USE AND ABUSE OF THE SENSE OF THE VANITY OF THE WORLD.
"The world passes away, and the lust thereof: but he that does, the will of God abides for ever." --- 1 John ii. 17.
The connection of the passage in which these words occur is not difficult to trace, for those who are used to follow those "roots below the stream," those real rather than verbal links latent in the substance of St. John's thoughts. He addresses those whom he has in view with a paternal authority, as his "sons" in the faith --- with an endearing variation as "little children." He reminds them of the wisdom and strength involved in their Christian life. Theirs is the sweetest flower of knowledge --- "to know the Father." Theirs is the grandest crown of victory --- "to overcome the wicked one." But there remains an enemy in one sense more dangerous than the evil one --- the world. By the world in this place we are to understand that element in the material and human sphere, in the region of mingled good and evil, which is external to God, to the influence of His Spirit, to the boundaries of His Church --- no, which frequently passes over those boundaries. In this sense it is, so to speak, a fictitious world, a world of wills separated from God because dominated by self; a shadowy caricature of creation; an anti-kosmos, which the Author of the kosmos has not made. What has[Pg 150] been well called "the great love not" rings out --- "love not the world." For this admonition two reasons of ever enduring validity are given by St. John. (1) The application of the law of human nature, that two master-passions cannot co-exist in one man. "If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him." (2) The unsatisfactory nature of the world, its incurable transitoriness, its "visible tendency to non-existence." "The world passes away, and the lust thereof."
It will be well to consider how far this thought of the transitoriness of the world, of its drifting by in ceaseless change, is in itself salutary and Christian, how far it needs to be supplemented and elevated by that which follows and closes the verse.
There can be no doubt, then, that up to a certain point this conviction is a necessary element of Christian thought, feeling, and character; that it is at least among the preliminaries of a saving reception of Christ.
There is in the great majority of the world a surprising and almost incredible levity. There is a disposition to believe in the permanency of that which we have known to continue long, and which has become habitual. There is a tale of a man who was resolved[Pg 151] to keep from his children the knowledge of death. He was the Governor of a colony, and had lost in succession his wife and many children. Two only, mere infants, were left. He withdrew to a beautiful and secluded island, and tried to barricade his daughters from the fatal knowledge which, when once acquired, darkens the spirit with anticipation. In the ocean-island death was to be a forbidden word. If met with in the pages of a book, and questions were asked, no answer was to be given. If some one expired, the body was to be removed, and the children were to be told that the departed had gone to another country. It does not need much imagination to feel sure that the secret could not be kept; that some fish lying on the coral reef, or some bright bird killed in the tropic forest, gave the little ones the hint of a something that touched the splendour of the sunset with a strange presentiment; that some hour came when, as to the rest of us, so to them, the mute presence would insist upon being made known. Ours is a stranger mode of dealing with ourselves than was the father's way of dealing with his children. We tacitly resolve to play a game of make-believe with ourselves, to forget that which cannot be forgotten, to remove to an incalculable distance that which is inexorably near. And the fear of death with us does not come from the nerves, but from the will. Death ushers us into the presence of God. Those of whom we speak hate and fear death because they fear God, and hate His presence. Now it is necessary for such persons as these to be awakened from their illusion. That which is supremely important for them is to realise that "the world" is indeed "drifting by;" that there is an emptiness in all that is created, a vanity in all that is not eternal; that time is short, eternity long.[Pg 152] They must be brought to see that with the world, the "lust thereof" (the concupiscence, the lust of it, which has the world for its object, which belongs to it, and which the world stimulates) passes by also. The world, which is the object of the desire, is a phantom and a shadow; the desire itself must be therefore the phantom of a phantom and the shadow of a shadow.
This conviction has a thousand times over led human souls to the one true abiding centre of eternal reality. It has come in a thousand ways. It has been said that one heard the fifth chapter of Genesis read, with those words eight times repeated over the close of each record of longevity, like the strokes of a funeral bell, "and he died;" and that the impression never left him, until he planted his foot upon the rock over the tide of the changing years. Sometimes this conviction is produced by the death of friends --- sometimes by the slow discipline of life --- sometimes no doubt it may be begun, sometimes deepened, by the preacher's voice upon the watch-night, by the effective ritualism of the tolling bell, of the silent prayer, of the well-selected hymn. And it is right that the world's dancing in, or drinking in, the New Year, should be a hint to Christians to pray it in. This is one of the happy plagiarisms which the Church has made from the world. The heart feels as it never did before the truth of St. John's sad, calm, oracular survey of existence. "The world passes away, and the lust thereof."
But we have not sounded the depth of the truth --- certainly we have not exhausted St. John's meaning --- until we have asked something more. Is this conviction alone always a herald of salvation? Is it[Pg 153] always, taken by itself, even salutary? Can it never be exaggerated, and become the parent of evils almost greater than those which it supersedes?
