THE TRIUMPH OF FAILURE.
Then all the disciples forsook Him, and fled.
S. Matthew xxvi. 56.
First Sunday after Trinity, 1872.
JUDGED by any human standard, the life of Christ had proved a misadventure and a mistake. With all its beauty and all its heroism and all its sublimity, it was a failure, a gigantic failure. On this point there could not be two opinions. The ministry of Christ had commenced amidst the festivities of a marriage. It had ended in the horrors of a gibbet. In dramatic fiction those tragedies are the most thrilling, which turn upon some sudden and unforeseen reversal of fortune, where the hero's fate overtakes him without a moment's warning. Christ's life was the most tragic of all tragedies. From the bright sunshine of hope it passed at once into the impenetrable gloom of despair. Look at those joyous earlier days of His Galilean ministry. Mark how He is followed about by admiring crowds, thronging on the shores of that inland sea. Everywhere—in Decapolis towards the East, as far as Tyre and Sidon in the West—it is the same. They track His footsteps, and they hang upon His lips. They watch with reverence His every act and His every gesture. Even to the latest moment there is no sign of His impending doom. He enters Jerusalem on His final fatal visit, and He receives the homage of an enthusiastic crowd. The priests and the rulers indeed looked upon Him with no friendly eye. There were scowling visages and murmured reproaches and dark plottings—the first mutterings of the pent-up volcano, which was soon to burst out in devastation and ruin. But the heart of the people seemed sound. He, and He only, knew how hollow, how fickle, how unmeaning, was all this show of respect. Amid the Hosannas of an admiring throng, He entered the Holy City, the elect of the people, the long-expected Son of David, the acknowledged King of Israel. Then came the recoil, the end. The populace turned against Him. His own disciples forsook Him. It would have been some solace at least, amid the angry threats of those priestly conspirators and the cruel taunts of that rude soldiery, to have been cheered by the sympathy of some friendly eye—of Peter whose zeal only a few hours ago had been so fervent, of John whom He loved with more than a brother's love. Even this solace was denied Him. He was left alone—alone amidst the insults of the judgment hall, alone in the agonies of the Cross. In a few hours the work of a life-time had been undone. The web, which He had woven with so much cost, was unravelled and cast aside—a mere mass of tangled threads. Could any failure be more complete than this failure?
If you had asked any of the witnesses to this tragedy, their answer must have been the same. Put the question to Caiaphas and the priests. They would tell you that a dangerous pretender had been crushed, that the temple and the hierarchy were safe. Put it to Pilate and the Romans. They would say that the last had been heard of one more religious enthusiast, who this time at least was innocent, if indeed enthusiasm ever could be innocent. Put it to the bewildered disciples. They would have acknowledged their perplexity and dismay. Their hopes were torn and mangled on that Cross; their joy was buried in that grave. They were stupefied by the unexpected end. Put it to some impartial and calm-judging bystander (if any such there were); and he would have deplored that so much goodness and self-devotion and heroism should have perished, and left no fruit behind. Of all the lessons, which this life of lives has bequeathed to us, the one which addresses itself most directly to the perplexed and troubled spirit, the one which is most fruitful in revived hopes and reinvigorated energies, is this lesson of failure.
To those who have any serious aims in life at all, to those who hear within them a voice summoning them to some nobler task than merely to get through their allotted term of days with comfort and ease and respectability, to those in whom the consciousness of the sin within and the contemplation of the misery and vice without stirs the depth of the soul, the experience of failure is the severest of all trials. It is so very hard to struggle against evil within the heart, and to seem to make no head against it, to return again and again to the conflict, and again and again to retire baffled or defeated. It is so very disheartening to stand forward as the champion of some neglected and despised class, or the opponent of some flagrant but chartered wrong, and to meet only with misunderstanding and want of sympathy, perhaps to succeed for the moment in fanning some flame of enthusiasm in others, then to see it flicker and die out; to be left alone with all those misgivings which isolation brings in its train. At such a crisis, the failure of Christ is the most inspiring of all lessons.
There are three points to which our attention should be more especially directed—first, the necessity of failure; next, the discipline of failure; and lastly, the triumph of failure.
