Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 036. The Obedience of Faith

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Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 036. The Obedience of Faith

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The Obedience of Faith

1. The order to go out from Haran was unquestionably a hard one to obey. The reasons which had led his father to remove from Ur had ceased to operate. Room had been found, and quiet and pasture. The causes which might have suggested a division of the clan did not obtain in his case. He was a childless man, and had no need to seek fresh settlements for his descendants. He had property enough where he was for all his simple wants. He was not yet owner of such extensive flocks as to crowd his brother. The clan feeling was strong in his race; and to leave Haran meant to leave his father, now growing old, and his younger brother, in whose children lay the hope of the family, with everything that can make up home or country. To go anywhere, even to the most alluring territory, seemed in this instance a needless sacrifice of comfort. To travel without a purpose into a remote, unknown land beyond the desert; to leave home without knowing where to find a new one; to become a vagrant nomad, kithless and kinless;-this for a man without children, without ambition or lust of conquest, who had nothing to gain by emigrating, but everything to lose, seemed nothing short of folly.

No complaint is recorded to have been made by him, though every ancient and dear association was broken up. We read the story quietly, but a storm of human grief and struggle is hidden beneath its simple words. This is an example that calls to us across the centuries. For we are also called to be pilgrims of the invisible in the midst of the visible. We are bid to work and love in this world, but not to be content to belong to it alone. We dare not pitch our tent in the same place always, or linger too long in the pleasant valleys, for every year new labour calls us; and when all labour is done here, a new world beyond lies before us, where our destiny is to be finally accomplished, and the vaster part of our work to be done. We are bound to sacrifice ourselves; we must go forth in faith from our father's house, our kindred, from all we love, that is, from all the contentments of earth, to pursue the ineffable, to be perfect, to seek the city of God! Is that inhuman? No; for it is only thus-only in self-renunciation, only in pursuit of the perfect-that we make comfort, help, content for our fellow-men, and a home for their weary spirit.

2. Yet it is not the hardship involved in it that has made this emigration memorable. What was there in this movement that Psalmists and Prophets and Apostles should single it out for special emphasis? It was after all to the outward eye but a common caravan. Migration in Abraham's day was the rule, not the exception, of Eastern life, as it is still among the tribes of the desert. Hundreds of nomad sheikhs had done the same before, and hundreds would do the same after him. War, enterprise, restlessness, even hunger, has set and is setting numberless such caravans in motion. Yet no one remembers them; no one records them. They are as much a matter of course as the voyage of an emigrant vessel is a matter of course with ourselves.

Whence comes it, then, that in the ceaseless tide of humanity, thus rolling westward through the ages, this one caravan of a simple nomad Bedouin-this single drop in the mighty stream-has fastened on itself the attention of men? How is it that in the history of our race this migration of Abraham has a higher interest than all the hordes that from time to time have swept over the face of the earth-the great armies of a Rameses, a Sennacherib, a Xerxes, a Genghis Khan, a Timur? The answer is contained in one word. It was his faith that singled him out in the counsels of God and has stamped him on the hearts of men. “By faith Abraham being called … obeyed, and he went out, not knowing whither he went.” “Abraham believed God.” “Against hope” he “believed in hope.” It was not ambition, not enterprise, not restlessness, not the lust of conquest, not the greed of gain, but the consciousness of a Divine presence, the submission to a Divine command, the trust in a Divine blessing, that drove him forth into unknown lands. He saw the hand of God beckoning him onward, which others could not see. He heard the voice of God calling him forward, which others could not hear. And so he left the home of his fathers; he detached himself from all the fond memories of the past and all the joyous associations of the present; he made the great venture of faith; he threw himself upon the blessing, threw himself upon the future, threw himself upon God.

