If I Were Only in Heaven
By Timothy Shay Arthur, 1868
"If I were only in Heaven!"
There are few mortal lips from which these words, or something equivalent to them, have not fallen in hours of pain, sorrow, or disappointment — when hope in the world grew faint, and the old foundations of happiness seemed crumbling into ruin.
"If I were only in Heaven!" The words came sighing through pale lips. "And you expect to go there?" The tone in which this was said expressed a doubt.
"We all expect to reach Heaven at last. God is merciful."
"He is good to all, and kind even to the unthankful and evil. But what is Heaven? Three times, within a few days, I have heard you wish yourself there."
"Heaven is a place of happiness; there are no tears there; no sorrow; no pain; no cruel disappointments, nor heart-rending separations. Heaven is Heaven. The very word is full of signification."
"And you expect to go there?"
A second time was this uttered, and now the doubt it expressed quickened in the mind of the complainer, a feeling that was rather more of earth than Heaven.
"You seem to question my fitness," she said, with just a shadow of indignation in her voice.
"Far be it from me to judge the state of anyone. God alone knows the hearts of people."
"And still, you ask, in a doubting way, if I expect to go to Heaven when I die."
"To a place of happiness, which lies in the far distance, and towards which we sail through life as mariners on a perilous voyage?"
"Yes, the haven of felicity."
"Where you trust to moor your time-worn bark when the stormy ocean is crossed?"
"Yes, trusting in God's mercy."
"I'm afraid you will be disappointed," said she who had assumed the office of monitor.
The pale cheek of the complainer flushed, and her sad eyes threw out some rays of light which gleamed from an earth-enkindled fire.
"Heaven is not in the far distance," continued her friend. "We do not reach it at the end of our earthly journey. We must enter long, long before that time, or its sweet rest and peace can never be ours. And we are in Heaven — when our souls are filled with heavenly affections. This infilling of the soul takes place on earth; and thus we enter. We must have some of the joys of Heaven here — or we cannot receive its fuller delights when mortal puts on immortality. The life of Heaven must be born in us in time — or it cannot be developed in eternity. Your present state, my dear friend, is not one of preparation for that paradise towards which your eyes stretch so longingly, but one of self-affliction and vain repinings. You are closing your heart to heavenly influences, instead of opening it to their reception. I speak plainly, for you have all at stake."
The flush faded from the complainer's cheeks; her eyes lost the sudden brightness which had gleamed out upon her friend; and she sat silently pondering this strange language — strange to her — while a shadow of fear crept into her heart. Were her hopes of Heaven resting, indeed, on so sandy a foundation? Was she vainly looking beyond the darkness in which she sat, to a world of brightness and beauty? Would there be no Heaven for her to enter, when the weary burden of life was laid down? The questions crowded upon her.
"Come out from beneath the shadows with which you have surrounded yourself," said the friend, "and enjoy the cheerful sunlight. Instead of idly longing for a Heaven that lies afar off — receive Heaven in your heart, in the delight that flows in with all good deeds. Be a worker in the vineyard of your Lord — not a weak repiner; a faithful servant — not a talent-hider. Those who are entering Heaven, grow more and more peaceful in spirit; more and more resigned to the Father's will; more and more willing to work and wait in patient hope. Instead of wishing themselves in Heaven, as a place of rest afar off, they are daily tasting of its sweet felicity."
"You take away the foundations on which my feet have rested. You scatter my hopes to the wind. I have looked to you for consolation, but you have none to offer."
"If I have broken the foundations on which your feet rested, it is that you may plant them more surely on the Rock of Ages. If I have scattered vain hopes to the wind, it is in order that living hopes may spring up in your heart. If you have looked to me for consolation, and found it not, then, I beg you, look higher; even unto Him who says, 'Come unto Me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.'"
"But my heart is crushed. I have no strength; no hope in life; all that I held dear has departed; and I have only wished to die and be at peace."
"There are other crushed hearts; others without hope; others from whom all the dear ones have departed. Think of them, and of their loneliness and suffering instead of your own; and as pity comes into your heart, think whether it is in your power or not to ease a pain; to send a ray of comfort into a mind sitting in darkness; to speak a word that may reach the mourner with consolation. God is the great Comforter, but he acts through men in his ministrations of good, thus making his blessings double. Those who act with him, are partakers in the peace, joy, and consolation that flow through them, and are thus received into Heaven — while, as to the body, they are still in the world of nature."
For a while after this plain-talking friend had left, the lady sat in her usual place in the dim, closely-curtained room, where most of her time was spent. But the truths which had been uttered in her ears, did not pass as the idle winds. She dwelt on them, pondering their scope and meaning, and seeing them in clearer and clearer light. But states of feeling soon turn our thoughts in their own direction. It was not long before she was musing on her unhappy condition, and in the weariness of life that came back upon her, she murmured the oft-repeated words —
"Oh, if I were only in Heaven! If I could only die and be at peace!"
Then came back the suggestions of her friend; and with such a force of conviction that she clasped her hands together, and rising up, moved in some agitation of mind about the room. As she did so, the thought of a poor sick woman in the neighborhood came into her mind. She had heard of her serious illness on the day before, but let the news pass with only a word of pity. It did not once occur that she ought to go, or send to the woman's relief. Now the thought of her came with a suggestion of duty, and acting upon that suggestion, she rang the bell.
