be his as sure as God is God.
And because man is confident of the great end, he is set free from the worry about lesser things or the enslaving care for them.
Directions For Study
The Scripture passages: Mark 1. 16-20; Luke 9. 57-62; Matthew 10. 16-39; 6. 19-34; 7. 21-27; Luke 12. 4-7.
After reading carefully these passages, turn again in thought to the life of Jesus and find specific illustrations of his obedience and trust
Now note the two great words of this lesson. The first is devotion, or obedience. Just how much did Jesus ask of men in his day? How much of that applies to us now? Distinguish carefully between the ideal of Jesus of a positive and wholehearted life, and what many people mean by surrender and submission.
Consider next Jesus' ideal of the life of trust, and note how obedience, or decision of life, demands trust, and then how trust can come only with obedience or devotion.
How far is it true that the great men of action, notable leaders, have been men of faith and of decision of character? Give illustrations. Why is this true?