"Even so would he have removed thee out of the strait into the broad place, where there is no straitness, and that which should be set on thy table should be full of fatness." Job 36:16.
I think I have seen, perhaps, as much or more of Methodist people than the generality of this congregation. I have mingled with them in both hemispheres by hundreds and thousands; and from all I have seen of them I come to the conclusion that they may be divided into two classes: those who take high ground in religion, that is, holy ground, and those who take low ground. Some will say, "But do you intend to divide all into two classes?" Yes; there is a third class, but it is not worth mentioning tonight, the unconverted class, for there are unconverted members of the Methodist church, as well as others. Methodism is cursed with unconverted members, as well as other churches, who live without salvation, who are just like the brutes that went into Noah's ark. They went in brutes, and came out brutes; they came among the Methodists unconverted, and they go into eternity in the same manner. Perhaps there are three hundred persons on the secretary's books who, on this and the other side of the river, have obtained a clear evidence of their justification, and who believe in God that they have found salvation. Now, I ask you, and also those who have been recovered from a backsliding state, what would have become of you if you had died in your past state? You would have gone to hell.
Now, as to the second class, those who are on low ground in religion. How often, when it has been said in this sort, "My dear sister, how is it that you do not enjoy so much religion as this or the other person?" you have replied, "If I had as good a husband as that person, I should enjoy as much religion;" or , "If I had a house as well furnished, or as good a family; but in my present circumstances I can make no pretensions to having a high degree of grace." Or, if one of you has been asked why he, like that good brother, had not always the smiles of Heaven on his face, he has replied, "If I had a wife like that man, or as good a business, and was getting on as well in the world, I should be as happy as he; but I am perplexed and troubled in various matters, and I have made up my mind that if I can just get religion, I shall do very well." Ah! it is throwing the blame on God; it is saying that God is not as good to you as he ought to have been, and that he has not placed you in such circumstances as are best for your spiritual welfare. Brother, if you have an honest calling and earn your bread honestly, though you are not worth a shilling, you may have religion in your soul. I think it is Goldsmith who says, "Every feeling which leads us to expect happiness somewhere else than where we are, lays a foundation for uneasiness." A man may enjoy as much religion, if he has not a second coat to his back, as the man who is clothed in broadcloth, and has a large wardrobe.
What, then, are we to understand by these terms, "Even so would he have removed thee out of the straight into a broad place, where there is no straitness"? What is literally straitness? I suppose the word strait here means narrow. The place between two mountains, that is a strait, a narrow passage. Seamen will understand it by a reference to the Straits of Gibraltar. They say such and such straits are dangerous to pass through; and sailors know well that it is often dangerous to go through straits, there is no sea-room in them. I have been on the Atlantic when the thunder has roared, the lightning flashed, and the mighty waves have dashed upon the deck, and when our hearts have failed within us; yet there was plenty of sea-room, and although the very sails were torn into strips, there was no danger of shipwreck on a lee-shore.
A strait implies a difficulty of choice; hence St. Paul said, "I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better."
We say of a man, when he cannot pay his debts, that he is in straitened circumstances; and I find that in various countries they have terms to express the same state. In Scotland they say pinched or hampered: in America, that he has a hard row to hoe. This expression is in reference to the hoeing of sugar, or corn. Sometimes one row is harder than another, and one poor fellow lags behind the rest because he has got a harder row to hoe; and so, when anybody is in great pecuniary trouble, it is said he has a hard row to hoe. We say a man is in a strait when he has a large family and a small income; and many a professor of religion is straitened when he gets to class and finds there is no religion in him. His leader gets up and says, "Brother, how do you feel?" He is straitened, and if not disposed to act the part of the hypocrite, he has scarcely a word to say. But if he has got religion, he is not straitened at all; his heart is full, his soul is full, he has a living spring of joy within himself; he is in a broad place; he equally meets the demands of the law and Christian love; "he rejoices evermore, prays without ceasing," and thanks God for everything.
So much for the literal meaning of the words. I cannot tell whether I have hit your views on this point; but it is not particular, if you understand that as strait places are unpleasant in temporal circumstances, they are also unpleasant in spiritual affairs.
The next point is, why the Almighty Father uses these words to every professor of religion in this chapel. I wish to be understood that I take the passage in its evangelical sense, and therefore shall leave Elihu and Job, and apply it directly to ourselves, and mention some reasons why our Heavenly Father uses these as his words. God knows, you have had plenty of it, brethren; you have been straitened in your souls long enough, narrow and contracted, always in a strait in feeling, as lean as Pharaoh's lean kine, a lean heart. Many a time you have said, "O! my leanness!" When you have got down to pray, you have said, "O! my leanness!" You have been straitened for words and ideas, and have had a sad time of it. My brother and sister, pray "Bring me out of a strait place tonight," I wish you may do so. Amen.
