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Sermons for the New Life 21 - THE EFFICIENCY OF THE PASSIVE VIRTUES

By Horace Bushnell


      Revelations i. 9.-"The kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ."

      KINGDOM and patience! a very singular conjunction of terms to say the least; as if, in Jesus Christ, were made compatible, authority and suffering, the impassive throne of a monarch and the meek subjection of a cross, the reigning power of a prince and the mild endurance of a lamb. What more striking paradox. And yet in this you have exactly that which is the prime distinction of Christianity. It is a kingdom erected by patience. It reigns in virtue of submission. Its victory and dominion are the fruits of a most peculiar and singular endurance. I say the fruits of endurance, and by this I mean, not the reward, but the proper results or effects of endurance Christ reigns over human souls and in them, erecting there his spiritual kingdom, not by force of will exerted in any way, but through his most sublime passivity in yielding himself to the wrongs and the malice of his adversaries. And with him, in this most remarkable peculiarity; all disciples are called to be partakers; even as the apostle in his exile at Patmos writes,-I John, who also am your brother and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus. I offer it accordingly to your consideration, as a kind of first principle in a good life, which it will be the object of my discourse to illustrate-

      That the passive elements, or graces of the Christian life well maintained, are quite as efficient and fruitful as the active.

      It is not my design, of course, to discourage, or restrain what are called active works in religion. Christ himself was active beyond almost any human example. All great and true servants of God have been men of industry, and of earnest and strenuous application to works of duty. I only design to exhibit what many are so apt to overlook or forget, the sublime efficacy of those virtues which be long to the receiving, suffering, patient side of character. They are such as meekness, gentleness, forbearance, forgiveness, the endurance of wrong without anger and resentment, contentment, quietness, peace, and unambitious love. These all belong to the more passive side of char acter and are included, or may be, in the general and comprehensive term patience. What I design is to show that these are never barren virtues, as some are apt to imagine, but are often the most efficient and most operative powers that a true Christian wields; inasmuch as they carry just that kind of influence, which other men are least apt and least able to resist.

      We too commonly take up the impression that power is measured by exertion; that we are effective because simply of what we do, or the noise we make; consequently that, when we are not in exertion of some kind, we are not accomplishing any thing; and that if we are too humble, or poor, or infirm, to be engaged in great works and projects, there is really nothing for us to do, and we are living to no purpose. This very gross and wholly mistaken impression I wish to remove, by showing that a right passivity is sometimes the greatest and most effective Christian power, and that if we are brothers and companions in the kingdom and patience of Jesus, we are likely to fulfill the highest conception of the Christian life. Observe then-

      First of all, that the passive and submissive virtues are most of all remote from the exercise, or attainment of those who are out of the Christian spirit and the life of faith. All men are able to be active. Most men do exert themselves in works that are really useful. A vast multitude of the race have excelled in forms of active power that are commonly called virtuous, without any thought of religion. They have been great inventors, discoverers, teachers, law-givers, risked their life, or willingly yielded it up in the fields of war for the defense of their country, or the conquest of liberty, worn out every energy of mind and body, in the advancement of great human interests. Indeed it is commonly not difficult for men to be active or even bravely so; but when you come to the passive or receiving side of life, here they fail. To bear evil and wrong, to forgive, to suffer no resentment under injury, to be gentle when nature burns with a fierce heat, and pride clamors for redress, to restrain envy, to bear defeat with a firm and peaceful mind, not to be vexed or fretted by cares, losses, or petty injuries, to abide in contentment and serenity of spirit, when trouble and disappointment come-these, are conquests, alas how difficult to most of us! Accordingly it will be seen that a true Christian man is distinguished from other men, not so much by his beneficent works, as by his patience. In this he most excels and rises highest above the mere natural virtues of the world Just here it is that he is looked upon as a peculiar and partially divine character. The motives seem to be a mystery. What can set a man to the suffering of evil and wrong with such a spirit? Thought lingers questioning round him, asking for the secret of this mysterious passivity. Even if it be derided there is yet felt to be a something great in it; truly he is another kind of man and not of us, is the feeling of all who are not in Christ with him. By this he will be seen and felt to belong to a distinct order of being and character. He is set off by his patience, to be a brother and companion in the kingdom and patience of Jesus.

