2 Corinthians 4:8-12
We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;…
"Sub pondere cresco — I grow under a weight — was the motto on the crest of John Spreull, of Glasgow, who for his defence of religious liberty in the times of Claverhouse was imprisoned on the Bass Rock, in the Frith of Forth. This is the great motto of the worn. Nature is like a huge watch, whose movements are caused by the compression of the mainspring. Only by restraint is life possible. The forms of all living things, from the smallest moss to man himself, are determined by the extent and degree to which the force of life overcomes the dead forces of nature. The simple principle of growth under limitation will account for the shape of every leaf, and the formation of every organ of the human body; for the germination of a seed, and for the beating of the heart within the breast. The blossom of a plant is produced by growth under restraint. At the point farthest away from the root the vital forces are weakest, and the supply of nourishment almost exhausted; and therefore the ordinary leaves are compressed by their diminished power of resistance to the forces to which they are subjected, and modified into the strange shapes and changed into the beautiful colours of the flower. The compression goes on farther in the interior parts of the flower, according as the resisting power becomes less, until at last, in the innermost central part, the forces are brought to an equilibrium, and the plant finds rest in the round seed, which is simply the most complete compression of which the leaves are capable. The head of man is in the same way only a modification of the vertebral column, and his brain a compression of the spinal marrow, by the mechanical conditions under which they are developed. Have you ever watched a bubble of air rising up from the bottom of a clear pond to the top? If so, you cannot fail to have noticed that it ascends not in a straight line, but in a corkscrew or spiral form. The force which draws ii upwards to rejoin the native air from which it has been separated, would do so, if left to itself, by the shortest course; but it encounters continually the resistance of the denser element of the water, and this pressure delays its ascent through it, and makes it take a longer zig-zag path. If you understand the reason of this simple phenomenon, you will understand the way in which every herb and tree grows in the air, and why their shapes are what we see them to be. They all grow in the most varied and complicated spiral forms because they grow under resistance. This is the simple method of nature's working, the law which determines all her forms. The same law obtains throughout the spiritual world. There, too, growth is under resistance. The law of the spirit, of life in Christ Jesus, contends against the law of sin and death; the law in the members wars against the law of the mind. The most essential character of spiritual life is that it depends upon the resistance or contest of one form of moral force by another: its tension is holiness, righteousness, self-control. We grow in grace as the trees grow in space — under limitations; and the various forms and degrees of spiritual life which men exhibit are due to the extent of these limitations. Spiritual life does not assume one stereotyped monotonous pattern. There is the same infinite variety in the spiritual world that there is in the natural, arising from similar causes. As no two plants grow in precisely similar circumstances, so no two human beings are exposed to the same spiritual influences. Of course there can be no growth without life. If the soul has no resisting power within, then the forces of the world without simply destroy it. If the soul is dead, all things deepen its death. But if it has spiritual life, then all things help to maintain and develop it. Like the sailing-boat that tacks to the wind, it takes advantage even of the contrary currents of life to reach its end. We may compare the soul that is dead and the soul that has spiritual life to two seeds, one infertile and the other fertile. The forces of nature play upon both seeds in the same way. In the case of the seed that has no life in it, these forces are unresisted; they have their own way, and they proceed to corrupt or break up the elements of which it is composed, until nothing of it remains. In the case of the seed that is possessed of life, the forces of nature are resisted, and this resistance becomes the source of living action, the very power of growth. The changes which the seed undergoes in germinating under the influence of those forces, duly controlled, form the basis of all the subsequent developments. And like these two seeds are dead and living souls. If the soul is dead it yields helplessly to the corruption that is in the world through lust; if the soul is living, it resists these disintegrating forces of the world, and uses them to increase its spiritual life and to build up its spiritual structure. It is only, therefore, of those who have spiritual life in themselves that it can be said, that though cast down they are not destroyed." To such, justification is a living doctrine — not merely part of a formal creed, nor an intellectual abstraction. Their faith is alive, and can prove its vitality by its energy. And the force of this life is remarkable. This faith can overcome the world. It can rise superior to all its temptations and trials. The force of natural life even in the lowest forms is extraordinary. The soft cellular mushroom has been known to lift up heavy masses of pavement by its expansion beneath them; the tender root of a tree insinuating itself in a crevice of the rock splits it up by its growth. And if life in its feeblest form can do such wonderful things, what may not be expected from spiritual and eternal life? The life that is in Christ Jesus .by mere formality and profession, is like a dead branch that is merely mechanically united to the tree, and which, destitute of the tree's vital sap and force, yields inevitably to the forces of nature, decays, and drops off into dust and ashes. But the life that is in Him by faith is like a living branch that becomes partaker of the whole force of the tree, and grows with its growth, and flourishes with its strength and beauty. "Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world." It grows strong by opposition; it flourishes in the most adverse circumstances; it uses all the conditions of life for its maintenance; it makes even its hindrances to advance its life-work.
1. What casts us down most of all is the burden of sin. In the unrenewed heart this burden is unfelt. We are unconscious of the enormous pressure of the atmosphere upon us, because our bodies are pervaded with air which counterbalances the superincumbent air. But were the air within us removed, the pressure of the air without would crush us. And so, being sinful ourselves, we are unconscious of the weight of sin. But when the love of sin is taken away, then sin becomes a burden which is too heavy for us. We feel ourselves like Christian in the "Pilgrim's Progress," with his huge bundle upon his back. This pressure of sin has drawn tears from eyes which would have looked unmoved upon the martyrs' fires. Sin is indeed the great adversity, the only thing that is truly hostile to us; and yet, in contending with it, we can use it as a fulcrum to remove the obstacles that lie in the soul's upward path. But though this great adversity be taken away by faith in Christ, other evils are not taken away, for that would be to take away what determines the strength and shape of the spiritual life: that would leave it a weak and powerless thing. The Christian is not exempt from ordinary troubles.