"Mary," she said, as a servant came in to answer to her bell, "have you heard from Mrs. Ellis today?"
"Yes, ma'am," was replied.
"How is she?"
"Very sick, ma'am, they say."
"What ails her?"
"Pleurisy, I think, ma'am."
"Have you been over to see her?"
"I wish you would step in and see how she is, Mary. She may be suffering for lack of proper attention. I would like to know."
The girl left the room with a look of surprise on her face, which did not escape the lady's notice. Its meaning was partly understood.
"How did you find her, Mary?" was asked when the girl returned.
"I wish you could only see for yourself, ma'am," said Mary. "It would make your heart-ache. If somebody doesn't look after her she'll die, and then what will become of her poor little babies?"
There was a look of real distress in the girl's face.
"Is she is in need of anything?" inquired the lady.
"O ma'am, won't you just step over and see for yourself," was answered in an appealing way. "She is in need of everything; I don't believe her poor little children have had anything to eat this day!"
"Indeed, ma'am, and I wouldn't wonder at all. To think of it, in a Christian neighborhood!"
"Somebody should have looked after her," said the lady, in a tone meant to blame every other person in the neighborhood except herself.
"What's everybody's business — is nobody's business," replied the girl.
The sight that met the lady's eyes, when, under the force of a strong self-compulsion, she entered the room where this sick woman lay, gave her, too, the heart-ache. Alone, exhausted with pain, without fire or food for her children, or medicine for herself — she was stretched on a hard straw bed, which no hand had smoothed for days. As the lady came in, a gleam lit up her dull eyes, which turned with an appealing look to the three little children who were sitting close together in silence on the floor. From the instant that weary complainer entered this room, she forgot herself in an overpowering pity. A few questions were asked and answered — then prompt hands and a prompt will changed the whole aspect of things. There were food, medicine, warmth and comfort, in a room where, a little while before, all was cold, desolate, and exhausted. As the lady looked around, and thought of the change a few words and deeds had wrought as if by magic — saw the look of peace, rest and hope which had settled over the sick woman's pale face, and followed her almost smiling eyes, as she looked after her cleanly dressed and now happy children — she felt a deeply penetrating glow of satisfaction, and a sense of tranquility to which she had long been a stranger. She had forgotten herself in an earnest desire to help another, and the heavenly delight which always springs from good deeds done from right impulses, was flowing into her soul.
"How is it with you today?" asked the friend who had spoken so plainly. It was a week after this first visit to the sick woman. She was holding the lady by the hand, and looking earnestly into her countenance, which had more light and hope in it than she had seen there for a long time.
"As well as I could expect." A faint smile hovered around her sad lips, hiding the pain which lay there like a shadow from some mountain of sorrow.
"Ah, what little girl is this?"
A child had entered the room in a quiet, half-timid way, and not with the confidence of a genuine home feeling.
"The child of a poor sick woman in the neighborhood," was answered. "The mother was very ill, and there was no one to see after this little one. I brought her home. She has been here for several days."
"You have been to see her mother, then?"
"Oh, yes; I've called over every day to see after her. She would have died, I believe, if I had not met her case promptly. It is shameful to think how, in the very midst of a rich neighborhood of people calling themselves Christians — a sick woman may be left to suffer and die without a hand being raised to help her. I wouldn't have believed it, if this case had not come under my immediate notice."
"I see," said the friend, still holding the lady's hand, and smiling into her face, "why that old, sad, life-weary look has departed."
An answering smile, lit up suddenly the lady's countenance.
"Has it departed?" she asked, half wondering at her friend's remark.
"Yes, and may it never return to tell of brooding self-torture, and idle longings after that heavenly peace in the far-off future, which never comes, except as the fullness of a heavenly peace that flows into the soul while patiently doing its work in the harvest fields of time. You have opened the gate of Heaven, my dear friend, and your feet are upon the threshold. The first draft of its pure crystalline air has swelled your lungs with a new sense of pleasure, and given to your heart new pulsations of delight. Do not linger in the outer courts, but enter in, daily, by good deeds done in the name of our common humanity. Sit no longer idle. A stagnant mind, like stagnant water — breeds noxious vapors and hideous monsters. Health and happiness come only in active duty. If, at home, you find not work enough to keep your thoughts and hands busy — then go abroad, and by good deed and good example, become a co-worker with the angels, into whose blessed company you have so many times desired to enter through the gate of death. We must become associated with them here, my friend — or we cannot enter into their society above. Heaven is a state of mutual love; but if we are mere lovers of self here — idle repiners instead of active servants in the Lord's work of doing good — how can we pass by death into Heaven? Death only separates the soul from its mortal body; it makes no change in its quality. What we are as to quality — good or evil; selfish or unselfish — when we depart hence, will we remain to all eternity. And so, my friend, if you wish to come fully into Heaven when you die — press forward through the gate by which you have now entered; and the further you progress here, the higher will be your position when, at the close of this earthly life, it-shall be said unto you — 'Come, you who are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world!'"