The Solitude of the Cross
He said unto them, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about." John 4:32
The cross of Christ, like the light of God, stands in its own awesome and sublime solitude. Viewed in this aspect, it appears in perfect sympathy with a peculiar stage of Christian experience. His was a lonesome way. No foot had left an imprint upon its path; no echoes answering to His grief had ever broken its deep solitude; the cup He drained no other lips had ever pressed. From Bethlehem to Calvary, from Calvary to Olivet, from Olivet to heaven, He traveled in loneliness. He was thronged, and yet alone. He had many friends, yet lacked one. This but added keenness to His sense of desolateness. There is no solitude so painful or profound as that which is experienced in a crowd. To feel, amid the hum of a thousand voices, not one chimes lovingly on our ear- to feel, amid the beatings of a thousand hearts, not one throbs in sympathy with our own- to feel, amid the bright and happy homes of earth, the head has no where to lie- this, this is desolateness indeed! Such was the path trodden by our Lord! It is true there were hearts that loved Him, sympathy that soothed Him, kindness that relieved Him, and yet withal He could say, with an emphasis of meaning deep and mournful, "I have food to eat which you know not of." I have a mission to perform, a work to finish, suffering to endure, a path to tread, unapproached and unapproachable by angel or man. Viewed in this light, the cross of Jesus is in full sympathy with a peculiarity of the believer's experience- Christian solitude. The life of God in the soul is a concealed life. Its seat, its principle, its actings, all are profoundly veiled. This being so, the path of the believer must necessarily partake much of this page of our Lord's life. Next to his Lord, he is the only being who can say of his service and suffering, "I have food to eat which you know not of." Let us study these remarkable words of our Lord, first in reference to Himself, and then as they bear upon Christian experience.
THE SOLITUDE OF JESUS.
We could scarcely have expected any other path more appropriate to Christ than the one which this passage indicates. Any other would have been incongruous with the character, the mission, and the life of Jesus. He was a Divine Sun revolving in an orbit peculiarly His own, an orbit so vast that Deity alone could fill it. The path He took was too elevated for any to walk beside Him- His object, His sorrow, His joy too unique for a stranger to intermeddle with. The human nature of Christ was keenly sensitive. Naturally of a pensive mind, He loved retirement, courted solitude, sought the quietude of the desert, that there He might converse alone with God. With the nature of the work which He came to accomplish neither men nor angels could sympathize or aid. Deity, united with a sinless humanity; absolute God, yet in union with perfect man, He alone could accomplish it. No creature could share the curse, divide the burden, or tread a step with Him the wine-press of woe. Ah, no! with the accomplishment and the honor of our salvation man had nothing to do. It is the work of the God-man alone, and stands, in its own transcendent glory, the unaided achievement of the Incarnate God. While yet none ever lived so solitary a life as did our Lord, it yet was not a selfish, unloving life. Never did one live so entirely for others as He did. "He went about doing good." He loved the solitary glen, but He loved man more; and to heal and soothe and bless man He would often exchange the calm, sequestered shade of the mountain, for the noise and the strife of the crowded city. And yet, amid the turmoil and engagements of public life, His spirit was often as lonely and desolate as though He trod the profound solitudes of the desert. He had food to eat of which none knew but Himself.
Then there was loneliness around the character of Christ. It was never fully known even by His beloved disciples, so constantly in His presence, sharing His love and admitted to His confidence. His words were misunderstood, His actions misinterpreted, a false complexion often put upon the most simple and transparent doings. And why this? Because He moved in an orbit unknown to all but God!
