"The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him."--David.
A truly religious life is always a secret life: it is a life hid, as Paul has it, with Christ in God. The secret of the Lord, says the Psalmist, is with them that fear Him. And thus it is that when men begin to fear God, both their hearts and their lives are henceforth full of all kinds of secrets that are known to themselves and to God only. It was when Christiana's fearful thoughts began to work in her mind about her husband whom she had lost--it was when all her unkind, unnatural, and ungodly carriages to her dear friend came into her mind in swarms, clogged her conscience, and loaded her with guilt--it was then that Secret knocked at her door. "Next morning," so her opening history runs, "when she was up, and had prayed to God, and talked with her children awhile, one knocked hard at the door to whom she spake out, saying, If thou comest in God's name, come in. So he who was at the door said, Amen, and opened the door, and saluted her with, Peace be to this house. The which when he had done, he said, Christiana, knowest thou wherefore I am come? Then she blushed and trembled, also her heart began to wax warm with desires to know whence he came, and what was his errand to her. So he said unto her, My name is Secret, I dwell with those that are high. It is talked of where I dwell as if thou hadst a desire to go thither; also, there is a report that thou art aware now of the evil thou formerly didst to thy husband in hardening of thy heart against his way, and in keeping of thy babes in their ignorance. Christiana, the Merciful One has sent me to tell thee that He is a God ready to forgive, and that He taketh delight to multiply to pardon offences. He would also have thee know that He inviteth thee to come into His presence, even to His table, and that He will there feed thee with the fat of His house, and with the heritage of Jacob thy father. Christiana at all this was greatly abashed in herself, and she bowed her head to the ground, while her visitor proceeded and said, Christiana, here is a letter for thee which I have brought from thy husband's King. So she took it and opened it, and, as she opened it, it smelt after the manner of the best perfume; also it was written in lettering of gold. The contents of the letter was to this effect, that the King would have her do as did Christian her husband, for that was the way to come to the city and to dwell in His presence with joy for ever. At this the good woman was completely overcome. So she said to her visitor, Sir, will you carry me and my children with you that we may go and worship this King? Then said the heavenly visitor, Christiana, the bitter is before the sweet. Thou must through troubles, as did he that went before thee, enter this celestial city." And so on.
1. Now, to begin with, you will have noticed the way in which Christiana was prepared for the entrance of Secret into her house. She was a widow. She sat alone in that loneliness which only widows know and understand. More than lonely, she was very miserable. "Mark this," says the author on the margin, "you that are churls to your godly relations." For this widow felt sure that her husband had been taken from her because of her cruel behaviour to him. Her past unnatural carriages toward her husband now rent the very caul of her heart in sunder. And, again and again, about that same time strange dreams would sometimes visit her. Dreams such as this. She would see her husband in a place of bliss with a harp in his hand, standing and playing upon it before One that sat on a throne with a rainbow round His head. She saw also as if he bowed his head with his face to the paved work that was under the Prince's feet, saying, I heartily thank my Lord and King for bringing me to this place. You will easily see how ready this lone woman was with all that for his entrance who knocked and said, Peace be to this house, and handed her a letter of perfume from her husband's King. Then you will have remarked also some of the things this visitor from on high said to her of the place whence he had come. He told her, to begin with, how they sometimes talked about her in his country. She thought that she was a lonely and forgotten widow, and that no one cared what became of her. But her visitor assured her she was quite wrong in thinking that. He had often himself heard her name mentioned in conversation above; and the most hopeful reports, he told her, were circulated from door to door that she was actually all but started on the upward way. Yes, he said, and we have a place prepared for you on the strength of these reports, a place among the immortals close beside your husband. And all that, as you will not wonder, was the beginning of Christiana's secret life. After that morning she never again felt alone or forgotten. I am not alone, she would after that say, when any of her old neighbours knocked at her door. No, I am not alone, but if thou comest in God's name, come in.
