Great Texts of the Bible
The Partial and the Perfect
For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I have been known.—1 Corinthians 13:12.
1. St. Paul has been speaking of gifts or endowments on which members of the Corinthian Church were priding themselves. There was a great deal of emotion in the new Christian societies of that day. Emotional impulses broke out in irregular exhortations, in utterances of praise, in expressions of conviction, in acts of healing; and these impulses, which sometimes led to disorderly competition, needed to be controlled. The first principle that St. Paul lays down with regard to them is that their proper object is to be of some use to the Christian society. They were given not for the profit or distinction of the individual, but for the benefit of the Church. Then he bids his readers see that all gifts, even those from which the Church might derive most advantage, were essentially inferior to love.
He goes on to describe, in words worthy of what he praises, the beauty and blessedness of love. The ultimate distinction that he ascribes to it is that it lasts; it does not fail, or undergo changes, it abides. Herein especially was it contrasted with prophesying and tongues and knowledge. Prophecies will be done away, tongues will cease, knowledge will be done away. St. Paul was no doubt referring here to the emotional gifts which were used and valued in the Churches of that age. But he lets us see that he regards these as representing all intellectual conceptions and utterances concerning spiritual things. “For we know in part, and we prophesy (or preach) in part: but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.” St. Paul would hardly have spoken thus if he had not himself been perplexed by the incompleteness and unsatisfying character of the accounts which we can give to ourselves and others of the ways of God. He was accustomed to take refuge in the thought that our conceptions and language are the expressions of partial knowledge, such as will be superseded in time by maturer and completer knowledge. And he had evidently found support in the two analogies which he proceeds to give.
(1) “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things.” Every grown-up person is familiar with this experience. We can remember fanciful conceptions of our childhood which now make us smile; things appeared to us in very different proportions from those in which we see them now. Our knowledge has grown, and the growth of it inevitably alters our apprehensions and judgments. It is not unreasonable to expect that what has already happened to us will happen to us again. May we not hope that in the future world, which we cannot now understand, but which will seem so different to us from the present, the contradictions and perplexities which baffle us now will in some way be made to disappear? There is a presumption that, even on this side of the grave, as the generations of Christians grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, they may outgrow doctrines and rules which were natural to earlier stages.
(2) The other analogy is that which forms our text. We are reminded of the difference between a person seen as reflected by an imperfect and confusing mirror and the same person seen face to face. Let us hold—the Apostle taught—that God is now seeing and knowing us; but let it not be assumed that we as yet see and know God—except most imperfectly.
2. The expression which St. Paul here uses is a very suggestive one. He has been speaking of the contrast in value between knowledge and love, showing that all our knowledge, of whatever sort it may be, is of little worth compared with love. Love is that which alone is truly precious in human life, and love endures; while all our ideas are destined to dissolve and pass away, like the changing shapes of the clouds from the heaven’s azure. Love is that constant blue above, and love above is eternal. Knowledge is partial, and therefore the utterance of the truth in prophecy or preaching must be partial. And just as the man puts off the thoughts of the child, so the man is ever putting off and changing even his manhood’s thoughts that have been as those of a spiritual childhood, for those that are to him new and better, even as he changes his raiment. This process must go on to the last hour of mental life and activity; and what we think the best thought must in time give place to a better; and the best that can be dreamed is still a dream and a shadow compared with the substance and the reality itself. “For,” says the Apostle (to render his words quite literally), “we are looking now through a mirror in (or upon) an enigma.”
3. Human knowledge is imperfect, fragmentary, partial. We can scarcely be said to “know”; we are only “learning to know” by slow and painful effort; our best attainment is one-sided, relative, incomplete. Our expression even of what we think we know is partial and imperfect. Not only do we “know in part,” but we “prophesy in part.” Even those whom God has called to be His spokesmen can but communicate their message in language which is inadequate to express the truth fully. And why? Because here and now, in this present life and with our limited faculties, we can only see “by means of a mirror.” All that we can discern is as it were but a reflection of the absolute archetypal realities, a blurred, confused, imperfect image of glory upon which as yet we cannot gaze. And even that reflection which we seem to see can only be described in language which is like a riddle, challenging us to guess its meaning and unravel its secret, but hinting, not defining, hard to interpret, liable to be misunderstood. In the face of eternal truths we are but children; thinking, feeling, speaking, with the limited capacities, the baffled eagerness, the constant and inevitable misunderstandings of children: yes, but like children too, with the hope and promise of growth, development, attainment hereafter.
For St. Paul’s now is balanced by a then. “When that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.” Beyond this life of mediate and imperfect knowledge expressed in the language of riddles lies the promise of a life where knowledge will be immediate, distinct, consummated in the vision of God “face to face”; when partial knowledge will be exchanged for knowledge so full, so complete, so personal, that St. Paul dares to compare it with God’s present perfect insight into each human soul;—“then shall I know fully even as also I have been fully known.”
Meanwhile, in this our present state of limited and imperfect knowledge, amid all the uncertainties and perplexities of life, there is one sure clue, one indispensable guide to direct us—“love never faileth.”
The idea is one, but the Apostle gives it in two parallel statements, after the manner of Hebrew poetry. And each statement has its two sides—“now” and “then.” Thus—
1. Now we see in a mirror, darkly.
2. Then face to face.
1. Now I know in part.
2. Then shall I know even as also I have been known.
It is often hard to get people to see. Their gaze is on the outward—the shows of sense and of time—on the seen; and therefore to the New Testament writers it is but blindness. To them he who does not see the unseen does not see at all. But, given the vision of faith, it will develop from faltering dim beginnings, and its horizon will become richer and more heavenly. It will rejoice in the mirror. It will not even resent the riddle. And why? Because it is conscious of moving onwards to the Face.
