Now unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us.
It is necessary that we should emphasize the fact that this describes the Divine disposition; for although men think, perhaps, that it makes but little difference, if God only does what we ask, whether He does it from a direct, voluntary purpose, or whether it is the tendency of the Divine mind previous to our petition, yet it does make a great deal of difference. It makes, perhaps, but little difference to me whether a river is supplying Brooklyn with water, or whether it is supplied by a reservoir; but it does make a difference in respect to abundance and continuity. There is that old iron slave, the steam engine — the only slave that you have a right to keep in bondage — and night and day it stands lifting, and lifting, and lifting the vast supplies of water, and pouring them over into the Ridgewood reservoir. I know that there will be enough; but when you are talking about endlessness, copiousness, what is this compared with that which I see every day under my chamber window, where the whole ocean sweeps in and out, and, night and day, without pump, or steam, or any like mechanical force, is always there, as it was before there was a man on these shores, and as it will be after the last man shall have died in future ages? The copiousness, the abundance of the ever-flowing ocean, may fitly represent the abundance of the Divine thought, and mercy, and goodness; where most men think of God as one from whom favours are obtained, if at all, by what may almost be called the pleading of prayer; by the bringing to bear upon Him influences which at last persuade Him to grant the things asked for, so that when the persuasion stops, the supply stops. Many seem to think that prayer is but an engine that lifts — abundantly lifts, it may be — blessings upon the heads of those that employ it; but that if the engine stops for a moment, the reservoir will run dry. No! it is the eternal disposition of God to be full of love, and mercy, and kindness, and He inspires in you those impulses which lead you to go and ask Him for those things which you need. Now this quality of the Divine disposition is shadowed forth in God's natural government. When I look into nature, I see — what? Not sticks, stones, flowers, trees — I see Him that made them. I see things that were created by Christ Jesus. When I look upon the heavens of the natural world, I behold Him who made the natural world. If I see frugality, narrowness of compass, want of variety, I am not mistaken as to the disposition of the Creator; but if, on the other hand, I find abundance, superabundance, endless change, and endless variety, I cannot be mistaken as to their meaning. In the revelations of nature, then, we see God's disposition. We see His housekeeping. These are His gardens; these are His fields; this is His colouring — His frescoing; these are His seasons; and I can, from these elements in nature, infer His disposition, as much as I can infer a man's disposition from those things which go to make up His housekeeping. What is their language? Do they not corroborate the declaration of our text? Is He not a God that does exceeding abundantly beyond what we ask or think? Variety is another term for abundance. From the infinite variety that abounds throughout nature, one would think that God never wanted to have two things to be alike. An endless diversity, that tends to endless unity, is the characteristic of creation. Abundance by continuity and succession is another of these hints; for everything which takes place in nature occurs in such a way as constantly to link it with something that is to come. There is a tendency in nature to reproduce and continue, so that there shall not only be great variety and great abundance at any one time, but greater variety and greater abundance in time to come. Abundance by increase affords an illustration of the Divine nature. Men say, "We get just according to what we do." They suppose that the effect which we gain from natural laws is measured by the cause which we employ. It is not true. I plant a single kernel of Indian corn, and I gain from that kernel a stalk with two or three ears, and not less than a hundred kernels on each ear. I plant one kernel and get three hundred. Is there any proportion between what I do and what I get? The seedsman goes forth, sowing not one seed, but many seeds. He, taking them, and scarcely knowing their nature, gives them to the furrow, and they germinate, and the earth nurses them in its bosom, and persuades them to come forth, and the wind searches for them, and the dews and rains hunt them, and all warming and stimulating influences begin to play upon them, and they give back not according to what the sower gave to the earth, not according to the power which he has exerted upon them, but according to that nature which God has infused into the material creation; and therefore they give abundantly beyond what the sower did, and beyond what he had reason to expect before he had experience of God's bounty. On my summer nook stands a venerable apple tree, probably a hundred and fifty years old. It has now lost much of its hair. It is dead and bald at the top. I let it stand because it is a sentinel of ages. It has buried generation upon generation. It heard the old revolutionary cannon; balls fell not far from its foot. For probably a hundred years it has borne its annual crop of apples, and a great abundance of them. There was a time when a boy eating an apple, took from his mouth a seed, and snapped it, and it fell into the grass, and the rain worked it into the soil, and the soil coaxed it to grow. That little seed of an apple, not so large as your fingernail, struck down its root, and lifted up its trunk, which has stood the greater part of two centuries, and produced a thousand bushels of fruit and myriads of seeds. Now, is God's nature indicated by this? Yes, because the way God makes the natural world act indicates how He thinks. It indicates what His thoughts and tendencies are, and these mark His disposition. Would that we had a more frequent sense of God's bounty! No man can look upon what he brings to the work, and what the work becomes in his hand, without being humbled in view of his own weakness, nor I trust, also, without being filled with admiration and reverence for that loving Heart that does exceeding abundantly more than we ask or think. If these views and experiences are correct, there is every encouragement for men to ask in prayer for what they need. Now how have you been dealing with this God who has dealt with you on this pattern of doing exceeding abundantly more than you asked or thought? You have treated Him on the assumption that He was penurious, and willing to give only on terms that were strict and severe. Many men seem to shrink from prayer as though it were a matter of doubt whether they could pray. God, then, does not limit Himself by the desert of those to whom He gives mercies, but takes His patterns from the largeness and generosity of His own nature. He pleases Himself by giving.
