The Withheld Completions of Life
John 13:36-38
Simon Peter said to him, Lord, where go you? Jesus answered him, Where I go, you can not follow me now…

St. Peter felt dimly that the life of Jesus was opening into something so large that all which had gone before would be seen to have been only the vestibule and preparation for what was yet to come. And just then, when his expectation was keenest, and his love most eager, an iron curtain fell across his view. The completion was withheld. And that is what is always happening. It would be intolerable to us if we could not trace tendencies in our life. If everything stood still, or only moved round in a circle, it would be a dreary and a dreadful thing to live. But we rejoice in life because it seems to be carrying us somewhere. We bear with incompleteness, because of the completion which is prophesied and hoped for. But it is the delay or barrier that distresses us. The tendency that is not allowed to reach the fulfilment, which alone gave it value, seems a mockery. You watch your plant growing, and see its wonderful building of the woody fibre, its twining of the strong roots, its busy life blood hurrying along its veins. Some morning the deep-red flower is blazing full blown on the stem, and all is plain. The completion has justified the process. But suppose the plant to have been all the time conscious of the coming flower, and yet to have felt itself held back from blossoming, would it not be a very puzzled and impatient and unhappy little plant? Now, there are certain conditions which are to all good life just what the flower is to the plant. There are certain fine results of feeling which are the true and recognized results of the best ways of living. But when the life, conscious of the character in itself out of which these conditions ought to come, finds that it pauses on the brink of its completion and cannot blossom, then come impatient questionings and doubts.

I. LET US TAKE SOME INSTANCES DRAWN FROM DAILY LIFE. Suppose we have someone devoted to the good of others. A poor obscure woman in a sick room giving her days and nights, health and strength, to some poor invalid; or a great brilliant man out in the world neglecting his personal interests in the desire that some of the lagging causes of God may be helped forward. Now such a life has its legitimate completion. The natural flower which should crown that life is men's gratitude. Perhaps in ringing cheers, perhaps only in the silent pressure of the hand. The man who does no good expects no thanks. The selfish life feels and shows the unnaturalness if men make a mistake and lavish their gratitude upon it. It is as if men tied the glorious flower on to the top of a wooden post. And now suppose that the gratitude does not come. Is there no disappointment; no sense of a withheld completion? "What does it mean?" you ask with wonder, even with impatience. And in answer to your question there are two things to he said.

1. That such a suspension of the legitimate result, shows a condition of disorder. The natural result of your self-devotion has not come because the state of things in which you live is unnatural. That must he recognized. If you let your surprise appear, men will misunderstand you, and cry, "Oh, after all, then, you were not unselfish." But they are wrong; you did not work for thanks. When the thanks do not come it is not your loss; it is the deranged state of things that troubles you. When Jesus wept over Jerusalem, did He not feel its ingratitude? But was it not the disturbed world, where such ingratitude was possible, which lay at the bottom of His grief? When your child is ungrateful to you, is it the neglect of yourself, or the demoralized home, that saddens you? It is the violation of a deep, true instinct.

2. But because any state of things is unnatural, it does not prove that there can come out of it no blessing. So it is here. The service that a man does to his fellow men does not bring down their gratitude. What then? The withholding of the legitimate completion of his service may throw him back upon the nature of the act itself, and compel him to find his satisfaction there. That has been the support of many a despised reformer and misunderstood friend. The essence of any act is more and finer than its consequences are. Because Christ was "despised and rejected of men," we are able to see more clearly how truly He was His Father's "well-beloved Son."


1. Look, e.g., at the connection of duty and happiness. Happiness is the natural flower of duty. The good man ought to be a thoroughly bright and joyous man. To disbelieve this would be to bow down at the footstool of a devil or a chance, and which of these would be the most terrible master who can say? With this conviction strong in us we come to some good man's life, and that life is all gloomy. Duty is done day after day, but done in utter dreariness; good without gladness, shocking and perplexing our deep certainty that to be good and to be glad belong together. To such we want to bring the two before-mentioned considerations. To recognize that it is unnatural, and so to struggle against it, and yet, while it must last, to get what blessing we can out of it, by letting it drive us down deeper, for our joy and comfort, into the very act and fact of doing righteousness. The plant ought to come to flower, but if it fails it is still a plant. The duty should open into joy, but it may still be duty; still hold the duty. Do righteousness and forget happiness, and so it is most likely that happiness will come. This will help a man to be hopeful without impatience, and patient without despair.

2. But take another case. There are promises in the Bible which declare that dedication to God shall bring communion with God. "Draw near to Me, and I will draw near to you." And yet sometimes the man does give himself to God, and the promise seems to fail; and the man given to God trembles when he hears other men talk of the joy of Divine communion, because no such ever comes to him. Once more, to such a soul there are the same two messages to bring. Never, no matter how long such exclusion from the presence of God may seem to last, make up your mind to it that it is right; never cease to expect that you will be admitted to all the joy of your Father's felt love. And seek even more deeply the satisfaction which is in your consecration itself; and that you may find it, consecrate yourself more and more completely. There are two great anxieties which I do feel for such souls. One is, lest you should give up expecting that privilege of communion which is certainly yours in possibility, and must certainly be yours some day in possession. The other is, lest, since the consecration has not brought you the communion, you should think that the consecration is unreal, and so lose the power to be blessed by it, and the impulse to increase it. Multitudes of saints would tell you how in their hindered lives God kept them true to such experience as they had attained; and so it was that, by and by, either before or after the great enlightenment of death, the hindrance melted away, and they now "follow the Lamb withersoever He goeth."

3. Among Christ's promises there is none that is dearer to one class of minds than this. "If any man wills to do My will, he shall know of the doctrine," etc. Such souls have not found that the thousand curious questions of theology were answered, and all the mystery rolled away out of the sky of truth. Christ did not promise that. But they have found what He did promise: that, coming near to Him in obedience, they have been made sure of the true divinity that was in Him and in the teachings that He gave. Everywhere the flower of obedience is intelligence. Obey a man with cordial loyalty and you will understand him. And now, are there any of us from whom that completion seems to have been withheld? They must be sure, first, that they are right: that they have not really come to an essential faith that the doctrine of Jesus is divine. They must be sure, again, that their will to serve Christ has been indeed true. And what then? Sure of all this, still the darkness and the doubts remain. Then they must come to the two principles; they must say," This is unnatural. I will not rest until my service of Christ completes itself in the knowledge of Christ; and yet all the time while I am waiting I will find joy in the service of Him, however dimly I may apprehend Him."

(Phillips Brooks, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Simon Peter said unto him, Lord, whither goest thou? Jesus answered him, Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterwards.

WEB: Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, where are you going?" Jesus answered, "Where I am going, you can't follow now, but you will follow afterwards."

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