A. Herbert Gray: I have never found the presentation of the Christian message either a simple or an easy thing. I know of no verse in the New Testament which sums it up adequately. I cannot symbolize Christian truth to myself as a circle with but one center. At least, it would require an ellipse with its two foci to represent it. Until both the spiritual secret and the ethical content of our religion have been presented to the mind the essential work of an evangelist has hardly been begun. If I had to choose two texts as the foundations for my work I would select "Without Me ye can do nothing" (John 15:5), and "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God" (Matt. 6:33).
But in practice the task of an evangelist is much more complex than any such statement would suggest. Human beings are of so many varied types that Christian truth must be presented from a great many different angles if men and women are to be helped to find their God and their life.
Ultimately everything depends both for religion and for life on the truth about God, and it is often the best and truest way for a Christian preacher or teacher to attempt to set forth the truth about God as He is seen in Jesus.
Yet while it must always be his ultimate aim to help others to know God through Christ, there are many people who at first are not in a position to respond to that method of approach. I have known men and women who made their first steps towards full Christian living under such very different forms of stimulus that I feel an evangelist would need to be a man of almost indefinitely adaptable nature, who by sympathetic contact with people of many sorts had learnt to suit himself to minds and temperaments of great variety.
Some are won by the attraction of the man Christ Jesus. Some are first awakened to eager interest when they realize the full social and international significance of His religion. Some find that the Cross in Calvary says such things to them as they can hardly put into words, but which none the less change life. Some rejoice with unspeakable joy when they first see God through Jesus. Some are driven by the stresses that arise through sin. Some are won by the comfort which Christ alone can offer. Some are first arrested because Jesus answers their eager questions about the life to come. And so one might go on.
Only those who have known many of their fellow-men and women by talking with them about the vital issues of life can have any notion of the magnificence and splendor of the Creator who never repeats Himself as He produces new spirits. Nor can any one else ever realize fully the marvel of Jesus of Nazareth, who in one way or another meets the needs of all varieties of humanity.
I do not offer the address which follows as a sample of what I conceive to be the right way of preaching the gospel. A man may only say what he knows and, therefore, no one man can fully preach the gospel. But even my experience has taught me to attempt many and varied ways of approach to the human souls I have met in my work.
Many people, however, at all events profess to be uninterested in religion. Many declare that they cannot see that it has any vital importance for real life. Many insist that its truths make no real appeal to their natures. Therefore, I offer the following address as an indication of one way in which I have tried to approach such people.
An Address to Young men and Women
A. Herbert Gray: I constantly meet people who seem to believe that the answer to this question is No. At least, they are eager to give that answer in words. Some of them will go on to say that they are not interested in theological questions, that they are not attracted by church services, and that they dislike the society of ordinary religious people. Often they go further and have much to say about the scandal of the quarrels between churches, and about the hypocrites and double dealers who attend churches. They will add that religion is all right for those who like that sort of thing, but that for their part they find they can get on all right without it.
Now I am not going to ask you to listen to any discussion of theological questions, and I have nothing to say in the meantime about churches. I suggest that we leave these things alone for the present. What I want you to do is to think with me about certain unalterable and deep-seated facts about our life and our natures; for, frankly, I do not believe that any of you are getting on all right without religion.
1. I suppose I may assume that you all want to make a good thing of life and even, if possible, a great thing. You want to achieve real self-development and to find some way of self-expression, so that your life shall have meaning and worth. At those times when we are most truly our real selves that desire is most clear and strong. It may even be called one of the primary instinctive desires of all healthy people.
Now, I expect that you are already taking care of your physical development. Probably you take regular exercise and look after your bodies with some care. I am very sorry if you don't, for if you neglect these things you are handicapping yourselves in a way which will hamper you all your life.
Then probably you are doing something about your mental development. You do some studying. You read and think. You are learning to follow some calling. You are becoming efficient in the use of your minds in some direction or other.