Faith is that act of prophetic anticipation which risks everything on a venture which nothing but the results can ever justify. Faith is that which lies shut up and asleep until the wakening touch of this incoming guest approaches, and stirs, and arouses; and then, at the first moment of the contact, does not so much think, or feel, as will that a future for itself should spring out of that momentary union. It wills in the power of some instinctive sympathy; it wills to trust itself to the fascination that draws it forward; it wills to rely upon the kinship that it assumes; it wills itself to be one with the arriving life. At the back of all the impressions of feeling, at the back of all the spontaneities of thought, lies the deep strength of energetic self-assertion which men all will; a self-assertion that presumes so far, not out of the blindness of pride, but out of the brave freedom of a childlike trust. It pushes out, it presses forward, it puts forth its force, because it is so true to the calls that summon it into action, because its innocent simplicity relies so readily on the genuineness and reality of all that it encounters. Such energy flows out into its wishes that it seems to compel their realization; so actively does it desire to know that it seems to enforce things to conform to the conditions of its knowledge: they bend on the sway of its strong and effectual desires; it imposes upon them, as we say, its categories; and yet this imposition is, after all, nothing but its own natural and willing conformity to the conditions of that outward existence with which it so resolutely intends to unite itself, and so passionately believes itself to be akin.1 [Note: H. Scott Holland.]

3. But what was the nature of Abraham's faith? His knowledge was still imperfect; we may believe that there still remained in him the belief that the gods of the surrounding nations had real existence, with large powers to help those who served them and to injure those who refused them service. But there was all the moral courage, audacity, faith in his high resolve to be loyal to the supreme God-the true God-to make no terms with the divinities which had usurped an authority to which they had no right-not to purchase their favour or avert their anger by offering any sacrifice or doing them any honour. And further, it is clear that if the shadows of common beliefs still fell upon him, and the gods of the nations still seemed to have a real though limited control over human affairs, his refusal to serve them implies a transcendant conception of the exclusive moral right of the Eternal to his obedience and trust.

But Abraham's faith includes very much more than a conviction of the supreme greatness and majesty of God, and His exclusive right to worship and obedience. Abraham's faith was a real religion, and religion includes other elements of immense importance. What does it include?

(1) It includes a deep, immovable belief in the august greatness and glory of the living and true God, in His perfection-His moral perfection-as well as in His wisdom, His power, and His eternal existence.

(2) It also includes a profound reverence and awe of God. The belief in His august greatness must be something more than belief. It must pass into emotion. The great and solemn aspects of the physical universe fill us with wonder and awe. God, who is supremely great in the moral universe, should also fill us with wonder and awe; and all that is fair and beautiful in His infinite life should inspire us with delight, as all that is fair and beautiful in earth and sky inspires us with delight.

(3) Nor is this all. As yet we have only the beginnings of what can be really called religion. There are many who go no farther. God is a vision of glory to them, nothing more. When the vision comes they welcome it, as they welcome the chances of seeing a gorgeous sunset, or the immense and awful solitudes of the snow mountains. They are conscious that the vision of sublimity, greatness, beauty of a lofty kind, whether physical or moral, has an elevating power over thought and feeling, and increases at once the vigour and refinement of their own emotional and intellectual nature. True. But as yet we have nothing that can be called religion. We are in the region of æsthetics, and religion is something greater than this. Shall we add the expression of our emotions in adoration, in song? Yes, but the real worth of the expression must depend on what is expressed; and if the emotion is æsthetic only, not religious, the expression of it is æsthetic only, not religious. What more shall we add? In Abraham's case there was obedience to the Divine will-obedience of a very practical kind. He left the country where he had lived from his childhood, broke with the people of his own race, and went into another land and lived among strange people. He did not merely look to God to help him to fulfil his own ideas of right. He found in God a real Authority, an Authority not to be questioned-to be submitted to and unreservedly obeyed.

God called and Abraham came. Here, as everywhere, faith shows itself as obedience. It is quite wrong to say faith is obedience. No; in its fundamental nature it is not obedience. It is not a manly, but a womanly quality; it is a perfect surrender to God; it is the reception into the heart of the love and the will of God. But faith always and everywhere, in things great and small, manifests itself under the appearance of obedience to God. Unless it does this, it is not what it calls itself.1 [Note: Otto Funcke, The World of Faith and the Everyday World, 18.]

