This is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.
This is a great epistle, this epistle for the day, and full of deep lessons. Let us try to learn some of them.
'What glory is it,' St. Peter says, 'if, when ye be beaten for your faults, ye take it patiently?' What credit is it to a man, if, having broken the law, he submits to be punished? The man who will not do that, the man who resists punishment, is not a civilized man, but a savage and a mere animal. If he will not live under discipline, if he expects to break the law with impunity, he makes himself an outlaw; he puts himself by his rebellion outside the law, and becomes unfit for society, a public enemy of his fellow-men. The first lesson which men have to learn, which even the heathen have learnt, as soon as they have risen above mere savages, is the sacredness of law--the necessity of punishment for those who break the law.
The Jews had this feeling of the sacredness of law. Moses' divine law had taught it them. The Romans, heathen though they were, had the same feeling--that law was sacred; that men must obey law. And the good thing which they did for the world (though they did it at the expense of bloodshed and cruelty without end) was the bringing all the lawless nations and wild tribes about them under strict law, and drilling them into order and obedience. That it was, which gave the Roman power strength and success for many centuries.
But above the kingdom of law, which says to a man merely, 'Thou shalt not do wrong: and if thou dost, thou shalt be punished,' there is another kingdom, far deeper, wider, nobler; even the kingdom of grace, which says to a man, not merely, 'Do not do wrong,' but 'Do right;' and not only 'Do right for fear of being punished,' but 'Do right because it is right; do right because thou hast grace in thy heart; even the grace of God, and the Spirit of God, which makes thee love what is right, and see how right it is, and how beautiful; so that thou must follow after the right, not from fear of punishment, but in spite of fear of punishment; follow after the right, not when it is safe only, but when it is dangerous; not when it is honourable only in the eyes of men, but when it is despised. If thou hast God's grace in thy heart; if thou lovest what is right with the true love, which is the Spirit of God, then thou wilt never stop to ask, "Will it pay me to do right?" Thou wilt feel that the right thou must do, whether it pays thee or not; still loving the right, and cleaving steadfastly to the right, through disappointment, poverty, shame, trouble, death itself, if need be: if only thou canst keep a conscience void of offence toward God and man.'
'But shall I have no reward?' asks a man, 'for doing right? Am I to give up a hundred pleasant things for conscience' sake, and get nothing in return?' Yes: there is a reward for righteousness, even in this life. God repays those who make sacrifices for conscience' sake, I verily believe, in most cases, a hundred fold in this life. In this life it stands true, that he who loses his life shall save it; that he who goes through the world with a single eye to duty, without selfishness, without vanity, without ambition, careless whether he be laughed at, careless whether he be ill-used, provided only his conscience acquits him, and God's approving smile is on him- -in this life it stands true that that man is the happiest man after all; that that man is the most prosperous man after all; that, like Christ, when he was doing his Father's work, he has meat to eat and strengthen him in his life's journey, which the world knows not of. But if not; if it seem good to God to let him taste the bitters, and not the sweets, of doing right, in this life; if it seem good to God that he should suffer--as many a man and woman too has suffered for doing right--nothing but contempt, neglect, prison, and death; is he worse off than Jesus Christ, his Lord, was before him? Shall the disciple be above his master? What if he have to drink of the cup of sorrow of which Christ drank, and be baptized with the baptism of martyrdom with which Christ was baptized? Where is he, but where the Son of God has been already? What is he doing, but treading in the steps of Christ crucified; that he may share in the blessing and glory and honour without end which God the Father heaped upon Christ his Son, because he was perfect in duty, perfect in love of right, perfect in resignation, perfect in submission under injustice, perfect in forgiveness of his murderers, perfect in faith in the justice and mercy of God: who did no sin--that is, never injured his own cause by anger or revenge; and had no guile in his mouth--that is, never prevaricated, lied, concealed his opinions, for fear of the consequences, however terrible; but before the chief priests and Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession, though he knew that it would bring on him a dreadful death; who, when he was reviled, reviled not again, but committed himself to him who judgeth righteously--the meekest of all beings, and in that very meekness the strongest of all beings; the most utterly resigned, and by that very resignation the most heroic--the being who seemed, on the cross of Calvary, most utterly conquered by injustice and violence: but who, by that very cross, conquered the whole world.
This is a great mystery, and hard to learn. Flesh and blood, our animal nature, will never compass it all; for it belongs, not to the flesh, but to the spirit. But our spirits, our immortal souls, may learn the lesson at last, if we feed them continually with the thought of Christ; if we meditate upon whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honourable, just, pure, lovely, and of good report. Then we may learn, at last, after many failures, and many sorrows of heart, that the spirit is stronger than the flesh; that meekness is stronger than wrath, silence stronger than shouting, peace stronger than war, forgiveness stronger than vengeance, just as Christ hanging on his cross was stronger--exercising a more vast and miraculous effect on the hearts of men--than if he had called whole armies of angels to destroy his enemies, like one of the old kings and conquerors of the earth, whose works have perished with themselves.
Yes, gradually we must learn that our strength is to sit still; that to do well and suffer for it, instead of returning evil for evil, and railing for railing, is to show forth the spirit of Christ, and to enter into the joy of our Lord.
