"Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer."—Romans xii. 12.
THIS is the only part of the Apostle's practical precepts in this chapter which refers to the inner secrets of the Christian life. All the remainder inculcates our duties to one another. Conduct is all-important. Creed is valuable if it influences action, but not otherwise. Devout emotion is valuable if it drives the wheels of life, but not otherwise. The deepening of spiritual life should be manifest by completer practical righteousness, such as nonChristians will acknowledge.
The Christian life ought to be joyful because it is hopeful. To be glad is a Christian duty. Many of us do not habitually recognise that it is, but think that joy is partly a matter of temperament and partly a product of circumstances. We naturally rejoice when things go well with us. If we have sunny dispositions we think it so much the better; if not, so much the worse, but it is not our fault. But do we recognise that a Christian who is not joyful is not living up to his duty, and that neither temperament nor circumstances excuse our not being so? Many of us have as much religion as makes us sombre, but not enough to make us glad.
We shall have to alter our conceptions of what true gladness is before we can come to understand the full depth of the great thought that joy is a Christian duty. The true joy is not the kind of joy which a saying in the Old Testament compares to the " crackling of thorns under a pot," but something very much calmer, with no crackle in it; and very much deeper, and very much more in alliance with "whatsoever things are lovely and of good report," than that foolish, short-lived, and empty mirth that burns down so soon into black ashes.
The Apostle here points to Christian hope as a main source of Christian gladness, and we all know how "our bosom's lord sits lightly on its throne," when a great hope animates it, and how then everything becomes easy and the whole world looks different. If our hope is certain it will gladden, and if we grasp, as we should do, the only hope that is absolutely certain, then our hearts will sing for joy. True joy is not dependent on circumstances, but on faith. We may be in a dry and thirsty land, but what of that, if we have in us " a fountain springing up into everlasting life "? The object of the Christian hope is expressed in an earlier part of this letter, as " the hope of the glory of God." That great, far-off, certain prospect of being gathered into the Divine Glory, and walking there, like the three in the fiery furnace, unconsumed and at ease, will breathe perpetual gladness into a life, whatever circumstances or temperament may be.
Our emotions are not immediately in the power of our wills, but the direction of our thoughts is. We cannot resolve to be joyful, but we can choose which set of facts we will look at, whether those which tend to sadden or those which tend to make glad. If we prefer to occupy our mind with the troubles, losses, disappointments, hard work, blighted hopes, of this poor sin-ridden world, of course sadness will come over us often, and a general grey hue will be the usual tone of our lives, as it is of the lives of many of us, broken only by occasional bursts of foolish mirth and empty laughter. But if we choose to turn away from all these, and instead of the dim, dismal, hard present, to sun ourselves in the beams of the yet unrisen Light, which we can do, then, having rightly chosen the subjects to think upon, the feeling will come as a matter of course. We cannot make ourselves glad by, as it were, laying hold of ourselves and lifting ourselves into gladness, but we can rule the direction of our thoughts, and so can bring around us summer in the midst of winter, by steadily contemplating the facts—and they are present facts, though we talk about them collectively as "the future "—on which all Christian gladness ought to be based. We can carry our own atmosphere with us; like the people in Italy, who in frosty weather will be seen sitting in the marketplace by their stalls with a dish of embers, which they grasp in their hands, and so make themselves comfortably warm on the bitterest day. We can bring a reasonable degree of warmth into the coldest weather, if we will lay hold of the vessel in which the fire is, and keep it in our hand and close to our hearts. Choose what to think of, and feelings will follow thoughts.
But strong and continuous effort is necessary if we are to keep the great Hope before us. We can sometimes see the gleaming mountains of the mainland from our island home; but thick days of mist are frequent, when we discern nothing but the cold grey sea breaking mournfully on the cold grey stones. But we can scatter the mists if we will, and behold the fair land across the straits. If Christians cultivated the vision of their great future more, they would be more joyful.
The Christian life, if full of joyful hope, will be patient. These great words, "patient" and "patience," are often on the Apostle's lips, and they mean more than simple endurance, including, as they do, the idea of persevering effort. If our hearts are filled with calm gladness, because our eyes are fixed on a celestial hope, both the active and passive sides of this persevering patience will be realised in us. A voyager who knows that he will be in port in a week, does not mind though his cabin is contracted, and many disagreeables have to be encountered on the voyage. So our hope will help us to endure. And it will also help us to do. That fire of certain hope, burning in our hearts, will impel us to diligence in doing the humblest duty whether circumstances be for us or against us, as some oceangoing steamer is driven right in the teeth of storms, and keeps its course because deep down in its hull are great furnaces. So a life that is joyful because it is hopeful will be full of calm endurance and strenuous work.
Our lives will be joyful, hopeful, and patient in proportion as they are prayerful. In Paul's first letter he gave an apparently impossible command: "Rejoice evermore"; and he added another apparently equally impossible one, which, if obeyed, would make perpetual joy attainable: "Pray without ceasing." But can we pray without ceasing? If by prayer we mean only speaking words of supplication, we cannot; but if prayer is a mental attitude of devotion, with a sub-conscious reference to God in all things, we can. Whether the absolutely unbroken communion with God, which the Apostle enjoins, can be attained in this life or not, we could approximate to it much more closely than we have done. If we are trying to keep our hearts in contact with God in the midst of daily duty, and if, ever and anon in the press of our work, we cast a thought and a prayer towards Him, then hope and joy and patience will be ours in a degree that we know little about yet, but might have known long since.
"They cried unto God in the battle, and He was entreated of them." What sort of a prayer would that be? In the thick of battle with the swords of the enemy at their throats, there would not be much time for many words of prayer. But a cry could go up, or a thought could go up, and as they went up, down would come the strong buckler which God puts between His servants and all evil. That is the sort of prayer that we, in the battle of business, in our shops and counting-houses and warehouses and mills, we students in our studies, and mothers in their nurseries and their kitchens, can send up to heaven. If thus we "pray without ceasing," then we shall "rejoice evermore," and our souls will be kept in patience and filled with the peace of God.