A Sermon by George MacDonald

Story type: Essay

[Footnote: Read in the Unitarian chapel, Essex-street, London, 1879.]

PHILIPPIANS iii. 15, 16.–Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded; and if in anything ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by that same.

This is the reading of the oldest manuscripts. The rest of the verse is pretty clearly a not overwise marginal gloss that has crept into the text.

In its origin, opinion is the intellectual body, taken for utterance and presentation by something necessarily larger than any intellect can afford stuff sufficient for the embodiment of. To the man himself, therefore, in whose mind it arose, an opinion will always represent and recall the spirit whose form it is,–so long, at least, as the man remains true to his better self. Hence, a man’s opinion may be for him invaluable, the needle of his moral compass, always pointing to the truth whence it issued, and whose form it is. Nor is the man’s opinion of the less value to him that it may change. Nay, to be of true value, it must have in it not only the possibility, but the necessity of change: it must change in every man who is alive with that life which, in the New Testament, is alone treated as life at all. For, if a man’s opinion be in no process of change whatever, it must be dead, valueless, hurtful Opinion is the offspring of that which is itself born to grow; which, being imperfect, must grow or die. Where opinion is growing, its imperfections, however many and serious, will do but little hurt; where it is not growing, these imperfections will further the decay and corruption which must already have laid hold of the very heart of the man. But it is plain in the world’s history that what, at some given stage of the same, was the embodiment in intellectual form of the highest and deepest of which it was then spiritually capable, has often and speedily become the source of the most frightful outrages upon humanity. How is this? Because it has passed from the mind in which it grew into another in which it did not grow, and has of necessity altered its nature. Itself sprung from that which was deepest in the man, it casts seeds which take root only in the intellectual understanding of his neighbour; and these, springing up, produce flowers indeed which look much the same to the eye, but fruit which is poison and bitterness,–worst of it all, the false and arrogant notion that it is duty to force the opinion upon the acceptance of others. But it is because such men themselves hold with so poor a grasp the truth underlying their forms that they are, in their self-sufficiency, so ambitious of propagating the forms, making of themselves the worst enemies of the truth of which they fancy themselves the champions. How truly, in the case of all genuine teachers of men, shall a man’s foes be they of his own household! For of all the destroyers of the truth which any man has preached, none have done it so effectually or so grievously as his own followers. So many of them have received but the forms, and know nothing of the truth which gave him those forms! They lay hold but of the non-essential, the specially perishing in those forms; and these aspects, doubly false and misleading in their crumbling disjunction, they proceed to force upon the attention and reception of men, calling that the truth which is at best but the draggled and useless fringe of its earth-made garment. Opinions so held belong to the theology of hell,–not necessarily altogether false in form, but false utterly in heart and spirit. The opinion then that is hurtful is not that which is formed in the depths, and from the honest necessities of a man’s own nature, but that which he has taken up at second hand, the study of which has pleased his intellect; has perhaps subdued fears and mollified distresses which ought rather to have grown and increased until they had driven the man to the true physician; has puffed him up with a sense of superiority as false as foolish, and placed in his hand a club with which to subjugate his neighbour to his spiritual dictation. The true man even, who aims at the perpetuation of his opinion, is rather obstructing than aiding the course of that truth for the love of which he holds his opinion; for truth is a living thing, opinion is a dead thing, and transmitted opinion a deadening thing.

Let us look at St. Paul’s feeling in this regard. And, in order that we may deprive it of none of its force, let us note first the nature of the truth which he had just been presenting to his disciples, when he follows it with the words of my text:–

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But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.

Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,

And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:

That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death;

If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.

Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.

Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

St. Paul, then, had been declaring to the Philippians the idea upon which, so far as it lay with him, his life was constructed, the thing for which he lived, to which the whole conscious effort of his being was directed,–namely, to be in his very nature one with Christ, to become righteous as he is righteous; to die into his death, so that he should no more hold the slightest personal relation to evil, but be alive in every fibre to all that is pure, lovely, loving, beautiful, perfect. He had been telling them that he spent himself in continuous effort to lay hold upon that for the sake of which Christ had laid hold on him. This he declares the sole thing worth living for: the hope of this, the hope of becoming one with the living God, is that which keeps a glorious consciousness awake in him, amidst all the unrest of a being not yet at harmony with itself, and a laborious and persecuted life. It cannot therefore be any shadow of indifference to the truth to which he has borne this witness, that causes him to add, “If in anything ye be otherwise minded.” It is to him even the test of perfection, whether they be thus minded or not; for, although a moment before, he has declared himself short of the desired perfection, he now says, “Let as many of us as are perfect be thus minded.” There is here no room for that unprofitable thing, bare logic: we must look through the shifting rainbow of his words,–rather, we must gather all their tints together, then turn our backs upon the rainbow, that we may see the glorious light which is the soul of it. St. Paul is not that which he would be, which he must be; but he, and all they who with him believe that the perfection of Christ is the sole worthy effort of a man’s life, are in the region, though not yet at the centre, of perfection. They are, even now, not indeed grasping, but in the grasp of, that perfection. He tells them this is the one thing to mind, the one thing to go on desiring and labouring for, with all the earnestness of a God-born existence; but, if any one be at all otherwise minded,–that is, of a different opinion,–what then? That it is of little or no consequence? No, verily; but of such endless consequence that God will himself unveil to them the truth of the matter. This is Paul’s faith, not his opinion. Faith is that by which a man lives inwardly, and orders his way outwardly. Faith is the root, belief the tree, and opinion the foliage that falls and is renewed with the seasons. Opinion is, at best, even the opinion of a true man, but the cloak of his belief, which he may indeed cast to his neighbour, but not with the truth inside it: that remains in his own bosom, the oneness between him and his God. St. Paul knows well–who better?–that by no argument, the best that logic itself can afford, can a man be set right with the truth; that the spiritual perception which comes of hungering contact with the living truth–a perception which is in itself a being born again–can alone be the mediator between a man and the truth. He knows that, even if he could pass his opinion over bodily into the understanding of his neighbour, there would be little or nothing gained thereby, for the man’s spiritual condition would be just what it was before. God must reveal, or nothing is known. And this, through thousands of difficulties occasioned by the man himself, God is ever and always doing his mighty best to effect.

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See the grandeur of redeeming liberality in the Apostle. In his heart of hearts he knows that salvation consists in nothing else than being one with Christ; that the only life of every man is hid with Christ in God, and to be found by no search anywhere else. He believes that for this cause was he born into the world,–that he should give himself, heart and soul, body and spirit, to him who came into the world that he might bear witness to the truth. He believes that for the sake of this, and nothing less,–anything more there cannot be,–was the world, with its endless glories, created. Nay, more than all, he believes that for this did the Lord, in whose cross, type and triumph of his self-abnegation, he glories, come into the world, and live and die there. And yet, and yet, he says, and says plainly, that a man thinking differently from all this or at least, quite unprepared to make this whole-hearted profession of faith, is yet his brother in Christ, in whom the knowledge of Christ that he has will work and work, the new leaven casting out the old leaven until he, too, in the revelation of the Father, shall come to the perfect stature of the fulness of Christ. Meantime, Paul, the Apostle, must show due reverence to the halting and dull disciple. He must and will make no demand upon him on the grounds of what he, Paul, believes. He is where he is, and God is his teacher. To his own Master,–that is, Paul’s Master, and not Paul,–he stands. He leaves him to the company of his Master. “Leaves him?” No: that he does not; that he will never do, any more than God will leave him. Still and ever will he hold him and help him. But how help him, if he is not to press upon him his own larger and deeper and wiser insights? The answer is ready: he will press, not his opinion, not even the man’s opinion, but the man’s own faith upon him. “O brother, beloved of the Father, walk in the light,–in the light, that is, which is thine, not which is mine; in the light which is given to thee, not to me: thou canst not walk by my light, I cannot walk by thine: how should either walk except by the light which is in him? O brother, what thou seest, that do; and what thou seest not, that thou shalt see: God himself, the Father of Lights, will show it to you.” This, this is the condition of all growth,–that whereto we have attained, we mind that same; for such, following the manuscripts, at least the oldest, seems to me the Apostle’s meaning. Obedience is the one condition of progress, and he entreats them to obey. If a man will but work that which is in him, will but make the power of God his own, then is it well with him for evermore. Like his Master, Paul urges to action, to the highest operation, therefore to the highest condition of humanity. As Christ was the Son of his Father because he did the will of the Father, so the Apostle would have them the sons of the Father by doing the will of the Father. Whereto ye have attained, walk by that.

But there is more involved in this utterance than the words themselves will expressly carry. Next to his love to the Father and the Elder Brother, the passion of Paul’s life–I cannot call it less–is love to all his brothers and sisters. Everything human is dear to him: he can part with none of it. Division, separation, the breaking of the body of Christ, is that which he cannot endure. The body of his flesh had once been broken, that a grander body might be prepared for him: was it for that body itself to tear itself asunder? With the whole energy of his great heart, Paul clung to unity. He could clasp together with might and main the body of his Master–the body that Master loved because it was a spiritual body, with the life of his Father in it. And he knew well that only by walking in the truth to which they had attained, could they ever draw near to each other. Whereto we have attained, let us walk by that.