One summer evening sitting by my window I watched for the first star to appear, knowing the position of the brightest in the southern sky. The dusk came on, grew deeper, but the star did not shine. By-and-by, other stars less bright appeared, so that it could not be the sunset which obscured the expected one. Finally, I considered that I must have mistaken its position, when suddenly a puff of air blew through the branch of a pear-tree which overhung the window, a leaf moved, and there was the star behind the leaf.
At present the endeavour to make discoveries is like gazing at the sky up through the boughs of an oak. Here a beautiful star shines clearly: here a constellation is hidden by a branch: a universe by a leaf. Some mental instrument or organism is required to enable us to distinguish between the leaf which may be removed, and a real void: when to cease to look in one direction, and to work in another. Many men of broad brow and great intellect lived in the days of ancient Greece, but for lack of the accident of a lens, and of knowing the way to use a prism, they could but conjecture imperfectly. I am in exactly the position they were when I look beyond light. Outside my present knowledge I am exactly in their condition, I feel that there are infinities to be known, but they are hidden by a leaf.1 [Note: Richard Jefferies, The Story of My Heart, 188.]
The late Professor T. C. Edwards says that St. Paul got his metaphor of the mirror from Philo, who got it from Plato, and he mentions the striking passage in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates is illustrating the slow development of our faculties by the case of men who have been immured in a cavern and are suddenly dragged into the sunlight. Not a man at first can make out, in the unaccustomed glare, a single object as it is. “Hence, I suppose, habit will be necessary to enable him to perceive objects in that upper world. At first he will be most successful in distinguishing shadows; then he will discern the reflections of men and other things in water, and afterwards the realities; and after this he will raise his eyes to encounter the light of the moon and the stars, finding it less difficult to study the heavenly bodies and the heaven itself by night than the sun and the sun’s light by day.” Finally, he will see the sun as it is, not as it appears in water or on alien ground, and then he will conclude that the sun is the author of the seasons, the guardian of the visible world, and the cause of all he and his friends used to see. On some such lines the idealism of St. Paul runs respecting the soul and its spiritual vision as it ascends from the partial to the perfect, from the fleeting to the real. One may note, in passing, the joy of discovering a kinship between such minds as Plato, St. Paul, and Wordsworth, children of ages far distant, but each illumined by the immanent Reason, by the “Light which lighteth every man.”2 [Note: R. M. Pope, The Poetry of the Upward Way, 152.]
“Now we see in (by means of) a mirror, darkly.”
St. Paul’s meaning is explained in an illustration. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.” With the humility of true wisdom and the sweetness of a large understanding, he reckons the attainments of this life as no more than childish acquisitions, when compared with that which we shall reach when we are home. Our powers are undeveloped, immature, juvenile, in this life; our spiritual insight is therefore defective, and our knowledge only preparatory or initial.
1. In (or by) a mirror.—When St. Paul lived and wrote, mirrors were not made of glass, as the Authorized Version of this passage erroneously suggests, but of some metal. The best, being made of silver, were costly, and it took a good deal of skill and labour to make the surface of the metal quite even. And however well made a mirror might be, it was always in danger of losing its clearness by exposure. St. Paul and his readers were not of the class that could indulge themselves in costly articles of luxury. A cheap and inferior mirror was better than nothing; but we can picture to ourselves what the mirrors used by the humbler classes were like, if we recall the reflections of ourselves which we have casually seen in tarnished and uneven surfaces of metal.
Let any one imagine himself to be before such a mirror, with a friend standing by him. He can see the friend’s face reflected as if he were looking through the mirror. But the face, so seen, will be distorted and dim, and if he desires to examine any feature accurately he will be baffled, so that the face will be in some respects an enigma or puzzle to him. What a contrast he will perceive, if he turns his head, and looks at the actual face of the friend at his side! Then he will see and know his friend, as his friend who was not using the mirror was seeing and knowing him.
Thus St. Paul’s similitude is to be explained. His words, literally rendered, are—“For we see now through a mirror in an enigma (or puzzle), but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know as fully as I was known.” He is comparing the blurred and confusing reflection of an object with the object as seen directly. And he uses this image to illustrate what he assumes to be puzzling in the ways of God as we can now apprehend them.
What we see at present is a sort of reflection of truth, not the very truth itself. A mirror may be very useful; but it can never give the accurate idea of the very figure, the very person, presented in it. If its copy of the person be ever so accurate, still it is not defective only, it is also misleading: the right side has become the left, and the left hand in the picture is awkwardly performing the functions of the right hand in the original: thus the effect produced is different, however carefully represented the details and the particulars. A mirror, too, can hold but one image at a time: if it be preoccupied by one figure, it is unavailable for another. And if, in addition to these essential defects of accuracy and limitations of capacity, there be also the slightest flaw in the glass or cloud upon the surface, there is an end at once of all beauty and of all truth in the representation, and what was before only defective becomes now a distortion and a caricature. And how much more expressive would be the figure in the Apostle’s days, when not glass but stone or metal was commonly used for the purpose spoken of; when the colouring therefore of every object must have been lost in the reflection, and nothing would remain but a meagre and blurred outline to carry to the eye the impression of face or figure or landscape!