We are led by careful study of the Bible to conclude that this sentiment of the flux of things is capable of exaggeration. For there is one important principle which arises from a comparison of the Old Testament with the New in this matter.
It is to be noticed that the Old Testament has indefinitely more which corresponds to the first proposition of the text, without the qualification which follows it, than we can find in the New.
The patriarch Job's experience echoes in our ears. "Man that is born of a woman has but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He comes, up, and is cut down, like a flower; he flees, as it were a shadow, and never continues in one stay." The Funeral Psalms make their melancholy chant. "Behold, You hast made my days as it were a span long.... Verily every man living is altogether vanity. For man walks in a vain shadow, and disquiets, himself in vain.... O spare me a little that I may smile again." Or we read the words of Moses, the man of God, in that ancient psalm of his, that hymn of time and of eternity. All that human speech can say is summed up in four words, the truest, the deepest, the saddest and the most expressive, that ever fell from any mortal pen. "We bring our years to an end, as a sigh." Each life is a sigh between two eternities!
Our point is, that in the New Testament there is greatly less of this element --- greatly less of this pathetic moralising upon the vanity and fragility of human life,[Pg 154] of which we have only cited a few examples --- and that what there is lies in a different atmosphere, with sunnier and more cheerful surroundings. Indeed, in the whole compass of the New Testament there is perhaps but one passage which is set quite in the same key with our familiar declamations upon the uncertainty and shortness of human life --- where St. James desires Christians ever to remember in all their projects to make deduction for the will of God, "not knowing what shall be on the following day." In the New Testament the voice, which wails for a second about the changefulness and misery, is lost in the triumphant music by which it is encompassed. If earthly goods are depreciated, it is not merely because "the load of them troubles, the love of them taints, the loss of them tortures;" it is because better things are ready. There is no lamentation over the change, no clinging to the dead past. The tone is rather one of joyful invitation. "Your raft is going to pieces in the troubled sea of time; step into a gallant ship. The volcanic isle on which you stand is undermined by silent fires; we can promise to bring you with us to a shore of safety where you shall be compassed about with songs of deliverance."
It is no doubt true to urge that this style of thought and language is partly to be ascribed to a desire that the attention of Christians should be fixed on the return of their Lord, rather than upon their own death. But,[Pg 155] if we believe Scripture to have been written under Divine guidance, the history of religion may supply us with good grounds for the absence of all exaggeration from its pages in speaking of the misery of life and the transitoriness of the world.
The largest religious experiment in the world, the history of a religion which at one time numerically exceeded Christendom, is a gigantic proof that it is not safe to allow unlimited licence to melancholy speculation. The true symbol for humanity is not a skull and an hour glass.
Some two thousand five hundred years ago, towards the end of the seventh century before Christ, at the foot of the mountains of Nepaul, in the capital of a kingdom of Central India, an infant was born whom the world will never forget. All gifts seemed to be showered on this child. He was the son of a powerful king and heir to his throne. The young Siddhârtha was of rare distinction, brave and beautiful, a thinker and a hero, married to an amiable and fascinating princess. But neither a great position nor domestic happiness could clear away the cloud of melancholy which hung over Siddhârtha, even under that lovely sky. His deep and meditative soul dwelt night and day upon the mystery of existence. He came to the conclusion that the life of the creature is incurably evil from three causes --- from the very fact of existence, from desire, and from ignorance. The things revealed by sense are evil. None has that continuance and fixity which is the mark of Law, and the attainment of which is the condition of happiness. At last his resolution to leave all his splendour and become an ascetic was irrevocably fixed. One splendid morning the prince drove to a glorious garden. On his road he met a repulsive old[Pg 156] man, wrinkled, toothless, bent. Another day, a wretched being wasted with fever crossed his path. Yet a third excursion --- and a funeral passes along the road with a corpse on an open bier, and friends wailing as they go. His favourite attendant is obliged in each case to confess that these evils are not exceptional --- that old age, sickness, and death, are the fatal conditions of conscious existence for all the sons of men. Then the Prince Royal takes his first step towards becoming the deliverer of humanity. He cries --- "woe, woe to the youth which old age must destroy, to the health which sickness must undermine, to the life which has so few days and is so full of evil." Hasty readers are apt to judge that the Prince was on the same track with the Patriarch of Idumea, and with Moses the man of God in the desert --- no, with St. John, when he writes from Ephesus that "the world passes away, and the lust thereof."
It may be well to reconsider this; to see what contradictory principle lies under utterances which have so much superficial resemblance.