My honoured friends, if we are not practical, we are nothing. Now, the one main fault in the Christian Church is separation, repulsion, recoil between the component particles of the Lord’s body. I will not, I do not care to inquire who is more to blame than another in the evil fact. I only care to insist that it is the duty of every individual man to be innocent of the same. One main cause, perhaps I should say the one cause of this deathly condition, is that whereto we had, we did not, whereto we have attained, we do not walk by that. Ah, friend! do not now think of thy neighbour. Do not applaud my opinion as just from what thou hast seen around thee, but answer it from thy own being, thy own behaviour. Dost thou ever feel thus toward thy neighbour,–“Yes, of course, every man is my brother; but how can I be a brother to him so long as he thinks me wrong in what I believe, and so long as I think he wrongs in his opinions the dignity of the truth?” What, I return, has the man no hand to grasp, no eyes into which yours may gaze far deeper than your vaunted intellect can follow? Is there not, I ask, anything in him to love? Who asks you to be of one opinion? It is the Lord who asks you to be of one heart. Does the Lord love the man? Can the Lord love, where there is nothing to love? Are you wiser than he, inasmuch as you perceive impossibility where he has failed to discover it? Or will you say, “Let the Lord love where he pleases: I will love where I please”? or say, and imagine you yield, “Well, I suppose I must, and therefore I will,–but with certain reservations, politely quiet in my own heart”? Or wilt thou say none of all these things, but do them all, one after the other, in the secret chambers of thy proud spirit? If you delight to condemn, you are a wounder, a divider of the oneness of Christ. If you pride yourself on your loftier vision, and are haughty to your neighbour, you are yourself a division and have reason to ask: “Am I a particle of the body at all?” The Master will deal with thee upon the score. Let it humble thee to know that thy dearest opinion, the one thou dost worship as if it, and not God, were thy Saviour, this very opinion thou art doomed to change, for it cannot possibly be right, if it work in thee for death and not for life.

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Friends, you have done me the honour and the kindness to ask me to speak to you. I will speak plainly. I come before you neither hiding anything of my belief, nor foolishly imagining I can transfer my opinions into your bosoms. If there is one role I hate, it is that of the proselytizer. But shall I not come to you as a brother to brethren? Shall I not use the privilege of your invitation and of the place in which I stand, nay, must I not myself be obedient to the heavenly vision, in urging you with all the power of my persuasion to set yourselves afresh to walk according to that to which you have attained. So doing, whatever yet there is to learn, you shall learn it. Thus doing, and thus only, can you draw nigh to the centre truth; thus doing, and thus only, shall we draw nigh to each other, and become brothers and sisters in Christ, caring for each other’s honour and righteousness and true well-being. It is to them that keep his commandments that he and his Father will come to take up their abode with them. Whether you or I have the larger share of the truth in that which we hold, of this I am sure, that it is to them that keep his commandments that it shall be given to eat of the Tree of Life. I believe that Jesus is the eternal son of the eternal Father; that in him the ideal humanity sat enthroned from all eternity; that as he is the divine man, so is he the human God; that there was no taking of our nature upon himself, but the showing of himself as he really was, and that from evermore: these things, friends, I believe, though never would I be guilty of what in me would be the irreverence of opening my mouth in dispute upon them. Not for a moment would I endeavour by argument to convince another of this, my opinion. If it be true, it is God’s work to show it, for logic cannot. But the more, and not the less, do I believe that he, who is no respecter of persons, will, least of all, respect the person of him who thinks to please him by respecting his person, calling him, “Lord, Lord,” and not doing the things that he tells him. Even if I be right, friend, and thou wrong, to thee who doest his commandments more faithfully than I, will the more abundant entrance be administered. God grant that, when thou art admitted first, I may not be cast out, but admitted to learn of thee that it is truth in the inward parts that he requireth, and they that have that truth, and they alone, shall ever know wisdom. Bear with me, friends, for I love and honour you. I seek but to stir up your hearts, as I would daily stir up my own, to be true to that which is deepest in us,–the voice and the will of the Father of our spirits.