The form of the text marks the confidence of St. Paul's prayer. The exuberant fervour of his faith, as well as his natural impetuosity and ardour, comes out in the heaped up words expressive of immensity and duration. He is like some archer watching, with parted lips, the flight of his arrow to the mark. He is gazing on God, confident that he has not asked in vain. Let us look with him, that we, too, may be heartened to expect great things of God.
I. THE MEASURE OF THE POWER to which we trust. Now there are three main forms under which this standard, or measure, of the Redeeming Power is set forth in this Epistle, and it will help us to grasp the greatness of the apostle's thought if we consider these. Take, then, first, that clause in the earlier portion of the preceding prayer, "that He would grant you according to the riches of His glory." The measure then, of the gift that we may hope to receive is the measure of God's own fulness: The "riches of His glory" can be nothing less than the whole uncounted abundance of that majestic and far-shining nature, as it pours itself forth in the dazzling perfectnesses of its own self-manifestation. And nothing less than this great treasure is to be the limit and standard of His gift to us. But another form in which the standard, or measure, is stated in this letter is: "The working of His mighty power, which He wrought in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead" (Ephesians 1:19, 20); or, as it is put with a modification, "grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ" (Ephesians 4:7). That is to say, we have not only the whole riches of the Divine glory as the measure to which we may lift our hopes, but lest that celestial brightness should seem too high above us, and too far from us, we have Christ in His Human-Divine manifestation, and especially in the great fact of the resurrection, Set before us, that by Him we may learn what God wills we should become. In Him we see what man may become, and what His followers must become. The limits of that power will not be reached until every Christian soul is perfectly assimilated to that likeness, and bears all its beauty in his face, nor till every Christian soul is raised to participation in Christ's dignity and sits on His throne. But there is a third form in which this same standard is represented. That is the form which is found in our text, and in other places of the Epistle "According to the power that worketh in us." What power is that but the power of the Spirit of God dwelling in us? And thus we have the measure, or standard, set forth in terms respectively applying to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. For the first, the riches of His glory; for the second, His resurrection and ascension; for the third, His energy working in Christian souls. The first carries us up into the mysteries of God, where the air is almost too subtle for our gross lungs; the second draws nearer to earth and points us to an historical fact that happened in this every day world; the third comes still nearer to us, and bids us look within, and see whether what we are conscious of there, if we interpret it by the light of these other measures, will not yield results as great as theirs, and open before us the same fair prospect of perfect holiness and conformity to the Divine nature.
II. THE RELATION OF THE DIVINE WORKING TO OUR THOUGHTS AND DESIRES. The apostle, in his fervid way, strains language to express how far the possibility of the Divine working extends. He is able, not only to do all things, but "beyond all things" — a vehement way of putting the boundless reach of that gracious power. And what he means by this "beyond all things" is more fully expressed in the next words, in which he labours by accumulating synonyms to convey his sense of the transcendent energy which waits to bless: "exceeding abundantly above what we ask." And as, alas! our desires are but shrunken and narrow beside our thoughts, he sweeps a wider orbit when he adds, "above what we think." He has been asking wonderful things, and yet even his farthest reaching petitions fall far on this side of the greatness of God's power. One might think that even it could go no further than filling us "with all the fulness of God." Nor can it; but it may far transcend our conceptions of what that is, and astonish us by its surpassing our thoughts, no less than it shames us by exceeding our prayers. Of course, all this is true, and is meant to apply, only about the inward gifts of God's grace. That grace is like the figures in the Eastern tales, that will creep into a narrow room no bigger than a nutshell, or will tower heaven high. Our spirits are like the magic tent whose walls expanded or contracted at the owner's wish — we may enlarge them to enclose far more of the grace than we have ever possessed. We are not straitened in God, but in ourselves. "According to thy faith," is a real measure of the gift received, even though. "according to the fiches of His glory" be the measure of the gift bestowed. Note, again.
