CHRISTIAN FORETHOUGHT AND
Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.
S. Matthew vi. 34.
Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity, 1873.
I SUPPOSE that no passage in Holy Scripture has caused more real or more wide-spread perplexity than this. Here we have a precept which must mingle with the whole current of our lives, must affect the thoughts and the actions of every day and every hour. And yet it seems to set before us an ideal of life which is quite unattainable; and which, if attainable, would be destructive to human society. For it seems to tell us that in the affairs of this world we should be indifferent, reckless, improvident; that, if we would live rightly, we must live altogether for the moment; that it is culpable to look forward to the future, culpable to make provision for sickness and old age, culpable to lay by for wife and family.
I am not stating an imaginary difficulty. I speak of that which I know. I have met with cases, where a sincere believer has been sorely perplexed by this precept, as he has understood it. It has lain across his path of life, as a constant reproach to him. I have known cases also where the unbeliever has alleged it, and (I feel bound to say) has alleged it in all sincerity, as a triumphant argument against the perfect morality of the Lord's teaching. He has condemned it as contradicting the best experience of men, as conflicting with the first principles of political economy, as fatal to civilisation and subversive of society. And knowing this, as the passage occurs in the Gospel for this Sunday, I did not think that I could better occupy your attention this afternoon than by investigating its true meaning and import. It will not have been a useless task, if by God's grace I shall be able to meet some open objections, and remove some lurking scruples.
Now if the passage did mean what it has been supposed to mean, then the extremes in the scale of religious belief would be found to have met in an unexpected way. The recklessness of the Epicurean would be matched by the recklessness of the Christian. 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die' is the motto of the one; 'Dismiss all thought of the morrow; for the morrow will take care of itself would be the echo of the other.
If it did mean this, then all those measures for preventing and alleviating human misery, which have engaged the attention of the statesman and the philanthropist and the parish-clergyman, are founded on an utterly vicious principle. Savings-banks and provident societies and superannuation funds and insurance companies—what are all these but direct and deliberate measures of forethought for the morrow, systematic organisations for setting at nought a Divine precept, if indeed that precept were rightly interpreted as enjoining a reckless neglect of the future?
No, assuredly no. Whatever else the text implies, it cannot at all events signify this. Forethought is the very bond of human society, the very earnest of human progress. Forethought is the very breath of the Christian life. Forethought is the very reflection of the Divine Wisdom.
It is the bond of society, and the earnest of progress. What is it that differentiates the child from the man, what is it that separates barbarism from civilisation, but the ability to realise the law of continuity in human affairs, and to make provision for the hereafter in accordance with this law? What is all education—the education of a nation, as well as the education of an individual—but an instrumentality for calculating consequences and a machinery for promoting forethought?
And, moreover, it is the very breath of Christian life. Again, I ask, what is it that distinguishes the Christian from the unbeliever, but that his horizon is immeasurably extended, and his forethought takes an infinitely wider sweep? The Christian is to the unbeliever what the civilised man is to the savage. The savage lives for the moment; he gathers the spontaneous fruits of the earth; he makes no provision against famine; he tills no ground, sows no seed, expects no harvest . As civilisation increases, forethought developes also. Its earliest efforts do not go beyond the wants of the year; it gathers in its harvests, and stores up its food for the winter. But gradually its range of vision expands. A great advance is made when a man drains a morass on which he may not hope to reap the grain, or plants an orchard from which he cannot live to pluck the fruit. The gain to society in this advance is clear. But what is its higher meaning? Why, it is another step forward towards the more extended foresight of the Christian; it is an unconscious tribute to the continuity of being, a stammering confession of an interest in the future, a recognition, however halting and imperfect, of a life after death. In this matter of forethought the civilised man stands midway between the barbarian savage and the Christian sage. Christianity is not the suppression of forethought; it is the education, the extension, the perfecting of it.
Artd once more: forethought is the reflection of the Divine Wisdom. Providence is another word for foresight: providence is prudence writ large: and thus Providence is instinctively used as a synonyme for God. With God indeed, strictly speaking, there can be no foresight and no forethought; for with Him is no before or after. The infinite past and the infinite future are all as a moment to Him. The eternal economy of the Universe is comprehended by Him at a glance. He is omnipresent in time, as He is omnipresent in space. But we call His eternal purpose providence, we call it foresight; because with our limited faculties we cannot otherwise conceive or speak of it. And human forethought is a reflection, however faint and feeble, of His glorious providence. For it is a realisation of the future as if present; it is an overleaping of intervening days and years and ages by the power of a reasonable faith; it is (so far as human capacities will permit) an annihilation of time.