2. And from that day a long succession of secret providences began to enter Christiana's life, till, as time went on, her whole life was filled full of secret providences. And not her present life only, but her discoveries of God's secret providences towards her and hers became retrospective also, till both her own parentage and birth, her husband's parentage and birth also, the day she first saw him, the day of their espousals, the day of their marriage, and the day of his death, all shone out now as so many secret and special providences of God toward her. Bishop Martensen has a fine passage on the fragmentariness of our knowledge, not only of divine providence as a whole, but even of those divine providences that fill up our own lives. And he warns us that, till we have heard the "Prologue in Heaven," many a riddle in our lives must of necessity remain unsolved. Christiana could not have told her inquiring children what a prologue was, nor an epilogue either, but many were the wise and winning discourses she held with her boys about their father now in heaven, about her happiness in having had such a father for her children, and about their happiness that the road was open before them to go to where he now is. And there are many poor widows among ourselves who are wiser than all their teachers, because they are in that school of experience into which God takes His afflicted people and opens to them His deepest secrets. They remember, with Job, when the secret of the Lord was first upon their tabernacle. Their widowed hearts are full of holy household memories. They remember the days when the candle of the Lord shone upon their head when they washed their steps with butter, and the rock poured them out rivers of oil. And still, when, like Job also, they sit solitary among the ashes, the secret of the Lord is only the more secretly and intimately with them. John Bunyan was well fitted to be Christiana's biographer, because his own life was as full as it could hold of these same secret and special providences. One day he was walking--so he tells us--in a good man's shop, bemoaning himself of his sad and doleful state--when a mighty rushing wind came in through the window and seemed to carry words of Scripture on its wings to Bunyan's disconsolate soul. He candidly tells us that he does not know, after twenty years' reflection, what to make of that strange dispensation. That it took place, and that it left the most blessed results behind it, he is sure; but as to how God did it, by what means, by what instruments, both the rushing wind itself and the salutation that accompanied it, he is fain to let lie till the day of judgment. And many of ourselves have had strange dispensations too that we must leave alone, and seek no other explanation of them for the present but the blessed results of them. We have had divine descents into our lives that we can never attempt to describe. Interpositions as plain to us as if we had both seen and spoken with the angel who executed them. Miraculous deliverances that throw many Old and New Testament miracles into the shade. Providential adaptations and readjustments also, as if all things were actually and openly and without a veil being made to work together for our good. Extrications also; nets broken, snares snapped, and such pavilions of safety and solace opened to us that we can find no psalm secret and special enough in which to utter our life-long astonishment. Importunate prayers anticipated, postponed, denied, translated, transmuted, and then answered till our cup was too full; sweet changed to bitter, and bitter changed to sweet, so wonderfully, so graciously, and so often, that words fail us, and we can only now laugh and now weep over it all. Poor Cowper knew something about it--
"God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm.
"Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take, The clouds ye so much dread Are big with mercy, and shall break In blessings on your head.
"Blind unbelief is sure to err, And scan his work in vain; God is His own interpreter, And He will make it plain."
3. Secret scriptures also--from that enlightening day Christiana's Bible became full of them. Peter says that no prophecy is of any private interpretation; and, whatever he means by that, what he says must be true. But Christiana would have understood the apostle better if he had said the exact opposite of that,--if not about the prophecies, at least about the psalms. Leave the prophecies in this connection alone; but of the psalms it may safely be said that it is neither the literal nor the historical nor the mystical interpretation that gets at the heart of those supreme scriptures. It is the private, personal, and, indeed, secret interpretation that gets best at the deepest heart of the psalms. An old Bible came into my hands the other day--a Bible that had seen service--and it opened of its own accord at the Book of Psalms. On turning over the yellow leaves I found a date and a deep indentation opposite these words: "Commit thy way unto the Lord: trust also in Him: and He will bring it to pass." And as I looked at the figures on the margin, and at the underscored text, I felt as if I were on the brink of an old-world secret. "Create in me a clean heart" had a significant initial also; as had this: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit." The whole of the hundred-and-third psalm was bracketed off from all public interpretation; while the tenth, the cardinal verse of that secret psalm, had a special seal set upon it. Judging from its stains and scars and other accidents, the whole of the hundred-and-nineteenth psalm had been a special favourite; while the hundred-and-forty-third also was all broidered round with shorthand symbols. But the secret key of all those symbols and dates and enigmatical marks was no longer to be found; it had been carried away in the owner's own heart. But, my head being full of Christiana at the time, I felt as if I held her own old Bible in my hand as I turned over those ancient leaves.
4. Our Lord so practised secrecy Himself in His fasting, in His praying, and in His almsgiving, and He makes so much of that same secrecy in all His teaching, as almost to make the essence of all true religion to stand in its secrecy. "When thou prayest," says our Lord, "shut thy door and pray in secret." As much as to say that we are scarcely praying at all when we are praying in public. Praying in public is so difficult that new beginners, like His disciples, have to practise that so difficult art for a long time in secret. Public prayer has so many besetting sins, it is open to so many temptations, distractions, and corruptions, that it is almost impossible to preserve the real essence of prayer in public prayer. But in secret all those temptations and distractions are happily absent. We have no temptation to be too long in secret prayer, or too loud, or too eloquent. Stately old English goes for nothing in secret prayer. We never need to go to our knees in secret trembling, lest we lose the thread of our prayer, or forget that so fit and so fine expression. The longer we are the better in secret prayer. Much speaking is really a virtue in secret prayer; much speaking and many repetitions. Also, we can put things into our secret prayers that we dare not come within a thousand miles of in the pulpit, or the prayer-meeting, or the family. We can enter into the most plain-spoken particulars about ourselves in secret. We can put our proper name upon ourselves, and upon our actions, and especially upon our thoughts when our door is shut. Then, again, we can pray for other people by name in secret; we can enter, so far as we know them, into all their circumstances in a way it is impossible to do anywhere but in the utmost secrecy. We can, in short, be ourselves in secret; and, unless it is to please or to impress men, we had better not pray at all unless we are ourselves when we are engaged in it. You can be yourself, your very worst self; nay, you must be, else you will not long pray in secret, and even if you did you would not be heard. I do not remember that very much is said in so many words in her after-history about Christiana's habits of closet-prayer. But that Secret taught her the way, and waited till she had tasted the sweetness and the strength of being a good while on her knees alone, I am safe to say; indeed, I read it between the lines in all her after-life. She was rewarded openly in a way that testifies to much secret prayer; that is to say, in the early conversion of her children, in the way they settled in life, and such like things. Pray much for those things in secret that you wish to possess openly.
