The Contradictions of Life
“We went through fire and through water, but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place.” Psa_66:12
This psalm is the glad utterance of a soul that is looking back to the deliverance from Egypt. It is a song of praise for the great goodness of the Lord in bringing His people to the promised land. There had been times when that journey seemed a failure; times when the desert seemed so terrible that Israel began to cry again for Egypt. But God in His strange sovereignty of leadership was going to bring them on to Canaan yet. They had been brought through fire—the fiery sun in the wilderness of Sinai; the fiery serpents with the venomous bites. They had been through water. Had they not crossed the Red Sea and the Jordan dry shod? Now they looked back on it, and the great souls saw it had all been necessary. They had needed that baptism in the Red Sea; they had needed the chastening of the fiery serpents if God was to bring them into a wealthy place.
But when a poet speaks of fire and water, I think he means more than the material elements. The commonest word, for the true poet’s heart, has wings that carry it away into the distances. There are suggestions, there are expansions in our ordinary vocabulary, for the one who sees as every poet does. And the literal fire and the literal water for David flashed into types and symbols of far other things. Water! O God, were there no seas of sorrow, were there no floods of tears? Fire! And had no fiery trials befallen them out in the desert and down by Sinai? It was all that that was in the poet’s heart; it was all that he saw again. In that sense, what a depth of meaning in the words: “We went through fire and water, but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place.”
The Contradictions of Life
Now there are many lessons in our verse. They are filled with the truth of the leadership of God, and we might spend many a profitable hour in thinking of that omnipotent Deliverer. But I want to take one simple thought to dwell upon. It is the apparent contradictions of our life. He speaks of fire and water: are they not very opposites? Fire mounts and water falls. And when we want to quench the .fire, when the call rises to extinguish it, what do we use? Why, water. And “we went,” said David, “through fire and water, but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place.” Life, then, has need of opposites. And life advances through its contradictions. If you are in line with the leadership of God, you come into your wealth by strange antagonisms. Now let us take that thought as a Scriptural lamp and swing it over some of the passages of life. There is a wonderful comfort and power in it for the right management of changing days. And think of life’s common experiences first.
I take it that there is no one who has not known the music and the light of joy. It may have come like a bird upon the wing. It may have come more sternly when the fight was fought, when the hard duty was done. It may have leaped from one of these thousand wells that in the weariest heart, thanks be to God, are not quite silted up. And it made life so new, so rich, so filled with the possibilities of heaven that we were ready to pray when we were joyful and say that it was God who brought us here. And so it was, my friend, so it was. He creates light, and every good gift is from Him. And the pleasures of music, the song of birds, the laughter of children, the love of friends, these things and things like these, sources of happiness, crowned in the joy of Christ—these things are all from God.
And then come sorrow and suffering and loss, and gloom for the sunshine and weeping for the laughter. And the heart languishes and mourns like Lebanon for the great season of the cross has come. And all that we ever hoped is contradicted. And here is the exact opposite of all our joy. And if God was in that, how can He be in this, unless our Leader contradicts Himself?
But the strange thing about Jesus Christ is that He has saved us by being a Man of Sorrows, yet He was always speaking of His joy. And the strange thing about the Christian Gospel is that joy is its keynote, joy is its glad refrain; and yet it comes to me, to you, and whispers, My son, my daughter, take up thy cross and bear it. Did Jesus of Nazareth contradict Himself? Is the Gospel in opposition to the Gospel? Never, friend, not that: a house divided against itself is doomed. But it is through the strange antagonisms of the heart, and all the teaching of a diverse guidance, that we are brought at last to our wealthy place.
Remember, then, that even in daily life God means us to advance through contradictions. And when the brightness passes and the shadows come, when the song of the morning is changed into a cry, don’t think that any unlooked-for storm has swept you from your charted course to heaven. It takes both lights and shadows to make a summer. There is December in the perfect year no less than June. The earth rolls on to harvest through night and day, through bitter cold and heat. And you and I need all that ever came to us if our field is to be golden by and by.
Contrasts in the New Testament
But passing from these common experiences of life, I note that we cannot open our New Testament without finding the same element of contradiction.
I think, for example, of the great words of Jesus, “Come unto me, and I will give you rest.” And if there is one word that sums up the Gospel and carries all the Gospel blessings in its bosom, I don’t know what it is other than that word “rest.” Mr. Moody used to tell the story of a little girl who was very ill. And her mother sang to her all the familiar hymns and spoke to her of God and love, but the little daughter was restless and fretful still. And then her mother stooped down and without a word she took her child into her arms. And her child, with a look of unutterable peace, said, “Ah, mother, that’s what I want.”