There were occasions when Henry Varley's best friends, even his nearest and dearest, could not see the wisdom of what he felt divinely led to do, and when they thought the end he desired to achieve was capable of achievement in a discreeter, if less direct, way. So certain was he, however, that it was the Lord's will for him that he should do this and not that, and do it so and not otherwise, that to yield to their representations savoured to him of disloyalty to the Guiding Light and of disobedience to the Heavenly Vision. It was his simply to follow at all costs whithersoever they led. His mind was made up; his will was fixed. And, indeed, well was it for him that he was thus a man of such strong determination. No one can read his life-story without seeing that, from the day when, a mere child, he entered the crowded arena of London, onward through manhood to old age, he could never have done what he did, especially in his shining and successful service of the Gospel and the Kingdom of Christ, had his blood been without the iron of which it was full.1 [Note: Henry Varley's Life-Story (1913), 232.]

True is it that, in these days, man can do almost all things, only not obey. True likewise that whose cannot obey cannot be free, still less bear rule; he that is the inferior of nothing, can be the superior of nothing, the equal of nothing. Nevertheless, believe not that man has lost his faculty of Reverence; that if it slumber in him, it has gone dead. Painful for man is that same rebellious Independence, when it has become inevitable; only in loving companionship with his fellows does he feel safe; only in reverently bowing down before the Higher does he feel himself exalted.2 [Note: Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, 173.]

(4) But is this all? Is there in religion nothing beyond the belief in God's greatness and perfection, reverence for Him, worship, the acknowledgment-the practical acknowledgment-of God's sovereignty by obedience? To Abraham God gave the great promise that in him and his seed all nations should be blessed. Abraham believed it, and we can well imagine that this mysterious, this immense blessing filled his thought, and that his life was lived very largely in the future which was to witness the fulfilment of the promise. And in all real religion there will be the hope and the expectation of receiving something from God.

We believe in the majesty and glory of God, and sometimes we are profoundly moved by our thoughts of His greatness-by what seems more than our own thoughts, by the actual apprehension and vision of His greatness. Yes, and similar emotion is produced by the mountains and the sea. But the mountains and the sea do not consciously and of purpose serve us; they are but wonderful visions. Between them and us there are no free mutual relations of affection and sympathy. They are remote, they belong to another order of being. And it is possible for us to be similarly and even more deeply impressed by the greatness and glory of God, and for God to be still remote, for no friendly relations to exist between Him and us. But as soon as we discover that there are things which He will do for us-good things, great things-and we look to Him to do them, our whole relationship to God is changed; we have really a religion. Then we each stand related to Him as person to person. He is not merely a vision of wonder, glorious, fair, but remote. He is not merely an august authority, great, mighty, but remote, binding us by His laws, Himself remaining unbound. He too is bound to us as we are bound to Him. There are ties on both sides. We have a real religion; a religion that will be the support of righteousness and a perfect solace and joy.

There are two great types of mind among men. One, which has a quick and clear receptiveness of spiritual influences and revelations, which readily responds to a message from the Divine, and bows to it in unquestioning obedience. The other, which hesitates, questions, doubts, criticizes. Both may be necessary in the growth of the human race to its full stature of manhood in Christ Jesus. But the former is immeasurably the nobler type of mind, and of incalculably the greater value to the human race. It needs the former type of mind to catch the highest influences and sublimest messages from God, and convey them to the masses of the people. Such men keep faith and hope alive; they make progress in religion, civilization, and freedom possible. The second type has a mission in checking extravagances in the religious life, in exposing tendencies to superstition and fanaticism, and vindicating the place of reason in all matters of human belief. The former type is by far the happier in experience and in influence. The task of the latter type is a difficult and often a thankless one, performed frequently with much suffering of mind and at a tremendous cost to the higher nature.1 [Note: W. J. Townsend.]