The statesman debating in Parliament; the conqueror changing the fate of nations on bloody battle-fields; these all do their work; and are needful, doubtless, in a sinful, piecemeal world like this. But there are those of whom the noisy world never hears, who have chosen the better part which shall not be taken from them; who enter into a higher glory than that of statesmen, or conquerors, or the successful and famous of the earth. Many a man--clergyman or layman--struggling in poverty and obscurity, with daily toil of body and mind, to make his fellow-creatures better and happier; many a poor woman, bearing children in pain and sorrow, and bringing them up with pain and sorrow, but in industry, too, and piety; or submitting without complaint to a brutal husband; or sacrificing all her own hopes in life to feed and educate her brothers and sisters; or enduring for years the peevishness and troublesomeness of some relation;--all these (and the world which God sees is full of such, though the world which man sees takes no note of them)--gentle souls, humble souls, uncomplaining souls, suffering souls, pious souls--these are God's elect; these are Christ's sheep; these are the salt of the earth, who, by doing each their little duty as unto God, not unto men, keep society from decaying more than do all the constitutions and acts of parliament which statesmen ever invented. These are they--though they little dream of any such honour--who copy the likeness of the old martyrs, who did well and suffered for it; and the likeness of Christ, of whom it was said, 'He shall not strive nor cry, neither shall his voice be heard in the streets.'
For what was it in the old martyrs which made men look up to them, as persons infinitely better than themselves, with quite unmeasurable admiration; so that they worshipped them after their deaths, as if they had been gods rather than men?
It was this. The world in old times had been admiring successful people, just as it does at this day. Was a man powerful, rich? Had he slaves by the hundred? Was his table loaded with the richest meats and wines? Could he indulge every pleasure and fancy of his own? Could he heap his friends with benefits? Could he ruin or destroy any one who thwarted him? In one word, was he a mighty and successful tyrant? Then that was the man to honour and worship; that was the sort of man to become, if anyone had the chance, by fair means or foul. Just as the world worships now the successful man; and--if you will but make a million of money--will flatter you and court you, and never ask either how you made your money, or how you spend your money; or whether you are a good man or a bad one: for money in man's eyes, as charity in God's eyes, covereth a multitude of sins; and as long as thou doest well unto thyself, men will speak well of thee.
But there arose, in that wicked old world in which St. Paul lived, an entirely new sort of people--people who did not wish to be successful; did not wish to be rich; did not wish to be powerful; did not wish for pleasures and luxuries which this world could give: who only wished to be good; to do right, and to teach others to do right. Christians, they were called; after Christ their Lord and God. Weak old men, poor women, slaves, even children, were among them. Not many mighty, not many rich, not many noble, were called. They were mostly weak and oppressed people, who had been taught by suffering and sorrow.
One would have thought that the world would have despised these Christians, and let them go their own way in peace. But it was not so. The mighty of this world, and those who lived by pandering to their vices, so far from despising the Christians, saw at once how important they were. They saw that, if people went about the world determined to speak nothing but what they believed to be true, and to do nothing but what was right, then the wicked world would be indeed turned upside down, and, as they complained against St. Paul more than once, the hope of their gains would be gone. Therefore they conceived the most bitter hatred against these Christians, and rose against them, for the same simple reason that Cain rose up against Abel and slew him, because his works were wicked, and his brother's righteous. They argued with them; they threatened them; they tried to terrify them: but they found to their astonishment that the Christians would not change their minds for any terror. Then their hatred became rage and fury. They could not understand how such poor ignorant contemptible people as the Christians seemed to be, dared to have an opinion of their own, and to stand to it; how they dared to think themselves right, and all the world wrong; and in their fury they inflicted on them tortures to read of which should make the blood run cold. And their rage and fury increased to madness, when they found that these Christians, instead of complaining, instead of rebelling, instead of trying to avenge themselves, submitted to all their sufferings, not only patiently and uncomplaining, but joyfully, and as an honour and a glory. Some, no doubt, they conquered by torture, agony, and terror; and so made them deny Christ, and return to the wickedness of the heathen. But those renegades were always miserable. Their own consciences condemned them. They felt they had sold their own souls for a lie; and many of them, in their agony of mind, repented again, like St. Peter after he had denied his Lord through fear, proclaimed themselves Christians after all, went through all their tortures a second time, and died triumphant over death and hell.
But there were those--to be counted by hundreds, if not thousands-- who dared all, and endured all; and won (as it was rightly called) the crown of martyrdom. Feeble old men, weak women, poor slaves, even little children, sealed their testimony with their blood, and conquered, not by fighting, but by suffering.
They conquered. They conquered for themselves in the next world; for they went to heaven and bliss, and their light affliction, which was but for a moment, worked out for them an exceeding and eternal weight of glory.
They conquered in this world also. For the very world which had scourged them, racked them, crucified them, burned them alive, when they were dead turned round and worshipped them as heroes, almost as divine beings. And they were divine; for they had in them the Divine Spirit, the Spirit of God and of Christ. Therefore the foolish world was awed, conscience-stricken, pricked to the heart, when it looked on those whom it had pierced, as it had pierced Christ the Lord, and cried, as the centurion cried on Calvary, 'Surely these were the sons and daughters of God. Surely there was some thing more divine, more noble, more beautiful in these poor creatures dying in torture, than in all the tyrants and conquerors and rich men of the earth. This is the true greatness, this is the true heroism--to do well and suffer for it patiently.'
And thenceforth men began to get, slowly but surely, a quite new idea of true greatness; they learnt to see that not revenge, but forgiveness; not violence, but resignation; not success, but holiness, are the perfection of humanity. They began to have a reverence for those who were weak in body, and simple in heart,--a reverence for women, for children, for slaves, for all whom the world despises, such as the old Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, had never had. They began to see that God could make strong the weak things of this world, and glorify himself in the courage and honesty of the poorest and the meanest. They began to see that in Christ Jesus was neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but that all were one in Christ Jesus, all alike capable of receiving the Spirit of God, all alike children of the one Father, who was above all, and in all, and with them all.
And so the endurance and the sufferings of the early martyrs was the triumph of good over evil; the triumph of honesty and truth; of purity and virtue; of gentleness and patience; of faith in a just and loving God: because it was the triumph of the Spirit of Christ, by which he died, and rose again, and conquered shame and pain, and death and hell.