Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Isaiah 1:17 - 1:17

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Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Isaiah 1:17 - 1:17

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Learning to do Well

Learn to do well.—Isa_1:17.

How is man to be distinguished from the lower animals? Man has been called a laughing animal. But do not the apes also laugh, says Carlyle, or attempt to do it? Nor is Carlyle content with the Frenchman’s definition that man is the cooking animal. His own definition is that man is the tool-using animal.1 [Note: Sartor Resartus, ch. v.] But how will it do to describe him as the being who learns? This is Watkinson’s definition.2 [Note: The Bane and the Antidote, p. 169.] Other creatures, he says, can scarcely be said to learn; whatever pertains to their species they do immediately, instinctively, perfectly. “A lark builds its first nest as skilfully as its last, a spider’s first embroidery is as exquisite as anything it spins in adult life, whilst a bee constructs its first cell and compounds its first honey, with an efficiency that leaves nothing to be desired.” It is altogether different with human beings; they have everything to learn.


What have we to learn?

1. We have to learn how to make the best use of the body. Hitherto the development of the body has been done mostly out of school; it has been left to the playground. But now some attention is being given to physical training. And we are even beginning to give our boys an opportunity of learning a trade at school. However it is done, we must learn to use the body.

2. We must also educate the mind. We have to learn in order to know, to remember, to appreciate literature and art, to make decisions in the conduct of life.

3. Do we stop there? Is the highest aim of education achieved when we possess “a sound mind in a sound body”? What about the Soul? Besides learning a trade, besides learning to read and to understand what we read, have we not also to learn to do well?

The training of the soul is scarcely recognised as any proper part of public education. Nor is the place of the public teacher always efficiently supplied in the home. We seem to expect that our children should do well naturally.

We are sometimes greatly pained when we detect in our young children pride, cruelty, falsehood, dishonesty, selfishness, avarice, and other vices; but it is a mistake to lay this fact too much to heart and to begin prophesying evil concerning them. Beginning with the piano, children make such sad work of it; when they first try a pen, the characters are exceedingly ambiguous and the page liberally blotted; and when for the first time they essay some task in art, the work of their pencil is utterly grotesque. But we do not therefore despair of them, and write bitter things against them; they were sent to school to learn, and we reasonably hope that by and by their senses will be exercised and developed, that they will shed their barbarisms, and take a worthy place with scholars and artists. They must learn goodness as they learn music, mathematics, languages, and art.

But is not the education of the soul the same thing as the education of the mind? That is just another way of saying, is not cleverness goodness? And we know that cleverness is not always goodness. On the contrary, great intellectual gifts are often found associated with great moral vices. The intellectual and moral organs are so closely related that it is impossible to separate them in thought; yet the light of the one is often eclipsed by the darkness of the other.

Astronomers have recently made very interesting discoveries respecting what are known as binary or companion stars. They tell us that the two stars are in close proximity; indeed, they are so close together that no telescope could separate their images; and yet one of them is dark and the other brilliant. The two orbs are intimately related, and revolve round each other at slight distances; yet whilst one is bright the other is dark, and the dark star is perpetually eclipsing its luminous companion.1 [Note: The Bane and the Antidote, p. 168.]

It is easy to understand the failure of “goody goody” literature. It is “goody goody” rather than good, because it means well, but is not true either in the lower real or higher ideal sense. Its minor heroes pale and are ineffective, while George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and Mary Garth, and Dinah live with us like friends, and move us by their virtues,—while the heroic self-devotedness of Jean Valjean, and the infinite goodness of the good Bishop in Les Misérables, shine in our minds and hearts as beacon lights of virtue, made visible in the atmosphere of genius. Thus, in order that the examples of literature may work within the mind, the literature must be good in the literary as well as in the ethical sense.1 [Note: S. Byrant, Short Studies in Character, p. 71.]


How then are we to learn to do well?

1. We need Power. We need the gift, the genius. The man who has no music in him will never learn to be a musician. Those who visit the chapel in Milan which contains Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco of the Last Supper see a copy of it first on the wall opposite the entrance door. But when they have seen the original on the wall at the end of the building, they have no hesitation in preferring it. The copy shows traces of careful workmanship, but the original has the stamp of genius.

Sir Joshua Reynolds was taken by a friend to see a picture. He was anxious to admire it, and he looked it over with a keen and careful but favourable eye. “Capital composition; correct drawing; the colour, tone, chiaroscuro excellent; but—but—it wants, hang it, it wants—That!” snapping his fingers; and, wanting “that,” though it had everything else, it was worth nothing.2 [Note: John Brown, Rab and his Friends, p. 392.]