'Be not deceived.' You cannot defy God's law with impunity. The invariable sequence, the inevitable rule, of cause and effect, is His eternal will alike in things natural and things spiritual. The law of seed-time and harvest pervades the whole economy of the Universe. Forethought is the recognition of this law. 'Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he reap.' If you sow intemperance and profligacy now, you will reap disease and madness and a thousand nameless terrors hereafter. If you sow improvidence in youth, you will reap misery and want in old age. If you scatter the seed of recklessness, do not marvel when you gather in the harvest of despair. The seed is a hollow, empty, purposeless, indolent, vapid existence. You have sown the wind. The harvest is a beating, howling hurricane, which strips you of shelter and exposes you naked and defenceless to the elements. You have reaped the whirlwind. In vain will you shield yourself under the excuse that you are bidden to 'take no thought for the morrow.' In vain will you parley, when your voice is drowned in the raging storm. 'God is not mocked.' His law will vindicate itself at all hazards.
But, it will be said, whatever may be the consequences, as a matter of fact can any words more strong, and more explicit, be imagined, than the command to take no thought for the morrow? To the English ear this can only mean one thing; 'Be indifferent, be careless, be improvident, about what is to happen tomorrow.' To the English ear of today, yes; but how was it, when this translation was made? Words are the coins of the mind. They are the current medium of human thought. But coins, though at any given time they may be regarded as having a definite and fixed value, will rise or fall from age to age. The shilling of today has a purchasing power very different from the shilling of two or three centuries ago. So it has been with words. The phrase 'to take thought,' when it came into oui English Bibles, expressed an idea quite different from that which it conveys now. Thus I read in one early writer that a certain person was 'put to trouble and died of thought.' I find it stated in another that an 'old man for very thought and grief of heart pined away.' So 'dying of thought' was equivalent to 'being killed with distress of mind,' 'dying of a broken heart.' I turn again to the Old Testament, and I find the very expression which we have here. Saul hastens the return of himself and his servant homeward, 'lest his father...take thought for them,' i.e. 'get anxious about them.' Thus, then, 'to take thought' in old English is 'to feel anxiety,' 'to be harassed with care;' and the precept assumes a wholly different meaning from that which is generally attached to it; 'Be not anxious about the morrow; for the morrow will have its own anxieties. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.' And this corresponds exactly with the meaning of the original. The word translated 'thought' signifies not prudence, not forethought, but anxiety, harassing and distracting care. Thus the condemnation is hurled, not against a reasonable prudence about measures, but against a profitless solicitude about results. Thus it is a lesson not of recklessness, not of indifference, even in the affairs of this life, but of patience, of calmness, of firm faith in an Almighty power and love, which overrules all things for good.
But, though our Lord does not in this particular passage condemn forethought, still He certainly does throughout the Sermon on the Mount seek to guide and graduate it. In this, as in all practical matters, it is necessary to observe the due proportions of things. The character, the consequences, the duration, must be duly estimated: and our forethought must be meted out accordingly. It is this graduation of forethought which forms the leading idea of the context. We hold it culpable folly, if a man sacrifices the interest of after years to the enjoyment of tomorrow and the next day. It is only reasonable prudence, only common sense, we say, to make provision for after life. And yet, if men are asked to extend this principle, if they are told to enlarge the horizon of their forethought, if they are required to postpone the smaller interests of the life before death to the larger interests of the life after death, just as they have postponed the smaller interests of today and tomorrow to the larger interests of the years to come— at once this is unpractical, this is overstrained, this is fanatical. Yet only allow the premiss, and there is no escape from the conclusion. Only allow that man is destined to live an immortal life (and you do not seriously question this), and then the immortal life must be infinitely more important than the mortal by reason of its infinitely greater duration. Only allow (and you will not deny this) that truth and righteousness and love and purity are eternal principles, and then they must take an absolute precedence over meat and drink and clothing, over things which 'perish in the using.' Whenever there is a conflict between the two, the temporary must surrender unconditionally to the eternal.
