From Death unto Life
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1858
The prayer-meeting excitement was over for the day, and Mr. Lyon, who had returned to his family, was feeling the pressure of old states, and the jar of old discordant conditions of life. Mrs. Lyon was weary with her day's work, and manifested an unusual degree of impatience, especially towards the children, whose tempers were altogether out of harmony.
The transition from a prayer-meeting, in which the soul rises into states of ecstasy, or sinks into an almost pulseless tranquility — to an ill-regulated home, where selfish feelings struggle for the mastery, and discord jars the heart at every pulsation — is very great, and presents one of the strongest trials of a man's religions feelings. He who can meet this change, and yet possess his soul in peace, has, indeed, gained large accessions of spiritual life. There are not many who can pass through the trial unmoved.
"Thank God! Another soul has passed from death unto life!" said a pious brother, as he wrung the hand of Mr. Lyon, on parting with him at the door of the room where the daily prayer-meeting was held. "I greet you as an heir of the Kingdom! You have a goodly heritage. Let me exhort you to stand fast in the faith."
"I have been near the gate of Heaven," Mr. Lyon spoke in a subdued tone, and with a smile of peace on his countenance. "I could almost hear angelic voices — almost see the white garments of the shining ones. Oh, the bliss of Heaven! I feel as if I would like to pass upwards, now, to my rest, and be received into the company of saints and martyrs."
"You speak from the warmth of a first love — that is sweeter than honey and the honey-comb," answered the brother. "But we must fight, if we would reign; and you must pray with the poet: "Only they who bear the cross, can wear the crown."
A little confused were the feelings of Mr. Lyon, by these words of the brother, and he moved on his way homeward, in a less ecstatic frame of mind.
"From death unto life!" The language of congratulation still lingered in his ears. "What death? "What life?" These questions a little disturbed him, for the answer was not prompt and clear.
"Born into spiritual life. Born a new creature in God." He uttered the words, mentally, with some firmness, as if to settle the question decisively. But he was not satisfied.
"What is spiritual life? What is a new creature in God? Language that involves such vast concerns can have no vague significance."
Instead of gaining light, the mind of our friend passed into a region of clouds and shadows. He was in this state when he arrived at home. It was just after twilight.
"There now! Father's come!" It was the voice of one of his children, and the tones had in them a threat and a warning.
"I don't care," was the rough, defiant answer.
"He'll make you care!"
"No he won't!"
"John! Robert! Stop this instant!" It was the mother's voice, shrill and jarring. "I won't have your perpetual contention in the house." At this moment, Mrs. Lyon saw her husband; and she went on: "If your father doesn't do something to put an end to this quarreling, I'll go off somewhere. I'd rather live in Bedlam!"
What a transition for the young convert! What a fiery test of his new life! The tranquil movement of his sweet emotions was checked, and all the elements of holy feeling shocked by the sudden jar.
"John! Robert!" Mr. Lyon spoke angrily, for it was as if a sharp spear had pricked him. And he moved towards the boys with an uplifted hand.
"From death unto life." Was it a mocking fiend, or a loving angel — who flung the words into his mind? No matter. The ministry was good. The excited father checked himself, and his hand fell, nerveless, by his side.
"John," he spoke now more in sorrow than in anger — go into the sitting-room, and you, Robert, remain here. Children who quarrel must be kept apart."
The boys looked curiously at their father, and John obeyed with unusual promptness. There was a new power in Mr. Lyon's voice which left no motion of resistance in the lad's mind.
"Did you order that sugar and butter sent home, as I told you? It hasn't come."
Mrs. Lyon spoke fretfully, and looked at her husband with contracting brows.
"No! I declare — I forgot all about it!" answered the husband.
"Forgot! Humph! Well, I can tell you; if you want butter on your bread, and sugar in your tea — then you've got to go after them now!"
Mr. Lyon was not, naturally, of a very amiable disposition, and had never taken, with a good grace, any harsh statements of this kind; so the temptation to answer in as bad a spirit, was instant and almost overpowering."
