by James W. Alexander
Consolation under the judgments of men
The wounds of the soul are not always such as bleed outwardly, nor is the most poignant anguish caused by visible agents. When we speak of consolation, our minds naturally call up the images of illness, bereavement, or peril of life or limb. But man is so constituted, that an assault on reputation, or even a public or general censure of conduct and character, will often inflict as keen and lasting pain as the piercing of a sword. There are, moreover, some who could with more composure go to the cannon's mouth, than withstand the voice of ridicule, when proceeding from great numbers, or from people of rank and importance. And when censure and rebuke actually fall, there is always an emotion of unhappiness, at least for a time, under which the supports of religion are as truly needed as under the more palpable inflictions which have passed so largely under our review. Nor is there any means of rising altogether above such suffering except that which is afforded by Christianity; because the true believer is the only man who can rationally and universally appeal from the judgment of man—to the judgment of God.
To do right, to do always right, and to do it without concern as to the judgment of human creatures, belongs to the very highest degrees of moral culture—to the strong man in Christ Jesus. Yet we should strive after it, as indispensable as well to our holiness as our happiness. The contrary temper is continually brought to our knowledge in others and in ourselves. The world is to a great extent governed by a regard for human opinion. Instead of tracing all seemingly good actions up to the impulses of reason and conscience, we are frequently constrained to admit that their actors have done them in order to be seen of men. Even the truly Christian man, while in the main he follows the dictates of duty and of God, pursues this path through violent struggles, and at great expense of feeling. When by grace he has succeeded in accomplishing his duty against the opinion of many, perhaps of most, sometimes including highly valued and excellent people—he is deeply conscious that he has come out of a conflict, and has barely escaped from yielding to the power which attracted in another direction.
But the multitudes are daily kept from doing or attempting what they know to be right, by the dread of what fellow-creatures will say or think. It is precisely this which keeps some from entering on a pious life, and owning the Lord Jesus Christ before men. And this is but one of a thousand obligations, which men neglect from fear of human judgment. In this there is such a weakness, that we are prompt to despise it, when presented in the abstract, or in the case of another, while we are perpetually incurring the same condemnation by our indecision and cowardice. As the character thus formed is insusceptible of true greatness, so it is liable to unspeakable misery. No man can lift up his head with manly calmness and peace, who is the slave of other men's judgments. It is, therefore, a matter of great moment, in our discipline of heart and life, to keep before our minds those considerations, which shall dispose and enable us to say with the Apostle Paul, in a notable instance, "With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you or of man's judgment." Let us, therefore, meditate on the means which, by God's blessing, shall lift us above this dependence on the thoughts, caprices, and censures of mankind, and shall console us when we incur them.
I. The first which I shall mention is a clear discernment of what our duty is. Here some will be disposed to say that every man knows what is right and what is wrong, and that the only defect is in the will to perform it. But this is one of those half truths, which often do the office of falsehood. In nothing do men differ more than in the distinctness with which they apprehend the line of duty. CONSCIENCE, though existing in all men, does not in all men exert itself with equal power. Conscience is often called the viceregent of God in the heart; but this is not to be taken in such a sense as shall confound God and conscience. As a human faculty conscience is limited, improvable, capable of development, and fallible. As the faculty of fallen man, it is sometimes dark and uninformed, and sometimes erroneous. The actings of conscience are twofold; first, to discern what is right and wrong; secondly, to recompense right or wrong action with correspondent pleasure or pain. In these functions, it is combined with the understanding, and may therefore err, and be instructed. If it were not so, there could be no such thing as moral instruction, and no need of any revelation of God's will in the Scriptures. For it is plain, that if conscience were an umpire, immediate, infallible, and final—then man would need no other rule, and would be a law unto himself. Experience shows that while conscience, like understanding, is universal, yet like understanding, it may act in ever varying degrees, and be stimulated to ever improving power.
Experience shows that conscience may be educated, and that it may be perverted. Men differ exceedingly from one another in their views of duty. You shall find one man who sees clearly what is required of him. The line of his duty is obscured by no mists—but lies distinctly before him, as a path laid down with mathematical precision. He never wavers on the brink of an obligation. His principles of action are defined and unalterable, and as he advances in life, the lesser ramifications of duty are marked out with correspondent precision. You shall find another man who is perpetually staggering among the different roads which invite him. His principles are unfixed and conflicting. He judges that to be right today which he condemned yesterday. In a thousand cases, therefore, he fails to accomplish the highest good, by vacillating as to what is required of him.