      Consider also more distinctly the immense power of principle that is necessary to establish the soul in these virtues of endurance and patience. Here is no place for ambition, no stimulus of passion, such as makes even cowards brave in the field. Here are no exploits to be carried, no applauses of the multitude to be won. The disciple knowing that God forgives and waits, wants to be like him; knowing that he has nothing himself to boast of but the shame of a sinner, wants to be nothing, and prefers to suffer and crucify his resentments, and since God would not contend with him, will not contend with those who do him injury. He gets the power of his patience wholly from above. It is not human, it is divine. Hence the impossibility of it even to great men. Napoleon, for example, had the active powers in such vigor, that he made the whole civilized world shake with dread. But when he came to the place where true greatness consisted only in patience, that was too great for him. Just where any Christian woman would have shone forth in the true radiance and sublimity of an all-victorious patience, he, the conqueror of empires, broke down into a peevish, fretful, irritable temper, and losing thus, at once, all dignity and composure of soul, died before his time, because he had been resolved into a mere compost of faculty by the ferment of his ungoverned passions. On the other hand, we have in Socrates an illustrious example of the dignity and sacred grandeur of patience. The good spirit or genius he spoke of as being ever with him, was, in fact, the teacher of this noble and truly divine submission to wrong. It wears no merely human look, and the world of all subsequent ages have been made to feel that here is a certain sublimity of virtue, which sets the man apart from all the great men of profane history. No ancient character stands with him. He is felt to be a kind of sacred man who, by means of his wonderful passivity to wrong. and his gentleness toward his enemies, is set quite above his kind, revealing as it were, the gift of some higher nature. You perceive in his example that the passive virtues both involve and express a higher range of principles; hence they are necessary to all highest character in the active. We can act out of the human, but to suffer well, requires a participation of what is divine. Hence the impression of greatness and sublimity which all men feel in the contemplation of that energy which is itself energized by a self-sacrificing and suffering patience. And accordingly there is no power over the human soul and character so effective and so nearly irresistible as this.

      Notice again, yet more distinctly, what will add a yet more conclusive evidence, how it is chiefly by this endurance of evil, that Christ, as a Redeemer, prevails against the sin of the human heart and subdues its enmity. Just upon the eve of what we call his passion, he says, in way of visible triumph, to his disciples,-"the prince of this world is judged;" as if the kingdom of evil were now to be crushed and his own new kingdom established, by some terrible bolt of judgment falling on his adversaries, It was even so; and that bolt of judgment was the passion of the cross. We had never seen before the sublime passivities of God's character, and his ability to endure the madness of evil. We had seen him in the smoke and heard him in thunders of Sinai. We had felt his judgments, we had trembled under his frown, we had seen the active management and sway of his Providence. But now in the cross, we see him bearing wrong, receiving the shafts of human enmity,. submitting himself, in his sublime patience, to the fury of the disobedient, and so, melting down by his gentleness what no terrors could intimidate, and no frowns of judgment could subdue. Thus our blessed Redeemer made himself a king and set up a kingdom. It is the kingdom of his patience. When law was broken, and all the supports of authority set up by God's majesty were quite torn away, God brought forth a power, greater than law, greater than majesty, even the power of his patience and by this he broke forever the spirit of evil in the world. The sinner could laugh at God's thunders and stiffen himself against all the activities of his omnipotent rule, when exerted to abase and humble him, but when he looks upon the cross of Jesus, and beholds the patience of God's love and mercy, then he relents and becomes a child. The new-creating grace of Christianity is scarcely more, in fact than a divine application of the principle, that when nothing else can subdue an enemy, patience sometimes will.

      Again, it is important to notice that men, as being under sin, are set against all active efforts to turn them, or persuade them, but never against that which implies no effort; viz., the gentle virtues of patience. We are naturally jealous of control by any method which involves a fixed design to exert control over us: therefore we are always on our guard in this direction. But we are none the less open, at all times, to the power of silent worth, and the unpretending goodness of those virtues that are included in patience. If a man is seen to live in content, and keep a mind unruffled by vexation, under great calamities and irritating wrongs, we have no guard set against that, we almost like to be swayed by such a kind of power. Indeed we should not have a good opinion of ourselves, if we did not admire such an example and praise it. And in just this way it happens, that many a proud and willful soul will resist the most eloquent sermon, and will then be completely subdued and melted by the heavenly serenity and patience of a sick woman. For a similar reason, all the submissive forms of excellence have an immense advantage. They provoke no opposition, because they are not put forth for us, but for their own sake. They fix our admiration therefore, win our homage, and melt into our feeling. They move us the more, because they do not attempt to move us. They are silent, empty of all power but that which lies in their goodness, and for just that reason they are among the greatest powers that Christianity wields.