"From death unto life." The thought was just in season. He did not speak, but turned from his companion, and, taking up his hat, went out. In about ten minutes, he came back with the needed articles.
"You might have saved yourself that trouble!" almost growled Mrs. Lyon. Now, this was too bad; and the repressed feelings of her husband came near blazing out. But, he remembered the prayer-meetings, and his profession, and so strove manfully with the enemies of his peace, which were rushing down upon him like a flood.
At supper time, there was little else but discord. The children were, as usual — restless, dissatisfied, and contentious; and their overtried mother — weary in heart and limb — as fretful as she could be. Nor did Mr. Lyon succeed in keeping his own feelings all the while in check. More than once, the inward pressure proved too strong for the outward resistance; and words were said, and acts done, which were not in harmony with Christian patience.
It is not surprising, that tempting spirits seized upon these occasions, to throw doubt into the young convert's mind, and to suggest that religion was but a cunningly devised fable, and professors only self-deceived, or hypocrites. But there were remains of heavenly truths and holy states, stored up in his mind by a good mother, in the innocent days of childhood and youth — and these were now convictions that no fallacious argument, or false suggestions, could obliterate. Mr. Lyon knew that there was such a thing as spiritual life, and that, when it was born in a human soul, it had power to hold all Hell in subjection. And so, though despised, sad and discouraged — he did not abandon the ground he had taken.
After the supper things were removed, the children in bed, the sitting room put in order, and the lamp placed on the center table, near which Mrs. Lyon sat down with her basket of work, the quieter sphere of the room gave opportunity for the feelings of Mr. Lyon to subside into a more tranquil state. He took the unused family Bible, and laying it upon the center table, opened it, and after turning over the leaves, commenced reading a chapter aloud.
Mrs. Lyon looked up at her husband curiously, when she saw him take up the family Bible and bring it to the table at which she was sitting. "What does this mean?" she said to herself. When he commenced reading, curiosity gave way to surprise. Mr. Lyon read in a low, impressive voice, the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of Matthew, that portion of the Divine Word which is so full of incentives to right living. As he read, the precepts of Him who spoke as never man spoke, sank deeply into the hearts of the husband and wife. Into the heart of the husband, because, like a thirsty traveler in a burning desert, he was in search of living waters — into the heart of his wife, because the very novelty of the occasion gave her mind a certain degree of preparation.
After reading these three chapters, Mr. Lyon sat silent and thoughtful for some time.
"There is one thing very certain," said he, at length, "if any man wishes to get to Heaven — he must live right in the world."
Mr. Lyon did not address these words to his wife, but uttered them as if speaking to himself. She said nothing, and he remained with his eyes upon the floor.
"Mary." Mrs. Lyon glanced across the table, and met the gaze of her husband. The tone of his voice, and the expression of his eyes, were perceived by her as altogether different from anything she had before observed.
"Mary, I was at a prayer-meeting this afternoon."
"Were you?" Mrs. Lyon seemed interested.
"Yes, Mary." The firmness of tone gave way to a perceptible tremor. "And I think — or hope — that I am a changed man."
A flush of sudden feeling came warmly over the face of Mrs. Lyon.
"Life in this world is short, at best, and very uncertain, Mary, and to make timely preparation for the next world, is only the dictate of common prudence."
Mrs. Lyon was wholly unprepared for this, and, therefore, her mind was thrown into some confusion. But having broken the ice, so to speak, her husband regained his self-possession, as well as mental clearness. Meeting with no response, he continued:
"I think, Mary, that I am entirely in earnest about this matter. I wish to lead a holy life."
Now, Mrs. Lyon had received early religious instruction; and up to the time of her marriage, had been a regular attendant at church. Since her marriage, in consequence of her husband's indifference to spiritual things, she had fallen into a like neglect with him. It was rarely that she attended worship; and her children were growing up with but few good impressions. Many times had she thought of this; and when early states of mind returned, and she contrasted her own childhood with that of her little ones — painful condemnation would oppress her spirit. "But what can I do?" she would sometimes say to herself. "My husband has no regard for religion." It was but an excuse — yet the excuse prevailed. No wonder this unlooked for announcement bewildered her. She did not answer still; but as Mr. Lyon looked into her eyes, he saw tears filling into them.