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Friends, I have not said we are not to utter our opinions. I have only said we are not to make those opinions the point of a fresh start, the foundation of a new building, the groundwork of anything. They are not to occupy us in our dealings with our brethren. Opinion is often the very death of love. Love aright, and you will come to think aright; and those who think aright must think the same. In the meantime, it matters nothing. The thing that does matter is, that whereto we have attained, by that we should walk. But, while we are not to insist upon our opinions, which is only one way of insisting upon ourselves, however we may cloak the fact from ourselves in the vain imagination of thereby spreading the truth, we are bound by loftiest duty to spread the truth; for that is the saving of men. Do you ask, How spread it, if we are not to talk about it? Friends, I never said, Do not talk about the truth, although I insist upon a better and the only indispensable way: let your light shine. What I said before, and say again, is, Do not talk about the lantern that holds the lamp, but make haste, uncover the light, and let it shine. Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works,–I incline to the Vatican reading of good things,–and glorify your Father who is in heaven. It is not, Let your good works shine, but, Let your light shine. Let it be the genuine love of your hearts, taking form in true deeds; not the doing of good deeds to prove that your opinions are right. If ye are thus true, your very talk about the truth will be a good work, a shining of the light that is in you. A true smile is a good work, and may do much to reveal the Father who is in heaven; but the smile that is put on for the sake of looking right, or even for the sake of being right, will hardly reveal him, not being like him. Men say that you are cold: if you fear it may be so, do not think to make yourselves warm by putting on the cloak of this or that fresh opinion; draw nearer to the central heat, the living humanity of the Son of Man, that ye may have life in yourselves, so heat in yourselves, so light in yourselves; understand him, obey him, then your light will shine, and your warmth will warm. There is an infection, as in evil, so in good. The better we are, the more will men glorify God. If we trim our lamps so that we have light in our house, that light will shine through our windows, and give light to those that are not in the house. But remember, love of the light alone can trim the lamp. Had Love trimmed Psyche’s lamp, it had never dropped the scalding oil that scared him from her.

The man who holds his opinion the most honestly ought to see the most plainly that his opinion must change. It is impossible a man should hold anything aright. How shall the created embrace the self-existent Creator? That Creator, and he alone, is the truth: how, then, shall a man embrace the truth? But to him who will live it,–to him, that is, who walks by that to which he has attained,–the truth will reach down a thousand true hands for his to grasp. We would not wish to enclose that which we can do more than enclose,–live in, namely, as our home, inherit, exult in,–the presence of the infinitely higher and better, the heart of the living one. And, if we know that God himself is our inheritance, why should we tremble even with hatred at the suggestion that we may, that we must, change our opinions? If we held them aright, we should know that nothing in them that is good can ever be lost; for that is the true, whatever in them may be the false. It is only as they help us toward God, that our opinions are worth a straw; and every necessary change in them must be to more truth, to greater uplifting power. Lord, change me as thou wilt, only do not send me away. That in my opinions for which I really hold them, if I be a true man, will never pass away; that which my evils and imperfections have, in the process of embodying it, associated with the truth, must, thank God, perish and fall. My opinions, as my life, as my love, I leave in the hands of him who is my being. I commend my spirit to him of whom it came. Why, then, that dislike to the very idea of such change, that dread of having to accept the thing offered by those whom we count our opponents, which is such a stumbling-block in the way in which we have to walk, such an obstruction to our yet inevitable growth? It may be objected that no man will hold his opinions with the needful earnestness, who can entertain the idea of having to change them. But the very objection speaks powerfully against such an overvaluing of opinion. For what is it but to say that, in order to be wise, a man must consent to be a fool. Whatever must be, a man must be able to look in the face. It is because we cleave to our opinions rather than to the living God, because self and pride interest themselves for their own vile sakes with that which belongs only to the truth, that we become such fools of logic and temper that we lie in the prison-houses of our own fancies, ideas, and experiences, shut the doors and windows against the entrance of the free spirit, and will not inherit the love of the Father.

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Yet, for the help and comfort of even such a refuser as this, I would say: Nothing which you reject can be such as it seems to you. For a thing is either true or untrue: if it be untrue, it looks, so far like itself that you reject it, and with it we have nothing more to do; but, if it be true, the very fact that you reject it shows that to you it has not appeared true,–has not appeared itself. The truth can never be even beheld but by the man who accepts it: the thing, therefore, which you reject, is not that which it seems to you, but a thing good, and altogether beautiful, altogether fit for your gladsome embrace,–a thing from which you would not turn away, did you see it as it is, but rush to it, as Dante says, like the wild beast to his den,–so eager for the refuge of home. No honest man holds a truth for the sake of that because of which another honest man rejects it: how it may be with the dishonest, I have no confidence in my judgment, and hope I am not bound to understand.

Let us then, my friends, beware lest our opinions come between us and our God, between us and our neighbour, between us and our better selves. Let us be jealous that the human shall not obscure the divine. For we are not mere human: we, too, are divine; and there is no such obliterator of the divine as the human that acts undivinely. The one security against our opinions is to walk according to the truth which they contain.

And if men seem to us unreasonable, opposers of that which to us is plainly true, let us remember that we are not here to convince men, but to let our light shine. Knowledge is not necessarily light; and it is light, not knowledge, that we have to diffuse. The best thing we can do, infinitely the best, indeed the only thing, that men may receive the truth, is to be ourselves true. Beyond all doing of good is the being good; for he that is good not only does good things, but all that he does is good. Above all, let us be humble before the God of truth, faithfully desiring of him that truth in the inward parts which alone can enable us to walk according to that which we have attained. May the God of peace give you his peace; may the love of Christ constrain you; may the gift of the Holy Spirit be yours. Amen.

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