      Once more it is important for every man, when he will cast the balance between the powers of action and of passion or when he will discover the real effectiveness of passive good, to refer to his own consciousness. See how little impression is often made upon you, by the most strenuous efforts to exert influence over you, and then how often you are swayed by feelings of respect, reverence, admiration, tenderness, from the simple observation of one who suffers well; receiving injury without resentment, gilding the lot of poverty and privation with a spirit of contentment and of filial trust in God; forgiving, gentle, unresisting, peaceful, and strong under great storms of affliction. How gently do these lovely powers of patience insinuate themselves into your respect and love. When some palpable assault of active endeavor, such as argument, advice, or exhortation, besieges you, how instinctively do you harden yourself against it, and offer yourself to it as a wall to be battered down if it can be. But when you see a Christian suffer well, strong in adversity, calm and happy in days of trouble, smiling on through months of pain, in a spirit of unmurmuring patience, contented with a hard lot of poverty and outward discouragement, how ready are you to feel the power of such examples, how welcome are they, as faces of blessing, to a place in your mind, and how often do they bend you, by their sacred power, to better purposes of life, that could not be extorted by any more obtrusive means. Let every Christian carefully observe his own consciousness here, and he will be in the least possible danger of dis-esteeming patience, as a barren or sterile virtue, or of looking upon effort and action as the only operative and fruitful Christian powers.

      Let us notice now in conclusion, some of the instructive and practical uses of the truth illustrated. And

      1. It is here that Christianity makes issue with the whole world on the question of human greatness. That is ever looked on by mankind and spoken of as greatness, which displays some form of active power. The soldier the statesman, the inventor, the orator, the reformer, the poet-all great thinkers and doers, by whom, as mighty men and men of renown, great masses of people or even nations are swayed in their opinions, or their history, or profoundly moved, prepared to some higher future-are taken as examples of the most real and highest form of greatness. It has never entered into human thought, unsanctified by religion, that there is or can be any such thing as greatness in the mere passive virtues, or in simply suffering well; least of all in suffering wrong and evil with a forgiving, unresentful spirit. Christianity is here alone, holding it forth as being, when required, the divinest, sublimest and most powerful of all virtues to suffer well. Even the summits of deific excellence and glory it reveals, by the endurance of enemies, and the bitter pangs of a cross accepted for their good. It works out the recovery of transgressors by the transforming power of sacrifice. And so it establishes a kingdom, which is itself the reign of the patience of Jesus. The whole plan centers in this one principle, that the suffering side of character has a power of its own, superior, in some respects, to the most active endeavors. And in this it proves its originality by standing quite alone. The Stoics appear to have had a dim apprehension that something of this kind might be true, but the patience they inculcated was that of the will and not the patience of love and trust. It was in fact, obstinacy, without any consent to suffering at all, a will hardening itself into flint a sensibility deadened by assumed apathy; and all this in the proud determination to be sufficient against all the evils of this life. It was not suffering well therefore, but refusing to suffer, and, in that view, was a most active and strenuous form of effort. And there was a certain greatness in this we can not deny, though it was only a mock-moral greatness and not that true heaven descended greatness, which belongs to Christian charity. To say-Let patience have her perfect work that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing; to understand that character is even consummated in these passive virtues-this could only be taught by the gospel of the cross. And yet how manifestly true it is, when once it is seen in such an example as that of Jesus, that a suffering love is the highest conceivable form of greatness.

      2. The office of the Christian martyrs is here explained. We look back upon the long ages of woe, the martyr ages of the church, and we behold a vast array of active genius and power, that could not be permitted to spend itself in works of benefaction to the race, but was consecrated of God to the more sacred and more fruitful grace of suffering. The design was, it would seem, to prepare a Christly past, to show whole ages of faith populated with men who were able, coming after their Master and bearing his cross, to suffer with him and add their human testimony to his. And they overcame by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony, and they loved not their lives unto the death. And so it has been ordered that the church of God shall know itself to be the child of suffering patience. The scholars, the preachers, all the great and noted characters, who have served the church by their labors, pass into shade, we think little of them, but the men of patience, the holy martyrs, these we feel as a sacred fatherhood, charging it, O how seriously and filially upon our souls, to be followers of them, who through faith and patience inherit the promises. Who that feels the power of these martyr ages descending on him, can ever think, even for a moment, that the passive virtues of the Christian life are sterile virtues, and that action is the only fruitful thing.

