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AN UNANSWERABLE QUESTION

By John Percival


      "Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one."--JOB xiv. 4.

      This is one of those simple questions which, by their very simplicity and directness, set us thinking about the importance of our personal life.

      "Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?" But all our common life is somehow the outcome of our separate individual lives--of your life and mine. Therefore how important it is in the common interest that each of us should look above all things to his own life and its character, for this will determine his contribution to the life of his society.

      Nearly all men are keen about the reputation of their society, about the name it bears, about the way in which men think and speak of it.

      Thus you are no doubt sensitive, almost every one of you, about the good reputation of your school or your house, or any society with which you may happen to be closely connected or identified.

      And this is a healthy and praiseworthy feeling. It would indeed be a bad sign if such a feeling were wanting or weak in any society.

      But I am not sure that we keep it before us--all of us--as clearly as we ought to do, that this reputation of the society is simply the outcome of our separate lives and habits.

      The reputation is the reflex of the life; hardly ever, perhaps, an exact reflex, very often a distorted reflex with this or that feature exaggerated; but yet always a reflex.

      The reputation you bear is the impression made by your common life on the minds of those who see it from the outside, or who hear men's talk about it.

      And we do well to be sensitive on such a subject; but we do still better if we bear in mind that this common life is what comes out of our own life, and is the result of its contact with that of our neighbour.

      And with this thought in our minds we feel how searching and how directly personal is this primitive and childlike question, Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?

      Societies, especially young societies, are very impressible, and their character--the quality, that is, of their life--is fixed by prevailing influences, which show themselves in fashions, habits, and tendencies, in the common types of thought, or taste, or behaviour, or conduct.

      This is obvious enough to every one; but what we do not seem always to consider is the extent to which these influences or fashions have their origin, so far as our own society is concerned, in our own lives. They are, in fact, in the main the general outcome of our separate lives.

      Do you, then, think of yourselves--this is the practical question to which these considerations lead up--as sources or centres of such influence, contributing your personal share to this common life?

      It may make an immense difference to all your thoughts about your common habits, and your standards of daily conduct and duty, if you remember this ancient saying, that no man can bring a clean thing out of an unclean. And so I have to ask you to consider a little how the common life of this society is dependent upon your life.

      Every individual acts upon the life of the community around him as a power or influence in it. This seems so obvious when mentioned as hardly to deserve the mentioning, and yet in practice we are very apt to overlook it.

      You and I, all of us, without any exception, are endowed with some share of this power.

      In this respect, as in other ways, there is, of course, every possible difference in degree between one and another, between the strong and the weak, between those who are conspicuous and those who are obscure; but there is no other difference.

      Every one of you possesses some share of this mysterious, and undefined, and immeasurable gift of influencing his neighbour's life. Every sin that may have a root in your heart is acting, though you may not think of it or intend it, as a pestilent influence outside your own life; every virtue you exercise may be causing similar virtues to take root and grow in some one near to you.

      The tone of the society or life around you is, in fact, just the sum and expression of such individual influences as these.

      We may not be able to trace all the various and multitudinous germs or seeds of such influence as they flow out from us in our daily round of common life; but we are conscious that each and every single soul, all through its earthly course, in the family and in the outer world, from youth to age, is, in fact, a sower scattering these germs of good or evil unceasingly. We know, also, that when they are once scattered they cannot be gathered up again. They are yours to scatter--these seeds that you are adding to the common life--and you are responsible for the fruit they bear; but having sown them, you are powerless afterwards to prevent them from bearing fruit after their kind in other lives. Once launched in the air around you, they spread their contagion of evil or their stimulus to good, their savour of life or death.

      The mere suspicion of this undefined power over other lives which is inherent in our own life should surely make us very careful about it.

      It gives a new sense of personal responsibility; it lays its hand upon us to check us in any vice, or folly, or sin; and it is a stimulus to every virtue and to all good purposes.

      But the thing which of all others it is perhaps of most importance for us to remember about it is that this stream of our personal influence which flows out of our life is a double stream. It is of two kinds. One part of it flows unconsciously, whether we think of it or not; it streams out from our personality as sunlight from the sun.

      The other is that which we exercise by some conscious effort of the will, and with some deliberate purpose or intention.

      Now, in the case of most of us, this tide of unconscious influence flowing from us without any deliberate or set purpose on our part, our involuntary contribution to the common life, is far more powerful for good or for evil than anything which we ever do by way of active purpose to influence another's life, and this because our unconscious influence is the reflex on the outer world of what we are in ourselves; it is the projection, or shall we say the radiation, of our own life, its tastes, tempers, habits, and character, upon the lives around us.

      What we do or intend to do, what influence we endeavour to exercise, is very likely to be at the best intermittent, but this door of involuntary communication between every man's life and his neighbour's life is always standing open; and so it comes about that your life, whether public or private, is of more importance to others than anything else about you.

      At a time when so many things contribute to fix men's thoughts on externals, and we are all tempted to think more about our work than about our life, more about what we are doing or intending to do, than of what we are in ourselves, these considerations assume an unusual importance.

      Moreover, in a society like this, where you live so close to one another, and so much in public, there is a special reason for giving to such considerations some special attention; and the thought suggested by this world-old inquiry--Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?--becomes a very direct warning to look well to our separate life, and take care what sort of unconscious influences it is spreading around it.

      A moment's reflection will remind you how quick and strong such influences may easily prove, independent of all intention or desire on our part, or even in spite of our deliberate wishes or hopes. One man is careless or irreligious, and his weaker neighbours catch the infection of his example; another indulges in some bad habits of language or conduct, or he is addicted to some low taste, or he lives by some low standard, and this or that companion is drawn down to his level; and so the evil of his life takes fresh root in another life, and it gets into the air, and it is impossible to predict the limit of its influence.

      Or, on the other hand, one man is intellectual or refined in his tastes, and by merely living in a society he creates an atmosphere of intellect or of refinement around him; or, it may be, he is earnest and courageous, and others are drawn to admire and imitate, and so he proves a centre of courage and earnestness. Such is the solidarity of your life, as men call it, and there is no escape from it, or from the responsibilities which it lays upon you.

      As the tree is known by its fruits, as men do not gather grapes of thorns, as the same fountain does not send forth sweet water and bitter, so we have to remember, when we think of the tides of unconscious influence that are continually streaming out from us, that they are wholesome, or the reverse, according to the character of our secret and separate life.

      Through them any one of us may become to his neighbour or his friend a savour of life unto life, or of death unto death.

      There are sure to be many in such a congregation as this who have visions of the good they hope to do; and there is a spirit of native generosity in almost all which makes them shrink from the thought of doing harm to another soul.

      Well, then, in this thought of your influence, conscious and unconscious, your first and constant prayer will surely be: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me."

      The effective servant of God is always the man who has been prepared and purified by the vision of God in his own soul.

      If, then, we desire to contribute some good to our society and no evil, we must take care to keep our hearts open to the cleansing influences of the spirit of holiness, so that no habit of sin shall cast its dark shadow around us, or vitiate that atmosphere which is inseparable from our personal life.

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