I once knew a man who had apparently no ear for music. Possessing every opportunity for travel and culture, he resented the fact that others enjoyed what was a closed world to him. So he set to work to study music from the foundation. He became so expert that he could take to pieces a Wagner opera and recompose its motifs. He enjoyed hearing such an opera rendered, but his pleasure involved scarcely any appreciation of music. It was the pleasure accompanying the intellectual process of analysis and synthesis, the kind of joy one has in working a difficult problem in calculus; but the man remained almost as deaf to music as before he undertook the course of training.3 [Note: E. H. Griggs, Moral Education, p. 22.]

The man of genius, we say, has “the gift.” The power to do well is also a gift.

This, nor gems, nor stores of gold,

Nor purple state, nor culture can bestow;

But God alone, when first His active hand

Imprints the secret bias of the soul.

Or, to put it in another way, as the poet is born, not made, so we must be born again before we learn to do well. “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” St. Paul says, “I learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” He does not say, “I have learned,” as though it had been the result of daily discipline; he goes back to the moment of the vision of Christ.’ “It pleased God to reveal his Son in me,” and I learned that day to be content. It flashed upon him, says R. M. Pope,1 [Note: The Poetry of the Upward Way, p. 24.] in the great moment of his history. When he knew the power of Christ’s resurrection, the true explanation of life dawned upon him; the world suddenly wore a new expression.

World—how it walled about

Life with disgrace,

Till God’s own smile came out;

That was thy face!

It is sometimes said that certain men have a natural genius for religion. What they have is natural ability which, when taken possession of by the Spirit of God, makes them eminently successful as witnesses or saints. How would St. Paul have used his reasoning power, or Bunyan his imagination, apart from the grace of God?

The world is full of people who are ambitious to become poets, painters, musicians, or orators, but, despite wearisome and pathetic application, they never do anything really first-rate; the masterpiece is not forthcoming; they find supreme music, art, or eloquence so difficult as to be, in fact, practically impossible. What do these baffled aspirants really need to make their work easy, and to secure them the rapture of triumph? Give that despairing musician an atom of Mozart’s melodious brain, that halting poet a spark of Shakespeare’s fire, that struggling painter a nerve of Turner’s colour-sense, that stammering orator a lick of Demosthenes’ tongue, and bitter failure will be at an end; there will be no more exhausting difficulty and delay, only the intoxicating sense of mastery, progress, and delight. More power in the learner is what is needed, and every difficulty is vanquished, every aspiration fulfilled. So we experience repeated difficulty and disappointment in the pursuit of holiness, because the power of Christ does not sufficiently rest upon us. “Christ in you the hope of glory”—not the glory of the future only, but the glory of character here and now. Let us plead for more inward vision, receptivity, and responsiveness, for more of the Spirit that worketh mightily in full surrendered souls, and all things fair and perfect shall become possible.1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson, The Bane and the Antidote, p. 181.]

2. We need a Pattern. As the child who is to learn to write receives a copybook with a headline, so we need an example if we are to learn to do well. Should the example be good or bad? Some ethical teachers think it best to show us the repulsiveness and horror of vice. Many novelists follow this method. “The drama,” says Mr. Watkinson, “is fond of holding up the mirror to nature, as the phrase goes, and very ugly reflections they commonly are; one might think that the stage existed in the interests of the doctrine of original sin. Newspapers foster purity by raking in the kennels, and journals with religious and moral pretensions go to an extreme in exhuming and exhibiting repulsive incidents in individual and social life.”2 [Note: Ibid. p. 175.] But how often are drunkards reformed by the sight of a drunkard? It is well known that murders are apt to follow when the details of some ghastly murder are given in the newspapers. We might as well hope to obtain a good style by familiarising ourselves with specimens of bad English. Let the pattern be good, and as good as possible. As William Tell has made many patriots, as Florence Nightingale has trained many nurses, as Lord Shaftesbury has shown the way to many philanthropists, so the Lord Jesus Christ is the Pattern for all who would learn to do well. “Learn of me” is His own invitation, and the Apostles are aware that the only way by which they themselves learned to do well was by “looking unto Jesus.”

I remember speaking severely to a five-year-old child who was misbehaving at table. She answered quite discourteously. On being asked why she had spoken so, she said, “Oh, I only wanted to show you the tone of voice you used!”1 [Note: E. H. Griggs, Moral Education, p. 190.]

3. We need Practice. How does a young man learn to cycle? By practising it. How does a young medical man attain to usefulness in his profession? By the practice of it. He calls himself a practitioner, and his business a practice.

“Do! Do! Do! Let your picture go, and do another!” said William Hunt to his students when they asked him a thousand curious questions about lines, colours, and effects. In doing, they were to know and excel. And the teachers of science specially demand that all theoretical knowledge shall go hand in hand with experiment. The student must keep on applying his knowledge; only by repeated appeals to the facts of nature does he learn the truth and become a real philosopher. We know only through doing, and through doing ever do better. The famous physician John Hunter used to say to his pupils, “Don’t think, try.”