"Shall we walk on in this better way, side by side, Mary?" Mr. Lyon spoke with great tenderness, reaching his hand across the table towards the hand of his wife. There was an eager assenting clasp — a sudden bowing of the head — and a rain of tears.
"God helping us, we will lead a new life," said Mr. Lyon, breaking in, at last, upon the deep silence.
"There is no help, but in Him." Mrs. Lyon looked up, the light of a new hope shining through her tears. "And as I say this," she added, "I remember the words of a preacher, uttered many years ago. They were, 'In every good desire God is present, and into every good purpose He flows with strength.' Not in our own strength can we walk in this new way — for it is a heavenly way, and human power is but weakness there. For a divine life — there must be divine strength — and this is the gift of God alone.
Mr. Lyon looked into the face of his wife, wonderingly, as she talked.
"I did not know, Mary, that you had religious views like these," he said. "I thought you were wholly indifferent on the subject."
"No, Henry, not indifferent by any means," she answered, with much earnestness. "My mother was a pious woman, and talked with me about God and Heaven, and Christian duty, always. But you never seemed to care about these things; and, gradually, I have fallen into coldness. It seemed to me that the way was too narrow and difficult to walk in alone; and so, I have allowed myself to take the broad, and what appeared the easier, road through the world. But it has not been an easy way in any respect. Something is always going wrong, and the ground I tread upon each day is rough or miry, though, when seen a little in the distance, it looked smooth and firm as a well-beaten path. I am sadly conscious of a steadily growing moral deterioration. I am not as patient, and hopeful, as forbearing and self-denying — as I once was. My temper is less under control. I have wicked, revengeful, and rebellions thoughts. And, most of the time, I am very unhappy. Oh, dear! I shudder often at the image of myself, which seems held up before me as in a mirror. God help me, Henry! I am at times, almost in despair!"
And Mrs. Lyon hid her face in her hands, and wept violently.
"Let me repeat your own words, dear Mary," said her husband. "'For a divine life — there must be divine strength; and this is the gift of God alone.' Shall we not pray for it here, and now? His words are, Ask, and you shall receive. Seek, and you shall find. Knock, and it shall he opened unto you."
"Here, and now," was the low-murmured answer of Mrs. Lyon.
And so they knelt there together, in this first consecration of themselves; and the husband prayed aloud for wisdom to see the right way, and strength to walk therein.
When they arose from prayer, a deep tranquility had settled upon their spirits, and their minds seemed elevated into a clearer-seeing region. From the gloom of despondency; they had passed into the light of heavenly confidence.
"The language of divine truth is exceedingly plain," said Mr. Lyon, as they sat together. "Ask, and you shall receive. We have asked of our Father in Heaven to teach us how to live aright — and he will teach us; and lead us in true paths — if we submit as little children. For this we have a thousand assurances, scattered everywhere through the Bible."
"Yes, everywhere," was the subdued answer. "And memory is pointing to precious texts written down upon its tablets long ago. 'Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' Does not this seem as if spoken to us now, Henry? It was printed on the first paper I received in Sunday-school, and is as fresh in my thought now as then. Oh! is it not full of comfort and hope? 'Come unto me — and I will give you rest.' There is no qualification; no discrimination. All who labor and are heavy laden."
"God has changed our hearts," said Mr. Lyon, warming into enthusiasm. We have passed from death into life. We are dead to sin, and alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Blessed be God for His divine grace, which cleanses from all defilements!"
"From death unto life?" Mrs. Lyon looked almost soberly into her husband's face.
"Is it not so?" he questioned. "Dead to sin, and alive to righteousness?"
"God grant that it may be so," was the quiet answer. But the hard duties of life are before us, Henry; and more — " She paused, with almost a sad countenance.
"More? Say on, Mary."