And all that is very good. But, if that is all, you are going to be, after all, only a lop-sided sort of person, because body and mind do not make up your whole personality. There is a mysterious third side to you called your spiritual nature. It is because of that nature that you have at times strange subtle longings after the unseen and the infinite. It is because of that nature that you sometimes know that the things which can be seen and handled are not enough for you. The simplest way of expressing that fact is by saying that, deep down in you, you have a capacity for knowing and loving God, and that till that capacity is satisfied you will never be at rest. You may not, as a rule, be conscious of this desire. Though it comes to you at times you can suppress it, and go on caring only for the things of sense-perhaps for weeks or even months. But it always returns; and at times we turn almost with disgust from all the ordinary contents of life. They may be good in many ways, but in moments of insight our verdict about them is that they are "not good enough."
I remember a man at the front whose case interested me intensely. He was about forty-five years old, and before the war had risen, because of his great abilities, to the top of his profession. Men pronounced him a success - a man who had arrived. Yet one day, in the Somme [a horrific battle of WWI], he told me that he was glad the war had broken out because it had enabled him to draw a line across his life and begin again. I asked him why he wanted to begin again, and he told me that he had got tired of life - had exhausted the interest of it, and was weary. Yet men held him a success.
I have met before and since scores of men in his case. They set out at the beginning to achieve certain definite things, and they succeed. By forty or forty-five they have got a position in the world, and a sufficient income. They have pretty houses and attractive families. They have motor cars, or the means to pursue other hobbies. They belong to clubs. And then remorselessly the conviction forces itself upon them that all these things which they have attained at such a cost in labor are "not good enough." They are left still unhappy, or, at least, still unsatisfied. The warmth and color have gone out of life. The thrilling experiences of youth return no more, and the round of familiar people and places, occupations and amusements, bore them.
That is one of life's most critical turning points. A comparatively few at that point take to vice to try to put some vivid color into life again. A great many more settle down to endure boredom, and so to become bores, while the articulate few are heard declaring that human life is essentially a fraud that leads to disillusionment and ennui. "We were born," they declare, "with certain strong and natural instincts, and we followed them. We set out to win the things which appealed to our natures, and lo, in the very hour of success our satisfaction was snatched from us. We found out we had been pursuing vanities. We have been tricked by life and fate." That is how the cynics are made. From Solomon onwards thousands have walked along that road, only to be found at the end murmuring, "Vanity of vanities." (Eccl. 1:2)
But the case of all these men does not prove that life is a fraud. It only proves that man is a far greater being than these men knew. There is really something splendid about the magnificent audacity with which men declare that all the visible contents of the world are not enough for them. Though they do not know it, they are registering the fact that they do not in the last analysis really belong to this world. For the truth is that all the sights and sounds of the world leave a man hungry just because he was made for God, and without his God remains a stranger to his peace. These disillusioned men I have spoken of made the profound mistake of not taking a true account of themselves.
They achieved only a lop-sided development; and so when the first early zest of life had exhausted itself they Were left lamenting. Because they have found no spiritual peace, they can have no peace at all. Life need not end in cries about vanity, but those who would escape that fate must aim at something greater than any amount of what is called worldly success. What man needs to find is the secret of what Kipling calls "a soul unbroken when the body tires." [Preface to "Land and Sea Tales"] Otherwise life is indeed a failure.
And thousands have found it. Thousands have discovered a secret whereby their strength is renewed from year to year, so that life takes on more meaning and more interest every season. Thousands go about with the signs of a deep inward peace in their very eyes. There is no inward ferment in their beings. They have found some secret of reconciliation with the world, with life, with other people and with themselves. And they have found all that because they have found the secret of reconciliation with God.
Nor do they despise life because they have found God. On the contrary all things seem to turn good to them. The sunshine is more brilliant, flowers are more lovely, people are more attractive, wit is keener, love itself is more wonderful, once they have learnt to experience all these things against the background of God. They do not have a religious life and another life. They have one harmonious and deeply happy life filled with the sense of His presence.