Siddhârtha became known as the Bouddha, the august founder of a great and ancient religion. That religion has of later years been favourably compared with Christianity --- yet what are its necessary results, as drawn out for us by those who have studied it most deeply? Scepticism, fanatic hatred of life, incurable sadness in a world fearfully misunderstood; rejection of the personality of man, of God, of the reality of Nature. Strange enigma! The Bouddha sought to win annihilation by good works; everlasting non-being by a life of purity, of alms, of renunciation, of austerity. The prize of his high calling was not everlasting life, but everlasting death; for what else is[Pg 157] impersonality, unconsciousness, absorption into the universe, but the negation of human existence? The acceptance of the principles of Bouddhism is simply a sentence of death intellectually, morally, spiritually, almost physically, passed upon the race which submits to the melancholy bondage of its creed of desolation. It is the opium drunkenness of the spiritual world without the dreams that are its temporary consolation. It is enervating without being soft, and contemplative without being profound. It is a religion which is spiritual without recognising the soul, virtuous without the conception of duty, moral without the admission of liberty, charitable without love. It surveys a world without nature, and a universe without God. The human soul under its influence is not so much drunken as asphyxiated by a monotonous unbalanced perpetual repetition of one half of the truth --- "the world passes away, and the lust thereof."
For let us carefully note that St. John adds a qualification which preserves the balance of truth. Over against the dreary contemplation of the perpetual flux of things, he sets a constant course of doing --- over against the world, God in His deepest, truest personality, "the will of God" --- over against the fact of our having a short time to live, and being full of misery, an everlasting fixity, "he abides for ever" --- (so well brought out by the old gloss which slipped into the Latin text, "even as God abides for ever"). As the Lord had taught before, so the disciple now teaches, of the rocklike solidity, of the permanent abiding, under and over him who "does,." Of the devotee who became in his[Pg 158] turn the Bouddha, Çakhya-Mouni could not have said one word of the close of our text. "He" --- but human personality is lost in the triumph of knowledge. "Does, the will of God" --- but God is ignored, if not denied. "Abides for ever" --- but that is precisely the object of his aversion, the terror from which he wishes to be emancipated at any price, by any self-denial.
It may be supposed that this strain of thought is of little practical importance. It may be of use, indeed, in other lands to the missionary who is brought into contact with forms of Bouddhism in China, India, or Ceylon, but not to us in these countries. In truth it is not so. It is about half a century ago since a great English theologian warned his University that the central principle of Bouddhism was being spread far and wide in Europe from Berlin. This propaganda is not confined to philosophy. It is at work in literature generally, in poetry, in novels, above all in those collections of "Pensées" which have become so extensively popular. The unbelief of the last century advanced with flashing epigrams and defiant songs. With Byron it softened at times into a melancholy which was perhaps partly affected. But with Amiel, and others of our own day, unbelief assumes a sweet and dirge-like tone. The satanic mirth of the past unbelief is exchanged for a satanic melancholy in the present. Many currents of thought run into our hearts, and all are tinged with a darkness before unknown from new substances in the soil which colours the waters. There[Pg 159] is little fear of our not hearing enough, great fear of our hearing too much, of the proposition --- "the world passes away, and the lust thereof."
All this may possibly serve as some explanation for the fact that the Christian Church, as such, has no fast for the last day of the year, no festival for New Year's Day except one quite unconnected with the lessons which may be drawn from the flight of time. The death of the old year, the birth of the new year, have touching associations for us. But the Church consecrates no death but that of Jesus and His martyrs, no nativity but that of her Lord, and of one whose birth was directly connected with His own --- John the Baptist. A cause of this has been found in the fact that the day had become so deeply contaminated by the abominations of the heathen Saturnalia that it was impossible in the early Church to continue any very marked observation of it. This may well be so; but it is worth considering whether there is not another and deeper reason. Nothing that has now been said can be supposed to militate against the observance of this time by Christians in private, with solemn penitence for the transgressions of the past year, and earnest prayer for that upon which we enter --- nothing against the edification of particular congregations by such services as those most striking[Pg 160] ones which are held in so many places. But some explanation is supplied why the "Watch-night" is not recognised in the calendar of the Church.
Let us take our verse together as a whole and we have something better than moralising over the flight of time and the transitoriness of the world; something better than vulgarising "vanity of vanities" by vapid iteration.
It is hard to conceive a life in which death and evanescence have nothing that enforces their recognition. Now the removal of one dear to us, now a glance at the obituary with the name of some one of almost the same age as ourselves, brings a sudden shadow over the sunniest field. Yet surely it is not wholesome to encourage the perpetual presence of the cloud. We might impose upon ourselves the penance of being shut up all a winter's night with a corpse, go half crazy with terror of that unearthly presence, and yet be no more spiritual after all. We must learn to look at death in a different way, with new eyes. We all know how different dead faces are. Some speak to us merely of material ugliness, of the sweep of "decay's effacing fingers." In others a new idea seems to light up the face; there is the touch of a superhuman irradiation, of a beauty from a hidden life. We feel that we look on one who has seen Christ, and say --- "we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." These two kinds of faces answer to the two different views of life.