"We may be dead to sin. I pray Heaven that it be so. But, whatever of new life may be born within us from God, must be as feeble as the babe's life. And, with only this feeble life to sustain us — we have to do battle with the strong man of evil."
"But God is on our side. In His strength, we can overcome all our enemies," said Mr. Lyon.
"If we will but look to Him in the hour of temptation."
"We must — we must. There is no other hope." Mr. Lyon's enthusiasm was dying down. He saw that there was not only work, but a battle before them, and that they must toil and fight, if they would come off victorious.
On the next morning, the calm, sober, earnest manner of Mr. and Mrs. Lyon had a marked effect upon their badly trained children, who at once observed the change, and waited, curiously, to see just what it meant.
"Will you hand me the Bible, Mary?" said Mr. Lyon, speaking to his wife, as she came into the room where he was sitting with the children, to say that breakfast was ready.
She looked at him for a moment, almost wonderingly, and then, with an assenting smile, lifted the family Bible from a stand, and placing it before him, sat down by his side. The children gazed, curiously, at both their father and mother, and waited in silence for what was to succeed. A chapter was read, in a low, serious voice. Then the father and mother knelt down, and the children did likewise. The prayer was brief, just covering the needs and experience of the petitioner. There were no vain words, nor any pompous phraseology; but a humble directness, which showed an earnest heart.
For the first time in months, Mr. and Mrs. Lyon enjoyed a quiet, orderly meal. The effect of this unlooked-for act of worship, was to subdue the children's minds, as well as to excite their curiosity; and as the parents maintained a calm, rather sober demeanor, they yielded to the new influence, and took an altogether improved exterior.
"There is a wonderful power in divine grace," said Mr. Lyon, as he was parting with his wife, after breakfast. "It has subdued even these ungovernable children." He spoke with a glow of enthusiasm.
Mrs. Lyon did not respond; but looked into his face earnestly, and with eyes that had in them a shade of sadness.
"Is the whispering Doubter already at your ear, Mary?" The husband spoke almost in reproof.
"It is he who overcomes, who shall not be hurt of the second death," said Mrs. Lyon.
"Through God strengthening me, I can do all things." Mr. Lyon spoke with renewed enthusiasm.
A faint smile went over the face of his wife.
"Is it not so? Have we not the sure word of promise?"
"Yes, and I believe it," was the low, sober, almost sad response.
"Then why are you cast down, Mary? Have faith in God. Trust him — look to him. He is stronger than all our enemies."
"All this is well to be said, Henry; for it is true, and gives strength and hope. But Christian graces are given, not as ornaments — but as tools for work, and armor for battle. Religion is life — that is, a good life; and the life cannot be good, unless the acts are good. And now abides faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. Faith is idle, and hope vain — unless they subside in love. So I read the divine law."
"Look up, Mary. Pray for strength — pray without ceasing," said Mr. Lyon encouragingly. "God will give you strength for duty."
"I must watch, and work, and guard — as well as pray," was answered. "There will be sudden assaults upon my patience, and untimely demands on my discretion. In a moment of weariness, or exhaustion — sharp provocations to anger will come. When thought acts feebly, because both mind and body are overstrained, there will arise some pressing need for wisdom and prudence. Can I hope always to be patient and discreet, wise and prudent? No, Henry; that is impossible. But, God helping me, I will do my best. I cannot rise into these new-born ecstasies. I do not see the Christian life as one of undiminished sunshine and heavenly tranquility. There must be conquest, before smiling peace is born; there must be night, before the glad morning breaks; there must be labor, before rest. Well done, good and faithful servant, are the words of welcome into Heaven."
"God will help you, Mary," was Mr. Lyon's softened reply. "I see that you are indeed in earnest; that you mean to begin right. Let me say this to encourage you — it comes but now into my thought. After every conquest — will come a state of peace; after every night of fear and doubt — a sunny morning; after every period of labor — rest. And so, with the daily trial — will come the daily blessing."
"Thank you, dear husband," said Mrs. Lyon, a gleam of light shooting across her face; "I needed that just now. I see clearer. Now I feel a higher strength."