1. First then, failure is inevitable. Success is not the rule of human life. It is the very rare exception. Of all the magnificent possibilities, and all the glorious hopes", of youth only one here and there is ever in any degree realised in after-life. We find here just the same profusion of waste which appears throughout the processes of nature. Nature is lavish of hopes, but she is very frugal in results. One plant produces its hundreds and thousands of seeds. They are sown broadcast by the winds. There is a possibility here, which in a few years might fertilise a desert and feed a city. It is never realised. One seed and another shoots up and grows and blossoms and bears fruit. The rest disappear, and are heard of no more. Failure is written across the face of nature. It is only too true, as our Christian poet has said, that as we are
Borne down the ebbing stream of life,
we encounter at each turn
Some mouldering hope or joy. It is only too true, that the man seems ever ' following the funeral of the boy', the funeral of bright expectations never realised, the funeral of precious gifts and opportunities neglected or misused. The path of life is strewn with the corpses of magnificent projects and brilliant hopes, crushed and trampled under foot.
We say that this man or that has been eminently successful in life. We mean perhaps that he has amassed great wealth, or won great popularity; that he has been a victorious general, or a famous legislator; that his name will be handed down to after generations, connected with some important enterprise or some brilliant invention. Our estimate of success stops short at these outward tokens. Ask the man himself, and his heart of hearts would often tell you a very different tale. He cannot forget that cruel bereavement, which has left his life a desolate ruin. He cannot put away that domestic wrong, which lies heavy on his heart, and throws a blight over all his successes. He cannot overlook that degrading, unsatisfied passion, which gnaws at his soul within and leaves him no rest. It is a mockery to him to call his life a success.
And, though he should have no such trials as these, though his life should have been one long day of unbroken sunshine, can it ever be called a success, when nothing will avert the doom? You have with much toil secured yourself an easy competency. You havesurrounded yourself with the comforts and luxuries of life. You have gathered your friends about you. You have built your soul a lordly pleasure-house, furnished with all the appliances and all the adornments of a refined culture; you have amassed rich stores of knowledge and experience—the work of a life-time. No sooner are your preparations complete, than decay comes and death comes; and all, all is spoilt. When the fruit is full ripe, it suddenly rots. You have sown the seed, but you may not reap the harvest. Death turns the most magnificent success into the most signal failure. The features of the corpse look only the more ghastly for the sparkling jewels and the gay apparel which deck it out. Human life is an inevitable failure.
2. But if so, if failure be inevitable, how can we turn it to account? What are its special uses? This brings us to the second point.
Failure is a discipline. Other trials have their value—sorrow, pain, opposition, obloquy, shame; but the severest, the most searching, most efficient instrument of discipline is failure. As a test of strength, and as a test of faith alike, it is without a rival.
As a test of strength. It is a comparatively easy matter for a man to carry out a great work, so long as public opinion is with him. He will labour night and day, and his toil will be sweetened, for he will be paid to the full in popular applause. Nay, he may not have the world, or even the majority, on his side; and yet he will go on bravely and cheerfully. If only he has secured the approval of his friends, or his party —of those among whom his lot is cast, of those on whose good opinion he is dependent—then he may defy the larger circle without. Their interposition deadens the blows of the external world. He has established a sort of body-guard about him, who repel the thrusts aimed at his comfort or his reputation. He gets just the sympathy and just the praise, which his heart craves most. It is only then, when good men misinterpret his motives and thwart his endeavours, then when the chasm between his principles and his party begins to yawn before him, then when friends look grave and at length fall away, then when he finds that he stands alone, then, in short, when he realises his failure, that the strain on his courage begins. Then indeed he needs all the sympathy and support, which a transcendent example can give.
And this sympathy, this support, he will find in the pattern, the spirit, the life, of Christ. In the absent loneliness of a great purpose, in the utter failure of a self-devoted life, history affords no example which can compare with this. Here he will seek his solace, his inspiration, his strength, his hope. S. P. s. 9
An old Greek philosopher—the wisest of his race —nearly four centuries before Christ, drew from his imagination a picture of the ideal righteous man. It was an essential feature in the portrait, that he should be tested by the extreme of adversity, that he should be misrepresented and misunderstood; that, though righteous, he should be considered unrighteous; that he should meet with obloquy and persecution and shame; last of all—a- strange, instinctive prophecy— he was to die on the gibbet. This old philosopher rightly divined. It was essential that the ideal man should fail, utterly fail, in life. Christ's perfection could only be manifested by entire failure. This failure is the most brilliant jewel in His heavenly crown; the richest portion of the inheritance which He has bequeathed to us.
But failure is not only a test of strength; it is still more a test of faith. So long as a man is successful in his aims, he has no misgivings. He believes in his work, because it progresses under his hands. He believes in himself, because others believe in him. But a time comes when he finds himself on one side, and all the world arrayed against him on the other. He sees before him only discouragement, disappointment, defeat. Then he asks himself whether he alone can be right, and so many thousands wrong. He begins by questioning whether the voice is indeed God's voice, and he ends by stifling the witness of the Spirit within him.