2. Darkly.—That is, as the margin tells us, “in a riddle.” The original is identical with our English word “enigma.” What a mirror is to the eye a riddle is to the ear, only that the latter expresses more clearly the incompleteness of our knowledge, and the necessity that it should be thus partial. But just as a reflection implies a reality, so a riddle involves an answer. What we know of God comes to us wrapped in mystery; it comes as an answer to our needs, but in giving this answer it raises new questions for our solution—questions which St. Paul tells us by this very phrase we cannot hope now altogether to solve. We see God and Divine things amid the perplexities and contradictions of this imperfect state, part, surely, of the clouds and darkness which are round about Him; we behold Him through life’s great riddle, and though the dimness which it brings rises ever before us from this lower earth like a mist, those who look for Him see the far-off shining of His face, and know the maze is not without its clue, that His Hand, strong and tender, holds the thread of the Divine love, from which, while we hold it fast, neither life nor death, neither things present nor things to come, shall be able to separate us.
It is in relation to the highest truths that it is most important constantly to recognize the limitation of our knowledge and the imperfection of our expression of it. It is these truths of which it is most necessary to remember that we apprehend them only as “through a mirror,” express them only as “in a riddle”; learn only by slow degrees to recognize a little better what the image means, to understand a little more fully the depths of mystery wrapped in the words of the riddle. How many an error has sprung from the assumption that human language could be a full and adequate expression of Divine realities, in forgetfulness of St. Augustine’s warning, Verius cogitatur Deus quam dicitur, et verius est quam cogitatur; for “when we have said all that we can say concerning Him, we have said nothing worthily.” How many an assault upon the Christian faith has been based upon the assumption that infinite truths could be compressed into the moulds of human words! Yes, and how often the defenders of the Faith have exposed themselves to attack by letting it be thought that this was their belief, this the position which they were bound to maintain at all hazards.
Take for an example the nature of God. The very attributes of God are an enigma to us. What is infinity? What is omniscience? What is omnipresence? What is eternity? Each is a riddle. Take the character of God. Is it not all shadowed forth to us in the Scriptures, in the Old Testament at all events, in dark sayings? “It repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart” (Genesis 6:6). Take the mode of our redemption. We firmly believe in the truth of an atonement made for sin by the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. But is not every word in that statement an enigma? Who can explain, unless he would “darken counsel by words without knowledge” (Job 38:2), the precise mode and principle of that work of Christ, which is yet a sinner’s one hope? Take the operation of the Holy Spirit. Who can tell us how the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of men? “Thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Take the process of the future judgment. Who will say that a thousand objections which he cannot answer might not be urged by human ingenuity against each part of that doctrine? We know it; but it is “in a riddle”; it is as a dark saying. Or take, once more, for an example, the whole conception of heaven, of the future life of the saved; and O, ten thousand times more, of the future life of the lost. The revelation is made to us, made on the authority of God, but made to us also in human words, and therefore also made “in an enigma.”1 [Note: C. J. Vaughan.]
Evermore it remains true that we see darkly. It is necessary; it is part of our education; we do not require to know much just yet—a little here goes a long way. I do not need to know the metaphysical nature of God, or the state and occupations of the dead, or the destiny of the heathen, or how many shall be saved, or how long the world is to last under present arrangements, and when the great historic drama of our planet will enter upon another act, or what rising hierarchies of angels there are, and what they look like, and what they do, and how they subsist: all this is irrelevant to my condition. We see darkly, but we see enough. We feel that there must be reality behind these appearances, that behind the universe must be a Mind that made it; behind time must be eternity; behind the carnal kingdoms of this world, the kingdom of eternal love that shall one day replace them; behind man’s soul, with its hankerings and hungers and thirsts and clamours, a God who can satisfy them; behind all the sin of the world, a salvation from it.2 [Note: J. S. Jones, Seeing Darkly, 22.]
“Then face to face.”
No doubt there is a verbal reference here to the words spoken of Moses: “If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the Lord shall he behold” (Numbers 12:6-8). We have the same contrast here: “Now we see through a glass, in a dark speech … but then face to face.” We shall all have that sort of communication with God Himself, which, alone of all men, the mediator of the first dispensation was privileged to enjoy in his day.
Purified by suffering’s fire,
Rise, my soul, until thy flight
Pierce its way to heaven’s light.
Until, ever drawing nearer,
There shall burst upon thy sight,
Through the darkness of earth’s night,
All the eye of faith may see,
Set in God’s eternity.1 [Note: William H. Birckhead.]
In the language of St. Paul “knowledge” denotes the advanced or perfect knowledge, which is the ideal state of the true Christian. It appears only in his Latin Epistles (from Romans onwards), where the more contemplative aspects of the Gospel are brought into view, and its comprehensive and eternal relations more fully set forth. But the power of the preposition appears in the verb, no less than in the substantive. In this passage it is forced upon our notice. The partial knowledge is contrasted with the full knowledge which shall be attained hereafter. This distinction is missed in the Authorized Version here, though it is observed in 2 Corinthians 6:9, “as unknown, and yet well known.”2 [Note: Lightfoot, A Fresh Revision, 69.]
“Now I know in part.”