It is very evident, that a person thus diseased and debilitated in his moral character cannot be greatly independent. Such a man needs the support of numerous companions. His rule of duty is very much made up of the opinions of those around him. Hence he diligently gathers such opinions and anxiously craves them. As the judgment of fellow-creatures is in good measure the rule of his conduct, he trembles at the censures of mortals. Perhaps few of us have sufficiently considered how directly this servile weakness is connected with dim and confused views of duty. If anyone is continually trembling with suspense as to the right or wrong of actions, he will in the same degree set an undue value on public opinion, which may often cast into the balanced scale a preponderating weight. Throw light into the conscience of such a one; let the bounding demarcations of good and evil become sharp and obvious; let him see without a misgiving which way duty points; and thus far he begins to be what we justly denominate a man of principle. As when the mariner, after many days of cloud, at length obtains a clear noontide observation, ascertains his position, and is ready to dart off in the direction of his course; so the perplexed mind, when duty is made apparent, no longer needs to be in concern about the judgments of men.
Mere decision of character, taken in a worldly sense, is insufficient to produce this greatness of character. What is further needed is a clear commanding view of duty, as one and unalterable, to be the polestar in the heavens. It is therefore hard to overrate the importance of cultivating this distinct and unclouded apprehension of right and wrong, as a permanent mental habit. In order to attain this, we must be often thinking of moral questions, and settling principles before the hour of trial. In this likewise men widely differ. Happy is the youth who begins early to meditate on such subjects, and to clear his notions, as to what he ought to do in given emergencies. He will find the bracing influence of such views, in moments when all are shaking around him. Looking only at the principles of eternal right, he will go serenely forward, even in the face of adverse popular opinion. While weaker minds are halting, to collect the votes of the masses, he will bare his bosom to the shower of darts, and march up to the requisitions of conscience, in spite of the instant tyrant, or, what is often more formidable, of the turbulent populace.
To acquire settled and available decisions respecting duty, a man must determine every question as in the sight of God. Help is here afforded in the book of revelation. "The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes." So far as Scripture is law, it is given for the purpose of informing, directing, and strengthening the conscience. The study of God's word, for the purpose of discovering God's will, is the secret discipline which has formed the greatest characters—the Daniels, Pauls, Luthers—of the church. Listening here, rather than to the shifting voice of human opinion, we shall gain a robust principle altogether unknown to the world. But this clear discernment of duty will not fall to the share of him, who remains undetermined whether to practice that which he discerns. Therefore another means of acquiring Christian independence is now to be mentioned.
2. The second means of rising above undue regard for human judgments, is a determinate purpose to perform all known duty. This is just as much more valuable than the preceding, as practice is above speculation. A habitual disposition of the will to keep all God's holy commandments, will effectually carry a man above any sickly anxieties respecting the opinion which fellow-creatures may form of his actions. It is one thing to know what is required; and we have seen the knowledge to be vastly important; but it is a very different thing, to comply. Indeed it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit in the new creature. There is no more sure mark of discipleship than a solemn determination to fulfill all that is demanded by our righteous Master. "You are my friends," said Christ, "if you do whatever I command you." The resolution so to do is very strongly expressed by David—"I have sworn, and I will perform it, that I will keep your righteous judgments." Wicked men sometimes suppose that they are ready to do whatever God enjoins; but a careful examination of their lives and hearts will show that they daily and willingly break the law, in thought, word, and deed. As there is no sinless perfection in this life, even renewed people have an inward conflict, which is one of their chief trials. They find a law in their members warring against the law of their mind. Still they would do good, even when evil is present with them. Each can say, "So then with the mind I serve the law of God—but with the flesh the law of sin." It is this mind, or settled purpose to live in holy obedience, which we are now considering. Different Christians, and the same Christian at different times, are subject to marked variations, as to the intensity of this determination to do what is right. But wherever it prevails, it begets the holy independence which we are seeking.