5. But perhaps the best and most infallible evidence we can have of the truth of our religion in this life is in the steady increase of our secret sinfulness. Christiana had no trouble with her own wicked heart so long as she was a woman of a wicked life. But directly she became a new creature, her heart began to swarm, such is her own expression, with sinful memories, sinful thoughts, and sinful feelings; till she had need of some one ever near her, like Greatheart, constantly to assure her that those cruel and deadly swarms, instead of being a bad sign of her salvation, were the very best signs possible of her good estate. Humility is the foundation of all our graces, and there is no humility so deep and so ever-deepening as that evangelical humility which in its turn rises out of and rests upon secret sinfulness. Not upon acts of secret sin. Do not mistake me. Acts of secret sin harden the heart and debauch the conscience. But I speak of that secret, original, unexplored, and inexpugnable sinfulness out of which all a sinner's actual sins, both open sins and secret, spring; and out of which a like life of open and actual sins would spring in God's very best saints, if only both He and they did not watch night and day against them. Sensibility to sin, or rather to sinfulness, is far and away the best evidence of sanctification that is possible to us in this life. It is this keen and bitter sensibility that secures, amid all oppositions and obstructions, the true saint's onward and upward progress. Were it not for the misery of their own hearts, God's best saints would fall asleep and go back like other men. A sinful heart is the misery of all miseries. It is the deepest and darkest of all dungeons. It is the most painful and the most loathsome of all diseases. And the secrecy of it all adds to the bitterness and the gall of it all. We may know that other men's hearts are as sinful as our own, but we do not feel their sinfulness. We cannot sensibly feel humiliation, bondage, sickness, and self-loathing on account of another man's envy, or ill-will, or resentment, or cruelty, or falsehood, or impurity. All these things must be our own before we can enter into the pain and the shame of them; but, when we do, then we taste what death and hell are indeed. As I write these feeble words about it, a devil's shaft of envy that was shot all against my will into my heart this morning, still, after a whole day, rankles and festers there. I have been on my knees with it again and again; I have stood and looked into an open grave to-day; but there it is sucking at my heart's blood still, like a leech of hell. Who can understand his errors? Cleanse Thou me from secret faults. Create in me a clean heart, O God, O wretched man that I am! "Let a man," says William Law when he is enforcing humility, "but consider that if the world knew all that of him which he knows of himself: if they saw what vanity and what passions govern his inside, and what secret tempers sully and corrupt his best actions, he would have no more pretence to be honoured and admired for his goodness and wisdom than a rotten and distempered body to be loved and admired for its beauty and comeliness. This is so true, and so known to the hearts of almost all people, that nothing would appear more dreadful to them than to have their hearts fully discovered to the eyes of all beholders. And, perhaps, there are very few people in the world who would not rather choose to die than to have all their secret follies, the errors of their judgments, the vanity of their minds, the falseness of their pretences, the frequency of their vain and disorderly passions, their uneasinesses, hatreds, envies, and vexations made known to all the world." Where did William Law get that terrible passage? Where could he get it but in the secret heart of the miserable author of the Serious Call?
6. The half cannot be told of the guilt and the corruption, the pain and the shame and the manifold misery of secret sin; but all that will be told, believed, and understood by all men long before the full magnificence of their sanctification, and the superb transcendence of their blessedness, will even begin to be described to God's secret saints. For, all that sleepless, cruel, and soul-killing pain, and all that shameful and humbling corruption,--all that means, all that is, so much holiness, so much heaven, working itself out in the soul. All that is so much immortal life, spotless beauty, and incorruptible joy already begun in the soul. Every such pang in a holy heart is a death-pang of another sin and a birth-pang of another grace. Brotherly love is at last being born never to die in that heart where envy and malice and resentment and revenge are causing inward agony. And humility and meekness and the whole mind of Christ are there where pride and anger and ill-will are felt to be very hell itself. And holiness, even as God is holy, will soon be there for ever where the sinfulness of sin is a sinner's acutest sorrow. "As for me," said one whose sin was ever before him, "I will behold Thy face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I wake with Thy likeness."
* LECTURE DELIVERED IN ST. GEORGE'S FREE CHURCH EDINBURGH