And if you ask me why I tell you, who are young, this long story about the troubles of middle age, the answer is that all these men who have experienced disillusionment made their first mistaken steps in life at your age. They set their courses wrongly while they were still in the twenties. And now it is very hard for them to awaken to the sense of God. Their spiritual capacities by long disuse have become dull and lifeless. Though their need for God may at last become very plain to them, it is very hard for them to find Him.
It is you who stand at the period of opportunity. It is you whose spiritual capacities still have vigor and sensitiveness. Now is the time to remember your Creator - long before the evil days come when your wearied heart might be heard saying, "I have no pleasure in them." (Eccl. 12:1)
Yes, that is the first reason why we need religion - because we were made for God, and must eventually be miserable and hungry without Him.
2. But now let me offer you another answer to my question.
I practically never meet healthy and normal people of whom it is not true that they want to make a worthy thing of life. They want to be come true, upright, clean-living, useful men and women. In plain English they want to be good. One of the things which no preacher need bother to try to do is to prove that goodness is a better thing than folly and vice. "We all know that" is what ordinary people would say. Therefore I assume that you want to live fine lives and acquire true characters.
Now do lets be honest and frank about this business. I ask you bluntly, "How are you getting on with this business of being good?" Of course, you are living respectable decent lives like most other people. But that is not the question. How are you getting on in the matter of carrying out your own resolutions and living up to your own ideals? You recognize that you ought to be unselfish at home. Are you unselfish at home? You despise jealousy. But have you overcome jealousy in yourself? Some of you have tempers. How are you getting on in the matter of controlling those tempers? Some of you have an inborn tendency to slackness and sloth. Have you mastered that inborn tendency?
Your best self loathes deceit. But have you banished deceit from your life? You despise cowardice. But do you never do wrong simply out of fear? Purity is part of your ideal. But do you find a pure life easy? Or have you, like so very many, certain hidden shames in your life? How do things stand with you compared with this time last year? You meant to be far on in the matter of learning goodness. But what as a matter of fact has happened?
Is it not the fact that you often still do the evil you meant never to do again, and that much of the good you had planned remains to this day undone (Rom. 7:19)? Now, is not that a very humiliating position? That we should be unable to carry out our own good resolves - that we should be beaten again and again by evils which we despise - that we should not be the masters and mistresses of our own lives - that we should be inwardly ashamed and disgusted because of our own record up to date - that seems to me the central humiliation of human life.
If there is no escape from that debasing condition, then I for one have something stronger to say about life than that it is a vanity. I should call it on those terms a sheer torment. Well might Paul call himself a wretched man, and declare he was tied to a body of death (Rom. 7:24). To have fine and beautiful moral aspirations such as you all have, and to be condemned none the less to live stained and petty lives - what could be worse? And it is because they have found no way of escape from that humiliation that there is so much deep-seated unhappiness in human beings. They once tried and failed. They have now accepted failure, and tried to get accustomed to it. But something goes on protesting all the time against the failure, so that life holds no peace.
Of course, such people deny what I am saying. Of course, they protest they are not bothering about it. That is part of their defensive armor. That is how they try to deceive themselves into some sort of satisfaction with life. But at times the truth declares itself. The God who lives in every man does not die; and because of the unsilenced protest of the best part of himself the man who continues to be defeated by his sins remains a sad man.
Now it is the very central claim of the Christian religion that it brings to us a secret whereby we can escape from this besetting humiliation in life. The same man who once cried, "Oh, wretched man that I am," (Rom. 7:24) lived to be able to say, "I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me." (Phil. 4:13)
By surrendering himself to Christ, he entered on an experience of God after which the power of God became available for him, and lifted him onto a new level of living. Or, put differently, the inspiration he drew from knowing God through Christ did actually deliver him from his wretched state. He declared that, in a sense, he no longer lived his own life - so clearly did he realize that the power of God was working in and through him. On the wings, as it were, of a new inspiration he was carried past the temptations which formerly had laid him low. His life was so filled with happy and positive aspirations that there was no longer any room in it for low desire.
