The Discipline of Uncertainty
Ye know not what shall be on the morrow — Jas_4:14
This, you say, is nothing original and I grant you at once it is not unusual. But the singular thing about the Bible is that it is never afraid to enounce what is taken for granted. There are writers who would sooner commit crime than have it said that they were uttering ordinary thoughts. They are so desperately eager for originality that to say what is taken for granted seems the worst of sins. But the Bible, the most original of books, the most original book in the whole world, is never in the very least afraid to lend all its authority to the obvious. The fact is that as we get older, we come to love these trite observations more. Voicing the deepest of immemorial years, they express our emotions as nothing else can do. We all begin by loving what is clever; that is generally a sign of immaturity. And then comes life and love and suffering, and we see what the great adages mean.
If We Knew What Would Happen Tomorrow
Well now, taking this trite adage, I want to ask, what do you think would happen if we knew? If we knew what tomorrow would bring forth, what do you think the net result would be? God might easily have made us so. There is nothing incredible in that. Now just suppose that we had such a sense as could infallibly penetrate tomorrow, what do you think the result would be? Do you think life would be easier or more difficult? Would it be a richer thing or poorer? What do you think? Well, the judgment of all who have dwelt upon the thought is that that knowledge, so far from being a gain, would be to everyone of us a loss. And I want to show you what things we should lose if God withdrew that curtain of obscurity. I want to show you that the gain of knowledge would never compensate the loss of power. And I want to show it just that we may learn how merciful God is in His denials, in what He refuses as well as what He gives.
Knowledge of the End of the World Would Be Detrimental
At intervals, right down through the Christian centuries, men have believed that the end of the world was coming. On such a day in such a definite year, the trumpet was to sound, and the end come. And the singular thing is that in every case, from the day of Paul to that of Halley’s comet, such a conviction of a certain future has proved itself a curse and not a blessing. Never has it shown the slightest power to make men better or to make them purer. Never has it touched the best within them. Always has it touched the worst within them. It has unlocked the secret wells of cowardice that I suppose lie deep in every heart and degraded men to the level of the beast. If I had my way with fortune-tellers, I would have them banished out of every city. I am amazed that honorable newspapers would dare to publish their predictions. Of course they are charlatans, these fortune-tellers, but the point is that if they were genuine, the knowledge they offer us is just the knowledge that always has proved morally disastrous. Do not smile at the old Bible, my young friend, because it makes it criminal to consult a witch. The Bible is still a little wiser than you are. It knows, and nineteen hundred years have added their witness that it is the truth, it knows that could we know tomorrow, life would practically be unliveable.
We Would Lose the Element of Surprise
Well now, supposing that we knew, what is the kind of thing that we should lose. First I name the element of surprise. I question if we realize how deeply our debt is to the unexpected. I question if any man could live his life if it were robbed of power to surprise him. You know how much of the charm of any character lies in the sweet surprises of its outflow. You know how much of the charm of any road lies in the turn and unexpected view. And if our life in all its dreary days lay open to our gaze, the loss of interest would be incredible. Sometimes you have been asked or have asked another, “Would you like to live your life again?” And the answer to that is almost always, “No, I should not like to live my life again.” And yet, my brother, I doubt that you would say that yours has been an unhappy life. The happiness has been far greater than the misery. Deep down, within that answer of negation, there is this thought that I am trying to voice. There is the thought that life was bearable when every tomorrow had its cloudy curtain. But to repeat it with the daily certainty of what the next day would usher in would be a task beyond our powers. Every sorrow would be doubly bitter because of the shrinking of a thousand yesterdays. Every joy would have its plumage tarnished because we had handled it before its summer. So would we weary in our brightest June and tremble when the storm was on the sea and be less glad and brave than we are now under God’s great kindness of surprise. Shall I tell you why it is that childhood is generally happier than age. It isn’t merely that the life is fuller, though that of course has got its part to play. It is that in childhood everything is strange—every window opens on the infinite—every day that breaks, even in rain, is big with a whole world of possibility. In middle age we are past the unexpected. We have almost lost the power to be surprised. That is why many a man in middle age is haunted by a lack of interest in things. Now just suppose that all life were like that—that it could never surprise us any more— to me at least it would become unbearable.
We Would Lose Alertness
The next thing that we should lose would be the spirit of vigorous alertness. And of that we have a kind of parable in what we see in the dumb animals. Suppose, for instance, that you catch a bird and take it into the safety of your home. And every day you tend it and feed it until at length it learns that food is certain. Do you know what happens, although you might not guess it? Do you know what every naturalist knows? Every instinct of that little captive is silently but surely being dulled. Once it was wild and everything was dark. The bird was at its best when things were dark. Once it didn’t know where its breakfast was when it awoke at dawn and was hungry. But now it knows—you are its little providence, and you have taught it what will come. And it is very sweet to have that certainty, but something better than sweetness is departing.