The first reason is, that the grand designs of Christ may be answered. You remember the shedding of Christ's blood had two ends in view, the first to obtain pardon, and the second purity. "Without the shedding of blood there can be no remission." "The blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanseth from all sin." When you have obtained a remission of sin and a sense of pardon, if you are content with these, you go into a strait place, as sure as you are a man. Says one, "Why?" Because if you go out as the Reubenites, and do not cross over Jordan to Canaan, you will get into a strait place. So long as you are only justified and not purified, you are only half a believer; and do you think Christ can be satisfied with your being half a believer? Christ pleads for you; and much of your straitened feeling is to make you forsake the low ground, and bring you to a higher state of religion.
Another reason why our Heavenly Father uses these words is to take us into a broad place out of straitness. If I understand anything, the Lord wishes us to be happy, and oh the meaning of the words "Rejoice evermore," and "again I say rejoice." Now, brethren, happiness and holiness are inseparable companions, and sin and misery are wedded as close together.
My brethren, in proportion as you carry in your breasts sin, you carry misery, you carry a portion of hell in your nature, you carry a little of the fire of hell in your nature, you carry a little of the worm that never dies, that is the torment of the wicked in hell, you carry the dread instrument that torments the damned forever. While you have sin, you have part of the devil's mark in your nature, that will distinguish the sheep from the goats; you have the sharpness of the sting, the hottest coals of hell, in your nature, and therefore your conversion must be connected with unhappy feeling until God purifies your heart. So long as you are only partly renewed in heart and life, and God and the devil divide your life, you will be inconsistent, inside and outside, and inconsistency always brings with it unhappiness of mind. "Even so would he have removed thee out of the strait into a broad place, where there is no straitness."
Again: his desire is that we should be contented with all our circumstances. Says God, "Contentment is great gain." Now, in order to my being contented with my present state of soul, I must know first that I can be in no better state. If I have felt that I have been so lean and in such a strait place, is not God willing to remove my leanness and to give me a broad place, or must I be content with my present state? Have I felt that God himself can make me no better by his Spirit, and that I am just as well as I can be? Ah, this will not do! God can remove my secret trouble, and I never can be content until the blood of Christ cleanses me from all sin. And hence, my friend, what has been the state of your soul for years? Why, looking back and saying, "I was very happy at such a time when God converted me some years ago, and I hope I shall be so again in the future, but there is a difficulty in my experience." Is that so, brother? You don't seem to have a present tense to your happiness. That is the difficulty with you. I recollect, in my reading, meeting with this remark, "Some people's good days are like the verbs in the Hebrew language; there is no present tense,-- all is in the past or future." When I said this, I was some thousands of miles from you, and there was sitting beside me a young man from Scotland, who was seeking religion and desiring to be very happy. I said, "My friend, hearken to this: Some people's good days are like the verbs in the Hebrew language; there is no present tense, all is in the past or future." "Ah, yes," says he, with deep emotion, "and that puts me in mind of what the poet says:
'Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never is, but always to be blest.'"
Do you know that you English people sent over to America a recipe to make people happy? But I can tell you it never worked in America. I don't think it ever made man or woman happy. Says one, "What was the recipe?" Why, it was this. "Thank God for the good things he has given you in this life, and promises you in the life to come. If any one goes into a garden to gather cobwebs and spiders, he will find plenty of them; but if he goes for flowers, he will return with the flowers of happiness blooming in his bosom." If you are in a strait place, you may think of the good things that God has promised you in the next world; but you will go into the garden of domestic comfort, and, instead of gathering flowers to bloom in your bosom, you will get cobwebs and spiders, or plants to make you as lean as Pharaoh's kine. Never, till you carry a holy heart into the shop, the parlor, and the market, or on the river and sea, -never, till you carry a holy heart about with you can you go into the garden of domestic comfort, and come back with flowers of happiness blooming in your bosom, -- no, never till you graduate into holiness.