How much in the history of knowledge, as we read it with the comment of that most stern of critics, Time, seems to be but a record of misapplied ingenuity and dreary waste of energy. We mark one generation contemptuously discarding the studies and the methods of its predecessors and substituting its own, doomed in their turn to become antiquated and obsolete. Processes of thought which claimed to be capable of solving every contradiction are found wanting, and are abandoned for ever. Enthusiasms which boasted of their power to regenerate a dead age prove their insufficiency, and even turn themselves to worse corruption. Controversies which were treated as questions of life and death are pronounced to be barren logomachies or, at the best, of comparative insignificance, when, viewed from a distance, they assume their proper proportions.
In each successive age we see the tyranny of some dominant form of thought, or subject of study, or scheme of learning, claiming to be supreme and final, to have the right to suppress its rivals, and destined to last for ever. Wherein lay the error? Was it not that one age after another failed to take to itself St. Paul’s warning that all human knowledge is partial, relative, progressive? Each form of thought, each branch of study, served some useful end, but the mistake lay in the tendency to regard passing forms of thought as final, partial methods of study as universal; and its consequence was a timid and anxious clinging to the past when the inevitable hour of change arrived. The dialectic of the Schoolmen served to sharpen the reasoning faculties, but long ere it was displaced it had degenerated into the merest quibbling, and stunted rather than developed the growth of the intellectual powers. Yet its adherents were slow to confess that the “science of sciences” was no infallible instrument for the attainment of knowledge, and that the exercises of the schools were perilously liable to beget a habit of mind which valued victory in argument more highly than the elucidation of truth.1 [Note: A. F. Kirkpatrick, Cambridge Review, xv. 85.]
Most of the hot debates which burn in the history of theology have been about things which were looked at in a mirror; and the fact that no one could see these things just as they were, was precisely what made them such excellent matter for debate.2 [Note: F. G. Peabody, Afternoons in the College Chapel, 9.]
1. There are secrets hidden in every tiny flower and grain of sand, in every throbbing nerve and aching heart, which our keenest wisdom cannot discover. Every tear is a profound mystery, every sigh is a world of unimaginable things. No one can tell us why we laugh or why we cry. No one can read his brother’s mind or understand his own. He who has studied human nature most closely has but touched the surface of it. Those who can tell us most about man can only prove that he is fearfully and wonderfully made. Men who have been investigating for a lifetime the sins, sorrows, and diseases of the world find that these are still the everlasting riddle; and he whose faith has given him the clearest vision of God, knows that these are but “a portion of His ways, and the thunders of His power none can understand.” The highest philosophy still prattles and stammers and guesses like a child, and we all have to kneel down humbly declaring that our wisdom is but dim-eyed folly, and repeating these words of St. Paul: “Now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I have been known.”
The science of all sciences is the knowledge of God. To know Him, what He has done for man, what He is to man, what man is to Him,—nay, what He is in Himself, to know at once the tenderness of His love and the mystery of His Being—this is the highest exercise of man’s mind; this is the purest joy of man’s heart; this is the only one true aim of life; this alone can be called life; this is the life the pulses of which begin to beat within us in this world; this is the life which swells out into its full perfection in the world to come; for “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”1 [Note: R. W. Randall, Life in the Catholic Church, 159.]
Speaking of God as being infinite in His nature and attributes, he said: “I cannot grasp this infinity: I am not able to comprehend God; I know but in part. If I knew Him I would cease to worship Him.”2 [Note: D. Brown, Memoir of John Duncan, 248.]
If I knew that I had fathomed all the love or all the wisdom of God, how faith and reverence and trust would fall away from a being that such powers as mine could grasp.3 [Note: Phillips Brooks, Life, 80.]
2. If we can know in part what the holiest Mind has thought, how the purest Heart has loved, what the most gracious Wisdom has provided, “let us follow on to know.” If we must confess ourselves, at best, agnostics, let it be progressive agnosticism—“If we do not know to-day, we shall hope to know to-morrow.”
Is not all positiveness of necessity partiality? To say, “This is true, I know it,” and to leave no room for the limitations and qualifications that we cannot know, for all those outside influences of unseen truth which we must be working on and drawing from this fact that we have found,—is there not some folly here? Is not the true wisdom something like this?—I know so far as it goes this truth is sacredly and wholly true, but that very truth forbids me to believe that it has not developments and ramifications reaching far out into the universe of associated truth with which it is connected. Now I know, and I prize my knowledge as the gift of God and hold it sacred; but “I know in part,” I wait till that which is in part shall be done away.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks, Life, 111.]
(1) Let it be recognized that the highest knowledge we may here attain will not be clear of an agnostic haze. To comprehend infinitude and eternity our mind would have to be infinite and eternal; but we may apprehend where we cannot comprehend. We may voyage on a sea which we cannot compass. Whenever we follow on to know perfect Love, eternal Righteousness, absolute Will, we are compelled to take up Wesley’s strain—
God only knows the love of God.
But this is relatively true of all knowledge. Even the flower in the crannied wall has a last citadel of mystery which no effort of the human mind can capture.
We see “in part,” but we do see Him, though it be only in part; the more lovely the prospect, the nearer it must be to the truth. Again, we cannot fancy truth; we may fancy about truth when we are in the carnal mind, being led by the outward word, whether it be of a teacher whom we call the Church, or of an individual whom we call a theologian. In either case, what we see is what we fancy they see. We only see Truth when we are taught immediately by the Spirit of Truth. Let us take our revelation simply, as it is given us, and let us believe that the Lord spoke truly and is come to be the Guide and Teacher of the hearts of His children. His desire is that we should look up into His face and know Him as “Our Father.”2 [Note: R. W. Corbet, Letters from a Mystic of the Present Day, 40.]