Equally lonely were the sorrows and sufferings of our Lord. The cross, in this respect, stood alone. There was no sharing of the cup which He drank, no dividing the sufferings which He endured, no partnership in the work which He finished. The scripture was fulfilled to the letter which said of Him, "I have trodden the wine-press alone, and of the people there was none with me." Not only did He endure in lonely, uncomplaining silence, the petty trials and annoyances of daily life, (for to whom could He repair with the woundings of His sensitive, loving spirit?) but the deeper anguish His soul endured in working out the redemption of His Church. Truly might He say to His disciples, "I have food to eat which you know not of." This explains to us the one purpose of our Lord's life. His food and His drink was to do the will of His Father, and to finish the work given Him to do. For this He lived and labored, for this He suffered, bled, and died. It was His food- the sustenance of His life. He only lived as He lived to accomplish this sublime end- the glory of God in the salvation of man. What a solemn lesson does this teach us! Does our life have an adequate object? Are we doing or enduring the will of God? Is the object for which we live, in which we employ our talents, expend our time, use our influence, devote our worldly substance, worthy of life's present obligations and future award? Oh, beware of a blank life! What, reader, is your food and your drink? Is anything done for Jesus? anything for the glory of God? anything for the well being of your fellows? Remember that for all your abilities, God holds you accountable, and that before long death will cite you to his bar! Child of God! be up and doing. Say to the world, its enchantments, pleasures, and repose, "I have food to eat of which you know nothing. My food is to live for God." Christ's cross of suffering pledges us to a life of labor for Him. Service for Jesus is to be our daily food. There must be no pause, no succumbing to difficulty, no fainting beneath opposition. Life is a real, a solemn thing, too closely linked to a momentous future to be trifled with. Again, we ask, what is your object in life? Are you living for your Lord and for your fellow men? Do you carry within you a Christ-loving, man-loving heart, seeking the glory of God in the good of all with whom you come in contact, aiming to set a precious gem in the diadem of your Lord? Is it Christ for us to live, and do we feel as if life only were precious as we offer to Him all we hold most dear and valuable? Is it an object of our life to advance Divine truth, to enlarge Christ's kingdom, to bring our fellow sinners to partake of His Divine redemption? Let us who hope through grace we are purchased with His blood, are saved by His resurrection, find our rest in toil, our joy in suffering, our food in service for Christ.
"The captive's oar may pause upon the galley,
The soldier sleep beneath his plumed crest,
And peace may fold her wings over hill and valley,
But you, O Christian, must not take your rest."
Oh, no! who would wish for rest here in Christ's service, with an eternity of repose before him? His love constraining us, labor for Him is delectable, service for Him perfect freedom, His yoke easy, His burden light. Let the inquiry be, "Lord, what would you have me to do?" Thus honestly looking up to Him, the sphere of labor in which He would have you engage will be made plain, "And to every man his work." Seek by prayer to know what the Master has assigned to you, and keep busy until He comes. And as you toil, perchance in pensive loneliness, uncomplaining suffering unnoticed, and unknown, cast your eye earthward and exclaim, "This is the place of labor;" -then raise your eye heavenward and exclaim, "Yonder is the place of rest!"
THE SOLITUDE OF HIS PEOPLE.
In instituting a resemblance between the solitariness of our Lord's life and that of His people, we plead not for a religion of asceticism. The religion of Christ partakes nothing of this element. It is contemplative, but not monastic; sympathetic, but not sentimental; veiled, but not invisible; studious, but not inactive. And yet the solitariness of Christ's cross, the hidden manna which sustained His brief but laborious life, finds a counterpart, in some faint degree, in the life of His disciples. The true Church of God is not a visible but an invisible body. What is termed the "outward and visible church," describes not the people of whom the apostle says, "The world knows us not." Take for example the nature of the Divine life in the believer- the life of God in the soul of man! The expression is emphatic- "Your life is hidden." Not only is it invisible to the world- except in its outward actions, and these are often misunderstood and misinterpreted- but very much so to the saints also. It is often but dimly perceived, and we are slow to recognize it. It is of all things the most deeply veiled- its existence and aspirations, its depressions, defeats, and victories, are known only to Him in whom that life emphatically lives and moves and has its being. And, then, touching its advance- it is in the solitude of the Cross that it derives its strongest impulse, and exhibits its mightiest development. It is a divine plant which only grows beneath this sacred shadow. If we would advance in grace we must recede frequently from the sun's heat of this world, and dwell amid the solemn shadows of Gethsemane and the deeper solitude of Calvary. Viewless as the wind, silent as the dew, is that influence which the most vitalizes and promotes our real sanctification. Oh, how blessed to sit there, with myriads like ourselves, silently growing in heavenliness near that marvellous Center- frail and feeble tendrils entwining around the stem of that glorious Tree of Life. Let us often heed the invitation of our Lord, "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest." -gently led by His outstretched hand to the solitude of His Cross.