And yet you demur, and you question, and you cavil, when you are told to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, as if there were something unreal, something extravagant, in the demand. Nay, it is the truest, highest, rarest, most uncommon common sense, which is embodied in this precept. Does not natural instinct bear witness to its reasonableness? When in the ever-memorable cavalry charge at Balaklava those six hundred horsemen bravely rode the length of the deadly valley amid the roaring of cannon on the right and on the left, facing certain destruction: or again, when on the decks of the 'Birkenhead' those brave soldiers, having first despatched the boats with the women and children in safety to the land, then themselves calmly awaited the end, as the vessel went slowly down, maintaining their ranks to the last with the same cool courage and the same steady bearing as if they were merely halting on the parade-ground; what was the instinctive, spontaneous, universal verdict, not of England only, but of all Europe, called forth by their heroism and self-devotion? Was there one dissentient voice amid this general chorus of praise, one murmur of disapprobation at the folly of these men in sacrificing their lives to duty, when they might have saved them? And what, I ask, was the meaning of this unquestioned and unquestionable judgment of mankind? Why, it was a confession that there is something better than food and raiment, something higher than this frail life with its paltry attractions and its transitory pleasures. It was a confession that true wisdom puts duty before life: and duty is a province, though only a single province, in that kingdom of God, which Christ bids us seek first. Yes, the instinctive sense of mankind, when it is taken by surprise and speaks out of the fulness of the heart, when it is not warped by any consideration of self-interest, nor confused by any subtleties of a vain philosophy—the instinctive sense of mankind declares that it is good to 'seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.'
Our Lord then graduates forethought, but He condemns solicitude. He condemns it on two grounds. It is a practical mistake, and it is a religious mistrust.
i. It is a practical mistake. Be not anxious for the morrow. The morrow will bring its own anxieties. Do not anticipate them, but 'act in the living present.' Each day has its own cares, its own trials, its own struggles. They are enough, and more than enough, for that day. It is folly to accumulate upon these the anxieties of the morrow. It is folly to double your cares, incurring them first in the anticipation and then again in the reality. We hold that general both the happiest and the wisest man who, having carefully planned the strategy of the coming day, then dismisses it from his thoughts and lies down to rest, recruiting his powers of mind and body in the forgetfulness of sleep. So it is in the anxious warfare of life. The anticipation of care is as futile as it is unwise. It is futile; for it cannot change the unchangeable. If the trouble is to come, no previous anxiety can avert it. If it is not to come, all previous anxiety is distress incurred in vain. It is unwise; for it is a waste of energy, a distraction of mind. Every moment spent on the possibilities of tomorrow is a moment abstracted from the realities of today. And these realities—the duties and the charities of the passing hour, the conflict of good and evil, the trouble, the temptation, the sin—these will need all the energies, and absorb all the thought, which we can bestow upon them. What might not be the effect on our moral and spiritual life, if we only gave to the education of the heart and the conscience one half of the time that is wasted in brooding over evils which will never arrive, and over troubles which we cannot avert!
2. But the religious error, involved in such anxiety, is graver still. It is nothing less than unfilial and churlish distrust of the love and power of our heavenly Father. The practical belief in the fatherhood of God constitutes the fundamental distinction between true and false religion. This portion of the Sermon on the Mount is wholly occupied in enforcing such a belief. The prayer of prayers begins with the enunciation of it. The words 'your Father,' 'thy Father,' 'My Father,' occur with astonishing frequency throughout the whole context. It appears as though our Lord would take hearts by storm, and lead us captive by this endearing mode of address. He seems to say that this one word 'Father'—with all the ideas of love, and tenderness, and protection, and watchful care, which it involves—this word once lodged in the heart must quiet all anxieties, and crush all doubts, and quell all fears. If I can only \ realise the truth that He, the All-wise and Allpowerful and Omnipresent, He Whom 'the heaven of heavens cannot contain,' He Who dwelleth in eternity, notwithstanding the infinitude of His Being, is not only our Father, but my Father—loves me with a Father's heart, watches over me with a Father's care—then I shall lack nothing, I shall dread nothing; for I shall know that all things—trouble and vexation and want and sorrow and pain—all things whatsoever will work together for my good. Just as the child, scared by some childish fear, or bursting with some childish grief, flees to its father's presence, clings to its father's knees, buries its face in its father's bosom, and all is well at once; so must it be with you. There is no trouble so special, and no grief so private, and no temptation so subtle, and no apprehension so vague, nothing so great and nothing so small, but that it will find a place in your Father's heart. Go to Him in childlike trust. Nurse no anxieties for tomorrow, but go to Him this very night. Open out to Him the grief which is breaking your heart;
carry before Him the trouble which is desolating your life; lay bare to Him the temptation which is gnawing at your conscience; fling down before Him the sin which has killed your soul. For He will console; He will alleviate; He will strengthen; He will make alive. Cast upon Him all your anxiety, without misgiving and without reserve, cast it upon Him, 'for He careth for you.'