This will become more clear if we look for a moment at the contrary temper. Here is a man of what may be considered general good intentions; a professor of piety, if you will—but one who halts and wavers in his obedience. His mind is not made up to surrender himself unreservedly to God. He is not quite sure that if the will of God were clearly revealed, he would have the heart to perform it. There are some questions of practice which he willingly leaves in the dark, afraid to examine too deeply what is duty in the case, lest upon trial, he should be revealed to himself as purposing to abide in known sin. Now, what we affirm is, that a man thus situated is in the right mood to become the slave of other men's opinions. He looks around for company and countenance in his irregularities and shortcomings. He catches at excuses for this or that indulgence, derived from the sentiments of those who know him. If some great and holy act of high decision is proposed, as, for instance, to deny some appetite; to become reconciled with an offending brother; to yield up some sacrifice to Christ; to bestow munificently upon the Lord's cause; to throw himself into some gospel labor—he has no freedom or boldness to go forward. His feet are bound; his hand is palsied. Every whisper of worldly professors which can excuse his delay is welcome to him; for he lacks that high resolve which would bear him triumphantly over all the surges of adverse opinion.
What a glow of healthful strength and liberty, on the other hand, is felt by one who has made it the law of his life to do what God ordains—at all hazards! His course is clear. What matters it to him whether man approves or disapproves? That which he seeks is not human approval—but the keeping of the commandments of God. When he has once discovered what his Master has required of him, all uncertainty is ended. He will advance to the performance, though all the world should rebuke him.
Cases occur in which one actually performs a duty—but at the expense of great inward pain and mortification, from the opposing judgments of friends. Now, such pain is relieved by the abiding consciousness of right. The voice of an approving conscience, uttered loudly in the bosom, overpowers and drowns all voices of rash censure. The reason, or one great reason, why we sometimes feel distress, even in the performance of right actions, is, that our purpose to risk all, for the sake of what is right has not risen to the proper degree.
This was felt by the apostle Paul at the time of his conversion. He might have said—"How is it possible for me to break forth at once as a preacher of Christianity? It is to incur the hatred or the scorn of all my nation, and the indignant censure of all my friends. Universal judgment is against me. To act thus is to incur the shame of a sudden unaccountable apostasy from my Jewish religious circle. I shall become a proverb and a name of reproach to all the scoffers in Israel." But how did he act? Hear his own words—"When it pleased God to reveal his Son in me, . . . . immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood." Gal. 1:15. His purpose was immovable, to do what was right, come what would.
This was in favorable contrast with the equivocation of Peter at Antioch (2:11), who ceased to eat with the Gentiles, when "certain men came from James;" and "separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision group, insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their hypocrisy." Let me say to my readers, if you would learn to consider the judgment of mortals a small thing, grow in your resolution to do all that God commands. Prefer it to honor; prefer it to pleasure; prefer it to life. It will be to you a perpetual commendation from the inward monitor; and the sweet testimony of a good conscience toward God and man will enable you to smile serenely, though all the world, and many who are named Christians, condemn and reproach you.
3. A principal means to prevent too high a regard for human censure, is the conviction that the judgments of men are insignificant. This is the precise import of Paul's words—"It is a very small thing that I should be judged of man's judgment." Here, my brethren, is the very point. This is the persuasion which we need to have deeply engraved on our minds. The reason why we are concerned and shaken by man's judgment, is because we consider it a great thing, when in reality it is contemptibly small, as I now proceed to show.
There is, perhaps, not one of our known actions which is not brought into review by some of our fellow-creatures—a self-constituted investigation for this purpose. The more elevated the person, the more public his sphere, the larger will be the number of his judges. Thus, when any great man is named for high office, how are his secret things sought out; how is his private life brought into review; how bitter, malignant, false, and foolish, are the awards of over-heated partisans on one side and the other! But no one of us is so humble as to escape. The very beggar at our doors, probably, stands in awe of some tribunal among his mendicant acquaintances, which sits in judgment on his acts.
We must realize that human judgments may be disregarded, because they are passing away. Nothing is more transient. They last but a moment. They are a breeze, which lulls or changes as soon as it is observed. Let wisdom teach you not to observe it at all. "All flesh is grass," and each generation of man is rapidly passing from time into eternity. But long before the people depart, their judgments have ceased and been forgotten. Why should we be wounded or hindered by a breath that fleets away?