III. THE GLORY THAT SPRINGS FROM THE DIVINE WORK. "The glory of God" is the lustre of His own perfect character, the bright sum total of all the blended brilliancies that compose His name. When that light is welcomed and adored by men, they are said to "give glory to God" and this doxology is at once a prophecy that the working of God's power on His redeemed children will issue in setting forth the radiance of His name yet more, and a prayer that it may. So we have here the great thought expressed in many places of Scripture, that the highest exhibition of the Divine character for the reverence and love — of the whole universe, shall we say? — lies in His work on Christian souls, and the effect produced thereby on them. Amid all the majesty of His works and all the blaze of His creation, this is what He presents as the highest specimen of His power — the Church of Jesus Christ, the company of poor men, wearied and conscious of many evils, who follow afar off the footsteps of their Lord. How dusty and toil worn the little group of Christians that landed at Puteoli must have looked as they toiled along the Appian Way and entered Rome! How contemptuously emperor and philosopher and priest and patrician would have curled their lips, if they had been told that in that little knot of Jewish prisoners lay a power before which theirs would cower and finally fade! Even so is it still. Among all the splendour of this great universe, and the mere obtrusive tawdrinesses of earth, men look upon us Christians as poor enough; and yet it is to His redeemed children that God has entrusted His praise, and in their hands He has lodged the sacred deposit of His own glory. Think loftily of that office and honour, lowly of yourselves who have it laid upon you as a crown. His honour is in our hands. We are the "secretaries of His praise."
IV. THE ETERNITY OF THE WORK AND OF THE PRAISE. As in the former clauses, the idea of the transcendent greatness of the power of God was expressed by accumulated synonyms, so here the kindred thought of its eternity, and consequently of the ceaseless duration of the resulting glory, is sought to be set forth by a similar aggregation. The language creaks and labours, as it were, under the weight of the great conception. Literally rendered, the words are — "to all generations of the age of the ages" — a remarkable fusing together of two expressions for unbounded duration, which are scarcely congruous. We can understand "to all generations" as expressive of duration as long as birth and death shall last. We can understand "the age of the ages" as pointing to that endless epoch whose moments are "ages"; but the blending of the two is but an unconscious acknowledgment that the speech of earth, saturated, as it is, with the colouring of time, breaks down in the attempt to express the thought of eternity. Undoubtedly that solemn conception is the one intended by this strange phrase. The work is to go on forever and ever, and with it the praise. As the ages which are the beats of the pendulum of eternity come and go, more and more of God's power will flow out to us, and more and more of God's glory will be manifested in us. It must be so. For God's gift is infinite, and man's capacity of reception is indefinitely capable of increase.
The apostle does not give this text as a detached sentence. It is the culmination of a statement; it is something that comes after a serious, anxious effort which he himself has made; and we must look into the preliminary statement if we would know how Paul was dazzled, overwhelmed, made speechless by the infinite capacity of God to transcend all mortal prayer and all finite imagination. The apostle has been uttering a prayer which reads thus: — "That He would grant you according to the riches of His glory to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man — able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask: That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith — able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask: That ye being rooted and grounded in love — Able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask: May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge — Able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask: That ye might be filled with all the fulness of God — Able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask." Reading the prayer in this manner, using the text as a kind of refrain to each petition, and each petition itself seeming to exhaust the very mercy and love of God, we get some notion of the apostle's conception of God's infinite wealth, infinite grace, and infinite willingness to give. Understand, then, that in coming to God and availing ourselves of the doctrine of this text, it is incumbent upon us that we should specify what we want from God. Suppose that a number of petitioners should go to the legislature with a petition worded thus: "We humbly pray your honourable house to do everything for the nation, to take infinite care of it, to let the affairs of the nation tax your attention day and night, and lavish all your resources upon the people." Suppose that a petition like that should be handed into the House of Commons, what would be the fate of it? It would be laughed down, and the only reason, the only good reason, why the petitioners should not be confined to Bedlam would be, lest their insanity should alarm the inmates. That is not a petition. It is void by generality; by referring to all it misses everything. You must specify what you want when you go to the legislature. You must state your case with clearness of definition, and with somewhat of argument. If it be so in our social, political prayers, shall we go to Almighty God with a vagueness which means nothing, with a generality which makes no special demand upon his heart. Read the text in the light of the gospel, and you will see the fulness of its glory, so far as it can be seen by mortal vision. Ask anything of God and I am prepared to quote these words of the text in reply. What will you ask? Let us in the first instance ask what we all want — whatever may be our condition, age, circumstances. Let us ask for pardon. Is your prayer, God forgive my sins? Now you may apply the apostle's words: "He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that you ask." You cannot conceive God's notion of pardon. You have an idea of what you mean by forgiveness; but when you have exhausted your own notion of the term forgiveness, you have not shown the Divine intent concerning the soul that is to be forgiven. When God forgives, He does not merely pardon, barely pardon — He does not by some