“Who can understand his errors?” Psa_19:12
It is the true desire of every earnest heart that preceding the Communion Service our thoughts should be turned inward in self-examination. Every astronomer worthy of the name is constantly careful to keep his lenses clean. But when he is on the verge of some great hour, then he cleanses them with double care. And so the Christian must always be watchful—must always be examining himself—but never more intensely so than at the time when he is looking for fresh discoveries of Christ. I want you, therefore, to follow me while I try to find why most of us are so ignorant of self. For of this you may be always sure, that the more we know what we really are, the better shall we know our need of Christ and of the glorious Gospel of His grace.
Busy Days and Quiet Times
It is a full and busy life in which we share, and the hand of that life opens many doors, but not the door which leads into the heart. Moments are precious now and days are full. Interests are manifold and ever changing. There is not an attic window which does not open on the panorama of the mighty world. And just as the Indian, putting his ear to the ground, can hear far off the galloping of horses, so all the movement and music of humanity is morning by morning borne upon our ear. It was a saying of John Wesley that he had all the world for his parish. And there is not a farmer in the remotest village who could not say something of the same kind today.
Now none but a pessimist would ever doubt that in this full life are elements of value. It has developed man and enlarged his vision and helped to make him a little less parochial. It has turned the Gospel into a world-wide message in a way that was never possible before. All this is good and we are thankful for it. There is something in it which exalts the Savior. We are learning the kingship of Jesus Christ today in a manner that was undreamed of once. And yet with it all there is a certain loss—a loss of quietness and of introspection. We have an added knowledge of the world, and perhaps a lessened knowledge of ourselves. We know far more than our forefathers knew about Japan and India and Thailand. The question is, do we know any more about the spiritual kingdom that is here? And after all, no kingdom in the world can relay such mighty news as can the kingdom of a man’s own soul where heaven and hell are fighting for the throne. We have gained, and we have also lost. We have seen more widely, and are a little blinder. We know far more than our forefathers knew, and yet it may be we know a little less. It is far harder now than it was once to reap the harvest of the quiet eye by practicing, amid the stir of things, the quiet and kindly grace of recollection.
We Are Rocked to Sleep by the Gradual
Another and deeper cause of our self-ignorance is the gradual and silent growth of sin. You are never startled by any noise of hammering when the chains of a bad habit are being forged. All of us are roused into attention when anything flashes suddenly upon us. It is one of the ministries of God’s surprise that it arrests us when we are dull and heavy. But when a thing is gradual in its coming and steals upon us without the sound of a trumpet, it is always easy to be unobservant. If in a moment the sun shone out in splendor and midnight vanished and the sky were blue, how every eye would mark that miracle and see in it the hand of the divine! But like a true artist of Almighty God, the sun has a scorn for anything sensational, and never an infant is wakened from its cradle as, rising, the sun parts the curtains of the east.
Think of the way in which children grow. How silently they creep towards their heritage! It seems but yesterday since they were little infants and busied with the first stammerings of speech. And today they are fighting their battle with the world, and the mystery of life has touched them, and they are launched into the boundless deep—and still are children in their mother’s eyes. We are all rocked to sleep by what is gradual. We let ourselves be tricked by what is silent. We miss the message of God times without number because He whispers in a still small voice.
And just as we are often dulled towards God, so are we dulled to our besetting sin for it has grown so gradually and strengthened with our strength and never startled us with any uproar. It is easy to see the sins of other people, because in a moment they are displayed to us. We see them not in the slowness of their growth, but in the sudden flash of their fulfillment. We see them as we see some neighbor’s child whom for a year or two we have not set our eyes on, and then we say, “How the child has grown; I never would have recognized him!” That is how we can detect our neighbor’s sin. That is how we fail to see our own. It has grown with us and lived in the same home and sat at the same table all the time—until today we are living such a life as God knows we never meant to live, and tampering with conscience and with purity as God knows we never dreamed to do. Had the thing leapt on us like a wild animal we should have aroused our manhood to resist it. But the most deadly evils do not leap on us. The most deadly evils creep on us. And it is that slow and silent growth of all that at last is mighty to confound which lulls men into the strange security which always is the associate of self-ignorance.