(2) That we only know now in part persuades us, constrains us to give all diligence towards fuller knowledge. In natural scenery, mountains appeal to us most and touch the strangest deeps of our nature, not when they stand out clear in sharp outline, but when their strength and curve are softened by a tender, almost transparent, haze. It is then that the call of the mountains is most eloquent, most effective. And to the earnest soul in quest of God, the richest moments are those when some increased knowledge has been gained, some fresh experience of truth has been treasured, with a feeling that more, far more, remains yet to be won. “We all, with unveiled face reflecting as a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory.”
It is inscribed on the grave of T. H. Green, “He died learning.”
Isaac Newton had one theory of the universe, and John Hutchinson had another, but they both accepted the fact of the universe, about the detailed constructions and processes of which they differed so vigorously. One may believe that the earth stands still, another may believe that it performs certain revolutions; but they both believe in the earth itself, they both have confidence in its foundations, and they both draw their sustenance from the same generous bosom. So it must be to a very great extent with the first idea of God. We must receive the idea without discussion, without critical or metaphysical inquiry. We must begin with the idea that God is, and day by day grow in our knowledge concerning Him, and in our love towards Him.1 [Note: J. Parker.]
(3) Our knowledge here as elsewhere must begin as a “venture of faith.” Faith is the pioneer of all knowledge. The first harvest of the field, the first voyage on the sea, was due to heroism of faith. Belief had to precede experience. Why then should any one demand faith’s dismissal when we come to the choicest knowledge of all? The great word of the Gospel—“Whosoever believeth”—is not a casual or official demand: it is rooted in the eternal order revealed to us. Columbus was not more learned than all his contemporaries: they stopped where experience stopped; he made the venture of faith. The whole story of human piety, of man’s apprehension of God, is a story of faith’s heroism. When we read that Enoch walked with God, it means that he ventured on a road that had to be travelled in order to be known. The moan of the agnostic in earnest was wrung from the heart of Job, when he cried—
“Oh that I knew where I might find him,
That I might come even to his seat!
Behold, I go forward, but he is not there;
And backward, but I cannot perceive him;
On the left hand, when he doth work, but I cannot behold him:
He hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see him.”
What then? Experience refuses to go further, turns back, and would have him give up the quest. But faith stands beside him in the cloud and driving tempest, faces the blast with lighted face, cheers him to make the grand venture—
“When he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.”
I think if thou couldst know,
O soul that will complain,
What lies concealed below
Our burden and our pain;
How just our anguish brings
Nearer those longed-for things
We seek for now in vain,—
I think thou wouldst rejoice, and not complain.
I think if thou couldst see,
With thy dim mortal sight,
How meanings, dark to thee,
Are shadows hiding light;
Truth’s efforts crossed and vexed
Life’s purpose all perplexed,—
If thou couldst see them right,
I think that they would seem all clear, and wise, and bright.
And yet thou canst not know,
And yet thou canst not see;
Wisdom and sight are slow
In poor humanity.
If thou couldst trust, poor soul,
In Him who rules the whole,
Thou wouldst find peace and rest:
Wisdom and right are well, but Trust is best.1 [Note: Adelaide Anne Procter.]
“Even as also I have been known.”
If the Bible speaks of a disadvantageous “Now” it is always able to put over against it a bright and glorious “Then.” And these two must always be taken together. Look only at the “Now,” with its limitations and imperfections, forgetful of the “Then,” and your philosophy will be a chain of despair; but view earth revolving, as it surely does, in the light of a not far-distant heaven, and your thoughts will be gathered up into a song of hope. It was this that enabled St. Paul to write these words expressive of our present disadvantage without dissatisfaction or regret. “We see through a glass darkly, we know in part!” Those words tell all the intellectual struggle and pain through which a great mind passes before it accepts its defeat. They are the words of intellectual resignation in presence of those inscrutable problems before which lesser minds beat themselves in fruitless pain; grand words of one who has assayed the heights and depths of knowledge to prove them past finding out, and yet is calm. Not the words of an impatient thinker, or the petulance of a little mind not strong enough to wait, but the language of a great faith resting hopefully in God.
Porphyry, in his Principles of the Theory of Intelligibles, seems to me to have written a warning which might fitly stand at the beginning of this book—“By our intelligence we say many things of the principle which is higher than the intelligence. But these things are divined much better by an absence of thought than by thought. It is the same with this idea as with that of sleep, of which we speak up to a certain point in our waking state, but the knowledge and perception of which we can gain only by sleeping. Like is known only by like, and the condition of all knowledge is that the subject should become like to the object.”1 [Note: M. Maeterlinck, Ruysbroeck and the Mystics, 6.]
I know the night is heavy with her stars,—
So much I know,—
I know the sun will lead the night away,
And lay his golden bars
Over the fields and mountains and great seas,
I know that he will usher in the day
Of birds and young dawn-winds. So much I know,—
So little though.
I know that I am lost in a great waste,
A trackless world
Of stars and golden days, where shadows go
In mute and secret haste,
Paying no heed to supplicating cries
Of spirits lost and troubled,—this I know.
The regal skies
Utter no word, nor wind, nor changing sea,—
It frightens me.
Yet I believe that somewhere, soon or late,
A peace will fall
Upon the angry reaches of my mind;
A peace initiate
In some heroic hour when I behold
A friend’s long-quested triumph, or unbind
The tressèd gold
From a child’s laughing face. I still believe,—
So much believe.
