"All the commandments which I command thee this day shall ye observe to do, that ye may live, and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the Lord sware unto your fathers. And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no. And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live. . . . Thou shall also consider in thine heart that, as a man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee."--DEUT. viii. 1, 2, 3, 5.
As God led the Jews through the wilderness, so He leads us through the journey of life. As God called on the Jews to rejoice in Him, and to bless Him for going with them, and teaching and training them by dangers and sorrows; so He calls on us to lift up our hearts and bless Him for teaching and training us in the battle of life.
But some of you may say, "Why do you ask us to thank God for lessons which we have bought by labour and sorrow? Are not our sorrows more than our joys? Our labour far heavier than our rest can be sweet? You tell us to be joyful and thank God for His mercies; but why all this toil? Why must we work on, and on, and on, all our days, in weariness and anxiety? Why must we only toil, toil, till we die, and lie down, fairly conquered and worn out, on that stern mother earth, from whom we have been wringing our paltry livelihood from our boyhood to our grave? What is our life but labour and sorrow?"
Are not some of you thinking in this way to-day? Have I not guessed the hearts of some of you at least? And is not this a strange way of making you joyful to remind you of these thoughts?
My friends, be sure I only remind you of these sad thoughts, because they are true thoughts, because God meant you to bear them and face them like men; because you must have these thoughts, and let them make you sad, and make up your minds to face them again and again, before even you can thank God really like redeemed, immortal Christian men and women. And believe me, I would not mention these sad thoughts, if I had not a remedy for them. If I had not a message to you from the living God, and Christ the King of the earth, whereby I tell you now to rejoice and give thanks to Him in spite of all your labour and sorrow. Ay more, I say, Rejoice and give thanks on account of all your labour and sorrow, and count it all joy when ye fall into divers tribulations.
It is true, my friends, we are a hard working and a somewhat sad race of men, we English. The life of the working man is labour and sorrow, and so is the life of the scholar, and so is the life of even many a rich man. All things are full of labour in England. Man cannot utter it, the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing; we are the wisest of all nations; and yet as Solomon says, behold in much wisdom is much grief; and in increasing knowledge, we still increase sorrow.
Truly, I may say of us Englishmen, as Paul said of the Christians of his time, that if Christ be not raised from the dead, and if in this life only we have hope in Him, we are of all nations one of the most unhappy. When we look at all the hundreds of thousands pent up in our great cities among filth and smoke, toiling in factories, in workshops, in dark mines under ground--when we think of the soldier on the march under the sultry sun of India, the sailor on the stormy sea--when we think of this our bleak inclement climate, our five months of winter every year;--no man's food and clothing to be gained but by bitter toil, either of himself or of others--and then when we compare our lot with that of the dwellers in hot countries, in India and in Africa, and the islands of the South Seas, where men live with no care, no labour--where clothes and fire are never needed--where every tree bears delicious food, and man lives in perpetual summer, in careless health and beauty, among continual mirth and ease, like the birds which know no care--then it seems at moments as if God had been unfair in giving so much more to the savage than He has to us, of the blessings of this earthly life; and we are led to long that our lot was cast in those fruitful and delicious climates of the South, in a continual paradise of mirth and plenty, and beauty and sunshine.
But no, my friends, we are more blest than the careless Indian who never knows what labour is; his life is but the life of the butterfly, which flutters from flower to flower and sports in the sunshine, and sucks sweets for a brief hour, and then perishes without hope. His life is a dream, he sees no heaven before him, he knows no glorious God, with the sight of whom he is to be blest for ever. His body may be in perpetual ease, and health, and beauty for a few short years, but what care has he for his undying spirit, that is blind and dead within him?
But to bring a man's soul to life, to train and educate a man's soul that it may go on from strength to strength, and glory to glory till it appears in the presence of God--that wants a stern and a severe training of sorrow and labour, of which the poor, pampered, luxurious savage knows nothing. This is why Christ brought our forefathers into this bleak, cold, northern land, and forced them to gain their bread by the sweat of their brows, and the sorrows of their hearts, and to keep their land by many wars.
Now this is the reason of our carefulness, of our many troubles, that God is educating and training us English; that He will not have us be savages, but Christian citizens; He will have us not merely happy, but blessed through all eternity. He will not have us to be like the poor Indians, slaves to our flesh and our appetites--slaves to the pleasant things around us; but He will have us fill the earth and subdue it; He will have England the light of the nations--and Englishmen preach freedom, and wisdom, and prudence, and the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the nations of the earth. Therefore Christ afflicts us because He loves us, because whom He loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth. Because He has ordained England to preach the Cross, therefore He will have England bear the cross.