You Can Never Know Sin’s Power, Till You Oppose It
Another reason for self-ignorance is that you never know sin’s power till you oppose it. It is as true of sin as of any other force that you must measure its power by resistance. It is not when you are walking with the wind that you can measure how strong the wind is blowing. It is when you turn into the teeth of it that you perceive the power of the blast. And you will never learn the power of sin, nor how sweet it is nor what a grip it has, till in the name of God you battle with it. That is what Paul means when, in Romans, he says “I had not known sin but by the law.” It was when sin was checked by the commandment that it revealed the power which was in it. It was when God said “Thou shalt not,” that sin began to struggle for its life; and the commandment came, says the apostle, and sin revived and I died. Try to lift up those chained arms of thine, and thou wilt find how heavy are the chains. Waken that sleeping devil in thy bosom, and thou wilt find it is a sleeping Hercules. It is thus that men are led to Jesus Christ and to feel their need of an Almighty arm and to cast themselves in great despair on Him who can save even to the uttermost.
The Tangle of the Beautiful and the Base
Another cause of our self-ignorance lies in the interweaving of our best and worst. In deeper senses than the psalmist thought of, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
I had the pleasure, some little time ago, of going over one of the cruisers of the Navy. There was a great deal that was good to see, and with consummate courtesy we were shown it all. But the feature which seemed to interest our guide most, and to which he called particular attention, was the watertight compartments of the ship. He pointed out the fittings of the doors. He showed us how ingeniously they set. When the doors were locked there was such nice exactitude that not a penknife could have been inserted. And all this meant that in the hour of battle, if the one cabin were flooded by a shot, the other compartments would be dry.
Now it is thus that men may build, but it is not thus that the Almighty builds. There is no door of steel which closes fast between the highest and the worst in us. If all that was bad in individual character stood by itself in perfect isolation, then we would feel the joy of what was good and the dark loathsomeness of what was evil. But human character is not constructed with separate departments for its good and evil. It is an intricate and inextricable tangle of what is beautiful and what is base.
“Then I beheld,” says Bunyan in his dream, that “there was a way to hell from nigh the gate of heaven.” I think that that is so with every man: his hell and heaven are never far apart. There is something of his weakness in his strength, and the beautiful and the ugly have strange kinships, and the good and the bad in him spring up together like the wheat and tares in Jesus’ parable. Let the philosophers sift out our faculties. Let them distinguish the reason from the will. Let them treat on this page of the memory and on that page of the imagination. Our ordinary life makes merry with philosophers. And hope and faith and will, and height and depth, are interwoven in a water lily—beautiful, yet rooted in the slime. How many a glimpse there is of heaven in passions whose appointed end is misery. And it is the interweaving of such opposites in the whole range of human life and conduct which leads so often and so easily to the peril and the evil of self-ignorance.
The Poverty of Our Ideal
I shall mention but one more cause of our self-ignorance, and that is the low standard of our moral judgment. We manage to be contented with ourselves because of the poverty of our ideal. A sheep may look tolerably fair and clean against the greenness of the summer grass, but when the snow has fallen in virgin purity the sheep may be as a blot upon the hill. It is not the living creature that is different; it is the background that is different, and I want to ask you this straight question—What is the background of life? Is it the common standard of your class? Then you will never understand your errors. You are not worse than anybody else; you are as good as they are any day. But how that poor and shallow self-complacency is torn and tattered into a thousand shreds when the life which once accepted social values is set against the background of the Christ! Paul was proud of his moral standing once, for he could lift up his head with any Pharisee. But when Christ found him and made a man of him, the Pharisee became the chief of sinners. And it is always so when Christ comes in. We see the brightest and we see the worst. There is a heaven higher than our hope, and there is a hell deeper than we dreamed. Have you been awakened in any way like that? Are you profoundly dissatisfied with self? Have you had hours when you felt that in all the world there could be nobody quite so bad as you? Blessed be God for His convicting Spirit. It is better to feel that than to be satisfied. It is along that road, however dark, that the way lies for self-examination at the Communion Table.