And what St. Paul found in his experience has been found by a great multitude since his day. Thousands of them are alive now. In varying forms of words they have the same story to tell. From the day when they surrendered themselves to Christ life has taken on a new character. They have not all been made victorious all at once. Indeed, all of them find that temptation does not accept defeat once for all, and that ever and again they are called to fight. But they fight in a strength that is not their own, and are made conquerors. Suddenly with some - gradually with most - the old desires die away, the old ambitions wither, strength takes the place of weakness, patience is born even in impatient hearts, humility is given to those who once were proud, courage is bestowed on many who once simply gave way before sorrow, and so life becomes victorious. They live new lives "through Christ." (Phil. 4:13)
Now in saying these things to you I am not expounding a theory. I am recording a fact. These things are as fully and clearly proved as the law of gravitation. It is an established certainty that through Christ this power of victory is to be had. There was nothing unique about St. Paul. He was very emphatically a man of like passions with us. He was no moral genius. He was not even one of those rare souls whom we sometimes meet, and about whom we feel inclined to say that they were born good. He had known what sin and defeat are. And with most of the others who now offer us the same testimony the same things were true. Some of them had been sensualists. Some had been restless pleasure-seekers. Some had once ugly tendencies such as jealousy or conceit or violent temper. Many were people who just felt that they had not sufficient energy for the good life. Many more were the pitiful victims of recurring moods of depression, which spoilt the quality of their lives.
Oh, yes, they were just like us. And through Christ they entered on a new quality of life. Through Christ they became able to accomplish great things.
In view of that fact can any of you still honestly say that you do not need religion? - Would it really be honest to say so? You may have felt hitherto that you do not like religion; and if so that is certainly because you have got wrong impressions about it. But if religion contains the secret of becoming what in our best moments we want to be, can any of Us truthfully say that we do not need it?
And now if you ask me how this religion is to be made ours - if you raise the question "how can any one enter on the sort of experience St. Paul had", I have no single dogmatic answer to offer you. The ways which lead to God are very many, and wonderfully varied. Just as every soul is an original creation of God's, so, perhaps, the spiritual experience of each soul is unique.
There is always a certain mystery about the matter when a soul is found of God. The experience has something in it which suggests the wind, which we can hear but cannot explain. Certainly no two souls ever have quite the same experience. Some get home like storm-tossed souls, driven for shelter to their Father's home. Some seem to find Him naturally and easily, and to cling to Him by spontaneous affinity. Some are constrained by the consequences of their own sin, and others seem to be won by the beauty of His holiness.
Much experience has taught me that I must not dogmatize about the ways of finding God.
But at least for a great many of us this is true - that we shall not find Him or be found of Him until we have faced the humiliation of admitting that without Him we are failing. Most of us fight hard to keep up pretenses with ourselves. To face and admit the facts would be so painful that we prefer to deceive ourselves. And so we hold God at a distance. We would like to believe that we are sufficient in ourselves. We would like to escape admitting that again and again we have done despicable things. We shun the valley of our humiliation. And, of course, on those terms we can have no experience of the saving power of God.
But are you not getting tired of that plan? It has left you in your present condition - inwardly without rest, dissatisfied and, in the deepest sense, unsuccessful. I ask again are you not getting tired of that condition? It is a fatiguing thing holding out against God. Are you not weary?
You can end all that phase of life by simply and bravely turning to God and admitting to Him your utter need. You will have to stand in the full light of truth, and the truth is that you are a sinner. Yes, it is just that old hated word that expresses the truth. It hurts to use it about ourselves. And yet it is just sin that is wrong with us. And Christ saves His disciples from their sins. Is that not a compelling reason why you should turn to Him and, admitting your need, offer Him your surrender?
He is waiting to accept you as a disciple. There is a place for you in the circle of those whom He loves, who are saved by His love. Why do you wait before taking that place? Why do you continue to be humiliated by defeat when you might be made a conqueror?
A sermon preached by Dr. A. Herbert Gray, of the Student Christian Movement, England, 1925. BV3797.A1T4
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