Again, human judgments cannot really effect us. They amount to nothing. They are arrows which do not reach us, except so far as we put ourselves in their way. The opinion of other men, of all men together, upon our actions and character, need not weigh a feather with us, except so far as they coincide with the decree of reason and conscience. They do not affect our happiness; they cannot reach the inward man. To tremble at them, or to shrink from duty on account of them, or to go haltingly and timorously on with duty from morbid regard to them, is to flee from a shaking leaf, and to turn pale at a shadow.
The judgments of men are, furthermore, in a great number of instances, pronounced with small opportunity for arriving at the truth.All are not wise who assume the censor's chair. Foolish and ignorant people are apt to be most forward in venting their hasty conclusions, and these utterances go to form what is called public opinion. Wretched is the man who waits and hearkens for this, to guide his practice, or as if anything depended on it. Man's judgment is very small, when we look at the authority possessed by those who claim to judge.
There is hardly any part of a weak and yielding man's character, for which he can make less reasonable apology than his deference to the opinion of men. Their words concerning him, and their rash judgments of him, are prompted in many instances by prejudice and malignant feelings. They often utter more disapprobation than they feel—and as often disapprove from some secret spite, or ignoble grudge. If we are to be pained, harassed, and obstructed in our course by the voices around us, we thereby put our happiness and our very usefulness at the mercy of our enemies and the enemies of truth.
Human judgments are of small moment, because they are conflicting among themselves.Ancient fable might teach us that no line of conduct will certainly please everyone. The path of wisdom is to be regulated, therefore, without regard to the pleasing of men. "If I please men," says Paul, "I would not be the servant of Christ." Act as you will, some will be displeased. And no marvel; for as has been well said—how can we expect to please men, who are displeased with God, and frequently displeased with themselves? The purity of an angel would not escape the tongues of those who denounced John the Baptist as a demoniac, and the Son of God as a drunkard. Surely it is not from the verdict of such a world, that we are to judge of our own actions. These very opinions are changeable as the moon, and they will condemn and acquit the same conduct, almost in the same breath.
But, above all,we must learn to undervalue man's judgments, when we consider how often they are erroneous, false, and displeasing to God. Human eyes penetrate but a little way. Man judges according to the outward appearance. We have only to look at what the world approves and disapproves, for a single day, to see that their opinions are fallible, blind, and presumptuous. As well might we take our bearings from clouds or meteors, as regulate our conduct by the opinions of men. And no one will ever attain to any true greatness of character, until he comes to leave man's opinions absolutely out of view, in shaping his course through life.
From earliest youth, all people should be trained to look higher, and to settle questions of duty, on fixed moral principles, without recourse to these fallacious opinions of men. Let a man take this lofty view of duty, which becomes a Christian, and he will no longer shudder when he finds his best actions exposed to ridicule. Those who are God's enemies will also be his enemies—so far as he resembles God. He will remember the blessing pronounced on those of whom all manner of evil is spoken falsely; and the woe uttered against professors of whom all men speak well.
It is painful—but unavoidable, to add thatthe opinion even of fellow-Christians is not to be taken as our rule. To his beloved Corinthians, Paul says, "With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you." Good men may pass wrong judgments. From ignorance of facts and circumstances, from inattention, haste, or false report, from unsound thinking, from bias, from self-interest, from passion, from remaining unsanctified tempers—even believers may judge us amiss. Their opinion has not been made our rule. Sometimes we may be called upon to perform acts which even our beloved Christian brethren disapprove. This is one of the sorest trials of an honest and affectionate mind. In such circumstances we must remember the saying of the excellent Halyburton, that though God has promised to guide his inquiring child in the way that is right, he has nowhere promised to make this way seem right to friends and neighbors. Yet if a man's ways please the Lord, he will, generally speaking, cause even his enemies to be at peace with him. Viewed, then, in every light, the judgments of men concerning our conduct do not seem worthy of being taken into the account. And it should be the lesson of our life, to grow into a holy independence of every judgment which has not the sanction of conscience and of God.
The last and principal means of living in disregard of man's judgment, is to keep in view the solemn judgment of God. That this was before the apostle's mind, in the case cited, is sufficiently manifest. "With me," says he, "it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, as of man's judgment; yes, I judge not my own self," that is, it is no self-approbation or self-condemnation which can carry authority with it. "For I know nothing against myself; yet am I not hereby justified—but he that judges me is the Lord." This is the controlling consideration.
