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1884: Habits in the Ministry

1884:

HABITS IN THE MINISTRY.

Brethren Of The Graduating Class :— The Faculty of the Seminary desire to express to you their appreciation of the faithful work you have done during the past three years, and their high hopes for your future. Other things being equal, industry and regularity in one's preparatory training determine his after success. The habits of the past will follow you as you go into your new life. If you have been faithful in little, you will probably be faithful in much. Some of you may be conscious that you have not done your utmost in your Seminary course. Still you have the opportunity to mend. New habits can be formed. Aa a theme of encouragement or admonition to all, think then for a moment of habits — what they are, what sorts of them need to be cultivated, how this cultivation is to be managed, how results justify this cultivation.

A habit is nothing more nor leas than a decision of the will so repeated that it becomes easy. You are familiar with the law by which the action of one faculty affects all the others. Every volition has its influence upon the ideas and upon the feelings, and these last are motives to new volition. Volitions, therefore, tend to repeat themselves,—the oftener they are put forth, the more likely it is that they will be put forth again. What is done at first with an effort, comes at last to be done spontaneously. And so our habits are the surest indications of character, because they are the settled movements of the soul. Each one of them represents a thousand consolidated volitions. A good habit is a tremendous power for good. Evil habits are the very fetters of the evil one. One of the greatest of our moral tasks, therefore, is to turn isolated or sporadic action into habitual action, or in other words, to give our transient decisions for the right the continuity and moral force of habits. And there is no pursuit in life where this automatic movement of our powers is more indispensable to success than in the ministry.

There are certain habits which I urge you to form at the very beginning of your ministerial life. One of them is the devotion of a solid hour at the beginning of each day to study of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures. Become masters of the Greek Testament. Begin your work at it the very first morning that you reach the place of your first settlement. Keep it up, summer and winter, rain or shine, sermon or no sermon, sick or well. You are to be primarily teachers of God's word; you must know that word through and through; you must be full of it; you must be mighty in the Scriptures. But this you cannot be, unless you devote a part of the best time of every day to study of the Bible, apart from any special work of preparation for the pulpit.

Another habit which I would recommend you to cultivate from the very first is the homiletical habit. And by this I mean the habit of seizing upon every novel truth of Scripture, every suggestion of theological or scientific literature, every instructive or bright remark heard in conversation, every exigency in public affairs or in the private fortunes of those about you, every unfolding of your own needs or desires in secret prayer before God, as material for the awakening, encouraging, admonishing of the flock to which you minister. Remember always that you are a teacher, that the teacher must first be taught, that God teaches by his Providence as well as by his word, that whatever God teaches you, you are to teach others, that whatever interests you, affects you, moves you, can be made a means of interesting, affecting, moving others. Open your eyes then to see the homiletical significance and importance of all your reading and of all your experience ; let all the currents of your life pour themselves into your preaching ; that preaching cannot be tame or powerless, which reflects and represents all the passions, hopes and endeavors of a live and true man, as he is moved upon by the countless influences of God's twofold revelation in nature and in the Bible.

So much with regard to the habit of taking in. One word now about the habit of giving out. I beg you to cultivate the demonstrative habit. Many ministers are as busy as bees in gathering,— but the product is shut up in a dark hive,— only the smallest portion of it is ever brought out to the light. There is a reticence, a shyness, a backwardness in the expression of ourselves, that constitutes a subtle foe to all ministerial success. This undemonstrativeness often excuses itself upon the ground of humility,—but it is false humility, in men who are set to be ambassadors of Jesus Christ, who have the word of the living God to preach, and to whom are promised all the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Freedom of utterance is, of course, to a large degree, the result of quick thought and ready sympathy, but it is also the cause of quick thought and ready sympathy. Here, as well as elsewhere, the more we give, the more we have. Learn then to be yourselves, to say out what is in you, with manliness of tone, with strength of voice, if need be. Let your whole nature, your whole experience, your whole life, in short, all there is of you, speak for Christ.

Only one habit more shall be mentioned — I mean the believing habit. As respects your brethren, cherish the spirit of confidence; take them at their best; trust them as men and as Christians. "Believing all things," says the apostle. Men will not believe in you, unless you believe in them. Some ministers carry about with them an atmosphere of criticism and of suspicion. They do not believe in men. And as a result they do not love them, nor hope for them. And, so long as you have no confidence in them, you can do them little good. How different the open, cheery, sympathetic, hopeful spirit that sees, in every Christian, a branch of the true vine, unfruitful for the time it may be, yet dear to Christ, and still capable of bringing forth abundant fruit. But better than the habit of believing in men is the habit of believing in God. I exhort you, in this day when the old landmarks of doctrine are so frequently obscured by the fogs of speculation, to believe in God. The preacher doth not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. Believe not only, but glory in believing,— make it your business to believe,— be in this respect an example to those you teach. As Peter and John fastened their eyes stedfastly upon the blind man, and the courage and faith of their hearts passed through their eyes, as it were, into him, so let the spectacle of your faith exert all around you a contagious influence, and lead men themselves to trust the healing Son of God.

I can give only a single sentence to the question how this cultivation of right habits is to be managed. It is to be managed by persistent putting forth of single imperative volitions, often against the tendency of our natural impulses and desires — volitions repeated continuously in dependence upon the help of the Spirit of God. And what I say with regard to the advantages of such cultivation I must condense almost as much. You know what nervecentres are, and how physiologists tell us that by a sort of involuntary and automatic action these nerve-centres become lieutenants of the will and perform its behests even while we are apparently unconscious of their operation. I give the command to walk. There are nerve-centres that take the comjnand from my will and execute it,— I go down the street, putting forth no further conscious volitions; these subordinate powers do the work for me. The result is that my brain is left free for conversation with a friend, or for thought about my sermon. Every habit formed is in like manner a getting of the lower powers to do our work, with the result that the intellect and will are left free for other and higher concerns. Habits, therefore, economize our time and strength. The true pastor's maxim, "Never do anything yourself that you can get any one else to do for yon," applies to his own faculties and powers. Conscious will should never do what it can get any of the lower powers to do for it. But it is more than economy,— it is safety also. Many a time, when selflsh or indolent impulses would rule, they can be repressed by the simple thought that this is not our habit. The love of consistency saves us. Routine is itself a blessing. And these habits, if they are only habits of daily pondering God's work, of seeking its applications to human life, of uttering its truths to others, of trusting God and our brethren, will not only be the surest signs of a sanctified intellect and a self-sacrificing heart, but they will powerfully influence us to holiness and self-sacrifice, and so make the preacher a living example of the gospel which he preaches.

Be sure, my brethren, that what you are will influence your hearers more than what you preach. I look forward to earnest, persistent, unselfish, consecrated lives, to be lived and spent by this Class for Christ and for his church. God has been with you thus far, and he will guide you still. Though you may be widely separated, the memories of these three years of close companionship in sacred studies will be a refreshment and strength to you, and you will still be united to one another and to us by that one Spirit through whom we all have access to the Father. May God fill your places here by men as good and true, and raise up for the ministry a multitude as • well prepared for their work! We rejoice to-night that we have been able to do anything towards forming your intellectual and moral habits, in preparation for your sacred calling. Be faithful to what you have been taught,— better still, be faithful to the word of God, as the Spirit of God shall show you its meaning. You have been a pride and a comfort to us. Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers go with you. We expect, the churches expect, Christ expects, noble services from the class of eighteen hundred and eighty-four.