great straining effort of His love, just come within reach of the suppliant, and lay upon his heart the blessing which is besought. He pardons with pardons. He multiplies to pardon! What will you ask for now? Ask for sanctification. Is your prayer, Sanctify me body, soul, and spirit? Then I am ready once more to quote you the apostle's text: "He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think." Now this ought to stimulate us in all saintly progress, to inspire us in the study of Divine truth, to recover our jaded energies, and tempt, lure, and draw us by the mighty compulsion of inexhaustible reward. This is the peculiar glory of Christian study — that it does not exhaust the student. His weakness becomes his strength. At sunset he is stronger than at sunrise; because Christian study does not tax any one power of the mind unduly. It trains the whole being, the imagination, the fancy, the will, the emotion; lifts up the whole nature equally, with all the equability of complete power — not by snatches and spasms of strength, but with the sufficiency, breadth, and compass of power which sustains the balance always. This ought to rebuke those of us who imagine we have finished our Christian education. I believe there are some persons in the world who are under the impression that they have finished God's Book. They say they have "read it through." There is a poor sense in which it may be read through; but there is a deeper, truer sense in which we can never get through the Book of God. It is an inexhaustible study — new every day, like morning light. You have seen splendour before, but until this morning you never saw this light. So it is with this great wonderful Book of God in the study of it. God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. Here then is a stimulus, a spur to progress, a call to deeper study. We think we have attained truth. We have not attained all that is meant by the word truth. No man who knows himself and who knows God will say that he has been led into all the chambers of God's great palace of truth. This is the sign of progress; this is the charter of the profoundest humility. The more we know the less we know. We see certain points of light here and there, but the great unexplored regions of truth stretch mile on mile beyond all our power to traverse the wondrous plain. How is it with us today then? Are we fagged men, exhausted students? Do we sit down under the impression that there is nothing more to be known? If we have that idea let us seek to recover our strength and to recover our inspiration by the word — He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. There are attainments we have not made, depths we have not sounded, and heights, oh, heights! We can but look up and wonder, expect, adore. If this be so, we ought to look calmly, with a feeling of chastened triumph, upon all hindrances, difficulties, and obstacles in the way of Christ's kingdom upon the earth. We may look at these in relation to our own puny strength, and quail before them. But, we are not to depend upon our own resources, but upon God's, in attempting the removal of everything that would intercept the progress of His holy kingdom in the world. There is a great mountain: I cannot beat it down, all the instruments I can bring to bear upon it seem utterly powerless. But God touches the mountains and they smoke. The Alps, the Apennines, the Pyrenees, and great Himalayas, shall go up like incense before Him, and His kingdom shall have smooth uninterrupted way. I say, in my hours of weakness, yonder is a stone which I cannot remove. If I could get clear of that obstacle all would be right; but the stone is heavy, the stone is sealed, the stone is watched. What can I do? I go up the hill wearily, almost hopelessly, and behold! the stone is rolled away, and on the obstacle there sits the angel of God. Able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think! It may be difficult for some minds to follow the argument out spiritually; we must therefore descend to illustration. Here is a very clever artist, who has made a beautiful thing he brings before us, and we gather round it and say, "It is most exquisitely done. What is this, sir?" "That," replies the artist, "is my notion of a flower, and I am going to call that flower a rose." "Well, it is a beautiful thing — very graceful, and altogether beautifully executed: you are very clever." So he is, and now that exhausts his notion of the rose. But let God just hand in a full-blown rose from the commonest garden in the world, and where is your waxen beauty? Underneath every leaf is written, "He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think." Let Him just send the sweet spring morning in upon us with the first violet, and all your artificial florists, if they have one spark of wit left, will pick up their goods and go off as soon as possible. He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. The meanest insect that flutters in the warm sunlight is a grander thing than the finest marble statue ever chiselled by the proudest sculptor. Now we are going to have a very festive day. We are going to pluck flowers and fashion them into arches, and we shall make our arches very high, very beautiful — and, so far as the flowers go, they are most gorgeously and exquisitely beautiful. We have put up the wires; we have festooned these wires, and we say, "Now, is not that very beautifully done?" and of course, we who always drink the toast "our noble selves," say yes. But God has only to take a few raindrops and strike through them the sunlight, and where are your pasteboard arches and your skilful working! He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we can ask or think. My fellow students, in this holy mystery, believe me, as in nature, so in the higher kingdom of grace. As in matter He beats all your sculptors, and is in all schools infinitely superior to men, so in the revelation of truth to the heart, in the way of redeeming man from sin, in the way of sanctifying fallen corrupt human nature — all your theorists and speculators, all your plaster dealers and social reformers and philanthropic regenerators, must get out of the way as artificial florists when God comes to us with the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley. Then let us leave all inferior teachers and go straight to the Master Himself. We have to deal with sin, and the only answer to sin, which answer is comprehended in one word, is the Cross. God's foolishness is better than our wisdom. God's weakness is infinitely superior to our strength. "He everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters."