By stifling the witness of the Spirit. Brothers and sisters in Christ, do not think that this lesson has no reference to you and to you. Do not persuade yourselves, that it is meant only for those who are gifted with exceptionally great capacities, and whom God has therefore designed for some magnificent work. Is there anyone here who has not at one time or another felt some noble enthusiasm burning in his heart—perhaps some aspiration after a higher, purer, more spiritual life, perhaps some desire to devote self to the well-being of relations or friends, perhaps some design for alleviating the miseries or instructing the ignorance or reforming the vices of the outcast poor? This (can you doubt it?) was God's voice speaking within you, was God's Spirit testifying to you; and yet you stifled it. You were discouraged; you tried feebly and failed; and your faith forsook you. You felt that you were left alone; you did not feel that, though alone, you were not alone, for the Father was with you. You appropriated the one half of Christ's experience, the sense of failure; you did not appropriate the other and the essential half, the persistence of faith. There was in you then, there is in you now, if you will only believe it, a power which can defy failure, a power which must be victorious, because it is a power of God, and not of your own. Do you plead that you are young, that you are feeble, that you are unlearned, that you are without position and without influence? What matter? Is not God's strength ' made perfect in weakness?' I spoke before of the waste of the glorious possibilities of youth. What is the cause that they are thus squandered and lost? What, but that we will not trust God's voice speaking through our aspirations and enthusiasms? The first chill of ill-success damps our ardour. We have not faith to forecast the ultimate triumph of God's will.
3. And this brings me to the third and last point, the triumph of failure. History teems with examples illustrating this principle in a higher or lower degree; failure, utter failure at the outset; success, brilliant success in the result. The great Florentine reformer Savonarola commenced his mission. His first attempt was a total failure. He kindled no enthusiasm. His audiences dwindled away. He could not obtain a hearing. So a year passed away, and another and another. It was failure still. But an unquenchable fire was burning within him, and he knew that it was not an earthly flame. Then at length 'on a sudden,' we are told, 'he burst out; appalling, entrancing, shaking the souls of men, piercing to their heart of hearts, and drawing them in awe-struck crowds before the foot of his pulpit.' No preacher since the Apostolic days produced such striking effects as he produced.
Or take another example from a wholly different walk in life. The great English engineer George Stephenson furnishes a signal illustration of this lesson. He commenced life with the most serious disadvantages of education. He found all scientific men against him. He was confronted with the giant mass of popular inertia and distrust. But he was conscious of a great idea; he clung to it; and he persevered dauntlessly. 'I have fought for the locomotive single-handed,' he said, 'for nearly twenty years, having no engineer to help me. I put up with every rebuff, determined not to be put down.' At length the locomotive did triumph. And look at the consequences. Railways have revolutionised the conditions of society, not in England only, but throughout the world.
Throngs of witnesses might be produced to illustrate this same truth—great statesmen, great orators, great generals, great philanthropists, great mechanicians. But all such examples paie into nothing before the lesson of the life of Christ. Here was the most signal failure, followed by the most signal triumph which the world has ever seen. Ask indifferent men; ask unbelievers. They will confess as much as this. It is the homage which unbelief itself pays to the transcendent glory of Christ's Person and Work, that it allows His influence on the world to have been the greatest and most beneficent which the world has ever known. And yet He died a malefactor's death; and yet all His disciples forsook Him and fled; and yet at that moment His work was stamped out— nothing less. His life's labours and His life's sufferings were simply annihilated.
This is the example of all examples. God's purpose cannot fail. Whatsoever is honest, whatsoever is lovely, whatsoever is pure, whatsoever is truthful, has a strength and a vitality in it, which no time can obliterate and no antagonism can subdue. Believe this, and no failure will be a failure to you. It will only be a triumph deferred. The pains which you have spent in reclaiming that poor outcast are not thrown away, though you see no immediate fruits. The seeds of morality and goodness which you have sown in that wayward child are not lost, though the soil seems hard and barren now. The coldness and the obloquy and the scorn which you incurred in denouncing that social wrong, or that fashionable sin, have not been incurred in vain, though as yet you get no man to hear you. The bread cast on the waters will be found after many days. The echo of your voice will come rolling back, long after it has ceased to articulate, because it has been caught up and reverberated through the everlasting hills. Yes, it was the voice of God after all, and not your own voice. You may not live to see it . Your life may be pronounced a failure. Your sun may set in clouds and darkness. Dare to face this possibility. But your work cannot die. Think of Christ your Master. Think of His unparalleled failure, and His magnify cent success. Listen to the witness of the Spirit. Trust God, Who is One: and not the world, because it is many. Then your triumph is assured. 'This, this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.'