This sentiment of the writer relative to the Hebrew verbs does not apply to others. Some of us have happy days, like our good old English verbs, our happiness has a present tense. Happy yesterday, happy this week, happy this month, happy this year; blessed be God, happy next day, happy next week, happy next month, happy next year, and, blessed be God, happy now. As regards us, this sentiment of Pope is not correct. And if we have got religion, if the Holy Spirit has made us a holy heart, we are exceptions. Blessed be God, those who are converted to God and enjoy holiness and perfect love, they are holy, they are blessed. Poor Byron! how I have felt when I have read that sentiment of his, in which he says, "I have been thinking over how many days I have been happy in my life, and I have never been able to make more than eleven; and I have often wondered in my mind whether I can make the round dozen between this time and my death." Whether poor Byron made out the round dozen, I cannot tell. But oh, give me the Bible, give me religion, give me holiness, and, bless God, I shall have a better story to tell than poor Byron.
I think if I can gather anything of the mind of God, it is that we should be useful. As holiness and happiness are inseparable companions, holiness and usefulness are very closely connected, more so, perhaps, than any of you are aware of. In proportion as a man is holy, God can use him without destroying him by pride and vanity. I was struck, during the first year of my ministry, with a sentiment contained in one of Mr. Wesley's letters, and a letter written, too, before he was converted (which is a most remarkable thing). His mother had written to him at college, wishing him to take a parish in the Established Church; and after reading this letter, he replied as follows: "My dear mother, I am persuaded of this, that the more holy a man is, the more God can use him without the danger of destroying him by pride and vanity." Bless God, these words were written on my heart whilst on my first circuit in North America. Brethren, a holy heart is one free from pride and vanity; and when God can use us without puffing us up with pride and vanity, he will do so.
There are many local preachers here. Bless God for the local preachers! O ye local preachers, sometimes when ye go into distant places and take a text, you have liberty, you feel that you are a flame and can say anything; but perhaps you have not been long in the pulpit before the devil and you begin talking together, and you fancy you can preach as well as the traveling preachers; and perhaps sinners get converted under your instrumentality, and you go home feeling rather big. The next time you have gone, you have been as dry as a stick; you have had no power, no unction, and you have broke all down. If you had a holy heart, when God put his hand out for the conversion of sinners on that occasion, you would have been humbled and said, "What a poor insignificant worm I am, dependent on my God every moment!" and the next time you would have been a flame again, and the instances of good would have been multiplied, until by and by you had been made an instrument in the hands of God for the conversion of the surrounding country. Many a time God has watched you. Some of you may say, "Am I called to preach the Gospel?" If you are not called, you have no business in the pulpit; but if you feel a call, and say, "Woe is me if I preach not the Gospel," and God has warmed your heart, sent you away happy from preaching, and converted sinners under your instrumentality, you have no cause to doubt. The man who feels a yearning for souls, and power in preaching, who sees God awakening sinners, is not required to go to heaven to know whether God calls him; he need not go to the depths to know whether he is called to preach the Gospel, his gratification is in the inward glow which he feels, the unction and power; and, brethren, you have had it over and over again. And God gives talents to those he calls, whom he calls he qualifies; but many a time God has called to the work a man in whom there have been pride, self-will, and vanity lurking. Brethren, the Lord then puts a curtain between you and usefulness, and watches your operations. Take the purest glass of water and place dirt in it, the dirt will sink to the bottom; but shake it, and it will come up again. So God shakes you to bring out all your imperfections. Parents do not place knives or sharp instruments in the hands of children, lest they should thereby be injured; and God does not give you what you cannot bear.
Some local preachers may have prayed, "O, that, instead of going to preach in yonder little chapel to twenty or thirty persons, God would make me a flame, double my congregation, and make me a blessing." Brethren, he sees you cannot bear it, and hence he keeps the curtain down. Many a time he has said, "I would make him a flame of fire, but he cannot do with it." You have given the Lord a great deal of trouble since you became a social preacher. Brother, I believe God will make you a blessing by sending you into the country, if you will get baptized by the Holy Spirit; but you are a curse to the ministry as you now stand. In the name of God, what say you? This may be the last sermon you will hear preached, what say you? Will you allow me to press this on you, dear brother? If you wish to be a flame of fire, if you desire the curtain to be withdrawn, if you wish to be a flail in the hands of God to crush sinners, what say you? I feel controlled in consequence of having had an overwhelming weight of labor, and I am afraid of getting into a tempest of feeling; but if anything would rouse me to a tempest, it would be on behalf of those men of God, who, without fee or reward, go east, west, north, and south, to preach the Gospel, earning their bread by the sweat of their face during the week. My dear brother, how I should like you to get purified! You know, brother, you must have holiness if you wish to be an instrument of usefulness in the hands of God.