Or, when the reapers leave the swathèd grain,
I’ll look beyond
The yellowing hazels in the twilight-tide,
Beyond the flowing plain,
And see blue mountains piled against a sky
Flung out in coloured ceremonial pride;
Then haply I
Shall be no longer troubled, but shall know,—
It may be Song of Solomon 1 [Note: J. Drinkwater, Poems of Men and Hours, 5.]
1. Then shall we see face to face; then shall I know even as I am known. Even as I am known. That is a good thing to rest upon, even in this stage—that, however little I know about you and about myself and about God, I am known to Him, every bit of me, and the way that I take, and the thoughts I think, and the fears which disturb me, and the doubts which worry and the sins which oppress. All is spread before Him in the searching light which scans and tries the uttermost secrets, and from which nothing can be hid. He knows me as well as He knows Himself. He knows every heart-beat, and every struggle, and every penitential sigh, and every passing shame and regret, and every striving after better things. He knows all the possibilities that are in me, the worst and the best, and all the helps, incentives, and pardons that they call for. And He never misreads, misunderstands, or misjudges. He is always fair, just, true, and pitiful. “And I shall know even as I am known.”
A myriad worlds encompass ours;
A myriad souls our souls enclose;
And each, its sins and woes and powers,
The Lord He sees, the Lord He knows,
And from the Infinite Knowledge flowers
The Infinite Pity’s fadeless rose.
Lighten our darkness, Lord, most wise;
All-seeing One, give us to see;
Our judgments are profanities,
Our ignorance is cruelty;
While Thou, knowing all, dost not despise
To pardon even such things as we.1 [Note: Susan Coolidge.]
2. There are two things that may be said about this knowledge.
(1) It will be thorough.—It will be a knowledge through and through (for that is the meaning of the word). God is a heart-searching God. There is no secret so deeply buried in us but God sees it as in the light of day. Even such is the insight into His truth and character, into His word and works, into His ways and will, which is promised to those of us who shall be faithful unto death, in a world beyond the grave. It will be indeed a thorough knowledge.
(2) It mil be comprehensive.—God has not only a minute insight; He has also a large insight. He not only sees particulars; He sees each one of us as a whole. You know how impossible that is for any one of us with regard to another. We see particular faults and particular virtues, but we are not able, in very many instances, nor ought we, to speak decisively of the character as a whole, whether for good or evil. But God sees this also. God could judge each one of us at this moment. He could say, Notwithstanding this fault, that man is my servant; notwithstanding that good quality, this man I never knew. And it shall be thus with our knowledge hereafter. Not only shall we believe and understand this item and that item, separately, of God’s truth, but we shall see it all in its connection, in its combination, in its reconciling harmony, in its perfect unity. There will no longer be any spaces and gaps in our knowledge. There will be no longer crevasses and chasms, to be vaulted over on a staff of faith. “The crooked” will then have been “made straight,” and “the rough places plain” (Isaiah 40:4); and “all flesh will see,” as in one view, “the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). Then will not only wisdom be, as she ever has been, “justified of her children” (Matthew 11:19), but also the ways of God will be universally and finally justified to men.
Knowledge—who hath it? Nay, not thou,
Pale student, pondering thy futile lore!
A little space it shall be thine, as now
’Tis his whose funeral passes at thy door:
Last night a clown that scarcely knew to spell—
Now he knows all. O wondrous miracle!1 [Note: Thomas B. Aldrich.]
What shall we See and Know?
1. God.—Human knowledge, then, imperfect as it must necessarily be, is consecrated by the thought that it has for its goal the vision of God, of whose Being and Doing all that we can see and learn here is the reflection, “broken lights” piercing earth’s mists from the central sun upon which no mortal man could gaze unveiled and live.
(1) The entrance on the next world must bring with it a knowledge of God such as is impossible in this life. In this life many men talk of God, and some men think much and deeply about Him. But here men do not attain to that sort of direct knowledge of God which the Bible calls “sight.” We do not see a human soul. The soul makes itself felt in conduct, in conversation, in the lines of the countenance; although these often enough mislead us. The soul speaks through the eye, which misleads us less often. That is to say, we know that the soul is there, and we detect something of its character and power and drift. We do not see it. In the same way we feel God present in nature, whether in its awe or in its beauty; and in human history, whether in its justice or in its weird mysteriousness; and in the life of a good man, or the circumstances of a generous or noble act. Most of all we feel Him near when conscience, His inward messenger, speaks plainly and decisively to us. Conscience, that invisible prophet, surely appeals to and implies a law, and a law implies a legislator. But we do not see Him. “No man hath seen God at any time”; even “the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father,” is only said to have “declared him,” since in Him the Godhead was veiled from earthly sight by that mantle of Flesh and Blood which, together with a human soul, He assumed in time.
But after death there will be a change. It is said of our Lord’s glorified Manhood, united as it is for ever to the Person of the Eternal Son, that “every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him.” Even the lost will then understand much more of what God is to the universe and to themselves, although they are excluded from the direct vision of God.
(2) What will that first apprehension of God, under the new conditions of the other life, be? There are trustworthy accounts of men who have been utterly overcome at the first sight of a fellow-creature with whose name and work they had for long years associated great wisdom, or goodness, or ability; the first sight of the earthly Jerusalem has endowed more than one traveller with a perfectly new experience in the life of thought and feeling. What must not the first direct sight of God be, the Source of all beauty, of all wisdom, of all power, when the eye opens upon Him after death! “Thine eyes shall see the King in his beauty” were words of warning as well as words of promise. What will it not be to see Him in those first few moments—God, the Eternal Love, God, the consuming Fire—as we shall see Him in the first five minutes after death!