2. In the world he has tribulation; and many are the afflictions of the righteous. In addition to the ordinary trials of all men, he has troubles of his own that are peculiar to the spiritual life. And these are felt most in proportion to the strength and vigour of the spiritual life; only that in his ease what crushes others proves a means of growth, calls forth, exercises, and educates all the powers of his soul, and brings down the powers of the world to come to shape his character and conduct. Sometimes, indeed, the weight is too much. There are many of God's people who are so cast down by their circumstances that they seem almost destroyed. They are like a tuft of grass growing under a stone, The stone does not destroy the grass, nor prevent it from growing, for the vital force is stronger than the mechanical; but it dwarfs and distorts it; it blanches its colour, and it deforms its shape. Thus many lives are prevented from being what they might otherwise have been by the crushing circumstances of life.
3. Poverty often lies like a stone upon them. The sordid care for things that perish in the using seems to dwarf the immortal nature to the level of these things — seems to make the soaring spirit a part of the dull material world. The toil that is needed to support the body leaves little time or inclination for the cultivation of the soul. Though poor in itself it can make many rich. It is when the plant is poorest in material, and most limited in force, that it produces the blossom and the fruit by which the world is adorned with beauty and the generations of living creatures are fed. And so the poverty of the Christian may blossom and fruit for others. How often has this been the case in the history of the world! Few of the world's greatest benefactors have had worldly advantages. The inventions and discoveries that have been of the greatest use to society have been made by persons who had little wealth. It is an axiom in nature that motion takes the direction of least resistance. Poverty, therefore, must be eminently helpful to the growth of the soul, insomuch as it removes many of the hindrances which make it hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. If the aspiration of the soul is heavenward, then a poor man encounters less opposition in that aspiration from his circumstances than one who is rich and increased with goods. He is relieved of that weight of worldliness — of those cares and anxieties which oppress the soul and give it an earthward tendency.
4. Sorrow is the commonest of all pressures that cast down the soul. This experience belongs to no class or condition of life exclusively. It is the great mystery of Providence that there should be such a prodigality of pain — how God can permit such forms of anguish. But the greatness of our sorrow is owing to the greatness of our nature. The highest mountains cast the largest shadows; and so the dark, wide shadows of human experience witness to the original loftiness of our being. Sorrow gives a tragic touch to the meanest personality. God has ordered that sorrow should be the most powerful factor in the education of our race. In the histories of the patriarchs and saints we see how suffering, deep and long-continued, ministered to a noble development. We see the baser earthy element in them crystallised into the purity and transparency of heaven through the fires of pain and sorrow. Many of the weights that press down the Christian life are visible and palpable. But as the palm-tree is pressed on every side by the viewless air, as it is exposed to the resistance of forces which the eye cannot see nor the hand feel, so the heaviest weights which drag down the Christian life are often invisible. Its crosses cannot be displayed. Many of its troubles are of a spiritual nature. It is east down, not by circumstances, but by the state of the soul. And these spiritual sorrows are the evidences of the reality of the work of grace; for where there is the principle of life there must be the changes of life. The form of godliness is a dead, invariable thing; whereas the power of godliness has its winter, its summer, and its autumn states. Sorrow arises in the case of most believers from inability to realise the ideal, to reach the mark of attainment they have set themselves. They have sorrow because of the remembrance of past sins and shortcomings. They have sorrow because of the sins of the world. All this is the godly sorrow that worketh repentance unto life. In this winter state the spiritual life is collecting and concentrating itself for renewed effort when the spring of revival is come. It waits upon the Lord, and so renews its strength. No life can grow or support itself in the void by its spontaneous buoyancy. All life upholds itself in the air by continuous effort. The humblest life is s vortex of unceasing forces. Much more is this the case in regard to the highest life of the soul, the life that is breathed into us by God's Spirit and formed by faith in Christ Jesus. It has ever to do an uphill work. It has to grow against the gravitation of sin. But this resistance is meant to bring out all that is best in us, to stimulate our most strenuous exertions, to cultivate our patience, to educate our faith and hope, to mould us after the Divine pattern. It is the weight of the architrave upon the pillar that gives it stability and endurance; and it is the fightings without and the fears within that give strength to the character and perseverance to the life. What a beauty and grace does the spiritual life take from the pressure of the light afflictions that are but for a moment and that work out for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory! The thorny sorrow that springs from the grave of some dead love or hope forms the richest adornment of life. Not only is the outward form of the Christian life moulded into shapes of moral beauty — into whatsoever things are pure, and honest, and lovely, and of good report — but its inner substance is also made more lovely by the pressure of external shocks and internal sufferings. It is not the tree that grows in a rich soil and in a sheltered situation that produces the richly grained wood which is selected to adorn our finest furniture; but the tree that is exposed in its bleak, shelterless situation to every storm of heaven. The wild forces that beat upon it, and which it successfully overcomes, develop in it the beautiful veins and markings which are so highly prized by man. And so it is not when growing up in luxurious ease and comfort that we produce the gifts and graces which enrich and ennoble the Christian life. The natures that have the richest variety and the greatest interest are ever those which have grown under pressure of suffering, and by a vital faith have overcome the world. The Apostle Paul is an illustrious example of the law in question. His growth in grace was indeed under pressure of the most trying outward circumstances, and yet what a marvellous fulness and variety of form did it display! No man was more many-sided in his Christian attainments. We are not at the mercy of the thousand contingencies of life. The troubles that come to us are not accidents. Divine wisdom is shaping all our ends.
(H. Macmillan, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;