Some of the most potent, vitalizing agencies of nature are the most gentle and unseen. The moral analogy is perfect, the greatest growth of the believing soul is from a spiritual influence the most deeply hidden. Retirement for heart-communion, for the scrutiny of actions and words incapable of a faithful investigation amid the excitement which called them into being, for the calm study of God's word, and for confidential transactions with God Himself, seems essential to our heavenly-growth.
"Far from the world, O Lord, I flee,
From strife and tumult far;
From scenes where Satan wages still
His most successful war.
"The calm retreat, the silent shade,
With prayer and praise agree,
And scenes of Your sweet bounty made
For those who follow Thee.
"There, if Your Spirit touch the soul,
And grace her calm abode,
Oh, with what peace, and joy, and love,
She communes with her God!"
Most soothing is this view of Christ's life to those who, by the providence of God, are much isolated from others. Is it God's will concerning you, that in the midst of friends you should feel friendless; that amid the activities of life your spiritual life should be solitary; and that, like David, you should often feel as a sparrow alone upon the house-top? This is just the discipline your Heavenly Father sees the most needful. You are now treading the path your Master trod; you have closer communion with the isolation of your blessed Lord. And are you really alone in this solitude? Impossible! Isolated you may be from man, you are all the nearer to Christ. The less we have of the creature, the more we have of God. We do not undervalue, in speaking thus, the sweetness and the solace- for which our intellectual and social being often craves- of human companionship and sympathy. Jesus Himself asked it, and the disciple must not be above his Lord. It were pure pretense to regard ourselves as totally independent of its influence. This were to ignore one of the sweetest, holiest privileges of our Christianity, "the communion of saints." But, if our Father ordains for our feet a path of much solitude, we may depend upon a deeper teaching of the Spirit, and a more personal experience of the blessings which flow from a closer contact with the Cross.
Truly have all such believers food to eat which others know but little of. And while many are feeding upon mere excitement, these are eating of the hidden manna. Christ is with you then. He who brought you into the experience of this solitude, is present to sanctify and sweeten it. Losing Him amid the crowd and excitement of the city, you have found Him in the calm solitude of the desert. His voice, drowned in the loud roar of the world's merriment, is heard in the sacred stillness of prayer. You have gone, perhaps, unblest with a vision of your Beloved from the exciting
worship of the public sanctuary- its dazzling eloquence, and its entrancing music- to the hallowed solitude of the closet; and amid its awful stillness Jesus has drawn near, and in the calm repose of your spirit you have heard the still, small voice of His love. You toiled for Him in the activities of His vineyard, but you communed with Him amid the solitude of His cross.