An Indian officer, who in his time had seen a great deal of service, and had taken part in more than one of those decisive struggles by which the British authority was finally established in the East Indies, had returned to end his days in this country, and was talking with his friends about the most striking experiences of his professional career. They led him, by their sympathy and their questions, to travel in memory through a long series of years; and as he described skirmishes, battles, sieges, personal encounters, hair-breadth escapes, the outbreak of the mutiny and its suppression, reverses, victories—all the swift alternations of anxiety and hope which a man must know who is entrusted with command, and is before the enemy—their interest in his story, as was natural, became keener and more exacting. At last he paused with the observation, “I expect to see something much more remarkable than anything I have been describing.” As he was some seventy years of age, and was understood to have retired from active service, his listeners failed to catch his meaning. There was a pause; and then he said in an undertone, “I mean in the first five minutes after death.”1 [Note: H. P. Liddon.]
(3) Distinguish between those who say, “We know nothing,” and those who say with the Apostle, “We know in part.” When we are only speculating, God will seem to us very incomprehensible, very unknowable; His nature and mode of working do always baffle our understandings: “how unsearchable are his judgements, and his ways past tracing out!” But then we turn to the revelation of God which has been given us in our Lord Jesus Christ. As we study that, we shall hardly be inclined to complain of necessary ignorance; rather shall we be moved to exclaim with St. Paul that in Christ “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” The impressions concerning God and the Father which we received from the Lord Jesus grow into secure knowledge as they are verified by life and experience, and as we learn what the conditions of human progress and well-being are. How, we ask, can men live without faith and hope and love, and how can faith and hope and love be awakened and preserved without Divine righteousness and encouragement and goodness to which they may respond?
2. Our fellows.—This chapter is the glorious hymn of love. The religious fervour, the intellectual conquests, the accumulated philosophy of succeeding centuries, have produced nothing nobler than this. You cannot “praise” this perfect utterance. You might as well “approve” the perpetual rainbow over the Fluela Fall or the after-glow in an Alpine sky. The Apostle exhausts the resources of inspired eloquence in exposition of love. And he looks for the maturing, the completion, the perfection of this Christian grace. When such full-blossomed love has come, we shall see with perfect clearness. In proportion as it comes, we shall see better. When love has her perfect work, we shall see so distinctly that the vision may be said to be “face to face.” Yes; that we have always understood. But what is it that we shall see? What but the object of our love—our fellow-man? Towards whom have you exercised love? Your brother-man, your neighbour, your friend, your rival, your foe. Then, as your love deepens, your vision of him will clear. As you think more charitably of him you will understand him better. When love towards him is perfected, you will see him face to face.
Doubtless the words “face to face” apply primarily to the vision of God in the perfected manhood. But, as the greater includes the lesser, this recognition of God involves the recognition of loved ones.
Pilgrims no longer, nor longer disguised from one another by the suspicions and concealments of this life, nor hidden from each other, as here the most closely linked hearts must be, by the necessary solitude and loneliness of every individual life, in which we must live so largely and, in all our tenderest sensibilities, so entirely alone. There hearts shall open to hearts spontaneously as the flowers to the sun, and there soul shall communicate itself to the soul it loves as naturally as the dews nourish the white lilies of the wood. The armour of light, so often blood-stained and torn, is unlaced; the shield and sword laid down at the King’s feet, and the soft clothing of peace put on.
“It is not easy, at the best, for two persons talking together to make the most of each other’s thoughts, there are so many of them.”
This was a remark made by the Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table to the assembled guests. And the company looked as if they wanted an explanation. So the Autocrat went on.
“When John and Thomas, for instance, are talking together, it is natural that among the six there should be more or less confusion and misapprehension.”
The people thought that the Autocrat had suddenly gone mad. The landlady turned pale. The old gentleman opposite thought the Autocrat might seize the carving-knife. But he proceeded to explain that at the fewest six personalities are distinctly to be recognized as taking part in the dialogue between John and Thomas. There is (1) the real John, known only to his Maker; (2) John’s ideal John, never the real one, and often very unlike him; (3) Thomas’s ideal John, never the real John, nor John’s John; but often very unlike either. In precisely the same way there are three Thomases. There is Thomas as he really is, as God sees him; Thomas as he thinks he is; and Thomas as John thinks he is. In all, there are six people. No wonder two disputants often get angry when there are six of them talking and listening at the same time!
There is a truth in the word that marriages are made in heaven. You may remember that Charles Kingsley had put on his grave, which was to be his wife’s, “We have loved, we love, we shall love.” Death does not, as most of us know, put an end to love. We love the dead because they are the living. Death separates, it is all that it can do; it cannot annihilate. Surely then, when death is destroyed the law of separation will be disannulled, and those who loved and love will meet again and enjoy one another’s love again. I say then, because we shall have full knowledge of our past life, because we preserve our individuality in the resurrection change, because in the other world we know and are known, because we are perfectly manifested by our spiritual bodies, and because by means of their powers we shall perfectly discern, because of the mutual attraction of love—love which was stronger than death, we shall, I feel confident, recognize one another in the life of the world to come. And it will be a full recognition; our hearts in perfect sympathy will beat one with another, answering love for love.1 [Note: F. Watson, The Christian Life Here and Hereafter, 240.]