They parted for the day. "We cannot follow them through its varied scenes, nor show how their new-born faith was tried. They had helped each other by mutual suggestions, and did not, therefore, go into the new life-battle with any vain confidence. If God gave the power to fight against evil, they saw that they must use it as if it were their own; that a change of purpose was not a change in any of the laws of the soul's being. The individual must overcome — if he would triumph. All that God did for him was to supply armor, a sword, and strength. Beyond that, all rested with himself. There was hope for them; as there is for all who see the way clearly, and are in earnest to walk therein.
Not light had been the trials, nor feeble the assaults of evil, which Mr. Lyon endured through the day, and when he turned his steps homeward at its close, he was in a soberer mood than when he left the prayer-meeting on the evening before. Husband and wife looked into each other's faces earnestly when they met. Faint smiles, which soon faded, played about their quiet lips. But there were deep meanings in their eyes, which seemed to have grown clearer and calmer. Mr. Lyon did not find a storm when he arrived at home, nor even the evidences of a storm. Instead of being engaged in quarreling, John was doing something for his mother, and Robert sat reading. There was an unusual stillness in the house, and evidences of a new order of things all around. A neater set tea-table he had not seen for a long time, than the one he found in the little dining-room, nor had his food tasted so sweet for years.
After the children were in bed, and the father and mother were alone together again, Mr. Lyon leaned across the little center-table on which the lamp had been placed, and looked steadily into the face of his wife, who sat on the other side.
"How has the day passed, Mary?" he asked.
Mrs. Lyon did not smile, as she looked up and met her husband's eyes.
"Better than I had hoped; yet I cannot say well," she answered, soberly.
"I can see the evidences of a great and a good work, well begun," was the encouraging answer of Mr. Lyon. "How singularly quiet and readily obedient the children were. The mother's hand is in this."
"You have seen them in their best condition," Mrs. Lyon replied. "It has not been so through all the day. I have had to watch them with the closest care, and to judge of them and between them, when it seemed as if my over-tried spirit was losing its power to see and to act. I have learned one good lesson in the trial. There must be self-control and self-conquest — before we can hope to subdue evil in others. Just in the degree that I was able to control myself — was I able to govern the children, and to subdue them to my will. But, if I spoke with the slightest sign of anger, my words seemed lost in the empty air."
"Then there has been a double victory over the powers of evil," said Mr. Lyon, with a smile of pleasure glowing in his face. "A victory on the battlefield of your own heart, and a victory in the strife with our children."
"I can scarcely call it a victory in my own case," was answered. "I was only not driven from the field."
It was a long time since, in the eyes of Mr. Lyon, the face of his wife had worn an aspect so pleasing as now. He gazed upon it in almost loving wonder.
"Are you discouraged, Mary?" he asked.
"Discouraged? Oh, no!" Her countenance brightened suddenly. "Do you think I have forgotten the hopeful sentence you gave me this morning? 'After every conquest — will come a state of peace; after every night of doubt and fear — a sunny morning; after every period of labor — rest. And so, with the daily trial — will come the daily blessing.' No, no; and now, dear husband! after this brief period of strife, darkness, and labor — I have a measure of tranquility, light, and rest. The daily trial is past, and I have the blessing."
"And the blessing is worth all that it has cost," said Mr. Lyon.
"Ah, and more than all," she quickly answered. "This, Henry, is, indeed, the better way, and my heart is full of thankfulness, that our feet have turned aside and entered its narrow bounds. And it is easier to walk herein, than I had believed. "We have but to make the effort to move forward — and God gives instant strength. The lion standing with fierce aspect a little in the distance, terrifies us with his threatening roar; but as we approach, putting our confidence in God, we see the chain which holds him, powerless for harm. If some enemy to our peace makes a sudden and malignant assault, we have but to lift the sword-bearing arm, and more than a giant's strength flows in from Heaven. It is not a vain thing to put our trust in God. But, tell me of your day's experiences, Henry. How has this new life sustained you?"