We have been pleading, most imperfectly, in these pages for more of that spiritual retirement- for frequent and close communion with God- which distinguished primitive Christianity, and was a marked character of the early Christians. We believe that the religious character of the age demands it, and that a religion permeated with such an element will be found one of the most effectual correctives to the evils of that 'religion of activity', which is so prevalently the religion of the day. We see no reason why the two should be divorced. Our Lord was a singular example of the union of both. He felt infinitely more deeply the need of activity than any of His disciples possibly could. He had come to bless mankind, and the world lying in wickedness rose before His view in all its vast solemnity, and He gave Himself to the work of its redemption. And yet we read of Him, that, "in the morning, rising up a great while before day, He went and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed." Thus "while He went about doing good," His food and His drink doing the will of His Father, He yet found time, by early rising, to retreat to a solitary place to hold communion with His God. We too much forget that the vast machinery of Christian effort which the Church of God has erected, can only be put and kept in operation by the motive power of prayer. Nor do we hesitate the opinion, that were there more of a reflective, prayerful Christianity, there would be less of a speculative, theatrical Christianity than exists in the present day. There might, indeed, be fewer separate organizations- often aiming at the same object- but there would in their place be more united and concentrated
effort, with more efficient, laborious, and real, palpable fruit. The Church of God needs to depend less upon human agency and more upon the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. This power is called into action by the irresistible might of prayer. It is a great mistake to suppose that they are the most efficient who are always out in the world and in a constant state of bustle and excitement. Christians are apt to gauge their usefulness, and calculate the success of their plans by the numbers engaged in carrying them forward, and the degree of excitement attending their operations. How often do they measure God's blessing by the amount of money contributed towards their prosecution! But this is a delusion! The humblest Christian in his closet may be more powerful than the greatest organization. "See yon mighty vessel ploughing the ocean, dashing the spray in clouds around its resistless prow; hear the thundering roar of its machinery, the rush of that leviathan- he who governs it at will and directs its course through the stormy, trackless deep, and controls its hidden forces, is, in that retired spot upon deck, the quietest being in the ship; it is he who has his eye fixed upon the compass, and his hand upon the helm." (Gigar).
Such is the power of the man of closet prayer! The gospel of Christ, like a gallant ship ploughing its way through foaming billows and beneath tempest-swept skies, receives its mightiest impulse from the power of believing prayer. That paralyzed saint- that sick one couched for months upon a bed of suffering- that retiring believer walking in secret with God, may be more instrumental in furthering the Lord's kingdom in the world by the mighty wrestling of prayer- grasping thus with a steady but powerful hand the helm of the Divine ark, and guiding her over the shoals and through the storm- than the most powerful visible agency employed. We have already observed that the most potent and fruitful agencies of nature are the most unseen and quiet. The analogy holds good in the more illustrious kingdom of grace. The influences and agencies which are the most powerful, efficient, and productive in diffusing the gospel, stemming vice, removing ignorance, and bringing sinners to Christ, are those which deal much in secret with God, and are perhaps less attractive in man's eye, but are more honorable in His.
In conclusion. Let us imitate our Lord. His food was to do the will of His Father. Let us labor for the food that endures unto eternal life. We may eat our meal alone, mingled with tears, in paths sequestered from human notice, aid, and sympathy- food which the saint and the worldling may know nothing of- nevertheless, our God is with us; and encircled by the hallowed solitude of Christ's cross, we are pavilioned with Christ Himself.
"And do you seem forsaken,
Poor weary one of woe?
Are all your loved ones taken
Your fairest hopes below?
"Are you a lone one waging
The bitter war of life?
While sore temptations raging,
More dreadful make the strife.
"Oh! hapless, helpless lone one,
Just turn your eyes above,
Then on His Love depending,
To One who won't abandon-
To One of boundless love.
"To Him who watches over you,
While passing through the fire;
Who bore it all before you,
And sees your heart's desire.
"To Him, the Lord of glory,
Who knows your feeble frame;
However sad your story,
Oh! trust you in His Name.
"The Eternal God won't fail you,
However dark the storm;
Though fearful foes assail you,
Your strength shall be His Arm.
"Tell Him your soul's deep sorrow,
Tell Him your griefs alone;
Whatever ills may harrow,
Spread all before His throne.
"He'll give you strength, you weak one,
And take you to His breast;
Will be your all, you lone one,
He gives the weary rest.
"And soon, life's struggles ending,
Will take you to His home;
Then on His love depending
Fear not, whatever may come."