Miss Hopkins, in her story of Miss Robinson's work among our soldiers at Portsmouth, relates that when the "Institute" was first projected Miss Robinson one day went to her, almost in despair at the hopeless aspect of affairs. Opposition to the scheme was strong, and funds were sorely needed. The lookout was dark enough, but the eye of faith pierced the gloom. "We knelt down," says Miss Hopkins, "and prayed that, if it was His will, He would give us the means to stay this flood of iniquity that was sweeping away His work in the army, and enable us to do the right thing. I fear our faith was not strong enough," she continues, "to ask for more than a few hundreds, but still it was the prayer of faith. The answer to that prayer was £15,000."
In this remarkable verse we have a wonderful instance of St. Paul's cumulative way of speaking. Whenever I get fairly into one of St. Paul's Epistles, I always feel as though the man is in bonds. Language is too poor a medium for him. He cannot get out all that is in for the dear life of him, eloquent though he was. If you had asked him about it, he would have said, "Language is bankrupt. It will not meet the case." I remember once, in the north of England, hearing a very celebrated, and eloquent, and powerful Welsh preacher, who was wonderfully fluent in the English tongue, too, but he was preaching to a full congregation of English people, and his soul was in his message. It flashed in his eye, it fired his Celtic tongue, and he was so thoroughly elevated and raised by the nobility of his theme, and the thoughts within him burned and breathed at such a rate, that Saxon would not do, and he paused a moment and said, "Oh, if you only understood Welsh!" Then he would have been able, in his more familiar tongue, to climb somewhat higher to the point he aimed at. I think that it is, just like that with St. Paul. He beggars language, and then he says: "It is not enough." Now look at it. There is that passage in which he compares the light afflictions of the present with the glory of the future. Do you see how he piles it up? He says, "A far more exceeding weight of glory." And if you analyse this verse, it will take you a long time to read it. Let us try; it is worth it. "God is able." Thank God for that. "God is able." "God is able to do." Plenty of gods who can boast. "God is able to do." "God is able to do abundantly." "God is able to do exceeding abundantly." "God is able to do exceeding abundantly all." "God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all." "God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we can ask." "God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we can ask or think." Here I think he flung his pen down and said, "It is no use." It could not be. He climbed up the ladder to the very highest rung that words could take him; and then he got on a higher ladder, and climbed up as far as thoughts could take him; and then he wanted Jacob's ladder to reach to the throne of God in order to tell us what God will do to any man who says in his heart, "Be my God." The way in which Paul moves upward in his passion, struck me once when I was in Wales. I was moving up a high and rocky slope. First of all it led me through a meadow. After the meadow there was an upward pathway through a wood. Up a little higher and I caught a gleam of the river beyond. Higher still I saw the shaggy rocks, and tall hills behind; higher still and I saw the golden cornfields at their feet. And still higher went I, until right away yonder on the horizon I saw the black-capped mountains higher than them all. And still I had to rise, and rising at last I stood upon the summit, and said, as I looked around, "This is perfection." But it was not; for on turning in one direction I perceived a sight I had not caught before. What do you think it was? It was a glimpse of the infinite sea stretching away beyond all ken, to meet the infinite sky. St. Paul gets up to that height, and then he wants a pair of wings to fly with.
Let us note some of the applications of the truth here taught of God's Almightiness to help. I am in the grasp of some great temptation. I long to break away. I have tried; but I am impotent. The case seems hopeless. Like a spent, exhausted swimmer, I am about to give over, and to sink helpless beneath the dark waves. But what is that I hear above the noise of the waves? "Call on Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that thou canst ask or think; call on Him." He is mightier than sin, stronger than the strongest temptation. Satan is bold. He has great courage. His victories are countless. "But Satan trembles, when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees." I once walked the deck of an ocean steamer with a man who related to me the sad story of his life. There had been a time when he thought he was converted, and was united to a Christian Church. For years he thought he knew the peace and joy of a justifying faith. But he had yielded to passion, and now thought his case utterly hopeless. I spoke to him of reform, recovery. "Impossible," he said. "You know nothing," he added, "of the terrible might of a reigning passion. Resolution and effort are useless. I am lost." Such were his declarations, as we paced the deck beneath the midnight stars. And it was then that, admitting all that he said, I rejoiced to point him to One who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that he could ask or think, an Omnipotent Helper. Reader, I know not what there may be that is peculiar and disheartening in your case, but I do knew you are not beyond the help of the Infinite Helper. All you can ask, or even think, and more too, He is able to do. "Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it."
The grace of God is marked by the affluence which characterizes all His works. What abundance in that sun which has shone so many thousand years, and yet presents no appearance of exhaustion, no sign of decay! What abundance of stars bespangle the sky; of leaves clothe the forest; of raindrops fall in the shower; of dews sparkle on the grass; of snowflakes within the winter hills; of flowers adorn the meadow; of living creatures that, walking on the ground, or playing in the waters, or burrowing in the soil, or dancing in the sunbeams, or flying in the air, find a home in every element — but that red fire in which, type of hell, all beauty perishes and all life expires! This lavish profusion of life, and forms, and beauty, in nature, is an emblem of the affluence of grace, of God's saving, sanctifying grace. In Christ all fulness dwells. We are complete in Him. There is in His blood sufficient virtue to discharge all the sins of a guilty world, and in His Spirit sufficient power to cleanse the foulest and break the hardest heart. Ye are not straitened in Me, says God, but in yourselves. Try Me herewith, He says — ask, seek, knock! Who does will find that it is only a faint image of the plenitude of grace we behold in that palace scene where the king, looking kindly on a lovely suppliant, bends from his throne to extend his golden sceptre, and says, "What is thy petition, and what is thy request, Queen Esther, and it shall be given thee to the half of my kingdom?"
They love to nurse their cares, and seem as uneasy without some fret, as an old friar would be without his hair girdle. They are commanded to cast their cares upon the Lord; but, even when they attempt it, they do not fail to catch them up again, and think it meritorious to walk burdened. They take God's ticket to heaven, and then put their baggage on their shoulders, and tramp, tramp, the whole way there afoot.
A man says to his agent, "I want you to go on a business tour for me. First go to Buffalo. Here is the money, and here are the directions that yea will need while there. Thence go to Cleveland, and there you will find remittances and further directions. When you get to Cincinnati you will find other remittances and other directions. At St. Louis you will find others; and at New Orleans still others." "But," says the agent, "suppose when I get to Cleveland, or any of the other places, I should not find anything?" He is so afraid that he will not, that he asks the man to give him money and directions for the whole tour before he starts. "No," says the man, "it will be sufficient if you have the money and directions you need for each place when you get to it: and when you do get to it you will find them there." Now, God sends us in the same way. He says, "Here is your duty for today, and the means with which to do it. Tomorrow you will find remittances and further directions; next week you will find other remittances and other directions; next month you will find others; and next year still others. I will be with you at all times, and will see that you have strength for every emergency."
Exceeding poverty of thought is one of the characteristics of fallen man. When the poison of sin began to work, it introduced this poverty — those poor low thoughts about God, which made man think that his Maker was jealous of his knowing too much. And ever since, has this pauperizing influence kept working — always narrowing, always lowering, ever tending to what is mean and small. And with our poverty of mind has come poverty of action. Small thoughts produce small deeds: we do not run in the way of God's commandments, until He has enlarged our hearts. How merciful, then; it is of God to deal with us in the power of His own thoughts, and not ours. God is very merciful and long suffering in doing this; for he might have said "According to their thoughts so be it unto them." And what could we have said, if this had been His method of acting? We might have sorely felt our loss, as there was revealed to us that to which we might have attained; but we must have acknowledged that we had been dealt liberally with, nevertheless. He might have said, "As they expected but little from Me, they shall get but little — they shall get up to file full measure of their own poor mean thoughts, but nothing more"; and that would leave us very poor indeed. The teaching is this. Leave all of eternity to the thought of God; do so as a child; do not perplex yourself with your thinkings, you will soon come to things too deep for you; let it be enough for you that you shall enjoy the fruit of His thought. You will begin to reap the fruit thereof the moment you close your eyes on earth; you will find yourself encompassed with it; like the newborn babe you will find yourself provided for in every particular; and wherever you go, whatever you are, throughout eternity, you will always find yourself surrounded by the thoughts of God. No doubt we could think of many things which would, if we were sure that matters would be so arranged, calm and assure us much as regards the other life. Whatever these thoughts are, we may be certain we shall have what is better than the best of them — God will have thought kinder, tenderer, nobler things by far. In all things concerning eternity, I wish to repose myself upon the fact that "God has thought." Further: this little sentence says, "Never be afraid of thinking a great thought of God; for if it be one worthy of Him in kind, He will be sure to be far greater than it, in degree. Let your mind go out in a great thought of God. Do not cramp yourselves by the limitations with which you are so familiar in practical life; your mind is dealing with One to whom mere earthly rules and reasonings do not apply."
We have no desire for any real good, but that it is overtopped by His desire that we should have good; we have no imagination of a good, but lo! it has been surpassed by a previous thought of His, out of which He has prepared a greater good. With the world the rule is, "not up to what we can think"; with God it is "above what we can think." The water pots which are to hold our wine He wills to be filled up to the brim; the feast which He spreads is to have baskets of fragments which remain. And as coming after the idea, "above what we can ask," these two words are very useful. Our want of faith makes us afraid to ask; this little sentence takes the most effectual way of lifting us above our fears; for it says, "You cannot think, how much less ask too much." The region of thought must, here at least, always be vaster far than that of fact; God says, "you could not exhaust that great field, then how can you the little one; therefore, ask largely, leaving me to act out of resources beyond your thought — resources unseen."
"According to the power that worketh in you." What does this mean? St. Paul is speaking here of the conditions upon which the Divine ability will be exerted for us. The dew and the rain will refresh the plant and the flowers according as they open their hungry pores to take them in. You cannot get much verdure — you cannot get much green life and beauty off a rock, however heavily the dew falls upon it. No; it is the open pores that take it in. Never forget that God's blessings are bestowed according to the desires and the askings of our heart. The flow and volume of the river are according to the height at which the hills and mountains draw to themselves the wealthy clouds; and the good gifts of God are poured out according as the soul lifts up its thoughts and wishes to the skies. The produce of the farm is according to the diligence of the farmer and the generous character of the soil. You have got soil the most generous in the world. All you want is the farmer's intelligence, and the power that worketh in you. Then comes the "able to do abundantly above all you think." If the miller lift the sluice so as to turn aside the water, his mill is silent; the stones are idle. No flour in his meal bag, no coin in his purse — however full the millstream is. And if you and I are so guilty before God as by our indifference to turn aside the rivers of possibility and privilege and help that He pours out, then there will be no reward for us.
As the scattered rays of light are all included in the focus, as the fountain contains the streams, as the object reflected is prior to and nobler than the different reflections of it — so all finite and created good is contained in Him who is the supreme good; all earthly excellence is but the partial emanation, the more or less bright reflection of the Great Original. To have a portion, therefore, in God, is to possess that which includes in itself all created good. The man who is in possession of some great masterpiece in painting or sculpture, need not envy others who have only casts or copies of it. The original plate or stereotype is more valuable than any impressions or engravings thrown off from it; and he who owns the former owns that which includes, is capable of producing all the latter...Surveying the wonders of creation, or even with the word of inspiration in his hand, the Christian can say, "Glorious though these things be, to me belongs that which is more glorious far. The streams are precious, but I have the Fountain; the vesture is beautiful, but the Weaver is mine; the portrait in its every lineament is lovely, but that Great Original, whose beauty it but feebly depicts, is mine, my own. God is my portion, the Lord is mine inheritance. To me belongs all actual and all possible good, all created and uncreated beauty, all that eye hath seen or imagination conceived; and more than that, for eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive what God hath prepared for them that love Him. All things and beings, all that life reveals or death conceals, everything within the boundless possibilities of creating wisdom and power is mine; for God, the Creator and Fountain of all, is mine."
But you will tell me that man's wishes are very large, and that it is hard to satisfy them. Ah! my brethren, I know it is — with anything here below. You may have heard, I dare say, of the gentleman who told his servant — "You have been a very faithful servant to me, John, and as you are getting old, I should like to give you a pension. Now, what do you think would satisfy you?" "Well, master," said he, "I think if I had fifty pounds a year I should be very well satisfied indeed." "Well, think it over," said the master, "and come to me and let me know." So the day comes. "Now, what do you want to satisfy you? Well, sir, as I said before, I should never want for anything, or wish for anything in this world, if I had fifty pounds a year." "Well, John, it shall be done; there is the settlement for you: you shall have it." That man went out of the door, and said to a friend, "I wish I had said a hundred." So, you see, it is not easy to satisfy man. When he thinks he is satisfied, he still sees something beyond, the horse leech in his heart still cries, "Give, give." But God is a satisfying portion. You cannot wish for anything more than this.
There are shores paved with shells which no human foot has trod; there are fields carpeted with flowers which human eyes have never seen; there are seas inlaid with pearls which human research has never found out; so there are things in the great mind of God itself, and in the Scriptures, which lie concealed from the most powerful mental efforts of human intellect.
WHAT THIS WORK IS. It is the direct acting of God the Holy Ghost, the third Divine Person in the adorable Trinity, as a Person, upon our spirit. It is, farther, His working in us to restore perfectly that image of God in our soul which the fall of man into sin has so grievously blurred, and which in all those who have fallen into wilful sin has been by their own act still more obliterated. On the one side, then, it is, so far as regards the agent, supernatural. It is the working in us, and on us, of the creative Spirit. It is the power of another within us: and that other the eternal God; the self-existent Being; to whose gracious will we owe our existence; by whose perpetual power encompassing and upholding us we continue to be; "in whom we live, and move, and have our being"; of Him whose all pervading power upholds the universe, whose presence and whose will rolls the countless worlds which people universal space along their pathless way. He is working within us; working upon our souls by the one, indivisible, Almighty power of Godhead. Now though, on the one side, that into which we are inquiring is thus truly a power far above any natural to man, even the energy of the Divine power working within us; yet, on another side, it is most really a work in which we have a share; it is, as I have said, a work in us, as well as on us; it is a work in the will of a being with a will — in the affections, heart, desire, and reason of one who can pervert that reason so that it cannot be wrought on, or can yield it up to this power; can harden the heart, can freeze up the affections, can poison the desires, can stiffen the will, against the operation even of Him who is Almighty. But again: not only may we discover that this work is thus on the one hand wrought upon us supernaturally, whilst on the other it advances through the action of our natural powers, and with our conscious cooperation; but further, we may trace the part of us on which it operates. It is "in the spirit of our minds" that we are to be "renewed"; it is "in the inner man" that we are to be "strengthened with might by His Spirit."
