Much is said in the Bible of the freedom of the people of God. The unknown author of the one hundred and nineteenth Psalm rises out of the somewhat monotonous strain in which his poem is composed, into one of exultation and triumph, when he exclaims, "I shall walk at liberty, because I seek Thy precepts."And the same inspiring word is often on the lips of the apostle to the Gen tiles."Ye were called for freedom, "he writes to the Galatians;"for freedom did Christ set us free."And in his letter to the Romans his deep and powerful argument seems to break into song, when he speaks of"the glorious liberty of the chil dren of God."Separated by several centuries from each other, living at different stages of the divine revelation, these two men were agreed in this: that the true freedom of man is in obedience to God. The psalmist was under the law, and re joiced in it; he found his liberty in obeying its precepts. The apostle rejoiced that the Mosaic law was abolished. It seemed to him a bondage, in comparison with the liberty which was gained by faith in Christ. And yet there is no contradic tion between them. Each utters the best and highest thought of his age. The truth which is common to both is that alienation from God and subjection to sin is a species of slavery, and that he only is free who is brought into right relations to his Maker. Such a man is free from the sense of wilful wrongdoing, and the condemnation which this implies - the reproaches of conscience, the just anger of God. He is free from fear concerning the future. He is free from the fetters of false mo tives and evil habits and partial and erroneous judgments. He is free from bondage to the opin ions, the flatteries, the threats of his fellow-men. He is free from subjection to the outward and vis ible world, and is brought into relations of famil iarity and of sympathy with the larger and more real world that is spiritual and unseen. Such a man is lifted above the accidents of life, above the passions, the prejudices and the narrow ambitions of his day; he breathes a purer air, he looks out upon a wider horizon. His sense of freedom gives him a sense of power and a desire for a larger ac tivity. And as he comes into more perfect har mony with God, his spirit becomes more confident and buoyant and exultant, till at last it bursts all earthly limitations, and passes into the complete and immortal freedom of the sons of God on high.
All this is true, but there are very few Christians who are not more distinctly sensible of the re straints which God often imposes upon those who love and serve Him, than of the liberty to which He has called them. Something of that sense of emancipation which seems to irradiate the language of psalmist and apostle, we too have doubtless felt; and yet who of us can enter into the full meaning of their inspiring words and make them wholly his own? And the reason for this is not merely that we are conscious that our obedience is still imper fect and our faith wavering and weak, that we have not surrendered ourselves so completely as the one had done to the authority of the law, or the other to the loving persuasions of the gospel; that our spiritual freedom is hampered because our spiritual vision is clouded and our spiritual life is languid. It is not that, though we may feel that that is sadly true. But God often seems to have shut us in, within limitations at which we chafe, by restraints which are as fetters on our enjoyment and our ac tivity. We know well enough that it is wrong to murmur at them, but we are often distracted be tween the desire to accept and submit to them, as His appointment for us, and the desire to break away from and rise above them, into the freedom of our heavenly calling. It may help us, therefore, if we consider some of these restraints, in order to see, if we can, what they are meant for and how we ought to regard them.
