"Now, therefore, thus saith the Lord of Hosts, consider your ways."
Next Wednesday is Ash-Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the season which our forefathers have appointed for us to consider and mend our ways, and return, year by year, heart and soul to that Lord and Heavenly Father from whom we are daily wandering. Now, we all know that we ought to have repented long ago; we all know that, sinning in many things daily, as we do, we ought all to repent daily. But that is not enough; we do want, unless we are wonderfully better than the holy men of old,--we do want, I say, a particular time in which we may sit down deliberately and look our own souls steadily in the face, and cast up our accounts with God, and be thoroughly ashamed and terrified at those accounts when we find, as we shall, that we cannot answer God one thing in a thousand. It is all very well to say, I confess and repent of my sins daily, why should I do it especially in Lent? Very true--Let us see, then, by your altered life and conduct that you have repented during this Lent, and then it will be time to talk of repenting every day after Lent. But, in fact, a man might just as well argue, I say my prayers every day, and God hears them, why should I say them more on Sundays than any other day? Why? not only because your forefathers, and the Church of your forefathers, have advised you, which, though not an imperative reason, is still a strong one, surely, but because the thing is good, and reasonable, and right in itself. Because, as they found in their own case, and as you may find in yours, if you will but think, the hurry and bustle of business is daily putting repentance and self-examination out of our heads. A man may think much, and pray much, thank God, in the very midst of his busiest work, but he is apt to be hurried; he has not set his thoughts especially on the matters of his soul, and so the soul's work is not thoroughly done. Much for which he ought to pray he forgets to pray for. Many sins and feelings of which he ought to repent slip past him out of sight in the hurry of life. Much good that might be done is put off and laid by, often till it is too late. But now here is a regular season in which we may look back and say to ourselves, 'How have I been getting on for this twelvemonth, not in pocket, but in character? not in the appearance of character in my neighbour's eyes, but in real character--in the eyes of God? Am I more manly, or more womanly--more godly, more true, more humble, above all, more loving, than I was this time last year? What bad habits have I conquered? What good habits have grown upon me? What chances of doing good have I let slip? What foolish, unkind things have I done? My duty to God and my neighbours is so and so, how have I done it? Above all, this Saviour and King in heaven, in whom I profess to believe, to whom I have sworn to be loyal and true, and to help His good cause, the cause of godliness, manliness, and happiness among my neighbours, in my family, in my own heart,--how have I felt towards Him? Have I thought about Him more this year than I did last? Do I feel any more loyalty, respect, love, gratitude to Him than I did? Ay, more, do I think about Him at all as a living man, much less as my King and Saviour; or, is all really know about Him the sound of the words Jesus Christ, and the story about Him in the Apostles' Creed? Do I really BELIEVE and trust in "Jesus Christ," or do I not? These are sharp, searching questions, my friends,--good Lenten food for any man's soul,--questions which it is much more easy to ask soberly and answer fairly now when you look quietly back on the past year, than it is, alas! to answer them day by day amid all the bustle your business and your families. But you will answer, 'This bustle will go on just as much in Lent as ever. Our time and thoughts will be just as much occupied. We have our livings to get. We are not fine gentlemen and ladies who can lie by for forty days and do nothing but read and pray, while their tradesmen and servants are working for them from morning to night. How then can we give up more time to religion now than at other times?
This is all true enough; but there is a sound and true answer to it. It is not so much more TIME which you are asked to give up to your souls in Lent, as it is more HEART. What do I talk of? GIVING UP more time to your souls? And yet this is the way we all talk, as if our time belonged to our bodies, and so we had to rob them of it, to give it up to our souls,--as if our bodies were ourselves, and our souls were troublesome burdens, or peevish children hanging at our backs, which would keep prating and fretting about heaven and hell, and had to be quieted, and their mouths stopped as quickly and easily as possible, that we might be rid of them, and get about our true business, our real duty,--this mighty work of eating and drinking, and amusing ourselves, and making money. I am afraid-- afraid there are too many, who, if they spoke out their whole hearts, would be quite as content to have no souls, and no necessity to waste their precious time (as they think) upon religion. But, my friends, my friends, the day will come when you will see yourselves in a true light; when your soul will not seem a mere hanger-on to your body, but you will find out THAT YOU ARE YOUR SOUL. Then there will be no more forgetting that you have souls, and thrusting them into the background, to be fed at odd minutes, or left to starve,-- no more talk of GIVING UP time to the care of your souls; your souls will take the time for themselves then--and the eternity, too; they will be all in all to you then, perhaps when it is too late!