1. Take the virtue of contentment. In our best moments we feel that fretfulness and ingratitude partake of the nature of blasphemy; yet the repinings and soreness of the soul are subdued only through repeated failure and discipline.

It is true, no doubt, that there is a secret, and that the secret of contentment, as of every other virtue, may be learned in a moment. But for the fulness of the following of Christ in contentment there is need of the patient discipline of years. Contentment, says Dr. J. B. Campbell, is less a gift or a grace than a growth. It is the flower and fruit of careful cultivation. And he mentions three things that aid in its cultivation. (1) A just consideration of the worth of things. We shall never find contentment while we value the things that are seen above those that are not seen, the trivial and temporal above the essential and eternal, the material and physical above the moral and spiritual. (2) Confidence in God. He is a rewarder of those that diligently seek Him. He is never unmindful of our work and labour of love. Then disappointments become His appointments, and all things work together for good. (3) Co-operation with God. For this makes failure impossible, this gives assurance that no word or work is vain. But co-operation with God demands the consecration of self to His service. And so the simple secret of contentment is surrender to God’s will. Does anyone doubt it? Let him try it. Does anyone desire it? Let him do it.

2. Take the virtue of sincerity. Some men are naturally theatrical; they constantly catch themselves making postures; their life is vitiated and disfigured by endless pretence, affectation, and unreality. Through repeated and bitter castigations of the soul, men master this passion for masquerading and attain sincerity, simplicity, and thoroughness of life.

There comes to me a thought of Carlyle’s, which contains a world of wisdom: “The true merit of originality is not novelty; it is sincerity.” That, as a motto for all who think and speak, may be added to a theory of life, and become the hidden text of many a moral lesson indirectly conveyed through intellectual criticism to others. How cheerful it is to think upon! We can all be sincere; we can all be original.1 [Note: S. Bryant, Studies in Character, p. 75.]

3. Take the virtue of veracity. How much it costs us to learn to speak the truth, to act the truth, to live the truth. We suppress, distort, exaggerate, colour and discolour.

Instead of saying plain “yes,” or plain “no,” “it is so,” “it is not the case,” or some other simple, straightforward phrase of assent or denial, a man swears or protests in some foolish way, thereby weakening, not affirming, what he says. All these unnecessary enlargements show that he who uses them is aware that his simple word is not valuable. He distrusts his own honour. Jesus Christ’s teaching in respect to this there can be no mistaking. Eliciting the spirit of the third commandment, He declares, “Let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of the evil one.” He would abolish even the solemn oath of the Old Testament, “As the Lord liveth, before whom I stand.” No man who respects himself, certainly no obedient copier of Jesus Christ, will consent to confirm his “yes” or “no,” unless when the law, which knows him not, demands it.2 [Note: W. G. Rutherford, The Key of Knowledge, p. 166.]

4. Take the virtue of courtesy. “Good breeding,” says Carlyle, “consists in gracefully remembering the rights of others, high breeding in gracefully insisting on one’s own.” Thus there are three ways of it. There is the discourteous person whose only practice has been in selfishly saying and doing things that hurt others. There is the selfishly courteous person with the polish of a pagan. And there is the person who, having the mind of Christ, learns to put the interests of others before his own. It is the “gift” that makes the difference.

Courtesy is itself a form of service. By gentleness of manner, by an unobtrusive sympathy, by thoughtfulness for others in little things, we may smooth the roughness of life for those with whom we live, soothe their vexations, and contribute more to their real happiness than by great and signal acts of generosity. On the other hand, a harsh, careless word may inflict a worse wound than a blow, and the discomfort created by habitual indifference to the convenience, tastes, opinions, and prejudices of those about us may be harder to bear than positive physical pain. Discourtesy occasions not merely suffering, but sin; and Christian courtesy is a “means of grace” to all who have the happiness to receive it.1 [Note: R. W. Dale, Laws of Christ for Common Life, p. 121.]

They might not need me,

Yet they might;

I’ll let my heart be

Just in sight—

A smile so small

As mine might be

Precisely their



Hodgson (A. P.), Thoughts for the King’s Children, 165.

Jerdan (C.), Messages to the Children, 371.

Morris (R. E.), in Welsh Pulpit of To-day, 295.

Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year, Advent—Christmas, 424, 435, 446.

Parker (J.), People’s Bible, xiv. 206.

Watkinson (W. L.), The Bane and the Antidote, 165.

Christian World Pulpit, xxi. 228 (Beecher).

Christian World Pulpit, xxix. 83 (Burney).