      3. We see in this subject, how it is that many persons are so abundantly active ir. religion, with so little effect; while others who are not conspicuous in action accomplish so much. The reason is, that one class trust mainly to the virtues of action, while the others unite also the virtues of patience. One class is brother and companion in the kingdom and works of Jesus, the other in the kingdom and patience of Jesus. Accordingly there is something of the same distinction between them, that there is between John the Baptist and the Saviour, as regards the extent and the subduing, permanent quality of their effects. Thus a man may be very active in warnings, exhortations, public prayers, plans of beneficence, contributions of time and money, and it may seem, when you look upon him, that he is going to produce immense effects by his life. But suppose him to be very much of a stranger to the patient virtues of Christ-railing at adversaries, blowing blasts of scorn upon those whom he wishes to reform in their practices, impetuous, willful, irritable, hot,-how much good is that man going to do by all his activity? What can he do but to irritate and vex and, as far as he is concerned, render the very name of religion or possibly of Christ himself, odious. Or suppose him to be a petulant neighbor, or a harsh and passionate man to persons in his employ, resentful and retaliatory against those who cross him in his interests, fretful and storming always with impatience, when providences do not work rightly, or when other men do not exactly fulfill their duties, or engagements. How manifest is it that such a man will do little, or nothing, by his religious activity. The difference between him and a right-minded, healthy Christian, is the same as between Jehu and Jesus. So the woman who is zealous in the street, busy ever in the works of active charity, but ill-natured and fretful in her house, impatient with her children, given to harsh words and bitter constructions upon the character of others, implacable in her resentment of supposed injuries, jealous, envious-what can she accomplish by any possible degree of activity? And how many are there in the churches who are really forward in all good works, but are continually thwarting all effect and reducing the value of their efforts as nearly to nothing as possible, by just such defects of passive goodness as some of these which I have named.

      On the other hand, have you never observed the immense power exerted by many Christian men and women, whose lives are passed in comparative silence? You know not how it is, they seem to be really doing little, and yet they are felt by thousands. And the secret of this wonder is that they know how to suffer well-they are in the patience of Jesus. They will not resent evil, or think evil. They are not easily provoked. They are content with their lot, though it be a lot of poverty and affliction. They will not be envious of others. When they are wronged they remember Christ and forgive, when opposed and thwarted, they endure and wait. They live in an element of composure and sweetness, and can not be irritated and fretted by men, because they are so much with God, and so ready to bear the cross of his Son, that human wrongs and judgments have little power to unsettle or disturb them. Now before these a continual flood of influence will be continually rolling. Their gentleness is stronger than the onsets and assaults of other men. They are in the kingdom of Jesus reigning with him, because they are with him in his patience.

      4. The reason why we have so many crosses, trials, wrongs, and pains, is here made evident. We have not one too many for the successful culture of our faith. The great thing, and that which it is most of all difficult to produce in us, is a participation of Christ's forgiving gentleness and patience. This, if we can learn it, is the most difficult and the most distinctively christian of all attainments. Therefore we need a continual discipline of occasions; poverty, sickness, bereavements, losses, treacheries, misrepresentations, oppressions, persecutions; we can hardly have too many for our own good, if only we receive them as our Saviour did his cross. It is by just these refining fires of trial and suffering, that we are to be most advanced in that to which we aspire. The first thing that our Saviour set himself to, when he began his ministry, was the inculcation of those traits that belong to the passive or patient side; for these he well understood were most remote from us, highest above us, and most of all cross to the impatient stormy spirit of sin within us. He opened his mouth and taught them for his first lesson,-Blessed are the poor in spirit; Blessed are the meek; Blessed are the peacemakers; Blessed are they that are persecuted for righteousness sake; and afterward, in the same discourse,-Resist not evil, whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also-Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you, that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven. And then, going on to unfold this latter idea, showing how God reveals his impartial, unresentful patience, he comes to this, at last, as the summit of all-Be ye therefore perfect even as your father in heaven is perfect-as if it were the crown of all perfection, whether in God or man, to endure evil well. Or, in other words, as if it were his opinion that all good character is consummated and crowned in the virtues included under patience.