Now, what is the very opposite of rest? The very opposite of rest is struggle. And what stands in flat contradiction to the thought of peace? It is the thought of war. And yet I cannot open my New Testament without finding that the follower of Christ is called to war. “Fight the good fight of faith,” says the Apostle. “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be a victor in the evil day. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers.” And how can this be? The Gospel of Christ is rest, and yet the note of struggle rings in it? And it is peace, perfect peace, to live with Christ, and yet the trumpet sounds the alarm of war? It is an opposition, a contradiction. The Bible seems in arms against itself. Here, you would say, is a divided house, and a divided house like that can never stand. But “we went through fire and water,” says the psalmist, “and thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place!” And even fire and water are not farther separated from each other than the peace and war that help us to our goal. I cannot explain these contradictions, but I live through them and they carry me on. For somehow I never have peace except I struggle, and I cannot struggle if I am not at peace.
There have been creeds that said, Why struggle, be at rest, but they have rejected the battle that the soul might be still. And there are creeds that have said, You have nothing to do with rest: strive on, fight on, for character, heaven, God. And both philosophies, for all the practical help they ever gave, have been only stillborn children. Christ comes: He opens His arms to these antagonisms. He takes the contradictory thought of peace and war into the very bosom of His Gospel; and there, in mysterious ways, they harmonize, and my life advances through these contradictions.
The Realm of Thought
Now come a little deeper—into the realm of thought. There too, through fire, through water, through truths that seem opposed to one another, God brings His children to a wealthy place. There is one truth that is a little in abeyance nowadays: I mean the truth of the sovereignty of God. We dwell so lovingly upon God’s fatherhood that we are almost in danger of forgetting His sovereignty. It comes like music from the hills to sing together, “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” Do you believe in a foreseeing God? Do you believe in a fore-ordaining God? Do you believe that the very hairs of your head are numbered, and that not a sparrow can be struck and fall without the prevision of the Infinite Mind? Then every event has been fore-calculated yonder, and every trifle is a pre-arrangement; and back of every word I ever spoke and every deed I ever tried to do, there moves the sovereign will of the Almighty.
Now tell me, in absolute opposition to that fore-ordering will—what stands? You answer in a moment—the free will of man. If I am free to exercise my will as I believe and not the helpless creature of necessity, what becomes of the pre-determining will of God? If there is one flat contradiction in the universe, I think, my friends, it is there. And am I to give up my moral freedom? Heaven guard me, never! And am I to cast the sovereignty of God to be swirled and scattered by the winds of heaven? No, God forbid, life would be a poor thing then. But I am to remember that I am going through fire and water in order that God may bring me to a wealthy place. I thought that joy and sorrow were contradictions, yet my life has been growing rich and deep through them. I thought that peace and war were contradictions, but I never could win my crown except for them. I thought the sovereignty of God and the free will of man were contradictions, yet it takes belief in both, even if unreconciled, to deepen, steady, and inspire my character. And some day, when the rolling mists have fled and the rosy-fingered dawn is on the hills, and in the dawn the King in His beauty comes, I shall find that things which to my finite and fragmentary mind seemed alien and utterly opposed to one another are blended into perfect accord in the infinite intelligence of God.
The Contrast of Life and Death
Watch the streets when the factories come out. Watch the children playing after school. There is movement, ceaseless activity, shouting voices; and you look at it and say, what life is there! It is life that is pulsing in these thousands of hearts. It is life that is moving in these thousands of feet. It is life that is echoing in these thousands of voices.
And then, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, you steal away to where the dead are lying. It may be there is someone of your own there, and a fresh flower lies upon the grave. And the eye is sealed and the voice is silenced, and the busy heart will never beat here again. And the gulf between joy and sorrow, between peace and war, is not so deep, so dark, as the great gulf between life and death. O death, thou last great enemy of life, what a measureless distance between thee and living! All other antagonisms are weak compared to this, the utter opposition of life and death.
But “we went through fire and water,” says the psalmist, “but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place.” And no man ever wins his spiritual fortune but through the great antagonism of life and death. We are like seed corn with all life germinate here. But how are we to win our golden harvest? “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die.” I live and die—to live. My life advances through that contradiction now. And in the great eternity, where the one light is God and where every wound is staunched and every tear is dried, I shall find that the burning fire of life was needed, and the waters of Jordan that quenched that fire were needed to bring me out into my wealthy place.