The Life to Come
By Timothy Shay Arthur, 1868
"Thank God for the life to come!" said a pale, sad-looking woman, in a voice marked fretfulness and despondency.
"What life to come, Aunt Lucy?"
The questioner was a slender girl, not over seventeen or eighteen in appearance, but, really, in her twenty-first summer.
"Are you a heathen, Grace?" The woman's dark eyes flashed half-angrily. "Did you never hear of the life to come? What kind of people have you been among? Didn't they teach you anything about God and Heaven?"
"Oh, yes." A gentle smile parted the maiden's lips.
"Well, then, you know what I mean by the life to come — life in the next world — life in Heaven. Of this earthly bitter life, with its sorrows, bereavements, disappointments, and pains, I am weary, and, therefore, say in my heart, Thank God for the life to come!"
The countenance of Grace did not lighten up with the satisfied expression of one who understands and appreciates another. A gentle sigh, which was half involuntary, parted her lips. Her eyes fell away from the eyes of her aunt — a shadow of thought crept over her quiet face. Mrs. Fleetwood looked at her curiously, and with a falling brow.
Nearly ten years had passed since this sister's child had been left motherless and among strangers, and not once, until now, during these ten years, had Mrs. Fleetwood seen her niece. Her own life had been too worldly and selfish to admit of a generous, loving sentiment toward the child of a sister, whose marriage with a man of no "position or promise," as she expressed it, had been felt as a humiliation; and so, she had been content to let her remain with those who had received her to their hearts and homes, when God removed her widowed mother.
But a change in her own life had come, bringing sorrow, bereavement, and misfortune; and now her thought went out towards Grace, her sister's child — not lovingly, but selfishly — not with a desire to be ministrant to her conditions of life, but with a desire of being ministered to herself. From this state she summoned, rather than invited, her niece; and from this state sought to read her character and disposition, when she came, with eyes which endeavored to look into her very consciousness. That she was baffled in this, will hardly be a matter of surprise. People of her class, are without the key which unlocks the inner chambers of a soul whose life-mansions are not built on earthly foundations.
Mrs. Fleetwood was a church-woman whose religion, up to the time when her sky became overcast, consisted in formal service alone. Beyond this, she had no conception of duty to God. After all the blessedness of her natural life had been extinguished — after children, fortune, friends, were gone, and darkness drew down over her world like a curtain — then her selfish heart began to sigh for the blessedness of a life to come — then she lifted her eyes toward the far-off mountains of Heaven, which her imagination painted as beautiful with verdure, and balmy with the fragrance of immortal flowers. And still, as the pictures spread themselves all lovely to behold, and imagination, as she dwelt upon them, gave ever multiplying attractions — she grew almost impatient to put off the poor, torn vestments of mortality, and rise into life eternal.
You understand Mrs. Fleetwood now, and are not surprised at the curious look and falling brow with which she regarded her niece, whose countenance did not answer to her warmly uttered, "Thank God for the life to come!" As the eyes of Grace fell away from those of her aunt, and thought-shadows crept about her lips and brow, Mrs. Fleetwood said, with a slight tremor of impatience in her tones —
"Maybe you don't believe in another life."
Instantly the eyes of Grace flashed up into those of Mrs. Fleetwood; not with any fire of indignation in them, but with a light as pure as that which dew-drops gather from sunbeams — a light full of hope and sweet anticipation.
"I have been taught to thank God for the life to come, aunt, and to seek for it in duty and self-denial," replied Grace, a smile playing softly around her lips.
A change was apparent in Mrs. Fleetwood's face. Its expression was slightly puzzled. The brief answer was not satisfactory to her state, for it involved things admitted by common perception, yet not clearly seen.
"I mean life in another world — life in Heaven, Grace." Mrs. Fleetwood's manner was subdued.
"There is no life in another world, which is not born in this, aunt. So I have been taught."
Mrs. Fleetwood gazed at her niece with a look of half perplexed inquiry.
"The 'life to come' must come here — or it can never come at all," added Grace.
"Child, you talk in riddles!" said Mrs. Fleetwood, moving impatiently. "I can't get at your meaning. Life in this world, is the present life; and life in the next world, is the life to come. Isn't that so?"
"There is natural-life and there is spiritual life, aunt."
"Natural life is the earthly life, and spiritual life the heavenly life."
"Yes. Every Christian knows that."
"Natural life, that into which we are born; and spiritual life, the life to come," said Grace, speaking slowly, and with significant emphasis.
Mrs. Fleetwood, with lips slightly apart, sat looking into the earnest face of her niece, which seemed all at once to become instinct with thought.
"The beginning in each of us of this 'life to come' — this heavenly life, aunt — I have been taught to regard as the new-birth, without which, as our Lord has expressly said, we cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven. 'That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto you, you must be born again.' This is the 'life to come,' aunt; this is the actual rising into another state of existence. Death can make no change in the quality of our lives, aunt — so I have been taught, and so do I believe. As our life is at death — so will it remain to eternity. We shall only pass from the material world — to the world of spiritual things; and these spiritual things will be such as agree with our states and qualities of soul — such as we have loved and delighted in here. If we have passed, by regeneration — a new birth and a new growth — then, our lives having been in Heaven while our bodies were yet upon the earth — we shall simply rise, by death, out of the material into the spiritual plane of existence, and live consciously, as we lived before actually, with God. But, if our lives have been selfish and worldly — we shall pass by death into a conscious association with spirits of a like character, who have been our soul's companions while our bodies and our thoughts have been in this outward world."
"You bewilder me, Grace," said Mrs. Fleetwood, with a troubled look. "I can't see clear. By God's mercy, I hope to pass into Heaven, when I leave this world. My Savior died for me. I trust in him. He is able to save to the uttermost."
"Dear aunt," said Grace, "we must be like-minded with the Savior — if we would dwell with him forever. His infinite mercy has redeemed us from the power of Hell. He bowed the heavens, and came down, that he might raise us out of our sad condition. But we must be born again — natural life, which is selfish, must die in us through self-denial, in order that spiritual life may he born in our souls. As He loved us, and gave himself for us — so must we love others, and give ourselves for them. This life of love is the 'life to come,' and without its birth in our hearts here — we cannot enter Heaven."
The shadow fell deeper on Mrs. Fleetwood's countenance. This same doctrine may have been preached in her ears again and again, many times over, but, certainly, never before had it gone down to the region of conviction. Loving others, and giving her life for others — had been no part of Mrs. Fleetwood's creed. Self bounded her world. And as her thought went forward to that "life to come" of which she had spoken, it was pictured as a life in which all delight was selfish, instead of reciprocal or beneficent. But that common perception of truth, which, when a truth is first stated, gives it a real embodiment — now struck her mind with conviction, and sobered her feelings. Grace had moved the foundations of her hope for Heaven.
From that hour, there was a change in Mrs. Fleetwood. In the walk and conversation of her niece, she saw a beautiful illustration of her more inner doctrine. Grace never seemed to think of herself, nor to feel that in serving another, she was robbing her own spirit. Always cheerful, always ready to communicate, always reaching forth the willing hand, she so embodied for Mrs. Fleetwood the true life of Heaven, that she grew at last to comprehend and to desire it.
"Thank God for the life to come!" It was many years afterward that Mrs. Fleetwood said this again, but with what a new and higher meaning in her thought!