      Therefore, I said we have not too many occasions given us for the exercise of patience; which, is yet, more evident, when we consider the Christian power of patience. How many are there who by reason of poverty, obscurity, infirmity of mind, or body, can never hope to do much by action, and who often sigh at the contemplation of their want of power to effect any thing. But it is given to them as to all, to suffer; let them only suffer well and they will give a testimony for God, which all who know them will deeply feel and profoundly respect. It is not necessary for all men to be great in action. The greatest and sublimest power is often simple patience; and for just that reason we need sometimes to see its greatness alone, that we may embrace the solitary, single idea of such greatness, and bring it into our hearts unconfused with all other kinds of power. Whoever gives to the church of God such a contribution-the invalid, the cripple, the neglected and forlorn woman-every such person yields a testimony for the cross, that is second in value to no other. Let this be remembered and let it be your joy, in every trial and grief and pain and wrong you suffer, that to suffer well is to be a true advocate, and apostle, and pillar of the faith.

      "They also serve, who only stand and wait."

      And here let me add is pre-eminently the office and power of woman. Her power is to be the power most especially of gentleness and patient endurance. An office so divine, let her joyfully accept and faithfully bear-adding sweetness to life in all its exasperating and bitter experiences, causing poverty to smile, cheering the hard lot of adversity, teaching pain the way of peace, abating hostilities and disarming injuries by the patience of her love. All the manifold conditions of human suffering and sorrow are many occasions given to woman, to prove the sublimity of true submission, and reveal the celestial power of passive goodness.

      Finally, there is reason to suspect that men not religious, are commonly averted from the Christian life, more by their dislike of the submissive and gentle virtues, than by any distaste of sacrifice and active duty. They could enter as companions into his kingdom, if only they could be excused from the patience. Their life of sin is a life of will, or self-will; therefore a life centered in themselves. They have undertaken to hew their own way; therefore to thrust and push and fret themselves against obstructions, and resent oppositions, to envy and hate and revenge themselves on enemies, is the luxury, in great part, of their sin. They can admire and praise benevolence, truth, disinterestedness of conduct, but to bear evil and love enemies and be patient-that is wholly distant from the temper they are in. They are not without admiration for these tle kinds of excellence, when displayed by God himself; they will even be affected by what they perceive to be the sublimity of His greatness in them; but they can not think of such in themselves without distaste or a feeling of dis-esteem. There is a want of spirit, something tame and weak in such ways, something too hard upon human pride to be endurable.

      And yet how plain it is, my friends, that for the want of just these passive virtues, your character is all disorder and confusion. There can be nothing, as you have seen, of the highest, truest greatness in you, without the virtues of patience; you are not called to descend to these, but, if possible to ascend. Christ commands you to take up his cross and follow him, not that he may humble you, or lay some penance upon you, but that you may surrender the low self-will and the feeble pride of your sin, and ascend into the sublime patience of heavenly charity. You begin to reign, the moment you begin to suffer well. You are only degraded when you suffer, and groan, writhing under pains God lays upon you, in the manner of a slave. Renounce what is real degradation, and the pride that now detains you will not be left. Choose what will most exalt you, and these gentle virtues of the cross will be accepted first. And then it will not be left us to exhort you; for you will even claim it as your joy, to be brother and companion in the kingdom and patience of Jesus.

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See Also:
   1 - EVERY MAN'S LIFE A PLAN OF GOD
   2 - THE SPIRIT IN MAN
   3 - DIGNITY OF HUMAN NATURE SHOWN FROM ITS RUINS
   4 - THE HUNGER OF THE SOUL
   5 - THE REASON OF FAITH
   6 - REGENERATION
   7 - THE PERSONAL LOVE AND LEAD OF CHRIST
   8 - LIGHT ON THE CLOUD
   9 - THE CAPACITY OF RELIGION EXTIRPATED BY DISUSE
   10 - UNCONSCIOUS INFLUENCE
   11 - OBLIGATION A PRIVILEGE
   12 - HAPPINESS AND JOY
   13 - THE TRUE PROBLEM OF CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE
   14 - THE LOST PURITY RESTORED
   15 - LIVING TO GOD IN SMALL THINGS
   16 - THE POWER OF AN ENDLESS LIFE
   17 - RESPECTABLE SIN
   18 - THE POWER OF GOD IN SELF-SACRIFICE
   19 - DUTY NOT MEASURED BY OUR OWN ABILITY
   20 - HE THAT KNOWS GOD WILL CONFESS HIM
   21 - THE EFFICIENCY OF THE PASSIVE VIRTUES
   22 - SPIRITUAL DISLODGEMENTS
   23 - CHRIST AS SEPARATE FROM THE WORLD

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