The eyes of Mr. Lyon fell slowly to the floor — a shadow dimmed his face; a sigh troubled his bosom.
"I am afraid, Mary," he answered, after some moments, "that, but, for your more practical view of this question of religion, I would be lower down in the valley of discouragement than I am now. I came home last evening, in a kind of ecstatic condition of mind, and with only vague notions concerning the new life I had resolved to lead. The first shock of our disorderly home, staggered me. The transition of feeling was from glowing heat — to sudden cold. I was bewildered, and, for a time, in almost hopeless discouragement.
"But, I was really in earnest, and, following the way on which fell some feeble gleams of light, and acting upon some new-born impulses from God, I compelled myself to open the long unused Bible, and to read aloud, not knowing how you would act, or what you would say. Oh, Mary! When you turned to me in the right spirit — my heart leaped upwards, as if a crushing weight had been suddenly removed! Then, as we conversed, I found your perceptions going right down to the bottom of the whole question of religion, as a matter of self-conquest and right living; and you lifted my reason up into just conclusion. So we helped, and encouraged one another. I saw, that, if indeed, I had passed, as some say, from death unto life, I was not a strong man — but an almost helpless infant; and that growth and development were as necessary to my spiritual manhood, as to the manhood of natural and rational life.
"All day long I have been thinking over that matter of the new birth, Mary, and I am sure, taking the experiences of this day as conclusive on the subject, that, but for the help you afforded me last night, I would have given way to overwhelming doubts. I found, when any evil allurement came — that the evil desire was not extinguished; only, that a desire for the opposite good was born.
"If you had not helped me to think of the new birth as only the first beginning of a spiritual state, I would have, I fear, abandoned all as a delusion. For, if I were really a new creature in Christ Jesus — if I had passed from death unto life — taking these things in their broader meanings — how could I still have evil desires? But light came, and strength with light. If good impulses were very feeble, yet, when I looked up, and made an effort to do right — help came. Sometimes I was taken off my guard, and stricken down in a moment. But, at that point I placed a sentinel. So you see that I have been at work in good earnest — though little has been done. I do not feel greatly encouraged; and yet, hope rests on a strong foundation. Reason appreciates and judgment approves the mode Christian living, which seem to me like steps towards a mountain height, or ascending spirals, gradually bearing the soul upwards to Heaven."
"His Word," said Mrs. Lyon, reverently, as her husband paused, "shall be a lamp unto our feet, and a light unto our path. I think we have begun right. God sees the desire of our hearts — and will give us the needed strength in every time of trial. We will look to him in prayer, and in his Holy Word; and he will not hide from us the light of his countenance. Your day's experience is like my own; and if in anything I happened to say, you found strength, I must own that, from your fitly spoken suggestions, came to me a world of aid and comfort. Without them, I think I must have fallen by the way."
How much depends on a right beginning! We see it in this single day's experience of two who had resolved to lead a holy life — a life, not of mere feeling, but of doing. Not of pious acts and the formal worship of the sanctuary alone — but a life of daily self-denial and good deeds. They had begun right, adding, to prayer and faith, effort — meeting temptation with the armor on, and battling for the victory. They had indeed, passed from death unto life; and though only yet, as it were, babes in Christ, the first fruits of the new birth were plainly visible. Of such is the kingdom of Heaven.
Few of those who begin the Christian pilgrimage in a like spirit, ever turn aside, or go back again into their old ways. Every step is an advance in the Christian life; every strife with the powers of Hell gives strength or victory; every night of temptation, but precedes the surely coming dawn of a brighter day. Religion, to be of any real use to a man, must come down into all his daily duties, and regulate his actions by the divine standard — God's Word. It must make him patient, thoughtful of others, self-denying, watchful against evil, and, above all, just in even the smallest things, towards his fellow-man. For, no matter how externally pious a man may be; no matter how faithfully he may attend upon the ordinances of the church; if he loves not his neighbor, he cannot have God's love in his heart, and all who think and act differently — are yielding to a fatal delusion.