But it is important, at the outset, to observe how often it is the man who has shut himself in, and not God who has imposed restraints upon him. We are continually building barriers around ourselves and then complaining that our freedom is abridged. We shut ourselves up, for example, within narrow views of truth, refusing to let our minds go forth and up to the full breadth and height of the di vine revelation. It is sometimes the result of early education, which has fixed us in a certain concep tion of the great facts and doctrines of the gospel, so that it never occurs to us to inquire whether the truth of God and of our relation to Him may not be vaster and grander than that which we hold. It may be that some other acute but contracted mind has forced its opinions upon us, and we con tentedly accept them, without asking if, beyond the domain thus mapped out before us, there may not be other seas and continents, stretching away into the distance. It is simple ignorance sometimes, and sometimes indifference, and sometimes a voluntary and wilful refusal to lift up our eyes and behold the things which God is ready to reveal to our knowl edge; and sometimes it is a timid temper, a want of faith in the truth and in God; or it is an un willingness to be disturbed in opinions that have become familiar to us, and in prejudices that have grown so tough with age that we mistake them for principles; it is some one of these habits of mind that shuts us up within a creed, which in spite of the truth that it contains, becomes false because of the truth which it excludes. When shall we learn that truth is one, and that God has revealed Him self in many ways? The astronomer catches on the lens of his spectroscope a ray of sunlight; he enumerates to you the chemical elements which he finds in the blazing and bubbling mass from which it streams, and he tells you that that is the way in which you are to think of the sun. And the poet sees it rise over the Alps, touching every crystal peak with a crimson glory and wakening the valleys into life and song, and it stirs his soul with the sentiment of worship, and he greets it with a hymn. And the explorer, lost amid the trackless expanse of the polar ice, waits for it through the long Arctic night, and to him it means health and hope, escape from the living tomb that encloses him, and restoration to the smiling and happy home that he has left. And so it is with truth - the truth of God's love, for example, the truth of Christ's atonement; it is not the same thing to all men, but it is larger and grander and more many-sided than any man's conception of it. God pours it, as in floods of light around us, and calls upon us to come forth, out of the narrow views in which we have imprisoned our own minds, into a large lib erty of thought.
We suffer, in very much the same way, an un necessary impoverishment in our spiritual life, be cause we shut ourselves up within narrow ex pectations."According to thy faith be it unto thee, "is a far-reaching law. It is one of the laws which govern attainment and achievement in the secular world, where knowledge, wealth, influence, success of any kind, is in great measure propor tioned to ambition and effort. The school-boy who thinks that he never can know much, never will know much. The man who never expects to suc ceed, never succeeds. And the same thing is em phatically true of the spiritual life. Why is it that our Christian enthusiasm is so feeble, and our Christian joy so small; that we are conscious of so little progress in holiness, so little freedom and ex hilaration in our communion with God? It is not because He has condemned us to live as we are living, because there is nothing more in the Chris tian experience than we have attained, or nothing more, at least, for us. There are still mounts of vision on which the human soul may stand transfig ured, as Jesus stood on the summit of Tabor, while celestial forms fill all the air, and a divine compan ionship and communion is realized, which is a prophecy of heaven. There are still high places of Christian experience, on which your soul and mine may walk with the jubilant and triumphant step of those who are enfolded in a divine protec tion and upheld and guided by an almighty arm. And if we do not reach them, it is largely because we do not expect to reach them. They are not, we say, for us to tread. We are not contented where we are, or we are contented. In either case, we do not rise to higher things, because we do not expect to rise. Or we push into the indefinite future, into the last years of life on earth, or even, perhaps, into the life beyond, the fulfilment of a hope which might be fulfilled at once. But the great possibili ties of the Christian life are possibilities for every Christian. Not to a few only, but to all who are pure in heart, is it given to see God. Not to now and then one alone, but to all who abide in Christ, is the freedom which He has promised, granted. It is not He, who has shut us into our narrow, un fruitful, joyless experience, but we who have not faith enough in Him, or love enough for Him, to come forth into a larger life.
So again, in the third place, with Christian ac tivity. There is nothing more common than to hear a man lament that He is doing and can do so little for Christ. He is hedged in and hampered by a thousand restraints. He longs to break away from them and be free for some truly great and ef fective work. But look more closely at these re straints, my brother, and see if they are not such as you have fastened on yourself. Is there any thing to hinder your doing God service - service of the grandest and noblest kind - except your simple unwillingness to assume the responsibilities, or to make the sacrifices, which it involves? Is it not your love of your ease, or your absorbing interest in your business, which alone stands in the way of your religious activity? Or is it not some morbid feeling of timidity or self-distrust, which you ought to break over, and which you would break over, if you were really as intent as you think you are on do ing good? Or is not the difficulty this, perhaps, that while you are waiting for a wider sphere, you are not yourself widening your sphere, by filling it full of acts of usefulness and love? There is nothing in the world that grows like the opportunity of doing good. If you want to do more, do it, and the more you do, the more you will want to do. But do not at least cheat yourself with the delusion that God has shut you up to a life of inaction, when it is your own selfishness or your own worldliness which alone hinders your religious activity.
But when this has been recognized, that the restraints at which we murmur are often those of our own making, then we must also go on to recognize the fact that God does often shut us in. He does this, for example, sometimes by the limi tations of natural capacity which He has fixed for us. It is not possible for us, by the very constitu tion of our minds, to take those broad and lofty views of truth which others find so satisfying or inspiring. A narrow creed may be the only one which we can firmly grasp and hold, and they who are tempted to blame us for this, should remember that it is not so much our fault as our infirmity. Or our natures are too cold to be easily kindled to such a fervor of Christian feeling as that which others exhibit, and they should not forget that we may be as sincere and as earnest as they, while we are longing, perhaps, for an emotional experience of which we are simply incapable. So there are forms of Christian activity for which we are not fitted, and however pure may be the motive with which we enter upon them, God has shut us up to failure in them by denying to us the natural gifts which alone insure success. It may, perhaps, seem strange that He should thus refuse to any man the clearest vision of truth, the highest intensity of feel ing, to which he can aspire, and stranger still that He should suffer any faithful laborer in His service to miss the end for which he has toiled, because of some involuntary and unconscious defect of mind or of temperament, by which he is in advance con demned to disappointment. But this is certainly one of the ways in which He shuts men in.
Another is by the narrow conditions of their lives. I do not mean to speak of those - the almost innumerable multitude of men - who seem to be placed by the providence of God beyond the reach of every elevating influence; who are shut in by a deadly circle of associations and of cir cumstances which make their ruin seem almost inevitable; who appear to have no possibility of escape. The frightful picture which the weird fancy of the novelist has painted and which haunts the imagination of the reader like a nightmare, of the prisoner who saw that the walls of his dungeon were slowly but steadily closing in upon him, causing him an agony of suspense which was even more horrible than the certain and terrible death that awaited him - it is not an image too vivid and appalling of the condition of thousands who are living and perishing around us. But it is not now of them that I would speak. The contrast of their dark and hopeless lives - blots upon our civilization, reproaches upon our Christianity - makes the mean est and poorest of our lives seem large and rich and free. But just because of our wider outlook and
our higher aspirations, we feel the restraints amid which we are placed. The petty cares of daily life, the crowding and conflicting duties with which our busy hours are filled, the anxieties and fears and responsibilities by which we are burdened and perplexed, - how they exhaust our energies and baffle our ambitions and fetter our spiritual freedom. We are not engaged in a mad race after wealth, we are simply fighting the great battle of existence. We are discharging as well as we can our duty to ourselves, to society, and to those who are de pendent upon us. He who gave the command ment, "Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy, " did He not say also, "Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work"? And whatever the form or sphere of our labor may be, whether in court room or counting-room or school-room, whether it is the care of vast financial interests, or the care of the sick, or the care of little children, whether it is a public service or a domestic service, it is a necessity imposed upon us in the providence of God, and we cannot escape it. It is true that a man's life does not consist in the abundance of the 8things that he possesses; and yet much of the life of every man and of every woman must inevitably be occupied with things that have no evident reli gious relations and that seem in their influence directly opposed to all religious activity and progress. We are shut in by the conditions of our physical and social life, and whether we chafe at its restraints or meekly submit to them, we cannot throw them off.
And yet the busiest and most careworn life is free compared with that of one on whom some sore dis aster has fallen. The invalid who is fastened for weeks and months to a bed of helplessness and pain, who is withdrawn from all wonted ministries of duty and affection, and made to be the object of the pity and care and anxiety of others, - how sud denly and sadly life is narrowed for such a sufferer! Nothing to do, but everything to bear; the range of vision bounded by the walls of a single darkened room, which is like a prison to the restless soul; the bright and eager faculties of mind arrested in their accustomed activity and set to preying on themselves, or clouded and weakened by the poison of disease, - what a sad, but what a com mon experience it is of the way in which God shuts us in! Is it possible that there can be any still closer restraints imposed by Him on the free human spirit? Yes, the bonds of sorrow are even tighter and more galling than those of physical feebleness and pain. The body is vigorous and active; it is the heart which is enchained. The shadows of a great grief have fallen upon you, and you are walking on in solitude and darkness. Between you and the living world, in which just now you were doing your work so easily and so well, there has risen an impenetrable mist, in which you are moving aimless and bewildered. You hear from beyond it the voices of your fellow-men, engaged in the free and joyous activity in which you so lately had your share, and they are calling you to come forth out of your sorrow into the liberty of thought and feeling that you have lost. But you cannot come out of it, and you would not if you could. There is a sacredness in such an isolation and seclusion, which you do not desire or dare to violate. It is the hand of God that has drawn these curtains of darkness around you, and you cannot but wait till He shall lift them and let in upon you the brightness of the day.
Or, once more, the restraints which He imposes may be wholly within the sphere of our spiritual life. There are no outward restrictions on our liberty, but we are in bondage to doubt or fear or religious depression. Our faith is shaken in some cardinal point or doctrine of the gospel and we can do noth ing until it is restored. Or the freshness of our Christian feeling has vanished, as the delicate and tender beauty of the morning is lost in the noon day heat and glare. We used to know the joy of God's salvation, the mysterious and ineffable sweet ness of a loving fellowship with Christ. It was the glorious liberty of which the apostle speaks. But we have lost it, and now religion is to. us a weary round of duties and a longing for a spiritual freedom, which would be like heaven itself, if we could only get it back. There are such periods in the lives of God's true children, when the luminous presence that had shone upon their path seems turned to darkness, and when the light has faded from the mercy-seat itself.
Does it not sometimes seem, in view of these various ways in which God shuts His people in, as if there were no real freedom left for us on earth? Who of us has not felt, as his life has gone for ward, that the hand of God was laid upon him in the limitations of natural capacity by which he is encompassed, in the restrictive conditions of his life, in sickness or in sorrow, in religious doubt or desolation? Who of us has not felt himself checked, hampered, arrested even, in his spiritual activity and progress? Is this, we may well ask, the freedom of God's children? Is this the light and joy and liberty of faith? Let me point you for an answer to the threefold purpose which even now we are able to discover, in these divinely imposed restraints, - the purpose which will grow still plainer to us, as it approaches its accomplishment. It is, for one thing, a purpose of protection. The story of the patriarch from whose biography the text is taken, may at least teach us that first lesson. The barriers by which God shuts us in, are often barriers by which He shuts out from us temptations to which we should certainly succumb. The necessity of labor is not a burden, it is a defence. The seclusion and help lessness of sickness is not a chastisement, it is a safeguard. You say that the purely worldly cares with which your hands and brain are filled, are a hindrance to your spiritual growth. It may be so, but a life of idleness would hinder it far more. You say that your sickness has thwarted your plans of Christian usefulness. It may be so, but un broken health and prosperity would have diverted you from them more effectually still. Your great affliction has shut you up to a life of melancholy and inaction. I grant it, but you were perhaps becoming too deeply immersed in a happiness which was purely of this world, and this has brought you face to face with the world to come. You say that your religious depression destroys all the zest and freedom of your efforts to do good. I admit and understand it, but you were perhaps be coming too well satisfied with the good that you were doing, and too self-sufficient and self-confi dent. You did not realize, you do not yet realize, perhaps, the dangers that were threatening you when God thus laid His hand upon you and in His mercy shut you in.
Or His purpose in it may be one of discipline.
It almost certainly is so. Have you learned all the lessons of discipleship so well that you no longer need His training? Perhaps it may be His design to teach you simply that you have not done this, that you are willing to trust and serve Him when He lets you roam at large, but are impatient and rebellious under His restraints. It may thus be something concerning yourself that you are to learn, or something new concerning Him, - the real weakness of the faith that you thought so strong, the irresoluteness of the purpose that you thought so steadfast, the insufficiency of the love that had led you to say, "Though I should die with Thee, or for Thee, I will not deny Thee;"or, on the other hand, the power of His presence in the soul to make the darkest hour radiant and the most heavily burdened spirit glad. He may wish to teach you the great lesson of duty, that all labor is to be made sacred, by being performed in a spirit of Christian devotion; or the great lesson of trust, that our desires are in all things to be subjected to His will. But whatever the lesson may be, be sure of this, that He has a lesson to teach you, and that when you have learned it, He will bring you forth again into freedom and into peace.
Or He may, in the third place, have a work for you to do, which can only be done under the very limitations which He has imposed. It is for you, perhaps, to teach others how meekly and joyfully these limitations may be borne. It is for you to show how fervent and pure and devout in spirit it is possible to remain amid all the stress of secular activity. It is for you to prove again to the world, what has been proved so often and yet is so often denied, that one may be diligent in his business and yet serve the Lord, or faithful in all the endless round of homely duties, and yet be spiritually minded and full of the gentleness of Christ. Or still again, it is for you to exhibit a cheerfulness which pain cannot subdue, a serenity which sorrow cannot disturb, a faith and zeal which only shine out more brightly through the doubts by which you are enveloped. The most honored and eminent witnesses for God are not they whose feet are set in large places and who walk with buoyant step in pleasant paths. They are those whom He has in His providence shut in to narrow spheres, to conditions of hardship and suffering, but who there exhibit a trust in Him that never wavers, and a fidelity to Him that never fails.
Here, then, are the lessons, too obvious to be missed, too important to be disregarded, to which our meditation brings us. The first is that it is never for His own sake, but always for ours, that God shuts us in. Whether it be to save us from a peril by which we are threatened, or to teach us a lesson which it is well for us to learn, or to enable us to render the service which it is our highest privilege to render, His very restraints are forms of blessing. The limitations which we fasten on our selves through prejudice, indifference, or love of this world, are indeed sources of weakness. It is by them that we are held back from the growth that we long for, and from the activity and the happi ness that God has designed for us. But let us not murmur at those which are imposed upon us by Him. The little valley, shut in among the hills, might better complain because it is not the level prairie which is bounded only by the sky. But has it not also its use and its beauty? And into its quiet depths do not the same stars shine? And the second thing is that freedom is found not in the absence of restraints, but in adjustment to them. There is indeed a liberty of the children of God, and it belongs to those about whom the cords of love and duty are most tightly wound. It does not need or seek a larger sphere than that which He has assigned it, but in that sphere it finds ample and harmonious movement, because it moves in accordance with His will. Its direction is up ward, rather than outward, and that sphere is large enough for it which brings it into vital contact and communion with Him. The Christian soldier, who ranges over earth and sea, has not always the liberty of the captive, whose cell is illumined by the pres ence in it of the. Son of God. And the narrowest life is sometimes expanded till heaven itself is embraced within its horizon, when the spirit has learned to forget its fetters in loving and joyous fellowship with Christ. That is the liberty with which He makes free those to whom all privation and hard ship are sweet, which hold them more closely to Him.
And that is the prophecy of the still more per fect freedom awaiting us hereafter. We sometimes think of the world to come as a sphere where all restraints shall be removed, and the soul shall be unhampered in its immortal career of happiness and progress. And so indeed it will be with the limitations of sense and time, of earthly toil, of sickness and sorrow, of fear and doubt and death. But the sweet restraints of love and of obedience, and of holy and delightful work, will be around us still. Our freedom will be a freedom from sin, but not from duty, from suffering, but not from service. But the bonds which now seem to us the fetters of servitude shall there be the symbols of citizenship, when the mortal discipline and peril shall be ended, and the celestial security and fruition begun. God make us patient and faithful here, and give us that freedom and that peace hereafter I