Well, I want you, just for forty days, to let your souls be all in all to you now; to make them your first object--your first thought in the morning, the last thing at night,--your thought at every odd moment in the day. You need not neglect your business; only for one short forty days do not make your business your God. We are all too apt to try the heathen plan, of seeking first every thing else in the world, and letting the kingdom of God and His righteousness be added to us over and above--or NOT as it may happen. Try for once the plan the Lord of heaven and earth advises, and seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and see whether every thing else will not be added to you. Again, you need not be idle a moment more in Lent than at any other time. But I dare say, that none of you are so full of business that you have not a free ten minutes in the morning, and ten minutes at night, of which the best of uses may be made. What do I say? Why, of all men in the world, farmers and labourers have most time, I think, to themselves; working, as they do, the greater part of their day in silence and alone; what opportunities for them to have their souls busy in heaven, while they are pacing over the fields, ploughing and hoeing! I have read of many, many labouring men who had found out their opportunities in this way, and used them so well as to become holy, great, and learned men. One of the most learned scholars in England at this day was once a village carpenter, who used, when young, to keep a book open before him on his bench while he worked, and thus contrived to teach himself, one after the other, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. So much time may a man find who LOOKS for time!
But after all, and above all, believe this--that if your business or your work does actually give you no time to think about God and your own souls,--if in the midst of it all you cannot find leisure enough night and morning to pray earnestly, to read your Bible carefully,-- if it so swallows up your whole thoughts during the day, that you have no opportunity to recollect yourself, to remember that you are an immortal being, and that you have a Saviour in heaven, whom you are serving faithfully, or unfaithfully,--if this work or business of yours will not give you time enough for that, then it is not God's business, and ought not to be yours either.
But you have time,--you have all time. When there is a will there is a way. Make up your minds that there shall be a will, and pray earnestly to God to give it you, if it is but for forty days: and in them think seriously, slowly, solemnly, over your past lives. Examine yourselves and your doings. Ask yourselves fairly,--'Am I going forward or back? Am I living like a child of God, or like a mere machine for making food and wages? Is my conduct such as the Holy Scripture tells me that it should be? You will not need to go far for a set of questions, my friends, or rules by which to examine yourselves. You can hardly open a page of God's blessed Book without finding something which stares you in the face with the question, 'Do I do thus?' or, 'Do I not do thus?' Take, for example, the Epistle of this very day. What better test can we have for trying and weighing our own souls?
What says it? That though we were wise, charitable, eloquent--all that the greatest of men can be, and yet had not charity--LOVE, we are nothing!--nothing! And how does it describe this necessary, indispensable, heavenly love? Let us spend the last few minutes of this sermon in seeing how. And if that description does not prick all our hearts on more points than one, they are harder than I take them for--far harder, certainly, than they should be.
This charity, or love, we hear, which each of us ought to have and must have--"suffers long, and is kind." What shall we say to that? How many hasty, revengeful thoughts and feelings have risen in the hearts of most of us in the last year?--Here is one thought for Lent. "Charity envies not."--Have we envied any their riches, their happiness, their good name, health, and youth?--Another thought for Lent. "Charity boasts not herself." Alas! alas! my friends, are not the best of us apt to make much of the little good we do,--to pride ourselves on the petty kindnesses we shew,--to be puffed up with easy self-satisfaction, just as charity is NOT puffed up?-- Another Lenten thought. "Charity does not behave herself unseemly;" is never proud, noisy, conceited; gives every man's opinion a fair, kindly hearing; making allowances for all mistakes. Have we done so?--Then there is another thought for Lent. "Charity seeks not her own;" does not stand fiercely and stiffly on her own rights, on the gratitude due to her. While we--are we not too apt, when we have done a kindness, to fret and fume, and think ourselves deeply injured, if we do not get repaid at once with all the humble gratitude we expected? Of this also we must think. "Charity thinks no evil," sets down no bad motives for any one's conduct, but takes for granted that he means well, whatever appearances may be; while we (I speak of myself just as much as of any one), are we not continually apt to be suspicious, jealous, to take for granted that people mean harm; and even when we find ourselves mistaken, and that we have cried out before we are hurt, not to consider it as any sin against our neighbour, whom in reality we have been silently slandering to ourselves? "Charity rejoices not in iniquity," but in the truth, whatever it may be; is never glad to see a high professor prove a hypocrite, and fall into sin, and shew himself in his true foul colours; which we, alas! are too apt to think a very pleasant sight.--Are not these wholesome meditations for Lent? "Charity hopes all things" of every one, "believes all things," all good that is told of every one, "endures all things," instead of flying off and giving up a person at the first fault. Are not all these points, which our own hearts, consciences, common sense, or whatever you like to call it (I shall call it God's spirit), tell us are right, true, necessary? And is there one of us who can say that he has not offended in many, if not in all these points; and is not that unrighteousness--going out of the right, straightforward, childlike, loving way of looking at all people? And is not all unrighteousness sin? And must not all sin be repented of, and that AS SOON AS WE FIND IT OUT? And can we not all find time this Lent to throw over these sins of ours?--to confess them with shame and sorrow?--to try like men to shake them off? Oh, my friends! you who are too busy for forty short days to make your immortal souls your first business, take care--take care, lest the day shall come when sickness, and pain, and the terror of death, shall keep you too busy to prepare those unrepenting, unforgiven, sin-besotted souls of yours for the kingdom of God.