The opinions of poor, frail, erring, dying man, whose breath is in his nostrils, is nothing, is less than nothing and vanity—when I come to regard the great Omniscient Judge of the Universe. The honor which comes from men, and which some are found willing to fight for and die for—what is it, compared with the honor that comes from God only? Suppose men condemn me, and cast out my name as evil, yes, suppose all men unite to censure and reprobate me! What should this matter to me—if He who sits in the heavens looks down with approval? This, my brethren, is the only true ground to take, in regard to the regulation of our conduct—to do all, as in the immediate presence of God and as subject to his censure or approval. In his balances all our acts are weighed. Each word, each thought, as it rises into existence, is evaluated by him who is All-wise and All-holy. To live under the knowledge of this truth—will elevate and purify the character. How serenely, how loftily may a true Christian go on in the performance of some distasteful or unpopular duty, if he can say with assurance, "I know that the eye of my God looks down with approbation on what I am doing." This sustained Paul, and has sustained God's most faithful servants in every age—the thought and assurance of God as ever sitting in judgment upon every act.
The day is coming, very soon, when all the judgments of men, which now give you such great concern, shall be blotted out, as clouds of the morning or turbid dreams of feverish delirium; and when you will be transfixed by contemplating the righteous, final, incontrovertible doom of the All-seeing and Almighty Jehovah! In those moments when you feel yourselves in danger of being unduly moved by human opinion, let your attentive thoughts hurry forwards to the time—behold it is at the door—when the trumpet shall sound, the globe shall tremble in the mighty hand of Him who made it, the graves and seas shall render up their dead, the throne shall be set, and the books shall be opened. The Son of Man shall come in his glory and all the holy angels with him, and shall sit upon the throne of his glory; when all nations shall be gathered before him, and be separated on his right hand and his left; and when, in your presence, in your hearing, and addressing himself to you, he shall utter one of these solemn sentences—"Come, you who are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world!" OR, "Depart from me, you cursed one, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels!"
At that solemn juncture, which assuredly awaits you, at what value, do you think, will you hold the decisions of fellow-worms upon your conduct? With what degree of delight will you look back upon the servile compliances, the shrinkings from duty, the doubtful indulgences, the worldly conformities—into which you have been tempted by regard for human approbation or censure? This, this—believe me—is the great commanding motive, which ought to keep you upright, amidst the conflicting voices of popular judgment and opinion. Let your souls be absorbed by the righteous, inflexible, eternal judgment of God. Fear God more—and you will fear man less.
And, in regard to your judging of others, be instructed by the words of the apostle, and "judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts—and then shall every man have praise of God."
And O you, who have been the slaves of human opinion, and have done all your works to be seen by others—what shall it profit you to have had the acclamations of the multitude, if, when driven away in utter nakedness and arraigned before the tribunal from which there is no appeal—you feel the eye of God piercing you to the heart, and the frown of God withering your disconsolate spirit! All things earthly are tending towards that solemn consummation. All our days are preparing materials for the great and final judgement of "that day." And alas! how unprepared are some who read these words, for that appearance before God! Can it be possible that we remain unconcerned, when no voice has yet assured us whether the Judge shall place us on his right hand or his left? Yet on one or the other, must you and I speedily stand! The time is short! The days are hastening! The sands in the hour-glass are falling! The doom is impending! "What do you mean, O sleeper? Arise, call on your God!"
And I am bound, before I close, to declare, that no strength of bare human resolution, no philosophical dignity, no self-righteous purpose, will avail to produce this independent elevation of character. There must be an operation which shall reach to the inward sources of action, with revolutionary, life-changing power. You must be born again. You must be at peace with God.
What is imperatively demanded, is not merely new views—but a new nature. In which I find a mighty argument with which I may urge every reader, as here I do—to seek true vital piety, and to seek it without delay. Then—when the Holy Spirit shall take your heart into his molding hand—you will be delivered from the mortifying experience of base indecision, truckling to the demands of the world, broken resolutions, and a violated conscience.
Christian brethren, let it be our daily prayer that we may cease from man, whose breath is in his nostrils, and look to God as the Judge that always stands at the door. "Therefore, my beloved brethren—be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord."