Baltimore, U.S., 1874. Westminster Abbey. November 8, 1874.
Colossians. iii 15. "Let the peace of God rule in your hearts."
The peace of God. That is what the priest will invoke for you all, when you leave this abbey. Do you know what it is? Whether you do or not, let me tell you in a few words, what I seem to myself to have learned concerning that peace. What it is? how we can obtain it? and why so many do not obtain it, and are, therefore, not at peace?
It is worth while to do so. For these are not peaceful times. The peace of God is rare among us. Some say that it is rarer than it was. I know not how that may be; but I see all manner of causes at work around us which should make it rare. We live faster than our forefathers. We hurry, we bustle, we travel, we are eager for daily, almost for hourly news from every quarter, as if the world could not get on without us, or we without knowing a hundred facts which merely satisfy the curiosity of the moment; and as if the great God could not take excellent care of us all meanwhile. We are eager, too, to get money, and get more money still--piercing ourselves through too often, as the Apostle warned us-- with many sorrows, and falling into foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. We are luxurious--more and more fond of show; more apt to live up to our incomes, and probably a little beyond; more and more craving for this or that gew-gaw, especially in dress and ornament, which if our neighbour has, we must have too, or we shall be mortified, envious. Nay, so strong is this temper of rivalry, of allowing no superiors, grown in us, that we have made now-a-days a god of what used to be considered the basest of all vices--the vice of envy-- and dignify it with the names of equality and independence. Men in this temper of mind cannot be at peace. They are not content; they cannot be content.
But with what are they not content? That is a question worth asking. For there is a discontent (as I have told you ere now) which is noble, manful, heroic, and divine. Just as there is a discontent which is base, mean, unmanly, earthly--sometimes devilish. There is a discontent which is certain, sooner or later, to bring with it the peace of God. There is a discontent which drives the peace of God away, for ever and a day. And the noble and peace-bringing discontent is to be discontented with ourselves, as very few are. And the mean peace-destroying discontent is to be discontented with things around us, as too many are. Now, my friends, I cannot see into your hearts; and I ought not to see. For if I saw, I should be tempted to judge; and if I judged, I should most certainly judge rashly, shallowly, and altogether wrong. Therefore examine yourselves, and judge yourselves in this matter. Ask yourselves each, Am I at peace? And if not, then apply to yourselves the rule of old Epictetus, the heroic slave, who, heathen though he was, sought God, and the peace of God, and found them, doubt it not, long, long ago. Ask yourselves with Epictetus, Am I discontented with things which are in my own power, or with things which are not in my own power?--that is, discontented with myself, or with things which are not myself? Am I discontented with myself, or with things about me, and outside of me? Consider this last question well, if you wish to be true Christians, true philosophers, and, indeed, true men and women.
But what is it that troubles you? What is it you want altered? On what have you set your heart and affections? Is it something outside you?-- something which is NOT you yourself? If so, there is no use in tormenting your soul about it; for it is not in your own power, and you will never alter it to your liking; and more, you need not alter it, for you are not responsible for it. God sends it as it is, for better, for worse, and you must make up your mind to what God sends. Do I mean that we are to submit slavishly to circumstances, like dumb animals? Heaven forbid. We are not, like Epictetus, slaves, but free men. And we are made in God's image, and have each our spark, however dim, of that creative genius, that power of creating or of altering circumstances, by which God made all worlds; and to use that, is of our very birthright, or what would all education, progress, civilisation be, save rebellion against God? But when we have done our utmost, how little shall we have done! Canst thou,--asks our Lord, looking with loving sadness on the hurry and the struggle of the human anthill--canst thou by taking thought add one cubit to thy stature? Why, is there a wise man or woman in this abbey, past fifty years of age, who does not know that, in spite of all their toil and struggle, they have gone not whither they willed, but whither God willed? Have they not found out that for one circumstance of their lives which they could alter, there have been twenty which they could not, some born with them, some forced on them by an overruling Providence, irresistible indeed--but, as I hold, most loving and most fatherly, though often severe--even to agony--but irresistible still-- till what they have really gained by fighting circumstance, however valiantly, has been the MORAL gain, the gain in character?--the power to live the heroic life, which
"Is not as idle ore, But heated hot with burning fears, And bathed in baths of hissing tears, And batter'd, with the shocks of doom, To shape and use."
Ah! if a man be learning that lesson, which is the primer of eternal life, then I hardly pity him, though I see him from youth to age tearing with weak hands at the gates of brass, and beating his soul's wings to pieces against the bars of the iron cage. But, alas! the majority of mankind tear at the gates of brass, and beat against the iron cage, with no such good purpose, and therefore with no such good result. They fight with circumstances, not that they may become better themselves, not that they may right the wrongs or elevate the souls of their fellow-men, not even that they may fulfil the sacred duty of maintaining, and educating, and providing for the children whom they have brought into the world, and for whom they are responsible alike to God and to man; but simply because circumstances are disagreeable to them; because the things around them do not satisfy their covetousness, their luxury, their ambition, their vanity. And therefore the majority of mankind want to be, and to do, and to have a hundred things which are not in their own power, and of which they have no proof that God intends to give them; no proof either that if they had them, they would make right use of them, and certainly no proof at all that if they had them they would find peace. They war and fight, and have not, because they ask not. They ask, and have not, because they ask amiss, to consume it on their lusts; and so they spend their lives without peace, longing, struggling for things outside them, the greater part of which they do not get, because the getting them is not in their own power, and which if they got they could not keep, for they can carry nothing away with them when they die, neither can their pomp follow them. And therefore does man walk in a vain shadow, and disquiet himself in vain, looking for peace where it is not to be found--in everything and anything save in his own heart, in duty, and in God.
But happy are they who are discontented with the divine discontent, discontented with themselves. Happy are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, that they may become righteous and good men. Happy are they who have set their hearts on the one thing which is in their own power--being better than they are, and doing better than they do. Happy are they who long and labour after the true riches, which neither mobs nor tyrants, man nor devil, prosperity nor adversity, or any chance or change of mortal life, can take from them--the true and eternal wealth, which is the Spirit of God. The man, I say, who has set his heart on being good, has set his heart on the one thing which is in his own power; the one thing which depends wholly and solely on his own will; the one thing which he can have if he chooses, for it is written, "If ye then being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?" Moreover, he has set his heart on the one thing which cannot be taken from him. God will not take it from him; and man, and fortune, and misfortune, cannot take it from him. Poverty, misery, disease, death itself, cannot make him a worse man, cannot make him less just, less true, less pure, less charitable, less high-minded, less like Christ, and less like God.
Therefore he is at peace, for he is, as it were, intrenched in an impregnable fortress, against all men and all evil influences. And that castle is his own soul. And the keeper of that castle is none other than Almighty God, Jesus Christ our Lord, to whose keeping he has committed his soul, as unto a faithful and merciful Saviour, able to keep to the uttermost that which is committed to Him in faith and holiness.
Therefore that man is at peace with himself, for his conscience tells him that he is, if not doing his best, yet trying to do his best, better and better day by day. He is at peace with all the world; for most men are longing and quarrelling for pleasant things outside them, for which he does not greatly care, while he is longing and striving for good things inside him in his own heart and soul; and so the world goes one way, and he another, and their desires do not interfere with each other.
But, more, that man is at peace with God. He is at peace with God the Father; for he is behaving as the Father wishes His children to behave. He is at peace with God the Son; for he is trying to do that which God the Son did when He came not to do His own will, but His Father's; not to grasp at anything for himself, but simply to sacrifice himself for duty, for the good of man. And he is at peace with God the Holy Spirit; for he is obeying the gracious inspirations of that Spirit, and growing a better man day by day. And so the peace of God keeps that man's heart free from vain desires and angry passions, and his mind from those false and foolish judgments which make the world think things important which are quite unimportant; and, again, fancy things unimportant which are more important to them than the riches of the whole world.
My dear friends, take my words home with you, and if you wish for the only true and sound peace, which is the peace of God, do your duty. Try to be as good as you can, each in his station in life. So help you God.
Take an example from the soldier on the march; and if you do that, you will all understand what I mean. The bad soldier has no peace, just because he troubles himself about things outside himself, and not in his own power. "Will the officers lead us right?" That is not in his power. Let him go where the officers lead him, and do his own duty. "Will he get food enough, water enough, care enough, if he is wounded?" I hope and trust in God he will; but that is not in his own power. Let him take that, too, as it comes, and do his duty. "Will he be praised, rewarded, mentioned in the newspapers, if he fights well?" That, too, is not in his own power. Let him take that, too, as it comes, and do his duty; and so of everything else. If the soldier on the march torments himself with these matters which are not in his own power, he is the man who will be troublesome and mutinous in time of peace, and in time of war will be the first to run away. He will tell you, "A man must have justice done him; a man must see fair play for himself; a man must think of himself." Poor fool! He is not thinking of himself all the while, but of a number of things which are outside him, circumstances which stand round him, and outside him, and are not himself at all. Because he thinks of them--the things outside him--he is a coward or a mutineer, while he fancies he is taking care of himself--as it is written, "Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it."
But if the man will really think of himself, of that which is inside him, of his own character, his own honour, his own duty--then he will say, Well fed or ill fed, well led or ill led, praised and covered with medals, or neglected and forgotten, and dying in a ditch, I, by myself I, am the same man, and I have the same work to do. I have to be--myself, and I have to do--my duty. So help me God. And therefore, so help me God, I will be discontented with no person or thing, save only with myself; and I will be discontented with myself, not when I have left undone something extraordinary, which I know I could not have done, but only when I have left undone something ordinary, some plain duty which I know I could have done, had I asked God to help me to do it. Then in that soldier would be fulfilled--has been fulfilled, thank God, a thousand times, by men who lie in this abbey, and by men, too, of whom we never heard, "whose graves are scattered far and wide, by mount, by stream, by sea,"--in him would be fulfilled, I say, the words, "He that will lose his life shall save it." Then would he have in his heart, and in his mind likewise, a peace which victory and safety cannot give, and which defeat, and wounds, ay, death itself, can never take away.
And are not you, too, soldiers--soldiers of Jesus Christ? Then even as that good soldier, you may be at peace, through all the battles, victories, defeats of mortal life, if you will be discontented with nothing save yourselves, and vow, in spirit and in truth, the one oath which is no blasphemy, but an act of faith, and an act of prayer, and a confession of the true theology--So help me God. For then God will help you. Neither you nor I know how; and I am sure neither you nor I know why--save that God is utterly good. God, I say, will help you, by His Holy Spirit the Comforter, to do your duty, and to be at peace. And then the peace of God will rule in your hearts and make you kings to God. For He will enable YOU each to rule, serene, though weary, over a kingdom-- or, alas! rather a mob, the most unruly, the most unreasonable, the most unstable, and often the most fierce, which you are like to meet on earth. To rule, I say, over a mob, of which you each must needs be king or slave, according as you choose. And what is that mob? What but your own faculties, your own emotions, your own passions--in one word, your own selves? Yes, with the peace of God ruling in your hearts, you will be able to become what without it you will never be--and that is--masters of yourselves.