And that is what would happen to you and me could we see the content of tomorrow. It might be sweet, but what man cares for that if something better than sweetness were to go. I do not want a satisfying life. I want a life responsive and alert. I want to be quick to see and to hear and to seize upon the will of God. And what I say is, that this fine alertness, which is the mark of progress and of victory, would be more difficult a thousand times were we always certain of tomorrow. Many of you here have been to London. Well, what happened when you went to London? Didn’t you cover more ground in one day than many a Londoner does in half a year? He knows it all, every street of it, every park of it and every palace. You are alert because it is unknown. Or to put it another way, here is a man who has to sail for India in six months. He is home on furlough—he has six months to rest—and he gets so fat that you would hardly know him. But here is another man, a soldier, who any hour may get his call to active duty, and I tell you that is the man who is alert. No wandering very far from where his home is. No laying long plans for a fine summer. He knows that sooner or later he must go, perhaps tonight. That man may lose a little as anyone does when he chooses to live the soldier’s life. But he is always fit and always ready, and it is the uncertainty that makes him so. So is it with the uncertainty of death. So with the uncertainty of trial. And it is just the darkness of it all, the feeling that we don’t know what may come, that helps us to be watchful every day.
We Would Lose the Tenderness of Love
The next loss that I would mention is that of the tenderness of love. Do you wonder how that would go if we could see tomorrow? Well, in a word or two let me explain it. There is a fern known to every botanist which goes by the name of the sea-spleenwort. It is a very beautiful fern, dark green, burnished as if the angels had been busy with it, and you only find it where the breakers are and in the dark shadows of the caves. Take it out into the glare of the sun and gradually its beauty will depart. It has too passionate a hold on life to die. It will still flourish on the garden rockery. But never will you see it at its freest, save where the shadow is, the bare rock, and the murmur or wild music of the sea.
Now is there nothing in love akin to that—nothing in the affections of the heart? They become beautiful and doubly tender under the haunting shadow of uncertainty. I do not say that we should cease to love if we knew certainly all that was to be. Love is too deep for that, too vital, too intertangled with the roots of being. But I do say that wherever there is love, there is a wistful tenderness in love that nothing but uncertainty could give. Wherever a mother is praying for her children, wherever a father is working for his children, wherever husband and wife are knit together in the heavenly sacrament of wedded hearts, there the darkness that enwraps tomorrow is like the minor chord in a great melody that speaks in joy of a suggested sorrow and brightens sorrow with encircling joy. If we knew everything, love would be too hard. If we knew everything, love would be too easy. If we knew everything, we should be brokenhearted. If we knew everything, we should be unconcerned. And so our Maker in His perfect wisdom has made us a little lower than the angels, and even the angels cannot love as we do. If you knew your child would die next January, wouldn’t it be very hard for you to discipline him? Wouldn’t you be tempted every hour to say, “It doesn’t matter, let him have his way.” And so that child of yours would miss the discipline that he should carry over to eternity, and perhaps his endless future would be different because you knew the secret of tomorrow. It is far better that we do not know. It is better in the interest of love. It makes us stronger not to know the worst. It makes us tenderer not to know the best.
We Would Lose Our Trust in God
And then, finally, would there not be a loss of trust in God? I do not think that any one can doubt that. Here is a soldier, let us say, on the eve of some desperate engagement. The man has long forgotten his mother’s God, but old memories are coming back tonight. Perhaps he is praying although no one knows it, praying as he has not prayed since childhood, and the man is praying in the darkness because he knows not what a day may bring. Here is a patient, and tomorrow morning she has to undergo an operation. It is a very serious operation—very critical, and she knows it. And why is she lifting up her heart to heaven, and why are friends remembering her in prayer? Why? Because all the skill of all the schools cannot tell her what a day may bring. Tell that soldier that he will be safe and would his knees be bent in prayer tonight? Tell that patient that all is well with her and would her heart be clinging to that text? Ah, sirs, there may be many things which make it hard for us to trust in God, but the shrouded tomorrow makes it easier. Therefore I thank God for it tonight. It is a part of the ladder to the throne. Now we know in part and see in part, and perhaps the part is greater than the whole. The day is coming in the light of God when yesterdays and tomorrows should have fled. Meantime life is richer and not poorer because we know not what a day may bring.