II. But further still: we may trace in many particulars THE LAW OF THIS DIVINE WORK, as it advances in those who yield themselves to its blessed processes for their renovation. For it has about it special characteristics of its own, on which we shall do well to meditate.
1. It is a REAL work. It is not the mere calling up out of the depths of our nature certain passing impulses or actions, but it is so truly a new modification of its very constitution that there are cast forth new emanations of desire and action, which show that the very fountain of spiritual being from which they arise has undergone a change. There is first a desire to act in all things with an eye to God. Next, there is the practice of offering up to Him each day as it passes by; and with this a crying of the soul to Him against its remaining selfishness, earnest supplications for a clearer eye, truer affections, and a simpler purpose. And all of these mark on the soul which He is training this first great character of His working, that a real change is passing on it; a change of the nature itself in true harmony with the laws of its own constitution, and yet a change which could not have sprung from itself, and so which proves that the power of One above itself is working on it by His own might.
2. But again, it is another characteristic of this work that in each one in whom it is wrought it is an INCREASING work. No mark is set down oftener than this in Holy Scripture. It is a growth: "Grow in grace." It "increaseth with the increase of God." And in nothing is the distinction between this heavenly work and any lower change more clearly shown than in this, that whereas the vigour of all inferior powers is soon exhausted, this tends ever to perfection.
3. Further, this is a gradual work. The very word "growth" implies so much. That which increases by the putting forth of an inner life is always distinguished by this feature from that which is enlarged by occasional and external increment: and this is eminently true of the work of God's grace in the soul. The conflict of the spirit with the flesh is inevitable, and so the progress of the final victory is of necessity gradual.
4. This may lead us to another mark of this great work. Marvellous as it is in its results, it is in its progress most secret. Here, too, it is as in nature so in grace. All growth is secret, so secret that eye of man never saw the separate parts of that mighty mystery of growth which every succeeding springtime repeats so profusely around him. The grass, the green herb, the tree, each leaf, each blade, each bough, each flower, in gradual living growth most secretly accomplishes around us its own law of increase. We see the result as we mark each developed part, and gaze upon the rich beauty which, unseen by us, though close beneath our sight, has painted the glowing flowers with all the lights of heaven. But we saw not the process. This is that "path" of God's secret doings "which the vulture's eye hath not seen." And so most truly is it with that "kingdom of heaven" within the renewing soul which is "like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until the whole was leavened." That marvellous life which the Spirit is quickening in the soul which He renews, which "is hid with Christ in God," is secret as is the quickening of the living flesh in the dark chambers of the womb, or as the growth of those members "which day by day were fashioned when as yet there was none of them."
5. But there is yet another mark of this work, where it is truly accomplished, which we shall do well to note. Though gradual and secret, it is also universal. Herein again it differs palpably from all merely human operations. For every reform of the moral character which is accomplished by secondary powers is more or less partial. There is no object short of God which can duly draw forth all the capacities which He has implanted in man's nature, and there is no power less than that of God which can duly accomplish that development. There is, moreover, about this universal progress one essential character of all true life. The change which proceeds from an inward principle, essentially one and indivisible, is yet multiform in its external manifestation. The same one inward power of life casts itself equably forth in the growth of every several limb, and every other adjunct of the body; the growing tree at the same moment expands in its stem and thickens in its branches, and multiplies its leaves and adorns itself with flowers: and "the fruit of the" living "Spirit," in like manner, "is love, joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance." And from this it follows, that whilst each character is growing in all graces, yet every separate character, as it has its own law of perfection, grows and ripens according to its separate kind. And hence the beauty of the army of the saints of Christ: they are uniform in the midst of their diversity, and multiform in their unbroken unity.
It is impossible to over-estimate, or rather to estimate, the power that lies latent in the Church. We talk of the power that was latent in steam — latent till Watt evoked its spirit from the waters, and set the giant to turn the iron arms of machinery. We talk of the power that was latent in the skies, till science climbed their heights, and, seizing the spirit of the thunder, chained it to our surface, abolishing distance, outstripping the wings of time, and flashing our thoughts across rolling seas to distant continents. Yet what are these to the moral power that lies asleep in the congregations of our country, and of the Christian world.
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