The Lord says, I would remove thee out of a strait into a broad place. Perhaps a class-leader here may say, "O, give me a room full of people!" He would, but he sees you cannot bear it. He sees that, whenever you get influence in the church of God, you become high-minded, and want all your own way. Perhaps four or five meet you, and you are as cold as death. If they had not had principle in them, they would have left you long ago; but they have principle, and they say, "We will stand by our leader, though he is as cold as a piece of ice." O, if ye would but be pure, the Lord would make the place too strait for all to come. My brother, "Even so would he have removed thee out of the strait into a broad place, where there is no straitness." I care not how high a man's talents may be, if he is not holy, he is a poor stick in the house of God. Take the best mechanic in Sunderland, put him into a little room, and give him the best tools a man ever handle and say, "Make what I require;" but, says he, "I have no room." You say, "There is a good axe, use it; there are planes amid compasses, use them" "Yes," he replies, "but I want room, give me room. I am packed up in this little place; no man can use an axe or handsaw here, give me a larger workshop." So is it if you have the best weapons in the Bible armory, if you have a strait place and the devil has put you in a corner, so that you have not elbow-room, your work will never succeed. Get your soul into a broad place, hallelujah! where you can have room to work.
I look round upon this congregation, and think how much would be done for God if you had purity and holiness. I believe many of you, in consequence of being unholy, are not in the place in the house of God in which you ought to be. You have got straitened. Many of you had a call to preach the Gospel many years ago, and you have turned your head this way and that, and have not known which way to turn. You have said, perhaps, "Why was I called, if a way was not opened?" and whenever unhappy, you have been tempted to give in. The door was strait. Now, I tell you God is willing that the place should be enlarged; he only wants you to be purified, and the time will soon come when you shall preach. You must first tarry at Jerusalem until you be endued with power from on high. God wants you; there are plenty of sinners to be converted; he will take you down to the docks yonder, and make you a flame of fire, and your voice shall be heard even across the river. He does not want you to go into the pulpit just now, but he will make you a flame of fire along the lanes and at the corners of streets, long before the clergy or ministers are stirring. You might have half a dozen of the poor of Sunderland gathered around you, and God might give you the souls of the poor, who, after weathering every storm of this world's vicissitudes, shall gather glory around your head forever. But you are not ready; and, therefore, though he has called you, he has not given you anything to do.
I believe, brother, you will never have prosperity till you obey this call. I am speaking to a man who hears me, and understands me. But God will not let you render obedience until you are purified. Lord help me! I dare not give way to my feelings, but still I like the man so well that I must say, "Will you not get purified tonight, will you not get endued with power from on high?" There are some here who ought to be class-leaders; you have nothing to do, and the reason is, you are not holy yet. Some of you are sunk low in your temporal affairs. The reason is, you have not given your heart fully to God; your business does not flourish, because you are not holy. I am one of those who believe, with an English poet, that
"God gives to every man the talents, temper, taste, Then lets him fall into the niche He was ordained to fill."
There are some men who have thousands of gold and silver, and he will not allow them to enjoy it, because it would send them to hell forever; but if they were purified, he would bless them, and make them a blessing to the church of the living God. Thus, for want of holiness, one after another of them is thrown into the background; and there are some here this evening to whom the words of the poet will apply, words well-known, almost threadbare, yet after all very sweet,
"Full many a gem of purest ray serene The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear; Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air."
Full many a gem now lies down in the mines of sickness and poverty, which might sparkle in the diadem of the church, and dazzle and burn and blaze; but the reason is, it is not holy. Full many a flower, that wastes its sweetness on the desert air of obscurity, might open and bloom like a flower of paradise, and spread its fragrance through the whole church of God; but it wastes its sweetness, because it is not purified.
O ye new converts, my heart feels for you! You will be like the backslidden ones if you do not glorify God. You will be hampered all your lives if you are not purified. You will begin the battle with a heart grieving the Spirit, and by and by you will be poor dry things. Make up your mind, young convert, and do not rest till you are purified. I was much struck with a passage of an English writer, some time ago: he says, "Should it ever fall to the lot of youth to read these pages, let him bear in remembrance that the author, now in his manhood, regrets deeply the opportunities of learning which he neglected in youth, and all through life in his literary career he has been pinched and hampered by the deficiencies of an early education;" and he adds, "I would part with the half of my reputation, if the remaining half could rest on the true foundation of science and learning. Now, then, if you neglect the education of holiness in your early experience, you will be pinched and hampered through life for the want of it." In the name of God, make up your mind! The hour is now past and 'tis time I had finished preaching; but my heart is full of this subject. How many of you in that gallery will give yourselves fully to God tonight? How many of you want purity? How many of you wish to be removed from your present straitness into a broad place? Then take the lesson with you, "What things soever you desire when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them."