Not the transitory, but the permanent; not the fleeting, but the abiding; not death but life, is the conclusion of the whole matter. The Christian life is not an initial spasm followed by a chronic dyspepsia. What does St. John give us as the picture of it[Pg 161] exemplified in a believer? Daily, perpetual, constant doing the will of God. This is the end far beyond --- somewhat inconsistent with --- obstinately morbid meditation and surrounding ourselves with multiplied images of mortality. Lying in a coffin half the night might not lead to that end; no, it might be a hindrance thereto. Beyond the grave, outside the coffin, is the object at which we are to look. "The current of things temporal," cries Augustine, "sweeps along. But like a tree over that stream has risen our Lord Jesus Christ. He willed to plant Himself as it were over the river. Are you whirled along by the current? Lay hold of the wood. Does the love of the world roll you onward in its course? Lay hold upon Christ. For you He became temporal that you might become eternal. For He was so made temporal as to remain eternal. Join your heart to the eternity of God, and you shall be eternal with Him."
Those who have heard the Miserere in the Sistine Chapel describe the desolation which settles upon the soul which surrenders itself to the impression of the ritual. As the psalm proceeds, at the end of each rhythmical pulsation of thought, each beat of the alternate wings of the parallelism, a light upon the altar is extinguished. As the wail grows sadder the darkness grows deeper. When all the lights are out and the last echo of the strain dies away, there would be something suitable for the penitent's mood in the words --- "the world passes away, and the lust thereof." Upon the altar of the Christian heart there are tapers at first unlighted, and before it a priest in black vestments. But one by one the vestments are exchanged for others which are white; one after another the lamps are lighted slowly and without noise, until gradually, we know not how,[Pg 162] the whole place is full of light. And ever sweeter and clearer, calm and happy, with a triumph which is at first repressed and reverential, but which increases as the light becomes diffused, the words are heard strong and quiet --- a plain-song now that will swell into an anthem presently --- "he that does, the will of God abides for ever."
Ch. ii. 12-17.
Ver. 12, 13, 14. These verses cannot properly be divided so as to embrace three departments of spiritual, answering to three departments of natural, life. All believers are addressed authoritatively as "children" in the faith, tenderly as "little children;" then subdivided into two classes only, "fathers," and "young men." Confirmation is justly found implied here.
Ver. 16. Hardy's comment is quaint, and interesting. "These three are 'all that is in the world;' they are the world's cursed trinity; according to that of the poet,
Ambitiosus honos, et opes, et fœda voluptas; Hæc tria pro trino numine mundus habet,
which wicked men adore and worship as deities; in which regard Lapide opposes, them to the three persons in the blessed Trinity: the lust of the eyes to the Father, who is liberal in communicating His essence to the Son and the Spirit; the lust of the flesh to the Son, whose generation is spiritual and eternal; the pride of life to the Holy Ghost, who is the Spirit of humility. That golden calf, which, being made, was set up and worshipped by the Israelites in the wilderness, is not unfitly made use of to represent these: the calf, which is a wanton creature, an emblem of the lust of flesh; the gold of the calf, referring to the lust of the eyes; and the exalting it, to the pride of life. Oh, how do the most of men fall down before this golden calf which the world erects,."
In tracing the various senses of "the world" we have not dwelt prominently upon the conception of the world as embodied[Pg 163] in the Roman Empire, and in the city of Rome as its seat --- an empire standing over against the Church as the Kingdom of God. The αλαζονια του βιου may be projected outwardly, and set in a material framework in the gorgeous description of the wealth and luxury of Rome in Apoc. xviii. 11-14. M. Rénan finds in the Apocalypse the cry of horror of a witness who has been at Rome, seen the martyrdom of brethren, and been himself near death. (Apoc. i. 9, vi. 9, xiii. 10, xx. 4; cf. L'Antechrist, pp. 197, 199. Surely Apoc. xviii. 20 adds a strong testimony to the martyrdom of Peter and Paul at Rome.) So early a witness as Tertullian gives the story of St. John's having been plunged into the boiling oil without injury to him before his exile at Patmos. (De Præscr. Hær., 36). The Apocryphal 'Acta Iohannis' (known to Eusebius and to St. Augustine), relates at length an interview at Rome between Domitian and St. John --- not without interest, in spite of some miraculous embellishment. Acta. Apost. Apoc. Tischendorf, 266-271.
From The Epistles Of St. John by WILLIAM ALEXANDER, D.D., D.C.L. Oxon., Hon. LL.D. Dublin, published by Hodder and Stoughton, 27, Paternoster Row, MDCCCXCVI Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Insights of the past for the present
Epistles of John 2/2 - W. Alexander
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your insights be worthy.