It has often struck me, my friends, as a beautiful and a deep sign, a blessed ordinance of the great and wise God, that the flag of England, and especially the flag of our navy--the flag which is loved and reverenced through all the world, as the bringer of free communion between nation and nation, the bringer of order and equal justice and holy freedom, and the divine majesty of law, and the light of the blessed gospel wherever it goes; that this flag, I say, should be the red-cross flag, the flag of the Cross of Christ--a double sign--a sign to all men that we are a Christian nation, a gospel people; and a sign, too, to ourselves, that we are meant to bear Christ's cross--to bear the afflictions which He lays upon us--to be made perfect through sufferings, to crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts, that we may be brave and self-denying; going forth in Christ's strength, remembering that it is He who gives us power to get wealth; that we ought to fight His battles, that we ought to spread His name at home and abroad; and rejoice in every sorrow, which teaches us more and more the blessed meaning of His saving name, and the share which we have in it.
I have said that we are a melancholy people. Foreigners all say of us, that we are the saddest of all people; that when they come to England, they are struck with our silence, and gloominess, and careworn faces, and our want of merriment and cheerfulness. And yet, with all this, we are the greatest of nations at this day--the strongest and the most industrious and the wisest. The gospel of Jesus Christ is preached oftener, and more simply, and more fully here in England than in any nation, and I dare to say it, that in spite of all our sins, there are as many or more of God's true saints, more holy men and women among English people at this moment, than among any people of the earth. And why? because there are so many among us who have hope in Christ beyond this life, who look for everlasting salvation through all eternity to His name. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, truly of all people we should be most miserable; but Christ is risen from the dead, and He has ascended up on high, and led captivity captive, and received gifts for men. He sits even now at God's right hand praying for us. To Him all power is given in heaven and earth, and He is our covenant God and Saviour, He is our King. He is ours; and He will have us put on His likeness, and with Him be made perfect through sufferings--through sufferings, for sorrow is the gate of life. Through much tribulation we enter into the kingdom of God; without weary pain none of us is born into the world; without weary labour not a harvest in England is grown and reaped; without weary thought, and teaching, and correction, not a child among us is educated to be a man; without weary thought and weary labour, not one of us can do his duty in that station of life to which Christ has called him. Not without weary struggles and arguings and contentions, by martyrdoms, by desperate wars, our forefathers won for us our religion, our freedom and our laws, which make England the wonder of the world. This is the great law of our life--to be made perfect through sufferings, as our Lord and Master was before us. He has dealt with us, as my text tells you He dealt with the Jews, His chosen people of old, as He deals with every soul of man on whom He sets His love. "All the commandments which I command thee this day shall ye observe to do, that ye may live, and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the Lord sware unto your fathers. And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep His commandments, or no. And He humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that He might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live . . . Thou shalt also consider in thine heart, that, as a man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee."
For, believe me, my friends, whatever nation or whatever man Christ chooses to be His own, and to be holy and noble and glorious with Him, He makes them perfect through suffering. First, He stirs up in them strange longings after what is great and good. He makes them hunger and thirst after righteousness, and then He lets them see how nothing on this earth, nothing beautiful or nothing pleasant which they can get or invent for themselves will satisfy; and so He teaches them to look to Him, to look for peace and salvation from heaven and not from earth. Then He leads them, as He led the Jews of old, through the wilderness and through the sea, through strange afflictions, through poverty, and war, and labour, that they may learn to know that He is leading them and not themselves; that they may learn to trust not in themselves, but in Him; not in their own strength: but in the bread which cometh down from heaven; not in their own courage, but in Him; and just when all seems most hopeless, He makes one of them chase a thousand, and by strange and unexpected providences, and the courage which a just cause inspires, brings His people triumphant through temptation and danger, and puts to flight the armies of the heathen, and the inventions of the evil fiend, and glorifies His name in His chosen people.