3. Ourselves.—At our entrance on another world we shall know our old selves as never before. The past will lie spread out before us, and we shall take a comprehensive survey of it. Each man’s life will be displayed to him as a river, which he traces from its source in a distant mountain till it mingles with the distant ocean. The course of that river lies sometimes through dark forests which hide it from view, sometimes through sands or marshes in which it seems to lose itself. Here it forces a passage angrily between precipitous rocks, there it glides gently through meadows which it makes green and fertile. At one time it might seem to be turning backwards out of pure caprice; at another to be parting, like a gay spendthrift, with half its volume of waters; while later on it receives contributory streams that restore its strength; and so it passes on, till the ebb and flow of the tides upon its bank tells that the end is near. What will not the retrospect be when, after death, we survey, for the first time, as with a bird’s-eye view the whole long range—the strange vicissitudes, the loss and the gain, as we deem it, the failures and the triumphs of our earthly existence; when we measure it, as never before, in its completeness, now that it is at last over!
This, indeed, is the characteristic of the survey after death, that it will be complete.
There no shade can last,
In that deep dawn behind the tomb,
But clear from marge to marge shall bloom
The eternal landscape of the past.
In entering another world we shall know as never before what we have been in the past; but we shall know also what we are. Our present thoughts, feelings, mental habits, good and bad, are the effects of what we have done or left undone, of cherished impressions, of passions indulged or repressed, of pursuits vigorously embraced or willingly abandoned. And as our past mental and spiritual history has made us what we are, so we are at this very moment making ourselves what we shall be.
Richard le Gallienne delighted us some years ago by a brilliant essay on “Life in Inverted Commas.” He represented himself as watching from the top of an omnibus in Fleet Street the capture of a notorious plagiarist by detectives in the employ of the Incorporated Society of Authors, who led him away secured between strong inverted commas. This set him thinking. And he looked round at his companions in the ’bus. “There was the young dandy just let loose from his band-box, wearing exactly the same face, the same smile, the same neck-tie, holding his stick in exactly the same fashion, talking exactly the same words, with precisely the same accent, as his neighbour, another dandy, and as all the other dandies between the Bank and Hyde Park Corner. Looking at these examples of Nature’s love of repeating herself,” he goes on, “I said to myself: Somewhere in heaven stands a great stencil, and at each sweep of the cosmic brush a million dandies are born, each one alike as a box of collars. Indeed, I felt that this stencil process had been employed in the manufacture of every single person in the omnibus: two middle-aged matrons, each of whom seemed to think that having given birth to six children was an indisputable claim to originality; two elderly business men to correspond; a young miss, carrying music and wearing eyeglasses; and a clergyman discussing stocks with one of the business men; I alone in my corner being, of course, the one occupant for whom Nature had been at the expense of casting a special mould, and at the extravagance of breaking it!” To be sure “I, myself,” am the original one. And each one of us is an “I, myself!”1 [Note: C. F. Aked.]
The Partial and the Perfect
Aked (C. F.), The Courage of the Coward, 225.
Albertson (C. C.), The Gospel according to Christ, 259.
Brooke (S. A.), The Gospel of Joy, 297.
Brooks (P.), Twenty Sermons, 280.
Clow (W. M.), The Secret of the Lord, 387.
Cooper (T. J.), Love’s Unveiling, 111.
Cross (J.), Pauline Charity, 207, 223.
Daplyn (E.), One with the Eternal, 51.
Davies (J. L1.), The Purpose of God, 80.
Dix (M.), Sermons Doctrinal and Practical, 190.
Edger (S.), Sermons at Auckland, N.Z., ii. 105.
Gibbon (J. M.), Evangelical Heterodoxy, 182.
Griffith-Jones (E.), Faith and Verification, 62.
Henson (H. H.), Christ and the Nation, 296.
Hicks (E.), The Life Hereafter, 1.
Howatt (J. R.), The Children’s Pew, 81.
Jackson (G.), Memoranda Paulina, 164.
Jackson (W. W.), in Oxford University Sermons, 144.
Jones (J. S.), Seeing Darkly, 3.
Leach (C.), Shall We know our Friends in Heaven? 81.
Lewis (E. W.), Some Views of Modem Theology, 50.
Lewis (H. E.), in The Old Faith and the New Theology, 241.
Liddon (H. P.), Advent in St. Paul’s, 367.
Miller (J.), Sermons Literary and Scientific, i. 110.
Morrison (G. H.), Sunrise: Addresses from a City Pulpit, 12.
Paget (F.), The Spirit of Discipline, 111.
Pope (R. M.), The Poetry of the Upward Way, 137.
Randall (R. W.), Life in the Catholic Church, 155.
Roberts (R.), The Meaning of Christ, 39.
Sampson (E. F.), Christ Church Sermons, 11.
Sanday (W.), Oracles, 34.
Smith (D.), Man’s Need of God, 199.
Vaughan (C. J.), Epiphany, Lent and Easter, 87.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons in Christ Church, Brighton, i. 204.
Watson (F.), The Christian Life Here and Hereafter, 233.
Cambridge Review, viii. Supplement No. 204 (Randall); xv. Supplement No. 366 (Kirkpatrick).
Christian World Pulpit, xv. 221 (Craig); xvii. 238 (Wonnacott); xxii. 184 (Johnson); xxxv. 232 (Westcott); xxxvii. 369 (Rogers); liv. 10 (Stalker); lxv. 104 (Wilmington Ingram); lxvii. 69 (Watt); lxx. 8 (Watson).