So He calls out in the heart of men and of the heart of nations, the two great twin virtues, which always go hand in hand--Faith in God, and Faith in themselves. He lets them feel themselves foolish that they may learn how to be wise in His wisdom. He lets them find themselves weak that they may learn how to be strong in His strength. Then sometimes He lets them follow their own devices and be filled with the fruits of their own inventions. He lets their sinful hearts have free course down into the depths of idolatry and covetousness, and filthy pleasure and mad self- conceit, that they may learn to know the bitter fruit that springs from the accursed root of sin, and come back to Him in shame and repentance, entreating Him to inform their thoughts, and guide their wills, and gather them to Him as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wing, that they may never more wander from Him, their life, their light, and their Saviour. Then, sometimes, if His children forsake His laws and break His covenant, He visits their offences with the rod, and their sin with the stripes of the children of men. That is, He punishes them as He punishes the heathen, if they sin as the heathen sin. He lets loose upon them His wrath, war, disease, or scarcity, that He may drive them back to Him.
And all the while He will have them labour. He will make them try their strength, and use their strength, and improve their strength of soul and body. By making them labour, Christ teaches His people industry, order, self-command, self-denial, patience, courage, endurance, foresight, thoughtfulness, earnestness. All these blessed virtues come out of holy labour; by working in welldoing we learn lessons which the savage among his delicious fruits and flowers, in his life of golden ease, and luxurious laziness, can never learn.
And all this Christ teaches us because He loves us, because He would have us perfect. His love is unchangeable. As He swore by Himself that He would never fail David, so He has sworn that He will never fail any one of His Churches, or any one of us. Lo, said He, I am with you always, even to the end of the world. Nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ; neither battle nor famine, nor anything else in heaven or earth. All He wants is to educate us, because He loves us. He doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men. And because He is a God of love, He proves His love to us every now and then by blessing us, as well as by correcting us; else our spirits would fail before Him, and the souls which He has made. When He sees our adversity, He hears our complaint, He thinks upon His covenant and pities us, according to the multitude of His mercies. "A fruitful land maketh He barren for the wickedness of them that dwell therein, yet when they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, He delivereth them out of their distress. He maketh the wilderness standing water, and water springs of dry ground, and there He setteth the hungry that they may build them a city, that they may sow their lands and plant vineyards, to yield them fruits of increase. He blesseth them, so that they multiply exceedingly, and suffereth not their cattle to decrease; and again, when they are diminished or brought low through affliction, through any plague or trouble, though He suffer them to be evil entreated by tyrants, and let them wander out of the way in the wilderness; yet helpeth He the poor out of misery, and maketh them households like a flock of sheep." (Ps. cvii.)
O my friends, have not these words ever been wonderfully fulfilled to some of you! Then see how true it is that God will not always be chiding, neither keepeth He His anger for ever; but He knoweth our frame, He remembereth that we are but dust, and like as a father pitieth his children, so does He pity those who fear Him; and oftentimes, too, in His great condescension, those who fear Him not.
My friends, I have been trying in this sermon to make you feel that you are under God's guidance, that His providence is trying to train and educate you. I have told you that there is a blessed use and meaning in your very sorrows, and in this life of continual toil which God has appointed for you; I have told you that you ought to thank God for those sorrows: how much more then ought you to thank Him for your joys. If you should thank Him for want, surely you should thank Him for plenty. O thank Him earnestly--not only with your lips, but in your lives. If you believe that He has redeemed you with His precious blood, show your thankfulness by living as redeemed men, holy to God--who are not your own, but bought with a price; therefore show forth God's glory, the power of His grace in your bodies and your spirits which are His. If you feel that it is a noble thing to be an Englishman--especially an English soldier or an English sailor--a noble and honourable privilege to be allowed to do your duty in the noblest nation and the noblest church which the world ever saw--then live as Englishmen in covenant with God; faithful to Him who has redeemed you and washed you from your sins in His own blood. Do you be faithful and obedient to Christ's Spirit, and He will be faithful to those promises of His. Though a thousand fall at thy right hand, yet the evil shall not come nigh thee. Blessed are all they that fear the Lord and walk in His ways. For thou shalt eat the labours of thine hand. O well art thou and happy shalt thou be. The Lord out of heaven shall so bless thee, that thou shalt see England in prosperity all thy life long. Yea, thou shalt see thy children's children, and peace upon thy native land.
Oh, remember how God fulfilled that promise to England seventy years ago, when the French swept in fire and slaughter, and horrors worse than either, over almost every nation in Europe, while England remained safe in peace and plenty, and an enemy never set foot on God's chosen English soil. Remember the French war, and our salvation in it, and then believe and take comfort. Trust in the Lord and be doing good; dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.